"Where do you want to go today?"

Star Trek's The Cage: Simulation as a
Symbol of Dreams and Regression

by Ken Sanes

In the last few decades, the world's technologically advanced societies have made dramatic progress toward creating simulations that are difficult to distinguish from reality. The first significant forms of this new technology were film and television, which create moving replicas of situations and environments that viewers can look in on from the outside. With video and computer games, virtual realities, themed environments of fantasy, and others form of fiction, people are gaining control over the images and beginning to move inside them, or to appear to do so.

As these technologies continue to advance, it has become apparent that the creators of this technology aren't merely trying to fabricate simulations of objects and situations. They are taking the first steps toward creating imitation realities that will appear to surround the individual like a physical environment and yet be open to all the control individuals now have over their own imaginations.

A new branch of social science that spans traditional disciplines will be faced with the task of understanding why humanity is creating this technology and how the technology is experienced, in terms of conscious and unconscious fantasy. Fortunately, science fiction already provides a stock of "free associations" in the form of films, television programs and literature that are a rich source of the fantasies that have become attached to simulation technology. They reveal that people frequently experience simulations as day and night dreams that have seemed to come to life in which desires are gratified in simulated form and all the frustrations and pain that are experienced in reality are eliminated. As part of these associations, people may also experience simulated environments as places in which the user regresses into a childlike symbiosis with good parents who offer gratification, or in which they are controlled by malevolent parents who plunge them into nightmarish day and night dreams, and into the illusions of neurosis, to control and injure them.

Here are some of the elements of one common story line that is clearly about the kinds of ideas just described. In these stories:

1. The hero-victim is trapped in one or more imitation realities. The hero may not realize at first that he (or she) is perceiving simulations or he may be unsure. He may also be so taken in by the realism that he reacts as if the illusions are real, although he knows they aren't. In any case, he is imprisoned, unable to find his way back to normal perception. He thus experiences various degrees of simulation entrapment and simulation confusion, when it comes to belief and emotion.

2. The entrapment in the imitation reality may be the result of an accident of one sort or another, or it may by the work of a malevolent simulator who controls the illusions. The malevolent simulator may create the illusions out of the hero's own fantasies and memories, so it appears to the hero he is reliving past events or experiencing situations in which his desires are fulfilled or fears appear to come to life.

3. Typically, the malevolent simulator has a unique vantage point from which he can see both the simulations and the reality, thereby allowing him maximum ability to manipulate the hero-victim.

4. The malevolent simulator is trying to achieve any one of a number of goals, which can include one or more of the following: he is trying to win control over the hero, perhaps to achieve some other end and perhaps to save himself; he is enjoying sadistically torturing the hero; he is studying the hero; he is trying to vampirically feed off the hero's experiences.

5. The malevolent simulator may try to achieve his ends by using simulation to reward and punish the hero, offering worlds of unending pleasure, including the pleasure of indulging evil and anti-social desires, and also by threatening or inflicting pain or terrifying the hero.

6. The hero may encounter other victims in these simulated worlds who may already be controlled by the simulator and who may act on behalf of the simulator to win the hero's compliance. Given that the hero can't trust his perceptions, these other victims may or may no be real.

7. The hero tries to escape the trap of illusion. In the process, he may win over fellow prisoners and attempt to free them as well.

8. To escape the trap, the hero must resist the pleasures of simulation and the fear of pain and danger, and/or must see the falseness of lifelike illusions. He uses anti-simulation devices and techniques to see through the illusion and regain the correct perception of reality. Techniques can include the following: he reminds himself it is a simulation; he looks for discrepancies and imperfections in the illusion, checking what he experiences with what he knows to be true; he refuses to defend himself against apparent dangers and discovers he is uninjured.

9. In the end, the hero usually escapes the simulation, overcomes the malevolent simulator, discovers the reason he was entrapped and sets things right. In some instances, he discovers that the simulator had retreated into simulation or was forcing him into simulation because of some catastrophe that makes the world no longer available or makes it hard to face.

10. Seen in the light of normal perception, the malevolent simulator may now also be revealed as other than he was perceived. He may suddenly appear weak and have few powers beyond those of illusion and may end up an object of sympathy.

Science fiction clothes these elements differently and puts them together in various combinations to create what appear to be different plots, characterizations, conflicts etc. But we appear to be looking at a transformation of the following psychodynamic fantasies, in which, by virtue of its similarity to products of imagination, simulation is experienced as fantasy, as daydreams and in particular, the dreams of sleep. Like dreams, simulations trap the hero in illusions and cut him off from the world, and like dreams, they are often created out of the hero's own memory and imagination. Like the dreamer, the hero must remind himself he is trapped in a dream, in order to not be taken in by the illusion. The malevolent simulators play the role of evil parents who entrap the child in his own dreams, to punish, torture, control or test him. In a sense, these stories are the child's answer to the question "Where do day and night dreams come from?" and "Who controls dreams?" The answer, which must correspond to a belief of childhood, is that all-powerful parents with abilities to observe and control us, from outside and inside our minds, are responsible for dreams.

Somewhat more subtly, simulation may be experienced as the illusions of the mind, which cause us to project our own memories and fantasies onto the world and misperceive it as something different than it is. Here, the parents draw the child into a fantasy world of neurosis, evoking demons and delusions, and presenting him with apparent dangers and sources of gratification, none of which turn out to be real.

At the same time, the fact that simulation can appear to instantly satisfy desires; its ability to appear to enclose the individual and its similarity to imagination, fantasy and dreams, leads it to also be experienced as a form of regressive symbiosis, that protects the hero-child from having to confront the challenges and frustrations imposed by reality and healthy parenting. When the malevolent simulator offers unending pleasures to the hero-victim, we have infantilizing parents who are trying to fixate the child on the satisfactions of childhood, so he will remain in a symbiotic relationship with the parent. In particular, the parent tries to addict the child to waking or sleeping dream worlds of symbiotic pleasure and satisfaction.

Simulation may also offer these pleasures and satisfactions without being a product of manipulative simulators, of course. Either way, the hero-victim is enticed or almost enticed into settling for a life in which he can hallucinate the lost objects of desire.

The hero's quest in all of this is to wake up from the waking dream and the illusions implanted by his parents and see the world as it is, and refuse the satisfaction of regressive desires. In other words, it is to grow up.

The other prisoners in these stories are siblings, a parent or other household members. The changed perceptions of the simulator that occur when the illusion is overcome correspond to the changes in perception that individuals have of their own parents when they grow beyond childhood and/or neurosis. Parents who were seen as evil and powerful may appear weak and sympathetic and as trying to save themselves; parents who appeared benevolent may appear malevolently motivated.

If there is a catastrophe that has caused the simulators to create a realm of illusion, it may refer to fears of catastrophe and retaliation, which motivate parents or child to sink into their own neuroses and into fantasy.

A good example of this kind of plot sequence is "The Cage", the pilot for the original Star Trek, which provides a nearly complete inventory of the fantasies described above. Christopher Pike, the original commander of the Starship Enterprise, is imprisoned in an underground complex on the planet Talos IV by a race of small, frail humanoids with oversized craniums, who, as one crew member explains, have minds that "can create illusions out of a person's own thoughts and memories and experiences, even out of a person's own desires; illusions just as real and solid as this table top and just as impossible to ignore."

The Talosians try to control Pike's will by rewarding and punishing him with artificially induced experiences. As he quickly learns, there is no break in the fabric of illusion through which he can find a way out. One moment he is standing in a cell when, in the next moment, he seems to be reliving a recent fight on another planet. As he is confronted by the image of a violent, man-like creature, he tries to deny the efficacy of the experience, while a female prison-mate who shares the illusion and who has long since submitted to the Talosians, warns him the pain will be very real:

"I was in a cage, a cell in some kind of a zoo," he says. "I must still be there. They've reached into my mind and taken the memory of somewhere I've been."

The creature gets nearer.

"Quick if you attack while its not looking," she tells him.

"But it's only a dream," he counters.

"You have to kill him as you did here before," she says.

"You can tell my jailers I won't go along with it. I'm not an animal performing for its supper."

"It doesn't matter what you call this. You'll feel it. That's what matters. You'll feel every moment of what has happened to you."

As the Talosians watch these simulated events on a viewer screen, as if Pike is a character on a television program, one says they are trying to evoke protective urges in him toward his female prison-mate.

At another point, he is in a pastoral scene with her, with what appears to be a city in the far background, with his favorite horse. Once again, he must remind himself it is illusion.

Later, Pike finds himself at an imaginary feast that is supposed to give him a taste of the pleasures of evil, as his female prison-mate now appears as a seductive, dancer. Two imaginary companions try to strike a Faustian bargain with him, posing a question that humanity is now posing to itself:

"Suppose you had all of space to choose from and this was only one small sample - " one begins.

"Wouldn't you say," asks the other, "it was worth a man's soul?"

Pike resists and, ultimately, overcomes the Talosians and discovers their secret. They are the last members of a dying race that destroyed the surface of its planet in a war and escaped underground, where it developed the power of illusion to compensate for confinement. The Talosians hoped to use Pike to breed a slave population that would reclaim the surface. They are unable to do it themselves - their ability to act has been sapped by illusion.

"...they found it's a trap, like a narcotic, because when dreams become more important than reality you give up travel, building, creating, ..." Pike's companion explains. "You just sit living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought records."

At the level of symbolism, Pike doesn't merely go underground into the Talosians' subterranean complex; he goes into the underworld of dreams. There, the Talosians reach into his memory to create a prison of illusions, as dreams do to the dreamer, while he fights to stay awake and remind himself it is a dream.

The Talosians represent aging parents -- they are effete fathers -- unable to go courageously into life, who use their power to trap an innocent child in his own dreams and mistaken perceptions, at a time when the child has entered young adulthood, in an attempt to steal his independence, vicariously live through him and feed off his strength, with the intention of ultimately getting him to undo the effects of their own impotence. The Talosians are parents who let aggression get out of control, suffered catastrophe as a result and are forced to retreat into a world of fantasy.

"The Cage" also contains an Oedipal element that can be found in other works on simulation. The Talosians who are shown appear to be both older and male. They offer Pike a young, beautiful woman for a prison-mate who turns out, beneath the illusion, to be old and physically crippled not unlike the older and crippled Talosian race. In effect, the father is portrayed as offering the son the mother as a sexual object, to keep him enslaved. In the end, the son rejects the offering, sees the mother as she is, matures and leaves home.

The novel The Futurological Congress by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem presents the same elements in a different form, blending fears of television and drugs. The main character, Ijon Tichy, emerges from suspended animation in a future society in which "psycho-chemical" drugs are used to induce realistic hallucinations of the user's choice. The result is a society that is so immersed in illusions that it is difficult to tell where simulation ends and reality begins. Like Pike, Tichy is offered the pleasures of simulation, including the pleasure of indulging forbidden fantasies, in order to bind him to his new world and control him. And like Pike, he resists, in this case taking an illegal anti-simulation drug that unpeels layers of illusion.

Near the end, he discovers that drugs are secretly being sprayed into the air to create a collective hallucination so members of this society believe they are living in luxury when the environment and economy are collapsing. Here, the malevolent simulator, a character named Symington, reveals the truth.

" 'We keep this civilization narcotized, for otherwise it could not endure itself. That is why its sleep must not be disturbed...The year is 2098, with 69 billion inhabitants legally registered and approximately another 26 billion in hiding. The average annual temperature has fallen four degrees. In fifteen or twenty years there will be glaciers here. We have no way of averting or halting their advance - we can only keep them secret.' "

"I always thought there would be ice in hell,' Tichy responds. "And so you paint the gates with pretty pictures."

At the level of psycho-dynamic symbolism, the psycho-chemical society is the self under repression, creating a world of fantasy so as not to see the catastrophe it fears awaits it in reality.

As both these works vividly illustrate, the malevolent simulator is at times as much a symbol of the dangers of regression as the hero. In effect, a symbolic juxtaposition is set up in some works: the hero is the individual who resists the lure of regression, matures and prospers; the malevolent simulator is the individual who fails at that task. He may then try to trap the hero to save himself.

Both "The Cage" and The Futurological Congress also provide ideal symbols for the way the self goes underground and into hiding because of a catastrophe it fears it will evoke by its actions, although in one case the catastrophe is portrayed as having occurred while in the other it is about to occur.

It is no coincidence that simulation repeatedly appears in conjunction with the idea of Armageddon. The Talosians retreat underground and into illusion after their lust for power destroys their world, just as the child retreats into fantasy and its true thoughts retreat into the unconscious when it fears a confrontation over its desires or fears that aggression will go out of control. The psychemized society in The Futurological Congress tries to use fantasy to hide impending destruction, the way children hide from fear by retreating into fantasy. These are the melodramas of childhood written as future history and the race's concern that it will suffer retaliation for trespassing into the domain of the gods, or that it will abuse its power. In these fantasies, mankind is discovered thinking simultaneously about the development of the individuals and the race, which often spring from the same motives.

Both of these works reveal how we experience existing forms of simulation technology and will experience new forms. And both provide predictions of the dangers the technology presents for the individual and the race. They tell us that simulation offers humanity a new and improved neurosis and form of regression, a world of perfect fantasy, with more regressive pleasure, better substitutes for real satisfactions and less suffering. It beckons with the promise of pleasure and victory and the indulgence of forbidden desires, and offers endless possibilities where the subject can play at maturity, along with everything else. At the same time, it threatens to release our demons and make them seem to come to life.

* * * * * *

Note: Some of the characteristics described in this essay for imitation realities are also true of other controlled environments and false utopias, governed by dictators, which are depicted in fiction. And some of the characteristics it describes are true of depicted situations in which a character is subjected to a con, and finds him or herself not in a full-blown imitation reality, but merely in a falsified situation.

All situations that involve placing someone in an environment controlled by someone else can evoke fantasies of being a child in a house or a dream or a fantasy controlled by parents. The controlled environment the character is in can be a high-tech city, a virtual reality, or a situation involving a con. In our own lives, we may also experience a work of fiction or nonfiction, such as this, that we enter psychologically, and that is controlled for us by the creator, as re-creating a fantasized version of a parent-child relationship.


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