Star Trek ,The Prime Directive, and Literary Studies


For the past few months, I’ve been undertaking my own private, systematic study of Star Trek–not the movies, or the Next Generation, or any of other spin-offs, but the original series. It began as a way to lure me into mundane chores, like ironing, during which I would watch the first few episodes; then it morphed into a means of occupying my mind while pedaling an exercise bike. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of months I’ve lost about ten pounds, more or less, as I pedaled my way through various adventures with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, Lieutenant Commander Scott, and the irascible Dr. McCoy.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this rather pointless but driven exercise. First, and most surprising, even those of us who were alive in the ’60s, we who remember the first-run reruns of the series, have seen far fewer episodes than we think we have. Oh, sure, we all remember “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but do we remember the episode in which Spock has to answer a call of nature (i.e., a mating ritual–which is to say he goes into a terrifying version of Vulcan rutting season) and nearly kills Kirk? Do we remember the first episode in which the famous Vulcan mind meld was ever used (“The Devil in the Dark,” Episode 26 of the first season)?

And what about the Prime Directive–a concept so compelling that it informs each iteration of Star Trek?

You can look up the Prime Directive in Wikipedia, and you’ll get a nice informative take on it there. In fact, if that’s what you want, you should probably stop reading this now and hop on over to it. While you might get a more systematic understanding of the concept there, you would miss my attempt to connect The Prime Directive with literature and writing, so I’m hoping you’ll stick it out for the rest of this post.

What I’ve found is that in the first season of the series, the Prime Directive is relatively unimportant, just a tidbit tossed in during random episodes. It’s first mentioned quite casually by Mr. Spock, as a regulation requiring non-interference in alien cultures, but only, he says, for living, creative cultures. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable to interfere with cultures that are neither living (what would that look like? isn’t the very definition of “culture” something that is dynamic and subject to change and thus living?) nor creative. The question is, of course, who determines whether a culture is living and creative? A few minutes later in this episode (“Return of the Archons,” Episode 21), Captain Kirk redefines the Prime Directive in Utilitarian terms: it is “the good of the body,” he says, going on to philosophize, “without freedom of choice there is no creativity, and without creativity, the body dies.” This is amended once more, only a few minutes later, when Kirk tells the evil robot Landru, “The evil must be destroyed: that is the Prime Directive. And you are the evil! Fulfill the Prime Directive!”

What we have here, then, is a mess of competing, non-aligning definitions, all iterated within a few minutes during one episode. (I’ll leave the connection between the Prime Directive as presented here and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to real science fiction scholars.) It’s remarkable that the concept of the Prime Directive is so unstable that within a single episode–indeed, within a ten-minute span of a single episode–it changes three times. Only late in the second season will it attain the kind of stability and prominence that gives rise to our lasting notion of the Prime Directive. In Episode 27, “Errand of Mercy” — an embarrassingly implausible episode that deserves critical attention only because of how it redefines the Prime Directive–we see Captain Kirk’s reaction to his dawning realization that the Starship Captain of the Exeter, Ron Tracy, has violated the regulation. He declares in a solemn voice that Captain Tracy has “been interfering with the evolution of life on this planet. It seems impossible: a star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” Kirk’s sense of awed distress drips with drama and significance.

This episode, which is quite bad in and of itself and is based on a rather stupid allusion to the Cold War, becomes important in that it is responsible for the first serious definition of the Prime Directive.

Okay–fine. So what does it have to do with literature?

First, it shows us how concepts change and develop over time. It demonstrates that history–even the paltry history of a television series made 50 years ago–is not static, but is itself unstable, changing, and growing if we look at it closely enough. It also shows us that anything is a text that can be analyzed: a television show, a concept introduced by that show, even our attitudes towards that show. It illustrates that there is value in analyzing even (perhaps especially) those things we think least “artistic,” because, functional and practical in nature, they inform the way we think about a lot of different things. And finally, in terms of literary studies, it shows us that there is great value in studying an entire body of work, such as an entire television series, or all of Hemingway’s novels, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because when we do engage in this long (and often tedious) work, we are rewarded with greater insight into the ways in which ideas, themes, and the work of art itself develops.

Thoughts on Reading Mrs. Dalloway

On the whole, I enjoy my job. True, like any English teacher, I don’t enjoy grading papers. I procrastinate when faced with a pile of them, often ferrying them for a week or so between my office desk to my dining room table without ever reading them. But reading texts and discussing them—what could be better than that?

Part of this enthusiasm stems from the knowledge of how unfit I am for other types of work. Lack of practical organizational skills made me a fairly poor secretary in my youth; likewise, I found it hard to be an effective real estate agent when one is, at heart, a Marxist. (“Certainly I think this is an excellent house to buy, Mr. Brown, or at least I would if I believed in the division of labor and private property.”) Teaching seems to be the one thing I can do effectively, because so much of the job entails hours and hours of reading—which is just fine by me. In fact, it recently dawned on me that I make my living largely by reading.

Several years ago, when I was taking my son’s friend home from a play-date, I listened to the two of them as they sat in the back seat, discussing their future careers. “I’m going to be a teacher,” announced Maureen, a fiery red-headed girl about half the size of my son Ian. “I’m going to be a military historian,” said Ian, who was forever watching black-and-white movies about World War II. I expected Maureen to ask for an explanation, but instead there was a pause, and, a couple of seconds later, she sighed and said, “I wish I could get paid just to read.” Ian didn’t answer; a quick glance in the rear-view mirror showed me that he was considering this as a career possibility. In the silence that followed Maureen’s wistful declaration, I broke one of my parental rules: I spoke while chauffeuring. “You know what?” I said. “I do get paid to read.” There was another pause, and, her voice full of admiration, Maureen said, “I want to do what you do.”

I didn’t tell them that at least three-quarters of the reading I do is an onerous task, consisting of scanning freshman and sophomore papers that I have to comment on and grade. The world needs teachers and professors, after all, and maybe by withholding that detail, I might have produced two more candidates for the job. But the truth is, while by far the greatest part of my job entails reading student papers, I am also paid to know all sorts of things that I can know only by reading, whether articles about teaching online writing classes, or critiques of films, or novels like Mrs. Dalloway. I’d guess that at least two-thirds of my job involves reading primary material to digest and pass on to others, colleagues, administrators, or students. As I told Maureen that summer morning, it’s true that I make my living by reading.

But spending a career in reading has its risks, and one of them is personal, as I am beginning to find out. I’ve recently had to re-read Mrs. Dalloway, a novel I always enjoy more when I don’t happen to be in the process of reading it. The last time I read Mrs. Dalloway was about fifteen years ago. What I noticed about the book on this go-round was that, while each other time I had read the novel I had admired the passages relating to Bourton and the golden past of Mrs. Dalloway and her friends, this time, reading them evoked a vague feeling of discomfort in me. In fact, the entire novel produced an unpleasant sensation that had nothing to do with Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness. As I puzzled it over, I realized with a shock that this feeling was not due to Woolf’s wary depictions of madness or the masterful representation of the fragmentation of society, but because I am now the age of Mrs. Dalloway. Now I, too, have my own Bourton: now I can remember people and events from thirty years ago, and this fact alone is a deeply unsettling. In earlier years, when I read Mrs. Dalloway, I was a spectator, a sympathetic on-looker. Today, I am Mrs. Dalloway.

Consequently, I’ve discovered that the process of aging has all sorts of implications for a person who makes his or her living from reading. A few years ago, I turned fifty, a very interesting age for a woman in American culture. But what does this mean specifically to a person who reads for a living? Just this: All those fatuous matrons in British novels have become sisters to me; we are all women d’un certain âge, so to speak. Dickens, Austen, Eliot—these authors are frequently unkind to women my age. Think of Flora Finching, Mrs. Bennett, Lisbeth Bede: all of these women are ridiculous, pitiable characters who are about my age—a sobering thought indeed.

In fact, lack of charity towards their older female characters seems widespread among the authors I read, and it’s apparently something that I’ll have to put up with now, just as I put up with Dickens’s occasional over-the-top sentimentalism, Scott’s tendency to tell rather than show, and Eliot’s relentless gravitas. It is now clear to me I can no longer identify with the youth and simple virtue of Esther Summerson; but does this mean I have to see myself as the jaded Lady Dedlock? It’s bad enough being Mrs. Dalloway; must I also be Miss Prism?

This kind of thinking makes me wonder whether I should have warned my son and his friend about the dangers of a career in reading. But it’s just as well I didn’t: they wouldn’t have listened, anyway. Aging, they say, is not for the faint-hearted. The Victorians had a good remedy for this kind of malaise: work. But no more novels, please! Today, for the first time in my career, I’m actually looking forward to reading a huge stack of student papers.