Thursday, January 23, 2014

“Is green, yes.”: Bem

This out-of-context screencap is more entertaining than the whole episode.
“Bem” is the final “official” contribution to Star Trek by Dave Gerrold, though his presence and influence is going to be felt on the franchise for years to come (most notably during the first third of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, when he was on staff). From what I gather, it seems to have the reputation for being one of the better remembered and most admired episodes of The Animated Series, although Gerrold and D.C. Fontana do seem to go back and forth a bit on what their actual takeaway on it was.

So naturally I don't think it works in the slightest.

The story concerns the Enterprise taking on an attache by the name of Ari bn Bem, representing the planet Pandro. Bem is acting as an independent observer judging the Enterprise crew to determine whether or not the Federation is worthy of establishing formal diplomatic relations with his people. Though he sat out the previous six missions, Bem insists on being allowed to accompany the landing party on a dangerous reconnaissance mission to investigate uncontacted aboriginal people on Delta Theta III. Beaming down, it soon becomes apparent that Bem has ulterior motives, as he clandestinely replaces Kirk and Spock's phasers and communicators with forgeries and then runs off, getting captured by the natives in the process. Pursuing Bem, Kirk and Spock end up captured themselves, where Bem reveals to them that, as a colony organism, he could have divided into discrete parts and escaped at any time, but allowed himself to be captured to firstly study the native population from within, but also to see how Kirk and Spock would respond, disapproving of their repeated attempts to resolve the situation with force.

OK. I have quite a few issues with this setup already, and that's the briefest summary I could manage. First of all, as someone with a background in anthropology this entire premise rankles me. The ethics of “uncontacted” cultures is a sticky proposition to begin with, and the ever-present headache that is Star Trek's Prime Directive makes it worse. There's always a kind of paternalism (and, frankly, racism) present in the assumption that indigenous peoples, especially indigenous peoples who are “uncontacted”, are some kind of living time capsule from humanity's prehistory. You can't tell anything objectively about human history (well, you can't really tell anything objectively, but that's another matter entirely), and certainly not through ethnography. All that gets you is a not-always-clear outsider's perspective of how a culture operates *in the present day*. Furthermore, it's more than a little patronizing and naive to assume that all so-called “uncontacted” people are too childlike and stupid to at least guess some kind of an outside world exists.

None of this is helped by every single person in the episode acting like a complete idiot. Kirk and Spock are in full-on colonialist mode here again, stressing the importance of this mission to “classify” the aboriginal people of Delta Theta III, like the good Lamarckists they are. Spock even throws out pointedly ridiculous descriptors like “late primitivism” as if he's some kind of imperial anthropologist from back when formal colonial empires were a thing and institutionalized racism and modernist teleology were the guiding philosophies of the day (I mean, even more than they are now). Thankfully they're both called out on this bullshit by Bem and one other character who we'll talk about later, but none of it takes, frankly, especially when Bem acts colossally stupidly himself. At no point in the history of anthropology has it been considered a standard part of participant observation to charge headlong into your contact village and let yourself get captured and thrown into a stereotypical bamboo cage straight out of old fashioned adventure stories. Somehow I don't recall reading that in Bronislaw Malinowski's handbook.

Actually let's talk some more about Bem. He is, in fact, named after precisely what you think he's named after. And no, he isn't one. “BEM”, for the uninitiated, is a cheeky acronym for the stock science fiction concept of the Bug-Eyed Monster. Gerrold originally pitched this story as a sort of joke about how fun it might be to see an actual BEM in Star Trek...but he's also said that Bem himself was never intended to actually *be* a BEM, so I have no idea what Gerrold's point actually was. It's also worth noting that, given the way he acts in the actual episode, were Gerrold a woman, Bem would absolutely have been declared a Mary Sue at this point. He's a character who we've never seen before immediately made honourary commander and who, despite his deceptive machinations, goes on to lecture Kirk and Spock about their smug sense of entitlement and dangerously irresponsible reliance on technology and firepower.

So for awhile it seems like the script is making “Bem” out to be another criticism of Star Trek's authoritarian and imperialist tendencies by showing how the titular character has a better philosophy towards exploring and meeting people (even though he actually doesn't), but the problem is any story like this made in the wake of “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” that doesn't acknowledge humanity's drive towards constant self-improvement is, in my opinion, flatly outdated. Thankfully the episode does try to address this but it doesn't seem to be thanks to Gerrold. Gene Roddenberry took a particular interest in this episode and made a ton of edits and alterations to it and, unbelievably, he's the one who seemed to recognise the majority of its problems and made the biggest effort to alleviate them.

But before we can get too excited, it turns out Roddenberry doesn't really know what to do with this pitch either and his additions don't really help. Roddenberry felt that it would be a good idea if the Enterprise crew met God on Delta Theta III, and had Gerrold add such a character to come in and but both Kirk and Bem in their places. Starting here Roddenberry starts to develop a fascination with the concept of God or some other kind of transcendent Truth, and this will eventually culminate in his big overblown treatise on the matter in 1979. And although this never *quite* works out for him (although I do submit a portion of this might be my own hesitation about this kind of Greco-European conception of the divine and objective reality), the depiction of it in “Bem” is prototypical and ill-defined even by Roddenberry's standards.

See it turns out God, who is apparently Nichelle Nichols, is upset at the Federation and the Pandronians interfering on Delta Theta III. And here's where this episode really goes to pieces for me: Roddenberry, or perhaps Gerrold, adds in an underlying motif about testing. The Enterprise crew are testing the Delta Thetans to find out what taxonomical classification of people they are. Bem claims to be testing the Federation, via Starfleet, by observing how they react to certain situations and God, meanwhile, resents the hubris in either of them thinking they have the right to test and classify anything. It's at this point any possibility of this being a critique of Star Trek’s narrative logic and ethics goes out the window, because Bem breaks down and says he's failed his own test by underestimating Kirk and acting foolishly by violating his orders and going against Starfleet regulation, which is obviously more enlightened then he gave it credit for. Maybe Bem then is Gerrold's criticism of the Mary Sue, which would be even more troubling as this would mean Gerrold is saying what's most valuable about Star Trek is its well-founded rigid authoritarian chain of command.

Now I don't want to totally single out Gerrold for blame here. He's a demonstrably good writer, albeit one who has a frustrating tendency to try and punch above his weight class before he's really prepared to. And a lot of the things that make Gerrold's pitches so entertaining are on display here, most notably the comic timing. Furthermore, both he and D.C. Fontana have said on occasion that this isn't a story either of them are terribly proud of. But even so, this one flatly does not work: “Bem” is Gerrold's most troubling submission yet (though unfortunately not the most troubling of his we're going to look at) and there's an even larger issue at play here: It's all that testing.

Unlike previous such characters, and indeed future ones, the God in this story is very much someone we're supposed to defer to. She's a wise and benevolent God, pointing out to the now-suicidal Bem that punishment is only necessary when someone is incapable of learning. Coming from her, this is both a reinforcement and an endorsement of authority. But what really bothers me is, as Spock points out, the God in this story is very clearly a tester too: She's testing the Delta Thetans (to whom she refers to as children in need of guidance, thus once again invoking the racist notion that indigenous people are quaint, primitive and childlike) and using their planet as a large-scale laboratory on social evolution. She's doing the exact thing she found abhorrent when Kirk and Spock attempted it. But she has the right, because she's God and thus a legitimate higher power.

This is, of course, a very Christian, and thus Western, conception of divinity. But what marks it as such is not merely the crass authoritarianism, but also the notion that God is some kind of arch-manipulator, putting out tests to put her experimental subjects through to see if they pass muster. Avital Ronell has a great book called The Test Drive which equates the ubiquity of scientific-style tests in Western Modernity with Freud's Drive Theory. Westerners are thus compelled to test ourselves and each other, and this seeps into all aspects of Western thought, discourse and pop consciousness.

One of the things Ronell's book grew out of, for example, was her analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the First Gulf War, and in particular how it was promised to be “bloodless” and “safe”, and how this paralleled with the then-contemporary AIDS panic. In essence, the war was the US' attempt to test itself for AIDS, and to reassure itself that its test came back negative and, implicitly, that it wasn't gay. The test then is what we use to legitimize all aspects of our lives, not just our approach to scientific research, but love, war, and, as I think Roddenberry and Gerrold show here, our own sense of self-worth. It's a powerful, if not the primary, force in both normalization and marginalization. It's how we determine what's acceptable and what isn't.

So, if the only way anything can be considered serious and worthy of consideration is if it passes a test, it's not that much of a stretch to see the entirety of existence as one great science experiment with an almighty God, or some other objective force (such as Reason, Nature or The Universe. This is another area in which Western Science and Western Religion show themselves to really be born of the same underlying mentality), as the only truly legitimate authority by which we can measure ourselves against. We are all, as Kirk and Spock say in the denouement, merely children hoping to pass muster.

Thankfully, for me at least, the Western version of transcendentalism isn't the only one that exists. But that's all I'm going to say about this topic for now.


  1. Bem's big contribution to Star Trek for me is basically his uniform. While I feel the Original Series costuming is highly underrated and highly original, vivid, memorable and even now slightly cutting edge and sophisticated, one thing they never pulled off for me was the idea of a highly designed uniform for a non-Starfleet hierarchy. Even civilian Federation sailors' uniforms basically looked like the simple (effective) Starfleet uniforms.

    Bem's uniform is starkly different and yet somehow akin to an ally of the Federation (as well as adhering rather strongly to Silver Age sci-fi design).

    I've really found the Pandronian uniform, as well as those of the Orion privateers to be incredibly successful Silver Age designs, and they're designs I'd be delighted to see made into real costumes by a fan-production, or "updated" into modern homages by fan-illustrators with realistic rendering software, at any rate.

    1. - I should add that these are prophetic things; The Motion Picture is on the horizon, as is a heavy dose of capital-d Design.

  2. you can't really tell anything objectively

    What way of determining something could there be other than an objective one? If it's not objective, what's getting determined?

    were Gerrold a woman, Bem would absolutely have been declared a Mary Sue at this point

    I see the Mary Sue accusation made against male authors reasonably often (Steven Moffat, for instance).

    This is, of course, a very Christian, and thus Western, conception of divinity

    I don't get this. Crass authoritarianism and arch-manipulation on the part of the gods are not exactly ideas confined to the West. And for the broader motif of divine testing of humans, what about, say, the Buddhist story of Asanga and the dog?

    1. "What way of determining something could there be other than an objective one? If it's not objective, what's getting determined?"

      I reject pure objectivity, alongside pure subjectivity, with the realism/relativism divide and the facts/values one in favour of a conception of situated knowledges. In this vein I'm very much in the tradition of Hilary Putnam, and especially Donna Haraway, c.f. this:

      "I see the Mary Sue accusation made against male authors reasonably often (Steven Moffat, for instance)."

      Not nearly as often as you see it made against female authors I'd be willing to wager.

      "I don't get this. Crass authoritarianism and arch-manipulation on the part of the gods are not exactly ideas confined to the West. And for the broader motif of divine testing of humans, what about, say, the Buddhist story of Asanga and the dog?"

      Perhaps not, but the concept of the test is intrinsically bound up with Western thought in a way I don't think it is with many other cultures. You don't see that kind of fetishization and taking-for-granted of the test as a central aspect of the way life works in, say, a number of indigenous cultures.