Pilot-“Where No Man Has Gone Before” and making us care

I knew from the cold open that “Breaking Bad” was going to be the most critically applauded show on television.

In the opening sequence, we see a man ready to die. Walt crashes an RV, tries to dispose of his identification, records a heartbreaking message to his family, promising them a sense of understanding in the days to come, draws a handgun, and aims it down the road at the threat to come. It’s a grim opening to a grim show and it sets up a world where the only way to survive is to do the last thing you ever thought you’d have to.

But then there’s “Star Trek.”

In the opening of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Kirk and Mr. Spock are playing 3D chess in what appears to be a yellow tinted space bar on the Enterprise. Kirk is perplexed by Spock’s playing and describes himself as irritated.

“Irritated, ah yes, one of your human emotions,” says the half-alien Spock.

And I was hooked.

I didn’t care that it was a little clumsy. I didn’t care that I had just been thrown at these characters with wild abandon. I didn’t care that I knew nothing of Spock’s heritage or Kirk’s history. It was an efficient draw for viewers regardless of interest. It’s light world building with intriguing characterization. I was more interested in watching scenes like this than seeing any resolution to the actual plot, the arrival of the black box from the SS Valiant.

Contrasting the openings of the two shows isn’t particularly fair. From what I can gather of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was that the creators weren’t going for a serialized show. They wanted a showcase to address a socio-political issue from within the safety of science fiction. There’s no attempt to create a narrative arc longer than 50 minutes here, but in a way, the pilot of “Star Trek” works so much better than the one offered to us in “Breaking Bad” and for that matter, most serialized television.

Don’t get me wrong, after just one episode of “Star Trek,” I would never argue that it is better than “Breaking Bad,” but as far as creating a world that viewers want to return to and watch, it is a far greater success.
Most of this is because of a focus on relationships over one character and plot, but that’s not quite right. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” focuses on the relationship between Kirk and Mitchell, who has received boosted psychic powers after colliding with a strange electrical barrier, but the show is really about Kirk and Spock, and although we get no sense of history or even friendship between the two, there is a distinct sense of mutual respect and trust. These are professionals whose job appears to be staying alive in an unexplored area where everything and anything could go wrong. I don’t feel like I really know either character, but I feel like I know what’s between them.

The idea of trust comes across most clearly in the scene in what appears to be a space conference room where Sulu, Scott (who I believe might be “Scotty” of “beam me up” fame), Spock and the increasingly influenced Dehner discuss with Kirk what they should do about the increasingly powerful Mitchell. There’s a sense of clinical indifference from the crew. They need to know all the information in order to guarantee the survival of the Enterprise, but they are people, and particularly Dehner and Kirk try to take a humanistic approach to dealing with the threat.
But not Spock, who is an ice-cold bastard.

Maybe it’s just having not watched the show or understanding the depths of Spock’s “I only understand logic” mentality, but his insistence on eliminating Mitchell seems strange to me as a modern viewer watching something made in an era who’s popular entertainment rarely dipped into matters this brutal. He frankly contradicts Dehner’s beliefs about Mitchell not being a threat, and tells Kirk to “kill Mitchell while you still can,” and Kirk is genuinely affected by Spock’s statement. The idea of a back and forth between the logical beliefs of Spock and Kirk’s humanism and good-will is set up as soon as Kirk says “Will you try for one moment to feel? At least act like you’ve got a heart.”

The crew eventually forces Mitchell onto Delta Vega, an isolated wasteland that’s landscape and machinery looks like it was perfectly pulled off the cover of a bargain bin ‘50s sci-fi novel, where he knocks most of the crew unconscious with what I call his god-lightning-flash-magic, and takes the rapidly developing Dehner to create their own paradise on the uninhabited planet.

Kirk wakes up and goes after them with his phaser rifle, leaving Spock behind for reasons that I can’t quite understand. I guess it’s because he read the script and needed a one on one showdown with a god/former-student. Regardless, I think he would have and should have just taken Spock. How is Spock helping by staying behind? Does Kirk gain anything by doing this? He may have had to awkwardly karate chop Mitchell a lot less had he had his pointed eared second-in-command shooting rocks with him.

Either way, the crisis is averted. Mitchell is dead, and new-god Dehner is left alone on Delta Vega to spend life in solitude. Kirk gives the two of them an honorable death on the report and that wraps it up. Time to jet around in the galaxy some more.

So, how much works? Probably about 80%. The scene with Dehner and Mitchell in the sick bay is awkward in all the wrong ways, the electric space wall is all kinds of awful, a couple scenes go on far too long, and there’s not much in the way of resolution to the story of the Valiant. Maybe that’s me not knowing the structure of “Star Trek” yet, but it seemed like that would be what the Enterprise would be most interested in.

However, what works is great. The relationship between Spock and Kirk is great fun to watch, the sense of a throwback adventure is exciting and interesting for even someone jaded by the grit and realism of television today, and a few scenes are just great. Mitchell forcing Kirk to pray is effective and jarring, especially for a pilot episode in 1966. Mitchell also scores major points for selling the moment when he looks into the security camera as Spock watches him on the bridge.

Overall, it’s a great introduction to a series, and it only leaves me hopeful for what is to come.

Random Notes:

Clue This Was Made in the 60s: There’s poetry written by humans on other planets. However, the poem was written in 1996. Let’s get on it, space poets.

What the fuck is up with leaving Spock in the power station? Seriously?

At the beginning, everyone seems really nervous about entering warp speeds. Is this normal?

Those silver contacts that Mitchell and Dehner are wearing look like they really fucking hurt.

The boulder that Kirk accidentally pushes down when he is going after Mitchell and Dehner is the loudest and lightest fake rock I have ever seen.

I didn’t really get to touch on it, but the idea of responsibility is pushed to the forefront towards the end of the episode. Kirk has to save his crew and defeat Mitchell and he knows that, but Mitchell really drives it home when he says “Command and compassion is a fool’s mixture.”

Really, is Spock’s title just “Mr.”? That seems really odd. I feel like Spock would be ‘Dr.” or something of the sort. Then again, I’m not super sure what he does, besides push Kirk away from the controls when they hit the space wall.

I don’t really have much of an interest in providing intense episode recaps. For now, this is probably what is to be expected for focusing on the story.

Next up: “The Man Trap” which I assume is about venus-fly-style killer plants, which are also vaginas.


An Introduction: The Original Series, and the reasons why I’m not fucking

The only galaxy I’ve ever known was one that existed a long time ago, far far away.

As a child, I was a Star Wars devotee. I owned hundreds of action figures, scores of Micromachine replicas, and VHS tapes of the original series. I was a fan unlike few I knew at the time.

Of course, I have met others who surpassed me, writing fan fiction and attending conventions and talking to me about other sci-fi.

Namely, “Star Trek.”

I don’t know how I’ve ignored “Star Trek” for 20 years of my life. “The Next Generation” was on when I was growing up, and the original series was still on in syndication. I certainly had an interest in science fiction and television of the past. I had the time to watch it when I wasn’t thinking about boobs and robots punching each other. Even as I got older, I had an affinity for long running dramas and sci-fi. I watch a lot of television, and it’s not like I didn’t occasionally come across reruns of the original series or the multitude of spin-offs.

And it wasn’t like I wasn’t doing other cultish-nerdy things. My all time favorite show is the admittedly, overly complex, rarely cohesive and maddeningly frustrating “The X-Files.” I played tore through fantasy novels and sci-fi novels before graduating to cult reading like Burroughs and Thompson. I read H.P. Lovecraft religiously. I devoted about a year of my junior high life to playing “Starcraft” against Koreans and losing. I dip in and out of Batman comics and have maintained a passive interest in debating the validity of the works of Alan Moore (he’s an overrated lout).

Somehow, “Star Trek” just slipped through the cracks.

And then a funny thing happened. “Star Trek” became culturally relevant again.

A lot of this is because of J.J. Abrams, and not only in the most obvious of ways. The success of serialized TV that attracted a cult audience wasn’t his invention, but it harked back to the Trekkie ideal. So when he rebooted the franchise for a blockbuster film, it seemed only natural that not only would long time fans see the film, but anyone turned on by the new era of television would be interested in what was marketed as a fun, action packed, safely geeky movie.

And of course, I didn’t see it.

Like I said, if anything, my pop culture consuming past is one that is focused on completion. If I was going to see “Star Trek” I was going to have to revisit “Star Trek,” the mother and see how it all started. And frankly, I wasn’t that interested in going back to the source. I was a fan of the new age of science fiction, one that had keenly combined the ideas of social commentary, violence and technology in a digestible way that not only was entertaining, but was designed to hook audiences and continue to bring them back to a show week after week. I didn’t know if I was going to find that in a show that was nearly 45 years old.

But for no reason, all that has seemed to change.

I have suddenly developed more than just a passing interest in a show I have never watched. I want to watch it. I want to look at a show that inspired a cult that is still going strong. I want to see what made William Shatner a star. I want to see why Leonard Nimoy can just kind of show up on “Fringe.” I want to know who the fuck Sulu is.

So that’s where this comes along. I plan on writing about every episode of the first season of the original series, with continuing to the other seasons if it proves interesting. I’m walking into the series blind. However, this is a series that has sunk into the world of pop culture better than most series can ever hope to, and certain assumptions need to be made now about what I know walking in.

1.    I have never watched an episode of “Star Trek,” watched an episode of any of the spin-offs of the series, or seen any of the movies, so most trivial details are totally unknown. I may have seen about 10 minutes of “Nemesis” once, but it could have been something else. I don’t know the ranks of any of the characters beyond Kirk, nor do I have any knowledge on how the ships or teleporters or any manor of other technology works.

2.    I have only a basic understanding of the characters. I know that the ship is called the Enterprise and that Kirk is played by Shatner and is the captain. I know that Spock is a half (?) alien and is second and command and that he dies in “Wrath of Khan.” I’m pretty sure someone on board drinks regularly and that there is a robot named Data, but that might be a different series. Pretty much, I know what has seeped into the general pop-culture consciousness.

3.    I know that there is a governing body that rules the galaxy or maybe just the humans. Phasers are used as weapons.

4.    Someone once explained the Primary Directive to me and acted like this might make me interested in the show. I think the basics are that ships can’t influence developing civilizations and that humanity’s role is mainly as an observer.

5.    There are shitloads of hammy Shakespeare references in most of the movies.

6.    There are several species of aliens that are featured in the series but all I know of are the Vulcans and the Klingons. I know there is Borg, but I think that they don’t make an appearance until “The Next Generation.”

7.    There are creatures known as Tribbles and they can be troublesome.

8.    “The Big Bang Theory” has given me a working knowledge of Spock’s cool-headed rationalism, and I can only assume that he is used as a counter to brash action on the part of other characters.

9.    I think the show follows a sort of “Twilight Zone”-everybody-learns-a-semi-topical-lesson logic, but that might be totally off base. I thought there were lessons learned, but I’m pretty sure there are still episodes solely focused on blowing shit up.

So what is this going to be? I’m not sure yet. I’ve become a big fan of serialized television of all kinds, so I can’t help but think that all of the posts are going to be me analyzing story and character development, but I don’t know if that’s quite fair to the series. I plan on looking at “Star Trek” critically, but knowing that it is a product of another time. Also, I really want to look at the series and try to find what drove people crazy for it. What is it about “Star Trek” that created culture’s most devoted and abiding fan base?

In the coming days, I will buy the box set. I will watch an episode. And this will all begin. I’m sure there is a quote I could use about courageously moving into unexplored territory that has never been analyzed by another person, but I am unable to think of what it might be.