In its prevalent forms, the cottage consumer industry of Star Trek is a classic virtuality of identification where the viewers’ senses of self, otherness, and reality are blurred by the contemplation of iconic spectacles. The fanatic relationship to media objects and fetishized paraphernalia is a partial, transitional realization of the reign of simulacra, effected at this stage in the logic of the model and its serial differentiation. After the original Star Trek series came the animated series, then The Next Generation, six original series movies, one inter-generational movie, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and now The Next Generation movie (First Contact) and the current 30th anniversary festivities. It is an endless cloned succession, a lineal, self-evolving pataphysics of re-worked plots, trans-species Federation officers, sentimental cyborgs, humanoid hyperlife, engineering re-stabilizations following perturbations, non-Moebius time travel, and warp drive accelerations beyond the speed of light.
But this unceasing serial commodification or anabolic self-replication always sustains itself through reverent reference to the original referent — the pantheonic first generation of Captain James T. Kirk, graduate of Starfleet Academy, First and Science Officer $@&# (unpronounceable) Spock, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Scott, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, Chapel, and Rand. But Captain Kirk was never the original. Attention, red alert, all hailing channels being jammed, switching to sub-space frequency, and repeating: William Shatner/James T. Kirk was not the original Captain of the Starship Enterprise.
In the pilot broadcast for the first Star Trek series, entitled “The Cage” (aired on February 1, 1965), the Enterprise (NCC-1701A, prototype model), with Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) in command, answers a mysterious distress call from long-lost Federation settlers believed to have crashed on the planet Talos IV. The distress call turns out to have been fabricated by the super-intelligent beings of Talos to lure Pike and two of his most attractive female crew members into a zoo-like captivity. After Captain Kirk replaced Captain Pike for the eventual prime-time series, the footage from “The Cage” was re-edited into a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (stardates 3012.4 and 3012.5). The keepers of the menagerie are so scientifically advanced that they are all brain — they have lost the capabilities to experience sensory and tactile reality, to feel or emote, and to stroke the physical world. They seek to benignly imprison two humans (a male and a female), cut them loose in a high-tech digitized parallel-processed virtual Disneyland, and start grooving vicariously on the sensations and emotions. The Talosians have collected biological specimens from around the galaxy in their zoo, but the two humans will be their premium ticket to a virtual reality lust-fest.
Aside from hints about its von Neumann architecture, the underlying algorithms and class inheritances of the menagerie’s virtuality engine are not specified. We can assume a ring zero concentric clustering saltation, descendent from early artificial life programs. Captain Pike and his holographic computer-generated ideal woman can live out any scenario which is found in the dream-reservoir in Pike’s head (Pike rejects the two female officers in favor of the gentle hologram as his companion). Any childhood memory, sexual fantasy, “historical” time and place, folklore, fairy tale, vision of home, or galaxial adventure can be “brought to life” by the menagerie’s virtual reality neural network and wetware. The ideal woman is synthesized from a reading of Captain Pike’s libidinal unconscious worked upon the ruined body of an Earth woman who, as a young girl years ago, was the sole survivor of the crash of the Federation settlers’ spaceship. The scarred, now fully-grown woman appears beautiful to Captain Pike through trick photochronography. For her part, she has been raised in the zoo by the Talosians and has never seen a real man before Pike.
In the story of Captain Pike, a much later and conclusive stage in the accomplishment of simulacra is invoked. Beyond Star Trek’s predominant virtuality of virtuous identification is the virtuality of the unconditional worship of simulacra, a final stage exemplified by digital media’s synthesis of synthetic three-dimensional video and the jacked-in nervous system. Having completed the pilot episode, the producers of Star Trek must have realized that they had given birth to a Captain whose precocious engagement with virtual reality already disqualified him from serving as the model for a sequelized succession of media commodities. The successful media product model has as prerequisite a mythical moment of transcendent creativity which clears the way for the emergence of a new spectacle object. The spectacle object (celebrity, consumer gadget, media property) then enters the panoply of fetishes among which we shop in our efforts to find an identity “niche” and dubiously distinguish ourselves from others. The model serves as lightning rod for ambivalent collective projections, allowing each individual to feel unique at the very moment when all consumers of that same niche are imitating the same elevated pattern.
But the fully achieved simulacra of virtual reality threaten the stability and profitability of this system of differences. This is why Captain Pike, who was too far ahead of his time, had to be shunted aside in favor of the valorous Captain Kirk. The binary oppositions of compartmentalized analytical thought which uphold the progress of the media and computer industries (the dualities between original and copy, mind and body, model and series, real and virtual, reality and information) begin to break down in the era of consummated virtuality in favor of a perpetual Moebius strip which appears at all points to have two sides but really has one. The dichotomy between computer applications which belong to the official category of virtual reality software and the rest of computer applications is a prime example of such increasingly precarious binary oppositions in the computer industry. In the first type of virtual reality application (the official product category), a purposive activity, such as piloting an airplane or meeting a new girlfriend, is simulated both by providing sensory information to the user that mimics the real activity, and by handling changes in perceptual angles caused by the user’s moves through the cyberspace.1 In the second type of virtual reality application (not recognized as such by the computer industry), a familiar human activity such as driving in the country or eating dinner at a restaurant is organized as a virtual machine by the increased information that is brought to bear upon it. Claude Shannon, one of the original Captains of Computer Science, defined information as the “reduction of uncertainty.” These familiar activities which become the domain of software applications were previously “hotbeds of uncertainty” needing to be brought under control by a wallet-sized or car computer. At some point there will no longer be any difference between the three-dimensional digital video images displayed outside the window of the cockpit flight simulator and the three-dimensional digital video images of sunny landscapes projected outside the passenger window by the car computer as I drive through the country on a rainy afternoon. Once we arrive at this point of convergence between the named virtual simulation of a remote, normally inaccessible activity (like exploring the surface of Mars or meeting a new girlfriend) and the unnamed virtual simulation of a familiar, accessible human activity (like eating in a restaurant or meeting a new girlfriend), then both types of software application have elaborated their object to the point where the elaborations join together in the same completed and perfected simulacra. What was previously called information and what was called reality become as alike as the two sides of the Moebius strip. The assumption that information is a science which is “useful” to a separate, intact object called reality ignores the ascendence of the seamless, uninterrupted network interface (between “knowing” and object) and its transfiguring sway. A fully accomplished virtual network, such as the one which beckoned Captain Pike, endangers the primacy of the model and the powerful dissemination of its aura in the perpetual substitutions and re-arrangements of the series. The logic of the charismatic media model and its propagated array of serial distinctions was essential in supporting the illusion of the uniqueness and individuality of each consumer of shared media spectacles. The displacement of this system by immersive or neural-direct fusion with spectral, holographic environments portends a potentially reversible endpoint to the history of images and simulacra.
In the zoo on Talos IV, Captain Pike is at first as valorous as Captain Kirk eventually will be. Although he participates for a while, Pike is not seduced for long by the virtual reality goodies proffered by the Talosians. His freedom and ontological grounding in reality are more precious to him than fated reunions with loved ones and pets from his childhood. His sworn duty to “get back to his ship” is more important than saving the woman of his dreams from monsters in a Gothic castle. A polymorphous perverse prisoner is still a prisoner, and Pike has nothing but contempt for his over-cerebrated sedentary voyeuristic captors. He summons all his cunning, exhorting himself to figure out a way to escape.
Captain Pike discovers a bug in the Talosians’ system, a flaw in their security software. They have not accounted in their human resources package for the emotion of raw hatred. When Pike concentrates all his feelings on his hatred of the Talosians, the processor-generated force field which surrounds Pike’s cage breaks down. Pike is able to dart out of the cage and ring his hands around the Talosian leader’s neck. After this outburst of hatred, the Talosians are only too happy to let Captain Pike go. They admit that they underestimated the human species’ aversion to confinement. They have now discovered that humans are capable of extreme phenomena, such as radical passions towards others, and extreme phenomena were not considered in the object-oriented design of their software. In most cases, proper software engineering directs that reality is a bug to be fixed in the next release. But a radical passion like hatred necessitates more than a version patch. To the Talosians, this vehement human potentiality is like a rogue virus which threatens to bring down their entire planetary network.
Captain Pike is reunited with the Enterprise crew and Talos IV is classified as an off-limits planet which all Federation ships are prohibited from going near. But eleven years later, Captain Pike is involved in a terrible, disastrous accident, a fiery explosion, and he is left nearly dead. His body, aside from a brutally scarred face, is destroyed, and his consciousness or soul is transferred into a stationary box or “housing unit” without prosthetics. His only means of communication is using the simplest digital code of beeping once for “yes” and twice for “no”. Faced with this reduced, diminutive existence, Captain Pike is reminded of the virtual paradise offered by the Talosians where he can be “able-bodied” once again. He now wishes to return to the menagerie. But by this time, Captain Kirk has taken command of the Enterprise, and Kirk sees it as his duty to enforce the injunction against visiting Talos IV. Mr. $@&# Spock, Pike’s loyal First Officer from eleven years back, commandeers the ship without Captain Kirk’s knowledge (placing his own career at risk) and brings the homuncular Pike back to the zoo planet.2 Mr. $@&# Spock, the half-human, half-Alan Turing logician, is the only officer to serve under the Captainships of both Pike and Kirk. For the autistic and quasi-comatose Talosians, eleven years was just a nanoinstant, and they are waiting to greet Pike with as much revelry as their atrophied funny bones can muster.
Star Trek has never been considered by science fiction critics for its “secondary current” of virtual reality themes. But from “The Menagerie” to “All Our Yesterdays” to the pivotal role of the (downtime) holodeck in The Next Generation to the Deep Space Nine “Shadow Play” villagers, Star Trek is replete with polysemous “texts” about the last stage of simulacra and virtuality. This minor key throughout the Star Trek opus can be seen as the lingering symbolic influence of the brief reign of Captain Pike. According to self-anointed “postmodern” media critics like Scott Bukatman and Walter McDougall, Star Trek is too heroically individualist to be much valued as a “text.” Unlike the cyberpunk canon of William Gibson, Blade Runner, et al. which Bukatman celebrates, Star Trek fails to address or extol the terminal identity, body electronic, fractal geography, subject-decentering, ontology-shattering themes and transmigrations of the digital age. For these postmodern critics, the recurring effect of Star Trek is to reconfirm the television or movie viewers’ belief “that we can subsume our individualism into the rationality of systems yet retain our humanity still.” The popularity of Star Trek is attributed to our delight in the “human qualities of Captain Kirk,” which “are always victorious over the very technological mega-systems that make [his] adventures possible.”3 It may be correct that Captain Kirk’s outwitting of evil empires and evil computers through use of logical paradox and human foible reinforces traditional post-Enlightenment (Captains of Industry) subjectivity. But what Kirk’s antics are always debunking are the computer’s pretentions to artificial intelligence. Kirk gets it on in a metaphoric three-dimensional chess match against super-computers like Landru (“The Return of the Archons”), Nomad (“The Changeling”), Vaal (“The Apple”), and the Daystrom-clone (“The Ultimate Computer”). These voice-enabled computers all seek to rise above their programming and think for themselves, but they always lack that certain little human je ne sais quoi. The Pentagon could have saved billions on futile artificial intelligence research if it had watched these early Star Trek episodes. But, as Bill Gates and Kevin Kelly (those amiable prophets of the wired world and the interactive network) remind us, artificial intelligence was always a detour, and never the destination, of the computer.4 It was the complex-systems side of cybernetics, not the artificial intelligence side, which would lead to the true destiny of the computer: virtual reality.
One of Marshall McLuhan’s discursive descendants has recently said that the effects of television on the world and how we see it were invisible until McLuhan “pointed out TV.”5 One of the obstacles to seeing virtuality today, and the grave dangers which loom through its mist, is that we believe in an enterprise called science — the epistemology, methodology, and applications of which have supposedly ushered in a grand and eternal age of progress and wizardry. We have constructed a pantheon of original scientific heroes, whose heroism derives from their original acts of having been the first to investigate the physical objects of the world independent from any prejudicial system of interpretation. We neglect to scrutinize what really happened at the primal anthropological scene of the beginnings of scientific method and the first Captains of science. At the back end of the chronology, we have been equally remiss in failing to observe that the privileging of the autonomy of the physical object was a phase which came to an end in the mid-twentieth century, at the time of the invention of the virtuality engine known as the computer and the new “sciences” of information and bio-cybernetic complex systems.
According to Bill Gates, we will soon work, learn, make friends, shop, explore cultures, and be entertained from the privacy of our homes and without leaving our armchairs. On the post-Web Internet, which Gates calls the interactive network, we will enter into total immersion cyber-environments via our high-bandwidth connections. This penetration to the other side of the screen is but the latest step in the civilizational project of creating a second, doubled, substitute world — a movement from reality to virtuality. The virtuality syndrome arose as a consequence of the scientific revolutions which caused humanity to feel its insignificance and transience in contrast to the permanent and consequential status of the objective, natural world. Other cultures had dealt with human death in an integrated way through symbolic rituals and sacrifice, and with the cosmos through the mediation of mythology, but it was our destiny to face down the harsh reality principles of mortality and an external world of permanent, inexorable, superior laws. Confronted with this severity, we felt anxiety and ultimately developed an immortality neurosis or virtuality syndrome to manage our distress. To match the permanence of the “laws of nature,” we devised our own project of step-by-step constructing a media permanence which we would then eventually jump into. The immortality neurosis is exhibited in the new American business of customers having their heads preserved after death so they can someday have their consciousnesses revived and transferred into robotic bodies when science has reached that stage of progress. But the immortality or virtuality syndrome is also manifest in the interactive networks and in all of the mass media in their earlier, transitional forms.
Anteceding the legend of the original heroic scientists is the seminal, primal scene of the initial stirrings in “tribal” societies of the gaze on the autonomous object. This was the transformation from a symbolic, intimate relationship to the object to an operational, percipient one discussed, for example, by Bataille in Theory of Religion. This neglected transmutational scene resembles the unexamined “text” which antecedes the legend of the original heroic Captain Kirk: the primal scene of the virtuality decisions of Captain Christopher Pike.
For Captain Pike, the appeal of virtuality is relative. Compared with the able-bodied, open-spaced conditions of vitality, mobility, and irreducible language, virtual reality is a sham. It is a spurious and pale facsimile of life, and Pike will have no truck with it. But compared to the degraded conditions of immobility and digital inarticulateness (reduced to the unravelled binary code of communication) virtual reality is preferred. From the standpoint of spatial, quadriplegic, and semantic incapacitation, and only from this standpoint, virtual reality is accepted and embraced. As long as Captain Pike has a body, he is not seduced to make the leap beyond the screen to the full achievement of simulacra. Once he no longer has a body, he is ready to put on his data body suit, goggles, and glove. At the dawn of Kirk’s term as Captain, and the seminal confusion of his status as original or copy, we have a powerful statement about the new interactive networks. It is only from the position of an already debased spatial immobility and urban hyperconcentration that we are prepared to embrace the doubled, substitute world of virtuality. Fellow homunculi, where do you want to go today?6
So Pike, the true first-born, was whisked away into virtual reality and replaced by the changeling Kirk. There was, of course, another way forward for Captain Pike, but the screenwriters of “The Menagerie” were unfortunately ignorant of the basics of writing operating systems software drivers for peripheral devices. Since Pike’s bio-rehabilitation programmers had succeeded in resuscitating at least one controllable nerve impulse from his consciousness, and connecting the discrete signals of this impulse across the synaptic gap to an output device (the beeping for “yes” or “no”), further layers of software to drive more sophisticated output devices and sound cards would certainly be possible. From the single binary registering of a 0 or a 1, an entire operational language (a full digital communication) can be devised. One merely has to enumerate and combine varied sequences of 0s and 1s as discrete identifiers in an infinitely permutated system. The only drawback would be that Pike’s consciousness itself would always remain at the level of the lowest machine language, forced to perpetually master and will the lengthy binary sequences in order to express himself! He would literally be the machine and its finally awakened artificial intelligence.
Another episode of the original Star Trek series, “All Our Yesterdays,” presents us with a beautiful, succinct metaphor for the scientific revolution and the virtuality syndrome. Captain Kirk, Mr. $@&# Spock, and Dr. McCoy beam down to the planet Sarpeidon, which belongs to a solar system the sun of which is about to explode as a supernova. The planet’s political leaders and chief scientists have known of this impending catastrophic event for a long time and have diligently implemented a digital survival plan. After the sun goes supernova, the planet will become permanently uninhabitable, but the inhabitants will not be faced with their deaths. The planet’s entire new media resources have been mobilized into the construction of a vast library and computer administered by technicians. The library does not contain books, but rather tapes in canisters which store the virtual content of all occurrences in the planet’s history. In the waning days before the supernova catastrophe, each inhabitant selects his favorite historical time from the library’s vast archives, has a technician retrieve and insert the chosen tape into an input device, and passes through a portal from which he or she can never return again. Any attempt to return will result in instant death, since the subject’s genetic code has been altered for adaptation to the destination historical period. The time portal is the focal point of the library, and through it each inhabitant makes a definitive exit from the planet’s dying reality. At the very last moment before the supernova explosion, the principal technician inserts his personal tape and heads off to the most exclusive virtual history theme park.
The heliocentric discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo ignited a kind of metaphoric supernova explosion. The Copernican model of the sun-earth relationship, which challenged and replaced the geocentric universe of Ptolemy, was not accepted for centuries due to the anxiety about our status in the cosmos which it provoked. Humans, created in God’s image, were no longer the center of the universe. The sun does not revolve around the earth as was previously believed; the earth revolves around the sun. With Copernicus, the sun expanded and the virtuality syndrome was given an anti-gravitational boost. Physical reality and its classical laws (which only operate until you approach light speed, or the hyperbolic speed of the media and computers) were elevated to a sovereign, more permanent status in relation to mortals. On Sarpeidon (“All Our Yesterdays”) the course of the virtuality syndrome is played out at accelerated speed. The original physical reality of Sarpeidon is wiped out by the supernova of its sun. But a second, substitute, cloned reality has been preserved for the planet’s inhabitants thanks to the virtuality engine of digital technology. The Sarpeidonians can go anywhere they want to go — on a one-way ticket.
For the cool experimenters in jacked-in data-suited subject-decentering terminal identity like Scott Bukatman, or the writers of cyborg manifestoes like Donna Haraway, Star Trek is a conventional media industry which never stops showing the same old reruns of gendered and immune system “tropes” like military hardware, space adventures, and extra-terrestrial invaders.7 But Star Trek is an ordinary screen, and like Bukowski’s ordinary madness, it is ironically and seductively reversible. It may even be one of the “texts” which, in its minor key, is pointing the way towards that ultimate reversibility of things that is set in motion at the moment when reality and information reach the point of their final (and fatal) inter-changeability.8 One must read Star Trek against Star Trek. As in other ordinary screens, like Fox Football or video poker or Windows 97, the apparently dominant “window” has been “re-sized”; it has been turned oblique or spun diagonally into the background with respect to the physical screen, making room for other, less ideologically stable, “windows.” We can no longer presume that viewers see a univocal screen or hear only the monotonic drone of an idiot box. The enduring popularity of Star Trek may indicate a fascination and engagement by the mass of viewers with motifs of their own disappearing reality.
1. In Japan, a multimedia CD-ROM application called “Heartthrob Memorial” recently sold more than a million copies and spawned a nationwide industry of virtual girl love worship. The interactive program re-writes the (mis)adventures of a young male student who was often rejected during his high school years by girls whom he fancied. The product was developed by a programmer who says that he wanted to undo his own memories of rejection. See Andrew Pollack, “Japan’s Newest Heartthrobs are Sexy, Talented and Virtual” in The New York Times, November 25, 1996. Reality can be simulated, but it can also be made to turn out differently from how it did the first time. These “official virtual reality” software applications are informational machines, either for simulation or daydreamlike transformation.
2. An homunculus is a miniature body believed by some early medical theorists to be contained in spermatozoon, or a graphical projection on the cerebral cortex which depicts parts of the body under voluntary motoric control. In Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), the homunculus is a (former) quadriplegic who, in a post-apocalypse society, goes from a state of disability to one of hyperability (leapfrogging normal humans) after being equipped with special government-supplied prosthetics.
3. Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985; p. 449. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. The quotation is from McDougall, cited by Bukatman.
4. “Although I believe that eventually there will be programs that will re-create some elements of human intelligence, I don’t think it’s likely to happen in my lifetime… So far every prediction about major advances in artificial intelligence has proved to be overly optimistic… progress in artificial intelligence research is… incredibly slow.” Bill Gates, The Road Ahead. London: Penguin, 1996; pp. 289-290. Kelly describes the field of artificial intelligence as being “stillborn,” and having failed “to produce usefulness.” Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994; p. 453.
5. “What Would McLuhan Say?”, interview with Derrick de Kerckhove, in Wired, October 1996, p. 149.