Sunday, September 17, 2006

100 Years Young - Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Reverse aging. It's one of the most intriguing concepts in xenobiology introduced into the Star Trek universe. A quiet little episode of Voyager called "Innocent" features a Delta-Quadrant race called the Drayan that have this kind of life-cycle. Unfortunately the concept was introduced but barely explored. The cursory treatment of the idea probably left most fans scratching their heads, dismissing the whole notion of reverse aging, and forgetting about the Drayan as just another alien-species-of-the-week.

However, I would argue that this is a concept worthy of further consideration and is even a plausible idea——if not in the real world at least within the confines of the Star Trek universe.

To address this topic I will begin by briefly outlining the episode, focusing on how it introduces reverse aging, and identifying some of the specific reasons why the concept seems so problematic. Subsequent posts will attempt to address those problems and offer suggestions as to how all of this relates to the Drayan and what we know of the Star Trek universe.

An 'Innocent' Idea
At first "Innocent" appears to tell the story of the stoic Vulcan stranded with emotional children. It plays out like a cross between Picard stuck in a turbo-lift with three children in "Disaster" and Spock trying to command a stranded shuttle crew in "The Galileo Seven." But the children-in-danger-Tuvok-out-of-his-element story is really just a set up for the twist ending.

The children are not children at all, they are actually elderly. The Drayan age in reverse. When they are old, they become young and enter a state of total innocence. Then they come to a sacred moon——supposedly where the first spark of life came from——and they return from whence they came.

As much as I love twist endings, to really work they have to serve the story well. Unfortunately the big revelation in "Innocent" comes so late in the episode, and leaves so little time for us to come to terms with the Drayan life-cycle, that the ending falls a little flat. The concept is just too radical for us to process and accept without giving some further explanation and more time to really believe in it.

For example, consider the "little girl's" sudden, seemingly miraculous recovery from her amnesia-of-innocence. One moment she doesn't have a clue who she is or why she's there, the next she's reminiscing about her grandchildren. It's a jarring transition that underscores how rushed the ending is, and it makes the resolution feel contrived. That, in turn, contributes to the feeling that the premise of reverse aging itself must be phony.

All that being said, the episode does (almost) redeem itself during its final moments. There's a wonderful scene with Tuvok accompanying the child-elder during her final moments. It reflects the level of emotion a story about reverse aging could have had throughout had it been told a little differently.

With a little less plot trickery and a little more heart, this episode might have had a dramatic impact similar to the TNG episode "Half a Life" (which deals with an alien culture where people are expected to commit ritual suicide at the age of 60). In "Half a Life" the twist wasn't reserved for the end of the episode. It was far enough in to be surprising, but early enough that the concept could be explored. That kind of story-telling would have served the idea of reverse aging very well and would have allowed enough time to address a lot of unanswered questions.

Now please take this criticism with a grain of salt. Whatever its shortcomings may have been, "Innocence" obviously intrigued me enough to watch it and rewatch it, trying to figure out what this reverse aging stuff was all about. It genuinely captured my imagination, —and therein lies the story's power. To tap into that power, we just need to give it a chance.

But to give it a chance we're going to have to set aside some of our most deeply ingrained ways of thinking about life - which is not the easiest thing for any of us to do.

"I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think it Means"
"Inconceivable!" (Can't you just hear the Grand Nagus saying that?) That's probably what most people would call the idea of reverserese aging.

And for seemingly good reasons. All of our experience tells us that everything grows older—— never younger——and inevitably starts to deteriorate and then die. Soran put it like this: "You can try and outrun it with doctors, medicines, new technologies, but time will hunt you down and make the kill." Picard replied, "Our mortality defines us. It's part of the truth of our existence." (Star Trek: Generations).

Admittedly, it is hard to imagine there could be any other truth (any 'new truth,' as Soran put it). Some kind of timeless nexus aside, aging appears to be a universal characteristic of biological life. But we need to realize that when we say "universal" we are actually talking about a phenomenon we have only observed on one planet, our planet. You cannot demonstrate a pattern on the basis of a single point of data——and when it comes to aging that is, in effect, what we have: the earth, a single point of reference in an unfathomably large universe.

So how do we make the inconceivable, conceivable?

Basically, there are two related conceptual hurdles to accepting the possibility of a race like the Drayan: (1) Biological aging——the deterioration that comes with the passage of time——appears to be an inevitable biological fact. (2) Growth, by definition, work in one direction; organisms all start small and get larger as they get older.

How do we come to terms with these seemingly undeniable facts? My next post will examine the first of these two issues.

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Friday, September 08, 2006

An Away Mission to Poland

It has been far too long since I have posted anything. I didn't fall of the face of the planet, I just went to the other side - I took a two week trip to Poland. I intended to post something before I left, which became as soon as I get back, and weeks later I’m still trying to finish what I started before I left . . .

So in the meantime, I thought I would share something from my trip and one other random thought—both Star Trek related, of course.

While some friends and I were in Krakow, we ran into Jacek (pictured here). He struck up a conversation with us (his English is very good) and I quickly learned that he was a fan of Star Trek. When he said “Live Long and Prosper” shortly after we met him it kind of gave it away.

We ended up inviting him to eat with us in the old town square where we were able to talk Trek for a while. He told me his favorite series is The Next Generation. He described watching Star Trek in Polish and said sometimes the translations aren’t quite right – but knowing English helps him out.

As you can see in the picture, he was walking down the street carrying a dented satellite dish (maybe a deflector dish actually). He felt a little awkward carrying it into the cafĂ© where we ate, but he came along anyway. He had picked it up somewhere hoping he could turn it into a “solar oven or directional microphone.” When we started asking about it, he explained that Star Trek has prompted his interest in science and technology, so he has become something of a tinkerer/inventor.

So there we were, ‘seeking out new life, and new civilizations,’ and we met someone who knew what all that was about. It was one of many memorable moments on the trip.

Now for my random thought.

When I got back from Poland, someone introduced me to the Picard Song. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth checking out.