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  • Ric Crossman

2.1.1 That 70s Show

Updated: May 2, 2022

Beyond The Farthest Star

A dead star
TFW you should've stopped a the second-farthest star.

"Beyond The Farthest Star" was not an episode written to be a pilot. Like the show which burned so this one could crawl from its ashes, the first broadcast episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series was not the first produced. “Beyond the Farthest Star” was picked over, at minimum, three other episodes as the reintroduction to the franchise after almost a half decade away. It even beat out an episode about Tribbles written by the guy who invented Tribbles. They didn’t push this one out of the airlock because they had nothing else to catch people’s interest.


Given this, it’s interesting just how much of this episode can be read as a deliberate inversion of “The Man Trap”. The first story of the franchise's second act seems chosen specifically to fly in the opposite direction to the tale that opened Act One. Visiting the galaxy's edge seems to be about more than the human need to explore the unknown. It's a way of highlighting how far we're travelled from the point at which we began.

Sidetracks and Destinations

Given the ways in which "The Man Trap" poisoned the idea of Trek before it even had chance to fully form, suggesting there was a better way to kick off proceedings seems like an excellent idea. "Beyond...." wastes no time in doing so, either. Check out its very first line:

Captain’s log, stardate: 5221.3. On outward course beyond the fringe of our galaxy towards Questar M-17, a course of mysterious radio emissions. Mission: star charting.

Yes, pedantry compels me to ask how you can chart any stars after passing the one farthest out - that's like trying to draw a map of the road behind you through glimpses of your rear-view mirror. Setting that aside, though, the mission Kirk describes is precisely the kind of wide-eyed mission of exploration “The Man Trap” failed to deliver. This isn’t a supply run, it’s an excursion outside the very galaxy itself. I don't know if a sentient dead star technically qualifies as a "world" (see above RE: pedantic compulsions), but "strange"? Strange, this most definitely is.


"Beyond...." is actually bookended with logs from Kirk regarding their star-charting mission, with the reprise essentially repeating the previous statement, only with the reference to odd radio systems cut out, now the mystery has been solved.


Taken in isolation, this is an odd move. Why restate the mission goal? We already know what it is, and the episode is fading out in any case. Contrast what's going on here with the Enterprise's trip to M-113, though, and the repetition suddenly makes sense. A point is being made here: crises might rock the mission, but they can’t derail it. And what that mission is, is a search for the unimaginable and sublime. It’s not an interstellar hunt for naughty monsters to whack. Terrifying brushes with death or worse are not the ball game, they are an interruption to the ball game. Hostile life-forms aren’t what fill the galaxy, they’re a risk you accept in order to get to what actually fills the galaxy, which is amazingly cool stuff we should be desperate to check out.


To Be Gunned, Or To Be Ben Gunned?


But though the episode makes clear we should treat this particular crisis as a blip, it’s a blip worth studying. Here too, the episode takes the basic structure of “The Man Trap” and reverses it to make it work. Let's start with the design of the alien vessel, a beautiful and utterly inhuman structure, almost Lovecraftian in form. Obviously the Animated Series has something of an unfair advantage here, but the fact that anything can be drawn doesn’t necessarily guarantee imaginative design, so there's still plenty of credit available for seeing a job done well.

the alien spaceship, resembling a scattering of iridescent leaves
"Maybe it's like an ant hive?"

The spaceship design does more than just look good, though. Combined with the opening minutes of exploration of the ship’s interior, it suggest a sci-fi reworking of a haunted house story, or at least some Peakean fever dream of what a haunted house story might be. That means “…Farthest Star”, like “The Man Trap” before it, introduces its show with at least a close cousin of the sci-fi horror genre.

The specifics here are different from what we usually expect, however. We’re not investigating either a haunted human ship, nor the seemingly-dead vessel of a hostile alien waiting to strike (both genre staples, of course). Instead, the seemingly-monstrous aliens are actually trying to warn our heroes about the real threat. When Not-Nancy reveals her true form (if indeed she does) the coding is obvious. The handsome woman is actually a hideous monster! Best gun it down (the specific phrasing of the title "The Man Trap" is something of a giveaway here, too). Here, when the builders of the derelict are revealed through their message to be gnarled purple insectoids, the crew don’t even think their bizarre appearance is even worthy of comment, let alone a recoil in horror. After the insistence throughout television history in general and the original iteration of Star Trek in particular that ugliness and malevolence are synonymous, seeing a TV episode broadcast in 1973 in which the characters couldn’t care less what you look like does more to mark out Trek as a franchise that can move forward on social issues than any amount of stories with clumsy metaphors about all them bad racists doing all that bad racism ever could.

Ultimately it becomes clear that we’re not dealing with a haunted house at all, but a haunted star. This is, of course, an utterly brilliant concept, as well as another brush with Lovecraftian ideas. Indeed, were we to squint a little we could even think of the malevolent entity from Questar as sharing some DNA-or-equivalent with Lovecraft’s own Color out of Space – particularly the idea that it will spread to and corrupt whatever it encounters – but truthfully its manifestation as the wibbly-wobbly green of evil is probably just a nod to the Original Series’ limitations regarding special effects. Whatever its providence, it then begins to haunt the Enterprise, strengthening the links to horror stories in general and thereby “The Man Trap” in particular. But this parallel is set-up for the final inversion. This time, despite how dangerous the alien is, the crew manage to find a way to maroon it again, rather than kill it.

This is a somewhat more ambiguous change to the plot of “The Man Trap”, given my arguments that Not-Nancy was deliberately trying to get herself killed. While I argued that Not-Nancy preferring death was a fact within the text rather than a justification for it, that fact remains. Marooning the lonely is not necessarily a kindness.

“Beyond The Farthest Star” clearly realises this, with the ghost’s distraught (and genuinely affecting) calls for mercy. That doesn’t mean our heroes were wrong to not fire a spread of photon torpedoes from the rear tubes as they left, continuing to chart the stars of this starless expanse. The message here isn’t about what gets written in the “worse than death” column of the Spreadsheet of Fate. It’s about rejecting the idea that humanity - in the form of a doctor, no less! – gets to decide when someone is suffering too much to live, without bothering to even ask.

As a result, the episode manages to critique the specifics of how “The Man Trap” closes, without suggesting there was an easy alternative. Yes, Not-Nancy’s death is difficult to watch, but the Questar-ghost’s miserable pleas to not be left alone as the Enterprise sails away are no easier to take. The takeaway here is meant to simply remind that there is no good ending to this set-up. Being utterly alone forever simply sucks horribly; let’s have no argument.

On its own terms, this is a smart route to take; point out that the alternative to the ending so many people disliked has its own problems, and might even in the long run have been worse (yes, the Questar-ghost has been alone for three hundred thousand millennia, but who knows how long Not-Nancy lived alone on M-113, and would continue to live alone had she been returned there).


Dark Future

There's still an underlying problem, though, which is that this is still the second pilot in a row to end with our heroes finding an alien being in pain, and having to either kill or maroon it. First Spock and then the insectoid beings make it clear not every race in the galaxy is hostile to mankind, but the focus is still on how our crew can beat those ones that are.

Both series’ openers so far have dealt with a life-form both utterly alone and horribly dangerous, something which cannot be reunited with its fellows because there’s no evidence they even exist anymore. The Enterprise has to consider whether to leave them to suffer or to put them out of their misery because there is simply no other course to steer.

We need a better set of options. We need to meet an alien who is lonely yet dangerous who we can actually help.


We need a trip to Farpoint Station. On Tuesday, we'll get one.


Ordering:


1. Beyond the Farthest Star

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