Friday, May 22, 2009

Star Trek--"Return of the Archons"

Gene Roddenberry’s secular humanism is well known, though at its heart unreasoned and often hypocritical. He never got to be as overt about his beliefs in TOS as he did in TNG because of the social mores of the day. Thus far, Christianity has been mentioned twice, both in passing. The first was the Enterprise chapel shown in “The Balance of Terror” and the second was the mention of Christmas in “Dagger of the Mind.” Both were innocuous mentions without endorsement or criticism. Now with “The Return of the Archons,” we begin to see the view of religion Roddenberry actually had, albeit disguised enough to not blatantly offend.

The planet Beta III’s population act like zombies following the will of a being known as Landru. They have no sense of individuality and their culture has stagnated. Outsiders are taken by lawgivers, men dressed as monks robes with a subtle hint of the Grim Reaper are taken to an absorption chamber where they are processed into these zombies. Ladru is actually a hologram projected from a computer that is running the planet. Kirk displays his extraordinary ability to talk a computer to death in order to free the planet. Everyone on Beta III, in spite of the only way of life they have ever known being destroyed, are much better off.

To me, that is a typical atheist critique of Christianity. Christians give themselves completely over to God represented here by the computer while taking order from Landru, a long dead being who is not actually there. The computer’s word is enforced with extreme prejudice by the clergy known as the Lawgivers. The lawgivers brainwash people into the religion. But the entire system can be destroyed by applying logic to the computer. The computer self-destructs and everyone is better off for it.

If case you had any doubts whether the population of Beta II would be better off, Kirk happily lectures Spock why he is wrong about the Prime Directive, which makes its first appearance here, applying. Kirk reasons the Prime Directive applies to functioning, vibrant societies. One in which the population dutifully follows a religious belief cannot possibly apply. Note the irony that Spock is using rationalism, a major tenant of atheist belief, in his argument, while Kirk dismisses it based on emotional prejudice. I did say Roddenberry was an unreasoned hypocrite in his secular humanism, did I not? This is another instance of a human lecturing an alien over the proper way of thinking even though said alien is more properly following actually humanist philosophy.

Forget the exaggeratedly negative view of Christianity and view the general principles. Beta III has a religious culture, no matter how they got it, and it works for them. There is a movement of ’free” men trying to change things and that is their right. If nothing else, it demonstrates the society is not stagnant at all since there is disagreement. Spock says the society ought to be left alone even though it is one the Federation would not endorse. Kirk says no. too many peoplearefollowing a religious idea that does not meet his standards, so it has to go. never mind that not only is he placing his opinion over an entire planet’s, but ignores how paralyzing it would be for the population to completely lose its way of life in an instant. But, hey, Christianity is just that evil. The cost of getting rid of it is irrelevant.

I have talked about this episode before with friends who assert the theme is not about religion at all, but a morality tale on modern man’s reliance on technology. I disagree, not only for the reasons I spelled out above, but because it is not revealed Beta III is run by a computer until the end. If “The Return of the Archons” was meant to caution us about dependence on technology, it squandered the opportunity by not playing its hand sooner. The argument is further weakened by the eventual introduction of the Borg. They are a much more pointed critique of dependence on technology. They are also an effective knock on communism nearly twenty years too late, but who is counting?

While I disagree with the overall message, I can appreciate how Roddenberry went about it. It isnot a bad episode, save for two major logical lapses. First, what was the point of ever mentioning the USS Archon? The ship disappeared acentury ago on Beta III, but was never really relevant to anything other than giing the episode its name. Second, there was never any explanation why the Festival occurred. Was it to blow off steam or just another critique of Christianity trying to make them look like hypocrites for indulging in periodic debauchery along with piety? We are left wondering.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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