#Secondthoughts: Feet of Clay

What’s your Star Trek series?  The Original Series?  The Next Generation?  DS9? Voyager?  Or one of the new ones – Enterprise, Discovery, Picard?

I think I got into Star Trek via the earlier films, watching reruns on TV.


But TNG, DS9 and Voyager were a formative part of my teenage years.   By the time that Enterprise and Discovery came along, I had other interests and responsibilities and never really invested in those series in the way that I had the others.  Similarly, I’ve caught up on some of the originals during repeat runs, but I much prefer the films.

Whichever the series, there were some great storylines.  Storylines that led to character growth.  Storylines that considered political issues.  Stories that challenged the watcher to consider the foundations of ethics.  One story that has always stuck with me comes from Star Trek: Voyager, and has at its heart the Doctor.

If you were not a fan, then a few words to set the scene: Voyager was primarily a research and exploration vessel, but during a mission to chase down a separatist/terrorist group called the Maquis, they are sent across the galaxy to the unexplored Delta Quadrant by an uber-powerful entity.  In the process a number of Voyager’s personnel are killed and the skipper, Captain Kathryn Janeway does a deal with the remaining Maquis to join forces.  Even so, the combined crew lacks medical cover, and so Janeway turns on the Emergency Medical Hologram.  In theory, the EMH is only meant to see duty in difficult situations where extra cover is required, and this in itself generates some plots down the line.  The EMH is essentially a computer program that, through various tech, is able to manipulate equipment and the environment.

The EMH (“Please state the nature of the medical emergency”) had a fascinating story arc across all seven seasons of the show, but as I say, one story has stuck with me.  The EMH, as noted above, is essentially a vast computer program and whilst he takes on his own personality over time, he is heavily influenced by his creator, Dr Lewis Zimmerman, and by a number of real and fictious doctors and medical researchers.  In this particular story, he is faced with a medical problem that he is having difficulty solving, and so he creates a specialist consultant out of the programming associated with a particular individual.  Unfortunately, it turns out that this individual committed war crimes, and not just any war crimes: this is a medical practitioner who experimented on prisoners of war.  The EMH, becoming aware of this, feels that he shouldn’t benefit from the knowledge gleaned in this way and deletes this part of his database.

For this post, I’m not going to delve much further into things than that.  If you are so minded, there are some interesting reviews of the episode (Nothing Human, S5E8) on IMDB.

What brought all this to mind was hearing a piece of music played on the radio.  One of my favourites, and forever linked in my mind to the Ladybird abridged version of King Solomon’s Mines, for which I also had the audio tape (One of the Pickwick Tell-a-tale collaborations).  The lead-in music was the third movement of Beethoven’s Eroica – a perfect piece to summon up the excitement of the coming story.

In some quick and dirty research for a short story that I wrote a few months ago, I’d discovered that some modern scholarship suggested that Beethoven’s feet were more clay-like than I’d supposed.  I suspect I’d latched onto his slightly quirky personality, and the principled stand he had made in removing the dedication of the Eroica to Napolean following the latter’s move to set himself up as an Emperor above the people.

If we look across the Arts there are any number of instances that, from today’s perspective might give us pause.  These range from people with dubious, unsavoury, or even immoral habits, through to simply not doing some aspect of their craft well.  In either case, this leaves the question “should we abandon their work?”

It can be difficult/nigh on impossible to separate out the good from the bad.  We can probably all point to an example of a book or film or piece of music which has some distasteful element that, for us, distracts from the overall enjoyment of the creation.  Or perhaps we have learned of something about the author that makes it difficult to enjoy what is otherwise an excellent and thought provoking contribution.

There are a number of people who feel that the Star Trek episode misses the point or misses the mark.  So what if the information came from dubious sources? It doesn’t affect the current case, does it?  In “Yes, Prime Minister”, Sir Humphrey shows how you can get a person to give the answer that you want to a specific question, by using a number of preceeding questions to set it up.  In the same way you can argue the case for or against.  I’ve always viewed this episode as being an allegory for the knowledge, not just medical, but scientific and engineering knowledge too, that was gleaned by the Nazis and put to use by the Allies after the end of WW2.  The US put a man on the moon as a result of this knowledge.  There were all sorts of medical breakthroughs that are saving lives today, and giving people a much better quality of life.  But people died, painfully and in their thousands for that knowledge.  Should we not use that knowledge?  No, that doesn’t really make sense.  Can we afford to ignore this? Again, no.

Fundamentally we have to be critically engaged with what we read and watch and listen to, and discover the stories in the background, challenging any thing that denies people their humanity.  We need to be wary of lionising people, because there will almost always be something that comes to light that makes us pause.

As a writer, this gives me two things to consider: what can I do to remove prejudice from my work? and, if my work has any positive influence, do I have any opinions/habits that might detract from what I have to say?

How about you?  Any heroes that you’ve suddenly discovered have feet of clay?  Anything that you’re not sure about putting down on paper in case you get judged for it in the future?

© David Jesson, 2019

5 thoughts on “#Secondthoughts: Feet of Clay”

  1. The original Star Trek has a special place in television history: everyone has seen it and everyone likes it. There may be some who haven’t or some who don’t but I haven’t met them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. (Holds up hand) I have watched the original Star Trek but have a real problem with William Shatner, so it made it difficult for me to like that series, despite having an affection for many of the other characters. I’m a Next Generation fan through & through 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very profound FCBF for a Sunday – congratulations! You juggle a moral argument that has been going on for centuries amongst philosophers. So, of course, there is no easy, definitive answer. 🙂 I think that you hit the nub of the argument when you say “challenging any thing that denies people their humanity.” That is where the Nazis, Pol Pot, Mao Tsedong and (all?) other dictators fail. They forgot – or ignored – that they were not dealing with ‘units’ or ‘untermensch’ but people, people with rights, hopes and dreams.

    This is where the Christian theology breaks in: all of us, everybody, has fallen short of our ideal. In other words we all have feet of clay (an image from the Book of Daniel, btw, which, in part, untangles what happens when power forgets people). However we can all be redeemed, brought back to wholeness.

    One of the problems of humanity is that we cannot ‘unlearn’ or ‘uninvent’ things which leads to the EMH’s ethical dilemma: he can delete part of his data bank, but is he right to do so? The knowledge that he deletes may be crucial in saving a human life, if not immediately at some time in the future in an updated databank. It seems to me that this is in violation of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. (Query: is a hologram bound by the Laws of Robotics? What further dilemmas may your answer lead to? )

    It is a utilitarian answer to say that the end justifies the means: I think that we have to think carefully about how we deploy the knowledge that research uncovers and how that research is conducted. And to bear in mind that we are all fallible humans and dealing with fallible humans, and not robots or sub-humans.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Alan, can I just say “what you said”, although you give way better references.
      @breakerofthings, you’ve really outdone yourself with this post.

      Liked by 2 people

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