Tuesday, June 4, 2013

“We have an incredible ability to make people less than us”: Dagger of the Mind

Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor! What do I look like, a cat burglar?

We began in a zoo and we end in an insane asylum.

While certainly not a finale in any traditional sense, “Dagger of the Mind” is an ending of sorts, being the last episode of Star Trek produced solely by Gene Roddenberry, who decided to essentially step down as showrunner after this episode was filmed. Contrary to popular belief, Roddenberry was only ever significantly involved in operating and managing Star Trek for these first eleven episodes. He was never really put in this exact position again, and his influence on all subsequent Star Trek is somewhat dialed back. This doesn't mean, I hasten to add, that he's not relevant to future Star Trek-He very much is, but the role he plays is a different one than that of a hands-on, day-to-day showrunner. Starting next episode, Roddenberry will slip into the part he's actually far more comfortable in: An honourary executive producer who supervises things from a distance and vets ideas. From here on out, the actual creative decisions are on the whole made by other people; Roddenberry preferring to only get actively involved occasionally and veto things every once in awhile as he sees fit.

Since “Dagger of the Mind” arguably marks the end of Roddenberry's “purest” version of Star Trek (though I maintain the core work is and always will be nothing more and nothing less than “The Cage”) it seems appropriate to use this post to look back on what, exactly, the Roddenberry Star Trek actually is. I've spent a great deal of time trying to piece that together in the preceding essays, but this seems like the appropriate place to try and summarise and draw some conclusions. And it's fitting, as “Dagger of the Mind” is also one of the better executions of this structure: It doesn't redeem it, of course, at least not as a standalone text, (some combination of “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Mudd's Women”, “The Enemy Within” and “Balance of Terror” has collectively shown that to be impossible) and it has unique problems all of its own, but it has a solid core concept worth engaging with.

Let's start with the plot first though, or rather the “moral”: Every Roddenberry-produced episode of Star Trek has had some explicitly didactic lesson it's trying to teach. “Dagger of the Mind” wasn't penned by Roddenberry himself, nor was it even a script Roddenberry took off someone else and completely rewrote in their name without telling them, but it does have one and it's an interesting one. Moving closer to the more complex areas travelled by “Balance of Terror” and away from overly simplistic things like “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “we must control our emotions”, “Dagger of the Mind” takes a surprisingly candid, at least for the time, look at mental health facilities. Though the debate over ethical treatment of the mentally ill wasn't as open in 1966 as it is today, One Flew Over The Cukoo's Nest had already been published earlier in the decade so there must have been some. Also, two years after this episode aired, CBS would run an expose on Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Pennsylvania revealing the mistreatment and abuse mental patients suffered in it and institutions like it, so Star Trek doing an episode like this isn't entirely unheard of.

The idea behind the Neural Neutralizer is, naturally, a suitably disquieting one: It works by forcibly making patients forget unacceptable thoughts, memories and behaviours and replaces them with ones considered sociable and proper. This is a great idea to base a dystopian thriller around, because it touches on one of the biggest demons of Western society: The concept of “normalization”. Normalization is a word that gets bandied about a lot, and typically not without good reason, but it's also a word that does not mean what most people think it means. The pop interpretation of the phrase “to normalize” seems, at least to me, to be “to make normal”, and while that's technically true it also misses the majority of the nuanced critique the phrase carries with it.

See, the concept of what is “normal” is a particularly marginalizing, and peculiarly Western, idea. In Western cultures, “the normal” is interpreted as “the mean”, or “the average”, often conveyed visually by the famous bell curve. It's also Scientistic, as those on either extreme are seen as outliers that can be disregarded (especially if you happen to be unfortunate enough to fall into the “below average” category of your normal curve of choice). When we say something like rape culture or any other form of institutionalized sexism or misogyny is being “normalized”, we're not saying it's being glossed over and “made normal” when in truth it's not normal at all, we're saying the entire concept of “normal” is an artificial construct produced by the interaction of Western power structures that actively work to privilege some and exclude others unfairly and that this also works to disguise how unjust something like rape culture actually is.

The same is of course true for mental health issues: Those with certain mental conditions are seen as “abnormal” or “below average” and need to be “conditioned” and “acclimated” to function in “normal” society, even though no two people can seem to agree on what an “average”, “normal” person is supposed to look like (and those who can are most likely operating from the privileged position of some power relationship, whether they are aware of it or not or as an authority with a vested interest in keeping that power structure exactly the same). In that regard making the primary threat of “Dagger of the Mind” an institutionalized mental health medical system that reshapes people with “suitable” and “acceptable” thoughts and personalities that people outside the institution either don't know about or think is “in their best interests” is brilliant.

The only problem is it doesn't quite go far enough: The show's main problem with the Neural Neutralizer seems to be that Doctor Adams is basically cartoonishly evil and is using it to turn his patients into hypnotic slaves (which also brings me to the tangential point that this episode clearly has no idea how hypnosis works or that no hypnotist can actually make people do this sort of thing, but nobody in pop culture does either so singling Star Trek out here seems a bit unfair). Thankfully, Helen Noel does get a number of good scenes when she and Kirk are experimenting with the machine and she denounces it on the grounds that the emotions and memories it leaves people with are false and artificial, but she doesn't enough lines in this vein and one can't help but wish writer Shimon Wincelberg had followed up on this theme a little more.

Then we have the usual raft of Roddenberry-era concerns: Kirk and Spock seem altogether too shocked to find out Noel is a woman, she's by far the most gullible and obstinate person in the episode and it seems her fantasy is to be dramatically “swept off her feet” by Kirk, but compared to something like “Mudd's Women” and “The Enemy Within” this is peanuts. It also helps Noel is clearly a professional and nobody questions her credentials, competence and special expertise: Along with Uhura she's probably the best female character we've seen on the show so far and it's a shame we never see her again. That aside though, there's relatively little for me to actually complain about here, which is a nice change of pace.

Which leaves me with trying to sum up Roddenberry's tenure and make some statement about Star Trek under him. Although my core argument remains in my post on “The Cage” and my biggest criticisms of Roddenberry have been outlined already (that his micromanaging causes problems for the franchise on more than one occasion is a thread that begins here, not ends here) “Dagger of the Mind” is a decent showcase of what the show's become over the past two years, for good and bad. The Enterprise shows up to deliver a solid, yet simplistic moral (though it's not as blunt and shallow at this as it has been in the past) and is very clearly part of some interstellar police force (Adams' line about how people like Kirk are “just as naked without a gun as we are without our medkits” is telling, as is the fact that, just as in “The Cage”, the Enterprise is still running errands between Earth colonies). We have a noticeable amount of casual sexism, not outright misogyny, but things someone should have known better than to let through. We also have a tremendous amount of ham: William Shatner, of course, but also Morgan Woodward who plays Simon Van Gelder: He's so unbelievably crazed and over-the-top he apparently had to go home and recuperate for three days after filming wrapped. It's definitely a performance to see.

Then there's Leonard Nimoy as Spock, who delivers another wonderfully complex performance. This episode sees the debut of the famous Vulcan Mind Meld, and not only is it a delightful bit of mystical embellishment, the way the scene plays out is golden: It feels every bit as intimate and sacred as Nimoy says it is, and the way he and Woodward convey the shared minds effect is chillingly well done and actually quite lovely. It's Spock who has very easily asserted himself as the soul of the show by now: As fun to watch as Kirk is, everything that makes him memorable is solely due to William Shatner. Remove Shatner, and Kirk just becomes Jeffrey Hunter's Christopher Pike: A gruff, testosterone-charged military action hero.

But Spock's inner turmoil over balancing his Vulcan logic and human emotion seems like something Gene Roddenberry was fascinated by, especially given the fact Spock's role was originally intended for Majel Barrett's Number One. Perhaps counterintuitively though, this works better with Spock, not simply because Nimoy is sublime, but also because Number One was written from a place of ignorance about patriarchal hegemony: Had the role stayed with her, I very much believe this would have proven to be a distraction. Strange as it may seem, Spock allows for more interesting gender role fluidity: Setting Number One aside for a moment, it's worth bearing in mind the first person the very much symbolically sexual Mind Meld was used on was a man. Paradoxically, between William Shatner's camp and Leonard Nimoy's early, hesitant exploration of gendered issues Star Trek is indeed starting to pave the way towards a more open and liberated sexual discourse, but women are being left behind. It will be many, many more years before the franchise finally figures out how to bring them along.

Gene Roddenberry didn't give us a utopia or a series of ideals, at least he hasn't yet and won't by himself. What he's done instead is shown us some issues that were important to him and conveyed them in a way he felt would be exciting, entertaining and easy to swallow. His show betrays his positionality to an almost painfully obvious extent and he's not really an exceptionally good writer on the whole if we're being brutally honest, but his ideas aren't entirely misguided or unworkable either. The problem is literally every other aspect of the show aside from him is clawing at the walls, desperate to be allowed to grow into something bigger, grander and more beautiful. Roddenberry's own limitations, not only as a writer but in terms of his personality and experiences, are holding Star Trek back and keeping it from truly becoming great (or even consistently adequate for that matter). If anything is going to come of this, Roddenberry badly needs outside help. Thankfully, he's about to get it. It may turn out to be too little and too late for this particular show, but there's a way out of any cage and we'll find it in time.


  1. Very interesting perspective on Star Trek TOS. I agree with your suggestion that Roddenberry only sowed the seeds of a utopian ideal, it had a long way to grow, in many different directions. As you say, exploration is interwoven with imperialism from the start. Another good point you make--while his scripts came across as progressive on issues like mental health or war or racism, he never got beyond the military, and sexism. I always admired Roddenberry as originator of Trek's evolving vision, but had to revise my image of him after reading several books that focus on his relations with women – Yvonne Fern’s The Last Conversation, Nichelle Nichols’ Beyond Uhura, and especially the memoir by his secretary, Susan Sackett-- Inside Trek.

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      It's their memoirs, along with those of people like Grace Lee Whitney, William Shatner and Herb Solow and Bob Justman that really get us the closest towards a complete picture of what actually happened during the production of the Original Series. For someone like me they're an absolutely indispensable part of the historical record, crucial for cutting through the cult of personality, studio-sanctioned propaganda and fan smear campaigns that seem to define a lot of the mainline fan discourse and I'm eternally thankful they exist.

  2. "When we say something like rape culture or any other form of institutionalized sexism or misogyny is being “normalized”, we're not saying it's being glossed over and “made normal” when in truth it's not normal at all, we're saying the entire concept of “normal” is an artificial construct produced by the interaction of Western power structures that actively work to privilege some and exclude others unfairly and that this also works to disguise how unjust something like rape culture actually is." I might quibble over the word 'Western', but, on the whole, hear hear.

    BTW, are you planning to do 'tangent' posts? If so, surely there's room for one on the South Park episode 'Roger Ebert Should Lay Off The Fatty Foods'?

    1. I like the word "Western" because, even though it's not without its problems, I still find it to be good at bringing together various trends in Christian (at least Abrahamic), industrialized, late stage capitalist Europe and North America under the same two syllable umbrella. I'd like a better name for that particular culture, but I haven't yet found one.

      As for South Park it's probably something I should cover as something that plays into Star Trek's cultural capital, which is going to become a much larger part of the blog once the 1970s roll around (indeed I don't see how I can *not* cover Family Guy and The Big Bang Theory at this point, though I'll be gritting my teeth through them). Those shows are really far off from now though and I feel like it should be something I save for when it's contemporary with what I'm covering here, so I'd call that episode a Star Trek Voyager-era concern.

      I do want to do tangent posts (I've already done a few in my Sensor Scan series and there are some more lined up in the gap between the first and second seasons) but I don't want to quite do "Time Can be Rewritten" type stuff the way Phil did on TARDIS Eruditorum: I have my own way of dealing with franchise temporal mechanics that I'm slowly rolling into the blog's structure. I also have a special category for posts on fan lore and errata, but I'll start doing those once Star Trek fandom becomes a noticeable thing.

    2. I must confess to profound ignorance concerning Family Guy and The Big Bang Theory.

    3. It's nothing you should be ashamed to be ignorant of, to be perfectly honest with you. Both shows are pretty much terrible. The reason I bring them up is because Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane is an extremely high profile Star Trek fan and has brought the entire TNG cast to guest star on his show a number of times. There is a similar situation on The Big Bang Theory with Wil Wheaton, LeVar Burton, Leonard Nimoy and Kaley Cuoco.

      Although to be honest these aren't even Star Trek Voyager concerns: They're probably closer to J.J. Abrams movie era-concerns.

    4. "I like the word "Western" because, even though it's not without its problems, I still find it to be good at bringing together various trends in Christian (at least Abrahamic), industrialized, late stage capitalist Europe and North America under the same two syllable umbrella. I'd like a better name for that particular culture, but I haven't yet found one."

      Come to that, we should probably also coin a term other than "Christian" for the belief system of said culture, because words like "hollow" and "bastardized" do not begin to describe what the industrial capitalist West has done to my particular faith of choice, but that's another can of worms entirely :P

      That aside, I eagerly look forward to both the pre-season 2 posts and your thoughts on season 2 itself, which is undoubtedly where TOS peaked.

    5. @Jack: I'll second Josh, btw; you are a far, far happier man in your ignorance than the rest of us. Also, big fan of your own blog, by the way; that Ghost Light post was a masterpiece :)

    6. One thing I would like to politely remind people, or point out to those who don't know, is that my background is not media studies or political science: It's social studies of knowledge and cultural anthropology. When I use words like "Western" and "Christian" it's not meant necessarily as a value judgement, but a way to describe how what we currently know as modernist, late-stage capitalist culture in North America or Great Britain can in fact trace elements of its lineage back to Christian philosophy. I think it would be something of a fallacy to ignore the influence Christianity has had on much of the western hemisphere.

      That different variations of the Christian faith exist is meant as a given, and the social justice implications of how these beliefs are interpreted and acted on is a related, though separate issue.

    7. Ah, gotcha, my mistake. Alas I'm not yet quite as educated in terms of actual book learnin' on such matters yet, though I hope to be eventually.

    8. Thanks Cleofis - much appreciated.

    9. See, my quibble would be presuming that Western society is the only one that does normalization, in the sense you're speaking of. It's a pretty universal thing throughout history, in any culture culture-ish enough to have a mainstream.

    10. It's true the "normal" is a fairly universal social construct, but what it actually means will differ from culture to culture, and here I'm specifically referring to what's considered normal in Western societies.

      Also, the concept of the "liminal" is a fairly changeable thing. There are some societies where people on the margins are considered special and deserving of respect, sometimes endowed with unique spiritual abilities and roles to play. Those on the margins are not always considered outliers as they are in Scientistic Western society.

  3. Now this, this was a good essay!

    Also, I note this was one time where TOS seems engaged with an issue better than Doctor Who; the equivalent story there, "The Mind of Evil", doesn't offer critiques of normalization at all (or so I hear, not having seen it yet).

    1. I told you I wasn't going to be all hate all the time here :-)

      That was actually my very first thought upon seeing "Dagger of the Mind": "Wow, this is 'The Mind of Evil' the way it should have been done."