This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
Where No Man Has Gone Before was the third Star Trek episode to air in sequence on September 22nd, 1966. Although this episode was originally produced in 1965 and was intended to serve as the pilot for the series, it was aired out of order for some reason, which was striking as it then presents inconsistencies in character, costume, and in some cases, plot. That being said, taking the episode as it is, this is definitely Star Trek in its truest form.
One moment that I believe is incredibly important when setting the tone for Where No Man Has Gone Before is
the opening scene in which Kirk and Spock are playing a game of tri-dimensional chess. In many ways, this directly parallels the story-line of this episode and acts as an allegory for many plot lines and developments to come. In a game of rationality and patience, Spock plans out his moves several steps ahead of time, with an airy and calculated confidence. Kirk, on the other hand, plays, “most illogically,” with more intensity, taking each move as it comes.
This game sets into motion a juxtaposition of the ideals that the two characters are meant to represent: Kirk provides passion and faith which is contrasted with Spock who models logic and reason. The episode quickly develops into a character study that solidifies the stark differences between Kirk and Spock, while also laying the foundation for their strong friendship. Throughout the story, Spock knows what his move needs to be before it happens.
During the course of the episode, the Enterprise crosses over the edge of the galaxy, truly into uncharted territory. The wonder of crossing into the unknown, however, is quickly interrupted as the Enterprise discovers a damaged ship recorder from the SS Valiant, an Earth spaceship lost 200 years earlier. The recording reveals the fact that Valiant had been hit by a magnetic space storm, the crew anxiously trying to research extra-sensory perception (ESP), and ultimately the Captain giving the order to self-destruct. To solve the mystery, the Enterprise follows the Valiant’s trail to the edge of the galaxy where they encounter a strange barrier.
This barrier damages the ship’s systems and warp drive, kills 9 crew members, and essentially super-electrocutes helmsman Gary Mitchell (Guest Star, Gary Lockwood) and visiting psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Guest Star, Sally Kellerman). Dr. Dehner is revived with seemingly no injury or effect; the same goes for Gary Mitchell except for his eyes, which are seen to be glossed over with a glittery silver. After a stint in sick bay, the crew comes to realize that Gary Mitchell doesn’t have an eye problem, and that the shock delivered from the barrier is actually providing him more powerful telekinetic abilities by the minute. At first he breezes through the entire ship’s library, then he realizes he can consciously control his own heart-rate (essentially killing himself for a short period of time just to watch his friends become frantic – because that’s funny, right?), and finally realizes he can manipulate the surrounding environment.
What follows – amidst the action of the plot – is the moral debate and argument between our two central characters, Kirk and Spock. Spock realizes quickly that this might be the same phenomena that the Valiant had experienced 200 years ago. He then advises Kirk that, in order to avoid the same fate as the Valiant, they will most likely have to dispose of Gary Mitchell before he becomes too much to handle. Kirk is reluctant, refusing to murder not only one of his crew but a good friend for fifteen years. Essentially, just like during their game of chess, Spock sees the end game and what needs to be done to get there. Kirk, on the other hand, takes the plot developments as they come, hoping to keep his friend alive, holding on to what little humanity he has left.
Throughout the episode Gary Mitchell acts as a third foil in this character study; if Spock is logic, Kirk is faith, then Gary Mitchell represents absolute power and subsequently, corruption. These three characters paint a conceptual picture of Symbolic Interactionism, specifically drawing off of ideas set forth by sociologists Herbert Blumer and George Herbert Mead. Symbolic Interactionism is a defining label of human life and human conduct, stating that reality is defined as social and developed interactions with others.
“Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.” – Herbert Blumer
Kirk, Spock, and Mitchell define their world views by what they have experienced and how they have developed as individuals. As a leader, Kirk has developed compassion, faith (stemming from his refusal to believe in a no-win scenario), and intensity. Spock, as science officer and a Vulcan student of logic, has developed a strong sense of calculated reason. However, his half-human side allows him to draw on his sense of friendship, loyalty and empathy as well. Gary Mitchell serves as the definitive ‘flyboy’ – the cocky, womanizing pilot – and it is this attitude that corrupts him as it amplifies with the development of his God-like powers, pushing him to become the primary villain of the episode.
In the end, when Kirk is finally forced to defeat Mitchell, it initially appears that Spock’s logical reasoning was the path shown to be truly correct. However, I believe that the outcome was meant to display that faith, logic, and power are all able to be used together for good. Kirk utilized his power as a leader to take responsibility (in contrast with power for personal gain) and be the one to finally eliminate Mitchell and the threat he presented, going so far as to order everyone (especially Spock) to stay behind. He recognizes that Spock was right and plans to kill Mitchell. However, he ultimately has to combine his own initial philosophy with Spock’s as he is forced to take a leap of faith and appeal to Dr. Dehner’s humanity and compassion in order to truly win at the end of the day.
“Above all else, a god needs compassion.” – Kirk
This ending excellently displays the philosophical concept of moral fallibilism, which states that we as individuals may be wrong in our “beliefs, expectations and understandings of the world, and yet still be justified in holding these beliefs.” The belief systems that Kirk, Spock, and Mitchell all followed throughout the episode may have been incorrect in regards to the ultimate resolution, but they were all correct in holding these beliefs as it paved the way for the final solution.
The concepts explored in Where No Man Has Gone Before, reflect on the age-old debate – still relevant today – of science vs. religion. Arguably, one could use this to advocate for science over religion as Kirk ultimately defeats the God-like character of Gary Mitchell. However, I believe the fallibilistic conclusion, fusing together the characters’ beliefs in faith, logic, and power sketches a world in which science and belief are not contrary to each other, but potentially compatible. Without delving into my own opinions regarding science and religion, I believe that this episode postulates that while these concepts are different and sometimes conflicting, we as humans are still correct in holding our beliefs. Instead of acting as though they are absolutes (“absolute power corrupts absolutely…”), we must reconcile the differing belief structures and use both to work toward a better resolution for our future.