Thursday, January 22, 2004

Identity is a major science fiction theme. It’s in every story of characters “taken over” by an alien presence, of every society fighting for its life against alien invasion, from the first (Wells’ The War of the Worlds) to the current TV series, Brannon Braga’s “Threshold,” where the threat is to genetically alter humans to become aliens.

Ethnic, religious, cultural and racial identity are sources of wars on earth, as part of the more obvious battles over political power, land and resources and economic dominance. Technology is a source of anxiety because it threatens human and individual identity, which is perhaps sci-fi’s earliest defining theme, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s the ultimate threat of the Borg: “you will be assimilated.” You will lose your identity, your power of decision, your self, your soul.

Yet life is change, and lifeforms incorporate change. How they do so or fail to do so is the through-line of evolution. In our world we constantly adapt to changes wrought by technology, and now some combinations of how the powers that be and the critical mass of people decide to use it. We are subject to wrenching changes caused by economic and political shifts, wars and natural disasters, or personal illnesses and accidents, economic misfortunes or fortunes, psychological and spiritual transformation.

How we negotiate change and retain identity is one of the great dramas of life. It’s like our own bodies---every cell (or nearly every cell) dies and is replaced within a seven year span. We start as babies and our size, weight and age changes throughout life. Our experiences and what we see and hear, read and create, all change us. Yet we are the same person. Or are we? Each change outside of us may suggest this doubt about what is happening inside of us.

The subject of identity is raised at the dinner and is a theme throughout this film. But the irony is that the conspiracy that’s revealed at the end, but which is shaping the events of the whole movie, unites people with different anxieties and desires into a common identity. In opposing the peace treaty, they have made their peace with each other.

Yet the identity they have forged reflects their fears rather than their hopes. When President John Kennedy made a case for peace between the U.S. and the Soviets in 1963 (in his speech at American University---a powerful document that is as relevant today) he said, “For in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” (In yet another Hollywood irony, these words were given to the Russian president in the movie of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears.)

This is the common identity of peace (elements expressed in the late 1980s by Sting’s world-famous song, “Russians.”) But the Starfleet officers, Klingons and Romulans who engage in their conspiracy have in common the practice and psychology of war. Their identity depends on these conflicts.

In the Star Trek universe, the question of Klingon identity becomes a major theme in stories involving Worf, mostly in TNG but also in Deep Space 9. How Worf (played by Michael Dorn) negotiates his identity---what elements of Klingon culture he accepts, and which he rejects---takes this theme further. So it’s appropriate that Michael Dorn appears in Star Trek VI as Worf’s grandfather, defending Kirk and McCoy in their trial for the murder of Gorkon.

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