footnotes, appendices and apparatus to the anatomy
grouped loosely by subject
13. on star Trek
and the Exploration of Space
He claimed to like the cashless economy and the ostensibly easy-come easy-go attitude of what, to others, appears to be an old-fashioned, militaristic, hierarchical patriarchy where some of the patriarchs happen to be women; but he also had a lot to say about Deanna Troi’s mesmerising nippleless tits (preferred theory: gaffer tape); and he also once said to me, a little incongruously, that if Star Trek were real he would join Starfleet in an eye blink – except that they would never take him, wankered old anarchist that he was, and if they did, he would probably find his level degaussing plasma manifolds and muttering about the system.
There is an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay are infected with a disease which makes impossible for them to leave the uninhabited planet on which they contracted it. No cure can be found, and the crew is ordered to continue on their journey home by the Captain.
The stranded officers make their various accommodations with the new situation. Janeway embarks on a manic and futile research into their medical condition. She is a scientist, after all, and a fighter. She will not give up. But Chakotay is disposed to accept it. He starts to make small improvements to their quarters, plants potatoes, dusts off his Native American woodcraft (actually, he makes a bathtub).
Janeway is merely unhinged, but you can read Chakotay’s willingness to settle in two ways. Either you admire him, because here is a man who carries his contexts in his pocket, so to speak; or you are terrified by the thought of living a life on a planet with no history; where the flora and fauna are wholly unknown; where the vacuum of contexts is so total you would need to kill yourself just to grapple it into a comprehensible circuit; and you abhor him.
Then again, what is true of Chakotay on his nowhere planet is equally true of the galaxy and its inhabitants as a whole. The galaxy is so vast, so old, there is no way of locating yourself in it in any meaningful way. An interest in the archaeology of alien worlds – as evinced by, for instance, Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his occasional lady-friend Vash (Jennifer Hetrick) – is at best a neurotic reflex, at worst just one of the nightmarish implications of Roddenberry’s vision of the future. It is not simply that they cannot yet have had time to map galactic archaeological space, but that such maps cannot be made. It is as insane as Data’s study of marriage customs in the galaxy, which spirals out to a list of seemingly non-generalisable cases.
Chakotay and Janeway are rescued and cured at the end of a few weeks or months. Back on the bridge of Voyager, sitting in their familiar chairs, the Captain gives her first officer an order and he says aye and taps some screens and they share a little smirk. Here on the ship, in their nest of functional relationships and shared history, Captain and First Officer can forget about how close they came to vanishing, one way or another.
The concept of phase variance ‘explains’ how entities can occupy the same physical space at fractionally different moments of time – the time is out of phase. Or something. There is an episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the ship runs aground on a sub-space reef and is split into two Voyagers, each one occupying different points on the space-time continuum. Much farcical Cox and Box ensues.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Data corrects for phase variance in his head (he has a phase discriminator built into his positronic decompiler, but also needs one of these) and follows some aliens back to nineteenth century San Francisco, where he meets Whoopi Goldberg and Mark Twain without so much as an eye-blink.
My father, not unlike Data, seemed able to compensate for his chronic phase variance with the rest of humanity by feigning poor hearing and a thoughtful smoker's mien.
The Ideal City flickers in and out of the ken even of its citizens like a perpetual transatlantic broadcast, vital news from far away.
The Borg are cyborgs, their organic parts arbitrated and perfected by the addition of implants and prosthetics. They multiply by assimilating other interesting species to their collective, each individual becoming as it were a fluctuation in the field of the hive mind. And there are countless billions of them.
This is largely how big cities survive as entities; sucking in immigrants to compensate for the indigenous death rate, absorbing all individual motions in the law of large numbers, big systems.
In the quiddity of individuals lies their monstrosity, their unique combinatorial timbre; throw them into a crowd and that timbre approximates to everyone else.
But we in the Ideal City are too few, our motions accompanied by too great a reverberation in the whole. We inhabit a land peopled exclusively by kings, popes and similar grossly deformed entities, every breath or itch or yawn a seismic event.
The Vidians are a species who populate a region of space through which the USS Voyager must pass. The species has been ravaged for decades by a disease called the phage, a chronic, incurable, syphilitic condition to which the Vidians respond by harvesting the body parts of whatever species they happen to run across and turn themselves into, not so much intermediate, as singular forms.
The cinquecento was the great century of syphilis, the first outbreaks of which were recorded among the French troops besieging Naples in 1494 (possibly, it has been surmised, because of Spanish mercenary component of that army), prior to Charles VIII’s Furthest South at Poggio Reale.
Practically, if not etymologically, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise are geographical in nature. They are explorations, mappings, studies of astral ecosystems, alien social structures, anomalies, entities; the charting of class M planets like so many bays, harbours and ports.
Accordingly, episodes of Star Trek often start with a glimpse of a structured, grid-like mission with which the crew is occupied, as for instance these examples from The Next Generation:
- “Captain’s log, stardate 43957.2: We are charting an unexplored star system within the Zeta Gelis cluster.” Transformations or
- “Captain’s log, stardate 42779.1: We are en route to the epsilon 9 sector for an astronomical survey of a new pulsar cluster." Samaritan Snare
The context of each episode, we are given to understand, is one of routine scientific enquiry. The Federation, like the Borg (see Cartographical), seeks to throw a comprehensive grid over a homogenised space, and attend to the details subsequently, and methodically.
Needless to say, from this characterless routine an adventure is in each case quickly precipitated, a brisk encounter with an enemy, a danger, a wonder, a marvel. Were this a medieval chronicle we would be in the East with Sir John Mandeville, brushing up against cannibals, men with heads in their stomachs, tribes of idolaters; reporting on their improbable peculiarities (the Chandrans have a glacial mind and a three day ritual for saying hello), their social structure (Andorian weddings typically require the presence of four people), their potential for trade (the Tellarites have a long-standing trade dispute with the Andorians). Picard at the Klingon High Council might be Marco Polo at the Court of the Great Khan, a trusted emissary inserted somehow in the interstices of the affairs of Empire.
But then, there are also Columbus-like ruptures in geographical space, as when for example the entity known as Q transports the Enterprise to their first encounter with the Borg. Suddenly (and neither for the first nor last time) the explorers find themselves in turn explored, and threatened with exploitation by a dominant materialist culture:
The unstated missionary zeal of the Federation, their faith in the radiant and self-evident qualities of ‘humanity’, questioned only to confirm its power, is perhaps just another, albeit gentler, version of the insane malice of the conquistadors, or more precisely of the Jesuits and Dominicans and Cistercians who followed the conquistadors.
The crew and captain of the Enterprise makes up its moral order as it goes along; it has its Prime Directive, but the exigencies both of galactic exploration and swift narrative turnover make that moot. Picard has constantly to invent his moral world, in the face of men with heads in the stomachs, just as Cortés invented his rituals of appropriation.
Exploration, in other words, not only gives the galaxy a chorographical and anecdotal shape, but demands from time to time wholesale readjustment, redistribution, a systematic openness.
There is an episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the ship is fractured into 37 different time frames, through which only Chakotay in the first instance can freely pass, thanks to a chroniton serum invented on the hoof by the Doctor. Chakotay passes the serum on to a sceptical Janeway-of-the-past; he must then guide her down through circle after circle, through the nightmare of her future (and our past), through the Year of Hell, the invasion of the Macro-viruses, the alliance with the Borg, through and beyond their own deaths, until they reach the final circle: Janeway’s guilt at having stranded everyone in the Delta Quadrant.
At which point Chakotay sheepishly quotes a bit of Dante.