Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Gospel According to Roddenberry

Göran and I are self-avowed, open, practicing Trekkies. Yes, we feel that by embracing the "Trekkie" label, it becomes a term of self-empowerment. And yes, when the Star Trek convention comes to town, we put on all our regalia and march downtown for all the world to see our Trek pride. And yes, we saw the movie (twice) in the first weekend it was out, and, yes, we loved it. In fact, we're "old school" Trekkies. We've been fans of the show since we were little kids, and for us, the "real" Star Trek will always be Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, "Bones," Lieutenant Uhura, Mr. Scott, Mr. Sulu, and Ensign Chekov, outsmarting Klingons and Romulans, and boldly going where no man has gone before.

Now that I'm done teaching (the end of the semester is always a bear, which is why I haven't blogged in a while), we have time to watch the old series again. We've had it for years on VHS and recently upgraded to the digitally remastered version on DVD -- which is beautiful. Last night we watched two episodes in particular that struck me as amazingly relevant to aspects of the human condition that I've been pondering on lately.

"Charlie X" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before" are both stories that remind us of the limited, frail and mortal nature of human existence, and explore the question of what might happen to us if somehow those limits were removed, and we suddenly had immortality and/or virtually unlimited power. I realized for the first time watching these episodes last night that this question is of particular relevance to a Mormon theological context in which we affirm the human potential and destiny to become "like God."

"Charlie X" felt particularly relevant to me and Göran, occasionally finding ourselves, as we do, at wit's end with the challenges of caring for a seventeen-year-old boy. The "Charlie" character was marooned as a three-year-old child on an alien planet, and taken in by a race of incorporeal beings that endowed him with super powers in order to enable him to survive on his own. When he is discovered by a Federation ship at the age of 17, his human rescuers don't realize until too late that though Charlie is mentally and emotionally a teenager, he has almost unlimited powers of life and death.

Like most teens, Charlie desperately wants to be liked, but he has a difficult time navigating the emotional challenges of human interaction. He's also overwhelmed by the needs and urges that come with sexual maturity. Charlie develops intense admiration for Captain Kirk, who becomes a kind of role model for him. Some of the lines Charlie utters have been spoken almost word-for-word by our own teenage son. "Why does it feel like I hurt inside all the time?" "What if she won't like me?"

Of course with most teens there are natural limits to what they can do with their anger or their loneliness. Life has a way of forcing them through the emotional crucible of adolescence, and requiring them to come to terms with the most painful emotions it is possible to face. Some of us cope better than others. The fact that teen suicide is such a problem reminds us how perilous these emotions combined with a sense of powerlessness can be, and reminds us of the importance for teens of being surrounded and encouraged by loving guides and role-models.

In Charlie's case, there are no natural limits. So if somebody hurts Charlie's feelings, Charlie can just make them "go away." After Charlie has made enough of the Enterprise's crew members "go away," the adults in his life can no longer be effective guides and role-models, because they live in mortal fear of Charlie. And without discipline, the wild emotions of adolescence become a destructive storm, threatening everyone and everything with complete annihilation.

In the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the same theme of unlimited power coexisting with mortal frailty is explored again, when Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell, an old friend of Captain Kirk, is endowed with god-like super powers after the Enterprise is hit by a mysterious space storm. Mitchell, unfortunately, is lacking in empathy and compassion, and once he becomes aware of the full extent of his powers, he begins to view people as objects to be played with or manipulated for his own pleasure. In the climactic confrontation between Mitchell and Kirk at the end of the episode, Captain Kirk reminds him, "Of all traits, compassion is the one that cannot be lacking in a god!"

Both episodes are dramatic demonstrations of the principle described in Doctrine and Covenants section 121, which reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility. They remind us how blessed we are, in a sense, by the natural limits on our power as human beings, that force us to come to terms with difficult drives and difficult emotions, and that teach us the humility and compassion without which power can only be a wild and destructive force.

The scene at the end of "Charlie X" is particularly poignant, when the Thasians -- the race of incorporeal beings that endowed Charlie with super power -- arrive to take him away again. Charlie pleads with the Thasians not to take him away. He wants to be with his own kind, with human beings who have bodies to touch and hug, who are capable of loving and being loved in physical ways. Despite the fact that Charlie X has unleashed terrible powers of destruction on his crew, Captain Kirk feels compassion for Charlie, and also pleads with the Thasians. "We can teach him!" Captain Kirk tells them.

The Thasians know better. They know that without effective limits on Charlie's power, nobody can teach him. So they take him away, and the crew of the Enterprise mourn for Charlie, knowing that he will experience a kind of eternal hell -- having unlimited power and a physical body, but being unable to touch and be touched, unable to love or be loved.

For me this spoke to the LDS conviction that exaltation and eternal life are meaningless without bodies. It is not merely that human beings, if they are to prepare to become god-like, must learn to master their emotions, discipline their hungers and their wants. It is that they must learn how to live the kinds of lives that make embodied existence a joy and not a hell. We must experience love, touch, physical affection in this life because it is only now, in this life, that we must also face the kinds of limits and learn the kinds of lessons that will enable us to give and receive the only kind of love that will have meaning, in time but also in eternity.


Bravone said...

Very interesting. I enjoy your conclusions. Now I'll have to watch the movie!

Beck said...

"It is that they must learn how to live the kinds of lives that make embodied existence a joy and not a hell."

What makes embodied existence a joy when all embodied desires and attractions are focused on the "wrong" type? Is it "joy" to put these lessons off for the hope of exaltation in another embodied existence?

"...It is only now, in this life, that we must also face the kinds of limits and learn the kinds of lessons that will enable us to give and receive the only kind of love that will have meaning, in time but also in eternity."

"Limits" is the key word in that statement. :(

J G-W said...

Bravone - The new Star Trek movie is fun, and moving, and it does very much capture the spirit of the original series, so I recommend it!

Beck - I think there's a reason why embodied, physical love feels so urgent to us; why our inability to experience love in its physical as well as spiritual and emotional aspects feels like a kind of death to us.

Though folks in the church often compare the condition of gay folks to someone who is mentally or physically incapacitated in such a way as to preclude physical love, that of course simply is not true. Same-sex couples are capable of giving and receiving that kind of love -- and of learning the kinds of lessons that can only be learned when we try to give and receive that love in the context of a committed relationship.

Of course all love and all relationships are constrained by limits. If our conscience tells us that certain kinds of love are wrong, whether or not we are capable of giving or receiving it, one of the lessons of life must be learning to choose the right regardless of how we feel.

So another of the challenges of mortality is discernment. Learning to figure out when it is right and good to love, and when love must be restrained and guarded against. That's what this is all about... No easy answers.

Beck said...

JGW: I hope you took my comments in the frame of mind that I am in and not reflecting your situation. I hope you know me well enough by now to know how I feel about same sex love and your incredible relationship with Goran.

What I was referring to was MY situation of being married and yet MY attractions are focused on the "WRONG" type, and how that puts a crimp on "joy".

And my meaning of "Limits" is referring to MY self-imposed limits that are done by those like me in a mixed-oriented marriage. But, sure, you point that all relationships have restraint and limits and discerning when we should and should not love applies to all.

Please know that my comments were for ME and my situation as your comments triggered self-introspective!

playasinmar said...

I feel like this is the tiniest thing to say but I loved the new sound effect for going to warp.


J G-W said...

Beck - I know you weren't aiming anything at me...

Playa - Hey, I've missed you! Yeah, the "Bang!" was pretty cool. So were the new transporters. I thought the new phasers were kinda wimpy though.

Anonymous said...

off topic: I'm really relieved you weren't crushed by a truck this morning

betty t

J G-W said...

Yes, I'm glad I wasn't crushed by that truck either. I was at that intersection 15 minutes before that fatal accident though... I ride that bike lane to work every morning!