This has been a stick in my craw since the earliest days of the original Star Trek series. This one way predates my notorious Holodeck Hatred. And there is no hyperbole when I say “earliest days,” because we’re talking about the third Star Trek episode ever aired, Where No Man Has Gone Before. (While this was the third episode aired, it’s actually the second pilot, which is the one that got the show on the air. Did you know we can thank the great Lucille Ball for that? Read the linked Wiki article!)
The stuck stick is none other than the [space doom voices engaged] Barrier At The Edge Of The Galaxy (the BATEOTG, or maybe you prefer BatEotG).
If you’re a Star Trek fan (be it Trekker or Trekkie), you know the barrier I mean. The episode in question first aired on September 22, 1966, shortly after I’d turned eleven. I was already a science fiction fan by then (like, since I could read, if not earlier). I was also a science geek by then (oh, you little Poindexter, you; the funny thing is, they called you “Poindexter” and “Einstein” as if those were some sort of insult).
So, yes, I had some science under my belt as well as some science fiction (truth be told, I’d been gorging on both a long time). But I knew better, and I was eleven, for cryin’ out loud! And I gotta tell ya; it’s never really gotten better. Science fiction continues to assume it can get away with being stupid, despite the more than willing, even free, aid so many of us would offer. I would have given years of my life, a lung and a kidney to be the guy Gene Roddenberry called to run things past.
Now, in most regards, the episode is kind of cool. Firstly, you have Gary Lockwood as Gary Mitchell, the silvery-eyed antagonist. Lockwood, of course, goes on to become Frank Poole, the astronaut HAL kills in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Secondly, you have Sally Kellerman as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner. Kellerman had already been in two Outer Limits episodes and she would go on to be in three Robert Altman movies (two of which are on my Extremely Well-Liked movie list: MASH and Prêt-à-Porter). So in just the guest stars we have a famous (to be) astronaut and Hot Lips Houlihan.
[Some years later (1972-1983) I would grow to have a major crush on the television version of Major Margaret Houlihan, played and evolved into an amazing woman by the talented Loretta Swit. (You see what I did there with "major crush on Major Margaret? Heh, heh.)]
Nor do I have any problem with the usual Star Trek melodrama and plot elements. Even the obligatory ripping of Kirk’s shirt (which I don’t actually recall, but can safely assume happened) is fine. Nothing wrong with the sets or the props. And I rather like stories about mental powers, so that’s not the problem either.
The problem is that damned energy barrier. Not its existence or what it does to Mitchell and Dr. Dehner, but this simple thing: In every version we’ve seen, and even Picard encountered the damn thing, it looks like a fence. A fence on the edge—that is to say the rim—of the galaxy.
Imagine a round waffle with a bulge protruding up and down in the center (like you baked an apple exactly in the center). Around the edge of the waffle, you spritz a band of whipped cream. The waffle is our galaxy, and the whipped cream is the BATEOTG. Are you beginning to see (if you haven’t seen already) the problem?
This is one of those things that drives science fiction fans bonkers. Writers seem to have no sense of the 3D-ness of space. It’s not a flat surface. It’s space! There’s upness and downness as well as the usual northness, eastness, southness and westness we’re stuck with down here on this rock.
You see a variation of that blindness when they show you spaceships making a turn… and banking. Pray tell, what are they banking against? You can cut a little slack on that one, since it looks cool, which matters with visual storytelling. It’s a bit like including the whoosh as the ship zips past. In space, of course, nobody can hear you whoosh, but try it with the sound turned off sometime. Boring!
[On the other hand, science fiction fans adore that Kubrick did that right in 2001. There's something eerie about the silence that really adds to the tonality of the film.]
In closing two minor items related to those first Star Trek episodes:
The first one concerns the next episode aired, episode four, The Naked Time. That’s one of the more fun episodes (and a favorite of mine). It’s the one where everyone gets drunk due to a mysterious new space thingy. Quite a bit of hilarity and hijinks ensues. Nurse Chapel pursues Spock, who cries, Riley almost crashes the ship, Sulu becomes d’Artagnan (is it possible we shoulda picked up something on Takei there?) and Kirk risks blowing up the Enterprise to save her (like that’s never happened). They also go a bit back in time setting up a number of future episodes and a funny movie.
And, of course, in The Next Series, they did a remake of this, The Naked Now. That one is just as much fun and another favorite episode. It’s the one where everyone gets drunk due to a mysterious new space thingy. Quite a bit of hilarity and hijinks ensues. Tasha Yar pursues Data, who is fully functional (and skilled), Wesley and Engineer Shimoda almost crash the ship, and (best part) Picard and Dr. Crusher try really, really hard to keep their hands off each other. Fun times!
The other mention concerns the first episode aired, The Man Trap. That’s the one with the Shape-Changing Salt Monster. My Lutheran pastor father sent us (my sister and me) out of the room at that point. I had a sheltered childhood.