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The Trek Nation - 'What You Leave Behind': A Heliocentric Myth

'What You Leave Behind': A Heliocentric Myth

By Robert Burke Richardson
Posted at May 11, 2003 - 3:33 AM GMT

This is the third in a series of articles written by Robert Burke Richardson to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with each article examining a theme or issue explored during the show's seven-year run.


"The heliocentric universe has never been translated into a mythology. Science and religion have therewith gone apart. And that is the case to the present hour, with the problem even compounded by our present recognition of the inconceivable magnitude of this galaxy of stars, of which our life-giving sun is a peripheral member, circling with its satellites in this single galaxy among millions within a space of incredible distances, having no fixed form or end."
Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space


The role of mythology in both Star Trek and Star Wars — often via Campbell himself — has been documented in books such as Star Wars: The New Myth by Michael J. Hanson and Once Upon a Galaxy by Vulcan's Heart author Josepha Sherman, to name but two, so why would Campbell make this claim? Star Wars fulfills the promise of myth but makes no special use of its heliocentric setting while Star Trek, in its original form, is a valid heliocentric system that does not fulfill the full potential of myth.

Heliocentrism is at the core of Gene Roddenberry's idealism and, in this aspect at least, he and Campbell seem to agree. "For the conditions of life," Campbell writes of The Bible in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, "and of thought also, have considerably changed since the centuries of the composition of that guide to truth and virtue, which with its deliberately restricted and restricting ethnocentric horizon and tribal 'jealous God' (Exodus 20:5) is culture specific to such a degree that its 'folk ideas' and 'elementary ideas' are inseparably fused." The ideological fallout of the Copernican Revolution means that no geographical area or intellectual or emotional perspective can be favoured above all others (except, perhaps, for the perspective of the sun itself, which could be interpreted as the common good).

In Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation Gene Roddenberry elucidated a heliocentric ideal by focusing on races both earthly and extraterrestrial that work together in harmony. Religion is abandoned for science and everyone is better off for it. Rational principles rule the day, fulfilling the spirit of heliocentrism and abandoning ideals like faith. It would not be until "What You Leave Behind", the final episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that both of these ideals could be brought into harmony.

"What You Leave Behind": A Heliocentric Myth

It is my contention that Deep Space Nine achieved a synthesis between the rational and the irrational, between logic and faith, and therefore answers Campbell's call for a heliocentric myth. The heliocentric aspect of the Star Trek franchise is at the fore of its third incarnation, as evidenced by the fully integrated crew and dedicated exploration of multiple — and often conflicting — points of view. DS9 is heliocentric. The question then becomes, does Deep Space Nine qualify as a full-fledged myth?

Campbell had some pretty specific ideas about the requirements. "The first step to mystical realization," he writes, "is the leaving of a defined god for an experience of transcendence, disengaging the ethnic from the elementary ideal." In "What You Leave Behind", Captain Benjamin Sisko transcends time and space to join with beings who are both wormhole aliens (in the heliocentric paradigm) and Prophets to the people of Bajor (in the mythic perspective).

He continues: "Also, the first step to participation in the destiny of humanity today, which is neither of this folk nor of that, but of the whole population of this globe, is to recognise every such local image of a god as but one of many thousands, millions, even perhaps billions, of locally useful symbolizations of that same mystery beyond sight or thought which our teachers have taught us to seek in their god alone."

Sisko expresses a similar sentiment in "In the Hands of the Prophets" when he tells Keiko O'Brien, "There is room on this station for all philosophies." Keiko's heliocentric view comes into conflict with Vedek Winn's dogmatic perspective and the rest of the series can be seen as an attempt to reconcile these opposing views. Sisko's transcendence ultimately unifies both perspectives and tells a story that is wholly mythological and wholly heliocentric.

The heliocentric ideal first demonstrated by the crew of the NCC-1701 reaches its fullest expression in "What You Leave Behind". Kirk struggled with the fact that no perspective is favoured and Picard exemplified that view. Through Sisko we learn that every perspective is valid. This is a truly modern myth and the time has come for those who determine the fates of nations to learn it.

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Robert Burke Richardson is a freelance writer. One of his recent articles on television, "You Are What You Watch", can be found at SF-F.org.