Thursday, July 12, 2007

"The Devil in the Dark," as the Essence of Star Trek

by Jared B.


In pursuit of a man-killing underground creature, Kirk and Spock discover something profound: This "silicon-based lifeform" is neither evil nor inherently dangerous, despite having already killed several "pergium" miners throughout the planet's extensive cave network. Instead, it was simply protecting its eggs from the humans, who had unknowingly destroyed hundreds during their mining operations.

Whereas Kirk began this adventure by attempting to protect the miners from a malicious beast, he then chooses to safeguard the intelligent creature from the wrath of humans. After explaining to the miners that they were the real "monsters," Kirk and Spock convince both sides that peaceful coexistence is preferable to open warfare. Everyone lives happily ever after.

"The Devil in the Dark" is one of the most beloved episodes of the Original Series. For many fans, the episode highlights the essence of Star Trek: its humanistic attempt to challenge viewers to see situations and conflicts from an alien Other's point of view. Forcing us to sympathize with a hideous and seemingly irredeemable man-killer, "The Devil in the Dark" demonstrates how spurious many of our cultural assumptions about others can be.

Our prejudice stems from our ignorance. Seeing the universe from an alternative viewpoint is the key to personal and cultural enlightenment. Simply put, the source of conflict, warfare, and violence is misunderstanding.

Knowledge becomes the key to co-existence and peace.

This theme is repeated many times throughout the history of Star Trek. Arguably, there is no absolute evil in the Trekverse. Q-like beings are really undisciplined children or misguided despots. Angry gods are malfunctioning super-computers. Human villains are evil only in the sense that they are consumed by vengeance, hatred, or racism, all of which could be conquered by logic and reason.

Repeatedly, viewers are encouraged to sympathize with malevolent Others. By the 24th century, the Klingons have ceased to be the imperialistic and heartless villains of TOS. Instead, we grow to understand and admire their cultural traditions, beliefs, and codes of honor. The Romulans, it seems, have also been misunderstood, making re-unification with Vulcans possible. The Jem'Hadar, a species genetically engineered to kill humans, earns our sympathy during the Dominion War, as do the Founders, the Vorta, and the Cardassians. Even the Borg, the ultimate antithesis of human freedom and individuality, are presented in a favorable light with the characters of Hue and Seven of Nine.

Again and again, diversity may lead to conflicts, but those conflicts are resolved through mutual understanding. There is much warfare along the path toward peace, but so much of that struggle does not involve conquest through military means. Rather, external struggles are accompanied by equally profound and influential internal struggles, in which humans and aliens attempt to overcome cultural prejudices and misunderstandings.

Kirk, consumed by his hatred of Klingons, becomes the ultimate peace broker. Kira, a Bajoran terrorist/freedom fighter who loathes Cardassians, grows to understand and sympathize with several former oppressors. Odo eventually rejoins his people, despite years of siding with the "solids." The examples are endless.

And, this theme is also internalized to an extreme degree. So many characters, from Spock to Torres to Seven of Nine, struggle with internal conflict rising from their "two halves." Accepting the strengths and weaknesses of both selves leads to a more complete and harmonious selfhood, just as the external embrace of diversity leads to a stronger and more peaceful Federation.

All this may sound like an unquestioning acceptance of "fanboy" slogans about Trek's multiculturalism and vague utopianism. There are certainly problematic elements and contradictions. Yet, the "Devil in the Dark Factor" has been a dominant theme of Star Trek, and it speaks more about Trek's multiculturalism than the number of lines Uhura had.

Scholars who criticize Star Trek's representation of race often ignore "Devil in the Dark," seeing the episode as irrelevant to issues of race. To ignore its theme, which became so prominent in Star Trek, is a mistake. The episode summed up the Trek's IDIC philosophy in not-so-subtle ways, illustrating why fan slogans about diversity, optimism, and cultural enlightenment are substantiated by evidence.

Paradise is often elusive in the Star Trek universe, but coexistence, tolerance, and understanding are crossroads on the journey towards a more hopeful future.


Watch the Full Episode at YouTube