Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Where the Star Trek Myth Begins

It’s unlikely that Gene Roddenberry and the other creators of Star Trek set out to create a mythology. But they were people who wanted to say something, who wanted to live in the universe of stories, and given the requirements of our culture, who needed to make a living.

The Star Trek mythology has its own creation myth. As Gene Roddenberry told it, by early 1964 he was frustrated because the television networks wouldn’t let him openly write about contemporary issues for television series drama, specifically the series he created and produced, “The Lieutenant,” which was set in the present.

But what if he could do it through disguise? “I recalled that when Jonathan Swift was writing Gulliver’s Travels, he wanted to write satire on his time,” Roddenberry said later. By setting his adventure in Lilliput, “he could talk about insane prime ministers and crooked kings, and all of that…Children could read it as a fairy tale, an adventure, and as they got older they’d recognize it for what it really is. It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects, happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by. And it did.”

This feature of Star Trek’s storytelling---the allegorical or metaphorical dimension—became a major part of its identity. Many years later, Roddenberry described his realization that he could do what Swift had done as a kind of religious experience.

There were many mythologies and stories that influenced the Star Trek saga. But Gulliver’s Travels was an important one in many ways. According to Desilu executive Herb Solow, he and Roddenberry worried about how to get TV viewers to believe in the reality of this strange new universe of the future. In addition to their many efforts to create and show a plausible future, Solow suggested a narrative tactic he remembered from “Gulliver’s Travels.” These experiences among fantastic societies no one had ever seen were described matter-of-factly with the vocabulary of a traveler’s report. Because Gulliver talked about them as if they had already happened, it suggested to readers that they should accept these events as having happened. Solow advised they use this approach for Star Trek. Even though the events were to take place in a future inaccessible to the viewer, they could be presented as stories or reports related by a narrator who had already experienced them. This became the subtle tactic of the “Captain’s Log” that began episodes, and also provided useful for exposition and reminding viewers what they’d seen before the commercials.

But according to Solow, he and Roddenberry talked about Swift’s book so much that for a brief moment, they were going to call this new series, “Gulliver’s Travels.” But Swift didn’t invent this kind of story, where there is a second meaning or application beyond the literal events of the tale. Allegory has a rich literary history. In medieval Europe, it was consciously used to synthesize the classical tales of Greece and Rome with Christianity, and to show connections between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Allegory was used in 5th century works like “Psychomachia” (meaning “Soul War”), in which the characters were personified qualities, the virtues of Hope, Chastity and Humility in battle against the vices of Pride, Wrath and Avarice. The moral dimensions beneath the literal remains a feature of many allegories, though the literal story is likely to be told through recognizable and individual characters.

In Star Trek, allegory is most obvious in the original series, when the crew encounters beings on “the planet of the week” that create moral dilemmas or reveal aspects of humanity in contrast to the beings and situations the Enterprise encounters. Sometimes the allegory’s application to contemporary issues is overt, as in the famous episode on racial prejudice, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” with Frank Gorshin as an alien whose face is half white and half black, out to kill his counterpart who he marks as evil because his face displays these colors on opposite sides. When these stories work, they are exceptionally powerful.

But most of the best Star Trek stories have an allegorical aspect, even in later series when the accumulated Star Trek universe itself became the ground of their reality. Various interpretations and applications of these “meanings” are often what Star Trek fans discuss, and argue about passionately. They, too, are essential to Star Trek’s nature, and its soul.

But allegory is not just a separate technique or a historically defined kind of story. Allegory, as C.S. Lewis noted, “belongs not to medieval man but to man, or even to mind. It is of the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms.” Neuroscientist and literature professor Mark Turner believes that the kind of thinking exemplified by allegory, which he calls “conceptual blending,” is basic to human thought and language.

Modern allegory has less of a one-to-one correspondence, a single image or character with a single meaning, as the 5th century allegories did. But it is another aspect that allows the reader or viewer to participate in the myth, by seizing an underlying meaning or application to contemporary concerns, and by identifying with the characters and situations, however alien they are on the surface.

Roddenberry expressed his delight that network censors didn’t see this aspect of Star Trek---but from the beginning, its fans did.

GR and associates set out to create a saga of adventure stories, and allegories within them. GR in particular was consciously trying to create a plausible but alternative vision of the future. But their first task was to successfully do this according to the story genre they were using, which was science fiction, and the story-telling form: the television drama series.

Intention is one thing, execution is another. How did they get all this to work? More on that story---on Star Trek as drama, television and science fiction---next time.

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