Star Trek TOS: Moral Dilemmas on a Penal Colony

Dagger of the Mind

Star Trek — The Original Series

Season 1, Episode 10

Dagger of the Mind

Dagger of the Mind commenced with an ominous box purposefully transported to Enterprise, labeled DO NOT OPEN. That means it will be opened, and malarkey will ensue.

Inside the box was a maniacal karate-chopping doctor from a penal colony hellbent on disruption. How’s that for a plot? At gunpoint, the man (Simon Val Gelder) demanded asylum from Kirk, intermixing his plea with threats toward Enterprise — a bold strategy. 

The man was deranged — and in serious pain — so Kirk implemented his signature empathy routine. In a search for meaning, Kirk directed his ship to head back to the place from which Van Elder arrived. KIrk wanted to know what caused Van Elder to malfunction — when it would’ve been straightforward to get rid of him. But, no. Kirk acted as a champion of mental illness awareness, perhaps a rarity for 1960s television. Imagine John Wayne wanting to understand an intruder to his infantry.

Kirk and an attractive doctor (Helen Noel) decided to head down to Van Gelder’s Saturn lookalike planet, investigating Van Elder’s plight. There, a doctor (Tristan Adams) greeted Kirk and Helen, and Kirk offered to surrender his weapon. Adams declined the offer, suggesting that Kirk’s people enjoy their weapons all too well — a blanket statement on America’s fascination with guns and weaponry on the whole. Good luck finding a gun control crowd in 1966, furthering the pioneering vision of Star Trek’s themes. 

Some strange experiments were revealed that piqued Kirk’s skepticism regarding Adams. Kirk, the protagonist, habitually encounters characters that appear to teeter on evil (Adams) — before the writers drag the viewer back to explain how the antagonists went pear-shaped. Adams was that — as he believed experimentation on criminals was a worthwhile practice. And like clockwork, Kirk affords the mini-evildoers rapport when other protagonists would look to conquer. 

Playing detective on the penal colony, Kirk determined that shady business indeed was afoot. 

Meanwhile, Spock was implored by Dr. McCoy to use his Vulcan talent for peeking into Van Elder’s mind. Hesitantly, Spock agreed — but not without mentioning a privacy dilemma. Just as a government should not illegally peek into a citizen’s affair, Spock was reluctant to take a big brother trip into the brain of Van Elder. 

On the penal colony, a debate on the treatment of wrongdoers arose. Should insane people be subject to experimental treatment or merely incarcerated? Well, this episode abuses one side of the discussion, brainwashing the criminally insane. Kirk even felt Adams’ wrath in this vein. 

The penal colony was a bonafide mind-control plant run by a rogue doctor insistent on using “throwaway” brains for testing. Helen saved the day — girl power is prevalent in Star Trek’s beginnings — by disabling the penal colony’s force field. Kirk’s mindbender propelled him to smooch Helen before saving the day — everyone needs some romance, right?

Of his own folly, Adams died by his machine, a just comeuppance for his vile dealings. This was also a rare occasion (through 10 episodes) in which a protagonist flat-out died. 

Also of note: A popular image from the 2018 film Bird Box — a man pried a woman’s eyes open, forcing her to watch her surroundings — originated with Star Trek in this episode. 

Themes: Mental Illness, Privacy, Incarceration vs. Rehabilitation, Abuse of Power

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. His odyssey with Star Trek starts from beginning to finish, watching ‘The Original Series,’ all the way to the present day. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).