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Monday, August 6, 2012

William Shatner’s Superior Mind

Looking toward the future with hope
and Curiosity.

In some ways, watching the first season of The Six Million Dollar Man is like visiting old friends.  In the episode “Eyewitness to Murder,” Steve Austin must prevent the murder of Lorin Sandusky, an attorney who is presenting an important case for the government.  When Steve catches John Hopper, the assassin out to kill Sandusky, Hopper is released because he seems to have an iron clad alibi: he appeared on a TV program at the very time Steve saw him, on a rooftop, late at night, with his bionic eye.  William Schallert, the actor who plays Sandusky, previously portrayed Nilz Baris in the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.”  Gary Lockwood, who took on the role of John Hopper, is best known to Star Trek fans as Lieutenant Gary Mitchell from the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” 

Another Trekky Treat (if I might coin the phrase) has been the episode “Burning Bright,” in which William Shatner plays Josh Lang, an astronaut whose mental capabilities seem remarkably improved upon his return from a mission in space.  Like Gary Mitchell, some cosmic force seems to have activated areas of Lang's brain that normally lie dormant.  Unlike Gary Mitchell, these superhuman powers fail to corrupt the astronaut.  He seeks to increase man’s understanding of the universe, not rule his fellow humans.  He feels remorse when his ability to knock people out with his brain’s electrical field goes out of control, and he accidentally kills someone. 

Lang's enhanced brain-function also reawakens a memory of an accident that resulted in the death of a childhood friend, and he grows overwhelmed by the guilt that repressed it.  Thus, through Shatner’s participation in both stories, we are left with a striking comparison.  In the Star Trek episode, Captain Kirk (played, of course, by Shatner) must kill his friend, as Mitchell's increased mental function has corrupted the Lieutenant's soul.  In The Six Million Dollar Man, Lang, experiencing delusions from his overworked brain, risks his life in a desperate attempt to save his childhood friend.  Steve  pursues his friend therefore not to kill him, but to rescue him.   

It’s interesting to watch these early episodes, filmed shortly after the cancellation of the Apollo program.  They intersperse actual NASA footage from space with close-ups of the spacesuit-clad actors in the studio.  More than that though: they represent the uncertainties of space travel along with the idealism and thirst for knowledge that prompts such efforts.  Some of the ideas suggested in “Burning Bright,” such as Mission Control’s reluctance to sideline Josh Lang, even after several instances of instability, are unrealistic.  Others, such as Lang’s proposal to send a dolphin up on the upcoming manned mission, remain as silly today as they were then.  Still, I cannot help but be inspired by stories from both Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man that make us yearn to wonder what we will learn, and how we will be changed by those discoveries, once we venture out into the great unknown.

As I write this post, I exist in the fear and anxiety of all who would travel into space.  In just a few hours, the rover Curiosity will begin a difficult descent into the Martian atmosphere.  By the time you read this, we may know if it has landed safely, or we may not.  If it does land successfully, we have no certainty over how long the rover will function, whether or not it will act as its makers have as anticipated, or what we may learn from the information it transmits back to Earth.  

Part of me argued that I should wait to write this post, until after Curiosity's descent, so I could discuss what was known, rather than what was not.  Yet, what struck me most powerfully, and why I wrote this today, was because space travel represents the ultimate uncertainty and anxiety.  We invest these programs with our fondest hopes, even though others may regard such efforts as unrealistic and silly.  Space Travel symbolizes life itself, and our own personal journeys.  When we are offered the possibility of accomplishing something truly remarkable, do we grasp it?  Or do we choose to play it safe, scorning uncertainty for the well-worn path that most view as dependable and sound?  The choice, of course, is ours…even if, unlike William Shatner's character Josh Lang, we don’t possess a superior mind.

Good luck, Curiosity!  I live not only in hope of your safe descent, but also in expectation of what you may tell us about our red neighbor.

Looking to the sky,
Dragon Dave

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