I’ve been writing a lot about cellular immunology as of late, and in that spirit, I wanted to comment about one of my favorite Star Trek episodes of all time.
This episode captures a lot of the priceless dynamic between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, which was one of the very best things about that series. Not the technobabble, not the science-fictiony aspects, but the iconic relationships between the three main characters.
In this episode, the Enterprise crew investigates the fate of the USS Intrepid, a starship manned entirely by 400 Vulcans. Their search leads them to an expanse of space where the laws of physics have gone completely wonky, and a giant “amoeba” which dwarfs the Enterprise. Spock and McCoy fight over which one of them should risk his life to enter the giant organism and save the ship, which leads to some of the series’ most dramatic moments.
The scene where Spock and McCoy squabble, and where Kirk has to decide which of his friends he should condemn to death, captures both the adversarial and the compassionate natures of their relationships. When Kirk says, “I’m sorry, Spock,” and McCoy thinks this means that Kirk has decided to send him into the beast, it embodies their selfless disregard for their own welfare. And when Kirk and McCoy insist on saving Spock despite the increasing danger to their own selves—against the Vulcan’s protestations—it again shows their spirit of sacrifice and the value which they place on each others’ lives.
Now, for the scientific aspects… it’s odd that Spock and McCoy would refer to this mysterious organism as an “amoeba.” An amoeba, after all, is a very specific kind of unicellular organism. Your average Starship Captain might not know the difference between an amoeba and a protozoan, but the science officer and the chief surgeon should.
It’s also odd that McCoy would liken this organism to “a virus.” A virus, after all, is nothing but some nucleic acis (DNA or RNA) wrapped in a protein coat. In contrast, the organism in question was described as having protoplasm, and more closely resembled a bacterium. As a medical officer, Bones should have known the difference.
Oh, and why did McCoy complain that Spock botched the acetylcholine tests? Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter, and so this doesn't sound like a plausible test to perform on a giant protozoan. One may as well ask what types of cytokine the organism secreted. (Yes, I do know that the writers just wanted a scientific-sounding word to throw in there. Still...)
Bones also likened the Enterprise and its crew to antibodies, invading the giant pathogen. This makes him sound more like a layman than a scientist or physician, but since he was conversing with Kirk, perhaps it’s excusable. I wouldn’t expect him to talk about lymphocytes, cytokines, macrophages, immunoglobulins and the like, after all. Still, all these oddities definitely made it sound as though his dialogue had been written by people without a real scientific background—which was probably the case.
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