Where No Man Has Gone Before – First aired on September 22, 1966
When your best friend becomes a God, you would think that life would be pretty easy from there on out. Unfortunately for James R. Kirk….sorry, that’s James T. Kirk, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
As you may or may not know, this episode was the second pilot for Star Trek. I believe it is easy to see both why it was a great pilot that led to the show being picked up, as well as why it was not the right episode to air first.
The quick and easy answer to why this episode should not have and did not air first, is that it is lacking a proper introduction to Spock and McCoy. First of all, McCoy is not even in this episode, the role of the doctor was recast after this episode was made. It would have made no sense to start the series off without him and then introduce him later. The major reason that The Man Trap was such a great broadcasting pilot is that it gives a great all around synopsis of our three main characters and how they work together. With McCoy completely absent, and Spock a weirder, louder, more annoying, and more aggressive version of himself, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would have run the risk of starting the series off on the wrong foot.
This episode was, however,the perfect pilot to get the show picked up by NBC. While it may be lacking a major character, it does manage to capture everything that Star Trek is about. We begin this episode with the Enterprise en route to investigate a distress call from an old Earth ship that went to explore beyond the galaxy, much as the crew of the Enterprise intends to do. This might seem like a minor detail, but this premise sets the tone of this series as one of exploration, which, of course, is one of the core elements of Star Trek. I don’t feel that you get a good sense of this from “The Man Trap“ or “Charlie X“. One is focused on a monster and the other on a teenage boy. Sure aliens and novel worlds are involved, but we are talking about leaving the galaxy here!!! The first two episodes that were broadcast were great for drawing in new viewers, but it is this episode in particular that lets you know where this show is headed. Not only is the concept of going beyond the limits of our galaxy exciting and intriguing, but now that the series has been remastered on blu-ray, I am so happy that the gorgeous visual depiction of this voyage is now equally awe-inspiring.
They find out that the distress call is coming from what basically equates to a starship black box, it is a recording device that contains the final moments of this past Earth crew. It is around this time that we are introduced to Gary Mitchell. While Gary happens to be our main antagonist, he has an equally important role as Kirk’s best friend. When the Enterprise tries to break through the barrier at the edge of the Galaxy, Gary, as well as the ship psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner are zapped by a mysterious energy. Kirk, being the consummate ladies man, rushes to the aid of Dr. Dehner first. When he rushes over to check on Gary, we see Gary has acquired some creepy eyes which are accompanied by some eerie music as the image fades to black.
Kirk immediately becomes suspicious of his friend when he learns that the last thing the crew of the destroyed Earth ship investigated was ESP, and Gary just happens to have one of the highest ESP ratings on the ship, along with Dr. Dehner. Once Gary starts to display some very strange powers and begins to take over the ship with them, Kirk is faced with a very difficult decision. He must decide between the lesser of two evils. Either he can maroon Gary Mitchell on a backwater planet, Delta Vega, or, kill him before he becomes too powerful. Gary’s new-found powers have already corrupted him too much and caused him to start considering humans as lesser beings, at one point later on he even likens humans to insects. It is clear that even though Kirk would like to trust his friend and not harm him in any way, that this is not the same Gary he always knew.
Even though the upcoming Kirk vs. god-like Gary battle may seem like the ultimate conflict in this episode, I think it is Kirk’s decision here that provides the largest source of conflict. As I mentioned before, this episode is great because it shows us what Star Trek is all about, such as its fascination with exploration. In addition to that, Star Trek is also filled with gut wrenching moral decisions. I cannot begin to count how many times this same type of conflict has been used throughout the franchise; it is always different of course, but the basic premise persists. The captain must choose whether to save their ship and crew by doing something distasteful to them, perhaps even immoral, or, at great risk to their ship and crew, try and resolve the conflict without compromising their conscience. Kirk’s struggle with his decision is apparent, especially during his conversation with Spock where Spock calmly suggests the maroon or kill options. It is at this point that Kirk questions whether Spock has a heart, and, I think, begins to question his own humanity when he realizes Spock is right.
The wildcard that shakes everything up is when Dr. Dehner is revealed to have powers just like Gary, it just took longer for them to emerge. The character of Dr. Dehner is another reason why this episode was the perfect pilot to get the show on the air. Star Trek has always challenged social norms and pushed for greater equality among all people. By having such a strong woman character in this episode, Star Trek showed that it was willing to push boundaries. I think that concept has persisted throughout every incarnation of Trek, but TOS definitely had some of the most powerful ones, especially the first televised interracial kiss scene of a white man and a black woman, later in the series. While Dr. Dehner at first glance may not appear to be pushing many boundaries, consider the fact that if it had not been for her using her own powers against her kindred “esper” Gary, Kirk most likely would have died in the fight. While I was not around back then, I can imagine that for the 60’s, having a woman save someone as heroic as James T. Kirk would have been surprising. Of course, since it was the 60’s she could not save him outright, she was only able to do it because of the special powers she had acquired. Of course, the “this socially challenging event occurred only because of extreme circumstances” excuse is also a large part of Star Trek, and is a huge reason why they got away with doing these things and managed to not piss too many people off. Once again, a great thing to include in a pilot so the NBC execs wont be as worried about backlash from future challenging episodes. I must admit however, that there are times when I wish an episode would just confront an issue head on instead of using this technique.
Dr. Dehner’s betrayal of Gary in the final battle is significant beyond the empowered woman aspect. Gary, I thin most people can agree, is a lost cause at this stage. Unlike in “Charlie X”, we have a prime example of absolute power corrupting absolutely, Kirk even comes right out and says this at one point. While Gary shows us humanity at it’s worst (arrogant, genocidal, self-serving etc.), Elizabeth shows us humanity at it’s best. Even though she has been given the same powers as Gary, she is able to overcome the temptation to abandon her humanity in favor of becoming all-powerful. Though it costs Elizabeth her life, she gives us hope, hope that humanity can overcome any trial, even one as great as this. She helps fortify our belief in the strength of humanity, and of its innate goodness. I think that this, more so than any other topic, is what Star Trek is all about; the presentation of hope at the end of countless Trek episodes is what I think draws so many of us to this franchise. Ultimately, I think that hope was the main message Gene Roddenberry wanted to convey with his show. He is telling us that in the future, no matter what it may look like, or what hardships and trials we have to face, humanity will make it.
We even get a hint of hope from Spock at the end of the episode. After Kirk was forced to kill his best friend, he is talking with Spock and telling him that Gary was not completely at fault in all of this; he never asked for these powers to be given to him. That is why Kirk records Gary’s death as “in performance of his duty”. Spock, our cold, logical Vulcan, admits that he feels for Mitchell as well, to which Kirk responds, “I believe there’s some hope for you after all, Mr. Spock.”