May 20, 2009

The Man Trap Redux

Victor’s post get’s this blog off to a terrific start, demonstrating the validity of returning to Star Trek, underscoring its continuing relevance to cultural philosophy, and establishing how in the space of 50 minutes conventional television (and Star Trek is perhaps nothing other than conventional television, which is hardly a slur) can raise complex metaphysical, epistemological, and psychoanalytic questions. He nicely ties together several key scenes from “The Man Trap,” including the status of Nancy/the(a) Woman/Monster, Uhura’s failed seduction of Spock, Yeoman Rand’s fantasy status, and yes, even buffalo (more about that later). He ends, though, with the thought that “The Man Trap” ends with order restored: “With ‘Nancy’s’ annihilation, order is restored…”. Here I want to quibble. What can it mean to restore order when you’re exploring the final frontier, searching out the new? There’s more ambivalence here than the death of a monster can put to rest. Ambivalence that resides in the botany lab in the form of an alien female cock. Let’s set the scene.

Yeoman Janice Rand is being pursued by Ensign Green, who “in reality” is the salt monster. Green’s lusting after Rand’s table salt provokes a rebuke from her: “Who do you think you are?” This is an interesting question to ask of the salt monster, who seemingly becomes what others desire, who responds to others' strong feelings, and plays both sides of the fence, male and female. The monster’s indeterminate nature is sharply contrasted at precisely this moment by Rand’s very clearly determined nature. Coming out of an elevator, Rand encounters two leering crewmen:

Crewmen 1: Janice is that for me? (is he referring to the tray of food or to her sex?)

Rand: Don’t you wish it was? (is she referring to the tray of food or to her sex?)

Crewmen 1 to Crewmen 2: How’d you like to have her for your own personal yeoman?

Rand just is the feminine sex object. No ambiguity here. Rand walks into the botany lab where Sulu is working and addresses one of his plants:

Rand: Hello Beauregard. How are you today?

Sulu: Her name’s Gertrude.

Rand: No it’s a he plant. A girl can tell

Sulu: Why do people have to call inanimate objects she, like she’s a fast ship?

Rand: He is not an inanimate object. He’s so animate, he makes me nervous. In fact, I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me.

Green enters the botany lab and, approaching the plant, it’s driven crazy by his presence. The plant shrinks down inside its protective layers and as Sulu murmurs to it (“Take it easy. Calm down.”) and strokes it, it stiffens up and pushes out of its protective sleeve. While Sulu insists the plant is female, it emerges like some monstrous alien cock (Janice, is that for me?), responding to his soft caresses. Is it Beauregard or Gertrude? Or neither? The plant resists the conventional order of male/female, even perhaps animate/inanimate. An order that Yeoman Rand all too nicely fits, placed their by her ogling shipmates.

The plant occupies a position tantalizingly analogous to the other members of the alien ménage of trois of “The Man Trap,” the monster, neither male nor female, and Spock, who fails to respond to Uhura’s script of seduction (“Vulcan has no moon.”). What’s alien is what challenges sexuality, what challenges our given categories of male and female, doesn’t play by the rules, frustrates our sexual scripts. Nancy is the active one, pursuing McCoy, desiring him, laying him down and having her way with him. His sexuality is questioned—even Kirk claims he shouldn’t be thinking with his glands but “be more like Spock,” whose glands remain tightly in the control of his brain, much to Uhura’s chagrin. Indeed, everything alien in the episode resists our traditional gender expectations. But then by this measure, even the human beings in Star Trek are somewhat alien, for even red-blooded male desire is frustrated and punished. Darnell, we learn, spent some time on Ripley’s Pleasure Planet (just what goes on there—a whole planet devoted to pleasure?) and for his indiscretion has to die at the hands of the blonde he was pursuing there.

Kirk too, in this regard, occupies an ambivalent position. As Captain Kirk first materializes in American homes, materializing on planet M-113 in this first aired episode, he’s playful with McCoy, they’re trading secrets about pursuing girl friends, and Kirk, reminding McCoy that he should bring flowers, presents him with a bunch of desiccated stems, romancing the good Doctor. Give the girl a bunch of dried up flowers. Later, though, Kirk is downright gruff with McCoy, upbraiding him for thinking with his glands. Is he in a jealous pique? The ambivalence of Kirk’s desire is underscored by what I take to be a central mystery of the episode: why does the monster appear to Kirk as McCoy’s lost love? Is Kirk himself empty of desire? Can the monster not get a read on his desire? It’s a mystery.(Kirk: " It's a mystery, and I don't like mysteries. They give me a bellyache, and I've got a beauty right now.")

So while one form of alien desire is rooted out and annihilated, others remain, potentially to provide more bellyaches for Captain Kirk. The problem doesn’t quite disappear. Something like those mysterious buffalo, extinct and yet still an object of thought. “I was thinking of the buffalo Mr. Spock," says Kirk pensively, in the final scene from the episode.

Up Next: "Charlie X."

May 12, 2009

The Man Trap

To boldly write where no entity has written before . . . or so we hope.

Why would anyone want to blog about Star Trek? Hasn't everything been said already? Well, "no" to the second question, which then answers the first. We believe that there is more to be said about the original series, especially when we view the episode in the context of the present. In other words, we are attempting to see these episodes in a "new light" with the benefit of cultural philosophy.

The idea for this blog came about when Dennis and I were talking about various notions of human nature. I mentioned to him that some recent studies suggest that certain genes are actually activated by social conditions; that is, as human beings, we have all these "dormant" genes that, given the right social circumstances, could emerge and become active. The example I gave was from Star Trek when Spock and McCoy travel back in time and Spock begins to like the taste of "animal flesh" and finds Mariette Hartley, in the discourse of the 60s, not that bad of a "dish" either. So, we thought, what are the "genes" in Star Trek that become "activated" in our context--ideas, themes, conflicts that were dormant in the 60s that are active now?

I also need to provide a disclaimer here. This is a blog, so I'm not going to write in a scholarly format. Most of my readings of Star Trek will be "theoretical," a lot of Lacan and Zizek--only a few extended arguments and many observations. I'll point to the fuller works, but I'm not going to explicate the texts or work through the concepts in great detail. Basically, I'm going to "apply" certain Lacanian or Zizekian formulae to the episodes and wait to see what happens, if anything.


The Man Trap.

The Man Trap is a Lacanian's dream or nightmare, if one is different from the other. What do we have? We have a perfect example of Lacan's "There is no woman" (which means that there is no "the" woman). Woman for Lacan is a symptom of man and The Man Trap provides a very interesting narrative in which this "symptom of man" is revealed, with destructive consequences.

Visiting planet M113, the site of a long dead civilization, the Enterprise team is scheduled to conduct "routine" medical exams of archaelogist Robert Crater and his wife Nancy. Capt. Kirk's opening narration, however, mentions one important detail that makes the routine check-up anything but "routine"--Nancy Crater, Robert Crater's wife, is for Dr. McCoy that "one woman in Dr. McCoy's past." What is a "one woman"? A "one woman" is that woman for man that holds the place of the ideal--that subject through which all other woman-subjects are read (Mother?). The "one woman" is also the "missing woman" or the "woman that does not exist" as anything other than a man's symptom. In short, "the man trap" is set when the man confuses his "one woman" with "a woman," which is what happens to McCoy. In many ways, this episode can be seen as potentially misogynist, with the two men, McCoy and Crater, fighting over their perceived property. It is as if the archeaological context for the episode is creating a "genetic response" in both man over whose property rights are more "original." McCoy loved her "first," but Crater loved her "better" or so it would seem.

McCoy's first encounter with Nancy points to his internalized sense of idealization. When he sees her, she appears not to have "aged a day," which is true since she is, in fact, a "reflection" of McCoy's memory. Kirk, however, sees her not as a youngish twenty something "desired object," but as an aged woman, wrinkles, graying hair, and a weather worn complexion. And, Crewman Darnell sees her an "attractive" young blonde (his lost object: a prostitute he had met on another planet, presumedly). How is this different from the typical stereotyped example of "one man's treasure is another man's trash" and vice versa? What McCoy doesn't know is that "his" Nancy is dead and that the "Nancy" that appears before him is a hideous, shape-shifting salt-sucking murderer, but we'll address this later.

Let's briefly, set this up in Lacanian terms via Zizek.

In "Woman is One of the Names-of-the-Father," Zizek describes Lacan's understanding of the formula of sexuation. As an example he cites, in typical Zizekian fashion, a beer ad. In the ad "a girl walks along a stream, sees a frog, takes it gently into her lap, kisses it, and of course the ugly frog miraculously turns into a beautiful young man. However, the story isn't over yet: the young man casts a covetous glance at the girl, draws her towards him, kisses her and she turns into a bottle of beer." In this sense, all women become, through the male gaze, "bottles of beer." However, in The Man Trap, there is twist. The problem is not that the male gaze converts women into objects of desire, no; it is that woman, herself, is a creature that instigates the man's perception: Nancy, in a sense, never existed. She was and is (as a creature) an empty subject who/that is ready to assume the desired-image of any man. She, like all women supposedly, are "man traps." This is confirmed when Lt. Uhura engages Mr. Spock in a flirtatious conversation, asking him to seduce her with tales of Vulcan's moon. When Spock, as logical as always, tells her that Vulcan has no moon, Uhura breaks off her conversation and thus abandoning the setting of the "man trap."

The failed seduction of Spock leads to an interesting scene in "sick bay" where McCoy and Kirk try to figure out what killed crewman Darnell. "Nancy" said that he ate a poisonous planet, but McCoy, back on the ship, cannot find evidence of poisoning. What we see here is a attempt to decode a symptom; first, the molding (suction marks) on Darnell's face and then, by implication, the gap between "appearance" and "reality"; in other words, the death of Darnell and the attempt to solve the mystery mirrors the "man trap"--there is an appearance, but there is a reality and the two must be distinguished, as Spock did with Uhura.

Throughout the episode, we are reminded of this division between the Real and the Appearance (Lacan would frame it as Real/Imaginary/Symbolic). McCoy seems most susceptible to this difficulty in differentiating the two--even to the point where Kirk tells him to "stop thinking with your glands." It is as if the entire metaphysical space becomes reduced to the moment when "Nancy" can be seen as the creature, when the "there is no woman" becomes real. This occurs in the final segment of the episode when "Nancy," appearing as a crewman Green, boards the Enterprise. She/he stalks yeoman Janice and other male members of the crew ogle her she delivers a tray to Sulu in the botony section. The subtext of all the conversation is sex and fantasy--wouldn't you like to have her as your "personal yeoman?"; "I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me (in sexual assault)." Even Uhura gets what she wants when "Nancy" appears as a handsome crewman--someone she was thinking about.

The "lost object" of desire that we see in the beginning of the episode becomes a more generalized lost object--the lost object of reality. When "Nancy" can become any woman, any man and then any "thing," the entire "symbolic order" is riped away, leaving the crew of the Enterprise "trapped" in radical epistemological/metaphysical uncertainty--how do we know that what we see is real? This seems to re-present Plato's bipartitioned world, but there is a catch. The appearance is the reality; that is in Lacanian/Zizekian discourse the real is not that which lies behind the appearance; the real is the appearance of the appearance itself, a Hegelian totality of emptiness.

The final scene in which "Nancy" tries to kill Kirk (the symbolic order) shows the "real" issue of the trap. McCoy is trapped in his imaginary world, unable to shoot "his Nancy" even if it means saving Kirk's life. Spock violently attacks her, striking her with two clenched hands to no avail. Finally, McCoy, confused, fires on "Nancy." She drops and tranforms in to the idealization image that first appeared to him. McCoy's says "Lord forgive me" and fires one last time. After he kills "Nancy," the creature appears . . . dead on the floor. The Real is preserved insofar as the problem of appearance disappears--the lost object returns to being lost and Kirk reinstates the symbolic order by saying "I'm sorry." Sorry for what? Breaking the "beer bottle" that was "Nancy"?

What begins as a problem of sexuation ends as a problem of metaphysics and epistemology. With "Nancy's" annihilation, order is restored and "man" can go back to projecting "the woman" onto "a woman" or the Real onto a real. "Nancy" dies and the symptom lives on. In the end, "Nancy" was just a "buffalo" and the problem of the lost object disappears.