A few things are instantly recognizable as being quintessential Star Trek: Brightly-coloured jumpsuits, the Starship Enterprise gliding through space, and dubious alien makeup all come to mind. Another of the franchise's hallmarks is a little more subtle, and maybe even obscure at first. But when you see it, it's every bit as Star Trek as luxury space communism. It's an awkward, two-handed punch.The punch is the opening salvo of a scuffle in Star Trek: The Original Series that's known online as the "worst fight scene ever." Captain Kirk and an alien called Gorn circle each other and wrestle in slow-motion. It's a bit like watching paint dry, but it's also charmingly hokey. The move that starts the battle sets the campy tone: Kirk clasps his fists together and swings with both arms, hitting Gorn with the (I guess) mega-punch. It is ineffective. Kirk himself appears to be thrown off-balance by the effort. And, as legions of Star Trek fans have noted on the internet over the years, it looks rather silly.
Maybe the move looked cool in 1967, when the episode first aired. After all, the airwaves at the time were filled with homelier fare like The Andy Griffith Show and Bonanza. The punch continued to make appearances in later Star Trek entries: It's featured in the 1980s TV series The Next Generation, and throughout the 90s in Deep Space Nine. Its resilience has led to a ton of speculation among fans: Is the punch somehow an official element of Star Trek's mythos? It doesn't look threatening at all, so there must be some other reason that explains why it's so prominent."The punch takes away everything about a punch that makes it dangerous," Corey Erdman, a boxing analyst who hosts The Breakdown podcast on Showtime Sports, said over the phone. "By clasping your hands together, you're taking away your own torque and hip mobility. If you punch with one hand, you can have full force. If you clasp your hands together, it's going to be painfully slow."According to Erdman, the "double ax-handle," as the move is known, was prominent in early professional wrestling. It eventually fell out of fashion because it "looks ridiculous, even in the completely fantastical world of professional wrestling," he said.To find out why and how the punch became a long-running aspect of Star Trek, I reached out to stunt performers who worked on various entries of the franchise. Eventually, I found Dennis Madalone.
Madalone is an industry veteran who coordinated stunts for nearly 400 Star Trek episodes spanning The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. Recently, he coordinated stunts for the ABC series Castle. Madalone might be familiar to you even if you've never watched Star Trek. In 2002 he released a song dedicated to the 9/11 victims called "America We Stand As One." The saccharine music video became a viral hit and was branded the "scariest music video" in the press. Clearly, Madalone and his creations have a knack for being memorable, if not exactly chic.When I called Madalone in California, he was candid about Star Trek but less so about himself. He's "40-ish," he said, because he "doesn't count the Earth years." The Internet Movie Database says he was born in September of 1960, which would make him nearly 57.
The way Madalone tells it, there was very little oversight from the higher-ups on set regarding how fights should look. It was up to him. (This likely precludes the notion that there's some thought-through, in-universe explanation for the move.) Madalone was simply after something that looked uniquely Star Trek. He had a green light to do what he wanted, and he wanted to make the show's action look "futuristic," he said."When you're doing something in the future, you can't show the old cowboy punches," Madalone said, referring to the fighting style on Western TV shows. You know the move: The good guy leans back, winds up one arm, and lands a righteous haymaker. In contrast, Madalone said, "the double-hit looked modern, futuristic, and not barbaric."
That's not to say that Madalone is claiming to have invented the double ax-handle on television. He had inspiration, including the original 60s Star Trek series and Westerns. In other words, it's a relic of old-timey TV."It was something I saw as a kid—when I saw Kirk fighting back then, that was the one move that stuck in my mind," Madalone said. He saw the move on the 1960s TV show The Wild Wild West, he said. "That was a move that looked more realistic [for Star Trek] than the old cowboy punches, because those didn't work for me in any futuristic context." The punch looked like it could be from the past, he said, or from the future.There was a logic to the move's deployment on the show, if a subconscious one. A careful viewer may note that the ax-handle is often used to take out more powerful enemies. Kirk used it against the towering Gorn. Twenty years later in TNG, a young Captain Picard deployed it against a much larger alien. Major Kira from Deep Space Nine often used it against an alien race called the Cardassians, who are much stronger than humans.Madalone said that at the time he didn't necessarily think of the move as allowing small characters to take out bigger ones, but in retrospect it may have been used that way. In the more recent Castle, Madalone said he got the character Kate Beckett to use it in order to incapacitate physically larger opponents.Regardless, Madalone said he's under no illusions that the move would ever work in real life. "I don't think it's realistic at all, or that anyone would be in a fight and double-hit anybody," he said. "It's not a real thing, but it looks real in movies and TV. It's a cool move to see and watch."Clearly, not everyone agrees with Madalone on that last point, including many Star Trek fans who are frankly baffled by the punch's long-running legacy. But in terms of creating something that's now considered unique to the show's universe, something that feels out of time (if a bit confusing), there's no doubt he succeeded.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.