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Peer-Review Record

Artificial Life, Divinity, and Mythology in Star Trek

Religions 2024, 15(4), 436; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15040436
by Amy L. Norgard
Reviewer 1: Anonymous
Reviewer 2: Anonymous
Religions 2024, 15(4), 436; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15040436
Submission received: 30 November 2023 / Revised: 12 March 2024 / Accepted: 15 March 2024 / Published: 31 March 2024

Round 1

Reviewer 1 Report

Comments and Suggestions for Authors

This is a timely intervention with regards to prescient themes of artificial intelligence and affiliated technologies (holograms) and mechanical bodies (androids), here understood through a consideration of Classical Antiquity and its renewal via popular media narratives and representations (Star Trek). I recommend publication to the journal, though with a few minor amendments to some of the analysis and subsequent conclusions drawn to better serve the strengths already present in the article.

Firstly, the introduction does a really good job of identifying the scope of the analysis and existing literature on what the author notes is a familiar critical connection between Classical myths and Star Trek itself, and as such it would be good to shore up the disciplinary fields from which the body of ‘scholars’ and ‘theorists’ can be found (film and media studies, or classical studies), so it’s clear who are already acknowledging the intertextual relationship between Classical Antiquity and Star Trek. Presumably the former?

The turn to the division between the biological and AI then allows the author to unpack how Classical narratives of creator/created feed into more contemporary science-fiction discourse and its “ageless” and “immortal” depiction of technological progress. In terms of the coverage of key material upfront, there is admittedly not much to say. I was, perhaps, waiting for a clearer declaration of why Star Trek and the stakes of using this particular media example as the basis for the article’s argument (though the rationale becomes clear by the end) – it is, as the author states, a vast transmedia empire, and so a) why this specific television series over other sci-fi media, and b) why the television series at the expense of the ancillary media products (books, novels, videogames)? Beyond the “resurgence” of the series itself, why does Star Trek serve as exemplary for the analysis and conclusions here – what of its unique “treatment” of and “approach to” human-artificial relationships in particular? How does the programme differ from the received critical narratives identified in the introductory remarks? Does “classic” Star Trek depart from more recent spin-offs, and has the show communicated a stable message in this regard? A few sentences early on ‘showing’ (but not ‘telling’) some of this information would strengthen what is already a confident opening. Indeed, there are gestures to this kind of explanation at the start of the first section after the introduction, so the author might consider moving this to the introduction so that the first section proper begins with “In discussions of the divine properties…”

In terms of the subsequent sections, the “rich and complex traditions” of AI in the programme are attended to with a degree of insight, and I felt there was a successful balance of the Star Trek case study and critical paradigms being juggled throughout. That is not to say there are moments focused on Star Trek that couldn’t do with additional tying to Classical Antiquity – the section on “imitation” and “approximation” involves extended (and not unenjoyable!) analyses of scenes, sequences, and episodes, though here I felt there were opportunities to bring things back around to the myths being themselves approximated. Scholarship on AI and its implications also needs synthesising in these sections to avoid what amounts to lengthy descriptions of salient and provocative moments in the series, blow by blow. The inclusion of film and media scholars writing about AI, androids, cyborgs etc would also avoid the examination of Picard (and his consciousness as it is transported into a synthetic body) just repeating the industry discourse in simply quoting showrunners and other creatives.

There could also be some better smoothing out on page 9 when the analysis moves back to the original series as if the programmes are equivalent, particularly as there is an argument to be made that earlier episodes deal with science fiction and more recent iterations with science fact (given the acceleration of AI and holograms). Indeed, the author says later that Star Trek is “nearly prescient” about current social and cultural conflicts with AI and the rise of synthetic media. Is it right that connectives can be traced between the series, or does there need to be some acknowledgement of historical and technological contexts to separate out the eras?

In section 4, there is some really excellent close analysis of Picard and later ties to a “mythological framework” of Hesiod’s Theogony. Yet the discussion of slavery made me think there are some interesting provocations to be made in relation to race (see below) – is Guinan’s comment about “disposable people” (as a black woman) making a point through Data’s replication as a white body?

Other amendments to note that the author might see to:

-        Some of footnote 1 might be integrated directly into the prose as it functions as crucial definitional work for the “reception model.” Why bury it at the bottom?!

-        Can a television programme “situate itself”? Or is it “situated” in particular ways by the creators/writers etc.?

-        Both Data (TNG) and the Doctor (Voyager) are white men, and Zora is a white woman, which taps into writing on AI’s links to whiteness that are worth probing (many of the examples, from the Stepford Wives to Her and Ex Machina align white femininity with AI). Does this raise further questions about technological exceptionality and “immortality” when it is coded as inherently white? Liz Faber’s book The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri might help here. The author also notes that such characters are intended to “look and sound human”, which of course this is right but within the parameters of the series – they are only designed to evoke and embody particular images of the human. Furthermore, humanity is not universal and as such the ‘human’ is not often a political/cultural/social category afforded to non-White bodies, so thinking through the racial implications of Star Trek’s white AI is crucial I think to the formulations that the author makes here.

-        Page 9, line 338 has some words missing, or at the very least there is a formatting error?

-        I am not convinced the Futurama link does the article many favours – the discussion of parody only runs for two paragraphs, and so my advice is to cut this and rather than giving another example from popular media, round off the section as it is and reflect on its findings. Perhaps this might also free up words to devote to the discussion of race above?

-        Quote for “supplanter motif” that is “sometimes called” as such (p. 14, line 572)? In fact, a few more quotations/theory in this section would break up the descriptions.

-        Are the links between Classical Antiquity and science-fiction media intentional? Do the writers of Star Trek openly acknowledge the overlaps? Are audiences meant to pick up on this reflexive register?

Author Response

Please see the attachment.

Author Response File: Author Response.pdf

Reviewer 2 Report

Comments and Suggestions for Authors

Overview:

This is a clearly written essay that offers a compelling, synchronic reading of AI in the Star Trek television franchise. The author impressively manages the balance between scholarship from traditional classics, classical receptions, and Star Trek, with only a few noticeable omissions or possible concerns. The essay’s emphasis on how A.I. in Star Trek see the creative arts as a key distinction between artificial beings and humans is particularly valuable (and reminiscent of slightly later texts such as Wall-E).

I struggled the most with Section 4, and recommend reading the notes below on it. Section 4 is perhaps the only section that requires some light revision.

The only other significant weakness in the essay is that, in treating ST from a synchronic perspective, it sometimes seems to miss locating diachronic changes in ST’s treatment of A.I. as part of larger discourses going on in science fiction and, in one place (note 6) flattens sf discourses. (The author makes some references to, e.g., Lovecraftian gods, but these references seem are brief and risk seeming arbitrary.) Given the sheer volume of ST that the author treats here (and impressively), the contained scope of the article makes sense. But it may be worth flagging (via footnotes) a few places where we see Star Trek responding to other larger conversations happening in science fiction so that we do not falsely conclude that its discursive logics are merely contained within the Star Trek universe and Greek and Roman myth. I would not go so far as to say this is a necessary revision for publication, but it would strengthen the article, as long as the author is strategic in their choices.

I recommend publication after minor revisions.

Line notes:

line 45: The description of ST “as a myth-making enterprise” is excellent and clever.

line 46: Should Baker 2018 read 2023? Otherwise, not in biblio.

line 68-69: it may be useful and clarifying to say “will focus on the several television series”, since technically most of the “vast media empire” are different series.

lines 184–6: The discussion of Zora (and Pygmalion, as well as the subsequent discussion of personhood and Guinan / slavery) might also be helped with reference to the excellent essay by Rebecca Raphael (in Rogers and Stevens 2015) on (dis)ability and androids. Raphael specifically argues that artificial beings in Greek and Roman myth are related to the domains of labour, defense, and sex. Artificial beings, according to RR, are often associated with gender and disability as well, both in terms of the work they do and their disqualification from identification as human. RR does not undermine this discussion, but may augment it, and would help to remind readers that Star Trek does not operate in a vacuum but progresses as other scientific and science fictive discourses progress. At the very least it should be included in citations where appropriate. The present essay also enhances RR’s argument by pointing out that Star Trek’s partial (but incomplete) solution to the problem observed by RR are the creative arts and humanities, which the characters discussed by RR do not practice or seemingly have access to.

line 257-8: I recommend adding “the” before “George Gershwin song”.

n. 6: This is a helpful note. I would be careful not to claim that “Science fiction” uses a particular term such as “sentience” since sf is a diverse genre and different authors handle this differently, especially in recent decades. The author may wish to consult the classic account of John Searle (and subsequent discussions in the field of A.I.) on other terminology and distinctions. That is, Rosenstand’s framework seems somewhat particular.

line 304: There is an extra space between “questions  extends”

line 337: There is an extra space between “that  technology”

line 338-340: This sentence seems wrong somehow. There is a missing subject before “identifies”. Even with a restored subject, the sentence doesn’t make sense (“as representing Kirk”???…

line 361: There is an interesting paradox lurking in this paper. ST:TOS seems to suggest that choice is prior to creativity, which is a necessary condition for life. But the earlier discussion on later ST (such as TNG) suggests that creativity is necessary for humanity and removes choice as a factor (or makes creativity prior to choice?). It may be worth working out ST’s differing or divergent (or conflicting) theories about the place of creativity in defining humanity. It’s also important to observe that these factors (creative arts, choice) are not present in the Greek and Roman mythological distinctions discussed earlier in the article, and reminds us that we are very much looking at 20th and 21st century discourses and materialities.

lines 408-414: These need adjustment for formatting / spillover.

Section 4: The author may find it helpful to read Stevens 2015 essay on “Plato’s Republic in the Age of Ultron” (online), which traces some aspects of the mythological discourse now connected to AI back to Homer / Hesiod. BS also places the MCU movies into the lineage of Star Trek and may subsequently suggest that Picard may be building on MCU. (And, of course, the showrunner Michael Chabon is a known deep reader and writer in comics and comics-related cinema, having written, inter alia, Kavalier & Clay and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.)

line 536: Missing an “as” in “serves both a message”?

line 570: What makes the parthenogenesis of Athena “perverted”? As opposed to non-perverted parthenogenesis? Is the point here that parthenogenesis itself is an appropriation of female reproductive power?

line 572: Where does the notion of the “supplanter motif” come from? Source?

lines 572-601: The discussion of the generational conflict narrative is not easy to follow here. It seems like there is a confusion between (1) intergenerational conflict and (2) knowledge that is shared intergenerationally (e.g., analogous to “traditional beliefs” or even “myth”). Is the argument here that humans are Olympians fighting against resurgent Titans / Typhoeus, or vice versa (which would be the Hesiodic analogue)? I can appreciate that the author may only wish to invoke the motif and not force an over-identification—and that Picard is more interested in breaking the cycle—but it may be worth mapping out the possible correspondences or analogies more clearly.

—A related question: the invocation of generational succession narrative names Hesiod, but the past century of scholarship has made it clear that Hesiod draws on an earlier Mesopotamian generational succession narrative. What is particularly secure or useful about naming this as Hesiodic or specifically with reference to Hesiod (and thus centering the Greek or “Western” narrative)? Cf. M. L. West 1997.

line 631: The “359” seems to need to be removed.

line 717: Need to add numbers where it currently reads “(lines)”.

lines 713-728: There seems to be a missed opportunity here. The various ages of humanity also narrate technological advancement in ancient Greece: while gold and silver are naturally occurring elements, bronze is a product of further technological advancement: creating an alloy of copper and tin, as well as other metals). Iron too represents technological advancements in processing techniques so as to use cheaper, more readily available resources. So the myth of the metals is not merely about quality but also about innovation (and a concomitant decline or de-volution in the quality of human life as it moves further from its divine parentage).

Author Response

Please see the attachment.

Author Response File: Author Response.pdf

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