Captain Kirk’s “Obsession”

Photo by Stefan Cosma

Many consider the second season of Star Trek TOS to be its finest, and one of my favorite episodes from this season is “Obsession”, the story of Kirk’s desire to get revenge on “a strange gaseous creature” composed of dikironium that killed more than 50% of the crew of Kirk’s former starship, the USS Farragut, 11 years before. Granted, this is not one of the most popular episodes, but I love it because of the backstory about Lieutenant Kirk’s first encounter with the creature on Tycho IV. In the present day, Captain Kirk becomes convinced that the creature that has just killed several of his men on planet Argus X, more than 1000 light years from Tycho IV, is the very same one that he fought in his youth, and he blames himself for not killing it when he thought he had the chance.

Both McCoy and Spock think the captain is obsessed, and is endangering the ship with his high speed pursuit of the cloud creature in deep space. Personally, I don’t think Kirk is as far gone as McCoy and Spock suspect because he questions his own behavior in his log: “Have I the right to jeopardize my crew, my ship for a feeling I can’t even put into words? No man achieves Starfleet command without relying on intuition, but have I made a rational decision? Am I letting the horrors of the past distort my judgment of the present?” But as this was a personal log entry, Spock and McCoy never heard it of course.

Interestingly, one of the new crewmen on the Enterprise is Ensign David Garrovick, whose father was the captain of the Farragut during Kirk’s tour of duty. Captain Stephen Garrovick, a man Kirk greatly admired, was killed by the dikironium cloud, and Kirk feels great regret about that death. In the 2015 book The Autobiography of James T. Kirk, the captain tells his story of what happened on Tycho IV, and to the Farragut in orbit, something that many fans and professors like me have waited for since 1967 to finally read.

Lieutenant Kirk was assigned to the weapons department and writes: “‘Bridge, this is phaser control. All weapons show ready.’ As I said this, the monitor in front of me displayed what was on the bridge viewscreen. I saw the planet, but couldn’t make out anything else. Then I noticed what looked like one of the clouds in the atmosphere moving up into space. It was headed directly toward the ship. This was my target? A cloud? (I would find out later that this ‘cloud’ had attacked and killed our landing party, but at this moment in time, I had no idea what I was even looking at.) ‘Phasers, lock on target,’ Garrovick said. I immediately tied in the tracking system and brought the cloud into the center of my range finder. Sensors showed me the cloud was made out of dikironium. Its gaseous nature made it difficult for the computer to lock on it.”

The beginning of a traumatic experience follows: “‘Sir, I can’t get a definite lock,’ I said. It was moving much faster now, growing on the screen. ‘Fire phasers!’ Garrovick said. I looked at the cloud. It now filled the viewscreen. It was at point-blank range. I paused for just a second, tried to figure out what the hell I was even looking at. And then it was gone. I pressed the fire button, but it was too late. ‘Sir,’ Chief Metlay said, ‘something’s entered the main phaser bank emitter …’ What he said was technically impossible; only forms of energy could pass through the emitter. But before I could figure out what was going on, Metlay and Press were surrounded by white gas, leaking out of their consoles. There was the distinct odor of something very sweet, like honey. And then Metlay and Press immediately fell to the floor choking. I ran to my console. ‘Weapons control to bridge! It’s in the ship! Repeat, it’s in the ship! I’m sealing this section.’ Whatever this gas was, I knew I had to keep it from getting to the rest of the Farragut. I began to activate the locks on the emergency bulkheads to seal off the section. I was only about halfway done when the sweet odor got stronger. And then it was on me. It was as though I was drowning in a vat of syrup. I couldn’t breathe. I started to lose consciousness, and as I did, I heard something. It wasn’t a voice. It was in my head. ‘I will feed here …’” (pp. 103-105)

Despite what happened, Lieutenant Kirk acted properly and bravely at all times, and was praised for saving the ship by the executive officer, but nevertheless he blamed himself for not firing on time. 11 years later, when Kirk is captain of the Enterprise, the story unfolds, and both Kirk and young Garrovick become consumed with thoughts of vengeance against the creature. In Garrovick’s case, he wanted to destroy it after it killed his friend Ensign Rizzo on Argus 10. Later, it turns out that neither phasers nor photon torpedoes have any effect on the cloud, and after realizing this, Kirk finally forgives himself and Ensign Garrovick, saying “No weapon known would have made any difference.” Kirk and Garrovick later destroy the creature with a new weapon based on anti-matter, and all is well again. Both men realize that they are only human and therefore imperfect, and Kirk invites Ensign Garrovick to have a chat about what a great man his late father was.

The director of this episode was Ralph Senensky, and Mr. Senensky was kind enough to endorse my Star Trek class, the only one of its kind in Korea, and I am eternally grateful for that. Overall it is an excellent episode with good performances from all aboard, and some very effective scenes, especially the one in which McCoy and Spock confront Kirk about his obsessive behavior. Star Trek expert Marc Cushman likes the episode for the most part, except for the final act, and says: “‘Obsession’ is a clever spin on Moby Dick. It is taut and dramatic, with strong personal conflicts. Roddenberry had always seen Kirk as a futuristic Captain Horatio Hornblower. Here he becomes a 23rd Century Captain Ahab, as well. Using Moby Dick as a model, the action elements of the story are intentionally kept simple. The complexities of the material rest with the characters. Kirk and Garrovick are determined to punish themselves for not living up to their own impossible expectations. And this nature of guilt and human emotion is examined by the observations of a well-meaning and intellectually curious Spock, who tells McCoy, ‘I require an opinion. There are many aspects of human irrationality I do not yet comprehend — obsession for one, the persistent single-minded fixation on one idea.’ McCoy’s delightful reaction: ‘You want advice from me? Then I need a drink.’” (p. 413) Wonderful stuff!

Sadly “Obsession” does not receive much attention in the academic literature about Star Trek, and I hope this short article will encourage others to write more about it.


David A. Goodman. The Autobiography of James T. Kirk. Titan Books. Kindle Edition.

Marc Cushman; Susan Osborn. These are the Voyages – TOS: Season Two (These Are The Voyages series Book 2). Jacobs Brown Press. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.