Saturday, December 12, 2015

Odysseus Among the Stars

Star Trek as an Odyssey retold.

Star Trek is one of the great narratives of our time, burrowing into the cultural unconscious with its optimism, classic storylines, inexhaustable fund of aliens, and dash of humor. What other story is equally classic, with a hero who commands his ship through a long series of adventures, who meets aliens of many descriptions, and gets out of one bizarre scrape after another? Why Odysseus, of course!

Realizing this clarified to me the staying power and deep resonance of this new myth. Odysseus wasn't big on preaching the benefits of a peaceful Federation, (though that may have been an implicit lesson to its original listeners, binding together a Greek world constantly at war), but on the other hand, he had heard of most of the monsters and gods he meets, getting more of a head start than Kirk has. Like Odysseus, Kirk is a winner, happy to seduce a woman if that will save his ship, using deception and every wile to get what he wants. Or to go in with guns blazing if that is needed. While Odysseus had a home to go back to, Star Trek dispenses with that bit of plot, concentrating on the voyage exclusively, the far more engaging part of the story.

One big difference is the role of Spock. Odysseus has no significantly characterized companions from what I recall, none whom one would call a number two. While a soldier and coming back from war, the military organization of his ships is hardly mentioned and seems rather lax. Odysseus keeps his own counsel and gets little help from his sailors, who die right and left in various misadventures. Nor are aliens brought along on his voyage. Time after time, he flees as fast as he can from each monster in turn.

A medical officer with a shamanic touch, like McCoy, might not have been unknown to the Greek world, but Spock is another matter. He exemplifies the classical philosophical position of Stoicism, but this hardly had much place in the original tale, outside of mundane forbearance of disasters which rain down constantly. Odysseus doesn't involve himself in much philosophical discussion, or introspection, which becomes such an important part of Greek culture only later. The Odyssey is a tale of action, not thought. Spock introduces both an element of diversity and philosophical perspective, (especially an occasional check on senseless violence), which is sorely needed in what is also, among its other themes, a pean to what was at the time a growing US federation of democratic and peaceful planets, er nations.

Modern, contemporary, retro, or classic?

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