Goodbye Star Trek

May 10th, 2005

The last episode of Enterprise airs this week, and although I don’t get any television here, I think it a good time to pause and reflect on the Star Trek phenomenon that is at last drawing to a close.

My own appreciation of Star Trek is different from others’. I never much cared for the space battles; they always seemed pretty hokey to me. Nor did I pay much attention to the weird and wondrous aliens and civilizations that were often the grist for the imagination of others. The appeal of Star Trek to me came when it presented science fiction in its finest sense: as a way of exploring the human condition through the stress tests of alien situations.

This first hit me with a rather clumsy episode of the original Star Trek. Captain Kirk found himself harboring a refugee from an alien civilization who was being pursued by the forces of law and order in the civilization. The pursuer came on board and leveled his accusations of sedition, rebellion, and violence against the refugee. Captain Kirk tried to mediate their dispute, not very successfully. The crux of the episode came when a confused Kirk inquired into the fundamental nature of the dispute. The pursuer stared at him in disbelief. "Can’t you see?" he asked incredulously; "They’re different from us!" He referred to the fact that the refugee was black on his left side and white on his right side, while the pursuer had the colors reversed. It was one of the great moments of Star Trek -- even though the remainder of the episode was rather dumb.

For me, though, the most powerful, the most impressive of all the Star Trek episodes is one that the mainstream of opinion has long forgotten. It was an episode of Deep Space Nine. I have to assume here that you know the basic characters and backstory of Deep Space Nine. A man appears on the station suffering from a disease that could only be contracted by exposure to a toxin that was only present at a Cardassian labor camp on Bajor. All sufferers of that disease are regarded by Bajorans as martyrs and heroes. This sufferer, however, is Cardassian; obviously, he was one of the Cardassian guards at the infamous camp. Kira Naris, the Bajoran major on the station, considers him a war criminal and wants him charged; Captain Cisco puts her in charge of the investigation. He claims to be a lowly accountant but her investigation uncovers evidence that he is actually the infamous commandant himself.

When she confronts him with the evidence of his guilt, he doesn’t deny it. Instead, he launches into a speech that is in my mind the most stunning speech I have ever heard. He is proud of his efficiency, he boasts of the way in which he terrorized his victims, and he asserts the higher morality of his actions. The Bajorans were weaklings who deserved to suffer and die. All this is done with a logic that cannot be dismissed as insane -- there really is a sense to it and his demeanor is proud, defiant, and confident, not insane. He knows he’ll be executed but that will never erase the good that he did in killing those Bajorans. Major Kira is overwhelmed and withdraws speechless in horror.

She goes to Captain Cisco spitting blood; she wants to kill him herself, with her bare hands. Cisco urges further investigation. It turns out that their prisoner really is just a lowly accountant, that the real commandant died some years ago, that the prisoner hatched an elaborate scheme to make the Bajorans think that he was the commandant, hoping that they would execute him.

Kira confronts him with the new evidence. His cockiness melts away. He resists, but then breaks down sobbing at the horrors he experienced at that camp, at his overwhelming sense of guilt and his need to offer some sort of penance for the crimes of his fellows. He wanted to offer his life to the Bajorans, to give them some sense of justice and closure. Kira stares at him, and then takes him by the hand and says, "Too many good people have already died. Let’s not add another to the list." She leads him out. Arrangements are made for his safe return to his home. As she is walking him out to the transport, another Bajoran sneaks up from behind and fatally stabs the Cardassian in the back. Kira holds the dying man in her arms and looks up in rage at the killer. "Why?" she demands in cold fury. "He was Cardassian!" the killer shouts. "It doesn’t matter." Kira stares at him for a moment, then spits at him, "Yes, it does."

That’s science fiction at its finest.

I have always been disappointed by the Trekkies who wanted action-adventure in space more than drama. They didn’t like the title song for
Enterprise because it didn’t have the sweep and scale of the other title songs -- no big orchestra, no surging platoons of violins, no blaring horns. I thought it powerful and moving.

But, as they say,
de gustibus non est disputandem