“This act is the dawn of the Mythic...”: The Magicks of Megas-Tu

(12 comments)

And this is where our story begins. And so it continues.

There are very few Star Trek episodes you could point to and identify as moments where everything about the franchise simply changed, mostly because there are very few actual moments like that anywhere. History does not divide neatly into clean, compartmentalized bits: It's a constantly unfolding tapestry of intersecting lives and events.

“The Magicks of Megas-Tu” is one of those moments. Magick is real.

In the time of the First Ancestors, when the world was new, there was a Spark at the beginning of All Things: A barely-formed thought that dared dream. The Dream the Dreamer Dreamt was the mortal plane, the idea that things continued and shaped themselves as they would. In this Dream, divinity existed within and between each individual. And this was a very dangerous idea.

Conventional cosmological wisdom holds that the further away we can look into space, the further back in time we see. This is because the speed of light is a constant, thus the light we observe from a fixed location has taken us an equal amount of time to reach us as the distance it is away from us. Thus, the furthest, most distant objects are by definition the oldest. This is the line of thought Captain Kirk muses on as the Enterprise travels to the centre of the galaxy, supposedly the region of space closest to the origin point of cosmic history.

Star Trek fan lore perports that the entire franchise takes place within the boundaries of the Milky Way Galaxy, with very few excursions beyond (the events depicted in “By Any Other Name” and the two “...Have Gone Before” stories are the most frequently cited: “Beyond the Farthest Star” is typically not accounted for in this accounts). Even Star Trek Voyager, as removed as it is from 24th century politics, still only takes place at the other end of the galaxy, not somewhere outside it. The Star Trek universe, then this version of events holds, encompasses only the “known space” of the Milky Way Galaxy.

There is a certain line of thinking within cosmology that the universe simply could not have come into being out of nothing during the Big Bang, as the idea of something spontaneously emerging from nothing is simply incomprehensible. A more helpful thesis, this account goes, is that the Big Bang is the dividing point between two universes, and that universes exist in a constant, repeating cycle of expansion and contraction.

The Enterprise and her crew approach the center of the galaxy. The closer they get, the more and more the laws of physics seem to break down. All the ship's systems cease to function.

Current quantum physics theory posits there are at least eleven dimensions of space-time. This hypothesis is a response to a kind of particle behaviour known as “quantum tunneling”, where particles appear to disappear from one location and reappear in another. The theory goes they're not phasing in and out of existence, but travelling in higher dimensions that humans cannot measure.

At a certain point quantum physics ceases to behave like physics as humans comprehend it.

At the centre of the galaxy, the Enterprise discovers a solitary planet. They are greeted by a being named Lucien, and he calls himself friend to humans. This planet is called Megas-Tu, and it is from where all the magick in the world came. Magick that Lucien uses to repair the Enterprise, and that its crew soon learn to master themselves.

This is a tale from when the world was young. The Megans wander the universe and live in harmony with it. They are a good people, and are eager to help anyone who might share their philosophy of wisdom, spirituality and inner peace. The Megans discover Earth, and make friends with many Earth people. They like living on Earth, and offer their knowledge and support to any Earth people who wish it. It is in this way the Megans come to be seen as trusted advisers. But the Earth people are jealous and distrustful and covet power for themselves. It is in this way the Megans become hated and feared and are banished from Earth forever. And this is how magick departs our world.

Lucien is the rebel of the Megans. He maintains his love for and fondness of humans long after the Megans are banished, and this puts him at frequent odds with his kin. He is a jovial fellow, with the legs and feet of a goat, the torso and head of a man distinguished only by a pair of small horns. He goes by many names. Christians of Earth seem to remember him as Lucifer the Trickster and Deceiver, though Kirk and Spock remain uncertain that this is his true identity. He is far more reminiscent, both in appearance and personality, of the one known to the Greeks as Pan and the one known to the Celts as Cernunnos.

It was a reoccurring joke in the original Star Trek to point out the superficial similarities between Spock and the stereotypical conception of Satan, namely the fact both have pointed ears. In “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, Spock is referred to by Lucien as an Elf.

This is a scene familiar to all of us. The entire Enterprise crew stands trial, accused of the crime of being representatives of a grievously savage race by the Megan Asmodeus, who takes the form of an inquisitor in a recreation of Salem, Massachusetts as it appears during the infamous Witch Trials. Asmodeus fears that the reappearance of humanity means that the sanctuary of Megas-Tu has been tainted by evil, and further declares that Lucien is to be punished for his role in cultivating it. Spock plays the role of defense attorney as he, being Vulcan, has a unique perspective on human culture. Spock calls Kirk to the witness stand, who claims that the human society he and the rest of the Enterprise crew represent are different from the ones known to the Megans on Earth.

Kirk posits a hypothesis unthinkable to Asmodeus: That humanity is capable of improvement and is always learning and growing and has already moved beyond the hatred and fear the Megans experienced, and invites him to peruse the ship's record banks as evidence. Asmodeus is convinced by Kirk's compelling case, but maintains Lucien must still be punished. Kirk refuses and stands firmly by Lucien's actions, even if he is Lucifer. As a display of his empathy, Kirk states that he is prepared to give his life for Lucien's. To him, Asmodeus is now no different from the humans he claims to despise and fear. A great magickal war rocks Megas-Tu. The primordial forces of the Old/New Cosmos cry out in the singular horrific moment of Knowing. It is at this moment everything dies and begins again.

The Enterprise lies afloat in the afterglow of the birth of the universe. Spock wonders aloud if Lucien really is Lucifer. Kirk asks him why it matters. Spock says that if he is, this is the first time Lucifer has been saved.

Ultimately, what “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” does is finally live up to the potential Star Trek has forever tantalizingly been hinting at, most notably in third season scripts like “The Tholian Web”, but really dating all the way back to Robert Bloch introducing sorcery to the Original Series in “Catspaw”. This is no longer “telepathy” or “mental sciences” or non-corporial energy, this is literal, actual magick in the cosmic microwave background radiation of the universe. Adrift on the cosmic tide, the Enterprise has travelled along its own lineage back to its own Big Bang and discovered magick at the heart of the universe, and at the heart of Star Trek. Most importantly, its crew have learned how to be wizards themselves.

And it all begins once more.

And this is where our story begins. And so it continues.

Comments

BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

There is a certain line of thinking within cosmology that the universe simply could not have come into being out of nothing during the Big Bang, as the idea of something spontaneously emerging from nothing is simply incomprehensible. A more helpful thesis, this account goes, is that the Big Bang is the dividing point between two universes, and that universes exist in a constant, repeating cycle of expansion and contraction.

The universe (and here I mean everything, so any "previous" universe" would just be an earlier state if the universe) can have a finite history without coming into being from nothing, if the past itself is finite. That way, there's no time when there was nothing, and no transition from nonbeing to being; the universe has existed through all past time without having existed for an infinite amount of time, and so we avoid both a) the paradox of an infinite past, and b) the paradox of coming into existence out of nothing.

In short, "reality has always existed" is ambiguous, and we avoid both kinds of paradox by affirming it in one sense while denying it in the other.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

Christians of Earth seem to remember him as Lucifer the Trickster and Deceiver, though Kirk and Spock remain uncertain that this is his true identity.

There was a goblin, or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies, the most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

Kirk posits a hypothesis unthinkable to Asmodeus: That humanity is capable of improvement and is always learning and growing and has already moved beyond the hatred and fear the Megans experienced, and invites him to peruse the ship's record banks as evidence. Asmodeus is convinced by Kirk's compelling case

In some post of your that I read recently -- but I just went through two months of them so I don't remember which it was -- you complained about Kirk's offering the Federation as evidence of human improvement, which seems to be what's happening here also. Is this different?

My question would be more coherent (or possibly wouldn't need to be asked at all) if I could remember what the other post was.

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FlexFantastic 3 years, 4 months ago

This is easily the most memorable episode of TAS, and one that I delight in knowing is out there under the Star Trek banner. I'll be curious if/how you draw out the repercussions of this episode on the future of the franchise. To my mind it's always seemed a bit of a (undeserved) dead end. Even DS9, which is probably otherwise the most mystical series of the franchise, doesn't seem to go in this explicitly with straight-up magic.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

That may actually have been last time.

Either way, the difference here is in what Kirk's argument actually is. he's not saying the Federation proves humanity is perfect, evolved and utopian, he's saying the Federation is evidence humanity *is capable* of growth, is *always trying to* grow and is already better than the humanity Asmodeus knew, even if it still has plenty of growing to do.

It's in my opinion a far more tempered and nuanced version of the claim and a far more laudable one (it is, in fact, this very distinction that's going to trip up Star Trek: The Next Generation more frequently than is really comfortable).

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

I do indeed plan on picking this thread up with DS9. In fact, DS9's ambivalence about how far to go with the magick is going to be one of the things I call it out for later on in its life (although frankly there's enough in "Emissary" alone to go the distance).

But we're not done with magick for the time being either...

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K. Jones 3 years, 4 months ago

This is a gorgeous thread to connect us to future DS9 elements, even in as far as magick being universal connective tissue; or an ability to activate it, and skip to the furthest distances and meet Eldritch races. (God, to say nothing of Celtic influence on everything from Bajor to real life Changelings, or "orbs" shaped like wormholes or incredibly Tralfamadorian prophets who can play Multiple Choice with history.)

Really, don't all science fiction characters eventually create themselves, or their own fictional universes? Anyway, it's always lovely to see Star Trek shift from immram to echtra. I love it when other worlds are just Otherworld.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

Given this, I'll be anxious to see what you think of the post I just finished writing, not to mention today's.

The connection of all of this to DS9 in the future is of course both terribly exciting and terribly on point :-)

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 4 months ago

I'm afraid most of the physics in this post is wrong. (Fortunately, the rest of the post doesn't depend on this.)

"Conventional cosmological wisdom holds that the further away we can look into space, the further back in time we see. This is because the speed of light is a constant, thus the light we observe from a fixed location has taken us an equal amount of time to reach us as the distance it is away from us. Thus, the furthest, most distant objects are by definition the oldest."

- True enough, although "conventional cosmological wisdom" is putting it rather weakly. Relativity theory is so deeply embedded in modern technology that many of the systems we rely on daily would simply not work if it weren't correct to a very high order of accuracy, never mind the many rigorous and precise experiments.

"There is a certain line of thinking within cosmology that the universe simply could not have come into being out of nothing during the Big Bang, as the idea of something spontaneously emerging from nothing is simply incomprehensible. A more helpful thesis, this account goes, is that the Big Bang is the dividing point between two universes, and that universes exist in a constant, repeating cycle of expansion and contraction."

- There's nothing odd about time starting at the Big Bang, any more than there's anything odd about north starting at the North Pole. It is true that there have been oscillating "Big Bang - Big Crunch" models proposed, but these are not considered seriously any more, as all the evidence points to the Universe continuing to expand for ever.

"Current quantum physics theory posits there are at least eleven dimensions of space-time. This hypothesis is a response to a kind of particle behaviour known as “quantum tunneling”, where particles appear to disappear from one location and reappear in another. The theory goes they're not phasing in and out of existence, but travelling in higher dimensions that humans cannot measure."

It's string theory that posits a higher number of dimensions (often eleven), with all those above four compactified. This is not quantum theory, it is a specific kind of theory within particle physics that attempts to explain the different types and masses of elementary particles within one unified mathematical structure. There is currently no evidence that it is true, and the indications from the Large Hadron Collider are that at least some versions of string theory may be ruled out. However, even if string theory turns out to be completely wrong (as I rather suspect), that will not affect quantum physics one jot.

String theory has nothing whatsoever to do with quantum tunneling, and tunneling has nothing to do with particles moving through higher dimensions. Tunneling is a basic consequence of the fact that quantum particles do not behave like classical billiard balls, but instead have wave-like properties. As a wave is a non-localised phenomenon, a quantum particle cannot be completely confined in any finite system. No other dimensions required. Indeed, a quantum particle exhibits this behaviour even in one dimension.

"At a certain point quantum physics ceases to behave like physics as humans comprehend it."

- No, quantum physics is physics as humans comprehend it. Unless you think I'm a Time Lord?

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

I was afraid this wasn't going to go over so well.

Physics is not my strong point. It's clearly yours, which is why I'm glad you chimed in to provide the necessary context. I intentionally went out of my way to try and avoid making any firm declarative statements about physics here: The opinions I cite are quite expressly meant to be just that, things people have said over time about different aspects of a developing field. I went with assorted quotes, hearsay and populist press from different decades for a reason, and it seems to have backfired on me anyway.

What I was trying to aim for here was some sort of general framework that would allow me to compare the language of physics and magickal symbolism. I was trying for Miss Hawthorne.

Clearly I failed.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 3 months ago

"What I was trying to aim for here was some sort of general framework that would allow me to compare the language of physics and magickal symbolism. I was trying for Miss Hawthorne.

Clearly I failed."

I don't think it's something that it's possible to succeed at, if that's any comfort.

Magic is about forms of symbolism (and associated activities) that accord with human intuition. Human intuition is pretty good at the task it evolved to carry out (survival in East Africa), but it is far from an accurate depiction of the natural world. Even in its own domain it has some very significant failure modes, such as a tendency to erroneously ascribe intention to intentionless processes, but when we study nature at larger and smaller than human scales we find that the modes of thought, explanation and symbolism that come naturally to us simply do not correspond to the way the Universe is.

(A colleague of mine was fond of saying that physicists have no common sense for a very good reason: the Universe does not act according to our common sense, and the process of becoming a physicist is one of having common sense trained out of you, as it is a hindrance to understanding.)

So instead of these patterns of thought and symbolism that correspond to intuitive human notions, we have developed an entirely different esoteric structure based on mathematics. You aren't going to find much relationship between mathematical physics and magical symbolism, because one is designed to describe the Universe as it is, while the other is designed to depict how human beings instinctively imagine the Universe to be, and there is not much relationship between the two.

You can't understand physics without mathematics, but if you want a very good (short, non-technical, well-written) book on why physics is the way it is, try "The Character of Physical Law" by Richard P Feynman.

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Daru 3 years, 2 months ago

Wow. Thanks Josh for this post. I am so looking forwards to this episode when I finally get round to it and for a major injection of nostalgia. Although I was not in any way on the spiritual kick I use to approach life in recent years, inspired in a lot of ways by Star Trek and my own interpretations of it, I can see that this will be very interesting to watch and that I may have quietly been influenced.

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