Thursday, March 09, 2017

Trek50: Mirrors and Doves

Largely because the Vietnam War was ongoing, war was an obsessive subject in stories created during the first run of original series Star Trek. But war was also a kind of stand-in for other barriers to a better human future.

 How could those barriers—war, brutality, greed, racism and other prejudice, for instance—be overcome? Star Trek stories suggested two ways: by institutional and cultural support for better ethical standards and behavior, and by individual self-knowledge and determination to become better.

 It turns out that primary examples of each approach were second and third season episodes written in both cases by Jerome Bixby.

The parallel universe was not a new concept in science fiction (Bixby had himself used it in a short story, “One Way Street” published in a 1952 issue of Amazing Stories magazine.) The mirror universe—in which major features of each universe are directly opposite—became a story device used several times in the Star Trek saga. I would argue that it was mostly misused.

 But its first appearance, in Bixby’s second season episode “Mirror, Mirror” had a very clear point, beyond the novelty of actors portraying deliciously villainous and more overtly sexy versions of their characters, as would happen more blatantly in later mirror universe stories.

 The stakes were stated in the opening scene, when Captain Kirk and his landing party from the Enterprise are completing unsuccessful negotiations with the Halkan Council, representatives of a planet dedicated to total peace. The Federation wants to mine the planet’s dilithium crystals, but the Halkans refuse, fearing that they would someday be used to take life.

Distracted by a raging ion storm above, Kirk suggests they resume negotiations later, though the Halkan leader gives him little hope their position will change. “Captain, you do have the might to force the crystals from us, of course,” he says. “But we won’t,” Kirk replies. “Consider that.”

 He then asks the Enterprise to beam his party aboard. Their materialization is troubled, and when they do appear, their uniforms are slightly different. They are greeted by Mr. Spock—who has a beard.

 Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura soon realize they have arrived on board an Enterprise in a mirror universe. One of the first indications is Mr. Spock’s assumption that because negotiations were unsuccessful, the Enterprise would immediately destroy the Halkan civilization.

By portraying a mirror opposite of the Federation and replacing it with the Empire, the role of institutions and their rules and expectations in governing everything from war to individual violence is highlighted. The Empire is about conquest. The Captain is obeyed because he is feared. Advancement is through assassination of superior officers. Brutality is expected and respected. Sexual relationships are impersonal, based on power.

 The power of the institution and its rules is dramatized by the same characters living in this different situation (notably Chekov and Sulu) who behave as they are expected to—with brutality, cynicism, greed and without conscience.

 But in the prime universe, the same characters behave with compassion, idealism, unselfishness and conscience. Their society supports these qualities through their culture, through Starfleet’s training and how it operates (including what is rewarded, and what is not.)

The mirror universe is not without its compensations, and temptations (which follows from the fairytale question “Mirror, mirror on the wall/who is the fairest of them all?”) Power is rewarded by status, wealth, and in Kirk’s case, the lovely Captain’s Woman.

 But the cultural and institutional standards of the prime universe become part of the individual’s moral integrity. Its rewards are more valued. On a societal level, the difference is basic—in its soul. It is the difference between a power that forces its will on others with violence, and one that does not—with all this difference implies.

 Though Star Fleet’s Prime Directive isn’t mentioned, it is relevant because it is a rule preventing an Empire’s conquest, oppression or exploitation. “Non-interference” in the natural development of a culture is secondary to this goal. As a later Enterprise captain would say, “We are not invaders. We are explorers.”

The episode mixes revelations about this brutal mirror universe with the landing party’s efforts to get back to their Enterprise, with Mr. Spock as the key figure. Seeing the imbalance of the switch, he cooperates to send them back, assuming his landing party will return at the same time.

Kirk gets him to admit that the Empire is doomed, and that supporting it is illogical because it cannot last. It’s not really the strongest argument, but it does get Spock to consider leading a revolt.

 When the prime universe landing party returns to their Enterprise, they discover that the mirror universe landing party had been quickly identified and locked up. “What I don’t understand is how were you able to identify our counterparts so quickly?” Kirk asks. “It was far easier for you as civilized men to behave like barbarians,” Spock says, “than it was for them as barbarians to behave like civilized men.”

 That is a potent message about civilization, and about the painstaking changes supported by years of culture and education that results in a better future. It is hard to achieve, and dangerously easy to destroy.

While there perhaps is more resilience in civilized behavior and ideas than that, it is equally true that the erosion of civilization can begin in small ways and rapidly threaten it. This suggests that it takes effort to withstand the temptations of giving into violent impulses. When institutions and culture don’t support self-knowledge and ethical behavior, the mass psychology can work quickly to unravel a society, and destroy a future.

 The nature of those impulses in creating mass psychology that is in turn institutionalized to make destructive behavior normal—all of this is explored in a third season story by Jerome Bixby: “Day of the Dove.”

Day of the Dove” begins with a landing party on a barren planet, investigating a distress signal from a Federation colony that now seems to have completely vanished.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise detects a Klingon vessel heading their way, and the landing party quickly concludes the colony had been destroyed by Klingons. But after responding to a distress call the Klingon ship has been attacked and disabled, with heavy loss of life, and its armed landing party suddenly appears on the planet to take the Enterprise crew hostage.

The Klingon captain Kang (Michael Ansara) accuses Kirk of attacking him with a new Federation weapon, and claims the Enterprise in compensation for his disabled ship. “Go to the devil,” Kirk says. “We have no devil, Kirk, “Kang responds. “But we understand the habits of yours.”

 Chekhov suddenly goes berserk (not for the last time), desiring to avenge the death of his brother, killed by Klingons. Kang uses a device to torture him until Kirk relents (with Chekhov screaming, ”Don’t let these animals have the ship!”) and arranges to have them all beamed aboard the Enterprise.

 But he secretly signals Spock, and the landing party is beamed aboard, while the Klingons are kept in the pattern buffer until Security is ready.

 But also aboard the ship is the Alien Entity, defined so far only as a shimmer of light. Because the Klingon ship is spewing radiation, the Enterprise beams its remaining crew over, so a total of 38 Klingons are aboard. At this point, the apparent coincidences accelerate---along with the Enterprise, which is suddenly bolting for the edge of the galaxy at warp 9.

It is also attacked from nowhere, trapping 400 crew members beyond sealed bulkheads. Now there are also 38 on the Starfleet side. When both sides confront each other, their modern weapons disappear and are replaced by swords. The alien light appears pleased when they fight.

 But there’s another clue to the accelerating blood lust and racial slurs when Chekhov runs from the bridge still intent on avenging his brother, but Sulu tells Kirk that Chekhov doesn’t have a brother.

Spock locates the alien force. “We must contact it,” Kirk says. “See what it wants.” Spock theorizes that it can manipulate both matter and mind. But to what end?

 Kirk decides to defuse the hostilities with Kang, to “bury the hatchet,” which Spock points out is an apt phrase given the circumstances.

But there’s another burst of war fever and racism on the bridge. Scotty calls Spock “ a green-blooded half-breed freak” among other things, and McCoy joins in. Spock says he’s not so pleased about being around humans either.

 “What are we saying?” Kirk says. “What are we doing to each other?”

 “This is war!” Scott cries.

 “There—is—no—war,” Kirk says. “We’ve been trained to think in other terms, to fight the causes of war if necessary. Has the war been staged for us—complete with weapons, ideologies, patriotic drum-beating, even race hatred?”

 Kirk’s statement about being “trained to think in other terms” refers to the institutional support for “fighting the causes of war if necessary.” But there is another cultural context: the war fever drama---“complete with weapons, ideologies, patriotic drum-beating, even race hatred.” This is also powerful cultural support. But it works on individual emotions, which can be examined. And logical Mr. Spock does exactly that.

Spock hypothesizes that basic hostilities between humans and Klingons have been magnified---that they are to fight apparently by design. Note that he doesn’t say the hostilities have been invented, or that they are completely foreign. But they have been magnified, and are out of control.

 What that means becomes increasingly clear as ordinarily decent humans do what they would not have believed within their capabilities. A rampaging Chekhov has trapped Kang’s wife (who is also his science officer) and is in the act of trying to rape her when Kirk intervenes. “Is this what’s in store for us? Violence? Hatred?”

 Dr. McCoy—who has been railing against Klingons as butchers—reports that everyone’s wounds are healing. It appears that the entity will heal them so they can continue fighting, perhaps forever. McCoy then apologizes to Spock for his racist outburst earlier. “I, too, felt a brief surge of racial bigotry,” Spock says. “Most distasteful.”

 A wounded crewman, now healed, appears with his sword, crazed to kill Klingons and “even the score” (even though he is no longer hurt.) Kirk and Spock observe the alien hovering above---they note that it grew more vibrant when the crewman expressed a lust for vengeance and violence.

 “It exists on the hate of others,” Kirk concludes.

 “It has acted as a catalyst to that violence,” Spock adds, and suggests that to defeat it “all hostile emotions must cease.”

At this point the Enterprise has only a short time before its dilithium crystals fail and the ship will be helpless far from Federation space. With the help of Kang’s wife, Kirk meets with him, but Kang won’t buy it. “We are hunters,” he says. “We take what we want.”

 “There’s another way to survive,” Kirk says. “Mutual trust and help.”

 There’s some swordplay and a vintage Captain Kirk speech, aggressively delivered as counterpoint to its meaning. “The good old game of war—pawn against pawn---stopping the bad guys, where somewhere something sits back and laughs---and starts it all over again.”

 “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves,” Spock says, “otherwise it is not stopped.”

 “Be a pawn, be a toy, be a good soldier who never questions orders,” Kirk taunts Kang.

 This is a dramatic combination of statements. Spock shifts the responsibility from cultural and institutional norms to individual consciousness and behavior. “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves. Otherwise it is not stopped.” 

 Kirk’s taunt has historical resonance, especially for Earthlings. The good soldier “who never questions orders” is an obvious reference to Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis were accused of war crimes, including the slave labor camps and wanton killing of millions of prisoners, mostly Jews. Their defense often was that they were just following orders.

 (It’s especially appropriate that Captain Kirk makes this comparison, for William Shatner appeared as an American officer in the feature film Judgment at Nuremberg, released some 8 years before this Star Trek episode.)

Kang sees the entity, finally believes it is manipulating them, and throws down his sword. “Klingons fight for their own purposes,” he says.

 “Cessation of hostilities have weakened it,” Spock observes. He suggests good spirits might do it in. Kirk tells the entity to go away. “We don’t want to play. We know about you. Maybe there are others like you around, maybe you’ve caused a lot of suffering, a lot of history, but that’s all over. We’ll be on our guard now. We’ll be ready for you.”

 “Only a fool fights in a burning house,” Kang cries, and joins in the general laughter, and even slaps Kirk on the back. (If you take a look at this episode, don’t miss Spock’s expression in the background after Kang’s back-slap.)

 Notably, the episode ends here---there is no coda or final scene of the Enterprise bridge crew discussing the mission and joking around.

 This is the second time I’ve written about this episode (with much the same plot summary. Those posts follow this one as accessed by the “Day of the Dove” label.) The first time was in the early 2000s, the aftermath of 9/11/01 and the ongoing Afghanistan and Iraq wars. My emphasis then was on the “war fever” aspect, the cultural dynamic that swept aside rational analysis and—more insidiously—silenced and castigated those who even had doubts. “Those who aren’t with us are against us,” no less than the President of the U.S. said.

Yet it was only a few years later that the Iraq war was widely repudiated, along with many of the excesses in the war on terrorism that in some respects put America in the moral company of Nazi Germany.

 In this Trek episode, the fever indeed spreads. The alien entity feeding on it is an apt metaphor for such war fever or other mob emotion growing stronger by feeding on itself.

 But my emphasis this time is on individual responsibility. For the individual has the power to refuse the emotion. Carl Jung explained this as the action of the individual unconscious, that believes it is being rational even when it is not.

Notice that many of the “reasons” for hostility in this episode turn out not to be true: there was no colony to be wiped out, there was no Federation attack on the Klingon ship, and notably, Chekov rages to avenge a brother he did not have.

 There are personal and collective reasons for these delusions, including deeply archetypal fears of the Other. The remedy for this fever is for the individual to step back and observe their own behavior, and measure it against what they really know. Which is what Kirk and Spock do.

 This episode first aired on November 1, 1968 at a crucial moment in the Vietnam War. It was a year of death and violence, and deep emotional divisions. The U.S. was bombing in both South and North Vietnam, and thousands of troops were involved in a ground war in South Vietnam. In a two-week period in May, more than 1,100 U.S. soldiers were killed.

 A kind of low intensity war fever still gripped the nation. The political atmosphere was highly charged, and two significant symbols of opposition to the war—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy—were assassinated in 1968.

These were the “Generation Gap” years in which parents and their children often had significant differences that resulted in alienation and even hostility. Opposition to the draft and the war contributed. One flashpoint was in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where mostly young protestors were beaten and gassed by police, with the nation watching on live TV.

 Almost 300,000 Americans had been drafted that year. In total, about 1.75 million young men were drafted during the Vietnam war. These numbers sparked closer examination of the official reasons for the war and how it was conducted. Perhaps for the first time in American history, it was widely discussed that participating in the draft and the war was a matter for individual conscience and decision.

 The draft had become so controversial that it switched to a lottery system in 1969 with much lower numbers, and was essentially abolished at the war’s end.

 Individual responsibility came forward in a sadly familiar way in 1969, about a year after this episode first aired. It was then revealed publicly that American soldiers had massacred several hundred unarmed civilians in South Vietnam. The incident which became known as the My Lai Massacre had occurred in March 1968.  Once again, war crimes reveal the toxic atmosphere of war.

 Over these years (and particularly after 1968) many Americans were faced with the need to step back and reexamine their perceptions of the war. They had to start with the very difficult admission that they might be wrong. This is perhaps the hardest step, and people will often avoid it at all costs. (Even when they turned against the war, some people were enraged that they had been lied to, but still didn’t accept responsibility for not questioning the lies, or for asking themselves why they believed the lies for long after they had been exposed.)

 For Kirk and Spock such self-examination is part of their duty, and presumably widespread in the 23rd century. For a better future needs both better institutions and better people.

 "Our burgeoning interest in the existence and source of our prejudices, hidden hostilities, irrational fears, perceptual blind spots, mental ruts, and resistance to growth is the start of an evolutionary leap," Scott Peck writes in his book on the nature of evil, People of the Lie. This is an evolutionary leap into the Star Trek future.

 The dark side, the shadow, the Stranger inside is part of us (as Kirk learned in "The Enemy Within."  It is essential to us, and—as the Billy Joel lyric goes—it is not always evil, and it is not always wrong. But it is tricky, and unless we understand the mechanisms by which it can convince and compel us, we are its slave.

 The alien that gets its energy from hatred and brutality is a metaphor, not only for the psychological engine of the mob but for the individual unconscious. Kirk and Kang can look up and see how the entity thrives. But we must use our reason, knowledge, empathy and imagination to get outside our own heads to see what parts of ourselves are being fed.

 There’s a story, a fable, that is attributed to several Indian tribes. A version is told in the recent feature film Tomorrowland. It goes like this:

 A wise elder tells his grandson: “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, vanity and ego."

 "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

 “The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

 The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

"The one you feed," the old man said.

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