Where No Man Has Gone BeforeBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 3, 2005 - 11:58 PM GMT
See Also: 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' Episode Guide
Plot Summary: The Enterprise has traveled near to the edge of the galaxy, where the ship encounters a recorder from an Earth vessel that has been missing for two centuries. The recording reveals that the crew had become interested in extrasensory perception. When the Enterprise penetrates the galactic barrier to investigate further, two crewmembers - Kirk's friend Gary Mitchell and scientist Elizabeth Dehner - are struck by energy beams. Though other crewmembers die from exposure to the same energy, Mitchell quickly develops great mental powers, including perfect recall, the ability to move objects with only thought and the ability to read minds. He also begins to refer to crewmembers as "insects" while comparing himself to a god. Spock suggests that the captain should dispose of the defiant Mitchell before he becomes dangerous. On the uninhabited planet where the ship stops to make repairs, Kirk tries to strand his friend, who escapes from confinement and tries to kill Kirk. Dehner develops similar abilities, but is horrified by Mitchell's lack of compassion. She helps Kirk kill him and dies, drained of her powers.
Analysis: Even though it was not the first episode aired, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is in many ways the Ur-text for the original Star Trek. There are some significant omissions - Dr. McCoy and Uhura have not yet joined the crew, Sulu is not a bridge officer and wears blue, Lee has as significant a role in engineering as Scotty, and Spock's personality shows some striking deviation from what one might expect in later episodes - but there's also much that becomes familiar enough to be trademarked, like Kirk winning at 3-D chess, the library computer providing access to documents on the ship and Spock being accused of lacking human feeling. It also happens to be quite a riveting story, one of the best-paced episodes I can remember, with a superb balance of character moments and action sequences. It's easy to see why NBC picked up the show after this pilot.
Kirk has one of his toughest situations all series in "Where No Man Has Gone Before"; in fact, other than deciding the fate of his beloved Edith Keeler, the choice to betray and strand his best friend to protect his ship may be the most painful sacrifice he's called upon to make. Spock is placed in the position of playing heartless, unfeeling logic with a surprising vehemence: in a later episode I would have expected him to want to explore the scientific possibilities before reaching the conclusion that Mitchell had to be destroyed, back before he had even shown the inclination to use his powers for selfish purposes. The theme of the dangers of godhood comes up again and again in the original series, with characters from Charlie Evans to Vaal to Landru to the Squire of Gothos to Apollo to "God" from The Final Frontier having to be taken down - quite a different approach from The Next Generation and Voyager's flirtation with the quixotic Q, or Deep Space Nine's with the Prophets. In this storyline a major crewmember has such a deeply personal investment in the situation, watching a good friend develop into something he no longer recognizes, and because of that the story has particular poignancy.
It's hard to know what to make of this Spock who demonstrates confusion and conflict even though at this stage the viewer doesn't know he's only half-Vulcan. In a glorious early moment, he expresses disdain for "one of your Earth emotions" while smiling at Kirk! Kirk refers to the ship's computer as "Mr. Spock's computer" in a comment to Scotty, and it is quickly made apparent that he is the senior scientific officer, the one in charge of theory more than practical matters like medicine or engineering. For all the time Spock criticizes humans for engaging in speculation later on, we hear quite a bit of jumping to conclusions from him in this episode: he insists that the Valiant recording must be garbled when he hears the captain order the ship destroyed, and he concludes with alarming speed that Mitchell must be destroyed as well before Enterprise can suffer the same fate as the Valiant.
Kirk's friend Mitchell is somewhat simpler to understand immediately, necessary since this will be the only episode in which he appears. He reminds me somewhat of Enterprise's Trip Tucker, a guy who gets along with pretty much everyone, speaks in a casual and friendly manner to the captain and doesn't know what to make of the woman doctor he can't charm, so he makes snide comments while coming to terms with more serious possibilities. Mitchell is very interesting for what he brings out in Kirk...a sense of humor both picking on Spock and joking about shared revels, a discussion of the antecedents of the later legendary rakishness with women. For most of the episode Kirk doesn't have to exercise his authority as captain where Mitchell is concerned; he and Mitchell are friends who segue effortlessly into a captain who gives orders and a crewman who obeys them on the bridge, something we will later see with Kirk and Spock. This captain seems to need to have someone around with whom he doesn't have to be the captain, so when he finds himself having to exercise authority over an increasingly contemptuous Mitchell, he's at a loss how to go about it. This isn't like being a father figure to Charlie or being a Starfleet commander to Dr. Crater, this is his best friend.
The give and take in the briefing room is almost reminiscent of Picard and his crew rather than later original series episodes; whereas we often see Kirk taking advice only from Spock, McCoy and Scotty, here he has a team of officers all speaking in absolutes and debating very passionately, even Spock. When Dehner insists that Mitchell could be a forerunner of a new and better human being, everyone in the room stares at her, yet no one seems as shocked when Spock talks about Mitchell as an "it," saying their subject is not the man they know but what he is mutating into. He takes the scientific facts at his disposal and uses them to argue a case for which there isn't yet a lot of evidence, that Mitchell will soon be a threat to the ship and everyone aboard; Lee's evidence from engineering and Sulu's declaration that Mitchell's powers appear to be increasing exponentially rather than step by step all serve his argument.
The "science" of the ESP is quite fuzzy - Dehner offers a halfhearted definition early on in the episode and it is revealed that Starfleet keeps esper ratings on its officers, but it's not firmly established that this is science rather than pseudo-science in the 23rd century and hard not to laugh when Spock warns of people starting fires spontaneously. There's also no discussion of why there should be an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy nor why it would affect human neural pathways so strongly. Fortunately the emotional storyline itself, with seamlessly integrated plots where the need to repair the ship also offers an opportunity to deal with Mitchell, makes it possible to overlook the softness of this sci-fi concept.
"Where No Man Has Gone Before" was Gene Roddenberry's first effort (well, second, but no audience then had seen "The Cage") to show that science fiction could be far more than ray guns and evil aliens trying to take over the universe. Oh, he got the ray guns and the autocrats in there, but he also had a cast of characters representing all corners of the globe and some from other globes, tackling issues relevant to the era of his viewers. In this case those issues weren't ESP and super-humans but crew politics and the position of a leader caught between loyalty to a friend and subordinate versus the growing need to protect those for whom he is responsible. When Dehner begins to change, she tells Kirk that Earth is unimportant, that before long she and Mitchell will be where it would take mankind millions of years to get otherwise, and Kirk points out that without compassion it's all meaningless. That's the ethos Star Trek kept consistently as the Enterprise moved through the stars.
Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.