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Star Trek and the Intergalactic Asshole

The Intergalactic Asshole is a staple of Science Fiction. Back from the pulp days to more modern versions like Poul Anderson’s Nicholas Van Rijn or George R.R. Martin’s Haviland Tuft or Star Trek. The Intergalactic Asshole travels around the galaxy, visiting new planets all the time and manipulating their society for his own purposes. Usually he takes an existing conflict or imbalance and forces the people and their leaders to rearrange their society to do things his way.

Sometimes the Intergalactic Asshole is an exploiter looking to cash in, like Van Rijn, often he’s looking to enforce his own idea of human captain kirkrights, like Captain Kirk, or animal rights, like Haviland Tuft. The Intergalactic Asshole has his own idea of how society should work. There’s often a determinism based on a simplistic idea of biology or economics or the environment which he believes makes people the way they are. What the Intergalactic Asshole does is rely on that idea to understand the aliens, their problems and turn their conflict on its head and impose a solution on them.

The Prime Directive of the Federation explicitly ruled out Intergalactic Asshole behavior, because it was a staple of galactic adventure tales. But Captain Kirk still played Intergalactic Asshole with a starship behind often enough for the Prime Directive to be an afterthought. With TNG the Intergalactic Asshole quota went down. Captain Picard would still occasionally play Intergalactic Asshole, but he was more likely to leave with a lecture and a disappointed look. Bad Science Fiction had plenty of stories in which aliens would arrive on earth only to decide that we were too primitive and violent to be worth including in their federation. In TNG we were the advanced aliens, visiting other races and punishing them with our disappointment. The alien visitors whose standards we couldn’t meet represented gods. With TNG we became the gods who were too good for them.

With Janeway the Intergalactic Asshole syndrome came roaring back. But Janeway was much more erratic than Kirk. Captain Kirk usually intervened because there were clear abuses going on. Janeway interfered randomly. Sometimes she walked away from oppression, other times she helped the oppressors. Sometimes she intervened, just because. She allied with the Borg, gave the Hirogen, holodeck technology and allied with them against the holograms. Archer stuck to the Intergalactic Asshole way, even though he didn’t have the firepower to back it up. He yelled at Vulcans and Andorians, either of whom could have swatted him like a fly. Because the habit was there from Voyager.

How viewers or readers react to the Intergalactic Asshole has less to do with the issue at hand and more to do with the character. Van Rijn nicholas van rijjn poul andersongot away with awful things, because he was entertaining and he sold his own libertarian spin on any issue. Haviland Tuft and his environmentalism appealed to an audience at the opposite political spectrum. But both were eccentrics who got a pass from both sides because they were more human, more personable, than their adversaries.

Captain Kirk could drag audiences into his Intergalactic Asshole approach to problems, because he seemed to really care and because he had senior officers who often disagreed with him and whose perspectives he took seriously. No Captain after him had that. Picard, Janeway and Archer did things their way and rarely bothered listening to anyone’s advice.

The Intergalactic Asshole is a power fantasy. He does the things that audiences would like to do. He’s a one man dictator setting societies to right by being smarter and tactically more powerful than them. He’s Batman with a starship, except he actually solves problems for good. He’s the authorial voice made omnipotent, lecturing, hectoring and telling readers how the world should be run.

Science Fiction, Time Travel and Ethics

Time Travel has been and still remains one of the most enduring subjects in Science Fiction. From books to stories to movies and radio shows and television shows, the amount of stories involving Time Travel number into the hundreds of thousands if not the millions. From H.G. Wells’ classic exploration of time travel in “The Time Machine” to the modern day stories of time travel like Connie Willis’ classic novel, “The Domesday Book” to numerous movies like the Back To The Future trilogy, the Terminator trilogy and “12 Monkeys” and numerous TV shows like “The Time Element” and “Quantum Leap” and individual episodes of TV shows like Star Trek’s famous “City on the Edge of Forever.”

What makes time travel so compelling a subject? In no small part it’s because it taps directly into a fundamental desire of most people, to undo or change something about the past. For all that technology and the technophilia of the most gadget happy Hard SF or Cyberpunk Science Fiction gives us the illusion of control over space, distant galaxies, the virtual world, even our own DNA, the passage of time continues to defy our ability to grasp and control it. And the passage of time ir also the passage of our lives.

Whatever we accomplish, we nevertheless dwell in the limited perspective of the present. Futuristic Science Fiction is an attempt to break through to the future, to a world where our capabilities have expanded and we have “grown up” into a superhuman self. This is however an elementally childish appeal. To grow up and become a starship Captain. To do amazing things. As adult hood sets in, as we age and look back on wasted opportunities, on failures and lost loves and lost prospects, our youthful dreams die, but the prospect of cheating time’s morality by repairing what we breached and undoing where we erred, remains compelling.

If starship exploration is a young man’s game, time travel is an old man’s game. It appeals to people looking back at their lives. It appeals to people who feel displaced in time, longing for the more civilized eras of the past or the distant unknown vistas of the future.

In Science Fiction time travel often represents a return to our roots. To simpler times and simpler ways. The perspectives with which they are viewed remain more simplistic. Purer visions of the 1950’s or the 1920’s or the 19th century which tone down racism, injustice and lack of civil rights. Like an idealized childhood, they let us return to the historical womb.

Considering the familial nature of it, it’s no surprise that one of the abiding practical and ethical paradoxes involves shooting your own grandfather. It runs something like this. Supposed you go back in time and shoot your own grandfather. With him dead, you, as in the unique genetic structure that produced you, can no longer exist. In theory you have just wiped out the entire line leading up to your own existence, which also terminates your own action in killing your grandfather, thus creating a temporal loop, in which your own action negates your own existence.

On the TV show “Futurama”, Fry returns in time to the Eisenhower era, accidentally gets his grandfather killed, sleeps with his grandmother and becomes his own grandfather. This is an old spin on the same basic idea.

In Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” and later in David Gerrold’s “The Man Who Folded Himself”, an entire line of descent consists entirely of one single person traveling through time to interact with himself. In the Heinlein story this required sex changes to manage. The incestuous premise however remains of a man recreating an entire past family for himself, literally in his own image.

Larger ethical questions arise when tampering when other people’s past, rather than only your own. Saving a life in the past means creating or recreating an entire line of people that can radically alter your own future. In Frank Capra’s semi-secular semi-religious fairy tale, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, a man realizes the ripple effects his own life had on a given timeline. While not everyone may have such an extensive ripple effect, nevertheless lives are touched and changed in exactly this manner. Changing one life will mean changing other lives. Saving one life may mean saving or dooming mankind.

The TV show “Quantum Leap” was premised precisely on changing lives in the past. By contrast iIn Star Trek’s famous classic episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” Captain Kirk and Commander Spock journey back through time via the Guardian of Forever to the 1930’s where Dr. McCoy has saved the life of mission house activist and preacher Edith Keeler, resulting in a powerful domestic anti-war movement that allows Hitler victory and destroys humanity and the hope of a better future. Her death is required to preserve the lives of countless billions.

The ethical dilemma at the core of it is a very difficult one. Can you kill one person or even stand by while another is killed, no matter how many lives are at stake? Does the good of the many outweigh the few or the one, even when the one does not consent? In Harlan Ellison’s original script, Kirk did indeed try to save Edith Keeler’s life and had to be restrained from doing so. In the revised Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana script, Captain James T. Kirk must stand and watch while the woman he loves dies, for the sake of the future. The first decision is an understandable human reaction to seeing one woman die and not seeing the unseen billions be destroyed and brutally annihilated. The second decision is the heavy decision a starship Captain must make when he sees the bigger picture and the cost that must be borne for it.

Peter David’s gloss on the original screenplay set in “Star Trek The Next Generation” future attempted to reverse that position with the novel “Imzadi.” Of course Imzadi’s plot cheated so that saving Troi actually improved rather than worsened the timeline. This dodges entirely the moral dillema present in both Harlan Ellison’s and the Gene Roddenberry D.C. Fontana draft where one woman’s life is balanced against death and misery for countless billions.

The ethical questions of course aren’t easy. Both the Terminator and Back to the Future trilogies feature extensive time tampering, in both cases to rescue a bad timeline. In the case of the Terminator movies, the timeline is genuinely a horrific one in which humanity is all but annihilated and thus any tampering that can prevent that becomes justified. By contrast Back to the Future’s temporal tampering is a primarily selfish one that allows McFly (Michael J. Fox) to create a happier and wealthier family for himself. Similarly in “Frequency”, temporal tampering is used to stop a serial killer, but also to enrich a childhood friend and reunite his family.

As it turns out, the ethics of time travel are no simpler than the paradoxes of time travel itself.

Spock Data characters Our Dangerous Friends

Have you ever had a friend who tried to kill you?

Captain Kirk did.

That friend is also arguably Star Trek’s most popular character of all time, First Officer Spock. While exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations, Star Trek has always made sure to have a strange new lifeform or two on the crew manifest. From its earliest conception, there was Spock. Captain Pike, Dr. Boyce and Majel Barret as Number Two came and went with no one but the most die hard of fans even knowing they were ever here. The entire show turned from black and white to Technicolor, as the Enterprise was refitted with a new crew for Star Trek’s second pilot, but still Spock remained.

No one expected him to become Star Trek’s most popular character and a pop culture icon, certainly not the network that wanted him gone because his Satanic appearance might perturb rural viewers. And since then Spock\Data characters have gone on to become the pivots of the Star Trek spin-offs. As their respective ships navigated deep space and faced the unknown, their human crews shared the bridge with strange creatures of their own who have become friends and comrades throughout their adventures. But throughout those adventures they had no way of knowing when those same friends would suddenly pose a dangerous threat. Because despite all the friendships and the banter, Spock\Data characters are strange and unknown creatures and so they serve as conduits for the strange and unknown to come through from the other side.

A Spock\Data character may fit in for a while and become familiar but there’s always the possibility that he can unexpectedly be struck by a mating urge, a lurking program, a link to their own species’ mass mind or a personality subroutine that causes them to turn on you without warning. And in that way Spock\Data characters enjoy a freedom that the plain vanilla human characters do not. A human can’t take over the ship, attempt murder or go on a rampage without consequences. Even if the writers could overlook the problem, the audience would never accept it. But we do accept Spock\Data characters going berserk on the slimmest of pretexts.

Indeed we accept it so often that all of the TNG movies so far have featured Data becoming unstable or unreliable as a plot point. Data’s emotion chip prevented him from stopping Soran thereby eventually leading to the death of Kirk in Generations, the Borg Queen’s temptation of Data created the climax of Star Trek First Contact which hinged on Data’s loyalty or lack thereof and Star Trek Insurrection began with an Insurrection by Data. But if the Spock\Data character type is so dangerous and unreliable, then why are they welcomed as crewmembers? And through the repeated use of this plot is Star Trek really sending the message that ‘Different is Dangerous’?

System Error #129E

Mechanical Spock\Data characters, like all Star Trek technology, still remain the most error prone. It’s well known that your average holodeck or transporter malfunctions more often than Voyager runs into spatial anomalies. Data’s programming caused problems throughout the Next Generation, most memorably when he attempted to cut a piece of Troi cake in the turbolift or when the holodeck produced a Data look-a-like brothel madam to serenade Worf. On Voyager the EMH produced more than his share of technical difficulties even turning into his own evil twin and kidnapping Kes for a Thelma and Louise style getaway over a cliff. Seven of Nine’s Borg technology then brought a whole new kind of havoc to the ship, even merging with the EMH’s own technology to produce a 29th century drone; the Worst of Both Worlds.

Since the early days of the Original Series, fans have made the argument that no technology that breaks down so often would be considered acceptable on a military vessel. But the logical conclusion of such an argument is that characters who break down so often, producing threats to their ship and crew, shouldn’t be considered acceptable either. Some of Star Trek’s mechanical and holographic men may be sentient beings with legitimate rights, but they seem to cause as many problems as they solve. They have special skills and abilities that we don’t, but those abilities seem to backfire more often that not. And sometimes you just have to wonder if their positions couldn’t be filled by some boring middle aged human professional with a wife and three kids back on Terra, who doesn’t dream of being a human or produce shipwide conflicts and technical havoc because of yet another aberration in his program

Spock, Phone Home

While the Data characters fail because of the underlying flaws of all technology, alien characters are simply dangerous because they’re strange and unpredictable. No one anticipated Pon Farr or that the Enterprise’s security officer would end the debates over the leadership of the Klingon High Council with one blow from a Baht’leth or that the station’s security officer’s telepathic connection with a Founder might erode his loyalty to his own friends and resistance to the occupation of Deep Space Nine. Aliens have unique biologies and social codes, which like computer programming errors, come into play at the most inconvenient and unexpected times.

The Spock character like the Data characters holds mysteries that make appealing plotlines. The central trilogy and most popular films of the Original Series films focused on Spock’s death and resurrection. The messy complications that follow resulted in the death of Kirk’s son, the destruction of the original Enterprise, Dr McCoy’s descent into insanity, the original crew being forced to turn and renegade and then being court-martialed and demoted. Viewers might have rejoiced at Spock’s return but by the time he was really ready to rejoin the crew, the state of the crew had changed dramatically.

So the alien produces at least as many complications as the machine. Life aboard a starship might even be almost simple without them.

Shy Aliens and Outgoing Machines

With Spock, Star Trek created TV’s most popular alien introvert. The Next Generation followed this up with a mechanical extrovert and so Data was born. Since that time

Star Trek’s aliens have tended to revolve around these two poles.

The alien introvert is brooding and isolated. He is a misfit in his own culture or for whatever reason is cut off from his culture. He doesn’t fit on his own planet or on ours. He keeps to himself when he can and focuses on a world we don’t see, a strange world that he calls into being in our imaginations by his very existence. He is a loner and he is the Other. The one who is not like anyone else.

Spock was half human and the ship’s only Vulcan at a time when prejudice against aliens still lingered in Starfleet. Worf was a Klingon raised by humans and the only Klingon on board a Starfleet vessel, who in addition underwent periodic bouts of being dishonored on his own world. Odo was the only shapeshifter on DS9 and the Alpha Quadrant for several years and didn’t know who his people were. And when he finally found them, he discovered that they were ruthless genocidal monsters he had to fight. Torres was a self-hating half-Klingon who left Starfleet Academy to join a terrorist organization. Psychologically speaking the alien introvert is certainly not a pretty picture.

By contrast the mechanical man is the extrovert who wants to or needs to get to know us and be like us. Data was engineered without an emotion chip and has spent a decade now trying to be more human. He is ready to talk anyone ear’s off at the drop of a hat and to do his best to socialize, no matter how ill prepared he is for the task Voyager’s EMH may have been surly but he quickly began developing hobbies and soon became as gregarious as Data, even putting on generally dreaded slide shows of his own holo-photography for the crew.

The Alien Introverts with their own culture and heritage don’t want to be like us, preferring instead to form an identity of their own on the twilight margins of dual societies. The mechanical extroverts want our identity and work to overcome the limitations of their own manufacture. The result is that Star Trek’s strange new crewmembers are less a spectrum than two poles on opposing sides of each other. All they have in common is the element of danger, the fact that we can never really know what they’re thinking or what they might do next.

Alternate Experiments

Star Trek’s spinoffs have tried to deviate from the Alien Introvert \ Mechanical Extrovert formula but the results have been a mixed bag. Alien Extrovert’s like Quark or Neelix were good for the occasional punchline but never really set fire to the viewer’s imaginations. They were just a little too obvious in their motivations and drives and there wasn’t much of a journey or arc to their storylines. Alien Extroverts really couldn’t seem to grow or learn. They were useful to have around but their contributions and their crises were limited. Quark created all kinds of havoc but there was nothing mysterious or alien in his motivations, just plain old human greed. Neelix didn’t manage to have enough of an impact on Voyager for his actions to mean even that much.

The attempt at producing a Mechanical Introvert also met with limited success. Voyager’s Seven of Nine was set on the standard mechanical man humanity arc but with a personality more like Spock’s, Worf’s or Odo’s. She brooded, kept to herself, delivered sarcastic responses and walked around with a chip on her shoulder (not to mention the ones in her brain.) Every now and then the crew treated her to simplistic lessons about the nature of humanity and by series’ end she was a real live person.

Unlike the standard Mechanical Men who are creatures of technology, Seven of Nine was attempting to cast off the cybernetic shackles of Borg technology so that she could become fully human again. This is an inversion of the traditional Mechanical Man storyline of machine becoming man, in keeping with Voyager’s own arc which unlike previous starships going out to explore space was escaping from space to go back home. Seven too was trying to escape from technology and from her special and enhanced powers, so she could return to being simply human once again.

And while Seven of Nine is probably the Voyager character non-fans are most likely to recognize, arguments will continue as to whether she is being recognized as a unique character that captures the imagination or for her infamous Paramount issue catsuit.

So the choices for Star Trek’s non-human characters once again come down to the same options, mechanical extrovert or alien introvert.

Different is Dangerous

As a species we tend to fear the unknown, but we also venture out to explore it. Spock\Data characters are a measure of the unknown poured into the shapes of characters. It’s easy enough to do a show that explores outer space, but the creation of the Spock\Data character also allows us to explore inner space and what it means to be human. But exploration always comes with a price.

Different is certainly dangerous. When we stick to what we know, then we’re in a situation where we can predict the risks and the gains. But when we leave known space, the risks and the gains become an unknown quantity. As Q put it, space is wondrous with riches to satiate tastes both gross and subtle, but it’s not for the timid.

With the Mechanical Extrovert, we are faced with technology that wants to be a part of our lives and integrate with us. We fear this technology. We fear that it will change us, possibly hurt us and destroy who we are. And so sooner or later the technology turns on us, as we expect it to. The commitment of the crew to its Mechanical Extroverts and by extension to the technology it represents, shows their commitment to exploring not simply space, but technology and our interaction with it.

Throughout the series, rather than mechanizing ourselves, we have tried to humanize the technology in its personification as the Mechanical Extrovert. Data and the EMH instead of making us less human, have become more human themselves. Their evolution demonstrates our control over the effects of technology upon us. Instead of the Borg nightmare, Seven of Nine moves from drone to human being. As layer by layer of her humanity returns, the technology is peeled away to reveal that despite all our technological accoutrements, we are still human underneath.

The Alien Introvert on the other hand won’t come to us, we have to come to him. Star Trek’s theme is to seek out new life and new civilization and to paraphrase Q again, those new lives are standing on our bridge, waiting. Like all unknown things, he offers potential threats and like all unknown things, the only way to deal with those threats is to come to know him.

Ultimately the human journey which has reached a peak in Star Trek is about learning to know and tolerate the Other. Our definitions of ‘Other’ have progressed from our neighbor in the next cave, the men in the next town, in the next country. The men who don’t speak our language, who dress and behave differently and whose skin colors and religions don’t match ours. By Star Trek the ‘Other’ has become truly alien, but once all these others listed above were just as alien and the notion of cooperation with them was at least as shocking, as cooperation with aliens. Spock may have shocked network executives, but so did a multi-racial and multi-national crew.

Extending the definition of ‘Other’ to its widest possible parameters is the exploration of inner space. Learning to master technology without being afraid of it, allows for the exploration of outer space, from our home, to our planet, to our galaxy.

Together the Spock\Data characters join the exploration of inner and outer space, of ourselves and the other beings in the universe and all the knowledge that exists out there waiting for us.

The Spock\Data characters indeed are our dangerous friends and our guides to the universe and ourselves.

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