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Star Trek, nearly fifty years on, remains vitally worth watching and continues to be relevant to contemporary philosophical issues. At first glance, ³The Corbomite Maneuver´ would seem to run counter to that inspiration. The episode doesn¶t hold up as a fan favorite and it often looks cheesy and undercooked, or perhaps halfbaked. And truth be told, I wasn¶t looking forward to watching and writing about the episode. Until I did and until I reckoned with making the unknown known²the theme of this blog post. Let¶s start with Donald Rumsfeld, who in a February 12, 2002 press briefing addressing the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had the following to say: [T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns ± the ones we don't know we don't know. As my blogging colleague would no doubt note at this juncture, and Wikipedia reminds me, Rumsfeld¶s musings on the unknown provoked Slavoj i ek to discourse on the unknown known, that which we don't know or intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know: If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns," that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the "unknown knowns" - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values. It¶s this theme of unknown unknowns and unknown knowns that ³The Corbomite Maneuver´ begs us to explore. First a reminder of some key plot elements. The Enterprise is out in uncharted space conducting a mapping exercise. At the navigator¶s helm is a young and unseasoned Lt. Dave Bailey. The crew is confronted first by a space buoy and then a massive ship representing the First Federation, which promptly informs the crew they are to be destroyed. After a tense standoff in which Kirk employs the ³corbomite maneuver´ and bluffs that any attempt to destroy the Enterprise will simultaneously result in the destruction of the alien ship, the two captains parlay and discover common interests. Kirk leaves Bailey with the alien captain, Balok, to instruct him in the ways of human beings. As I mentioned, on the surface, this episode doesn¶t sound all that promising. And yet, considering the episode¶s context, it does raise some interesting thoughts. While the episode was the tenth to air, it was actually the third filmed, after the two pilots, and it still looks rather primitive²more in line with ³Where No Man Has Gone Before´ than ³What Are Little Girls
Later. The Enterprise is out to measure and map space and transform the unknown into the known by registering it in scientific and quantitative terms. The Vulcan works mightily to get ³something visual´: ³Spock: I was curious to see how they appeared. block us. it's blocking our way. KIRK: What's that? SPOCK [OC]: Undetermined. At several key moments in the episode¶s actions. The Asian trumps the European. It¶s not difficult to read the show as a cautionary tale about youthful impetuousness involving us in wars that could be avoided by cooler heads²and a steady Asian hand. More some type of device. Or so I¶ll suggest. mapping the unknown. tedious and boring work but work that must be done.´ We are dealing with the unknown and potentially the unknowable. And later: KIRK: Scotty. Sulu: ³No visual contact yet. Kirk: Yes. of course you were. SCOTT: Motive power? Beats me what makes it go. But the episode has bigger fish to fry than simple historical allusions. when Balok¶s ship the Fesarius shows up. KIRK: I'll buy speculation. It is literally transforming the unknown into the known. the theme of development takes center stage in the episode itself. SCOTT: I'd sell it if I had any. How something like that can sense us coming. move when we move. it¶s Lt.´ . Spock comments that the ³reading goes off my scale.Made Of?´ The show is still evolving and developing and as I¶ll suggest shortly. KIRK: Life sciences. Also of interest is the show¶s historical context.´ The Cube literally represents the unknown: SPOCK [on monitor]: Have a look at this. The Enterprise is out in uncharted territory mapping space. Captain. It first makes its appearance by making no appearance. MCCOY: Same report. When we move. Sulu who takes over for a debilitated Bailey and carries out the captain¶s orders. Whatever it is. This curiosity and the drive to confront the unknown and situate it in terms that are known is equally present in Spock¶s desire to visualize the alien Balok.´ Nor does it signal anything. well it beats me. This theme of the unknown is also introduced via the alien Cube. That's a solid cube. It aired in 1966 and one has to wonder whether viewers connected its themes of exploration and empires coming into conflict to the US¶s growing involvement in Vietnam. it moves as well. Uhura: ³I¶m getting no signal from it. KIRK: A vessel of some kind? SPOCK [OC]: Negative. That's my report.
Kirk here represents the voice of reason and maturity and indeed we learn in this episode that he is ³maturing´: he¶s putting on weight. BAILEY: He's doing a countdown! MCCOY: Practically end of watch. What are you. Bailey charges his shipmates with being like robots. But there's no such thing as the unknown. BAILEY: What. are you all out of your minds? End of watch? It's the end of everything. his health and diet need to be monitored. oh. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. With the proper application of reason. Doctor. SULU: Seven minutes and forty five seconds. All decks stand by. Kirk offers one take on confronting the unknown: KIRK: Captain to crew. arming phasers. something familiar. rather than taking action. Our motives can always be understood (tell that to the Vietcong). Everything can be mapped. as McCoy informs us. Captain out. simply following regulations and orders. Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien lifeforms. And of course it¶s this voice that is supposed to be silenced. blowing things up. temporarily not understood. Things are only temporarily hidden and not understood. the hidden and misunderstood are brought out into daylight (mapped) and can no longer be a source of fear. McCoy: ³you spotted something you liked in him. Kirk places his bet on reason and intelligence and the belief that there is no such thing as the unknown.And it¶s precisely here that the episode confronts an interesting philosophical dilemma: what is an appropriate reaction to confronting the unknown? After Balok informs the crew of the Enterprise that they will be destroyed in ten minutes time. Ship to ship. like yourself say about. Bailey (presumably a younger Kirk. You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves. he¶s no longer the brash young ship¶s captain he once may have been (and this is only the third filmed episode of the show). What do they mean? KIRK: Bailey. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. But Kirk¶s response to the unknown is not the only possible response presented. eleven years ago´) suggests an alternative response to the unknown: BAILEY: We've only got eight minutes left. . only things temporarily hidden. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. an irrational fear of the unknown. Bailey represents the voice of youth and immaturity and impetuousness. you're relieved! Escort him to his quarters. robots? Wound-up toy soldiers? Don't you know when you're dying? Watch and regulations and orders.
While making an argument for maturity and development. Bailey needs to be fathered. is itself not entirely rational and more predicated on faith. Following his annual physical with McCoy. Kirk¶s own commitment to the principle that there are no unknowns. there is Kirk¶s relationship to his body. Kirk¶s own methods and madness seem to legislate against such a tidy resolution. Kirk leaves sickbay only half dressed. is threatened by these younger. While on the surface. ³Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. And poker is offered in place of chess when Spock informs the captain that he can find ³no other logical alternative. sanctions hiding. Corbomite has remained unknown. KIRK: This is the Captain of the Enterprise. It¶s as if Kirk sanctions deception. only temporarily hidden things. This is what corbomite represents. something not entirely understood. bluffs.´ But what are the grounds of that ³surely´ other than faith. Kirk simultaneously fights what his body already knows²maturity and development ain¶t all they¶re cracked up to be. who Spock tells us is reminiscent of his father. sweaty body around the halls of the Enterprise. First. as if to remind us and himself about his still vital masculinity. this episode sides with Kirk and the voice of reason against the youthful emotional outpouring of Bailey. Consider two further wrinkles. He needs to mature. and emotion. he himself resists growing up²perhaps resists the recognition of his own maturity. the Enterprise. to develop and grow out of his youthfulness. who regularly tries to monitor Kirk¶s health. But as we have seen with previous episodes.´ Chess is the game of rules and rationality and it is displaced by the game of chance. This is meant to be therapeutic for Bailey. Our respect for other life-forms requires that we give you this warning. And Bailey is consigned (or volunteers) to be marooned with the lonely Balok. coming to terms with the unknown through the proper tutelage that comes at the hands of his elders. Kirk is getting old and his relationship to women. And then there is the element of poker and bluffing that takes center stage in this episode. parading his glistening.Kirk has Bailey removed from the bridge. including the woman he most must care for. One critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the . sanctions using the unknown knowns. But now Kirk must make it known. He refuses to face what he knows is his own senescence²perhaps the final unknown known. left aboard the Fesarius to help the newly encountered alien come to know our human-alltoo-human ways. first by Kirk (really just an older Bailey²as Bailey is a younger Kirk) and then by Balok. impetuous navigators who want to strike out in a direction of their own. As he states. We learn in this episode that his weight is going up and he has a diet of greens imposed on him by the Doctor. things are never quite what they seem on the surface with Star Trek. While Kirk is remonstrating Bailey and trying to get him to grow up. In growing up and achieving maturity we come to transform the unknown into the known.
.memory banks of any Earth ship. Kirk ends up employing methods more in line with Bailey than he first intimates in his speech to the crew. And yet it is Kirk who hasn¶t yet come to full terms with what he knows²the power of deception and the bluff and braggadocio. the go where no one has gone before. We grow annoyed at your foolishness. But ultimately Star Trek tries to soft pedal this message. again trying to make known what is initially unknown. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. Maybe Bailey really is the navigator here²showing us the direction we ought to travel in. Since the early years of space exploration. a reverse reaction of equal strength is created. But in both cases. a bluff. Recall Kirk¶s earlier commitment to the reasonableness of intelligence: Kirk: In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. The mission of the Enterprise isn¶t so much to know the unknown out in space but to know the self²to know thy self. perhaps Kirk chooses to embrace the unknown and its ultimate existence. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. On the surface Kirk represents the father figure to Bailey. Death has little meaning to us. Star Trek once again suggests that it¶s not so much about outer space as inner space. in resorting to bluffs and lies and deception to wriggle out of tight situations. In running from his aging body. If it has none to you then attack us now. facing them would be easy. But as with a lot of science fiction. So Kirk bluffs Balok but then Balok in turn bluffs Kirk back. Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as corbomite. playing dead in space so that he can assess the Enterprise¶s true motives. destroying BALOK [OC]: You now have two minutes. Making the unknown known requires lies and bluffs and braggadocio and so at the heart of intelligent and advanced lifeforms is the will to deception. But perhaps that¶s too much to wish for. despite Kirk¶s protestations otherwise. Were that all the unknown knowns are. And the resolution to our fears and inadequacies would be easy. And in this regard. no attacking vessel has survived the attempt. that all things hidden are only temporarily so. KIRK: Destroying the attacker! It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago. And this is the known that tries to remain unknown. If any destructive energy touches our vessel. what¶s made known is a lie. It engages in a little wish fulfillment by confronting us with a baby-faced alien such as Balok who simply wants to sit around drinking tranya and engaging in conversation. Kirk ultimately should recognize that it¶s foolish to think that there is no unknown. The mission of the Enterprise is to explore the unknown. a ruse. the unknown of external space is often simply a stand in for the internal unknowns that we must face²the inner self that must be cared for. in confronting youth as he stares into the unknown country that is aging.