For the past two weeks, looking at both Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and their perceived worst episodes, the question of which were in fact the worst at least had some debate. Neither “Fear Her” nor “Where the Wild Things Are” are 100%, by-the-book the worst episodes according to anybody, but today I’m going to talk about an episode that literally everyone thinks is awful, and not only awful but by far the worst, including pretty much everyone involved in its creation. We’re going back to Star Trek The Original Series’ third season opener, and the first ring of the show’s death knell, “Spock’s Brain.”
Things were not particularly going Star Trek‘s way following its second season. It did well enough but NBC still wanted to cancel it. After a successful letter-writing campaign, the Peacock Network eventually renewed the landmark science fiction series, but shunned it to 10pm on Fridays, traditionally the hospice home for anything attempting to be family entertainment, and also cut the budget by 10% per episode. Gene Roddenberry decided to step down as showrunner, but remained executive producer, and the series’ third and ultimately final year looked and felt noticeably cheaper and less inventive.
Case in point, an episode sillier than “The Trouble with Tribbles” and more sexist than “Mudd’s Women.” “Spock’s Brain” feels like a B minus level sci-fi movie that Roger Corman wouldn’t even make. Why? Because nothing happens in it! At least Corman’s films had lovely schlocky violence and creepy scares; this was just a B-movie premise without any of the B-movie perks. I mean, how many cruddy ’50s flicks had brains in jars or disembodied minds or things like that? And, like much Star Trek, it also has scantily-clad (or, I guess more accurately weirdly-clad) women, which is a very matinee movie thing to do. Anyway, it’s just dumb, so let’s get on with it.
Stardate what-ever-the-hell, the Enterprise is met by a ship the likes of which they’ve never seen. It sends forth a transport beam and a mysterious woman ends up on the bridge. She quickly stuns everyone and begins looking at all the unconscious crew members. Some time later, everybody wakes up and she and the ship are gone. Everybody seems fine, except for Mr. Spock, who is currently in sick bay and, evidently, without a brain. Whoever that woman was, she was able to remove the entirety of Spock’s brain without any bleeding or cutting or anything nasty like that. Because of his wacky Vulcan physiology, his body is still alive, but won’t be after 24 hours if Kirk and the crew can’t find his brain. Where, oh where, could it be?
They are able to follow the ion signature of the ship to the Sigma Draconis system and determine that, while three of the planets there could sustain life, only Sigma Draconis VI has the proper energy readings to suggest some kind of technology, even though none is apparent. After the away team lands on the planet, they find it to be in the middle of some studio-bound ice age and big hairy men run up and begin attacking them. After stunning one of them, Kirk, Scotty, and Chekhov learn that they don’t know what women are, but they do refer to “The Other” who are smaller and give them “pain and delight.” Oh, gee, I wonder.
They find the ruins of an ancient city and find an elevator leading underground. Kirk calls Bones down to the planet and he brings along Spock’s body, which he’s rigged up to be controlled remotely, like a puppet person. They eventually find that underground is where all the women live. The men are called Morgs and the women are called Eymorgs, because sci-fi, and the women all live under the watchful protection of “The Controller,” who it turns out is just a disembodied mind. And I’ll give you three guesses as to who that mind is now… Yeah, it’s Sulu. Just kidding, it’s Spock, who feels as though he’s inside a living being, given that he’s actually controlling the whole planet and its systems.
The leader of the Eymorgs is named Kara, or the one who’ll talk to them anyway, and she stuns the crew and has belts put on them that will inflict pain from the Eymorg’s wristband deals. She doesn’t understand anything they’re saying, culminating in the best line in the history of anything: “Brain and brain… what is brain?!” This is going nowhere, fast. They have to be able to get Spock’s brain back or he’ll die! Kara says they want to use Spock’s brain as the Controller for the next 10,000 years. Great. They eventually find a device which is called “The Great Teacher” which can apparently dole out knowledge for a short period of time, hence the surgical knowhow. They demand Kara use it to perform the surgery, but instead of helping, she simply trains a phaser on them. Scotty fakes fainting (which made me laugh out loud) so that Kirk could disarm her and eventually it’s agreed that Bones would get the knowledge and perform the surgery.
While at first, Bones says “Yes, it’s so simple a child could do it!,” he eventually begins to lose the knowledge right in the middle of the surgery, leading Spock’s brain, which is still half in Spock’s head, to have to help McCoy do the job, after he connects the Vulcan’s “vocal chords.” Not the speech centers of his brain, but the actual chords in his throat, apparently. Anyway, it all works out fine and they have a good ol’ laugh about it while the Morgs and Eymorgs are left to mate or whatever without any help.
Dear God, what a terrible episode. For a lot of reasons, but the very premise has to be number one. They didn’t kidnap Spock and hook him up to the computer; they REMOVED HIS ENTIRE BRAIN. It’s the Face/Off of space TV ideas. The idea that his brain could sustain a whole planet is not as weird as the idea that his body could survive a whole 24 hours without a brain, nor that his brain somehow possesses the knowledge of how to reattach itself to his own skull.
We also have really poor dialogue (let me refer you to the above “What is brain”) and Kara even at one point says “three of your hours.” How the hell does she know how long their hours are? The episode may as well be called “The Crew Talks To Idiots for an Hour.” We also have some really awful effects, in as much as there aren’t any. The big surgery scene is McCoy standing behind a huge gray wall with the top of Spock’s head going in at the bottom. The show had no budget at this point, so that’s all they could do, but it doesn’t make it any less dumb. And I’ll again point out how funny Mr. Scott’s “diversion” is. It’s out of nowhere and barely more than him sighing loudly.
“Spock’s Brain” has gone down in history as one of the worst hours of genre television ever made, and one that Leonard Nimoy himself said was the first time he’d ever felt embarrassed while playing the character. EMBARRASSED. That’s not good at all. Bereft of anything interesting, devoid of good guest stars, and without much to redeem it besides unintentional hilarity, “Spock’s Brain” truly is the Worst of the Best of Star Trek.