With Discovery finished, it’s a good time to review where Trek has been before, so let’s begin this series about the Star Trek pilots where it all began.
In a decade full of westerns, sitcoms, and variety shows all over television, Star Trek had a tough road to prove itself as part of 1960’s television and in the broader realm of pop culture. While that journey was complicated and longer than Star Trek‘s initial run, it eventually proved itself, and it all started with “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.
Where man hasn’t been for quite a while…
Having not seen this episode in several years, I was struck by how quickly this episode gets into the action. After a brief scene showcasing Kirk and Spock and their friendly rivalry over a 3-D chess game, the Enterprise goes into a flurry of activity that doesn’t stop for several minutes, or even the whole episode.
From beaming aboard an old spaceship part that has records of a craft’s final moments, to the Enterprise’s encounter with the Galactic Barrier, and then Gary Mitchell being injured but also quickly evolving into a superhuman with dangerous powers, and then the introduction of Kirk’s special style of physical combat while he attempts to hold back Gary while Elizabeth Dehner, also becoming superhuman, attempts to subdue him.
There’s quite a bit of happening in this episode and I loved it much more than I remembered. The best part of this is that it shows the characters in action. Those initial moments on the bridge may seem chaotic, and we have no idea how this starship works
…but they do. They’ve got this even if we don’t.
Aside from a few explanations on ESP, and Spock not being human, there isn’t much in the way of boring exposition. Yes, we learn quite a bit about the crew and the ship, but it isn’t explained to us. The characters all act as if this were real without explaining what they’re doing to the audience through the dialogue.
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Despite the absence of Dr. McCoy, Kirk and Spock’s dynamic is clear, and Spock’s logic creates a moral dilemma for Kirk to act upon his friend and popular crewman Gary Mitchell who shows that he has no qualms when it comes to flexing his new mental muscles. While McCoy eventually adds another much-needed layer to this relationship, it’s not necessary for this episode.
Elizabeth Dehner is also a great character. She’s strong-minded, capable, and professional, and my favorite part is at the end, when Kirk knows that he is powerless against the power of Gary. She has a final moment to remember her humanity, and her powers are the only way to help Kirk. She’s no damsel in distress here.
What man probably shouldn’t go in the first place…
There are a few things that stand out here as not yet being settled into place, or even not aging well. Gary Mitchell calls Dr. Dehner a “walking freezer box” at the beginning of the episode after she rebuff his flirtation. I might expect this on an episode of “Mad Men” but, whoa, calling a woman and colleague frigid, while clocked in on the bridge no less, doesn’t seem very Starfleet-y.
The uniforms are different as well, not nearly as colorful as the ones we eventually get, but I kind of like them, actually. Maybe the colors are a little duller, but the material and fit look appropriately sci-fi to me, at least for the 60’s. I also love the phaser rifle Kirk sports near the end. Wherever did that thing go?
A few other crew members are missing as well, as they had yet to be cast, but I feel the tight writing in the episode and its focus on a handful of characters essential to the plot more than makes up for that.
Man went and we got a great series from it
As a pilot goes, I can definitely see why the network execs green lighted Star Trek after this. Sure, the action is a bit campy at the end, but everything that is essential about Star Trek is established here, at least thematically, and I enjoyed it far more than a I ever did. While it’s not a cerebral as “The Cage”, which I adore, this one gets everything just right as far as selling us this series.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” isn’t just an effective pilot, it’s a great episode of Star Trek that sticks to is character and story without bogging us down with exposition and introductions and trying to awe us with how wonderful the setting is. It’s easy to forget how important that is.