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  • Ric Crossman

2.1.12 "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?"

The Time Trap

A Phylosian, a Gorn, an Andorian, a Vulca and a human, among others, relax at a soiree.
All tomorrow's parties.

What does it mean to be removed from reality?

Strange Geometries

Let’s start by discussing this literally. The Delta Triangle strikes me as a terrible idea, at least in its specifics. Sure, it’s clear which alleged phenomenon it’s named after, but calling something a triangle only actually works in the basically two-dimensional world of planetary maps. I guess given aircraft have gone missing over the years we should technically talk about the Bermuda Triangular Prism (or even pyramid – get the Illuminati involved), but within a planetary atmosphere the idea of defining an area through three pairs of co-ordinates still basically makes sense. Trying to define a volume of space in the same way seems ridiculous.

Even that though, doesn’t bother me too much – the ship’s sensors demonstrates the Delta Triangle looks like a triangle from at least one angle, and if everyone from the Federation approaches the phenomenon from more or less the same direction (what with it apparently being in the Neutral Zone), you can see how the name might stick. Plus, as exceptional Trek writer Alina Marsfelder says over at her own place, triangles are intimately connected with strange goings on, making their use here a powerful signifier, geometry be damned. Really, what’s really bugging me is the fact delta is itself a word for a three-sided shape. The Enterprise is investigating a place called the Triangle Triangle.

(Mind you, I come from a town within walking distance of Odin’s Hill Hill, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.)

A foolish name can be attached to a great idea, naturally. Newcastle Brown. Doggy-style. Star Trek. The visuals of the vessel graveyard themselves make me delighted this episode exists. I’ve always been an unrepentant fan of starship porn, and it turns out starship hentai works for me just as well. The sheer amount of imagination on display here is completely fantastic. I count (YES I COUNTED) at least forty star ships in the pocket universe, most if not all of them new designs. We’ve talked before about what this show should be doing with its ability to represent anything it likes onscreen, and for me at least this certainly qualifies.

Side-Seat Ship-Saving

Nobody thinks the purpose of a pocket is to have a pretty internal lining, though. What does the show actually find by reaching in here?

At first glance, it’s not clear the answer to that question will be particularly satisfying. In a lot of ways, it seems our heroes have tumbled into a simplistic morality play on the importance of cooperation. The pocket universe both relies upon such activity and requires it as a basic principle, and it’s by replicating this approach that the Enterprise and the Klothos returns home. Kor is after more, of course, a secret goal to not just end his cooperation with Kirk but to destroy his vessel. Obviously, this has to fail, but the specifics here are again interesting. It’s not anyone among our heroes who discovers the Klingon bomb, they survive only because of Xerius’ message. In short, the Enterprise is saved by a Romulan. Someone who in another reality might well have been entirely happy to see a Starfleet vessel explode instead saves one from destruction.

We’ll return to this line of thought later, but for now I want to discuss the structural implications. Having Xerius be the one to save the day does cause some minor issues. I’m not, to be clear, talking about the fact the main characters end up bystanders to their own salvation. It’s perfectly reasonable for heroes to end up owing their lives to a lucky break or outside assistance from time to time. In this particular case, though, that choice sits uncomfortably against Spock’s subplot of first discovering and then investigating Kor’s planned double-cross. It looks as though Spock’s deliberately over-stated accommodation is being set up as luring the Klingons into complacency and/or supplying sufficient rope for a later hanging. Instead, the whole subplot is totally dropped, meaning all Spock achieves is to make the Klingons even more suspicious. It’s not even that he fails. It’s that the episode stops caring about the fact he was trying.

This isn’t the only seemingly odd choice in the episode. Devna’s explanation of the punishment for violence, for instance – both crews will be isolated for a century – seems an entirely obvious example of Chekov’s Gun. It also seems to be setting up a familiar form of Trek story, in which our protagonists fall foul of a culture’s unusually-focused and horribly harsh laws – we already saw this in “Justice”, but the first Original Series example that springs to mind is “A Taste Of Armageddon”, which we’ll get to in May. Certainly, the Eylsian’s rule is ridiculous enough to qualify for an episode along those lines – especially since the council has a literal mind-reader who could determine which party was most at fault, and since punishing an entire ship’s crew for the crime of having a captain who couldn’t stop a punch-up in time is transparently unreasonable.

Instead, though, this rule doesn’t come up again until just three minutes before the episode’s end. Even then, it’s immediately abandoned because Kirk asks it to be (surprising Xerius, who’s astonished Kirk doesn’t want Kor’s ship isolated for a century over his doctor getting shoved at a dance). So that’s one subplot that goes nowhere, and one that’s set-up and then ignored past the point where it can actually be usefully resolved. These choices are particularly baffling considering the ease with which they could have been combined, and thereby strengthened. Just have Spock catch the Klingons planting a bomb, let a scuffle break out, and presto! Both ships face isolation. That would allow Kirk the opportunity to point out a culture that prides itself on cooperation whilst practicing collective punishment needs to sit down and have a stern word with itself.

These are surprising choices, to say the least. Next to them, it’s almost not worth noting the fact Kor gets away unpunished following his attempted destruction of the Enterprise.

Regular readers will know what happens next in this post, I’m sure. Standard IDFC protocol when faced with such apparent structural weaknesses is to search for a reading which actually turns them into strengths.

So let’s give that a go. Let’s see how far we can improve matters by focusing on what’s clearly the episode’s main theme: cooperation between cultures. More specifically, the reasons why humanity in general so utterly sucks at it.

King’s Gambit

In 1991, Rodney King was driving through the San Fernando Valley with two friends. He’d had a little too much to drink; maybe that’s why he was driving over the speed limit. When a police car started following him, he panicked, which led to a chase. Eventually, though, King was pulled over, to find himself surrounded by cops.

Those same cops later testified they believed King might have been armed (he wasn’t) and/or that he might have been on PCP (he wasn’t). So they hit him with their tasers. Twice. At this point two things happened. First, King made his move, either to escape (as he claimed) or to attack one of the cops (as they insisted). Second, George Holliday began filming the situation from a nearby balcony, just in time to catch the cops variously stand on King’s back, deliver six kicks to his body, and hit him an astonishing thirty-three times with their batons.

The videotape became a media sensation. It was therefore unusually easy to bring the original four cops to trial on the charge of using excessive force. Furthermore, despite some news stations electing not to broadcast the most damning moments of the footage, much of America and beyond had been able to see for themselves how completely and unquestionably the indicted cops had brutally beaten an unarmed and helpless man.

Not one of the four was found guilty.

Did I mention Rodney King was black?

The verdict was stunning – even President George Bush Senior weighed in on how impossible it was to square Holliday’s video with the jury’s decision – but for many, it was also entirely unsurprising. A jury that had been five-sixths white, and contained not one black person, had watched an unarmed black man savagely set upon by four white cops with clubs to the point where he had suffered skull fractures and permanent brain damage (among other injuries), and decided that wasn’t a level of force they considered “excessive”. The verdict was so nakedly unacceptable that it sparked six days of riots across Los Angeles, ultimately costing sixty-three people their lives.

Two days into the riots, Rodney King himself appeared on television, asking for calm. “Can we all get along?” he asked. “Can we, can we get along?”

A fair question. Perhaps fairer still, once the endless imperfect copying process of society moulded it into “Can’t we all just get along?” King’s original question was a plea for peace in a specific instance. What it then evolved into feels like something else – a demand to know why mutual understanding and respect seems so incredibly difficult in general.

I think “The Time Trap” gestures towards one answer. It’s easy to miss this fact, because it does it with much more subtlety than, say, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. Perhaps I’ll get around to discussing that episode in a few decades’ time, but for now just let me note how simple its message was. Racism Is Bad. Which, yes, but that doesn’t exactly get us very far, does it? If you want to critique racism, you can’t just label it as noxious and nonsensical. You need to dig into how it survives despite that fact.

There’s not one explanation to point at. There are a lot of reasons why we can’t seem to shake racism as a society. I don’t want anyone to think that because “The Time Trap” let’s me discuss one of them that I don’t believe any others exist. And as always with any post not getting pointlessly het up about Trek’s use of maths, I’m not claiming any actual authority here. With that said, then, let’s get into the point this episode is making; the answer it provides to the centuries-old question King found it necessary to ask anew 18 years after this story aired. Why can’t we all just get along?

It’s because our society is deliberately structured to make sure we can’t.

One of the baseline assumptions of the system we all find ourselves trapped in is that competition is not only necessary, but good. Competition, the story goes, motivates people to work harder, in order to do better. If we weren’t being pitted against each other, we’d have no reason to get anything done. To say this isn’t actually necessarily true is an understatement so vast Mo Farrah would think twice about trying to run across it, but never mind. Even taken at face value, the problem with setting up a society based on competition is that it requires the competition has both winners and losers. There has to be someone bringing up the rear of the rat race.

Even this isn’t automatically appalling – even Marxism allows for the fact that some people might end up doing better than others, it’s the definition, methodology and scale of “doing better” that’s different, is all (“all”). What turns this from a potentially concerning set-up into a transparently terrible one is the two gigantic fallacies that dominate every other aspect of the system. The first is that if you punish those people losing the race for the fact they are losing, you will somehow end up with more winners. This is roughly equivalent to arguing that if you shot whoever came last in the Olympic 100m sprint, there would be more medals handed out at the end of the event. The second great lie is a classic inversion of causation: we’re told that because more work equals more success (which is true only insofar as most jobs pay more when you work more hours), enjoying more success than someone else MUST mean you worked harder than they did. That’s like insisting that cheetahs must train harder than Usain Bolt. Somehow, though, millions of people are convinced that when this thinking is applied to money, it simply must be true.

These two fallacies, operating in concert, end up causing colossal damage. The first leads people to insist the best way to deal with poverty is to punish the poor so they won’t want to be poor anymore. The second insists that the ridiculously wealthy must deserve that wealth. The poor deserve to be unhappy and the rich deserve to be gloriously and endless pampered. The competition doesn’t even get run anymore, much of the time. It’s just name-checked as the reason why such extreme, ludicrous, horrifying inequality exists. The people furthest ahead must have run faster. Stands to reason. As a result, the stated goal of using competition to ensure hard work becomes perverted – the cart pulling its terrified horses downhill towards the cliff-edge.

How does this tie in with racism? Well, once you’ve committed to the idea that neither success nor failure can ever be undeserved, an unavoidable corollary is that anyone who finds themselves economically disadvantaged as a group (say, black people in America) must be deserving of that disadvantage as a group. If the playing field isn’t level, it can only because some people chose to dig ditches for themselves and those like them to sit in, instead of, y’know, doing any actual work. So if you find yourself disadvantaged by prejudice, then the system will reinforce that same prejudice in order to justify your disadvantage – indeed the first fallacy leads to the conclusion that bigotry is itself a form of moral corrective, a punishment offered only so as to help the punished.

Like so much else in our set-up, it’s all a vicious cycle, emphasis heavily on vicious. There are only two alternatives: either racism can’t be completely irrational, or our system is structurally unfair, the termites so deep in the framework there is no possibility of repair. Enough people are terrified enough of the latter possibility (despite its obvious truth) that they leave themselves no choice but to sign up to the former.

As I say, this isn’t intended as a complete explanation for why racism exists. You’ll find no class reductionism here. The way our economic system relies on racism does not mean any anti-racist action not focussed on combating that economic system is a distraction. None of that changes the utility of racism in protecting our system goes a long way to explaining why bigotry remains as pervasive as it does. Put another way: I'm happy to believe ending capitalism isn't a sufficient condition for ending racism. It's certainly a necessary condition, though.

Back to “The Time Trap” at last, then. I asked at the top of this post what it means to be removed from reality. This story gives us one answer, and it’s a supremely compelling one. Being removed from reality means no longer having to play by the rules that reality forced upon you.

“This Could Be Heaven For Everyone”

The central thesis of the episode is an absolutely wonderful one: radically different and even previously warring cultures will find common ground and mutual understanding once removed from the context of those cultures. Once they are no longer part of a system that requires they compete against each other (often to the point of open warfare), there’s nothing to stop people from colossally different backgrounds and outlooks from peacefully cooperating. This is made immediately clear simply through the make-up of the Elysian council. There’s a human and a Klingon, of course, but also a Gorn (who recently annihilated a Federation colony), a Romulan (the other side on one of the most devastating wars the Federation ever fought), and a Phylosian (last seen preparing an enormous fleet with which to conquer the galaxy). There’s even what looks like a prototype Kzinti, who’ll show up in two episodes to cause trouble. Elysia, it appears, is a heaven in which everyone is quite capable of getting along.

Kirk and Kor stand before the Elysian Council.
"These people rule an entire reality, Kor; don't slouch."

This needs a little fleshing out. After all, can Elysia really be a model of enlightened collaboration? Isn’t there a punishment for those that don’t toe the line? Didn’t Devra specify that the species making up their society have learned to get along “because they must”? Aren’t the ruling council forcing cooperation on others through the threat of temporary banishment?

All of these are sensible objections, but ultimately, none of them stand up. Yes, Devra says Elysia’s set-up is born of necessity, rather than philosophy. Crucially, though, she says that to Kirk and Kor, two newcomers from (cold) warring races. What reason do we have to believe she’s telling the truth? The council are surely aware new arrivals might not be ready to hear the whole story. Not after decades of being fed a lie from every direction and in every waking moment. Perhaps Devra frames Elysia as an alliance of necessity because she believes Kirk and Kor can’t yet comprehend it as anything else. And it’s not like there’s a pressing need to offer up the whole skinny. The council can afford to wait until the Enterprise and Klothos crews are ready for the full orientation. No-one, so far as they know, is going anywhere. They can let their latest recruits start to deprogram themselves.

I have absolutely no doubt that Devra is being economical with the truth here. If nothing else, when you can isolate a ship for a century without killing those on board, it seems pretty clear that inter-vessel cooperation is actually not necessary in the slightest. The Elysians don’t work together because they have to, they work together because that’s the best way to behave. They cooperate because people tend to cooperate when they’re not being compelled by those above them to compete instead. Devna knows Kirk and Kor aren’t ready to hear this, though. So she misleads them, secure in the knowledge that there is plenty of time for them to hear the truth.

And Devna’s assumption that the truth needs to wait is far from unreasonable. McCoy’s reaction here to the suggestion of cooperating with the Klingons amply demonstrates that. This is why Xerius is so blindsided by Kirk’s arguments at the end of the episode – he’s seen too many newcomers weighed down by their cultural programming. He’s seen too many who would happily sacrifice their own freedoms if they believe those they’re taught to hate will lose even more.

(This, by the way, argues against Marsfelder’s reading that Elysia is appallingly authoritarian and therefore unacceptable as a utopia. That strikes me as too great a leap from the simple existence of a presiding council (one so egalitarian as to argue against any kind of ruling class), which apparently has exactly one law. Especially considering that one law gets immediately waived the instant those it’s applied to argue it’s unfair in the current instance. Whatever trappings of authoritarianism the council offer up are smoke and mirrors. This might be a cynical way to treat new arrivals – pretend to be as crappy as the galaxy they came from until the newcomers are settled in – but what it isn’t is authoritarian. Or at least, if we allow the definition of authoritarian to be broadened to the point it means “any kind of threatened consequence for violence against one’s neighbour”, then it becomes essentially useless as a term.)

Kirk and crew eventually prove themselves, however. They may struggle to trust the Klingons, but they find a way to work around that mistrust. They can cooperate in this reality with a crew that tried to kill them in the last one. The Klingons, on the other hand, clearly can’t. Alone in the entirety of Elysia, the crew of the IKS Klothos still want to play by the old rules, even though they risk their own escape in the process. Indeed, just consider for a moment how risky Kor’s plan is – attempting to plant a bomb on the one ship that can effect their escape whilst in a violence-intolerant society brimming with telepaths. The fact the plan almost works is rather ridiculous, actually, but the fact Kor attempts it is still instructive.

Perhaps, actually, this offers an explanation for Spock’s Klingon-buttering throughout the episode. What if his hyper-friendly accommodation of the Klingons isn’t about allaying suspicions, or gathering intel? What if he’s just teasing them? Gently mocking their failure to get with the program. Everyone else can manage this, lads; see how easy it is? We’ve all gotten on board except for you poor schlubs.

That’s a rather amusing idea. It’s also completely out of character for Spock. But then what are the limits on Vulcan behaviour that would prevent such mischief, but more examples of rules imposed by a reality that no longer has relevance? For everyone but the Klingons, of course – note the crude biological determinism (i.e. racism) of the Klingon reaction to Spock’s collegiality. They can’t stop playing the same old game, even with the rules of that game having evaporated.

(The removal of cultural pressures is also of relevance regarding Devna. The obvious – indeed, textually stated – exploitation inherent in Vina’s version of an Orion slave’s dance in “The Menagerie, Part 2” is now gone, with Devna being free to volunteer a performance. As a result, the dance itself isn’t seen, because Vina’s exploitation by the Talosians for the sake of Pike was mirrored by the show’s exploitation of Susan Oliver for the sake of the (presumed) predominantly straight male audience. This episode won’t be a party to anything similar.)

Having set all this up, the episode ends by playing its trump card, with Kirk insisting that who gets credit for their escape doesn’t matter. This works on the most obvious level; getting home matters far more than getting credit. But there’s a broader point here about the difference between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Now that both ships are headed back to their respective societies, who gets fêted matters far more to a Klingon captain than to a Federation one (especially since Starfleet won’t buy Kor’s story for a moment).

The punishment for Kor’s attempt to destroy the Enterprise isn’t just that he has to go back to a culture that taught him he had to risk his own life and those of his crew, just to try blowing up a ship that was trying to help them. It’s that he deserves having to do so. It’s a shame he remains as powerful as he does, but then that’s how it goes; the people who do the most to cause this world’s unpleasantness always seem to be the ones least touched by it.

Maybe this won’t be true forever, though. Elysia is the name we give to a reality in which no-one need suffer. The time-trap is the end of history. A vision of the future tucked inside a vision of the future. A place where Rodney King finally gets the answer he wanted.

So we have destination at last, somewhere to walk to once we are free of our chains. All that remains now is to mount our escape. And how?

Through cooperation.


1. The Time Trap

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