Star Trek Review: TOS – Dagger of the Mind (1×09)

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Where there is no emotion, there is no motive for violence.

By my reckoning, this may well be the first episode we’ve got that actually is something approaching utopian. Or, sort of, anyway.

The idea of how prisons would work in a utopia like the federation is actually quite an interesting one, when you think about it; presumably the focus would very much be on rehabilitation, rather than punishment. (The three main potential aims of a prison being rehabilitation, retribution, and restraint.) Equally, of course, one might argue that you wouldn’t really commit crimes in a utopia, surely, so why do they even have prisons? It’s such an interesting question because prisons are, I suppose, actually sort of an important facet of society, so when you’re talking about a new society, that throws up lots of intriguing points and questions. Moreso, really, when it’s a perfect society – what is the perfect prison like?

Admittedly, the way we handle this isn’t quite dedicated to answering those questions. It’s becoming a bit of a theme with Star Trek, I realise, where interesting questions are being thrown up essentially as a backdrop to normal television stories. This episode here is basically a thriller; the questions of how prisons should and do work are more or less left largely unanswered. Thinking about it, then, I suppose I may well have stumbled upon another of the reasons why Star Trek ended up so popular – it posed all of these questions which would capture one’s imagination, but largely left the answers up to the viewer. To be presented with a world that is, essentially, very much your own is quite powerful, and that’s going to lead it to resonate with a fairly large number of individuals; in many ways that’s perhaps going to help people skip over the less desirable parts, because they can more easily focus on the aspects that are their own.

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Helen Noel I think is worth commenting on. I actually counted this, interestingly, and the moment she’s introduced with the “da-dah” music and the camera zoom is about 20 minutes in; this is the same time Miri yesterday, and while I’m not certain, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true of Andrea and Mudd’s eponymous Women. So it seems that the sex appeal aspect is quite cynically positioned in these episodes (or I’m drawing more of a connection than actually exists).

Still, what I have realised is that I can’t make a point of it every time I see something I consider somewhat sexist or male gaze-y in these episodes, because otherwise I would be writing about it every single time. And there’s a value in that, don’t get me wrong; a deconstruction of the male gaze in Star Trek would probably be a really fascinating thing to read, if you’ve got suitably niche interests as myself. But it’s also not something that I would feel comfortable writing, or indeed competent enough to write; for now, these vaguely meandering and infrequently insightful little commentaries are probably the best I can manage. For now, though, I think I’m going to have to gradually begin to ignore that sort of thing; sadly, it’s just part of the fabric of the episodes. Short of outright rape apologia (again), I’ll likely just let it go. Unless it particularly aggravates me, I suppose.

So, even though she’s introduced in a very male gaze-y way, is Helen Noel a sexist caricature? As written, you could perhaps make the case that she is; there’s all the science Christmas party stuff (which I admittedly found hilarious) and the fact that she uses the neuralyzer to brainwash Kirk into loving her. However, I think they just about get away with it because Marianne Hill plays the role with a sort of… knowing sarcasm, I suppose. It comes across as quite self-aware, and often her comments to Kirk read as more playful and teasing than wistful and desperate; I think you can reasonably justify reading her as a character, rather than a caricature. It’s also quite important to note that, in the end, she plays quite an important part in saving the day – complete with ventilation shaft crawl! I must admit, I love ventilation shaft sequences. They’re classics. So, you know. That’ll do.

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Something I appreciated about this episode was the dual focus on Spock and Bones, as well as Kirk and Dr Noel. I’ve spoken in the past about how I think these episodes need a B plot of sorts to try and fill the runtime, and I reckon this episode is a very good example of that; while Kirk and Dr Noel are working to solve the mystery on the surface, you’ve got Spock and Bones working to solve the same mystery from the Enterprise.

It was nice to see the pair of the working together, actually, because thus far I think that’s been a little rare; with this episode you can begin to see the development of that aspect of the Kirk/Spock/Bones trio which is so well known. It doesn’t really work unless it is a trio, to my mind; you need to be able to see that Spock and Bones are friends, just as much as Kirk and Spock or Kirk and Bones. (You can sort of see how they struggled with that in Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness, only getting it right with Star Trek Beyond.)

Notably, we’ve also got the first appearance of the Vulcan mind meld, which will obviously go on to be a staple of Star Trek for years to come; it’s interesting, I think, to see that we’re already getting that sort of “Spock is special” vibe, which obviously develops further as he increasingly becomes a fan favourite character, ahead of all others.

In the end, then, Dagger of the Mind is a decent episode. Another one which is quite entertaining, and though nothing special, it still stands up reasonably well even now.

7/10

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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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