July 31, 2009

Why Did Joe Have to Die? The Nose Knows.

Let’s start with a few mysteries. Why did Joe’s nose itch? Why did he remove his glove? And why did he have to die? And just why was Gary Mitchell so quick to succumb to the forces of the dark side (to risk mixed metaphors, or at least mixed sci-fi shows)? These are the issues I’d like to tweeze out of “The Naked Time,” exploring the limits of the rational and the emergence of the irrational at heart of the Federation.

“The Naked Time” opens with Spock and Joe Tormolen beeming down to a research station located on Psi 2000, a planet in the throes of disintegration which the crew of the Enterprise has been dispatched to observe and study. But rather than finding a group of scientists preparing their final reports on a dying planet, they find a frozen scene of bizarreness and madness: a strangled woman, a fully clothed man in the shower, the life support systems turned off, everything frigid. Spock and Tormolen are dressed in environmental suits (more like cheesy-looking shower curtains), but Tormolen’s nose itches and, removing his glove, he is exposed to a liquidy red substance which he unknowingly brings back aboard the Enterprise. Tormolen soon begins to exhibit his own irrational behavior and in a scuffle with Sulu he is injured and taken to Sick Bay where he quickly dies, having lost the will to live. Soon others onboard are infected with the same illness and as the Enterprise rapidly descends on the disintegrating planet, the crew is rapidly disintegrating and descending into madness.

A half-naked Sulu roams the ship like a drunken Musketeer. An Irish rogue sings an Irish brogue (repeatedly), taking over Engineering and endangering the ship. And a punch-drunk Nurse Chapel proclaims her undying love for Spock, himself caught in the throes of emotions he cannot control.

At Spock’s le cri du coeur over his failure to express his love for his mother, I can imagine my blog partner bringing in that psychoanalytic tag-team Lacan and Zizek. And justifiably so, as this episode plays with the hidden impulses and repressed wishes of the crew, the distinegrating plant Psi standing in for the disintegrating psyche. Leaving the ego-id-superego, or is it the Real-Symbolic-Imaginary?, to Victor, I’d like to follow up on some themes I raised in my comments on “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” particularly the question of what these intrepid explorers are doing out there in the vast cold realms of space. This is the question and the dread that fills Tormolen upon exposure to the pathogen. He wonders if man was meant to be out in space and when confronted by Sulu and Riley blasts the Enterprise’s mission: “sticking our noses where none of us has business. What are we doing out here anyway?…What are we doing out here in space? Good? What good? We’re polluting it. Destroying it…We don’t belong here.” And then he dies. Why? Having come face-to-face with Pascal’s eternal silence of those infinite spaces, Tormolen can no longer go on. He questions the purpose of his being out there in space and in doing so glimpses the madness behind human beings flinging themselves light years from home only to encounter…what? Madness. Strangled women and human popsicles. There’s no recovering from that and the only alternative is death, the loss of the will to live, which puzzles McCoy because it makes no sense from a medical, that is, scientific, standpoint. A lieutenant under the influence, Tormolen encounters the limits of reasonableness and decides it’s not for him.

At the heart of this exceedingly scientific, high-tech project to boldly go where no man has gone before, lies a little madness. It’s that irrational element at the core of the rational, scientific, Enlightenment project that doesn’t go away. Reading Jeffrey Kluger’s reflections on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in Time magazine (Moonstruck), we learn that one of the qualifications of becoming an Apollo astronaut was knowing what not to think about. “Think too deeply about what you’re doing and the enormity of the thing can stop you from getting it done. And when one crewman violated that unwritten code of sangfroid, others, often as not, would stop him cold.” When Apollo 10’s Gene Cernan is recorded asking “Where do you suppose a planet like this comes from?” Kluger reports that John Young answers with deliberate bluntness: “I ain’t no cosmologist. I don’t care nothing about that.” Tormolen was thinking too deeply and he put at risk the composure and equanimity of his fellow astronauts. So he had to die.

This theme of the irrational as an essential element of the technoscientific realm comes up in an interesting way with Gary Mitchell. As Spock studies Mitchell’s and Dehner’s personnel files, we discover that Star Fleet tests their cadets for their ESP rating. Mitchell’s esper rating is well above average going back six generations of the maternal blood line “to both males and females who dabbled in metaphysical studies and, in at least one case, a female ancestor who was interested in spiritual readings.” Dehner was posted to the Aldebran Colony because she was participating in tests and studies of other esper-oriented beings with the College of Medical Sciences of the Tri-Planetary Academy. So Star Fleet keeps track of its psychics and its spiritualists and meticulously documents its findings in its personnel files. It’s the irrational element appearing in the bureaucratic file.

Mitchell’s esper rating helps explain why he was affected so when crossing the galaxy’s boundary. But why was he so easily corrupted? You’d think that in addition to documenting their cadets’ esper rating, Star Fleet would be keen on only signing up the most grounded, stable young men and women. But it doesn’t take long for Mitchell to begin playing God, even after he’s read Spinoza. Here too we get a hint from Kluger’s reflections on the Apollo project. Religion was never very far removed from the space program, maybe from any space program, factual or fictional. Kluger reports that Charles Duke, Apollo 16, came home “to find a deep well of Christian spiritual within himself and fills his time with secular and religious speaking.” And Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell (a relative of Gary?) conducted experiments in extrasensory perception while on the moon, trying to send mental images to two friends from space. He later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to study the paranormal. Indeed, David Noble argues in The Religion of Technology that the other-worldly and the technological are deeply intertwined. “For modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor” (4-5). In Chapter 9 of the book, “The Ascent of the Saints: Space Exploration,” Noble details just how pervasive religion was in the early history of space exploration and NASA. The desire to transcend, to be god-like, is never far from the technological spirit and maybe lies just beneath the surface of Mitchell (Gary, not Edgar), the same force driving him to embrace his higher destiny as a god that drove him to Star Fleet in the first place.

Technology promises us a world of control, a world where we belong because we have made it over in our own image. But living in our technological cocoon is no guarantee that we have control over it, for the realm of the technological, of control, and science is never far removed from the realm of the irrational, the out-of-control, the realm of regression (Sulu: “We have regressed in time, Captain!”) and disintegration, where the best you can hope for is a controlled implosion. The cocoon we’ve built around us can fail at any moment, and sometimes for the most trivial reasons. Complex systems sometimes fall apart. Water sometimes changes into a complex chain of molecules, as Bones discovers. Irishman sometimes get a hankering to play Captain. Stable young men have out-sized desires for deification. And noses sometimes just itch. Spock discovers this the hard way. Beaming down to Psi 2000 he tells Tormolen, “Be certain we expose ourselves to nothing.” But his warning is too late. Control has already been lost, and due to the most mundane of reasons, an itchy nose (a sense that things just don’t smell right). An inexplicable itch of the nose results in a series of events leading to the Enterprise hurling towards a disintegrating planet. And an itch of the nose leads to Spock’s tightly maintained façade of control being shattered, exposed by the love of a nurse who sees things hidden beneath that façade of reason and control.

Nurse Chapel: I am in love with you Mr. Spock. You. The human Mr. Spock. The Vulcan Mr. Spock. I see things. How honest you are. I know how you feel. You hide it but you do have feelings. Oh, how we must hurt you, torture you.

Spock: I am in control of my emotion.

Nurse Chapel: Mm. The others believe that. I don’t. No. I love you. I don’t know why, but I love you. I do love you. Just as you are. Oh, I love you.

Spock: I’m sorry. I am sorry.

Spock’s control over his emotions disintegrates in the face of Chapel’s declaration (and the influence of the pathogen). And for that he’s sorry. Or is he sorry that Nurse Chapel loves him? Or maybe he’s sorry that she loves him but doesn’t know why (love is irrational?). Anyhow, he’s sorry that he never expressed his love for his mother and that he’s embarrassed by his friendship for Kirk. And maybe he’s sorry about the limits of science and rationality. It’s Spock the Science Officer who loses control over his emotions, who explains to Kirk, “It’s like nothing we dealt with before,” who reminds McCoy “Instruments register only those things they’re designed to register. Space still contains infinite unknowns,” and who ultimately does the impossible and hurtles the Enterprise into the past, at least 71 hours in the past, making time travel a possibility and raising a host of other metaphysical paradoxes to be explored in future episodes.

While Star Trek is often faulted for its overly simplistic Enlightenment and humanistic vision of the future, several of these posts have already established that the show regularly explored the darker underside of that vision, which never goes away and always threatens to reappear. It’s true that by the end of this episode, a semblance of order has been restored and our crew has the past three days to relive. But as Spock observes at the end, some intriguing possibilities have been raised, and they won’t soon go away. Time travel beckons in the future, but so does Nurse Chapel’s unrequited love and Kirk’s inner demons, as we shall soon see. The madness at the heart of the technological enterprise remains.

July 26, 2009

From Inner Space to External Space

Victor does an admirable job in his post on “Where No Man Has Gone Before” moving from the external to the internal and translating the external conflict between Kirk and Mitchell into a Lacanian/Zizekian meditation on the conflict in inner space (and hasn’t science fiction always been preoccupied with conflict and inner space, from Fantastic Voyage, released around the same time as this ST episode to Innerspace, and many more) and the confrontation of the Real with the Symbolic and Imaginary. As a brief counterpart to his shift to the internal, let’s “keep it real” and situate this episode in terms of some broader trajectories.

It was hard not to watch this episode (and the next, The Naked Time, post coming shortly) without thinking about all the recent hoopla over the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and discussions over whether we belong in space in or not (should we be going back to the moon? should we go to Mars?). “Where No Man” was produced in 1965, in the midst of the Apollo program (1963 – 1972) and of course gives us the final line that begins “Space…The Final Frontier…” The intrepid crew of the Enterprise is exploring at the limits of the galaxy, a limit that signifies, at least in part, disaster, the disaster of the S.S. Valiant, and potentially the Enterprise itself. Do we human beings belong out at the limits of the galaxy? Are we meant for space? Should this finite, terrestrial creature be pushing out into the void of space?

This question of limits arises in other ways as well. Blogging Star Trek is predicated on the continuing relevance of Star Trek, viewing each episode in light of the present. “Where No Man” raises some interesting questions about the limits of the human, questions currently dominating debate over the posthuman and its implications for our humanity. Can we maintain our humanity as we mutate into the posthuman? Mitchell and Dehner first spar with one another over the question of “improving the breed.” Dehner is cold toward Mitchell until she comes to see in him a better kind of human being: “Don’t you understand? A mutated superior man could also be a wonderful thing. The forerunner of a new and better kind of human being!” We learn that Mitchell’s power is advancing geometrically (shades of Vinge, Kurzweil and the coming Singularity here) and Dehner observes to Kirk, “Before long we'll be where it would've taken mankind millions of years of learning to reach.” But can human beings advance so and yet remain human. As Spock, the voice of logic, suggests, “Soon we’ll not only be useless to him, but actually an annoyance.…In a month, he’ll have as much in common with us as we’d have with a ship full of white mice.” It’s Kirk’s appeal to Dehner’s humanity, “You’re still human…” (and to her profession, as Victor observes) that saves the day.

This question of the limits of the human also comes up in an interesting way in regard to Spock’s status. Spock’s feelings become the center of debate in several key scenes of this episode and the role of the emotions in constituting our humanity is highlighted in an intriguing fashion by Mitchell’s own reading. When Kirk first visits Mitchell in Sick Bay he’s ripping through some of the “great books” he missed reading while at the Academy. On his screen? Spinoza’s Ethics, Part IV: Of Human Bondage or the strength of the emotions, wherein Spinoza writes:

“Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”

In my post on “Charlie X” I suggested that Charlie and Spock occupy a similar position and this episode (produced prior to “Charlie X”) reaffirms this by placing Spock in an analogous position to Charlie: loosing at chess and getting irritated by it. Charlie is the bad seed and Spock, Kirk says, has “bad blood.” They’re both outside the circle of humanity, though ambiguously so. And it’s not only Mitchell and Dehner who wrestle with their emotions. Spock too is presented throughout the episode as cold and unemotional, though by the conclusion he admits to having feelings for Mitchell too. Is Spock Spinoza’s ideal? Or maybe it’s Kirk.

Star Trek’s obsessions are both internal as well as external, as it meditates on the Real and the Symbolic, as well as our place in the cosmos and the meaning of our humanity. Questions about the limits of the human and the coming of the posthuman are tied up with questions about our bondage to the emotions. Questions that will continue to preoccupy our intrepid explorers of both internal and external space.

July 3, 2009

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" was the third episode to be broadcast in the first season even though it was filmed before "Man Trap" and "Charlie X." Remnants of the pilot are clearly and, to some extent, embarrassingly visible, with Mr. Spock's elevated angular eyebrows and "loud, crisis voice," velour mock turtle neck uniforms, and the noticeable absence of Dr. McCoy, Mr. Chekov, and Lt. Uhura--even the phasers, especially the phaser rifle that Mr. Spock first wields, look like an archetypal "death ray guns" from a Buck Roger's comic book. Nevertheless, the unique Star Trek "conflict" is fully available to the viewer and developed (multi dimensionally) in the story.
These are the issues as I see them:
1. The Lacanian/Źiźekian "thing from inner space."
2. The Lacanian Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary.
3. The obscene super-ego as god.
The episode begins showing two related disturbances--a chess game and the retrieval of a thing from the void of space. The first disturbance occurs when Kirk, again, beats Spock in a game of chess. His (Kirk's) illogical plays causes Spock to have an "internal" conflict of emotion--he discovers, like the crew members beaming aboard the object, that where there should be nothing, no emotion, for instance, there is something. The conflict with the thing from inner space is further developed when the "object" is brought onboard the Enterprise and determined to contain a partial message. The "object" or recorder-black-box materializes the same way Spocks perturbation appears, without warning from the seeming void of inner-galactic space. This problem of disturbance echoes, like the inter-ship PA system and Mitchell's "voice," throughout the episode as the "thing(s) from inner space," the something where nothing should be, recurs and intrudes in several contexts.
What is the the thing from inner space? It is the impossible central void around which everything is organized. In this sense, the "void" is not some repressed trauma, as it would be for Freud. It is, in fact, nothing. The abyss upon which existence is predicated . . . in a Lacanian sense. Think of how a horror movie functions. The terrifying monster doesn't rise from some expected condition; that is, in bad films, horrifying creatures emerge from black pits that spew smoke and fire or something equally threatening--The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The really scary films, however, show the monster from the unexpected condition, e.g., the alien bursting from an abdomen, a killer from behind a shower curtain, or birds from the sky or a bump on the leg while swimming in a serene ocean. The moment of horror comes when one realizes that there is something where nothing should be. "Where No Man Has Gone Before" introduces this thing from inner space insofar as the real conflict is not external but internal, as we will see.
When the rakish navigator Gary Mitchell, Kirk's "academy buddy," is zapped by some unknown force, he is imbued with super-human, godlike power. Everything associated with this is perfectly predicable--he develops tele-kinetic and super ESP abilities; he has enhanced knowledge and becomes generically powerful. He also becomes evil since absolute power, Kirk observes, corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes. The interesting part, however, is not where all this leads, but where it comes from and how it is, like in "Man Trap," put back in the "bottle."

Let's return to the thing from "inner space." The recorder-object from the Valiant appears in the void of space. Partially present are the "tapes" from the ship's log describing in bits and pieces the demise of the ship. Mr. Spock assembles the fragments and determines that the captain was concerned about ESP (extra sensory perception) and that he issued a "self destruct" order. Luckily, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a psychaitrist with ESP abilities and a specialty in crisis behavior, is onboard. She is welcomed by Gary Mitchell with a dismissive reference to a "freezer unit," a.k.a. a dispassionate, sexless, "over-compensating" professional women; certainly not like the mini-skirted "Jones" or "Smith" (doesn't matter, really) that Mitchell holds hands with as the Enterprise is caught in the strange force field barrier separating inner-galactic from outer-galactic space.
Something where nothing should be--this is the point. When the Enterprise enters the barrier the ship's sensors and deflectors are confused--something is both there and not there. After Mitchell is "struck" by the force, the doctor determines that he is in perfect health, absolute perfect health, which means that at one level nothing is there, but that there is something, too--something to explain why there is nothing wrong with him. This harkens back to ESP. Humans can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell (use Axe). In addition, there is purportedly another sense, an extra-sensory sense, e.g. something where nothing should be. Take for instance, an ESP test. I have a card. You cannot see it. No one tells you what it is. You have no way of knowing, by means of the senses, what it is. You call it as a Nine of Clubs. A lucky guess? You call it correctly ten times in a row. How could this be explained? ESP, of course.

Something where nothing should be is "uncanny." Kirk beats Spock in chess. How can this be? It is as if he plays from some unknown source. This first scene echoes throughout the episode as Mitchell gains his powers. Even the "cold" and "sexually dormant" Dr. Dehner becomes sexually aroused by Mitchell and his "superior man" status--his ESP and speed-reading and memorization skills turn her on, as it were.

The thing from inner space brings us closer to the Real. For the most part, we live in (that is, we experience) the Symbolic and the Imaginary. The Real, whatever it is, is there but not fully or even partially available. Kirk's chess playing, the recorder-object, and Mitchell's powers break down the "barrier" (as we first saw in the opening scene) between the Real and the Imaginary and Symbolic. Mitchell's power is not just that he can move cups, create vegetaiton (apples . . . like in the Garden of Eden), or strangle someone from afar. His power is in the fact that he can transcend the Symbolic and the Imaginary or, worse, make the Imaginary the Real--true psychopathology. Before he gets to this point, Kirk, pressured by Spock, must kill him.

When is Mitchell killed? For a number of practical reasons, Kirk doesn't kill him right away. The episode needs to develop a Shatneresque angst and moral conflict. Because of this, Kirk waits too long. And, even as he comes to the decision to kill Mitchell, he can't--he is too powerful. Interestly, however, it is the PSYCHAITRIST, Dr. Dehner, with her latent powers realized, who kills Mitchell by weakening him enough so that Kirk can finally end it. Kirk, of course, prompts her, but it is only after she reflects on her psychiatric training that she decides, calmly and cooly, that he must die. In a sense, just as Charlie X was pure id, Mitchell becomes pure super-ego; that is, the id and the ego become totally consumed by the obscenity of the super-ego--its self-righteous, tyrannical character. Dr. Dehner, almost at full power, since she too was zapped by the force, attacks and manages to exhaust Mitchell. But why? Kirk warns her about "jealous" gods and saving "humanity," but it is after his plea that she think about psychiatry, the "ugly" things that all humans dare not expose, that she seems willing to kill him (Mitchell). Yes, she saves Kirk, but that is almost an after thought. "Morals are for men, not gods" and his demand that Kirk "pray to him" invites a "zap" from Dr. Dehner, which also marks that the Real, under no circumstances, can be made transparently available to the Symbolic/Imaginary. But then, again, there is a twist. In the beginning Dr. Dehner was a human, like Mitchell, with special ESP powers. In the the end, she is a goddess with a fragment of human fraility (selfishness)--it is that "human thing from inner space" (her desire to be goddess alone) that finally causes her to act. In both instances there is a Hegelian return to the human and the necessary condition that the Real be unrepresented.

Mitchell is killed when he is crushed beneath a boulder that fills the grave (abyss) he created for Kirk. The Real as a void is capped and the balanced between the Symbolic and Imaginary is restored once the thing from inner space is covered. Even Dr. Dehner tries to capture the final moral observation when she says, "I'm sorry . . . can't know what it is like to be almost . . . a god." Exactly, can't know what it is like to almost know the Real; which is to say, as a human being you can't (shouldn't) know or that as a human being, caught up in the Symbolic and Imaginary, you just can't (not able) to almost know the Real.

In the end, there are partial things from inner space that we can deal with, such as Spock's "feeling" for Mitchell, and THE thing from inner space we should leave veiled because it is too horrible to face. The most horrible of all is the Real!