Hitting a Wall, TOS: S3E8 “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky”

The Enterprise crew encounter a ship disguised as an asteroid on a collision course with the planet Daran V. Its inhabitants are the descendants of an alien race called the Fabrini, whose planet was destroyed long ago. Aboard their multi-generational ship, they have forgotten their original purpose over time (or they weren’t allowed to know it in the first place). The inhabitants of the asteroid ship are fitted with ‘obedience devices’, which prevent them from questioning their situation for some reason. The authoritarian devotion to their ‘religious’ cult of secrecy makes it difficult for Kirk and crew to intervene and save the doomed ship.

The concept of subsequent offspring forgetting the purpose of their multi-generational journey has been frequently explored in SciFi. For example, a book published shortly after this episode was aired (possibly inspired by it) was Harry Harrison’s “Captive Universe”, in which the inhabitants of a multi-generational ship were intentionally not told of their mission because the original planners felt that their descendants could not handle the mental strain. It is interesting if that was the case here, because that would explain the ‘obedience devices’ and the hostility toward questioning that became a religion for the Fabrini.

The seemingly hostile portrayal of religion is a strong theme in this episode, as it demonstrates how inherited belief systems suppress inquiry, uphold systems of rigid authority, and pass down misinterpreted beliefs which are far removed from their original meaning. I would disagree. For example, it is intriguing that the Fabrini kept the ‘book of the people’ as a sacred text, because they believed it was important, and in the end, it turned out to be an instruction manual with information pertaining to their entire world/ship. However, this argument would only show that people can be persuaded to blindly protect a sacred item without fully understanding its meaning. In contrast, many religions and spiritual practices work to ask difficult questions to uncover the true meaning of our existence. The Fabrini’s blind obedience and submission to authority is an example of the unfortunate effects of some ideologies, but not all.

Rituals and traditions are essential in maintaining a living religion by connecting its teachings to the daily lives of human beings in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, they can easily turn into either runaway authoritarianism, or prideful comparisons of who practices the ‘rules’ best. The true meaning of the religion lies underneath what these rituals represent. As sentient beings, we come into the world with many questions: why are we here? Does my existence have meaning? How do I live a good life? What is good? These are the questions that religions try to answer within their own philosophical framework, and their answers often give meaning to people’s lives. The Fabrini held beliefs about the asteroid, which was their entire world. Believing there is something about our existence that transcends our bodies, or that when we die we become part of a greater whole, can provide answers as to why we are here; they inform what we can do to make the world, and our own lives, better. These beliefs are conceptualized as rituals, which pass their meaning on to other people, around the world and across generations.

Unfortunately, this episode defaults to the surface-level depictions found in pop culture in which religious practice is portrayed as a shallow repetition of phrases or practices without meaning, and blind obedience to authority. In practice, there will always be someone who pushes back, or questions such authority. Assuming the society doesn’t have such draconian control measures as an ‘obedience device’, the person questioning the cultural practices and beliefs will naturally be in search of the truth. If the core of the religious and spiritual belief systems are born out of concrete truth, then the truth-seeker will inevitably find it. The fact that we exist is profound, existence is a miracle, and unity produces a far greater existence than evil and selfishness. Any deep truth-seeker who wants to find the secrets to their existence may compare a number of beliefs and find them lacking. Eventually they hit a wall, the edge of knowledge which defines the whole, when they reach out and touch the sky.

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