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.

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