I’ve been listening to NPR a lot — which probably isn’t healthy — and last night heard a half-hour interview with 87 year-old William Shatner, who recently published a memoir. Although the book is about his whole life, most of the questions were about the original Star Trek. Which was fine by me, because I love that show.
For those who weren’t watching prime time television half a century ago, it might be difficult to understand the magic of Star Trek. It was about the only show that addressed contemporary issues from an enlightened viewpoint — and the first to feature a multicultural cast. Admittedly, it went too easy on the nuance; one early episode dramatized the lethal stupidity of racism through two black-and-white aliens who hated each other because they were black and white on opposite sides of their bodies. But it didn’t duck cultural problems, and it gave us hope those problems could be overcome.
I’ve watched every episode as an adult, and though several stand up well, my favorite is “Errand of Mercy.” Shatner’s character, swashbuckling Captain James T. Kirk, arrives with his sidekick, the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), on Organia, a planet mired in the equivalent of the European Dark Ages. Kirk and Spock warn Organia’s leaders the totalitarian Klingons are on their way, and the good-guy United Federation of Planets is willing to protect the planet. The leaders politely rebuff them. The Klingons arrive and impose brutal martial law. The Organians do not resist, so Kirk and Spock wage guerrilla warfare while, in space, fleets from the two galactic powers converge, intent on full-scale battle.
Despite impossible odds, Kirk and Spock break into the Klingon commander’s quarters. But just as they are about to engage in combat, they find their weapons too hot to handle. The Organian leaders walk in. “We are terribly sorry to be forced to interfere, gentlemen, but we cannot permit you to harm yourselves.” Kirk and the Klingon commander contact their ships and learn that each fleet’s weaponry has also become too hot to handle. Here’s the ensuing dialogue (video here):
KLINGON COMMANDER: You are meddling in things that are none of your business.
KIRK: Even if you have some power that we don’t understand, you have no right to dictate to our Federation —
KLINGON COMMANDER: Or our Empire! —
KIRK: How to handle their interstellar relations! We have the right —
ORGANIAN LEADER: To wage war, Captain? To kill millions of innocent people? To destroy life on a planetary scale? Is that what you’re defending?
KIRK: Well, no one wants war.
Haha, gotcha, Kirky-boy!!! Because yes you do.
It was a rare moment when Star Trek acknowledged America’s visceral enthusiasm for violence.
Which gets us, finally, to John McCain. Was he a hero? Absolutely. Was he a great American? Absolutely. Are we poorer for his loss? Absolutely. But amid the tributes to him, we forgot something he understood quite well: that he was flawed. And one of his flaws, as my favorite journalist Matt Taibbi pointed out recently, was that McCain “represented one of the central delusions of modern American culture: When we bomb a country, it’s not violence, but a benevolent expression of our dedication to human rights.” Taibbi cites McCain’s thirst for military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, Nigeria (???), Iran, Libya, and Syria, among others, and concludes that “what we can’t do is pretend that we don’t have a serious untreated addiction to war, one that survives McCain, who was maybe the ultimate symbol of the problem.”
It turns out the Organians are highly evolved beings who staged their backwardness in hopes it would keep the warring space empires from bothering them. At the end of “Errand of Mercy,” the Organian leader tells Kirk and the Klingon commander, “Please leave us. The mere presence of beings like yourselves is intensely painful to us.” Despite his many virtues and charms, John McCain’s presence would have pained the Organians even more than James T. Kirk’s.