A Dimension of Mystery, TOS: S3E9 “The Tholian Web”

Space is a vast and endless mystery. In addition to what we can see, there are other forms of existence stretching beyond our capacity to imagine them. One of these is the possibility of surviving in other dimensions. Our brains belong in three dimensions, and experience consistently forward moving time. How would we withstand a timeless dimension? Can we live in one without depth, or one in which we exist as a single point? Does this Star Trek episode answer any of these questions? Well, no, but it proposes that getting close to an area of shifting dimensions would be weird enough.

While responding to a distress call from the Enterprise‘s sister ship, the Defiant, Kirk and crew find the ship adrift in a region of uncharted space. The crew is found dead, but it looks like they murdered each other. Even stranger, the ship begins to disappear around the away team, enabling them to reach through solid matter. The team beams back to the Enterprise, which is also experiencing difficulties, as the Defiant disappears entirely with the captain still aboard. Spock surmises that the Defiant vanished to another dimension overlapping this region of space, and matter can cross over during periods of interphase. This is convenient guesstimating considering how impossible it would be to fathom existence in another dimension, but we can take Spock’s word for it.

A weird alien race called the Tholians, looking more like origami dogs, contacts the Enterprise and accuses them of trespassing. Spock convinces them to wait long enough for the Enterprise to reappear, so they can rescue their captain. Meanwhile, other members of the crew are succumbing to the same rage madness which presumably doomed the Defiant crew. McCoy urges Spock to abandon Kirk and save the ship, as they are also being fired upon by Tholians, but Spock refuses. The Tholians then begin to weave an energy web around the Enterprise, making escape impossible.

The interesting premise of this episode is the combination of interdimensional travel and madness. It seems that the writers wanted to connect the two, implying that being so close to an interdimensional rift of some kind would cause madness. If dimensions were warping around me, I would lose touch of reality too, but does that translate into the kind of angry response exhibited by the crew? If the anger madness is related to their proximity to the dimension, why wasn’t the captain affected? He spent the longest period of time in the alternate dimension. It is possible that the psychological effects only occur around the anomaly’s ‘event horizon’ or the outer edge, however it is disappointing that the episode gives no explanation about what the anomaly is. We are instead offered some vague technobabble explaining how Kirk was retrieved. By pinpointing his next phase sight and locking onto him with a transporter, the Enterprise crew was able to save the captain and break out of the cage just before the hostile aliens finished their trap. The extra tension with hostile Tholians trapping the ship in a slowly building web was just added drama. It seems that the loss of the captain, madness of the crew, and dangerous area of dimension shifting space would be enough motivation to get out of there, but alas there is also a web.

In the end we’re left with more questions than answers, not knowing why the Tholians were so hostile, or why they took so long to build a web. I suspect this was related to the episode run time. It was not even clear if the madness was related to the interdimensional rift directly. There’s not much to say about this story, since Kirk and crew never determined what the dimensional rift was exactly. It may not even have an event horizon, the concept of which is related more to a black hole. Instead, the interdimensional rift could be something else entirely. If it were possible to travel to another dimension, one would have to ask if it could support life. Captain Kirk’s spacesuit must have protected him from the dangerous effects of the dimension, but what are these dangerous effects? Would it have a three-dimensional volume, or would it be like another universe, akin to an off-shoot of some multi-universe bubble? Space suits, like the one Kirk was wearing, provide oxygen and protect from the dangers of travel beyond Earth, such as extreme cold and radiation. However, oxygen molecules in the other dimension may not function the same way they do in our space, and a whole new type of radiation may bypass a spacesuit. There are still so many questions we have about the final frontiers of space and time, as curiosity coaxes us out of our familiar existence and into a web of interdimensional peril.

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