On the perfectibility of man

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Suffering through the Star Trek: Discovery two part Terra Firma episode, I was reminded of something I read many, many years ago, and it struck me how long this particular anecdote has stayed in my mind. I haven’t been able to locate the exact quote, but I’m about 99% sure it came from Nicholas Meyer, the writer of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which is the movie credited with waking up the moribund franchise and getting it back on track.

The quote from Meyer had to do with the idea of the “perfectibility of man”, a concept championed by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry believed that humans, and their culture and civilizations were improving, or at least could be improved, and that the people (at least, the humans) in Star Trek were somehow more perfect that ourselves, being a bit farther along on the evolutionary path.

Meyer didn’t subscribe to this idea, and his argument was compelling. He believed that people are pretty much the same as they always have been. If that weren’t the case, he argued, the people of today wouldn’t understand the people we encounter in old stories. Yet we do understand the motivations of, say, Shakespearean characters, who are separated from us by roughly the same amount of time as we are separated from the time of Star Trek. If we can clearly understand the inner thoughts of people from four hundred years ago, why should we expect that people from four hundred years in the future would be so different? Is there any reason to expect that mankind’s perfectibility will somehow accelerate in the future?

As someone who grew up with Star Trek, I never really gave much thought to this idea of the perfectibility of man, mostly because I don’t think I really saw all that much evidence of it on the show. Kirk was always ready for a fight, and despite various characters’ insistence that there was no money in the future, there was still gold-pressed platinum and credits, and it’s sort of difficult to see how those things aren’t money. Sure, the Starfleet people we saw were noble role models for us, but they didn’t seem profoundly different.

Probably the biggest argument that people haven’t changed all that much would be the terrific dialog between Lilly and Picard in First Contact… the “Moby Dick” scene. The fact that Lilly so easily sees Picard’s motivations — and more importantly that we do as well– demonstrates that even Jean Luc, one of Starfleet’s best, still has a lot of our foibles.

I think I’ve been on Myers’ side of this argument from pretty much the time I heard him articulate it. Mankind is mankind, and it’s hard to see how we’ve improved as a race over time. That said, after watching Terra Firma, I’m wondering if maybe we could use Roddenberry’s “perfectibility” explanation to get out of some of the mess this show is in.

The worst person ever

Were she a real person, Empress Phillipa Georgiou would literally be the worst person ever.

I wrote once before about Phillipa Georgiou, the psychotic sociopath who was the absolute empress of the Terran Empire in the Mirror Universe, which apparently is a good resume builder for the Star Trek: Discovery version of Starfleet, because she basically joined Starfleet without missing a beat (within days, it seems, of attempting to blow up the planet Qo’nos). Genocidal, homicidal, sadistic, insubordinate … not a deal breaker if you want to be in this new version of Starfleet. Think now of the worst person you remember from world history and compare their record of crimes to that of Phillipa Georgiou, and you will find that, were she a real person, she would stand alone as literally the worst person ever.

(I’m about to talk about some of the events of Terra Firma, so be warned. Usually such things are termed “spoilers”, but if I tell you something that makes it less likely that you will watch this show, I can hardly be accused of spoiling anything!)

The crew of Discovery, though, incredibly, have infinite patience and compassion for Georgiou. Michael Burnham, in particular, goes to the ends of the Earth, and beyond, to try to redeem Georgiou, because she reminds Michael of “her” Phillipa, although they do not seem to have anything in common except that they both look a great deal like Michelle Yeoh. When Georgiou leaves the ship at the end of the two-part episode, the crew –to a man– seems genuinely sad to see her go. This amazes me.

And it’s because the crew seems to be saddened that Georgiou is gone that suggests that maybe these Discovery people are somehow better than we present-day humans are. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near that psychopath, let alone drink a toast to her after she’s gone. Yet, one thing that is driven home in Terra Firma, embodied mostly by Mirror Burnham, is that Terrans are just plain awful people by our standards. If that’s the case, then you can argue that it’s really not Georgiou’s fault that she’s literally the worst person living in the Prime Dimension. Maybe the crew of Discovery recognize that, and are ready to accept her the way she is, even when she insults them, assaults them, and would just as soon murder every last one of them as say “hello”.

Finally, maybe we’re seeing Roddenberry’s perfectible people. If so, they are a wonder. The only problem I have now is that I don’t understand them.

(extra credit: I made a feeble attempt to count the number of people directly and indirectly murdered by Georgiou, but was unable. If anyone can supply a reliable figure, I’d be very interested to know what it is. Thanks!)

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