The recent death of Sally Kellerman got me to thinking about her role in the Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which was not only entertaining but thought-provoking.
Kellerman’s character, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, and Gary Mitchell, the ship’s helmsman, acquire psychic powers when the Enterprise hits a mysterious force field in deep space. Mitchell, Captain Kirk’s close friend, gradually transforms into a god-like being who increasingly shows contempt for his crew mates, whom he now regards as weak creatures who only get in his way. Worse, Dr. Dehner begins a similar transformation.
It’s one of the original series’ best stories. The theme of how power corrupts was explored further in other Star Trek episodes. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Kirk & Co. confront humans who have acquired powerful telekinetic abilities. Their powers have turned them into sadistic bullies. At the story’s end, the chastised leader of the superhumans admits, “Uncontrolled, power will turn even saints into savages, and we can all be counted upon to live down to our lowest impulses.”
In “Patterns of Power,” the Enterprise finds a planet that’s transformed into Nazi Germany, complete with SS uniforms and calls for a “final solution” against its enemies. Turns out a Federation observer, determined to speed up progress on the planet, had introduced the population to National Socialism, thinking he could curb the movement’s nastier tendencies. But as Dr. McCoy observes, “A man who holds that much power, even with the best intentions, just can’t resist the urge to play God.”
Sounds like a timely message to me. In a confused and frightening time when both political parties threaten to bypass traditional constraints to get what they want, these old episodes have something to say.