Creativity and History: All Our Yesterdays
When I was a kid, I lived on a pure diet of science fiction. No quantity of spaceships or extra-planetary bases was too much.
I was sure that by sheer dint of will I could breathe liquid ammonia and endure six times’ Earth gravity if I really had to in order to travel among the stars and visit alien worlds.
There is even a book called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek, written by Dave Marinaccio. It can be plausibly argued that a whole generation of scientists was electronically suckled in this fashion. It worked for me.
All Our Yesterdays
One of my many favorite episodes was entitled “All Our Yesterdays.” It sounds a bit like a strange take on a soap opera, but in fact it was about time travel.
But even that angle was atypical.
Most time travel fiction involves a machine that can move you forward or backwards in time, up or down like an elevator, perhaps to the Roman Empire or a thousand years into the future.
The particular time travel in this Star Trek episode was only backwards, because there was no forwards, no future.
The reason there was no future was that the planet Sarpeidon where the action occurred orbited a star that was about to explode, causing the planet to be vaporized, eliminating any meaningful future.
When the crew of the Enterprise showed up to possibly serve as a rescue mission to those remaining on the planet, they found only one person, a “librarian” named Mr. Atoz, who presided over a large collection of shelves containing cool silvery metallic disks, each of which projected pictures of the past when it was inserted into a kind of “player,” accompanied by an inimitable sound.
Upon revisiting this episode, I realized that Atoz was a fine name for a librarian, because it could be parsed as “A-to-Z.” This must be a year for obvious realizations, as it has only been a few weeks since I realized that Bordeaux, France was “Bord-d’eaux” or edge-of-the-waters. Just beachy.
There were some aspects of this episode that transcended space opera and struck me as philosophical.
In fact the episode was produced and directed by four-time Emmy winner Marvin Chomsky, who happens to be the cousin of Noam Chomsky, the famous MIT professor, linguist, and political philosopher. I suspect there may have been some conversations between the two of the sort that produced the name Atoz.
The time machine portal itself was called the “Atavachron”, which is related to the word “atavistic”, meaning “relating to or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.”
The Ever Present Psyche
Wherever the Enterprise’s crew members would turn while wandering the library, Mr. Atoz would appear. He did not seem to be physical in this sense, but psychological, always unavoidably present, unconstrained by issues of motion and space, able to de- and re-materialize seemingly at will. He looked like a wizened geezer, but he was surprisingly strong and fast and sneaky.
Secondly, the planet’s name Sarpeidon was very similar to Sarpedon, a name from Homer’s Iliad, a child of the god Zeus and a mortal who fought on the side of the Trojans but was slain by the Greek hero Patroclus.
The planet Sarpeidon was to be “slain” by a supernova.
In Greek mythology, the warrior Sarpedon’s body was rescued by Apollo after his death and rendered unto the gods of Sleep and Death. More psychological undertones.
Lastly, when you leapt through the Atavachron to go somewhere in the past to live out your life without fear of supernova annihilation, you could only live a few hours in the past unless you were “prepared.”
Being prepared seemed to indicate some kind of biological and perhaps psychological restructuring, the details were (brilliantly) left to the imagination of the viewer.
There was a fascinating asymmetry about being prepared—You could live out your life in your chosen place in history if prepared, but you would die immediately if you attempted to return to the Library. It was a one-way trip.
If you weren’t prepared, you could remain in the past briefly and return to the present without consequence if you could find your way back.
But there was no cost to merely view the past in the special viewing device, one seemed to be able to do that without consequence. (unless your Sun blew up while you were watching)
The Inner Librarian
I found this episode returned to my thoughts many times over the intervening decades. It was more than a space drama with a few cliffhangers, there was something in it that I could not let go of and would not let go of me.
It had to do with one’s relationship with the past. For people who are engrossed in creative pursuits with vast and rich histories, the past is formidable and sometimes overwhelming.
How can one write music when Bach and Stravinsky have already done so?
How can one paint when Rembrandt and Picasso have already done so?
The past always seems bigger than the present, elsewhere is always bigger than here. But here and now is all we truly have.
One has to face one’s inner librarian, give Mr. Atoz his due, and make the choice of leaping into the safety of the Atavachron to live someone else’s life in the past, or to face the very finiteness of one’s life span, one’s personal supernova after a few hours (or decades) and to live bravely in the here and now.
With gratitude from our studio to yours,
Nancy & Bruce
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