Sticking with the theme of kid’s behaviour, then…
Well, kind of. Eventually. First I want to talk about time travel. Ordinarily, I’d attach to this a health warning, or at least a recommended number of paragraphs to skip. Because while I find myself fascinated by the mechanics of time travel, at the same time (hah!) I realise that there’s almost nothing useful to say about it. It has no weight and no echo. It isn’t real, or an approximation to or metaphor for anything that is real. It tells us nothing about anything. You can use it to say something, obviously, but that doesn’t make the underlying – and entirely arbitrary – rules involved worth discussing, any more than you need to discuss the mythology of the Holy Grail to find Tim the Enchanter funny.
This principle holds even more here, with what is possibly the most gloriously lunatic time-travel set-up I’ve ever seen: Spock is fated to become involved in a predestination paradox to save his own life as a boy, but misses his chance to go back in time to fulfil his destiny because he’s busy on a Federation mission to observe the past somewhere else. As a result he returns to a time where he died as a child, and an Andorian is the Enterprise’s First Officer instead.
The continuity snarl is easily resolved, should you be so inclined – Commander Thelin was always fated to be second-in-command of the Enterprise for all of seven minutes. But the predetermined temporal-jigsaw theory doesn’t last the episode, with Spock somehow managing to take his predestined trip and alter history in a different way to how he’d planned to alter it. A non-predestined predestination paradox. Wrap your heads around that.
As fun as that is to kick about, though, it wouldn’t actually matter in any real sense were it not for Kirk talking about how responsible time-travelling means observation without interaction. And that wouldn’t matter, except that it’s clearly impossible.
Well, yes, of course it is. Well-spotted, Ric; you only made that point about two minutes ago. But this impossibility is impossible in a way we can do something with. First off, let’s remember that you can’t observe an environment without interacting with it. Heisenberg had that figured ages ago. Your eyes intercept light rays from elements of the environment that would otherwise have continued without you, striking other elements. You capture and process nearby oxygen molecules that otherwise would have knocked into other molecules, fractionally altering their course, and the courses of the molecules they hit, and so on. You can’t hope to avoid alteration. You can only hope the changes you make are ones that no one will notice.
That immediately generates a follow-up question: just who gets to decide what is noticeable?
At last I arrive at the pay-off. In general, time-travel rules are uninteresting, as I say; parcels of MacGuffin logic that tell us nothing. But there is a common and critical exception, something that forms a central pillar of countless tales that laugh contemptuously in the face of causality. It’s Time Travel Rule One, an invocation so powerful it can summon the First Doctor himself: “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”. To which the only sensible response is “Who died and made you Lord of Time?”
Whilst most narratives about time travel mechanics aren’t particularly useful, ones about Rule One are actively harmful. That First Doctor quote was directed at Barbara Wright, and I really wish he’d fired it at Ian Chesterton instead, because what the Doctor is basically invoking Chesterton’s Fence. I talked about this particular theory in IDFC 6.1.1, but if you missed it, the basic idea is simple: you should never attempt to make a change to society until you understand that society in its current form well enough to know how that change will play out. Otherwise in trying to make things better, you could make things even worse. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, as I argued before, probably not, because it sets the bar for pursuing equality unacceptably high. The suffragettes were told (amongst other things) that giving women the vote might lead to unexpected negative consequences and they should make sure that wasn’t going to happen before they asked for enfranchisement. The Civil Rights movement in America was told (amongst other things) that segregation had more or less kept the peace for around a century, and if they wanted to sweep that aside and replace it with something else they needed to make absolutely sure society wouldn’t suffer. The people who obviously deserved and needed equality were repeatedly told that the onus on them was to prove that those that had more than them wouldn’t have to give anything up in gaining that equality, otherwise things would just have to stay as they were.
This is why Rule One makes me uneasy. In insisting history must never be tampered with in case things get more even badly messed up than they were before, these tales imply that Chesterton’s Fence is unscaleable. That not only can we never understand the consequences of change and should never attempt it, that we actually have a duty to restore the status quo if we end up altering it by accident. How many time-travel stories can you think of where the past is altered by mistake and the future therefore gets better and everyone’s OK with it? Off the top of my head, all I can think of is Back to the Future, a story which is still entirely about how changing the future can have unforeseen negative consequences. And so, since any change might conceivably be for the worst, we’re informed that we’re all best off just all sitting quietly and letting things play out. And that’s quite obviously a terrible position to take the instant you apply it to the real world. The only use Chesterton’s Fence has is as a source of wood for flaming torches and pitchfork handles.
Which is why I love the ending of “Yesteryear” as much as I do, because it brings the “accidental beneficial change story” count to two. Somehow Spock’s predestined trip to the past goes awry and he creates a third timeline in which his beloved pet I-Chaya is bitten by a venomous animal, and needs to be put down to save it a long and painful passing. In helping his younger self come to terms with that fact and to understand the need to let the pet pass with dignity, Spock improves the boy’s life and therefore his own. And that’s fine. There doesn’t need to be any overwrought hand-wringing about damage to the time-stream or any of that rubbish. Things are better now, so Spock moves on, having basically invented Quantum Leap in the 1970s. He’s savvy enough to downplay the results of the changes when he sees Kirk again (I’m not entirely happy with how dismissive Kirk is of pets here, by the way, but maybe he never had one) so as to avoid his captain tearing his shirt and jumping back into the Guardian to wrestle the le-matya and save I-Chaya himself. But as his closing line demonstrates, he very much understands that he’s done good here, and there’s an end to it.
Spock’s decision to not go into detail regarding his experiences back home also ties into the general approach of the episode. “Yesteryear” seems to think it best that it’d be best to explore Vulcan and its culture without having Kirk along to give judgemental speeches about it all. That’s a pretty smart move in theory, and I’m sure Leonard Nimoy appreciated the extra focus on Spock. All that said, though – whew, boy! Somebody needs to tell the Vulcans how messed up things are down there.
Once again, those who want to hear about my issues with the Vulcan philosophy can skip back to IDFC 6.1.1. Instead of going over all that again, I want to dig into this idea of forcing children to undergo survival trials in a desert that’s home to powerful, venomous predators. This is apparently done so as to avoid the Vulcan race from becoming overly soft through their focus on intellectualism. Ironically though, there is simply no palatable way in which this endangerment of children can be considered logical. At the absolute best this is the ridiculous idea that intellectual and physical ability somehow act against each other taken to its most ludicrous extreme, the same nonsense spouted by my PE teachers at school about how forcing an asthmatic to run for two miles through muddy fields in winter was somehow “character building” (though a lifetime’s resentment does count as part of my character, I guess). At worst, this is genuinely fascistic thinking, tying into all sorts of horrible philosophies about it being best to weed out those who aren’t capable of surviving on their own. Do Vulcan multiple amputees get thrown into the desert? Those who have mobility issues? Those with intellectual disabilities? Hell, doesn’t Spock have an intellectual disability, at least as far as this clearly racist society is concerned?
Which brings us to the bullies. By all the Prophets, these are some unpleasant kids. Straight-up Vulcan analogues to white supremacists, complete with a bedrock hatred of miscegenation. Plus some flagrant doublethink, naturally – “we hate you because you do not lack emotions”. “Earther” might be a fictitious ethnic slur, but its intent is no less clear for that. And yes, these are children, who presumably haven’t fully mastered Surak’s teachings just yet, and so perhaps don’t quite yet understand why cruelty is illogical. I mean, Vulcan physiognomy notwithstanding they’re presented as younger even than Charlie Evans, and he couldn’t even grok the fact that murdering by the dozen wasn’t a great way to win friends and influence people. But Charlie grew up without support from lifeforms that could hope to understand him and offer him guidance on how to be a decent person. This trio of Vulcan bullies must have parents, or if not, guardians – surely it would illogical to leave them to fend for themselves before they’re old enough to be thrown into the wastelands and left to the le-matyas.
So where the hell are they whilst their kids are hurling racist abuse at one of their classmates?
Well, we know the answer to that, don’t we? Bigotry doesn’t just spring into being. It’s something you have to be taught. These kids are racists because the society they are growing up in is racist. Even the vet gives Spock crap about a lapse in discipline from years earlier. And yet when Spock’s own father sees what he’s going through, his concern is that his son responds to abuse obviously rooted in emotion with his own outpouring of feeling. He concludes the problem here is that his son figured racists need to be physically confronted. Sarek, alas, is part of the problem. I don’t have kids, but surely when your latest lecture has the effect of making your only child want to risk being eaten by wild animals sooner, you’ve pretty much failed as a parent.
All the more important then that Spock gets the chance to head back in time and make his younger self’s life a little better. It’s this that makes me love this episode so much. The depiction of Vulcan society is deeply concerning, but that makes Spock’s small acts of kindness within his own life all the more poignant. I wonder how many other childhood victims of bullies or of systemic injustice (the intersection there being pretty expansive, obviously) wish they could go back and lend themselves a helping hand, or even just the chance to learn that it can get better? And I wonder how much patience they would have with the idea that it was best they don’t, in case the alleviation of their actual suffering somehow caused hypothetical suffering among people who up to that point are having a whale of a time.
Set fire to Chesterton’s fence. Change everything you can for the better. If that ultimately ends up being only your own self, then that is always enough. And don’t feel bad about making waves. You can only cause enough ripples to upset those who want calm, dead seas if you’re very, very lucky.
2. Charlie X
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman