Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (September 22, 1966)

"Where No Man Has Gone Before"
Writer: Samuel A Peeples
Director: James Goldstone

Producer: Gene Roddenberry

The second Star Trek pilot much more strongly resembles the finished series, which makes sense as this was the one that won NBC approval. That said, it still feels like a weird halfway point in terms of cast and the look of the show between the first pilot and the eventual series, making it enough like the show that they did air it with the rest of the series' first run, but enough not like the show that it's very weird they chose to air it third in the broadcast order.

The whole cast has changed with the exception of Nimoy as Spock, who has a very severe make-up job in this episode and wears a gold uniform unlike every other entry in the series. They're still roughing out who Spock is at this point -- he still has the occasional smug grin, still shouts across the bridge, and seems rather harsh. But they've started to establish that his species "doesn't have feelings", that he's devoted to logic. They're honing in on him.

The biggest change though, is the new captain. As James Kirk, William Shatner brings an undeniable energy, vitality, a joie de vivre that really electrifies the show and wakes it up. People have ragged on his "hammy" over-the-top style for years, but the fact is that it really helps the show feel exciting and alive and also from seeming to take itself too seriously. Which is what Shatner felt the show needed after watching the first pilot. Amazingly, Kirk seems to emerge in the episode fully formed: he's courageous, heroic, daring, compassionate, competent, intelligent, strategic, philosophical, charming, in other words he's a great hero. The one thing that's missing so far is a sense of relationship with his crew -- his interactions with Spock are on a level of professional familiarity, not the best friends relationship they'll later develop, and there's no one as close to him as McCoy becomes.

Instead Kirk's friendship is with Gary Mitchell, the guest star character this episode who starts as a regular bridge crewmember who's known Kirk for years but gets blasted with space magic from the edge of the galaxy and turns into a god. Thus the themes of the episode become the use of power, its abuse, human frailty, the need for compassion, and emotion versus pragmatism. As Gary becomes more powerful he becomes more dangerous, but Kirk can't bring himself to kill his old friend despite Spock's insistence. It's a testament to the episode that with its network-mandated greater emphasis on action and excitement, it still manages to maintain a philosophic tone and a statement about the human condition, thus establishing a winning Star Trek formula.

James Doohan and George Takei join the cast as Scotty and Sulu, but they aren't given much to do. Scotty does make a bit of an impression, but Sulu here is an "astrophysicist" rather than helmsman and his one big line comes down to the Trekkian "explain the plot by way of metaphor" line. The actor playing the ship's doctor is a complete nonentity and much inferior to the first pilot. You can see why they replaced him again when it came time to go to series.

One thing that's interesting is that while nothing is stated outright, "Where No Man..." feels like it's nearer the beginning of Kirk's mission than "The Cage" did with Pike. While the Yeoman in the first pilot was new to the ship, you got the feeling that everyone else had been working under Pike for some time, and were fiercely loyal to him. In "Where No Man..." while it's clear that Kirk's been commanding this crew for a while, and has worked with Gary Mitchell for a long time, he seems to not know Spock or the other crewmembers as well. There's a bit more of a sense of being near the beginning of things, although it's still in media res as it were, without the "origin" elements that you'd see in the first episode of any modern TV show.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" isn't quite as impressive as "The Cage", and it still feels embyronic, but it's recognizably Star Trek and a much better indication of what the series would be.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The Cage" (Unaired Pilot)

"The Cage"
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Robert Butler
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

The original Star Trek series debuted fifty years ago this September, on NBC. I've been a huge fan of the show since around first or second grade, and while Deep Space Nine is undoubtably my favourite, the original incarnation has always come a close second. I've started watching the original series with my wife, who has seen many of the episodes on television reruns before, but never made a point of going through the series. We're going in production order, so we started with the original unaired pilot of the series, "The Cage".

I've written Star Trek reviews before, but they were more like short capsule reviews of a series at a time. This time I thought I'd try to go more into depth with each episode.

"The Cage" is definitely prototype Star Trek. In the 52 years since it was produced, it still ranks as one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking installments of the franchise, but it also feels weird in places. It's "the road not taken", similar enough to Star Trek as a whole, but different enough from the series that followed that it feels like it could be an episode from a different TV show.

If you watch this right after the 1956 feature film Forbidden Planet you'll immediately see the resemblance and the inspiration from that feature, to the point where this could almost be a spin-off. If you're familiar with the original series, this pilot is a bit bizarre, but undoubtably fascinating.

The whole cast is different, except Leonard Nimoy as a very young seeming Spock. And even Spock is different, shouting orders and even smiling at one point. The doctor character is like a prototype McCoy, but much older, and the other characters are sort of recognizable prototypes as well -- the yeoman who has sexual tension with the captain, the cocky young helmsman.

But the Captain and First Officer characters are totally different. Jeffrey Hunter plays Captain Christopher Pike as a much more internalized, doubt-ridden, introspective character than Captain Kirk would be. The character arc of the episode is largely an examination of his depression. Faced with the burden of command, he wishes for an escape from responsibilty, and gets his wish when captured by a race of telepathic aliens who keep placing him in illusionary fantasies for experimental purposes. The episode ultimately comes to state that hardship and difficulties, and overcoming them, are what make us human -- to ignore that means to ignore life and have a kind of living death. When I watch the episode, I can't help but think of the hardcore gaming generation, and the escape from reality into fantasy. It's amazing how much the episode still has to say about the human condition half a century later.

"Number One", who never gets a proper name, is an intelligent, analytical woman played by Gene Roddenberrry's mistress at the time, Majel Barrett. A woman second-in-command of a starship in 1964, she represents a fascinating lost opportunity. What would it have been like if Star Trek had gone to series with a character like that? She's enigmatic in the episode, clearly extremely competent, and never undermined except in a few moments by the Captain or the aliens. But never by anyone junior to her in the command structure.

The production value is very high - it's an extremely well produced episode, in many places looking better than the series itself. The overall look of the show is darker, more sedated, perhaps more "realistic" than the pop art colorful nature of the eventual series. The costumes, sets, and props have a more expensive feel than the show -- even if the design elements feel a bit more dated, like a 1950s idea of the future more than a 1960s one.

"The Cage" does have its problems. As intelligent as its script is, the network was perhaps right in judging it too "cerebral". Its very slow paced at times, often building up tension and suspense only to suddenly drop it for long, sluggish dialogue scenes. Its moments of genuine excitement are too few and far between. And because the episode focuses so intently on Pike, it's hard to get a read on the other characters and an idea of what they'd be like on a weekly basis. Heck, because the episode gives Pike an arc where for most of the episode he no longer wants to be a ship's captain, only deciding at the end of the show that it is indeed the life for him, it's hard to get a read on what the series' lead would have been like week to week! It's an impressive and thought provoking production, but it's a bad pilot.

Which is why it was rejected. NBC didn't like it -- didn't like Jeff Hunter, didn't like Roddenberry's mistress in a lead role, didn't like the lack of action. But they still liked Star Trek, and in an unprecedented move, asked for Roddenberry and the crew at Desilu to try again. This time with William Shatner in the lead, and many other overhauls in cast, look, and concept. The rest was history.

But "The Cage" remains an irresistable "what-if" for the franchise, and must-see viewing for any diehard Trekkie.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage: