Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Captain Kirk Was Never the Original, by Alan N. Shapiro

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In its prevalent forms, the cottage consumer industry of Star Trek is a classic virtuality of identification where the viewers’ senses of self, otherness, and reality are blurred by the contemplation of iconic spectacles. The fanatic relationship to media objects and fetishized paraphernalia is a partial, transitional realization of the reign of simulacra, effected at this stage in the logic of the model and its serial differentiation. After the original Star Trek series came the animated series, then The Next Generation, six original series movies, one inter-generational movie, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and now The Next Generation movie (First Contact) and the current 30th anniversary festivities. It is an endless cloned succession, a lineal, self-evolving pataphysics of re-worked plots, trans-species Federation officers, sentimental cyborgs, humanoid hyperlife, engineering re-stabilizations following perturbations, non-Moebius time travel, and warp drive accelerations beyond the speed of light.

But this unceasing serial commodification or anabolic self-replication always sustains itself through reverent reference to the original referent – the pantheonic first generation of Captain James T. Kirk, graduate of Starfleet Academy, First and Science Officer $@& (unpronounceable) Spock, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Scott, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, Chapel, and Rand. But Captain Kirk was never the original. Attention, red alert, all hailing channels being jammed, switching to sub-space frequency, and repeating: William Shatner/James T. Kirk was not the original Captain of the Starship Enterprise.

In the pilot broadcast for the first Star Trek series, entitled “The Cage” (aired on February 1, 1965), the Enterprise (NCC-1701A, prototype model), with Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) in command, answers a mysterious distress call from long-lost Federation settlers believed to have crashed on the planet Talos IV. The distress call turns out to have been fabricated by the super-intelligent beings of Talos to lure Pike and two of his most attractive female crew members into a zoo-like captivity. After Captain Kirk replaced Captain Pike for the eventual prime-time series, the footage from “The Cage” was re-edited into a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (stardates 3012.4 and 3012.5). The keepers of the menagerie are so scientifically advanced that they are all brain – they have lost the capabilities to experience sensory and tactile reality, to feel or emote, and to stroke the physical world. They seek to benignly imprison two humans (a male and a female), cut them loose in a high-tech digitized parallel-processed virtual Disneyland, and start grooving vicariously on the sensations and emotions. The Talosians have collected biological specimens from around the galaxy in their zoo, but the two humans will be their premium ticket to a virtual reality lust-fest.

Aside from hints about its von Neumann architecture, the underlying algorithms and class inheritances of the menagerie’s virtuality engine are not specified. We can assume a ring zero concentric clustering saltation, descendent from early artificial life programs. Captain Pike and his holographic computer-generated ideal woman can live out any scenario which is found in the dream-reservoir in Pike’s head (Pike rejects the two female officers in favor of the gentle hologram as his companion). Any childhood memory, sexual fantasy, “historical” time and place, folklore, fairy tale, vision of home, or galaxial adventure can be “brought to life” by the menagerie’s virtual reality neural network and wetware. The ideal woman is synthesized from a reading of Captain Pike’s libidinal unconscious worked upon the ruined body of an Earth woman who, as a young girl years ago, was the sole survivor of the crash of the Federation settlers’ spaceship. The scarred, now fully-grown woman appears beautiful to Captain Pike through trick photochronography. For her part, she has been raised in the zoo by the Talosians and has never seen a real man before Pike.

In the story of Captain Pike, a much later and conclusive stage in the accomplishment of simulacra is invoked. Beyond Star Trek’s predominant virtuality of virtuous identification is the virtuality of the unconditional worship of simulacra, a final stage exemplified by digital media’s synthesis of synthetic three-dimensional video and the jacked-in nervous system. Having completed the pilot episode, the producers of Star Trek must have realized that they had given birth to a Captain whose precocious engagement with virtual reality already disqualified him from serving as the model for a sequelized succession of media commodities. The successful media product model has as prerequisite a mythical moment of transcendent creativity which clears the way for the emergence of a new spectacle object. The spectacle object (celebrity, consumer gadget, media property) then enters the panoply of fetishes among which we shop in our efforts to find an identity “niche” and dubiously distinguish ourselves from others. The model serves as lightning rod for ambivalent collective projections, allowing each individual to feel unique at the very moment when all consumers of that same niche are imitating the same elevated pattern.

But the fully achieved simulacra of virtual reality threaten the stability and profitability of this system of differences. This is why Captain Pike, who was too far ahead of his time, had to be shunted aside in favor of the valorous Captain Kirk. The binary oppositions of compartmentalized analytical thought which uphold the progress of the media and computer industries (the dualities between original and copy, mind and body, model and series, real and virtual, reality and information) begin to break down in the era of consummated virtuality in favor of a perpetual Moebius strip which appears at all points to have two sides but really has one. The dichotomy between computer applications which belong to the official category of virtual reality software and the rest of computer applications is a prime example of such increasingly precarious binary oppositions in the computer industry. In the first type of virtual reality application (the official product category), a purposive activity, such as piloting an airplane or meeting a new girlfriend, is simulated both by providing sensory information to the user that mimics the real activity, and by handling changes in perceptual angles caused by the user’s moves through the cyberspace. In the second type of virtual reality application (not recognized as such by the computer industry), a familiar human activity such as driving in the country or eating dinner at a restaurant is organized as a virtual machine by the increased information that is brought to bear upon it.

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