Star Trek And the New Myth of
by Ken Sanes
In the last few decades, the world's technologically advanced societies have started to learn how to manipulate the elements of life, the physical world and the mind. They have peered out into the universe and into the fabric of matter, overcome distance with air and space travel and mass communications, extended the life span, begun replacing parts of the body, built enormous artificial environments and created what may be the forerunners of thinking machines. By now, there can’t be any doubt but that these societies are trying to develop the ability to reshape and control the environment, and win humanity's age-old battle with nature.
Even as this revolution is taking place, a second change is occurring that, together with the first, that defines much of contemporary civilization. Unable yet to achieve the degree of power they want over nature, the same societies are learning how to create simulations of reality that are open to all the control they would like to have over the world. Television, movies, movie rides, computer games, virtual realities, theme parks, and similar inventions are providing us with lifelike fictions in which the world already seems to have been refashioned in our own image.
Science fiction provides an essential insight into these changes, because its authors have extrapolated from current trends and consulted a well of knowledge we all share of how humanity would like to use these new technologies. In particular, the original television series, Star Trek, which was the creation of Gene Roddenberry, provides a key to understanding these changes by depicting one possible future the present is heading toward. Star Trek is what the literary critic Northrop Frye would call an encyclopedic form. It drew together the essential ideas of science fiction and used them to create a coherent mythology that expressed our own, largely unspoken, understanding of what we are doing. In dramatic and narrative form, it offers us our own vision of the ethically correct and incorrect pathways that lie ahead as technology allows us to conquer both the natural world and worlds of illusion. In particular, it focuses much of its attention on the way technology and other advances can tempt us to misuse our power, before our wisdom has had a chance to catch up, and can tempt us to seek out false paradises, as an escape from the inevitable difficulties of life.
Star Trek portrays the universe as a ladder of progress, peopled by beings at various stages of evolution from primitive and industrial societies to futuristic society’s and to advanced beings that have transcended the physical world and are able to manipulate nature for their own ends. The focus is on a heroic and ethical humanity of the near future, at the center of a Federation of Planets that is exploring the galaxy and pitting itself against the limits of the physical world, in order to grow and make its way up the ladder of evolution. This path of development is embodied in the hero of the series, Captain James T. Kirk; in his ship, the Enterprise, and its mission to explore new worlds, contact other forms of life and create a zone of civilization, rather than engaging in conquest or war, all of which incorporates popular images of America as an explorer of unknown territory, creator of technology, builder of a world civilization, and defender of human rights.
On its journey, the Enterprise encounters beings and civilizations at other stages, that can be read as symbolizing both the alternative futures open to humanity and the challenges that could spur human development. One alternative is the dark side of the first, the unscrupulous and violent races and beings the Enterprise engages in battle, that misuse technology and act without regard for the injury they cause to others. It is epitomized by the technologically sophisticated but barbaric Klingons, who, like the Mongols and like Soviets during the Cold War, on which they are modeled, have spread out to plunder and create an empire. It is also epitomized by the Romulans, another militaristic, Romanlike, race.
Throughout the series, advanced technological societies, such as that embodied in the Federation and the Klingons, are shown having developed a limited ability to manipulate the physical world. The Enterprise can almost instantly transport individuals between locations, for example, which gives its crew the appearance of gods or magicians to less advanced peoples. Similarly, with the depiction of cloaking devices, which make ships invisible, we also see technological society making use of advanced forms of illusion, in this case to create a stealth simulation that creates the illusion something isn’t there. The creators of Star Trek didn't give the Enterprise a cloaking device, of course, since it is on a mission of peace that boldly and openly goes out into the universe.
On its travels, the Enterprise encounters beings and planets that symbolize what will happen if the human race gains control over illusions and the physical universe before it grows beyond its own violence, narcissism and desire for power. Here are all kinds of men and beings, some incorporeal, some still a part of the physical world, with seemingly magical abilities to invent lifelike scenes and situations, and to create and destroy physical environments, make objects appear and disappear on command, immobilize a starship in space, and create lifelike illusions. But they misuse their powers, by mistreating and entrapping others, and by allowing themselves to be corrupted by power.
One such race the Enterprise encounters is the Talosians, an effete and dying race that destroyed the surface of the planet Talos IV and retreated underground, where it compensated for its confinement by developing minds that can create perfectly realistic illusions in themselves and others. The Talosians entrap the original commander of the Enterprise, Captain Pike, in imitation realities, inducing pleasure and pain, in an attempt to entice and threaten him into becoming breeding stock for a slave population that will reclaim the surface. They are no longer able to do it themselves. Absorbed by illusion, they have lost the ability to act in the world and, as a character explains, "just sit living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought records."
Here, two dangers are portrayed. Simulation can corrupt its users, in this case creating addiction, and it can allow its users to misuse their power, entrapping others in imitation realities. As in many other Star Trek depictions, we are given reason to believe that the Talosians represent one possible future for humanity. The Talosians themselves, with their oversized craniums and small, frail bodies, are a popular symbol for the human race in the future. And the Talosian’s addiction to illusion is an obvious reference to the form of simulation addiction that was, and still is, most common in America, namely, addiction to television. Glued to internal television, the Talosians are lost to reality.
The episode is thus a warning to humanity that it may develop simulation technology, become addicted to its own illusions and the powers these bequeath, and cease to develop as a race. As Pike finds himself in various illusions created by the Talosians, he experiences these various temptations and dangers, which will be experienced by humanity as it develops the ability to satisfy its desires in illusory form and inflict painful simulations on others. He appears to fight a battle; he suffers from burning flames; enjoys a pastoral paradise and cavorts with fellow criminals at a feast, as they offer him an opportunity to indulge the dark side of his nature.
"Suppose you had all of space to choose from," one of these simulated companions asks him, posing a question that is really being directed by the series to its audience.
"Wouldn't you say," interrupts another, "that it is worth a man's soul?"
Pike answers in the negative, of course, because he embodies a heroic humanity that refuses to be corrupted by the power of illusion.
The Talosians were introduced in the pilot episode titled "The Cage. In a later, two-part episode that incorporated "The Cage," titled "The Menagerie," Star Trek demonstrates that a limited good can come out of simulation, for those already lost to the world. Pike, now profoundly disabled as a result of an accident, is allowed to return to Talos IV, to live out the end of his life with the disabled race, which, in its new role as benevolent, rather than malevolent, simulator, will provide him the illusion of health and vigor. But for the rest of humanity and the Federation, the temptations of Talos IV are off limits -- contact with the planet is the only crime punishable by death, so as to protect others from being corrupted by illusion.
In another episode, another good is revealed: the use of simulation for recreation, as the crew of the Enterprise finds itself on a planet that was used as a resort, by a dead race, in which one’s fantasies come to life, in the form of realistic facsimiles. But once again we are shown potential dangers -- that we may confuse our simulations for something real and that we may lose control of our simulations by accident and they may turn on us and put us in danger.
But these depictions are of beings that are still well within our own circle of existence. In addition, Star Trek depicts beings that have advanced beyond the limits of corporeal existence. In essence, they represent our hope that technology will allow us to escape the limits of the physical world. But here, more explicitly than in the depictions of simulation, we are shown creatures that use these awesome powers for good or ill, depending on whether their wisdom has kept pace with their power.
The latter possibility -- of power without wisdom -- is epitomized by the human-appearing creature Trelane in "The Squire of Gothos," who uses his ability to manipulate the physical world and create things at will, to sadistically toy with a handful of Enterprise crew members. Only at the end of "The Squire of Gothos" is it revealed that Trelane is an advanced incorporeal creature with the ability to incarnate in human form, but one that is still a child, with a tendency to mistreat his pets. He is an emotional primitive who tries to affirm his infantile grandiosity by dominating others. Like us, today, his wisdom hasn't caught up with his power.*
As in "The Squire of Gothos," the Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonis" portrays an advanced being, but this one is the last member of a race that once ruled the Earth, and gave rise to the mythology of the Greek gods. "Adonis" uses the same kind of abilities, this time to capture Kirk and his crew, because he must feed off their worship to stay alive. In exchange, he offers a pastoral paradise on his new home planet (one of many false paradises offered to Kirk and crew), which, of course, his human captives must reject.
The Enterprise also encounters a number of beings that have power over the physical world and are also emotionally and spiritually mature, symbolizing the future that awaits humanity if it remains on a morally correct and heroic path. The nonviolent Organians, who best embody this idea, are beings of pure energy who evolved beyond the limits of the physical universe and their own petty desires. As one of them explains in the episode, "Errand of Mercy," they were humanoid millions of years ago, but have since "developed beyond the need of physical bodies." As Mr. Spock puts it, uttering the line for which his character was created, they are, "Pure energy. Pure thought. Totally incorporeal. Not life as we know it at all."
The Organians provide an image of humanity in genuine adulthood, no longer contained in its old home in the physical world, worthy of its power because it has mature desires and the strength to control its abilities. They experience disgust when they interfere with the lives of others, because, for them, the Federation's prime directive to not interfere with the development of other planets, has become a part of their nature and not merely a law, although they overcome their revulsion long enough to immobilize the fleets of the Federation and the Klingons in space, to stop a war.
Just as Star Trek is a meditation on the misuse of power without wisdom, so it is also a meditation on the dangers of false paradise. Repeatedly, Kirk and crew are enticed by the promise of a trouble-free life, and repeatedly, they have to resist temptation or go astray. Thus, Pike resists the efforts by the Talosians to control his will by offering him a paradise of endless illusions in which his desires will always be fulfilled. In another episode that is a not very disguised commentary on drugs, Kirk must save the crew, which has been made passive and euphoric, and has become part of a stagnant utopia on a colonized planet, by the effect of a local plant. In another episode, Kirk and crew must resist efforts to get them to settle into a life in a gilded prison in which they would be waited on by humanlike robots.
So we have here a future history and ethical vision that recognizes two kinds of limitation -- that of the external world and that of the "internal" world of human psychodynamics, narcissism, and character flaws. The series’ message about the proper attitude toward these two forms of limitation was repeated so many times it took on the qualities of a credo: those who answer the siren call of premature power and false paradise are lured into a side track, a dead end that promises a cure for the suffering of life but only accentuates the weaknesses of the human spirit. A heroic humanity refuses to be taken in by such promises, it tells us, realizing that the fight to resist these temptations is part of the struggle against his own limitations, a struggle one must engage in in order to grow and evolve into a higher form.
In every episode, it is the hero of the story, Captain Kirk, who provides the exemplar for how the human race must act if it hopes to mature from the young adulthood of the Federation into a race such as the Organians. When faced with challenges and his own fears and temptations, Kirk doesn't retreat, regress into illusion and dependence, seek false power or become a predator.* He proceeds into the heart of danger, stands his ground and seeks peaceful solutions in which various warring parties will come out ahead.
Similar portrayals of power and purpose can be found in other science fiction works, including many that appeared before Star Trek. The novel The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem, portrays a future society in which recreational drugs provide the user with realistic hallucinatory experiences. We see the same dangers: addiction, grandiosity, the indulgence in fantasies of evil, simulation confusion and fraud, and the entrapment of others in imitation realities. Here, it turns out that all of society is unknowingly living inside an illusion, although there is a sense in the book that they really don’t want to know their true circumstances. Once again, there is a malevolent simulator. And, here, because humanity accepts a false paradise, it is doomed.
The film Forbidden Planet similarly portrays the fate of an extraterrestrial civilization that attained power over the physical world before it attained control over its own psychodynamics. It created a machine that could make thought real, and unknowingly unleashed from the minds of its people, the monsters from the Id, which took an objective form and murdered without remorse, destroying their creators.
In a remake of a television episode, in Twilight Zone: The Movie, a Trelane-like boy with the power to alter reality, tortures and enslaves everyone around him, because his power isn't contained by adult emotions. Like other advanced beings that have been portrayed, he exercises power over both illusion and reality, one of many examples of the ways these powers appear blended together, rather than being neatly apportioned out one per kind of creature. He uses his power over reality to turn a young girl into a simulated character on a television commercial, where she is soon eaten by an animated character. Interestingly, he also refashions the world so it looks like a cartoon, in effect giving it the appearance of a simulation, giving us one of many depictions from science fiction and fantasy in which the boundary between illusion and reality breaks down. At the end, an adult woman uses his need to be loved to attach him to herself and sets out to teach him how to properly use -- and contain -- his powers.
The parallel evolution of power over the world and emotional maturity was also portrayed in an episode of Outer Limits titled "The Sixth Finger." A scientist, a contemporary Dr. Jekyll, creates a machine that can speed up evolution by stimulating the superior genes, which he hopes to use to create the man of the future who will rise above the animal passions. The human subject of this grand experiment rapidly evolves, developing superior intelligence, the ability to manipulate matter at a distance, and another of science fiction’s oversized craniums.
Here, in a brilliantly poetic passage, the subject explains how his evolution beyond the limits of personality saved him from misusing his power to take revenge against a nearby town he has reason to have a grudge against. At the same time, he describes the end point of evolution as the transcendence of physical life.
"I was going to destroy everyone and suddenly it no longer mattered. I evolved beyond hatred or revenge or even the desire for power. I feel myself reaching that stage in the dim future of mankind when the mind will cast off the hamperings of the flesh and become all thought and no matter, a vortex of pure intelligence in space. It is the goal of evolution. Man's final destiny is to become what he imagined in the beginning when he first learned the idea of the angels."
The references in this monologue to "it no longer mattered" and "all thought and no matter" creates a double meaning that expresses the connection between man's containment in the material world and the weight of his emotions within it. The character is freed from both, and both these changes are depicted as essential elements of human evolution.
But these stories don't only depict the development of humanity in the future. They also offer disguised depictions of the psychological and moral development of the individual and they use this depiction to show us the development of humanity, as it progresses from the young adulthood of the Federation to the mature adulthood of the Organians. Here, Kirk, et all, represent the self as it journeys through life. One particularly rich source of meaning can be found in the Enterprise, one of many ships found in the realm of fiction. Ships in general lend themselves to being symbols for the human body, but none more so than the Enterprise. Comic as the image may seem, the Enterprise can be viewed as symbolizing a child, with the saucer section in front as an oversized head, the second cylinder-shaped hull that protrudes behind it, the body, and the two cylinders that fan out from it, a pair of legs. Kirk is the self, that sits in the seat of consciousness, in the saucer head, using viewer screen eyes and sensors to perceive the world, receiving information on the internal state of the vessel and adjusting to maintain the proper level of functioning and homeostasis, consulting computer memory and reasoning, relying on the much-commented-on logic of Mr. Spock and intuition of Dr. McCoy, guiding movement, sending out communications, engaging in defense and taking hold of objects with tractor beams for arms.
As the self journeys through life, it encounters other selves at various stages of development, that oppose or enhance its development and that also represent its own possible futures. It encounters young, predatory selves who misuse their limited powers for evil, symbolized by beings such as the Klingons;** it encounters individuals who have withdrawn into daydreams and fantasy, symbolized by beings such as the Talosians; young selves who have gained adult power and misuse it because they aren't emotionally mature or selves that have matured physically but not emotionally, symbolized by beings such as Trelane and Adonis, which are images of the narcissistic self, seeking to feel powerful or feeding off admiration. Finally, it encounters mature adults who have mastered the rules of self, family and society and can wisely use their ability to control the environment, symbolized by the Organians.
Seen from this perspective, Star Trek is a disguised depiction of the effort to grow up. Over and over again, it shows us the young and growing humanity encountering parents who infantilize, persecute, test and control them. No where is this more apparent than in the case of the Talosians, who are a disguised depiction of parents who trap their children in dreams and fantasies to control them.
Star Trek uses these depictions to tell stories about the process of growing up, both for individuals and the human race. It reveals the way we perceive the growth of our species in terms of personal growth. We see simulations, such as virtual realities, as holding out the danger of regression into a world of dreams and illusion. And we see the powers of technology as bequeathing something to us much like adult power, to take our place as a controller of the world, and not merely as something small that is contained within it.
A different reading reveals that these works, particularly Star Trek, also use earlier mythologies, religions and legends to create a new mythology of the future. The Enterprise is, in disguised form, a person embarked on the journey of life but it is also, on a more obvious level, a vessel embarked on a journey through unknown waters, where it encounters pirates and enemies at its own level of power, and various protective and malevolent witches, spirits, demons and gods that help or hinder it on its quest. In "Who Mourns for Adonis" this is made explicit when the demigod compares Kirk to Odysseus. Actually, the more accurate comparison is to Hercules, in quest of immortality.
Perhaps the richest symbolism, here, can be seen Organians referred to earlier, who are both physically and spiritually mature. They initially appear to human beings and Klingons in disguise, as bearded peasants in robes who herd sheep, live a peasant society similar to ancient Israel, meet in a council of elders and preach nonviolence, at times using phrases that could come out of an English translation of the Bible. In the course of the story, they violate their own internal taboo against interfering with the affairs of others and thus suffer disgust, in order to stop the federation and Klingons from going to war, thereby inspiring the human beings involved to recognize the error of their ways and resume the correct moral path of nonviolence.
At the conclusion, two Organians, including the spokesman who is the focus of this imagery, reveal their true nature, shed their bodies and become beings of pure "energy" or spirit, who are so bright, humans and Klingons must shield their eyes. Then they disappear, "ascending" back to their own realm of existence. Granted, the elements of the story have been rearranged, but this is still a reworking of the Bible, primarily the New Testament, clothed as science fiction. If there is any doubt, Organian sounds like organic, which refers to life, a word used to describe Christ. The message is that the human race can someday evolve into saint-like, Christlike, beings, if we stay the course.
As an image of the future, the Organians will be too saccharin sweet for many tastes, including my own. If that's our future then give me neurosis and the misuse of power. At least its entertaining. But the episode is one of many examples of the way our contemporary, secular, mythologies, end up giving us a version of religion, while never mentioning God. In essence, it gives us a Hegelianized version of religion in which humanity evolves into a life of spirit.
Since the original Star Trek took these possibilities and played them out before us in dramatic form, it has expanded out into various other Star Treks. Although these have enlarged on some of the original ideas, in many ways they continue to work within the same invented world of the original, with all manner of simulators, advanced beings zipping around the universe, high-tech enemies, and so on. In many ways, these new versions are continuously interpreting and updating the original, which still defines much of our view of the future.
You can go on to A Central Star Trek Metaphor: Simulation as a Symbol of Dreams, Symbiosis and Regression or go back to the main Star Trek Page or to the home page, below.
* Footnote on Trelane: Advanced beings incarnate in, and control, the physical world from some larger realm outside it in the same way as simulators incarnate in, and control, a realm of simulation. Trelane is an example of an advanced being who manifests in the physical world and treats it as if it is game, not unlike a video game, even though these didn't exist when the program was made.