Original Air Date: September 8, 1966
Stardate: 1312.4 (2265)
Writer: Samuel A. Peeples
Director: James Goldstone
“Morals are for men, not gods.”
After NBC initially rejected Gene Roddenberry’s pilot episode for Star Trek entitled “The Cage” (they claimed it was too cerebral) Star Trek was offered the rarest of opportunities: a second chance. This was thanks in part to the earlier efforts of Lucille Ball and her company Desilu Studios which was impressed by the show’s diverse cast, in particular its elevation of women to more prominent roles. Somewhat ironically the series’s second chance removed “Number Two” (Majel Barrett) from the show. Instead of Captain Pike’s character (played by Jeffrey Hunter as featured in “The Cage”) he was replaced by Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner). Shatner had previously made a name for himself in a variety of Broadway productions as well as on The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. He had also previously worked with Leonard Nimoy in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In this first recorded episode of Star Trek, often referred to as the “Second Pilot,” Spock is the only character carried over from “The Cage” (there are unfortunately no appearances by some of the staple characters like Uhura or Dr. McCoy).
In this episode, the USS Enterprise intends to probe beyond the galaxy’s barrier when a distress call is received from the S.S. Valiant, a ship that has been missing for over two centuries. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are in the midst of an “irritating” game of three-dimensional chess which Kirk wins (while Spock suddenly experiences a “human emotion”) and Kirk is called away to monitor the distress signal. The Valiant is found to be within the Enterprise’s tractor beam range but it is revealed to be no larger than an escape pod. When the small vessel is beamed aboard, it is revealed to be merely an old disaster recorder, it was likely jettisoned during an emergency crisis. Spock begins reviewing the badly burned tapes and Kirk orders a staff presence on the bridge where we are introduced to the Enterprise’s life sciences division including a new psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman) who was previously brought aboard at the Aldaboran Colony to study the effects of space travel on the crew.
While investigating the tapes, Spock discovers something unusual. The Valiant had encountered a force field at the edge of the galaxy and shortly thereafter crew members began frantically searching their records for information on extra-sensory-perception (ESP). The captain of the Valiant then ordered the ship to self-destruct. This foreshadowing seems to be an ominous omen for the Enterprise which is headed along the same path as the Valiant. When Kirk directs the Enterprise to exit the galaxy they encounter a similar explosive field which causes an electric storm inside the ship. Several people die and two crew members are struck by the electric field. Their names are Dr. Dehner and Gary Mitchell (an old friend of Kirk’s from the Academy days who apparently once introduced Kirk to a blonde woman he nearly married –perhaps Carol Marcus with whom he had a son per Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Mitchell is played by Gary Lockwood). After the electrical shock, Mitchell’s eyes suddenly appear shiny and he behaves strangely. He reads books like Spinoza’s Ethics at an astounding speed, and he now possesses the ability to drop his own vital signs. He correctly predicts a problem within the starboard impulse packs aboard the Enterprise without physically inspecting them himself. His telepathic powers begin growing exponentially with each passing moment. There is a fascinating scene wherein Kirk convenes his officers to discuss the matter and to deliberate on next steps. At the table, Dr. Dehner represents the optimist –she is in favor of embracing Mitchell a ‘new and evolved’ human being who can become perfected, and so she thinks Mitchell should be studied rather than discarded, while Spock represents a pessimist –he is primarily concerned with the dangers of an all-powerful human being onboard the Enterprise and the threat unchecked god-like abilities pose to the ship. Kirk mulls over the options. Personally, I love seeing scenes like this in which characters are smart, competent, and generally behaving like adults while reasoning about the best approach forward. These moments of steady discussions are almost wholly absent from our present-day cinematic landscape –consider the endless explosions and breakneck pace of the “Kelvin Timeline” Star Trek movies.
At any rate, the Enterprise approaches Delta Vega, a desolate and abandoned mining planet rich in minerals but uninhabited. Kirk and Spock tranquilize and temporarily imprison Mitchell on Delta Vega within an abandoned facility, even as his powers continue to grow stronger. Crewman Kelso is left behind to potentially detonate the self-destruct button on Delta Vega before being beamed back, thus destroying Mitchell and his dangerous powers, but Mitchell quickly kills Kelso by strangling him with loose wiring (using his ESP powers from afar). Meanwhile Dr. Dehner’s powers have also started to develop. Like Mitchell, her eyes also appear shiny and silvery. Then Mitchell and Dr. Dehner flee the facility to live ‘like gods’ in this new world while Kirk chases them down. Notably, in order for them to become ‘like gods’ they must become powerful and therefore evil in the Nietzschean sense. At any rate, in the ensuing dramatic conflict between Mitchell and Kirk, Dr. Dehner bears witness to Lord Acton’s maxim: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In the end, Dr. Dehner helps Kirk defeat Mitchell when she is persuaded of his villainy (she watches as Kirk is forced to bow at the feet of Mitchell) –Kirk kills the monstrous powers within Mitchell the god while also begging forgiveness from Mitchell the man. Following the battle with Mitchell, Dr. Dehner lies in the dirt and before she dies she leaves Kirk with some ominous words:
“I’m sorry. You can’t know what it’s like to be almost a god.”
Once back aboard the Enterprise, Kirk omits this whole escapade from his log by simply stating that both Mitchell and Dr. Dehner died while performing their jobs in the line of duty. Neither of them asked for this to happen and they deserve to have their immaculate service record preserved. Not revealing the full truth can actually serve a good purpose in deep space.
Telepathy and mind control were popular topics in ’60s. The CIA had wrapped up a string of mind control experiments in the ’50s, and the introduction of psychedelic drugs in the ’60s made altered states of mind a somewhat accessible phenomena. The altered state in this episode occurs naturally and spontaneously. The Extra Sensory Perception gives the power to live “like a god.” As in ancient Greece, becoming like a god is a terrifying power, it is at once a touch of evil and also an awe-inspiring state of being. Notably, these fearsome godlike powers do not transform such people into meek and mild servants.
The writer for this episode, Samuel A. Peeples (1917-1997), was a creative consultant for Gene Roddenberry. He was known for coining the famous phrase that Star Trek was Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars.” He declined an offer to become a full writer for Star Trek but he later created the initial story idea for the classic movie Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan.
The Director, James Goldstone (1931-1999), was also a director of several Outer Limits episodes among other shows.
Star Trek Trivia:
- This episode was the “second pilot.” It sold the show after “The Cage” was rejected, but it was not the first episode to air (it was actually the third).
- Actor Gary Lockwood also appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey as Frank Poole. He took the role shortly after completing his stint in this Star Trek episode.
- When Gary Mitchell conjures a gravestone intended to entomb the captain, it reads “James R. Kirk” though we later learn his name is actually James T. Kirk, the animated series identifies the T. as standing for “Tiberius.” An explanation for this is given in the 2009 “Kelvin Timeline” reboot from J.J. Abrams. James was named after his father, and his middle name came from his grandfather: Tiberius.
- The visual effects director Darrell A. Anderson of the Howard Anderson Company suffered several nervous breakdowns when completing the graphics of the USS Enterprise for the opening sequence in this episode.
- In this episode, Mr. Sulu is introduced as a physician but in all future episodes he is a helmsman.
- “The Nightingale” poem which Gary Mitchell reads was actually written by Gene Roddenberry about his World War II airplane.
- There are some notable differences in this episode from the rest of the series: changes to the Enterprise architecture, the fact that all the women wear pants, and Spock’s yellowish skin tone.
- To give the effect of silvery eyes, actors Gary Lockwood and Sally Kellerman wore contact lenses with tin foil in the middle of them. They were extremely uncomfortable for Lockwood who was forced to tilt his head upwards but it worked in the context of his character’s arrogant attitude.
- A close look at the ESP reports on the health screens for Dr. Dehner and Mitchell highlight that Mitchell’s ancestors have a history of “metaphysical studies” and “spiritual readings.”
- Kirk makes an amusing response in this episode: “Nobody but us chickens, Doctor.” It’s a reference to Louis Jordan’s 1946 song “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” The song was apparently inspired by a 1908 anecdote from Everybody’s Magazine, in which a confronted thieving chicken says, “Nobody here ‘ceptin’ us chickens.”
- Cinematographer Ernest Haller was Gene Roddenberry’s fifth choice. When asked for his qualifications, Haller mentioned that he filmed a little movie called Gone With The Wind some decades back.
- During filming of this episode a wasp’s nest was found within the ceiling of the set. William Shatner was stung several times on his face and as such he was mostly filmed from the other side of his face in this episode.
- Per the show’s timeline, Captain Kirk’s five-year mission takes place from 2265-2270, however this episode is the only canonical adventure of the original series that takes place in 2265.
- Gene Roddenberry dubbed this one of his top ten favorite episodes.