Forging on with first contact despite an alien race’s unwillingness to participate is one area of debate for Starfleet officers, but perhaps the more interesting subject of this episode is the unique psychological punishment the trespassing Starfleet officers endured. Upon encountering an alien probe, Kirk and crew are greeted with a message addressed to everyone in their native language, owing to the telepathic nature of the aliens who made it. Kirk is not deterred in the slightest and barges straight onto the alien planet on a mission of peace and fuzzy boundaries. The aliens, making good on their original warning, sentence the Enterprise crew to an execution in the style of Kirk’s violent cowboy past.
This Star Trek themed western showed a more interesting aspect of the antagonist’s nature. The telepathic aliens, once made aware of human culture and human historical events through Kirk, orchestrated a scenario where the victims would be fully aware of their impending demise. The massacre at the OK Corral was senseless, violent, and historically well-known, making it a perfect form of punishment where the helpless victims move forward to a fate they know they can’t escape. Alternatively, the aliens could have put Kirk and crew on the Titanic, but then there would be absolutely nothing they could do to interact with the execution process. They might as well have been put in an electric chair. Having a scenario where the victims are given the illusion of choice, by forcing their participation, would add an extra psychological layer where the participants fight for their survival while convinced it is a no-win situation.
How far does the survival instinct persist when rational people must logically understand that their survival is impossible? Can the knowledge that a situation is impossible affect how far someone would go to fight for their survival? Fortunately, the crew didn’t have to reach that limit. The telepathic aliens broke their game the moment they let someone die who was known historically to have survived. It was at that point that Kirk and crew realized they were not doomed to play out an exact simulation of the OK Corral to the letter. This was likely the catalyst which revamped all hope and survival instincts for the crew, because there would have been no despairing over a hopeless situation. Was it sheer strength of the human will which kept the Enterprise crew going in the face of impossible odds, thereby challenging the concepts of fate, determination, destiny, and free choice? That would have been great, but instead Chekov just broke the simulation’s spell by accident when was shot too soon. Spock realized that Chekov’s ‘character’ was supposed to survive, and that’s when Kirk surmises that the events may not play out the way they did historically.
It’s interesting that the telepaths had let this happen, since it loosened their psychological grip on the crew. If they hadn’t gone ‘off script’ so to speak, it is possible that the crew would have gone into the arena assuming they were destined to die and therefore feel relegated to their fate. One break in the assumptions that the crew had about the simulation allowed them to smash the whole thing. However, Chekov’s death introduced a new layer into the psychological game. The Enterprise crew is understandably upset about their loss, and Kirk’s righteous anger, and his desire to avenge his deceased crewman now, make him a willing participant in the climactic battle. The depth of these psychological mind games is complex. It is possible that the aliens intended to kill Chekov so that Kirk would feel the righteous anger and revenge that would lead the Captain to his death. He was both trapped in a simulation and welcoming it. The cold and logical Spock saw through much of the alien manipulation, and took it a step further. Spock surmised that all of the simulation was an illusion, all the way down to the bullets being shot at them. Chekov only thought that he died in the simulation because he assumed the bullets were real. Just like how the probe was able to reach every person in their own language, the entire simulation was reaching the deadly assumptions in each person’s mind. When the Enterprise crew realized that the were essentially in the Matrix, they became bulletproof. It was, in a certain sense, a triumph of free will over determinism.