Saturday, November 28, 2015

First Contacts with Things from Other Worlds

I have watched several movies in the past few days, most old, one new. The first and the last are of special interest here.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)--I never cared much for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I liked Star Trek: First Contact, the second movie with the new crew. I don't remember much about the Borg episodes from the TV show, so I wasn't sure about the setup. After a while, though, the movie began to hold up on its own. One of the themes of First Contact is a theme I have gone back to again and again. It involves totalitarianism, utopianism, and the loss of individual identity and autonomy. It also involves the meaning and significance in our culture of zombies. Interestingly, Alfre Woodard's character in Star Trek: First Contact refers to the Borg as zombies. I take that as evidence that these two ideas--zombies and totalitarianism or utopianism--are connected.

The Borg are a mass who have become mechanized and dehumanized. They are undifferentiated and totally conformist units of a hive-like society. The Borg queen, who has her own personality and individual identity, is an exception. I'm not sure that her individuality is satisfactorily explained in the movie. In the real world, the explanation is simple enough: the totalitarian ruler always exempts himself from his own system. Anyway, the Borg queen says more than once that the goal of the Borg is perfection, thus identifying herself and her minions with all the leftist causes that have created so much misery for us in the real world since 1789, and especially since 1917. The irony is that members of the Federation are in pursuit of their own brand of perfection, as Captain Picard makes clear in the movie. So what exactly separates them from the Borg? Is it a separation only by degree and not by kind? I'm not sure, but I am reminded of a realization that came to me a few years ago.

When I was in high school, I read and liked Randall Jarrell's poem, "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner":

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. 
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Although I liked the poem, the first line always bothered me, specifically the part about falling "into the State." I think of the Western Allies as being the good guys in World War II. The statist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan were the enemy. Statist regimes, in the form of the U.S.S.R., Communist China, and their satellites, would continue to be the enemy after the war. Only later did I realize that World War II was one fought among statist regimes. On all sides, there were planned and centrally-controlled economies, total mobilization, total commitment of national resources to the war effort, total war of State against State (and the concomitant death and destruction that entails), curtailment of rights and freedoms, and so on. We even had in this country concentration camps to which American citizens were sent against their will. Yes, we were the good guys, but the United States was also a statist power. The statist tide has never really receded here.

So in getting back to Star Trek, I guess the question is one that others before me and besides me have asked: Is Star Trek fascist? The implied accusation--that Star Trek is in fact fascist--is a little off the mark, as fascism resides under the overarching ideas of socialism and statism, as do nazism and communism. The proper questionIs Star Trek statist? That question eliminates the ideological angle and gets to the heart of the matter. If you have watched Star Trek: First Contact and have realized that the Federation is utopian in its aims just as the Borg Collective is utopian, then you may have your answer. And if you have seen Star Trek Into Darkness, you're likely to reply to the question with an unequivocal Yes.

The Thing (1982)--The Thing is a combination remake/sequel of the original movie from 1951. It looks like science fiction, but it's really a horror movie designed for maximum gross-out effect. Still, it's intriguing, suspenseful, scary, and engrossing (no pun intended). I can see influences of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and even And Then There Were None. I can also see the influence of At the Mountains of Madness, a novella by H.P. Lovecraft published in Astounding Stories as a serial in February, March, and April 1936. John W. Campbell, Jr., later editor of Astounding, famously disliked the Weird Tales-style story. However, it seems extremely unlikely to me that he was unaware of At the Mountains of Madness, or that he was unaffected by it when he wrote his own novella of Antarctica, Who Goes There?, upon which The Thing was based. Incidentally, Who Goes There? was published in Astounding in August 1938, a little more than two years after Lovecraft's story had appeared in the magazine's pages.

Finally, my two friends are nervous about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I don't understand why exactly. I'm not at all nervous, and the reason is simple: The worst Star Wars movie has already been made. I would say to everyone: Let your minds be at ease.

Nineteen days to go.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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