Star Trek and Close Encounters as the atheist's doorway to the unknown
Religion, it is said, begins with a sense of mystery. A curiosity about the "insides" of the mystery, as opposed to the experience of it, presumably fuels the explorations of science. Some of the greatest science fiction has attempted to fuse
the two for the benefit of those who feel the mystery (probably an inherent human ability) but cannot join themselves to a religion in an [quoteright]attempt to "explain" it. Note that there is no deity involved in any of this. It is the mark of mystical science fiction that it evokes or explains the mystery of existence without recourse to a conscious deity. The science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke is some of the best of this type of writing; his union of mystery and science carried over to Stanley Kubrick's film "2001," which was based on some of Clarke's stories. It is also to be found in several more recent science fiction movies.
"Star Trek; The Movie," for instance, had two themes: the transformation of humanity to its next stage of evolution, as expounded in the plot of the union of Captain Decker and Ilia with V'ger, the (human-created) machine, and that of the reconciliation of human beings to their finite nature, expounded in the story of Spock
The theme of sexuality as a way to transcend our limited, isolated nature is not a new one. It is one science fiction generally is uncomfortable with, or has been until recently. (The reason for this may lie in the fact that the baby boom generation -- those now 30-40 years old [in 1981] --- moved out of their adolescence about 10 years ago, and by their very number kept control of the science fiction world. You will remember that this was also the period of "New Wave" SF, with its emphasis on creative writing and downplay of "hard" science.)
The general theme, of the transcending of human nature and the passing to some "next stage," must by definition be a closed book to us; if we could imagine this next stage, particularly how it felt to be there, it would not be the next stage but some aspect of our current level of existence. This makes it in some sense impersonal. We can only watch as Richard Dreyfus enters the aliens' ship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," to follow him in would turn the movie from mystic experience into space opera.
Just so, Decker and his lady, Ilia, and V'ger are going somewhere we cannot follow; we must be satisfied with the knowledge that it is possible to go. I recommend Lewis Padgett's story, "All Mimsy Were the Borogoves" for a similar evocation of what it would mean to find The Way Cut. But even in the Clarke stories mentioned above, the paint of view is always that of those left behind. The novel "Childhood's End" is perhaps the best example of this.
The counterpoint theme, that the way to live in peace in this world is try accepting life with its limitations and finitude, can also be found in works such as Candide. Far from being an alien, Spock is Everyman, struggling against his animal (i.e. passionate) nature, which, because it is as much his heritage as is his Vulcan rationality, forever returns to haunt him.
I believe that Spock's struggles made him our favorite (especially, again, during adolescence, that time of raging hormones and attempts to formulate and live up to ideals). They also made him a bit silly, forever denying the feelings the rest of the crew could see he possessed, and therefore the butt of their humor.
When we compare these two themes, we see that as Spock learned to live in the world, the others passed out of it. The unifying theme is how we cope with the knowledge of our own mortality. Decker and Ilia died as individuals and were reborn to some higher existence, and isn't that humanity's great hope, that death is a door and not the end? Spock learned to accept the hand he had been dealt; his triumph is the only one we mortals can hope for on this side of the void, arid so is the one with which we identify. Generally, by the way, it is the lone individual who moves on, the lovers who remained in the world, so in some ways Roddenberry was exploring new territory.
Are all the things I have been describing really in the movie? Yes, but the fact that they did not move most people means they were not well done. "Star Trek: The Movie" could have been far more successful had it concentrated on Spock and left the other story in the background. There were other intimations of mortality in the aging of the characters (necessitated by the aging of the actors!); but the film never did decide whether it was a family reunion or serious science fiction and so failed to satisfy on either level.
Other filmmakers seem to have noticed that the real interest of people is in their own lives, even when the setting is "a long time ago in another part of the galaxy." George Lucas is working on several themes in the Star Wars series: the hero on his quest (Luke); the union of the lovers (won't we all feel let down if Princess Leia and Han Solo never get tack together?); the struggle with evil as an inevitable part of ourselves.
This latter theme is expressed in Luke's being the son of Darth Vader. Often in Mythology it concerns the struggle of two brothers, one good, one evil; the plot could have as easily cantered around the conflict of the brother knights, Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. Kenobi 's dying and the passing of the struggle to Luke reminds me of the death of Gandalf the Gray and his resurrection as Gandalf the White in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy; the task of reconciliation and redemption in each case shifts to the next generation (to Aragorn and Frodo as to Luke). In Tolkein, as in life, only limited healing is possible; this is why the conclusion is bittersweet but rings true.
I predict that in coming films Luke will take the "immortal" path where we cannot follow, while Solo and Leia will survive to ride off into the sunset, taking the "mortal" path and bringing the story to a satisfactory conclusion. If Lucas can resist making everybody live happily ever after, he may achieve the same level of truth as Tolkein reached. At any rate, it will be impossible to judge until the cycle of films is completed. I hope Lucas has room in his budget for a full-time Mythologist.
A self-confessed dangler of participles, JoAnn Malina has held various elective offices within SFRM; Her past professions have included stints as a librarian and assistant manager of a women's clothing store.
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