Friday, September 10, 2010

"Where No Man Has Gone Before;" Science Fiction Camp Returns With "Star Trek's" Second Pilot!

The Good: Concept, Sense of dilemma, moments of character
The Bad: Acting is already over-the-top in many scenes, Acting does not match characters for the series
The Basics: Star Trek gets a second chance by the network with a tale of a man who becomes a god, once again proving absolute power corrupts absolutely.

"If at first you don't succeed, try try again," appears to have been the mantra of Gene Roddenberry when creating Star Trek. It also seems to be the mantra of those desperately trying to revitalize the franchise. With this, the second pilot to Star Trek, the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is presented with a balance a bit different from how the series ended up. So, for example, Sulu is in the episode as a physicist, not a helmsman. And while Spock is in the episode, he is solely the science officer. Gary Mitchell is the first officer.

Why the devotion to this obscure episode of Star Trek? Despite where the series (and the franchise) went, this is a clear beginning to the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Sure, it might not be the first adventure, but it's early on. The uniforms are closer in style to the outfits from "The Cage" and the relationship between Kirk and Spock is not there yet. Kirk is best friends with Gary Mitchell and Spock is, at best, his chess partner and First Officer. They two have a much more formal relationship than the "good old boy" mentality shared between Mitchell and Kirk.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is exploring the galaxy when it recovers the ship's recorder from a destroyed Federation ship, which reveals that the ship was destroyed by powerful forces the crew could not explain. The Enterprise, exploring the edge of the galaxy and a barrier that can be found there, attempts to pass through the barrier, but is violently repelled. In the attempt, First Officer Gary Mitchell and Dr. Elizabeth Dehner are knocked unconscious by powerful bolts of energy. They awaken and Mitchell soon begins to exhibit extraordinary powers and a trend toward insubordination. Dehner and Spock realize that Mitchell had an extraordinarily high esper rating (predisposition toward ESP) and he is evolving into a godlike creature. Eager to stop Mitchell before he becomes an unstoppable danger to the crew, Spock recommends killing him, but Kirk decides to do the humane thing; isolate him on a nearby abandoned planet. Unfortunately for Kirk and the Enterprise, Mitchell's powers continue to grow extraordinarily and he begins to resist . . .

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" does quite a bit right, even if it is mostly campy. The episode has a decent sense of pace, so it does not plod along, even as the characters become preoccupied with the moral dilemma surrounding Mitchell and his sudden evolution. There is a nice mix of adventure, dialogue and mayhem. Overall, the episode works.

Indeed, one of the refreshing aspects of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is that the show is concerned with the moral implications of the changes and focuses strongly on Captain Kirk's character. Kirk is caught in the unenviable position of finding the person he is closest to in the galaxy turning into a creature that cannot be controlled and may be impossible to kill. Kirk wants to believe in the inherent goodness of his friend and his strength and decency, but soon discovers that absolute power corrupts. The emphasis on saving or working to understand Mitchell and his transformation pulls "Where No Man Has Gone Before" out of the Western serial that had dominated television at the time. Kirk (a least in this episode) does not shoot first, ask questions later. Instead, he is deeply concerned with doing the humane thing.

The problem with the episode is that it doesn't work in the context of the series with a few of the important character moments. Kirk is generally humane throughout the series, but he becomes more of a soldier in other episodes. This can work in context with the idea that Kirk's reaction to his best friend's plight might make him react differently than when, say, he is interacting with Klingons.

But clearly the concept behind Spock is still being worked out when this episode was created. Spock is dictated by logic, but he illustrates emotions throughout the episode. It's problematic for those who know what Vulcans are supposed to be, but will probably be more accessible to general audiences. They might just wonder what's with his ears. They also are less likely to notice the absence of Dr. McCoy.

In many ways, the episode works because it is about transformation and despite the character irregularities, it does present a decent character debate; what do we do when those we love turn evil and godlike? The character faults are not the problem of the actors, either. The performers do a decent job working in what is a fairly new medium (at the time) for television. Science fiction was pioneered on television by shows like Star Trek, so beginners mistakes are understandable.

But with "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "Star Trek" starts off high with attracting decent talent. Gary Mitchell is played by Gary Lockwood (who would do 2001: A Space Odyssey around the same time) and Sally Kellerman, who played Dr. Dehner was well known as well. Both rise to the occasion in this work and present characters very different from anything else they had been in. Add to that, Star Trek retained Leonard Nimoy as Spock (the only hold over from the pilot episode) and recruited William Shatner, who had a bit of a career before his appearance in this episode.

The barrier at the edge of the galaxy is seen only one other time in the franchise (in a second season episode) and it is explained in the otherwise terrible novel I,Q. The answer is more satisfying in some ways than the questions raised by this hour of television, which uses a lot of jargon about ESP that occasionally bog it down.

Ultimately, though, this episode might be difficult for those who are not fans of science fiction as it contains a lot of jargon about transformations, ESP and technical aspects of keeping the starship flying. But for those with an open mind . . . the adventure begins here!

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other episodes of Star Trek, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts.  May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Hi.

    Personally, I find it very difficult to like the first episodes of all Star Trek shows, because I think they all needed some time to adjust and improve their "recipe" a little bit.

    Even though I liked The Cage (a woman 1st officer : what a bold move 30 years before Voyager), I have a hard time watching the first 3 or 4 episodes that followed in The Original Series because to me (and I think a lot of fans will agree), the greatest thing about TOS is the fantastic chesmistry between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and of course, we're still not there just yet.

    1. Interesting take on it.

      I actually love "The Cage," but find much of early "Star Trek" gutwrenching to watch . . . and I'm a fan. I think there was a wonderful phase where "Star Trek" was putting out some fantastic, very original episodes. Unfortunately, that phase is very short. The second season, for example, is probably my favorite, but they essentially present the same episode - historical tampering - in four or five of the episodes!

      Thanks for sharing your opinion and thanks for reading!