Saturday, March 22, 2008

Star Trek TOS: The Devil in the Dark

Accretionary Wedge #7; Geology/Geologists in the Movies
Hosted by Tuff Cookie at Magma Cum Laude.

I enjoy the occasional disaster flick, most of which have geological backgrounds or orientations, even if they don’t have any geologists in them. I wanted to go back a little farther, though, than the fairly recent Dante’s Peak, Armageddon, or Deep Impact (all of which, especially the first two, have geological problems in them but were, nevertheless, enjoyable in my opinion). So I’ve chosen the somewhat geological Star Trek TOS (The Original Series), Season 1, Episode 26: The Devil in the Dark.

The episode is about mining and a mining colony, and it refers to the classic though trite antagonism between geologists and engineers. Devil in the Dark introduces a new, silicon-based life form, a life form somewhat rock-like in appearance and composition, and therefore to be admired, in this geologist's opinion.

The Starship Enterprise goes to the pergium mining colony on planet Janus VI because an unknown monster or creature has been destroying equipment and killing the underground miners. Janus VI, BTW, also contains abundant reserves of uranium, cerium, and platinum, elements which I am somewhat more familiar with. I don’t really know where pergium fits on the Periodic Table of Elements . For more details about the episode, an Excruciatingly Detailed Plot Summary, by Eric W. Weisstein, is available.

The reason I remember this episode so well (besides seeing it numerous times) is that it introduces a non-carbon-based life form, the Horta, which turns out to be sentient and intelligent. The Horta is a silicon-based, rock-like entity made of a material similar to asbestos. It can tunnel through rocks using heat and acid (possibly that’s why an asbestos-like substance was thought by the writers to be necessary), which it somehow generates by consuming rocks as its source of “food.” At the time—the episode first aired on March 9, 1967 when I was 14 years old—I found it “fascinating” to imagine a silicon-based lifeform. Since that time, I have incorrectly remembered the Horta as a silica-based, quartz-like lifeform, rather than an asbestos-like lifeform, perhaps the result of bad memory. The Horta reproduces by laying roundish, silicon-based eggs (possibly made of raw silicon or silica, but looking a lot like brown balloons). It has killed, trying to protect its eggs from a bunch of obnoxious (to it) offworld, Federation miners.

The geology (or mineralogy?) is probably far-fetched—as is space travel with our given physics and engineering limitations, but interesting nonetheless. Mineralogically speaking, I’m not sure what form of “asbestos” would be more likely to be a good base or substance for life. Perhaps some mineralogists could comment on this issue.

In the episode, Spock behaves somewhat like a geologist (after all, he is usually the one with the all-element-reading tricorder). He is therefore (like any real geologist) the first one that can actually relate to this rock-like being. Like a stereo-typical geologist, Spock relates better to rocks than he does to people, and in this episode he relates better to the Horta than he does to most, well – humans (they are so illogical). In fact, he relates so well to the rock entity, that he is able to mind meld with it, an experience similar to what some geologists undertake when out in the field trying to figure out the geology of a particular field area.

As usual, there is tension between the logical Spock and the emotional Doctor McCoy. In addition, there is the stereotypical tension (and even animosity) between the mining engineers or mine managers of Janus VI and the explorationists of the Starship Enterprise. In this case, the explorationists aren’t really geologists, but they serve that purpose as far as the mining v. exploration tension goes. In the photo , Captain Kirk points a phaser at the Horta.

A few good quotes come from the episode, some of which might only be of interesting to other Star Trekkians (Trekkers, not Trekkies, as far as I’m concerned). The first relates directly to the rift between an engineer v. geologist perspective:

Chief Engineer Vanderberg: Look, we didn't call you here so you could collect rocks!
The second brings out Doctor McCoy’s bedside manner while trying to heal wounded rock-like beings:
McCoy: I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!
And a few other quotes are of interest:
Spock: The odds against both of us being killed are 2,228.7 to 1.
Kirk: 2,228.7 to 1? Those are pretty good odds, Mr. Spock.
Spock: And they are of course accurate.
Kirk: Of course. Well, I hate to use the word, but, logically with those kinds of odds you might as well stay. But please stay out of trouble, Mr. Spock.
Spock: That is always my intention, Captain.
Kirk: Think she'll go for it? [A proposed truce between Horta and miners.]
Spock: It seems logical, Captain. The Horta has a very logical mind. And after close association with humans, I find that curiously refreshing.

Spock: Curious. What Chief Vanderberg said about the Horta is exactly what the Mother Horta said to me. She found humanoid appearance revolting, but she thought she could get used to it.
McCoy: Oh, she did, did she? Now tell me--did she happen to
make any comment about those ears?
Spock: Not specifically. But I did get the distinct impression she found them the most attractive human characteristic of all. I didn't have the heart to tell her that only I have...
Kirk: She really liked those ears?
Spock: Captain, the Horta is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive creature with impeccable taste.
Kirk: Because she approved of you.
Spock: Really, Captain, my modesty...
Kirk: Does not bear close examination, Mr. Spock. I suspect you're becoming more and more human all the time.
Spock: Captain, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted.


Anonymous said...

An excellent read.

My main memory of geologists in Star Trek is that when one appeared they were going to be the first to die when the away team beamed down to a new planet.

Silver Fox said...

I think they did kill off a few geologists and scientists, glad you remembered that. In general, the guys who died on away missions were called "redshirts," because supposedly they were the only ones that wore the red-shirted uniforms (though that wasn't really true). So, you were supposed to be able to tell who would die. But we watched all of The Original Series in black & white....