Thursday, January 30, 2014

“Only the beginning”: How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

"''How Sharper' was a dream piece of work, we had artistic integrity all the way through,' Wise notes. 'All experiences should be so good.'"

Although there's one more episode to go according to the official episode list, “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” can in some ways be seen as the series finale of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and really, the first phase of the Star Trek franchise. It's a return one last time to the realm of the magickal, a conscious and deliberate claim that Star Trek is an extension of indigenous spirituality (or at least should be), and, somewhat incredibly, is “Who Mourns for Adonais?” done properly, written as a tribute to and eulogy of Gene Coon. It's also the solitary Emmy Award win of the entire Star Trek franchise.

After a mysterious probe visited the founding homeworlds of the Federation and attempted to contact them before randomly exploding, the Enterprise is following its trail back to what it hopes will be its source, where it discovers a gigantic starship that suddenly, before everyone's eyes adopts the visage of a ferocious-looking feathered lizard. Helmsman Dawson Walking Bear, a student of indigenous cultures, in particular Native American and Mesoamerican, immediately recognises the creature before them as Kukulkan: An ancient Mayan deity associated with the Vision Serpent, the symbolic embodiment of the gateway to the spirit world, and the intermediary between mortals and their ancestors and gods (serpents being very important in Mayan spirituality anyway, oftentimes seen as the vessels the moon and stars use to travel across the heavens). Kukulkan is saddened that humanity seems to have forgotten him, but, because Walking Bear remembered, he wonders if the Enterprise crew can do what he claims their ancestors failed to, and transports him, Kirk, McCoy and Scotty to his ship.

The crewmembers materialize in a large, empty room that morphs into a gigantic city modeled off of Maya, Aztec and ancient Chinese design. Walking Bear points out that Kukulkan is said to have asked his followers to build him a city and that, once they had, he would return (a trait which, according to my cursory research, is actually more similar to the tales of the K'iche Mayan feathered serpent Q'uq'umatz). Kirk figures the city must be a kind of signal, that Kukulkan must have appeared to many different peoples, and, since each culture only focused on one piece of the iconography, none of them built the city exactly right. However, they might be able to figure it out now together. Naturally, they succeed and Kukulkan appears before the landing party. Kukulkan claims that he's upset by the ceaseless violence of human history and fears all the work he's done to to help humanity has been for naught. It now falls to Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Walking Bear to convince the serpent god that humanity's capacity for self-improvement demonstrate that his faith was not ill-placed, but also that the time has come for humans to learn their own lessons by themselves, because a parent cannot keep a child forever.

My enthusiasm belies the fact that this one is obviously really good and it comes so, so close to being just about everything I want out of Star Trek. The concept is just about perfect, and a masterstroke as is. The iconography and animation? “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” has been one of those episodes that's haunted me for decades. Finally being able to see it was breathtaking. And, just as Kukulkan's faith in humanity was restored by the crew of the Enterprise, so was my faith in Star Trek reaffirmed by learning about the backstory for this episode. The episode's writer, Russell Bates, happened to be a Native American himself, a Kiowa, and D.C. Fontana immediately sought him out because she explicitly wanted a science fiction story from a Native American perspective.

Bates was paired with Robert Wise, an animator who would go on to write for a number of shows from the Renaissance Age of Animation, such as Jem, Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers and Batman: The Animated Series. And, although it's not well-known, Wise also was a major architect for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series, and is largely responsible for giving the four turtles the distinctive and iconic personalities now strongly associated with them. Fontana hoped that together the two creators would bounce ideas off of each other and come up with something vivid and memorable that really took advantage of animation as a medium. And, while the end result is most certainly that, here's also where things start to go a bit downhill for this episode. Maddeningly, as brilliant as it is, there are one or two conceptual things about “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” that don't sit quite right with me.

Firstly, while the story was supposed to be about Native American mythology, the primary character is Kukulkan, who is quite blatantly a Mesoamerican deity and that's not *exactly* the same thing. According to Wise, Kukulkan's role was originally supposed to be filled by a Thunderbird, which *is* part of Native American mythology, but the decision was made to change it to the feathered serpent because Mayan culture would be more colourful to depict and, well, more recognisable to a Western audience. I'm not sure how I feel about this: Considering the whole point was to do a Native American science fiction story, shifting the focus to the Mayans feels like cheating, although Bates does say his people share some ancestry with the Mayans (I'm finding that hard to corroborate, but I'm not about to presume I know more about Bates' people and heritage than he does).

Then there's the other big problem. This is quite clearly a von Däniken-inspired story again, with all the requisite racist, colonialist baggage that goes along with him, and this time he's specifically name-checked by Wise so there can be no mistake. Wise said he and Bates decided to do a story built around Chariots of the Gods?...because it was about science fiction and ancient people and the book was popular at the time. Which, you know, I can't fault their business sense, but that's the banality of evil, isn't it? Isn't that how hegemony reasserts itself? Little things people do because it's expected, or “that's just the way things are” or...because it sells well? Come on. I expect a little better of Star Trek by now. Though, to their credit, Bates and Wise, in particular Bates, do try to pull a formidable reconstruction effort on von Däniken and end up sidestepping a sizable portion, but not all, of his more problematic connotations. Of the von Däniken-esque structure, Bates says (emphasis his)

"I always had been outraged that Europeans said the vast cities in Central and South America could not have been built by the 'savages'. They had to have had help: the Egyptians, or the Chinese, or the Phoenicians, or even the Atlanteans came, taught the poor Indians how to build their civilization, and that's how it all happened. Horse breath! So, the story about Kukulkan became that Kukulkan visited ALL races of mankind, taught them his knowledge, and then departed. Now the story said that NOBODY on Earth invented a damned thing! They all got their knowledge from somebody else!”

and while that is an admirable way of approaching this kind of brief, it still doesn't quite work. For one thing, Bates and Wise only mention the Maya, the Aztecs, the Chinese and, briefly, the Egyptians: The script never mentions any Western cultures. This could be read a couple different ways, but none of them are totally unproblematic.

On the one hand this is bad because it obviously implies that the West is the only human culture that didn't need outside help and sprung up of its own volition. On the other hand, if the episode *did* show us Western motifs in Kukulkan's city we might have been stuck with the “Requiem for Methuselah” problem and ended up attributing all of human history to one person. At least it would be a feathered lizard god this time instead of an Old White Dude, but still. My personal take (and it's not quite a watertight defense, but it's the best reading I could come up with) is that because Kukulkan is altogether more benevolent than Apollo, and also far more straightforwardly a deity and path towards enlightenment, the episode is telling us that Westernism is fundamentally disconnected from spiritual truths and magickal ways of knowing, and thus an ultimately nihilistic, dead-end worldview. Which is, to be fair, a perfectly fair and accurate statement.

Another thing worth mentioning about this is that in having each culture fixate on one specific aspect of the city, the episode positions itself firmly within an extremely Platonic conception of external transcendent Truth. This is the “blind-men-feeling-about-an-elephant” motif, where everyone understands a piece of the grand, discrete, complete Truth, but never the entirety of it. Being Platonic, and thus Western, this is also a model I'm not especially enamoured of and is also not necessarily the conception of metaphysics the ancient Maya had. I tend to be drawn more to the idea of “truths” rather than “Truth”: Lower-case-t truths do exist, but they come into being due to the interaction of many different human and nonhuman factors. I feel assuming there's a monolithic, objective “Truth” that is only revealed to us a little at a time presumes a Greco-European and pop Christian view of things I'm trying to exorcise from at least my personal vernacular and rhetoric.

In the comments under the post on “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, on which this episode is explicitly and heavily based, Adam Riggio said that, if you can look past the horrific rape apologia (which I can't) the way to go about redeeming that episode would be to read it as Star Trek's Hail Mary grab for mythic cultural relevance. In destroying the Golden Apollonian Male ideal central to Western myth and Western mysticism, Star Trek has not only slain its gods but supplanted them, a reading endorsed by the status the franchise has in pop culture now. I think this argument, with a few tweaks, is actually far more applicable to “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth”: This time though, the Enterprise isn't killing its gods, because it recognises Kukulkan is a kindly and helpful spirit, albeit one who's a bit overbearing and overprotective. We once again get the metaphor of humanity as children, which will continue to be a major theme that will see us out of the 1970s. But, unlike in “Bem”, here the show acknowledges that the children are growing up and continuing to learn, which is a kind of reiteration of Kirk's defense of humanity in “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”.

In fact, we could even go so far as to read this episode as declaring that the Enterprise crew is on the way to becoming gods themselves: They speak to Kukulkan as equals, while they spoke to Apollo as enemy combatants. We're no longer petulantly declaring we have no need of gods, instead we now understand that gods and spirits have many things to teach us. However, any good teacher knows that they don't know everything and there will always be more to learn, and this is what the Enterprise crew now know themselves, and what they remind Kukulkan of. The ideal teacher-student relationship is a symbiotic one: Teachers should learn as much from their students as the students do from their teachers, and indeed, the gods and spirits have as much to learn from us as we do from them. This is the true shaman's trick, much as we saw in “The Time Trap”. And this is what we would all do well to remember, as McCoy and Kirk helpfully point out by reciting the King Lear quote from which this episode takes its title:

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

After all that, maybe it's fitting that we go out on a wildly ambitious and terribly exciting, if somewhat flawed, episode. “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” may not be the perfect, definitive episode of Star Trek and it may not even be as conceptually tight as something like “The Jihad”, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” or “Beyond the Farthest Star”. But it doesn't have to be. This is a story all about how Star Trek is continually striving to better itself, and how much of a strength it can be when humanity does so too. It's proof the show is now firmly on the right track and is committed to always trying to be better than it used to be. D.C. Fontana and her team have left Star Trek in a much better, much stronger and much healthier place then her predecessors on the Original Series did.

The weird, ropey show that was chronically behind its time and never seemed to know what it wanted to be finally has a purpose and a legacy and, at this rate, might just turn into something that lasts the ages.


  1. Perhaps the proper way to frame the origins of the West in this narrative is that, when Kukulkan was seeding the Riverine civilizations of the Old World, "the West" as we know it didn't even exist. The West was an offshoot of Mesopotamia and Egypt, by way of the Phoenician influence on archaic Greece. And until the rise of a distinctive Western European civilization in the Middle Ages, most of Europe was a sort of Third World periphery of Mediterranean civilization. So in a sense, the West is a sort of grandchild of Kukulkan's intervention.

  2. My enthusiasm belies the fact that this one is obviously really good

    Obligatory vocab nazi remark: "belies" means "gives the lie to."

    but the decision was made to change it to the feathered serpent because Mayan culture would be more colourful to depict and, well, more recognisable to a Western audience

    Having spent part of my childhood in Arizona, where thunderbird iconography was everywhere, I have a hard time believing that Kukulcan is better known.

    Westernism is ... an ultimately nihilistic, dead-end worldview. Which is, to be fair, a perfectly fair and accurate statement.

    How can you possibly justify such an incredibly reductionist (and frankly offensive) statement?

    I feel assuming there's a monolithic, objective “Truth” that is only revealed to us a little at a time presumes a Greco-European and pop Christian view of things

    The Nyaya-Vaisheshika and Purva-Mimamsa philosophers of ancient India, and the Confucian and Mohist philosophers of ancient China, would be surprised to learn that they needed the Greeks and the Christians in order to grasp the basic idea that assertion presupposes objectivity.

  3. Oh, no. It looks like Roderick has decimated your argument.

  4. Well for one thing I don't think I'm completely off-base in positing the Platonic conception of reality as central to Westernism, even if other belief systems have roughly similar concepts of the transcendental. Secondly, I'll remind everyone that I'm not really a fan of divides like Objectivity/Subjectivity or Facts/Values in general, preferring instead a conception of situated knowledge-spaces.

    My problem with Westernism is that it leads to modernity, and modernity gives us a particular technoscientific, Scientistic test-oriented state-capitalist (or corporatist, pick your preferred term) hegemony that has been the direct cause of a lot of very bad things throughout history. Indigenous cultures simply do not end up "modern" in this sense, unless there's a lot of cultural diffusion. That doesn't mean they don't have their own problems, they just don't have that specific one.

    Even beyond that though, Westernism and lower-case-s spirituality don't seem to be easy bedmates for a lot of people. I recently read an ethnography of a specific strand of magickal reconstructionism in Ireland: This culture draws equally on traditional Celtic folk beliefs about faeires and the Otherworld and a Christianity-influenced conception of the transcendent divine. They believe that there is no elemental Earth Magick left in North America because Westernism's embrace of the technoscientific and the rational has choked the faeires out. This kind of belief that Westernism and traditional, indigenous situated knowledge are fundamentally incompatible and that Westernism is toxic to the spirit world is not an uncommon one on both sides of the divide.

    This is not to say that there isn't a kind of Western occult tradition (there of course is, just look at Hermetic Alchemy and Gnostic Heresy, though both of those have problems too IMO and neither is a tradition I'm 100% familiar with) or that it's not possible to pick the best aspects of Westernism and indigenous knowledge spaces to make something entirely new and better than both: I very much think that it is and would like to see that happen someday (I mentioned as much when I wrote about "The Jihad") but I don't have the answer to make that happen yet, if I ever will.

    1. Western culture includes some really good stuff and some really bad stuff. Just like every other culture. Ditto for Platonism. Ditto for modernity. Treating Westernism as uniquely toxic seems to me just as much a simplistic distortion as treating it as uniquely great.

    2. Well certainly. And I even make this argument myself at several points (off the top of my head, IRT "The Jihad" and Year Four, Issue 2. But the negative effect it's had on world society isn't to be dismissed either, nor is they way people in other cultures view it.

  5. Certainly it seems that Kukulkan is presenting a wake-up call to Western society as presented through the Federation.

    1. I like this reading. Says what I was trying to say a lot more clearly and concisely.

  6. It's also the solitary Emmy Award win of the entire Star Trek franchise.

    Not remotely true. It's the only win for a "best episode" or "best series" Emmy, but the franchise has won dozens of other Emmies and been nominated for hundreds. (And as with most awards, it's the nominations that really count--being nominated means you're good enough to win, winning means you have someone with political savvy and connections pushing for you to win.)