Saturday, September 10, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Magicks of Megas-Tu"

STARDATE: 1254.4 

The U.S.S. Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy on a scientific mission to investigate the "creation of matter" in that mysterious region of space.  Unfortunately, the ship becomes trapped in a "matter-energy whirlwind" and tries to make for the eye of the storm.

Instead, the Enterprise leaves time and space as "we understand it" and emerges in a parallel dimension where the laws of physics don't operate as Mr. Spock expects.  The ship's chronometers stop. The engines die. Life support fails...

...but a strange, devil-like being called Lucien appears on the bridge and saves the Starfleet crew from certain death.  Lucien then takes Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy to the surface of his planet, Magus-Tu, and reveals that his people long-ago visited Earth, and are responsible in some way, for the legends involving devils and demons.  He also reports that his people are calm, contemplative, and lacking rivals or competitors.  

While Spock realizes that magic in this alternate universe is like "science" in the prime universe, and that "belief" is as potent as "energy" is in our reality, Lucien's people capture the Enterprise crew and hold all aboard accountable for the grievous savagery of humanity, as demonstrated by their burning of Lucien's people at the Salem witch trials in 1691.  Kirk defends his species during this trial, noting that humans have evolved in the hundreds of years since that tragedy.  He offers as evidence data-recordings of the Enterprise's missions.

Lucien's people decide to free the Enterprise crew, but punish Lucien, and Kirk speaks up for his friend, who has been sentenced to "limbo for all eternity."  

But Kirk must question his friendship with Lucien, however, when he discovers that the alien's real name is...Lucifer.

I've always considered Larry Brody's "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" to be one of the best and most provocative episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series.  

This is so, I believe, because the intelligent teleplay asks the viewership (largely children...) to reckon with the idea that not all stereotypes or stories are true, and that just because something looks different from the norm, or even monstrous, that appearance doesn't equate to evil intent.

In this case, Lucien is simply an alien who visited Earth.  Yet he is a recipient of "victor's justice" meaning that because he was expelled from Earth by his enemies, they wrote the myths about him...and literally "demonized" him in the process. 

They transformed him not into a "real" being with flaws and foibles, but an icon of evil, the Biblical Devil.  

Some would quibble with this episode's idea of, essentially, "sympathy for the devil," and yet it is not the Biblical Devil which Kirk and crew face here, plainly.  Instead, Lucien is an intelligent alien who has been "cast" in the Devil role unfairly, simply because he lost his particular war or struggle.  

Accordingly, Kirk and his crew must look past mythology and bigotry to judge Lucien not on what others say about him, but on his own actions.  And Lucien's first action was to save the Enterprise and her crew.

So Kirk dismissively tells Lucien's people "We're not interested in legends," a comment which establishes, among other things, the idea that religion -- any religion -- is no more than folklore or mythology.  Men and women of Kirk's time have outgrown the need to believe in such mythology.

I've always felt, as well, that "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is in the inspiration for the Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint."  

There, Captain Picard and his crew are captured by a being of God-like powers -- the Q -- and transported to an historical period (the 21st century on Earth) to be tried for the various and sundry crimes of humanity.  

That's indeed what happens here, with Kirk defending humanity in a recreation of Salem, circa 1690.  And again, like Picard does later, he's battling creatures that possess God-like or so-called "magic" abilities.  

The similarities are impossible to ignore, especially since Captain Kirk and Captain Picard offer the same argument for humanity's continued existence: We once were savage, but we have evolved. Judge us on who we are now.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) also owes something to this story from the Animated Series, it seems.  Like that film, this episode involves a dangerous trip to the center of the galaxy; a trip that ultimately uncovers a God/Devil who ultimately turns out to be no more than another alien.

"The Magicks of Megas-Tu"  represents the kind of adult storytelling that the original series excelled at, and it demonstrates remarkable maturity and humanity.  This is not a shoot-em-up or traditional adventure, but a story about basic matters of human existence, such as the nature of religion, and our responsibility -- as adults -- not to judge others based on their appearance, or on the "testimony" of folklore.

Like the equally-brilliant "The Survivor," which asked us not to be limited in our perceptions by an alien's "form," "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is a daring and forward-looking episode of this early-1970s cartoon series.

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