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Star Trek – Where No Man Has Gone Before (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

In a way, there’s a very clear divide between The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before. It’s clearer than the strange new actor sitting in the middle of the Bridge or the fact that Spock is suddenly a lot less casual. In a way, each is perfectly positioned in popular consciousness. The Cage was produced in late 1964, but wouldn’t be shown on television until 1988, after spending years touring the fan circuit. It remains a strange bit of Star Trek history, sitting simultaneously outside any of the five television shows, and simultaneously a completely inexorable part of the franchise’s evolution. It’s where it all began, but not where the first Star Trek began.

In contrast, Where No Man Has Gone Before feels more like the pilot episode of Star Trek. Sure, the fashion changes a bit in the episodes to come, the entire cast has yet to be assembled, but this is recognisably the same ship and the same show as The Corbomite Manoeuvre or The Man Trap. It’s more than the actors filling roles, the consistent characterisation of Spock or the fact that it actually aired on television in September 1966. This is what the next three years of Star Trek will be like. It’s an aesthetic or an approach to storytelling that is markedly different to the way that The Cage tackled many of the same themes and ideas.

While The Cage laid down many of the philosophical underpinnings of the broader Star Trek universe – including the classic show – it is also a lot less physical and visceral than the classic Star Trek. Indeed, The Cage featured the Captain of the Enterprise reasoning with an advanced bunch of god-like aliens, appealing to human virtues. The action sequences felt a bit extraneous. In contrast, Where No Man Has Gone Before sees the Captain of the Enterprise punching a god-like being repeatedly in the face while hitting on the same themes.

I think that’s perhaps the most dynamic difference between not only The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before, but between Star Trek and its spin-offs.

All the old familiar faces...

All the old familiar faces…

In the special The Star Trek Saga: From One Generation To The Next, which existed primarily as an occasion to fill two vacant hours left in the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation by the 1988 writers’ strike, Roddenberry shared The Cage with the world. In it, he also explained that the network executives much preferred Where No Man Has Gone Before to The Cage, with Roddenberry arguing that the final fist fight between James T. (or R.) Kirk and Gary Mitchell was what convinced them.

It’s easy to be flippant about that fact – to suggest that the executives were really just pandering and that Roddenberry was compromising the intellectual approach to philosophical issues established in The Cage by resolving the second pilot with good old-fashioned fisticuffs. I can understand this perspective, but I don’t agree. For one thing, The Cage features its own action sequence in the middle of the episode during Pike’s trip to Rigel VII. It seems much more gratuitous than the action at the climax of Where No Man Has Gone Before. After all, Kirk’s action sequence actually resolves the plot, while Pike seems to have his action sequence to eat up some time.

A god is he...

A god is he…

More than that, though, the image of Kirk wrestling with a god-like being establishes a richly pulpy atmosphere that defines the classic Star Trek. It’s absurd, but it’s exciting and it’s visceral – and those qualities shouldn’t be underrated. The Cage features a number of similarly pulpy elements, but they’re decidedly more uncomfortable. After all, The Cage is a very clever variation on the classic pulpy “Mars needs women” theme, with aliens capturing humans for mating. Just, you know, not with them. In contrast, a fist fight is a lot more fun for all involved, because it has a lot fewer unpleasant implications.

And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of excitement. After all, it isn’t as if Star Trek was incapable of wrestling with big or interesting ideas because Kirk conformed to a more pulpy adventure hero archetype than Pike. Sure, his shirt might have been torn more often, and he seems a great deal more romantic than what little we see of Pike, but Kirk and the show kept their heart in the right place. There was just a decidedly more visceral and hyper-real aesthetic to Star Trek than to either The Cage or any of the show’s subsequent spin-offs.

Don't be so negative...

Don’t be so negative…

And a huge part of that is Kirk himself, introduced here. Each of the Star Trek shows are embodied by their leading character. Star Trek: The Next Generation is as dignified and as rational as Picard. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is as raw, complex, contradictory and pragmatic as Sisko. Star Trek: Voyager is as inconsistent as Janeway. Star Trek: Enterprise is as frustratingly simplistic as Jonathan Archer. While The Cage was as clever and intellectual as Christopher Pike, Where No Man Has Gone Before is as charming and engaging as James Kirk.

Which is great, because Where No Man Has Gone Before isn’t anywhere near as fascinating as The Cage. Somehow, Kirk’s never-again-mentioned best friend gets god-like powers from passing through a galactic barrier, hyper-evolving him in “an ESPer.” Kirk can’t decide what to do with the fact that Gary Mitchell can bend reality to his will, and eventually decides to strand him on a conveniently near-by abandoned planet. Things go wrong, as is the norm. So Kirk has to kill his best friend.

Spock got a call-back...

Spock got a call-back…

That’s a simplistic summary, but it makes it quite clear that Where No Man Has Gone Before is a much more emotional story than The Cage. While The Cage was concerned with the relationship between perception and reality, Where No Man Has Gone Before generates considerable angst over the fact that Kirk is probably going to have to kill somebody he cares very deeply about.

That’s not to say that The Cage lacks any emotional hooks (Pike is near resignation at the start of the story, after all), nor that Where No Man Has Gone Before lacks philosophical flourish (Gary Mitchell effectively becomes a god). However, the two stories emphasis two very different approaches to science-fiction. And, being frank, it’s easy to see how Where No Man Has Gone Before was much appealing as a model for a weekly television show in 1966. Despite the fantastical setting or the weird technology or the silly outfits, Where No Man Has Gone Before is essentially a very human story.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

And a lot of that comes down to the fact it’s a lot easier to like Kirk than Pike. William Shatner is a bit of a pop culture figure of fun. In fact, he actively encourages. Whether it is his unique speaking pattern, or the fact that his ego made the cast of Star Trek hate him, Shatner is this gigantic figure who almost manages to eclipse Kirk as a character. And, to be fair, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kirk is pretty difficult to divorce from Shatner, and that’s particularly evident in Where No Man Has Gone Before.

Kirk’s first episode goes out of its way to present us with a picture of Kirk that doesn’t quite correspond to the character we know and love. “Hey man, I remember you back at the Academy,” Mitchell remarks. “A stack of books with legs. The first thing I ever heard from upperclassmen was, Watch out for Lieutenant Kirk. In his class, you either think or sink.” It’s interesting, because it suggests that not only was Kirk studious, but he also lectured. Given how Kirk responds to the thought of being grounded in both The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, that’s hard to imagine.

He's still the same old James T. Kirk... R. is he?

He’s still the same old James T. Kirk… R. is he?

Indeed, Mitchell claims to have “outwitted” Kirk by manipulating a member of the opposite sex to distract him. Mitchell muses, “If I hadn’t aimed that little blonde lab technician at you…” Of course, Mitchell is meant to be increasingly arrogant and condescending, but it seems strange to believe that even a raving egomaniac could believe Kirk needed some romantic assistance. “I outlined her whole campaign for her,” Mitchell boasts. That seems to suggest that the woman was very much the aggressor, with Kirk playing the role of the studious academic.

This paints a very different picture of Kirk than the one we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s telling that Mitchell’s memories are quite different to Kirk’s youth as portrayed in the rebooted Star Trek. There are all sorts of nerdy explanations – “that was another life,” to quote the film – but Chris Pine’s interpretation of the character somehow feels a lot more like the Kirk we know and love than the book-learned academic who needs romantic assistance from his best friend.

"You ripped my favourite shirt!"

“You ripped my favourite shirt!”

And a large portion of that is down to William Shatner, because both Chris Pine and the script to Star Trek hark to Shatner’s interpretation of Kirk. Not in the occasionally cheesy delivery or the ability to chew gloriously on the scenery, but in embodying the sense of rebellion, ego and energy that Shatner brought to the role. The version of Kirk described by Mitchell doesn’t sound too different from Christopher Pike, but Shatner plays him as an entirely different person.

Indeed, the show itself figured out the appeal of Shatner’s take on Kirk, and the character’s back story and career history would be revised to make them fall more in line with the way that Shatner played Kirk – this big and bold masculine archetype with a charm that makes his recklessness very easy to forgive. Indeed, Shatner starts pretty much as he means to go on. Mitchell’s recollections about his time with Kirk are the only aspects of the show which seem at odds with the rest of Kirk’s characterisation.

He won't see eye-to-eye with Kirk any longer...

He won’t see eye-to-eye with Kirk any longer…

Shatner even gets to gloriously chew on the scenery at the episode’s climax. “Did you hear him joke about compassion?” he demands. “Above all else, a god needs compassion. Mitchell! Elizabeth.” We really get the sense of Kirk as an action hero, much more than Pike. Pike had a fight scene that was efficient and effective, but Shatner makes the episode’s final brawl entirely his own. I love that little barrel roll he does before he shoots Mitchell and even his very sixties “judo chop!” attack on his former friend.

Indeed, Where No Man Has Gone Before makes it clear just how much the show owes its lead actors. DeForrest Kelly has yet to apear, but Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner are both on fine form here. In fact, they even manage to make the episode’s somewhat clunky dialogue less painful than it might otherwise be. For example, consider the exposition that effectively introduces bother characters:

Have I ever mentioned you play a very irritating game of chess, Mister Spock?

Irritating? Ah, yes. One of your Earth emotions.

Certain you don’t know what irritation is?

The fact one of my ancestors married a human female.

Terrible having bad blood like that.

Where No Man Has Gone Before also does a better job establishing Spock. Leonard Nimoy was just sort of there in The Cage, and his role wasn’t really defined. However, incorporating the version of Number One featured in The Cage is a very shrewd way of defining Spock. Turning Number One’s logic and rationality into inherited characteristics gives Spock an instantly intriguing character.

Spock serves to bridge the two pilots...

Spock serves to bridge the two pilots…

More than that, though, pairing Spock with Kirk works much better than Pike and Number One. Number One was logical, but Pike was hardly the most emotional of leading men – he tended to internalise. The contrast between the pair wasn’t as effective as it might have been. Pairing Spock with Kirk, on the other hand, was a genius move. With Shatner playing Kirk as this almost reckless risk-taking gut-trusting authority figure, and Nimoy as the cold and rational Spock, the pair played off each other perfectly. Each helped define the other.

In fact, this ties into the way that Where No Man Has Gone Before manages a more compelling emotional hook. God-like beings are great, but they are – by definition – hard to relate to. So the episode’s central character dilemma is whether Kirk can strand or murder his best friend. You get a sense that Pike would bottle up his frustration, get all passive-aggressive and then just get on it with it. However, Shatner’s Kirk is a much more emotive character, and so you can hang this around his neck in his first episode.

You couldn't planet any better...

You couldn’t planet any better…

It also gives Spock an understandable position in conflict with his commanding officer. “We’ll never reach an Earth base with him aboard, Jim,” Spock explains. “You heard the mathematics of it. In a month he’ll have as much in common with us as we’d have with a ship full of white mice.” And Kirk’s sniping at Spock (“I need a recommendation, Spock, not vague warnings!”) works because we can see that Kirk pretty much knows he has to do something.

I talked above about how Star Trek really embraced the aesthetics of the western, and it’s quite obvious here. Mankind is staking a claim to the stars, going where no man has gone before – as the title handily spells out. In The Cage, the Enterprise was returning from a disastrous mission and just happened to pick up a distress beacon. They discovered the weird and the wonderful, but it didn’t feel like they were actively pursuing it.

Kirk's on a roll...

Kirk’s on a roll…

In contrast, Where No Man Has Gone Before starts with the Enterprise breaching the galactic barrier – the very edge of the universe itself. Nothing will keep mankind trapped, even something as immense as the Milky Way Galaxy. That said, it does feel a little weird it took Voyager so long to cross the galaxy when the Enterprise seems to go from Earth to the edge of the galactic barrier in no time, but we can forgive that.

The show also makes a point of playing up the risks of charting this new frontier, of trying to tame the unknown. There’s no safety net, no comfort zone – there’s a sense that Kirk and his crew are very much on their own. After the disastrous attempt to cross the barrier, Kirk notes, “Ship’s condition, heading back on impulse power only. Main engines burned out. The ship’s space warp ability gone. Earth bases which were only days away are now years in the distance.”

Where No Man Has Gone Before also begins the trend of horrible things happening to Kirk's old friends whenever they show up...

Where No Man Has Gone Before also begins the trend of horrible things happening to Kirk’s old friends whenever they show up…

There’s a much more palpable sense of the dangers involved in charting the deepest and darkest reaches of space, something that would be missing from spin-offs like The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise. Like the American frontier, it’s a strange universe full of the unknown. It is also, evidently, packed with abandoned outposts and way stations that don’t see too much traffic. Of the planet where they conspire to strand Mitchell, Spock notes, “There’s not a soul on the whole planet. Even the ore ships call only once every twenty years.”

There’s also a much more delightfully New Age approach to science-fiction here than we would see in the spin-offs, with Where No Man Has Gone Before seizing on the parapsychological phenomenon of “ESP” that gripped the popular consciousness in the 1960. Apparently, contrary to everything established by the franchise in its later life, the Federation has acknowledged and adopted all manner of New Age pseudo-science.

A rocky road...

A rocky road…

Denher ever authoritatively explains, “It is a fact that some people can sense future happenings, read the backs of playing cards and so on, but the ESPer capacity is always quite limited.” It’s fun to imagine the straight-laced and rational Picard reacting to such an assertion, but Spock seems to take it in his stride. It seems interesting that the show embraced this sort of 1960s spirituality while Kirk travelled from planet-to-planet to topple god-like beings preying on superstition.

That is one of the charms of the classic Star Trek, though, the way that it connected with its time so well. It might be set in the future, but watching it is very clearly a trip back to the late sixties, with Star Trek seemingly surviving as the last shattered shards of American optimism left in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, with the Federation somehow serving as some sort of futuristic extension of Kennedy’s “Camelot.”

A Valiant effort...

A Valiant effort…

Indeed, Roddenberry was fixated on Kennedy, and even repeatedly pitched to do a time travel plot where his crew might prevent the assassination:

Even Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry sought on numerous occasions to have the crew of the Enterprise rescue Kennedy in Dallas. Whenever a film sequel was being discussed Roddenberry would suggest this storyline, only to be vetoed by Paramount Pictures. When the Enterprise did eventually journey in time it was to save the life of a whale rather than a president. However, when considering fictional interpretations of President Kennedy, one need look no further than Captain Kirk to see JFK in space. In Star Trek, the New Frontier has become the Final Frontier; the youngest elected president has become the youngest captain in Starfleet history; John F. Kennedy has become James T. Kirk. Both are at the heart of the action throughout, both are self-deprecating, and both always get the girl.

The spin-offs were undoubtedly anchored in their times. Indeed, I’d argue that Deep Space Nine was slightly ahead of its time. However, the original Star Trek was almost perfectly in tune with the sixties zietgeist. Sometimes it was in corny ways – space hippies showing up in The Way to Eden, for example – but it was also very much of that particular moment in history.

Into the wild blue yonder...

Into the wild blue yonder…

At the same time, though, Where No Man Has Gone Before feels a little conservative. Star Trek generally pushed liberal social values, but here Kirk and his crew find themselves terrified of change – of the next step of human evolution. “Man cannot survive if a race of true ESPers is born,” Mitchell explains. “In time you’ll understand that.” In a way, it seems like Where No Man Has Gone Before would see Kirk and his crew teaming up with the typical human bad guys in the X-Men comics of the time, terrified at the idea that man might evolve into something… other.

The use of biblical imagery here, completely unironically, is particularly telling. Star Trek was generally an atheist show. When god-like beings showed up, they were inevitably hyper-advanced aliens and almost always undeserving of man’s respect or his worship. However, Where No Man Has Gone Before makes a conscious point to borrow from the Book of Genesis, with Gary and Elizabeth tasting of forbidden fruit. Mitchell might produce “Kaferian apples” – but they are still apples.

I feel like a barrier has developed between us...

I feel like a barrier has developed between us…

It feels strangely out of character with Star Trek as a whole, as Where No Man Has Gone Before is undoubtedly afraid of mankind’s potential power. It is, of course, a suitable metaphor for splitting the atom or any other major leap that brought untold suffering, but it feels like Where No Man Has Gone Before is more firmly anchored in fear of the unknown. Spock even explicitly justifies acting against Mitchell because he will be different.

Transhumanism is one aspect of Star Trek that has rarely been explored. It obviously forms the basis of Space Seed, and Gene Roddenberry alludes to it in his novelisation of The Motion Picture, but it would be Deep Space Nine before we encountered a major character who had been augmented. Denher makes an appeal for the merits of such evolution. “No one’s been hurt, have they?” she inquires. “Don’t you understand? A mutated superior man could also be a wonderful thing. The forerunner of a new and better kind of human being.”

Well, we're about half-way to having a regular cast...

Well, we’re about half-way to having a regular cast…

The writers’ guide for the original show even alludes to the concept, before expressly prohibiting it. The explanation is that humans must remain entirely human for fear of alienating the viewer:

But projecting the advanced capabilities of your starship, wouldn’t man by that time have drastically altered such needs as food, physical love, sleep, etc.?

Probably, but if we did it, it would be at the cost of dehumanizing the STAR TREK characters that only a small fraction of the television audience would be interested; the great percentage of viewers might even be repulsed.

This is quite unnerving, because it suggests a genuine fear of what is different and unknown, which is very much the antithesis of Star Trek‘s optimistic philosophy.

He is Spock.

He is Spock.

To be fair, Kirk makes an argument that mankind must make that journey on their own terms, and that Mitchell is an aberration because he attained knowledge and power too quickly, without growing into the role. “What will Mitchell learn in getting there?” Kirk asks. “Will he know what to do with his power? Will he acquire the wisdom?” It’s an argument that suggest the journey itself is what makes the knowledge and the power worthwhile – exploration and education are noble ends of themselves.

It’s a fairly logical way of phrasing Kirk’s objection, but it seems a little trite, given how historical progress tends to come in sudden jerks and sprints. Has mankind ever truly been ready for any advanced technology or knowledge before receiving it? Or do we learn through the application of that knowledge and that power? It’s a tough question, and Where No Man Has Gone Before feels a bit more guarded when it comes to dealing with the fact that Gary Mitchell is in fact just a later stage of human development.

Life on the frontier...

Life on the frontier…

The only other truly notable piece of information about Where No Man Has Gone Before is the absence of McCoy. Instead, we find ourselves with Dr. Piper. He’s a character who feels a bit strangely out of place, one nod towards a western aesthetis that doesn’t quite work. Indeed, writer Samuel Peeples concedes as much:

The physical element, I thought, required every crewman of the USS Enterprise to be active. He had to be not only mentally alert, but the traditional images of a country doctor would hardly have fit the images of a man who would say, ‘We’ve got an unknown disease, and there’s a cure on this planet. Our only choice is to try it. It might kill you,’ and I don’t think Paul Fix’s interpretation of the character would have been able to do that.

What’s interesting is that Leonard McCoy isn’t that far from the country doctor archetype, suggesting that Star Trek was really quite close to settling on its final form. In fact, it’s telling that most of the cast are in place (with the exception of Nichelle Nichols and DeForrest Kelly), and all that remains to be done is to shuffle them around slightly.

On the eighth day...

On the eighth day…

That said, there are some hints of the show’s difficulty with gender issues. The portrayal of Number One in The Cage hasn’t held up perfectly, but you get the sense that the character was at least a genuine attempt to break through the stereotypical feminine roles in shows like this. Here we’re back to square one, where Denher seems to apologise for being something approaching a profession. “Women professionals do tend to overcompensate,” she explains. As mentioned above, Mitchell used a blonde lad technician as a pawn to pass Kirk’s class. Kirk recalls her, but we don’t get a name – just the fact she was a handy way to distract Kirk.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that the first season of Star Trek aired a little out of order. Where No Man Has Gone Before was felt to be a bit heavy on exposition, so the more thrilling The Man Trap aired first. Continuity isn’t generally that tight on the show, but this is probably one of the cases where it’s most convenient and logical to watch in production (rather than broadcast) order. After all, it was written as a pilot, so it feels very strange shuffled into the middle of a season.

Beyond the final frontier...

Beyond the final frontier…

Where No Man Has Gone Before might be less driven by high concepts than The Cage was, but it’s a lot easier to see how Where No Man Has Gone Before made a much greater impact. It’s hard to imagine a five-year mission with Christopher Pike, but already we can see how Kirk has endured almost half-a-century.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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