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In Praise of the Doomsday Machine (and William Windom)

In this latest guest post by Joseph Dickerson, we dive into the Original Series episode “The Doomsday Machine” and revisit why it might just be one of the best episodes of Star Trek. Dickerson’s review is timely, too, and, after William Windom’s (Commodore Decker) passing this month, serves as an homage to the great actor and a thank you for portraying one of our (dare I say?) favorite characters. Hit the jump for the review.

 

In praise of the Doomsday Machine (and William Windom)
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the official Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, and
one of the panels I went to was to determine the top ten episode of the original series.
It was a conference room that was only half-full, but the people who were there were
extremely engaged and vocal as they shouted feedback to the panel who was whittling the
suggested candidate episodes down to ten.

One episode, a particular favorite of mine, ended up in the list. Devin Faraci, a fine writer
and blogger, questioned the choice in this review of that list, which states, “The
Doomsday Machine? It’s a good episode, but top ten material?”

Yes, Mr. Faraci, it’s top 10 material. In fact, I think it should rank higher than #7. I think
it should be in the Top 5, and depending on my mood on any particular day I could say
it’s the Best. Episode. Ever.

Why? Let me provide some points to rationalize my opinion:

It’s a remake of Moby Dick. A pet theory of mine is that the best Trek has or uses Moby
Dick allusions (The Wrath of Khan, First Contact), and it starts here, with Commodore
Decker chasing his “white whale” and leaving a path of death and destruction in order to
get his revenge.

(Almost) Everyone has great moments. All the major characters get to shine here, with
great dialogue and scenes for Scotty, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Sulu and Uhura get left
out, unfortunately (Uhura isn’t even in the episode).

It’s got some epic space battles! We had space battles in other episode but this was the
first one to really amp the action up to 11. Yes, this one goes to 11.

It’s got a great villain! Yes, the “planet eater” may look like a giant cornucopia, but it
pre-dates the Borg, the Terminator and many other heartless “force of nature” bad-guys.
You can’t negotiate with it, and it appears unstoppable. It’s like Jaws, a literal “eating
machine.”

“Vulcans never bluff.” No explanation needed.

It shouldn’t be as good as it is. It’s one of those “bottle” episodes, where the producers
had to shoot a whole episode on the ship, because they had no money to go on location
or to even create an alien planet on a different soundstage. That it is so entertaining is a
credit to the ingenuity of the production staff and to writer Norman Spinrad.

It was Scotty’s favorite episode! James Doohan frequently said it was his favorite
episode. You gonna argue with Scotty?

There’s huge stakes. The “planet eater” is going to go through the most densely part
of the galaxy, and it has to be stopped, a far cry from getting a delivery of grain to an
outpost or rescuing Spock’s brain…

The remastered version is even awesomer! The somewhat-good special effects of the
original episode was replaced with some beautiful new shots that give a great sense of
scale to the battle, and replaces some pretty shoddy (budget-limited) model work.

William Windom as Commodore Decker. Last, and certainly not least, it featured
one of the best guest star turns in the history of all Star Trek series by the great William
Windom. His performance as Commodore Decker is one for the ages, going from a
man in shock to a man obsessed to (finally) a man ready to die if it means stopping the
destruction being wrought.

Windom died this month at the age of 88, and he leaves this and many other great
performances as his legacy. To paraphrase a line Windom said in this episode: He was
there… but not anymore.

Goodnight, Mr. Windom. And thanks for the great work.


RIP William Windom

Joseph Dickerson is a writer, User Experience Architect (and Star Trek fan) focused on designing effective and innovative on-line and mobile applications. For more from Joseph visit josephdickerson.com or follow him on twitter: @josephdickerson.

 


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DeBeckster
August 30, 2012 7:43 am

To quote Mr. Spock near the end of the episode, “He’s gone.” My all time favorite episode, and favorite guest star.

Bob
August 30, 2012 7:46 am

I wonder why Windom never did the conventions? He could have been a great guest for the Q&A sessions. Plus, he could have made a ton of money just for the autographs.

Emperor Mike of the Empire
August 30, 2012 7:47 am

What a Great Ep. This is on just about everyones top 5 list of BESt Trek Eps. Even James Cawley used it in an Ep of Phase 2 and even had Windom himself reprise his Role. William Windom did a fantastic job as Decker. The Battle the Music the Drama and the Action and Futility of the Battle was incredable. Back in the 1960s with a bigger Budget and such this Ep could have been a Major Scifi Movie.

Vultan
August 30, 2012 7:49 am

Thanks for the memories. Excellent review, Kayla.

Commodore Decker was great, but I think my favorite Windom performance was the indecisive boss in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. He didn’t even need to say a word to make it memorable.

WVTrekker
August 30, 2012 7:49 am

I can only say, “Amen.”

Emperor Mike of the Empire
August 30, 2012 7:50 am

My Top Ten list of Tos Eps.
5. Let that be your last battlefield.
4. The Managerie Part 2
3. The Manerige Part 1
2. The City on the Edge of Forever.
1. The Doomsday Machine.
Of course. Even Bad Trek is Good Trek.
Spock’s Brain.

Hugh Hoyland
August 30, 2012 7:53 am

#2
Agreed. In fact I believe this is one of the episodes Roddenberry gave to script writers to use as a possible template for the first attempts at making a Star Trek motion picture back in the early/mid 70’s.

Great episode and IMO one of the better ones of any series. The editorial above says it all.

August 30, 2012 7:56 am

I totally agree with Joseph Dickerson’s assessment that “The Doomsday Machine” is one of the greatest TOS episodes and one of the greatest Star Trek shows ever. Belongs in the top ten of TOS Star Trek shows. I consider it number four of the TOS episodes.

One thing that I want bring up about the show is the message. That’s the greatness of Star Trek. The Doomsday Machine was not just great action and drama but it had something serious to say. And it was about arms control. The discussion between Spock and Kirk at the end links the Planet Killer to atomic weapons. And we can only surmise that the creators of the Planet Killer may have died at the hands of their weapon. Maybe we should get those nuclear stockpiles under control.

Along the lines of the The Doomsday Machine, one should also check TNG’s “The Arsenal of Freedom.”

martin
August 30, 2012 7:57 am

I have always thought that Doomsday Machine was at least in the top 5, maybe the top 3.

I would say my tops are:
City
Doomsday
Amok
Seed
Ultimate
Battlefield
Mirror
Within
Where
Tribbles
Enterprise

Warhoon
August 30, 2012 7:58 am

One of the things that really strikes me about this episode was the introduction of some fantastic original music cues — some that were not reused subsequently so that they became cliches.

The dramatic use of the shadowy lighting work on the Constellation’s aux bridge looks even better in Remastered, too.

August 30, 2012 8:06 am

#7: That’s a really good point. This moral theme is also what makes the Doomsday Machine a satisfying bad guy. Even if it is just a machine, it represents human folly and warmongering.

Simon
August 30, 2012 8:06 am

One of my all-time favorites…and it first aired the *day after* I was born…so STAR TREK had an awesome episode ready for when I came into the world.

That said, as an adult (and no disrespect intended to Mr. Windom) sometimes he’s a bit overwrought. The whole shuttle-eating sequence with his eyes bulging out of his head is unintentionally hilarious now. His command scenes are much better.

USSEXETER
August 30, 2012 8:10 am

Just bought the remastered Season 2 TOS, and watched this episode last night in honor of Mr. Windom. One of my all time favorite episodes too.

DeBeckster
August 30, 2012 8:14 am

And, thanks to the people at Trek movie for posting this–it’s a fitting eptitath.

Driver
August 30, 2012 8:16 am

Windom delivered a perfect performance. Although to him, it was just another gig, doing what he does best-act.

Jeff
August 30, 2012 8:22 am

Great episode. My only complaint is that the actual Doomsday Machine looks like a big joint (maybe a little subliminal imagery for the college audience, perhaps). I wished they changed the design for the remastered episodes but alas, they didn’t.

TrekMadeMeWonder
August 30, 2012 8:23 am

The remastered episode will be redone again and again.

Personally I would like to see some flames erupting in the cabin of the shuttle around the Commodore in his finalk shot.

That would make his acting performance there perfect!
Of course we all know now that the Commodore did not die there.

The final comment in the article was very appropriate, indeed.

Sleep, William.

Uberbot
August 30, 2012 8:33 am

Doomsday Machine is in my top 5 for sure!! It may even be my favorite…but that’s hard to say. Just a great all-around episode. Excellent story, great character moments and superb remastered visual effects in the remastered version!!

This is one I’d recommend to anyone who has never seen TOS.

Oh, and Kayla — THANKS for keeping things going around here.

You rock!!! :-)

Boozba
August 30, 2012 8:33 am

Doomsday is a thriller, a very tense episode for sure.It,s in my top 5.
But my number one episode is Wolf in the fold….Jack the Ripper in space,
scrares the living shit out of me!!!

Captain Ransom
August 30, 2012 8:37 am

One of the few episodes of TOS with another Constitution class ship. I think there were 7 in total: Enterprise, Constitution, Constellation, Faragut, Intrepid, Exeter (crashed on a planet featured in an episode of TNG), Endeavor.

I would love to see a new series that is based for once on a ship other than Enterprise. And my only disappointment is that the doomsday machine has never made another appearance. Maybe in the next movie? I’ve heard rumors that the borg created them. Interesting idea.

Riker's Mailbox
August 30, 2012 8:42 am

I was just watching the remastered version of the Doomsday Machine and while I really applaud the changes made to the effects, I wish the textures of the cgi ships were a little more realistic.

When I watch the original, I get the sense that I’m watching a true classic, and I admire what they were able to achieve F/X-wise given what they had to work with. On the other hand, when I watch the remastered version, I look at the F/X and I say, “Gee, they could have made that a lot better.” That’s always the conundrum with redoing the effects of a classic, especially on a limited budget. It’s no longer state-of-the-art for its time because we now see the budgetary videogame-like look of it, and in our heads we KNOW that it could have looked better.

That’s just my opinion. Don’t get me wrong. I’m truly thankful for the remastered Trek.

Red Dead Ryan
August 30, 2012 8:52 am

An absolute classic episode. William Windom was great in it. “Doomsday Machine” is easily top five TOS for me, and top ten overall.

Anyone who doesn’t like this episode is no fan of Trek.

rm10019
August 30, 2012 8:52 am

Great review and retrospective. William Windom, known to casting agents as ‘Billy the Crier’, did a great job and created an instant classic.

August 30, 2012 8:54 am

Hiya Kayla,

Have you taken over TrekMovie or something?

;-)

Red Dead Ryan
August 30, 2012 8:55 am

#18.

Don’t forget about the Defiant and Lexington.

BoomBoomCannon
August 30, 2012 8:56 am

Great Commodore Decker Line…

“Don’t you think I know that??!! There was…but not anymore! They called me…they begged me for help…400 of them! I couldn’t…I couldn’t!”

AND…

“They say there’s no Devil Jim…but there is. Right out of hell…I saw it!”

Classic!

VZX
August 30, 2012 9:13 am

I absolutely love this episode. My three favorite moments are

1) Scotty beaming back to the Enterprise at the end and as soon as he’s back he goes right to work fixing the transporter! The man doesn’t stop!

2) Beaming Kirk off the other ship right before it’s destroyed. So cliche but it was done so well!

3) Kirk ordering Spock to take command from Decker. Kirk is the man!

Dominic
August 30, 2012 9:14 am

I remember clearly when I was 7 years old, back in 1974- an afternoon shopping trip with my mom and I had wondered off to the electronics section. There were about 5 or 6 people gathered around a big (maybe 25 inches!) console TV watching a rerun of Star Trek. An older woman explained to maybe a high-schooler that we were watching The Doomsday Machine and I, in my infinite wisdom proclaimed loudly that no, we were watching Star Trek! I didn’t have any concept back then of episode names. Almost 40 years later it occurs to me that even then, Star Trek was bringing a very wide-ranging group of people together. And William Windom was an indelible part of that.

August 30, 2012 9:17 am

I watched the remastered version of this AGAIN several weeks ago, and was blown away by it once more.

It’s looking at eps like this and wondering why in the world ST:TMP didn’t turn out to be the best sci-fi movie ever made. It should have been, with episodes like this to serve as an indication of what could have been done with a huge budget. Great acting and meaning did not have to be sacrificed at the expense of action and effects. They could have all combined to be something wonderful.

Gary S.
August 30, 2012 9:26 am

Great episode .
Great actor .
I shall miss him terribly.

Caesar
August 30, 2012 9:34 am

Great tribute to a great performance and an awesome episode. Thanks.

sean
August 30, 2012 9:41 am

#18

RE: The Borg, there was a novel called Vendetta where it was revealed that an ancient race had built the Doomsday Machine as a Borg-killer. It was pretty good, but a lot of the plot elements were contradicted by later episodes/series.

Dave
August 30, 2012 9:42 am

Sadly I didn’t get to watch the original aire date since I was only 4 years old but in the early 70’s I did see the episode in reruns and turns out to be one of the best episodes of the series. R.I.P. Decker.

MikeTen
August 30, 2012 9:45 am

Great tribute to a great episode and Mr. Windom. I was beginning to think there would be no mention of Mr. Windom’s passing, I’m glad to see I was wrong.

The Doomsday Machine has to be my favorite Classic Trek episode, I even “modified” a AMT Enterprise model back in the 1970’s to look like the Constellation.

Magic_Al
August 30, 2012 9:48 am

I’ve always assumed John Williams saw this episode before he wrote the equally great music to Jaws. In both works, relentless music creates genuine menace around a threat that is either unseen or less than convincing when seen too closely.

Jeff Brown
August 30, 2012 9:58 am

There has never been such great banter going on between the threeof Decker, Spock, and The Doctor. “Well, do SOMETHING, Spock!” My favorite acting part of any. And Kirk saying, “Where’s Mr. Spock?” “As Captain, .. I say get out of that chair, Decker!” But then it’s too late! The Planet eater has them! And at the end Kirk say “Now would be a good time, Mr. Scott! Beem me up, Scotty!

Uberbot
August 30, 2012 9:58 am

#18, 23 — Don’t forget the Hood, Excalibur, and Potemkin…:-)

Uberbot
August 30, 2012 10:01 am

The Borg couldn’t have created the DD. Spock said it came from beyond our galaxy…

Gary Neumann
August 30, 2012 10:17 am

BEST STAR TREK EPIDODE EVER!!!!! =)

August 30, 2012 10:29 am

Capt. Kirk: “There IS no third planet!”
Matt Decker: “Don’t you think I know that? There was, but not anymore! “They called me; they BEGGED me for help, four hundred of them! I couldn’t… I-I couldn’t… ”

Commodore Decker is one of the best tragic characters of the franchise, thanks to Mr. Windom.

Craiger
August 30, 2012 10:31 am

I got it Cumberbatch is Commodore Decker and the sequel is based on Doomsday Machine.

Kev-1
August 30, 2012 10:34 am

Great episode, script, music, guest star, battle scenes, plus a message. This is probably my favorite, although that changes. I think it’s the most important “Captain Kirk” episode, because Kirk is literally watching helplessly as the Enterprise is close to destruction ( the best “Jim Kirk” episode to me would be “City” or “Turnabout Intruder). Also, TOS ( and TMP,, and to a lesser degree, TWOK) is unique in making Enterprise a character; this is the ship’s most prominent episode. Like the remaster, but the original show used shots more effective on TV; big shots of Enterprise, where the remaster uses wide shots more effective for a big screen. Wish they add just added photon torpedo fire or something. Saw William WIndom at a small sci-fi show in New Jersey many years ago. Very nice, personable guy. Gave me an astronomy book recommendation. My sympathies to his family.

August 30, 2012 10:54 am
Also one of my all time favorites. It showed more of Star Fleet. Other officers. And another instance of the fact that all the important people knew Jim Kirk. And they always seem to hold him in esteem. That was very exciting to me. And it was a great example of why Shatner/ Kirk was THe standard of how a man should be. How a professional should be. How a leader should be. This episode is a perfect example of what and why Shatner was so important to the series. It’s style and mythos. But that’s another topic. I’ve heard from several sources that the part of Decker was originally written for grissled character actor Robert Ryan but ultimately he wasn’t available. I believe I’m correct there. That would have been a different show. Windom was great, but can’t help but wonder what that would have been like with Ryan. Kind of like if Tom Selleck had gotten to play Indiana Jones. Not better. Just different. I guess that ties into, or explains, my whole Gary Seven project. There’s a part of me that’s fascinated by the ‘what if?’ That list of mythical “man! that would have been cool, if only…” projects that never happened. I have a whole list of those in my head. The suspense and pacing of this episode area also great. Scotty having to keep fixing the transporter – letting a little bit of his Scottish anger out. The score for this. Hard. Weird. And fun.… Read more »
TrekMadeMeWonder
August 30, 2012 11:06 am

32. MikeTen

We all did that! : )

Gary S.
August 30, 2012 11:06 am

#40 do you remember the name of the astronomy book and did you get it ?

Holger
August 30, 2012 11:16 am

Amen!
And: RIP, William Windom. A great actor is gone.

jamesingeneva
August 30, 2012 11:22 am

Thanks Kayla for a great review and keeping the site alive!

drumvan
August 30, 2012 11:28 am

if i had the chance to watch one last star trek episode before the good lord took me, it would be doomsday machine. acting, music, drama. the whole package was top notch.

Jeffrey S. Nelson
August 30, 2012 11:31 am

A friend of mine got me an autogtraphed photo…personalized by Mr. Windowm…just a few months ago. Photo is of Commodore Decker…this is a keepsake I treasure…

August 30, 2012 11:33 am

This has been my favorite ST episode since it first aired (I’m also a fan of other writings by Norman Spinrad). Despite him tripping over Trek’s techspeak, I thought William Windom was extremely effective in this episode. This was also the episode that I was most concerned about it looking too different when CBS Interactive remastered it and re-imaged the effects but I was pleased withe the results.

I’ll bet I’ve seen thirty productions William acted in over the years. The 1969 series “My World And Welcome To It” is another fond memory. I’m sure that his family and fans will miss him,

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