Monday, June 24, 2013

I’m an Illogical Woman (The Man Trap)

location:  TOS season 1, disc 1
airdate:  8 September 1966
strange new worlds:  yes
strange new worlds so far:  3
new life:  yes
new life so far: 3
new civilizations:  no
new civilizations so far:  1
amokmindedness:  yes
amokmindednesses so far:  3

“The Man Trap,” as even its title suggests, revisits some of the themes of “The Cage.”  The choice that Dr. Crater embraces is essentially the one that Captain Pike refused – a life of illusion, with a partner who can be any woman (or, as it turns out, man) that one desires.  But Crater’s life is in a way even creepier, since he’s knowingly allowing the murderer of his wife to take her place in his life.

In Nicomachean Ethics X.3, Aristotle presents us with a thought-experiment similar to the Nozickian experience machine I cited previously:  “No one would choose to have the mind of a child throughout life, even if he were to experience the pleasures appropriate to childhood to the highest degree.”  Although both experiments are designed to convince us that we care about more than the pleasant quality of felt experiences, Nozick’s is actually an improvement on Aristotle’s, since a J. S. Mill-style response based on a preference for some kinds of pleasure over others can get a grip on Aristotle’s example but not on Nozick’s.  Still, Aristotle is aiming at the same point as Nozick:  in addition to the way our experiences feel, we care (or should care, or have reason to care. or care when we are thinking clearly) about how things really are; and the value of pleasure depends on what causes it, and not just on how good it feels.  As Aristotle puts it, “pleasures are choiceworthy, but not from these sources, just as being wealthy is choiceworthy, but not if attained through treachery, and being healthy is choiceworthy, but not through eating just anything” (Aristotle probably has cannibalism in mind). 

By Aristotelean standards, then, life with a convincing duplicate of one’s wife is not an adequate substitute for life with one’s actual wife, whether or not one is aware of the substitution; and life with the murderer of one’s wife should be the least acceptable of all. 

So why does Crater defend (what I’ll call) the Buffalo Gal?  He doesn’t come across as unlikeable or superficial – quite the contrary.  (Credit is due here to Alfred Ryder’s delightful performance as Crater; in his twitchy, cranky, yet somehow polite obstinacy he reminds me of Patrick McGoohan.)  Yet one can’t help suspecting that there must have been some Stepfordian flaw in Crater’s relationship with his wife if he can so quickly embrace an illusory substitute.

As I’ve written elsewhere, in connection with Othello:

In a culture where men subordinate and objectify women, it’s no surprise that men have trouble perceiving women’s subjectivity – that notorious “feminine inscrutability” that men have so long simultaneously romanticised and complained about, without asking the “Copernican” question of whether the fault might lie in the vantage point rather than in the object.  Othello compares Desdemona to a statue – “that whiter skin of hers than snow, and smooth as monumental alabaster” – and fantasises about making love to her corpse:  “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, and love thee after.”  In thinking of Desdemona as a statue and a corpse, Othello constructs her quite specifically as opaque – even as he endlessly bemoans her supposed opacity.  At the same time, Othello resents the very existence of Desdemona’s subjective interiority, precisely because it cannot be subordinated to him as her body can ....

If Mrs. Crater’s gender led Dr. Crater to devalue her interiority and confine his attention to her superficies, this could explain his ready acquiescence in the illusion.  (And McCoy may be complicit too, since to the end he is so fixated on the Buffalo Gal’s external appearance that he can barely bring himself to save Kirk by shooting her, despite clear evidence that she is not his former girlfriend, but is rather the murderer of his former girlfriend – as though what he loved all along was her external appearance, not her real interiority.)

To be sure, Dr. Crater claims to know, and be concerned with, the Buffalo Gal’s interiority; but it’s unclear how much of this is self-deception.  Crater’s insistence that the Buffalo Gal “needs love as much as it needs salt” is never unambiguously confirmed or disconfirmed in the story, but the impression one gets is that there is more manipulation and less sincerity in her behaviour than Crater has convinced himself to believe.  At any rate, her eventually turning on Crater himself suggests that salt has a somewhat higher priority than love in her personal value scale.  If he is guilty of objectifying her, she objectifies him with a vengeance – all she wants from him is his body, specifically its sodium chloride content.

In the course of defending the Buffalo Gal, Crater argues:  “The creature was trying to survive. It has that right, doesn’t it?”  The answer, of course, is no:  the Buffalo Gal is clearly an intelligent, rational agent, and so the requirements of morality apply as much to her as to anyone else.  For Aristotle, mere survival is no more adequate a conception of human flourishing than subjective pleasure is; just as “sensory experience seems to be shared in common with horse and ox and every animal,” he tells us in NE I.7, so “living seems to be shared in common with plants – whereas what is sought is that which is specific” to rational agents.  Quality of life trumps quantity; the virtuous person will “prefer a single year of noble living to many years of ordinary living.”  (NE IX.8)  Crater and the Buffalo Gal have each chosen a deviant conception of the good life – hers subhuman, and his subsapient. 

To the claim that the Buffalo Gal needed to kill people to feed on their bodies’ salt content, Aristotle’s reply would be one we’ve already seen:  “being healthy is choiceworthy, but not through eating just anything.”  Nor does the Buffalo Gal’s being the last of her kind exempt her from moral law.  “Some things one cannot be compelled to do, but rather must die, suffering the most terrible things; for indeed, Euripides’ Alkmaion being compelled to commit matricide is plainly laughable.” (NE III.1) 

But the relation to “The Man Trap” to “The Cage” is still more complex; for this episode gives us our first real glimpse of the muscle of (what we cannot yet call) the Federation.  Kirk claims the power first to force the Craters to submit to medical examinations (simply on the grounds that they belong to the class of “research personnel on alien planets,” implying a pretty broad scope of jurisdiction) and then to place the Craters in forcible captivity on the Enterprise for their own good (inasmuch as the ship’s mission is to “protect human life in places like this” – whether or not they want protecting, apparently).  This kind of strong-armed paternalism is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Talosians’ explaining that they “wish [their] specimens to be happy” living “carefully guided lives.”  The Enterprise crew have become the very evil they began by combating.  As another classic 60s sf show reminds us:  It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village. ... When the sides facing each other suddenly realise that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.”

This episode is less irritating from a feminist standpoint than the previous two,  but the show refuses simply to let professional women be professional women, as in the scene of Uhura’s unsuccessful flirtation with Spock – a scene that takes on a somewhat different significance in light of the 2009 movie.  (“The Man Trap” also introduces the miniskirt as standard uniform for female crewmembers.) 

The interracial flirting is nonetheless daring for its day (though the episode makes sure later on to pair Uhura with an imaginary partner of the “appropriate” race), as is having a black female character whose name is based on the Swahili word for “freedom.”  It’s ironic that Uhura in her very first episode is already complaining about doing nothing but reporting frequencies.

Miscellaneous observations:

This episode inaugurates the new standard narration:  adding a split infinitive to the sexism of the second pilot’s narration.  It also introduces McCoy, Uhura, and Rand, as well as the more familiar uniforms.

Bruce Watson is wonderfully cast as the creepily vampiric Crewman Green.

In this episode the show finally seems to have found its way to the Spock we know; the way Nimoy says the line “My demonstration of concern will not change what has happened; the transporter room is very well-manned and they will call me if they need my assistance” is especially good.  (Recall the similar exchange in Sherlock:  “Would caring about them help to save them?” – “No.” – “Then I'll continue not to make that mistake.”)

The sickbay is now called the dispensary, although it was called sickbay in the second pilot.

The author of this episode, George Clayton Johnson, is co-author (with William F. Nolan) of the original Logan’s Run novel.  “Man-Trap” is also the name of a 1961 movie starring Jeffrey Hunter, the actor who played Pike in “The Cage.”

The title “Man Trap” is multiply ambiguous.  There’s the specifically gendered sense of a sexual trap set by a woman to lure a man, and the broader generic sense of any trap to catch a human being – but this last sense could apply to Buffalo Gal’s attempts to entrap the Enterprise crew, or to the Enterprise crew’s efforts to entrap it (since Buffalo Gal counts as human in the sense of being, or at least appearing, humanoid), or indeed (as noted above) to Kirk’s attempt to imprison Crater himself.

Clearer vision through blu-ray:

In the briefing room from 40:00 on, notice how Dr. Crater is looking at the fake McCoy; even before he tells us he can recognise the Buffalo Gal, it’s clear that he knows.

Less happily:  when Sulu’s plant freaks out it’s a little too obvious that it’s actually a glove with a human hand inside it.

Mirab, his sails unfurled!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I Outlined Her Whole Campaign For Her (Where No Man Has Gone Before)

location:  TOS season 3, disc 6 (original cut); TOS season 1, disc 1 (final cut)
airdate:  22 September 1966
strange new worlds:  yes (the radiation barrier, not the planet)
strange new worlds so far:  2
new life:  yes
new life so far: 2
new civilizations:  no 
new civilizations so far:  1 
amokmindedness:  yes
amokmindednesses so far:  2

In Nicomachean Ethics VIII.7, Aristotle raises the question whether we should wish for our friends to become gods – and really, who hasn’t lost a few nights’ sleep over that question?  

The problem is that becoming a god seems like a good thing, and we should wish good things for our friends; but friendship can’t survive if the gap between the erstwhile friends becomes too great, as between human and god, so that friendship would commit us, counterintuitively, to wishing for friendship’s end.  Aristotle’s solution is that our concern is for the friend as the sort of being he is, and so does not properly commit us to wishing apotheosis for our friends; nor, given the loss of human connections that such a transformation would entail, would apotheosis be a genuine benefit to the friend, as he now is:

If a large enough gap in virtue or vice or wealth or anything else should arise ... they will be friends no longer .... This is especially clear in the case of gods, since they exceed others in goods to the greatest possible extent. ... Now in these matters there is no precisely defined line as to how far they will be friends, for when much is removed, friendship endures – but when the separation is great enough, as in the case of a god, it endures no longer.  Whence arises a difficulty:  Is it not the case that friends wish for their friends the greatest of goods, such as being a god?  For in becoming gods they would be deprived of their friends – and thus of goods, since friends are goods.  If, then, it was well said that the friend wishes goods to the friend for the sake of the friend himself, then the latter must remain whatsoever kind of thing he is.  So it is to the friend as being a human that he will wish the greatest goods.

Aristotle further elaborates, in IX.4, that no one should wish to become a god himself because he would not truly survive the change:

For existence is a good to the upright person, and each wishes good things for himself.  And nobody chooses to become someone else even if the person they became would have every good – for as things stand, the god has the good – but rather to be whatever one is.

(Aristotle may seem to contradict this judgment in X.7, when he rejects the advice “to think human, being human, or to think mortal, being mortal,” arguing instead that we should “rather immortalise as far as possible, and do everything to live in accordance with what is supreme in us,” the divine element of intellect.  To explain how Aristotle’s various claims here are to be reconciled would take us too far afield for a Star Trek blog, but see my discussion in section 2 of this.)

“Where No Man Has Gone Before” dramatises Aristotle’s VIII.7 dilemma; it’s the story of a man struggling to maintain his friendship with a friend who is becoming a god. 

Like “The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before” strives to explore the boundaries of what it means to be human; but where in “The Cage” it is subordination to others’ power that falls outside the limits of the human, in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” it is the subordination of others to one’s own power that does so – just as Aristotle in Politics I.2 counsels us to avoid trying to live as either a beast or a god, a subhuman or a superhuman, since neither is compatible with the distinctively human mode of social cooperation through reasoned discussion.  (See also this.)  True humanity requires the rejection of both slavery and mastery.

Another philosopher worth mentioning here is Spinoza, since the episode brings him up explicitly.  Spinoza teaches that the proper goal of human life is the recognition of one’s own unity with the divine – which sounds like a goal that Gary Mitchell could endorse.  But Spinoza also holds that this goal involves overcoming the influence of the passions, which Mitchell sees no need to do, and that the proper attitude toward the divine is understanding rather than awe and submission, which fits ill with Mitchell’s forcing Kirk to kneel and pray to him.  Little wonder that Mitchell dismisses Spinoza as “childish.”

Star Trek’s second pilot comes in two versions, an original cut and a final cut.  The information on my blu-ray set says that the original cut was discovered only recently, but I’ve owned it on bootleg VHS since 1992.  (I know the date because I bought it during my year at the Policy Center in Bowling Green.)

Among the notable differences between the two versions:

●  In the original cut Kirk tells Spock, while looking past him at female crewmembers, that he might someday enjoy having feelings.

●  In the original cut Gary Mitchell is introduced walking down the hallway and reaching out his hand in a creepy groping gesture toward a passing female crewmember before ogling another; more on this anon.

●  The original cut begins with the following narration, including some information on the Enterprise’s usual duties, plus the first appearance of a famous phrase:

Enterprise log, Captain James Kirk, commanding.  We are leaving that vast cloud of stars and planets which we call our galaxy.  Behind us, Earth, Mars, Venus, even our sun, are specks of dust.  The question:  what is out there in the black void beyond?  Until now our mission has been one of space law regulation, contact with Earth colonies, and investigation of alien life; but now, a new task:  a probe out into where no man has gone before.

Of course that phrase, which is also the episode’s title, has a double meaning here; not just exploring uncharted astronomical territory, but also transcending the limits of the human. 

The question of whether, in the wake of Mitchell’s transformation, the gap between Kirk and himself has increased past the point where the attachment of friendship is still appropriate is part of the episode’s ongoing disagreement between Kirk and Spock.  Here we first learn of Spock’s view that feelings cloud clear reasoning, and of his people’s rejection of emotions (initially presented as failing to have them, rather than repressing them).

Josh Marsfelder interprets the episode as taking Spock’s side against Kirk’s. but I don’t read it that way; it seems to me that in representing the debate between Kirk and Spock over whether to risk the crew out of compassion for an individual (a debate that still echoes in the most recent Star Trek movie), the show neatly avoids taking sides between “logic” and “emotion” – as is further symbolised by the fact that Kirk’s “illogical” method of playing chess can defeat Spock’s.   (To say that the results prove Spock’s approach to Mitchell correct would be to confuse ex ante with ex post justification.) Mitchell, in effect agreeing with Spock, tells Kirk that “command and compassion is a fool's mixture,” but Kirk insists on the value of compassion to the end:  “above all else, a god needs compassion.”

The dispute between Kirk and Spock echoes the ancient disagreement between Aristoteleans and Stoics.  For the Stoics, emotions represent distortions of ethical perception; if they lead us to act in the same way that unhampered reason would recommend, they are supernumerary, whereas if they lead us to act differently, they are pernicious.  Hence the Stoic ideal of apatheia, absence of emotion.  For the Aristoteleans, by contrast, while emotions can lead us astray, they belong to the soul’s rational part and can also play a positive cognitive role, illuminating the moral landscape (for some of the reasons for the Aristotelean position, see this and section 1 of this), and so the ideal is not apatheia but metriopatheia, properly measured emotion.

The characters of Kirk and Spock (Spock especially) are effective dramatisations of the Aristotelean and Stoic positions, respectively.  When Kirk asks “what makes you right and a trained psychiatrist wrong?” Spock replies:  “Because she feels; I don’t:  all I know is logic.”  For Spock, feeling is an impediment to correct perception.  For Kirk, by contrast, a failure to feel for Mitchell would constitute a failure to recognise and acknowledge his relation to his friend:  “we’re talking about Gary.”  But Kirk is not blind to the dangers of excessive emotionalism; when Dehner chides him for listening to Spock’s warnings about Mitchell, Kirk replies that it is his “duty, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to listen to the reports, observations, even speculations, on any subject that might affect the safety of this vessel.”

When I say that the show doesn’t take sides between Kirk and Spock, I don’t mean that it’s neutral or ambiguous on the question of whether the total rejection of emotions is a good thing.  Clearly the show is, rightly, on the side of metriopatheia against apatheia (though apatheia is still treated with respect, again rightly – not so much for rejecting emotion as for being so dedicated to reason as to be willing to reject emotion should that turn out to be what reason requires; and the show never makes us want to see Spock entirely converted to Kirk’s approach, any more than vice versa).  But the show’s preference for metriopatheia is consistent with either Kirk or Spock being right on any particular issue; since Kirk grants that emotions can distort, his commitment to metriopatheia in general doesn’t rule out Spock’s having the correct view of whatever emotional influence is at issue between them at the moment.

Moreover, Spock’s commitment to Vulcan apatheia is not absolute, as he will increasingly come to recognise Kirk’s approach as appropriate for Kirk, even if not for himself.  Kirk’s decision to maroon Mitchell on Delta Vega is his concession to Spock’s perspective; Spock’s final line “I felt for him too” is his concession to Kirk’s.

But the episode actually offers us two different ways of thinking about Mitchell’s transformation.  One narrative strand stresses the contrast between the old and new Mitchell.  According to this strand, Mitchell was a genuinely good guy whose friendship with Kirk was likewise genuine, and he bears no responsibility for his transformation.  This is the strand that dominates when we see the easy camaraderie between Kirk and Mitchell in the elevator; when we hear of Mitchell’s risking his life for Kirk on Dimorus; and when Kirk and Spock agree at the end that Mitchell “didn't ask for what happened to him.”

But the other strand stresses the continuity between the old and new Mitchell.  This strand emerges in the sense we get that Mitchell all along has not been a particularly nice person.  We witness Mitchell’s unlovely side in his demeaning description of Elizabeth Dehner as a “walking freezer unit” merely because she rejects his advances (even though there’s nothing particularly frosty about her response – if anything it’s somewhat flirtatious).  Of course we could chalk this up to Star Trek’s usual sexism, but it’s by no means clear that Mitchell’s attitude is meant to be endorsed; it’s not as though Kirk says it, for example.  (Unfortunately, Dehner later partially endorses Mitchell’s comment by saying, apologetically, that “women professionals do tend to overcompensate” – and would that this were true on the show, as then Yeoman Smith wouldn’t behave so unprofessionally as to need, or allow, handholding from Mitchell as the ship heads into danger.)  But if we combine Mitchell’s freezer unit comment with his groping gesture (in the original cut) and his story about sending a female classmate to derail Kirk’s academic performance, Mitchell comes across as a narcissistic, manipulative asshole from the start, and his ascension to godhood merely involves an intensification of traits he already possessed.

Mitchell invokes the first strand when he tells Kirk that “morals are for men, not gods” – i.e., that his change in behaviour is due to his having transcended human limitations.  But Kirk invokes the second strand when he argues that Mitchell’s apotheosis is dangerous because it removes barriers to “the ugly, savage things we all keep buried” – in other words, it gives free rein to tendencies that are present in Mitchell already.  So is Kirk relieved of his duties of friendship toward Mitchell because Mitchell’s transformation has destroyed the basis of that friendship – or because it has shown that Mitchell was never properly Kirk’s friend? 

There’s a similar ambiguity as to why Dehner is reachable when Mitchell isn’t.  Following the first strand, we could say that she simply had, through no merit of her own, a lower ESP profile from the start, and so was less affected by the galactic barrier and underwent a less complete apotheosis.  Following the second strand, we could say that Kirk’s appeals to compassion reach Dehner and not Mitchell because from the beginning she has a superior character and a less manipulative, dehumanising attitude toward other people.  (A third possibility, given the show’s ethos, is that Dehner is more compassionate because she’s a woman.  A fourth, actually raised by Kirk, is that she sees the dangers of apotheosis more clearly because she’s a psychiatrist.)

Miscellaneous observations:

Spock is the only returning character from “The Cage.”  There’s a new ship’s doctor, not yet McCoy.  This episode introduces Kirk, Scott, and Sulu.  Shatner would have been best known to sf fans for rather un-Kirk-like roles in two classic Twilight Zone episodes, both penned by Richard Matheson (who’ll be writing for Shatner again a few episodes from now).

The first pilot featured a human protagonist imprisoned by beings with superior mental powers; the second pilot features a being with superior mental powers imprisoned by a human protagonist.

There’s a nice bit where Mitchell in sickbay is being monitored on a viewscreen, and he eerily turns and watches the viewers back.  Last time the Talosians were watching Star Trek (as are Kirk and Spock at the beginning of this episode); this time Star Trek is watching us.

The shining-eye effect on Mitchell and Dehner is quite effective – if painful for the actors.

The written information on the viewscreens (crewmembers’ backgrounds, the text of Spinoza’s Ethica) is surprisingly detailed, considering that audiences at the time were in no position to freeze the picture to read any of it.

The paper printouts from “The Cage” are mercifully gone; now they use what are presumably supposed to be microform containers but at least look like hard-cased floppy disks.  Likewise, lasers have given way to phasers.  Warp speed is now called “spacewarp” instead of “timewarp.”  The ship’s computer is referred to as “Mr. Spock’s computer,” a proprietary designation it will soon lose.

The identification of Kirk’s middle initial as “R” will later be ... revisited.

With Spock retconned as a member of an anti-emotional people, the grinning is gone; but he still smiles a bit more than he will later.  Spock also speaks of having a human ancestor rather than a human mother, but we are free to interpret this as simple reticence on his part.

The galactic barrier appears to be confined to the horizontal; why doesn’t the Enterprise try flying over or under it rather than through it?  (Likewise, 26 years later in Star Trek VI, we may similarly wonder why the Excelsior flees horizontally, rather than vertically, from the horizontally-expanding Praxis explosion – and indeed why an explosion in weightless space would expand horizontally, rather than in all directions, in the first place.  The dangers of two-dimensional thinking were briefly highlighted in the Mutara Nebula scene in Star Trek II, only to be forgotten thereafter.)

There’s a clumsy exposition scene where Sulu has to explain the concept of geometric progression to people who would presumably know it.

Mitchell’s description of Kirk as having been a bookworm at the Academy seems (mildly, not radically) inconsistent with later depictions of him.

Monday, June 3, 2013

I Can’t Get Used to Having a Woman on the Bridge (The Cage)

location: TOS season 3, disc 6
strange new worlds:  yes
strange new worlds so far: 1
new life:  yes
new life so far:  1
new civilizations:  yes 
new civilizations so far:  1
amokmindedness:  yes
amokmindednesses so far:  1

The name of my main blog is “Austro-Athenian Empire,” signifying (inter alia) my conviction that “libertarians are right about economics and politics” while “Greek philosophers are right about everything else” – and that the two perspectives complement each other.   (Clarification for newcomers:  my version of libertarianism is pro-free-market but anti-capitalist.)

That happiness, or human flourishing, is more than a subjective experience – that it involves objective and active achievement, not just a subjective and passive “sense” of achievement – is one of the oldest lessons of Greek philosophy, though it seems to require endless relearning.  (For two brief contemporary statements and defenses of the classical eudaimonist position, see Robert Nozick here and Julia Annas here.  If you’re not familiar with those pieces, please go read them now; they’re more important than anything I go on to say here.)
Though the Greek philosophers were mostly not quick to draw a libertarian, anti-paternalist moral from this conception of happiness, such a moral does follow.  As Jennifer Whiting writes:

Suppose that my powers of practical reasoning are modest and that I occasionally suffer from weakness of will. Why should I not turn my deliberations over to a highly efficient life planning agency and then commit myself to the care of someone empowered to enforce its decisions? This might seem especially prudent, if I am thus able to satisfy a larger proportion of my first order aims and desires than I would otherwise do .... 

But Aristotle would not agree. He does not view eudaimonia ... simply as the satisfaction of all (or of a reasonable portion) of a person’s various first order desires and aims. That person’s role in bringing it about that his desires are satisfied or his aims attained is of fundamental importance.  We might put this point by saying that eudaimonia does not simply require that my desires be satisfied or that my ends be attained; eudaimonia requires that I satisfy my desires and that I attain these ends.  This explains why Aristotle says that eudaimonia is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and refuses to call a person eudaimôn if her various first order ends and desires are satisfied simply as a matter of luck or chance.   While we might be willing to say that such a person is happy and perhaps even that she lives well, Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia as a special case of the welfare of living things shows why he would not agree. Aristotle is relying on a conception of attaining one’s ends which is fundamentally natural. A heart which, owing to some deficiency in its natural capacities, cannot beat on its own but is made to beat by means of a pacemaker is not a healthy heart. For it, the heart, is not strictly performing its function. Similarly a man who, owing to some deficiency in his natural capacities, cannot manage his own life but is managed by means of another's deliberating and ordering him is not eudaimôn – not even if he possesses the same goods and engages in the same first order activities as does a eudaimôn man. For he, the man, is not strictly performing his function. ...

The importance of autonomy stems not so much from the practical benefits of self-sufficiency as from Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia as an activity of the agent’s soul. ... Aristotle' s general identification of what it is to be human with rational agency is not altogether implausible – at least not to those of us who would prefer to trust our hearts to pacemakers than our deliberations and the pursuit of our ends to another, no matter how benevolent and wise he happens to be.

Star Trek’s originally unaired pilot, “The Cage,” is a straightforward dramatisation of the Austro-Athenian position.  The Talosians represent a passive, subjective conception of happiness:  “We wish our specimens to be happy,” they explain, which for them means giving them “carefully guided lives” of enjoyable illusion.  (In Greek mythology, Talos was a giant mechanical man that Zeus gave to Europa for her protection after he had abducted her – so, not a bad symbol for a life of security in captivity.)  Pike condemns the proffered Talosian version of happiness as “a trap, like a narcotic – because when dreams become more important than reality, you give up travel, building, creating .... You just sit, living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought-records.”  Such an “escape from reality,” a “life with no frustrations, no responsibilities,” is one that Pike has previously thought he craved, but “now that I have it, I understand ... that you either live life – bruises, skinned knees, and all – or you turn your back on it and start dying.”  And the connection between eudaimonism and individual freedom is made explicit:  for human beings, at least, even death is preferable to a “pleasant and benevolent ... captivity.” 

Compare Nozick’s observation that “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them,” that “we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person” and desire “to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality,” something “machines cannot do for us.”  “Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide,” Nozick points out, a way of becoming an “indeterminate blob.”  Or again, compare Annas’s report that what even business students turn out to desire is “not really the material things, the stuff,” but rather a life “in which they earned the money, made something of their lives so that these things were an appropriate reward for their effort, ambition, and achievement.” 

In “The Cage,” this moral comes with an additional sting for the audience.  The Talosians are portrayed as watching the story’s action unfold on television monitors.  In effect, they are watching Star Trek; the show is essentially presenting itself as a kind of experience machine, a seduction into a false conception of happiness. 

The message, of course, is not that we shouldn’t watch Star Trek; rather, the point is that if we merely watch Star Trek, treating Pike’s choice of eudaimonia over hēdonē solely as an object of enjoyable contemplation rather than as something to be emulated in our own lives, then we are confining ourselves in a Talosian cage – where we “just sit, living and reliving” the adventures of the Enterprise crew.  Taking pleasure in a representation of the preference for reality over representation is not by itself a preference for reality over representation.  (I wrote a poem years ago, “Lest We Be Moved As Clouds And Not As Men,” that makes a similar point; I’ll post it, with a link here, if I come across it.)  Well before William Shatner has even been cast or a single episode broadcast, the captain of the Enterprise is already telling Star Trek fans to get a life.

And the political moral is like unto the ethical one:  basking in feverish representations of one’s own freedom, as American citizens in particular (though not exclusively) are prone to do, is perfectly compatible with achieving comparatively little freedom in one’s actual life.  If you are acquiescing in increased surveillance and regimentation of your daily activities in the name of “protecting your freedom,” you just might be a citizen of the United States of Talos IV.

Of course it wouldn’t be Star Trek if the good things weren’t generally tangled up with dreadful things, and so it is here.

One annoying feature of “The Cage” is that the contrast between passive/subjective and active/objective conceptions of happiness gets conflated with a contrast between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism.  It’s ironic that studio executives purportedly rejected “The Cage” as being “too cerebral,” given that cerebrality is precisely what the episode sets itself against.  We’re told that the flaw of the Talosians, with their oversized, pulsing brains, is that they’ve devoted themselves to the life of the mind, rendering themselves helpless against Pike’s “primitive” – and therefore superior – emotions.  Before McCoy even appears on the scene, Star Trek is taking his side, rather than either Kirk’s or Spock’s, on the issue of the nature of and relation between thought and feeling.  (Fortunately, this won’t last.)

The Greeks didn’t make this mistake of confusing intellectualism with passivity.  As John Herman Randall writes:

[Aristotle’s] may well be the most passionate mind in history: it shines through every page, almost every line. His crabbed documents exhibit, not ‘cold thought,’ but the passionate search for passionless truth. For him, there is no ‘mean,’ no moderation, in intellectual excellence. The ‘theoretical life’ is not for him the life of quiet ‘contemplation,’ serene and unemotional, but the life of nous, of theōria, of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits.

Think also of Aristotle’s contrast between recreation and leisure, where leisure is an occasion for, not an alternative to, serious intellectual work.

An especially egregious feature of “The Cage” is its treatment of women.  (Of course the ghastly handling of gender issues is a problem that pervades not just this episode but most of Star Trek – and not just TOS, though it is naturally worse there.)  All the female characters are defined by their relation to Pike, as potential mates for him; and the illusions that the Talosians use to attract Pike to Vina are all puerile scenarios that cast her in stereotypical female roles: damsel in distress, sitcom wife, submissive slavegirl. 

The show can’t quite decide what the role of women in the Enterprise crew is supposed to be.  We are shown female officers, which is welcome (and their uniforms are, at this point, essentially the same as those of their male counterparts); but this gesture toward equality is undercut by Pike’s finding their presence on the bridge disturbing.  The most competent and professional female officer, Number One, is presented as having achieved such success at the cost of desexualisation – as when Pike, complaining of Yeoman Colt as a “woman on the bridge,” adds that Number One is “different, of course” – a remark reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s announcing “Thank God we’ve got rid of the women” once all his female students except Elizabeth Anscombe had left the room.  (Oddly, although Pike’s dialogue seems to imply that Colt and Number One are the only women on the bridge, another female navigator is visible – about seven minutes into the episode – but is never referred to.) Number One’s status is further undermined by the Talosians’ assertion that her professionalism is “largely a pretense,” a cover for her “fantasies” about her commanding officer.  

As though Aristotle’s eudaimonism and Aristotle’s misogyny come as a package (they don’t:  Aristotle is one of the few Greek eudaimonists not to challenge traditional gender roles; Plato, the Cynics, the early Stoics, and even Xenophon are all far better in this area), the active and objective Hellenic conception of happiness is here conceptualised as the exclusive province of males.  After being told that humans have a “unique hatred of captivity,” such that “even when it’s pleasant and benevolent, [they] prefer death,” we nevertheless see Vina return to captivity rather than attempt to live in human society while physically handicapped – and Pike says he “agreed with her reasons.”  Apparently, then, the value of freedom applies only to men; also, evidently life in the future human society (I don’t say “Federation society” since the Federation has not yet been mentioned) is unbearable for the disabled as well. 

Although the show suffers from the stereotypes of its era of origin, special blame still has to be laid at the feet of Gene Roddenberry in particular.  In his notes for “The Cage,” Roddenberry specifies that Yeoman Colt has “a strip-queen figure even a uniform cannot hide”; that Roddenberry, like the Bourbons, learned nothing and forgot nothing, is shown by his notes for TNG over two decades later, informing his actors and directors (who happily seem to have ignored him) that, e.g., “Beverly Crusher’s natural walk resembles that of a striptease queen.”

In terms of plot, the Talosians’ plan doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  a) Why do they need human slaves?  They say that free cooperation with humans would result in humans’ learning their mental powers – but how would they prevent the slaves from doing the same?  b) Assuming they do need slaves, why choose a single Adam-Eve couple?  Wouldn’t it make sense to lure as many of the crew as they could?  Or are they big fans of inbreeding?

Miscellaneous observations:

Several differences from the show as we will later come to know it are evident: a captain more self-doubting than Kirk; a grinning Spock, his distinctive attitude toward emotional displays not yet having been established.  In one of the first hallway scenes we see the crew in casual civilian clothing.  The captain receives information in the form of paper printouts.  Travel at warp speed is called “timewarp,” engaging in it is a big deal that absorbs everyone’s attention, and the accompanying visual effect involves the bridge becoming transparent (a common misstep in science-fiction series:  portraying as very elaborate, in the first episode, some process that will be reused constantly and so needs to be fairly routine; another example would be the Babylon 5 pilot, where it takes two hours for a ship arriving via jumpgate to decelerate before docking with the space station, a detail conveniently forgotten thereafter).  There is talk of using the ship’s armaments, but this turns out to mean transmitting the ship’s power to energy cannons on the planet’s surface below rather than firing directly from the ship; apparently the prospect of space battles between ships has not yet been envisioned.  Oh yes, and the crew use lasers instead of phasers – naturally prompting any good Trek fan to sneer like this.

There are a number of nice touches, such as the eerie effect produced by having the Talosians played by female actors with dubbed male voices.  The vibrating blue metallic plants are strangely effective, as is the briefly glimpsed bird creature in the cell down the hall from Pike’s.  The matte painting for the Rigel VII flashback (unfortunately reused in a later episode for a completely different planet) is strikingly beautiful.  The transporter effect (based on the deceleration fields in Forbidden Planet) is magnificent – I still prefer it to any of the various post-TOS versions.  The flying-saucer look of the Enterprise is probably also a nod to Forbidden Planet’s even more saucery C57-D.

Clearer vision through blu-ray:  

I’d never noticed this before, but Nimoy seems to have a slight limp in the scene where they first land on Talos IV.