Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Trek50: Star Trek and the Future


Star Trek's first season fifty years ago was just the start.  Some of the best- remembered episodes of the original series come from the second and even the third season, and of course, the Star Trek saga itself was only beginning.

But I'll conclude this Trek50 series of posts with a few characteristics of the saga that may bear upon the actual future, both the one that many people now alive will live, and the future of several centuries from now.

As for the premises of the Star Trek universe--namely the human exploration of the stars and their planets, and our adventures involving other species of intelligent humanoids from such planets as well as more exotic forms of intelligent life--our current science has a few encouraging words, but not many.

Regarding the stars and their intelligent life, I outlined some of that science here. There seems some likelihood that if intelligent beings exist on interstellar worlds, they would be vaguely our size--though "between the size of a puppy and a redwood" doesn't suggest the kind of relationships that Star Trek dramatized.  But whether such beings exist at all, and whether we would recognize them, is still not apparent.

The numbers game is also more complicated than supposed in the 1960s.  With the immense number of stars and the now more or less proven fact that many have planets orbiting them, probability suggests there should be many worlds with civilizations enough like ours to make communication possible.  But that doesn't factor the other part of the continuum: time, which is just as vast.  Such civilizations may arise and fall so comparatively quickly, that few coexist.

Could we get to them anyway?  Most scientists continue to say flatly that a spaceship traveling faster than light is impossible.  Can humans even exist on other planets outside our solar system, or for long periods in space?  Again, there's a lot of scientific doubt, especially absent warp drive.

Kim Stanley Robinson deals directly with these issues in his recent novel Aurora.  He is among those writers who doesn't believe warp drive is possible.  Beyond that, his arguments are biological--a field of science that science fiction writers in the past didn't much consider.  Our bodies, which are in a sense clusters of forms of life in delicate balance, were fashioned out of the biology of only one planet: Earth.  And, he insists, they can survive only on that planet, except for relatively short periods away.

So in KSR's universe, humans have spread through the solar system, but they all must return periodically to the Earth to renew their physical beings by exposure to the biology of their body's home planet.  Beyond that, in Aurora the first expedition into interstellar space (a several generation voyage aboard a habitat) discovers a fatal paradox.  If a planet is alive, the indigenous life--such as viruses-- may well be fatal to humans.  If a planet is dead, a human community cannot survive (biologically and psychologically) long enough to terraform it.

"...life is a planetary expression," one voyager concludes, "and can exist only on its home planet."  The only hope would be to find an Earth twin close enough for the voyage to be made, and that's a very unlikely possibility.

Star Trek's technology is beautifully self-consistent, and the entire Star Trek universe really depends on it.  But it also ignores a great many other realities, from the profound (the relativity of time that in its ham-fisted way, the movie Interstellar tried to suggest, which would make relationships among space travelers and planet dwellers bizarre if not impossible)  to the fairly obvious compromises involved in making TV and movies (the similarities of aliens to humans with facial putty, the unique ability of the universal translator to make alien's mouths move in English.)

But in the end none of this matters, because the Star Trek universe is a story universe.  Its background must be consistent, and its foreground wondrous and surprising.  At that it has succeeded beautifully, and through more stories than any other modern saga.

Moreover, it is the stories and what they say that tell us most about the actual future, from tomorrow afternoon to the 24th century.  They suggest what we will need in that future: in our own lives as the present moves forward, and especially to meet the challenges we can see in the future of the next decades.

Most broadly, the Star Trek saga tells us of a future, especially in the next century, in which human civilization is shredded and in some ways shattered.  TNG's "Encounter at Farpoint" especially portrays a grim reversion to ignorance and brutality.

The better future of the 23rd century is born by an immense technological breakthrough but also by new social organization and new attitudes, motivated in part by the desire to reject the failures and brutality of the previous century.

The first part of this timeline is beginning to look as prophetic as anything in Star Trek.  We are now pretty certain that the effects of the climate crisis will challenge civilization, beginning some time in this century and well into the next.  Those challenges may well lead to devastating warfare and societal breakdowns in various parts of the world, perhaps involving most of the planet.

But whatever the challenges turn out to be, people will still live, and live their lives.  How will they best do that?

On Star Trek's 40th anniversary, I outlined seven aspects of the soul of Star Trek that could apply to how we live in the present but most importantly, how to live in the future and help build a better world.

The seventh is "The future is an adventure."  Perhaps the adventure will not at first--or ever--be serving on a starship and exploring the stars.  But it might require engineers to invent and adapt new power systems for communities and cities, or doctors and emergency technicians to deal with complex emergencies happening simultaneously in a number of places, because of disease and injury due to climate crisis-caused catastrophes or conditions.

In this adventure, people will do things that matter, rather than spend their lives in the ultimately tragic pursuit of money (which is #5: Making money is not humanity's prime directive.)

It will be an adventure of that essential Star Trek activity: a group of people working together to solve problems (#6: It takes many hands to make a future.)

 But the basis of that adventure will be the individual contribution and spirit, and the skills of self-examination and self-knowledge (#1: For a better future, we must become better people, and #2: The journey out is the journey in.)

In all these endeavors, there is the essential insight expressed in many ways throughout Star Trek: of looking beyond differences to find what we have in common.  In large, this is the Prime Directive in its meaning as #4: We are not invaders, we are explorers.  

But it operates personally, as many encounters with aliens in Star Trek dramatize. It follows directly from that "voyage in" because we all harbor prejudices we can't admit even to ourselves.  And it follows as well from the "many hands" of common effort.  One of its results is to refrain from reflexive violence and #3 Respect all life.  It results in the ultimate value of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

Many people in the past 50 years have lived their lives with these ideas in their hearts, derived in part from Star Trek.  When I attended a dinner at one large Star Trek convention with people wearing Star Trek uniforms mixed in with those who weren't, I could feel what the commitment of many of them meant: not just that we're all fans of this story saga, but we believe in these ideals, they mean something to us in our lives.

Through its heroes, Star Trek stories do what many favorite stories of the past have done, but in a particular way: they model virtues like courage, kindness, service, judgment, compassion, foresight, perseverance, audacity, loyalty, honesty, creativity, resilience, responsibility, empathy, civility.  All of those virtues and more will be needed by generations of the future.

The Star Trek saga has contributed in many ways.  One significant way is to provide common stories for people to discuss, debate and gain insights into problems and situations they encounter in real life, personally and as citizens.

Another is to inspire.  This includes the more publicized inspirations to technological innovations, or to particular careers.

But it is both broader and deeper than that.  Star Trek has characteristically used drama--as well as courageously refusing to settle for the usual kinds of dramatic conflict--in order to model a better future.  That to me is its most significant contribution.

"I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, "if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"  For many people around the world, for fifty years and counting, one answer has been Star Trek.  And that's one happy source of hope for the future.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Trek50: The Spock Factor

Fifty years ago this spring, Star Trek completed its first season and went into summer reruns. Though apparently it was a close thing, the series was renewed for another season.

 Star Trek had a lot going for it, a number of reasons why it became a cult hit even in that first season, then an enduring popular hit, an immense saga and ultimately a mythology as well as an entertainment and popular culture legend.

But despite some hype to the contrary, complete originality wasn’t one of those reasons, because Star Trek wasn’t totally original. There had been science fiction television shows set aboard a spaceship before—in fact, quite a few of them, including one of the first television series ever, Captain Video.

 Even much of the fondly recalled Trek tech had appeared before on those early TV shows as well as movies and print stories as far back as the 1930s (including transporters, forward viewscreen, automatic doors and phasers with a stun setting.)

 In fact, the existence of those shows was part of the pitch for Star Trek. Popular shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (as well as local variations like San Francisco’s Captain Z-ro) were the 1950s equivalents of popular westerns like Hopalong CassidyThe Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid—that is, shows primarily for children.


Then in the late 50s and early 60s, television drama was dominated by the so-called Adult Westerns, with the same Old West settings but with more complex stories and characters: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and the series that Gene Roddenberry wrote for often, Have Gun, Will Travel.

 But the adult western was waning by the mid-60s, and television was looking for the Next Big Thing. If adult westerns had worked so well, how about that other staple of early TV? Why not Adult Science Fiction?

 “Wagon train to the stars” became part of the Star Trek pitch, but there were also explicit parallel to what shows like Gunsmoke did to the standard western: a full hour to get beyond the simplistic stories of those old half-hour westerns, with more believable settings, stories and characters. Adult westerns also featured slightly more graphic violence and a bit more sexuality, at least implied.

 Still there was the central western hero, with supporting cast of regulars for added interest and comic relief. In its own way, Star Trek replicated all of this with one crucial difference: an important character who was a good guy but looked like a bad guy, a hero who was an alien. Not just somebody who looked a little different, but somebody who was different, and definitely not comic relief. (Most of the time anyway.) Star Trek had the Spock factor.

Captain Kirk was the hero figure, the protagonist—he was Marshall Dillon as well as Ulysses, Horatio Hornblower, Gulliver, Hamlet. Every adventure has a Captain Kirk.

 Mr. Spock however was in many ways an original. Yet he became the template, not only for characters in future Trek series (Data, Odo, 7 of 9, T’Pol) but in significant ways created a standard character for many other television series (Ziva in NCIS, Parker in Leverage, Bones in Bones, even Sherlock in Elementary, etc.)

 He clearly wasn’t the sidekick, Matt Dillon’s Chester. He wasn’t just the brain who supplied the cool gadgets, Tut to Captain Midnight. He was sometimes the second in command who differs with the captain of the ship or the commander of the expedition, but that wasn’t his most significant role.

 He wasn’t the antagonist either, the inside enemy who tries to undercut the hero, like Othello’s Iago. He was loyal, he was a friend, but he was Other. He was the alien. He was a different voice.

Star Trek is rightly famous for its diversity on the bridge. But functionally, most of the racial and gender diversity was neutral in effect. That is, the race or gender or nationality of the navigator, the communication’s officer, or the chief engineer didn’t matter, didn’t make a difference in their jobs. Which was part of the point—there was no reason not to have a woman officer, she could be just as competent.

 Of course that’s a generalization—the specific talents of an individual may well be shaped in some sense by these factors. But in terms of what they actually did on the show, the differences didn’t much matter. But Spock’s differences mattered.

 His special mental and physical gifts, his knowledge, his skills, his very being as a Vulcan, all contributed to what he did, and why he was valued on the Enterprise. The others provided visual and audible evidence of diversity. Spock embodied it.
 The others provided evidence that diversity works. Spock sold it.

 There is some sense of this in mythology, where the hero is aided by helpers with a specific gift or skill. That aspect is mirrored in superhero teams like the Avengers or the Fantastic Four whose members have different powers.

 But Spock is more than that, too. Spock crucially offers a different point of view. He contributes to how Captain Kirk sees a situation, analyzes it. Before he decides a course of action, he often asks Spock for recommendations.

 One of Captain Kirk’s great qualities—which William Shatner brought to the role—is his curiosity. He wants to know what Spock thinks, not only because of the mission, but because he is curious, he wants to understand, to see things (at least for a moment) through Spock’s eyes.

 What makes Captain Kirk curious is that Spock is an alien.  Kirk is not threatened, though others feel the visceral discomfort.  While aliens in a lot of sci-fi were automatically evil, just their status as Other, as very different and therefore unknown, creates doubt and unease.  Kirk bypasses this and goes directly to that other aspect of the alien--as a resource, with different skills and abilities, and above all, an inherently different point of view.

And in just a few broadcast episodes, the alien became a very popular character with the Star Trek audience. He remains probably the most beloved.

So why were so many viewers identifying with an alien?

 Especially in his first book (I Am Not Spock) Leonard Nimoy focused at length on this aspect of the Spock character. He noted his own feelings of alienation growing up, personally and as a member of a relatively poor Jewish family in Boston. The first movie character he identified with was Quasimodo, the noble monster otherwise known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

He later faced a kind of discrimination as an actor in Hollywood, at a time when dark-haired actors with certain facial characteristics were typecast as “ethnics” (Jewish, Italian, American Indians) or as “heavies” and villains. In other words, he was often typecast as an alien (and actually played a space alien in a low budget 1952 movie serial called Zombies of the Stratosphere.)

 He also mused on Spock’s appeal to the alienated segment of his audience, particularly adolescents. While younger children were fascinated with his exotic, even demonic and slightly scary appearance, teenagers who felt misunderstood or not accepted by the popular crowd could identify with the alien aboard the high school Enterprise. (That Spock was half-human, with constant internal conflicts, only added to the identification, which was not restricted to adolescents.)

But there was another reason why a lot of viewers in the 1960s were alienated, and they were not all so young. As noted here previously, Mr. Spock was a symbol and an icon used on placards carried by protestors in recent marches supporting science and addressing the climate crisis. But Spock was also enlisted as an ally in protests almost fifty years ago: against the Vietnam War.

The reasons are roughly the same in both instances. Spock became the hero of “logic” or rationality. But it meant more than the words imply. Certainly, Spock championed a certain objectivity that is central to the scientific method. But logic is basically a process, and it can turn out to be wrong if the initial premise is wrong, or if the facts within the process are incorrect.

 In a strict sense, that Spock would be an anti-war hero in the 60s isn’t, well, logical. For proponents of the war cast themselves as the rational ones, as contrasted with anti-war protestors, who—in proponents’ view—were operating basically on emotion or unrealistic idealism.

 That’s how the argument was often cast, especially in the first years of controversy, in the early to mid 60s: Everybody hates war, proponents said, and no one wants war, but sometimes wars must be fought. Unfortunately there are victims, including non-combatants. But society must face the hard facts that this war is necessary.

 One of their arguments seemed unassailably logical: the so-called Domino Theory. Once one southeast Asian state became Communist, then the next would, etc. like falling dominoes, until the United States faced a huge block of enemies.

These arguments carried weight because it was the position of most leaders in Washington. The Secretary of Defense in particular was renowned as a brilliant thinker, tough minded and strictly if not brutally rational. Military leaders had facts and figures, and news shows paraded serious men in dark suits to soberly describe both the necessity for the war and the case for how it was conducted, including the strong likelihood of victory. They also marshaled ideals with emotional weight—patriotism, love of liberty, duty, for example—in support of their cause.

 Meanwhile, their anti-war opponents were much less impressive and credentialed, and were dismissed as uninformed, misguided and unrealistic sentimentalists.

 As the war expanded, however, opponents began to include the highly educated and credentialed, and eventually sober-suited leaders in Washington. They argued not from ideals but from different premises—different accounts of past events, of history, geopolitics and other factors. For instance, they argued that the Domino Theory was too simplistic to account for differences and complexities in the region (as later proved to be the case.) Thinking more appropriate to three-dimensional chess was needed.

Proponents also argued on the basis of facts, which were selected and at times falsified to make their case. With these different premises and facts, they used logic. They showed that proponents were being illogical.

 Eventually the arguments of these opponents proved out, especially as a series of revelations showed that officials had hidden or distorted facts, particularly about the conduct of the war, its failures and the true (as opposed to the public) opinions of some of those conducting it as to the likelihood of success.

 As the arguments of proponents looked more and more phony, fatuous and hypocritical, the war looked tragically irrational. It was clearly illogical.

But Spock logic had two other dimensions beyond simple scientific or rhetorical logic that also featured in the Vietnam War debate.

 The first is that Spock’s logic is alien logic—that is, it is rational observation from the Other, from an outside perspective.

 After other arguments were exhausted, some proponents of the war confronted opponents with what they considered an unanswerable question: how do we get out of Vietnam? There were only two outcomes to a war: victory or defeat. The US could not simply leave without losing immense prestige and abandoning allies.

 This argument (which in fact I heard from across the table in a formal debate in 1965, when I believe I was the first student on my campus to publicly argue against the war) was most insistently made by Washington officials who simply could not imagine any other alternatives. Only those outside the establishment, or outside their frame of reference, could imagine (many) ways out. They tended to be the alienated, and were by definition the Other.

But even more broadly, the Vietnam War, along with the madness of the Cold War thermonuclear standoff, required a kind of alien point of view to even articulate how mad that establishment logic was.

This was expressed for example most strongly in 1960s satire, from the movie Doctor Strangelove to Beyond the Fringe on stage and That Was the Week That Was on British and US television. It was applied to Vietnam in popular songs, perhaps most directly in “Fixin’ To Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish.

It’s notable also that two of the last famous World War II novels that were published during the Vietnam War, could see it only in satirical, absurdist terms: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. They artfully demonstrated the craziness—the illogic—involved in these wars.

 By the late 60s, satire became part of political and social movements. There was also serious and angry demand for radical change, including advocacy for revolutions of one kind or another. Vietnam, the Bomb and more mundane aspects of society (conformity, suburbia, etc.) along with the high spirits of booming youth fueled and formed what came to be known as the counterculture.

 Without getting into detail about factions, personalities and analysis, this much can be said about the broad impulse towards counterculture. The word itself implies not only an opposing culture, but a point of view outside the main culture. It’s the culture of the aliens. Spock was one of its heroes.

The second added dimension of the Spock factor is that Spock’s logic was not only alien but based on particular values. Those values were mostly implied, expressed mostly in action and attitude in various episodes and movies.

 Their role can be discerned in an exchange that the newly reborn Spock has with his mother Amanda at the beginning of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Spock at this point is engaged in relearning everything, and is testing himself with interactive computers. She asks him if he believes in the statement “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Spock replies that “I will accept that as an axiom.”

 An axiom is a statement accepted as true that becomes the basis for inference and argument. That is, the process of logic begins with the axiom. We would also call this particular axiom a statement of values. It is not a basic physical truth or a necessary foundation for a system like geometry.  It is a foundation statement for ethical decisions (though as Amanda points out, this particular axiom can be ethically reversed.)   Spock’s logic is often applied with such axioms in mind.

 There’s another example later in this movie. When Spock learns that 20th century whalers are knowingly killing the last Humpbacks, he observes “Hunting a species to extinction is not logical.” A human scientist counters, “Who said the human race is logical.”

 But it is not logical to hunt a species to extinction only if you value the existence of that species, even if solely as a source of food. That value placed upon the species is not intrinsic. It’s possible to imagine an axiom by which it just doesn’t matter. In fact, human behavior in this case implies an axiom that freedom to exploit resources at the present moment is paramount.

But alien logic makes us face our implied values. “Nobody wants war” or “nobody wants the whales to go extinct” are statement often made, but do humans act in ways which logically follow from these axioms? Spock’s logic makes us examine this, and in many cases it exposes hypocrisy. At minimum, it provides a useful and invigorating challenge.

 We need the alien point of view. We need to see the slaveowner from the point of view of the slave, the majority from the minority, institutions from individuals, the privileged from the dispossessed, the rich from the poor, the well from the sick, the able from the disabled, the bully from the bullied.

 This is Spock’s logic. It paid off many times, as in The Voyage Home when it was the non-human science officer who suggested that the alien probe might be trying to contact members of an intelligent but non-human Earth species—the whales.

Spock’s character was enriched in the feature film series. He accepted the importance of feelings in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. By Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, he was counseling a young Vulcan, “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” But it always was that, in Spock. This was simply the recognition, that values as well as experience are crucial.

A sense of values therefore informed the Vietnam War reaction, for not only was it illogical on geopolitical and societal terms, in the immense number of human lives it destroyed and deranged, it was tragically and immorally illogical.

There are other appealing aspects of the Spock character  Like the alien who came to Earth and became Superman, Spock's differences include powers and abilities beyond those of humans. These make him less vulnerable, but also separate him from humankind--a combination that may appeal on several levels to alienated humans.

A more subtle element, yet probably the most impressive feature of the character was crucial to Spock's importance and popularity. It involves behavior, attitude and presence.

 In developing the character of Spock, Leonard Nimoy made a fateful choice. Rather than play Spock as utterly cold and machine-like, he translated the Vulcan retreat from emotion and emotional display into stillness and apparent calm.

 Instead of impatience and disdain, he exhibited a courtliness, and a gentle irony (except perhaps when Bones provokes him, when it becomes more biting.)  His occasional arrogance was played for comic effect, but he was also self-aware, and took note of the feelings of others, even if he did not feel those emotions himself.

Nimoy combined this sense of logic and objectivity as a calm attentiveness with the curiosity of a scientist, and an open sense of wonder.  His key word was, of course, “fascinating.”

 Nimoy’s sense of the character and of the Vulcan culture informed Star Trek’s further treatment of that culture.  What evolved was a kind of Buddhist culture, complete with meditation. Vulcan was portrayed as an arid planet of plains and mountains, with the vaguely Asiatic trappings of Tibet. And Tibetans actually were a warrior race that made the cultural turn to Buddhist non-violence and a kind of rigorous logic, the same as the Vulcans.

But even in that first season, Nimoy developed the Spock posture in a particular way. His pose on the bridge was not rigid but both formal and relaxed, his hands folded behind his back. Above all, he was centered, exuding self-control. “Lack of emotion is pathological,” Nimoy said. “Restraint is civilized.”

 So in all the furor of the 60s, with all the frenzied noise in the lives of young American viewers, there was this example of an anomaly, and yet a role model: the alien as a civilized man. Which made sense, since it seemed a civilized person would be seen as an alien.

 The irony of the 23rd century alien—or the 20th century alien—is that he’s a throwback to a 19th or 18th century ideal of civilized behavior: restrained but kind, useful, dignified, ethical, courteous, curious, large-minded and large-souled, open to new ideas and observations, fascinated.

 In our culture of vulgar and violent extremes, that might still be pretty alien. And it’s possibly another reason that Spock was an admired role model for many, and still is.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Captain's Log: Star Trek in the Streets

Thousands marched this past weekend to advocate addressing the climate crisis, and to protest the current US regime's apparent opposition to doing so.

That gave the marches more of a protest flavor, and that inevitably evoked the 1960s, according to a Los Angeles Times story.  It mentioned the 60s music especially, but the photo used to illustrate the story was this image--a sign that echoed similar sentiments in anti-war demonstrations in the 60s and 70s with the image of Mr. Spock.

"Ignoring climate change?" it said, over a photo of the skeptical Spock.  "Highly illogical."

Signs carried during the earlier March for Science in Washington and elsewhere also used Star Trek to make their point, emphasizing as well the role science must play in the future.  The Trek Movie site collected a number of these signs, some of which follow below.

So it's not just the Star Trek icons but the message, the meaning, the soul of Star Trek that continue to live and apply to our strange new world.




Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spaceship Earth Day


More than once, George Takei has described Gene Roddenberry's vision of the Enterprise as a Starship Earth, its crew reflecting the human diversity of the whole planet.

It's not clear if Roddenberry himself ever used that name, but "Spaceship Earth" was a concept popularized by economists Barbara Ward and Kenneth Boulding in the mid 1960s, and by Buckminster Fuller perhaps earlier in speeches, but in book form in 1968.  These of course were long before the Epcot attraction.

Ward and Boulding used the term to emphasize that the resources of the planet are limited, thus combining economic and environmental concerns.  "The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the 'spaceman' economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship," Boulding wrote, "without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system."

Fuller, a popular visionary in the 1960s and 70s, had both a more comprehensive and more specific approach.  A lifelong sailor and Navy veteran, he used the metaphor of the ship with the practicality of direct knowledge.  The survival of the ship's crew completely depends on the resources aboard the ship--everything from food and water to the tools and materials necessary to make repairs and meet emergencies.  Those resources include knowledge and skills.

This may seem simplistic or even simply common sense.  But the idea flies in the face of standard practice through the centuries, of waste and destruction as if resources would never run out or become poisonously polluted.  As if trees could be cut down without consequence to land,  water and animals, and ultimately to human populations.  Modern economics right up to this moment does not figure in as costs the destruction of natural resources or pollution.

There's another aspect to the Spaceship Earth concept included in a 1965 speech by Adlai Stevenson, US Ambassador to the United Nations appointed by President Kennedy.  He told the UN Economics and Social Council:

"We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all."

Buckminster Fuller, with uncharacteristic economy, put it more simply:

"We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody."

Once again economics and ecology are combined in this example, involving the contemporary issues of poverty and income inequality, and implying the Star Trek ideal of a base line of sufficiency for all.

But the idea of the Earth as a spaceship predated the name by at least a century.  In a poem collected in the 1891 edition of his Leaves of Grass, American poet Walt Whitman wrote:

"One thought ever at the fore— 
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space, 
All Peoples of the globe forever sail, sail the same voyage, are 
bound to the same destination.”

Whitman adds yet another meaning to the concept with that final line: "all...bound to the same destination."  Whether that destination is the afterlife or death, it implies the need to see the planet and life with an ethical sense, and the search for meaning.  Diversity, ecology and equality are necessary to the planet, and to the individual humans alive with it.

One of the slogans of today's Earth Day--written on signs carried in the day for Science demonstrations around the world-- adds contemporary emphasis: "There is no Planet B."

It rebuts the viral idea that once the Earth is ruined, humans can find another planetary home--or, if the frontier ethos is to be repeated, another planet to plunder.  If this is even possible in the near future, or possible at all--both increasingly questionable assumptions--it does not excuse ruining the exquisite planet we've got.  And clearly, not everybody would be able to make that voyage.

Star Trek offers a template for a better future--not just a starship that reflects the diversity and accumulated wisdom of Earth, but an actual Earth with a healthy ecosystem, baseline sufficiency and opportunity for all, and diversity that is not only honored but valued.  Such an Earth, some have argued, is itself essential for humanity's ability to explore the solar system and perhaps beyond.

Meanwhile, the concept of Spaceship Earth also reminds us that, while few of us will leave the planet to explore space, all of us already explore space aboard our planet--our amazing planet whizzing through this vast mysterious universe.  The Earth takes care of us, if we take care of the Earth.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Captain's Log: Star Trek and Star Wars: The Gifts That Keep On Giving

The X-Prize has been awarded to two groups that developed working models for medical devices that mimic the functions and portability of the Star Trek tricorder.

Second prize went to a group of 50 doctors, physicists and programmers, backed by a major corporation.  But the first prize winners were four brothers and three friends, one of them an emergency room doc, who funded themselves.  That's three of them pictured above, in uniform.

The Washington Post:

"Final Frontier Medical Devices, led by Basil Harris, a suburban Philadelphia emergency room doctor, won the $2.6 million top prize. The open competition, launched in 2012, challenged applicants to produce a lightweight, affordable health kit that diagnoses and interprets 13 health conditions and continuously monitors five health vitals. The team’s kit, equipped with noninvasive sensors, collects information that is synthesized on a diagnostic device — an iPad was used in the competition, but it could ultimately work on a smartphone. Harris’s only invention before this competition was a cotton-candy machine he made with his brothers in grade school."

This is a prime example of what's become the Star Trek fan ethos, the same do-it-yourself enthusiasm and dedication that resulted in generations of fan-fictions and fan films that almost evolved into independent Trek films before Paramount intervened.

But it also exemplified a Star Trek ethic.  The Post story ends:

"Harris recalled how he felt when he entered the competition four years ago. “It was intimidating because there were all these groups being backed by large corporations,” he said before the prize announcement. “But we were always thinking beyond the X Prize. We’ve met our objectives. We’ve made something worthwhile.”

Making something worthwhile, making a difference is a living expression of the soul of Star Trek.  Congratulations to the Final Frontier.

Meanwhile, as Star Trek wraps up the 50th anniversary of its first television season, Star Wars begins its celebration of the 40th anniversary of its first film, now known as The New Hope, but in those days, just Star Wars.

At the first event of its ongoing celebratory convention--which included tributes to Carrie Fisher and other fascinating moments reported at length by the Hollywood Reporter--Star Wars creator George Lucas explained the intent of that first movie:

"The idea was to do a high adventure film that I loved when I was a kid with meaningful, psychological themes," said Lucas...Lucas admitted he wasn't supposed to say this, but he described A New Hope this way: "It's a film for 12-year-olds. You're 12 years old. You're going to go on in the big world. You're moving away from your parents being the center focus. You're probably scared, you don't know what's going to happen, and here's an idea of some of the things you should pay attention to. Friendships, honesty and trust — and doing the right thing. Living on the Light Side. Avoiding the Dark Side."

From the technology to the ethic, from the approach to the attitudes and the future they make, Star Wars and especially Star Trek were aspirational.  They were models for how to be better people, how to build a better future-- for the people and institutions that would make it a better future.

And though neither the Star Trek or Star Wars universe is a reality, the power of the stories themselves continues, more than two generations later, to be living models, to set aspirations and to inspire.

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.