Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Star Trek Canticles

I was long twilight struggling in the Cold War during the original broadcasts of Star Trek, so I missed most of the series. After I returned from overseas I caught glimpses of two episodes on a 10-inch black and white TV from Sears and I wasn’t impressed. In fact, I thought they were terrible. “Mudd’s Women” was about a space profiteer (they wouldn’t dare say “pimp”) who marketed beautiful women to horny starship crews. “The Trouble with Tribbles” was so crammed with gratuitous cuteness that it made my teeth hurt.

I thought later manifestations of the series, including “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space 9,” were terrific, but I never caught on to the Trekkie hysteria that accompanied the original series.

But earlier this month I turned 65 and several of the kids pooled their resources to buy me an iPad. The gift, which confirms that boys and old men are mostly distinguished by the cost of their toys, was much appreciated. Within hours I signed on to NetFlix and, at the suggestion of son Will, began watching Star Trek for the first time.

The series, re-mastered in 2006, has been a revelation. Backgrounds and planet surfaces have been digitally enhanced and the Enterprise’s engines drone with stereophonic realism somewhere behind the left quadrant of my head. The pores and nose hairs of the actors, invisible on my Sears TV, are distractingly vivid and I often find myself studying William Shatner’s scalp for signs of an embryonic toupee. But Shatner, like the rest of the crew, is young and beautiful. As who wasn’t in 1967? (Nichelle, you can park your space boots beneath my bed any time.)

Sure, many episodes flirt with the puerile, and sometimes the digital improvements call too much attention to ridiculous props. In one awkward scene, a silicon-based life form resembling a colossal placenta is supposed to threaten Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The two actors – Shatner and Leonard Nimoy – must have struggled to keep from laughing as the groaning creature advanced and retreated on invisible little wheels. The monster was known to be a mass murderer of humanoids, but Spock contorts his face and gingerly places his hands on the thing to perform a Vulcan mind-meld. Connected with the creature’s essence, Spock discovers the beast is really a misunderstood mom and basically nice. Connected with NetFlix, viewers discover what may be the funniest scene in the whole franchise. Maybe it worked better in black and white.

Despite the sometimes uneven quality of the stories, which I suspect may be part of the series’ charm for many Trekkies, there are also some compelling tales that I would consider morality plays. I suspect episodes in this category were largely conceived by the series’ ingenious creator, Gene Roddenberry.

One such tale is “Errand of Mercy," originally broadcast on March 23, 1967, written by Gene L. Coon and directed by John Newland. This episode marks the first appearance of the Klingons, an alien race that enters the series with bland make-up and fiercely warlike proclivities and appears in later manifestations of the franchise with bizarre three-dimensional make-up and peaceful aims. In this episode, the 27th of the series, Klingon commander Kor is portrayed by the late John Colicos, a Canadian actor who relies on talent rather than make-up to look fierce.

Here’s the story: On stardate 3198.4, relations between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire have reached the breaking point. The USS Enterprise has been sent to the world of Organia, a non-aligned planet near the Klingon border, to protect it from annexation by the Klingons.

Kirk and Spock beam down to Organia and discover an inexplicably pacifist population led by Ayelborne, a bearded figure dressed in a robe apparently borrowed from Roddenberry’s bedroom. The late John Abbott, an English character actor, exudes a serenity so unshakable that viewers suspect he’s toking Maui Wowwie. The planet’s elderly councilmen (emphasis on the “men”) are equally spaced out, and all of them are incomprehensibly placid about the impending Klingon invasion. Naturally, Kirk and Spock are incredulous and infuriated by the population’s pacifism in the face of an imminent invasion by thugs who make the Nazis look like Swan Lake. The population retains its unruffled tranquility as Kor and his storm troopers take over the planet and begin executing Organians 200 at a time.

Clearly the situation calls for major conflict resolution that will restore peace and stop the Klingons from killing everyone. But how?
It’s a little difficult to tell if the Organian’s Ayelborne is supposed to make viewers think of Jesus or Gandhi or both. Or perhaps neither. The Organians face their brutal enemy with vacuous smiles and appear to prefer death to resistance.

Mohandas Gandhi, one of the more evolved souls of the twentieth century, resisted the British Raj in India with a strategy he called Satyagraha, loosely translated “soul force” or “truth force,” a passive resistance that eschewed violence but ultimately forced the British to grant India its independence. It was the same strategy employed by Martin Luther King, who kept a framed portrait of Gandhi in his office. Skeptics have opined that if Gandhi had employed Satyagraha against a power less absorbed with the ideals of fair play, such as Hitler, he would have been squashed like a bug. And this, in the Star trek morality play, is the possibility the Organians are facing.

It’s evident that throughout scores of original Star Trek episodes, Roddenberry was crafting video homilies about race relations and human conduct. The conflict between the Klingons and Starfleet is a Cold War metaphor. As the episode progresses, warships of the federation and the Klingon empire are poised to engage in a battle so cataclysmic that the special effects required to show it would not be developed for another 40 years.

What to do?

The scriptures offered this week by the Revised Common Lectionary are also anecdotes of conflict and its resolution. In Exodus 17:1-7, Moses is again facing open insurrection in the wilderness, this time because the children of Israel are dying of thirst. And in Matthew 21:23-32, the chief priests and the elders are trying to trick Jesus into claiming a special relationship with God so they can stone him.

What to do?

The Star Trek denouement is remarkable. As Federation Star Ships and Klingon battle cruisers begin their apocalyptic encounter, their controls suddenly go dead. Their photons fizzle. Their phasers dangle limply.

What the hell happened? Commander Kor and Captain Kirk levitate in rage that their powerful weapons have been rendered useless. But how?

Ah, but didn’t we know it all along? Councilman Ayelborne, still gazing limpidly into a horizon no one else can see, explains it in placid monotones. The Organians have interceded, he avers. They have shut down the operating systems of the belligerent fleets and they won’t restore power until both sides agree to live in peace. It turns out that the Organians, evolving for millions of years, have shed their corporeal forms and exist now as invisible globules of energy. They assume an illusory humanoid form when they have to entertain under-evolved guests or satisfy Screen Actors Guild minimums. “The Organians are as superior to us,” Spock observes, “as we are to the amoeba.”

At the end of the episode, Klingon storm troopers and the Crew of the Enterprise depart in peace – a fleeting arrangement that cannot last long if the Star Trek franchise is to endure another season.
But as diverting as the story was, Cold War viewers must have been left with the distinct impression that true peace – true human harmony – cannot be a reality until evolution has advanced a few million years. The very idea is, as we would have observed then, heaped in bummerosity. But it raises an interesting question: Just how evolved do you have to be to love your enemies and live in peace?

During the Raj, when Britain’s imperial power was strangling India, the British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, asked Gandhi how he would solve the problems between their two nations. According to reports, Gandhi picked up a bible and opened it to Matthew 5. "When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount,” Gandhi said, “we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.”

Gandhi also famously said to his British overlords, “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
There is painful truth in that statement by a Hindu mystic. Among other things, it suggests why Roddenberry and the creators of Star Trek believed it would take millions of years for humanity to evolve into a peaceful, loving community. As a matter of fact, the formula for that beloved community was preached two millennia ago on the Galilean hillside. And for two thousand years, Christians – so unlike their Christ – have steadfastly rejected it.

I wondered, watching episode 27 of Star Trek, if writer Gene Coon and producer Gene Roddenberry were thinking about the Sermon on the Mount when they created the loving Organians. Their society is clearly based on Jesus’ teachings:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth …”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God …”
“…Everyone who is angry with his brother or sister shall be liable to judgment …”
“Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also …”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”

What Coon and Roddenberry could not comprehend, I suspect, is that a peaceful, loving, and harmonious world would not require millions of years of evolution. It would merely require enough faith to believe what Jesus said long ago, in the distant mists of the Bronze Age. Peace on earth is not a strange new world to which we will someday boldly go. Peace on earth is the realm of God that has been with us all the time.

It’s sobering to think how different the world would have been if we Christians had been a little more like our Christ. The crusades, the Inquisition, the barbaric extermination of indigenous peoples in the age of Christian exploration, the bloody empires, the carnage of countless wars – including the War in Afghanistan which goes on and on – all were unnecessary, all were violations of God’s law, and all were a blatant rejection of our Christ.

In this week’s lectionary reading, Jesus makes it clear that the most pious among us will be the first to close out ears to him. "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” he declares, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

That’s another way of warning us that Christians will not be like our Christ.

Star Trek has created a wonderful illusion of a world in which all women and men live in peace, where ethnic backgrounds and color lines have no meaning, where there are no poor, where hunger does not exist, where no child ever awakens to the sounds of violence and terror.

Gene Roddenberry couldn’t imagine that world becoming a reality for many centuries.

But the foundations of that world were put in place thousands of years ago.

And the mission assigned to us all is as elusive as it is simple: to boldly go where no Christian has gone before.

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