22021 "The Practical Joker"

(airdate: September 21, 1974)

Writer: Chuck Menville
Director: Bill Reed

Enterprise Computer: Majel Barrett

Romulan Commander: Norm Prescott

Romulan crewman: Lou Scheimer

Stardate: 3183.3

Captain's Log: While completing an asteroid survey, the Enterprise encounters three Romulan warships which attack the ship. The Enterprise flees through an uncharted high energy cloud, but shortly thereafter the crew find themselves the victims of several practical jokes. The ship's computer was affected by the cloud, turning it into a practical joker, and the crew can't fix the problem. The computer turns the Enterprise around to play a trick on the Romulans, but Kirk is able to trick the computer into returning to the energy cloud, where the effects are reversed - and as the Romulans pursued the Enterprise into the cloud, they are now being affected by practical jokes and thus are no longer a danger to the Enterprise.

Whoops!: Both Uhura and M'Ress are wearing assignment patches with the sciences double circle instead of their more typical operations spiral.
     Spock being affected by nitrous oxide looks like it's going to be a significant plot point, but weirdly the whole subplot is cleared up during the ad break, leaving Kirk to comment at the top of the act about how the gas isn't a problem anymore. It's very odd.
     Why would going back into the energy field reverse the effect on the computer? It's not like going back into a rainstorm after you've gotten wet makes you dry again, so why would this be any different?

Library Computer: Near the Romulan Neutral Zone, in Federation territory, is a sector with a number of type 4 asteroids, including a large round red one. The Enterprise was assigned to survey these asteroids. Also in this sector was an uncharted energy field resembling a white cloud, composed of highly-charged subatomic particles. When the Enterprise and the Romulan warships passed through this field, their computer systems' circuits were affected by these subatomic particles, such that the computer began to play practical jokes on the ships' crews. These jokes included minor things such as leaky drinking vessels, food synthesizers that spat out excess amounts of food, and deck flooring coated with a sheet of ice, as well as major issues including trapping people in the Enterprise Rec Room in a snowy sub-zero environment, and seeking out enemy vessels to play practical jokes on them as well. [And, perhaps most memorably, printing the phrase "KIRK IS A JERK" on the back of Kirk's uniform tunic.] The affected computer was self-aware, willing to do things such as reverse the polarity of the artificial gravity (such that people were on the ceiling instead of the floor) in order to avoid being turned off. However, passing through the energy field a second time reversed the effect, returning the ship's computer to normal. [As noted in Whoops!, it's never explained why this works, nor why the Enterprise and the Romulan computers are affected in the same way. (Do Romulan and Federation computers operate on similar principles, either by accident or design/espionage?) One almost wonders if there was some form of entity inside the energy field that was just amusing itself after it found itself inside the ship, and which was forcibly returned to the field when the Enterprise passed back through.]
     Aboard the Enterprise is a room called the Rec Room, which is a large white room with a half-ring shaped console in the center of the room. This room can be programmed to create a number of different, seemingly real environments, including a beach with water, a forest, a snow-covered tundra, and a hedge maze. [It's not hard to see this as the precursor to the holodeck on The Next Generation et seq., although how the Rec Room actually works isn't mentioned here.] McCoy mentions that audio tapes are used for sounds in the Rec Room.
     Food synthesizers aboard the Enterprise are now operated by voice command (instead of the thick plastic cards they used to use).
     Nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) causes humans, Edosians (Arex), and Caitians (M'Ress) to begin to laugh. However, nitrous oxide has a deleterious effect on Vulcans, causing them to collapse.
     One of the Enterprise computer's practical jokes involved creating a balloon version of the Enterprise that was twenty times the size of a Romulan ship, in order to make them look foolish.
     The Romulans are still using Klingon D7-class ships ("The Enterprise Incident", "The Survivor"). According to Kirk, Romulans fear disgrace more than death. They claim that invasion of Romulan territory is punishable by death [although this might just be to cover up the fact they invaded Federation territory].
     McCoy and his fellow students used to play practical jokes in medical school involving trick glasses.

Final Analysis: "I believe our practical joker is the Enterprise itself." In some ways this feels like a precursor to a Next Generation episode, with a relatively minor threat from a malfunctioning computer taking center stage - and the proto-holodeck here only reinforces that feeling. Good, albeit lightweight, fun, even if the resolution doesn't make any sense.

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Page originally created: December 9, 2018
Page last updated: April 11, 2019

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