Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Politics of Trek: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is the point behind the second pilot created for Star Trek the original series, which was shown as Episode 3: “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It is also a deeply conservative point and it sets the tone for the whole series.
The Plot
As the episode begins, the Enterprise is planning to pass through the barrier that rings the galaxy to see if this is possible. As they approach the barrier, they find an old-style ship recorder from the SS Valiant, a ship no one knew had been out this far. The recorder reveals that the Valiant tried to pass through the barrier and was damaged. The captain then began a frantic search related to ESP, extra-sensory perception, in the ship’s library. Soon afterward, he gave the command to destroy the ship. Despite this, Kirk gives the order to enter the barrier. The Enterprise is severely damaged and loses its warp engines. Several crew members are injured, including Kirk’s friend Gary Mitchell and the ship’s psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner. Mitchell soon begins to show growing psychic powers. As the ship limps to Delta Vega, an unmanned lithium-cracking facility where Kirk hopes to repair the Enterprise, Kirk struggles with what to do about Mitchell and his growing mental powers.
Why It’s Conservative
This episode tackles the conservative belief that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Conservatives understand that human nature is flawed and that human beings simply cannot be trusted with unchecked power. That is why conservatives advocate limited government, rule of law, and limited discretion. Liberals, on the other hand, advocate powerful government with the belief that if the right people are put in charge, they will use that power for the good of all. Conservatives reject this because they don’t believe the right people exist. Star Trek also rejects this for the same reason. Indeed, not only does Kirk come straight out and quote Lord Acton in this episode, but we are shown that someone as unassuming and carefree as Kirk’s best friend Gary Mitchell will be corrupted by power. Here is Kirk trying to convince Dr. Dehner to help him defeat Mitchell:
MITCHELL: I've been contemplating the death of an old friend. . .
DEHNER: Stop it, Gary.
MITCHELL: Morals are for men, not gods.
KIRK: A god, but still driven by human frailty. Do you like what you see?
MITCHELL: Time to pray, Captain. Pray to me.
KIRK: To you? Not to both of you?
MITCHELL: Pray that you die easily.
KIRK: There'll only be one of you in the end. One jealous god. If all this makes a god, or is it making you something else?
MITCHELL: Your last chance, Kirk.
KIRK: Do you like what you see? Absolute power corrupting absolutely.
By this point, Mitchell has fully come to believe that he is a god. But the episode showed this transition from unassuming crewman to faux god quite gradually, and each step made sense given his newfound powers. First, Mitchell became bored with the rest of the crew because his intellect grew far beyond their level. Thus, he lost his desire to be among them. Then he became angry and looked down upon his friend Lt. Lee Kelso because Kelso had failed to spot something which was obvious to Mitchell. Soon, Mitchell began giving orders and countermanding orders he didn’t like. Then he started calling himself a god and likened the crew to insects: "You fools! Soon I'll squash you like insects." Finally, he began killing people who got in his way, even though he clearly had the power to use less violent means to achieve his ends. Their lives simply didn’t matter to him.

And why does this happen? As Kirk explains it, it is because humans are flawed:
KIRK: Did you hear him joke about compassion? Above all else, a god needs compassion.
DEHNER: What do you know about gods?
KIRK: Then let's talk about humans, about our frailties. As powerful as he gets, he'll have all that inside him. . . . You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he'll dare. Who's to stop him? He doesn't need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What's your prognosis, Doctor?
“He doesn’t need to care,” is the very heart of the problem with absolute power and Kirk puts his finger right on it. Moreover, notice that this is an indictment of all humanity, not just Mitchell, and that Kirk is saying that humans simply can’t be trusted with immense power because it is in our nature to abuse it. This is a conservative point. Had Kirk been a liberal, he would have tried to convince Mitchell to use his power for good because liberals believe that absolute power used benignly can achieve wonders. A liberal Kirk never would have suggested that it is simply beyond humans to use absolute power wisely, he would have tried to ensure that Mitchell was the right person to wield it or to convince Mitchell to use it wisely. But Kirk is no liberal and he makes no attempt to change Mitchell’s heart because he knows this isn’t possible. Instead, he tries to prevent Mitchell from being able to use the power.

Kirk’s understanding is the conservative understanding of human nature and of power. This is why conservatives are wary of liberal attempts to hand massive, unchecked power to governments or persons. . . because there is no human who would not misuse it eventually. That is the point of this episode and it will become a recurring theme throughout the series, and that will keep Star Trek on the conservative side.


Commander Max said...

"Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

One thing to note that there is evidence, that this phrase doesn't apply to all men.
George Washington when faced with such a position, choose to do his duty. When all he wanted to do was go home.

One fascinating thing is the time in history this show was written. Andrew giving a cultural context in your analysis, would be very helpful in what the writer may have been responding to. After all I've heard many say that ST was commenting on the times.

Even more interesting to note who was in power at the time, and what were they doing.

Tennessee Jed said...

A great episode, and nicely analyzed, I must say. I still object to absolute power, even if it did not corrupt. A benevolent dictator is a dictator nonetheless. Still, the episode brings home the point that humans are sufficiently flawed to make even that scenario unattainable.

I also liked the reminder that this episode featured the original "Hot Lips Houlihan" so ably played by bSally Kellerman. I thought what they did with Lockwood's eyes was pretty cool for my my freshman year of college. We were beginning to witness the power of Shatner's acting already, but Lockwood did a really nice job in that episode also. He might have even been able to play Kirk (if I may revisit a recent article on that subject.)

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Max... good point, but I'd alter slightly. Scripture admonishes us to "flee temptation". Washington could have had something akin to absolute power. Thank God he was wise enough to turn it down.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

on the times... people didn't yet know what a crooked scumbag LBJ was.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, That's true about Washington and some men. Some humans indeed will never be corrupted by power. But the problem is, how do you know you have one of those when you give them the power? That's the problem with liberalism, it's not that it's impossible to find the benign dictator, it's that the odds of finding that person are super low and 99/100 times (or more) you're going to get somebody evil.

In terms of the times, this would need to be a criticism of LBJ, but I have no evidence that they actually meant this as a political attack rather than just a more generalized statement about abuse of power.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, As we've said before, these episodes tend to be narrow in scope, so they didn't really delve into an across the board criticism of benign dictatorships. That said, I agree with you, a dictator is dictator and while we may consider some more benign than others, the use of power always involves a victim. It's typically just a question of degree.

I thought Lockwood and Kellerman were great. And I really like the effect with his eyes. This was very well done all around and is one of my favorite episodes.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, We would have had a very different history if Washington hadn't been the first president, that's for sure.

I'm not sure if the public disliked LBJ yet or not at this point, but in either event, I don't think this was meant as an attack on him. I think this was just a generalized statement about absolute power. Even the quote of Lord Acton rather than some reference to some then-current policy suggests that.

DUQ said...

Excellent analysis as always. It's interesting that the second pilot, the one which essentially started the series, quotes Lord Acton. That should be a huge clue right there about what this series would be and it's intellectual direction.

ellenB said...

Great episode! I liked Lockwood a lot and was sad to see him die at the end. I think he would have made a great addition to the crew. Although, I wouldn't want then to never have the McCoy character, so he was a great post-pilot addition.

Doc Whoa said...

This is one of my favorite episodes! More thoughts after I read the article. :)

BIG MO said...

Nice write-up of a stellar episode. Wariness over total power is still -- thankfully -- found in the nation's bedrock.

Reminds me of Q's second appearance on TNG, where Q grants Riker Q powers. Toward the end, Riker saves the away team from certain death, makes Wes a grown man, gives Worf a hooker to play with, and attempts to make Data human. But Riker soon realizes what an ass he's been and rejects the powers. Nowhere near as good an episode as "Where No Man...", of course.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks DUQ! It really does tell us the direction the show would take, both in terms of having a philosophical basis and in terms of being conservative/classical liberal in direction. If this had been a liberal show, then Kirk would have convinced Mitchell to use his power to make the universe better. The fact they disdained that route is really telling and it does fly in the face of much of what was US policy at the time.

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, I had the same thought. I thought Lockwood was excellent as crewman and I would have loved to see him stay with the series. But I also don't know how he would have fit with the Kirk/Spok/McCoy triangle they set up later. If Lockwood had stayed, he would have needed to replace McCoy is my guess, but I don't think he could have done that role because his character wasn't so whiny-liberal as McCoy.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, Same here.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, Thanks! I thought about that episode and possible comparing the two. I'm a little surprised of the message in TNG episode because it seems to be a repeat of this episode rather than the liberal take, but then that was very early in the series and they were still just copying old episodes at that point. And in any event, that TNG episode really wasn't nearly as well done as this episode from TOS.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent post, Andrew!

IRT Washington: I believe the main reason he didn't want to be President, and the reason he stepped down as soon as he could was because he knew what that kind of power could do to a person...eventually.

Pluis, he just wanted to retire and make whiskey. :^)

An Obama or Carter would've become another King George or worse, right out of the gates.
Men like Obama crave power and adulation, whereas our Founding Fathers knew all to well what too much power would do.
Probably none as much as George Washington, who spent years fighting absolute power.

Which is one reason Ben Franklin said: (when asked "do we have a monarchy or a republic?") "a republic, if you can keep it."

All the safeguards in the world (and our Founders came up with as many safeguards as they could) won't prevent corrupt men from destroying liberty from the inside.

This is a truism on an individual or collective level.
Eventually, absolute power does corrupt.
It might've taken several years before it adversely affected Washington, and only a few minutes with an Obama at the helm, but Washington was wise enough to know this, whereas Obama is clueless and doesn't care (his narcissism, condenscension and smugness was a big clue).

I do concur that a man of Washington's caliber would never become as corrupt as an Obama, or would take a lot longer to become that corrupt, but corruptness would eventually seep in.

Kirk's character certainly understood this which is why we see him seek advice from Spock and McCoy so much, even though he didn't always follow their advice.

But he knew it was important as a Captain to stay grounded and in touch, lest the power of command go to his head.
Good Captains put their crew first.

And although the military is not a republic or a democracy there are safeguards to prevent abuse of power, both within the military and externally.

This was an outstanding episode!

Doc Whoa said...

Ok, I've read the article. Excellent breakdown of the episode. This is one of their more streamlined episode where there appears to be only one clear message without all the usual sub-messages throughout. I think that makes for a simple feeling episode, but neverthless a very powerful one.

I agree with the comments above too about Lockwood and Kellerman.

Well done!

Doc Whoa said...

Excellent comment Ben! I wholeheartedly agree! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben!

Interesting comment. I think Washington was wise to put down the power before he ever got to use it. I think ultimately Acton is right and that if Washington had taken the reins and decided to begin exercising that power, it would have eventually corrupted him. That is the nature of power, even if your intentions are good, because the nature of having that kind of power is that you begin to ignore the obstacle/reasons/objections why it couldn't have been done without that power. Thus, even though you think your motives are the best, you are still basically forcing people to do something they didn't want to do. And in the end, that will lead to conflict, which will lead to greater force and less tolerance, and eventually corruption.

As for Obama, I think he would have no compunction at all about using absolute power if he had it. His administration has proven that already. But he's hardly alone. The only President I can think of in my lifetime who wouldn't have done so is Reagan, because he's the only one who genuinely believed that the world is best when people are free to make their own decisions.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, This was a streamlined episode with just the one idea. I don't know if that was because this was early and they weren't as sophisticated yet or if they really just wanted this one simple idea to dominate the episode. Either way, it does make for a strong episode. This is easily one of my favorites and it really sets up the series very well, both philosophically, ideologically, and as a positive adventure story with them challenging the universe.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Doc!
I do get what Max was saying. Some men and women are less prone to the corruption of power but they are usually the one's that don't want power to begin with.

They have a different mindset and a strong moral compass.
Washington, Adams, Madison, Coolidge, Reagan, etc., wouldn't dream of making executive decisions that completely ignore legislation and our Constitution.
At least not for several decades probably, LOL.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I think that ultimately, absolute power will corrupt anyone because you will keep seeing problems and you will know that you have this power and you will eventually feel compelled to try to solve the problems. Unfortunately, there is no solution, and that's where the problem rests. I think the only question is how long people would hold out before they tried to use the power.

Commander Max said...

We will never know if it was an attack on LBJ. But current events can drive such subjects, considering how much the Libs control the entertainment commentary these days. It would never be admitted.

My thinking, since the Trek people love to go on about how STTOS was topical, hippies, race relations, cold war, etc. It would be logical that the corruption of power would be right in there, considering how LBJ practiced his politics. On top of that the experience of seeing fascism and communism first hand. Makes one pause when considering politicians behavior. I would assume it's more of a commentary on government in general, or so it would seem on the surface.

There was something else that STTOS did very well, the commentary of the times were very well masked in good storytelling. Something that the latter Trek series(TNG on) did not achieve.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, True, we'll never know. And you're right, this could very well have been meant as an attack on LBJ or the US in Vietnam or who knows what? I tend to think this episode was less political in nature than generic ideological because being the pilot, I think Roddenberry was probably at his most cautious. Still, you never know?

I agree completely about how well they masked the politics they injected into these episodes. Growing up, I had no idea how many of these topics dealt directly with political issues of the time because they work so well as stories of spacemen gone wrong and they are almost never heavy-handed. One exception was the episode with the half-black half-white characters, which has been heavily criticized for being heavy-handed. But more often than not, you have to dig to see what events they are talking about.

And I agree that TNG failed in this regard entirely. Their politics were much more obvious and their story telling (especially in the political episode) was often rather weak.

Individualist said...

Great Review and excellent episode.

"Absolute Power corrupts absolutely"

I think the statement has deeper meaning than just the temptation of one's moral character.

Being all powerful does not make one a god. A god must be all powerful yes but he or she must also be All Knowing.

With just power and not knowledge the god will make mistakes and there is the problem that not always can a "right" decision be made. Sometimes only a "best" decison can be made. A decision that while good on some levels will be bad for some.

How should food be distributed when it is scarce. Do you dole it out evenly? If you do and everyone is weak then will you not have anyone strong enough to get food tomorrow. do you give food to ablebodied that are hunting over others in hopes they bring more food. If you make a mistake does everyone starve. Do some starte needlessly.

If you are the one with this power you will be making the decision. You may listen to others but in the end would you do something you werer sure was not "right". Would others view your decisions as being made benevolently?

If everyone is left to their own devices they have responsibility for themselves and their bad choices are their own fault. If one person has all the power then they must always make the "right" decision or are viewed as being at fault, even if there is no "right" decision.

In a sense no dictator has the ability to be benevolent all the time unless the also have the Omiscience of God.

BIG MO said...

I'm wondering if the episode was a comment on the recent past instead of current politics. Gene Roddenberry flew 89 missions in the Pacific on B-17s, and perhaps he was thinking of the absolute power of the Nazis and imperial Japanese.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, I wonder about that too. I wonder if this isn't an attack on Nazism and the whole idea of supermen and all-powerful leaders. At the very least, it could be seen this way and we know that the show does deal with those issues in later episodes.

Individualist said...

" and on that day Caligula finally came to know that he was not a god."

attributed to a Roman Centurion after the murder of Caligula in the tunnels

BIG MO said...


AndrewPrice said...

Indi, Thanks! And that's a great point. I think we need to understand that even absolute power must give way to the reality that there is no perfect decision, there is only the best decision, and some people will always get hurt when you rearrange people's rights and lived. Hence, the idea that the benign dictator can make things perfect is a fallacy in and of itself unless he's truly divine and do things like generate food from nothing and grant contradictory wishes.

In fact, all of this leads back to the idea that the best form of human government is one that allows people to negotiate their own happiness with each other on equal terms. That's the only way that everyone can be happy. And the role of government would be to prevent those people from pushing externalities on other people through their negotiations.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, Excellent quote!

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, Even more excellent quote! LOL!

Yeah, Khan is an attack on the idea of supermen.

Commander Max said...

One of the things about creativity. It's impossible to know how things are processed in the mental mix. Sure the artist could tell you, but is that the truth?

After seeing/experiencing what these communists/fascists did. Communism was on the march in the 60's, they were going to comment on the subject. That's something they wouldn't do today, if they did they would tell us how great it is.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I agree with that. We never know for sure what someone intended unless they spell it all out and we can trace the lineage. And I have no doubt that WWII and the march of communism and the communist-utopianism of the hippies played a role in each of these stories and is why liberals so very briefly overlapped with conservatives... before liberalism lost its mind.

But in this particular episode, I haven't seen evidence within the story or statements from the writers that they were attempting to discuss any specific event -- which is something they were more than capable of doing in other instances. So I take this one as being more general in scope.

But like you say, we'll never know for sure.

DUQ said...

Andrew and Max, I can't say what exactly was on their minds, but I agree that it's impossible to think that they didn't have everything that was going on on their mind to some degree. I don't see anything specifically mentioned in this episode, but it doesn't change that they at least subconsciously thought about these things.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, I would agree with that.

ScyFyterry said...

Excellent review. So excellent, that I have nothing to add!

shawn said...

I wish I could find it on youtube, but there was a commercial made in England last year by liberal comic/writer Ben Elton that showed what we can expect when liberals have unlimited power. The commercial had multiple segments, one of which was a teacher asking the children in her class "who doesn't believe in global warming?"- when several kids raise their hands, the teacher presses a button and the kids explode spraying blood and gore on their classmates. The rest of the commercial was more of the same, only in different settings.

There was an outcry about the graphic nature of the commercial and it was pulled, but it made for an interesting look into the liberal mindset and I think it supports your thesis that liberals would use their ultimate power to shape the world to their liking.

As to the Trek episode- good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late. I went to Orlando for a couple of days... where I did pretty much nothing. There's a Star Trek exhibit, of all things, on International Drive (the main drag with all the tourist stuff) but I'll go there next time with more friends in tow.

This is one of a handful of episodes of the original series that I first watched years ago. The vast majority I've only seen for the first time on Blu-Ray or Netflix. But when I first got into Trek 20 years ago (I've been a fan for 2/3 of my life!), I rented a few of these from Blockbuster, back when they had these on VHS.

It's another episode that is so deceptively simple. Sure, the TV Guide logline will mention something about a man becoming a god and breaking the galactic barrier, etc.... but then you watch the episode and realize how deep it is. Of course, the message is an old one (but always relevant), but it's simply become common sense, IMHO. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Terry!

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I recall the ad. Even a lot of liberals where shocked to see their views put into practice. I remember a lot of condemnations... but not all actually.

The truth is that I've never seen a liberal state that absolute power "in the right hands" would be a bad thing. They advocate it constantly -- "if only we didn't have to worry about ____." They don't grasp the flaws with this at all.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Welcome back! How was Mr. Mouse? ;)

I agree with you, this is a deceptively simple episode. If you just take it at face value, what you get is a fight between Kirk and some guy with mental powers in space. But when you start digging, you quickly realize just how deep the story is and how tightly this is written.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see Mr. Mouse. I stayed with a friend of mine and his wife in east Orlando. We just bummed around, watched funny Internet videos, visited the usual haunts (comic book shop, video store, etc.). As I said, I did nothing!

Incidentally, they're expecting a baby in December. And they're weird - they've purchased various death- and zombie-related baby gear, like a bib that says, "My dad loves me more than zombies love brains!"

I'm not joking!

I plan on buying them this! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

It takes all kind of people to make the world. LOL!

Su Wei said...

A very modern (as opposed to post-modern) episode. I loved it then and I still do, even if it is "James R. Kirk" on the tombstone. Apparently mortal gods can still goof :o)

The second pilot for the series and I often wonder how it got made – considering the emphasis on any series that Gene Roddenberry put his finger on was that man was getting better – "evolving" – and that man's "inherent goodness" would ultimately overcome the predilection for doing the wrong thing. This episode seemed to turn the whole concept on its head.

And there's really no better episode for showcasing the phenomenal acting that Bill Shatner could do when his heart was really into it.

AndrewPrice said...

Su Wei, I've noticed that much of TOS Trek flies in the face of Roddenberry's ideology. That's kind of fascinating. It makes me wonder if he didn't realize, if he wasn't paying attention, or if he didn't have the control we thought he did?

Su Wei said...

Well, I know that he and NBC used to butt heads... a lot. There was a book called "Inside Star Trek" by Herb Solow (pronounced "Sulu". Yes, that's where the name came from) that talked a lot about those bitter battles. I'm sure GR had to give a bit here and there.

I often wonder about Kirk's line from the Apollo episode "Who Mourns For Adonais": "We have no need for gods – the one we have is quite sufficient" was inserted because of pressure from NBC. It sure flies in the face of what Roddenberry really wanted to say. Unfortunately I've never been able to find a 1st draft script to corroborate it. :o)

Anonymous said...

To be fair, I think a lot of Roddenberry's more utopian/PC thinking came later. He spent much of the 70s doing the college lecture circuit and I think he just started believing his own hype.

TNG got noticeably better after he had to step down for health reasons... and the first season when he did have control was a revolving door of writers who didn't enjoy the experience.

Mycroft said...

Individualist's comment about all-knowing being a requirement for a benevolent god reminded me of "Conscience of the King" as an excellent episode that deals with similar issues.
Governor Kodos murders half of the colony to prevent everyone from starving during a food shortage, but a supply ship arrives ahead of schedule making his "sacrifice" unnecessary. He tries to convince Kirk that he thought he was making the hard decision necessary to save what colonists he could, but the character clearly no longer believes it himself.

Gideon7 said...

Mycroft, "Conscience of the King" was another great episode on leadership and ethics. I liked that the screenwriter of that episode allowed Kodos (sp) to give his side of argument, that it was a hard decision that he felt was necessary for the survival of the remaining colonists. I don't think he ever changed his mind in thinking it was the wrong decision per se, but he did come to realize he must pay a terrible price for it, losing his life (which he expected) but also his daughter's sanity (unexpected and more painful).

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