Saturday, July 7, 2007

TOS Rewind #1: "Where No Man Has Gone Before"

7/12/2015 Update:  We recorded a podcast for this episode. Listen or download here.

Is this name, "TOS Rewind," too lame?  Well, feel free to suggest something else, but for now I'm going with it.  As I said before, Eric and I are going to watch the entire run of Star Trek:  The Original Series (TOS) in the next few months (or however long it takes) and write about each episode.  So, let's get rolling with our first show, Where No Man Has Gone Before

Here's Eric's section:

Hey there. Just a quick personal background before I talk about the original Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before". I’m Eric Shipley. Doc Dregs and I have been friends since high school (about 23 years), and we share a die-hard affection for original Trek, so he invited me to participate in his reviews of the original Trek episodes. Coolness, so here we go…

Doc and I agreed to review the episodes in broadcast order, but we decided it would be best to start with “Where No Man Has Gone Before", which was the second pilot for the series. Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator and executive producer) filmed his first Start Trek pilot, titled “The Cage", and submitted it to the network (NBC).  It was rejected because it was, as the network execs reportedly put it, too intellectual and didn’t have enough of an action/adventure element. They were, however, impressed with some aspects of the episode (e.g. it made them feel like they were looking into a working starship), and on that basis, they commissioned a second pilot. So, Roddenberry retooled the cast (Spock was the only character to make the cut), and filmed “Where No Man Has Gone Before", which was written by Samuel Peeples and directed by James Goldstone. The network pinheads were satisfied and gave Star Trek the green light, although “Where No Man Has Gone Before" was not aired as the pilot. “The Man Trap" and “Charlie X" were aired first and “Where No Man Has Gone Before" was the third episode the network broadcast. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but Doc and I decided it would be best to review WNMHGB first given that it has some fundamental differences from the rest of the series:  the uniforms and sets are the same as those from “The Cage", and there are some cast differences such as Sulu being in the Astrophysics department (rather than at the helm) and Dr. Piper being the ship’s surgeon instead of everyone’s favorite country doctor, Leonard McCoy.

So, with that bit of exposition out of the way, here are my thoughts about “Where No Man Has Gone Before". (Was that a sigh of relief I heard?!) I’m assuming that Doc has provided a synopsis of the
episode, so I’ll jump in with my impressions. First, it’s good SF.  Only in science fiction can you examine human nature by having people with latent psionic abilities bestowed with god-like powers through exposure to an energy field at the edge of the galaxy. (Some people call this corny or idiotic. To me, it’s wonderfully imaginative.)  This episode is also good Trek, but it’s noticeably different from the Trek that would go on to capture the imaginations of millions.  The “Age of Aquarius" sentiment isn’t evident, although the way the episode is written doesn’t leave much opportunity to bring it out.  The close friendship between Kirk and Spock is clearly nascent, and the chemistry of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate is missing (and missed). One thing that really struck me, though, is the serious tone of the episode. There are a few lighter moments, but overall, it’s very somber. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate this and much prefer it to the campy tone of some of the later episodes.

What puts this episode in the ranks of the best original Trek episodes, however, is that in the best tradition of Star Trek (and any good story), underneath it all is a thought-provoking theme or
question, in this case:  What happens when a man has limitless power thrust upon him? And as it turns out, the answer this episode offers is both an indictment and a vindication of the human spirit. Gary Mitchell is consumed by his powers and comes to exemplify the old adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Dr. Dehner, on the other hand, is possessed and corrupted by the same powers, but she, at Kirk’s eloquent, impassioned plea, lets her humanity win out and, at the cost of her own life, buys Kirk time to fight Mitchell.  Ultimately, it’s Kirk’s resolution of the conflict between his compassion for his friend and his responsibility to civilization that saves the day, but it’s a close thing. He very nearly lost (on more than one occasion), because he was reluctant to do what he knew was necessary, i.e. kill Mitchell. The point, though, is that in the end, he did what he had to do. So, the human spirit wins out, but not without some bumps and bruises (and deaths). Both Kirk and Dr. Dehner found the strength to do what was right, but it wasn’t easy for them, and this adds a satisfying touch of reality—doing what’s right is rarely easy and can be extremely difficult. And in a way, even Mitchell is vindicated when, as the episode closes, Kirk observes:  “He didn’t ask for what happened to him."


Wow, thanks a lot for that Eric.  Eric has such a vast head of knowledge on all things Trek and I appreciate him filling in a lot of the background details on this episode.  It's important in this particular episode since it feels a little bit off and always has to me.  When I say that, I mean that it doesn't quite fit.  This is all quite normal for a pilot (or a second pilot), but as Eric pointed out, it was not shown first in the run of the show.  That's pretty strange and must have been a head scratcher for the TV audience who'd already been introduced to the characters.  I'd love to hear an explanation for that programming choice!  To be fair, TOS doesn't really have a traditional "intro" episode where the characters and overall story are introduced.  If you want to see a pilot really nail the whole show introductions job well, watch the pilot for Freaks and Geeks; it's amazingly well covered for a 45 minute episode. 

The story:  Eric already said it, this subject is classic sci fi; humanity colliding with or encountering powers beyond our control.  Beyond the central idea expressed in the story, this show also introduces us the some of the "mechanics" of the Trek environment in a fairly economical way.  The transporter is used and the concept of warp drive is introduced when Kirk explains how far out they really are when their faster-than-light (spool up the FTL Drive!!!   ...  sorry, random Battlestar reference) drive is knocked out.   Beyond what was said before, I remember noticing that near the end of the episode, when Kirk and Mitchell are having their showdown, Shatner really has this expression on his face that says, "crap, this isn't going to work, is it!"  It's a nice touch considering how often Kirk is so confident in later shows.  Of course this is part of his central makeup, but it widens the character just a tiny bit.    One point, after Mitchell and Dehner have their battle of lightning zaps, Kirk could have just burned him down with the phaser rifle, but instead begins a fistfight, the first of many.  I'm sure they felt it had to be in there to sell the show (such action was missing from "The Cage"), but it seems rather odd in a way.  After all, at that point, wasn't Kirk pretty sure he needed to kill Mitchell?

The main characters in this episode are given space to do their thing.  The non-McCoy doctor isn't given much to do (some of his job seems to be done by the Dr. Dehner character), which is just as well given that he's a stand-in.  Sally Kellerman, who also played "Hot Lips" in the M*A*S*H* film,  actually has a pretty good role in this show.  I didn't used to think much of her performance, but it's actually fairly sensitive to the material and well acted.  Gary Lockwood gets to do something here that he didn't get to do in 2001:  A Space Odyssey, play a real character.  I'm sure he's done other things, but those two titles are going to be what people remember.  Sure, he overacts a bit, but hey, he thinks he's a god...who wouldn't overact!  I found it fun to watch Nimoy's protoSpock in this episode.  Sure, some of what the character was to become was there, but he comes off as a bit of a badass Science Officer/First Officer/Security Officer.  He's really the one with "Balls of Steel" (hi Scott!) in this episode:  "kill him, while you can."  Don't believe me?   He's the one that makes sure a big-ass phaser rifle gets sent down and is basically doing what Worf might do in Next Gen.  The Captain Kirk character is surprisingly well formed in this first episode which tells me two things:  One, Roddenberry had the character down from the outset.  Two, Shatner made Kirk.  This sounds obvious, but it bears repeating.  Whether or not you like the character of Captain Kirk, Shatner was a big part of what it was and it's made plain watching the very first minutes of this episode.

Other stuff:  I'm really glad they changed Nimoy's eyebrows!  The sets look pretty much like recycled ones from the first pilot, "The Cage."  However, there are some differences which make the ship sets look like an odd hybrid of the earlier ones and the ones used throughout the run of the show.  I'm so glad they ditched the goose-neck lamp-looking things on the bridge and changed the uniforms.  Now, we all know this show was ahead of its time as far as social issues go, but there is still some sexist stuff in this one.  OK, I could write entries just about this topic, so I'm not going to mention every single instance of stereotyping, but there's a scene in this one where Mitchell complains about Dr. Dehner being assigned to observe him (some line about there being more "pretty girls" on board).  Kirk's response, "consider it a challenge!"  Hmm, Ok....  All in all though, this one still really works for me.  It seemed better than I remember.  As Eric said, it has a somber tone and is kind of a downer (Kirk has to kill one of his friends) and the show actually conveys a sense of menace with the way the editing is done.  They really should have run this one first.

A brief word about the DVD:  I have never seen this show look this good.  The copies that were in circulation on TV when I was growing up were faded 16mm prints (or tapes from the prints) and they looked beat and faded.  The DVDs, having been transferred from the 35mm film, look about as good as they're going to.  The sound is also well preserved.  I have yet to watch the bonus material, but I did sample the text commentary (a popup trivia thing) and while it had some interesting trivia, I really wonder why they felt it was necessary to point out that William Shatner plays Kirk! 

So, there's the first round.  I don't know that they'll all be this long, but we'll just have to see how it goes.

Up next: The Man Trap