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.


  1. Nimoy does, in fact limp in that scene: In the original shooting script it would have been established that Spock was on the same Rigel mission Pike barely survived and was injured, so Nimoy was feigning a limp to sell that bit of exposition. There's also a bridge officer with a bandaged hand for the same reason. The dialogue establishing this was dropped when the show was actually filmed, however.

  2. I thought it might have been more interesting if the Talosians didn't imprison the humans, but kept them on the planet only with illusions of pleasant life. The episode as it is, the main problem is being closed in a cage - it's what make Pike angry and makes him act. Without the imprisonment, the episode might emphesize that the problem is not leading your life acitvely, and dissatisfaction with comfortable but inactive life would prompt the humans to try to leave the planet. I a have a vague memory of seeing or reading something like that but can't remember what it was.