Where No Man Has Gone Before is actually the first of the TOS episodes that I saw in the most recent burst of viewing. If I’m only getting around to reviewing it now it’s in equal parts because I’m not sure how it fits into canon and because I don’t have much to say about it.
Officially, this one’s the pilot for the Original Series – but there are mitigating circumstances that make it hard to think of it that way. For one thing, it aired third, and it’s weird to think of something as a pilot that isn’t the first episode. For another, it was famously the second commissioned pilot, the first having been the excellent The Cage, which was rejected, featured an entirely different crew (save that Spock was still on board), and was more or less unseen in its original form by the general public until 1988 (it was retooled into the first season two-parter The Menagerie instead). Finally, there are a number of differences in crew make-up and ship appearance. Sulu is the “physics officer,” there’s no McCoy, Spock looks like a jaundiced hooker, etc.
The story is basically a more sensible telling of Charlie X with a botched ending. Kirk and (largely different) company are headed for the edge of the galaxy – which is a little goofy, when you think about it – and they encounter a strange energy barrier. What do you do when you find a strange energy barrier, kids? Correct – plow through it before doing so much as a sensor sweep. Nine red shirts are killed (making this the bloodiest episode of the Original Series), and two others – Gary Mitchell and Elizabth Dehner (ships psychiatrist! Proto-Troi!) – are zapped unconsious. Also, the engines are damaged, so we’re stuck out here for a while.
Good, that gives us time to notice that Mitchell now has silver eyes, which are apparently a symptom of psionic ability. It turns out that Mtichell and Dehner have something in common: they both score unusually high on ESP tests (ESP is taken as a fact of reality here). Travelling through the Barrier seems to have awakened some latent abilities in Mitchell, who gets progressively creepier, and more powerful, as the episode continues. Sulu – who is the ships physicist here – tells us, without evidence, that Gary Mitchell’s development is following a geometric progression, which is like taking a penny and doubling it every day, and by the end of the month you’re a millionaire. Because you see, not only do we still have money in space, we still have pennies. And 30-day months and millionaires. So much for Next Generation‘s smugness.
Spock, level-headed as always, recommends killing Gary Mitchell, or at least marooning him. Kirk eventually reluctantly agrees to the latter, and they head to an uninhabited planet with a vast automated mining facility. They attempt to confine Mitchell in a brig, but he’s too powerful by now. Also, Elizabeth Dehner has developed psionic powers as well – the effect just took longer in her. Mitchell has now gone whole-hog on the arrogance and open talks of himself as the next stage in evolution, a god among men. He seems to assume that humans will be replaced by whatever it is that he and Dehner have become.
Here’s where it gets silly. Mitchell escapes, kills several crewmen for no reason, and then wanders off with Dehner and creates a Garden of Eden on a patch of the otherwise barren planet’s surface just by thinking about it. Kirk follows them with a phaser rifle and ends up getting into a fistfight with Mitchell – always a good idea to punch out a god. The fight isn’t much better than what you see on Batman, and Kirk is getting his ass kicked until he is able to appeal to Dehner’s remaining humanity. She distracts Mitchell long enough for Kirk to fire a choice shot causing a landslide that buries him in a grave he had willed into existence for “James R. Kirk” and kills him. Dehner dies too, though I can’t remember why exactly. Psychic blast from Mitchell, I think?
Anyway, it’s a passably good episode, but I have several problems with it. First, I don’t like that Mitchell and Kirk are such great pals. Mitchell’s familiarity with Kirk borders on insubordination, and I’m just not really convinced that this kind of dynamic works well in a military setting, especially when the difference in ranks is so great. Second, I don’t like the crude way power is presented as synonymous with evil here. It’s not that I disagree that power is often associated with evil, but I think it’s more accurately the love of power that’s evil. When good people have power thrust on them, I’m not convinced that they are necessarily corrupted by it – and to the extent they are, I doubt if it’s a corruption of motivation. I suspect it’s more a case of losing perspective, severing one’s hold on reality. Now, in the case of Mitchell it can be fairly argued that he was always arrogant and resentful of his betters. He certainly seemed to think highly of himself in the early portions of the episode. So maybe this isn’t really a story about power corrupting – maybe it is, after all, a story about power making a person “more so,” magnifying exising personality traits (in this case an inferiority complex vis-a-vis Kirk). It’s an early version of Akira, in other words – with power bringing resentments to the surface that would better have been buried. But even if that’s the case, the presentation doesn’t necessarily make it easy to see that. It really does look like Mitchell is a basically good person who only became bad once he got powerful, and that the same process would happen to anyone in similar circumstances – an impression reinforced at the end when Kirk declines to include the full story in his log reasoning that Mitchell and Dehner didn’t ask for what happened to them. Finally, the fistfigt at the end is just dumb. If you’re concerned that someone is turning into an all-powerful god, the solution is generally not to go after them alone with a gun – especially when it’s two gods to one mere mortal! Droping a barrage of photon torpedoes is more like it. But even if you feel obligated because the demigod is an old pal, don’t you try as much as possible to avoid physical confrontation? I dunno, I don’t feel like I’m articulating my case well here – it just seemed like a lame ending. Roddenberry would later claim in an interview that they threw in the fight because they thought that’s what NBC wanted. Apparently they were right, and the fight scene definitely does feel like something they found an excuse to have, rather than something that was organic to the story.
The AV Club gives this one a B+, saying that it’s “an awkward episode” that is “not without its charms.” Yes, that.
Overall Rating: B+