Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Where No Man Has Gone Before

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original air date: September 22, 1966

Crew death count: 12 (is this a record?)

Bellybuttons: 0 (but Kirk’s uniform is damaged enough to get our hopes up!)

“Where No Man Has Gone Before” was intended to be the TOS pilot (the famous second pilot, after NBC rejected “The Cage”) but ended up chosen as the third episode to air. There are some obvious continuity issues, as uniforms, set designs, cast, etc., changed over the course of the first few regular season episodes produced. Others have written extensively about continuity, so I’ll largely ignore it here, although I do prefer the later Enterprise interior over this one. Also, I understand there are logistical questions about Delta Vega’s location relative to the galactic barrier, etc., and I don’t care. As I pointed out in my introductory post, TOS, and 1960s episodic television in general, wasn’t burdened by the nit-picking and long-story-arc obsession we endure today.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
This episode opens with the Enterprise making contact with the long-lost earth vessel SS Valiant near the edge of the galaxy. We have a lovely scene of Kirk and Spock playing 3D chess in the recreation room (Spock seems surprised at encountering an “earth emotion,” though he would surely have observed a lot of this by now) and watching the bridge on a flat screen monitor. TOS surprises me occasionally with these creatively composed shots. Mr. Scott also makes his first appearance in this episode. When the Enterprise seeks the cause of the Valiant’s destruction, the ship passes through the barrier at the edge of the galaxy that causes the deaths of nine crew members and injures several, including helmsman Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) and psychologist Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman). The result is that Mitchell, and later Dehner, develop powers that quickly spiral out of control.

One continuity issue I do feel worth noting is the crew uniforms. Specifically, the women are wearing pants like the men, not the micro-mini-skirts of other episodes. Apparently someone at NBC, after seeing both “The Cage” and this episode, wanted more revealing outfits for the female cast members. Nichelle Nichols has been quoted as not objecting to the length of the skirts because it was not substantially different from what she wore in her personal life and “it was the era of the miniskirt.” In fact, miniskirts had become popular among the general public in the early 1960s, and had already been featured in science fiction films like Forbidden Planet (1956) and Flight to Mars (1951). Models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were wearing them. The miniskirt and other fashion trends of the time were a way for young people to distinguish themselves from their parents. The slacks featured in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” are a sign of gender equality, but the miniskirts of other episodes more clearly reflect the time in which the show was produced.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode

This leads us to the psychiatrist Dr. Dehner. Despite my non-interest in continuity, it would have been nice to know the ship had a psychiatrist in “Charlie X.” However, Dehner’s introduction gives the impression her role on the ship is temporary, as she is primarily there “to study crew reaction in emergency conditions.” And our hope for gender equality quickly goes out the door when Mitchell initiates a bizarre exchange about “improving the breed” and calls Dehner a “walking freezer unit.” We can at least take comfort in watching Dehner stand up to Mitchell, and Mitchell does apologize for the “freezer” remark later.

Yet Dehner herself says, “Women professionals do tend to overcompensate.” Weren’t they generally expected to overcompensate in the 1960s, thanks to the widely-held perspective that parenthood and career were mutually exclusive life paths, and being held to a higher standard to prove their worthiness to male colleagues? It’s a sign of short-sighted writing, however, projecting racial equality to be normal in the 23rd century while gender equality would still be debatable. It should be no surprise that Kirk appeals to Dehner to confront Mitchell’s final, omnipotent rampage. Of course, it’s the woman who should disrupt her own rise to power because the man can’t be reasoned with, though in this case we’re grateful she agrees to it. Even more troublesome is an apparent assumption that the women-folk need their hands held through stressful times. As the Enterprise approaches the barrier, Mitchell reassures Yeoman Smith (whose sole duty appears to be “standing”), and, barely visible in the background, Scott takes hold of Dehner’s hand.

Screen shots of bridge from Star Trek episode

It’s hard to evaluate crewman Mitchell’s behavior at the beginning of the episode without being overshadowed by our knowledge of his outcome. We know Kirk isn’t lacking in confidence, but he still experiences self-doubt and clearly feels the weight of life-or-death decisions. With Mitchell, I immediately sense a level of arrogance generally lacking in empathy. Was it inevitable that Mitchell would be empowered by the barrier-crossing? There’s an obvious “absolute power corrupting absolutely” moral to this episode (Kirk says exactly that near the end). This is universally true, but we also know that certain personalities are more likely to seek power, leading to a vicious cycle of growing influence over others with declining empathy. Also, does Mitchell’s arrogance correlate with his relatively high ESP rating, the same rating that corresponds with the development of his abilities?

We learn that Mitchell and Kirk attended Starfleet Academy together, where Kirk was also Mitchell’s superior. Kirk and Mitchell don’t seem the close friends reviews often describe them as being. Mitchell even hints at some resentment over Kirk not giving him an easier time in their academy days. Is holding a grudge over perceived insults perhaps another clue to a power-seeking personality? (One thrilling anecdote, Mitchell mentions setting Kirk up with a “blond lab technician” who Kirk almost married. Carol Marcus?!? Kirk’s and Marcus’ son David in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was played the late by Merritt Butrick, who was born 7 years before this episode aired; allowing for an equivalent passage of time in the show, the timing is reasonable. That would be the most brilliant setup in television history.)

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
ESP reports for Dehner (left) and Mitchell (right); note Mitchell’s ancestors have a history of “metaphysical studies” and “spiritual readings”

ESP (extrasensory perception) is accepted as fact in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” as least as a quality that exists in trace amounts in a certain percentage of the population (Spock calls it “normal ESP power”). Dehner tells us early on that she scores relatively high for ESP (a precursor to TNG’s empathic Counselor Troi?). We learn that the nine crew members who died when the Enterprise crossed the galactic barrier had parts of their brain “burned out,” and also had high ESP ratings, while Mitchell has greater ESP abilities than anyone else on board. By the 1960s, ESP was not widely accepted by the mainstream, but a lot of people were still giving it serious thought. The CIA began mind control research in the 1950s (research that later led to the Stargate Project, which included ESP studies) and the Parapsychological Association was established in 1957. The Maimonides Dream Laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn opened in 1961, conducting research into telepathy, precognition, and other psychic “abilities.” The Foundation for Research On the Nature of Man, home to the Institute for Parapsychology and Parapsychology Press, was established in 1965.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
“Starfleet offers universal coverage, right?”

Recovering in sickbay (really testing out powers he has developed after passing through the galactic barrier), Mitchell has suddenly become a voracious reader. He specifically mentions Spinoza, who he dismisses as childish. He’s presumably referring to the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), who equated God with Nature and believed that events are driven more by cause and effect than human free will. The Jewish Spinoza was the subject of a writ of herem, a type of censure, from the Jewish community for his writings. Hardly shocking that Mitchell would reject such a philosophy, despite the possibility that his actions may be more impulsive than he realizes. I haven’t read what Gene Roddenberry felt about such matters, but considering that Star Trek is almost entirely about people choosing to do good in difficult circumstances, I’m guessing he would side with Mitchell for different reasons.

Man Has Gone Before
“Didn’t anyone think to bring doughnuts?”

As with past episodes, here we have another fine example of collaborative decision-making. During the conference room scene with Kirk, Spock, Scott, Sulu, Dehner, and Dr. Piper (present only for the two pilots before DeForest Kelley was cast as Dr. McCoy), Kirk claims a duty “to listen to the reports, observations, even speculations” on any subject that might affect ship’s safety. (Oddly, Piper, the ship’s physician, remains silent.) Scott describes unexplained manipulation of bridge controls, which Spock connects to Mitchell. Dehner defends Mitchell, describing him as a “mutated man…the forerunner of a new and better kind of human being.” This creates an additional level of conflict. Mitchell was (sort of) Kirk’s friend, and he appears to have been a valuable member of the crew. Now, Mitchell has become exactly what the Enterprise exists to seek out – a new life form.

Privately, Spock urges Kirk to either strand Mitchell on the nearby uninhabited mining planet Delta Vega or kill him before he becomes too powerful. As with “Charlie X” and “The Man Trap,” Spock views life as he would a chess game, where sacrificing one piece is a common strategy to win the larger game. This scene also gives us more insight into Kirk’s leadership ability, when he tells Spock he expects specific recommendations from his officers, not “vague warnings.” I’ve heard numerous business managers make this exact statement.

Screen shot of Star Trek episode
“Man cannot survive if a race of true ESPers is born.”

Soon enough, Mitchell thinks of himself as a god and joins forces with Dehner, who by now demonstrates her own super abilities. Did Dehner’s power take longer to appear because her ESP is less advanced than Mitchell’s? Or (gasp) because she’s a woman? There’s a fair amount of god talk in this episode, but it mostly comes across as equivalent to discussing Greek or Roman mythology, rather than the monotheistic god of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Mitchell and Dehner both demonstrate the classic 1%-er mindset as their power grows, abruptly deciding that their own whims take priority over humanity. Kirk reminds us that “a god needs compassion,” that power requires the wisdom to use it properly. (It’s intriguing that Kirk seems to use “wisdom” and “compassion” interchangeably. Or perhaps the intent is that compassion is one outcome of wisdom.) An even more important message comes when Kirk says that even with unlimited power, Mitchell will still have the imperfections of a human. Power alone does not correlate with perfection. Mitchell goes so far as to demand that Kirk pray to him, with Kirk describing Mitchell as “a jealous god.” Consider the god of the Old Testament, where four of the ten commandments require worship of God and his Sabbath to the exclusion of all others. Why does power so often lead to an expectation of tribute from others?

It occurred to me that Spock is now three-for-three in advising a sacrifice for the safety of the ship. In “Charlie X” the antagonist was vanquished, and in “The Man Trap” and this episode the antagonist is killed in self-defense. Both here and in “Charlie X,” Spock’s logic is offered as comic relief in 3D chess matches with Kirk, demonstrating that Vulcan logic (or, really, just plain logic) is no match for a human’s outside-the-box thinking. It’s a nice affirmation but demonstrates a philosophy that bugs me in both TOS and TNG. Spock’s long-term character arc is to become more human, as is Data’s in TNG. We accept without question that this is an improvement in both characters. It’s so rare in Star Trek that we humans admit our imperfections and strive to become more like others. It’s a human-centric approach at the foundation of both Star Trek’s compassion and its vanity.

When Kirk and a landing party force Mitchell onto the aforementioned Delta Vega, the plan is to repair the Enterprise (damaged when it passed through the galactic barrier) and leave Mitchell behind when they depart. Dehner takes Kirk aside to confirm they are the only souls on the planet. Kirk’s response? “Nobody but us chickens, Doctor.” It’s certainly a reference to Louis Jordan’s 1946 song “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.” The song was inspired by a 1908 anecdote from Everybody’s Magazine, in which a confronted chicken thief tries to throw off suspicion by saying, “Nobody here ‘ceptin’ us chickens.” It’s an odd choice but clearly expresses Kirk’s guilt at abandoning a Starfleet officer with whom he has a long history.

Screen shot of Star Trek episode
Kirk Fu!

Thematically, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” overlaps considerably with “Charlie X” and the later episode “City On the Edge of Forever”: “Charlie X” because of the ease with which power can fall into the wrong hands, and “City On the Edge of Forever” because of the necessity of sacrifice. Exploring the unknown isn’t safe or easy. Just as Kirk will later have to sacrifice his true love to save the galaxy, he now has to sacrifice his colleague for the same reason. And while Kirk’s killing of Mitchell is forced as an act of self-defense, the pain of that sacrifice is still real. Late in this episode, Mitchell tells Kirk, “Man cannot survive if a race of true ESPers is born.” He’s signaling that he knows of Dehner’s developing powers, and he must assume that two such superbeings will inevitably join forces. He’s also expressing the reality that a race of such godlike individuals would leave no room for humanity, either through literal destruction or enslavement. In 1911, the sociologist Robert Michels wrote about his theory of the iron law of oligarchy. He argued that all large democratic organizations, including nations, would, by virtue of their size, tend toward a division of labor that results in a ruling class more concerned with preservation of power than serving the greater good. The rise of such a ruling elite must be as threatening in the 23rd century as it is today, and always to be guarded against for fear of certain doom.

In the end, Kirk asks forgiveness not of the new god, but of the man Mitchell. We ask forgiveness from a god out of necessity created by an imbalance of power. Asking forgiveness of each other is a choice, a gesture of caring, and in a Federation that prioritizes life above all else, how people care for one another reflects the most important choices individuals can make. And aren’t those the kinds of choices we should be making here in the 21st century?

Next: The Naked Time