A Close Reading of Star Trek’s ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’

When I was kid, watching syndicated reruns of original series Star Trek episodes on Saturday afternoon with my dad, I thought the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which first aired on Sept. 22, 1966, was the best episode of the series. But as an adult, I see the episode very differently now. In fact, I think it’s perhaps the mostly aptly named episode in the original series, though not for reasons the show’s creators had in mind. 

Though one of the earliest episodes produced, it’s consistently listed by critics as one of the original series’ best efforts. And while it’s presented as a straightforward illustration of the axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely—words actually spoken during the dénouement—the episode is far better at showing danger posed by the misogynistic monsters that live within powerful men, and the lengths others will go to protect those men even after they’ve committed heinous crimes. 

 “Where No Man” was Star Trek’s second pilot, filmed at a time when it wasn’t clear Star Trek would even become a television series, but its plot became standard fare for Star Trek. The USS Enterprise comes across the wreckage of a ship previously thought lost, then must learn from the mistakes made by that crew before falling to a similar fate. In this case, the Enterprise happens upon the damaged recorder beacon of the SS Valiant, lost two centuries earlier in an apparent act of self-destruction—ordered by the captain because at least one crewmember had become a dangerous threat following the ship’s attempted passage through the “Great Barrier,” an energy ribbon at the edge of our galaxy. 

After listening to Spock’s eerie narration of the Valiant’s recorder, Captain James Kirk orders the Enterprise to cross the Barrier, which severely damages the ship’s engines, kills nine crewmembers and injures two others—Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell, a friend of Kirk’s for 15 years, and Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a psychiatrist who recently joined the ship. Though both Mitchell and Dehner seem fine, Mitchell’s eyes are now glowing silver. It turns out he and Dehner (and the nine dead crewmembers) all exhibit high Extra Sensory Perception (ESP), and the Great Barrier has in some way heightened those abilities. Mitchell grows tremendously powerful at an alarming rate, developing strong psychic and telekinetic abilities, forcing Kirk to wonder if he must kill him before he grows too strong. 

Though just 50 minutes long, the episode (written by Samuel A. Peeples and directed by James Goldstone) makes clear that Mitchell was a monster long before the Enterprise attempted to pass through the Great Barrier. His dialogue with Dehner on the bridge, just moments before the Enterprise attempted to leave the galaxy, illustrates this:

Mitchell: “Improving the breed, Doctor—is that your line?”

Dehner: “I heard that’s more your specialty, Commander—line included.”

Mitchell [to Lt. Kelso, thinking Dehner is out of ear-shot]: “Walking freezer unit.”

Mitchell’s actions—first hitting on a fellow crewmember on the bridge, in front of both junior and senior officers, then denigrating her to a fellow crewmember when he thinks she can’t hear him—are misogynistic. He’s exemplifying feminist philosopher Kate Manne’s definition of misogyny as the “police force” of sexism—the ways in which society sanction women who don’t adhere to patriarchal codes and rules (in this case, Dehner’s refusal to respond favorably to Mitchell’s blatant sexual innuendo). The fact that Mitchell has done this on the bridge, mere feet from the captain and while the ship is heading on a very risky course, shows both his complete disregard for professional colleagues and his own feeling of invincibility.

Later in sick bay after his transformation has begun, Mitchell expands on his misogynistic history of treating women as sex objects, calling Dehner a “good-looking lady doctor” and telling Kirk that back at the academy (when he was a student and Kirk a young instructor), Mitchell only managed to pass his class by steering a young woman to Kirk in hopes of distracting him. “I almost married her!” Kirk thunders at Mitchell. The two men also reminisce about how Kirk hasn’t been this worried about Mitchell since they encountered another woman on the world Deneb IV. “She was nova, that one,” Mitchell recalls, clearly fondly. “Not nearly as many after-effects, this time.”

Kirk also reinforces Mitchell’s misogyny with some of his own, telling him to think of Dr. Dehner, who is monitoring Mitchell despite the fact that he clearly still resents her rejecting his advance, as a “challenge.”

Dehner, who late in the episode is also shown to benefit from vastly increased ESP powers, stands in sharp contrast to Mitchell. Whereas Mitchell, a Starfleet officer of considerable standing and a longtime friend of Kirk, never hesitates to use his increased ESP abilities to gain power and assume godhood, Dehner takes a much different path. Indeed, Dehner’s actions throughout the episode directly contradict the stated view that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Though never quite as strong as Mitchell, it’s clear that, given enough time, she will be. Yet Dehner repeatedly hesitates to use her powers for her own benefit. After Mitchell murders Lt. Kelso (the same crewmember he confided in when insulting Dehner early in the episode) and then he and Dehner flee the Enterprise crew on the planet Delta Vega to build a new world for themselves, Dehner seems uninterested in becoming a god. 

Why Dehner even sets off with Mitchell isn’t clear. The show creators clearly seem to believe it’s because the onset of her god-like powers make Mitchell the only person around that she has anything in common with, yet Mitchell has done little if any actual good for Dehner in the episode. Indeed, much of his actions toward her have been aggressive, even abusive. 

Later, when they sense Kirk getting close and Mitchell tells Dehner to go see him—to see how puny he truly is when compared to them—she tries to convince Kirk to leave rather than kill him. Though a “god” now, she’s still behaving like a stereotypical human woman—sympathetic, thoughtful, generous. In fact, Kirk is only alive at the end of the episode because of Dehner’s actions, and sacrifice, in attacking Mitchell to drain his power when Kirk tries to kill him.

Written as a psychiatrist at a time in the future when gender equality has apparently been achieved, Dehner is nonetheless a product of late 20th century sexism. She has two vocal tones—subdued, almost to the point of sounding like she’s on Quaaludes, and melodramatic. At one point, she even apologizes to Mitchell for her rejecting him, telling him that “women professionals do tend to overcompensate”—a ghastly example of how women can internalize misogynistic controls that promote men for certain behaviors (confidence, ambition) while alternately punishing women who attempt to behave in the same manner. For this reason, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that after Mitchell dies her first words to Kirk—while she lay dying after saving him from certain death—are “I’m sorry.”

The end of the episode is also an excellent example of what Manne dubbed “himpathy” in her 2017 book Down Girl: the “excessive sympathy sometimes shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence.” Not only does Kirk refuse to condemn Mitchell in his official dispatch on the events we’ve just seen—“He didn’t ask for what happened to him,” Kirk says, apparently not concerned that Lt. Kelso also didn’t ask for Mitchell to murder him—but we’ve also seen myriad examples of Kirk refusing to sanction Mitchell for his pre-ESP misogyny. Had he done so, it’s arguable Mitchell would not have been on the Enterprise when it passed through the Great Barrier, thus saving Lt. Kelso’s life and preventing the need for Kirk to agonize over whether to kill his good friend.

Kirk’s refusal to condemn Mitchell also erases Dehner’s repeated acts of defiance against Mitchell—something that should have been impossible given the show creators’ views that absolute power corrupts “absolutely.” Her resistance to Mitchell wasn’t merely one powerful being attempting to knock off another out of rivalry—her previous attempts to get Kirk to leave her and Mitchell alone were acts of sympathy, and it’s clear that she ultimately attacks Mitchell to assist Kirk. All this begs a question Kirk never asks: if Dehner could retain her humanity even when given ultimate power, why couldn’t Mitchell? Because he was already a monster seems not to be something the men who wrote and directed this episode wanted to address.

This gets to why any examination of sexism in Star Trek is a complicated, tricky affair—literally. In the mid-1960s, the show won well-deserved praise for casting a Black woman (Nichelle Nichols) and a Japanese man (George Takei) in key roles that could easily have gone to white actors. But while show creator Gene Roddenberry deserves credit for those casting decisions, his actions behind the scenes arguably nurtured the exact sexism he was ostensibly fighting.

We can see this in the treatment of Yeoman Smith, who is pretty much a non-entity in the episode. Portrayed by former model Andrea Dromm, Smith only appears in the first act; she basically just tells Kirk her name, then stands awkwardly next to him on the bridge as the ship attempts to traverse the Great Barrier. It was a “non-part,” Star Trek screenwriter Herb Solow and producer Robert Justman assert in their 1996 book Inside Star Trek, that Roddenberry created simply so he could “score with her.”

It’s well-reported now that at the time of filming “Where No Man,” Roddenberry—then married to Eileen Anita-Rexroat—was having an affair with the actress Majel Barrett, who had played “Number One” in the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage.” Sexist NBC executives had balked at having a woman be the first officer of a starship, so Roddenberry ditched that character when it came time to film a second pilot (though Barrett was eventually cast in the series as Nurse Christine Chapel). 

Though Dromm herself said she “had no problems with Gene at all” in Tom Lisanti’s 2003 book Drive-In Girls, the fact that Solow and Justman perceived that Roddenberry had cast Dromm for sexual reasons was unquestionably toxic to Dromm. Indeed, she never worked in Star Trek after “Where No Man,” though the reason isn’t clear—she insists she got a part in the movie The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming and had to leave the show, while the blog Star Trek Fact Check unearthed a letter from Roddenberry to Dromm’s agent saying the actress was cut loose (like so many others) because of “changes in format, budget structure, and character concepts” after NBC green-lighted Star Trek as a series.

In any case, the whole role of Yeoman Smith was a sexist nightmare, as NBC public relations materials released at the time of filming make clear: “YEOMAN SMITH, who has drawn the important assignment of secretary to the Captain on her first mission in deep space, is easily the most popular member of Kirk’s staff,” states the network’s PR copy. “A capable secretary and efficient dispenser of instant coffee, she also provides a welcome change of scenery for eyes that have spent long hours scanning the vast reaches of space.” 

If network executives and Star Trek’s own show-runner conceived of an entire castmember in purely misogynistic terms, then it’s no wonder the episode’s writer and director couldn’t see a monster they themselves created.

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