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Monday, July 18, 2011
Retro TV Round-Up: Star Trek
"Where No Man Has Gone Before"

While I've long since become a bigger fan of Star Trek, my initial interest in Trek came through my childhood fandom of Star Wars. Growing up at a time when Star Wars was huge, I was eager to consume anything that looked even remotely similar, leading me to beg my mother to take me to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it finally came to the base movie theater. Proving just how much my mother loves me and just how little she and my dad underestimated that exposing me to Star Trek and later Doctor Who would lead to life-long fandoms of both franchises, she took me.

The only thing I can really recall about seeing The Motion Picture at the base theater was thinking that it was nothing like Star Wars or the movie version of Buck Rogers we'd seen there. I also recall wondering how it could look so awesome on the back cover of some many comic books and yet be so....well, dull. (I've later come to appreciate The Motion Picture, but at the time it was a huge letdown).

Thankfully, there was tie-in merchandise (in this case, Power records stories) and the Saturday morning cartoon. Both helped me to figure out there was more to Trek than TMP. And while I'd not seen a full episode yet, I was still intrigued enough to want to find out more about the Star Trek universe.

Then, along came Wrath of Khan. Now, I'd seen a random episode of Trek or two leading up to Wrath of Khan, but it was with Khan that my fandom began to blossom into what it is today. Part of it was that a local station where we were living at the time decided to show two nights of Star Trek repeats in primetime to help fans get ready to see the movie. It was the summer time and my parents agreed that I could stay up later than usual and watch both episodes on both nights. Of the four, the only one that I remember specifically being shown was this one, the second pilot for Trek, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

As many of you know, NBC dismissed the original pilot for Trek, "The Cage," as being "too cerebral." But they liked it enough to give Gene Roddenberry a second chance, but only if he bumped up the action a bit more. Roddenberry went back and commissioned or worked on three scripts for the new pilot, eventually deciding to go with "Where No Man Has Gone Before" as the second pilot. (The others would eventually see the light of day, one in season one and the other in season two).

In syndication, this one always airs first in the running order. In the original NBC air order, it runs third. Which I have to imagine was a bit disconcerting to fans watching them on the original run. The look and feel of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is so different from the two episodes that aired before it that it's not hard to figure that a lot of head scratching went on. That said, it's the best of the first three aired episodes.

Watching the episode again, the thing that strikes me most is how many of the pieces of classic Trek are all there, but they're still a bit unpolished. The most striking thing thing time around was how the remastering work revealed how green Spock's original make-up was. (I'm going to have to pop in the Blu-Ray with "The Cage" to see if this is true there also). It's fairly striking and it, along with the pointed ears, seems to scream "Hey, this guy is an alien."

Of course, the script works to make sure we know this with lots of line about Spock's different heritage and how he's half-human. It's a lot of exposition and set-up and while it's heavy-handed at times, it quickly and neatly establishes things.

The action quotient of this one is also revved up as well. The Enterprise is probing out of the galaxy, following same route as an earlier ship the Valiant. While trying to probe out through the galactic barrier, the ship is pummeled by energy, leaving it crippled. There's also the small matter of two crew members getting a strange glow around them during the devastation--the new ship's psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner and the navigator and Kirk's old friend, Gary Mitchell. Mitchell starts showing outward signs of a change first as his eyes being to glow a silver color and he begins to develop god-like powers.

Before long, Mitchell has consumed the entire ship's library and is setting his mind to bigger things--such as taking over the ship and possibly more. On the surface, Mitchell's transformation from Kirk's close friend to mortal enemy may seem a bit rapid, but the script wisely throws in a line about how Mitchell manipulated Kirk in the early days of the friendship. It sets up that Mitchell will see the ends justifying the means, so long as he benefits from it. It also shows he's got an ambitious streak and is willing to take short cuts to get what he wants. So his embracing his god-like powers and his rising arrogance aren't as out of left field as they could seem.

The ship is forced to head to Delta Vega, a mining colony that may have the equipment to repair the ship and may be a place to maroon Mitchell. (If you pay close attention to the dialogue of 2009's Star Trek, you may note that this is same location that Spock chooses to maroon Kirk when he puts Kirk off the Enterprise. ) The ship is repaired but not before Mitchell has escaped and Dehner started to show signs of developing abilities of her own. Thankfully, her eyes glow silver as well so we are aware of this.

Kirk follows them out to a rocky area, pits them against each other and uses the chaos to fight and kill Mitchell. Or at least we're left to assume Mitchell is dead....I've always thought a great tie-in novel would see Mitchell somehow alive and coming back to menace either Kirk and company again or the TNG crew. OK, maybe that's a bit too much like Wrath of Khan now that I really think about it...

Looking at this second pilot, you can see why the show was picked up. It had all the action NBC wanted, but yet Roddenberry was able to slip in a few philosophical points between the bridge exploding and Kirk and Mitchell beating the stuffing out of each other. The show does contain one of the more blatant on-screen continuity errors and it certainly feels a bit different from what's to come. But the pieces are all there and the episode is one that regularly makes it onto top ten lists for the original series.

Part of that is the sense of how alone the Enterprise is and the danger in exploring space. A log entry after the encounter with the galactic barrier points this out, saying how star bases that were once days or weeks away are now years in the distance. It's this sense of how scary and dangerous space can really be and how alone Kirk and company truly are that drives a lot of the episode. Enterprise tried to recapture this a bit in its early seasons, but even it moved away from this after a while. I like it and it's something we'll see a couple of more times during classic Trek.

Another thing that always hits me watching these early episodes is to hear how the incidental music is used in the episode it was written for. Trek recycled a lot of incidental music, so the cues will sound familiar. But the first four or five episodes all showcase the music for the first time and I always find it fascinating to see how the music is meant to enhance the story the first times it's used.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/18/2011 11:55:00 AM | |
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