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The Trek Nation - The Tholian Web

The Tholian Web

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 6, 2006 - 6:53 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Tholian Web' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise finds the USS Defiant drifting in a region where space itself seems to be dissolving. An away team finds the Defiant's crew all dead - murdered by one another. McCoy discovers that the Defiant is dissolving around them, and Scotty is unable to beam the entire away team back at once due to the instability. He retrieves McCoy, Spock and Chekov safely but the Defiant disappears with Kirk aboard before the transporter can retrieve him. Spock calculates that the region of space will interphase with that of the Enterprise in another two hours and orders the ship to remain in place, even though the madness that overtook the Defiant's crew begins to affect Enterprise crewmembers. Then the Tholians arrive and, when the Enterprise does not respond in a timely manner to their demand to leave Tholian space, begin to create a web of energy filaments around the Enterprise. Spock will not move the ship because he believes it must remain in place to retrieve the captain, whom first Uhura and later other crewmembers see, floating in space. With Scotty's help, he is able to free the ship from the Tholians and beam Kirk aboard, while McCoy concocts an antidote to the madness.


Analysis: It probably sounds from the summary above like "The Tholian Web" is a plot-heavy episode full of technobabble about interphasic space, but the heart of this episode is the relationship between Spock and McCoy, put to its most severe test since "The Galileo 7" if not "Amok Time." Spock finds himself in command of a crew of humans who know they are slowly going mad, and it seems that no matter what order he gives, McCoy takes issue with it: first he's upset that Spock insists on staying in a region that is certain to harm the crew, then he's angry that Spock uses weapons against the Tholians, and when Spock decides that he must declare Kirk dead, McCoy accuses him of trying to assure himself of taking over his captaincy. The degree of anger seems rather out of character for McCoy, likely exacerbated by the strain he is under both as a physician and because of the spatial anomalies; what seems even more strange is how quietly Spock accepts these criticisms, none of which seem very justified given that Kirk would have done exactly the same thing to try to rescue Spock.

It all stems from the moment on the Defiant's bridge when Spock asks to be allowed to remain instead of the captain and is denied. As in "Obsession", Kirk won't let any crewmember assume a risk he wouldn't assume himself. It isn't very rational for the captain to risk his own life when other crewmembers are willing to take the risk, but Kirk likely realizes that Spock is more likely to be able to figure out a way to retrieve him than he would be able to figure out a way to retrieve Spock. And he never even considers asking Chekov to stay behind. Kirk shoulders the responsibility, is caught in exactly the cataclysm they all fear, and never truly seems prepared to give up on him, even after he has declared the captain dead.

Kirk may not be physically present, but he is never gone in spirit: he has recorded a final message for Spock and McCoy with standing orders that they listen to it in case of his death, and he rightly predicts that in such an instance, the tactical situation is critical, and his science and medical officers are locked in mortal combat. He asks Spock to temper his logic with insight - McCoy's, if Spock cannot find it in himself - and asks McCoy to help Spock as well as he is able but remember that the captain's decisions must be obeyed. When McCoy later apologizes to Spock for questioning his efforts, Spock replies that he believes Kirk would have said, "Forget it, Bones." McCoy is on the verge of breaking down when they all look up and see Kirk's spectral form floating above the deck, imploring Spock to hurry.

The way interphasic space works is never really explained -- we learn much later, in an Enterprise episode, that it's actually a portal to a mirror universe, but that doesn't explain why it drives people mad. Nor is the technology behind the Tholian web described or demonstrated to any satisfactory degree; in some ways the web breaks Chekhov's dramatic principle in which a plot device such as a weapon must be used before the end of the drama or the audience will be disappointed by the lack of a payoff. The Tholian filaments criss-cross every viewscreen we see in the latter part of the episode, but Spock manages to throw the ship free before it can be deployed, which would be something of a letdown if that was the real focus of the story. It is not, of course; the true drama concerns how Spock will retrieve Kirk and how he and McCoy will make peace and work together in this dire situation.

This episode does a nice job giving most of the major crewmembers significant roles; it's Scotty who convinces Spock to fire on the Tholians despite the risks, it's Chekov who is first afflicted by the madness they all fear, and it's Uhura who sees the captain alive when the others believe he must have perished - though she reacts with understandable hysteria at first, she is quite calm and dignified later in sickbay, when she accepts McCoy's opinion that she must have hallucinated. (Curiously, she does not return to work, though no one suggests that Scotty should be removed from duty when he too sees Kirk and is disbelieved.) In the end, Sulu sees Kirk while he is attempting to steer the ship, as do the rest of the bridge crew; despite the madness of interphasic space, which apparently caused a mutiny on the Defiant, the crew works together as smoothly here as we have ever seen in Kirk's absence.

Many questions remain unanswered at the end of the episode, most about the Tholians...did they attack the Defiant, or did they genuinely not know that it was there? If so little is known about them that the Federation does not expect them to have claimed the region, why does Spock cite renowned Tholian punctuality? (Of any aliens who could use a CGI brush-up in the remastered episodes, the Tholians are certainly near the top of the list.) But again, this isn't what's important. It's far more interesting to hear Kirk's last orders and Spock and McCoy's reaction, and then their unspoken agreement not to tell him how well he had them pegged: after the crisis has passed, when Kirk asks how they got along without him, Spock insists that there were no problems worth reporting and McCoy says, "Mr. Spock gave the orders, and I found the answers." It's an "in a pig's eye" moment like the end of "Amok Time" with Kirk and McCoy smiling and Spock's eyebrow in the air - everyone happy, but no one expecting Spock to admit it.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.