On the surface The Devil In The Dark seems to be little more than a pulpy melodrama. Kirk and the others have beamed down to Janus IV, a mining planet under attack from a mysterious creature.
The incidental music is ramped up, everybody’s playing it very grim, and the luckless extras continue to die – fried to a crisp by something which lurks in the dark.
But since it become clear that the theme of the episode is concerned with not judging by appearances, maybe it’s best not to be too hasty about the nature of the story ….
The pre-credits teaser is an interesting one. There’s no sign of the Enterprise crew, instead we follow the beleaguered miners as they attempt to defend themselves. Chief Engineer Vanderberg (Ken Lynch) might be bullish, but you just know that one of his hapless subordinates (left all alone in the caves) is fated to have a very short lifespan.
The caves themselves look quite good (although maybe the lighting is a little too bright). But there’s no disguising the smooth studio floor, which is a problem also encountered in many Doctor Who cave based stories.
These early scenes seem to be setting us up for a tense story in which Kirk and co battle it out with this unseen attacker. The importance of Janus IV is made clear – its mineral wealth keeps a number of Federation planets functioning – so any interruption to the mining schedule will cause untold deaths (in addition to the many fatalities already recorded on this planet).
At this point, nobody seems to query whether the indengeous creature has a greater claim to the bountiful natural resources of Janus IV than the Federation does. The imperialist nature of the Federation is clearly laid out – here’s a planet rich with mineral resources, the Federation needs them, the Federation will take them.
William Shatner’s father died during the recording of this episode. Always the pro, he carried on and turned in a really nice performance. I especially liked the non-verbal moment when Kirk viewed the charred remains of another dead redshirt. Grief, mixed with a determination to press on, was shown on his face.
The triumvirate of Kirk/Spock/McCoy are all working well today. Bones utters, for the first time, his signature “I’m a doctor not a …” . In this case a bricklayer (when he comes face to face with the silicon based Horta).
There’s some nice tension between Kirk and Spock. Kirk is initially in something of a bloodthirsty mood – the Horta has to be killed and as quickly as possible – whilst Spock is driven by a sense of scientific curiosity. At this point the audience can choose who they want to side with – Kirk for vegence or Spock for compassion.
Although when the Horta directly threatens Jim, Spock is quick to change his point of view (telling Kirk to destroy the creature immediately …)
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Horta looks very silly (its initial appearance is certainly one moment when the caves weren’t nearly dark enough). Spock’s mind meld with the creature is another eyebrow raising scene but all of this is worth it for the final reveal – the Horta isn’t naturally aggressive, it’s only been acting in self defence.
It’s a lovely twist, although you have to say that it’s taken a while for the series to have reached this point. For example, nobody shed any tears for the salt monster in The Man Trap, even though it was the last of its kind.
The Devil In The Dark is another quality episode from Gene L. Coon. As we’ve come to expect with his scripts, the Federation is far from the enlightened force for scientific good it would later become. Instead, it’s much more of a colonial power – ruthlessly annexing Janus IV and then preparing to beat off attacks from the natives.
There mighr be a happy ending – the miners and the Horta come to a friendly arrangement – but this doesn’t lessen the cynical nature of certain parts of the story. It’s just a shame that the design of the Horta itself means that many casual viewers will probably struggle to take the episode that seriously.