Chicken or Pledge, TOS: S2E23 “The Omega Glory”

Exploring the origins of a specific cultural belief often turns into a chicken or egg question.  Historians can speculate whether a society adopted a new creed based on the environmental pressures of the time, or if it was a natural progression of their already existing values.  The reality is most likely an intricate combination of the two, with the real truth often lost to the depths of time.  When Kirk encounters the citizens of Omega IV, and their strangely familiar values, he discovers how the belief system veered off course.

The Enterprise finds another Federation ship, the USS Exeter, orbiting Omega IV.  Upon investigation, Dr. McCoy finds that the entire crew was infected with a deadly disease which rapidly deteriorated the bodies into crystalised remnants of the body’s solid mass.  Log entries on the ship warn any passer-by that they are now infected with the same disease, and the only hope of survival is to take refuge on the planet.  Once below, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lt. Disposable encounter Exeter’s former leader, Captain Tracey.  In a convoluted series of events which ultimately lead nowhere, Captain Tracey tries to coerce the Enterprise crew into helping him discover and harness the secret to immortality from the planet.  The native inhabitants, warring tribes calling themselves the Yangs and Kohms, enjoy extremely long lifespans.  However, there is no fountain of youth; McCoy tries to explain to Tracey that the disease was engineered as a biological weapon and any immunity the planet’s inhabitants have gained was a result of natural selection.

As the struggle for an immortality serum takes a backseat, the real interesting aspect of this episode is that it presents an alternate history to Earth.  Kirk and Spock discover that the two warring tribes, the Yangs and Kohms, represent Yankees and Communists.  They openly fought the cold war that Earth avoided in the 20th century and did so with biological weaponry.  The Yangs recite a botched version of the Pledge of Allegiance and try to uphold American values as a mystic religion, passing down the meaningless words for generations.

Sometimes a culture incorporates aspects of a myth or legend and adapts them.  Either the culture has strong values and traditions first, and the mythos upholds them, or the myth came first, and a culture derives its values and traditions from it.  In this episode, the American Pledge of Allegiance became so mangled and meaningless that they didn’t really inspire anything.  The evolution of the pledge by the Yangs may be a better example of a culture adapting a new idea into its stronger social framework, since the Yangs had a sort of mystic value system which involved special knowledge. This must have been an elitist culture, in which a certain class would have access to the sacred words and powers.  They may have been confused by the concept of equality.

This cultural adaptation is similar to how the early Vikings viewed Christianity.  The Vikings were an honor-based society that valued skill in battle.  The thought of someone, like Jesus, going willingly toward their own execution would have been absurd to them.  Vikings were polytheistic and didn’t really have an issue with accepting the Christian god among their other gods, but they likely would have integrated it with their established value system.  Sometimes early Christian missionaries would portray Jesus as a warrior in order to appeal to the Viking culture of the time.  This adaptation abandoned the original teachings of this fundamental religious figure, who preached peace and a love of one’s enemy as the greatest value.  One culture’s teachings translating into another culture’s practices would distort them over time.

There are some reasons why a society would adapt a new belief system to such an unrecognizable extent: either they misunderstood it, or a special set of external circumstances forced them to adapt the belief.  From this episode, we see that the Yangs and Kohms are at war, and societies at war have different cultural priorities than societies at peace.  A culture would have a different worldview and value system if they were conquerors in the late stages of their glory or victims fighting the oppression of a stronger regime.  Perhaps the Yangs needed their elitist structure to give them a sense of stability, knowing that their rulers held special knowledge which would protect them from the oppressors.  The concept of equality would have been too much of a luxury at the time.  In contrast, American society formed its cultural mythos out of the struggle against British colonialism and unfair rulers, therefore embracing a strong sense of personal liberty and freedom.  Historical circumstances play a major role in what ideology emerges within a culture, but whether it helps the society discover the absolute truth of existence is the real mystery.

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