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Split Infinity: Jon Wagner’s Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos

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No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop enjoying Star Trek. In my defense, I’ll assert the various Treks do at times provide the pleasures of well-made SF, in which a “fascinating” (thank you, Mr. Spock) idea is extrapolated to its (extra-)logical conclusion. Kirk’s Tribbles and his visit to the City on the Edge of Forever, Picard’s endless Prime Directive quandaries, Sisko’s future socio-political history, even Janeway’s internecine struggles; more often than not I find myself watching puzzles unfold — and, more importantly, the figures who cause or solve those puzzles, so that, in the end, Trek’s characters provide, I think, the deepest rewards.

As with any TV series, familiarity breeds content (ha, ha), and the Treks are generous in their efforts to give us “interesting” (thank you again, Spock) but readily identifiable characters. On the surface, Star Trek is “comfort video,” as challenging (OK, and as good for you) as any beige middle-American meal, and as easy to consume. This partly explains why I’ve recently turned to Enterprise on DVD, perhaps the last Trek series; I’m watching every episode — almost dutifully, I’ll admit (to continue the gustatory analogy, I guess I’m being good and cleaning my plate), but also along the way gathering some rewards: the series takes place about a century before Kirk’s Trek, and includes affectionate nods to the first series’ day-glo aesthetic and mini-skirt/Nehru jacket sensibility; more importantly, in its plots and characters it rewards The Faithful without turning the series into a poster-board presentation at a Trekkie-con.

But, beyond the blandly satisfying familiarity of series television and the intermittent SF rewards, what is it about Trek that holds my interest? I want to get back the characters – specifically, one recurring feature of Trek characterization. To clarify I’ll turn to anthropologist Jon Wagner’s 1998 book, Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, which offers compelling arguments for the Trek-as-myth-cycle, as it charts the shifts in the various Treks as reflections of similar movements in modern American society.

A number of years ago, a friend pointed out that every other culture has their myths set in an imaginary past; modern Western society, on the other hand — at least since the late nineteenth century — positions its myths in the future. Wagner’s book explores how Trek contributes to this future-engineered myth-making, in part how it manipulates its characters. In a section called “The Doppleganger Effect,” Wagner points out how often Treks deal with the idea of the doppleganger, the alter ego that haunts us. He notes that Jung considered this “the strongest of all the archetypes.” This “evil version of the self” is “the repository of all the personal traits that one ordinarily refuses to confront and may actively deny.” Jung insists, though, that we must recognize and reconcile with this double.

Wagner notes that Counselor Troi in The Next Generation actually mentions this in one of many Trek split-personality episodes, “Frame of Mind,” in which she advises Riker to “own” his other self. Like Kirk before him — split in two in one episode (“The Enemy Within”), and elsewhere (“Mirror, Mirror”) propelled into an alternate universe of literally devilish “others” (the alternate Spock particularly fits the bill, not only equipped with his requisite pointed ears but sporting a goatee) — Riker also faces his other self at least twice, as do sundry Trek characters. Most intriguing is the android Data, a “double” himself who time-travels — and whose remains are discovered in his “future” — and who encounters Lore, his manufactured “evil twin.”

As Wagner comments, such splitting/doubling allows for “explicit interaction” between the separated aspects of self. I’m especially attracted to this, since one of the pleasures of Trek characters — and more than that, something that I believe lies at the center of all the Trek myths — is a fundamental principle: “to boldly go” cannot occur until one achieves Jungian “unification with the shadow self” (coincidentia oppositorum). The real “strange new world” is the divided self, that is, the Prime Directive-bound passive observer vs. the explorer/intruder. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer; they all lead us, not just out but in, not merely toward the Peter Pan-ish “second star to the right” (as Kirk commands in the sixth movie, The Undisocvered Country/1991) but to Pan himself, unwilling to grow up, aggressively “striving, seeking, finding and not yielding,” to semi-quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” (And why not, as long as I’m writing about a series that loved to quote the old warhorses?)

From Kirk’s Cold Warrior to Picard’s empathetic concensus-builder, from Janeway’s Wanderer to Sisko’s frontier sheriff-cum-Emissary, and, once more time-traveling, back to Archer’s — well, exactly what I’m not yet sure; Jim Hawkins saving everyone from the pirates in Treasure Island? I haven’t seen enough episodes yet to decide. But taken together, these characters — and their split motivations — seem to vacillate between Self and Double, until they recognize and reconcile, as Wagner and Jung remind us, with the truth that the grotesque figure in the dimness is ourselves.

It is a sly myth because it is an open-ended one: the ultimate sequel. Gene Roddenberry toyed with the basic stuff, sometimes softly yielding, sometimes rock-jagged, that we feel beneath our feet as we make our way through this mythic terrain, accompanied as well as accompanying.

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About Paul J. Marasa