Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: November 8, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0 (but at least one citizen of Yonada dies for defying the Oracle)

Bellybuttons: 0 (Natira’s wardrobe is a close call)

“For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (referred to from here on as “World”) presents two storylines that nicely parallel each other. This week, the Enterprise is fired on by missiles and traces the source to Yonada, a generation ship disguised as an asteroid. Yonada’s inhabitants are controlled by a godlike computer called the Oracle (voiced by James Doohan) and don’t even know they are on a ship, making it tough to convince them they are on course to collide with a heavily populated planet (3.7 billion) in one year’s time. Simultaneously, McCoy diagnoses himself with xenopolycythemia, a terminal condition for which no cure is available. He estimates that he, like Yonada, has about one year to live.

Early versions of the Asteroids video game were a little too life-like

The prologue does a fine job of creating multiple levels of tension. McCoy’s illness reminds us that even galactic explorers will sometimes fall prey to random fates with no connection to Klingons or giant space amoebas. Polycythemia is a real disease relating to either a dramatic increase in red blood cells or a dramatic decrease in blood plasma. Xenopolycythemia is a fictional Star Trek disease; “xeno” translates to alien/strange/guest/foreign, implying that McCoy’s system is being overrun by foreign cells. We don’t know if the condition is contracted or if it develops spontaneously. Chapel, Kirk, and Spock remind us of the multitude of responses to grief: Chapel is angry, Kirk is sad, and Spock is typically stoic. The moment when Spock learns of McCoy’s illness and puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder is a combination of brilliant writing and acting.

Like sands in the hourglass, these are the light years of our lives

The encounter with Yonada forces Kirk, initially the only person besides Chapel who is aware of McCoy’s situation, to delay his mourning and deal with command duties. Yet the personal crisis is never out of his mind – he discourages McCoy from joining the Yonada landing party and frets over McCoy the entire time. When McCoy abruptly decides to marry high priestess Natira (Kate Woodville) and remain on Yonada, Kirk is as dumbfounded as we are. He expected at least a final year with McCoy, and suddenly even that is taken from him. Kirk seems disoriented by the entire situation, particularly now that the Yonadans are, in a sense, his inlaws, creating a personal incentive to save these people who won’t even acknowledge that they need saving. This is somewhat “The Paradise Syndrome” in reverse; instead of fooling around on a doomed planet while disaster approaches, the Enterprise puts the horse before the cart here and attempts to divert Yonada’s course before it can cause widespread destruction. This creates an interesting Prime Directive dilemma, as noninterference would require sacrificing both Yonada and the residents of Yonada’s accidental target. We can trust the Prime Directive has a loophole allowing for such extreme situations.

The landing party is attacked by that great scourge of the galaxy, the Pajama Gang

Yonada’s design, concealed as a wandering asteroid with oblivious occupants, is a mystery to everyone. “One fails to see the logic in making a ship look like a planet,” Spock says. Spock and Kirk, by interviewing Natira and conducting their own research, determine the ship was launched ten thousand years ago by the Fabrini, an ancient species presumed extinct when their sun turned supernova. The Yonadans are descendants of the Fabrini and the asteroid/ship was intended to take them to a new, inhabitable world before it went off course. Why are the Yonadans ignorant about their situation? A sophisticated species leaving behind technology that their dimwitted ancestors can’t decipher is a recurring theme in TOS; we’ve seen it in “The Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,” with variations on the concept in “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Changeling.” We assume the Fabrini intentionally kept their descendants in the dark, but ten thousand years is a long time. What if they just forgot? That’s the premise of Robert Heinlein’s novel Orphans of the Sky (1963). In Heinlein’s story, a mutiny on a generation ship causes the death of much of the crew. The descendants of the survivors gradually forget both their mission and their technological skills, committing to repressive religious views and performing tasks with no understanding of their larger purpose. If that seems like a long shot, consider the fickle and forgetful nature of 21st century humans – we can scarcely agree on what happened yesterday, much less ten thousand years prior. Perhaps this happened to the Yonadans over the many centuries they drifted through space.

Spock is easily distracted by a good word puzzle

The Oracle controls Yonada’s people with an “instrument of obedience” implanted in each individual’s head. If anyone gets out of line, the Oracle uses the instrument to inflict pain, then it kills them if the behavior continues. It does this with the old man (Jon Lormer) who confesses to the landing party that he has explored forbidden parts of Yonada and become aware of the outside universe, giving us the episode’s wordy title. The man is promptly killed as soon as he discloses his secret. Natira says, “It is written that those of the people who sin or speak evil shall be punished.” Yet the old man wasn’t killed for sneaking around, but for talking about what he had found. Likewise, the Oracle doesn’t injure McCoy until he reports the Oracle’s “Book of Knowledge” to the Enterprise. This implies that the Oracle doesn’t fear individual knowledge, but the sharing of information, because few things threaten repressive leadership more than a well-informed public. This is the origin of censorship and book burning. It explains why white supremacists in the United States fear accurate teaching about slavery and the Civil War, and why Texas Republicans are so bothered by the 2021 book Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, which effectively deflates the white über-hero mythology that is so ingrained in many Texans’ self-image. Even as the Oracle leads its people to oblivion, it knows it will fall from power if the citizens of Yonada reach common consensus about their predicament.

The old man offers something that is definitely probably hopefully not cocaine

From my previous viewings of “World,” I had forgotten Natira’s intriguing character arc. As Yonada’s High Priestess, she comes across as a confident leader initially, ordering various underlings as they first assault, then play host to, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. She is downright bold in approaching McCoy, speaking with complete candor about the immediate attraction they feel for each other. She claims it is customary in Yonada for people to speak openly about their feelings, but we don’t sense the same confidence from the few others we meet. Yet Natira kneels before the Oracle and follows its instructions without question, making her as subservient as all the other Yonadans. Once Kirk and Spock defeat the Oracle and convince Natira of the truth, and McCoy removes the obedience instrument when the Oracle assaults Natira for her blasphemous thinking, the High Priestess becomes a true leader. Both wiser and more humble, she sends new husband McCoy (more on that shortly) on his way, determined, like Moses, to lead her people to their promised land.

Like women throughout the galaxy, Natira shops exclusively at Frederick’s of Hollywood

One of the episode’s only flaws is the rushed romance between McCoy and Natira; we can at least be grateful she’s still alive at the end. We’ve seen numerous hurried affairs between Kirk and an alien-woman of the week, why is it different when McCoy is involved? I believe it’s because the captain’s flings are intended to be short-term from the start, at least by Kirk. For McCoy, however, this is new territory; he’s usually too busy curing diseases and complaining to have a personal life. But simply by the nature of McCoy’s personality we can expect that he is more inclined to long-term romance rather than a one-night, or one-episode, stand. It’s shocking when McCoy commits to marrying Natira and decides to abandon the Enterprise, but we should remember that he is not entirely himself, having just learned he is living on borrowed time. Either way, it’s thrilling to see an episode focused on McCoy that doesn’t involve him constantly complaining.

Yonada’s Book of Knowledge, from the same publishers who brought you Chicago Mobs of the Twenties

In their short time together, McCoy and Natira do a fine job of negotiating what amounts to an interfaith marriage. We can reasonably infer that McCoy is atheist or agnostic. Natira is definitely the subject of a religious order – she refers to her Fabrini ancestors as “creators,” words like “sacrilege” and “repent” are thrown around, and she kneels on an altar to speak with the Oracle. While McCoy doesn’t commit fully to Natira’s belief system – that would be dishonest – he does accept her rituals entirely, including the implant of an obedience instrument. This commitment earns McCoy influence later, when the Oracle wants to execute Kirk and Spock for snooping around; McCoy pleads their case with Natira and she concedes. Ultimately, this influence is what saves the day, when Natira values her oath to McCoy over her duties to the Oracle, accepting that Yonada is a spaceship: “I believe with you, husband.”

Kirk and Spock experience the Oracle’s electrifying presence

Other, higher, duties still come first, however, and Natira remains on Yonada to lead her people rather than go with McCoy on the Enterprise. Ironically, “natira” is a Filipino word that translates approximately as “remainder” or “cast off.” The Yonadans are all that remains of Fabrini culture, and now find themselves cast off from the Oracle on which they’ve depended for so long. McCoy is cast off from his old life, distinguished from his shipmates by a ticking clock. It’s fitting that these misfits would come together to save one another. Yonada is now back on course and McCoy is healed thanks to the Fabrini knowledge base that includes, among other things, a cure to xenopolycythemia.

“Great leadership, Natira, just keep doing everything I say.”

It’s not entirely clear what the Enterprise crew has learned from the experience – this Fabrini database sounds exciting, who’s following up on that? Natira, however, has learned the classic Star Trek lesson about investing too much faith in technology, but she also understands the danger of too much faith in anything but the truth. Approaching enlightenment, Natira asks the Oracle, “Is truth not truth for all?” The Oracle, like all fundamentalist leaders or, for that matter, the jealous God of the Old Testament, answers, “The truth of Yonada is your truth. There can be no other for you.” This might work for personal opinions, but gets us nowhere regarding public policy. Practicing religious rituals in the privacy of one’s home or place of worship is one thing, but the Oracle’s commitment to the hollow world of its programming nearly destroys Yonada and billions of innocents on another world. Burying our heads in the sand is a path to ruin, when we should, instead, reach for the sky.

Next: The Tholian Web