Sunday, February 05, 2017

Trek50: War and "A Taste of Armageddon"

Re-examining Star Trek on its 50th anniversary gives us a unique look into its soul. It suggests the question: How can many Star Trek stories, inspired by contemporary events and issues of the 1960s, remain relevant to our concerns today?

 The answer is in both the selection of those subjects and in the approach that Star Trek takes to them. The science fiction distance and the dramatic concentration combine to get at certain essences of deeply felt events that focus universal issues.

 The urgency of these issues was part of the tumultuous period of 1966-69. Some believe we are entering another period of turmoil, of conflicts that raise basic questions and test ideals. These stories may speak urgently again.

 I’ve taken some care in these Trek50 posts to suggest a living historical perspective of those times, and especially the experiences that both the creators of these stories and their audiences brought to them.

 But in all the intervening years they have been discussed and debated in light of contemporary events and concerns. Not everyone makes the same conclusions, or even sees the same questions, when they talk about these stories. (Although viewers with different ideologies or perspectives also often select different episodes as the more characteristic.)

 There are some episodes however that have emerged as most central. They express aspects of the soul of Star Trek most dramatically and directly, though not exclusively. Much of the Star Trek “vision” is cumulative, expressed also in other series in the saga.

 But those later expressions would not exist without the groundbreaking episodes of the original Star Trek series, particularly in this 50th anniversary first season. Though the subjects of the stories remain relevant, resonant and important, they had their greatest impact when they were first aired (and shortly afterwards, in early 1970s syndication, when the Vietnam war was still going on and the country was in turmoil about it.)

 It was because they addressed those active concerns in ways that audiences understood, even in the less than obvious languages of science fiction, allegory and metaphor, that Star Trek began to be legendary.

 This is especially true of the stories that confronted issues of war. American participation in the Vietnam War was reaching its height in these years of 1966 through 1968, but it would continue to rage and cause larger and more contentious debate and dissension until its ignominious end in 1975.

 For many in Star Trek’s first audience, this was a topic that changed the course of lives, and for some it was literally a matter of life and death. But the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust was concurrently present throughout these years, beginning earlier and lasting much longer.

 While Vietnam was seldom the subject of movies and television shows, the subject of nuclear war had emerged from the radiation monster movies of the 1950s through the satirical Dr. Strangelove and the lyrical apocalypse of On the Beach to more direct portrayals.

 So while Vietnam was often foremost, thermonuclear war was always in the background. First season Star Trek stories that dealt in some way with issues of war include “Arena,” “The Squire of Gothos,” “Balance of Terror,” “Errand of Mercy” and “A Taste of Armageddon.”

 These—and the third season “Day of the Dove”—would be regarded as anti-war in the 60s. But Star Trek explored other sides of the question, particularly in the second season episodes “A Private Little War” and arguably “Omega Glory.”

 Other stories could be added to these lists, such as “The Return of the Archons,” with its suggestion of the tyranny of social conformity that many in the 60s saw as a prime source of support for the Vietnam War (which in this sense relates it to "A Taste of Armageddon,") or even the contrasting societal visions of “Mirror, Mirror.”

In this post I'll look in detail at one such episode: "A Taste of Armageddon."
What follows is a revision of a post I did on it several years ago.  But because the original post makes some slightly different points, it remains in the index.

This first season episode "A Taste of Armageddon" is one of the more complete Star Trek treatments of issues related to the Vietnam War--the kind of issues and especially a point of view that no other TV show or feature film dared to dramatize.

First, the story:

The Enterprise is approaching the system in Star Cluster NGC321 with Ambassador Robert Fox aboard, who is intent on opening diplomatic relations the planet Eminiar VII. Spock informs Kirk that the only information on the planet came from the U.S.S. Valiant fifty years earlier, which reported a technologically advanced civilization that had not ventured outside its solar system, and was then at war with a another planet in the system. But the Valiant then disappeared here, and was declared missing in space.

Enterprise hails are finally answered with Code 710, meaning that under no circumstances is the ship to approach the planet. Ambassador Fox insists they ignore it. “It’s their planet,” Captain Kirk says, but Fox orders him to proceed. (The vaguely stated reason is that thousands of lives have been lost in the vicinity and the Federation needs reliable relations in the system.)

So Kirk, Spock, an ensign and a security detail beam down to a matte painting, representing an advanced city. They are greeted by a small delegation, led by radiant blond Mea 349, played by Barbara Babcock (later of Hill Street Blues fame, who did voices on several early TOS episodes, and appeared again in “The Tholian Web.” ) Kirk and Spock are surprised there is no hostility, though Mea tells them there is danger. They don’t see any. The danger exists, she warns, but “it would be morally incorrect to do less than extend our hospitality.”

The people of Eminiar, who tend to accessorize their futuristically form-fitting body suits with colorful draped fabric, are shown with the trappings of a highly civilized society. This is especially true of the leader of their Council, Anan 7 (David Opatoshu), with his goatee, cultured language, and pants with legs of different colors.

Anan informs Kirk and Spock that Eminiar has been at war for 500 years. “You conceal it very well,” Kirk observes. Spock sees no evidence of warfare. The planet is prosperous, peaceful, advanced. Yet Anan tells them that they suffer losses of one to three million dead a year from direct enemy attack from Vendikar, the “third planet in our system,” originally settled by them, but now an advanced, ruthless enemy. (Earth is of course the third planet in our system, and America was settled by Europeans and people of other continents as well.)

Their conversation is interrupted by an attack. Though they hear nothing, Kirk asks why the Eminiarians don’t take shelter. “There is no shelter,” they are told.

A room with computers and a large display opens up and there is much activity, Mea is horrified that there has been a hit in the city, but the landing party can’t detect any falling bombs, etc. Kirk contacts the Enterprise and Scotty reports all is quiet on the planet. But at the computers, Anan and a military aide note a hit ---“just as it happened, 50 years ago.”

Kirk suggests it is all a game. “This is no game,” Anan says. “Half a million people have just been killed.” He orders a counter-attack.

“Computers, Captain,” Spock realizes. “They fight their wars by computers, totally.”

“Of course,” Anan says.

“Computers don’t kill people,” Kirk exclaims.

“Their deaths have been registered. Of course they have 24 hours to report to our disintegration machines,” Anan says calmly. “You must understand, Captain, we have been at war for 500 years. Under ordinary conditions, no civilization could withstand that. But we have reached a solution.”

Spock suggests the attack was theoretical, but Anan insists, “Oh no, quite real. An attack is mathematically launched… I lost my wife in the last attack. Our civilization lives, but people die. Our culture goes on.”

“You mean your people just walk into a disintegration machine when told to?” Kirk says.

“We have a high consciousness of duty, Captain.”

“There is a certain scientific logic about it,” Spock observes.

“I’m glad you approve,” Anan says.

“I do not approve,” Spock corrects him. “I understand.”

Anan then tells Kirk the Enterprise has been classified destroyed. All persons aboard must report to the surface to be disintegrated. The landing party will be held until they surrender. (They aren’t among the casualties.) “If possible we will spare your ship, Captain,” Anan says. “But its passengers and crew are already dead.”

So at this point in the story the build-up--the mystery of what’s really going on—is over. Now the question is what is Kirk going to do about it.

Now we have the basic theme: the abstract nature of a war, but with real consequences in death, if not destruction. Part of that theme is what is does to individuals, to individuality and individual rights. This element has been prepared for with the people of Eminiar having names but also numbers. And though the Trek reference books spell the leader’s name “Anan,” in the show it sounds like it’s being pronounced “Anon,” as in “anonymous.”

Kirk expressed disbelief that individuals would simply walk into disintegration chambers when told. He raises this objection again to Mea, who herself has been declared a casualty of the latest attack. “Is that all life means to you?” She insists her life is precious to her, but if she refuses, others will, the treaty will be broken and both sides will begin using real weapons. “More than people will die. A whole civilization will be destroyed. Surely you can see that this is the better way.”

She means this, as Anan does: they are quite sure that any rational, intelligent and civilized being would come to this same conclusion. They are sure of it.

Kirk isn’t. “No, I don’t see that at all.”

“It’s been our way for 500 years.”

Meanwhile, Anan is exhibiting one of his extra little talents, the ability to mime Captain Kirk’s voice (perhaps assisted by an unseen “voice duplicator.”) As Kirk, he orders the crew down for shore leave, but the always skeptical Scotty doesn’t buy it. A computer analysis confirms the deception.

Kirk and the landing party are locked up and guarded, and so they must escape. Getting captured and escaping is always good for some action and suspense—it wasn’t rare for Doctor Who and his companion to go through this two or three times in a single story. Spock uses “Vulcanian telepathy” ---of the type later used by Obi Wan and Luke Skywalker---to confuse a weak-minded guard to fall prey to Kirk’s karate chop.

Out in the corridor they observe people going into a disintegration chamber. Kirk destroys it. He says he is “throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery.”

Anan learns of their escape over an intercom (fans will note the voice is the same as Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver.”) He orders that the Enterprise be attacked (They use sonic vibration weapons.) Scotty raises screens but Ambassador Fox is sure it must be a misunderstanding. But the Enterprise sensors can’t find the landing party.

While Kirk tells Mea “we’re going to try to stop the killing,” Anan confesses he is at a loss how to proceed, when the call comes through from Fox (who is played by Gene Lyons; if I’m not mistaken, he voiced a lot of commercials. I seem to remember some for cigarettes.) Anan invites Fox down, intending to attack when the Enterprise screens are down. But Scotty refuses Fox’s order to lower them.

Anan is having a quiet drink alone when Kirk approaches from behind him. Anan reveals another talent—he greets Kirk by name without seeing him. “My first impression of you was correct,” Anan says, on Kirk’s approach, weapon in hand. “You are a barbarian. Don’t look so incredulous, Captain. Of course you are---we all are! A killer first, a builder second. A hunter, a warrior, and let’s be honest, a murderer. That is our joint heritage, is it not?”

“We’re a little less cold-blooded about it than you are,” Kirk says. Then adds: “You don’t seem to realize the risk you’re taking. We don’t make war with computers and herd people into suicide stations. We make the real thing. I could destroy this planet.” Kirk says he can do it alone.

Anan mocks him. “I had no idea you were so formidable.”

“You seem to think I’m joking,” Kirk says, smiling. He then again demands his communicator and phaser. Anan directs him, pushes a button alerting guards, Kirk pushes him into the corridor first, which deters the first wave of guards, but after putting up a valiant hand to hand battle (while Anan looks on, apparently disgusted by the physical violence), Kirk is subdued and taken to the council chamber.

In the meantime, Spock has rigged the Eminiarian communicator to talk to the Enterprise. He orders Scotty to take the ship to a safe distance, and tells the young ensign to “prevent this young lady [Mea] from immolating herself.”

Fox has meanwhile beamed down (if something changed about the shields, I didn’t catch it), was captured and is being marched to a “suicide station,” when Spock rescues him, and destroys another chamber. Fox tells him that Kirk is being held in the council room. Spock tells Fox that normal diplomacy is not going to work here. Fox says, “I’ve never been a soldier, but I learn quickly.”

Anan and Kirk in the council room are having another thematic dialogue. If the Enteprise crew doesn’t beam down and give themselves up, Anan pleads, “You will be responsible for an escalation that will destroy everything. Millions of people horribly killed, complete destruction of the culture here, and yes, the culture on Vendikar. Disaster, disease, starvation—horrible, lingering death, pain and anguish!”

Kirk has been playing the wily Ulysses all along, never more so than in this scene.

“That seems to frighten you,” he retorts, in a cool, calm voice.

“It would frighten any sane man!” Anan exclaims, as if Kirk still doesn’t get it.

“You’re quite right,” is all Kirk says.

Anan is so convinced he’s right, he continues to try to get Kirk to comprehend the obvious. “And you understand, Captain, we have done away with all that. Now you are threatening to bring it down on us again. Are those 500 people of yours more important than the hundreds of millions of people on E and Vendikar? What kind of monster are you?”

“I’m a barbarian---you said it yourself.”

“I had hoped I’d spoken only figuratively,” Anan says, pronouncing every syllable.

“Oh, no, you were quite accurate. I plan to prove it to you.”

Ana turns away, and orders that a channel to the Enterprise be opened. “You give me no choice, Captain,” he turns back to Kirk. “We are not bandits. You force us to act as bandits.”

But once Scotty answers, Kirk shouts an order—General Order 24 in two hours.

With Kirk restrained, Anan tells Scotty, he has 30 minutes or the Captain and the Ambassador and landing party will be killed until crew transport begins. He turns to Kirk.

“I mean it, Captain.”

“All it means is I won’t be around for the destruction.” He explains that General Order 24 is to destroy the planet. Anan is aghast. It would mean the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And then word comes in that Vendicar is complaining that they aren’t keeping up with their casualties.

Anan is again fixated on their war. If Vendikar decides they are violating the treaty, it will certainly mean real war. “I can’t stop it—escalation is automatic!” Anan cries. “You can stop it!”

“Stop it?” Kirk says, this time with attitude. “I’m counting on it.”


Scotty contacts the council to report that the targeting of the planet is complete. Suddenly Kirk overcomes the guards and orders them and Anan to the other side of the room. Meanwhile, Spock and his group break in. Spock, sizing up the situation, utters a classic Spock line:  “I assumed you needed help. I see I’m in error.”

The clock is ticking, and the climax is at hand when the landing crew reclaims their communicators and phasers, and Spock begins figuring out how the Emimiar computers work. Anan watches them, still in disbelief. How can Kirk not understand what he is doing? But he does understand, and explains.

“Death, destruction, disease, horror---that’s what war is all about, Anan,” Kirk says. “That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it. And you had it for 500 years. Since it seems to be the only way I can save my crew and my ship” (though by now, this doesn’t seem to be true anymore) “I’m going to end it for you, one way or another.”

As Anan looks on in anguish, Kirk and Spock destroy the computers linked to the computers on Vendikar.

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Anan says.

“Yes, I do,” Kirk replies. “I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikar will assume you’ve broken your agreement, and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They will want to do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do more than just count up numbers on a computer. They’ll destroy your cities, devastate your planet. You, of course, will want to retaliate. If I were you, I would start making bombs. Yes, Anan, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.”

“There can be no peace,” Anan answers. “Don’t you see, we’ve admitted it to ourselves! We’re a killer species, it’s instinctive. It’s the same with you.”

And now comes one of Kirk’s most famous speeches. “All right, it’s instinctive,” he says. “We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we’re not going to kill---today. Contact Vendikar.  I think you’ll find they are just as terrified, appalled, horrified as you, that they’ll do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you. Peace, or utter destruction. It’s up to you.”

Anan acknowledges there might be a chance. There is a direct communications link that hasn’t been used in centuries. Ambassador Fox offers his assistance. Kirk cancels General Order 24, and after some repartee on the bridge (during which Captain Kirk points out that had the war been real fewer people would have died, and it would have been over long ago), the Enterprise warps to its next mission.

"A Taste of Armageddon" has become one of the signature stories of Star Trek.  These stories speak to us fifty years later, on their own merits.  But the context in which they were created deepens our insight and experience. This historical context and Star Trek's response to it are part of the soul of Star Trek.

 A Taste of Armageddon first aired on February 23, 1967. There were some 338,000 American troops in Vietnam. Close to 7,000 Americans had died in the war so far, with some 40,000 injured. The largest air battle of the war occurred over North Vietnam in January. Extensive damage to North Vietnam from American bombing, including civilian deaths, was documented.

This script is full of this war’s vocabulary. “Escalation” was a relatively new term, widely used for the first time concerning Vietnam. Even Spock’s apparently offhand comment about Mea not “immolating” herself suggests the Buddhist monks in Saigon immolating themselves in protest of the war. And Kirk’s phrase, “throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery” was a metaphor used by young dissidents in the U.S. and Europe, sometimes applied to the “war machine,” sometimes to the larger mechanisms that support war and injustice. The line about the people of Eminiar VII having a sense of duty, and walking into suicide machines, reflects the Vietnam era debate about patriotism versus refusing to participate in the war.

But in its emphasis on total war, the script also speaks to the continuing threat of thermonuclear war. Because missiles could be on their way to their targets before definitely detected, and possibly could destroy the enemy’s bomb-tipped missiles before they could be fired, there was increasing talk of putting computers in control.

This led to many films of accidental warfare caused by screw-ups in command-and-control mechanisms, like Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Or all-powerful supercomputers launching a war that humans couldn’t stop (War Games in 1983) or simply holding humankind hostage by controlling nuclear weapons (Colossus: The Forbin Project in 1970, directed by Trek director Joseph Sargent.)

This script weds the computerized warfare idea from nuclear war scenarios (the very idea of “scenarios”, projections and using computers to study the future came from attempts to predict nuclear war casualties and effects) with a particular aspect of the Vietnam war: its visibility, yet its abstraction.

In 1967, there were daily body counts reported on the evening news, night after night. The dead were categorized as American, South Vietnamese, and Viet Cong/North Vietnamese. The American casualties were the most accurate, and the enemy casualties the most obviously inflated.

But the war was far away, and Americans were largely unaffected. No bombs fell in American cities, no buildings were destroyed. In 1967 the largest draft calls of the war were still ahead, and not so many families were directly affected by the war as eventually would be. Americans were otherwise pretty prosperous. Until early 1967, they weren’t even feeling an extra tax bite to pay for the war. It was still pretty abstract.

In some ways, Vietnam was an anomaly. It was “the television war,” seen every night on newscasts. The U.S. still honored the rights of news media to cover a war (which they’d done in World War II) so those images were seen every day, eventually dominating the news.

As the war went on, the images became more graphic. Bombs fell, napalm flared, soldiers and civilians died onscreen. The TV showed a Vietnam prisoner being suddenly shot, and American soldiers setting fire to a village with cigarette lighters, and the villagers running away, screaming. There were pictures of the wounded in pain, and pictures of body bags, and flag-draped coffins. It was all so real, and yet it was all a TV show. It was all very strange.

But in 1967, that kind of coverage was just beginning. The war was big news, but the news always ended with the body count. It could seem as if soldiers far away walked unseen into disintegration chambers, so that life could go on as usual in the U.S.

The story for “A Taste of Armaggedon” was written by Robert Hamner, but the script was largely Gene Coon’s. He’d recently become Star Trek’s producer, with Gene Roddenberry now as Executive Producer. Coon worked on stories and scripts within the universe Roddenberry created, and told the stories that defined Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek for all time.

Star Trek’s approach to war itself helped to define what Star Trek has always meant since. There was not always, strictly speaking, an anti-war message or theme, yet the very strongly articulated point of view in this story was and is essential to Star Trek, and its unique approach to conflict and war.

And that point of view was knowledgeable and earned. Gene Coon had been in the Marines for four years in World War II and after. He saw combat in the Pacific, and served in occupied Japan and in China. Recently I happened on a paperback copy of The Short End, one of his two novels, this one published in 1964. It’s about the Korean war, and pulls no punches. There is violence of all kinds in it, including soldiers brutally fighting among themselves.

Gene Roddenberry also served in the Pacific, going on bombing raids as a pilot in B-17s, without fighter escort, under fire from the ground and from enemy planes. He saw military bureaucracy and the stupidity of some commanders cost the lives of men he knew.

Their beliefs about war came from experiencing and knowing war, as well as considering the alternatives. If they had wanted to write “gritty” war stories, they could have done so from their experience of the real thing, not from watching war movies or imagining how it works. But at least in Star Trek, they chose to make this statement about the essential issues.

Most of the literature examining the nature of war in the 1960s, including anti-war novels and movies, were created by World War II combat veterans, like Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Slaughterhouse Five), or were war correspondents, like Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket.) They knew what they were talking about.

And that is a major point of this episode: experiencing the reality of war is the best deterrent to war. This is also the message of other anti-war novels and poems from World War I (All Quiet on the Western Front being among the most eloquent) and before. But of course, these authors didn't mean people had to experience war in order to try to prevent future wars. They didn't write of the horrors of war so that people would start new wars. We can experience those horrors by reading their words, or inhabiting their images.

In this episode, Gene Coon is saying very clearly that the violence and madness of war is very different from anything abstract that can be said about why it is fought. It becomes its own evidence and argument.

In this story, Eminiar VII has found a very intelligent and logical solution to being unable to settle their differences without war. The reason stated in the story is because people cannot rise above their enmities, or resolve their differences without violence. The history of humankind would tend to support this idea. But Star Trek is about learning, including learning from mistakes. It's about starting over, consciously, and creating a new history, with new self-knowledge and a new realization of human potential.

There is another value in contention.  The leaders of Eminar value the continuity of their culture over the lives of individuals. They are amazed that the Enterprise people can’t see the wisdom of this. By some premises, it is logical, even scientific. There’s a sense that tradition is preserved, and that artistic and intellectual advances continue---perhaps even evolutionary ones.

This is the kind of thinking that many people do associate with science and logic, and there was a sense during Vietnam that the “best and the brightest” always had logical, even scientific reasons for continuing the slaughter (in the sense that geopolitics, or military science are scientific.)

But the graphic images of the television war, along with the reporting from Vietnam in magazines and books, brought the reality of war---and the feelings generated by imagining that reality—into the public debate. This led to a different kind of logic---more like Mr. Spock’s than Anan 7’s---that destroying countries in order to save them was illogical, and morally wrong.

It's interesting that the strongest argument for the Eminar system isn't stressed in the story: that given the carnage of war, the painless method of being disintegrated is more merciful.  Yet this only exposes the absurdity of a "bloodless" war in which individuals die ostensibly for their society, based on mistaken beliefs it has become unthinkable to question.  This also relates to attitudes towards the Vietnam War especially in the 60s.

Since the 1960s and 70s,  the abstraction of real war has only become more pronounced. Fewer families have loved ones in the armed services. More killing is done by remote control.  There is less television coverage of actual warfare.  During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, images have been carefully managed.  No flag-draped coffins or body bags are permitted to be shown, and few images of civilians wounded or killed. Much of the imagery we’ve seen is of computer-guided bombs, and computer simulations. War as most Americans experience it has become a computer game. For most people, war has become abstract.

Another point to touch on briefly: Star Trek often champions the individual, very important when dealing with sweeping changes or differences in how societies are organized.

 One choice of individual citizens was deciding whether their country's war was legitimate. Many people felt even questioning the Vietnam War was unpatriotic, that we had to support and trust our leaders, that they knew things we didn't.

The role of individual decisions was even more acute when it came to the draft. Was obeying the draft a civic duty, or did individuals have the right and the duty to refuse to participate in a war they felt deeply was illegitimate and immoral? Draft resistance would become even more of an issue in the following few years, but it was already being raised in the public arena in 1967. The spectre of people voluntarily marching into disintegration chamber cast this issue in a disturbing light.

Beyond the points made in this episode, there is something else to consider about the continuity on Eminiar VII. That means of waging war preserved not only the culture but the power structure. Perhaps Anan faced voters irate about the bad math the computer used in its attacks and defense, but it’s unlikely. The people with real power were secure in an abstract war.

The most famous element of this episode is Kirk’s line “We’re killers—but we’re not going to kill today.” It’s a bit reminiscent of the Alcoholics Anonymous approach of controlling addictions one day at a time (though “twelve-step programs” didn’t become common knowledge until the 1980s, AA has been widely active since the 1940s.) It’s also a bit reminiscent of the time Traveller in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who when he realizes the Morlocks are helpless, drops his weapon and controls his frenzy of killing. “I struck them no more.”

But the essence of his statement is choice. By exercising choice, even once (“today”), it suggests that choice is possible. Becoming conscious is part of choice: conscious not only of possibility and capability, but of what drives you in your choices. Consciousness itself becomes an important drive: the will to understand your unconscious drives and expressions, and the will to make conscious decisions.

Anan’s argument is an old one, yet it comes in a contemporary guise. Anan talks about the “instinct” to kill; today we might talk about this in terms of genes, or natural selection. But it amounts to the same argument, which is both based on a false premise of human nature, and on a false and defeatist sense of human capability.

Although Kirk agrees with Anan’s premise, that we are killers “with the blood of a million savage years,” he didn’t need to, because in a meaningful way, it’s a false premise.

First of all, we’ve been becoming human for more like two million years. It is of course true that humans, like every other living species, live directly or indirectly from the death of other life. Like most creatures, we kill to live. (Even vegetarians do.)

But we ought to be careful about what we assume or extrapolate. We can look at animals, and see how they hunt and savagely kill. We can look at our history of organized slaughter of other animals and of each other in warfare. And we can devise theories about how all this must be so: it’s in our genes. Survival of the fittest. Every human---every individual and his genes--for himself.

But it’s all pretty oversimplified. Humans, like many other animal species, live by killing but also by cooperation. Individuals in social species don’t survive without each other, and humans are the primate species most dependent on each other to survive. This simple fact flummoxes a great deal of otherwise scientific theory.

There are scholars---the human ecologist Paul Shepard being the one I know best---who tell a much different story of “primitive” or primal humanity in pre-history than we’ll find in our caveman clich├ęs. It is our image of our ancestry that is primitive, as further evidenced by existing Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and traditions. Primal peoples hunt animals, but they feel deeply related to them. They feel fear and awe and gratitude. Humans living in the same environment as animals learn from them. Their attitude about killing them is much more complex than we generally suppose.

We basically extrapolate the origins of our “instincts” and what they mean in terms of behavior from historical time: from our few thousand years of so-called civilization. We certainly have instincts, and our survival often does depend on knowing friend from foe. But how that plays out may have much more to do with our particular civilizations, religions, technologies, and particularly our power structures than with our genes or instincts.

Instincts--and genes--operate correctly when they switch on in correct contexts. But they often are summoned falsely, in inappropriate contexts. And as our lives and relationships with the world and each other get more complex, the inappropriate release of behavior motivated by "instinct" or the unconscious becomes more common, and more of a deadly problem.

Both Anan's "we are killers" and Kirk's "we aren't going to kill today" are broad statements that basically support the idea that we have choice--that human consciousness can decide to alter an instinct or unconscious motivation.  But the idea of humans as killers isn't quite enough to explain war.  In fact, it may well be a secondary reason.

For the roots of war are often not the killing instinct but other human failings, like fear, greed, arrogance and others, together with instruments of deception and manipulation.  The motives of warmakers may be hidden, but such leaders get people to go along with them by pushing psychological buttons.

We need to become more conscious of what those buttons are and how they are pushed, and how our unconscious can trick us into believing we’re acting rationally when we’re not. We do that individually, and we do that together (and speaking of primitives and killers, it’s in Indigenous and tribal societies we find the deepest traditions and commitment to talking through problems until a peaceful solution is reached.) We also need to be a little smarter about the people we follow, and whose interests are served when they push our buttons.

A couple of other Star Trek episodes speak to these issues, such as "Errand of Mercy" and "Day of the Dove."  Hopefully we'll look at those in future posts.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thank you, President Obama



You were the President of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Sherlock Circle


The latest set of three episodes of the BBC/PBS series Sherlock--and probably the last--aired over the past three weekends in the US.  In an approach that might be termed metafiction or self-parody with equal justification, the series came full circle while completing the process of developing the characters of Sherlock and Watson to a contemporary equivalent of the characters that Arthur Conan Doyle presented.

All three--but especially the first and third--again concentrated on Sherlock's immediate circle, which contracted suddenly in the first story and expanded again in the third.  The middle story was the only one to introduce and dispatch a new villain.   What follows contains numerous references to the stories, otherwise known these days as spoilers.

The first of the three episodes was "The Three Thatchers," built for awhile at least on Conan Doyle's story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."  (Star Trek fans may be interested in the dramatization of the actual Conan Doyle story in the Jeremy Brett series for Granada TV--it features a pre-Next Gen appearance by Marina Sirtis, and was directed by David Carson, who directed Trek episodes as well as the feature Star Trek: Generations.)

As usual, there are bits of other stories--some lines from "The Red-Headed League," the fruitless search with a dog from The Sign of the Four and one or two others.  But the basic "Six Napoleons" story is a deliberate red herring, a joke on Sherlock who guesses the Conan Doyle solution but is wrong, at which point the story takes a different turn.

This turn involves Mary Watson's past as a member of an assassination team for hire coming back at her.  A series of implausible events (she dons elaborate disguises and throws dice to decide on increasingly arcane hiding places but fails to notice that she's carrying a tracking device; her pursuer jumps to the conclusion that she betrayed her close-knit team on the flimsiest of evidence, etc.) end up in a showdown in an aquarium.

There Sherlock confronts the actual betrayer--a secretary who'd been selling secrets--and goads her while she points a gun at him.  She fires and Mary jumps in front of him (ostensibly to push him away, but it looks more like she's taking the bullet--and by the way, her reaction time versus Sherlock's is superhuman.  Also the police are there but none do anything to disarm the secretary, perhaps to avoid disturbing the fish.)

It's a terrific death scene, leading to several reappearances on pre-taped, pre-death messages that together give Amanda Abbington opportunities for some fine acting. The episode does humble Sherlock, manic and arrogant, as he makes several errors of deduction and judgment that end up in Mary's death.

There's one more minor implausible, though it might be a joke: Sherlock professes he doesn't know who Margaret Thatcher is, but he knew enough to guess a password would be based on her name in the season two "The Hounds of Baskerville."

Oh, and Mary had a baby in the episode, the occasion for several comedic and emotional scenes.  But the two remaining stories do little to suggest that John Watson is much of a dad to his now motherless daughter.  We do know he is angry with Sherlock, and the two separate.

Though it had the best ratings of the three in the UK, this was apparently not a fan favorite.  Mary's motherhood followed immediately by her death did not sit well with some.  But contemporary TV series drama --especially the most praised--does tend these days towards soap opera.

The second story fared better: "The Lying Detective," which is a pun on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Dying Detective."  There are similarities, especially at a key moment towards the end.  For me it was the best of the three (I also liked the middle one in series 3.)

Sherlock has given into addiction to distance himself from emotions over Mary's death and Watson's anger.  But a visit from a prospective client, a young woman who is the daughter of a famous and dangerous man, starts him back on the road to detection.  He makes a series of brilliant deductions about the young woman that leads him to take the case.

It involves another super-slimy villain, a famous entertainer and pitchman who is also a serial killer with access to his own hospital (he's their biggest fundraiser), which offers everything a serial killer needs to capture, kill and dispose of his victims (an elegant idea.)  The villain bears resemblances to the famous UK entertainer and charity fundraiser Jimmy Saville, though some critiques also mention Donald Trump.

In addition to a well-conceived and highly Gothic mystery (with a few surprising moments for Mrs. Hudson, wish there were more), this episode advances the arc by expanding the Sherlock circle.  Various hints have been dropped that Sherlock and Mycroft have a sibling, that Watson guesses is another brother.  But it turns out it is a sister--and it was she who appeared as the villain's daughter, as well as Watson's new therapist and a young woman he semi-sexted with in "The Three Thatchers."  What she is able to do in this story justifies Mycroft's description of her in the next, as the most brilliant of the three.

Of course we're required to make certain leaps, like the villain's real daughter showing up and Sherlock immediately believing that she is the real one and not an imposter. Or the plausibility of this guy confessing his crimes to friends and family hooked up to IVs with a drug that erases chunks of their memory---people would sit still for that, seriously?   Otherwise this is the best combination of a tightly plotted story and one that advances character and the Sherlock circle arc.

Then comes "The Final Problem."  Again as in series 3 the final episode is the most extreme.  It rushes ahead with a Kafkaesque story centered on Eurus, the sister, and her seemingly superhuman abilities.  I won't even attempt to describe the plot.  I'm more interested in investigating the style of it, and what it may mean.

First of all, it gives Mark Gatiss as Mycroft a lot more to do, and there is some wonderful three-way repartee with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson. Throughout the three episodes Cumberbatch is more dashing as ever, and convincing in Sherlock's various emotional states.  With longer and blonder hair, Freeman gets to be more of an equal, especially in this third story.  Some of these scenes are exhilarating.

But so much of this story is implausible in ways that must be deliberate.  When Sherlock, Mycroft and Watson realize the room on Baker Street is about to explode, Mycroft runs for the door while Sherlock and Watson dive through the windows.  We are treated to a shot--a not very convincing one-- of Sherlock and Watson crashing through the windows with exploding debris and flames behind them.

And in the next scene they are all perfectly fine, with absolutely no explanation.  Perhaps the same giant bags that broke Sherlock's dive from the roof in "The Empty Hearse" were employed to save them from this dive from the second floor.  Or perhaps they landed on Mrs. Watson's garbage bins.

This sets the mood for the scenes in the easily pregnable impregnable prison that Eurus takes over.  She sets up a series of psychological tests involving no-win situations in which they have to decide who dies--which by the way real behavioral psychologists love to do, though not necessarily with the actual dying part.  The motivation is to save a little girl all alone on a passenger airliner.

So even though Erus is completely unreliable, they believe all her tricks, including the girl on the plane.  (The very first scene shows the girl as the only conscious passengers, all the others passed out but with the oxygen masks hanging down at every seat.  So our little girl is immune to loss of cabin pressure or whatever-- how likely is this?)

And when Sherlock believes that Eurus has boobytrapped Molly's apartment so he has to get her to say "I Love You," which he does with of course just two seconds left, Eurus tells him there never was a bomb, blowing up an apartment doesn't make sense.  And he gets very angry with himself, apparently for believing her, even though she had in fact blown up his own apartment.

There are a series of revelations about Sherlock's childhood (many of which pay off a throwaway line from the first series, in which Mycroft reveals that as a child Sherlock wanted to be a pirate--as does the best joke in this episode: Man on boat: "Sherlock Holmes, the detective?"  Sherlock: "No--Sherlock Holmes, the pirate.")

Eventually he figures out the key to his psychotic sister's distress (she of course is the little girl on the imaginary plane), saves Watson, recovers repressed memories and becomes more emotionally available, as they say.

And it turns out that the return of Moriarity, the cliffhanger of the last series, was also a red herring, or maybe a Mcguffin, although Andrew Scott gets another show-stopping scene in a flashback.

The final scenes show a newly humanized Sherlock (he even remembers Lestrade's first name) and Watson made whole (Sherlock referred to him as family) watching yet another pre-recorded pre-death message from Mary, who wishes them well as a crime-fighting duo and champion of the oppressed, her "Baker Street Boys."  But what really matters, she says, are the stories.

That is, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as mythological figures.  Or at least action figures--our last look is a fairly embarrassing shot of the dynamic duo running heroically out of a building.

There is not much here from Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem," but the essence of that story was used in seasons 2 and 3.  Probably the final problem here is Sherlock Holmes himself.  In the first episode of season 1, Lestrade offers the opinion that Holmes is "a great man" but only potentially a good one.  At the end of series 4 he responds to someone calling Holmes a great man by saying that more importantly he is a good man.  I don't think the moment comes off very well, but it does sound like the point.

There are lots of good moments, dramatic, comedic, lyrical (I did find these scenes moving: of Sherlock playing violin for his once again imprisoned sister, then together with her, and then duets with her parents listening.) I don't quite know what to make of the idea that various scenes in the saga with water in them (swimming pool with Moriarity, the acquarium, etc.) all reflect Sherlock's childhood trauma (it would seem to indicate these stories all takes place in his head?)

 There was much more that seemed deliberately, let's say non-naturalistic.  And Mary's insistence on their importance as stories suggests a metafictional approach in general (and it was always postmodern.)  But scenes like the Baker Street explosion come off more as parody of the action genre as well, and perhaps of Sherlock itself.

Bringing all of this full circle suggests as well that this is the end of an era for the BBC Sherlock saga, and perhaps the end of it entirely, at least as it is currently constituted.  (That this final episode got the lowest UK ratings in Sherlock history won't help, even with the bizarre controversy of a Russian language version being leaked on the Internet the day before broadcast.)  

Conan Doyle's tales were considered Gothic for their day, and this version has been moving more into horror territory, especially this series.  At the same time it's gotten brisker and lighter (other have seen resemblances to James Bond and inevitably, Doctor Who) with alternating attitudes towards violence.  There are themes and layers, and games within games.  To me, the intricacies and multiple agendas may have caught up with them in the apparent implausibilities.  It seems with all the time between series, those would have been corrected.  I would have preferred more credible stories.  These days, though, that may just be a difference in taste.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Trek50: The Devil in the Dark: The Us/Them Opportunity


Who is “Us” and who is “Them”? This key question in the human experience is the direct subject of “The Devil in the Dark,” a late first season episode, but in its full extent, it is a basic subject for all of Star Trek.

The question is implicit in the adventure of exploration, or of being explored: the inhabitants of strange new worlds, or the arrival of strangers. It is the social analogue to the internal exploration, as in “The Enemy Within”: Who is Me and who is the alien (the devil, the enemy) within?

 “The Devil in the Dark” deals with the starkest example: confrontation with a creature unlike Us in almost every apparent way. But there are gradations of otherness, which Star Trek exhibits in the course of this story.


It opens with a scene similar to the standard opening of the many 1950s “creature features.” After some expository talk among human miners (50 people have already been killed, but the Enterprise is expected soon), we follow a single person alone, suddenly turning with an expression of horror, killed by something large but unseen.

 After the teaser, we join Kirk and Spock as they learn why the Enterprise was called to Janus VI. Miners were being killed and their machinery simply dissolved by an unknown creature that strikes and disappears. “A thousand worlds” depend on the “pergium” and other minerals they mine, so there is an economic incentive for the Federation to send a starship to deal with the situation. “I don’t know what this butchering monster is,” says the mine boss, chief engineer Vandenberg, “but I know what it’s doing.”

There is the operative word: monster. The word goes back to at least the 14th century and over time its meaning included deformed animals and creatures of great size, and eventually was applied to humans of surpassing “inhuman” cruelty.

 But lurking in the word were suggestions of significance—it is derived from Latin words meaning divine portent or sign, a warning.


Monsters were often creatures of the imagination, either by size or by combining features of several fearsome beasts (griffins, comprised of parts of lion and eagle), sometimes including human components (werewolf.)




The monsters of the 1950s movies were most often creatures enlarged and deformed by atomic radiation: Godzilla for example, and the giant ants of Them! (A 1954 film that included an uncredited appearance by young Leonard Nimoy, and an impressive scene by Fess Parker, seen by Walt Disney who tapped him for the Davy Crockett role that started a craze demonstrating the power of the TV medium. Fess Parker went on to star in the Daniel Boone TV series that was Star Trek’s lead-in on NBC.)

Some movie monsters were sympathetic, like King Kong and the Gill-Man of the three Creature of the Black Lagoon movies in the 50s, in which the real monsters were the human scientists caging and torturing him.

 But the main significance of monsters was inherent in that one-word title: Them! Monsters were at the clearest and most obvious end of the spectrum of beings who are not Us.

 That’s a crucial difference, because once a being is defined as “them,” almost any outrage can be attributed to them, and they can be said to have nothing in common with “us”—not our emotions, thought processes or ethical standards.

 Defined as “them” engages fears and aggressions that makes killing them or mistreating and exploiting them easier, almost automatic, without qualm or question. This is why in modern warfare, opponents deliberately exaggerate the monstrous qualities of the enemy—even when the truth is monstrous enough. For example, opponents in both world wars spread stories of the enemy killing and disfiguring children—stories that turned out to be untrue.

 Another way to put this is with the terminology of evil beings derived from Christianity and other religions, namely devils or demons. They are by nature evil and malevolent, and the unknown or obscure Other is assumed to be evil (the devil in the dark.) Especially if it is defined as an enemy, this labeling as evil without reliable evidence, this assumption of evil, is often called “demonizing.”

 Eventually, everything bad that happens is attributed to “the demon.” That’s part of the psychology of the Salem witch hunts.

 In this episode, the “monster” is the most basic kind, with no human or even mammalian features. But Star Trek in this episode as well as in others, and in general, deals with other gradations of “them”—of The Other.

One of the next category of Others is standing with Captain Kirk analyzing the problem. He is the alien Mr. Spock, a humanoid with a Vulcan father and Vulcan features, and with a human mother and human features-- a version of the griffin or the werewolf, with the ears of the devil.

It is the alien Spock who notices the “silicon modules” on Vandenberg’s desk. As identical perfect spheres, they would raise questions, but not in these circumstances. Vandenberg dismisses Spock’s inquiries and interest. “We didn’t ask you down here to collect rocks.”

 But Spock is the alien whose mind is open to the possibility of something more alien—a silicon-based creature. Spock seems to have intuited from the beginning that these modules are eggs, but—especially after being chided by Doctor McCoy—he does not want to risk seeming to be too different, too alien, and not be accepted as a scientific observer, his main common ground with human beings.

 There are other Others aboard the Enterprise—but their effect is subliminal, because they aren’t considered Others in the Star Trek universe of the 22nd century. But a black woman officer and an officer of Asian extraction are Others in the 1960s, especially 1960s television.

While Uhura and Sulu are accepted as equals on the Enterprise, and therefore as “Us,” Spock is somewhere in between: he is Science Officer and second in command, but as several first season episodes show, he is not quite understood or accepted as one of Us by everyone. Still, for some viewers (and not just in the 1960s), they are all somewhere along the continuum of Them. They all have that alienness, that “not-Usness” of the monster.

The Enterprise officers are piecing together a picture of the monster. McCoy identifies a chemical corrosive it uses. Then the monster not only kills a man, but steals a key component of a machine that pumps air for the miners to breathe underground. But it seems they are all slow to acknowledge what this theft means—that the monster is intelligent, not a mindless killer.

 This has long been a limitation in human dealings with the first Others in human experience: animals. In fact there is ample evidence that early humans understood more of humanity’s relationship and resemblances to animals than did modern science until recently, when examples of animal intelligence (and such formerly human-only activities as tool use) as well as social behavior that might be described as ethical are finally being acknowledged.

 But at this point in the story, the miners are intent on one thing: “find that monster and kill it.” By then, Kirk has accepted the possibility of a silicon-based lifeform that Spock theorized—one that extruded a corrosive chemical to move swiftly through rock “as we move through the air,” as Spock said. And that machine component was not taken “by accident,” as Spock says.

 But Kirk’s mission is to get the mines operating again, and his duty is to defend the human life in the tunnels, so he orders searchers to shoot on sight, to kill.

 Kirk and Spock then see the creature, and their phaser fire wounds it. Having modified his tricorder, Spock discovers that within a hundred miles there is only one creature. It is possibly the last of its kind. To kill it, Spock says, would be a crime against “science”—reviving an argument about genocide that began in the first episode, “The Man Trap.” But he quickly agrees with Kirk that they have no choice but killing it.

There then occurs a very interesting dance of attitudes between Kirk and Spock that bears upon the dual attitude towards the Other.

 Human intelligence developed two very different and sometimes contrary sets of survival skills: one to identify danger, the other to identify opportunity. Dangers were to be avoided or overcome, but opportunities—for new food sources, dwelling spaces, mating and social contact—were to be pursued.

 So humans are endowed with fear and curiosity, with frowns and smiles, fists and open hands. Sometimes risks are seen as worth the potential reward. Sometimes supposed dangers get redefined as opportunities, or at least as non-threatening, and maybe even interesting for the differences. Difference is a source of knowledge, a way humans learn and add new skills. What constitutes Us can even be expanded.

So Spock has voiced his regret but his agreement that the creature must be killed. But instructing another set of searchers, Spock suggests they might capture it. Kirk quickly intervenes, reiterating his order to shoot to kill. “I will lose no more men.”

 When Kirk then tells Spock not to join the search but to assist Scotty in trying to repair the damaged machine, Spock and the rest of us understand that Kirk is worried that Spock’s doubts will prevent him from killing the creature. But without confronting that doubt, Spock convinces him that he is more useful in the search.

 Yet when Kirk eventually confronts the wounded creature, he does not kill it—and it is Spock, rushing to his aid, who urges him to kill it because “you can’t take the risk.”  This isn't a contradiction--but a subtle example of the effect these two have on each other, and an illustration of the two alternatives. While Spock's paramount concern in that moment is the safety of Kirk,  Spock has at least put Kirk in mind of the possibility that the creature should not be killed if it's not necessary.

Once Kirk assesses that the creature won’t attack as long as he has his phaser at the ready, he relaxes. He has heard his alien officer’s feeling about an alien life form, and taken this risk. He sees an opportunity.

Kirk appears curious. But he doesn’t know what to do. Spock comes upon this impasse. Kirk then suggests that he use the Vulcan technique of the joining of two minds. He knows the opportunity of the impasse is for communication, and the mind meld is the surest way.

 Spock’s mind meld (actually two separate melds, with the Horta’s attempt at communicating between them) reveals the truth: the creature is a member of a highly intelligent species, the Horta. At a certain point in their cycle (every 50,000 years), all Horta die except one, who nurtures the thousands of eggs that will become the next generation.

 This Horta is not only a sentient life form—it is a mother defending its eggs, the silicon nodules that the miners have mindlessly been destroying. A mother defending its young is something humans understand not only from their own behavior, but that of their original Others, the animals.

 But that’s not all that results from Spock’s mind meld. He is able to repeat the Horta’s internal cries of pain, and anguished thoughts about the actions of the human miners. From the Horta’s point of view, the humans are murderers, devils, destroying the Chamber of the Ages, the Horta’s very future. So the Horta feels compelled to kill the “monsters.”

 This contradicts the usual monster story in several ways. First, the monster is not killing without reason, or for the sake of killing: it has a reason, fully understandable. Moreover, it is a reason that would motivate humans to kill, if they were in its position—in its “shoes.”

And were humans in its position, they too might consider their enemy as monsters, as devils. But these humans weren’t purposely killing or committing genocide (though humans have been known to do so, employing various rationalizations, such as considering Native Americans as less than human.)

 In this story the miners were aghast at what they had done, in mistakenly destroying the eggs they believed were lifeless. “We didn’t know,” Vandenberg says, when confronted with Spock’s explanation.

 Kirk orders McCoy to heal the Horta’s wounds, and brokers a mutually beneficial agreement between the Horta and the miners. It is an agreement that still seems a bit colonialist (the Horta tunnel for the miners in exchange for not being killed) but it is an agreeable solution.

 Intelligence put the Horta in a different category, more akin to humans. The “mother” defending the eggs caused empathy. Both changed the ethics involved.

 Had this not so elegantly removed any point of conflict, the ending might not have been so happy. But the point of allegory is to elegantly make its point, and the understandable motivations of the Horta moved it out of the category of Monster, of Them, closer to Spock’s status of acceptable Other.

The script by Gene Coon is generally praised as countering the monster movie and (too often) even science fiction assumption that the “monster,” the alien, the Other, is automatically malevolent. In fact, some movies after this—like “Close Encounters” and E.T. but not limited to Spielberg—dramatized peaceful aliens, though most movies have since returned to the more explosive plots and violent visual effects involving completely evil aliens.

 The episode succeeds as allegory and human drama, despite production deficiencies and unconvincing plot points. Sometimes it succeeds because of these. For example, the miners at one point form what is essentially a mob, armed with clubs—implausible in terms of effective weapons against the creature’s known capabilities, but very suggestive on the allegorical or metaphorical level of a mob armed with clubs and pitchforks in pursuit of the Frankenstein monster, or witches or demons.

 The tragic error of reflexively demonizing the Other extends to racial, ethnic, national and other human conflicts. As such reflexes and such conflicts exist in some profusion today, it is a timely allegory still, fifty years later. And one that is essential to the soul of Star Trek.

 By showing how prejudices operate in the extreme situation of the monster, the danger of prejudice is exposed in less obvious situations—with a diverse crew, for instance, in which a sense of Us versus Them on a smaller scale can flare with bewildering swiftness and power, resulting in a breakdown of teamwork and worse.

 In Star Trek, the alien often provides a focal point for drama and for human self-examination. Only by getting a perspective outside itself—an alien perspective, even if only imaginatively—can humanity see itself more clearly. Just as humans first learned who they were in comparison to animals, in Star Trek they learn their differences and similarities from encounters with aliens, and often by means of those with both a human and alien heritage, like Spock.

The view towards non-humanoid aliens would become more complex in Star Trek, especially in the Next Generation series. The positive side of The Devil of the Dark allegory would enable Star Trek’s boldest value, expressed as the Vulcan motto of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.”