“The following program contains material that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”: The Menagerie

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"In the not-too-distant future, next Sunday, A.D...."

WARNING: THE HISTORICAL EVENTS HEREIN DESCRIBED HAVE BEEN DECLARED PART OF A FIXED POINT IN TIME BY THE UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS TEMPORAL INTEGRITY COMMISSION UNDER THE TEMPORAL ACCORDS. NO STARSHIP, AGENT OR OTHER ACTOR IS TO APPROACH THESE EVENTS FOR ANY REASON OR PURPOSE. ANY TEMPORAL INCURSION DURING THESE EVENTS WILL BE CONSIDERED A LEVEL TEN EMERGENCY. THE TIMELINE MUST BE PRESERVED.

So what we have here a grossly overspent production budget forcing the show to hastily retool “The Cage” into a clip show interspersed with footage filmed using sets, costumes and indeed the entire actual plot recycled from “Court Martial”. Incidentally, we've also now had to stretch the already tortoiselike pacing of “The Cage” to a two-parter to accommodate the new framing device which we've turned over to Gene Roddenberry again to write the script for. Miraculously, however, despite all of this and almost by complete accident, this is a story so gratuitously oversignified it shoots the show straight into the symbolic stratosphere. “The Menagerie” may not be the best episode of the original Star Trek, but it may well be the most archetypical.

It is worth noting this was not the original plan for “The Cage”: Roddenberry had hoped to turn it into a full-length movie with a new first half depicting the crash of the Columbia. It was Bob Justman who convinced Roddenberry to adapt it into “The Menagerie” because the show had run out of both scripts and money, and the fact Roddenberry had wanted to take a story that had already somehow managed to be simultaneously too crammed full of details and concepts for only an hour and too ponderously paced to be especially enjoyable television and make it into a feature film probably tells you everything you need to know about Roddenberry at this point. It would be both easy and churlish of me to call the framing device Roddenberry writes for this episode “predictably terrible” as we have in fact seen more than a few solid outings from him, but even so this has got to be one of his worst efforts at least from a purely structural perspective: The new material is absolutely riddled with yawning, cavernous plot holes that threaten to leave “The Menagerie” actually incoherent as a text at numerous points and the justification for forcing the court to sit through a Star Trek rerun is more than a little flimsy. At least Roddenberry doesn't introduce any new major female characters this time so we're thankfully spared his usual gender issues.

But getting bogged down in silly little things like “plot”, “narrative logic” and “coherence” is the wrong approach to take with something like “The Menagerie”. This is one of the single most iconic stories in the Original Series, and rightly so in my opinion. The first thing to note is that “The Menagerie” is clearly trying to be just as much about honour, duty and procedure as “Court Martial” was. While it lacks the grandiose, sweeping Aubrey-Matarin pomposity we got last time, it could perhaps be argued the theatrical theme we've been building over the past few weeks exists here in the form of Roddenberry himself, who seems here to be doing a halfway decent impersonation of Don M. Mankiewicz. And, just like “Court Martial”, the framing device segments of “The Menagerie” can be read as the show taking its original premise as far as it can possible go.

The definition of a narrative collapse story is one where both textual and metatextual elements conspire together in an attempt to destroy the text's ability to tell its own stories. At first it seems like this is what “The Menagerie” is trying to do: Spock lies and betrays Kirk and the crew, commits high treason, commandeers the Enterprise, kidnaps Pike and takes the ship on a course to the one world it is absolutely forbidden to visit, a standing order whose violation is punishable by death. But, upon closer inspection, that's really not what's going on here: Rather, what “The Menagerie” is doing is continuing “Court Martial”'s conviction to pushing Star Trek to its logical limit. The biggest evidence for this reading is Spock himself, who has always had an air of suspicion about him. We always worried he might attempt something like this, and it's even more fitting that when he actually does he does so out of logic and duty. two concepts that have been absolutely central to both his character and the show at large since the beginning. As this is a militaristic setting there is of course legal drama aplenty (just like last time), but here we have a script that (at first, at least) invites us to question honour and loyalty, as pursuing those ideals has led Spock to violate everyone's trust in him.

Furthermore, this time the show is taking its introspection and self examination to the extreme by literally going back to its own beginning: We not only return to Talos IV but we get to see the actual pilot play out in front of us once again.

WARNING: THE HISTORICAL EVENTS HEREIN DESCRIBED HAVE BEEN DECLARED PART OF A FIXED POINT IN TIME BY THE UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS TEMPORAL INTEGRITY COMMISSION UNDER THE TEMPORAL ACCORDS. NO STARSHIP, AGENT OR OTHER ACTOR IS TO APPROACH THESE EVENTS FOR ANY REASON OR PURPOSE. ANY TEMPORAL INCURSION DURING THESE EVENTS WILL BE CONSIDERED A LEVEL TEN EMERGENCY. THE TIMELINE MUST BE PRESERVED.

Indeed it's what “The Menagerie” does to “The Cage” that's the most immediately interesting thing on display here from my perspective. Although not the first time the original pilot had been seen outside NBC (Roddenberry aired both it and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at the Cleveland, Ohio World Science Fiction Convention in early 1966) this was the first time the vast majority of people had seen it, so it must have been a sort of television event. The contrast between the set design and cinematography of “The Cage” and what Star Trek had become by this point alone must have been impressive to see, and I'd imagine adequately conveyed the illusion the show had more money and resources than it actually did. Furthermore, from an ethical standpoint, the way this episode handles the concept of the Talosians' power of illusion is far more satisfying than what we originally got.

What Pike is suffering from in this episode can best be described as a kind of sci-fi version of total locked-in syndrome, a rare condition where a patient's entire voluntary muscular system is completely paralyzed, rendering them fully awake and conscious but unable to move or communicate. Pike is very lucky to exist in a world where the technology exists, even at a rudimentary level, to restore him some ability to speak with others. What this allows the show to do is shift the meaning of the cage metaphor: Where previously it had been a literal description of the Talosian zoo as a way to express how humans detest even a gilded cage, here it becomes a symbolic extension of Pike's imprisonment in his own body, thus immediately bringing to mind transhumanistic issues. McCoy even gets a line in part 1 where he just about states this word-for-word, making the link explicit.

Transhumanism is a popular subject for the kind of science fiction Star Trek occasionally find itself a part of, and the idea that humanity somehow needs to transcend its mortal shackles is a reoccurring theme in futurist writing of this type. This has as much capacity to become a rewarding thread of discourse as it does to become a highly problematic and contentious worldview: One does get the sense with some transhumanist writing that being physical entities is somehow not enough, and that nature is somehow holding humans back. This begins to touch on spiritualist concerns I'm not quite prepared to talk about yet, but for now let's return to a thread we first touched on in the post on “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”. Even if you posit that the self and consciousness are purely material things, it is still certainly possible to conceive of a model of it that conceptualises the experiential self as a product of that materialism: Even something like Buddhist ego death does not by definition preclude this. That our physical existence is somehow a hindrance to enlightenment would seem to smack of Cartesian Dualism, which is descended from a very classical, traditional kind of Christian intellectual tradition that has gone out of vogue even in contemporary Western philosophy.

(There is an additional wrinkle here unique to Star Trek and it's position during the end of the Space Age concerning the fact some sci-fi writers and thinkers of the period reasoned transhumanist enlightenment, though it wasn't called that at the time, had to be found in outer space as we hadn't found it on Earth yet, but we'll pick that up in 1969 with the most obvious Sensor Scan entry yet).

Thankfully for Captain Pike his condition seems far more straightforward: Spock's decision to return him to Talos IV so he can live out the rest of his natural life with the illusion of full mobility and the ability to communicate, and the opportunity to go anywhere his mind desires, seems like the obvious solution. That said, were it me I'd far prefer to go dig up Doctor Korby and ask him to show me how to upload myself into an android body: “The Menagerie” doesn't quite manage to break free of “The Cage”'s Platonic cave message. But what this also manages to do is

WARNING: THE HISTORICAL EVENTS HEREIN DESCRIBED HAVE BEEN DECLARED PART OF A FIXED POINT IN TIME BY THE UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS TEMPORAL INTEGRITY COMMISSION UNDER THE TEMPORAL ACCORDS. NO STARSHIP, AGENT OR OTHER ACTOR IS TO APPROACH THESE EVENTS FOR ANY REASON OR PURPOSE. ANY TEMPORAL INCURSION DURING THESE EVENTS WILL BE CONSIDERED A LEVEL TEN EMERGENCY. THE TIMELINE MUST BE PRESERVED.

re-position “The Cage” in Star Trek's evolving mythos, or perhaps to be more accurate try to give it a position at all. The events of the pilot are retconned to be thirteen years prior to those of the framing device and Pike's Enterprise is now explicitly a part of Starfleet, not the Earth based Space Air Force. If I'm allowed one of my more cynical observations, I'd say this is probably the primary reason this episode is beloved by fans so much as it helps streamline the original pilot into a kind of Star Trek “canon”, which it is otherwise completely irreconcilable with.

But, once again, it's Star Trek's commitment to justifying its existence over these past few weeks that makes this all worthwhile. No matter how stilted the plot devices to get us to this point are, the fact remains we have an entire episode dedicated to watching Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scott watching Pike, Number One, Colt, Spock and Tyler on television. We have Star Trek's present not only watching it's own past, but critiquing it. This isn't Spock on trial, it's Roddenberry: This is Gene Coon's Star Trek evaluating and judging Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. In that regard, the scenes where Kirk, Uhura or Commodore Mendez keep interrupting the broadcast or get impatient with Spock and complain about how much time the transmission is wasting are actively hilarious. As I said in my essay on “The Conscience of the King” I'm positive Coon's team was not ridiculing or being dismissive of the show at all, but taken within the context of the terse behind-the-scenes climate it does feel like the tensions onscreen are a painfully fitting reflection of those on the Desilu lot.

Which brings me to perhaps the most curious thing about “The Menagerie”: Why, exactly, is contact with Talos IV so explicitly forbidden to the point where a violation of Starfleet General Order 7 is punishable by death? It's true the Talosians' illusory powers have the potential to be quite dangerous and that they expressed some concern about what might happen if they fell into the wrong hands, but I was under the impression the whole point of “The Cage” was that Pike showed the Talosians reality is more important than illusion and that humanity's abhorrence of imprisonment meant they were unsuitable for the planetary reconstruction effort. If the Talosians had no further interest in humans, why would Starfleet consider them to still be dangerous, let alone dangerous enough to justify imposing the death penalty on anyone who visits their homeworld?

Although I remain at a loss for a diegetic explanation, perhaps the answer may lie with the extradiegetic: Perhaps the reason it is forbidden to travel to Talos IV is because to return there is to return to the origin of Star Trek. Roddenberry's “Cage” didn't just trap Captain Pike, it trapped the show, and from the moment Star Trek went to series it's been more than clear that its being held back by baggage left over from the original pilot. Gene Coon's entire tenure so far has been defined by a desire to push the boundaries of what the show can do in every direction, and that includes showing us the consequences of being slavishly loyal to the show's original premise. Following that thread to its conclusion yields not just entrapment, but death. Star Trek has nowhere to go from there: It's a non-starter, a narrative dead end. Returning to Talos IV means returning to “The Cage”, and that would be death sentence for Star Trek. Also note Starfleet Command dropped all charges against Spock and the Enterprise crew after watching the transmission and judging their actions to be in keeping with the spirit of exploration: The show has found a way to avoid that death, at least for now. And with the last of its demons accounted for, if not quite exorcised, Coon is finally free to continue to shepherd the Star Trek franchise's journey toward its own enlightenment.

WARNING: THE HISTORICAL EVENTS HEREIN DESCRIBED HAVE BEEN DECLARED PART OF A FIXED POINT IN TIME BY THE UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS TEMPORAL INTEGRITY COMMISSION UNDER THE TEMPORAL ACCORDS. NO STARSHIP, AGENT OR OTHER ACTOR IS TO APPROACH THESE EVENTS FOR ANY REASON OR PURPOSE. ANY TEMPORAL INCURSION DURING THESE EVENTS WILL BE CONSIDERED A LEVEL TEN EMERGENCY. THE TIMELINE MUST BE PRESERVED.

THE TIMELINE MUST BE PRESERVED.

THE TIMELINE MUST BE PRESERVED.

Comments

Jack Graham 4 years ago

"That our physical existence is somehow a hindrance to enlightenment would seem to smack of Cartesian Dualism, which is descended from a very classical, traditional kind of Christian intellectual tradition that has gone out of vogue even in contemporary Western philosophy." Yeeees... except that Descartes was also a decisive break with older traditions of philosophy and introduced the decidedly modern bases of reductionism and determinism into philosophy, fitting with the rise of modernity and the attendant rise of empirical science, etc. Reductionism and determinism are still very much in vogue in science, as elsewhere, sadly. Descartes represents a convenient point at which to locate a decisive break with the pre-modern tradition of Aristotelian idealist dialectics (which were themselves something of an unfortunate victory over the more material dialectics of Democritus et al). It would take Marx to reintroduce the material dialectic into Western philosophy.

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Alex Wilcock 4 years ago

I find myself agreeing with almost every word this time! I’ve always been drawn to stories that had hints of other, bigger histories that you could never see (I probably got that from Bob Holmes and JRR Tolkien), so this one stuck in my head as peculiarly fascinating as a boy – and everyone could do an impression of Captain Pike in the chair. Framed as The Menagerie, I wanted to see more of it… Now you can actually see The Cage, I want to see less of it (a movie! Christ on a bike! Though I suppose Rodenberry got his wish to make the most ponderous and boring Star Trek remake movie imaginable in the end). I think I’m right in that as well as ret-conning the story as you say, it also removes a little of the more egregious drooling sexist scenes (saying ‘they’re voyeurs and icky’ doesn’t really excuse them being icky voyeurs), but it still keeps what for me seems the most jaw-dropping line in the whole of Star Trek, for Jeffrey Hunter playing it absolutely straight and, indeed disgusted: the ‘moral’ that ugly women should stay tranked to the eyeballs and never go outside – “And I agreed with her reasons.”

As I didn’t comment on The Cage, it seems appropriate to goggle at its toned-down version. I said under Court Martial that even when I was little, Star Trek was so sexist I just wrote that off, but I can remember seeing the unadulterated Cage for the first time, probably when I was at uni, and this one being so bad that my jaw just dropped. And at intro from Gene Rodenberry claiming that he invented feminism too, I think, if I wasn’t hallucinating.

To be fair to the framing device, as you say it does end up being a critique that’s in its own way an early redemptive reading – The Cage looking so 1950s suddenly becomes a “13 years ago” asset that it never is on its own – but I find it much more watchable this way. It’s when the second episode’s so much more nearly pure Cage that I tend to lose interest. Even the contrivances are more entertaining: Spock’s terrific, which is always fun to watch, and I do enjoy the twist of getting Pike into the trial. Also that the Enterprise holds so many senior officers’ uniforms in its dressing-up box, in case there’s a war they’re losing and Kirk and Spock get promoted to field Commodore so they can have a Carry On Up the Khyber final formal meal as the ship caves in around them (actually, I want to watch that instead). Which reminds me that Kirk is surely the last character who’d interrupt the sexist, “animal” dancing girl clips – Shagger Kirk not caring about the naked green lady being as improbably as Kenneth Williams complaining ‘It’s always at the best bit!’ where the picture goes.

Excellent meta-reason for the planet being the only one to carry the death penalty. Makes much more sense than ‘Planet of the Lotus-Eaters, death; planet that could wipe the entire Federation from ever having existed, meh,’ as later context would suggest.

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trekker709 4 years ago

I like your take on the most curious point--if the Talosians had no further interest in humans, why did Starfleet still consider them dangerous enough to justify the death penalty for visiting their planet? why was that added in the reframed script?
You suggest that in Menagerie, Starfleet dropped charges against the Enterprise crew because “their actions were judged to be in keeping with the spirit of exploration” thus redeeming the show from the pilot episode….interesting.
Another view-- when The Cage was criticized for being too cerebral, The Menagerie responded by condemning the Talosians for retreating into private fantasy worlds instead of dealing with reality. And--Spock is revealed to have a compassionate side under his cold Vulcan detachment-- risking everything to give new life to his former commander trapped in a cage of physical disability.

It makes sense to me now, that ST was not about utopia in the beginning. Also I agree about GR’s quotes, he seemed to take credit in later interviews for others’ contributions to the show.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Although not the first time the original pilot had been seen outside NBC (Roddenberry aired both it and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at the Cleveland, Ohio World Science Fiction Convention in early 1966)

Considering how much Star Trek is now associated with science fiction conventions, it's a major perspective-adjuster to see that you could do such a canny media move back then.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

I think it's very revealing that the trend to fixate on reductionism, empiricism and rationality as well as the tacitly Christian dualistic conception of the self can in some sense be traced back to the same person, or at least the same intellectual tradition. Westernism, especially western science, isn't quite as detached and aloof as it likes to think it is.

Now I want to go re-read Avital Ronell's The Test Drive...

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

"As I didn’t comment on The Cage, it seems appropriate to goggle at its toned-down version. I said under Court Martial that even when I was little, Star Trek was so sexist I just wrote that off, but I can remember seeing the unadulterated Cage for the first time, probably when I was at uni, and this one being so bad that my jaw just dropped. And at intro from Gene Rodenberry claiming that he invented feminism too, I think, if I wasn’t hallucinating."

Yeah, that sounds like something Roddenberry would do alright.

"Also that the Enterprise holds so many senior officers’ uniforms in its dressing-up box, in case there’s a war they’re losing and Kirk and Spock get promoted to field Commodore so they can have a Carry On Up the Khyber final formal meal as the ship caves in around them (actually, I want to watch that instead)."

Careful, you'll give Ron Moore and Ira Behr ideas ;-)

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

"You suggest that in Menagerie, Starfleet dropped charges against the Enterprise crew because “their actions were judged to be in keeping with the spirit of exploration” thus redeeming the show from the pilot episode….interesting."

Uhura actually says as much in the show itself: After the court finishes watching "The Cage" she calls in to say Starfleet Command has been watching the whole thing and are making a special exception to General Order 7 in this case due to the value Spock's actions had for "exploration". While it doesn't go much further than that, it's fun to extrapolate that out to a redemptive reading.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

It was a surprise to me too. Even back then Roddenberry was very good at selling himself and targeting his fans.

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trekker709 4 years ago

If you’ll forgive one further comment on this --wonder if the word Talos had a particular significance? many inconsistent stories about this figure in Greek mythology. In one version he (or it – a living statue) was destroyed by being driven mad with hallucinations. Maybe the Talosians are imagination itself (?) portrayed as unisex, and morally ambivalent-- abilities used for both harm and good. The cage metaphor can be the human body, or a schoolroom with the Talosians as sinister teachers, or marriage where each partner feels imprisoned by the other, or a career where one is trapped with manipulative superiors, etc. As you say, the episode is one of “the single most iconic stories in the original series.”
There are some interesting asides on startrekhistory’s “The Cage Page” – Susan Oliver became a record-setting pilot who wrote a book about flying solo around the globe. Jeffrey Hunter is quoted as saying “the show is actually based on the Rand Corporation’s projection of things to come….the underlying theme is a philosophical approach to man’s relationship to woman.” In some ways I can see why he’d say that, about GR’s work at least.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

No, by all means, comment away! Since I get an email notification whenever a new comment gets posted, I frequently dialog with people on older entries. Time is not linear within this domain, you see.

I think that's a really great reading of the Talosians, and definitely supportable. That's what's so great about episodes like this, I feel: They're oversignified enough that the material is really there for you to take it any number of fun ways.

In regards to the actors: Yeah, I can totally see Hunter coming away with that take given what working with Roddenberry at this point must have been like. As for Susan Oliver, well, that just makes me even more confidant in my belief actors are frequently far more interesting people than the characters they play.

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

The phrase "Aubrey-Maturin pomposity" is a bit like saying "Spock-McCoy stoicism," or "Scully-Mulder skepticism," or "Quark-Odo avarice."

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

Reductionism and determinism are still very much in vogue in science, as elsewhere, sadly.

Aristotelian idealist dialectics ... which were themselves something of an unfortunate victory over the more material dialectics of Democritus

This is an odd conjunction of judgments. If (as I agree) reductionism and determinism are bad things, why would their defeat by the more holistic Aristotelean view be a bad thing?

I'm also not sure what you mean by calling Aristotle's position "idealist."

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

I've always been surprised that Spock grinning wasn't one of the things they cut.

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

In my own post on "The Cage" I write: "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."

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

I agree: That and the cringe-inducing "The Women!" line, which I actually though for some reason they *had* cut.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

I agree, but I had to come up with some way to encompass that style in once phrase on the one hand while acknowledging all the contributions...Maybe I should have gone with Hornblower instead on that one.

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

I always assumed Spock was referring to the Clare Boothe Luce play. He'd been trying to remember the title for days.

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

My comment seems to have vanished into the ether, so I hereby reconstruct it.

The following conjunction of judgments puzzled me:

Reductionism and determinism are still very much in vogue in science, as elsewhere, sadly.

Aristotelian idealist dialectics (which were themselves something of an unfortunate victory over the more material dialectics of Democritus

If reductionism and determinism are bad, as the first quote implies, why would their displacement by the more holistic Aristotelean view be a bad thing, as the second quote implies?

Also, in what sense is Aristotle "idealist"?

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years ago

That is hereby part of my official headcanon.

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

I also want to quarrel a bit with this:

Descartes was also a decisive break with older traditions of philosophy

I think Descartes's actual views were much more continuous with Thomistic Aristoteleanism than the the textbook-cartoon of Descartes. See for example Paul Hoffman's work.

Also:

It would take Marx to reintroduce the material dialectic into Western philosophy.

I'm not sure how much Marx added that wasn't already part of late 18th and early 19th century French sociological thought.

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BerserkRL 4 years ago

Here's Hoffman's own summary of his findings: http://web.archive.org/web/20080216005944/http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~phoffman/on_descartes.html

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