Star Trek Review: TOS – Where No Man Has Gone Before (1×03)

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Of all else, a god needs compassion!

Part of what got me into Star Trek was this big folder full of magazine pages that I got from the charity shop for a fiver once. I’ve just done a bit of googling, and found the Memory Alpha page for them; they were the Official Fact Files, apparently. I collected a few more editions over the years – also from the same charity shop, and I eventually figured out who my local Star Trek fan was – and I re-read that particular first set several times over the years.

The relevance of this, outside of my own Star Trek history, is that for whatever reason, the articles about this particular episode made a pretty big impression on me. I think they were probably just near the top of the folder, but also that there were simply a lot of articles on this episode; on Gary Mitchell, on Elizabeth Dehner, on the ESPers and the galactic barrier, and so on and so forth. I’d also ended up with the impression, somehow, that this was the first episode of TOS, and in 2011 had been rather hoping Into Darkness was an adaptation of this story to some extent. (It wasn’t.) Where No Man Has Gone Before occupied something of a unique status amongst TOS episodes for me – the episode I was most familiar with, of the series I was least familiar with.

This was still the first time I’d watched it, mind you. I’ve never really had access to all these episodes in one place – I was pretty much at the mercy of the repeat channels, and again, whichever VHS tapes I could find. (This is probably making me sound older than I am; I was just quite low tech, back in the day.) So it’s nice then, to have seen this episode – and frankly even nicer to be able to report back that it’s actually very good. I think it’s possibly the best of the season so far, although given how early on we are at present, that’s something of a case of damning with faint praise. Where No Man Has Gone Before is a really well put together piece of television, that I’d argue is actually far more entertaining, and in some regards more coherent, than its predecessors.

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A lot of that comes down to quite how impressive Gary Mitchell is as an adversary. Especially considering, actually, that broadly speaking he’s a repeat of Charlie X, just one episode later – omnipotent being as bad guy. Thankfully, though, Gary Mitchell is so vastly superior to Charlie that you don’t really realise this until after the episode has finished.

The reason for that is that Gary Mitchell has a far more substantial character arc than any of the villains we’ve seen thus far; with Charlie (who remains a good point of comparison) we become wise to the fact that he’s evil and threatening from the beginning, and then there’s just sort of a lot of nothing. Here, though, it’s built up slowly; you’ve got these long scenes in the sickbay between Gary and Kirk, or Gary and Dehner, where there’s a real sense of gradually rising malevolence. We really get to see his mental decline and fall from grace, and I think that this really shows an important strength for Star Trek, and indeed all of science fiction – you have to focus on having good character work for the science fiction aspects to resonate properly.

I’d also like to highlight the music for a moment. The background music in Star Trek doesn’t really have a reputation for being subtle, and rightly so to be honest; it is often very of its time, and that can be a little offputting on occasion. Mostly it’s just sort of “lovably ridiculous”, like that crash zoom on Gary Mitchell that wouldn’t have felt out of place in 1980s Doctor Who. It’s often still effective, but as I said, no one could ever really accuse it of being subtle.

In this episode, however, there’s this one really impressive detail that I thought really added to the presentation of Gary. During his sickbay scenes, there’s this metronome running underneath the scene. I thought it was part of the instrumental, at first, but it actually wasn’t; it’s revealed that this metronome is actually the sound of nearby medical equipment, which Gary is controlling subconsciously. You can interpret that, to some extent, as a metaphor for Gary’s powers now beginning to change the diegetic and extradiegetic nature of the narrative – that’s really godlike power.

(But, you know, even outside of my English Literature student nonsense, it’s actually a really well-done aspect, because it does make these scenes far tenser, and adds to the aforementioned sense of rising malevolence for Gary.)

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Also worthy of note is Kirk and Spock. Since this is the pilot (in a roundabout way, anyway) there’s still a lot of early episode weirdness – it is deeply unsettling for some reason to see Spock in yellow but Sulu in blue. There’s also a few moments regarding Spock and his emotions, or lack thereof, that irritated me; “ah yes, irritation is one of your Earth emotions” or words to that effect. I suppose at that stage it was a bit more “I don’t have emotions”, rather than “I carefully suppress and control them”, but still, it was a little weird as a line.

Nonetheless! Despite this early episode weirdness, Where No Man Has Gone Before does a really great job on the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and I think makes a compelling argument for its longevity. It’s clear that the pair of them work well together, not just as characters but from a dramatic standpoint; Spock’s ruthlessly logical solution to the problem presented by Mitchell is a great counterpoint to Kirk, who’s inclined to try and find the best solution to help everyone, not wanting to be quite as utilitarian as Spock is. (Gary Mitchell again is a great character, because his relationship with Kirk and their easy camaraderie makes for a nice contrast alongside Kirk’s relationship with Spock; interestingly, it’s the moment when Gary begins to agree with Spock, saying that they should kill him, that we see he’s essentially gone off the rails. That loss of humanity is a bad thing; the difference with Spock is that he’s employing this cold logic for the needs of the many, as it were.)

Again, I’m inclined to say that part of the reason for Trek’s longevity was the early performances of these actors, particularly Nimoy and Shatner; they’re quite charismatic, and they do a great job of making these characters feel a little bit deeper than just what’s happening on screen at that particular moment. Their relationships with one another feel quite fleshed out already, in terms of how they joke together (or more accurately, how Kirk jokes at Spock), but also how they make a particularly effective team when working together.

Ultimately, I think Where No Man Has Gone Before is a very strong episode, and definitely the strongest of the three I’ve seen so far. In a way, it’s perhaps the most obviously Trek-y so far, with a rather fantastic thematic throughline about just how humanity is meant to develop, and the fact that even as we go further, it’s not the technological developments that matter most, but our cultural and philosophical ones. After all, a god needs compassion.

I’m hoping that this level of quality can be maintained, though… well, we’ll see.

9/10

Related:

Star Trek: The Original Series reviews

Star Trek: Discovery reviews

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