First broadcast on November 3rd, 1966, the 9th Star Trek episode, “Dagger of the Mind,” takes its title from a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth – one of several Shakespearian references throughout Star Trek‘s long run and various incarnations.
Synopsis (from IMDB):
Kirk and psychiatrist, Helen Noel, are trapped on a maximum security penal colony that experiments with mind control and Spock must use the Vulcan mind-meld to find a way to save them.
As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I studied Sociology with an emphasis on law, criminology, and deviance. So with that in my background, watching a Star Trek episode that looked at the philosophies of punishment and corrections, I quickly found a lot to love and a lot to dig into.
According to Dagger of the Mind, the universe of Star Trek has established prisons as penal colonies. In the particular colony where this story takes place, a man by the name of Dr. Adams has revolutionized prison theory and the Federation’s systems of punishment and corrections. As Kirk explains, “Dr. Adams has done more to revolutionize, to humanize prisons and the treatment of prisoners than all the rest of humanity had done in forty centuries” These methods, however humane they may seem, are not without contention.
“A cage is a cage, Jim.” – Dr. McCoy
Dagger of the Mind premiered at a very timely period of national discourse relating to prisons and prisoner’s rights. The 1960s marked the beginning of the Prisoner’s Rights movement in the U.S., with prisoners taking cues and language from the Civil Rights movements in an attempt to demand better treatment. From about 1960-1980, prisoners incessantly challenged every aspect of prison policy and programs through civil rights suits in federal courts all across the country. This movement directly influenced the judicial branch to abandon their ‘hands-off’ approach to incarceration, and began limiting the powers of congress and the executive branch in this regard. While prisons and prisoners saw dramatic increases in the quality of living and treatment during this time, the movement and reforms hit a plateau during the 1980s, under the ‘tough-on-crime’ President, Ronald Reagan. Since then, the issue has become overly politicized and too politically dangerous for officials to attempt reforms.
Dr. Adam’s prison in Dagger of the Mind seems quite tranquil and humane from the outside. However, once inside, Kirk and Dr. Noel find that the staff employ some very questionable techniques through the power of suggestion. Using a device called the neural neutralizer, Dr. Adams discovered a method to forcefully implant thoughts and feelings into a prisoner’s mind, taking away the ability for them to think freely for themselves (which he uses to force Kirk to fall in love with Dr. Noel). The process is an extreme parallel to the entire concept of incarceration – the restraint on an individual’s external liberties, specifically our freedom of locomotion. While Kirk and Dr. Noel are stuck on the planet, Spock debuts his Vulcan Mind Meld technique to read the mind of an escaped prisoner (a man ultimately revealed to be a former doctor on the planet who opposed the experiments), to discover the true danger that Dr. Adams presents.
The Prisoner’s Rights movement gave way to a larger socio-philosophical question to the societal norms in our prison systems: should we look at incarceration just as punishment or as an opportunity for rehabilitation? Rehabilitative efforts surged in the 1970s and even continued through the 1980s despite decreased popularity, however the effort was effectively killed during the presidential election of 1988 due to the Willie Horton Scandal (which also aided in the untimely death of Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign). While participating in a weekend furlough program, Horton abused his privileges and twice-raped a local woman, assaulted her fiancé, and stole their car. He was ultimately recaptured and sentenced to two life sentences, however, the issue became a significant talking point for George H.W. Bush and the Republicans – especially since the incident happened in Michael Dukakis’ home state of Massachusetts, through a program supported by Democrats. If public opinion on rehabilitative programs hadn’t already shifted during the Reagan administration, any support they might have had went down with Dukakis’ failed presidential bid.
The neural neutralizer on Dr. Adams’ prison planet seems to resemble the rehabilitative efforts in a post-prison-rehabilitation society such as our own. It appears humane on the outside, but truly serves as the forceful removal of certain rights and liberties. As the topic of prison reform is scary to the public, it’s even scarier to our leaders – we want the peace of mind that prison is humane, yet we really don’t want to know what is truly going on.
The techniques used in Dagger of the Mind remind me of modern efforts toward chemical castration, and other medical procedures to reduce crime and criminal behaviors. Chemical castration has become controversial and is seen to some as cruel and unusual punishment. However, the issue is of course not as black and white as the one presented in Dagger of the Mind. Despite contention, a prevailing question is, can chemical castration, when offered as a choice instead of incarceration, actually be seen as more humane? On the flip side – referencing Dr. Adams’ suggestive techniques – if offered, could this option be seen as less of a “choice,” and more so as a “strong suggestion,” without much regard for the individual’s true desire?
Dagger of the Mind opens up an entire can of worms when it comes to prison and rehabilitation commentary, much of it is years ahead of its time. What I described here barely scratches the surface of the complex moral debates and history of prison reform and prisoner civil rights. Today we are at a political standstill when it comes to prison reform. But with mass incarceration across the country, unnecessary sentences for petty drug crimes, the “War on Drugs,” and the exploding costs of not only keeping prisoners but the death penalty as well, we are long overdue for increased public discourse on this topic.