“Where No Man Has Gone Before” is an important part of the building blocks of what we now know as Star Trek. Filmed mostly in the summer of 1965, this episode wasn’t aired until over a year later – the fall of 1966 – and then only as a unusual but not pivotal episode of a series that was rapidly becoming established. But in fact, this was the “real” pilot episode of Star Trek, and the one that sold the series to a major network.
Star Trek was produced not by a major network, but by an independent company called Desilu, named after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. (Lucy later bought out her ex-husband and became the sole President and CEO.) Desilu was responsible for attracting talent, financing the production of TV episodes, including hiring all the actors, writers, directors and other crew necessary to that process, but the one thing it couldn’t do was actually put TV shows on the air. In those days, there were only three American networks: ABC, CBS and NBC, and they held the proverbial keys to the kingdom. At the time, Desilu was producing many different series ideas for potential broadcast, including no less than three by a writer and producer (and former cop and pilot) named Gene Roddenberry. Star Trek had already been given a chance, with the pilot “The Cage”, starring Jeffery Hunter, being produced in 1964 and rejected by NBC in 1965. This wasn’t unusual: TV pilots get rejected all the time. But Star Trek was so expensive to produce, with all its sets, conceptual work and special effects, that Desilu wanted to give the series a second chance, so, thinking that it could bring in the whole episode for the rock-bottom price of $200 000, they commissioned a second pilot. There were three scripts in contention: “Mudd’s Women”, about a pimp and three prostitutes who seduce the Enterprise crew with mind-altering drugs; “The Omega Glory” (by Roddenberry himself), a metaphor for the cold war in which a primitive alien society is split into “Yankee” and “Communist” factions, doing battle fuelled by an ideology adopted from an old earth expedition; and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, involving a trip to the edge of the galaxy and two crewmembers who acquire the power of a God. Desilu, after careful consideration, picked the last script.
It was then up to Roddenberry and company to almost completely re-cast the nascent show, with the exception of Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock. While initially chasing after Jack Lord (best known for playing Felix Leiter in Dr. No), the show was lucky enough to find an up-and-coming TV and stage actor from Canada, William Shatner, to play the new Captain, James T. Kirk. Shatner is the butt of many jokes in this day and age – too many, in fact. We forget that at the time he was a serious rising star, and respected as a skilled actor with solid stage chops from his Shakespeare days and an impressive acting range. He had already been a Broadway star, appeared in many TV series, including The Twilight Zone and even had some important roles in big films such as Judgement at Nuremberg. He had even played back-to-back versions of the same radio show in Montreal, once in English and then again in French. (How many Hollywood actors can claim that skill?) Everyone involved in Star Trek remembered feeling very lucky to be able to get Shatner for their starring role. (And his salary, although not as big as the one initially demanded by Jack Lord, was very generous by mid-1960s standards.) The only other actor offered a recurring role was, interestingly enough, George Takei, another rising star, albeit at a lower salary. Another actor making their first appearance on Star Trek in this episode was James Doohan (another Canadian) as Montgomery Scott, a respected war veteran, radio and TV actor, more mature and seasoned than the young star. Doohan was not offered an immediate continuing contract, but he became fast friends with Roddenberry and later became the most personally popular member of the cast. Shooting started in July of 1965 using the sets from “The Cage”, slightly re-designed, and incorporating what turned out to be very expensive special effects that almost doubled the budget of the second pilot. That budget overrun pretty much guaranteed that there would be no third chance. Trek would succeed here or become a pop culture footnote.
Scripted by Samuel Peeples, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” grapples with a familiar mid-century science fiction theme: the investing of flawed human beings with almost inconceivable power. Right from the testing of the first atomic bomb (with Oppenheimer’s famous quoting of the Bhagavad Gita), this was a time of anxiety for the human species. There was a distinct sense, as weapons became more and more powerful, that our reach was exceeding our grasp, and that there would be a price for such a rapid development of such power over the natural world. The metaphor of humans becoming gods, and not particularly benevolent ones at that, had been explored in 1950s science fiction literature (as, by the way, had pretty much all the other major ideas of 20th century science fiction), and here we have the beginning of an interesting pattern with Star Trek, namely the balance between ideas and characters. Star Trek wasn’t like the The Twilight Zone, which due to its anthology nature could take bigger risks on a week-by-week basis and commit completely to a far-fetched idea, pushing the conceptual envelope as far as it could possibly go. Trek tried to address the popular science fiction notions of the day, but was limited by its need to actually create characters and tell stories that audiences would re-visit at regular intervals. Much of 1950s science fiction cinema featured bland collections of military personnel, aping the style of World War II films and recall an experience familiar to much of their audience. Irwin Allen, creator of such series as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Time Tunnel, kept this basic collection of characters constant even as their situations became more outlandish. Star Trek, as we see in this episode, started from that place, but allowed this collection of professional military people to grow and develop, in fits and starts, into characters we as an audience came to love. Therefore, Trek could never be the pure science fiction showcase of Twilight Zone, but instead became something else entirely.
But not right away. From the first scene, featuring Kirk and Spock playing chess and engaging in light banter, this is still very much a group of people in “the service”, as Dr McCoy (yet to join the Enterprise crew) would call it. Their off-duty conversation could be straight out of a submarine movie, or The Dam Busters. Military order is maintained throughout, and even professional scientists are lined up on the bridge like representatives from RAND corporation. But “Where No Man Has Gone Before” finds its heart in the relationship between Kirk and his second-in-command, Commander Gary Mitchell, played by Gary Lockwood, who was contractually obligated to complete this episode before moving to England to begin shooting a well-known film called 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kirk and Mitchell are given a rich backstory, referencing their days at Starfleet Academy, where (among other things) Mitchell set Kirk up with a “cute blonde lab technician”, who he almost married. (Trek lore holds that this person was actually Dr Carol Marcus, who we can presume at this time was mother to a young son by the rogue Captain.) Their wit and banter are straight out of the macho military playbook, but Lockwood and Shatner are such good actors that they really make the material sing.
In fact, it’s the emotional story here that really sets up Kirk’s character for the rest of the series. When Mitchell and psychologist Dr Elizabeth Dehner (played by Sally Kellerman) are turned into gods, and Kirk has to kill them in order to save the day, it’s Mitchell that puts his finger on the issue – “Command and Compassion are a fool’s mixture”. That notion – the idea that the Captain can be friendly and compassionate to his fellow crew but must still make the tough choices and sometimes sacrifice his own people in order to serve the larger good – is a key to character of James T. Kirk. His continuing struggle, between his own heart (or at least his loins) and the needs of his mission and his one true love (the ship itself) defines the emotional range of the man, and the show. How human can one person be in this world without compromising the immediate needs of a mission to explore the universe? How much sacrifice is necessary, and when should it be avoided? These are the challenges faced by Kirk as the show goes on, and while later the ethical questions would be externalized and made explicit by McCoy and Spock (usually arguing for compassion and necessity, respectively), they only served to voice the thought process occurring within Kirk himself. To put it another way, where previous science fiction stories were about whatever idea they sought to explore that week, Star Trek was always (in some way) about Captain Kirk, and that motif of Star Trek starts here.
Another source of creative tension in Star Trek was between Gene Roddenberry and the producers of the show – this would continue up to and including Star Trek: The Next Generation. Roddenberry had very specific thematic obsessions, and one of them was sex. There was plenty of titillation in “The Cage”, and in fact it’s part of the fabric of the story. Later, when Roddenberry proposed a whole species whose civilization was dedicated to sex (the Deltans, for Star Trek: Phase II), it was entirely in keeping with his sense that the erotic should be part of science fiction. Though the second pilot had essentially no sex, explicit or otherwise, in both “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, the female characters are clothed in sweaters and pants, just like their male counterparts, with a severe look. He has Mitchell comment on this appearance and demeanour directly, referring to Dr. Dehner’s lack of sexual drives making her a “walking freezer unit”. But Roddenberry, along with costume designer William Theiss, would find ways of sneaking in a bit of the naughty. In this case, it’s the decision to let Sally Kellerman go braless underneath her sweater, leading to some sometimes-distracting jiggles. In response to the pressure to keep things firmly in place in later costume choices, Roddenberry and Theiss would completely redesign the female wardrobe for the next episode to include bras, but put the women in the shortest of sixties miniskirts and the then-novel sheer dancer’s tights. (Grace Lee Whitney and Nichelle Nichols would engage in some good-natured competition over who could show the most leg through the course of their shared run.)
In terms of pleasing the network imperatives, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” gets the job done handily, featuring guns aplenty (even Spock brandishes a “phaser rifle”) and ending in what became a Trek staple, the Kirk fistfight with the villain of the week. Science fiction ideas and concepts play second fiddle here, and Roddenberry was a willing participant in those compromises. His goal, as a memo of the time reveals, was “to get Star Trek on the air”. In that sense, the episode was a complete success. Star Trek was picked up for the fall of 1966, after over two years of pre-production and filming. (Another Desilu show picked up at the same time was Mission: Impossible, which would become very much a sibling show of Trek, right down to giving Leonard Nimoy a starring role after Trek’s cancellation in 1969.)
The next episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver”, would be a more conventional “pilot” episode, establishing what would become the show’s long-running cast, set, and characterizations, as well as introducing some key characters not seen in this second pilot. But “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was the show that sold Star Trek, so in many ways, we owe it a re-watch this year.