Published Apr 30, 2019
How W.B Yeats Captured the Essence of 'Star Trek' a Century Before its Time
On the final day of National Poetry Month we’re looking at how a poem from Captain Archer’s childhood matches the 'Trek' spirit.
The Star Trek franchise has long tangled with the world of poetry. Eagle-eyed viewers know that Khan keeps a copy of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost aboard the S.S. Botany Bay in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Chief O’Brien and Dr. Bashir also show a fondness for poetry, reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Dominion War. And, of course, what Star Trek: The Next Generation viewer could forget Lieutenant Data’s lovingly composed ode to his pet cat, Spot?
In this episode, the Enterprise crew are exploring an alien planet when Archer hears a mysterious voice calling his name. He follows the sound, eventually finding a beautiful woman whom he vaguely recognises from somewhere in his distant past. When she abruptly disappears, Archer continues his search; but each time he finds her she vanishes again.
Towards the end of the episode, Archer remembers why the woman seems so familiar to him. She is not a real person at all, but rather his imagined likeness of a character from ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, a poem by W. B. Yeats which his mother read to him as a child. The character of Aengus also sees a beautiful woman who calls his name before disappearing. Aengus spends the rest of his life trying to find this “glimmering girl”, growing old as he searches through all of the world’s “hollow lands and hilly lands”.
Trip responds to Archer’s realisation by commenting, “Maybe that poem’s been on your mind more than you realize.” This turns out to be true, as it is revealed that the mysterious woman on the planet is in fact an alien lifeform, telepathically using an image from Archer’s memory to attract him. The woman, therefore, is not real – she is merely a projection of Archer’s own imagined vision of an unattainable love. As the episode ends, Archer is dealt a similar fate to the wandering Aengus, continuing his exploration of uncharted worlds in search of something intangible and unobtainable.
The use of Yeats’ poem ends up being far more than a simple plot device. It teaches us something meaningful about Archer and his drive for exploration. For the captain, the Enterprise’s mission is not merely a scientific one, but a search for something higher; something which, perhaps, can never be reached.
Ultimately, this idea goes beyond just Captain Archer and a single episode of Enterprise — ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ reflects the theme of Star Trek as a whole. Aengus is depicted in a state of perpetual wandering, always believing that something better is waiting for him just over the horizon, and this seems to get to the heart of what Star Trek is about. Much like Aengus’ search, Starfleet’s mission of exploration, which forms the centrepiece of the Star Trek franchise, is an ongoing one with no endpoint in sight. It also seems to attract those who are similarly lovelorn.
InStar Trek: Generations, Captain Kirk and Captain Picard both discover within the Nexus that what they desire most is love. Although the Nexus offers them the very thing they have always been searching for, they ultimately reject this ideal, recognising that it is not real. Like Archer in ‘Rogue Planet’, they are forced to confront the fact that what they desire most is unobtainable, but they choose to return to a life of exploration and, hopefully, discovery aboard the Enterprise, nonetheless.
Despite the potentially tragic implications of this, the beauty of Star Trek has always been its endless capacity for hope, and that capacity tempers the loss the captains face in Generations. When Kirk and Picard reject the love offered by the Nexus, they do so not with a sense of defeat, but because they believe that continuing the Enterprise’s mission still has value and allows them to “make a difference”.
Likewise, Yeats never portrays the wandering Aengus as a tragic figure, but rather as an eternal optimist who will never give up. At the end of the poem, Yeats even has Aengus look to the stars, with the final lines describing what could be the spirit and insatiable desire of Archer, Kirk, Picard or any starship captain:
pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Christian Kriticos (he/him) is a professional writer with degrees in English from Durham University (UK) and Northwestern University. He is currently based in London, England and has previously lived in Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Scotland.