Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’

First, diagnosis let me say that I am awesomely impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion. Stay tuned for several posts on this book as I work through the various essays.

Today, buy viagra we look at Elizabeth Danna’s essay, diagnosis ‘Looking Out for No. 1: Concepts of Good and Evil in Star Trek and The Prisoner.’ I suggest that Dr. Danna has mis-read, or over-read some aspects of Star Trek in two places in particular: her analysis of the episode “Mirror, Mirror”, and second, her analysis of Captain Kirk’s name.

But to do justice to this analysis, I must call on my resident TOS expert. My field of expertise lies with TNG and DS9, and so I turn to one more qualified to look at these issues.

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In the classic TOS episode “Mirror Mirror,” Kirk et al. find themselves in a parallel universe, switched with their counterparts by a malfunctioning transporter. In this mirror ‘verse, the Federation of Planets never existed, and a tyrannical Empire rules in its place. The crewmembers from “our” universe cope with life in the cruel mirror universe (promotion by assassination, Spock with a beard, etc.) while their Imperial alternate selves fail to cope with the Federation’s way of running a starship (and a beardless Spock). Federation Kirk talks Imperial bearded Spock into leading a revolution, while Imperial Kirk rants and rages at Federation beardless Spock. Once everyone is eventually returned to their native universes, beardless Spock gets to take yet another verbal jab at human nature (“brutal, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous; in every way splendid examples of homo sapiens. The very flower of humanity.”), and everyone learns a valuable lesson (such as avoiding the dang transporter; that thing is more trouble than it’s worth).

It seems to me that Elizabeth Danna saw a valuable lesson that wasn’t there, and it had nothong to do with avoiding the transporter. In her chapter, Danna contrasts the presentations of evil (and how to deal with it) in the TV shows Star Trek (TOS) and The Prisoner. Most of her TOS analysis is unproblematic: The episode “The Enemy Within” (oh look, another transporter malfunction) tells us that humans’ “negative side” is the source of our drives, and that the solution is for reason to rule and properly order it. “The Alternative Factor” creates the powerful image of a man locked in eternal battle against his evil self. “The Savage Curtain” shows that the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” is not as clear-cut as an alien rock-monster might want it to be. “Day of the Dove” shows us that racism can be overcome by a sufficient quantity of hearty manly (and Klingon-ly) laughter.

My disagreement involves her treatment of “Mirror Mirror.” Danna argues that “Mirror Mirror” is a lesson in the necessity of an outside force that will defeat human evil. In this case, Imperial bearded Spock must overthrow Imperial Kirk and take command of the Enterprise; in essence, deal with Federation Kirk’s evil twin for him. I see this as reading too much into the episode. “Mirror Mirror” does provide us with a couple of opportunities to reflect on human evil (if Federation beardless Spock is right, then we are savages at heart, and it is only the laws of civilization that keep us from that fate), but the most salient message appears to be one of identity: Spock is a man of integrity in both universes, but Imperial Kirk is quite comfortable as a merciless thug. What does that say about the factors that make us who we are? And there is some commentary on society and the inherent instability of tyrannies. But using Federation Kirk and Imperial Kirk as representatives of the good and evil within the human heart goes too far beyond what is written.

Speaking of reading too much into things, there is the matter of Kirk’s name. Danna claims that “James Tiberius Kirk” represents ambition and deviousness (“James” as an Anglicized “Jacob,” he of the stew-for-birthright scam) balanced with moral discipline (“Kirk” being the Scottish word for “church”) with a touch of Roman profligacy tossed in the midst. The fact that Captain Kirk was named “James” after Gene Roddenberry’s uncle (and also for an old boyfriend of his mother’s), and that “Tiberius” was chosen because GR’s grandfather was fascinated with Roman history (and that Kirk’s middle initial was “R” instead of “T” in the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) seem to lessen any possible deep symbolism implanted by GR in the name. The formal “meaning” of characters’ names does not always provide us with a peek into their souls. After all, “Gomer” means “famous battle,” but that doesn’t provide any insight into Gomer Pyle.

  • Anne Stevenson

    Slowly, so slowy, you are drawing me into the whole Star Trek “thing” with your blog posts! When Star Trek first came out ( in the days of my nearly prehistoric youth) it was known only for bad acting and worse scripts and storylines. Who knew????? Time to revisit the show I have most mocked in my life and see where all this analysis and interest is coming from. Amazing!
    PS it was a great pleasure to finally meet your family last weekend.

    • If you want to watch a Star Trek that is not cheesy with bad acting and bad scripts, then I recommend Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is fantastic!

      And it was so cool to meet you! The next time you’re coming down this way, shoot me an email, my husband and I would love to take y’all out for lunch!

      • Anne Stevenson

        Thanks Amanda! I remember seeing a couple of the first episodes of ST: DSN when it first started but other things in my life got in the way of getting into it. I watched a couple of original Star Trek’s not that long ago after reading something in your blog and realized the only irritation I really had with the show was William Shatner. Not sure why I find him irritating even today.
        I am going to be in MJ again at St.A. this coming weekend, the 28th but if that doesn’t work for you to get together I will be back again the end of Sept. Happy end of summer!

      • Anne,

        This Sunday would be great for us! See you at St. A’s!

  • Kristen

    As a fan of fantasy much more than sci fi, I am drawn to Classic Trek because its basic mythopoeic structures. Kirk, Spock and McCoy as a sort of “trinity” – an archetype of the human psyche divided into Mind (Spock), Will (Kirk) and Emotions (McCoy), and the bickering between Spock & McCoy reflecting the choices the Will often must make to balance Mind and Emotion.

    So I love literary-analysis posts like this!

    I agree with the assessment that it is not that humanity needs an outside force to deliver it from itself. The idea is instead that because the Vulcans embraced logic and reason even in this savage alternate universe, Spock had a foundation on which to build basic moral ideas that Kirk did not. “Evil” Spock’s ideas are still fairly utilitarian (the tyrannical system is wrong not because it is immoral, but because it is, as you say, inherently unstable), but at least he is thinking, while Evil Kirk merely does whatever it takes to stay on top.

    Kirk in both universes has an emotional need to command which Spock lacks, too– and the “power corrupts” theme is a fairly common Classic Trek message. So also is passion restrained by reason, as in the twin-Kirks episode you also mentioned. But at least Classic Trek is fairly restrained in the “we have evolved in this century to be more inherently good than 20th-century people” idea which was pervasive and annoying in Next Generation.

    As for Deep Space Nine, I found it in general too dark and too soap-opera-ish. After missing a few episodes, I found I could no longer follow the serial plot, and gave up.

    • Kristen,
      The bickering between Spock and McCoy is great!

      “But at least Classic Trek is fairly restrained in the “we have evolved in this century to be more inherently good than 20th-century people” idea which was pervasive and annoying in Next Generation.”

      I agree. TNG got kinda of preachy that way.

      As for DS9, I liked it because it was too dark. But I get what you’re saying about not being able to follow the serial plot, especially once you get to seasons 5-7. But that’s why I like watching them on DVD: I can watch them in order and get the whole arc without missing an ep and being totally lost. Of course, now I’ve seen it so many times, that’s not a problem 🙂

  • Kristen

    PS. As for “bad acting, bad scripts & bad storylines,” I think those issues largely go away if one allows the show to be a product of its times rather than judging it by today’s standards. It was cutting-edge for its day, but was also a low-budget show that could not afford to hire the top of the line actors, choosing instead those who had backgrounds on shows like “Outer Limits.” I never minded Shatner’s acting myself. I think it fit in with who Kirk was.

    • “As for “bad acting, bad scripts & bad storylines,” I think those issues largely go away if one allows the show to be a product of its times rather than judging it by today’s standards.”

      True, but it is still painful to watch. Maybe in 30 years people will say the same for TNG, DS9 etc. 🙂

      • Kristen

        I suppose so. To me, there is so much nostalgia watching Classic Trek (when I was 12 I had a major crush on Spock!) that I don’t mind the cheesiness. It’s part of the charm.

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