BOOKS
...from the 'pen' of CHRIS GREGORY  

 

 
 

TREK VERSUS APOLLO
by Chris Gregory

A few mischievous speculations!

The more cynical among us had always suspected that the flights of the Apollo Programme were launched not for 'reasons of scientific investigation' but essentially as a grand propaganda strategy.

We knew that the American drive to fulfil John F. Kennedy's pledge to 'put a man on the moon before the end of this decade' - instigated soon after the world had teetered on the very brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis - was motivated by a desire to demonstrate the superiority of American technology and thus the American 'way of life' to the world.

The Apollo programme was built up as the ultimate media event, and essentially the ultimate television event, of the 1960's. But the live pictures beamed in from the moon were fuzzy and distorted, the expeditions were largely lacking in any real drama and the astronauts themselves appeared to be (boringly) programmed androids. And of course the crews were all-white, all-male, all-American. Watch the rerun of the moonwalk, as the grotesquely spacesuited goons salute the stiff American flag. Who appears in caption congratulating Armstrong and Aldrin? None other than Richard Nixon...

"For every American, this has to be the proudest moment of our lives... Because of what you've done, the heavens have become part of man's world, and as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to double our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this earth are truly one."

Nixon's speech to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon,
July 21st 1969

Peace and tranquility? Tell that to the peasants along the Mekong...

Nixon's speech might have been composed by some third-rate Hollywood hack. Had it been in a Star Trek script, it would no doubt have been heavily rewritten. One can only wonder whether Neil Armstrong (who surely must have been a Trek fan), when watching those re-runs now, wishes that at that 'historic moment' he could have pushed a button on his tricorder and called for Scotty. Kennedy (and some would say everything he represented) was long dead. The moon programme was ultimately a failed attempt at the creation of a modern media myth. It was easy to see that the real 'space race' was the mad-eyed frenzy that had possessed the vast military-industrial complexes of US and The USSR to build as many inter-continental ballistic missiles as possible, so as to ensure the destruction of every living thing on the planet a hundred times over. The astronauts never became mythical heroes. In the public imagination they were far superseded by rock singers, supermodels, even game show hosts.

Star Trek told us that, after the nuclear wars of the late twentieth and twenty first century had ravished the planet, the human race had attained a new Age of Reason. This gave us hope, and in the face of the possible annihilation of the whole of human culture, hope was a very necessary quantity. The Apollo Programme may have appeared to represent 'the future' but in reality the landing at Tranquility Base was the culmination of the nineteenth century American drive to open its 'final frontier'.

For years the most popular American genre form, in the cinema and on TV, had been the Western - an almost entirely mythicised account of the frontier struggle to spread American 'civilisation' and values into the 'open space' of the American continent. But now American expansionism had met its Nemesis in Vietnam. As the body bags came home, and the TV audience were exposed to continual footage of the war, the myth began to ring hollow. In Western movies the 'Injuns' suddenly became the 'good guys'. The massacres of innocent Native Americans depicted so graphically in early '70s films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man reflected massive public unrest and anxiety about the American presence in Indochina. Star Trek, in contrast, gave us The Prime Directive, which forbade Starfleet officers to use their superior technology and weaponry to interfere with the cultures of developing planets. It gave us the Vulcan principle of I.D.I.C. - Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It gave us a multi-racial crew, including a black woman (Uhura), a Chinese (Sulu), a Scotsman (Scotty), a Russian (Chekov, who actually bore more resemblance to one of The Monkees) and of course a Vulcan (Spock). It also cast black men as Starfleet Admirals and 'genius' scientists. Although building on and thus inheriting the specifically American mythology as expressed in The Western through its 'final frontier' posture, it was clear that the ground rules had changed. The United Federation of Planets expanded by consent, not by conquest. Racism and prejudice were extinct. Factional religions had been replaced by a universal humanism. Technology itself had been 'humanised'. There was danger 'out there', and passion, and strange beings that could only have been made of plaster of Paris. Now, this was a myth of the future we could believe in....

Better than a static shot of bunch of anonymous test pilots playing golf or taking 'giant leaps' on some lifeless pile of rocks any day. No chance of a Next Generation for that lot!

astronautAll human societies construct myths... or have myths constructed for them. In one of the key early texts on the semiotics of the mass media, Mythologies, Roland Barthes defined myth as "a complex system of images and beliefs which society constructs so as to sustain and authenticate its own sense of being..." (Barthes, Mythologies 1957). In a modern technologically-based culture, those myths tend to be transmitted and received through the mass media, in particular television. There are 'myths' of advertising, of sporting heroes, film stars, rock stars... Some last only as long as Andy Warhol's 'fifteen minutes of fame'. Others persist.

A modern 'media myth' is created, as Barthes pointed out, by imposing itself on an established symbolic structure and then 'draining it' of its previous significance. Take the 'Myth of Elvis', after his death, Presley is apparently 'sighted' by his followers all over the earth; usually 'hiding' in some mundane occupation. His 'resurrection' identifies him as a bizarre and grotesque modern Christ-figure. Star Trek is modelled on the symbolic structures of the oldest forms of storytelling - such as the heroic journey and the moral allegory - as well as incorporating the myth of the frontier. These psychological, philosophical and political structures remain as powerful in the 1990's as they were in the 1960's and they provide a framework for almost unlimited storytelling. By the 1990's, the Star Trek mythical system, its mythos, has come to embrace an entire 'alternate universe' which is a projection out of and into our own. The existence of alien races such as the Vulcans, Klingons, Borg, Romulans, Cardassians and Ferengi is woven into the growing Trek 'back story' to form a mythical construct which reflects on issues of racism, nationalism, political corruption and diplomacy in our own contemporary culture. The main characters in Star Trek (particularly the original triumverate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy) often are representations of specific psychological traits. The drama of all Star Trek is centred on moral dilemmas which become universalised by their incorporation into its mythos.

It is no co-incidence that Star Trek is often referred to as a 'cult' programme. In an age of new religious 'cults' this may have begun as an analogy, but as a description of those fanatical 'fans' engaged in translating the Bible into Klingon it is surely very apt. With every year that goes by the 'evidence' regarding UFO's, alien abductions, crop circles and other supposed manifestations from outer space increases. Perhaps all the sightings and accounts by 'abductees' are collective hallucinations, new kinds of 'religious visions', equivalent to sightings in the past of the Virgin Mary. Maybe they reflect the huge cultural change that has occured in the latter half of this century where the human race, confronted with the prospect of its own extermination, abandons the mythic structures of the past and replaces them with a Mythos of The Future. Or perhaps the 'aliens' really are out there, watching us, experimenting on us, communicating with us in ways only the 'enlightened' can understand. Could it be that their refusal to reveal themselves to us openly is in obeyance of some kind of 'Prime Directive'?

But perhaps it wasn't always so. Earth's ancient religions are full of myths and legends of 'gods' who came down from the skies, often to mate with humans. Five thousand years ago the huge astronomical observatories of Stonehenge and the Pyramids were built, supposedly by vast quantities of human hands. And astrology, the oldest science, is based on the links between cosmic events and life on earth. Perhaps the mythologies of the past, what we might call 'religion-fiction' and the mythology of the future, what we call 'science-fiction', have the same deep roots in the collective unconscious of our race.

 

COPYRIGHT CHRIS GREGORY (C) 1999-2002 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Digital Generation