Thursday, January 2, 2014

“'We are the only path.'”: The Time Trap
I'd like to remind everyone this scene was animated. By Filmation.

“Entrapment” is the key word here, on multiple levels.

While exploring a region of space known as the Delta Triangle, where starships have been reputed to go missing for eons, the Enterprise comes under attack by the Klingon battlecruiser Klothos, captained by the crew's old enemy Commander Kor. Suddenly, the Klothos vanishes into nothingness: Suspecting a trap, the Enterprise immediately warps to its last know position and follows it in before the commander of the Klothos' sister ship can press war crime charges. Both crews find themselves in a starless void where starships from centuries of spaceflight history aimlessly drift about. Kirk and Kor are then transported to a gigantic council chamber, where representatives of the crews from all the other ships welcome them to a world they call Elysia, a pocket universe where time does not exist that they have transformed into an ideal society where everyone relies on and respects everyone else, because there's no way to escape. The Elysians also warn Kirk and Kor that violence is strictly prohibited, and that they will be held responsible for the violent actions of any of their crewmembers by being frozen forever in a stasis field.

Elysium, naturally, is the most interesting thing on display here, though deceptively so: It's an effective and memorable concept on a number of different levels. Though writer Joyce Perry originally only came up with the idea of a Sargasso Sea-type area of space that Kirk and Kor would be forced to work together to escape from (which is in fact what ends up happening here: The Enterprise and the Klothos can only escape by combining their warp cores into a kind of Super Warp Drive), the actual final product is wonderfully oversignified. Firstly of course, Elysia is not only compared to the Sargasso Sea in the script, but to the nearby and contiguous Bermuda Triangle as well, and both very explicitly so. In Forteana, triangles, or to be more precise triangular regions of physical space, have always held special significance as areas that act as a kind of lightning rod for strange and unexplained activity. The Bermuda Triangle and its disappearing ships and aircraft is the most famous of course, though equally worthy of note, yet lesser-known, such places include my personal favourites, the Bridgewater Triangle in Southern Massachusetts and the Bennington Triangle surrounding Mount Glastenbury in my own home state of Vermont, the latter of which was also chronicled in an episode of William Shatner's as-of-this-writing current Discovery Channel docudrama series Weird or What?.

But even the famous Triangle is a bastion of a truly fascinating sort of weirdness that doesn't always show up in the stereotypical pop culture accounts of it. The Bermuda Triangle isn't just a place where ships vanish into thin air, it's a place where blatantly unnerving and otherworldly things are said to happen. Arguably the best-known (or at least one of the best-known) of the Bermuda Triangle incidents is the case of Flight 19, a bombing squadron that, while flying through the aforementioned area on a practice run, suddenly began to experience widespread instrument malfunction while its crew suffered from extreme and immediate onset confusion and disorientation. Eventually Flight 19 did what we expect to see planes do in the Bermuda Triangle and vanished without a trace, but not before its pilots were able to relay some truly chilling messages to their flight controllers, such as this one from an unidentified cremember

"We can't find west. Everything is wrong. We can't be sure of any direction. Everything looks strange, even the ocean."

And these disturbing words from flight leader Charles Carroll Taylor

"Both of my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it's broken.”

"It looks like we are entering white water . . .We're completely lost."

Almost spookier is what allegedly happened to pilot Bruce Gernon, Jr., one of the only people who both claim to have experienced something strange in the Bermuda Triangle and returned to talk about it. Gernon and his father set off on a recreational flight in the Bahamas from Andros Island, an area they both knew instinctively, on December 4, 1970 when their aircraft was unexpectedly and immediately engulfed in a large, undulating cloud. While inside, Gernon claims to have witnessed the sky shrink in on itself and that the inside of the cloud was a dark void without any discernible meteorological phenomenon that one would expect to see inside a storm, except for a series of bright white flashes.

Like on Flight 19, all of Gernon's instruments began to wildly malfunction. Contacting Miami air control for backup support, Gernon reported that he was somewhere southeast of the Bimini islands, only to be told air control couldn't actually *find* him anywhere near that area. Suddenly, an unidentified aircraft was reported to have appeared in the skies over Miami Beach...which turned out to be Gernon's plane. Miami Beach is ninety miles away from Bimini, and Gernon had travelled that distance in what had seemed to him to be twenty seconds. Eventually landing in Palm Beach, Gernon calculated the total time of his flight: By his count, he'd made the trip from Andros Island to Palm Beach in the flat-out impossible time of forty-seven minutes.

And, just to top off an already disquieting story and make it even creepier, Gernon's eventful journey took place almost exactly twenty-five years to the day after the disappearance of Flight 19, with a difference of only 24 hours.

So given the tales of Flight 19 and Bruce Gernon, Jr. in the Bermuda Triangle, not to mention the numerous eyewitness accounts from the other triangles of strange beings and inexplicable phenomena, it's probably safe to say places like this have a tendency to invite and attract mystery. Speaking strictly in terms of folklore here, in many ways the stories of odd happenings in the triangles is also very reminiscent of what might be called in other time periods reports of certain faery or spirit Otherworlds: Both sorts of places are defined by the prevalence of things that go beyond the boundaries of what humans can currently comprehend. And of course, Star Trek has always been on the vanguard of this and “The Time Trap” is the next step in the development of this motif.

As we might expect, Elysia (though perhaps more accurately the Delta Triangle) is also a black, starless void where the laws of space and time break down and that causes starships' instruments to go completely haywire. But Elysia is also an Otherworld, and it's even more of one than the part of the Original Series it's arguably the most comparable to, the haunted interspatial rift full of ghost ships and Spriggans from “The Tholian Web”. This time the Enterprise fully crosses over to the other side and finds an entire civilization that's at once extremely reminiscent of their own and strikingly different.

And Elysia very much is a sort of reflection of the Federation: Like the Federation, it's clearly a kind of vast, galactic representative democracy (the council chamber alone calls for that reading), and also like the Federation it claims to hold itself to virtues of nonviolence and peaceful coexistence. But as utopian as Elysia seems, there's a darker side, as explained by Devna, Interpreter of Laws: The council presides over Elysia with an iron fist and there is swift and extremely harsh punishment for any transgression against their unyielding and monolithic set of laws. There's arguably even a nod to the notion Otherworlds are one place the spirits of the dead might go to live on, as the Elysians are all former starship crewmembers who disappeared and were left for dead throughout history. And it's always existed, as Kirk says ships have been reported missing in the Delta Triangle since “ancient times”.

What “The Time Trap” adds to this is just what it says: Elysia is an Otherworld, but it's also a trap. That worrying lack of stars is just as revealing here as it was in “The Immunity Syndrome”, moreso in fact. The danger here is that the Enterprise will be marooned here and rendered obsolete and ineffectual. And this is very interesting, because Elysia is also very much a utopia, and at first glance the full realisation of the exact thing the Federation claims to be striving towards. Why would eternal life in a place as idyllic as Elysia be something so repugnant both Kirk and Kor would be willing to risk their ships and crew to escape from? Firstly of course there are the staunch rules: Neither the Klingon Defense Force or Starfleet have been shown to always be terribly enamoured of authority, and certainly not someone as transgressive as James Kirk. If one is trying to fashion a perfect society where everyone is respected and treated as an absolute equal, it does seem to be a rather concerning conflict of interest if the only way you can get there is by anointing yourself and demanding absolute loyalty and obedience.

There's something else about Elysia that clearly worries the Enterprise crew though, and in hindsight it's the same thing that that was the real threat of “The Tholian Web”: It's the possibility of becoming static and unchanging. A society like Elysia's is predicated on the assumption that it has already reached perfection, and in order to maintain that perfection absolute control must be maintained. Aside from being offensively authoritarian, this is behaviour is also flatly entitled and presumptuous. Who are the Elysians to say they're the model by which everyone who chances into the Delta Triangle is obligated to aspire towards? This is absolute anathema to the Enterprise crew, because, as we now know from “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, it's their goal to always better themselves, to never stop learning and improving. To stay in Elysia, no matter how peaceful a life of subservience there might be, would be a betrayal of everything they believe and stand for. This marks yet another welcome honing of the Star Trek mission statement: In the Original Series, the Enterprise all too often took on the role of Elysian missionaries, going around and forcibly imposing their model of utopia on everyone while touting themselves representatives of an evolved and advanced Master Race. Now, however, they're overtly interested in discourse and shared ideas. To stay in Elysia would require the Enterprise to stop travelling, and that would mean her and her crew would have to stop growing and learning.

That's the other side of the Otherworld concept, so to speak. When you get right down to it, the Otherworld is still a place where people live lives and have weird cultural quirks, rituals and mores just like we do. It may be a realm of wondrous and fantastic things, but it's also another world, not necessarily a better one. And it's certainly not a place you would want to end up stranded in against your will. The goal of the shaman is not just to leave one world and enter another (after all, most myths hold the dead can do that simply by being dead). No, the shaman's trick is the ability to transgress the boundary between worlds. The idea is to bring learning and knowledge from one world to the other while maintaining an existence in both, to be a kind of spiritual teacher. You don't want to become an Otherworld expatriot, you want to be the ultimate traveller, journeying to planar realms as easily as you can down the street or across the ocean, and to show others how they can do the same. So, for the crew of the Enterprise, imposing a utopia from above and agreeing to live unquestioning under it is tantamount to bringing the natural process of intellectual and spiritual growth that is intrinsic to the human experience to a standing halt. And that's not the Star Trek way.

Somehow it seems altogether fitting now that the first-ever episode of Star Trek was about escaping a gilded cage.


  1. I love this episode. You hit on all the creepiness and atmosphere, and the philosophical tweaking this episode does that continues what some other TAS episode have already started in taking some of the broad, thematic strokes of Star Trek and making them much more interesting and amenable than they were in TOS.

  2. I just love the notion of a region of 3-dimensional space described as a "Triangle". I think Futurama lampooned it by having their crew pass through the "Bermuda Tetrahedron" (the closest thing you can have to a triangle in 3-D space, since from four sides it looks like a Triangle. But there's something noteworthy about a triangle in space being literal - 2-Dimensional in both regards (that of the static existence within, three lines drawn between stars on a flat plane that act as a portal or a seal to something unnatural. Appropriate for something called a "Time Trap".

    In a more Trek-historian context, this episode is effectively a sequel to both "Errand of Mercy" as well as "Day of the Dove", since it features Kor, but also a plot where otherworldly forces force mortal enemies (arch-enemies, in fact) to work together to escape a fate worse than death. Though really, now I think of it, in the case of "Errand of Mercy", while ardent foes, neither Kirk nor Kor realized they were caught in a world of magickal beings, either, trying to plant flags on a fairy-world. The best Klingon episodes have a whiff of magick about them that does at least jive well with the eventual evolution of the Klingons in the narrative of Star Trek (despite the mix-up where they swap roles with the Romulans).

    And hey, cameos galore. I can't even imagine how good this episode would be live-action. A defined rival crew. A Romulan with a name. A Gorn!

  3. Josh: "The idea is to bring learning and knowledge from one world to the other while maintaining an existence in both, to be a kind of spiritual teacher."

    Yes - and the teaching brought back to support material social progress.

    I meant to suggest after reading I think The Magicks of Megas-Tu, or one of your recent essays discussing dimensions, Edwin Abbot's small but lovely book, Flatland. Ah, found it - it is in response to a quote from the aforementioned essay, where you say: "...where particles appear to disappear from one location and reappear in another. The theory goes they're not phasing in and out of existence, but travelling in higher dimensions that humans cannot measure."

    Flatland is a perfect description of this where the one, two & three dimensional worlds interact and completely misunderstand what they perceive, as those dimensions ' lower down' cannot fully grasp what is passing through their realm. I have heard similar proposals made regarding so-called UFO sightings and Faerie world experiences as perhaps being glimpses of higher dimensional interactions with our realm, which then in our attempt to understand, we wrap around them images that help create a more comfortable narrative.

  4. And to add - I really love the look of the artwork in the still above!