Friday, June 15, 2007

Myths of Wars and Treks

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the start of the Star Wars movies, the History Channel broadcast a program called "The Legacy Revealed," a fascinating piece that detailed how Star Wars used figures and motifs from ancient mythology as well as history and the more modern forms of film and entertainment folklore figures (Hans Solo as the modern lone hero of movie westerns; R2D2 and 3CPO as Laurel and Hardy) to tell the myth of the Hero's Journey, what Joseph Campbell called the "monomyth" of many diverse cultures.

This program intercut statements by experts and celebrities, including director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings)--and J. J. Abrams, impresario and director of the next Star Trek feature film. Abrams is seen particularly at the beginning, talking about the beginning of Luke Skywalker's mythic journey. He speaks about the first step, the hero's "Call to Adventure" (as Campbell called it). "At the heart of the story is some kid who is being called to service, to deal with something so much bigger than him."

So of course I immediately thought of the Star Trek movie, and wondered if it might begin the Kirk story farther back than many have speculated--even earlier than at Starfleet Academy. With a boy in Iowa perhaps. What is his call? What is the crisis that changes his life? What is the "threshhold-crossing" event, in which (as someone said) you realize you're not in Kansas anymore. Or Iowa. That takes Kirk into a bigger world?

Who was Kirk's mentor--the Obi Wan Kenobe/Yoda of his life, to give him guidance and insight? Mentors are often "alien" in some way, like little Yoda, or like Chiron, the half-man, half-horse who instructed the Greek hero Achilles. There are lots of half-and-half beings in Star Trek. Who will instruct the Geek hero, James T. Kirk? How will he learn discernment, and spiritual as well as physical discipline?

Abrams talked about the appearance of the mentor. "In moments of absolute disconnect and loss and confusion and fear...these characters arrive that give purpose and confidence" to the hero.

The classic hero has companions to help on the quest, the journey. We know who Kirk's companions will be by the time the five year mission begins. Are they with him from the beginning?

The History Channel program deals with all six Star Wars movies, and it is particularly fascinating to develop the heroic themes with the different outcomes, as the young hero Annakin Skywalker goes over to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader. The prequel trilogy is generally less popular than the Luke Skywalker films, yet it adds more sophistication to the mythology, particularly with the political dimension. Lucas announced the twin themes himself: "how a democratic society turns into a dictatorship, and how a good person turns into a bad person." (Quoted in my San Francisco Chronicle piece that briefly explores it. I expand on it a bit elsewhere on this site: just click the Star Wars label.) "The Legacy Revealed" does a solid job in bringing both trilogies into a coherent mythology.

The political story, with its resonances of Vietnam and the G.W. Bush administration, caused consternation among the more rightward leaning fans. Some even argued that the real heroes were the Sith. But this does emphasize a point that's made more than once in the History program: that myths are predominately cautionary tales, and tragic myths are lessons in what to avoid, like arrogance, giving into fear and greed for power. The hero, like all of us, sooner or later gets wounded, and how we deal with the wounds of our life determine our character.

Though it told its share of cautionary tales, Star Trek is a much different mythology. Although in Trek's mythology, the Earth has been subjected to ruinous and deadly warfare in the 21st century, and even after becoming spacefaring, has to overcome a war with the Romulan Empire, those parts of the story have not yet really been dramatized.

What we've seen has often been a different kind of myth--an exemplary tale, to show a possible future by example, by seeing the struggles of heroes beyond the initiatory struggle to become heroes, and an heroic society.

It's been said that Gene Roddenberry deliberately avoided detailing that part of the story partly because it would take political sides, but clearly it is also not the part of the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to model a future, and that's been an enormous part of Star Trek's attraction. He was responding to a time when there didn't seem to be much chance of a future (as Lucas was when he did the Luke trilogy.) We're entering another time like that now, I believe.

Star Trek stories have dealt with myth and mythmaking many times. I happened to see one recently--an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called "Muse." (I've never been a big Voyager fan, but my local video store has a couple of Trekkies working there, and twice when I went in they were playing a Voyager episode on the in-store screens. I found myself getting sucked into the stories. Then we started having some work done on the house which disrupted part of my day, so I could do little else than watch TV and DVDs, so I rented and saw a bunch of sixth and seventh season Voyagers. I'm not sure whether the series was much better than I remember it, or what's on television now is so much worse that it has become a masterpiece by comparison. But I'm likely to see more.)

"Muse" is an episode by the incomparable Joe Menosky, in which Belanna Torres crashes her shuttle on an unknown planet, and is nursed by a poet in a pre-industrial society that, like a more simplified ancient Greece, depends on theatre to guide it. It looks very much like Greek theatre as well, with masks and Chorus. The poet begins writing plays about Torres and Voyager that become very popular. When his patron is about to go to war, the poet wants to write the final story with an argument for peace. (There is of course a lot more to the episode, but this is the part bearing on the Trek mythology.)

In that final scene, Janeway and 7 of 9 (representing the Borg Queen in his telling) are fighting to the death. Janeway wins, but refuses to kill 7. Seven tells her that "my death is irrelevant. You will be annihilated. You will never see the gleaming cities of Earth."

"What if I let you live?" Janeway asks. "Also irrelevant." "You don't believe that. The battle's over. Go home." Seven tells her it's foolish to release her, she will be free to attack again. "And again and again and again," Janeway says. "Until all your drones and all of my crew are destroyed. Until everything we value is gone, and there is nothing left but our hatred."

After a sudden appearance--and disappearance (via transporter) by Belanna, the Chorus concludes: "The stories will continue, as long as we have the breath to tell them, and as long as our patrons remain wise and compassionate. And Voyager will continue on her journey to the gleaming cities of Earth, where peace reigns and hatred has no home."

We can remember that a premise of Star Trek in the 24th century is that Earth has been peaceful for centuries. We don't know how exactly this happened, and it would be fascinating to hear those stories. But we can also see this episode as talking about the Star Trek saga itself, and the Earth it describes is the ideal, the goal. Roddenberry wanted to explore beyond the repeating cycle of unconsciousness that characterizes human history, in what he believed was our childhood and adolescence. Star Trek is the story of humanity as it consciously becomes adult--when it still has unconscious impulses, but has the wisdom and compassion--and the self-knowledge-- to overcome them before they destroy.

George Lucas told a story of the wars between good and evil, within us and among the stars. Gene Roddenberry began the saga of the human journey into the larger universe beyond its childhood.

"Muse" is Star Trek storytelling--and mythmaking--at its best. And a key to Star Trek's power to motivate so many lives--to inspire people to become their own heroes, to work in whatever large or small way towards a present and a future where hatred has no home.

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