William Windom, Matt Decker, and the Doomsday Machine
My geek credentials are flying high with this one, but I really don't give a damn.
Veteran character actor William Windom died this weekend at the age of 88. Anyone who watched television in the 60s, 70s, and 80s should be familiar with Windom, who guest-starred in innumerable programs and won an Emmy in 1970 for the lead role in his own show, My World and Welcome To It. He was also an accomplished stage actor, a champion chess player, and a paratrooper who served in World War Two.
Sci-fi fans are quite familiar with Windom, for his memorable role as the doomed Commodore Matthew Decker in the original series Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine." This is my favorite episode of the series, for several reasons. Scripted by criminally-underrated sci-fi novelist Norman Spinrad, this episode was produced early in the show's second season and was written as a "bottle show," designed to save money by using existing sets and a single guest star.
The 1967 special effects were primitive (although this issue was fixed in CBS's 2007 re-master), but the episode holds up today for suspense, tight scripting, excellent directing, sharp editing, and a terrific original musical score. The acting is very strong as well, with Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, and James Doohan all at their best. Even William Shatner kept his overacting to a minimum in this episode.
What really makes the episode work is Windom.
Spinrad originally wrote the character with actor Robert Ryan in mind, but Ryan was unavailable and Windom was cast instead. At first written as a hard-as-nails type, the character was softened when Windom took the role. Spinrad himself has said that he felt the softer Decker weakened the tension of the episode, but I think it actually helps make Decker more sympathetic.
The episode opens with the Enterprise picking up a garbled distress signal from one of her sister ships, Constellation. Trailing the signal, Kirk and crew discover a series of destroyed solar systems. They eventually find Constellation: a battered hulk with burned-out engines, large chunks blasted out of the hull, a wrecked bridge, and barely functional life-support system.
Beaming aboard, Kirk and the damage control party led by Scotty find that the phaser banks are exhausted, the warp drive is a "pile of junk," and that the ship's air filtration systems are not operating. This latter point is important: while the ship has atmosphere, without the filtration system the air supply would quickly go bad with a full crew aboard.
But there isn't a crew. There aren't any bodies either, but as Kirk notes, there are no signs of surprise, no "half-empty cups of coffee." Whatever happened, the crew had warning, and they had fought their ship to the end.
Making their way to auxiliary control to recover the ship's log tapes, they find Constellation's commander: Commodore Matthew Decker. In naval history, a commodore is a squadron commander, a one-star flag officer (nowadays called Rear Admiral-Lower Half), one step above captain, making him Kirk's superior officer. Decker is a veteran starship commander and Kirk obviously respects him.
Decker is catatonic at first, but after McCoy revives him with a stimulant, Decker relates a tale of a giant planet-destroying superweapon which crippled his ship. Unable to call for help, with no power for weapons, no warp drive, and the failed filtration system, Decker beamed his crew down to the third planet of the star system in a futile attempt to save their lives. The weapon continued to attack, knocked out the Constellation's transporters, then consumed the planet and his crew while Decker watched helplessly.
Decker doesn't come across as an incompetent commander by any means. His voice on the Constellation's log replay is that of a firm, confident man. I've seen some commentators criticize Decker's decision to beam the crew down, but they ignore the point in the script about the air filtration system being non-functional. Based on the knowledge that he had at the time he beamed the crew down, if they had stuck with the ship, they would have either suffocated due to lack of air filtration, or died under the machine's continued attacks.
But the machine had apparently lost interest in the Constellation after eating the third planet. You can see the "what ifs" and "if only's" going through Decker's mind the rest of the episode. Maybe if we had stuck with the ship, we could have held out long enough for help to arrive...maybe we could have gotten filtration operational again...maybe my crew didn't have to die.... "A commander is responsible for the lives of his crew, and for their deaths," he says later. "Well, I should have died with mine."
To make a long story short, Decker and McCoy go back to Enterprise while Kirk and the damage control team prepare Constellation for towing. The planet killer returns, attacks the Enterprise, knocking out her communications and transporter. With Kirk isolated and out of touch, Decker pulls rank on Spock, takes command, and launches a suicidal attack on the machine. Scotty manages to get the Constellation's damaged sublight impulse drive operational and recharges a phaser, which Kirk uses to distract the machine and save the Enterprise from destruction following Decker's ill-advised and ineffective attacks.
Communications are eventually restored. Kirk backs up Spock, who retakes command from Decker and orders the distraught commodore to Sickbay for treatment. Decker hatches a plan however: he knocks out his security guard, steals a shuttlecraft, and launches a kamikaze attack, piloting the shuttle down the maw of the machine. Noting that the shuttle explosion caused a small amount of internal damage, Kirk decides that Decker had the right idea, but not enough power to pull it off. He has Scotty rig Constellation's balky, barely-operating impulse engines to explode, then pilots the wrecked starship down the maw of the machine, which is disabled by the subsequent explosion. A transporter malfunction and last-second beam-out (well-acted in an understated way by Shatner and punctuated by Sol Kaplan's Jaws-like musical score) provides an effective cliffhanger.
There are all kinds of wonderful touches in this episode.
**Windom plays Decker like a combination of the obsessed Captain Ahab from Moby Dick and the neurotic Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny. Many commentators have noticed Decker fiddling with his data tapes in a Queeg-like manner. Apparently the tapes were Windom's idea, but there is some really good symbolism here beyond the Humphrey Bogart homage.
One of the data tapes is gold, the same color as Decker's uniform, while the other is an olive green, the same color as the unusual "casual" uniform that Kirk wore in this episode and a few other shows in the second season. The colors of the tapes he is fiddling are symbolic of the struggle between Decker and Kirk over command of the situation. That's some nice thinking by Windom.
**At times, Decker is forceful and commanding and appears very comfortable as a starship captain. Windom has a strong military bearing in some scenes, with small-non-scripted-but-significant touches like glancing briefly at the navigational plot before giving course orders. At other times, he's obviously a grief-stricken obsessive destroying himself with guilt and willing to take the Enterprise down with him.
**The interplay between Decker, Spock, and McCoy when the commodore seizes command is just wonderfully written and acted, likewise the scene when Decker is finally relieved. Even the fight between Decker and the redshirt security guard is fun: it's an actual fight using what looks like a futuristic form of martial arts.
**A couple of subtle historical touches in Spinrad's script. The Constellation's science officer was named "Masada," a reference to the Seige of Masada, a "last stand" fight of the first century AD between Roman soldiers and Jewish rebels who committed suicide. Secondly, when the episode was produced, the production staff had yet to establish background such as the names of Star Fleet ships, leaving this to the writers. Constellation was a very logical choice by Spinrad to be a sister of Enterprise, the name being borne by several famous US ships including two frigates and an aircraft carrier.
Everything worked in this episode.
In later years, Windom said that he didn't really enjoy the role or take it seriously, but he sure put a lot into it. He plays it exactly right.
I wish I could have seen his James Thurber show or the various stage productions. If "The Doomsday Machine" performance is what William Windom could do when he wasn't really trying, he must have been one hell of an actor indeed.