May 25, 2008

White super-race in The Paradise Syndrome

Part two of an analysis of The Paradise Syndrome, the original Star Trek episode about Indians. From Star Trek and History: Race-Ing Toward a White Future by Daniel Bernardi.

Case Study:  “The Paradise Syndrome” (1968)Roddenberry’s interest in representing Kirk and crew as more advanced than the Indians stems from his interest in the myth of the “paradise syndrome” (it was Roddenberry who insisted that the original title be changed to “The Paradise Syndrome”). He writes:

Our story here, the essential and I think the most interesting and different one for our series, is whether a Herman Melville theme, i.e., modern man finding his “Tahiti,” that natural and simple and happy and untroubled life all of us dream about some day finding—and having found it and having held it in his hand, he learns he’s incapable of closing his hand around it and keeping it because all of us are innocent prisoners of our own time and our own place. And, as with Melville’s “Typee,” neither can our modern man (or his clerk from Boston) take his woman from this simple life back to his land and his time, since she would be as destroyed by it as he would be if he stayed there. This is the premise and theme, a strong one if used properly and certainly a most powerful and enduring one in Western literature.
Roddenberry’s interest in defining the problems of whites in a modern world, here both metaphorically and literally represented by Kirk, is ultimately pursued at the expense of Native-American peoples and cultures.

The NBC censor was also concerned with the notion of the “paradise syndrome,” but in the way in which it might affect the star persona of Captain Kirk. A letter from Stanley Robertson, manager of film programming, noted:

I think that it is a major mistake to have our star. Kirk, “marry” the lovely native girl, Miramanee, to have a child by her and then to return to “his world” with the Enterprise when a rescue is affected [sic]. I realize that your feelings are that you can “justify these actions” by establishing Kirk as a man engrained in the customs, mores, and social patterns of the planet’s culture. However, I think that we must remember that even though our series takes place at a time in the future, we still have contemporary people with contemporary views on morals, manners, etc., viewing our shows and, while we are able to portray others than our heroes in opposition to these conventional points of view, we should not ever depict our leads as having such thoughts.”
Clearly mindful of the twentieth-century audience, the NBC censor, though aware of the logic of science fiction, was less interested in the stereotyping of Native-Americans than with maintaining the “superior” morality of the white hero—another instance of network conservatism protecting a white bottom line.

This interest in representing whiteness as morally atop the evolutionary ladder goes beyond the goals of the network censor. In the memorandum to Freiberger, Roddenberry goes to great lengths to rationalize the benevolent super-race:

We are saying arbitrarily for purposes of this script that there was once, or still may exist somewhere, a race of highly advanced and kindly humanoid aliens, who had great love and affection for all forms of life and all levels of civilization and hated to see the fresh and different potential of primitive cultures absorbed and changed, such as happened on Earth with the Egyptians, Crete, American Indians, etc. Undoubtedly, the same sort of thing happens on other planets, too—it is a demonstratable law of progress in civilization that richly interesting primitive cultures die out and their particular values are lost when stronger cultures absorb or destroy them.
Roddenberry’s interest in the super-race, a logic derivative of the social Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest,” continues, as he makes a weak effort at explaining why the Indians believe Kirk is godlike: “it is obvious that the Indians have never seen an Enterprise landing party member before and, therefore, more believable they believe Kirk is a sort of god.” The “demonstratable law of progress” implicitly assumes that “white” phenotypes, which is all that separates Kirk from the Indians at this point in the story, would be construed by “primitive cultures” as godlike, thereby linking Kirk not to the Indians, and thus to members of his own species, but to an alien super-race: Kirk is more alien super-race than human Indian. The discourse of white superiority, “not there as a category and everywhere as a fact,” as Richard Dyer argues about whiteness, is stretched into the future by the science-fiction notion of an alien super-race and a heroic white captain.


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Interesting that Daniel Bernardi goes after Roddenberry more for "The Paradise Syndrome" than he does concerning Margaret Armen, the original author. Will have to read Bernardi in toto before adding much else to such an observation, but it still remains true. The writers in films and TV are disregarded for the most part, as though 'art by committee' leaves them out entirely...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

I'll probably write something about the whole book eventually. In brief, it's a mishmash of astute and off-base criticism. Much of it is overly academic. Given your disdain of criticism, I doubt you'd like it.