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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

4 Comments

  1. K. Jones
    October 21, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    I'd certainly argue that "The Tholian Web" could be categorized as Immram, or Echtra. Those traditions of storytelling very often featured a sailor, a ship, and sailing into the mist. The Tholians might have only alluded to insectoid natures, but on analysis I was drawing comparisons to the Sidhe as well (or, more specifically the Sheeda of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers). Something about the descriptions of the extreme heat aboard their ships and their crystalline structure though lends itself to very specific comparisons to Spriggans, which were fairy guards, lurking in barrows, or particularly Salamanders.

    The Defiant itself carries traditional Will o' the Wisp qualities like flickering, ghost-light, and indeed drawing travelers off the safe paths.

    Part of my sort of fan-thesis of Star Trek has always acknowledged its striking similarity to Northern European pagan myths. So many things have parallels, from ljosalfar (Vulcans) to dokkalfar (Romulans), to dwarves (Tellarites) to ice warriors (Andorians), right down to the world-ender serpent (The Doomsday Machine) and Loki (Trelane, or Q).

    For something as Pop Christian as Star Trek tends to be, its background folklore is bursting from the seams with Pagan Magic. But that's something endemic in American mythologizing, European, Shakespearean, and many other forms of affected post-Christian storytelling.

    Those traditions are so linked to sailing culture, and nautical tradition, that they make the jump to Star Trek effortlessly.

    The best improvement I can offer that would have made this already standout episode even better, is if the crew of the Enterprise had more otherwordly points of view than just Spock's Luciferian light-elf perspective.

    It's also in thinking about the influence of Celtic/Germanic/Nordic tradition effortlessly adapted for Star Trek's purposes that I realize that I don't think they ever quite got around to doing a lot of Mediterranean covers; is there a Star Trek example of The Odyssey, or The Argonauts? (Perhaps Voyager, in its entirety.)

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    October 21, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    I think what Star Trek is beginning to show here is that it's very capable of shedding its pop Christian trappings. Certainly there is a long tradition of pastiching paganism in Western literature (like every "fairy tale" or "fairy story" ever), but I think every once in awhile you run across something that avoids the typical narrative. I think Star Trek actually stumbled into doing that here, if only by virtue of how oversignified this episode is.

    Spriggans are a terrific thing to compare the Tholians to: That's a fantastic analog!

    It is interesting for a series that so frequently seems so very Western that I can't think of any direct links to Mediterranean mythology. Voyager seems like a good pick, although as is always the case with that show, no one theme or reading seems to be especially clear. The closest I can come up with might be The Motion Picture if for no other reason then it borrows so heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey but even that I don't find altogether convincing as The Motion Picture is just about as transcendental and mystical as the franchise gets.

    I also definitely agree the show could use more otherworldy perspectives. It's a good thing future Star Treks eventually do get those then…

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  3. Cleofis
    October 21, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

    "It's in many ways then an Otherworld of fiction and oral myth, perhaps even an…“ideaspace”…but now I'm getting ahead of myself."

    …oh, you clever bastard, that is wonderful. I got the biggest grin upon reading this; never did I think someone would connect Trek to good ol' Alan so successfully 🙂 In retrospect I totally should have seen that coming, yet it took me pleasantly by surprise!

    I actually have a theory I'll have to lay out in detail one day, but one aspect of it is that pop Christianity forces the necessary mysticism of True Christianity to manifest via other means, as true mysticism has no place in its market ready, streamlined capitalist product form, and pagan mysticism (its direct forebear and, depending on how you look at it, prototype) happens to often be the most effective/closest expression. Which is not to say that Trek is a Christian work as such (although I'm firmly of the Augustine "all things can be found to reflect God" school), and as you've so clearly laid out it's more overtly Christian elements are shallow, regressive, and/or lazy at best, but nevertheless. Not to bring up DS9 early again, but I really feel Trek's take on the mystical and religious really reaches it's apex there, and it remains one of my favorite looks on how mysticism, faith, and the real world are reconciled by different sorts of individuals in fiction period. And all of that gets it's earliest and rawest expression here in TOS. I only wish I had the education to express myself better, so consider this a relative layman's take :T

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    October 22, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    I would definitely agree IRT to the mysticism of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and you are correct to perhaps guess this theme of mine will reach its zenith with that show. I'll have more to say about that once I actually rewatch the show, of course, but even now I'm working hard to come up with a reading of it that not only acknowledges the series' debt to spirituality, but comes up with a new way to interpret it.

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