This is an iconic episode.
The Enterprise is mapping a new sector of space and runs into a space buoy that is meant to warn off outside ships from entering the space occupied by “The First Federation.” When the Enterprise attempts to evade the probe, it matches course and then begins emitting radiation that increases to a lethal level. Because of this Kirk orders the buoy to be destroyed by phaser fire. During this operation the young navigator Lt. Bailey is noticeably flustered by the situation and afterwards is rebuked by Kirk for his poor performance.
Later an enormous spherical star ship intercepts the Enterprise and captures it with a tractor beam. It scans the Enterprise’s structure and reads its memory banks. A harsh angry voice identifying itself as Balock the Captain of the Flagship Fesarius of the First Federation announces that because of the Enterprise trespassed into their territory and destroyed the buoy Balock would destroy the Enterprise in ten minutes. Spock manages to bring up an image of Balock on the bridge viewing screen which reveals a large fierce visage that fills the screen.
At this point Lt. Bailey becomes unhinged and starts shouting and berating his crewmates. Kirk relieves him of duty and sends him to his quarters. When Kirk consults with Spock as to a course of action Spock relates it to a game of chess where one player has overwhelmed the other and it results in checkmate with no recourse but defeat.
At this moment Dr. McCoy upbraids Kirk for treating Lt. Bailey so harshly and threatens to write a medical log blaming Kirk for the problem if he doesn’t relent. Kirk replies angrily that he won’t allow McCoy to bluff him into something he doesn’t want to do.
Suddenly Kirk has an idea. He looks at Spock and says the answer isn’t chess it’s poker. He will bluff Balock. Kirk informs Balock that all Earth ships are equipped with a substance called corbomite which has the property that if it is impacted with a certain level of energy, it reflects back that same level energy against the attacking ship thus destroying it too. Kirk then dares the alien commander to go ahead and attack. While the ten minutes is counting down Lt. Bailey returns to the bridge in a calm state and requests to return to his post which Kirk allows.
After the ten minutes expires Balock orders the Enterprise to prove that the corbomite device exists. Kirk refuses. Finally, Balock declares that the First Federation will tow the Enterprise to an earth-like planet, hold the Enterprise crew captive and then destroy the ship. But instead of the Fesarius a tiny vessel separates from it and tows the Enterprise away.
Kirk devises a plan to overload the engine of the small craft by running the enterprise engines into overload and hope that the small craft’s capacity is less than theirs. Barely short of the rupture of the Enterprise engines the smaller craft overloads its own engines and becomes inert. A distress signal from the small craft to the Fesarius alerts Kirk that its engines and life support systems have failed. And based on the weakness of the distress signal it is believed that the mother ship could not have heard it.
Kirk determines to transport into the distressed vessel with McCoy and Bailey to lend aid. When they reach the ship, they find that the creature they thought was Balock is a puppet and the real Balock is a being that resembles in size and appearance a four-year-old boy (actually played by Ron Howard’s brother Clint). He explains that he was testing their intentions and they passed. He offers them a beverage called tranya and asks if an exchange program can be worked out to allow the two peoples to learn about each other. Kirk asks Bailey if he’d like to volunteer and Bailey accepts Kirk’s suggestion gladly.
Okay, let’s talk about this episode. First as a story, it’s very good. The dialog is snappy and the plot moves along nicely. And there is a clever ending that you don’t see coming. Kirk’s idea of using poker instead of chess as the basis of his strategy plays up the difference between Vulcan thought processes and human. The lesson is that logic alone is not always the answer. Sometimes intuition and experience come into play.
The interplay of the characters is interesting and even the weakness of the Bailey character provides some human interest and a little redemption to the story. One fun bit of dialog is Kirk complaining to McCoy about having been assigned a female yeoman (Janice Rand) instead of a man and being heckled by McCoy about it. This was just after Janice had come into the Captain’s cabin and served him a salad for lunch on the orders of McCoy. Apparently, Kirk had put on a few pounds and needed a diet. So, on the first axis this episode is a 9.
On the mockery axis we have two areas of interest. Once again, they’ve got Kirk’s shirt off so we can view his slightly doughy torso. This is while he is getting a physical in sick bay. He’s lying on his back at a slight decline with his legs pumping against some spring-loaded blocks coming out of the upper area of the wall performing a cardio stress test. He looks utterly ridiculous. The ironic nature of this seemingly futuristic stress test is that behind the set wall there was probably a stage hand pushing back on the stepper blocks with his hands simulating resistance. And by the end of the scene Kirk is glistening with sweat. It might as well have been some gladiator movie from the fifties. The other mockable item is the enormous amount of fake quaking. Almost continuously during the time the ship is attempting to escape from the First Federation ship the crew on the bridge is vibrating as if the whole ship was shaking. And shots of the crew in the corridors of the ship show them throwing themselves against the bulkheads as if the deck were pitching underneath their feet. It looked quite absurd. But there really isn’t any wonderful Shatner over-acting. I’d have to call this episode a 6 on the mockery axis.
So, call it a 9//6. But that still makes it a must see.