Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Star Trek "The Apple"

Entire Episode Here

In keeping with the theme of bad ST episodes that present what we could call "enforced" or "learned" helplessness, we have the 2nd season episode (only nominally better than "Spock's Brain" the first installment in this set) entitled "The Apple"

In this episode, Jim and company run into "Vahl" an immense machine that takes care of all of the necessities of life for a small number of people in a red back lit sound stage full of papier mache' stones, and poison dart shootin' craft store flowers.

Vahl also protects the sound stage inhabitants from all possible threats. It brews up very kitch lightning to kill red-shirts, and injure Spock. It also reaches out via tractor beam, to drag the Enterprise or any other possible threat to her (or its) demise.

Vahl controls the weather. 'Taint too difficult' you might say, 'in the confined space of a sound stage.' You would be right of course. But that aint all Vahl can do:

According to Akuta, 'the eyes and ears of Vahl' (a man tuned in by My Favorite Martian antennae to the computer, deep in the bowels of the planet) there is no need for children ("replacements") and Vahl has forbidden love and sex. Heck, the Vahlians don't even know what these are. Somehow their biological drives have been turned off. "So much for paradise" McCoy quips.

The sound stage inhabitants are so completely cared for that Akuta does not know how to defend himself when Kirk jumps him early in the episode, after he had been hiding nearby and spying on the landing party for Vahl. He just cries after being punched.

McCoy discovers that the sound stage/planet environment and atmosphere protects these innocents from disease and the effects of aging. Vahl makes all the decisions, exhibiting what Spock somewhat inexplicably describes as "rudimentary intelligence." Vahl apparently is the only being here that is able to recognize a threat and take steps. The people of Vahl are psychologically and conceptually unable to do this.

In an interesting little debate (settled for practical purposes by Jim later in the episode) we see our intrepid crew has a bit of an ethical dilemma on their hands: Spock Jim and Bones are secretly watching the Vahlians feed Vahl. Vahl is fed through a very large papier mache' dinosaur head into which they pitch foodstuffs. This somehow fuels the machine. We see that it is not very energy efficient, and needs more or less constant feeding (kind of like the federal government, but more on that later). It dawns on Bones that the Vahlian's only 'function' in life is to feed Vahl.
This gets his moral dander up. McCoy makes the claim that the people of Vahl are having their rights violated, in particular; their right to 'a free and unchained environment', and a right to 'grow and develop.' Spock, on the other hand, marvelling at the 'reciprocity', points out that given the immense age of the population, and lack of children, it is likely that they chose to live the way they do.

This latter we do not know for certain, but given the inference McCoy voices, that they have lived 10,000 years like this, in 'stagnation,' one has to assume Spock is probably right. There might have been one or two replacements necessary due to accidents, but the Vahlians have no memories of such. So, it is more likely than not that no Vahlian has not given free consent, albeit the case that the universal consent was given a very long time ago.

This raises an interesting question that readers of Mill would recognize from his "On Liberty." One can defend such schemes as this, or schemes of voluntary slavery on the grounds that they are, after all, freely chosen. Mill asks: Morally speaking, should one freely choose to forever give up ones freedom, and therefore ones subsequent ability to retract that very choice? He thinks not. For, you give up your autonomy, something uniquely human. To attempt to do this is tantamount to degradation. So, morally, you should not do this.

But, are things so straightforward? If the population of the soundstage had truly freely and with full information, given up their autonomy in the interests of having complete and utter security, and insulation from harm, we can rightly say that this was an originary autonomous and freely chosen act. And, if they really thought the trade-off was adequate to compensate them for the loss of their ability to grow and develop, then one might very well ask what business is it of Bones or Jim to be meddling in this culture's choices. This case is especially strong if the culture does no harm to others. So what if they want to exist to feed a machine? They do get reciprocal benefits of a rather hefty variety. Further, there is no indication that these people have changed in such a way as to want to rescind that original choice.

If we were to ask them if they regret having had made a promise on behalf of their later selves, they would say 'no,' because they have not changed in such a way as to regret what they did 10,000 years ago. They are unlike us in this way. Often people regret having entered into agreements because their circumstances do change, or they change. None of this seems to be an issue in this simple world. These people just keep feeding Vahl via the glowing-eye-big-dinosaur-head papier mache' opening in the sound stage, and Vahl keeps a providin' and a protectin.' All the Vahlians seem happy with the arrangement. Spock is right to question the morality of interfering. But, we know by now that Jim never lets the non-interference directive get in the way. Why now? Especially with Bones egging him on.

Now, to make the choice easy on Jim, and to prevent the episode from devolving into an ethics course, we are reminded that Vahl has all along been pulling the Enterprise to her demise, so Kirk cuts off the "philosophical discussion," as being at best a side issue. His primary responsibility is saving his ship and crew. So, the group plots the destruction of Vahl, in order to save the ship. Problem is, they don't know how to go about it. Kirk keeps telling Scotty to pull against the tractor beam, with a seriously damaged ship. The countdown to atmospheric entry and burn up is an ongoing feature of the episode.

But, as it turns out, there is really no need to worry. Sex will mess things up: Chekov and his doe eyed red-shirt love interest for this one episode (wait a minute, doesn't Star Fleet have fraternization regs for goodness sake?) unintentionally teach two peeping-tom-burlap-bag-remnant-wearin' natives how to indulge in smoochie-face.

The two are caught a kissin' by Akuta, playing peeping tom, or Big Brother for Vahl. Well, now those strangers have gone too far! Only now does Vahl decide that the visitors must be eliminated. Why? We are never really told why sex is such a bad thing. Perhaps Vahl cannot provide for large populations. Perhaps their is a 'fear' on the part of Vahl that the people would neglect feeding time if they were otherwise occupied. Whatever the reason, Vahl instructs Akuta to gather the men. They are taught how to fashion and use clubs, how to approach the visitors from behind and knock noggins. It's not clear that they have an idea this will kill. True, they learn the word "kill" but they haven't the foggiest what it means.

Turns out these folks are inept killers. Apparently from utter lack of experience, they lose agility and find themselves walking like 50's movie robots up to Jim and the crew as they attempt to club them. This is a truly Epic Fail. In fact, red shirt love interest exhibits some nice martial arts skills on Akuta, throwing him over her shoulder.

Time is running out on Jim. So, what does he do? Something he could have done at the beginning of the hour. He orders Scotty to phaser Vahl. That, in combination with pulling away from Vahl, and the crew preventing feeding, does Vahl in. He starves to death because he is using energy for defense, but not getting fed. Boom. End of Vahl.
Jim and the crew now blithely leave the Vahlians to their own devices. Will they be able to survive without Vahl? That doesn't seem to be a major concern. After all, they live in a red-back lit sound stage. How bad can it be?

The parallel with the story of Adam and Eve is obvious. What other parallels exist for this episode? Well, perhaps political lessons? Vahl is to the old Soviet States as the Vahlians are to the freed citizens of those states upon collapse. There was an initial wave of helplessness born of that system. It was overcome, but very real. Freedom is scary for those that are not used to it.

How about this more contentious parallel: Vahl is to the expanding federal government as those that want to have government expand into more spheres of human life, (as for example, health care) are to the Vahlians. Finally, Jim and Bones are to Vahl as those that resist growing government, are to the more liberal or statist position. Jim and Bones conservative Republicans? Spock a liberal Democrat? Or, maybe a libertarian? Spock's a hard one to call in this case. Libertarians don't like intrusive government, but do respect free and autonomous choice. This sound stage is a sticky wicket for them.

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