To Boldly Go Where We’ve All Gone Before

Star Trek, the franchise that never dies, has, like the vampire, returned among us, this time in a clever “prequel” to the original ’60s space opera TV series. In this, the eleventh of the series-spawned feature films, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the other starship Enterprise voyagers appear as “sexy young cadets,” as David Hajdu describes them in his illuminating op-ed piece on the “Star Trek” phenomenon in last Sunday’s Times.

I confess to having been utterly underwhelmed when the original series debuted back in 1966. I didn’t watch the show regularly—I didn’t even own a TV set—but what I did see made me wonder at the enthusiasm of some acquaintances (who apparently sustained the franchise for years to come as Trekie cultists).

The most disheartening feature of the TV episodes was, to me, its utter failure of imagination. The program’s now-famous slogan “To boldly go where no man has gone before” promised wonders that the series itself consistently failed to deliver. The strange new worlds, the alien civilizations so remote they were accessible only by faster-than-light travel, turned out to be uncannily like familiar earthly culture of the past, such as ancient Rome or Egypt, or the American old West, the Berlin of the 1930s, and so on. Focusing on this odd feature of the original series, Hajdu, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, unveils the truth: “‘Star Trek’ was, from the start, more nostalgic than futuristic.”

The original series was never really about the 23rd century or outer space; and to think of it only in those terms is to misunderstand the show and ignore its real legacy. Despite its technological gimmickry — the flashing light bulbs and the transporter beams and the cafeteria dispenser that synthesizes the atomic structure of any lunch order — the series was essentially a trek around the past, and not even the real past, but the past of vintage Hollywood movies. Its fictions always had less to do with science than with popular entertainment itself.

Hajdu goes on to point out that in the sixties TV networks found they could satisfy their growing audience cheaply by filling up airtime with old Hollywood movies. I can personally vouch for what Hajdu says:

Thus, the children of the ’60s became the first generation to grow up on the whole catalog of American movies, not just the films of their own day; they were the first to have a free education in pop history and to develop a hardy appetite for kitsch.

It was this taste for an illusory past, for a Hollywood-manufactured past, for history as kitsch, that “Star Trek” aimed to satisfy. Hajdu does more than present an acute cultural and historical perception. His research turns up a smoking gun: The pitch for “Star Trek” that Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, presented to the producers—who had become owners of old Hollywood movie lots with their multitude of sets.

“The majority of story premises …can be accomplished on such common studio back lot locales and sets such as Early 1900 Street, Oriental Village, Cowtown, Border Fort, Victorian Drawing Room, Forest and Streamside,” wrote Roddenberry in his original pitch. “Interiors and exteriors temporarily available after an ‘Egyptian’ motion picture, a ‘horror’ epic, or even an unusual telefilm, could be used to meet the needs of a number of story premises.”

Hajdu concludes:

The creative re-use of studio sets may have begun as a way to keep costs down. But the show made a kind of loopy pastiche pulp art by appropriating, referencing and recombining ideas from film history, going imaginatively — and, yes, even boldly — where many had gone before.

One wonders whether life imitated “a kind of loopy pastiche pulp art” when the real America NASA space program expropriated the show’s motto for the title of its account of its most famous venture: Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions. Moreover, as a result of a write-in campaign, NASA named its first Space Shuttle orbiter the , after the famed Star Trek craft.

EnterpriseThe Real Enterprise

Enterprise shuttleThe NASA Imitation Enterprise

In the 1960s space exploration was conducted on a number of levels. We’ve just looked at Hajdu’s analysis of the pop-culture space exploration of “Star Trek.” And then there was NASA’s famed effort, another made-for-TV production.  All America was glued to their screens in July of 1969 to watch the lunar lander descend and see the suited astronauts bounce across the moon’s dusty surface.

But space exploration meant something else again to thousands of American youth of the time. They had prepared themselves well for the space adventure. And when they gathered before TV screens to witness the momentous event, they enacted their own, parallel, space exploration under the propellant of hallucinogenic doses of acid.  NASA was interested in exploring mere outer space. The far more intrepid adventure opened to those who explored inner space.

At the beginning of each episode of “Star Trek,” a voice-over by Captain Kirk intoned the full text from which the series signature slogan was extracted:

Space. . . . The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

These were the expectations of all three types of space voyages. In retrospect, we can see that all have let us down.  We remain earthbound; our flights—whether of script-writers’ fantasy, or liquid-nitrogen propelled rockets, or pharmaceutically induced transcendence—have left us back where we were before, or in even a worse place, stuck with the same old problems on an even more endangered globe.

Yet there was another adventure beyond earth launched in those days of Star Trek, Apollo project, and LSD. This adventure brought the ancient past together with contemporary efforts and even something of the science-fiction-y future.

“Stay High Forever! No More Comedowns” proclaimed a handbill distributed by the Hare Krishnas in the fall of 1966. An explanation soon followed in Back to Godhead magazine:

The effects of the drugs are only temporary; the drug user is “up” shortly after taking the drug, but after a few hours he “comes down.” Krishna Consciousness teaches how to “stay high forever” without bringdowns, by chanting one’s way into eternity. Nor do drugs free one from material hankerings such as food, sex desires, etc..,but sometimes rather provoke desires.

Some members of the Society experienced psychedelic drugs extensively before meeting Swami Bhaktivedanta, and they now no longer take them. Some consider their previous drug experiences as a kind of spiritual “undergraduate” study and now consider Krishna Consciousness to be graduate school study. Krishna Consciousness teaches one how to swim in the spiritual ocean without water-wings.

It is no coincidence that the ancient Vedic sage Nārada Muni became a favorite and much-beloved figure , among the early counterculture Krishna converts. The reason can be found in the way Prabhupāda had introduced this personage in his first volumes of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, written and published in India prior to his voyage to America. In those pages, the spiritual refugees from both the culture and the counterculture were able to read, in the purport to 1.6.31:

As stated in the Bhagavad-gītā, there are three divisions of the material spheres, namely the ūrdhvaloka (topmost planets), madhyaloka (midway planets) and adholoka (downward planets). Beyond the ūrdhvaloka planets . . . are the material coverings of the universes, and above that is the spiritual sky . . . . Śrī Nārada Muni could enter all these planets in both the material and spiritual spheres without restriction, as much as the almighty Lord is free to move personally in any part of His creation. In the material world the living beings are influenced by the three material modes of nature, namely goodness, passion and ignorance. But Śrī Nārada Muni is transcendental to all these material modes, and thus he can travel everywhere unrestricted. He is a liberated spaceman.

And (1.13.14, purport):

Nārada is a spaceman who can travel unrestrictedly, not only within the material universes but also in the spiritual universes. Even Nārada used to visit the palace of Mahārāja Yudhṣṭhira and what to speak of other celestial demigods. It is only the spiritual culture of the people concerned that makes interplanetary travel possible, even in the present body.

And (1.13.60, purport):

Śrī Nāradajī is an eternal spaceman, having been endowed with a spiritual body by the grace of the Lord. He can travel in the outer spaces of both the material and spiritual worlds without restriction and can approach any planet in unlimited space within no time. . . . . Because of his association with pure devotees, he was elevated to the position of an eternal spaceman and thus had freedom of movement. One should therefore try to follow in the footsteps of Nārada Muni and not make a futile effort to reach other planets by mechanical means.

Narada MuniThe Eternal Spaceman

The first Hare Krishna artifact I owned, as a matter of fact, was a Nārada Muni black light poster, purchased in a local head shop. On my wall the eternally liberated spaceman shined in vibrating hot-pink within a luminous border, in which the mahā-mantra, sinuous in psychedelic font, pulsed between edgings of psychedelic ornamentation.

A drawing of Nārada Muni also decorated the cover of the first Hare Krishna literature I read, a fifty-cent booklet by Prabhupāda entitled Two Essays, acquired in 1969 from a robed and shaven-headed devotee on a campus walkway.

The spiritual voyage of the devotees was quite consciously intended to supplant all the bold but vain adventures of popular culture, the counterculture, and the military-scientific culture shared by the astro- and cosmonauts of the USA-USSR “space race.”

This vaunted venture into the “new frontier” of space, this “great step for mankind,” was deconstructed by Prabhupāda as an innate spiritual urge misplaced, or displaced, onto the material platform, a deflection of the desire for transcendence that would only result in disappointment. For this reason, he advised, as in the Bhāgavatam text quote above, that we should “try to follow in the footsteps of Nārada Muni and not make a futile effort to reach other planets by mechanical means.”

Prabhupāda’s small book on this theme, Easy Journey to Other Planets, was first published in 1960 in India. (Price: 1 Rupee.) There he asserted that, even on the material platform, the ancient civilization of India had perfected a subtler and more advanced form of space travel through yoga:

Even if a materialist wants to enjoy developed material facilities, he can transfer himself to the other many many material planets where he can experience more and more advanced material pleasures. The best plan of life is to prepare oneself for going back definitely to the spiritual sky after leaving this body but yet if anyone wants to enjoy the largest amount of material facilities, one can transfer himself in the other planets, not by means of playful sputniks which are simply childish entertainments but by psychological effects and learning the art of transferring the soul by mystic powers.

Prabhupāda makes the case that all of this is intended to lead us to achieve the highest, transcendent, eternal planet, Kṛṣṇa-loka.

Prabhupāda’s original booklet had a simple cover:

Easy journey cover_0001

But the illustrated cover of the  first American edition made the comparison between the two kinds of ventures explicit:

easy-journey-cover

The most recent edition of the work has a more sophisticate cover, more in keeping with Prabhupāda’s original India title and sub-title, Easy Journey To Other Planets (by practice of Supreme Yoga):

Easy Journey new cover 2

Even after the televised Apollo moon landing of July, 1969, Prabhupāda continued to insist that the moon—richly described in the Vedas an opulent “heavenly planet,” a place of superior sensual happiness—had not been attained by “childish” mechanical means. He offered a variety of possible explanations. It could have been a hoax, the manned moon-landing a studio special effect: Prabhupāda recollected a motion picture depicting a large monkey climbing a skyscraper:

monkey skyscraper

This particular suspicion—which, like Hajdu’s expose of “Star Trek,” invokes images of old movie sets and studio special effects—is not at all limited to Prabhupäda, and proliferating moon-landing conspiracy theories even inspired yet another Hollywood production, the 1978 thriller Capricorn One.

Then again, Prabhupāda suggested in several places in his Bhāgavatam commentaries that the astronauts may have landed on the “invisible planet” Rāhu—the dark, barren, and hostile planet known in modern astronomy as the ascending lunar node. And, in a hypothesis that will conflict the least with the “consensual reality,” Prabhupāda said that the astronauts may have gone to the moon, but that they were unable or forbidden to “enter the atmosphere.” He compared them to illegal immigrants, who arrive in the desired country only to be sequestered in internment camps and then deported.

In any case, the once common phrase “the conquest of space” now reeks of astonishing overconfidence and vainglory. We may poke at it here and there, but “conquer?” We clearly cannot even conquer our own minds.

Those who have, those Vedic travelers with yogic powers like Nārada Muni, on the other hand, also have freely explored both the material and spiritual worlds, and have reported on those places we are restricted from entering.

Or so we hear. Of course, one may well claim that the Vedic tradition’s “easy journey” through “supreme yoga” that Prabhupāda presents is simply one more fantasy of escape and freedom.

Let me just note that modern people have characteristically been quick to deny or dismiss the achievements of ancient civilizations. Our modern mentality remains rooted in the 18th century Enlightenment, with its wholesale rejection of the traditional convictions and practices of the human race, judging them as little more than a mass of error and superstition. Consequently, humanity should start itself over and accept only what it can establish by cool reason and science, unshackled by inherited prejudices. We have long congratulated ourselves on our “progress” so produced.

Of course, the most intractable global problems we face today turn out to be consequences of that progress.

Even custodians of official knowledge have begun to acknowledge that our remote ancestors may have known much more that we have credited them with. Now we find a Ph.D. ethnobiologist from Harvard squatting in remote jungles as an apprentice to a naked and painted shaman in order to learn his pharmacopeia. Pharmaceutical giants seek patents from the knowledge of primitives.

Primitives were not primitive. For example, the abundant evidence is gradually surfacing that pre-Columbian America contained civilizations more populous and in many respects more advanced that those of Europe.

Prabhupāda claims that Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is the product of a far more advanced civilization that ours today. It tells of places and people far beyond the reach of the any Enterprise of “Star Trek” or NASA. It tells of a powerful material and spiritual technology based on mastery of yoga and mantra. Yet “modern man” can hardly be expected to accept it.

Here, for example, is the Indologist Harvey P. Alper, in his introduction to the scholarly collection he edited called Understanding Mantras: “Most of use who study mantras critically—historians, philosophers, Sanskritists—take the Enlightenment consensus for granted. We do not believe in magic. Generally, we do not pray.”

It is time to boldly go beyond the “Enlightenment consensus.” We should become skeptical of the skeptics themselves. After all, no less distinguished an authority than the late Arthur C. Clarke—an author of 2001: A Space Odyssey—has correctly noted: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Who knows? Maybe we’ll all come to set aside “childish sputniks” for the mantras of Nārada Muni.

Narada Muni animated

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “To Boldly Go Where We’ve All Gone Before

  1. You wouldn’t believe how serendipitous this article is.

    I just finished watching the new Star Trek, and immediately afterward I see this post!

    From what I got, the message of the film was essentially to follow your intuitive feelings while utilizing your intelligence.

    BG 10.10: “Buddhi means intelligence, and yoga means mystic activities or mystic elevation.

    When one tries to go back home, back to Godhead, and takes fully to Krishna consciousness in devotional service, his action is called buddhi yoga.

    In other words, buddhi-yoga is the process by which one gets out of the entanglement of this material world.”

    In the film there seems to be an unseen force which protects the protagonists who are motivated for a higher cause: the protection of innocents from selfish villains.

    The difficulty is that while trying to live peacefully in this material world, we become villains in our pursuits to protect our finite existence from the influence of time.

    Due to misidentifying our selves with these finite bodies, and our self interests in those things related to these bodies, we act selfishly.

    Selflessness only truly exists when in the realm of satisfaction through Krishna Consciousness.

    Srimad Bhagavatam 4.22.49 says:

    “Remaining fixed in devotional service gives one the utmost in self-satisfaction.

    Actually self-satisfaction can be achieved only by pure devotees, who have no desire other than to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

    Since the Supreme Personality of Godhead has nothing to desire, He is fully satisfied with Himself.

    Similarly, a devotee who has no desire other than to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead is as self-satisfied as the Supreme Lord.

    Everyone is hankering after peace of mind and self-satisfaction, but these can only be achieved by becoming a pure devotee of the Lord.”

    Death comes to everyone, whether it’s seemingly timely, or untimely… actually it’s always right on time.

    Srila Prabhupada writes in Srimad Bhagavatam 10.4.3

    “Kala (Time) is actually another name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead when He appears only for the purpose of killing.

    When Arjuna inquired from Krishna in His universal form, “Who are You?” the Lord presented Himself as kala, death personified to kill.

    By nature’s law, when there is an unwanted increase in population, kala appears, and by some arrangement of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, people are killed wholesale in different ways, by war, pestilence, famine and so on.

    At that time, even atheistic political leaders go to a church, mosque or temple for protection by God or gods and submissively say, “God willing.”

    Before that, they pay no attention to God, not caring to know God or His will, but when kala appears, they say, “God willing.”

    Death is but another feature of the supreme kala, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

    At the time of death, the atheist must submit to this supreme kala, and then the Supreme Personality of Godhead takes away all his possessions (mrityuh sarva-haras caham) and forces him to accept another body (tatha dehantara-praptih).

    This the atheists do not know, and if they do know, they neglect it so that they may go on with their normal life.

    The Krishna consciousness movement is trying to teach them that although for a few years one may act as a great protector or great watchman, with the appearance of kala, death, one must take another body by the laws of nature.

    Not knowing this, they unnecessarily waste their time in their occupation as watchdogs and do not try to get the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

    As it is clearly said, aprapya mam nivartante mrityu-samsara-vartmani: without Krishna consciousness, one is condemned to continue wandering in birth and death, not knowing what will happen in one’s next birth.”

    Krishna Consciousness is therefore the greatest adventure, and the most heroic of pursuits.

    There is an extremely urgent need to give this vital knowledge to everyone.

    We are speeding towards our date with death.

    If we can give Krsna Consciousness to others, then Krsna assures in BG 18.68:

    “For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.”

    Give long and prosper.

  2. Well researched article, didn’t know how “spaced” I was, till reading this.

    Now learning more on the ulterior motives of marketing that’s works so well in America’s Media brainwashing.

    Hollywood sure has continued its quest to fulfill the illusuary propensities. Other quasi-notables gleaned from the SciFi realm are “Mork from Ork” a sit-com vehicle propelling Robin Williams to his fame and the, so-called, cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show” adding the English twist to Alien abduction. Of course there’s the family spin “Lost in Space” only thing missing was the family dog (think it was replaced by a robot…danger! danger!, Will Robinson)

    Perversion of science and many other practices is an on-going event here in the material world and even more so in the West. Why not capitalize on it, right? It is exploitation at it’s cheapest, the mind.

    Fortunately, there are still Vaisnava’s that do point out these defects and also the existence of an un-adulterated universe. Personally speaking I know I am most grateful for the knowledge that will counter act the on-going pillaging of our intelligence. With out it these human lives are wasted.

    Human life is meant for worshiping Krsna, Narottama Dasa Thakura sings; hari hari viphale janama gonainu: “My life is spoiled.” Why? Manunsya-janama paiya Radha-Krsna na bhajiya janiya, suniya visa khainu: “Having attained a human birth, I failed to worship Radha-Krsna and so have knowingly drunk poison.” We are trying to stop people from drinking poison. The Krsna consciousness movement is for everyone’s benefit. It is the topmost humanitarian movement to make everyone happy, to make everyone immortal, to make everyone peaceful, to make everyone wise. From Srila Prabhupada’s “Quest for Enlightenment”

    My salutations and gratitude again for Commander Ravindra Svarup Dasa’s going boldy to where all man should go, the Spiritual Sky!

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