Sci-Fi, So Good

Imagine an undiscovered Star Trek episode, say, from the third season, when the show's consistency and sense of structure had grown slipshod even by its own laughable dramaturgical standards. It begins with the Enterprise routinely chasing a comet when it receives a distress call from a nearby planet--the inhabitants are asking for medical supplies. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to investigate. Hanging around among the papier-mache rock formations they find a group of technologically sophisticated humans of passive temperament and austere personal habits--including castration-enforced celibacy; they are led by a bald, wide-eyed guru.

Introducing a touch of personal drama, one of the inhabitants is the brother of the Trek crew's Lieutenant Uhura. Soon it is revealed that the medical supply the group has requested--Phenobarbital--is intended for a mass suicide. The comet, says the leader, is a sign, and he's spurred his people to take their own lives to achieve "the next level of being."

In a real Star Trek episode, is it at all likely that our heroes would approve? Wouldn't Kirk simply employ his usual blustery oratory to talk them out of it? In any case, this much is certain--the Enterprise dudes wouldn't have stood for this castration crap for a second.

One year ago this week (March 26), the "Heaven's Gate" cultists were found dead at Rancho Santa Fe in California. Illogical as their mass suicide was, and heavily examined as it was, one factor of it has gone largely unprobed: the cult's reverence for science fiction in general and for Star Trek in particular.

The tie was reinforced by the ghastly fact that one dead cultist, Thomas Nichols, was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original series and in six of the feature films. In one of the cult's farewell videos, a woman touches a communicator and says "39 to beam up."

Shortly after the event, the Star tabloid ran the headline "How Star Trek and X-Files led loonies to their deaths." How, indeed? The Heaven's Gaters grievously misread Star Trek (and The X-Files, for that matter) if they thought their action was in the show's spirit. Star Trek wasn't great as art; it was mostly junk. But it was high-blooded junk. It deserves better than an association with these literal-minded twits.

Let's look at the record. There's an original-series episode not so different from the Heaven's Gate scenario. In the third season's The Way to Eden, the Enterprise is commandeered by a band of space hippies who follow a bald, wide-eyed guru on a mad, self-destructive quest for a paradise planet. Things don't work out well when they find it--the plants turn out to be full of acid, the fruit deadly poisonous. Yet the guru insists on eating it and dies.

Star Trek has become a pop myth largely because of the lustiness of its values. The show was about the need to retain our humanity in a universe of ever-accelerating technology and discovery. Its most frequently explored theme was the danger of relying on cold intellect over hot blood. It saw human pain, frailty and folly as a worthwhile trade-off for emotion, sensuality and passion. Like most good sci-fi, it was always less about the future than the present.

The series is littered with episodes whose, if you will, pro-life themes make the case against the Heaven's Gate solution:

Charlie X--Troubled telekinetic adolescent Charlie doesn't want to leave human society and return to life with the Thasians, the incorporeal aliens who raised him, precisely because they are incapable of feeling.

What Are Little Girls Made Of?--In the finale, Dr. Corby realizes, to his horror, that the perfect robot body he has built for himself has made him less human because he is unable to feel.

A Taste of Armageddon--Kirk & Co. must set straight a planet on which people allow themselves to be put to death en masse so that a mathematical war of computers can be perpetuated.

Return to Tomorrow--A long-disembodied entity who is permitted to temporarily possess Kirk's body exults in the joys of feeling and sensation.

By Any Other Name--The Kelvans, superbeings who have taken human form, are distracted from galactic invasion when Kirk, McCoy and Scotty introduce them to the joys of kissing, eating and getting shitfaced.

--M. V. Moorhead

Star Trek, the original series, airs locally at 11 p.m. Sundays on Channel 61.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead