Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Voyager Re-Watch: Sacred Ground

Guys, I'm sorry. I just can't. This episode has always irked me. I'm not saying it's badly written. I'm not saying it's badly acted or directed or scored. But, it does make me make this face:
I don't even make this face when watching gross X-Files episodes.
Here's the thing--I don't think it's a Star Trek episode. At least, it shouldn't be. This episode is all about Janeway undergoing a sacred, religious, alien ritual in an attempt to get an answer for how to cure Kes (who walked into a weird alien field and got zapped into a death-like sleep.) An alien woman goes along with Janeway on this totally BS ritual and Janeway, all the while, is a willing participant who figures (as a scientist would/should) that any supposed spiritual benefit this ritual grants will also be physiological and replicable and will lead to a cure. Ultimately Janeway finishes this crazyness and Kes is cured and they move along with Janeway saying something kind of vaguely condescending about The Doctor's scientific explanation of what happened. 

Here's the thing: if this were a Chakotay (who is inherently spiritual) episode, I don't think I'd have as much of a problem. Of course, then it wouldn't be an episode. Chakotay would just walk straight through this business chanting a-koo-che-moya and lighting sage or whatever and it would take five minutes and he'd be like, "Here's the cure." Because that's how Chakotay rolls. 

You know how Janeway rolls? With the effing Scientific Method. That's how. 

And this entire time, the "guide" (pretend you can hear me saying that with utmost sarcasm) offers the kind of higher-than-thou patronizing smiles and nods that only the deeply religious can truly muster. Trust me. I grew up in the Bible Belt and I'm well attuned to the familiar "Bless his heart, he's going to Hell," passive aggressive attitude. 
Anyway, yes. The guide unnerves me. Yes, the giddy condescension of everyone involved makes me grumpy. But I think what really gets under my skin about this one is summed up in a line uttered by one of the maybe spirit guardians, maybe ancestral spirits, maybe bored old fogies in a cave, "If you can explain everything--what's left to believe in?"

I mentioned The X-Files earlier. It's one of my absolute favorite shows. I grew up with it and I love it to my core. I read somewhere that this episode's writer compared Sacred Ground to an X-Files episode. And, yes, this would've worked there. But Star Trek isn't The X-Files. Star Trek isn't about the struggle between science and faith. It's not about seeking out paranormal explanations when normal ones are the most probable. It's not about looking for wonder in the supernatural. 

Star Trek is about finding wonder in the physical universe, in the science of exploration, and in humanity itself. If you can't understand why these things are magnificent, beautiful, awe-inspiring, complex, and, yes, wondrous, then I'm not sure you get the whole Trek mission. And, as the captains of Trek are sort of the human embodiment of that mission, I feel like it completely goes against the conceit of the show to do an episode where Janeway finishes up with a "we don't have to understand everything" mentality. 

Maybe I'm not getting my point across. A few weeks ago Scott and I went to New York for the express purpose of seeing Penn and Teller on Broadway. I've been a fan since I was in 1st grade and saw their amazing "Don't Try This At Home" special. My husband has been following them practically his whole life. We always said if they ever went back to New York (their career took off in NYC about thirty years ago) that we would go. No matter what. We'd find a way and we would go. And so we did. And it was... magical. Anyway, P&T often end their Vegas show with their version of the bullet catch. It's loud. It's showy. It's amazing. It's perfect...except that both Scott and I have always preferred their alternate show ending. Fire eating. 

In a recent interview for NPR Penn recalls the great Richard Feynman (who'd brought some fellow Nobel winners and his wife along to a show) approaching him afterward and saying, "I wanted them to hear that monologue, and I especially want my wife to hear that monologue because she has never understood how those who look for answers are the ones who love the mystery the most. I could never explain that...your fire eating monologue does that." 

So, thanks to the internet, here's Penn's complete fire eating monologue. It's hella long but it's beautiful and worth the read. But, if you ever have a chance to see them live... go see them. 

[The stage is dark. Penn speaks to the audience.]
Everything that Teller and I do in this show comes from a love that we share of the American Sideshow.
[Penn lights a candle. He is seated on a stool.]
Now, the real name for the freak show is the Ten-in-One Show, and it's called the Ten-in-One Show because you get ten acts under one tent for one admission price.
When I was a kid I used to go the Franklin County Fair-- That's where the carnival came in my hometown. And that fair would be in town about ten days every year, and every one of those ten days, I'd go to the fair, and every day at the fair, I'd end up at the Ten-in-One Show. And I loved the freak show. I loved it because you'd pay your seventy-five cents and you were allowed to go into a tent with people who were entirely different from you, and then you could just stare at them.
And I loved the freaks, but I especially loved the self-made freaks, the fire-eater, the sword-swallower, the tattooed people, because they had made an extra decision to be there. I can remember standing in that tent watching the fire-eater and I swear my whole life was there; it meant everything to me.
And my friends would go with me to the Ten-in-One, but my friends were different, 'cause they took the whole show as some sort of weird challenge, and all through this fire-eater's perfect act, my friends would be talking. And they'd be saying stuff like, "Oh, I know how he does that, Penn, he just coats his mouth with something." They would try to convince me there was sort of something you could just smear in your mouth, then go suck on a soldering iron, and it wasn't going to hurt you.
And it's not just kids -- it's also adults-- and it's usually a man, and it's most often a man who's with some woman he's trying desperately, and often pathetically, to impress. And I'll hear this guy who just thinks he's got to pretend to know everything, you know? So he's saying stuff like, "Oh, don't worry about him honey, he's just using cold fire." Yeah. [He laughs]
Or needles. Now the reason that Teller and I are working together today, is about thirteen years ago I saw Teller on stage in Jersey, alone and silently eating those needles. When I watched him up on that stage I got that same feeling in my guts that I used to get watching the fire-eater as a kid, and I knew we had to work together, and we have been ever since.
Now, I go in to the lobby during intermission. I have a cola and I talk to folks and I hang out. But the whole time I'm talking, I'm also try to listen, and I've learned a lot from eavesdropping on you guys for all these years. And one of the things I've learned is there's a certain kind of person who comes to our show, and they may like the show, but they don't get it. And these are the people who cannot accept mystery.
Now I want to make this very clear to you: by "not accepting mystery," I am not talking about scientists, and I am not talking about skeptics. 'Cause I'm a skeptic, and I've always felt that skeptics love the mystery, and that's why they don't want to believe anything. They don't want to have any faith. They either want to have it scientifically proven over and over again, or they want to leave it alone. "We'll get to it. Let it go." The kind of people that cannot accept mystery are the kind of people that, when there's a mystery there, they just believe the first thing they're told for their whole life, or they pretend to have an open mind, so they'll believe anything that's popular that comes along, or they'll make up something that makes sense to them and they'll just believe it. Just anything to shut the mystery out of their heads and stop them from really thinking.
And I'll hear people doing this even with things as trivial as the needles. I'll hear guys in the lobby with these real authoritative voices gathering little crowds of people going, "Oh, yeah, needles, yeah, I figured that one out, sure. He's got a little pocket sewn in the back of his throat. It's a skin graft from his leg." Or my favorite one, and I actually heard this, I did not make this up. (Some stuff I just make up, but this I heard.) There was a guy in L.A., who was talking about "candy needles." Now I don't know where this guy ever heard of candy needles, but I assume he figured they're manufactured around Halloween time, as treats for the neighborhood children. I don't know.
Anyways, about nineteen years have passed, and those kids I grew up with, I guess they're all still living in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and I turned out to be a fire-eater, and the ironic thing I found out, is that there's no trick. Not to this. To everything else in the show there's a trick--don't let anybody tell you differently. Susan floating in the air, she wasn't hypnotized--there's no "balance point." Go home, get a chair, clear your mind, think clean thoughts, concentrate: you'll break your ass. It's a gimmick, it's a lie, it's a cheat, it's a swindle! But fire-eating is a stunt, and if anybody here still thinks that there's any such thing as cold fire, and I'm using it, you wait till I get it lit, you raise your hand, I'll stick it in your eye--prove it to you.
[Teller enters from left with the fire-eating props.]
Teller's coming out here with a fireproof camping fuel container. In the container is lighter fluid--it's Ronson brand--and Teller's dipping the torches in.
[Teller hands Penn a torch.]
The torches are cotton, sewn tightly around a threaded, metal rod that's then screwed into a wooden handle. It's not the cotton that burns, it's the fuel that burns and the way fire- eating works is this:
You've got moisture in your mouth, and all that moisture has to evaporate from any given part of your mouth, before that part will burn. So you learn how to handle the burning vapors, then you gotta make it look good. Now if you've got a lot of saliva in your mouth (and that's at least where I try to keep most of mine), you rub your lips right along the cotton and pull that vapor off. Now the vapor's still burning, but if you breathe in a little bit , the audience can't see it, so you've got a beautiful surprise there. The you just wait until the time is right an just let it flow, like it was magic smoke. Then when you want to put the fire out, there's a move for that, too, and it's the move that gives it the name "fire-eating." Now, you're not actually eating the flame, but I guess they figure that "Oral Fire Extinguishing" didn't sound that butch. When you feel your mouth drying out, you close your lips tightly. That cuts out most of the oxygen and... [he snaps his fingers] the fire goes out. Now when I was being taught this, I got burned every time I tried it, and I still get burned occasionally, but the burns you get from fire-eating are for the most part extremely minor. They're the kind of burns you get--you know what I'm talking about--when you eat a pizza too fast, and that cheese'll snag you, or you gulp some hot coffee. Now I'm not trying to snow you. I'm not talking mind-over-matter jive. There's no such thing, it just hurts like holy hell. But it's not dangerous. The dangerous thing is something lay people don't even think about. And that is every time you do this act, no matter how carefully or how well, you swallow about a teaspoon of the lighter fluid, and that stuff is poisonous--that's why they write "Harmful or Fatal if Swallowed" right there on the can-- and the effect is, to a certain degree, cumulative. Now I say a certain degree: I do eight shows a week, I'm a big guy, that doesn't effect me. Carnies, the real boys, they'll do up to fifty shows a day, and in as little as two or three years that stuff'll build up in their liver and they'll get sick enough, they actually have to take time off and do another line of work in the carney while that liver regenerates, which, thankfully, it will do.
Now I take the time to explain all of this to you in such detail because I think it's more fascinating to think of someone poisoning themselves to death slowly on stage than merely burning themselves, and after all, we're here to entertain you.
I really tell you this 'cause this is the last bit in the show, and when you leave here tonight and you're thinking about our show, as I hope you will be, I don't want you to be thinking about how we did it. I want you to be thinking about why. So sit back and relax, I'm going to burn myself.
[Teller lights the torch. Penn twirls it with a flourish.]
This move right here and this move right here are called stalling.
[Penn and Teller look out at the audience, studying them.]
I realize you've been sitting in these seats a long time, but if you can just bear with us another moment, we'd like to look out at you guys. 'Cause there's an obvious but still unique quality of live theater, and that is that while we're doing the show, you're right here in the room with us. And that means that light will fall on some of your faces. And if light happens to fall on one of your faces while we're doing the show we'll do a small part of the show for you, I mean, just for you, just staring right in your face. And when we do that, and we've picked you, and you know it, and you can feel it...we're not paying any attention to you at all. We're trying to get the tricks to work, get the laughs. We can't worry about you individually. So what I'm saying--convolutedly--is that right now is the place in the show we can look at you in the same light we're in, and we can kinda pay attention. And it's really important. And I used to feel that importance should be made explicit, so I would do these little speeches about community and these speeches were superficial and they were contrived, and I really believed them, so they were embarrassing. So now I'm trying to learn to shut up and look at you. Teller's got it down.
And if your the kind of person that needs to sum things up, all you need to know now is that you're in our tent, so it's okay. And the sideshow ain't dead. That's for damn sure.
[Penn eats fire.]


  1. It starts as a post about one of my least favorite episodes, and it ends with Richard Feynman & Penn and Teller. Gosh, I just love you!

  2. Holy mackerel! You were really pissed off!!

  3. I was so annoyed after watching this episode that I googled it so I could share my pain with others. Thank you for this awesome write up; I made the same face throughout, and I completely agree about how it would fit as an x-files episode.


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