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.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting and well written piece Dennis. It is almost saying something. Write something about this article and have it span over a period of about 10 years. Add a bunch of drama along the way.