Star Trek: A Myth for Our Time
So, I'm sitting on a couch, studying, minding my own business. And then Joseph Campbell walks by. You know, the Joseph Campbell, the guy who wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. The guy whom George Lucas cites as the primary influence for his legendary Star Wars saga. Do you think that I, Ben Guaraldi, would let this brilliant scholar just walk on by? Of course not! So I ask him:
Ben: Hey, Joe! There's something I've been meaning to ask you. What exactly is a myth?
Joe: Well Ben, myths are the world's dreams. They are archetypal dreams and deal with great human problems. When I come to one of these thresholds, the myth tells me about it, how to respond to certain crises of disappointment or delight or failure or success.
Ben: I'm not quite sure I understand.
Joe: Look Ben, myths basically serve four functions: they must be mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical. Through these elements, the myths tell me where I am.
Ben: But where am I, Joe? I feel lost--like there aren't any myths out there for me. And how can I live without knowing how to cope with the dilemmas of existence?
Joe: You bring up a good point, Ben. What we have today is a demythologized world. What we're learning in our schools is not the wisdom of life. We're learning technologies, we're getting information.
Ben: Oh dear, Joe--that sounds awful. What can I do about it? How can I find myths that will guide me, that will aid me in my quests and my perils?
Joe: Ever considered watching some good space opera?
Okay, I admit it: Joseph Campbell and I never spoke about the dearth of modern myth; this conversation was liberally adapted from his The Power of Myth (Doubleday: New York, 1988), in which he discusses such topics with Bill Moyers. The point still stands--what do we do for modern legends? What fables can teach us the truths of life and the joys of being as we wallow in this chaotic time, this mythological plague? Joe?
Campbell does suggest a response: the Star Wars trilogy. He uses these six hours of movie lore (which seem to be making more than a few headlines these days) as a touchstone for the myths of other cultures. Using comparisons to these texts, which we know quite well, he immerses us in other faiths, religions and societal mores. Though this acknowledges Star Wars' brilliance, it also implies that the saga is an isolated example of a modern mythic epic, almost as if Campbell believes that no other text exists on this level.
I beg to differ, Joe! It might be a minor point, but you ignore seventy-nine hours of television and twelve hours of film which together combine to create another wonderful epic space opera for our time: the original series of Star Trek. Not only does it proffer many of the standard elements of mythic structure, but it also fulfills the mythic functions of being mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical. When we add these factors to its legions of fans, we see that Star Trek defines and is defined by our culture in the way that only a true mythic canvas can be.
"I don't believe in the no-win scenario."
-- James Tiberius Kirk
The clearest place to start when discussing any epic is its hero, and Star Trek has quite a character to boast in that position: Captain James Tiberius Kirk. This quotation references Kirk's "solution" to the Kobiyashi Maru scenario, which displays his charisma, bravery and independence. With these characteristics he transcends the limitations of his narrative, becoming an icon of our culture and a symbol for all that Americans find glorious in themselves. His symbolism of American principles is so unparalleled that it was once recommended that America elect two chief executive officers: the President, who would run the country and take care of all vital affairs of state, and the Captain Kirk, who would show American power, charisma and dignity to the world.
"I have been, and ever shall be, your friend."
Though Kirk, like all American myths, stands for the ideal of independence, he is not complete on his own; his control and fortitude in the face of his wilderness are augmented by his deep and vital friendship with a man from another race. Kirk and his comrade Spock parallel the model of the epic hero and his companion/double, shown by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Huck Finn and Jim, and Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. This bond is consummated when Kirk and Spock mind-meld (in "The Paradise Syndrome"); they open their minds to each other, letting their thoughts and feelings become one. (It's sort of Vulcan metaphysical sex.)
"There is much more to Star Trek than Kirk and Spock."
-- Gene Roddenberry
Though the friendship between Kirk and Spock forms the crux of the Star Trek mythos, the other members of the crew are also essential players in this epic text. If we consider the four highest ranked characters (that is, Kirk, Spock, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy and Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott), we begin to see that the opposition of their personalities synthesizes the consciousness of the Enterprise. This construct is best summarized in Ellington and Critelli's "Analysis of a Modern Myth: The Star Trek Series" (Extrapolation, 11/83): "Kirk (the captain and superior function) and Spock (representing the conscious auxiliary) are stationed at the top of the ship on the bridge--within consciousness. McCoy, the unconscious auxiliary, is located on Deck 5 below the bridge, and Scott, representing the more strongly repressed inferior function, is located even farther below the bridge on Deck 11." Jung postulated that this deconstruction of consciousness makes art mythical as it gives any member of its audience, no matter their personality type, a character through which to enter the mythos.
The remaining crew members, Lt. Hikaru Sulu, Lt. Penda Uhura and Ensign Pavel Chekov, form an axis of gender, cultural and ethnic diversity that is vital to this epic text.
"[Myths must be] mystical[,] cosmological[,] sociological [and] pedagogical."
-- Joseph Campbell
In Campbellian theory, it is not so much the content or structure of the myth that is important; rather, it is the effects. Campbell's main thesis is that this storytelling tradition is needed to foster and renew wonder and teach people how to exist and be happy within society. His contention is that they do this by showing us how to be both infinite and infinitesimal (representing the mystical and cosmological dimensions), how to exist within our society (representing the sociological dimension), and how to live a human life in any time (representing the pedagogical dimension). Star Trek, too, demonstrates each of these properties, as I shall endeavor to demonstrate.
In Star Trek the infinity of humankind leaps out at the viewer. It is embodied in Gene Roddenberry's Similar Worlds concept: "Just as the laws of matter and energy make probable other planets of Earth's composition and atmosphere, certain chemical and organic laws make equally probably wide evolution into humanlike creatures and civilizations with points of similarity to our own." (From William Shatner (with Chris Kreski), Star Trek: Memories (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1993), p. 21.) Though this notion, which is at best dubious, was clearly crafted for budgetary reasons, it has an ulterior purpose. It allows Roddenberry to fully demonstrate the remarkable possibilities he envisions for humankind through the grand diversity of anthropomorphic beings in the universe. By seeing so many vastly different cultures, all of which are rooted in human history, we arrive at the comprehension of our own infinity of which Campbell speaks.
Our infinitesimality is obvious in Star Trek's portrayal of semi-omnipotent beings and their general disregard for humankind. The best example of this is in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): a gigantic, destructive probe named V'ger blazes a trail through the universe, demolishing everything in its path, heading towards Earth. It asks about "the infestation of carbon-units on the third planet," de-personifying all people with its hasty classification. Yet this film also reconciles the infinitesimal with the infinite: the "creator" that V'ger searches for is truly the humankind, who sent it out many years before under the name of "Voyager 6".
Star Trek is almost constantly sociological, so we must choose one of its themes to focus on. The one that recurs most is the Cold War: The television show commented on current events by introducing the Klingons and the Romulans as Communist empires that battled the Federation at every turn. This theme blasts onto the big screen in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) which displays Americans and Soviets, disguised as Federation and Klingon officers, reconciling their differences after years and years of bitter war. Spock's "cowboy diplomacy" and Kirk and Bones' dedication to it reaffirms our society's highly placed value on peace.
And now we come to the last and perhaps most important responsibility of myths: teaching people how to live. This pedagogical function is accomplished quite often by Star Trek, which, like other mythic texts, provides heroic characters as role models and discusses the meaning of various life events through their effect on these characters. Like we do in our daily lives, the figures on the screen must wrestle with the basic questions of life, love and death and what each means. We learn the need to find our place in the world from Star Trek: The Motion Picture; we comprehend the virtue of sacrificing ourselves for "the needs of the many" from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the virtue of sacrificing ourselves for "the needs of the few, or the one" from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; we are taught the peril of abusing our planet in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986); we understand the hazard of deifying any mundane being from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989); and we realize the absurdity of immutable prejudice from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Not only does Star Trek share all of the properties that make Star Wars a myth, but it also builds on them to create a more complete mythic framework. The crew shows off this legendary construction: Kirk, who embodies the American epic hero; Spock, who serves as his companion/double; Bones and Scotty, who flesh out the Enterprise's consciousness; and Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, who display as much diversity as was then allowable on network television. Together, they "boldly go where no man has gone before," into the modern mindset, teaching us how to be and how to live.
Joe: Wait, wait, Ben! You've missed one of my major points. We can't have a mythology for a long, long time to come. Things are changing too fast to become mythologized.
Ben: Hm. That is a problem.
Joe: You see, Ben, myths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today. The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today. The moral order has to catch up with the moral necessities of actual life in time, here and now. And that is what we are not doing.
Ben: Thanks for straightening me out about that. You know me--I get so into my ideas sometimes that I think I've solved all of the world's problems or something.
Joe: It's okay, Ben, I understand.
Ben: Wait a sec--Is it only the sociological part that has to change along with the culture?
Ben: Then I just thought of something, Joe, and you're going to like it...
One of the most remarkable (and most studied) facets of Star Trek is its audience. After the second season, "Star Trek" was canceled, and its fans besieged NBC with so much mail pleading to keep it on the air that the studio actually reversed its decision. The Star Trek devotees had boldly gone where no audience had gone before: they had taken action and effect a network's "final" decision.
In but a year, however, "Star Trek" was off the air for good. Its audience faithfully watched reruns until their characters returned to the big screen a decade later. How could they have survived these years without any new episodes, without any character development, without even so much as a new planet to be explored? The answer is simple: rather than acting as pawns of popular culture, they created their own texts. Through amateur script-writing and novel-writing with only rudimentary publication methods, these fans re-animated their characters on new planets and within new story lines, taking great care to work within the structure of the original series (and later the films).
Yet these audience-created texts differ markedly from the commercial ones; since the fans tend to come from distinct subcultures and have different viewpoints from the series creators, their stories' sociological orientation is generally quite different. This writing of "fan fiction" has become known in scholarly circles as "textual poaching," a colorful metaphor for the hunt through a mythic canvas to construct tales which adhere to one's religious dogma, political beliefs or the like. Though this activity may at first seem to be a frivolous waste of time, examining the breadth and depth of Star Trek's fan-enlarged canon shows us that this poaching is truly a form of sociological renewal for these cherished myths.
If we merely scratch the surface of the spectrum of views about gender within these audience-created texts, we begin to see the incredible adaptability that the Star Trek mythical structure has: "Mary Sue" stories display a woman falling in love with Kirk and demonstrate a different viewpoint on Star Trek's motif of the disposable woman; Uhura/Chapel stories present professional women, proving their competence and worth against the odds of Starfleet's overwhelming prejudice against women; and Kirk/Spock (commonly referred to as K/S) homoerotica depicts a deeply felt romance between Kirk and Spock in which they both negotiate the gender roles that are becoming so fluid on the cutting edge of our culture.
These types of stories, despite their disparate sociological nature, all share the mystical, cosmological and pedagogical dimensions of the original series, providing us with a well-formed response to Campbell's wish for consistently modern myths: by transforming themselves from a passive audience into active contributors to the mythos, these poachers have been able to adapt their myth of choice, retaining its mystical, cosmological and pedagogical functions even given the rapidly changing sociological climate.
Thousands of years ago, bards passed down Homer's stories, tweaking their performance to fit the sociological circumstances of their day. Hundreds of years ago, actors performed Shakespeare's plays, tweaking their interpretation to fit the sociological circumstances of their day. But technology in the form of the printing press and the motion picture robbed these artistic works of their great flexibility, solidifying these great artists' texts into a canonical form. However, technology in the form of copy machines and the Internet now gives us the chance to tinker with these myths and others until they represent us sociologically, giving us heroes to look to when we are next faced with one of life's great thresholds.
Ben: So, what do you think, Joe? Maybe if we all join and write, then there will be enough change in the myths to keep up with our sociological change.
Joe: Well, Ben, I don't know, but I wish I could have lived to see it.