Sunday, April 18, 2010
STAR TREK MADE ME AN ATHEIST
[Warning: the following article is overflowing with geekiness. Further reading could result in unnaturally splayed fingers, pointed ears, or any manner of themed costuming.]
I was in line the other day waiting to see the new Star Trek movie and it got me thinking about the good old days of science fiction films. Back then special effects looked cheap, and it was always hit or miss as to whether they would work. More often than not a pie tin hanging from a string to simulate a flying saucer looked, well, like a pie tin hanging from a string. So the people who filmed science fiction (otherwise known as sci-fi or SF) couldn’t rely on computer-generated eye candy to keep audiences awake. Instead they had to rely on something completely different—good writing.
There were a number of things that drew me to the Star Trek TV series, not the least of which were the short skirts on the female crew members. And of course there were the characters... mainly Spock. Although Captain James T. Kirk was obviously the star of the show, for me Spock was the real center of the Star Trek universe. Leonard Nimoy’s pointy-eared alien made a big impression on me. Week after week no matter how many times he was chastised, harassed, or ridiculed, this level-headed alien would continue espousing reason and logic above everything else. And the really amazing thing about it was that, week after week, he was always proven right.
To be fair, Shatner’s Kirk was interesting also. Not because of that amazing dropkick that he seemed to work into every episode but because of the pride he brought to his character. He not only had pride in his ship, and his mission but, because this was outer space, he also projected a pride in his species, in being a human being.
Now science fiction movies are mostly just shoot-‘em-ups, but back in the day sci-fi was a medium to explore social issues. SF allowed us to examine the core elements of controversial issues without all the emotional baggage that went along with them. It’s easy to dismiss the genre when you have grown-up fans walking around in costumes and silver make-up, but SF employs disarming tools to tease core arguments from their tired rhetoric. Here pundits, smoke screens, and slogans are stripped away and we see a subject as though for the first time. We get to test whether the rules we create to guide our lives work in any world or are just arbitrary constructs. And back in the late 1960s, no science fiction did this better then Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, TOS (that’s “the original series” for those who actually dated in high school.)
Take the issue of Vietnam. It's an understatement to say that back then it was hard for people to look at the Vietnam war objectively; on one side you had Jane Fonda, on the other Richard Nixon. (I don’t know about you but when I was a young boy, images of both of them used to get my blood pumping, albeit in completely different ways.) Put the issue on an alien planet and set up the plot so the Klingons are arming one side, the Federation the other, and an innocent, naïve alien species is in the middle. It becomes easy to see that simply arming both sides to the teeth is not the answer.
Consider too how complicated the subject of race relations was four decades ago. Star Trek simplified it for me. When a conflict between black-and-white striped aliens erupts onto the bridge of the Enterprise the absurdity of racism is dramatically illustrated. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the only reason these two “races” so vehemently hate each other is because one of them is black on the right side and the other black on the left. Sure it’s silly, but in a time when laws were still on the books in the United States preventing interracial couples from marrying, you couldn’t blame the writers of Star Trek for being heavy handed.
On the subject of faith, Trek had a very clear position. Of everything in my past, it is this one show that I most credit for being able to identify myself as an atheist. There was a recurring plotline in so many episodes that it almost became a running theme—some all-powerful being would set itself up as God but would eventually turn out to be nothing more than an advanced alien or megalomaniacal computer. As a little kid watching episodes like “Return of the Archons” and “The Apple,” I learned that it wasn't enough to have faith in something just because everyone else around you did. I learned there might be truths outside one’s own society—heavy stuff for a seven-year-old.
In an episode called “The Squire of Gothos,” actor William Campbell played one of these all-powerful beings. Even though his powers were limitless he was the bad guy. In other words, all-powerful did not automatically equal all good. Captain Kirk decides to oppose this being, even though the alien seems unstoppable. In the end this superbeing turns out to be nothing more than a child, and his parents show up just in time to put an end to his antics. Now consider the message: it doesn’t matter if you are all powerful. If you’re doing something wrong, you’re doing something wrong, and should be opposed. No matter what the consequence. Wow. This wasn't what I was being taught in my catechism classes.
And so as a boy I found it increasingly hard to understand why Christians weren’t acting the way Kirk and Spock were. If there was a God, some being causing earthquakes and hurling hurricanes, why wouldn’t Christians (or Jews or Muslims for that matter) fight against such a being? What I was learning on Star Trek seemed more moral to me than what I was learning in church. As I got older and learned more about suffering around the world, the more I wondered why religious people didn’t oppose such a cruel God. These holy men should be up in arms, I thought. If they were faithful Star Trek watchers, they would be trying to build some sort of giant phaser to take him out.
And even at seven I was smart enough to know that God doesn’t get a pass by saying he didn’t cause the terrible things that were happening in the world. If you can stop something from happening and you choose not to, it’s as bad as causing it. (I learned that from my mom when I sat watching my dog eat an entire pan of lasagna off the kitchen counter while my family was all in the other room.) Why were priests and rabbis afraid, I'd wonder, just because this “God” of theirs was powerful? Didn't religious people think someplace out in the vastness of the universe there might be a mommy and daddy god having a much needed night on the town, destined to return at the last minute to whisk away this naughty child calling himself god with a capital G and return the world to its normal conditions?
One of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek was called, “Who Mourns for Adonis?” In it we discover that the Olympians of Greek mythology were actually alien space travelers mistaken for gods by the simple shepherds and tribesman living in the Mediterranean around 3000 BCE. Considering that Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? hadn’t been published yet, this was mind blowing enough for me.
Far out in space, the crew of the Enterprise stumbles on the last of these advanced aliens. Lonely and temperamental, Apollo is the personification of an ancient god, loving one second, vengeful the next. At first this immortal being offers the Enterprise crew everything they could possibly want. He creates paradise for them on his planet. In return he asks that the crew stay on the planet and worship him for the rest of their lives—a few burnt offerings once in a while, that’s all. If they do this they get Eden. If they don’t, Apollo will crush their ship like a tin can. (That’s a god for you.)
Brawny actor Michael Forest was well cast as Apollo. It’s interesting that he chose to play this all-powerful being with a slight air of befuddlement, as though Apollo—revered as a supreme being 5,000 years ago—is incapable of understanding this twenty-third century breed of human.
But the character who most caught my eye was Lieutenant Palamas, an anthropologist played by Leslie Parrish who finds herself strongly drawn to this mythological god. The main struggle in this episode isn’t really between a Greek god and the crew of the Enterprise, but rather between Kirk and Palamas. It’s the conversations between the two of them, eerily similar to dialogs I was having with my own Christian school mates, that I found most engaging:
I have a message for you…He wants us to live in peace. He wants to provide for us. He’ll give us everything we ever wanted.
…Accept him and you condemn all of us to slavery…nothing less than slavery…Or perhaps the thought of spending an eternity bending knee and attending sheep appeals to you?
It’s the classic contrast between people who are willing to give up everything, even their own freedom, to be taken care of, verses people who think freedom is the most important thing there is. Kirk explains to Palamas that he has a plan to get them off the planet but it involves her betraying Apollo and turning her back on this alien with whom she has become infatuated. Palamas asks how she could even consider doing such a thing. That’s when Kirk delivers one of those powerful monologues that defined the series:
Give me your hand…we’re the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We’re tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference, we’re human. We couldn’t escape from each other even if we wanted to. That’s how you do it, lieutenant, by remembering who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that’s truly yours is the rest of humanity. That’s where our duty lies!
That really stuck with me, the idea that in this world, we—all of us—have to help each other because as specks afloat in the universe all we have is each other. And smack dab in the middle of that speech is the wonderfully egalitarian line “we’re human,” read with pride and that distinctive Shatner punch.
In the end, with Palamas’s help, the crew defeats Apollo and escapes. The next morning I thought about that episode. When you change it from a god with a small g to the God with a capital G it’s easy to see the meaning: better a free man in hell then a slave in heaven. Not only didn’t I have to trudge through Milton’s Paradise Lost to get that message but I got to watch attractive women in togas that looked like they would fall off at any moment. Star Trek was good.
When the show was canceled I was disappointed and when the first movie came along I was disappointed again. Then came TNG (that’s Star Trek, The Next Generation for those who dated in college). This time it was the Data character (played by Brent Spiner) who got me hooked. Here was an android, this super being, and he wanted to be human—with all our frailties and foibles. It was Roddenberry at the top of his game, giving us a logic machine that concluded it was logical to strive to achieve something it knew it could never achieve. Talk about a symbol for humanity. Aren’t we all at our best when we're striving for unattainable goals, knowing that it is the act of striving that makes us better people?
On top of this, TNG featured Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) who possessed an absolutely clear moral compass despite the absence of any religious beliefs whatsoever. While that series was running there wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t ask myself, “WWPD?” (What would Picard do?)
The new series even had a semi-regular all-powerful being. John de Lancie mastered the mischievous and often malevolent character “Q” in many episodes, and in each, humanity’s relationship with omnipotence was explored in new and different ways. This relationship was complicated, and subtle. It was not a parent-child relationship. There was no worshiping and devotion, and certainly no blind faith.
Roddenberry and Star Trek were back, tackling other big issues like homosexuality and gender, how we treated our Vietnam vets, substance abuse and the responsibility of the enabler, even the meaning of reality itself. TNG even chimed in on abortion. In the episode “The Child,” one of the crew members is impregnated with an alien child without her permission. The conference room is abuzz with discussion as to whether the unborn alien should be aborted or not. Opinions on the situation are flying left and right. Everyone is arguing a position, until the pregnant crew member quietly announces she's keeping the child. At that moment the conversations all end because the person carrying the unborn child has made her choice.
What the religious right should have been doing all these years is watching more Star Trek. I’d recommend every episode of TOS and TNG with a small smattering of Voyager. Don’t bother with Deep Space 9; they went soft on religion. Enterprise is also pretty good and not just because of Jolene Blalok, playing the sexy Vulcan. (I have a thing for women with pointy ears. Is that weird? My wife thinks so. And, again, for those with active social lives who had no idea there were this many iterations of Star Trek this all probably falls under the category of “too much information.”) Enterprise really tried hard to put humanism back in the show, to explore what it means to be a member of a strange species.
Unfortunately, by the time Enterprise came along the franchise was showing its age. Scripts were becoming predictable (I mean even more predictable then the usual predictable scripts). And Trek’s own history was starting to choke its plot lines. Writers had to keep checking to make sure they weren't contradicting something that happened in, say, episode 42 of the third season of DS9. The franchise was dying quickly and in the tenth movie, Nemesis, Picard’s evil twin finally killed it. It was a box office flop.
This brings us to the new movie, released in May of this year. I have to admit I was wary. For one, the director tapped to resurrect Star Trek, J.J. Abrams, wasn’t known for issue-driven stories. And what the franchise needed was a reboot. But how do you re-imagine a show whose fans consider every previous manifestation of it to be sacred text? In addition how do you reintroduce Star Trek’s idealism to a new audience, one that is jaded by dark knights and chainsaw-wielding villains?
This film takes place while young Kirk and Spock are still in the Starfleet Academy. All the actors selected to portray the young versions of the original Enterprise crew do a great job. Chris Pine is sufficiently hammy enough as Kirk to fill the shoes of that magnificent paradigm of manhood William Shatner. Karl Urban is spot on as the cranky Dr. McCoy, giving a cantankerous voice to humanity’s emotional side. And Zachary Quinto skillfully dons the pointy ears, perhaps “out-Spocking” Nimoy himself. His performance is enhanced by the fact that in this Star Trek, Vulcans achieve their wholly logical minds not because they are void of emotion but because they have chosen to control their emotions.
[SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t seen the movie yet, the following paragraphs contain specific plot details.] The movie begins with a catastrophic event described by one of the film’s writers, Alex Kurtzman (along with Roberto Orci), as the movie’s 9-11. The disaster inadvertently sends the main villain, an evil Romulan named Nero (played by Eric Bana), into the past. There Nero kills Kirk’s father just after Kirk is born, inadvertently changing history and thereby presenting us with an alternate timeline for the entire Trek franchise.
Thematically the film is all about choices. Over and over, characters are faced with making choices that will not only shape the direction of their own lives but also the direction of the entire world around them. For Kirk the moment of truth comes after losing a particularly nasty bar fight. He is given a choice to continue on the self-destructive path his life has taken as a result of his father’s death, or make something of himself by joining the Starfleet. For Spock it’s the moment he must choose between the Starfleet or the Vulcan Science Academy, where he is told he’s been accepted despite the handicap of being half human. In another instance cadet Kirk is presented with a computer simulation that doesn’t allow for the opportunity to win. Confronted with this no-win scenario, Kirk chooses to reprogram the computers thereby giving him the choice of victory. At the climax of the film, even the bad guy Nero is given the option of being saved by the Enterprise or being crushed to death in a black hole. (You probably have a problem when you can’t see a clear choice there.) So, in the end it is the individuals who weigh the options, who deny fate, and take control of their own destiny who come out ahead. Those who are slaves to the past get crushed in black holes.
The neat thing about this theme is that it’s exactly the gift director Abrams has given to himself. By creating a story in which all the future events of the Trek universe have been wiped away, he can now make the future of Star Trek whatever he wants. Just like the characters in his film, Abrams has gone into the past and changed history. And the message we can take from this is that despite all the disasters and all the incorrect choices we make directly after catastrophic events, we are not controlled by history. We can change direction (I’m talking to you, George W. Bush). We can improve our chances.
In short, this might not be the most cerebral Star Trek ever written but it has re-energized the franchise and presented us hope for the future.
When you first watch Star Trek it’s this campy sci-fi show that occasionally takes some not-so-subtle potshots at religion. At a very young age it made me question the nature of God even to the point of questioning his (her or its) very existence. And it showed me that those questions were okay to pose, that there were other people out there like me, asking the same questions. But then Roddenberry’s campy little show goes so much farther. It explores what it means to be human. It is a message of hope for the future of our species and an expression of pride in all of humanity. Through it, I learned that although people aren’t perfect, it is that striving to be better (the voyage) that makes us special. The show helped me realize that I control my own future—me, a speck in the universe. I began to understand that each and every person possesses potential, that within all of us there is the seed of greatness waiting to be nurtured, and that someday we may each be able to tap into that potential greatness, that…humanity. (I hope you read that last line the way Shatner would have.)