Where No Man Has Gone Before


Spinoza versus Mitchell

Sera T. Graham

When I watched the episode 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' for the first time, I was immediately intrigued by two details in it. First, the mentioning of Spinoza. I suspected the name was there for a reason. Second, the fact that Kirk's buddy would say "James" when they talked. I found both details strange enough to be worth examining. The results of my investigations are presented in this article, which focuses on Gary Mitchell's psychological dissociation into two personae and presents the story's underlying theme.

In the beginning of the episode, Enterprise picks up a battered buoy, the only remnant of the missing starship, Valiant. The buoy's recordings reveal that the starship apparantly self-destructed. Valiant means brave, gallant, heroic. The word may also be another term for a noble Knight. Therefore, in asking what happened to the Valiant, we can just as well ask: What happened to the noble Knight we sent out?

The noble Knight is a brave hero, who cares for the weak, values camaraderie and is loyal to king and country; a bland idol, in other words, unless there is a flaw, a frailty. Frailties give the hero drive, they cause the observer to make reassessments, as when Achilles, in his funk, invokes the death of his companion; King Arthur is careless and fathers his own nemesis; Duke Cunningham takes to bribery and ends up in prison, and so forth.

Gary Mitchell, the Enterprise's helmsman, the person who steers the ship on the captain's direct orders, also is a valiant man. Gary exerts a friendly manner towards his shipmates (seeking casual conversation with Mr. Spock, clasping Mr. Alden's shoulder upon relieving him), he cares for the weak (we see him holding the hand of the anxious young yeoman), and he is brave (he once saved the captain's life, thereby nearly dying himself). However, his flaws are apparent as well:

Such flaws are annoying, but they are also mostly harmless. They are not strong enough to make Mitchell dangerous. Flaws normally are so small that no one will clonk their phaser on an obnoxious someone's head. Instead, we all sigh and pull ourselves together. This is how community survives – by identifying harmful desires and labelling them as 'flaws' that must be kept on a short leash. However, sometimes our control slips, and we give in to our more aggressive tendencies. This is when mayhem ensues. Wrath, for example, is a self-sustaining emotion--it feels good to be angry, so why stop feeling it? Once unleashed, it grows rapidly and can easily overcome all our moral limits; when it does, we run amok.

Gary Mitchell, as much as he may be a conceited brat, certainly is a man who is in control of himself, else he wouldn't serve on the bridg--or anywhere else on the ship, for that matter. Regardless of what he thinks of Kelso, he calmly sits next to him and executes the captain's orders.

On the bridge, it is only Dehner who transiently unleashes the helmsman's flaws. I am digressing now in noting that Dehner's supremacy in that scene can be based on the hypothesis that the Enterprise is an organism, and the bridge is its brain. Six senses, illustrated by the ensemble crew, are at work, and their information is relayed to the captain, the decision-maker. Considering such a setting, it is not so surprising that the psychiatrist takes to it like a duck to water and gets the better of Gary Mitchell.

The way the helmsman approaches the psychiatrist may be an attempt at flirting, but it looks too rude to be appropriate. They already may have had a confrontation earlier, or he senses what he considers shady reasons for her assignment ('Improving the breed, Doctor, is that your line?'). Dehner's counter zeroes in on his arrogance, and he subsequently blames her ('walking refrigerator unit') for what is his faux pas in the first place--indeed not very gallant or mature.

The ambivalence of Gary Mitchell's character, I believe, warrants a bit of classification: we can call the 'good' traits 'Gary' and the 'bad' traits or frailties 'Mitchell'. Only together do they shape the character of Gary Mitchell, the captain's friend, the noble Knight oscillating between masculine animal and moral man. This categorizing of character traits is simplistic, but it will serve the sake of argument--things will become more complicated further below.

Later on, relations between Dehner and Mitchell are implied by way of blatant symbolism: not only do they both have high ESP ratings; Dehner is from Delman 1489, Mitchell is from Eldman 8149--a simple reshuffling of letters and numbers leaves enough common leads to tempt the subconscious into all kinds of cliché associations, from man-woman, black-white and good-evil to indifference-compassion. This coincidence may indeed be meaningful, or it may only be founded in laziness on the side of the script writer.

The first true evidence of their relative closeness comes when Enterprise attempts to cross the galaxy's barrier. Elizabeth Dehner and Gary Mitchell are 'hit by something' and pass out. The psychiatrist recovers quickly, the helmsman not so--his eyes have acquired a disturbing glint. His statement, 'I'm a little weak for some reason, Jim,' is more than just an ordinary line. The moment is carefully acted out to convey his uncommon weakness. The line in itself marks an important point in the story: from now on Gary Mitchell, whenever calling the captain by his name, will use either 'Jim' or 'James'. It can be assumed from what he has to say and from other events (his eyes changing back to normal) that he uses 'Jim' when he is in 'Gary' mode, 'James' when he is in 'Mitchell' mode. So, it is Gary speaking to Kirk; he feels weak.

Now comes another layer in the story. As the damage reports arrive, the ship is diagnosed with 'burned main engines' and 'inactivated warp capabilities', and it 'limps back on impulse power only'; Mr. Scott might say that the ship 'feels' weak--just as Gary did in trying to recover from the blow. The connection again invites the Enterprise-organism hypothesis mentioned above.

There are other casualties, too--shipmates died because areas of their brains were 'burned out'. Apparently, the two on the bridge survive because, of all the crew, they have the highest ESP ratings. It may be important to note that Elizabeth defends 'Espers' against Spock's mistrust, in explaining that a high ESP rating only indicates flashes of insight. Concluding from this, it is as though whatever force they encountered, it seeks to select those most capable of insight--insight as in self-reflection, sympathy, empathy, compassion?

Later, Elizabeth Dehner will defend Gary Mitchell. She will play down his growing powers, will deny that he presents a danger. She will point out how helpful he really could be, even to the point of suggesting the improvement of the human breed, an ironic move given that he had accused her with almost the same line; maybe the accusation was a product of powerful insight. This also makes her a noble Knight with frailties. What makes her gallant is that she does not easily give in to plots popping up all around her. She sees herself as responsible for the welfare of the patient, as a protective agent. Her flaws are 'overcompensation', as she says herself, but, while any patient might be in excellent care with her, she may also like to believe too much in the good of mankind. Thus, she will still defend Mitchell when everyone else has already realised the danger he presents. She protects Gary when there no longer is a Gary to consider.

At this point, Kirk's log entry is as follows:

What destroyed the Valiant? They lived through the barrier just as we have. What happened to them after that?

Removing the Valiant metaphor, it reads:

What destroyed the noble knights? They lived through the barrier just as we have. What happened to them after that?

What destroyed Elizabeth Dehner and Gary Mitchell? Their flaws did it. The force that struck them may have sought to give powers only to those with the greatest insight, but in the course of doing so disrupted the balance of good and bad traits. It permanently unleashed the latter, which permitted their uncontrolled growth into monstrosity, thereby choking or devouring the good traits. Maybe the force was never meant to meet human beings, perhaps it is something only meant to be received by entities much greater than us, and the result of the Enterprise's encounter had nothing to do with a deity but is merely an artefact: mortals, grotesquely intensified.

At any rate, Gary Mitchell is confined to Sickbay, where he tries to kill time by reading. His enhanced Esper traits allow him to identify Kirk without actually seeing him enter. It is Gary who greets the captain, and he seems to be genuinely pleased by the visit. The helmsman says that only his eyes bother him, as they stare back at him when he is shaving. Whether it is Mitchell or Gary who feels disconcerted cannot be determined. It may be that Gary Mitchell cannot yet fully admit to himself what is going on.

He confesses, however, that he feels better than ever before in his life, that the event might have done him some good in that he gets to read some of the 'long-hair stuff' Kirk likes. This may imply that he not only reads out of boredom, but with the specific aim of learning about Kirk by reading the literature that appeals to him and most likely also shapes his character. If so, unbeknownst to Kirk, a killer is creeping up behind his back.

The fact that Gary Mitchell once tried to distract Kirk from acquiring different ways of thinking is also quite telling. It suggests that already back then he objected differential intellectual assessments and insights, at least when it occurred in others. "Once you get into [Spinoza] he's rather simple. Childish almost. I don't agree with him at all," says Gary Mitchell. Exactly which part of Spinoza's writings annoys him is not specified, leaving the audience to make their own guesses.

Baruch de Spinoza was a young philosopher in the Netherlands in the 17th century. He developed a form of 'geometric ethics' that might even find Mr. Spock's approval. In fact, the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) and also the Klingon peculiarity of saying 'to continue' instead of 'to be' can be seen in line with Spinoza's views. It would be interesting to know the Romulan Spinoza equivalent; the discussion of these things would make an essay of its own.

In brief (forgive my layman explanations; the readership's professional philosophers may want to make them more accurate), Spinoza claims that, logically, God exists. God is the total of all known components of a system, say, the world as we know it, and therefore every component is in God. The world simply is (like in "I am"), and its characteristics are determined by the sum of its components. He concludes that God's mode of function cannot be monarchy, but must be democracy. The world and its components progress towards satisfaction (indeed no odd assumption; think of banal things like anticipating a beer after hard work). But only freedom of assessment and opinion can provide the insight necessary for this progress, therefore intellectual subjugation must be avoided. Also, it is not possible, as a part of the world, to become greater than the world itself: In other words, one cannot become greater than God when one is part of God. If a plant's leaf gets bigger this means it also makes the whole plant bigger. Another aspect is that one cannot think beyond the world, because what is thought or discovered becomes part of what we know, and what we know is what we call world.

Therefore, a true deity (call it System, World, or God) is including and growing infinitely, while a fake deity (like Mitchell) is excluding and thus limited in development. The latter would be like a man eating himself out of hunger, or a tumor growing at the cost of the residual system – they will eclipse themselves eventually. Excessive components kid themselves if they think they can achieve progress and satisfaction without providing progressive satisfaction for the entire world. For simplicity, call this the Greater Good; every component is better off trying to achieve maximum satisfaction of the total, not least because, according to Spinoza, none can ever escape the world and has to stay with it for better and for worse.

These views are not something that a self-proclaimed deity-in-progress would like to encounter. It is no wonder that Mitchell feels offended. But it is not only Mitchell's self that stirs. In delivering his derogatory line, it is as though the world pauses in order to scrutinize this tiny part of itself, that presumptuous human with his little, three-dimensional brain. What the heck is this guy up to? it asks.

With that, Mitchell has begun to invoke his own doom. The story from now on is to make an example, to build up the case of Spinoza against Mitchell, the foe who--as can be seen below--twists the wise man's words to his own advantage.

The CMO leaves his patient to the care of the psychiatrist, who suggests that they make 'the best of it'--ambiguous if one knows what is to come.

In the course of this scene, Gary Mitchell's dilemma is displayed. He feels himself falling away from his community ('everyone seems to worry why I don't have a fever or something'), illustrating separation fear, a condition causing great stress. His community wants him to have flaws they can understand, and he cannot provide them: 'Maybe if I could change those dials...'.

In his panic, he even manages to kill himself. He is dead for 22 seconds. To which degree this was intentional cannot be determined. It may be speculated that Gary has just realised the dangerous implications of his change, and in his nobleness decides to put an end to it. Or it is Mitchell, doing so only to spite Spinoza. At any rate, the entire experience leaves him scared ('What is happening to me?'). He is frantically trying to keep himself together, incredibly lonely in his situation and desperately looking out for someone who understands and counsels him. He also experiences separation guilt for enjoying exactly that which alienates him, knowing that it makes him a 'monster' to his group.

What follows is difficult to determine, as both people involved can read each other’s minds due to their ESP traits. Elizabeth Dehner may see the image of the poem in Gary Mitchell, and acts accordingly, or he makes her act that way. Or she knows where to find the poem because she can retrieve the reference from him, since he read it just before. It may also be indicative of Gary's delicate state of mind, as he recites:

'My love has wings
Slender, feathered things
With grace and upswept curve
And tapered tip.'

The alleged powerful sonnet is really a poem that Gene Roddenberry wrote for his airplane, but it serves the scene well enough. Gary Mitchell seeks support, and he thinks that Elizabeth Dehner truly can provide it, either out of love or out of common accord.

The staff meeting which follows displays Elizabeth Dehner's aforementioned frailties, her unwillingness to accept the dark shift in Gary Mitchell and her fascination with the case. Notably, only she (in the beginning) and Kirk (at the end of the scene) utter the helmsman's first name – a strong sign for the crew's emotional separation from their shipmate. When Spock confronts Kirk with the choices, the captain 'goes all Hamlet' (as Zack Handlen put it in his A.V. Club review), as any ethical mind should in the face of excommunicating or murdering a being. Kirk knows that if he hurts Mitchell he also hurts Gary.

Coming back to my initial assumption that Gary's name for the captain is 'Jim', whereas Mitchell's is 'James', there are two scenes that are of importance in this regard, before and after beaming down to the cracking station in which the helmsman is to be marooned. I am adding to this the assumption that both Gary and Mitchell are speaking when Kirk’s name isn’t mentioned.

According to these assumptions, this is what Gary says:

"Some people think that makes me a monster, don't they? I can sense worry in you. Safety for your ship. I also know we are orbiting Delta Vega."

And this is what Gary Mitchell says:

"It's like a man blind all of his life suddenly given sight." Imagine the overwhelming effect this must have.

"Sometimes I feel there's nothing I couldn't do, in time." Like, murdering a shipmate?

"Probably [I would do] just what Mr. Spock is thinking now – kill me, while you can. I can't let you force me down there. I may not want to leave the ship yet. I may want another place. I'm not sure yet what kind of world I can use." This is a direct allusion to the arguments of Spinoza's foes, people who, as predicted by Spinoza himself, twisted the meaning of his statements and chose to take advantage of the misunderstanding: elegant thought, filtered through a junk mind, becomes elegant junk thought.

"I don't understand it all yet, but if I keep growing, getting stronger, why, the things I could do! Like maybe a god could do." At this point, he is so entranced by the prospect that he makes the mistake of giving up his physical guard, allowing Kirk and Spock to overwhelm him.

Mitchell stays rather silent. On Delta Vega, he makes few statements of importance. Once, as if looking at some specimen's image, he says, "My friend, James Kirk."

Wheb Gary Mitchell wants to negotiate, he says, "I took one [of the Demarus poison darts meant for you]. Why be afraid of me now?"

Kirk tells him that he toyed around with the ship (certainly the easiest way of falling out of rapport with the captain and his crew), and that he considered other humans insects by comparison. Gary Mitchell responds, "I was drugged then." Kirk's curt acknowledgement implies: In vino veritas, the drug loosened your control, and your true attitude spilled out.

Then comes an interesting outburst by Gary Mitchell, probably directed at Dehner. "Man cannot survive if a race of true Espers is born."

After that he, likely by accident, comes in contact with the forcefield. Gary, the typical Enterprise class-A personality, realises at once how this weakens Mitchell, and immediately seizes the opportunity to reach for the outside. He throws his body into the field again. Gary is actually able to initiate verbal contact, but it is really already too late. Mitchell regains power too quickly. Gary is thrown back into the remotest corners of the mind. It is the last time he speaks.

And so, Gary Mitchell succumbs to the tumor that eats his soul when he says, "I'm getting stronger. You know that, don't you?"

Mitchell subsequently kills Kelso, the talented thief who helped in removing his means of transportation. After the deed is done, he observes: "You should have killed me while you could," arrogantly presuming that he is invincible. Unwittingly, though, he also confirms his own fatal mistake by saying, "Command and compassion is a fool's mixture." In inviting Elizabeth Dehner to stay close to him, he exposes himself to a strongly compassionate individual with powers equal to his own.

After escaping from the station, Mitchell creates a habitat and twists a biblical reference in offering an apple to Dehner, though he whisks it away again before she can eat it, and orders her around instead. Apparently, he has decided that enhanced insight (by eating the metaphorical apple) won't do much good in her case.

It must be noted that Elizabeth Dehner must be one of the strongest female characters in Star Trek, comparable with Valkris, maybe. Granted, she is as much the indifferent observer as Mitchell is the arrogant aggressor, but it is her aloofness and sense of independence that makes her shine in the end. It is not just compassion that makes her change her mind. She realises that she is about to become Mitchell’s groupie, so she deserts him and regains her old aplomb.

Before that happens, the audience watches Mitchell arriving at his peak. In a violent act of intellectual subjugation he forces Kirk to worship him (certainly a straightforward way of falling out of rapport with Spinoza).

We also get a final glimpse at Gary, who is now nothing more than a mute state of mind. Gary would forgive Kirk the killing, Mitchell states.

Dehner and Mitchell eclipse each other eventually, with the help of Kirk. The captain notes that 'they didn't ask for what was happening to them.’ Indeed, other heroes made transgressions out of their own will:

Achilles, giving in to his pride.

King Arthur, giving in to his primal instincts.

Duke Cunningham, giving in to his greed.

I ask you to go back and take one more look at that buoy which was beamed aboard. It actually can be understood as another metaphor. It is depicting the story itself, a warning left behind, about the noble knight who crossed the line on his captain's orders, and who was overpowered by the dark side of his personality. The buoy stays with the Enterprise, a memory of the event, not sparkling but battered and pitted. It keeps telling of madness and inferno and the inexpressible pain in sacrificing a friend to the greater good, while the world returns to its Spinozian business of progressing to total satisfaction in every component, which demands so much more insight than just the ability to do well in guessing games. It won't entertain ill thoughts, though. After all, according to Spinoza, Gary Mitchell and what happened to him will forever be part of itself.

J.J. Abrams, one of those directors who were beneficial to Star Trek because they enhanced the power of canon, said, "Star Trek is us." Spinoza would agree, I suppose. According to the wise man, that which made Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner will always stay with us. Maybe the alternate timeline will give the tragic heroes of this episode a second chance.

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