Friday, January 06, 2017
Trek50: The Devil in the Dark: The Us/Them Opportunity
Who is “Us” and who is “Them”? This key question in the human experience is the direct subject of “The Devil in the Dark,” a late first season episode, but in its full extent, it is a basic subject for all of Star Trek.
The question is implicit in the adventure of exploration, or of being explored: the inhabitants of strange new worlds, or the arrival of strangers. It is the social analogue to the internal exploration, as in “The Enemy Within”: Who is Me and who is the alien (the devil, the enemy) within?
“The Devil in the Dark” deals with the starkest example: confrontation with a creature unlike Us in almost every apparent way. But there are gradations of otherness, which Star Trek exhibits in the course of this story.
It opens with a scene similar to the standard opening of the many 1950s “creature features.” After some expository talk among human miners (50 people have already been killed, but the Enterprise is expected soon), we follow a single person alone, suddenly turning with an expression of horror, killed by something large but unseen.
After the teaser, we join Kirk and Spock as they learn why the Enterprise was called to Janus VI. Miners were being killed and their machinery simply dissolved by an unknown creature that strikes and disappears. “A thousand worlds” depend on the “pergium” and other minerals they mine, so there is an economic incentive for the Federation to send a starship to deal with the situation. “I don’t know what this butchering monster is,” says the mine boss, chief engineer Vandenberg, “but I know what it’s doing.”
There is the operative word: monster. The word goes back to at least the 14th century and over time its meaning included deformed animals and creatures of great size, and eventually was applied to humans of surpassing “inhuman” cruelty.
But lurking in the word were suggestions of significance—it is derived from Latin words meaning divine portent or sign, a warning.
But the main significance of monsters was inherent in that one-word title: Them! Monsters were at the clearest and most obvious end of the spectrum of beings who are not Us.
That’s a crucial difference, because once a being is defined as “them,” almost any outrage can be attributed to them, and they can be said to have nothing in common with “us”—not our emotions, thought processes or ethical standards.
Defined as “them” engages fears and aggressions that makes killing them or mistreating and exploiting them easier, almost automatic, without qualm or question. This is why in modern warfare, opponents deliberately exaggerate the monstrous qualities of the enemy—even when the truth is monstrous enough. For example, opponents in both world wars spread stories of the enemy killing and disfiguring children—stories that turned out to be untrue.
Another way to put this is with the terminology of evil beings derived from Christianity and other religions, namely devils or demons. They are by nature evil and malevolent, and the unknown or obscure Other is assumed to be evil (the devil in the dark.) Especially if it is defined as an enemy, this labeling as evil without reliable evidence, this assumption of evil, is often called “demonizing.”
Eventually, everything bad that happens is attributed to “the demon.” That’s part of the psychology of the Salem witch hunts.
In this episode, the “monster” is the most basic kind, with no human or even mammalian features. But Star Trek in this episode as well as in others, and in general, deals with other gradations of “them”—of The Other.
It is the alien Spock who notices the “silicon modules” on Vandenberg’s desk. As identical perfect spheres, they would raise questions, but not in these circumstances. Vandenberg dismisses Spock’s inquiries and interest. “We didn’t ask you down here to collect rocks.”
But Spock is the alien whose mind is open to the possibility of something more alien—a silicon-based creature. Spock seems to have intuited from the beginning that these modules are eggs, but—especially after being chided by Doctor McCoy—he does not want to risk seeming to be too different, too alien, and not be accepted as a scientific observer, his main common ground with human beings.
While Uhura and Sulu are accepted as equals on the Enterprise, and therefore as “Us,” Spock is somewhere in between: he is Science Officer and second in command, but as several first season episodes show, he is not quite understood or accepted as one of Us by everyone. Still, for some viewers (and not just in the 1960s), they are all somewhere along the continuum of Them. They all have that alienness, that “not-Usness” of the monster.
The Enterprise officers are piecing together a picture of the monster. McCoy identifies a chemical corrosive it uses. Then the monster not only kills a man, but steals a key component of a machine that pumps air for the miners to breathe underground. But it seems they are all slow to acknowledge what this theft means—that the monster is intelligent, not a mindless killer.
This has long been a limitation in human dealings with the first Others in human experience: animals. In fact there is ample evidence that early humans understood more of humanity’s relationship and resemblances to animals than did modern science until recently, when examples of animal intelligence (and such formerly human-only activities as tool use) as well as social behavior that might be described as ethical are finally being acknowledged.
But at this point in the story, the miners are intent on one thing: “find that monster and kill it.” By then, Kirk has accepted the possibility of a silicon-based lifeform that Spock theorized—one that extruded a corrosive chemical to move swiftly through rock “as we move through the air,” as Spock said. And that machine component was not taken “by accident,” as Spock says.
But Kirk’s mission is to get the mines operating again, and his duty is to defend the human life in the tunnels, so he orders searchers to shoot on sight, to kill.
There then occurs a very interesting dance of attitudes between Kirk and Spock that bears upon the dual attitude towards the Other.
Human intelligence developed two very different and sometimes contrary sets of survival skills: one to identify danger, the other to identify opportunity. Dangers were to be avoided or overcome, but opportunities—for new food sources, dwelling spaces, mating and social contact—were to be pursued.
So humans are endowed with fear and curiosity, with frowns and smiles, fists and open hands. Sometimes risks are seen as worth the potential reward. Sometimes supposed dangers get redefined as opportunities, or at least as non-threatening, and maybe even interesting for the differences. Difference is a source of knowledge, a way humans learn and add new skills. What constitutes Us can even be expanded.
When Kirk then tells Spock not to join the search but to assist Scotty in trying to repair the damaged machine, Spock and the rest of us understand that Kirk is worried that Spock’s doubts will prevent him from killing the creature. But without confronting that doubt, Spock convinces him that he is more useful in the search.
Yet when Kirk eventually confronts the wounded creature, he does not kill it—and it is Spock, rushing to his aid, who urges him to kill it because “you can’t take the risk.” This isn't a contradiction--but a subtle example of the effect these two have on each other, and an illustration of the two alternatives. While Spock's paramount concern in that moment is the safety of Kirk, Spock has at least put Kirk in mind of the possibility that the creature should not be killed if it's not necessary.
Kirk appears curious. But he doesn’t know what to do. Spock comes upon this impasse. Kirk then suggests that he use the Vulcan technique of the joining of two minds. He knows the opportunity of the impasse is for communication, and the mind meld is the surest way.
This Horta is not only a sentient life form—it is a mother defending its eggs, the silicon nodules that the miners have mindlessly been destroying. A mother defending its young is something humans understand not only from their own behavior, but that of their original Others, the animals.
This contradicts the usual monster story in several ways. First, the monster is not killing without reason, or for the sake of killing: it has a reason, fully understandable. Moreover, it is a reason that would motivate humans to kill, if they were in its position—in its “shoes.”
And were humans in its position, they too might consider their enemy as monsters, as devils. But these humans weren’t purposely killing or committing genocide (though humans have been known to do so, employing various rationalizations, such as considering Native Americans as less than human.)
In this story the miners were aghast at what they had done, in mistakenly destroying the eggs they believed were lifeless. “We didn’t know,” Vandenberg says, when confronted with Spock’s explanation.
Intelligence put the Horta in a different category, more akin to humans. The “mother” defending the eggs caused empathy. Both changed the ethics involved.
Had this not so elegantly removed any point of conflict, the ending might not have been so happy. But the point of allegory is to elegantly make its point, and the understandable motivations of the Horta moved it out of the category of Monster, of Them, closer to Spock’s status of acceptable Other.
The script by Gene Coon is generally praised as countering the monster movie and (too often) even science fiction assumption that the “monster,” the alien, the Other, is automatically malevolent. In fact, some movies after this—like “Close Encounters” and E.T. but not limited to Spielberg—dramatized peaceful aliens, though most movies have since returned to the more explosive plots and violent visual effects involving completely evil aliens.
The tragic error of reflexively demonizing the Other extends to racial, ethnic, national and other human conflicts. As such reflexes and such conflicts exist in some profusion today, it is a timely allegory still, fifty years later. And one that is essential to the soul of Star Trek.
By showing how prejudices operate in the extreme situation of the monster, the danger of prejudice is exposed in less obvious situations—with a diverse crew, for instance, in which a sense of Us versus Them on a smaller scale can flare with bewildering swiftness and power, resulting in a breakdown of teamwork and worse.
In Star Trek, the alien often provides a focal point for drama and for human self-examination. Only by getting a perspective outside itself—an alien perspective, even if only imaginatively—can humanity see itself more clearly. Just as humans first learned who they were in comparison to animals, in Star Trek they learn their differences and similarities from encounters with aliens, and often by means of those with both a human and alien heritage, like Spock.