Thursday, October 27, 2011

Infinite Diversity

by Cat Vincent


“Whatever makes you happy,

Whatever makes you happy,

Whatever makes you happy,

Whatever gives you hope…

…even if it’s a truly tasteless joke.”

Bongwater, Folk Song.


1. Youth and Young Manhood.


You never forget the first one. The first time you’re swept along by a mythology, fall headlong into a set of beliefs and symbols, find a part of your very soul contained in the words and ideas of others.


My first one, when I was very young, was Star Trek.


From the first time I saw that sweeping opening, heard William Shatner say “Space - the final frontier…” I was in love. There just wasn’t anything else like that around on the telly then - hard to remember these days when science fiction TV and movies are so commonplace as to be nearly mainstream.


Star Trek and I are the same age - both of us were born in 1964, just before the 1960’s kicked off big time. Indeed, Star Trek can be seen as one of the strongest surviving manifestations of the Sixties spirit. Nowhere is that spirit - the striving for tolerance and unity in the face of bigotry and fear, the optimism that those of differing race, colour, creed or whatever could strive together for a better future - more clearly expressed in the Star Trek canon than in the concept of IDIC.


IDIC stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. The concept - and its triangle-within-a-circle symbol - first appeared on 18 October 1968, in the third season episode “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” I guess I saw it a couple of years later on British TV reruns - and it had quite an impact.


IDIC as a philosophy is easy to state - and like all such philosophical perspectives, far harder to practice than describe. This quote from the end of the episode sums it up:


“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”


“And the ways our differences combine

to create meaning and beauty.”


This idea - that there was everything to gain in the consideration and embrace of alternate meanings and perspectives, that difference is a treasure not a threat - is one that stayed with me, as a geeky kid with very different perspectives from his family and peers. It grew even more significant when, a few years later, I encountered the work of Robert Anton Wilson (himself a devoted Star Trek fan), and especially his multi-model approach to philosophy. The longer I lived, the more suspicious I became of dualistic us-and-them, right-or-wrong narratives - Star Trek’s vision and Wilson’s work gave me a framework to examine them from. Dualism became to me, as Wilson puts it, an incomplete hypothesis - a weak, limited model to describe a complex world of countless viewpoints and beliefs.


I still try to work with that perspective. Though these days I would be more inclined to express the idea in the BDSM phrase “your kink is not my kink and that’s OK”, the basic idea of IDIC is something I, for want of a better term, believe in. So I figured that this proto-myth of mine would be worth revisiting here. This of course entailed rewatching the episode and doing some background research - it’s been years since I actually sat down to watch any classic Star Trek at all. The recent release of digitally remastered Blu-Ray versions of the episodes (with modern CGI replacing the now-dated SFX) provided a truly stunning print to watch.


(But if you want to watch along cheap & easy, here’s the original version of the episode.)


This rewatch & research soon became an object lesson in the intersection of myth and memory - and, ironically, emphasised that, for all the non-zero-sum aspect of IDIC, it’s origins are steeped in dualistic assumptions and imbalances.


The actual episode “Is There In Truth…” is a near-textbook expression of the power and problems of dualism, expressed in archetypal Star Trek style. The USS Enterprise is playing host to an alien ambassador, Kollos of the Medusans, a non-corporeal race described as highly intelligent and spiritually advanced, but so unbearably ugly to look at that they drive humans insane on sight. Kollos (encased in a travelling box!) is escorted by a Vulcan-trained human telepath, Dr. Miranda Jones, who has two characteristics of note - she is stunningly beautiful, and poisonously jealous of Mr Spock’s skill at telepathically joining minds with aliens. (Actually there’s a third trait of note regarding Miranda, but this isn’t revealed until later.) Kollos and Miranda (along with engineer Larry Marvick, whose long-standing crush on Miranda has unfortunate consequences) are working towards the integration of Medusans - superb instinctive space navigators - into Federation ships. Conveniently for the plot, Kollos is both the cause of, and remedy for, a life-or-death problem that only his abilities can rescue the crew from.


As is apparently the way with such events in the 23rd Century, Miranda and Larry are fĂȘted at a formal dinner with the senior crew. It’s in this scene that we first see the IDIC symbol - and the sheer depth of dualism, along with the (by modern standards) preposterously sexist behaviour displayed there, provide quite a contrast to its message. Basically, the dinner entirely consists of Kirk, McCoy and Scotty hitting on Miranda, while she snipes at Spock, and Larry The Engineer grows increasingly defensive about her…


After the dinner is over Larry declares his love for Miranda in her cabin, forcing a kiss on her - when she rejects him, he storms out to try and kill Kollos. Inevitably he goes mad in the attempt, commandeering the Engineering deck & sending the Enterprise to ‘the edge of the galaxy’, leaving them trapped with no hope of rescue. Unless, of course Kollos can navigate them away… which means Spock has to mind-meld with him, let Kollos ride him (almost loa-like) to save the ship.


This does not go well… mostly due to Miranda. However powerful a telepath she is, she can’t fly the Enterprise, Kollos or no - because she is blind. (She gets around as well as a sighted person due to a neat sensor-web worn over her frock, which everyone but McCoy thought was just decoration. He was keeping her secret out of doctor-patient confidentiality. Thanks, Bones!)

Spock’s only able to survive looking at Kollos outside his box while wearing a protective visor, and taking a very strong mental grip on his human half while doing so. When Spock-possessed-by-Kollos has finished steering the ship back to normal space and Spock goes to put the ambassador’s consciousness back in its box, Miranda nudges Spock mentally to forget his visor… and seconds later, an insane Spock is attacking the bridge crew.


Once subdued, it’s clear Spock is dying. And only Miranda can save him. Cue a classic James T. Kirk ‘persuasion of the woman’ scene, where he basically bullies Miranda into risking her life in a mind-meld with the insane Spock in order to save him. She succeeds - and the experience not only brings her closer to Kollos but also frees her from her jealousy. The last scene has Miranda and Spock saying their goodbyes, Miranda noting her new appreciation of the IDIC philosophy in the lines quoted above.


That precis doesn’t actually do the episode full justice. It still stands up well, despite the usual Trek pitfalls of garish decor and dissimilar stunt doubles substituting for the main cast in all the fight scenes. Diana Muldaur’s icy, vicious performance as Miranda is a pleasure, as is seeing Leonard Nimoy play the passionate and charming Kollos. It’s got pretty much everything you could ask from a classic Trek episode - Sulu and Chekov both on deck, McCoy saying an actual “He’s dead, Jim”, Scotty in a dress uniform with kilt(!), and Shatner bringing The Full Kirk - seductive, territorial and ruthlessly loyal to his ship and crew. There’s some great dialogue, especially when Kollos-in-Spock talks about his perspective as a telepathic, non-corporeal being experiencing the limitations of flesh for the first time:


“This thing you call language, though... most remarkable. You depend on it for so very much, but is any one of you really its master? “


But… watching the show from the perspective of of a man pushing fifty instead of a kid of six, the flaws stand out harshly against all that egalitarian optimism. Let’s go back to that dinner scene:


The scene opens with what appears to be a flirty chat between Kirk and Miranda - Kirk of course doing most of the flirting. After a few exchanges, the camera pulls out to show that Kirk’s incessant attempt to pull is apparently his idea of light dinner conversation during a formal occasion. The food (those ever-enjoyable primary coloured cubes so beloved of early Federation cuisine) is served by the only other women in the scene - two yeomen, dipping and gliding around the table in their ludicrously tiny minidresses.


The rest of the meal’s conversation, other than Miranda’s nasty little digs at Spock, is mostly concerned with the men of Starfleet banging on and on about how terrible it is for a woman as physically lovely as Miranda to be ‘cursed’ with having to behold ugliness for the rest of her career. (It’s worth noting that this dinner, allegedly a formal welcome for Ambassador Kollos & his entourage, is conspicuous by the the absence of Kollos himself… which allows the noble crew to insult him behind his back and sexually harass his staff. Which is perhaps a problematic approach to diplomacy when he’s a telepath.) Kirk offers an inevitable toast, “To Beauty”… and Miranda has a sudden telepathic flash that someone wants to kill Kollos. She excuses herself, leaves… Larry mutters a couple of veiled comments regarding her character and goes after her - leading to the pressing of his suit for her (or, as we would say these days, attempted date rape).


The dualisms in this scene and the whole episode sit there, demanding to be reconciled: Male/Female, Good/Evil, Beauty/Ugliness, Love/Hate, Blind/Sighted. To its credit, the script (by neophyte scribe Jean Lisette Aroueste, who wrote one more Trek episode, All Our Yesterdays, before retiring from screenwriting) does address some of these points - leading us back to the symbolism of the IDIC, that noble emblem for the reconciliation of dualities.


Except…


The IDIC was created by Gene Roddenberry and inserted into the episode for one reason: not to stimulate non-dualistic philosophies or to symbolically question the unstable status quo of the 1960’s… but to try and sell a range of licensed IDIC merchandise.


2. Age and Guile.


You never forget your first. But then again, you never really remember it right either.


In the intervening forty-odd years since I first saw that episode, I became a very different person. My love of Star Trek led me to my first science fiction convention and a deepening involvement in SF fandom. (At that first Star Trek convention in 1980, and not knowing the backstory at all, I unironically bought an IDIC pendant.) My memory of the actual episode blurred - but even after moving on somewhat from organised fandom and developing a wider, perhaps more cynical, appreciation for things philosophical, that concept still stuck. And, even though its origin is, shall we say, a little tacky, the IDIC is still a powerful symbol for me.


That’s the thing about constructing your own mythology from the hyper-real - reality might get in the way, but there’s still a deeper spirit you can make your own.


The world of 2011 is very different from 1968, but like then it is a time of turmoil and change. A time where dualistic us-and-them mindsets have not vanished in a United Federation of Planet(s) - and also a time where any method of working towards reconciling those warring dualisms could be useful. Even a tackily merchandised one. As ever, it depends on your point of view.


When I started writing this piece, the news came over the wire that Zachary Quinto, the actor portraying Mr. Spock in the Star Trek reboot, had come out as a gay man. Hearing this, I smiled… and just for a moment, the spirit of IDIC was as real and tangible to me as it was in 1968. I thought of the kid who was me watching the telly. I thought of Robert Anton Wilson, some six months after his encounter with the harsh reality of us-and-them in the midst of the Chicago Riots, possibly watching the episode when it first aired. And I realised that any mythology we hold as true has to adapt, but also has to have some solid, irrevocable basis… and these contradictions will never resolve neatly. But, sometimes, they do resolve - with as much elegant simplicity as a symbol balancing a circle and a triangle. Meaning, and beauty. Sometimes you can get both, for a while.


Live Long and Prosper.





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