Monday, June 10, 2013

An Ethical Analysis of Star Trek TOS “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

I am not going to do a scene by scene review of this episode as someone eminently more qualified has already done this.

What this review will discuss is the morality of Kirk and Spock actions in this episode and whether this episode really succeeded in portraying a story about how power can corrupt a good man and about the need for compassion.

The main message of this episode is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That you shouldn't give people too much power because if they abuse it, the consequences will be unimaginably bad and this was portrayed by having Gary Mitchell developing god-like powers which eventually led to him being insane with power which led to Captain Kirk killing him.

However I believed that this episode ultimately failed with that message. This is because Kirk and Spock jumped the gun. From the moment that it was established that Gary Mitchell had superpowers, Kirk and Spock were having discussions about stranding him on a nearby planet and run away as well as killing him. This was long before Mitchell did anything bad at all.

Spock prejudged Mitchell saying that Mitchell will eventually treat human beings as ants and therefore we should kill him before he has the chance to kill us.

Spock was right that it was certainly possible that Mitchell could become evil and had every right to be cautious. However you can not preclude the possibility that Mitchell may end up using the powers for good, or he could also become someone like Dr. Manhatten who was neither really good nor evil. The fact is Spock can not 100% say that Mitchell will definitely become evil just based on the fact that he has powers. At that point of time, Mitchell broke no law (there is no law against being arrogant) and the crew of the Enterprise decides to strand him on a planet without any due process.

Now just because it's a bad idea to give people god like powers in case they will abuse it, doesn't mean if someone develop powers they will definitely abuse it and that we should kill the person beforehand just in case the person will turn evil. Imagine if X-men portrayed humans who wanted to kill mutants just in case they abuse their powers as a good and necessary thing. There’s no way people would call that moral and yet this was exactly the message this episode was portraying.

Instead of displaying that power corrupts absolutely, what we ended up seeing was a witch hunt leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now let look at what makes a witch hunt. We had a member of the crew who was different. Garry Mitchell suddenly become more intelligent, obtain photographic memory and can move objects at will. However like all witch hunts, instead of trying to learn more about the difference and what causes the change. The crew reacted with fear, the fear that the person who was different to them will hurt them. Despite the person helping the crew (by pointing out the problem with the shock absorber), their fear led them to persecute Mitchell. They sedated him; left him stranded on the planet and then rigged the facility where he was held captive with explosive just in case Mitchell wanted to escape.

Really Mitchell’s action throughout this episode was purely self defence even when he was killing Kelso (because he was rigging the facility with explosive) until the final battle with Kirk (who also intended to kill him as well).

Although Mitchell may well be showing signs of corruption and megalomania, the action of our heroes pushed him in that direction. The actions of Kirk and Spock made it hell of a lot easier for Mitchell to make the evil transformation. When Kirk screamed to Mitchell “Above all, a god needs compassion.” Did the crew show him any compassion? Did the crew give Mitchell any reason to not treat them with contempt?

This episode just ends up showing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mitchell was developing powers. Spock said that he will end up abusing it and will treat us as ants if we don’t do something and because the crew assuming that Mitchell abusing his powers and acted accordingly, Mitchell started to abuse his powers.

This episode didn’t show that power corrupt, it shows that if you treat someone like crap, they will respond in kind. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Mitchell only started to see them as ants to be extinguished after the Kirk and the crew tried to strand him on the planet.

Unless you are a utilitarian, what Kirk and Spock done in this episode was morally wrong. Stranding a crew member on a planet and then rigging the area with explosive for simply developing powers without hurting anyone is simply wrong.

Now the only way out of this, is to take the “ends justify the means argument” and say that Kirk has to take the immoral action to preserve the safety of his ship and to serve the greater good. There may be some justification that Kirk took the pragmatic options.

However the problem was that this episode didn't take the "In The Pale Moonlight" or “City On The Edge Of Forever” type angle where Kirk was force into an unethical but necessary action to protect his crew. If the episode portrayed Kirk action was immoral and Kirk admit he done an immoral act at the end, maybe I would have been more lenient and possibly liked this episode even more even if I still disagreed with the action.

However the episode wasn’t about that. It was about how “God needs compassion”

This episode was preaching about being compassionate and how the more powerful you are, the more important it is for the person to have that virtue.

Having an episode preaching about compassion while also having an ends justifying the means message is incompatible.

You can’t on one hand have Kirk lecturing Mitchell about the necessity of compassion and have him showing no compassion by stranding Mitchell on that planet just “in case” the person may abuse their powers in the future because that’s just pure hypocrisy. If you going to have that message about compassion and how power corrupts, you have to expect the heroes to act compassionately and use power appropriately. Kirk should have only stranded Mitchell on the planet after Mitchell done something wrong not beforehand.

Some people may point out that Kirk did show compassion at the end when he paused during the fist fight with Mitchell. However that was when the horse was already bolted when that type of compassion is just foolish.

This is the way I would have done the episode.
When Mitchell got his powers, I would have had Kirk getting along with Mitchell and still be friends with him. However, Kirk recognises that Mitchell shouldn't have these gods like powers because no human should ever have these powers as we aren’t ready for it. Therefore he orders the doctor and the psychiatrist to work together to learn more about Mitchell’s condition and try to find a way to stop his growth in power and perhaps a cure to reverse his development. Initially Mitchell actually supports Kirk’s plan, after all he is a student of Kirk.

Spock, instead of him telling Kirk to go kill Mitchell or strand him. Have Spock just warn him that history has shows that when you give people power that more likely than they will abuse it gives people the freedom to reveal all aspect of their personality. That Kirk has to be prepared that he may not like what he will soon discovers about Mitchell and we have to keep an eye on him. Kirk uncomfortably agrees and make sure he has arm guards around sick back at all times.

However, Mitchell starts to use these powers. Firstly he used some of the power for good and perhaps has a situation where Mitchell ends up saving the ship. However those experiences changed him and he starts to believe that he deserves to have this and he is entitled to this power. That this power given to him was for a reason, that he was meant to have these powers to lead the human race to a new era and that he doesn’t want a cure. Kirk refuses to let him keep the power and refuses to let him “lead” the human race. This ended up leads to Mitchell attacking Kirk and the guards (perhaps killing one of the red shirts) but Kirk and the security guards manage to sedate him. Only then do they decide to strand Mitchell on the planet. The episode then continues as normally leading to Kirk sadly killing his best friend. The message could end up with Kirk telling Spock “Do you think so little of human nature, that it is impossible for us not to abuse power when we have it?” Perhaps Spock gives a response that humans may have advanced socially and technologically over the last hundreds years but human beings will always be flawed beings and power always reveals those flaws.

If this episode was done that way, the final Kirk speech would have far more meaning when he was telling Mitchell about "where's your compassion, a god must have compassion". The episode would have shown the process of power corrupting an essentially good human being and give a message why humans should never be given too much power and the importance of compassion.

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