Sunday, November 17, 2013

“If I've lived a thousand times before/And if I'm gonna live a million more”: Requiem for Methuselah

"Hi there. This is Flint, for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation..."
“Requiem for Methuselah” is an episode I feel like I should probably like a whole lot more than I did. It's got a knowingly overreaching central premise, sublimely poetic dialog, and strong, moving acting. Furthermore, it also has that signature hallmark of the very best budget-starved speculative fiction TV around: The main characters sitting around in a room debating philosophy with the guest stars. Somewhere in here is a tragic story about human frailty and the human condition: In some ways it does 1970s Gene Roddenberry better than Gene Roddenberry. It's also Jerome Bixby's final Star Trek contribution, and, judging by his later work, a story that meant a great deal to him.

And here I am trying to figure out what to say about it.

I guess a plot summary is in order. After an outbreak of lethal Rigellian flu renders the Enterprise a literal plague ship, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet on an emergency mission to acquire a sample of a rare element from which McCoy can derive an antidote. If they don't return to the ship in two hours, everyone aboard will perish. On the planet they meet a mysterious man named Flint, who claims to have fled Earth to escape it's neverending barbarism and conflict. After a “test of strength”, Flint offers to have his robot servant collect the ore McCoy needs to craft the vaccine, and invites the landing party to his house, a sprawling mansion lavishly adorned with an impossible array of collectibles, including a first edition Gutenberg Bible, first drafts of William Shakespeare's plays and what appear to be brand new, authentic works by Brahms and Leonardo da Vinci. But his biggest surprise is his adopted daughter Rayna, whom Flint claims is educated in centuries of art, music and science...and who immediately captures Kirk's heart.

The first half of the episode seems to halfheartedly play with doing another critique of Star Trek's claim to utopia, having Flint debate with Kirk, Spock and McCoy about how and by what standards humans consider themselves advanced, but this largely takes a backseat to the primary sci-fi mystery: Who Flint is, why he behaves so erratically and what his sudden interest in the Enterprise crew is. The problem is the mystery is painfully easy to guess, and this is clear to everyone except the actual characters from about ten minutes into the runtime. I'm just going to go ahead and spoil “Requiem for Methuselah”'s big trump card right now, because it's pretty much the script's only actual idea and the fact it holds it to the climax makes the whole episode feel tortuously padded: The reason Flint is able to amass such a collection and has the money for his enormous compound (and so apparently we've decided money does exist in the world of the Original Series then?) is that he literally is Brahms and da Vinici, as well as Alexander the Great, Lazarus and Methuselah, as well as a whole host of other major historical figures. He was born immortal at the dawn of modern human civilization in Mesopotamia and has spent his endless life mastering every skill and amassing all the knowledge he can in an attempt to live as the ultimate human. His only failing is his endless loneliness, as he's watched all his friends and lovers die as human history inevitably moves onward without him. He created Rayna, an android, in an effort to create a perfect mate for himself who could share his immortality.

I will grant the episode this: The actors playing Flint and Rayna, James Daly and Louise Sorel, respectively, are total class acts and deliver some of the best performances of the year. Daly completely sells Flint's loneliness, detachment and crushing sadness, working wonders with Bixby's somber, piquant and elegiac dialogue. Sorel was a theatre actor and it shows, and her facial expressions alone convey the almost-humanity of the android Rayna's confusion, torn between her love for both Kirk and Flint and the slow dawning of her individual identity that her programming is ultimately unable to handle. And the final few scenes are an absolute triumph: Sorel has Rayna collapse at the conflicting emotions she feels, and Daly, along with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley act their hearts out mourning her loss. Shatner and Kelley in particular: Shatner absolutely sells Kirk devastated at not only the loss of his dream woman, but at how poor examples he felt he and Flint made of humanity as they were reduced to jealous violence. Kelley has McCoy pity not Kirk, but Spock, who he feels will never be able to understand what love is and what it can drive people to do. Meanwhile we know Spock understands, not just because we know Spock very well by now, but because it is he who takes the time to comfort and support the grieving Kirk.

The downside of this is that this makes the script feel even thinner: Firstly, it's basically impossible to buy how Rayna is somehow different from the approximately one billion other one-off romances Kirk's had over the course of the series such that her loss elicits this distraught a reaction from him. Secondly though, Sorel is such gangbusters at portraying an android trying to comprehend what it means to be human that I would have guessed that plot twist even if I didn't already have prior familiarity with this episode and wasn't made suspicious by the title “Requiem for Methuselah” which essentially gives the whole thing away before the first act. Which would be fine had the episode been about, say, Flint challenging Kirk to prove how far humans had truly come. The Enterprise is now up against the literal sum-total of human history: That's a lightning-strike brief if I've ever seen one-The story should have been about Kirk and McCoy trying to convince Flint they've truly left their past excesses behind and deserve to be called a utopia as Spock mediates. But instead, “Requiem for Methuselah” fervently keeps its cards close to its chest and tries to hide from us what we already obviously know, much as Flint tries to hide his own actions from Kirk.

Also, the thing about the “immortal man who lives through history” idea is that it's just that: An idea. It's a fun science fiction concept that seems like something you could get a little mileage out of, but that's pretty much *all* it is. Perhaps this gets at the difference between the kind of science fiction I tend to enjoy and the kind Bixby maybe enjoyed writing: I like sci-fi when it's being used to explore themes that, while you could perhaps do them in contemporary period drama, would be very difficult to convey genuinely effectively. A good example of this would be “The Cloud Minders”, a critique of division of labour that, because it's set in the future on a faraway planet, avoids the problems typically associated with, say, historical fiction. Another good example would be, naturally, “Balance of Terror”, which in my view works significantly better on Star Trek than it did as a World War II movie called The Enemy Below filmed a decade after World War II ended.

Another thing I like science fiction for, and in particular Star Trek, is its ability to talk frankly about enlightenment and borderline Fortean and spiritual concepts which are only acceptable to the majority of audiences if they're presented in this kind of context. We have in fact already seen the Original Series do this on a number of occasions just this season alone. Eventually, both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are going to perfect how to explore everyday human experience and show how both the mundane and gritty materialism of human social organisation and our omnipresent mystical, yet tangible, connection to the larger cosmos are equally fundamental aspects of what it means to be a living thing. An idea about an immortal man who becomes various historical figures simply because he's immortal is none of these things: It's an almost Golden Age throwback that's more interested in the tautological cleverness of the concept itself than actually doing anything with it, and Star Trek has already demonstrated that it's by-and-large rubbish at pure Golden Age science fiction.

That's not even getting into the troublingly Western-centric way Bixby handle's Flint's immortality. Although he claims to have been just about every major thinker in human history, Flint curiously only name-checks Western intellectuals and his ideal woman is almost Hellenistic (indeed, he claims to have once been Alexander). There's not a single work in Flint's mansion compound that isn't from somewhere in central Europe or the United Kingdom, and he puts the place of his birth, and that of human civilization, in Mesopotamia of all places. Flint is about as Western as is possible to get, down to him essentially being the Big Man theory of history on steroids.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Big Man theory is essentially the history they teach in textbooks: Every once in awhile a Unique Genius comes along and singlehandedly changes the course of history pretty much in a vacuum: The Great Man is depicted as coming up with all his historical contributions largely by willing them into existence from nothing, much like a patriarchal Godlike Creator, such as Zeus or the Abrahamic God: He doesn't have any influences, inspirations, muses, contemporaries or cultural context: He's just a Uniquely Gifted Genius who happens to come along just in time to shift the tide of human evolution. Flint is this guy taken to the extreme: Literally One Man responsible for every single notable development and breakthrough in all of history, and naturally, he's an Old White Dude.

I suppose the other thing worth mentioning is that this is Jerome Bixby's last contribution to Star Trek and apparently the story he considered his masterpiece, which I guess says more about Bixby than I could. He was working on a film script with a functionally identical premise about an immortal man who lives through all of human history off an on throughout his career, and he finally completed on his deathbed. This script eventually became the movie The Man from Earth, produced by his family members and released in 2007, which is famous largely for being one of the first movies to achieve the majority of its acclaim thanks to its acquiring a cult following through being shared via BitTorrent sites, increasing its notoriety more than it would have had its creators stuck to traditional methods of distribution and publicity. The biggest difference between “Requiem for Methuselah” and The Man from Earth is that the newer story is set in the present day, there's no Rayna and its entire runtime is devoted to the immortal man telling his story to his latest group of friends acquaintances, along with the revelation that he is also Jesus, a title he gained while trying to spread his Buddhist beliefs to the ancient middle east, which is perhaps a slightly more provocative way of exploring this concept.

So what have in essence here is a rough draft. The existence of The Man from Earth alone proves this idea had potential, but “Requiem for Methuselah” perhaps proves Star Trek was not the venue for Bixby to fully realise his vision. And that I guess is as fitting a farewell to Jerome Bixby as any, a talented and respected voice in science fiction who seemed more often than not to require a little help to get his ideas to work in the world of Star Trek.

Star Trek is an incredibly hard story tapestry to work with, a fact even its originators often had to come face-to-face with.


  1. I like that Doctor Who essentially did the same story, but in their version the Big Man of All History is called Scaroth and he's an evil bastard, doing it all entirely for his own purposes and driving humanity towards annihilation.

  2. I like "Requiem for Methuselah". But I loathe science fiction when it incredulously tries to reduce the great works of many disparate individuals to secretly all being the works of one superman. It's insulting to the human race, or at least the cross-section of "History of Western Art" we get here.

    For that matter, if Flint was an immortal version of Alexander or da Vinci, assuredly Rayna would likely not be a "perfect Female" android.

    But beyond that caveat of the immortality trope, and its reductive (and therefore, antisophisticate) nature (this is something I find fault in with a lot of "immortal" fiction, whether it be Highlanders or even Doctor Who, although in Who's case the tropey nature works in its favor - eventually, the whole history of mankind's achievements are revolving around one protagonist, and that's a horribly narrow way of looking at things), the episode itself has a fine premise (Odyssey plague ship comes to Western eccentric isolationist billionaire's island need remedy, he's been cut off from other people for a long damn time, and so on and so forth). It's well acted, the trio of heroes is wholly well represented and are clearly excited by the quality of the script and the human nature on display.

    And the ending, besides "Forget ..." being another prophetic moment that will pay off two decades later with "Remember ...", is probably the most uncanny, empathic and wonderful ending in TOS history - it's getting toward the end now, and we see that Kirk really is the weary traveler, he's exhausted by genuine romantic feelings toward all of these women, this one may have pushed him over the edge. Even his famous, slightly callous sense of humor isn't staving off the anxiety.

    But Spock understands the emotional toll. That's where Bones is so wrong; Spock may be stoic, unemotional, coldly logical, but the Vulcan understanding of the manifold effects of emotion is actually keen as a lance. They're highly empathic. Only in suppressing their own emotions can they so loudly hear those of others.

  3. Quick question Josh: had he named great thinkers from the east (Confucius) or historical figures from the Americas, wouldn't your critique be that a white guy was stealing credit for the works of indigenous peoples continuing a history of cultural imperialism and appropriation?

    I'll be honest: I was expecting an entry where you talk about how it says the entirety of western thought is backwards and how it all grows out of one primordial man that is basically a killer, whose only relationships are artificial and for his own self-image, and who in the end destroys his greatest works rather than learn to live in peace with utopian ideals.

    Great entry. Just really not what I was expecting.

    1. "had he named great thinkers from the east (Confucius) or historical figures from the Americas, wouldn't your critique be that a white guy was stealing credit for the works of indigenous peoples continuing a history of cultural imperialism and appropriation?"

      Well, yes. That's the other side of the Great Man conception of history: That's still effacing the contributions of everyone who isn't the famous White Male historical figure. And so many Westerners tend to believe it and internalize it.

      "I was expecting an entry where you talk about how it says the entirety of western thought is backwards and how it all grows out of one primordial man that is basically a killer, whose only relationships are artificial and for his own self-image, and who in the end destroys his greatest works rather than learn to live in peace with utopian ideals."

      That's a fantastic reading of the episode as well (and actually you might enjoy my take on the episode I'm writing up now a bit more, given that take). Glad you liked the post anyway, though.

    2. I love your writings, even if I don't agree 100% of the time. I feel like part of being an informed person is exposing oneself to other views. And it's not that I see anything wrong with your reading.I was just expecting something different.

    3. No, I agree completely! Part of the reason this blog exists is to inspire discourse about Star Trek in ways that really haven't been talked about before. And I quite like your take on this episode.

      That's the thing about doing this kind of "immortal man" brief in the first place. There's going to be problems no matter which way you slice it. I'm glad for Bixby's sake The Man from Earth turned out as well as it did

  4. Actually, the story I'm most reminded of is Twilight Zone's classic "Long Live Walter Jameson", with Kevin McCarthy playing a Methuselah who, while not a Great Man, was present at the big events and uses those memories to be a popular history professor. And his past, of course, catches up with him, in the best TZ fashion.

    1. This is actually quite similar to how The Man from Earth ends up playing out, though the movie has a perhaps more gentle ending.

  5. Apart from the central point about Flint's identity, this follows closely in the tradition of The Tempest and Forbidden Planet.

  6. Another annoying thing is the absurdity that the greatness of Brahms (artistic creativity) and the "greatness" of Alexander (being good at conquering and killing thousands of people for no even semi-plausible reason) are just different modes of a single homogeneous "greatness."