Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Classic Star Trek: "Where No Man Has Gone Before"

I've been watching some of the original Star Trek episodes, surprised by how enjoyable they are.  Old science fiction shows don't always age well . . . modern people complain about cheesy effects, the technology is usually laughable -- in short, what was cutting-edge then looks silly today.

But there are some things that don't change:  the importance of character psychology, dramatic conflict, and a sense of adventure.  Even back then, some people knew how to write good scripts, and some people knew how to act.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" was the second of two pilot episodes. It stars Kirk and Spock, although the well-known cast had not yet been completely assembled and the costumes are different.  The plot involves an old friend of Kirk's (Gary Mitchell) who gets zapped by some mysterious ray (never actually explained) and develops super powers.

There is one very neat scene, in which Kirk comes to visit Mitchell in sickbay after he gets zapped.  Mitchell reminisces about their days at Starfleet Academy, when Kirk ("Lt." Kirk then) was a very demanding instructor and Mitchell was a rather lazy student.  In order to distract Kirk from his teaching duties, Mitchell sends a woman to seduce him.  He boasts, "I told her exactly what she had to do."  Kirk says "You set that up?  I almost married her!"

This scene accomplishes two important things: it tells us how long, and how intimately, Mitchell and Kirk have known each other; and it suggests that Mitchell has always been a little manipulative.  It's never spelled out, but obviously, if you think about it, these new abilities have given him the power to do more of what he's always enjoyed:  playing games with people, tricking them, generally interfering with their lives. It's not really true that he was changed into a different person.  Classic Trek isn't known for its subtlety . . . but it is there. That scene is very well done.

Another interesting thing about this episode is that it takes ESP (psychic powers) for granted.  Starfleet apparently tests people for "esper" skills, and we're told that Mitchell got a very high score.  Only in the 1960's could such a thing be seriously discussed and included in a science fiction show.

From what I've seen so far, classic Trek is an odd combination of optimism and paranoia.  The optimism is expressed in the bright color scheme and bright lighting, as well as the multiracial cast and the implication that humans are no longer at war with each other.  The paranoia is found in the fact that, as far as I can recall, most episodes of TOS involve encountering some entity with superhuman powers and destroying it.  There are a few exceptions, but for the most part we learn that the universe is full of hostile creatures and humans are plucky little heroes who succeed against all odds, rather like Hobbits.  (Mitchell becomes evil because he is no longer human.  Except, of course, he is.) 

On the one hand, the show argues that power corrupts.  On the other hand, our heroes are always justified in using whatever power they have in whatever way they see fit, because they are the Good Guys.  Everybody else is either misguided or downright evil.  Kirk pays lip service to the Prime Directive of non-interference, but really, how often does he abide by it?  Is he actually capable of visiting a planet and saying, "Well, I disapprove of the way these people live their lives, but I can't do anything about it.  Prime Directive!  End of episode!"  No.

It's also interesting that Kirk constantly praises the value of emotion; or rather, Spock's complete reliance on logic gives him the opportunity to praise emotion.  To what extent does this undercut Kirk's masculinity?  I was impressed by how often Kirk seems to be acting from the heart.  And of course, the episodes are structured so that he usually has to destroy the baddie of the week in order to save his crew.  How very nurturing of him.

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