Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Mourns for Adonais?

From Wikipedia:

"Who Mourns for Adonais?" is a second season episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. It is episode #31, production #33, first broadcast September 22, 1967, and repeated May 10, 1968. It was written by Gilbert Ralston and Gene L. Coon, and directed by Marc Daniels.

Overview: The crew of Enterprise are held captive by the Greek god Apollo.


Okay, this one improves with age.

It's easy to dismiss "Who Mourns for Adonais?" as standard Star Trek genre pilfering. That is, the episode looks and feels like a 1950s mytho-classical B-movie, think Jason and the Argonauts, or any one of
dozens of other films from the era. But to reduce it to nothing more than a ripping sword-and-sandal adventure is an aesthetic injustice. Indeed, if Star Trek is American pop culture's most ardent supporter of humanism, then this one is the show's most humanistic episode.

"Who Mourns for Adonais?" explores what happens when the technologically advanced human race of the future encounters one of its ancient gods. But as I reviewed the episode earlier this evening, it was impossible for me not to think of Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of light and purity, as a stand-in for the one "true" God. So what does happen when Kirk and crew meet God? The Captain does what humanists have been doing since the Enlightenment: he tells Him to fuck off.

But this isn't some sort of atheist screed. The narrative style seems tortured, twisting and turning as it rejects the Almighty, but also grieving His loss. Kirk, for instance, continually asserts to Apollo, and anyone else who will listen, that the human race has outgrown its need for gods, that we have advanced beyond such superstition. On the other hand, the story undermines the Captain's certainty of human triumph, juxtaposing 1960s sexism in the form of love struck and whiny Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas, who will, according to Kirk, one day "meet the right man and leave the service," against the progressive and liberated Lieutenant Uhura, who assertively and competently performs her duties on the bridge under great pressure. Humans may no longer need God, and are moving in the right direction, but they still have a long way to go.

Further, there are messages of warning and regret strategically placed throughout. Apollo, while very impressed with human development in the five thousand years of his absence, cautions Palamas that Kirk's denial of God is arrogant and foolhardy, that humans have forgotten what is truly important and real. Later, when Kirk orders his Lieutenant to decisively reject her new lover Apollo, the background music references Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, invoking the tragic opera's deep sense of loss and despair. And when God finally gets the message, that He no longer has a role in the affairs of men, He weeps real tears, humbly explaining that humanity could have experienced paradise under His care and guidance, even while He allows Himself to dissolve into the stuff of the Universe.

That is, God is dead, and it's really really sad. Even Kirk thinks so, asking finally, "Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?"

This one may be the most philosophically poignant in all of Star Trek, worth watching just for that. Go check it out.

The hand of God.