In defense of "Spock's Brain," which is not the worst 'Star Trek' episode
The third season premiere shows up on many Worst of 'Star Trek' lists, but is it really so bad?
Doctor McCoy stumbles out of "the teacher," a device that looks a bit like a salon hair dryer. His brain is flooded with freshly downloaded scientific knowledge. He mutters, "A child could do it… a child could do it."
In that scene, Bones is talking about brain surgery — to be more specific, brain replacement surgery. You see, the "teacher" computer buried deep under the surface of Sigma Draconis VI has zapped McCoy with the mental wherewithal to plop Spock's gray matter back into his empty skull. Because a beautiful woman in a purple minidress has stolen the Vulcan's brain.
"Spock's Brain" is the stuff of 1950s B-movies. When Star Trek fans — especially the sort that gravitated to the sci-fi series for its philosophical musings — first viewed the season three premiere, they also perhaps muttered at the script in disbelief, "A child could do it." The actors likely did, too. After all, this is a teleplay that offered such gems as "Brain and brain! What is brain?!" and "Like trying to thread a needle with a sledgehammer!"
Because of its campy tone and Boris Karloff–ian dialogue, "Spock's Brain" is commonly held to be one of the worst episodes of the Original Series. Google "worst Star Trek episodes" and "Spock's Brain" will turn up. Ask a Trekkie at a convention. Heck, the authors of the book Star Trek 101 created the Spock's Brain Award to be given to the worst episode of all subquent Star Trek series. William Shatner even regretted the episode in a memoir. But is it really that bad?
We are here to redeem "Spock's Brain." There is a distinction between "Bad Star Trek" and "Bad Sci-Fi." While this may be the former, it is not poor entertainment. While the episode is an outlier amongst the headier Star Trek stories in terms of its tone and plot, it is an enjoyable throwback to an earlier era of the genre. This is, for a brief moment, not a fictional universe where sophisticated aliens debate the moral consequences of war, rather one of giant ants, ray gun shootouts and mad scientists. With its action-driven plot, wherein Spock's brain is the MacGuffin, "Spock's Brain" has more in common with vintage adventure serials and 1930s horror. In other words, this is more Star Wars than Star Trek. To dismiss it outright is to discredit the entertainment value of Mars Attacks trading cards, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Barbarella and Svengoolie.
First, we should acknowledge the undeniably bad. After Bones successfully "threads the needle with a sledgehammer" and pops the brain back in his head, Spock sits up on the operating table with no visual wounds. Heck, there's hardly a hair out of place in his bowl cut.
While it does not reek of the painfully antiquated misogyny found in series finale "Turnabout Intruder," there are some dated gender stereotypes here. Sigma Draconis VI is divided between the hirsute cavemen on the surface (Morg) and the beautiful and baby-talking women underground (Eymorg). "Her's is the mind of child," McCoy observes of Luma, the beautiful blonde Eymorg they stun with their phasers.
And, as we noted earlier, the script, written by Gene L. Coon, creator of the Klingons and Khan, is pretty hokey. At the very least it sets some kind of record for the usage of the word "brain." "His brain is gone!" "What have you done with Spock's brain?" "Ah, yes, brain, you spoke to Luma also of brain"… You get the picture.
Now, to the good stuff. Fred Steiner's music thrills and delights. The composer's score classes up the joint with its cinematic depth and textures. Take the scene where the crew beams down to the planet. They explore the rocky surface to the sound of tip-toeing xylophone and low, bleating woodwind. As the primitive Morg sneak up on the Enterprise crew, strings saw away. The orchestral effect amps the suspense, and for the first half of the episode there is genuine suspence. This is wonderful music.
The special effects in "Spock's Brain" were a cut above, as well. Early on, aboard the Enterprise, Kirk paces in front of the viewscreen. This might not seem like a momentous occasion, but it is the rare case of a character walking in front of the moving starfield. The effect was achieved with rear-projection. It's subtle, but it adds a layer of realism to the starship. There are also some beautifully designed maps of the Sigma Draconis system projected onto the screen.
Star Trek soared and inspired because of its superior intelligence. So what if for one episode it asks viewers to, well, turn off their brains? It was right there in the title. Because of its episodic structure, the series should be allowed to take stylistic detours such as this. As part of one grand narrative, an hour like this could certainly throw a show off its rails. But this is not the television of today. The one-and-done missions allowed for experimentation, as with The Twilight Zone. That should be celebrated, even if it led to a wildly uneven third season.
So what if for one episode Star Trek turned into Lost in Space? One can't knock it for being didactic or dull. We can even overlook the fact that it inspired a Phish song.