Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.3: Count The Men Who Have Gone Before

Where No Man Has Gone Before

Star Trek TOS Where No Man Has Gone Before

“Watch as I foil Kirk’s plans! Get it? Eye foil? Huh?” “Your puns are terrible.” “MY PUNS ARE THE PUNS OF A GOD!”

It’s the second pilot! By which I mean this was the second attempt to get a green light after “The Cage” was rejected. Though Mitchell is the Enterprise’s second helmsman named in the show as broadcast. Except maybe not really, since Sulu started off as a botanist and right now is an astrophysicist. Basically I’m saying this episode has a reputation for confusing matters somewhat.

A Matter Of Timing

Let’s get this out of the way, then. I don’t think there’s really anything of interest to be said about the sudden changes in cast, vocation, colours, and the degree to which turtlenecks are in fashion. My partner complained it was harder to tell from the start who was going to die (the answer remains “Anyone who isn’t Scotty, but shares his fashion sense”), but what else about the changes particularly matter? They have no larger significance within the fictional universe. They’re easily explained by the realities of television production. And really, the only reason this can even count as a continuity glitch is if you insist this episode being broadcast after “The Man Trap” and “Charlie X” means it must be set after them too. Which seems like a rather limiting way to view storytelling. Particularly now that we’re in the 21st century. It’s been a while since TV shows have felt the need to slap a date onto the screen every time scenes play out in non-chronological order. Maybe we should up our game accordingly.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say about the choice to air this episode third, though. One thing that decision clearly does is to lessen the impact of both Mitchell and Kelso’s deaths. Had this been the first episode shown, it would have been easy to read Mitchell and Kelso as main cast members. That would give Kelso’s sudden death at least an additional weight. And whilst that very murder rather closes the door on the possibility that Mitchell would be back the following week, until that point both Gary Mitchell’s friendship with Kirk and Gary Lockwood’s combination of looks and charm also suggest we might have him around for the long haul. One could even make the same point regarding Dr Dehner, though the revolving door for pretty female guest stars was – and is – a sufficiently common problem in television for that to be a harder sell. So why hobble all that by putting this third in the running order?

We already know part of this. The reasons why this episode ended up being broadcast after “The Man Trap” are well-documented and thoroughly discussed. What’s more interesting to me is why this ended up behind “Charlie X” as well. The two stories share clear similarities, being both about men having godlike powers that they wield like petty misogynists. Putting them right next to each other is a strange decision. Perhaps even a worrying one. Is this really the span of a brand-new show’s imagination? Could this be any further from IDIC? And even after making that highly questionable decision, why hold this back a week so you can first subject your nascent audience to the burning sewage tanker shipwreck of “Charlie Evans’ Adventures In Omnipotent Gittishness”?

I can think of a couple of possibilities other than someone just sticking pins in the production schedule whilst giggling childishly. Maybe it was decided to give viewers a couple of chances to see Shatner and Nimoy more settled into their roles before hanging up the rough drafts for us to shuffle past. Perhaps it was important to establish the supporting characters and visuals that would remain more or less constant across the rest of the season over two episodes so that “Where No Man…” is recognisable as deviation rather than replacement.

Whether any of those are the actual reason, though, the resulting ordering is absolutely the correct one. A large part of why is obvious; “Charlie X” is utterly terrible, and this episode isn’t. Repackaging the same story therefore reads as an admission that something went wrong and needs to be sorted out. “Where No Man…” is a course correction; an immediate refinement and restatement of something that originally failed to do the job it was supposed to. An episode-long request to go back and start over. Reverse these episodes and instead you’d have a reasonable stab at an old story immediately echoed by a car crash in a tar pit, which would work far less well.

Naturally, this argument only works if I can demonstrate that “Where No Man…” is a real improvement over “Charlie X”. I mean, I think it’d be hard to argue it’s worse, but I need to show more than that. I need to show it corrects mistakes, rather than just makes them in less terrible ways. That might seem like a big ask considering how much of what I found objectionable about the earlier episode was its gender politics, and Peeple’s script gets a lot of grief for similar reasons. And I really do get why that is. I see something else here, though.

The Heart’s Command

Let’s start with the obvious: this is not a new story. Fiction has battered around the question of how human beings might handle the sudden onset of unimaginable power – either in themselves or others – for literally millennia. By this point the roles in that story are entirely familiar. Someone will see a tragedy, someone a threat, and someone an opportunity. Often there’s an unsympathetic authority figure around who takes one of the latter two roles. They’ll be paranoid if the narrative wants us to feel sympathy for whomever is being transformed, and obsessed with the possibilities if the story wants us to think the erstwhile average Joe is clearly dangerous. Meanwhile, the person who sees the transformed person as a blameless victim of circumstance is usually a family member or love interest. When that isn’t true, it’s instead a sympathetic scientist surrounded by “clear-headed” (read: unempathic) colleagues.

The great strength of this episode is that it includes all three roles, but swaps two of them around. The authority figure and sympathetic lover/scientist trade places. It’s clear throughout that it’s Kirk seeing the tragedy, and Dehner the possibility. Just on its own terms that’s a nice inversion that I’ve never seen anyone give the episode credit for. But it also opens up a rather lovely possibility: what if by having Kirk see the tragedy of Mitchell’s fate the episode makes him the love interest?

Quite aside from the slash opportunities this opens up (you think no man turned our captain’s head before Spock first reported to the bridge?), framing Jim and Gary as a tragic bromance both further shakes up a cliched tale and at least lessens the sting of Kirk’s failure to yell at Mitchell forever for how awfully he treats women. And we need that sting lessened. Mitchell’s casual sexism is by far the weakest aspect of the episode. Bad enough watching him first neg and then insult Dr Dehner on the bridge. Ugly enough that he complains to his captain that he isn’t being given a prettier and/or easier woman to keep an eye on him. Having Kirk not call him on it makes it even worse. It’s thoroughly disgraceful on its own terms, but it also weakens everything going forward, because “what if a man became God?” is a rather less interesting question when the man in question is a sexist jerk.

Cast Kirk as Mitchell’s love interest, though, and things improve. Now the story’s subtext becomes about what happens when the man you love becomes ever more unpleasant. When the flaws in his character that were always there (Kirk is clearly aware of and unhappy about Mitchell’s misogyny: “Consider it a challenge” is a line Shatner injects with obvious discomfort) have started to become insurmountable problems. Kirk’s refusal to see the seriousness of the situation becomes an extension of an already advanced state of denial. He can’t face the fact the man he loves just isn’t very nice. As Gary’s unpleasantness grows, so does Kirk’s self-delusion about how there isn’t really a problem here. And all of it stems from his initial refusal to risk his relationship with Mitchell by doing what should be his job, both as captain of the ship and an actual human being, and shut down his helmsman’s sexist behaviour.

(This isn’t to say at all that I think in general that men’s partners are responsible for correcting their faults. Kirk is a clear special case.)

You could argue perhaps that this reading damages Kirk. But is it any better if he’s allowing Mitchell to verbally abuse women on the ship because “bros before hos”? Besides, the show does so much damage to the captain’s character over its run that not dressing down crewmen who make sexist comments if he’s sleeping with them doesn’t seem like it’d even be a candidate for one of the top ten worst problems Kirk demonstrates.

Being Nice Isn’t Flirting

Another advantage to casting Kirk as Mitchell’s love interest is that it frees up Dehner to do something more interesting. Which is maybe not a word many associate with her. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Dehner’s role in this episode, and whilst I understand entirely where it’s coming from, my take is a little different. Let’s sift through the reasons to take issue with Dehner’s character. First, the script completely fails to notice how totally unacceptable Mitchell’s comments to Dehner are. That’s an obvious problem, but it’s not really a criticism of Dehner herself. You could argue the fact she doesn’t tear into Mitchell on the bridge then and there is an issue, but it’s not clear to me – cis-het man that I am – that her tactic of raising the issue in private is the worse approach. You might also point out that him revealing a clearly unpleasant side should stop her falling for him. That’s a perfectly reasonable stance to take, but also one that clearly isn’t held by a significant proportion of actual heterosexual women in the actual world. Even the ones that have PhDs in psychology.

If, indeed, Dehner is falling for Mitchell at all. There’s actually not a great deal here supporting that reading (yes, I’m aware of the irony of demanding textual evidence a few paragraphs after claiming Kirk and Mitchell were probably lovers).  For much of the episode, her attitude seems to be a combination of excitement over Mitchell’s potential and basic concern for him as one of her patients. You don’t need a romance angle to make sense of her. You don’t need to want to sleep with someone to object to Spock’s plan to shoot them in the back. Much of the case for Dehner being  attracted to Mitchell – and therefore incapable of being objective and doing her job professionally, itself a lazy assumption – comes from a single command briefing. And yes, that’s a thoroughly wretched scene, with absolutely nothing to recommend it other than Mr Sulu getting to play Renaissance man (and of course I did check his maths). I don’t know if it was an acting call by Kellerman, or the director, or even a note in the script, but someone messed up bad. The decision to have Dr Dehner become more or less literally hysterical as she begs a bunch of stern, sensible men to listen to her about how Mitchell is wonderful was an awful one. And moments later things somehow get even worse as Spock explains his assessment of Mitchell’s mental state is more valid than Dehner’s – despite Dehner being a trained psychiatrist [1] (as Kirk points out) and Spock tending to forget what “irritating” means – because she “feels”, and he doesn’t.

The hideousness here comes in at least three flavours. You have Spock dismissing a woman for being too emotional to do her job. You have the implied smear of psychology as not a properly “logical” discipline. And you have an instance of a repeated failing of TOS in the argument that emotion impedes rational thinking, rather than complimenting it. At this point, the suggestion Dehner started yelling because she’s fallen for Mitchell seems besides the point. Spock is preaching something truly awful here, and the episode is giving him its full backing.

Longhairs Stick Together

Or is it? I’ll come back to Dehner, but let’s stick with the idea that the episode wants us all to be a little more like Spock. There’s an obvious problem with that reading. If we’re supposed to side with Spock because of his total emotional detachment, why does the episode also include Mitchell announcing “Command and compassion are a fool’s mixture!”? That’s pretty similar to what Spock has been arguing since Gary’s eyes turned silver. Having Mitchell echo Spock’s rhetoric like that underlines how problematic it is. So if the show wants to convince us command decisions should be made with complete detachment, it has chosen a funny way to do it.

Spock’s position is further undermined when Gary starts discussing his browser history. Note how Mitchell mocks the intellectual writers Kirk has or had a taste for as “longhairs”, but moments later lays into Spinoza for not being particularly smart. To hear Mitchell tell it, academic thinkers are apparently simultaneously to be mocked for their smartness and also not really smart at all. This is a form of doublethink that should be familiar to anyone who has spent time exposed to the thinking of the far right – intelligence is at once profoundly suspicious to them but also something only they possess. There’s even an echo of fascist rhetoric here. The fascist frequently argues that their enemies are feeble models of inferiority and also an existential threat that must be destroyed as a matter of survival. Somehow the contradiction is never a problem.

So, you know, that’s the kind of dude we’re dealing with.

(This is something of a problem in itself, really. Why is it that nine times out of ten when someone in fiction gains themselves super head-powers they almost immediately turn into a sneering goose-stepper? Why does preternatural intelligence never make anyone nice? I’m not suggesting there has to be positive correlation between intellect – however we might want to define that – and empathy. The repeated suggestion the correlation is strongly negative bothers me nevertheless. Especially since Mitchell has gained the ability to read other people’s minds, and therefore can understand the life experiences of others in a way we can’t imagine. The idea that getting smarter and more able to understand others would lead you to conclude that everyone else is worthless is one I take great exception to.)

So far, this seems like it’s only reflecting poorly on Mitchell. In fact though, Spock gets dragged in too via the Lieutenant’s dismissal of Spinoza.  This is where, even more than usual, I have to acknowledge how thin and creaky the branches I’ve shimmied out on to really are. I’m about as far from an expert in philosophy as it is possible to get whilst still being able to spell it. But, as I (barely) understand it, Spinoza would have poured plenty of scorn upon Mitchell and Spock both.

To simplify – doubtless horrendously – Spinoza argued that God was not a transcendental being separate from us, but instead the some total of what is. Already you can see why Mitchell disliked him – there’s no room for philosophies about non-specific deities when you’re shooting for the big chair yourself. But more importantly, Spinoza also dismissed the idea that reason could defeat emotion. Spinoza, indeed, argued that one gets closer to what he defined as God by rationally understanding your emotions. Yes, letting your current feelings control your actions all the time is a bad idea, but so is trying to distance yourself from them completely. Both feasting and fasting eventually cause damage.

In other words, Spinoza was calling out the Vulcans all the way back in the 17th century. If emotions are critical, then rationality becomes a tool to aid in their processing, not a wall to trap them behind. We excel only when reason and empathy combine. I think that’s a rather lovely idea, but it’s not hard to imagine what the Vulcans would think of it. And again, the explicit villain of the piece is shown to be thinking along the same lines. It’s a jab at the Vulcans many of us might have to do some homework to even recognise, but it’s a jab nonetheless.

“I’m Ordering For Us Both”

Let’s get back to our heroine. Even if all my paddling in the seas of amateur philosophy turns out to be tragically deluded, we still have the fact that Kirk persuades Dehner to attack Mitchell by showing how he’s tossed aside the idea of compassion. And clearly this is a realisation that appalls Dehner so much that she becomes willing to throw away both what seemed like the future of humankind – and probably her own life as well – in order to stop her former patient. This doesn’t land as well as it should, because Kirk also drops in the old saw about absolute power corrupting absolutely, which is a side issue. But at least part of his argument is that what makes Mitchell dangerous isn’t so much what he can do, but how little interest he has in factoring in other people’s feelings about it.

So it isn’t Spock’s tricked-out phaser that carries the day (another undermining of his position). It’s Dehner using her rational mind to realise the importance of empathy, and that this is something Mitchell now entirely lacks. Spock’s “solutions” are shown to be short-sighted and callous, expediency dressed up to look like ineluctable logic. You can’t shoot a God, and you probably can’t maroon them either (certainly Mitchell doesn’t seem remotely worried by the possibility of being left behind by the Enterprise). You can only beat them by hitting them in their blind spot, which in this case is Mitchell’s total disinterest in considering anyone’s motivations but his own. And it’s Dehner who sees all that, and gives up her life to make sure Mitchell runs out of chances to hurt those around him.

And sure, maybe Kirk helped her finally put two and two together. There’s a pretty big clue here though that Dehner’s thinking was heading in that direction even before the captain shows up for the final showdown.  It’s perhaps easily missed, but when Mitchell decides subtext is for lesser beings and summons an alien apple to tempt his “Eve” with, Dehner doesn’t actually eat it. She’s already rejecting Mitchell’s ridiculous “New Eden” plans. She just hasn’t figured out what to do about it.

Once she does, she probably saves the whole galaxy.

In short, she’s a big damn heroine. Losing her patience with a room filled with men who won’t listen to her (what woman in a male-dominated workplace hasn’t at least been tempted to do that, I wonder?) can’t change that in the slightest. Dehner rejects Mitchell, and so Spock as well, and ultimately is shown to be clearly right to do so. That the show fails so totally to understand that fact is a worry, of course.  On its very first outing, Spock’s Vulcan approach has already been fatally torpedoed. And yet no-one seemed to notice. Going forward, that’s going to be a huge problem.

But it isn’t Dehner’s problem. Rest in peace, Doctor. You had it right all along.

[1] Here’s a potentially interesting thought. Dehner researches the stresses put on the human psyche by space exploration. Isn’t there a pretty good chance that, either personally or through her reading, she’s come across other situations in which Federation starships have encountered alien life/stellar phenomena that have resulted in crew-members being physically and mentally altered? And isn’t it also possible these  case-studies tend to end with their crew-mates panicking and pushing their former comrade out of the nearest airlock? Is Dehner too blinded by love to see what’s really happening? Or has she just seen our own worst natures so often that she knows which way the wind will blow?

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