Monday, April 23, 2007

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant's Day

April 23rd is apparently International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant's Day, in which all those who believe in the value of putting material up for free on the web as a supplement to legitimate professional publication should post something of professional quality. It's more meant to be for those doing fiction or other creative writing, but I've seen quite a bit of non-fiction posted, so here's my contribution, something that will eventually end up in my book on Classics and SF. And yes, I know the referencing style is inconsistent, but I really don't have time to sort that out now. (Some of this material appeared before in this post, but belongs in this section of the book.)

‘T for Tiberius’: the original Star Trek[1]

For more consistently successful use of classical imagery in the 1960s than that achieved by Doctor Who, it is necessary to cross the Atlantic. America’s most influential sf series of the decade was undoubtedly Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry.[2] The central notion of this series was the following of the adventures of the Captain and crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a combination warship/exploration vessel in the service of the Earth-based United Federation of Planets in what is eventually established to be the 23rd century.[3] Like Doctor Who, Trek also turned to the ancient Mediterranean for inspiration for episodes. Unlike Doctor Who, it was much more even-handed in terms of taking inspiration from Rome and Greece.

Captain James Kirk’s middle name took a long time to be established. Indeed, when he was first introduced, in the second pilot of Star Trek, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’ (1966), his middle initial is shown on a gravestone as ‘R.’ This detail had been forgotten by the next time someone wanted to give Kirk’s middle initial, and so it became ‘T.’ But what this stands for remained unknown throughout the original run of Trek.

That it is ‘Tiberius’ was finally established in 1974, in an episode of the animated series of Star Trek that followed the original – ‘Bem’, written by David Gerrold. Almost everything that happened in the animated episodes is considered non-canonical for subsequent Trek productions. That is, they are never referred to, and no attempt is made to avoid contradicting them. But, curiously, the detail of Kirk’s middle name does get into the Star Trek canon.[4] This suggests that it was series creator Gene Roddenberry’s notion, rather than writer Gerrold’s.

In Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979),[5] there is a preface made out to be by James Kirk himself. In that preface, Kirk shows his Classical credentials by stating that he has come to be seen as a new Ulysses, and that he is uncomfortable in the role. He also explains his name:

My name is James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk because my father and his male forebears followed the old custom of passing on a family identity name. I received James because it was both the name of my father’s beloved brother as well as that of my mother’s first love instructor. Tiberius, as I am forever tired of explaining, was the Roman emperor whose life for some unfathomable reason fascinated my grandfather Samuel.

Anybody who has read Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius, or is familiar with I, Claudius or Tinto Brass’ 1979 film Caligula, will know that Tiberius was notorious for the quantity, variety and invention of his sexual perversions. Several questions therefore clearly arise. What exactly was it about Tiberius that so fascinated Samuel Kirk? Do Samuel Kirk’s interests, together with James being named after his mother’s ‘love instructor’ (whatever one of those is), explain the voracious heterosexual appetite of the grandson?[6] But above all, what was Roddenberry thinking?

The full establishment of that detail, of course, postdates the original series. Looking at the ‘classic’ episodes, and passing over the hyperbolic assertion of Allan Asherman that the second pilot, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’, has ‘all the elements of a Greek tragedy’,[7] the first episode that I will studied comes from the second season. Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon’s ‘Bread and Circuses’ (1968), which of course takes its title from a famous line of the Roman poet Juvenal (Satires 10.80-1: ‘The citizen anxiously wishes for two things only, bread and circuses’).[8]

The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at a planet which has developed in much the same fashion as Earth (explained in the episode by a pseudoscientific excuse called ‘Hodgkins’ Law of Parallel Planet Development’), except that the Roman empire never fell. Thus the viewer is presented with a late twentieth-century Earth ruled by a First Citizen and a Proconsul, in which the leading car is called the Jupiter Eight. Slavery still exists, and imperial rule exploits the population and keeps it downtrodden.

What is most interesting about this story is the gladiatorial show which takes place in the episode. It is an often-noted irony that Hollywood epic, from Ben Hur to Gladiator, moralizes about the provision of gladiatorial spectacle or similar bloodthirsty entertainments whilst at the same time indulging in recreations of them, providing the audience with the very circenses Juvenal mentions. By placing the episode’s gladiatorial shows in a television theatre, with canned applause, cheers and boos, Roddenberry and Coon make this irony explicit. ‘Bread and Circuses’ becomes a satire on American television, and its tendency to drop to the lowest common denominator. (Star Trek was constantly battling with the networks.) It also picks up on the use of Rome as a metaphor for America, and a warning of what America could become, that can be found more clearly in Anthony Mann’s film The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

In one further point the story draws inspiration from Hollywood epic. The Enterprise crew escape with their lives, but do not overthrow the Roman tyranny. In the episode’s closing scene, however, it is revealed that the key resistance to Rome, what Kirk, Spock and McCoy thought were the followers of the Sun, are in fact followers of the Son, of God (i.e. Christians). It is made fairly explicit that this religion will bring freedom and justice to this planet. I have already mentioned that such a message is often to be found in Hollywood Roman epics.

The gladiatorial motif is also used in another episode produced almost simultaneously with ‘Bread and Circuses’, ‘The Gamesters of Triskelion’ (1968), [9] written by Margaret Armen. In this aliens abduct Enterprise crew members, force them to fight to the death and gamble on the results.

This is a far more straightforward treatment of the subject matter of bloodthirsty entertainment. The gladiatorial elements are ascribed to aliens, and thus distanced from humanity, whilst Kirk is seen verbally and physically to espouse the human (i.e. American) devotion to freedom and the human (i.e. American) ability to triumph over outstanding odds. It is poorly-written and clichéd, and entirely lacks the satirical edge of ‘Bread and Circuses’.[10]

‘Bread and Circuses’ is an example of interaction with ancient Rome (albeit a rather bizarre one). Star Trek also has a clear example of borrowing from Roman culture (in addition to the gladiatorial motif in ‘The Gamesters of Triskelion’). This is found in a first-season episode, Paul Schneider’s ‘Balance of Terror’ (1966), the plot structure of which is inspired by the 1957 World War II film The Enemy Below, about a US destroyer’s pursuit of a German U-boat. The Enterprise takes the role of the destroyer, and a hostile spaceship capable of hiding itself through a ‘cloaking device’ is the U-Boat.[11] As part of the back story for this episode, viewers are introduced to the Romulan Star Empire. This is based on the twin planets of Romulus and Remus, ruled by a Praetor, and has officers called Centurions (in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it is further revealed that there is a Romulan Senate, presided over by a Proconsul). Mark Lenard’s studied performance as the Romulan Commander in ‘Balance of Terror’ seems deliberately reminiscent of Laurence Olivier in Spartacus (1960).

It’s interesting to quote what a 1988 article on Star Trek has to say about the Romulans:

Like the Klingons, the Romulons [sic] are a warrior-race, but one molded in the shape of the Roman empire. Romulons have Latinate names and dress in toga-like tunics with sashes and ornate helmets similar to those of Roman legionnaires.[12]

There is actually quite a lot to disagree with in that statement. Decius in ‘Balance of Terror’ does have a Roman-sounding (indeed Roman) name. However, he is the only Romulan given a name in any of the original Star Trek episodes in which they appear (‘Balance of Terror’, ‘The Deadly Years’, 1967, and ‘The Enterprise Incident’, 1968). By the time they return in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Romulans are given almost exclusively non-Latinate names, such as Tebok and Tomalak. In fairness, Rick Worland would not have seen any of the relevant episodes when he wrote the paragraph quoted above. What is less easy to accept is the description of the Romulan uniforms as ‘toga-like’ and having Roman-style helmets. This seems to be stretching a point, and the Romulan uniforms seem much more imaginative, and to be drawing on other sources in addition to Roman dress. On the other hand, the Romulan warships are famous for a large bird of prey painted on them, reminiscent of the Roman imperial eagle (and, of course, the American eagle).

Star Trek can make such use of the Roman empire because of the hostile American popular attitude to Rome noted earlier. With the Federation as representative of the American dream, it is natural to base one of the Federation’s enemies on the anti-America, Rome.[13]

Star Trek also deals with the Greeks, in three episodes. Two of these, one from the second season and one from the third, draw from Greek culture in a fairly transparent fashion. The first is Gilbert Ralston’s ‘Who Mourns For Adonais?’[14] (1967), most famous at the time for the costume worn by actress Leslie Parrish (it involved a heavy strip of material drawn up from the waistband, arranged across her breasts and then draped over her left shoulder, but not anchored in any way at the back, relying on the material’s weight to keep it in place). In this episode, the Enterprise arrives at a planet where they find a being claiming to be the Greek god Apollo, and wanting the Enterprise crew to worship him.[15] This is the sort of theme that appealed greatly to Gene Roddenberry; humans encountering god-like beings, and defeating them by their mortal (and moral) qualities, which the quasi-divine beings have forgotten. Kirk theorizes that the Greek gods were powerful alien beings who visited Earth thousands of years ago, and were accepted as divinities.

The choice of Apollo is interesting. Star Trek emerged out of the optimism for space exploration engendered by the NASA programmes of the 1960s, and Starfleet appears a natural successor to NASA. By 1967, at the forefront of NASA’s activities was the Apollo programme to put men on the moon. First aired in September 1967, ‘Who mourns for Adonais?’ was undoubtedly written and filmed with the knowledge of the Apollo 1 fire of January 27th of that year.[16] This may well have something to do with the sympathetic portrayal of the god.

Apollo never falters from his claim that he is a god, except in one scene where he almost admits to Carolyn Palomas (Parrish) that he and his fellows had a non-divine origin.[17] This attitude is conveyed by a marvellous performance by the experienced Shakespearean stage actor Michael Forrest.[18] Forrest had previously starred in Roger Corman’s 1960 Atlas, and so had previous association with the whole sword-and-sandal or peplum genre[19] (the production team originally considered a British actor, but could not find one suitable). As Gideon Nisbet shows in his discussion of Atlas, modern American audiences find it hard to take seriously the notion that a man dressed in an ancient tunic and showing a lot of leg can be a virile male lead, unless they have a reluctant Christian girl to win over. Yet Forrest spends the entire episode dressed in a very short gold lamé tunic, which he apparently disliked, without ever once giving any suggestion of camp (though a ‘blooper’ reel does show him parading effeminately in it). The episode does this by drawing upon the conventions of Roman toga epic, and the central romantic clash between the pagan male and Christian female that often features. In this instance, for ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ read ‘irrational’ and ‘scientific’. Apollo claims divinity; Starfleet officer Carolyn Palomas has been trained to deny such notions (reflecting the rationalist outlook of the series as a whole). Yet despite this, Palomas falls for Apollo, and in an abandoned final sequence (reinstated by James Blish when he novelized the story in Star Trek 7 (1972)), falls pregnant by him.

This is one of the most philosophically interesting episodes of Star Trek. It ends, after the Enterprise crew have caused Apollo to destroy himself, with Kirk musing on whether it would have hurt them so much to gather a few laurels in Apollo’s honour.[20]

The second Greek episode, Meyer Dolinsky’s ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ (1968; originally entitled ‘The Sons of Socrates’), comes from the third season. At the time, this episode was controversial in the United States, because it was reportedly the first television show to feature an interracial kiss (between Kirk and Lt. Uhura, though according to William Shatner the director refused to actually allow their lips to touch); in the UK, the episode was banned for over a decade, presumably because of a scene where two Enterprise women are threatened by Kirk and Spock with a whip and a branding iron.

In ‘Who Mourns For Adonais?’ the Greek elements are integral to the story. In ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, they seem more like window-dressing. There is no real reason for the Platonians to be followers of Plato, as the real story revolves around their possession of strong psychokinetic powers and their irresponsibility in using them. There is no good evidence from the episode that Dolinsky had actually read any Plato, unless you believe that the central message of Platonism is that the powerful should be self-indulgent hedonists and bully the less powerful.

Finally, there is ‘Elaan of Troyius’, again from the third season of 1968, written by John Meredyth Lucas. A Greek connection for this episode is often overlooked,[21] but is clearly present in some of the names, and the basic premise, drawn from the Trojan War, though Lucas departs from that premise at many points.

The beautiful Elaan is clearly Helen of Troy, who can make any man fall in love with her (given a pseudo-scientific explanation as being due to a biochemical compound in her tears). She is marrying the ruler of Troyius (Troy, of course), in order to bring about the end of a war between Troyius and her own planet, Elas (= Hellas, the Greek name for Greece). This puts in danger of the same lack of imagination identified above for Underworld and The Horns of Nimon, but other names, such as Petri, Kryton, or Dohlman (the position Elaan holds) do not appear to be Greek, or if they are, are not easily found in the Iliad. Nor is the story’s progression; Elaan’s marriage is part of diplomatic manoeuvres between Elas and Troyius, but she herself is vain and spoilt (as has been observed,[22] more Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew than Helen of Troy), and does not want to marry; her bodyguard Kryton is conspiring with the Federation’s enemies, the Klingon Empire, to prevent peace. Elaan manages to make Kirk fall in love with her, but Kirk teaches her the importance of duty, and she proceeds to Troyius and her marriage. This is quite distant from the basic outline of the Trojan War, but one of Homer’s themes, the importance of doing one’s duty, does survive.

[1] This chapter concentrates on the original series of 1966-1969. Subsequent spin-off series were the animated series of 1973-1975, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), and Enterprise (2001-2005). There were also ten motion pictures made from 1979 to 2002, and a large number of spin-off novels, comics and video games. These will only be touched upon tangentially.

[2] At the time Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space was more popular in the ratings, but it is Star trek that is now iconic.

[3] This is left vague in the original series, with some episodes, such as ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday’ (1967), suggesting that it might be the 22nd century. The dates were fixed when Star Trek: The Next Generation was produced in the 1980s.

[4] Technically not until mentioned on-screen in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

[5] Persistent rumour has suggested that this, whilst appearing under Roddenberry’s name, was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. However, though Foster had done the equivalent when he wrote the novelization of Star Wars (1976), which was published as by George Lucas, and though he was undoubtedly involved at an early stage in the screenwriting of what eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he denies writing the novelization, and David G. Hartwell, who edited the book, insists that it was written by Roddenberry (Ayers 2006).

[6] Writers of ‘slash’ fan fiction featuring the unspoken love between Kirk and Spock (of whose work Roddenberry was presumably aware) might take such a statement as evidence that they were right all along.

[7] Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium (1987), p. 17.

[8] Duas tantum res anxius optat / panem et circenses. Recent translations tend to avoid ‘circuses’ for circenses; so Rudd in the Oxford World’s Classics edition has ‘bread and races’ (1991, 89), whilst Green in the Penguin uses ‘bread and the Games’. These, I feel, lose the cultural resonance of ‘bread and circuses’, which has passed into popular usage.

[9] Recorded after, but broadcast before, ‘Bread and Circuses’.

[10] There is also the first season episode ‘Arena’, in which Kirk has to battle an alien captain at the whim of god-like beings (which are not rare in Star Trek). This would be more a case of allusion than anything else.

[11] Up to a point. The Enemy Below ends with the destruction of both vessels, clearly not an option for an ongoing series like Star Trek.

[12] Rick Worland, ‘Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 16 no. 3 (Fall 1988), p. 110.

[13] There is no doubt some truth in Worland’s assertion (op. cit., p. 112) that, to some degree at least, the Romulans stand in for Red China in an allegory of the Cold War, with the United Federation of Planets as NATO, and the Klingon Empire as the Soviet Union.

[14] The spelling is deliberate, after Shelly’s ‘Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats’ (1821).

[15] On this episode see now Otta Wenskus, “Star Trek: Antike Mythen und moderne Energiewesen,” in PONTES II: Antike im Film Film, ed. Martin Korenjak and Karlheinz Töchterle, Comparanda 5 (Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2002), 132-133; Winkler 2005, 400-5.

[16] Wenskus 2002, 130, notes that the motto of Starfleet Academy, ex astris scientia, is patterned on that of the Apollo missions, ex luna scientia. The Academy motto, however, was not introduced until an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation broadcast in 1992.

[17] This scene is discussed by Winkler 2005, 402.

[18] His name is spelt this way in the credits for this episode, though he has more often been credited as ‘Michael Forest’.

[19] See Nisbet 2006, 9-20.

[20] Since Kirk has been the prime mover in destroying Apollo, this line actually seems quite odd coming from him. William Shatner was rumoured to have ensured that he got all the best lines in the show, and one wonders whether this one was originally intended for another character, perhaps Dr McCoy, whose role is often to act as the crew’s conscience.

[21] Including by myself in earlier treatments of this topic, and I am grateful to Dr Alexandra Villing of the British Museum for bringing the episode to my attention.

[22] Gerry Turnbull (ed.), A Star Trek Catalog (1979), p. 130.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

I've read this a couple of times now, and I think that you need to go further with this. You might also want to look at the Nazi episode, Patterns of Force -- and possibly, City on the Edge of Forever -- as a contrast if there's a point to be made about ST's appropriation of history in general.

GayProf said...

One episode, "This Side of Paradise," could be based around a small incident in the Odyssey. In both cases, the captain and his crew encounter a population addicted/possessed by consuming flowers.

What the hell is a "love instructor?" Is that on Craigslist?

Anonymous said...

This is a great essay, especially what you have to say about the satire in the episode "Bread and Circuses". I always saw some strong irony in the show, especially an escapist scifi show, depicting a TV sound set and camera crew. You articulated my suspicions about that.

The Sun/Son parallel is a little irritating, first because we all know what really happened when the Christians took over, and secondly because, heck, "Son" worship really is sun worship--it's based heavily on the cult of Mithras, a solar diety born just after the Winter Solstice. The major Christian holidays fall on the winter solstice and spring equinox (originally the feast of Ishtar, at one time Asherah, the consort of Yahweh, who becomes Mary--the month of May is dedicated in her honor)

On Tiberius--look into the Star Trek "writers bible". The name "Tiberius" may have been in there (or maybe not, as they were written before the series began). Also, Roddenberry knew the Animated Series pretty well--he claimed until he died that the episode "Yesteryear" was canon--so maybe he figured Gerrold was onto something. But who knows? I've never seen the issue seriously investigated.

I'd forgotten about that passage from "Kirk"'s introduction to Roddenberry's novelization. Roddenberry had some wacky ideas about relationships.

I do have his infamous "K/S footnote" practically memorized, the one where Roddenberry talks out of both sides of his mouth. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Not for nothing, as the "slash" faction (K/S) and the "friendship" or "smarm" faction (K&S) were pretty much at each other's throats at the time.

Regarding the rumor that Foster wrote the book--that's nuts. I've watched the movie and read the book a number of times. There are a few critical departures in the book between the movie as it appeared and the novelization. For example, in one scene of the movie, Spock takes a long time converting the Enterprise's friendship message into a format that V'ger can read. Kirk's starting to freak out and starts goading him to hurry up. In the novelization, Kirk waits patiently, while Roddenberry pontificates about Kirk's trust in Spock's abilities.

That says to me that Roddenberry was displeased with the characterization, especially of Kirk, at certain points in the movie. He also seemed somewhat displeased that Kirk (whom Roddenberry, tellingly, identified to be his alter ego) does not attempt to awaken Ilia's memories by seducing her, leaving the clearly inferior Decker to try to jog her memory. He writes several--almost defensive--paragraphs about how Kirk reluctantly passes the torch to another man. (I read the novel before I was able to make it all the way through The Motionless Picture. When Ilia emerges from the sonic shower, scantily clad, having read the book, of course I expected sparks to fly. They don't, of course, although this is the point in the movie where Kirk and Spock start standing very close to each other. ^_^)

Roddenberry also invents an identity for "Ciani", a character who only appears as a transporter pattern and whose only line is a scream. Roddenberry's backstory makes her Kirk's wife for a "one-year contract" that was never renewed, apparently because Kirk could never completely love a human woman as long as he is in love with the Enterprise. (I'm totally serious--read the book.)

Roddenberry also includes some gratuitous passages about private booths on the observation deck where crewmembers go to have sex. They are supposed to be soundproof, but they didn't count on superior Vulcan hearing, and in one scene Spock goes up there for a little auditory voyeurism while privately congratulating himself on his lack of "illogical" sexual desire. (Except during pon farr, when apparently he has a thing going for the captain, if you read between the lines of The Footnote. Roddenberry at one point goes out of his way to deny any possibility of Spock being interested in Chapel. If Kirk is like himself, all too addicted to human women (Roddenberry, throughout his life, had relationships going with two different women at a time), then Spock is the somewhat enviable opposite, pleasantly immune... I think I'm going to hurl if I think about Roddenberry's sexuality too much. Another spice for the mix: Nichols claims that she dated Roddenberry, and Roddenberry married Barrett. On the show, Spock in separate instances flatly rebuffs both of the characters the actresses play.)

Back to TOS--I believe in "The Enterprise Incident", the Romulan Commander's second in command is called "Tal".

At the end of "Arena", the "Metron" who arranged the fight between Kirk and the Gorn Commander reveals himself. He is clean-shaven, wearing golden sandals and a toga. (He also looks like a total flamer, and Kirk gives him a come hither look.)

"The Savage Curtain", a kind of embarrassing Turd Season episode, is basically an episode of reality TV. They may not be wearing sandals, but it's the same formula, a kind of battle royale for a TV audience. As in "Arena", the Enterprise crew also become viewers (albeit viewers without a vote, like time-delay European viewers of American Idol). Given, in "Arena" you get a lot of crew (Spock) reactions; not so much in "Savage Curtain". But the line up of "characters" in a battle for survival in a harsh environment is so "Survivor" I was really beside myself when I watched it last week. The costumes are different but the idea is the same! (If it really had been realistic, the members of the "Evil" team would have been backstabbing each other. Instead, the episode spends 10 minutes on a braindead "President Lincoln on the Enterprise" gag.)

This episode is significant to Star Trek fans because it introduced Surak, the Vulcan philosopher not noted for his fashion sense.

Spock, and the Vulcan people have a connection to classical culture because they embody certain ideals in Greek in Roman thought, particularly those of Plato, and those of the Stoics, although taken to an extreme. Ted Sturgeon had to throw a wrench into the mix, though, contrasting the highly Apollonian outward appearance of the culture with a secret Dionysian regression, and, in a rather "alien" twist to the 1960's home viewer, matriarchy and, quite possibly, matrilinealism.

If Vulcan culture really is matrilineal (T'Pring tells Spock that, had they married, she would have control of his property; Amanda in "Journey to Babel" lets Kirk know that it's incorrect to address her by her husband's name; alternatively, there may be competing or parallel lines of descent, as Spock pleads with T'Pau "in the name of my fathers", and Sarek identifies himself to T'Lar with a patronymic), then it's not surprising that the other boys "tormented" Spock, since his mother was quite literally "from nowhere" and therefore, so was he. In a matrilineal culture, as the child of a stranger, he would have no social standing or be considered an outsider himself. At the same time, he would, by default assume his father's line of descent, giving him a status via his father's maternal ancestors (who possibly include T'Pau), thus explaining his paradoxically high status in certain situations.

Kirk earned his status. Spock has within Starfleet and should have in all other situations, but Earth's culture is democratic (in Star Trek, very much so) while Vulcan's is highly hierarchical (typical of a maternalistic culture, eg Japan). Spock has the uncomfortable dual status of being the son of nowhere (Earth) and the son of Sarek (and Sarek's family is quite powerful). Spock says in "The Way To Eden" that he feels like an alien in his own worlds.


Tony Keen said...

Hypatia, thanks for your long and considered answer. I don't have time to respond properly now, but when I write this up properly, I will take all you say into account.