“I am error.”: The Changeling
|“You’re too late. We’re everywhere.”|
I will admit it’s very tempting, given my areas of interests, the other projects I’m working on at the moment, and especially so soon after bidding farewell to Robert Bloch, to grab hold of Kirk’s line about faery changeling babies that gives this episode its title, run with it and come up with some delightfully overblown reading of this one within the context of the Otherworld and ancient heathen mythology. Sadly, however, the analogy doesn’t really work: Nomad doesn’t actually act much at all like a proper changeling, Star Trek doesn’t quite get a handle on the magickal doors between realms thing for another 25 years or so and when it eventually does this isn’t the primary story that will facilitate that transformation, certainly not when compared with something like “Catspaw” or “Metamorphosis” or even “Wolf in the Fold” or “The City on the Edge of Forever”.
However, Gene Roddenberry seemed to have a fixation on the story of a robot built by humans who goes away on a journey, experiences a profound transformation, attains great power and returns seeking its creator, reusing it a number of times over his career. It was the subject of a failed 1974 pilot for a prospective television series co-created with Gene Coon called The Questor Tapes and also served as the basic plot for “In Thy Image”, the pilot episode of Star Trek Phase II, which eventually underwent its own profound transformation into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Arguably, there is even a faint echo of this theme in the very earliest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data’s own creator and “point of origin” are a mystery to us. This then is the first draft of a story that is apparently very important to Roddenberry, so we should take a look at what he may have intended to say with it and what it might reveal about him as a writer and a thinker.
Me being me, I’m once again predisposed to snap back onto the magickal interpretation: The robot’s journey could be seen as a spiritual one, and the years spent travelling the expanses of outer space and acquiring power and knowledge might be seen as attaining a form of enlightenment. This might make the robot comparable to the original conception of the Cybermen in the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet”, similar mechanics-enhanced life forms who went away on a long journey and returned enlightened. I’m not sure this reading holds though, because in every version of this story the robot is portrayed as extremely deficient in some areas, despite its massive power and intelligence, and its yearning to discover its creator seems at once a primary calling and a microcosm of its inability to gain a complete understanding of the universe and its place within it.
Perhaps something could be made out of how, in “The Changeling”, Nomad literally brings Scotty back from the dead, tying into the mythic reorientation that has played a part in several episodes this year. It has the trappings of a god, as only gods can do things like that, but it remains a dangerous, ignorant machine that requires real people to explain the proper way to behave in human culture. We could extrapolate this to a sort of claim that this is why humans are preferable to gods, as a god by definition will disrupt human life to a degree that would be unacceptable. As this episode doesn’t really have any other mythical signifiers, though (except for that not-entirely-accurate bit about faeries and changelings), I’m not particularly in favour of this reading either. No, what this entire plot seems more like is a straightforward metaphor for what Gene Roddenberry probably saw humans to be like: Flawed, imperfect beings who are constantly growing and learning and who are motivated to find their own “creator”, no matter what their individual interpretation of that concept might be.
This is also, once again, quite Christian. If not outright a Biblical allegory (although Roddenberry was known to describe Star Trek stories as “mini Biblical tales” in private), it’s that kind of populist secularism that’s really just Christianity with the serial numbers filed off by virtue of what it inherits from hegemonic culture: The journey through the stars read as a search for our origins and ultimate destiny which must be definition be big, objective singular Things because Big Questions need Big Answers. What flags this as Christian, or at least Abrahamic, rather than some other kind of spirituality (aside from the obvious fact the robot’s human creators are clearly meant to stand in for a patriarchal Creator God) is the idea of an objective, external Truth, either about ourselves, about the universe at large or both, that we can discover on our journey, which is referred to by default as God. Other faiths and spiritualities would tend to conceive of god as either something that’s a part of everything and everyone, or of gods that are highly personalized and subject to constant variation and reinterpretation, oftentimes that are strongly connected to the idea of day-to-day life.
Along with this are imperialist connotations in varying degrees of subtlety as this kind of journey is an intensely self-absorbed one: We’re not Seeking Out New Life And New Civilizations to exchange our ideas and experience different ideas and different ways of living in the interests of cosmopolitanism, we’re doing it to learn more about ourselves and teach what we’ve learned to the people we run into. We either need to seek out people who know The Truth so they can tell us what it is so we know the “proper” things to believe, or we know it and have an obligation to teach it to everybody else. This isn’t the language of travellers, this is the language of missionaries, colonialists and conquerors. It’s perhaps fitting then this becomes the story Roddenberry latches on to and seems to feel is the definitive embodiment of Star Trek, as evidenced by its inclusion in two extremely high-profile, high-stakes Trek projects.
Which makes it all the more bizarre, and all the more telling, that “The Changeling” wasn’t written by Gene Roddenberry at all. Roddenberry, in fact, had nothing to do with it: This is the work of future Six Million Dollar Man producer John Meredyth Lucas, who we’ll be seeing again at the other end of the season when he starts taking turns in the day-to-day producer role on Star Trek with Gene Coon. As a result, the lonely-robot-goes-on-a-journey-theme is more downplayed here than it will be in the various reinterpretations of it Roddenberry will eventually oversee, though the idea is clearly Lucas’. What “The Changeling” instead seems to focus more on is the idea of scrambled orders and what a hyper-intelligent machine like Nomad would do if it “went wrong”. This naturally means it’s time for another stellar display of the signature technique of the James T. Kirk School of Computer Repair: Blowing things up by shouting logic paradoxes at them. Disappointingly, this is less dramatic than in “The Return of the Archons”, because Nomad had already programmed itself to destroy anything it deemed imperfect, and all Kirk had to do was convince it that it itself was an imperfect being, thus triggering its destruct sequence (though it does result in one of the altogether finest scenes in the season so far, where Kirk explains to Spock about the autodestruct mechanism right after activating it, to which Spock replies delightfully sarcastically through clenched teeth “Very astute observation, Captain. We are in grave danger.”).
What this also results in is an old-fashioned logic versus emotions debate that would have been right at home in the first season. This one seems to side broadly with logic, as even though Nomad‘s strict adherence to its programming, damaged and corrupt as its memory banks may be, puts the entire ship in peril, Spock clearly empathizes with it to an extent, or at least understands it. Likewise, Nomad considers Spock “different” because his “programming” is “neat and ordered”. In the end, Kirk manages to outwit it, but only through logic and only after making the situation significantly worse for everyone by revealing to Nomad he was a “biological unit”, something Nomad had considered inherently inferior. Predictably, this means the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are slotted into the programmatic roles we would expect them to have in this kind of story, and the actors respond accordingly. DeForest Kelley is, as usual, the most obvious of the three, trading in the tender nuance he was so deft at conveying in “Wolf in the Fold” for generic Bristling Unchecked Passion mode. William Shatner, likewise, goes back to Commanding Swagger and Leonard Nimoy to Cool Detachment.
There is also the now-depressingly-requisite belittling sexist scene, and this one happens to stumble into racism to boot. After hearing Uhura sing over the the comm panel and tracking her down on the bridge, Nomad completely erases Uhura’s memory because it found her singing irrational and inexplicable (and before that, she was back to gamely playing the part she was told to play: The single most stereotypical secretary character imaginable). Unlike Scotty, Uhura doesn’t get a reset button handwave, and the episode ends with Doctor McCoy and Nurse Chapel re-educating her up to the college level. Apparently this is supposed to be a happy ending, though I guess this means all of Uhura’s memories and life experiences are gone now. But who cares? It’s only rote, objective facts that matter, right? How very Scientistic. How very Golden Age. How very logical. How awful.
This entire sequence was completely gratuitous and unnecessary: The death and resurrection of Scott was sufficient evidence of Nomad‘s power and scrambled priorities-Wiping Uhura’s memory is just mean spirited, and the scenes of Chapel in kindly white saviour mode teaching her how to spell “cat” in sickbay are just about unwatchable. Why was this scene included? Why did Uhura of all people have to get wiped? Why didn’t Nichelle Nichols or, hell, anybody speak out about or see the ludicrously problematic undertones this opens the entire show up to? Just as is the case every time I mention Uhura, I have to point out her mere presence on the show was apparently seen as enough to gain Star Trek its progressive reputation. But I maintain, isn’t it possible to hope for more, even in 1967?
As I write this there is a big debate in the video game medium about the representation of women, especially women of colour. Some would argue people looking for characters of this type in video games should be happy with whatever they get, no matter how minimal a role she plays or how problematic her depiction might be in other areas, and if they’re unhappy they’re just being picky and it’s their fault if they never get any more such characters because that one game that had that one character didn’t do well. It would seem beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to representation in video games. My friend, colleague and comrade-in-arms on such matters, Maddy Myers, recently explained the situation brilliantly: To paraphrase her, “this is sort of like walking into a deli, ordering a sandwich and having the cashier roll his eyes in exasperation and throw a loaf of bread and a slice of cheese at you. Yes, this is technically what I asked for, but is it really too much to ask that a little more effort be put into the process?”. I could say much the same about Star Trek at this point in time.
What “The Changeling” is then is a microcosm for the show in its second season so far. It has some truly provocative and entertaining moments that help set the stage for the direction the franchise will go in its future, but it’s ultimately brought down by a staggeringly catastrophic lapse in judgment that leaves a really unpleasant aftertaste, and a lingering sense of fear that the entire thing is destined to one day, and sooner rather than later, blow up in your face.
August 12, 2013 @ 12:11 pm
"This isn't the language of travellers, this is the language of missionaries, colonialists and conquerors."
Partly right, but I think there's an element of the Changeling/V'Ger dynamic missing from that sentence. The missionary sees himself as already having the Truth and bringing its enlightenment to foreign communities, in the case of Star Trek, to the stars. Yet something different happens to Nomad and V'Ger: they go out to explore in ignorance, have a mystical encounter with an alien intelligence, and this mystical encounter brings the Truth to them. In this story, Truth has an alien origin. So the missionary isn't the only attitude for the traveller; there's also that of the seeker.
Of course, both of these views are intensely flawed if, like me (and probably like you from what I can gather), there is no one unified Truth, but many diverse narratives and ways to live. We explore different worlds to discover and conceive of new possibilities. Which is basically the message of TNG when it's done right.
I don't know if you've noticed over on Adam Writes Everything, and a lot of this conflict is over facebook, which is restricted access. But I'm in the middle of an epic fight over just this problem in the nature of philosophical interpretation. A couple of friends of mine think they have the Truth about a subject we've been discussing, or at least that seeking a univocal Truth that will end all speculation and inquiry is the goal of philosophy. Meanwhile, I just want to create some funky new concepts that let people do new things with their ideas of temporality, and I find myself under siege.
August 12, 2013 @ 2:52 pm
"Partly right, but I think there's an element of the Changeling/V'Ger dynamic missing from that sentence. The missionary sees himself as already having the Truth and bringing its enlightenment to foreign communities, in the case of Star Trek, to the stars. Yet something different happens to Nomad and V'Ger: they go out to explore in ignorance, have a mystical encounter with an alien intelligence, and this mystical encounter brings the Truth to them. In this story, Truth has an alien origin. So the missionary isn't the only attitude for the traveller; there's also that of the seeker."
Yes but this still gets at the core problem you bring up later on in your comment: It still presupposes the existence of some fundamental objective Truth, which must be called something, so it is called God. This remains a pop Christian way of conceptualizing philosophy and metaphysics, so my cultural contextualizing still holds I argue.
"We explore different worlds to discover and conceive of new possibilities. Which is basically the message of TNG when it's done right."
A succinct summary of what's valuable about TNG if I've ever read one.
A shame you're under siege, not only as I am in fact in your camp (which will make future Vaka Rangi interesting), but also because the whole idea of the conflict rather flies in the face of this conception of truths and ideas in the first place.
We will, of course, be returning to this theme several more times for the episodes/movies you would expect them to be important to. It should also prove helpful for redeeming Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
December 14, 2013 @ 8:23 pm
It still presupposes the existence of some fundamental objective Truth
Well, it's hard to see what coherent alternative to that conception there could be.
December 15, 2013 @ 2:17 pm
This is neither the time nor the place to discuss Western Metaphysics, but I'll just say I tend to believe in a multiplicity of truths rather than a singular objective Truth.