Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I first encountered Moby Dick in high school, in a long dense passage about whales in our American Literature anthology. All we were supposed to know about it, though, was that the white whale was a symbol. Even though I was a literature major in college, I never had to read the whole book; I just had to know a little about Melville, and generally what the established critics said about Moby Dick. There were plenty of other books I had to read. I never got around to that one.

But sometime in the mid 1980s my curiosity was piqued and I found my paperback copy (because as a lit major it was more important to have the book than to have read it) and began reading. I was astonished. The language was rich and crazy, like Shakespeare disguised as a mad sailor telling strange sea tales.

Then I came upon a passage in which Ahab talks of chasing Moby Dick “around perdition’s flames,” and then his expression, “he’s tasks me,” and then the “I spit at thee” speech, and somehow it seemed I read it all before. Or heard it. And then I realized---it was Khan.

This may not be a surprise to you, but trust me, this was an authentic personal discovery. Apart from the common theme of obsession, at that point I knew of no connection between Moby Dick and Star Trek II, which I had only seen once or maybe twice in a movie theatre. (It wasn’t until I saw it on video that I noticed the copy of Moby Dick in Khan’s empty quarters---with the same cover as my paperback.)

Of course the irony wasn’t lost on me---instead of this literature major picking up a literary allusion in a popular movie, I’d spotted Melville plagiarizing from Star Trek. (It was a couple of years later, when I was definitely on a campaign to read all the really long novels I’d always meant to read but didn’t, that I spotted the name “Yoyodyne” in a novel by Thomas Pynchon---and immediately remembered it from one of my favorite recent movies, Buckaroo Banzai.)

This reverse derivation is a somewhat surreal but quite lovely experience, showing the vitality of both the popular and classical art in a two-way relationship across time. That so many young people now may be discovering, for instance, how many classical composers have stolen from John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and the other composers of orchestral soundtracks, is a deeply cultural experience, and a very hopeful one for holding on to the threads of the best content and practices, from past to future.

This two-way relationship is pretty widespread by now. At the memorial for GR, Patrick Stewart (who quotes---actually misquotes—lines from Moby Dick in First Contact) mentioned that someone had written to Rick Berman to point out that Captain Picard reading a copy of the Homeric Hymns (at the end of the TNG episode, "Darmok") had probably made “more people curious about that literature than at any time since their creation!”

I can recall more than one discussion of the epic of Gilgamesh in a Star Trek forum, including some very moving summaries of the story. A few months work of TNG episodes and viewers could see entire scenes from Shakespeare acted, meet Mark Twain and Jack London in 19th century San Francisco, hear discussions of Jung and Euclid, see Data reenact Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London, and watch Einstein play poker with Newton and Stephen Hawking.

Star Trek was among the first to include some of the spirit and meaning from the classics, as well as bits and pieces and allusions. Now there are other conduits for elements and values derived from “high” culture, especially for the young. Like Star Wars, and Harry Potter.

This two-way transport is even easier these days, thanks to DVD, video cassettes and the Internet---practically the whole culture, high and low, is easily available, a lot of it for cheap or for free.

But people don't have to seek Star Trek out---it remains more frequently present on TV sets all over the world. Several generations have learned from these Star Trek stories by now, have confronted the same ethical questions and choices, asked the same important questions about mortality and meaning, the past and the future, that the best literature and drama, philosophy and science also address. And come to their own conclusions.

At the same time, Star Trek put them in the context of a romantic but believable future, when confronting these issues was part of this believable journey. The application of the past to the future would run through our present as we watched. Later, curiosity about the classical roots or source of some element of the story could lead to discoveries that enriched the episode or movie on the next encounter.

Star Trek has been a bridge to these ideas and to appreciating these works, since it began. That’s become more valuable and more important as time goes on, and our culture sinks into a dull morass, where intelligence is stereotyped, and curiosity is nearly extinct. That’s why I consider Star Trek fans among the true elite.

"Star Trek appeals to a higher denominator,” Harve Bennett once said. “ It appeals to the imagination, to the mind."

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