Sunday, May 05, 2013

Secret Star Trek: The Ultimate Trekkies


For such a small and obscure group, Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate cult has had an outsized impact on the culture. Their mass suicide captured the public's imagination in ways that the more grisly horrors at Jonestown, Waco and the Solar Temple did not.

For good reason: the Gate captured the zeitgeist of the 90s, with their obsession with technology and the Internet. By comparison, Jonestown was a relic of the Depression-era revival tent, the suicide-by-Fed horror at Waco was the inevitable result of the CIA's Jesus People mind control program and the Solar Temple were some weird relic of the Old World, a bizarre and quixotic retreat to a long-gone past.

But Heaven's Gate and their leaders Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles became a media sensation a quarter century before the events at Rancho Santa Fe, when a large group of their followers disappeared into the primeval forests of the American northwest smack dab in the middle of one of the most remarkable UFO flaps in history. They eventually emerged from their exile only to go underground as one of the strangest cults of our times.

Both the disappearance and the suicides had a huge impact on pop culture, ultimately inspiring this TV movie- which believe it or not was a series pilot- The Mysterious Two, which recently popped up on YouTube.

Produced in 1979 but unaired until 1982, The Mysterious Two is yet another film that one can imagine Chris Carter and his producers soaking up while at college, since you can see pieces of it all over various X-Files episodes (particularly the pivotal 'Red Museum', which features almost too many parallels to the Gate). 

One might speculate that The Mysterious Two could have also been a major influence on The 4400, seeing that various Star Trek alumni were involved in that heavily X-Files influenced series, a connection that bears special attention.

The Mysterious Two is a classic 70s sci-fi potboiler, very much of the type of films Mike Clelland and I discussed during our marathon gabfest. None other than Charlie himself- John Forsythe- plays the Applewhite role here. Forsythe was one of those classically handsome Jewish actors who were cast as idealized WASP patriarchs in the Sixties and Seventies when WASP dominance was becoming a thing of the past (Lorne Greene and of course, William Shatner, often played those same types of roles, most importantly on Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, respectively).

Forsythe is joined by a female variant of the type; the regal Priscilla Pointer, the mother of actress Amy Irving, who this writer had a serious crush on back in the days of your moms and pops (this was shortly after but then concurrent with my Tatum O'Neal crush, which lasted into the early 80s). Irving caught my eye in Carrie and then my heart in Brian DePalma's The Fury, in which she morphed from Carrie's tormentor to a version of Carrie herself. The Fury-- which I saw in a double bill with Alien at the drive-in-- made such a huge impression on me that I had recurring telekinetic dreams for a very long time afterward.

And stunningly, The Mysterious Two also features one Robert Pine, father of Chris Pine, the pseudo-Kirk of the new Trek series.

So, yes; the semiotics are piling up already...

Mysterious Two has some overly familiar TV faces such as Noah Beery and Vic Tayback, but also two actors that would go on to far more resonant and semiotically supercharged roles, namely Jerry Hardin (best known for our purposes as Deep Throat but also as the patriarch in a crucial early episode of ST:TNG) and none other than Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. 

Their appearance not only anticipates more powerful and lasting popcult phenomena but also lends a bit of frission through the suggestion of black budget meddling via Harding and MK Ultra-type manipulation via Englund.

Of course, Applewhite himself was extremely paranoid, constantly railing about the government and (ironically) the New Age movement, and so theories from the usual pissed-pant types about CIA involvement with Heaven's Gate fall apart like wet toilet paper when examined more deeply.

The secret behind Applewhite's control over his cult-- again, a very small group in comparison to known CIA projects like the Moonies and the Jesus Freaks-- lies in the man's powerful personal charisma but also in the deep and abiding fatherly love he felt for the lost souls who were pulled into his orbit.

Where Mysterious Two fails and fails quite spectacularly in its depiction of the cultists drawn to the Two's seductive charisma.

There's a dirty little secret that no one wants to acknowledge about cults in general and Heaven's Gate in particular- they are often if not typically the province of nerds. The level of commitment -and by extension, danger- varies widely among the various sects, with some random Jedi cult on one end of the spectrum and Aum Shinrikyo on the other but you will often find that the people most drawn to cults- young, alienated, awkward, misunderstood- are classic nerds.

My encounter with the Church of $cientology in the early 80s-- being suckered into the personality test scam-- was also an encounter with a clowder of hardcore nerds. Everywhere you looked in the Co$ interview room you saw well-worn copies of lurid sci-fi paperbacks, Hubbard's own and others. Seeing as how I'd just spent my week's pay at Newbury Comics when I met up with these characters, I did feel very much at home.

Luckily my (and Amy Bishop's) scifi lit teacher knew all about them and encouraged me to stay away. As I had adopted her as my maternal surrogate at the time, I wisely followed her advice.

No cult was as unabashedly nerdly as Heaven's Gate. Although the media- particuarly the reliably-clueless geek media- tried to paint them as some unknowable pack of religious extremists, the Gate were nothing of the sort. They were what happens to nerds when the frontiers of reality and unreality begin to blur.  

I've been to enough cons and RenFaires to see it for myself. Maybe you have too. Judging from the hours of tape the cult recorded they were an unusually pleasant and cheerful bunch of nerds. And early-adopters, too- they ran a web-design business at a time when most people still had no idea what the Web was.

Professional shark-jumper Harlan Ellison recognized the Gate for what they were and wrote a typically misanthropic rant for Newsweek in which he struggled desperately to convince an uncaring clutch of frequent fliers that there once was this idealized Golden Age of science fiction, where intrepid rationalists rolled up their sleeves dared to ascend to the deep reaches of the cosmos from their typewriters.

Sadly, all the essay proves is how delusional Ellison is about the genre and its audience, and how powerful a grip the self-aggrandizing fantasies of a tiny elite of older sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had on his imagination. Anyone who has spent any time in fandom looks at those Heaven's Gate videos and shudders with a deep and indelible recognition, as if looking into distant yet distinct mirror image.

I can't help but notice that the Gate set up shop in the suburbs of San Diego, which even then was the Mecca of Geek. In fact, the first celebrity I saw on my first trip to Comicon was none other than- you guessed it- Harlan Ellison. He was on his way to the men's.

You won't see the stock character actors of Mysterious Two- the mesomorphic prom queens and kings who never hit the sweepstakes but kept busy enough in Hollywood- in the Heaven's Gate videos. You'll see the same awkward, bespectacled men and mannish, severe yet amiable women you'll see at any collection of serious fans of sci-fi and fantasy. In fact, you'll see the same faces and self-effacing smiles you'll see in the Trekkies documentaries. So much so that if the producers of those films were honest they'd make Trekkies III entirely out of Heaven's Gate footage.

Because Heaven's Gate were in fact the ultimate Star Trek fans.
They were so devoted to Gene Roddenberry's idealized world, especially that of The Next Generation, that they were willing to die to become part of it. I feel their pain- I can't begin to tell you how seductive the pull of the Star Trek Universe can be on me, particularly when I see what a miserable shithole this world is becoming. But even what you see in the Trekkies films is nothing compared to the devotion Heaven's Gate acted out.

The problem is that it's all fantasy. The more concerning reality becomes obvious after watching enough Star Trek that "Roddenberry's future" is that of a universal military dictatorship, a kind of totalitarian socialism in which every moment of our heroes' days are spent in pursuit of the good and the worthy. And so it was with the Gate; Applewhite had his followers nerding it up day and night, buried in the various texts and films that the cult saw as inspired.

At some point the pull of TNG became so strong that Applewhite shaved his boyish grey mop into a Picardian crewcut. The cult chirped out Trek terms during their everyday activities, and in the end renamed themselves the "Away Team." How powerful was the Gate's connection to Trek? So powerful that one of its members was Nichelle 'Uhura' Nichols' own brother, Thomas. He must have been a kind of demigod to the Gate.

The Gate understood that Roddenberry's pretensions to atheist rationalism were all so much nonsense, a pathetic sop to the solipsistic SF royalty whose approval he sought but never truly received; cranky, pedantic plodders like Asimov and Ellison, whose works are either long-forgotten or soon will be. The Gate understood that the Trek Universe is deeply and irreducibly Gnostic.

And so Applewhite and Nettles' fluffy bunny New Age Christianity evolved into a severe and rigorous Gnostic Christianity, in which the pain and senselessness of our world faded in comparison to the serenity and discipline of the Enterprise D. The Gate rightfully saw that there was no place in this world hell for idealists and dreamers, especially those variants of same drawn to cults.

The Gate were just part of the wonderful world of high weirdness that the 90s were chock full of. I didn't pay them much mind myself, until a nagging connection dug into my subconscious. Just a few days before the Gate hitched a ride on that giant mothership in the sky one of the biggest UFO flaps of our time was going down on the other side of I-8.

Marshall Applewhite heard an alleged "remote viewer" claim on Art Bell's show that a ginormous UFO was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp and saw this as the great signal that it was time to beam up. The UFO meme was soon debunked but as he and his followers were wrapping up their affairs, the Phoenix Lights were causing panic just a few hours drive away from their Rancho Santa Fe stronghold.

Did the Gate hear about the event? I haven't found any evidence yet that they did but the timing of the event- whatever you may think of the exact nature of the sightings themselves- is bone-chilling.

The Gate were awaiting a giant UFO to come pick them up. And just as they were preparing for its arrival thousands of people were reporting a giant UFO in the skies over Phoenix, a hop, skip and jump away. It's all eerily reminiscent of the end of Mysterious Two, which takes place in Santa Fe, NM, or any number of similar sci-fi movies (I'm thinking Repo Man as well).

But the Gate's influence was even deeper, if not generally acknowledged. Their suicides seemed to mark the end of 90s UFOmania. It's always fun until someone gets hurt.

The X-Files peaked as a cultural phenomenon and moved production to Los Angeles. The air was definitely beginning to go out of the Star Trek franchise thanks to the shiteous Voyager series.

And as if to punctuate the moment, Serge Monast's "Project Blue Beam" hoax (which was itself cobbled from a handful of various Star Trek plots and very possibly given to him by a secret society of religious extremists within the Pentagon) seized the feeble imaginations of the pantpisser nation, inflicting an endless assault of functionally illiterate YouTube rants and AboveTopSecret threads on a defenseless world.

Fandom has become a religion unto itself so the days in which fandom and traditional religion were synthesized may be behind us. Which is not to say the kind of totalizing devotion we saw in the Gate is a thing of the past. It simply means that it will simply take a different form the next time it pops up. It too will catch us by surprise, until we sift through all of the portents that we ignored.