Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The God thing

Star Trek has often boldly gone where few general audience TV shows and films have gone before, but sometimes its explorations are less than thorough, or perhaps a better metaphor is, sometimes the log is less than complete. Even though Shatner's initial concept for this story was compromised, elements of an extraordinarily profound exploration of the inner frontiers, the spiritual dimensions, are rather thoughtfully assembled.

The problem for the viewer is that the connections aren't made. At times it would have taken just a line or two of dialogue. But in the end the problem might have been that to make the connections would be to make explicit a point of view that not everybody involved could agree on, or would want to lay bare to the general public.

Judging from Shatner's statements, especially the extraordinary interview filmed just before the first day of the Yosemite shoot and included in the DVD package, there was quite a lot that he consciously intended to present. But it's one of those curious and often wonderful things about creativity that when you get to really profound issues, the unconscious will toss in elements that the conscious (usually somebody else's) will connect only much later.

Viewed simply as irony, the journey to find God that ends up finding the devil is pretty trivial. But there's more here, thanks to a line Shatner insisted on keeping in the film, over opposition. Near the end of the film when he answers McCoy's question of whether God is 'out there' somewhere: "Maybe he's not out there. Maybe he's in here---in the human heart."

That's really a Star Trek answer, consistent with the original series and The Next Generation. Looked at one way, it says that the search out there is the search in here; that in the search for meaning we don't need a starship.

But if God is in the human heart, so is the Devil. Just as the God and the Devil of this movie are the same on the same planet, so too are both good and evil within us. Obviously a Star Trek idea, alluded to already from the two-Kirks episode, but repeated in various ways many times.

Here it is given stark visual confirmation when Sybok, who believes he has been guided by God's voice to find Him, asks how he can do violence to his friends. Then Sybok sees the final Image and Likeness of God/Satan is his own face.

This idea is carried out as well when Sybok tries his magic on the trinity. (In the novelization, by the way, this is revealed as a Vulcan mind technique, now banned because in the past it had been used to brainwash victims.) Sybok has the power to extract the source of someone's deepest pain, and in this case, to bring it to life for all to see, like a psychic holodeck. He reveals McCoy's secret pain when he was confronted with the choice of watching his father suffer as he slowly but inevitably died, or heed his father's wishes and deny his doctor's oath by pulling the plug. He pulled the plug and his father died, but soon a cure for his father's disease was found.

Having expressed this pain fully---as perhaps only an emotionally available McCoy could have---he felt relief. "Release this pain" Sybok said. "You have taken the first step. The rest we will take together."

Perhaps some audience discomfort with this scene was that, at the time of the film's release, both McCoy's dilemma and Sybok's therapeutic technique had come and gone as fashionable talk show/magazine items of discussion. In fact, the issues surrounding euthanasia are still very real, and the idea of releasing buried "pain" or trauma is central to any number of psychiatric and therapeutic techniques.

But the idea that merely remembering past abuse or expressing and acknowledging suppressed pain constituted a sudden miracle cure was widely popular for awhile, a misunderstanding of what well known proponents like John Bradshaw actually meant---even if their TV and personal appearances lent themselves to such an impression. At least Sybok suggests that further steps are necessary.

Then it's Spock's turn, and Sybok resurrects the moment of his birth, when his father expresses dismay that he looks so human. But Spock says that he has already acknowledged and dealt with this pain, or at least has found a different life, where it no longer matters. This is the crucial self-understanding that is so much a part of the Star Trek message.

Then Sybok scores a point by getting Kirk to admit that he didn't know that his closest friends had this core of pain. But Kirk refuses to undergo the process. Is he afraid? "I'm afraid of nothing," he says with such conviction that we have no choice but to believe him. Is this the arrogance of the self-deluded, the person without the skills or the will to examine himself? Maybe not. "I know what my weaknesses are...they're things we carry with us-the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I need my pain."

Again, the two-Kirks episode. Star Trek fans will be reminded that this is a captain who once experienced being split literally into two people, the good Kirk and the evil Kirk, in a transporter accident. Neither Kirk was able to really function; the good Kirk needed the energy, boldness and decisiveness of his dark side. (Though interestingly, it was the dark side Kirk who lacked courage.)

In context of this film, the God and the Devil in the human heart may cause conflict, but how that inner conflict is dealt with, how it is reconciled through the mind and through the activities some identify with the soul, is the nature of being human.

The literal search for a literal God is a stand-in for the human search for a spiritual dimension Clearly something like this was intended, in a film about a search for God that's called "The Final Frontier." Shatner has said as much, though the idea was most clearly expressed in a different context by David Gerrold, who wrote for the original series and the Next Generation: " Space is not the final frontier. The final frontier is the human soul."

Of course this is an analogue to Kirk's contrast of looking for God in outer space, or in the inner recesses of the human heart. Merging the two---the spiritual quest as part of the exploration of space---is very much a Star Trek theme.

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