Monday, April 16, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Guardians

A guardian is defined as a "defender, protector or keeper."  Many cult-TV series throughout history have highlighted so-called "guardian" characters who protect some crucial aspect of life in the universe, and reveal, in the process, the hidden order or hierarchy of the cosmos.

The positive aspect of cult-TV guardians is that mankind -- upon learning the nature of things -- finds that there are benevolent beings protecting the mechanisms of the time/space continuum.  They are our superiors in terms of knowledge and wisdom.  And with great selflessness, such guardians preserve things as they are.   They are devoted to our welfare and to the welfare of the universe. 

On the negative side of the equation, some guardians are not benevolent, but quite the opposite.  And furthermore, what does this desire to be "guarded" say about us, as human beings, anyway?  Why do guardian figures appear so frequently in our genre programs?  Do we feel we need guardians to manage our own affairs, to look after us in the big, bad universe?  Are we incompetent shepherds of the universe, ourselves?  Or will we one day "grow" into the guardian ship role?

In The Twilight Zone's "The Howling Man," a group of monks are the guardians of a secret that could destroy humanity.  That strange, howling man in the basement of the monastery is not a mortal prisoner, but the Devil himself.  And if he is set free, mankind suffers.  Man can only find peace, we learn, when Lucifer is safely locked away and guarded.  I have always  viewed this particular Twilight Zone episode as a metaphor for man's attempts at self-discipline.  When we exercise self-control and rationality, we progress and find peace.  When we succumb to irrationality and hatred, that devil escapes.  We are thus the guardians of our own better and lesser angels.

Star Trek's "The Guardian of Forever" may be cult-television's most famous "guardian."  Featured in the episode "City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison, the Guardian is a solitary creature, neither machine nor man, who has waited a seeming eternity for a "question" from a visitor.  The Guardian is its own beginning and its own ending, it states. But what, precisely, it protects or defends is a bit of a mystery.  Clearly the Guardian of Forever does not protect any particular flow of time.  If that's the task it performs, it does a woefully poor job considering how easily McCoy reshapes reality.  Rather, the Guardian exposes time to change and alteration, as we see from the events that unfold in both this story and in the Animated Series' "Yesteryear."

Is The Guardian of Forever actually protecting free will?  The freedom of man (or other beings) to shape reality and time as it likes?  That might be a valid speculation since exposure to the Guardian tends to change things, rather than preserve things as they are.  If a spaceship crew can approach the planet (through the deadly time waves) and make contact, perhaps it has earned the right to "control" time.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," another strange machine-like device, the Guardian, is featured in a Year One story.  Designed by alien beings on a faraway world, its purpose was to render "perfect" the lives of those it cared for.  This task the machine did too well.  It froze time (because perfection must last forever...), and transformed living people into mindless "cabbages" in the words of Commander Koenig (Martin Landau).  To be perfect, apparently, by a machine's definition is to remain untroubled and incurious, sedentary and sedated. 

In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "The Guardians," Buck and the crew of the starship Searcher are tasked with delivering a strange jade box from one dying "guardian" to another.  The ship travels to the end of the galaxy as Buck and his friends search for the next Guardian, one of a series of "saintly figures" seen throughout many cultures on many different worlds.  In a reflection of "The Howling Man," we learn here that when a Guardian does not possess the box, the galaxy falls into chaos.  In this episode, the crew experiences strange visions related to time because the box is meant for "The Time Guardian."

Sometimes a guardian protects only vestiges of a forgotten past.   In both Jason of Star Command's "The Power of the Star Disk" and Star Trek The Next Generation's "The Last Outpost," series protagonists encounter lonely "guardians" who are the last of their kind, Tantalution and T'kon, respectively.  In the case of Jason of Star Command, the guardian wishes to pass on the knowledge of his now-dead race, and has remained alive and as a sentry until his people's descendants could make contact with him.  The "Portal" of the T'kon Empire in "The Last Outpost" is unaware that his empire his long gone, and that there is no need to vigilantly guard against visitors in his region of outer space.

The original Dr. Who series showcased a Manichean world view for a time through the presence  of mirror-image guardians in Season 16, during the Tom Baker era.  The White Guardian was a personification of order, while the Black Guardian was a representation of evil and chaos.   Again, the presence of such guardians revealed much about the order of the universe and the status quo that keeps reality from collapse.

Another interesting facet of cult-tv guardians: despite their great power, they remain fallible.  They need, in different programs, the help of the Enterprise crew, a renegade Time Lord, a man from the 20th century and in Jason of Star Command, aliens from another dimensions, to make things "right."  Maybe this development is a way for humans to understand our importance in the scheme of things.  Even the Guardians who control the universe need a helping hand from time to time...

1 comment:

  1. John, I'm surprised you didn't mention Trent, played by Robert Culp in the Outer Limits episode "Demon with a Glass Hand," also written by Harlan Ellison. He was also a guardian, charged with safeguarding the genetic coding of humanity for 1200 years until an alien plague cleared, and humanity could be restored to the Earth.