On its way through interstellar space, the Enterprise encounters a mysterious and undetectable planet. Lt. Sulu and Captain Kirk soon disappear from the bridge, and it is up to Spock and the extras to conduct a search of the planet’s toxic surface. But instead of a deadly atmosphere, the officers find the planet to be perfectly habitable; they soon encounter a castle belonging to a strange life form, calling himself ‘General Trelane’.
Trelane presents himself as a demi god figure, able to control the world around him at a whim. The Enterprise crew is both fascinated by his display of raw power, and desperately trying to escape his prison within the castle. A battle of the minds ensues between the child-like Trelane and his reluctant players. Kirk sacrifices himself to help the ship escape from the planet, culminating in a fight to the death on the castle grounds.
In the end, it was revealed that Trelane was no more than a juvenile of his energy-based species, and was given the planet as a toy by his parents. This gives the story a whole new perspective. From the crew’s point of view, Trelane’s identity and the extent of the danger were a mystery. The entire episode was spent trying to determine how powerful he was, the source of his power, and why he seemed to get things ‘wrong’. Knowing that he was a child puts a lighthearted spin on a seemingly dangerous predicament, because his behavior was technically normal.
Inventing and participating in games is a crucial part of childhood development. The young mind learns how the world works by taking part in simulations of real situations in a safe and playful setting. For example, playing ‘house’ is a domestic simulation which prepares children for the reality of running a household. In Trelane’s castle, the fire wasn’t hot and the food had no taste, because it was pretend fire and food. He was not strictly displaying ‘power without purpose’ as Spock conjectured, instead he was learning about his power. Kirk labeled him a ‘naughty boy’, but depending on his age, he was merely testing rules to learn more about how they work.
However, toward the end of the episode, the situation escalated as Kirk persuaded Trelane to turn his death sentence into a hunt for his life. Although this may not seem like an innocent childhood game, incorporating morbid aspects into play often helps a child understand frightening concepts such as death. Trelane’s parents intervene because he was not playing fairly with sentient beings. Indeed, the little boy Trelane wanted to bend the rules so he would always win the game, but his parents’ rules were the limits he could not break. It is up to children to test these bounds, and it is the parents’ responsibility to keep things from going too far.