The Deadly Years
Stardate 3478.2 (Earth Calendar Date 2267)
Episode Production Number: 60340
Episode Number (Aired): 40
Original Air Date: 12/8/67
Writer: David P. Harmon
Director: Joseph Pevney
"Captain's log, stardate 3478.2. On a routine mission to resupply the experimental colony at Gamma Hydra IV, we discovered a most unusual phenomenon. Of the six members of the colony, none of whom were over thirty, we found four had died and two were dying ... of old age."
During the third year of her five-year deep space mission, the Starship Enterprise, Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) commanding, arrives at the experimental colony on Gamma Hydra IV. Her assignment, to resupply the team of six Federation scientists – none of whom are over the age of 30 – who are assigned there.
Capt. Kirk, First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Ens. Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Lt. Galway (Beverly Washburn) beam down to the colony. To their surprise, however, the colonists are nowhere to be seen.
While exploring a darkened building, Chekov activates the lights…and is shocked to find the corpse of an old man lying in one of the corridors. Frightened out of his wits, Chekov forgets his Starfleet training and flees. Chekov’s strong reaction naturally prompts the rest of the landing party to investigate; after examining the body, Dr. McCoy determines that the man died of natural causes consistent with extreme old age.
Spock, who had studied the colonists’ records while the Enterprise was en route to Gamma Hydra IV, is surprised by McCoy’s finding. According to the files, the scientists were young - not one of them older than 30.
Nevertheless, McCoy’s diagnosis is proven right when two other elderly persons – a man and a woman, stagger in: Robert Johnson (Felix Locher), who claims to be 29, and his wife Elaine (Laura Wood), age 27.
Kirk attempts to question Robert Johnson, but the man’s mind is so fogged by old age that he isn’t able to provide any information. The captain then briefs a trio of VIP passengers – Starfleet Commodore Stocker (Charles Drake), Yeoman Doris Atkins (Carolyn Nelson) and Dr. Janet Wallace (Sarah Marshall) – informing them that the Enterprise will stay in orbit while the investigation is underway.
Stocker tells Kirk that he needs to get to Starbase 10 quickly, and the captain promises to do everything he can to make that possible. When Stocker takes his leave, Dr. Wallace – one of Kirk’s former lovers – reminisces with the captain about their relationship and why it ended.
Back on the bridge, Kirk orders helmsman Sulu (George Takei) to maintain standard orbit around Gamma Hydra IV. Spock informs the captain that a comet had recently transited the system, adding that he hasn’t yet ascertained if that has any relevance to the mystery of why the colonists died.
As Kirk is trying to digest his science officer’s report, Stocker enters the bridge and insists that the Enterprise must head to Starbase 10, but the captain reiterates his decision to stay in orbit until the investigation is over. He then leaves the bridge and uncharacteristically repeats his “maintain orbit” order to Mr. Sulu.
Captain James T. Kirk: Maintain standard orbit, Mr. Sulu.
Sulu: You already gave that order, sir.
Captain James T. Kirk: Oh? Well... FOLLOW it.
To Kirk’s chagrin, this little “slip of memory” isn’t simply a rare case of forgetfulness brought on by the stresses of command. In a matter of hours, almost every member of the landing party begins to age rapidly.
With the clock clearly not on their side, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the Enterprise crew must discover what killed the colonists on Gamma Hydra IV before it’s too late.
My Take: Written by prolific scriptwriter David P. Harmon (The Brady Bunch, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and Rescue from Gilligan’s Island) and directed by Joseph Pevney (Tammy and the Bachelor, Torpedo Run), The Deadly Years is a solid Star Trek episode that explores societal attitudes about aging, the pressures of command and the differences between officers who are still “on the field” and those who are now deskbound paper-pushers.
Because Star Trek: The Original Series only aired one multipart episode (The Menagerie, Parts One and Two), savvy viewers back in 1967 probably knew that, unless NBC suddenly canceled the show, the jeopardy faced by Capt. Kirk and his crew in this story is only temporary.
The teleplay follows the format set by series Gene Roddenberry: it poses the Enterprise crew with a tough situation – all of its senior officers actually become “senior citizens” and the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio must find a solution before the end of Act Five.
Here, the situation is quite tricky, and not just from the technical challenges of aging actors then in their 30s and 40s so that they look ancient. Apparently, series lead William Shatner disliked the idea of growing old so much that he balked at the notion of being made up to look old for the episode.
As Mike and Denise Okuda wryly note in The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future, “William Shatner reportedly threatened producer Bob Justman with bodily harm after enduring many torturous hours during the old-age makeup process. 'Who’s afraid of such a wrinkled, feeble old coot?' scoffed Justman, derisively. Nevertheless, Bob locked his office door and hid under his desk until the episode finished shooting.”
Obviously, Shatner was partly peeved about the drawn out makeup process, but he is also famous for his vanity. Shatner has admitted in interviews that he doesn’t like looking at his own photos from the past because he knows he no longer looks young.
Nevertheless, makeup expert Fred Phillips and hair stylist Pat Westmore – of the famous Wesrtmore family of makeup experts – do a terrific job of artificially aging Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley and the other actors who required the “elderly effects” look.
Costume designer William Ware Theiss also gets kudos for his ingenuity in creating oversized Starfleet uniforms to make the wearers look as though the aging process had shrunk their bodies.
As I said earlier, the episode makes a social comment about our cultural obsession with youth and good looks. It also looks at the difference between military officers who are in command grades (such as skippers of warships) and flag officers who have to think in terms of strategy, diplomacy and The Big Picture.
As The Deadly Years and other Star Trek stories state it, there’s an inevitable tension between men and women who are “the tip of the spear” of any military (or semi-military) organization and those who now have tours of duty in senior command HQ. Kirk, who in today’s U.S. Navy would be a “four striper,” is at the zenith of his field command career.
Only 36 in 2267, James Tiberius Kirk is fulfilling his “first, best destiny” as captain of a starship; operating far from, the reach of Starfleet Command, Kirk is a 23rd Century Horatio Hornblower. Part explorer, part diplomat and part soldier, the captain of the Starship Enterprise is essentially an independent representative of the Federation.
In contrast, Commodore Stocker is a good example of a deskbound flag officer. Only one rank level above Kirk, Stocker has either always been a bureaucratic-minded desk jockey. if Stocker was a starship captain in the past, he has now become ensnared in the rules-bound mentality of senior flag officers.
This is evident when Stocker, realizing that the entire command hierarchy of the Enterprise is suffering from the aging disease, takes charge of the ship during a tense situation which may end up starting an interstellar war with a Federation adversary. As familiar as Stocker is with Starfleet regulations, he turns out to be inexperienced as a tactical officer in a potential combat situation.
Though this is somewhat of a cliché in many movies or TV shows that are even faintly related to military, police or government agencies, the tension between the series regulars and guest actor Charles Drake’s character is nicely handled.
All in all, The Deadly Years is a good Star Trek episode which blends action-adventure storytelling with social commentary neatly “disguised” by its science fiction setting. Yes, it has a few clichés – Kirk’s quite busy love life comes back to haunt him again, and viewers will probably recognize the tension between battlefield commanders and rear area desk weenies – but Star Trek’s 40th aired show is entertaining and fun to watch anyway.