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The God In the Machine
Star Trek's Undiscovered Country

By Mike Hertenstein

"How you deal with death is at least as important as how you deal with life."

— Captain James T. Kirk

Cheating death has always been Star Trek's prime directive. The original Sixties tv series was rescued from cancellation for a second, then a third season. After that, long presumed dead, the starship Enterprise was resurrected in the Seventies to begin a blockbuster film series that shows no sign of ever ending. (The next one is due at Thanksgiving.) Along the way, Star Trek has mutated into Saturday morning cartoons, three more television series, uncountable novels, comic books, commentaries, dictionaries, trading cards, technical manuals and, says one newsweekly, "the most enduring and all-embracing pop-culture phenomenon of our time." Immortality seems written in the stars.

The death-defying career of James T. Kirk, the original series captain, was made metaphor in the name Kobayashi Maru. In one of the early Trek films, a space ship bearing that name was shown decoying our heros into total annihilation -- until Kobayashi Maru was unmasked as a hoax, a Starfleet training exercise. Captain Kirk's legend began when he was the first and only cadet to defeat this no-win scenario: by reprogramming the simulator.

For the past thirty years, Star Trek crews have continued to cheat death with merry abandon and a weekly Kobayshi Maru. (There have been some notable exceptions; redshirted crewmen on landing parties, especially, suffered notorious mortality rates.) Near the end of every series episode and film the story reaches the brink of disaster: shields are failing, the warp core has been breached, the U.S.S. Enterprise or Voyager or Deep Space Nine station is surrounded and outgunned by Klingons, Ferengi, or Cardassians. The fate of the ship/station, crew, and/or time and space as we know it, is at stake: the future looks grim indeed.

Then, just in the nick of time, the solution to the no-win scenario appears. In the better stories, the solution comes from within the action, in accordance with the most ancient rules of art. Captain Kirk, for example, prevents Dr. McCoy from saving a woman's life in order to restore time as it was meant to be.

On occasion, though -- let's be honest -- in cheating death Star Trek also manages to cheat the audience. When the situation reaches its most dire moment, somebody suddenly gets the bright idea to:

a - "remodulate the main deflector dish!"

b - "realign the Heisenberg compensators!"

c - "reconfigure the lateral sensor array!"

d - "try inverse phasing!"

e - "decompile the pattern buffer!"

And -- surprise! -- technology is the cavalry that comes to the rescue. Like a forgetful wizard who suddenly remembers the formula, Star Trek's techno-magicians have an embarassing habit of hocus Pocus-ing their way out of predicaments and into happy endings, made possible by a deus ex machina, "a god in the machine."

This phrase comes from ancient Greek theatre, where characters would likewise get themselves painted into corners. When all looked lost, actors playing Zeus or Athena would be lowered from the "heavens" onto the stage using a wooden hoist. Presto: problem solved. This all too convenient device was recognized even by the ancients as an unworthy solution to plot problems.

Such convenient deus ex machina rescues in literature are not limited to literal machines. On Star Trek they might also include instant cures of amnesia, a timely intervention by the omnipotent "Q", even the old standby, "It was all a dream," i.e. a malfunctioning Holodeck, a temporary temporal distortion, or fatal battles that turn out to be entirely computer-simulated.

Over the years, though, one could sense growing dissatisfaction in the Star Trek cosmos with the frequent resort to gods in machines. Holding so glib an upper hand over death and tragedy went against Star Trek's classical, especially Shakespearean, pretentions. And a show premised on going boldy into the Unknown could hardly keep on dodging the greatest Unknown of them all.

The second Star Trek film was originally titled The Undiscovered Country, after Hamlet's famous speech where he ponders the real Final Frontier. (That title was later given to Star Trek VI.) Retitled The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek II offered up Kobayashi Maru as a metaphor for cheating death, but also saw Star Trek facing up to life's truly no-win scenario: an aging Admiral Kirk allows that "gallivanting around the cosmos is a game for the young." This plot leads, of course, to the brink of disaster. Only this time, to save the ship, the Vulcan science officer Spock, a series regular from the beginning, sacrifices his life. Star Trek makes good on its Shakespearean aspirations.

Until the next sequel. The 1984 Search For Spock introduced viewers to the hitherto unknown idea of katra: the Vulcan soul or essence which can be extracted from one body and placed into another. Through this device Mr. Spock was resurrected to participate in several more films and guest star on the next television series. It is true that the idea of rebirth from death had been conspicuously planted in the previous film. Nevertheless, the whole affair smelled rankly of deus ex machina.

Apparently the Star Trek creative team recognized this when, a few films later, they decided to kill off James T. Kirk: there would be, one said, "none of this Spock stuff". The next sequel, Generations, would boldy go where even Star Trek had equivocated. This seventh Trek film opened with Kirk trapped in a dream, a mysterious energy field in space. The Nexus is the ultimate cheat of death: here inhabitants are kept in a timeless bliss, lost in a pleasant fantasy, unable to die -- a metaphor, perhaps, for life everlasting in sequels. But with the katra of Paramount's profitable series now passed to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Kirk is persuaded to exit the Nexus to save the galaxy one last time, and finally allowed to expire.

One wonders how the galaxy will survive without him. It also remains to be seen whether Kirk will, in fact, stay dead; the film alluded to "echos" of previous occupants kept in the Nexus. This much is certain: actor William Shatner, who plays Kirk, will die. All the make-up, fog filters, and careful lighting in the world can no longer hide fact that the man really is too old to galavant around the universe. Unless Kirk's katra is transplanted into a new actor, ala Doctor Who, the only god in the machine to defeat this no-win scenario will be some computer technology of the future that allows dead actors to act in new films.

BUT WHO REALLY CARES? We're not talking rocket science here. Anybody who thinks this hard about a tv/movie series, in the words of an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch, obviously needs to "Get a life!" Fantasy shouldn't be made to feel guilty about refusing to face reality, that's what its for, right? Cheating?

Try telling that to all those classic authors Star Trek captains are so wont to quote. From Shakespeare to Dickens to even Saturday Night Live, fiction and fantasy have always been utilized as vehicles for truth. And while some rabid fans may try to hide from the facts of life behind fiction, the possibility that one might also access reality through fiction is what makes such rabid fans to begin with. Even lowly space adventures, at their best, can be parables for human longings and conflicts, and alien monsters can be symbols of man's fears and his own darker side. Recent calls from educators such as William Bennet to nurture children's moral imagination through stories reflect the notion that fairy tales are the necessary means through which one is introduced to the concept of virtue.

And, like all good science fiction, Star Trek has always focused on the present. As the Civil Rights struggle raged in the Sixties, the multi-cultural crew of the Enterprise dared to suggest human equality was not an impossible dream. Star Trek is powered less by matter-antimatter reactions than by passionate hopes: one of these hopes is that in solving today's real problems, humanity will find their happy ever after.

In fact, Star Trek has always displayed a "Get a Life" attitude toward those who avoid reality by escaping to fantasy. Kirk's choice to leave the Nexus and die is the latest in a long tradition of Star Trek plots involving the rejection of illusion in favor of the real world.

The theme first appeared in the original pilot episode, "The Cage," produced to sell the series to the network. Here we find the Star Trek cosmos still evolving: the Enterprise is captained by Christopher Pike, played by actor Jeffrey Hunter. The episode opens with the starship responding to yet another distress signal, from an unexplored planet, Talos IV. As with the Kobayashi Maru, this distress signal turns out to be bogus. The space-crash survivors discovered on the planet are actually illusions created by the telepathic Talosians to capture a human for their zoo. Pike is taken below the planet's surface to be mated with their female human specimen, Vina -- the sole survivor of an actual crash.

Though locked in a cage with Vina, Pike is offered by his telepathic Keepers the opportunity to experience any fantasy world he desires. The Talosians provide several options, yet Pike refuses them all. Vina is puzzled. "Why not relax and go along with the illusion?" she asks. "It's pleasant, isn't it? Everything looks real, feels real; the pleasure is equally real."

When Pike makes it clear he prefers death to captivity, his keepers finally release him. Captain Pike invites Vina to come along, but she refuses. It turns out Vina has a terrible secret, which she now reveals: her own beauty and youth are illusions provided by the Talosians. Without them, she bears the horrible scars of shipwreck and age. Sadly, Pike leaves her behind.

"The Cage" makes it clear that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was very deliberate in communicating what he felt were truths about human existence in his fantasy format. Roddenberry had utmost regard for individual freedom, seen in Pike's "liberty or death" speech and Starfleet's "Prime Directive" -- absolute non-interference in alien cultures. Respect for the individual also shows up in Spock's Vulcan creed of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations," and in the ethnic diversity of the starship crews.

Likewise, Roddenberry, though a tv producer himself, was also freely scornful of the television wasteland. The Talosions -- "televisions?" -- possess superior intellects, yet have lost their vigor and discipline, unable to maintain their advanced civilization. They stare blankly at "televisors," re-living experiences and emotions of their ancestors, or of creatures in their zoo. Such satire of the tv medium shows up again in "The Gamesters of Triskelion", an episode in which the crew of the Enterprise, now led by Captain Kirk, is forced to fight in contests staged to amuse "The Providers" -- disembodied brains in a glass bubble whose only interest is in being entertained.

One can immediately see that using fantasy to criticize fantasy creates a thematic tug of war. This tension is especially marked in Roddenberry's later re-working of "The Cage." After Star Trek was added by NBC to the network's Fall, 1966, lineup, the producer devised a plan to use his pilot in a two-part episode for the show's first season. The result: "The Menagerie," a tale utilizing the original "Cage" story as a flashback of Enterprise-past in a frame story set in the "present".

The revised story went like this: because of the dangerous illusions of the Talosian Keepers, visits to Talos IV have been prohibited under penalty of death. Nevertheless, Spock comandeers the Enterprise from its current Captain, Kirk, to transport his former Captain, Pike, to this forbidden planet. Why? Due to an accident, and in spite of the medical wizardry of the future, Pike is paralyzed and confined to a wheel-chair.

Now we see the illusions of the Talosians can be therapeautic. After he arrives on Talos IV, Pike assumes the appearance of a virile young captain. He joins Vina in eternal beauty and youth, and the Enterprise gets word that Starfleet has dropped all charges against Spock. The moral of the new story: a pleasant fantasy may actually be preferable to a harsh reality after all. Furthermore, in a later episode, "Shore Leave," the crew of the Enterprise has no qualms about plunging into recreational make-believe on an amusement planet. And on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a fantasy-creating device has been installed right on the Enterprise: the holodeck offers interactive 3-D entertainment.

Star Trek, then, in the wake of its adventures, leaves a question hanging in space: which is the real Cage: fantasy or reality? The answer, of course, depends upon your view of reality. And reality, according to one commentator, "isn't what it used to be".

A STARFIELD. A DISEMBODIED VOICE: "Space. The Final Frontier." Humankind has always been drawn to boundlessness: Star Trek celebrates infinite diversities and possibilities. Yet man has an equal need for boundaries: frontiers -- in the sense of borders, limits -- something final. Space without boundaries is mere nothingness, and nothingness swallows all possibilities of Self. Fear of the bottomless pit, the abyss, drives us to push until we find ultimate edges, absolutes, foundations: of ethics, of self, of reality. Yet the human quest for such certainty is tragic tale, a story akin to answering a phony distress call and getting trapped in a classic no-win scenario.

Modern Science rose uniquely in the West, within a framework of reality as defined by the Christian Church. Certainty depended upon faith in God's self-revelation -- but faith is something different than the certainty most people seek. And so this unified realm exploded in the seventeenth century, unleashing violently competing truth claims. A new framework, beyond all dispute, was sought -- and declared found: reason, combined with empirical science. Reality was now limited to that which was measurable and quantifiable. For awhile, this framework seemed to work: "objectivity" launched a revolution of discoveries and wonders.

But objectivity soon became its own bondage. Many realized that everything which makes our species "human" is beyond quantification. Human freedom and dignity cannot be measured or weighed. A counter-reformation rose against the growing notion of the universe as a cold, impersonal machine. Poets and idealistic philosophers championed a second mode of knowledge: intution, able to grasp a universal reality beyond reason.

To which the realists countered: "Get a life!" Romanticism was dismissed as a failed attempt to escape from the inescapable revelations of science: humankind's animal origins, its hidden biological and sexual impulses, its cosmic insignificance. Man was an "accidental collocation of atoms," with no soul to survive death, announced Bertrand Russell. All of human achievement was destined to vanish "beneath the debris of a universe in ruins."

And then modern science hit the wall -- or rather, discovered a gaping hole in the wall of Newtonian physics. When the subatomic world was found to be unmeasurable and in-calculable, scientists decided uncertainty was the final truth about the universe. The plus side of the triumph of uncertainty is that many of the smug and oppressive "certainties" of the Enlightenment are shattered; the minus side: now anything goes. There's nothing left to hold back the fathomless abyss. Like the starship Voyager, humankind is lost in space; no way to get home, no home to get to.

And yet, like Captain Kirk, many have sought to defeat this no-win scenario by changing the rules. Finding "objectivity" to be dehumanizing, many have sought to retain their humanity and their Self by plunging into the subjective: whatever fantasy gets you through the cold, dark night of existence. Existentialists say the only way to draw a border between "me" and nothingness is to exercise will, to draw one's own boundaries, to choose.

But if individual choice is the last firm place, the final frontier, there is no higher place to judge between choices. The ideal society, we are told, is one which allows maximum individual choice: noninterference, tolerance, the Prime Directive. The problem is, such a society is unworkable. If individual preference is the only criterion, who's to say anyone else's personal preferences are good or evil?

We get no help from postModern philosophers: they say all truth are claims fictions, all frameworks of reality are tyrannical and false, all the world is a stage. "Getting a life" means picking one's roles carefully, defending them by any means necessary, changing hats whenever one feels like it, in short: having fun.

And "fun" brings us to the holodeck, that perfect metaphor for postmodernity. The holodeck is the ultimate god in the machine, a technology designed to save human beings from boredom and despair, a need for which remains for even amid the exciting business of exploring outer space. On the holodeck, starship crew members can, on their off hours, dial up any fantasy they choose and jump right in: with no real danger, no moral responsibility, "just good fun," as one character says.

One wonders if anybody will still want to go to into outer space when they can have adventures at home, minus the risk. It's easy to imagine a holodeck-addicted society of the future, lost in orgiastic fantasy, sliding into anarchy while their mechanical skills atrophy: just like the Talosians. Such a world is so easy to picture, in fact, that while Star Trek has been portraying a kindler, gentler future, a more prevalent stream of science fiction has depicted one apocalyptic nightmare after another.

It's difficult to imagine a future that's not worse than the present; "fun" has been a problematic absolute. A few years ago, a gang of teenagers beat and raped a jogger in Central Park; the rationale offered? "Because it was fun," they said.

Star Trek's cheery optimism seems Buck Rogerish in comparison. In the Post post-modern future, we are told, humanity will have finally overcome its many self-destructive tendencies and created a just society. Unfortunately for those who have to live with those tendencies right now, nobody ever says exactly how this glorious evolution takes place. (Maybe they don't want to break the Prime Directive.) We must assume, then, that somebody has invented anthropological equivelent of Heisenberg Compensators.

It's time to explain what those are. In real life (as opposed to television), a German physicist lent his last name to his discovery of "the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle," which states that the basic particles of matter are too unpredictable to be plotted. Star Trek's device "compensates" for this problem so the famous transporter can beam human molecules around, avoiding the need to land giant starships on planets every episode.

And how does that old Heisenberg Compensator work? "Very well, thank you," says one Star Trek writer/techie, without going into further detail. Elsewhere, an astrophysicist, in his book The Physics of Star Trek, lays all the cards on the table: a fair bit of Star Trek's fundamental technology, including the transporter, are wholly implausible -- despite the techno-jargon.

Which leads to this possibility: that Star Trek's Utopian future is just as illusory as Vina's beauty, covering equally ugly and unalterable truths -- about man, his ability to find certain knowledge, the moral quandry that results from that inability, even about some unfortunate limitations of the laws of physics.

Yet all this leaves nobody in any position to tell anybody else to "Get a Life." As long as your chosen "life" is "fun" for you, says Vina, "Why not relax and go along with the illusion?"

CONSIDER THIS SMORGASBOARD: fighting a space alien to rescue a damsel in distress; riding horses and picnicking with a lovely country girl; catching the eye of a sexy Orian slave dancer. These were among the illusions offered to Christopher Pike on his first visit to Talos IV, each featuring Vina in the co-starring role. Captain Pike, of course, refused them all. Then came his accident and his return to Talos IV. One assumes Pike spent the remainder of his days, brimming with illusory health, feasting on fantasies with Vina. We understand the issue for him was never illusion, per se, but the freedom to choose his illusions.

Of course, there might have been one more issue he might have wished to consider before losing complete touch with reality.

For while Captain Pike may eventually forget his paralysis, come to believe he's out having picnics, riding horses and conquering cities, somewhere under there is a biological organism which still requires maintenance. And, as St. Augustine points out, "Food in dreams is exactly like real food, yet what we eat in our dreams does not nourish: for we are dreaming." The mechanically-challenged Talosians may soon find themselves with an even greater challenge: that of giving a dead man the illusion of life.

The fantasies of the Nexus, we are told, work differently. Matters of physical life and death are moot: the Nexus is beyond time, so death has no meaning. Soran, the mad scientist of Generations, wants nothing more than to lose himself in this eternal bliss. When Soran is yanked from his chosen fantasy, he's furious, ready to anything to get back inside: including murdering a few million innocent bystanders who stand in his way.

Yet man does not live by bread alone, at least not Captain Kirk, who finds the dreams of the Nexus do not satisfy. Like Soran, Kirk entered the Nexus by accident, but is driven out by a spiritual appetite for something more than illusion. He joins Picard in foiling Soran's plans, because, he says, employing that postmodern absolute, "it sounds like fun." Indeed, James T. Kirk exits the pages of Star Trek history with these dying words: "It was fun." And so is the holodeck. The difference between real fun and generations of fun is never adequately explained.

It is another Captain of the Enterprise, Jean Luc Picard, whose reasons for rejecting illusion which offer the clearest glimpse of what it is everyone seems to be so hungry for.

Like the others, Picard is sucked inside the Nexus to find his heart's desire: a happy reunion with the family he never had, his dead nephew alive; the happiness every man seeks. Then he notices a strange flicker reflected in a Christmas tree ornament. "This isn't right," he says, snapping out of the trance. "This can't be real." Of course, Picard fails to ask whether or not the flicker is also an illusion: it's another deus ex machina.

And yet we suspend disbelief. We have, perhaps, noticed the same sort of unnatural flicker. In any case, we grant Picard's suspicions a legitimate basis, and so understand his need, like Pike's, to escape the illusion and return to the real world. But wait a second. Why should he escape? Because it's fun? Or because it's right? Now here's a flicker in the Nexus, indeed.

Think about it. This flicker is present in every Star Trek story. The actions of the characters hinge upon their instinctive recognition of an external plane of reality. The Captains are continually violating the Prime Directive and Starfleet orders, obeying what seems to be an even Primer Directive: there is a force pulling on them like gravity from a black hole, a notion of right and wrong that transcends human directives. There is a sense of ought involved in rescuing an oppressed race from enslavement, in throwing away one's career, or life, to save the lives of one's friends.

Spock, of course, offers this seemingly logical explanation for his own sacrificial death: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." But logic fails to explain why Spock would be so willing years earlier to throw away his career, a benefit to many, to help one former Captain, Pike. Perhaps in that episode, the half-Vulcan Spock caved in to his irrational human side. But what about humans? Why does that species, presumably governed by a survival instinct, often throw aside biological considerations to perform suicidally selfless acts? Because it's fun?

In James Kirk's case, at least once or twice, it seemed his noble efforts weren't just matter personal preference or fun: he violated the Prime Directive or Starfleet regulations because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Star Trek characters may talk about Infinite Diversity, the relativity of all cultures and values, the need to refrain from judgment. But as action series they must act, and the heros, time and time again, do what they presume is the right thing. "My culture is based on freedom and self-determination," says Picard to Soran, right before he curtails Soran's freedom and takes away his means of self-determination. As educator Wm Kirk Kilpatrick has noted, "Drama is not the right medium for creating a value-neutral climate. It exerts too much moral force."

For it is not our mortality that defines us, as Picard tells Soran, but our morality. And in this need to define we touch upon the the real mission of Star Trek: the search among the cosmos for the answer to the question "What does it mean to be human?" James Kirk, eulogizing his dead Vulcan friend, says: "Of all the souls I have encountered, his was the most human." Such blatant anthropocentric bias in Star Trek makes it obvious that freedom and infinite diversity are much less than desirable if they result in a human being freeing himself from his own humanity.

If humanity is the result of the random collision of atoms in space, evolved by eons of violence in which the strong progressively annihilated the weak, then how did we get this illogical idea that individual rights "ought" to be protected? If our mortality does define humanity, then what makes man different than the likewise mortal amoeba; what separates humankind and a cruel universe whose prime directive seems to be survival of the fittest? Yet to remain open-minded to Soran's murderous actions would reduce us to a level that is subhuman.

And here is another flicker in the Nexus. We have been considering the idea that the monsters of Star Trek -- the machine-like Borg, the violent Klingons, the greedy Ferengi, the self-absorbed Sorans of the galaxy -- as symbols of man's darker side, are every bit as human. We say the Nazis de-humanized Jews by, among other things, treating them like cattle. Unfortunately for moral philosophers and the rest of us, however, Nazis are not space aliens. On what basis can we judge the mistreatment of some humans by other humans to be an inhuman act? Just what exactly on earth forms the basis of Star Trek's moral sense? Gene Roddenberry and others would say something called "humanism"?

But obviously being "human" is not enough; observed "humanity" does not adequately account for the moral pattern which Star Trek heros aspire to fill. Nor does human experience provide any self-evident base for the supreme value such heros place upon the individual. In fact, the notion of "individual rights" is an uncommon virtue historically among the cultures of planet earth. So uncommon that many observers have linked this peculiar idea of "inherent human dignity," also unique to the Christian West, to a moral sense not of this earth: a deus ex machina.

Or, to use another Latin phrase, an imago Dei: the idea of the incalculable worth of each individual is rooted in the Judeo-Christian concept of humankind created in the image of God -- an image and worth retained despite that human dark side. A worth confirmed, in the Christian view, in the doctrine of the Incarnation: the Creator of 100 billion galaxies, each filled with as many stars, lowers himself to be born a human baby, in an obscure tribe, at a pinprick of time, on a speck of cosmic dust.

Imago Dei confers an intrinsic dignity to every human being, including those aged, infirm, socially useless, hopelessly ill, criminal, even those still in the womb. This is why in an ultimate sense, the free choice of humans is not to be transgressed, even by God, even if those humans reject the divine pattern. But also why rejecting imago Dei releases monsters.

If man is the measure of all things, then all things are permitted. Moral debate is simply a power struggle: the victors write history, the strongest define humanity. Yet in their recurrent use of death on behalf of others, Star Trek's writers seem to be raising the possibility that the true source of power lies not in strength, but in weakness: in self-sacrifice.

This rings true and so moves us. Spock is the most human because his self-sacrifice touches the core of what humans ought to be. It is a familiar pattern, "written all over the world," says C.S. Lewis: a rising up by going down, the Higher descending into the lower to ascend again. Christ figures in movies, heros who save the galaxy, death and rebirth in nature, ancient myths of dying and resurrected gods. The Incarnation is not a literary deus ex machina, it is what the story has always been about: the Central Fact, a solution to humanity's primary plot problem. The death and resurrection of Christ is a Kobayashi Maru: death as the means to cheat death, a way to defeat the no-win scenario. And though this plot solution comes properly from within the action of the story, we find the very Greek word translated machina is also used by Ignatius, an early church father, in his Epistle to the Ephesians to describe Jesus on the cross, the "hoist of Christ": the God in the machine.

This article originally appeared in WONDER magazine, copyright 1992 by Rod Bennett. Used by Permission.

© 2000 Cornerstone Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.