Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.9: We Can Forget It For You Wholesale

Dagger Of The Mind

Star Trek Dagger Of The Mind

“Turn around dude, I am NAILING these moves!”

“How am I supposed to remember you
When you won’t let me forget?”

Barenaked Ladies, Leave

“Dagger of the Mind” is a story about the things that are just out of reach. The episode goes all in with making this fact unmissable, starting with the title. All metaphorical implications put aside, Macbeth’s “dagger of the mind” is basically an object he tries to grab it, but can’t touch. This is about how hard something can be to grasp, or to hold on to, and how much pain those failures can bring.

The River Lethe’s Taste Is Bitter

It isn’t just the title that clues us in to what the Enterprise’s visit to the penal colony is all about. The use of names as signifiers is everywhere here. They’re even deployed as alternatives to exposition, which is fun. Consider for example that Dr Adams never actually explains what he’s attempting to do on Tantalus, or why he rearranged Van Gelder’s synapses. Because it doesn’t have to. We don’t need his confession. All we need is the names.

Adams plans to be the father of a new mankind. A reforged humanity free of all those unpleasant negative emotions that make life so trying. In Adams’ new order, everyone will be calm. Everyone will be able to tell each other how much they are enjoying the tasks Adams has selected for them. All that complicated, messy, painful past everyone was once forced to drag along behind them will finally be cut free. It will be rendered powerless by being rendered inaccessible. Adams has finally found a way to snatch the apple of self-knowledge from the race of man, and hurl it back into its accursed tree.

And because he’s so proud of what he’s doing, even the badges sewn onto the breasts of his staff make his goal clear. Under their tender administrations, these patients will finally be able to grasp peace, rather than watch it forever flit just out of reach. Everyone will finally be able to enjoy their day in the sun, a day that promises to never end.

There’s another way to interpret the badge, though. Perhaps it’s Adams himself who is preventing his patients from grabbing onto peace. Because how can you be at peace with yourself when you don’t know who you are? Maybe everyone in Adams’ care is just hopelessly grasping at the chance of relief as it spirals upward towards the sunburst.

Not that it actually is a sunburst. It’s the machine. The terrifying jellyfish god that squats immobile above the colony’s residents, raking its tentacles across their brains, sinking its barbs into their memories and wrenching them upwards to feed itself.

This horrifying tale of something necessary being kept permanently just out of reach by a cruel god is exactly what we’d expect from a man who has named his planet Tantalus. Adams isn’t erasing memories, simply attaching agonising pain to the act of recalling them. The harder you try to grasp them, the more pain there is. The more pain there is, the harder it is to concentrate, and the further the recollection moves from your reach. Like Tantalus, wracked with hunger and forever grabbing at fruit that keeps moving beyond away from him each time he reaches out, Adams’ victims can never acquire what they need. Whilst Tantalus is denied food, however, those subjected to the machine are denied their very identity.

At this point the myth becomes inverted. Tantalus is denied water as well as food; he stands in a pool that somehow eludes him every time he tries to take a drink. Adams’ victims have the opposite problem. They stand not in a pool of twisting, tantalising water, but the very river Lethe itself. Whilst Tantalus cannot drink, the residents of Adams’ facility are forced to do nothing but. Tantalus is condemned to become ever more parched, but Lethe and those like her are forced to endlessly drown.

What’s truly disturbing about Adams is the degree to which he thinks this a good idea. In The Aeneid, Virgil writes that the dead must drink from the Lethe in order to be reincarnated; that there can be no new life before the old life is forgotten. Adams seems to have repurposed this legend not just into a philosophy for psychiatric treatment – hence the stilted, exhausted blankness of Lethe – but a desirable end-state for all humanity, hence his conditioning of first Van Gelder and then Kirk.

Whatever else it is, you have to admit this is a bold plan. Adams is thinking big here. Which leads us back to the title of the episode. In Macbeth, the dagger represents both ambition – a fever brought about by one’s need for more – and the danger that accompanies ambition. Adams is similarly driven by a need for the big chair, but is taking a very different route to his goal. Macbeth attempted to acquire power by changing the titles people knew him by, gathering influence through social contract. Adams has chosen the rather more direct approach of changing the people themselves. By doing this though, he removes the humanity of everyone around him, which makes it rather fitting that he ultimately dies of loneliness. There’s simply no-one left to realise they need to intervene and save him. He’s taught them all to believe that this is simply what is supposed to happen to people. Like Macbeth, Adams sews the seeds of his own downfall.  In the end, his mind becomes as hollow as his ambition.

“I NEED My Pain”

This classical cast to Adams’ actions and character is important to tease out, because in the absence of a coherent explanation of what’s actually going on, the episode risks implying that those who want to improve the living conditions of prisoners are at best people with a hidden agenda, and at worst criminals themselves.

In fact, even with the various classical references flying around here, this is a potential problem that needs careful consideration. It’s uncomfortable as hell watching Kirk being placed in opposition to both his medical and scientific experts when insisting Adams is on the level. And whilst I couldn’t be much further from an expert in the field of psychological treatment of the “criminally insane”, it isn’t clear to me it’s a good idea to imply people with mental health issues shouldn’t have their painful memories removed or blocked somehow..

There’s not much more to be done with that possibility other than to note it, though. As I say, I’m not qualified to dig into it. Besides, it’s not hard to believe these are simply bum notes, implications that float to the surface through lack of care or specificity, rather than any actual reflection of Bar-David’s views. I think to the extent Bar-David is trying to make a point at all – as oppose to winding up a collection of classical references and seeing how they crash into each other – he’s nodding to the idea that you can’t remove people’s negative experiences and expect them to remain complete. Forcibly taking away a memory from someone, no matter how traumatic it is, constitutes a form of mutilation.

Here we enter more easily navigable territory, because in this reading the episode is frowning not upon rehabilitative therapy or the humane treatment of mentally ill criminals, but on approaches to therapy that are enforced rather than cooperative. It’s not the process that’s the issue, it’s the lack of consent. We can view Adams approach as a form of involuntary electroconvulsive therapy for the 23rd century. In particular, we might want to note that a common side effect of electroconvulsive therapy – which is a valid treatment approach in modern medicine, though of course only now performed with the informed consent of the patient – is memory loss.

It also seems relevant that the practice of electroconvulsive therapy became common in the 19th century (at least in Britain) in part because asylum doctors and psychiatrists were desperate for an approach to treating the mentally ill that couldn’t be replicated by laypeople. They needed a treatment only they could perform, so as to consolidate their professional position and ultimately enjoy a level of respect in society comparable to that enjoyed by medical doctors. I’m sure they genuinely hoped procedures using electricity would help their patients, but their desire to experiment was rooted in careerism, not compassion.

Which rather nicely answers the question I hadn’t actually got around to asking, namely what point there is in condemning involuntary electroconvulsion in the mid 1960s. The aim is actually more general, a warning that cupidity and vanity can pervert even those vocations that are supposed to centre on care for others. It’s a rather obvious and familiar point, and I remain a little uneasy about how easily an awareness of human fallibility can mutate into dangerous strains of anti-intellectualism. Still, the upshot of all this is that the episode’s subtext has enough to recommend it that we can keep on mucking about with names, and not worry something unpleasant is bubbling away in the background.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

So let’s get back to that, shall we? Because – and I make no apology for this one – Helen Noel’s name is an absolute gift.

Some disclaimers first. Like her colleague Dr Elizabeth Dehner before her, Dr Helen Noel does not get a great deal. In fact, things are maybe worse here, if only because it’s harder to put together a redemptive reading for her. “Dagger of the Mind” simply isn’t interested in her as a character at all. From the very moment we meet her we’re told what matters is how Kirk sees her (and I note with annoyance the implication he’ll risk stymying the career of his own crew if they have the misfortune to dance with him at a party once). Throughout the episode he brushes aside Noel’s expert insights because he doesn’t like what she’s telling him. When testing the machine’s ability to rewrite memory, we’re supposed to believe a trained psychiatrist with a background in rehabilitative therapy – someone indeed who specifically states she is familiar with roughly similar techniques – would have no idea of how to run a diagnostic on the technique beyond making someone believe their romantic encounter went further than it actually did. I don’t know much about the discipline of space-psychiatry, but that must be unethical as all hell. One could argue that the episode does at least make some amends in how pivotal Noel becomes to the plot when she enters stealth mode, but even this has its problems: when you belittle a woman’s intellectual achievements, arguing she can still be a badass doesn’t actually make up for it.

(I don’t even like how she quickly agrees to drop her own “Doctor” so as to not cause confusion. Surnames exist, Doctor; I’ve checked. As usual, of course, if any actual woman doctor wants to do this – and in nine years of academic employment I’ve never known any doctor of any gender do such a thing – then more power to ’em.)

In short, the treatment of Dr Noel is fairly terrible throughout. This all needed noting in any case, but I’m flagging it up here to make it as clear as possible that when I note Dr Helen Noel’s name roughly translates into “a Christmas beauty”, I am not making the same mistake as the episode. I know what’s important about her isn’t that she’s extremely attractive and Kirk met her at an Xmas bash. But the episode doesn’t, and so to explore what Dr Noel’s name suggests structurally means accepting arguendo the idea she should be considered in terms of what she means to Kirk.

Right. Backside hopefully covered, let’s get into this. Dr Helen Noel. The beauty at Christmas.

We’ll start with the easy bit. Calling someone “Noel” when her backstory prominently features a Christmas party might seem overly cute at the very least. The festive link is genuinely important, though. Things tend to go a little further at the Christmas party than they do the rest of the year, after all. Everyone’s blinded by tinsel or booze. If there’s any time in the year when a ship’s captain might get a little bit too close to an attractive crew-mate, Christmas is plausibly it.

This is something Kirk knows he can ill-afford. The legend of Helen of Troy is very clear on this matter: a desire aflame can get a captain and his crew killed. Homer might have focused on how Helen’s face launched ships and burned towers, but plenty of the ships burned too. Such warnings about the potentially fatal consequences of desire might be dismissed as dramatic licence, except that when you’ve fallen for someone on your own crew, a romance really could end up getting someone killed. If any part of Kirk’s reaction to Dr Noel can be forgiven, it’s because he’s clearly aware of this. He knows he’s attracted to Helen, he knows last Christmas he let that go further than he would generally allow, and he’s determined to minimise the ramifications of that slip-up. Since he can’t control his feelings, all that’s left is to control exposure

We’ve seen this side of Kirk before, back in “The Naked Time”. In that episode it was made very clear that under the surface the captain is helpless to escape an undertow of loneliness, but accepts that as an alternative to engaging romantically with any member of his crew. Back then it was Yeoman Rand (as it was supposed to be here) and now it’s Dr Noel, but the story is the same. Kirk needs to remain distant, and tends not to respond terribly well when circumstances make that impossible.

(This might be a nice time to recommend Erin Horáková’s exceptional article on Kirk’s utterly undeserved reputation as a chronic womaniser, by the way. “Dagger Of The Mind” quite clearly portrays Kirk as someone who views a round of tipsy flirting as a mortifying lapse in professionalism, not as a stepping stone to sexy times. In fact, it could hardly be more pertinent to Horáková’s article that this episode suggests remembering Kirk as anything else is evidence of a faulty memory.)

All of which makes Adams’ rewriting of Kirk’s memories even more cruel. By ramping up the captain’s feelings for Dr Noel, Adams is plunging him into the exact situation he’s forced himself to stay out of all this time. Worse, Adams compels Kirk to fall in love with someone whose professional knowledge and ethics require that she refuse his advances precisely because of where and how they originated. This nicely torments Helen at the same time, of course, assuming she’s still into Kirk (and the memory-alteration experiment Adams overhears her performing most certainly suggests that she is). In addition, by supercharging Kirk’s romantic feelings for Dr Noel whilst simultaneously shutting down any way for them to be fulfilled, Adams is also injecting nitro into Kirk’s sense of loneliness and isolation.

That’s why Kirk has so little problem believing the machine can kill someone with loneliness. It’s been threatening to do him in for months. All Adams’ interference really amounts to is a redirection of the feelings that are already eating Kirk alive. And all that is melancholy enough, but what really gets me here is that there’s no suggestion Kirk actually had the emotions Adams forced into his head removed. Indeed, his final words in the episode and the weight Shatner hangs upon them very much suggests the opposite. Our captain still remembers being helplessly in love with Dr Noel.

Obviously this sucks for Kirk in the extreme. How could anyone process being trapped with fierce unrequited feelings they can’t act on, and haven’t had time to acclimatise to? You can read this as simple acceleration, actually; a concentrated dose of the poison that was always going to seep into Kirk’s bloodstream eventually – sitting in the captain’s chair alone and frustrated and longing for what he can’t have, and with no-one around him that can help.

As episode endings go, you would struggle to find a more painful gut-punch. That said, there is something rather lovely in a TV show reminding us the things we remember don’t have to have been real in order for them to have meaning. Fifty-one posts into a series revealing how unreliable my childhood memories of Trek are, I could hardly take the contrary position. I’d also point out that as someone with chronic depression, I am heartened by even an implicit message that a feeling doesn’t have to be in some narrow sense “real” for it to be close to unbearable.

In conclusion, this is an episode that explores sadness without ultimately dismissing it, which is a rare and valuable stance.  It may not lend itself to a pat conclusion, but in an episode that references multiple classical texts that don’t end well for the protagonists, perhaps staging this as a tragedy was the only way to go.

In fact, maybe this show was always a tragedy. Maybe anything else is simply our memory playing tricks.

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