Technology Can’t Save You From An Amoral Universe

[ Originally posted March 9, 2004 ]

Lately I’ve been watching a bunch of episodes that I missed of the current Star Trek series, Enterprise. For the most part I’ve been pleased with the show’s pretty convincing “gap filling” between our own era and an era of sustained manned space exploration. Enterprise takes place in the 2150′s, which is really not the far away from us, and furthermore, it is set only a century after the discovery of the ability to travel faster-than-light in the 2050s–even closer to our own time.

Enterprise has greatly impressed me with its “realistic” approach to the “technical” aspect of manned space travel, and it’s done so mostly with “the little things”–stuff like all the computer screens being obviously “kinda next generation” flat panel monitors literally just hanging on the walls, and like a great deal of trouble communicating with new aliens precisely because the Universal Translator is still in its infancy and is literally being “debugged” by a language expert they brought along with them from Earth. Unlike every other Starfleet ship we’ve ever seen, this “primitive” Enterprise‘s doors don’t even have proximity sensors, but are opened via pushing buttons on the wall. The transporter, an absolutely indispensable tool of Picard’s era, is so new to this crew that even though it’s been successfully used on humans several times, mostly they shy away from it and actually physically hard dock with other ships. Enterprise is shown flying around doing things that you’d never in a million years have thought of a Starfleet ship having to do–such as the “mundane” chore of laying “subspace amplifier buoys” so that communication with distant Earth can actually take place as the ship gets farther and farther away. The ubiquitous “phasers” of later generations are here merely retractable “cannons” whose targeting sensors sometimes don’t work properly, and the equally ubiquitous for later generations “photon torpedoes” aren’t even invented until the end of season 2. Replicators don’t exist–the ship has a real live “Chef” who cooks for the whole crew. The state of interspecies medicine, so taken for granted by McCoy, is for this Enterprise so “Dark Ages”-like that the doctor actually prescribes alien leeches for some illnesses and makes various healing ointments and so forth from the droppings of alien beetles.

Now sure, they have this fantastic warp drive making use of exotic “subspace fields” and so forth, but in the last analysis they’re really a bunch of ignorant folks playing with fire. For instance, the show went 12 episodes in the first season before it finally occurred to the crew that they shouldn’t have left spacedock with only one of their three “phase cannons” operational–and they only figured this out because they happened to run into a very hostile species whom they could not bargain with and who very nearly destroyed the ship. Twelve episodes (roughly half a year of story time) before they figured out something as seemingly elementary as “Take more than a few big guns just in case.” The whole idea was “Hi, we’re from Earth and we’re here to get to know new people. Come on over and have dinner.” “Captain, they’re charging weapons!” “What, I just wanted to shake their hand!” Ah, the naivety of the newly “enlightened”.

Or consider their ramshackle “shuttle pods”. Those things are probably the most minimal spacecraft to appear in any Star Trek series (saving perhaps Zefram Cochrane’s first warp ship, the Phoenix). Several episodes have focused around serious difficulties arising from the shuttlepods’ severely limited capabilities–and Enterprise, traveling nearly one hundred light years away from Earth, only has two of them. And of course they haven’t even developed deflector shields yet, so they’re running around in deep space with nothing more than something called “polarized hull plating”–better than naked metal, but obviously not capable of a great deal of protective functionality.

By the end of the first season they had, as their disgruntled Vulcan advisors tallied it, engaged in armed conflicts with over a dozen species and broke so many rules of “civilized” spacefaring that the mission nearly got cancelled. In the early second season they successively managed to hit a cloaked mine that blew out a huge chunk of the hull (thus reducing their engine capability to a level that would require something like 15 years to reach a repair station in Earth’s system), and then got in serious trouble with some locals that they had to barter with (!) for supplies to fix the ship. Later in the second season they met the Borg–and if you thought that Picard and Co. had a hard time handling the Borg, just imagine how Starfleet technology two centuries less-developed than Picard’s fared against the Borg! And all of this on mankind’s first “peaceful” mission of deep space exploration.

At any rate, I’ve been chugging along just fine with most aspects of Enterprise (barring the usual constant undertone of secularism that is the staple of all Star Trek)….And then last night I watched the second season episode “Stigma”. Long story short, this episode allegorically explored the sociopolitical ramifications of various sexual agendas of our own era–namely, the present brouhaha about homosexuality and the continuing push for the legitimization of just about all forms of “private” sexual behavior between “consenting adults”.

The first issue was explored via having Enterprise‘s science officer, a Vulcan woman named T’Pol, contract a neurological disease from a mind meld that was forced upon her earlier in the second season by some renegade Vulcans. As it turns out, at this point in Star Trek history, mind melds (so often performed by Spock a hundred years later without negative comment from anyone at all) are considered socially-subversive behavior by the Vulcans. Any Vulcans who are able and willing to indulge in mind melding–and they are comparatively few on account of “being born that way”–are considered radicals and ostracized as an “unacceptable minority”. Anyone found with the disease that sometimes results from mind melding is then stigmatized as somehow “abnormal”. The conflict that the Enterprise crew faces on this score results from three Vulcan doctors who discover that T’Pol has the disease and who then attempt to have her removed from her post on Enterprise and sent home in disgrace. It doesn’t matter to these doctors how T’Pol got the disease; it only matters that she has it and that it is apparently utterly socially necessary to stigmatize her rather than being “open minded” about the whole thing.

Through a great deal of very clever dialogue and appropriately emotional musical score, the viewer is drawn into the “plight” of “unacceptable-and-downtrodden-minorities-who-sometimes-unfortunately-contract-yucky-diseases” and then forced to swallow a boatload of utterly transparent propaganda about “not being a bigot” and “accepting diversity” and “not judging people’s private practices” that come from “the way they were born”. The philosophical capstone of the propaganda comes when Captain Archer confronts the bigoted Vulcan doctors and reminds them that for 100 years the Vulcans have been riding humans hard to get rid of their “preconceptions” about life and the universe before going out to the stars to meet other races, but then ironically, it is the Vulcans themselves who are found to be saddled with “intolerance”–something that the humans “gave up” when they met the Vulcans and found out they they truly weren’t alone in the universe. The message could not be clearer: Judge not…unless the one you’re judging is being judgmental, in which case it’s morally required to be judgmental yourself.

The second theme of this episode concerned the hedonistic sexuality of the race to which the ship’s doctor, Phlox, belongs: the Denobulans. Other episodes have revealed that Denobulans are rather excessively polygamous, but this episode pushed the envelope much farther than that. For it seems that the Denobulan concept of “marriage” is a very vague thing, susceptible to all manner of “creative” experimentation which none of the multiple parties involved in such relationships ever have any sort of second thought about. This fact comes out when Phlox’s third wife visits Enterprise and spends the whole episode trying to seduce Commander Tucker, whom she finds exceedingly attractive. Tucker, a good Southern gentleman (but not good enough, as other episodes have intimated, to confine his sexual activities to one woman within the bond of marriage) refuses to sleep with “another man’s wife” since he was “raised not to do that”.

Ultimately the adulterous advances of Phlox’s wife send Tucker to confront the doctor himself in an attempt to obtain some relief by having Phlox rein the lusty creature in. But Phlox does nothing of the sort. Instead, he encourages Tucker to sleep with his wife precisely because the Denobulan concept of marriage is not the human one, and actually encourages a maximum of behavior that humans consider “adulterous”. Tucker is dumbfounded, but sticks to his guns and refuses to violate his own personal moral code (hey, a man has to have standards, right?). But the radical assault upon the viewer completes itself when toward the end of the episode (just as the Vulcan “bigots” are elsewhere being challenged to rethink their “intolerance”) Phlox and his wife share a moment of high mutual amusement at Tucker’s expense, finding it utterly bizarre that the man would refuse the advances of Phlox’s wife. Thus, the viewer is assaulted one final time by the two Denobulans cuddling up to each other as a man and wife should do, but offset by Phlox’s grinning remark “Humans!” and the joyful laughter of his “liberated” wife. The moral is again plain: You don’t have to sleep with someone if you don’t want to, but just make sure that you understand your objections to doing so are relative only to yourself and your own personal culture.

As Enterprise progresses I’m noticing more and more items like these cropping up all over the place. As if the above offenses weren’t enough, an earlier episode had featured an encounter with a pre-warp drive civilization–the usual fodder for Trek’s disgusting “Prime Directive” mentality. This species, suffering from a horrible epidemic that their science could not cure, had managed to get some non-warp spacecraft out far enough from their system that they actually discovered warp-capable species on their own–thus relieving Enterprise‘s crew of the usual Prime Directive “dilemma” of “interfering with their culture”.

However, the episode features Dr. Phlox actually discovering a cure for the disease that is afflicting the aliens…and then withholding it from them on the absolutely immoral basis that “evolution is an undeniable fact of the universe, and evolution may be sending this species to extinction.” It seems that on this planet there are two species, the “superior” one with the illness and another one that they consider “inferior” but which does not catch the illness. Phlox discovers that the “inferior” species appears to be in the midst of an “evolutionary awakening” that, while possibly still millennia away nevertheless has the potential to make the “inferior” race the dominant one via natural selection killing off the presently “superior” race. Phlox decrees Evolution to be an established fact of the universe and observes that he would not be speaking to his human friends if, 35,000 prior some alien race had interfered with Evolution on earth and prevented the Neanderthals from being supplanted by Homo sapiens. It seems to Phlox the scientist that the humans’ “compassion for these people” is “affecting their judgment”, clouding their objectivity.

The perverted logic was spelled out more subtly in the episode’s dialogue, but the connection of capital-e Evolution to the dogma of “non interference” was made explicit. So explicit, in fact, that Captain Archer, who begins by officially ordering Phlox to share the cure with the aliens is eventually won over to Phlox’s side by the evil “logic” that whatever humans have come out into deep space to do, it is not “to play God with the destiny of other species.” As if withholding a desperately needed medical solution and thus potentially condemning an entire race to extinction is not “playing God”! But of course it isn’t, since in Star Trek’s universe there is no God and the impersonal forces of time and chance conspire to make capital-e Evolution rule all.

Now this is the problem with unbelieving culture and the plan to take it off this planet and spread it abroad into the cosmos. Unbelievers live in an amoral universe–a universe with no standards beyond the finite conditions of the radically disconnected cultures that have all randomly evolved on so many different worlds under so many different conditions, a universe of ultimate philosophical incoherence and ultimate metaphysical randomness, a universe where tolerance is intolerant, morality is immorality, and truth is only true if you have been genetically and socially predisposed to believe that it is. As the more “enlightened” Vulcans of Spock’s day (a century after Enterprise) will say, one should embrace infinite diversity in infinite combination. You don’t know what you’re depriving yourself of, otherwise.

This shallow worldview is frequently hailed as the solution to the “problem” of such things as religious dogmatism, and yet it turns out that in the end the dogmatism of the non-dogmatic is far more dogmatic than anything the dogmatists could ever have dreamed up. The secularist inquisition of Star Trek doesn’t tie its heretics to a stake and physically burn them, but it does make sure they never leave the fringes of the city and can do no more than toss foam rubber rocks at the “enlightened” souls passing them by on the great evolutionary journey to the great big undefined Whatever.

The sheer amorality of the unbeliever’s universe is upon reflection graphically startling. And they want to take it out into space, “the final frontier”! The problem is, of course, that in reality we don’t live in the amoral universe that they wish we did. Perhaps if we ever do encounter an alien race our representatives will be men who live in that amoral universe and find out, as C.S. Lewis observed fifty years ago, that creatures more righteous than ourselves have no choice but to destroy us lest we inflict our disgusting sinful rebellion against our common Creator upon them, as well.

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