Sunday, June 30, 2013

“You Will Be Assimilated”: The Return of the Archons

Kirk sees no reason why he can't have both a frock *and* a gun.

Let's take care of the obvious first, shall we? We've got Gene Roddenberry writing again this week. By this point we should know what this means: Terrible pacing, ham-fisted, confused ethics, a disturbingly capricious attitude towards the personhood of women, screamingly vast logic lapses and a truly amazing ability to craft a cartoonish 16-ton safe of a moral and somehow still manage to miss the point entirely. With that squared away, let's take a look at the less obvious: “The Return of the Archons” is final, conclusive evidence Roddenberry's original concept of Star Trek wasn't a utopia and is the first appearance of the Prime Directive (and thus also the first deconstruction of the Prime Directive).

The Prime Directive is a very interesting concept unique to Star Trek, and by this I mean I don't like it very much. I never have: Traditionally doing a Prime Directive story is the quickest way short of doing an “evil clone frames the hero” plot or having a woman strut onto the bridge in a miniskirt to get me to shut the TV off. On the surface, it sounds like a self-evidently Good Thing, as it prohibits Starfleet officers from interfering in the natural development of a society (although here it's framed more in terms of a vague opposition to “noninterference” of any sort). In fact, at conventions or in interviews Roddenberry (or those attempting to speak for him) would tout the Prime Directive as a key indication of the Federation's evolved, idealistic society, typically framing it in opposition to Western colonialism or the cargo cult myth. This is of course hilarious, as every single Prime Directive story throughout the entirety of Star Trek is either about how demonstrably, measurably worse off the local people are by the crew's adherence to it or how they just go ahead and flagrantly violate it anyway because they know better. Anthropologically speaking, however, it's a nightmare, and given my prior experience in that field it causes me no shortage of headaches.

That said I don't want to spend too much time on the Prime Directive here as, aside from this being the first mention of it, it doesn't play an enormous role in the ethics debate of the week and there are two episodes coming up in the second season which are in many ways the definitive Prime Directive stories, so it seems something of a waste to use up all my critique of it in this post. What's more interesting about how it's used in “The Return of the Archons” is that it's explicitly framed as a mirror of Landru's “Prime Directive” to preserve The Body at all costs. As it's Landru's fixation on this basic order that results in the Beta III colony becoming “soulless”, in the words of Spock, it could be argued Roddenberry is trying to tell us blind adherence to orders is a Bad Thing and people need to think for themselves and make decisions on a case-by-case basis, and furthermore, that he's now become perfectly willing to point the finger as much at his own people as he is at others. This makes a great deal of sense: First of all, it fits very neatly with what can be ascertained about Roddenberry's worldview (he was very much an individualist and this is exactly the kind of simple, didactic message he loves on the Original Series), but also with the way the rest of the episode plays out as The Body is basically a society built around unthinkingly following the orders telepathically communicated to them from Landru.

But of course there's a problem. In this case, it's that Beta III can also be read very easily as a collectivist, communist society: Everyone calls each other friend, doesn't ask any questions and obeys orders for the good of the The Body, i.e., the overall society. Perhaps it's a Stalinistic society, where a single, authoritarian power has absolute control under the guise of an egalitarian, co-operative paradise: Even the viral motif, where those who are “foreign” and “do not conform” are “destructive” to The Body and must be “purged”, is straightforwardly a reiteration of Stalinistic disciplinary and disappearing tactics, albeit a rather clever and original one. Even so, it's not clear that Roddenberry actually recognises the difference between communism, collectivism, Stalinism and generic authoritarianism (which, to be honest, is probably an accurate allegation). As a result, “The Return of the Archons” is at once a critique of rote obedience that fingers Starfleet as being part of the problem and a chest-thumping bit of Rugged American Individualist Anti-Soviet Propaganda and neither of those things because nothing about this episode fits together.

The big revelation is, naturally that Landru is a computer. Exactly who programmed it, why, and how it lasted this long in control of an entire planet for 6000 years (or was that only 100? I was never very clear on that, and there's a bit of a difference between those two numbers) is not explained, but also not entirely important. What this also means is we get another example of the signature James T. Kirk method of computer repair: Blowing it up by shouting paradoxes and logic errors at it (it's a good thing he never tried this on Spock, especially given his lines in the denouement this time). This is of course ridiculous and displays a riotous failure to understand and wanton disregard for basic computer science, but again, there's another episode coming up where it will be far more appropriate to talk about that than it is here. This is very irritating to me, as it all adds up to “The Return of the Archons” being another episode that there's very little for me to say intelligent about it.

But there are a few things. Firstly, like “Miri” and “The Squire of Gothos” before it, “The Return of the Archons” is also very good at building an air of mystery. The teaser alone holds up the rest of the episode in this regard: Sulu and a redshirt are running though Mayberry dressed in Victorian frock coats while evil clockwork monks slowly close in on them with what basically amount to magic staves. That's got to get anyone's attention. Likewise, the Stepford-esque villagers and chaotic, hedonistic Festival (despite actually making no narrative sense whatsoever if you think too long about it) help contribute to the general unsettling atmosphere. Most importantly in my opinion, however, is that the one thing “The Return of the Archons” is unwaveringly consistent and coherent about is its perhaps surprising, yet firm and undeniable, anti-utopian stance.

It's continuously stressed by not only the followers of Landru, but the crew itself, is that Beta III is explicitly a utopian society. Those who are part of The Body continually talk about how happy, serene and peaceful they are and how Landru has created a paradise. Indeed, he arguably has: There is no war, hunger, disease or conflict on Beta III (except during the officially-sanctioned Festival) and Landru removes such concepts from The Body immediately as inherently dangerous foreign substances should it detect them. And the show hates it for those very reasons. The Body is depicted as vapid, empty and without any sense of creativity or enthusiasm for life, despite being placid, content and happy. The clincher comes in the denouement, where Spock muses on how humanity has often longed to create an ideal, perfect world and Kirk grins and says “Yes. And we never got it. Just lucky, I guess”. This is quite frankly astonishing from a modern perspective: Here's Gene Roddenberry, the supposed Arch-Utopian, quite clearly penning a story where a desire for utopia is portrayed as dangerous, stifling, wrongheaded and dehumanizing. To paraphrase a young Jean-Luc Picard: What the Devil is going on here?

Thing is, this isn't so inconceivable a statement as it first appears, and we should already be familiar with some of the reasons why. Roddenberry in 1967 is not a utopian futurist, and actually whether or not he ever actually was is a matter for debate in my opinion (a case could be made there's evidence he becomes this as of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but how much of that was him and how much was him playing up his audience can be hard to discern at times). Star Trek was never created to be something like this, and the show as it exists now most certainly isn't. Furthermore, the entire idea of a utopian society is a loaded concept: The term was coined by political philosopher Thomas More in a treatise that is now largely seen to be a work of straight-up satire, skewering 16th century Europe's panglossian attitude towards its rampant, systemic social problems. As a result of this, anyone following More attempting to craft an unirionically “utopian” society really has to be seen as somewhat egregiously not getting the joke. The fact so many of the so-called utopias in speculative fiction come from Western authors who are still very much part of a culture descended in more ways than they'd care to admit from the Europe Thomas More was bitterly complaining about in 1516 can be seen as nothing short of delicious poetic irony.

Does this mean that Star Trek and other works like it can never be hopeful? Are we all doomed to all be eschatological nihilists from now until the inevitable heat death of the universe, or the equally inevitable entropic collapse of human society, whichever comes first? I don't think so, and the key reason why I don't is that I strongly believe there is a stark difference between utopianism and idealism. Star Trek isn't utopian: It never has been, and each and every time the franchise has started experimenting with utopianism it's caught and severely problematized itself, sometimes with absolutely horrifying consequences. Star Trek is, however, idealistic: When it's at it's best, it shows us people and concepts entirely within our reach that we can strive for. Even now, in 1967, it's showing us that maybe an environment where men, women and others of all backgrounds and creeds can live and work together as equals isn't an absolute impossibility. Granted a lot of this is coming about purely by accident, coincidence and the secondary effect of decisions that were made in the interests of goals pretty far removed from that of material social progress and the show isn't going to engage with these themes with any seriousness or maturity until it gets rebooted a few more times, but it's still a reading and implication that's demonstrably there, if only as a truism given that a not-insignificant number of people have in fact read it this way.

This is hopeful; this is idealistic-It's not a utopian society by any stretch of the imagination, and as Kirk says we probably shouldn't be waiting around for one, but it is giving us the most basic of hints that a world better than our own is possible. This is a declaration we should take notice of, respect and be thankful for. These things can happen, and we can and should strive for them. Even if it's not really all there now, in 1967, it definitely will be before our trek through the stars is over. It won't always be paired with completely unproblematic concepts and ideas (it certainly hasn't been to date) and indeed on a great many occasions will be actively working contrary to this declaration, but this still may well be the most important thing to know about Star Trek: A better life is possible. Equality and peace are possible. Love is possible. Enlightenment is possible. And isn't that, ultimately, what progressiveness means?


  1. Like your points about the prime directive, the distinction between idealism and utopia –and the quote anticipating the Borg.
    To me this episode is one of the most dramatic –as you say, it's “very good at building an air of mystery.” So memorable how the Body alternates between the placid daytime and the demonic Red Hour; the Lawgivers’ enigmatic power, the underground resistance, etc. The society can be seen as communism / totalitarian government as you suggest, or as fundamentalist religion – the robes suggest the Catholic church, but it could be any faith institution with Landru appearing as a generic prophet or cult leader.
    I think the story deserves credit for the ambiguity here.
    It must be the writers’ fear of machines/automatons, that has Kirk destroying computers so often - in this episode, and in The Changeling, Ultimate Computer, Taste of Armageddon, That which Survives (and androids in I, Mudd, What are little girls made of).
    One of my favorite lines – Kirk saying “creativity is necessary for the health of the body.”

    1. That's a solid redemptive reading of the episode IMO. For me though, I'd me more willing to err on the side of ambiguity had Roddenberry not had a track record for logical lapses (c.f. "The Menagerie").

      There's definitely a precedent the writers had some skepticism of computers and technology: We've already seen "Court Martial" attempt it as a B-story. "The Ultimate Computer" is probably the best example though.

    2. Fear of evil computers was a staple of 60s sf, from Doctor Who to "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Colossus: The Forbin Project. And don't forget that in The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan gets an evil computer to explode by asking it "Why?"

  2. Excellent point about the Prime Directive. That said, I think it could be a useful storytelling concept with a bit of tweaking - some clause that provides "okay circumstances to interfere in", where the characters could debate whether the current situation fits those circumstances in a more interesting/less problematic way than the "would you torture a baby to stop a nuke"-style over-the-top moral dilemmas that show up in nearly every PD episode.

    Was this the first "Kirk blows up a computer through logic" story? What Are Little Girls Made Of had a different kind of resolution.

    Also, the horror movie "The Purge" seems to be stealing the basic premise of this episode, only without the computer-control aspect that makes it even vaguely make sense.

    1. It may have been the first: offhand I want to say there was one beforehand and I definitely thought there was when I was writing this. "The Galileo Seven" has a scene where Spock suffers a kind of psychological overflow error at least.

  3. The term "utopian" has at least two uses. One use designates a well-nigh perfect, virtually flawless society that has "unrealistic" virtually written into its definition. But another meaning is just the idea of an enormous (and possible) sociopolitical improvement through radical change -- which is why proponents of radical change from Emma Goldman to Friedrich Hayek are so proud to call themselves utopian. Defenders of the status quo tend to attack utopia in the second sense by conflating it with utopia in the first sense, but I don't think we should make it easy for them.

    1. Also, I don't think our use of the term needs to be held hostage to the question of whether Thomas More's intentions were serious or satirical or whatever. The word has slipped out of his hands now.

    2. While I agree, I tend to use "utopia" to refer to the first sense and "idealism" to refer to the second sense. Not always, but otherwise I find it troubling to talk about how a show can be utopian without actually taking place in a utopia and indeed problematizing the concept of a utopia. That just gets confusing as far as I'm concerned.