The title “Where No Man Has Gone Before” quotes Star Trek’s famous intro. The phrase—in itself and in light of where the franchise boldly went—sounds like a rousing, optimistic call for exploration and adventure.
But instead, the third Star Trek episode continues the downbeat, horror-tinged approach of “The Man-Trap” and “Charlie X.” The Enterprise’s expansionary program is presented as a kind of hubristic power grab. More, in the context of the Cold War and the escalating conflict in Vietnam, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” comes off as an unexpectedly dire warning about the dangers of superpower imperialism.
The Enterprise is on a mission to navigate out of the galaxy. Before it reaches the galactic edge, it finds a flight recorder from the Valiant, a ship lost 200 years ago. The damaged tapes suggest the ship tried to leave the galaxy, failed, and that the crew then frantically researched ESP before the ship was destroyed.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) makes the (questionable!) decision to pursue the mission anyway. Sure enough, the ship is badly damaged while flying into a mysterious pink special effect, and has to pull back with their warp drive badly damaged. While in the galactic barrier, several crew members mysteriously collapse, including new ship’s psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman) and Kirks’ longtime friend, helmsman Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood.) Gary’s eyes glow a disturbing silver when he wakes up. Forshadowing!
Science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) quickly realizes that Dr. Dehner and Gary were affected because they have high ESP scores (ESP is apparently a real thing in the future.) Gary starts to manifest disturbing new powers—superfast reading, control of his vital signs, telekinesis, weird energy blasts. He also starts to rant megalomaniacally like a supervillain, which is a bad sign. Dehner insists he’s not a danger; Spock, the logical Vulcan, says they should kill Gary before it’s too late.
Spock is right. Gary’s power grows, and they try to strand him on the uninhabited planet of Delta Vega, where they can also use automated lithium-cracking machinery to repair the warp drive. Gary quickly escapes the brig, kills his former friend Lt. Lee Kelso (Paul Carr) and takes Dehner—whose eyes are now also all silvery—off to the hills. Kirk pursues them and manages to persuade the still-not-entirely-inhuman Dehner that Gary can’t be trusted with infinite power. With her help, in the form of some well-timed psychic blasts, he kills Gary. Dehner also dies in the attempt.
The storyline here is a Frankenstein riff; the puny humans reach for knowledge beyond their kin and are duly punished. In this case, though, they are reaching for knowledge not by digging up dead bodies for research, but by crossing borders and pushing back the frontier. Kirk specifically says that he wants to pursue the mission as a way of making the region safe for other ships; he’s prospecting for colonization opportunities.
The consequences of the overreach are also telling. The danger of projecting power across borders is not an enemy attack. It’s not even that you’ll stretch your resources too thin. The danger of exercising power is that one becomes too powerful.
Attempting to cross the galactic barrier gives Gary so much power that he feels like a God. He can kill with a wave of his hand, and terraform planets with another wave. He starts to act he’s superior to all the little people. “You fools soon I’ll squash you like insects!” he bellows. Dehner, too, starts to speculate about how she and Gary could create a race of superior humans. Her phrasing recalls eugenics arguments.
The parallels here to white supremacist imperialist policies and dogma are obvious. As with Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, colonial conquest leads to megalomania, racism, and genocide. Unlike in Conrad’s vacillatingly racist narrative, though, Gary isn’t driven mad by contact with a supposedly primitive African culture. It’s the colonial mission, itself, and his own (ESP) potential for evil and overreach which corrupts him.
Against that background, Kirk’s final pleas to Dehner read as an indictment of Western colonial hubris, and a reminder that no one can be trusted to rule over others, whatever their protestations of virtue. “You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he'll dare. Who's to stop him? He doesn't need to care,” Kirk insists. “Is all this making you a god, or is it making you something else?”
It's significant that it’s Spock, in particular, who recognizes the danger from Gary first, and is adamant about using force to stop him. Often in Star Trek, Spock’s difference—epitomized by his “logic”—is presented as something to be denigrated or assimilated. That’s the case in the opening scene, where Kirk defeats his first officer at 3-D chess, demonstrating the superiority of human intuition to alien unfeelingness. Spock is often praised when he embraces human perspectives, as when he admits to feeling sorry for Gary at the conclusion of the episode.
In terms of assessing the threat in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” though, Spock is correct not because he’s human but because he isn’t. Gary is a major danger, and Spock is the first one to see it. It’s Spock who advocates for killing Gary before he gets too powerful. It’s Spock who brings the phaser rifle down to Delta Vega; Kirk wouldn’t have been able to stop Gary without it. The outsider and alien immediately understands the danger of colonialist violence.
Spock says his advantage is that he has no feelings, in contrast to the (emotional female) Dehner. There are certainly sexist connotations there, especially considering Gary’s sneering suggestion that Dehner’s frigid, and her own off-hand remark about how professional women “overcompensate.” If Dehner empathizes with Gary she’s too emotional; if she fails to throw herself at him, she’s unwomanly. It’s a double-bind that can’t win.
But Spock’s refusal to empathize with Gary could also be read not as masculine superiority, but as a marginalized person’s level assessment of the workings of power. Dehner is like Gary touched with the rush of superpower; she wants to be a God too and see the world through his eyes. But Spock realizes you can’t resist very effectively if you are determined to empathize first and foremost with the colonizer.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” is an atypical episode in many respects. It was an early pilot, pitched to NBC after they rejected “The Cage.” Many of the details would be tweaked as the series went on. Spock’s eyebrows are too high, and he’s too shouty. Alexander Courage’s music is more Hollywood default than the distinctive, eerie scores that graced other early episodes. Crewmembers like Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) aren’t yet in place; prototypes like Dr. Piper (Paul Fix) are much inferior. The atmosphere, themes, and characters haven’t gelled.
The fact that this early episode doesn’t quite know what it’s doing has definite downsides. But it also allowed the episode to go places that the series, and even the franchise, would rarely visit thereafter. Mostly, Star Trek is about how the Federation makes things better wherever it goes; those who attempt to restrict its expansion (like the Melkotians in “Spectre of the Gun” or the Founders in Deep Space Nine) are presented as either misguided or dangerous. But “Where No Man Has Gone Before” entertains the idea that expansion leads not to the spread of amity and democracy, but to murder.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.