The Frenchman who we should really blame for these instructions, for the necessity of explaining what should be easy, didn’t call himself Marxist at all but, instead, was the first deconstructionist. It was Jacques Derrida who argued that meaning always had to be deferred, and that it was impossible to arrive at a meaning for a show like Star Trek because of the sheer density of meanings that the show contained. I don’t know if Derrida ever watched the show, but if he had he would have probably said of Star Trek something like what he said about ghosts in the 1983 experimental film “Ghost Dance.”
He was asked if he believes in ghosts and he replied: “That’s a difficult question. You’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. That is, since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film that is more or less improvised I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. Rather than playing myself, without knowing it, I let a ghost ventriloquize my words, or play my role.”
Now, clearly Derrida was very good at smoking a pipe and acting mysteriously brilliant, but in this case the mystery can be solved. Derrida’s point was that he was never fully present. It connects to his idea that every text always contains elements which oppose its meaning. This is what deconstruction was all about. Deconstruction was about finding these traces of opposition everywhere, in big ideas like Marxism, in pop stars like Madonna, and in philosophy books. Everything could be exploded because everything contained a bit of its opposite.
Now, if this seems confusing to you be comforted by the fact that you’re not alone in that feeling. Derrida was so confusing that many people, even other big intellectuals, were pretty put out by him.
For instance, the sweater wearing anti-Capitalist superstar Noam Chomsky once wrote that, “Derrida […] writes things that I also don’t understand. No one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities:
(a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or
(b) … I won’t spell it out.
But I’ll dare to say that Derrida wasn’t a fraud, but rather that he was, like Barthes, trying very hard to kill the Blinking Light Aliens that kept popping up. What Derrida was on about was pretty much the same thing as what Barthes focussed on when he went after the Author. It was by and large the same target as what Nietzsche went after when he smugly proclaimed that he found God’s body laying dead in the marketplace.
In order to understand how these oppositions in a text like Star Trek can be worked out, in order to stop worrying and realize what is simple and what is complicated, you have to understand something fairly complicated first. The meaning of our lives, the context which history appears, the way ghosts like Derrida and Barthes and Karl Marx are to be understood, isn’t something we have to discover, but is rather something we can’t avoid creating.
In the episode “Dagger of the Mind” the Enterprise transported needed supplies to Tantalus V, a rehabilitation colony for the criminally insane. Things go wrong, as they usually do, after one the inmates from the colony manages to sneak aboard the Enterprise. He stages several frothing and scenery chewing rages and is eventually captured and discovered not to be an inmate at all, but a member of the staff at Tantalus V. The escaped inmate is really Dr. Van Gelder and (according to the chief officer and head doctor at Tantalus V) he is a victim of an unfortunate accident with a neural beam. Kirk decides to launch a follow-up investigation of the incident and Doctor McCoy assigns the psychiatrist Dr. Helen Noel as Kirk’s technical aid on the away mission due to Noel’s experience with rehabilitative therapy.
This episode is, strangely, the one and only time Christmas is mentioned in an episode of the original Star Trek. When Kirk meets Noel on the transporter pad she mentions a Christmas party.
Noel: Dr. Helen Noel, Captain. We’ve met. Don’t you remember–the science lab Christmas party?
Kirk: Yes, I remember.
Noel: You dropped in–
Kirk: Yes, yes, I remember.
Spock: Problem, Captain?
Kirk: Mr. Spock, you tell McCoy that she had better check out as the best assistant I ever had.
Here’s the full plot of this “Christmas Episode”:
Kirk discovers that the lead doctor at Tantalus V, Dr. Adams, is using a neural neutralizer on both the inmates and the staff in order to control and subdue them. When Kirk arrives with Helen Noel he is met by the unctuous head doctor who gives them a tour that includes a short inspection of the neural neutralizer. Kirk sneaks back to more thoroughly examine this machine (it looks a bit like a heat lamp) and tests the device on himself.
You probably already know what the neural neutralizer is or have a sense of it. A portable version of the mechanism is featured in the Men In Black films. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use a pen sized neutralizer to blank a person’s consciousness and implant false memories. The neutralizer on Star Trek does the same thing, and in order to discover the full implications of dangers involved Kirk puts himself in the hotseat. He goes under the beam while Dr. Noel is at the control panel.
Kirk: I have no desire to damage my brain. Can this be handled with reasonable safety? Yes or no?
Kirk: And will you be able to determine if that beam is harming me in the slightest?
Noel: Yes, Captain. I know my profession. Ready?
Noel: We’ll try minimum intensity–a second or two.
Kirk: Anytime you’re ready, Doctor, just for a second or two.
Noel: We already tried it for that long, Captain.
Kirk: Nothing happened.
Noel: Something happened. Your face went completely blank.
Kirk: Try a…harmless suggestion.
Let’s pause on that, leave Kirk under the heat lamp and waiting for Noel to implant her suggestion. Instead of continuing on with Star Trek I want to turn instead to one of my earliest Christmas memories. It dates back to 1977, back to Kindergarten.
I was six years old and I was selected to play the part of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for our classroom production based on the Rankin/Bass television special. I recall the wooden trunk that contained the reindeer costumes; I imagine I remember it as being painted with off white paint and having gold trim. The teacher dragged it to the front of the classroom and I became excited as she pulled out antlers and leather head bands decorated in jingle bells. Everyone of the children in Miss. Dendot’s Kindergarten class wanted to a set of these new appendages but there were maybe 17 or so of us and only eight reindeer: Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.
Sitting on the orange carpet, a little narcissist who was sure the world revolved around me, who knew that whatever was happening was staged for my benefit, I watched with my legs folded as Miss. Dendots hand out the antlers to the others. Each time that I was passed over for some other Kindergartener, each time I was rejected, I felt as though I’d received a blow. When all the antlers were distributed, and I realized that I was not going to be a reindeer, I felt as though a judgement on my character had been rendered.
“Everybody is going to get a part,” Miss Dendots told us. But, I didn’t want just any part. I didn’t want to be an elf, or the Abominable Snowman, or anything else. I wanted to be a reindeer. Besides, it turned out that she was lying because I was passed over each time this time as well. She handed the elf hats to other children. I wasn’t going to be the elf dentist or Santa or Mrs. Claus and I wasn’t given the snowman mask. Soon enough everyone had a prop or a costume and there were only two of us who were still empty handed.
The teacher held up what seemed to be a red superball and a pink bow.
So, to return to Doctor Helen Noel and the neural neutralizer, she was about to make a suggestion to Captain Kirk.
What Helen Noel suggested was that “something different” happened between them after the Christmas party. She starts to describe their tryst in order to recast it a different light when she is interrupted. Doctor Adams catches them in the act, in two acts actually, and he intervenes. But, before that Doctor Helen Noel started to describe the Christmas party, and what she said can be interpreted in at least two different ways.
Here’s her suggestion to Kirk: “At the Christmas party…we met. We danced. You talked about the stars. I suggest now that it happened in a different way. You swept me off my feet and carried me to your cabin.” But what does this mean? We, the viewer, is left with a choice. We can either believe that nothing happened at the Christmas party originally but that she wishes it did. We can suppose that she’s suggesting her own sexual fantasy to Kirk, or we can take it that she is retelling what actually did happen but, perhaps in a more romantic light. Perhaps her intended suggestion never arrives due to Doctor Adams’ intervention? In fact, we aren’t given a clear picture of what happened at or after the Christmas party. In fact, we’re forced to read it both ways. On the one hand if they did have a tryst then why does Noel describe their original encounter as having ended with Kirk talking about the stars? Why does she unfurl the story of their return to his quarters as something she’s adding to the original story? On the other hand, if they did not have tryst then why did Kirk seem so uncomfortable when he ran into her on the transporter pad at the outset of the story?
This is, perhaps, how Roddenberry and company make us complicit in the lurid fantasy of Kirk and Noel’s intergalactic coupling. This contradictory suggestion that brings forth the image can also always insist on its own innocence. In any case, before Helen Noel can complete her suggestion she is discovered. Doctor Adams finds her at the controls of the neural neutralizer, and he has his assistant subdue Doctor Noel while he takes over at the microphone.
Adams: Captain Kirk is going to have a complete demonstration. I want there to be no doubts whatsoever in his mind.
Adams: You’re madly in love with Helen, Captain. You’d lie, cheat, steal for her, sacrifice your career, your reputation.
Noel: No, Doctor! No!
Adams: The pain–do you feel it, Captain? You must have her, or the pain grows worse, the pain, the longing for her.
Here’s the thing: Kindergarten is an introduction to the public realm through puppets, the alphabet, the days of the week, and your peers. In school you are taught how to deal with other children, how to navigate adults, by using the things you’re given in the classroom. The pencils and worksheets are tools used to get the teachers to relax and stop worrying about you, the crayons, scissors and paste are the ways you to get talk about television with your friends, and rubber balls and jump ropes are the tools used to either ward off or implement physical violence.
Or take show and tell, it was a kind of self-presentation. I recall bringing in a mouse shaped piggy bank. It had mostly cartoon like features: his ears were big like Mickey Mouse’s ears, but his hind legs were shaped a bit more realistically. My mouse had buck teeth and might have really been a rat because he had a long rubber tail that was always cold to the touch. He was covered in a layer of blue felt-like material, the same stuff they used to coat the heads of a drinking bird toys only blue and not red, and I recall that I managed to rub the blue material off around his hands and ears just by playing with him. I’d grab his ear in the same spot to make his head swivel, and put coins in his upturned hand. But when I brought him to the classroom and shook out the pennies inside him, wiggling them out through the slat on his back, nobody noticed the bald patches or irregularities. Instead, the unanimous opinion was that my mouse was cool.
Being selected to he Rudolph was even better than being recognized as the owner of a cool piggy bank. While the toy was merely what I wanted to be, being picked out as Rudolph defined me as me. The teacher’s judgement was official and she’d named me Rudolph. She’d given me the lead.
The red rubber ball was actually a rubber clown nose and when I put it on I found that it smelled bad. There was a sort of chemical smell inside and that smell filled my nose whenever I wore the nose. Also the device pinched and was uncomfortable. Still, when I was given the choice to use red face paint instead I refused. This extra appendage was what made me Rudolph and as bad as it smelled, as uncomfortable as it was, I wasn’t about to give that up. How could I break up the set? A little blonde girl whose name I’ve now forgotten but who I’ll call Jennifer had received the pink bow at the same time that I’d been given the rubber nose and she was my girlfriend, or Rudolph’s girlfriend, in the play. In the Rankin/Bass version Rudolph has a girlfriend.
Once this little girl was chosen by my kindergarten teacher I felt that I really did like her. Of course, there was nowhere for this attraction to go. I didn’t have a birthday party coming up and I didn’t even think of inviting her to my house for a play date–but I tried to be near her in the classroom, to continue on being Rudolph to her Clarice. I was disappointed when, at snack time, she sat with the boy in the brown pants and not by me. Even though, or because of, the fact that my relationship with Jennifer was entirely a construction I felt hurt by what I was her rejection. It wasn’t just that she didn’t like me, or preferred this other little boy, but maybe I didn’t deserve the part, but why had I invested so completely in the little play?
The answer might be made clear by recalling how the fantasy of the Christmas party was created on Star Trek, or how the neural neutralizer supposedly worked.
Simon Van Gelder: Our minds so blank…so open…that any thought he placed there became our thoughts. Our minds so empty…like a sponge, needing thoughts, begging.
So lonely to be sitting there empty…wanting any word from him. Love? Yes. Hate? Yes. Live. Yes. Die. Yes. Such agony to be empty.
So the point here is that, for Derrida, there was no such thing as a neural neutralizer. No matter how powerful the setting on the blinking light he always held onto the possibility of there being some trace of something, something that couldn’t be neutralized or erased. But that trace, that part of an idea that or a word that has to be there in order for a thought or meaning to seem to be present, isn’t itself some thing. These Blinking Light Aliens aren’t really out there in the world, hidden away in underground fortresses or stored in plastic globes. The meanings of a show like Star Trek, meanings that seem easy and obvious, the meanings that allow us to think, they’re just the words we are speaking into this blinking light.
These meanings and all the contradictions that come along with them are really just our own actions. No matter how hard we try to act like geeks and just enjoy our lives, we can’t help creating Authors, Blinking Light Aliens, evil computers, Star Ship captains, and all manner of other ideas.
The trick, when watching Star Trek, is to recognize that the show is just a way we are talking and then to seize hold of words you can understand and use them to understand even more.