The Spirituality of Star Trek
In the first instalment we offer an interpretation of the Star Trek saga regarding the deep space search for unknown civilisations as a metaphor of inner self-searching. A possibly un- or rather pre-conscious search for the missing "other" within one's own self, fuelled by a deep longing to recognize and eventually resolve one's own incompleteness.
Given the usual understanding of the word, "spirituality" is hardly the first thing coming to mind with regard to Star Trek. We tend to put spirituality in the vicinity of religion and esoterics – concepts Star Trek holds in sympathetic contempt of sorts. Cultures informed by religion like e.g. the Bajorans of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine are portrayed as quaintly backwater fundamentalists. By default, religious leaders (and hierarchical authorities in general) are displayed either as corrupt opportunists or, at the very least, as ignorant bureaucrats. Alleged deities invariably turn out to be either alien impostors or ancient AIs left behind by some predecessor civilisation. Star Trek is a deeply humanist utopia: the vision of a future, touchingly idealistic from today’s perspective, in which science and technology are the solution to every problem. Here, social progress is more or less synonymous to having overcome religion and other regrettable backwardness.
But from a certain perspective Star Trek is actually a surprisingly prolific depiction of "spiritual" topics. The numerous characters' adventures, the commotion and fighting throughout the galaxy can easily be recognized as metaphoric depictions of a huge clarification and development process taking place within the human being. Nothing is "alien", everything is within us – from the most splendorously sublime to the deepest, most squalid depravation. Our inner realm is iridescently enigmatic, its conscious and unconscious regions teeming with countless aspects – which can suddenly emerge at any time to claim our conscious attention. If and when we enter our inner fields of experience, embarking on our Hero's Journey, we can approach who we truly are deep inside. And that, we firmly believe, is An Other, not our current everyday self. From within a transcendent dimension, this Other has been participating all along. Something within us transcends time and space. This is where our idealistic visions of a better future originate. At the core of our very structure we are "spiritual" beings– regardless of how much we might outwardly cling to matter and intellect.
In part one we described how the basic layout of Federation Starships in general and the Enterprise in particular resembles the microcosm, the structure of the entire human being. Let us expand these considerations toward how the senior officers and other protagonists of Star Trek: The Next Generation represent personified aspects of the microcosm's current psychological make-up.
Conscious and Unconscious Aspects
Under the command of Capt Jean-Luc Picard (the core consciousness, the current ego with its will) the Starship Enterprise (the entirety of body, thought and emotion) is on a perennial exploratory mission into deep space (the unknown inner vastness of the microcosm). Since the days of Capt. James T. Kirk (an earlier, somewhat less complicated stage of consciousness) commanding the first and second Enterprise about 80 years have passed – twice 40 years, the symbolic allusion to a fundamental development. The current Enterprise is large enough to accommodate not only the crew but also their families – in luxurious quarters resembling those of a cruise liner rather than a naval vessel: the mind has broadened and frugal strictness has given way to benevolent awareness. Something else is new: this Enterprise's saucer section (the conscious) and secondary hull (the subconscious) can temporarily separate and act independently from each other.
At the ships's uppermost point – on top of the saucer section – the main bridge is located. In its centre there are three command chairs. To the Captain's right the First Officer William T. Riker (bravery, agency) has his place. While the character was originally designed to borrow from Capt. Kirk as the bold ladies' man, he develops into a very complex character mercilessly tested by his adventures. Repeatedly he is offered a command of his own which he always declines: personality aspects cannot operate outside the whole.
To the Captain's left Deanna Troi is seated, the ship's counsellor (empathy, compassion, emotion). She can read emotions and advises the Captain about an opposite's emotional state. In the past, Riker and Troi were romantically involved; towards the end of the story arc they revive their relationship and eventually marry. We are reminded of the universal image of the "Unity of Head and Heart": it's shattering in ancient past, the unfulfilled state of separation and, eventually, the happy reunion.
Behind this trifecta we have the station of the ship's Tactical Officer and, later, Chief of Security (self-preservation, aggression, the "inner animal" but also loyalty, discipline, honour) Worf. He's Klingon which means he belongs to a race of proud, religiously honour-bound warriors. His father was falsely dishonoured as a traitor and Worf grew up with human foster parents. He is a liminal character – one foot in each culture, at home with neither, existentially uprooted, so to speak. But his place is on the main bridge rather than somewhere deep in the ship's belly: this aspect of the personality has already been purified to quite some extent. The aggressive, pre-human aspect has been elevated, as it were, from the sub-conscious and integrated into the conscious, receiving cultivation and discipline in the process. Later on, Worf's story arc fully unfolds to tell of how he reconciles his Klingon heritage with his Human upbringing.
The autonomous nervous system is represented by the ship's Chief Engineer, Geordi LaForge. When he is not at work in Main Engineering down in the ship's secondary hull, inspecting something somewhere in the ship or trying to increase the main reactor's efficiency, he can also be found on the main bridge. Geordi was born blind; thanks to a prosthetic device he can not only perceive things in normal light but also considerable parts of the infra-red and ultra-violet spectrum. Technology (applied creative intelligence) has not only given "sight" to the autonomous nervous system but made its perception (the “gut feeling”) superior in some respects to that of the senses.
Toward the front of the main bridge there are two consoles, the left of which is usually occupied by the ship's Second Officer, the android Data (intellect, logic). Clearly conceived originally to continue the role of Mr Spock in the original series, this artificial human is devoid of emotion (until, towards the end of The Next Generation, he is upgraded with an emotion circuit). Like the others, he explores greater depths as he is touchingly driven by the somewhat paradoxical desire to understand emotion. He, the emotion-less intellect, is far superior to the organic crew members (the emotional, non-rational personality aspects) in terms of speed, power and intelligence (uptake, pattern recognition, problem solving etc.) – and yet he frequently embarrasses himself on account of being completely tone-deaf to the emotions guiding them. Data symbolizes the mature intellect longing to understand and loyally serving the Good he cannot (yet) comprehend.
Data has an "older" "twin brother" named Lore, constructed by the same "father". Lore was given emotion but not empathy or ethics which makes him evil and ruthlessly power-crazed. His creator soon deactivated him and went on to build Data without any emotions, but with basic ethical programming. Lore is accidentally reactivated. Until he is permanently put out of service he returns several times as a dangerous enemy, frequently posing as Data. In his wantonly destructive, reckless malevolence he represents the freewheeling basal urges running unchecked until they are superseded and neutralized by mature consciousness.
Ancient, enigmatic Guinan is another fascinating figure. She suddenly appears in one of the first seasons and, from then on, runs the bar in the ship's casino. Equipped with nigh unlimited insight and experience, she quickly becomes a patient listener for anyone in need of companionship or advice. Usually her statements are brief and oracular. She plays a major role in helping Data coming to grips with human nature. We do not learn much about her, except that she is several centuries old and that her home planet was destroyed by the Borg. Let's interpret her character as wisdom, intuition, and experience.
Dr Beverly Crusher is the ship's Chief Medical Officer (health, healing power, caretaking). Unlike the original series' Dr Leonard "Bones" McCoy, a short-tempered no-nonsense physician tasked with maintaining the crew's physical ability to function (as well as providing an often-humorous counterpart to Mr Spock's detached aloofness), she has a distinctly nurturing, motherly quality to her – and therefore this aspect is now personified as female. She brings her son, young Wesley Crusher, with her. His father died before Wesley was born, and bringing Beverly the message fell to Capt. Picard. This has created a special bond between them.
An Aspect Transcending Time and Space
Wesley is a prodigy, gifted with an ingenious, intuitive understanding of technology (which we interpret as applied, creative intelligence). He annoyingly keeps pulling life-saving last-second solutions out of thin air while much older, experienced senior officers stand by and watch in astonishment. This has rendered Wesley the series' most hated character among the fans. But all too easily we disregard as a poorly written character what might just as well be seen as the (somewhat naively sketched) personification of an inner principle which is all but insignificant within the ship's command structure (the microcosm's current psychological make-up) yet taps into knowledge and abilities far exceeding common imagination.
Twice – at the series' beginning and toward its end – Wesley is contacted by a being who simply calls himself the Traveller. The Traveller is an omniscient being unrestricted by time and space, with access to all dimensions. A mysterious, inconceivable entity manifesting out of compassion, meekly taking humanoid shape to avoid conflict, at home in the transcendent. He confides in Wesley that humanity is destined to eventually develop the same unlimited mind and briefly takes the Enterprise beyond space and time. Wesley remains aboard the Enterprise where his inexplicable abilities continue to draw attention and astonishment. Later he leaves the Enterprise to enrol with Starfleet Academy.
Here he is persuaded to partake in a transgression leading to the death of a fellow student. His confession (practically forced out of him by a furious Capt. Picard) barely saves him from being expelled and leads to the ring-leader being punished. The incident changes Wesley, completely alienating him from the rest of the crew. When the Traveller reappears, offering to take Wesley with him, Wesley accepts and leaves the others who are still bound in time and space.
Wesley symbolizes an inner aspect reaching past time and space into the absolute. That is why the transcendent, that which is not of this world, reaches out to him, elevating him at the end of his physical journey. Wesley refers to an aim which the whole of the conscious has not yet achieved, heralding a stage of development which lies ahead of humanity. He cannot fit within the current mind structure, there is no place for him there. Yearning to belong and be recognized he lets himself be drawn down to a level too far below his actual state. This betrayal of himself and the common values and standards finally alienates him. To regain himself he must go where his true home is. We sense that this is a journey that everybody will, each in their own time, embark upon.
(to be continued)