Saturday, April 22, 2017
More than once, George Takei has described Gene Roddenberry's vision of the Enterprise as a Starship Earth, its crew reflecting the human diversity of the whole planet.
It's not clear if Roddenberry himself ever used that name, but "Spaceship Earth" was a concept popularized by economists Barbara Ward and Kenneth Boulding in the mid 1960s, and by Buckminster Fuller perhaps earlier in speeches, but in book form in 1968. These of course were long before the Epcot attraction.
Fuller, a popular visionary in the 1960s and 70s, had both a more comprehensive and more specific approach. A lifelong sailor and Navy veteran, he used the metaphor of the ship with the practicality of direct knowledge. The survival of the ship's crew completely depends on the resources aboard the ship--everything from food and water to the tools and materials necessary to make repairs and meet emergencies. Those resources include knowledge and skills.
This may seem simplistic or even simply common sense. But the idea flies in the face of standard practice through the centuries, of waste and destruction as if resources would never run out or become poisonously polluted. As if trees could be cut down without consequence to land, water and animals, and ultimately to human populations. Modern economics right up to this moment does not figure in as costs the destruction of natural resources or pollution.
There's another aspect to the Spaceship Earth concept included in a 1965 speech by Adlai Stevenson, US Ambassador to the United Nations appointed by President Kennedy. He told the UN Economics and Social Council:
"We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all."
"We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody."
Once again economics and ecology are combined in this example, involving the contemporary issues of poverty and income inequality, and implying the Star Trek ideal of a base line of sufficiency for all.
But the idea of the Earth as a spaceship predated the name by at least a century. In a poem collected in the 1891 edition of his Leaves of Grass, American poet Walt Whitman wrote:
"One thought ever at the fore—
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space,
All Peoples of the globe forever sail, sail the same voyage, are
bound to the same destination.”
Whitman adds yet another meaning to the concept with that final line: "all...bound to the same destination." Whether that destination is the afterlife or death, it implies the need to see the planet and life with an ethical sense, and the search for meaning. Diversity, ecology and equality are necessary to the planet, and to the individual humans alive with it.
It rebuts the viral idea that once the Earth is ruined, humans can find another planetary home--or, if the frontier ethos is to be repeated, another planet to plunder. If this is even possible in the near future, or possible at all--both increasingly questionable assumptions--it does not excuse ruining the exquisite planet we've got. And clearly, not everybody would be able to make that voyage.
Star Trek offers a template for a better future--not just a starship that reflects the diversity and accumulated wisdom of Earth, but an actual Earth with a healthy ecosystem, baseline sufficiency and opportunity for all, and diversity that is not only honored but valued. Such an Earth, some have argued, is itself essential for humanity's ability to explore the solar system and perhaps beyond.
Meanwhile, the concept of Spaceship Earth also reminds us that, while few of us will leave the planet to explore space, all of us already explore space aboard our planet--our amazing planet whizzing through this vast mysterious universe. The Earth takes care of us, if we take care of the Earth.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Second prize went to a group of 50 doctors, physicists and programmers, backed by a major corporation. But the first prize winners were four brothers and three friends, one of them an emergency room doc, who funded themselves. That's three of them pictured above, in uniform.
The Washington Post:
"Final Frontier Medical Devices, led by Basil Harris, a suburban Philadelphia emergency room doctor, won the $2.6 million top prize. The open competition, launched in 2012, challenged applicants to produce a lightweight, affordable health kit that diagnoses and interprets 13 health conditions and continuously monitors five health vitals. The team’s kit, equipped with noninvasive sensors, collects information that is synthesized on a diagnostic device — an iPad was used in the competition, but it could ultimately work on a smartphone. Harris’s only invention before this competition was a cotton-candy machine he made with his brothers in grade school."
This is a prime example of what's become the Star Trek fan ethos, the same do-it-yourself enthusiasm and dedication that resulted in generations of fan-fictions and fan films that almost evolved into independent Trek films before Paramount intervened.
But it also exemplified a Star Trek ethic. The Post story ends:
"Harris recalled how he felt when he entered the competition four years ago. “It was intimidating because there were all these groups being backed by large corporations,” he said before the prize announcement. “But we were always thinking beyond the X Prize. We’ve met our objectives. We’ve made something worthwhile.”
Making something worthwhile, making a difference is a living expression of the soul of Star Trek. Congratulations to the Final Frontier.
Meanwhile, as Star Trek wraps up the 50th anniversary of its first television season, Star Wars begins its celebration of the 40th anniversary of its first film, now known as The New Hope, but in those days, just Star Wars.
Hollywood Reporter--Star Wars creator George Lucas explained the intent of that first movie:
"The idea was to do a high adventure film that I loved when I was a kid with meaningful, psychological themes," said Lucas...Lucas admitted he wasn't supposed to say this, but he described A New Hope this way: "It's a film for 12-year-olds. You're 12 years old. You're going to go on in the big world. You're moving away from your parents being the center focus. You're probably scared, you don't know what's going to happen, and here's an idea of some of the things you should pay attention to. Friendships, honesty and trust — and doing the right thing. Living on the Light Side. Avoiding the Dark Side."
From the technology to the ethic, from the approach to the attitudes and the future they make, Star Wars and especially Star Trek were aspirational. They were models for how to be better people, how to build a better future-- for the people and institutions that would make it a better future.
And though neither the Star Trek or Star Wars universe is a reality, the power of the stories themselves continues, more than two generations later, to be living models, to set aspirations and to inspire.
Thursday, March 09, 2017
How could those barriers—war, brutality, greed, racism and other prejudice, for instance—be overcome? Star Trek stories suggested two ways: by institutional and cultural support for better ethical standards and behavior, and by individual self-knowledge and determination to become better.
It turns out that primary examples of each approach were second and third season episodes written in both cases by Jerome Bixby.
The parallel universe was not a new concept in science fiction (Bixby had himself used it in a short story, “One Way Street” published in a 1952 issue of Amazing Stories magazine.) The mirror universe—in which major features of each universe are directly opposite—became a story device used several times in the Star Trek saga. I would argue that it was mostly misused.
But its first appearance, in Bixby’s second season episode “Mirror, Mirror” had a very clear point, beyond the novelty of actors portraying deliciously villainous and more overtly sexy versions of their characters, as would happen more blatantly in later mirror universe stories.
The stakes were stated in the opening scene, when Captain Kirk and his landing party from the Enterprise are completing unsuccessful negotiations with the Halkan Council, representatives of a planet dedicated to total peace. The Federation wants to mine the planet’s dilithium crystals, but the Halkans refuse, fearing that they would someday be used to take life.
He then asks the Enterprise to beam his party aboard. Their materialization is troubled, and when they do appear, their uniforms are slightly different. They are greeted by Mr. Spock—who has a beard.
Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura soon realize they have arrived on board an Enterprise in a mirror universe. One of the first indications is Mr. Spock’s assumption that because negotiations were unsuccessful, the Enterprise would immediately destroy the Halkan civilization.
The power of the institution and its rules is dramatized by the same characters living in this different situation (notably Chekov and Sulu) who behave as they are expected to—with brutality, cynicism, greed and without conscience.
But in the prime universe, the same characters behave with compassion, idealism, unselfishness and conscience. Their society supports these qualities through their culture, through Starfleet’s training and how it operates (including what is rewarded, and what is not.)
But the cultural and institutional standards of the prime universe become part of the individual’s moral integrity. Its rewards are more valued. On a societal level, the difference is basic—in its soul. It is the difference between a power that forces its will on others with violence, and one that does not—with all this difference implies.
Though Star Fleet’s Prime Directive isn’t mentioned, it is relevant because it is a rule preventing an Empire’s conquest, oppression or exploitation. “Non-interference” in the natural development of a culture is secondary to this goal. As a later Enterprise captain would say, “We are not invaders. We are explorers.”
Kirk gets him to admit that the Empire is doomed, and that supporting it is illogical because it cannot last. It’s not really the strongest argument, but it does get Spock to consider leading a revolt.
When the prime universe landing party returns to their Enterprise, they discover that the mirror universe landing party had been quickly identified and locked up. “What I don’t understand is how were you able to identify our counterparts so quickly?” Kirk asks. “It was far easier for you as civilized men to behave like barbarians,” Spock says, “than it was for them as barbarians to behave like civilized men.”
That is a potent message about civilization, and about the painstaking changes supported by years of culture and education that results in a better future. It is hard to achieve, and dangerously easy to destroy.
The nature of those impulses in creating mass psychology that is in turn institutionalized to make destructive behavior normal—all of this is explored in a third season story by Jerome Bixby: “Day of the Dove.”
Day of the Dove” begins with a landing party on a barren planet, investigating a distress signal from a Federation colony that now seems to have completely vanished.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise detects a Klingon vessel heading their way, and the landing party quickly concludes the colony had been destroyed by Klingons. But after responding to a distress call the Klingon ship has been attacked and disabled, with heavy loss of life, and its armed landing party suddenly appears on the planet to take the Enterprise crew hostage.
The Klingon captain Kang (Michael Ansara) accuses Kirk of attacking him with a new Federation weapon, and claims the Enterprise in compensation for his disabled ship. “Go to the devil,” Kirk says. “We have no devil, Kirk, “Kang responds. “But we understand the habits of yours.”
But he secretly signals Spock, and the landing party is beamed aboard, while the Klingons are kept in the pattern buffer until Security is ready.
But also aboard the ship is the Alien Entity, defined so far only as a shimmer of light. Because the Klingon ship is spewing radiation, the Enterprise beams its remaining crew over, so a total of 38 Klingons are aboard. At this point, the apparent coincidences accelerate---along with the Enterprise, which is suddenly bolting for the edge of the galaxy at warp 9.
But there’s another clue to the accelerating blood lust and racial slurs when Chekhov runs from the bridge still intent on avenging his brother, but Sulu tells Kirk that Chekhov doesn’t have a brother.
Spock locates the alien force. “We must contact it,” Kirk says. “See what it wants.” Spock theorizes that it can manipulate both matter and mind. But to what end?
Kirk decides to defuse the hostilities with Kang, to “bury the hatchet,” which Spock points out is an apt phrase given the circumstances.
“What are we saying?” Kirk says. “What are we doing to each other?”
“This is war!” Scott cries.
“There—is—no—war,” Kirk says. “We’ve been trained to think in other terms, to fight the causes of war if necessary. Has the war been staged for us—complete with weapons, ideologies, patriotic drum-beating, even race hatred?”
Kirk’s statement about being “trained to think in other terms” refers to the institutional support for “fighting the causes of war if necessary.” But there is another cultural context: the war fever drama---“complete with weapons, ideologies, patriotic drum-beating, even race hatred.” This is also powerful cultural support. But it works on individual emotions, which can be examined. And logical Mr. Spock does exactly that.
What that means becomes increasingly clear as ordinarily decent humans do what they would not have believed within their capabilities. A rampaging Chekhov has trapped Kang’s wife (who is also his science officer) and is in the act of trying to rape her when Kirk intervenes. “Is this what’s in store for us? Violence? Hatred?”
Dr. McCoy—who has been railing against Klingons as butchers—reports that everyone’s wounds are healing. It appears that the entity will heal them so they can continue fighting, perhaps forever. McCoy then apologizes to Spock for his racist outburst earlier. “I, too, felt a brief surge of racial bigotry,” Spock says. “Most distasteful.”
“It exists on the hate of others,” Kirk concludes.
“It has acted as a catalyst to that violence,” Spock adds, and suggests that to defeat it “all hostile emotions must cease.”
At this point the Enterprise has only a short time before its dilithium crystals fail and the ship will be helpless far from Federation space. With the help of Kang’s wife, Kirk meets with him, but Kang won’t buy it. “We are hunters,” he says. “We take what we want.”
“There’s another way to survive,” Kirk says. “Mutual trust and help.”
There’s some swordplay and a vintage Captain Kirk speech, aggressively delivered as counterpoint to its meaning. “The good old game of war—pawn against pawn---stopping the bad guys, where somewhere something sits back and laughs---and starts it all over again.”
“Those who hate and fight must stop themselves,” Spock says, “otherwise it is not stopped.”
This is a dramatic combination of statements. Spock shifts the responsibility from cultural and institutional norms to individual consciousness and behavior. “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves. Otherwise it is not stopped.”
Kirk’s taunt has historical resonance, especially for Earthlings. The good soldier “who never questions orders” is an obvious reference to Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis were accused of war crimes, including the slave labor camps and wanton killing of millions of prisoners, mostly Jews. Their defense often was that they were just following orders.
(It’s especially appropriate that Captain Kirk makes this comparison, for William Shatner appeared as an American officer in the feature film Judgment at Nuremberg, released some 8 years before this Star Trek episode.)
Kang sees the entity, finally believes it is manipulating them, and throws down his sword. “Klingons fight for their own purposes,” he says.
“Cessation of hostilities have weakened it,” Spock observes. He suggests good spirits might do it in. Kirk tells the entity to go away. “We don’t want to play. We know about you. Maybe there are others like you around, maybe you’ve caused a lot of suffering, a lot of history, but that’s all over. We’ll be on our guard now. We’ll be ready for you.”
Notably, the episode ends here---there is no coda or final scene of the Enterprise bridge crew discussing the mission and joking around.
This is the second time I’ve written about this episode (with much the same plot summary. Those posts follow this one as accessed by the “Day of the Dove” label.) The first time was in the early 2000s, the aftermath of 9/11/01 and the ongoing Afghanistan and Iraq wars. My emphasis then was on the “war fever” aspect, the cultural dynamic that swept aside rational analysis and—more insidiously—silenced and castigated those who even had doubts. “Those who aren’t with us are against us,” no less than the President of the U.S. said.
In this Trek episode, the fever indeed spreads. The alien entity feeding on it is an apt metaphor for such war fever or other mob emotion growing stronger by feeding on itself.
But my emphasis this time is on individual responsibility. For the individual has the power to refuse the emotion. Carl Jung explained this as the action of the individual unconscious, that believes it is being rational even when it is not.
Notice that many of the “reasons” for hostility in this episode turn out not to be true: there was no colony to be wiped out, there was no Federation attack on the Klingon ship, and notably, Chekov rages to avenge a brother he did not have.
There are personal and collective reasons for these delusions, including deeply archetypal fears of the Other. The remedy for this fever is for the individual to step back and observe their own behavior, and measure it against what they really know. Which is what Kirk and Spock do.
This episode first aired on November 1, 1968 at a crucial moment in the Vietnam War. It was a year of death and violence, and deep emotional divisions. The U.S. was bombing in both South and North Vietnam, and thousands of troops were involved in a ground war in South Vietnam. In a two-week period in May, more than 1,100 U.S. soldiers were killed.
A kind of low intensity war fever still gripped the nation. The political atmosphere was highly charged, and two significant symbols of opposition to the war—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy—were assassinated in 1968.
Almost 300,000 Americans had been drafted that year. In total, about 1.75 million young men were drafted during the Vietnam war. These numbers sparked closer examination of the official reasons for the war and how it was conducted. Perhaps for the first time in American history, it was widely discussed that participating in the draft and the war was a matter for individual conscience and decision.
Individual responsibility came forward in a sadly familiar way in 1969, about a year after this episode first aired. It was then revealed publicly that American soldiers had massacred several hundred unarmed civilians in South Vietnam. The incident which became known as the My Lai Massacre had occurred in March 1968. Once again, war crimes reveal the toxic atmosphere of war.
Over these years (and particularly after 1968) many Americans were faced with the need to step back and reexamine their perceptions of the war. They had to start with the very difficult admission that they might be wrong. This is perhaps the hardest step, and people will often avoid it at all costs. (Even when they turned against the war, some people were enraged that they had been lied to, but still didn’t accept responsibility for not questioning the lies, or for asking themselves why they believed the lies for long after they had been exposed.)
For Kirk and Spock such self-examination is part of their duty, and presumably widespread in the 23rd century. For a better future needs both better institutions and better people.
"Our burgeoning interest in the existence and source of our prejudices, hidden hostilities, irrational fears, perceptual blind spots, mental ruts, and resistance to growth is the start of an evolutionary leap," Scott Peck writes in his book on the nature of evil, People of the Lie. This is an evolutionary leap into the Star Trek future.
The dark side, the shadow, the Stranger inside is part of us (as Kirk learned in "The Enemy Within." It is essential to us, and—as the Billy Joel lyric goes—it is not always evil, and it is not always wrong. But it is tricky, and unless we understand the mechanisms by which it can convince and compel us, we are its slave.
There’s a story, a fable, that is attributed to several Indian tribes. A version is told in the recent feature film Tomorrowland. It goes like this:
A wise elder tells his grandson: “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, vanity and ego."
"The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
“The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
"The one you feed," the old man said.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Fifty years ago this March, Star Trek premiered another of its most enduring episodes: “Errand of Mercy.” Once again the subject was war, centered on the war in Vietnam that roiled the 1960s. It’s time to get a little deeper in describing that connection.
Three subjects in the news dominated the three seasons of Star Trek’s first run in the US, 1966-69. First and foremost was the Vietnam War, and to a lesser extent race relations. Nuclear weapons matters were a consistent undercurrent. But probably the second most important and persistent subject was the US space program, in its most active phase.
These stories overlapped and occasionally collided, suggesting the peculiar blend of idealism and despair, of optimism and cynicism, that characterized the late 60s. Understanding Star Trek requires at least noting this strident combination, and this collision of passionate moods.
“Shore Leave” debuted after China’s fifth nuclear test, and just as U.S. bombing of Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities began for the first time.
“The Squire of Gothos” aired as the U.S. announced an increase in troop strength to 380,000 in Vietnam, as it disclosed that U.S. military had suffered more than 5000 deaths there in 1966. There had been about 1500 total deaths from 1961 to 1966.
Just hours before “Tomorrow is Yesterday” first aired, U.S. astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee were killed when fire swept through the Apollo spacecraft as they were performing a simulated lift-off atop the Saturn rocket. Earlier that day, the U.S. and USSR signed a treaty banning nuclear weapons in space, and military bases on the Moon or any other “celestial body.”
“This Side of Paradise” was first seen on the day Senator Robert Kennedy criticized U.S. escalation of the Vietnam war and proposed a peace plan on the Senate floor.
The day after “Mirror, Mirror” premiered, General Lewis Hershey, director of the Selective Service, ordered local draft boards to place at the head of their lists any college students who interfered with Army recruiters on their campus.
A few days after “The Gamesters of Triskelion” aired in early 1968, the unmanned U.S. spacecraft Surveyor 7 made a soft landing on the Moon. “Patterns of Force” played the day that the Selective Service ended graduate school draft deferments.
A few days after “The Ultimate Computer,” Senator Eugene McCarthy, running as the anti-war candidate, got 40% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, shocking supporters of President Johnson. A day after “Bread and Circuses,” Senator Robert Kennedy announced he would run for the Democratic nomination for President, also as an anti-war candidate.
“Assignment Earth” ended the second season, as President Lyndon Johnson told the nation in a television address that he would not run for re-election.
King had become a strong antiwar advocate, urging young men to boycott the draft. But his assassination was felt most deeply in black communities, and for the following week, riots and unprecedented destruction requiring federal troops and National Guard to end the burning of entire parts of Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other cities.
The day before the third season episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” premiered, Apollo 7 astronauts held the first live TV broadcast from earth orbit. Several days after “Day of the Dove,” Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey for the White House. “The Empath” has just debuted when U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam surpassed 30,000.
Between the airing of “Whom Gods Destroy” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” a series of protests began, leading to colleges shutting down in January and February 1969: the issues included agitations for black studies programs, and opposition to ROTC and Dow Chemical, the chief manufacturer of napalm, recruiting on campus.
In the nearly 3 months between “All Our Yesterdays” and the initial airing of the last of the 79 episodes, “Turnabout Intruder,” the total number of combat deaths in Vietnam exceeded those in the Korean war. There was another series of campus revolts and building takeovers—this time including Harvard University—and Apollo 10 orbited the moon.
All of this suggests the turmoil and drama of those years (and why some of us didn’t see all of these episodes until the 1970s.) The overall premise of Star Trek was made a credible dream for the future partly by the space shots covered in detail on national television and in major magazines and local newspapers. But these other despairing events made their way into the content of Star Trek adventures.
The Vietnam War in particular was pervasive. By these last years of the 60s, it was an all-consuming topic. Everyone talked about it, and nearly everyone was affected by it.
It was in that sense unique. A few circumstances made it so prominent in everyday life. First, there were a lot of young Americans, and there was a military draft governing all young men. When the 1960s began, half the U.S. population was under 30 years old. By the end of the decade, half the population was under 25, with 40% younger than 18.
There were several lines of debate during the Star Trek years. On the one hand, supporters of the war called for automatic approval of the nation’s war as simple patriotism, and denigrated opposition as disloyal, and aiding the enemy. They accepted the government’s claim that America was threatened, that the loss of Vietnam to “the Communists” would lead to losing the entire region (the so-called domino effect) to the Communist bloc.
Given the lack of rationale, the war was immoral. Increasingly, the massive destruction itself became a major issue in the question of the war’s morality, as the US used its massively destructive technology on a population of largely peasants.
Supporters insisted that only the government had the true facts. They said no one wanted the war, but it was forced on the US. They insisted that once conflict started, there was no way to end it without losing national prestige.
Some of these issues—as well as the cultural and racial issues raised by the war, both in Vietnam and in the US—were integrated in Star Trek episodes. But while these episodes were responses to Vietnam and the turmoil in the US (and it was considerable—talk about the war was nearly incessant, especially among the young), these stories live because they transcend the details of Vietnam to deal with deep questions of war as well as other recurrent issues in subsequent conflicts.
Raising these issues may have been seen as a form of protest, but they also reflected 1960s idealism: that there had to be better ways for the future, and we had to be better people if we were even going to survive into the 23rd century.
Errand of Mercy” was a first season story written by Gene Coon, who had recently taken on the role of Star Trek’s producer. As mentioned in a previous post, Coon was a veteran of World War II who had written a novel about the Korean war.
This episode is famous for introducing the Klingons as a Federation adversary. Both in appearance and story function, the Klingons were the analogues of US adversaries in the Cold War, China and particularly the Soviet Union.
The story begins with the Enterprise learning its mission—to prevent the Klingons from using the strategically positioned planet of Organia as a base. At the same time, the crew learns that war has in fact broken out with the Klingon Empire.
So from the start, the episode sets up the conventional geopolitical view of Vietnam war supporters: two major adversaries battling over a small and apparently primitive society, valuable only for its physical position.
“Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want,” Spock says dryly.
For part of the Vietnam debate quickly became over motives for the war: whether those who profit by military action, or simply desire the activity of warfare, were promoting the war. Eventually it was revealed that many of the premises for the Vietnam war—including the supposed attack on a US ship that inflamed Congress to give sweeping war powers to President Johnson—were inflated or deliberately false. Those who repeated the empty phrase that Kirk repeats again later (“No one wants war”) were often either lying to themselves or to everyone else.
While Kirk tries to convince the Council of Elders that Klingons will soon invade and do terrible things, Mr. Spock quickly comes to a shocking conclusion: “This is not a primitive society making progress towards mechanization,” he reports. “They are totally stagnant...For tens of thousands of years there has been absolutely no advancement...This is a laboratory specimen of an arrested culture.”
This attitude suggests a similar feeling about Vietnam, where many lived in huts in small villages, harvesting rice as their ancestors had for many generations. Moreover, the Southeast Asian peoples—like the Organians—appeared passive, inert. Westerners could not understand this—and in many cases, did not respect these people. They felt superior.
In several episodes Kirk and his Enterprise had a clear bias in favor of “progress” towards high technology and against “primitive superstition” or a stagnant society. But what may appear as stagnant may also be seen as a society in balance with its environment, or a more subtly changing organic relationship with the world or indeed the universe. “Organia” suggests this idea.
In any case, this was a common bias that appeared during the Vietnam War, leading to efforts to bring “progress” to primitive people. When Kirk makes these proposals he is obviously sincere. But history shows that others are more interested in profiting by radically changing an indigenous culture, ultimately to overrun and eradicate it.
Kor sees Kirk as a more kindred spirit than the smiling, Buddha-like Organians, not only because he is a soldier but because their species are similar. “Here we are on a planet of sheep,” he says. “Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great.”
The leader of Eminar makes the same analogy in “The Armageddon Factor.” But this time Kirk does not argue, for he has already blown up a Klingon ammunition dump. It’s important not to dismiss the danger Kirk sees—the suffering caused by a zealous and violent force would be seen in Cambodia as it has been seen elsewhere in the world, before and since.
But the story’s argument is perhaps with Kor’s contention that warfare is “what makes us great.” This turns out to be another lie. The ins and outs of the plot only return these two adversaries to the confrontation that belies their stated misgivings.
The Organians stop the war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, not only on Organia but everywhere. Both Kirk and Kor are furious. They protest the limitation on their freedom. In the key moment, Kirk cries: “You have no right to dictate to our Federation...how to handle our interstellar relations! We have the right---“
And so the point of view has switched, to a key assertion made by Vietnam War opponents: that all the geopolitical arguments made by proponents were wildly out of proportion with the realities of the war: the immense destruction (it was said that a normal bomb load on a B-52 would result in the death of every living creature in a fifty mile radius, including insects) and cruelty to innocents, not to mention the needless American deaths and injuries. (And fifty years later, that suffering is not over.)
The logic of war becomes self-referential so no one could imagine how to end it. But the Organians did. Likewise, the so-called logic of war (which includes the emotional logic of war) that only takes particular facts into account, that refuses to see wider consequences or to judge the proportions. It results in a kind of tunnel vision. What the Organians did, especially to Kirk, is to force a change in proportion and perspective. The result was a shock of recognition.
The Organians provide one result of their perspective that shocked both Kirk and Kor. “It is true that in the future, you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together.”
This brilliant observation rings true not only for subsequent Star Trek history but for many wars, such as World War II (after which, deadly adversaries—the US and Western Europe versus Germany and Japan—became instant allies) and even, in fact, the Vietnam War. After many more bloody years of war, the US could not provide a victory for its South Vietnamese allies. North Vietnam unified the country, which became socialist but not particularly aligned with the Soviet Union or China. The terrible consequences that supporters warned of mostly did not happen, and now Vietnam is an American trading partner: friends working together with the US.
The irony in the story’s title has to do with societal hubris. The Federation was on an errand of mercy to save the primitive Organians, but in fact the Organians provided mercy to the Federation and the Klingons by sparing their societies a ruinous war. That is a universal lesson about being trapped in preconceptions, and the inability or refusal to look from a different and perhaps higher perspective.
With fifty years under our belts, it may also appear a bit prophetic. For the West has now learned that Buddhism (at least as it was practiced in Tibet and Japan for centuries) was engaged in an investigation deep into the human mind through meditation, to limit suffering and increase freedom and happiness. Western scientists are currently engaged in learning all they can about these practices and this perspective. Such apparent "passivity" is an engaged and subtle activity.
It is also more allowable now, and more common, for the costs of war in lives and destruction to be openly discussed before the dogs of war are loosed, and war’s insidious logic takes over the hearts and minds of mortal men.
But also as we've seen in more recent history, war fever still can overwhelm judgment, panic feeds on itself and the frenzied mob follows leaders who manipulate them with secrets and lies. And once the dogs of war are loosed, they are very hard to bring back.
Other questions about hearts and minds as apply to war and the future were engaged in later original series Trek episodes. A couple of those instances in a further post should wind up this aspect of the soul of Star Trek.
Sunday, February 05, 2017
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.