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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Star Trek ("All Our Yesterdays", 1969)

The future depicted in the Star Trek franchise is a depressing place for fans of libraries. Not only are there few books (either digital or analogue form), there is remarkably little text. It's a wonder the citizens of the Federation still know how to read in a galaxy of holodecks, tricorders and brightly-lit buttons.

The penultimate episode of the original series provides a neat example of this literary poverty. Kirk, Bones and Spock land on a planet whose sun, as sci-fi suns are prone to do, 'is about to go nova.' Mr Atoz (A to Z), the planet's only remaining resident, guards a library of 20,000 discs. An intransigent and distrustful librarian, Atoz has used the discs and 'the Atavachron' to send, without their consent, everyone else back into the past. Inevitably, in a hail of pink and yellow light, our three heroes accidentally get sent back in time too. Reversing the usual order, Kirk gets transported to a foppish version of Restoration England, while Spock and Bones end up sharing a prehistoric cavern with a glossy cave-girl. Following adventure and seduction, they return, and Scotty beams them out with seconds to spare.

A smug librarian, who has connived with a tyrant to imprison people in antiquity against their will, on a dying planet. A library that literally transports people back in time, as the last remaining room on a dying world. Not exactly a forward-thinking vision of libraries or librarians. Captain Picard, twenty-five years and many stardates later, causes bemusement on his Enterprise with his fondness for Shakespeare, Joyce and Conan Doyle. A renaissance man on a ship of fools - poor Jean-Luc!


  1. One could argue that using the facility on Sarpedion (in 'All Our Yesterdays') as a future analogue for contemporary libraries is flawed, primarily on the basis of its purpose being quite different to that of libraries today. Namely, it is instrumental to the continuation of Sarpedian life, where careful categorisation of 'the past' was necessary for the planet's inhabitants to choose the form of their 'future'. The archive served neither to store knowledge or protect it, since it would all have been destroyed in the subsequent nova.

    I think the following might be more worthy of analysis:
    TOS episodes//
    The Changeling - after Nomad, a 'misguided' probe wipes the memory of Lt. Uhura, she must relearn (and apparently succeeds in doing so) all the techniques necessary to the performance of her job (admittedly consisting of pressing on button on the bridge and repeating the same line to the captain) as well as 're-remember' her memories. The need for physical archives would be altogether unnecessary had the Federation such a facility at their disposal, which is very topical, given the contemporary ease of access to electronic storage media.

    Court Martial - When accused of a crime he obviously would never commit (as a recurring protagonist), Captain Kirk turns to Samuel T. Cogley for his defense, who uses 'old style "books"' for the purpose of obtaining precedence. Although in no way approaching the logical consistency and dramatic impressiveness of Data's trial in TNG's fantastic episode 'The Measures of a Man' or Picard's in the equally delightful 'Drumhead', its an amusing discussion of the value of books over computers, which again is a question we face today.

    The Lights of Zetar - The planetoid designated 'Memory Alpha' is introduced as the archive of the total cultural history and scientific knowledge of all planetary Federation members. An appealing concept for those librarians who lament the impossibility of ever having sufficient space to contain the unlimited and ever growing volume of human (and here: alien) knowledge. Unfortunately 'energy life-forms' burn out the complex's energy generators and cause the 'central brain' to die, not to mention every incumbent librarian to the last man (who die, rather poetically, of brain damage).

  2. TMP era movies//
    Star Trek The Motion(less) Picture - V'Ger, the human probe Voyager that entered a wormhole and was intercepted by a machine race who, considering it a (common) life-form (as opposed to the fleshy bags of mostly water that inhabit other space-faring machine 'lifeforms') rebuilt it as a kindred soul according to its primary objective: to 'know all that there is to know'. The vast and impressive vessel thus constructed proceeds to travel through the galaxy scanning everything that enters its vacinity (including unhappy Klingons and eventually a rather pretty bald girl from a planet of nymphomaniac telepaths), consuming them as it does so, leaving empty space in its wake. Every item 'consumed' into the data cloud are re-created in an pocket of space-time unbounded by dimensions and seen only by Spock as he venture into the beast seeking the reasons for its insatiable hunger and return to the planet earth. It is painfully apparent that this great travelling library, while the perfect archiver, has rather lost the ability to appreciate what it has consumed (frozen in time, 'dead' as they were are the moment of their meeting V'ger) especially insofar as it cannot relate to a concept of life so different from its own. So the library has become sentient acting on the ostensible information, but lacks the analytical and conceptual grounds by which it might expand beyond the mere collection of facts and numbers. Naturally it takes the crew of the Enterprise (who else?) to provide the final piece of the puzzle (at which point something rather irrelevant and not especially meaningful happens to [finally] draw the film to its end).

    Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country - arguably the best of the TMP era films, we discover a side to the Klingons (and other cultures) which we have never seen before. If you can take a moment to get around all the Shakespeare quotes, you're faced with the rather interesting notion that naturally pleasurable pieces of art (on which David Hume's Standards of Taste might elaborate) such as Shakespeare (let's exclude Hamelt for good old T S Elliot) have been morphed and mutated around the contexts of the cultures which have recorded them, regardless of origin. Of course, we all know that the original Shakespeare was written in Klingon (and there's no other way to read it goddamn) but so long as certain essential components are maintened (that 'objectively correlate' with our emotions) the value of each library is one and the same, differing only in the imperfections in the sensory organs (Hume). Japanese libraries might shun British interpretation of WWII, but a knowledgable and educated people (albeit reserved in their willingness to discuss openly sensitive matters) has nonetheless been so fruitful as to be the envy of the developed world.

    TNG episodes//
    All Good Things... - how fitting to end on the final and one of the most loved episodes of TNG, where Data holds the Lucasian Chair and has his own library in Cambridge University no less. Sci-fi loving librarians who pray to Gene Roddenberry and fear for their (distant) futures need not worry, because in the end it would seem that very little changes after all.

    The final paradox//
    It is ironic that well written Star Trek novels do not exist. Perhaps the writers realised that in a few hundred years either libraries would not exist, or their books would have been consumed/destroyed/stolen/altered by a strange alien creature (probably an 'energy lifeform' the likes of which we have never seen but could immediately identify by the peculiar twinkling sound that follows it around). The answer to this paradox I leave up to the reader...

    (Anon. St. Cath. College Undergrad)

  3. (Addendum: (Star Trek the Motion[less] Picture)- a la Flatland)

  4. In Deep Space Nine, Bashir and Garak traded e-books once a week and had their own book club. One of the better exchanges between them regarded a Cardassian scifi novel in which Cardassia fully conquered the Klingon empire.

    The character of Jake Sisko, son of the captain, becomes a journalist and novelist. In one episode, we see him in the future and his novel "Anslem" has become a classic bestseller. In another episode an alien who survives off the brainwaves beings emit when they enter an intensely creative mode, befriends Jake and eventually puts him into a hypnotic trance, where he writes his novel with actual ink and paper, novelties in the Star Trek future, which delight him. His father comments later that his novel has the makings of a classic.

    1. Thanks for the information Joe. I'll add it to the list of films and television shows to write up.