Friday, March 07, 2008

Q then sums up much of human history in two sentences. Referring back to Picard mentioning “400 years ago,” Q says: “At which time you slaughtered millions in silly arguments about how to divide the resources of your little world. And four hundred years before that you were murdering each other in quarrels over tribal god-images. Since then, there are no indications that humans will ever change…”

What’s especially interesting to me now is that, 20 years after these words were written and said and recorded, they are again incendiary. The “quarrels over tribal god-images” describes much of the content of the Old Testament, for example. Quarrels over religion bathed the human world in blood for the centuries after Christ, as well: the Inquisition, the Crusades, various and sundry wars, as well as the announced justification for slaughtering the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Australia…everywhere European explorers went. And the various peoples of Asia who became Russians, Japanese and Chinese and so on, they did it, too.

These words question the slaughters, but they also ridicule the reasons. Humans killed each other by the millions over resources they eventually would divide, mostly by other means. They slaughtered each other over religions, and the slaughter settled nothing. Now most of those religions co-exist, often even in the same countries, cities and communities.

Picard obviously agrees with Q that this behavior was that of a savage child race—but he insists that it belongs only to the past. Q laughs at him.

“But even when we—“ and here Picard can barely suppress his disgust—“wore costumes like that (meaning the 1960s Marine uniform) “we’d already started to make rapid progress.”

Progress: it is the faith of our civilization, particularly in America, and in a sense it is the faith of Star Trek. Progress means getting better, and to many it is the result of a kind of natural selection—for many, the very definition in fact of evolution. It is the natural consequence of scientific and technological discovery, and especially it is the natural consequence of capitalism. Science leads to technologies and other changes that innovators develop and select because they are profitable, and the free market decides on the best changes for society. That’s progress, and in America in the 1950s, it was officially our most important product. (General Electric’s slogan in the 50s was just that: Progress is our most important product.)

But the idea of progress as nothing more than better technology is about to get challenged, as is a definition of evolution that’s just another way of saying “to the victor goes the spoils.”

For now it’s Q’s turn to display disdain. “Oh yeah?” he says. “You want to review your rapid progress?”

And with another flash of light, Q is about to explore, not the future’s interpretation of our past and present, but of the future between our time and Picard’s (or even Kirk’s or Archer’s.) In other words, our immediate future.

Another flash of light and Q returns, this time in an outfit that looks futuristic at the same time as it looks like a throwback to the suits of armor of medieval times. It’s a tunic and hood, pants and boots that cover everything but a man’s face.

“Rapid progress,” he sneers, looking and sounding stoned. “To where humans learned to control their military with drugs.” Out of a device on his chest he pulls a tube and takes a sniff. “Oh, better,” he says.

And then Q takes his observation into the Star Trek future. “And later, when finally reaching deep space, humans of course found enemies to fight out there, too. And to broaden those struggles you found allies for still more murdering… It’s the same old story, all over again.”

It is a devastating indictment of humanity, that includes much of what we’ve seen on Star Trek: the United Federation of Planets, warring with the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Empire, and eventually the Cardassians and the Dominion, to name a few.

But then GR gives us the other side of the argument as well. (As British playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”) Gene Roddenberry could articulate Q’s position eloquently, but he could also create Picard’s defense.

“No, the same old story is the one we’re meeting now,” Picard says sternly—“self-righteous life forms who are eager, not to learn, but to prosecute and judge anything they can’t understand or can’t tolerate.” It is in fact no real defense, and in tone and substance is itself pretty self-righteous. But it does state Picard’s position that there’s more to humanity and its history than Q’s description. And it also gives Q an idea of how to proceed.

“Prosecute and judge! Suppose it turns out we know you humans only too well,” he chides Picard.

“We’ve no fear of what the true facts about us will reveal,” Picard says with quiet confidence and a hint of defiance.

Q is delighted, says he has preparations to make but when he returns, “we will proceed exactly as you suggest.” Then another flash and Q disappears, leaving a puzzled Picard.

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