Monday, July 1, 2013

Ethical Analysis of Star Trek TOS “City On The Edge Of Forever" and Babylon 5 "Voices In The Dark"

To me one of the greatest episodes in Star Trek history was the “City On The Edge Of Forever” where Kirk was place in a situation where he had to let his lover Edith Keeler die to ensure that Germany didn’t win World War II.

However, I always believed that the episode would have been even better if there was a recognition of a third option. The idea that Kirk tries to persuade Edith Keeler that her views was too idealistic and that sometimes society has to use some of its resources for weaponry (even if it means less for the welfare of their own people) to ensure that freedom is protected and that greater evils such as Hitler’s regime be destroyed. That peace sometimes means surrender (to quote Babylon 5). Kirk could have done what Shepard done in Mass Effect in trying to convert Kaidan to the renegade type thinking (although in this case just moderate some of Edith’s paragon belief).

Now of course that pathway is dangerous and that there is no guaranteed that it will work and that even if it does work, it may change the timeline to something entirely different for Kirk and their crew. This brings up the idea that making the right choice is a difficult one. Some people would argue this would be an ultimate test of a person morality. Is the person willing to do the morally just action at risk of massive negative consequence

Now it’s perfectly reasonable for Kirk to take the safer option which is to let Edith die as that guarantees that Nazi wouldn’t have won WWII and the other option would have let a lot to chance. That in case like this, the end justify the mean and that it’s perfectly ok for Kirk to be a bad Samaritan and let Edith die knowing full well he could have prevented it.

However I still think the episode could have been slightly better (very slightly by the way as it is a minor criticism) by just recognising there is a third choice but have Spock advise against it by claiming that Kirk is speaking with his heart (and his dick) and Kirk in the end agreeing with him or have Kirk attempting to persuade Keeler but failed. After all how could Kirk really love her if he didn't try his hardest to save her life without sacrificing the present day?

So how does this relate to Babylon 5?
I’ll just recap my opinion of Babylon 5. It is a fantastic show. One of the many reasons why I like this show is that intentionally or unintentionally (or subconsciously) is a critique of the Trek universe. I honestly got an impression just from watching this show that this was written by a disgruntled TOS fan who was pissed off with the direction The Next Generation was taking when Gene Roddenberry did a George Lucas and took 100% creative control of the show to disastrous results (for the two seasons at least).

Just be reading some of the comments JMS made on the Lurker’s guide website, JMS made some statements like “Maybe in the ST universe, Picard can turn on the charm and just talk people out of things. That doesn't happen here, not easily at any rate. It was turn back or kill them. Those were the choices.” JMS also has clearly mentioned in the past that he is TOS fan as well.

It was clear that there were elements of dissatisfaction of some of Gene’s utopian fantasy. From the incorporation of religion (JMS had a major problem of Trek ignoring modern day religion even though he is an atheist) in the show to have a clearly capitalistic universe, to a deconstruction of the prime directive and also against the philosophy of “Peace at all cost”, that the organisations the heroes work in were perfect, the idea that diplomacy is the answer to all of the problems, quotes like “It’s gonna take a lot more than a hundred years to evolve a better human,” in response to suggestion of disappointment that mankind hasn’t manage to outgrown violence, by having conflict with the crew, not making the crew perfect and telling the audience what is right but making the audience decide whether the heroes made the right decision or not and the fact that Babylon 5 was clearly not anti-military.

“Voices In The Dark” was the final release of the Babylon 5 series which it contains two short story but I’ll focus on the last one in which I felt JMS decided (or unintentionally) took on Trek’s most sacred cow “City on the Edge Of Forever”.

In this episode, Galen forewarns the main hero of the show President Sheridan that 30 years in the future, a Prince Dius Vintari will eventually become the leader of the Centauri and will wage war on the humans that will decimate earth. He tells Sheridan that he should go and kill him now to prevent this even though right now he is only just a teenager (although he clearly has imperialistic views and is very believable that eventually he will become a mass murder).

Sheridan was against it initially but Galen tells Sheridan that “Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan were just small boys playing with toys and growing slowly into monster. If either of those candles has been extinguish from an early age. How many of lives would have been spared. No one took that opportunity as no one knew but you do. The fate of billion of lives is in your hand”

Sheridan was about to assassinate him but then he realised that he couldn’t do it (as Dius was still a somewhat an innocent person) and that there must be another way. He decides to take him under his wing and let him live with his family hoping that this will change Dius outlook on life and changed destiny.

Galen argued at the end that Sheridan choice to spare Dius is a harder option to change the future and that killing Dius was simpler. “We can’t be sure, only with his death can we be sure”

However Sheridan argued that he will take his chances and that if he failed to change him then he will take care of the issue (by killing him) “only when and if I decide there’s no other way”

Honestly, I was pretty stunned about this episode because it completely summarises my own critique of “City On The Edge of Forever”. It was absolutely bizarre as I felt like JMS completely read my mind. Perhaps great men think alike huh :)

It’s funny that Babylon 5 which is often considered the more pragmatic counterpart to the utopian Star Trek and yet it finished of the whole series with a more optimistic message of taking the harder but morally just road instead of taking the easier pragmatic option in contrast to “City on the Edge of Forever” and also “In The Pale Moonlight” as well.

My last point would be pointing out that the original script by Harlan Ellison of City On The Edge Of Forever addresses my major problem with that episode.  The original script had Edith Keeler instead of being an anti-war pacifist, she was just a person spreading a general atmosphere of peace and love and that led to the downfall of the United States as it didn’t create an environment for war. The reason why Kirk didn’t try to argue with her because how can you argue someone to not be a peaceful loving person? You would end up corrupting the person and turn her into someone else that he wouldn’t have fallen in love with and been extremely motivated to save her in the first place. In the revise script, Keeler had a naïve political view that directly doomed United States but in the original script she was a good person who just unintentionally doomed the country. Therefore it was only the rewrite by Gene Roddenberry that introduced the 3rd option as a potential flaw to the episode. As Harlan Ellison is the creative consultant of Babylon 5 who completely opposed the rewrites, it’s possible that this could actually be sneaky dig at Gene Roddenberry influence in City On The Edge Of Forever in introducing this problem to the episode.

Now I admit the idea of the philosophical debate that this time travel dilemma (whether it’s ok to let an innocent person die to prevent a disasterous future) is even older then Star Trek itself and that it’s quite possible that JMS wrote this episode without Trek on his mind. However I can’t help feel that at the very least, this was a subconscious critique or alternative ending to the Trek’s classic.

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