July 1, 2011

The Unknown Knowns: The Corbomite Maneuver

This blog project was started with the notion that Star Trek, nearly fifty years on, remains vitally worth watching and continues to be relevant to contemporary philosophical issues. At first glance, “The Corbomite Maneuver” would seem to run counter to that inspiration. The episode doesn’t hold up as a fan favorite and it often looks cheesy and undercooked, or perhaps half-baked. And truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to watching and writing about the episode. Until I did and until I reckoned with making the unknown known—the theme of this blog post. Let’s start with Donald Rumsfeld, who in a February 12, 2002 press briefing addressing the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had the following to say:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.

As my blogging colleague would no doubt note at this juncture, and Wikipedia reminds me, Rumsfeld’s musings on the unknown provoked Slavoj Žižek to discourse on the unknown known, that which we don't know or intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know:

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns," that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the "unknown knowns" - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.

It’s this theme of unknown unknowns and unknown knowns that “The Corbomite Maneuver” begs us to explore. First a reminder of some key plot elements. The Enterprise is out in uncharted space conducting a mapping exercise. At the navigator’s helm is a young and unseasoned Lt. Dave Bailey. The crew is confronted first by a space buoy and then a massive ship representing the First Federation, which promptly informs the crew they are to be destroyed. After a tense standoff in which Kirk employs the “corbomite maneuver” and bluffs that any attempt to destroy the Enterprise will simultaneously result in the destruction of the alien ship, the two captains parlay and discover common interests. Kirk leaves Bailey with the alien captain, Balok, to instruct him in the ways of human beings.

As I mentioned, on the surface, this episode doesn’t sound all that promising. And yet, considering the episode’s context, it does raise some interesting thoughts. While the episode was the tenth to air, it was actually the third filmed, after the two pilots, and it still looks rather primitive—more in line with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” than “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” The show is still evolving and developing and as I’ll suggest shortly, the theme of development takes center stage in the episode itself. Also of interest is the show’s historical context. It aired in 1966 and one has to wonder whether viewers connected its themes of exploration and empires coming into conflict to the US’s growing involvement in Vietnam. It’s not difficult to read the show as a cautionary tale about youthful impetuousness involving us in wars that could be avoided by cooler heads—and a steady Asian hand. At several key moments in the episode’s actions, it’s Lt. Sulu who takes over for a debilitated Bailey and carries out the captain’s orders. The Asian trumps the European. But the episode has bigger fish to fry than simple historical allusions. Or so I’ll suggest.

The Enterprise is out in uncharted territory mapping space. It is literally transforming the unknown into the known, mapping the unknown, tedious and boring work but work that must be done. This theme of the unknown is also introduced via the alien Cube. It first makes its appearance by making no appearance. Sulu: “No visual contact yet.” Nor does it signal anything. Uhura: “I’m getting no signal from it.” The Cube literally represents the unknown:

SPOCK [on monitor]: Have a look at this, Captain.
KIRK: What's that?
SPOCK [OC]: Undetermined. Whatever it is, it's blocking our way. When we move, it moves as well.
KIRK: A vessel of some kind?
SPOCK [OC]: Negative. More some type of device.

And later:

KIRK: Scotty.
SCOTT: Motive power? Beats me what makes it go.
KIRK: I'll buy speculation.
SCOTT: I'd sell it if I had any. That's a solid cube. How something like that can sense us coming, block us, move when we move, well it beats me. That's my report.
KIRK: Life sciences.
MCCOY: Same report.

Later, when Balok’s ship the Fesarius shows up, Spock comments that the “reading goes off my scale.” We are dealing with the unknown and potentially the unknowable. The Enterprise is out to measure and map space and transform the unknown into the known by registering it in scientific and quantitative terms. This curiosity and the drive to confront the unknown and situate it in terms that are known is equally present in Spock’s desire to visualize the alien Balok. The Vulcan works mightily to get “something visual”: “Spock: I was curious to see how they appeared. Kirk: Yes, of course you were.”

And it’s precisely here that the episode confronts an interesting philosophical dilemma: what is an appropriate reaction to confronting the unknown? After Balok informs the crew of the Enterprise that they will be destroyed in ten minutes time, Kirk offers one take on confronting the unknown:

KIRK: Captain to crew. Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien lifeforms. You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there's no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. All decks stand by. Captain out. Ship to ship.

Kirk places his bet on reason and intelligence and the belief that there is no such thing as the unknown. Everything can be mapped. Our motives can always be understood (tell that to the Vietcong). There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Things are only temporarily hidden and not understood. With the proper application of reason, the hidden and misunderstood are brought out into daylight (mapped) and can no longer be a source of fear. Kirk here represents the voice of reason and maturity and indeed we learn in this episode that he is “maturing”: he’s putting on weight, his health and diet need to be monitored, he’s no longer the brash young ship’s captain he once may have been (and this is only the third filmed episode of the show).

But Kirk’s response to the unknown is not the only possible response presented. Bailey (presumably a younger Kirk, as McCoy informs us; McCoy: “you spotted something you liked in him, something familiar, like yourself say about, oh, eleven years ago”) suggests an alternative response to the unknown:

BAILEY: We've only got eight minutes left.
SULU: Seven minutes and forty five seconds.
BAILEY: He's doing a countdown!
MCCOY: Practically end of watch.
BAILEY: What, are you all out of your minds? End of watch? It's the end of everything. What are you, robots? Wound-up toy soldiers? Don't you know when you're dying? Watch and regulations and orders. What do they mean?
KIRK: Bailey, you're relieved! Escort him to his quarters, Doctor.

Bailey charges his shipmates with being like robots, simply following regulations and orders, rather than taking action, blowing things up, arming phasers. Bailey represents the voice of youth and immaturity and impetuousness. And of course it’s this voice that is supposed to be silenced. Kirk has Bailey removed from the bridge. Bailey needs to be fathered, first by Kirk (really just an older Bailey—as Bailey is a younger Kirk) and then by Balok, who Spock tells us is reminiscent of his father. And Bailey is consigned (or volunteers) to be marooned with the lonely Balok, left aboard the Fesarius to help the newly encountered alien come to know our human-all-too-human ways. This is meant to be therapeutic for Bailey. He needs to mature, to develop and grow out of his youthfulness, coming to terms with the unknown through the proper tutelage that comes at the hands of his elders. In growing up and achieving maturity we come to transform the unknown into the known.

But as we have seen with previous episodes, things are never quite what they seem on the surface with Star Trek. While on the surface, this episode sides with Kirk and the voice of reason against the youthful emotional outpouring of Bailey, Kirk’s own methods and madness seem to legislate against such a tidy resolution. Kirk’s own commitment to the principle that there are no unknowns, only temporarily hidden things, is itself not entirely rational and more predicated on faith. As he states, “Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives.” But what are the grounds of that “surely” other than faith, something not entirely understood. Consider two further wrinkles.

First, there is Kirk’s relationship to his body. While Kirk is remonstrating Bailey and trying to get him to grow up, he himself resists growing up—perhaps resists the recognition of his own maturity. We learn in this episode that his weight is going up and he has a diet of greens imposed on him by the Doctor, who regularly tries to monitor Kirk’s health. Kirk is getting old and his relationship to women, including the woman he most must care for, the Enterprise, is threatened by these younger, impetuous navigators who want to strike out in a direction of their own. Following his annual physical with McCoy, Kirk leaves sickbay only half dressed, parading his glistening, sweaty body around the halls of the Enterprise, as if to remind us and himself about his still vital masculinity. He refuses to face what he knows is his own senescence—perhaps the final unknown known. While making an argument for maturity and development, Kirk simultaneously fights what his body already knows—maturity and development ain’t all they’re cracked up to be.

And then there is the element of poker and bluffing that takes center stage in this episode. And poker is offered in place of chess when Spock informs the captain that he can find “no other logical alternative.” Chess is the game of rules and rationality and it is displaced by the game of chance, bluffs, and emotion. It’s as if Kirk sanctions deception, sanctions hiding, sanctions using the unknown knowns. This is what corbomite represents. Corbomite has remained unknown. But now Kirk must make it known.

KIRK: This is the Captain of the Enterprise. Our respect for other life-forms requires that we give you this warning. One critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the memory banks of any Earth ship. Since the early years of space exploration, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as corbomite. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying
BALOK [OC]: You now have two minutes.
KIRK: Destroying the attacker! It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago, no attacking vessel has survived the attempt. Death has little meaning to us. If it has none to you then attack us now. We grow annoyed at your foolishness.

So Kirk bluffs Balok but then Balok in turn bluffs Kirk back, playing dead in space so that he can assess the Enterprise’s true motives, again trying to make known what is initially unknown. But in both cases, what’s made known is a lie, a ruse, a bluff. Recall Kirk’s earlier commitment to the reasonableness of intelligence:

Kirk: In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives.

Making the unknown known requires lies and bluffs and braggadocio and so at the heart of intelligent and advanced lifeforms is the will to deception, despite Kirk’s protestations otherwise. And this is the known that tries to remain unknown. Kirk ultimately should recognize that it’s foolish to think that there is no unknown, that all things hidden are only temporarily so. In running from his aging body, in confronting youth as he stares into the unknown country that is aging, in resorting to bluffs and lies and deception to wriggle out of tight situations, perhaps Kirk chooses to embrace the unknown and its ultimate existence. And in this regard, Star Trek once again suggests that it’s not so much about outer space as inner space. The mission of the Enterprise isn’t so much to know the unknown out in space but to know the self—to know thy self. The mission of the Enterprise is to explore the unknown, the go where no one has gone before. But as with a lot of science fiction, the unknown of external space is often simply a stand in for the internal unknowns that we must face—the inner self that must be cared for. On the surface Kirk represents the father figure to Bailey. And yet it is Kirk who hasn’t yet come to full terms with what he knows—the power of deception and the bluff and braggadocio. Kirk ends up employing methods more in line with Bailey than he first intimates in his speech to the crew. Maybe Bailey really is the navigator here—showing us the direction we ought to travel in.

But ultimately Star Trek tries to soft pedal this message. It engages in a little wish fulfillment by confronting us with a baby-faced alien such as Balok who simply wants to sit around drinking tranya and engaging in conversation. Were that all the unknown knowns are, facing them would be easy. And the resolution to our fears and inadequacies would be easy. But perhaps that’s too much to wish for.

Little Girls Misdirecting: What Are Little Girls Made Of?

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?”

Sugar and spice and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of. But what exactly does this have to do with Roger Korby? Our title is the first indication that we need to approach this episode of Star Trek carefully. It’s the first hint of misdirection. The title suggests that this episode is going to be about little girls, or at least grown women who nurture a lost love from years ago, when they were just girls. We expect an episode about Christine Chapel. The episode’s title and her presence on the bridge for the teaser suggest that she is the focus. And yet, the episode is actually more interested in the men (frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails)—and isn’t this how it often is in the world of Star Trek. It’s Korby and Kirk and of course the monstrousness of Ruk that takes center stage in this episode, not Christine. This is just the first instance of a series of ambiguities and misdirections that structure this episode. Is this episode about little girls or little boys? Is it Korby or not? Is logic incompatible with emotion? Are androids merely the sum of their programming? On each of these questions, What Are Little Girls Made Of? speaks equivocally. But among these equivocations, there is presumably one certainty: the monstrousness of science and technology and how our love of technology can lead us astray. This message seemingly comes across unequivocally in the inhumanity of Korby and his plans for cosmic domination. Here too, though, there may be more than meets the eye, more misdirection and equivocation than is at first apparent.

First, a brief resume. Kirk and Nurse Chapel beam down to Exo 3 in search of Roger Korby, the brilliant Pasteur of archeological medicine who was lost more than five years ago. Chapel studied with Korby, became his fiancé, and when he was lost signed up with Starfleet with the ulterior motive of finding him. When our star-crossed lovers are reunited, we learn that Korby has discovered an ancient technology buried deep in the caverns of Exo 3 that allows him to create androids and download his own consciousness into a synthetic body. He holds Kirk captive, creating a duplicate of him, so that he can smuggle the technology off-world and infiltrate society, eventually reengineering a more perfect human being and human society. His plans go awry, though, as his creations begin to malfunction and he is himself eventually destroyed, his mechanical nature having been exposed to his lost love Christine.

On the surface (that is before we delve into the caverns of Exo 3), Little Girls would seem to be the tale of the undoing of Roger Korby and his faith in science, technology, and logic. But as I suggested, things are a little more complex than appear on the surface (aren’t they always). Let’s start with the matter of Christine, where we already get a glimpse of the significant misdirection this episode is engaged in. We’re lead to believe that this episode will be about little girl and yet Star Trek once again proves its willingness to toss aside the women-folk, for Christine is played for the dupe. We learn that she has pined for her lost love for the past five years, having thrown away her own promising career in bio-research to sign aboard a starship and search for Korby. Previously, though, in The Naked Time, we learn that she has the hots for Spock: “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.” How fickle little girls are. As a student she was attracted to her professor. As a starship nurse, she is attracted to an officer. What won’t women do for love? The Naked Time toyed with the issue of why we human beings are out in space to begin with, and with Christine we get an answer—searching for our lost loves. Not only that, but she is routinely and regularly wrong. And why? Because she trusts her feminine intuitions. Christine “knows” that Korby when she hears and sees him:

SPOCK: You're certain you recognise his voice?
CHAPEL: Have you ever been engaged, Mister Spock? Yes, it's Roger.

Repeatedly, Christine claims to know things on the basis of her feelings, only to be proven wrong and failing to recognize that both Korby and Kirk are replaced by evil doppelgangers. So much for love and female intuition. Star Trek is once more toying with women, as Roger no doubt toyed with Andrea, his mechanical geisha. But of course we are being toyed with as well as we try to figure what, if not little girls and their misplaced crushes, this show is supposed to be about. We’re misled about the focus of this episode, the certainty of women’s intuitions, and the undying love which is not so undying. And these are not the only instances of misleading.

Consider how the show equivocates on the status of emotion. On the one hand it is supposed to be what is distinctly human and the thing that cannot be copied in the androids. Kirk suggests that it is the one thing that makes him superior to an android. And yet we see in Christine (as well as Andrea) how emotion leads us astray. The rational and the emotional are always changing places in this episode. Korby is supposed to be the voice of logic and reason but he clearly is unhinged. His over-reliance on logic is clearly problematic. We’re told that the androids are mere things, not human, because of their lack of emotion:

KORBY: Andrea's incapable of that. She simply obeys orders. She has no meaning for me. There's no emotional bond. Andrea, kiss Captain Kirk. Now strike him. You see? There's no emotion in it, no emotional involvement. She simply responds to orders. She's a totally logical computer. A thing is not a woman.

Again, though, our androids seemingly keep exceeding their programming. Andrea, for instance, kills the android Kirk in a fit of pique and then confesses her love for Korby.

Similar misdirection can be seen in the central question of whether Korby is really Korby. On the one hand, Christine is sure it’s Korby and Korby himself vouches for his authenticity:

KORBY: It's still me, Christine. Roger. I'm in here. You can't imagine how it was. I was frozen, dying. My legs were gone. I was, I had only my brain between life and death. This can be repaired easier than another man can set a broken finger. I'm still the same as I was before, Christine, perhaps even better.

But by this point Christine doubts her previous conviction. Nonetheless, Korby seemingly proves himself by taking his own life, in a final act that suggests his persistence. We witness another reversal, though, in Kirk’s final statement on the matter: “Dr. Korby was never here.” These same issues of course plague the more recent discussion of cyberspace and the Singularitarians’ hopes for downloading consciousness and attaining an everlasting afterlife, another clear instance of Star Trek raising issues that will dominate technoscientific culture forty years later.

So the duplicate both is and is not a duplicate. Emotion both is and is not central to our humanity. Programming and logic both are and are not central to mechanism. On these issues the episode speaks with no certainty. There does, though, seem to be a clear message when it comes to our single-minded pursuit of technology. Such a pursuit, the episode suggests, is monstrous.

As we learn about the history of the prior inhabitants of Exo 3 we discover that their dimming sun led them deep into the planet’s caverns where they developed their unique technology. As Brown, Korby’s assistant, explains:

BROWN: Doctor Korby has discovered that as their sun dimmed, the inhabitants of this planet moved underground from an open environment to this dark world. When you were a student of his, Christine, you must have often heard Doctor Korby remark how freedom of movement and choice produced the human spirit. The culture of Exo 3 proved his theory. When they moved from light to darkness, they replaced freedom with a mechanistic culture.

It’s that technology that gave birth to Lurch, I mean Ruk, the personification of the monstrousness of technology. We later learn what happened to the old ones, and it’s worth quoting at length as it pulls together several of our themes.

KIRK: What happened to the old ones, Ruk?
RUK: So long ago.
KIRK: Is it possible they built their machines too well, gave them pride and a desire to survive? Machines that wanted logic and order and found that frustrated by the illogical emotional creatures that built them?
RUK: Yes, the old ones. The ones who made us. They grew fearful of us. They began to turn us off.
KIRK: And isn't it Korby who's creating the same danger to you all over again? Unlike you, we humans are full of unpredictable emotions that logic cannot solve.
RUK: Yes. Yes, it had been so long ago, I had forgotten. The old ones here. The ones who made us, yes. Yes, it is still in my memory banks. It became necessary to destroy them. You are inconsistent. You cannot be programmed. You are inferior.
KIRK: And Korby?
RUK: You came from the outside. You bring disorder here.
KIRK: The danger to you is Korby.
RUK: I was programmed by Korby. I cannot harm him.
KIRK: The old ones programmed you, too, but it became possible to destroy them.
RUK: That was the equation! (seizes Kirk) Existence! Survival must cancel out programming.
KIRK: That's it, Ruk! Logic! You can't protect someone who's trying to destroy you!
KORBY: Ruk, I would like
RUK: You brought him among us. You brought the inferior ones. We had cleansed ourselves of them. Now you bring the evil back!
KORBY: Ruk, stop! Your programming. (fires phaser, Ruk vanishes) I had no choice.

Recall that Korby is the Pasteur of archaeological medicine and had previously revolutionized immunization techniques and now he wants to “infiltrate” society with his android duplicates. Here Ruk too speaks the language of infection and immunization: “We had cleansed ourselves of them.” But of course it’s Ruk, and by extension Korby’s technology, that represents the infection that we must be immunized against. The technology must be contained and that is precisely what happens as the androids are eliminated one by one, ending with Korby and Andrea’s mutual obliteration. While Star Trek is so equivocal on other matters that arise in this episode, on this one it is clear. Korby was never here.

But on this one matter on which the episode speaks with certainty, we have to question its final judgment, for ultimately Ruk/Lurch is of course human (played by Ted Cassidy). Human beings occasionally give birth to monsters, but monsters that are still very much human. And what does that say about the monstrous technology that we give birth too, even when it emerges from that dark, cavernous world? Might we not have to own up to those dark, cavernous aspects of our humanity that give rise to these monstrous visions but are nonetheless human? The Old Ones grew fearful of their technology and ultimately tried to eliminate it. But those things that well up from the dark, cavernous world may be frightful, but they are still human. Rather than trying to eliminate them we need to understand their place in our humanity—this is what Korby ultimately fails to understand. It is his plan to eliminate the failings and imperfections in our humanity. This doesn’t represent the perfecting of humanity, but the turning away from humanity—a failure to recognize that it’s all part and parcel of the whole package. So ultimately Ruk too is a bit of misdirection. He is supposed to represent the inhuman, the monstrousness of a technology born of the dark, cavernous world. But Ruk too is ultimately human and we have to own up to this dimension of our humanity. We are led to believe that the danger must be eliminated: Brown, Andrea, the fake Kirk, Ruk, and finally Korby all have to be eliminated. But this was Ruk’s solution to the dilemma too: eliminate the contagion, the danger, the irrational. But technology and the various dark and cavernous impulses that sometimes give rise to dark and irrational forces in techno-science cannot be so easily eliminated. This is the show’s ultimate misdirection.