Monday, October 15, 2007

The Measure of a Man: The Star Trek Mythos and Identity

Ask any group of Trekkers about the enduring appeal and popularity of Star Trek and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. The series is relentlessly optimistic about the future; or the series is a futuristic version of those Hornblower sea-faring novels and thus the height of swashbuckling adventure. Or the series is about brotherhood and the acceptance of diversity, or it it brings up feelings of nostalgia and "Camelot." In terms of drama, of course, one could point to the fact that the original series is especially well-written and uniformly performed with ummatched charm (and even a degree of kinkiness). On a basic level, it is also a science fiction adventure with cool spaceships and monsters...a reason that kids have loved it for for the last several generations. When you are ten years old, nothing beats Captain Kirk battling a Gorn!

However, there is also a philosophical umbrella of unity coursing throughout Star Trek's DNA (and also its later incarnations) that bears some mention. In virtually all the franchise's myriad forms, Star Trek explicitly concerns the psychology of man, and in particular, how the rigors of alien contact and space travel illuminate and bring to the surface all aspects of that psychology. Literally almost every episode of Star Trek deals with the idea and meaning of one aspect of human psychology: identity. For our purposes today, we might define identity as "the condition of being oneself and not someone else" or a "a sense of self that provides sameness and continuity in personality over time."

As much as the new Battlestar Galactica concerns American "War on Terror" politics in space, or Space:1999 is about the technological downfall of 20th century man, a millennial imagining, I believe that Star Trek is quite explicitly - and quite powerfully - a contemplation of all aspects of the human identity. I realize that David Gerrold famously wrote that the final frontier is not outer space; but rather the human soul, and certainly I agree with that sentiment; only narrowed down a bit: the final frontier is but a mirror for mankind; a reflection, a challenge to and for his very identity. For it is "identity," - the very measure of a man (or woman; or Vulcan for that matter) - that is the concept is at the heart of every great Star Trek hour. What does it mean to be a man in the 23rd century? We get many answers in the series, and learn not just about character identity, but species identity too. I believe this came about because Gene Roddenberry was a brilliant and insightful thinker; but also because the 1960s was the era in our history in which psychoanalysis and therapy came out of the closet, so-to-speak, into mainstream American television and film. What Gene Roddenberry's series stated, essentially, is that to conquer the stars (the exterior world), you must first conquer your interior world; the world of human psychology; the mysteries and foibles of your individual and racial identity.

Think about it. In the first pilot, "The Cage" Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey) must see through the illusions of an alien race called the Talosians to determine the identity of Vina (Susan Oliver). More than that, by facing a world of illusions taken from images in his own mind, Pike must determine what kind of man he is: A warrior (fighting Kalars on Rigel), a family man attending a picnic with his wife, or an amoral dealer in Orion Slave Women. Pike's fantasies all force him to question the sort of man he is, but ultimately he arrives at an interesting conclusion: morally he cannot remain on Talos IV (even in a world of fantasy) because the Talosians would use him to breed a race of slaves. That result is immoral to Pike, and his identity as a moral human precludes the acceptance of slavery. Again, individual and "group" (human) identity are core issues here.

The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a more action-packed musing on the same subject. Here, an Enterprise crewman, Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is adversely affected when the Enterprise passes through a barrier at the edge of the galaxy. He begins to develop psionic powers that render him - essentially - a God. So, the question of the episode becomes: when man exceeds his built-in limitations, like mortality and morality - what does he become. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the stated theme of the episode, but "Where No Man Has Gone Before" asks the viewer to accept that man's identity is tied inexorably with the things in life that are difficult. We age, we die, we have to get up and push the warp speed buttons ourselves, or get our own cups of water in sick bay. Gary Mitchell - buoyed by telekinesis - can do whatever he wants without lifting a finger or any other "physical labor." His new identity is thus distinctly inhuman.

"The Man Trap" aired on September 8, 1966, and it is the story of an alien shapeshifter, a salt vampire, the "last of its kind." Dr McCoy, Captain Kirk, Crewman Green, Yeoman Rand, and Lt. Uhura each experience the shape shifter in a different form and in a different way. Physical appearance - an outward symbol of identity - dictates how people are treated, this story reveals Uhura finds herself attracted to the alien when it turns into a tall, attractive African man who speaks Swahili (her language; a common point). This is all a ruse to kill her and extract the salt from her body, but how the creature understands identity is critically important. In particular, the salt vampire likes how McCoy views it: the affectionate, unconditional love of an old boyfriend, "Plum." It senses this is how it will be protected, by manipulating the good doctor's feelings of romantic attraction for an old flame.

"Charlie X," the story of a boy who has been raised by non-corporeal aliens on the planet Thasus, deals with the idea of what it means to be an adolescent boy: to be driven by urges you don't understand and to always feel a little awkward. Kirk also - mostly unwillingly - assumes the identity of father to the lonely Charlie.

In "The Naked Time," a mysterious disease acts on the Enterprise crew like alcohol intoxication and brings to light dark, buried aspects of the crew's various personalities. With emotional boundaries torn down, the crew spirals into chaos at the same time the Enterprise spirals out of orbit towards a planet's surface. We see in this episode that the "identity" we have pinned on each Star Trek character does not represent the whole picture. Spock is not merely a logical alien, but a little boy who couldn't tell his (human) mother that he loved her. Kirk is not merely a leader among men and a great Starfleet officer, but a man of terrible loneliness because his position in the command structure isolates him from others. There is, he laments, "no beach to walk on." Again, the issue here is the face (or identity) we present to the world, and the identity we hide, covet, and keep locked away.

"The Enemy Within" is a classic meditation on human identity and the contradictions therein. A transporter accident splits Kirk into two beings, one "good," one "evil." However, this is no ordinary Jekyll & Hyde story, because what Kirk learns - to his chagrin - is that it is his dark side, his negative self, that retains the power of command; the power of decision-making. His good side seems to possess intellect and compassion, but not will, so again, human identity is dissected and put under the microscope on a Star Trek episode.

In "Mudd's Women," scoundrel Harry Mudd provides a drug to three "homely" women to make them appear as irresistible beauties (so they can be married off to space miners...). Only thing is this: the drug is a fake, a phony. The women on the drug are "high on themselves." As Kirk says: there are only two kind of men and women in the universe; either you believe in yourself, or you don't. So this episode concerns - once more - the notion that our feelings about our identity colors how we see the world...and how the world sees us.

In "What are Little Girls Made Of," Kirk is faced with an android duplicate of himself, one who bears his every memory and ability. But one who can think faster, calculate more effectively and is physically immortal. But man is not a machine, and this episode is about the things that get lost translating "the soul" to a mechanism. Is identity something that can be transferred? Is it hard-wired into our souls? Or is it something so special that no machine can duplicate it?

Other examples:

"The Alternative Factor" - an alien man named Lazarus has been driven to madness and psychosis by the discovery of alternate universes and a "twin" who is simultaneously both him and not him (essentially sharing his identity). To the Enterprise crew, the two men are interchangeable.

"This Side of Paradise" - strange spores on Omicron Ceti III turn the Enterprise crew into mellow layabouts, even Spock (who has the "gall" to make love to a human woman!). Exposed here is the idea that being productive - working - is a core (and indispensable) part of the human identity. No doubt a comment on recreational drugs; perfect for the late 1960s.

"Amok Time" - Spock's identity is subverted again; this time by the Vulcan physiological need to "mate or die" every seven years. The normally logical and thoughtful Vulcan becomes temperamental and rageful over his body's need to go to Vulcan for a pointy-eared booty call.

"Mirror, Mirror" - what makes up our identity? Is it more than just DNA? Is it also the history of a nation or planet? This is the story of an alternate history, one in which humans have become war-like barbarians and the center of a cosmic Empire. The "good" people we know on the Enterprise - changed by some unknown event in galactic history - have set aside principle and morality for conquest and personal gain. But Spock remains the same in both universes, a bastion of goodness and decency (even with the beard).

"Metamorphosis" - an alien "Companion" and a dying human woman meld identities for the sake of love; only to run into human prejudice.

"Return to Tomorrow" - Spock, Kirk and Dr. Ann Mulhall allow three aliens to "possess" their bodies for a time; to make new android forms to house them. The only problem is that these three highly-advanced beings cannot control their emotions and desires when encased in the "flesh" packages of humanity. How much of identity is tied up in our biology? How much in our mind? How much of what we feel is emotion, how much is chemical?

"Turnabout Intruder" - all those things which make Kirk a being "special unto himself," - distinctly another descriptin for "identity" - is landed in the body of a vengeful ex-lover who wants to be a starship commander.

You get the idea. You can view virtually any Star Trek episode out there through this iluminating lens of "identity" and see how the stories of space travel are but a mirror for us to experience all sides of it. The films and later series expand on these ideas. Right off the bat, I remember another Star Trek story in which our heroic, physically fit characters, must deal with the rigors and pains of aging ("The Deadly Years"), a shock to anyone's identity. And there are Next Generation tales that find some characters experiencing amnesia ("Clues), buried memories ("The Schizoid Man") or reverting in age to childhood. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is another meditation on identity, wherein Spock's katra (one might say his identity...) is housed inside McCoy. Until it is reunited with Spock's body, that body is just a shell. In Star Trek: Voyager I remember one of the finest installments was called "Tuvix," about a transporter accident blending the staid Vulcan Tuvok with the more jovial and likable Talaxian, Neelix. What emerged from that transporter platform was a third individual, a new identity separate from the earlier two.

In the various Star Trek series there is example after example of our heroes facing "twins" or "doubles" that confound the crews and make determining identity a difficult task. Spock must determine which version of Kirk is real, which a fake, in "Whom Gods Destroy," and Kirk himself is doubled not just in "The Enemy Within" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of," but Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Riker gets himself a transporter duplicate in one episode of the Next Generation called "Second Chances," Picard meets his "parallel" from the future in "Time Squared," and Janeway and Voyager encounter a duplicate crew in "Deadlock." Data's brother also happens to be his exact duplicate physically, and therefore vexes the crew in "Datalore," "Brothers" and other episodes. Ask yourself, if identity is not the crux of the Star Trek mythos, why so many episodes in which characters must question the identities of their friends. Is it Picard or a formless alien hitchhiker in "Lonely Among Us?" Is it Kirk or Sargon in "Return to Tomorrow?" Is it Bones McCoy or a salt vampire in "The Man Trap?" Is it Geordi La Forge or a Tarchannen alien in the appropriately named "Identity Crisis?"

Consider too that each franchise series involves at least one outsider-type character attempting to define his or her identity. Who are Odo's parents? Is he alone, or - as we learn later - a Founder of the Dominion? What of Data? In "Measure of a Man" Starfleet (and Data himself) must ask the question is he just a toaster, or a living, sentient being? For Spock is "logic" the beginning of wisdom or the end? Again and again, characters must determine "who they are" both in terms of wants and desires, and in how the universe of the Federation defines and views them. Is the EMH a life-form or a program? Is V'ger a life form or just a very advanced machine?

Also, I do not think it a coincidence that the scariest Star Trek villain in series history is likely the Borg. The Borg are scarier than the silver-toothed villains of Alien and Aliens, or the extraterrestrial hunters in Predator. Those outer space creatures may skin you alive or lay eggs down your throat and burst your chest...but in the end, all they really do is kill you. The Borg are much more nefarious and frightening. They take you and "assimilate" you, replacing the colorful identity of the individual with a heartless, colorless hive mind. They take all your knowledge, all your memories, all your humanity and download it for consumption in the collective, but your body keeps walking around - a zombie, a shadow of its former self, because the human identity has been stolen. There can be nothing scarier in a series about identity than a monster who comes along and takes that identity away.

I write about all this today because I've been reading some material about the new Star Trek movie. Generally, I'm very enthusiastic about the project. Every great legend needs to be translated from one generation to the next, and frankly, I think that Star Trek has never been better or more popular than during the Kirk and Spock years of 1966-1991 Sure, we've met new crews, loved the new captains, and encountered new villains (like the impressive Borg), but ultimately, the most human, the most colorful, the most charismatic and most adventurous Star Trek is the original series. Those classic characters deserve a chance to tell their tale to the "next generation" and I'm all for it. This isn't in conflict with my feelings or critiques of remakes for a very simple reason. We've had thirty years of Star Trek continuations already, and what's the next Star Trek movie to give us? Yet another starship? Yet another crew? Yet another Spock-like alien obsessed with humanity? We've been there and done that too often, to varying effect on Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. Also, having Leonard Nimoy aboard the new movie project assures that this will technically not be a remake...but the revitalization the writers have promised, I believe in good faith. So I don't see a downside to a prequel featuring the classic characters. But what I do hope and pray is that the screenwriters have taken the time to gaze carefully at Star Trek lore and see that the franchises' finest stories have always concerned mankind - and our Starfleet heroes - grappling with the essentials of human identity.


  1. Anonymous9:38 AM

    Very nice article. I think you really drive home why Star Trek, in all it's incarnations, is more than just another TV show. I think the new movie will be awesome. I firmly believe that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy still have stories left to tell. I am excited to see them live again on screen.

    Chris Johnson

  2. Anonymous9:52 AM

    "pointy-eared booty call"

    This is why I love you, John.

    Very good article, but I must ask - no examples from "Enterprise", why? I never even made it through the first episode so I can't know if the series followed the identity theme or not, but I am curious, did they at least get that right? Or was the whole thing just trash?

  3. I must confess I never made it through more than ten episodes of Enterprise from the first season. I kept falling asleep during the episodes, no matter how hard I tried to stay awake. At one point, I was biting my palm to stay awake...

    Then, a season later, I picked up the show again for the "September 11th) surprise-attack cliffhanger and follow-up season (with Earth attacked). What I saw were starships hiding in nebulas and Klingon captains with personal vendettas against Starfleet captains, and then I realized the whole effort was running on automatic pilot, so I bailed again...never to return.

    In fairness, I must say that several people have told me the fourth season of Enterprise was quite good. I hope to get around to watching it one day.

  4. Anonymous10:32 AM

    Season 4 of Enterprise was awesome. Manny Cotto and Judy and Garfield Reeves-Stevens really brought life to the show. The only episode that was lousy was "These Are the Voyages." There are some snooty fans who still trash season 4 but, honestly, if you like Star Trek you will definitely enjoy most of these episodes.

    Chris Johnson

  5. Anonymous12:53 PM

    Time and again you highlight "Trek" instances of the quest for identity, and how, in many cases, it exacts a dangerous toll. Hell, V'Ger nearly took out all humanity to ask, "What's it all about, Alfie?" Well done, Mr. Muir. I'm pretty psyched about the new project, too. Simon Pegg as Scotty? Right on.


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