Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.8: Original Sin

The Magicks Of Megas-Tu

Star Trek Magicks Of Megas-Tu

“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pink moonlight?”

 

“The Magicks Of Megas-Tu” an onion story. Every time you peel a layer off, you find another one beneath it. Let’s respect that, then, and dig our way down. The most immediate thing to strike me about this episode is how its central reveal is both beautifully structured and rather brave.

“Hope You Guess My Name”

It is of course entirely obvious who Lucien is from the very beginning. Even if he didn’t look just like the most cliche image of the Devil possible, the first recognisable place to which he brings Kirk, McCoy and Spock is a idyllic, blooming garden, where he offers up apples.

Star Trek Magicks Of Megas-Tu 2

Subtle

Then, as if unsatisfied with how thickly this is being laid on, the episode reaches for a soup-ladle by naming another Megan “Asmodeus”, AKA this lovely chap from book of Tobit:

Star Trek Magicks Of Megas-Tu 3

I hope that snake is his arm.

In other words, the arrow that this episode has pointed towards Lucien is the size of the Enterprise’s yearly service bill, and has the word “LUCIFER” emblazoned across it in neon lights. “Sympathy for the Devil” squawks from a speaker suspended beneath. It’s so unmissable you begin to wonder how Kirk and co. have somehow managed to, you know, miss it. You start fearing this is going to be one of those frustrating episodes where you have to wait for the characters to catch up with what has been clear to you since the beginning.

And then we hit the big reveal, and it’s brilliant. It turns out the secret the episode has been keeping isn’t that Lucien is Lucifer, it’s that Kirk doesn’t care that Lucien is Lucifer. It’s not even that it never occurred to our captain to make the link (which in itself would be a positive comment on the 23rd century mindset), it’s that even when that link is confirmed, he simply doesn’t care. “We’re not interested in legend,” he tells Asmodeus. This was never about who Lucien is, but who Kirk is.

There is real power in Kirk’s pronouncement. This, let’s remember, is a sequel to a series that regularly presented Christian metaphors to its audience in packaging closer to cellophane than wrapping paper, even when they had nothing to do with the story in question (I’m looking at you, “Bread and Circuses”). The idea that the actual literal Devil could be found rollicking at galactic center and Kirk simply not care would have been almost unimaginable as a story development just four years earlier.

It’s also a brave choice for American television. It’s one thing to be deliberately fuzzy on the status of your country’s dominant religion in your imagined perfect future. It’s quite another to state that your hero considers the story of Lucifer to be a “legend” even once he knows the entity himself exists. It’s worth noting at this point that the American Family Association found a hundred thousand people to sign a petition to stop Fox airing the “Lucifer” TV show in 2015. Showing Kirk risk his life (or believe he’s risking it) in order to save Lucifer from being exiled – literally the fate God is said to have handed down to him – because he doesn’t care what people say he’s done is flatly extraordinary. The episode is entirely behind him, too, offering no push-back to Asmodeus’ claim his people got their reputation as demons and warlocks purely because powerful men were furious the Megans wouldn’t work magic on their behalf. In this version of the Lucifer myth, the problem lies not with the Lightbringer himself, but with us. Basically, Lucifer got himself exiled by a bunch of bitter, jealous racists who didn’t want anyone who was different living on their land. Not unless they could be exploited, anyway.

(This link between Lucifer and racism has been the focus of a great deal of scholarship, by the way. Tabish Khair, for instance, writes in The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness: Ghosts from Elsewhere that one of the most common descriptions of the devil and his demons during the Middle Ages was that they looked like Ethiopian men.)

You Can’t Spell “Salem” Without “Males”

It’s this revelation that grants the “demons” of Megas-Tu the right to judge us, rather than the other way round. This is an absolutely lovely reversal – frankly I like this approach to interrogating mankind even more than Q’s courtroom in “Encounter at Farpoint”. Which rather makes it a shame this judgement is framed as re-staging of the Salem Witch Trials. I mean, quite obviously the victims of that appalling stampede to rid a town of its undesirables under a cloak of religious virtue deserve some payback. An actual trial where they got to sentence the authorities who condemned them would be the most delicious form of cosmic justice. Even something like this, where the victims are putting humanity in general in the dock doesn’t bother me. Theories regarding hallucinogenic wheat notwithstanding, the prejudices and pressures that exploded into hysterical violence in New England were hardly unique to that time and place.

My problem stems from the fact that by making those persecuted in the witch trials actual magic users, the stinking winds of religious, political, and class-based bigotry that blew through Salem are entirely ignored. Framed this way, the witch trials stop being a case study in how lives can be ruined when the authorities allow prejudice to count as evidence. Instead you get a significantly less interesting tale about how that evidence was, like, totally there, but maybe the witches were nice and should have been left alone. The story becomes about how anti-witchcraft laws weren’t fair on witches, rather than about how a law banning something impossible somehow still provided an excuse for the settling of scores, the purging of undesirables, and the violent repression of women. Don’t get me wrong; there’s quite clearly a need for stories that criticise laws written to legalise bigotry. Basing one around Salem strikes me as a mistake, though. If we erase the identities of the women, and the black people, and the poor people, and those with lifestyles outside the appallingly narrow boundaries of what Puritan society deemed acceptable by imagining that what got them accused was the fact they were actual witches, we do them a gross disservice. We fail in our responsibility to understand and learn from what happened at the end of the 17th century. And honestly? It’s also just kind of a boring cliche which we might be better off putting to bed for a while.

As much as I’d rather the trial was set somewhere else, though, the basic idea of it very much stands up. I particularly love how Asmodeus fakes the desire to exile Lucien to see how Kirk reacts. He states this is to check the historical records aboard the Enterprise are not a “ruse”, but I suspect this goes a little deeper, into the next strata of the onion.  Asmodeus wants to check that humanity has truly learned from its mistakes, rather than simply having recognised them. Because they’re not the same thing. It’s one thing to realise a witch-hunt centuries in the past should never have happened. It’s quite another to recognise a similar situation whilst it’s actually going on, and to do something about it. How many people who cried when they saw Schindler’s List also think they’d be safer if we emptied the country of Muslims? Kirk here isn’t just being tested to see if he realises Salem was a horror-show. He’s being asked to actively risk his own life to defend someone being threatened with a grotesquely harsh punishment right now, despite that person being linked to his culture’s traditional definition of evil.

And Kirk goes for it completely. Where so many might sympathise with Lucian but not dare act, and so many more be happy to see him exiled and get angry when anyone suggested they’d failed to learn the lessons of Salem (like those people who got furious every time someone suggests The Crucible satirises McCarthyism, for instance), Kirk takes action. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he kicks off a magical duel against an entire damn planet of angry immortal warlocks because it’s the right thing to do. As a result, reconciliation between Earth and Megas-Tu becomes a possibility after millennia of suspicion and myth. Say… isn’t that just what Lucien was after to begin with? Doesn’t it seem like he got exactly what he wanted out of all this?

“The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled…”

Here we reach the onion’s most interesting layer. On first inspection, there’s plenty in this episode that simply makes no sense. The entire opening is totally devoid of reason. Whether or not matter is still being created at the centre of the universe isn’t something I’m qualified to comment upon, but since the Enterprise is heading for galactic centre, it doesn’t matter either way. Once there, they find their theory is somehow correct despite them being in entirely the wrong place, and then Kirk manages to fling the ship into a ship-killer reality storm – no safety protocols or space probes here – before announcing they need to head to the midpoint of the turbulence. As far as I can tell this too is ridiculous, since a) the most violent storms in a cyclone are immediately around the eye, and Enterprise would have had to push through them to get to “safety”, b) the eye of a storm is actually more dangerous for ships than most other areas of a cyclone because of cross currents, and c) eyes are what the convection currents begin to swirl around in a weather pattern, not the central point of a flow of matter out into space. Kirk’s plan is akin to being splashed as you turn on your shower and deciding the only way to dry off is to stand directly under the shower head. Then we learn that when life support fails on a starship, everyone starts gasping for breath immediately, and somehow everything becomes stupider still.

All of this is so relentlessly, obviously ridiculous that it’s hard to believe anyone could have got it all so wrong accidentally. And of course we don’t have to believe that. Not where Lucien is concerned. Our Megan ambassador is quite explicit here; he and his people have a concept and grasp of science which to humanity can only be described as magic. Put another way, he can bend what we consider to be the rules of physics to suit himself. If he needs a starship to reach the centre of the galaxy, head into an entirely unknown realm for the most spurious of reasons, and suddenly find themselves in immediate need of rescue, there is no reason to doubt his ability to make that happen. The woefully inaccurate science here isn’t evidence of ignorance, it’s a clue to what’s really going on.

Why does Lucien want the Enterprise to visit, then? I don’t think he’s lying about being lonely and wanting to hang out with humans again, actually. That’s only part of what’s going on here, though. Or rather, it is actually a fairly complete summary of Lucien’s motives. It’s just that those motives have led to him committing to a much more grandiose plan than he lets anyone in on. Lucien has summoned the Enterprise to bring his people’s isolationism to an end. He can’t come out and say that, obviously. The Megans need to believe they’ve come to the conclusion themselves. They have to believe humanity has wandered into their space of their own accord, and they have to decide this is something that, ultimately, they will permit. What this means in practice is that the Megans have to discover the humans, they cannot be revealed by Lucien himself.

Not explicitly, at least. It seems clear that in fact Lucien does reveal the humans, it’s just he covers his tracks by quietly maneuvering them into revealing themselves. After all, if Lucien really had wanted the humans to remain undetected, surely he would have warned them of the dangers of trying their own hands at magic before his fellow Megans took note of what was going on. Instead, he says nothing of the kind. Instead, he puts three ideas into our heroes’ heads as he shows them the wonders of Megas-Tu: 1) the importance of play, 2) the use of sorcery to create whatever one needs, and 3) the Megan surfeit of implausibly attractive women. Recreation plus replication plus sex.  And so it takes all of about two minutes back on Enterprise before Sulu decides to try and create a gorgeous woman of his own to enjoy, and thereby alerts the Megans. This is what Lucien pretends he wanted to avoid, but by tempting humanity with infinite power (immediately after his Garden of Eden routine, of course; because he can’t help but show off) and not bothering to warn them of the consequences of using it, the result is inevitable.

So Lucien gets what he wants, a trial of humanity he has bet on leading to our exoneration. Doubtless he’s been keeping tabs on us for centuries, waiting until we reach a level of enlightenment in which we can pass muster from Asmodeus’ perspective. He knew the right time to warp reality to the point a starship could appear in orbit around Megas-Tu. Lucien probably also has some idea of the form Asmodeus’ trial will take, too – they’ve known each other for millennia after all, and tricks are Lucien’s forte. That means he can stack the deck ahead of time, maximising his chances of getting his desired result. First he saves the lives of everyone on the Enterprise (having endangered them in the first place, but he keeps everyone too off-balance to notice that) to place Kirk in his debt. Next, he discombobulates the captain upon first arriving on Megas-Tu, thereby reminding him of the importance of his fundamental being – which of course is of an honest and principled man.

It’s actually a brilliant scheme, and one that’s great fun to pull apart and figure out. If there’s a downside here, it’s that it risks reducing our heroes into pawns in someone else’s game. That said, doing something like this over the occasional twenty-two minute stretch probably isn’t too much of a problem. It’s also nice that the episode lampshades what it’s doing, with the very first thing Spock (previously described by NBC executives as looking too “Satanic”, of course) tries in order to test his magic powers is to move a chess piece without obvious contact.

Besides, while our heroes might be being manipulated here, Lucien’s entire plan still rests on the strength of character of James Kirk, and Kirk proves that this faith is not misplaced. The Federation has reached a level of enlightenment where even the literal Devil gets himself a second chance. As a result, a wrong millennia old is finally addressed, and those on the receiving end of that wrong allow that one day, they might be able to forgive. Humanity here takes one more step on the long, long road to redemption.

In other words, our resident Science Officer has it backwards, just as the Trickster intended. Spock believes that it was Kirk that saved Lucien. Far more likely, though, is that it is Lucien who has helped to save us.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

Ordering

1. The Magicks Of Megas-Tu
2. Miri

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