Hamlet on the Holodeck

by Michelle Erica Green

When I picked up Janet H. Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck (Free Press, 1997), I wasn't sure what to expect - biographies of Star Trek's classically trained actors? Analyses of Lt. Data's assorted Shakespearean holoprograms? There didn't seem to be much possibility for serious parallels between Trek and the Bard.

So imagine my delight when I discovered that the first chapter of this new book is titled "Lord Burleigh's Kiss"! The chapter is about cyber-relationships, interactive media, and how new technology affects morality, but Voyager's Captain Janeway and her Victorian holonovel are the vehicle for analysis. "Persistence of Vision" as theater for the 24th century...who'd ever have thought it?

The author of Hamlet on the Holodeck, Dr. Janet Murray, is a research scientist with a Ph.D. in English literature. She is currently working on an article about Star Trek CD-ROM games with fellow M.I.T. professor Henry Jenkins, one of the foremost authorities on fandom in the world, and the person who gave me Murray's e-mail address for this interview.

I asked Murray to summarize her book in layman's terms. She said, "Basically, I am assuming that this movement is analogous to the invention of the movie camera a hundred years ago, and asking: if the digital environment (multimedia, networked, desktop, VR, arcade, etc.) is the 'camera,' then what will be the equivalent of the 'movie'? The holodeck provides one provocative model."

"I was particularly intrigued by the episodes [of Star Trek] that use the repetition feature of the holonovel, allowing people to enter the same story and play out different versions of it," she continued. "I think that Star Trek and Neil Stephenson's Diamond Age are the most thoughtful images so far of what digital narrative forms might look like."

Murray called storytelling "a very powerful part of our survival equipment." In earlier ages, it took the form of myth and magic; people thought that demons and ogres and demigods, the products of their imaginations, were actually real. Nowadays we are more sophisticated in our understanding of narrative, but we are still capable of being overwhelmed by imaginative experiences.

Much of Hamlet on the Holodeck is about the way readers and viewers--fans, by extension--ignore the outside world when they're lost in a really good text, be it holographic, html, or otherwise.

"We fear the participatory narrative world because we don't know how to indicate what is real and what is make-believe, what is romantic and what is pornographic, what is fantasy and what is antisocial behavior," Murray explained. "It thrills us and scares us. The holodeck stories frame these anxieties in fascinating ways. I think the real problem is finding appropriate 'boundaries.'"

I don't imagine that most audiences are any more disturbed by the concept of a holodeck any more than by the existence of video games, IRC, or other electronic leisure tools. But many people are troubled by the social milieu in which sex and violence are increasingly large components of these interactive entertainments. The social problems are, of course, not caused by the technologies, but reflected by them.

It's interesting that on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lieutenant Reginald Barclay's desire to interact on his own terms with the other characters got him ridiculed, psychoanalyzed, and "cured." The same production team which wrote that episode seems to think that it's perfectly appropriate for Voyager's Lieutenant Tuvok to make similar use of fictional representations of his colleagues in a security training program. Though Tuvok complained that Captain Janeway executing rebel crewmembers during a fictional mutiny story would be out of character for her, nobody complained that mutiny would have been out of character for First Officer Chakotay in the first place, and that Tuvok, as the chief security officer, might have compromised the first officer's image among trainees who had access to the renegade holographic version.

Personally, I never had a problem with the holodeck when used for entertainment like Captain Picard's Dixon Hill scenarios, which Picard never took overly seriously. But I get distressed when Captain Janeway prefers the advice of a fictional representation of Leonardo Da Vinci to that of own officers. If I thought Voyager was attempting to make substantive commentary about the values and hazards of the technology, rather than just using it as a convenient plot device, I'd feel better about it.

We are consumers of an entertainment culture in which we are becoming increasingly powerless. While we now have authorized means to participate in the Trek universe--an interactive video Next Generation board game, various CD-ROMs--we are also witnessing a crackdown by Viacom, Inc., the parent company of Paramount Pictures, on unauthorized creative use of their products. Even as a participatory Trek experience is being readied for opening in Las Vegas, and while an official fan-written Trek anthology, Strange New Worlds, is being prepared for printing by Pocket Books, Viacom is shutting down fan-run web sites.

I asked Janet Murray whom she thought would own interactive narratives of the future, in which writers and artists would create the backgrounds and studios or publishers would market them, but the participants would do the actual scripting of the scenarios. She said, "The question you raise about who owns the story is central to the future of digital narrative, and Star Trek is the clear battleground for these issues right now. The recent closing of fan web sites over copyright issues was quite shocking, considering the long history of fan participation and the role of the fans in making the series successful.

"The same issues come up in MUDs [multi-user domains] and in live action role playing games (LARPs) between game masters and players. The more these participatory story worlds develop, the more tension there is going to be. The media industry is trying to figure out more and more ways to profit from participation, and the fans want more and more control over how the story turns out.

"It will be fascinating to see how these tensions play out," Murray added. "In chapter nine of Hamlet on the Holodeck I imagine how a world that was partially authored and partially invented by interactors might operate. I believe the solution will come with the invention of clear conventions of participation (like the "fourth wall" in a theater) that give interactors control over some parts of the story but not others in a predictable way.

"In such a world, a fan could choose to be a member of the Star Trek crew, but would have to take some global events as givens (like an encounter with the Borg) while being able to influence others (like enacting laws over holodeck use)."

Murray is interested in the boundary between the audience and the narrative. Movies like The Last Action Hero, where viewers end up becoming participants in the story, "raise the same question that fan participation does. Who owns the characters? Who determines what happens to them? If our feelings for the characters seem as powerful as those for our actual intimates, then will our imaginary actions change our actual lives? What is the difference between what I would call 'progressive' fantasy, a form of make-believe experience that help us move forward in our emotional development, and 'static' fantasy that just distracts us from daily tensions?"

Murray said that she was less afraid of "make-believe" experiences because she thinks that storytelling "moves us toward health, toward greater inclusion of the real world. I think this kind of activity helps us to know ourselves, and to understand our collective fantasies better."

It strikes me as ironic that Trek's producers, who have been known to tell fans to butt out of their narrative and get a life, are the very people giving characters "real life" only in narrative on the holodeck. Meanwhile, the fan community, principal consumers of Paramount's officially licensed interactive Trek games, resists having limits placed on its use of those narratives.

Murray sounded bemused by the fact that both writers and actors claim to speak for their characters, when they are all perfectly aware that those characters are the property of Viacom and controlled by network executives who can order their rescripting, or execution. The author even dismissed Viacom's claims of ownership. "[The characters are] a joint projection in the shared space between all these different communities, a consensual hallucination we can all share," she claimed.

This is a very optimistic view of fandom--the idea that fan fantasies bring us together rather than isolating us from human contact. The New York Times, which gave Hamlet on the Holodeck a mostly positive review, was concerned that Murray failed to note that cyberspace "is a form of escapism, escapism that can foster a retreat from the problems and pleasures of the real world."

Well, I have news for the Times: cyberspace is the real world. Or at least, like that old saying goes, reality is sometimes a crutch for people who can't handle science fiction.

Click here to buy Hamlet on the Holodeck from amazon.com.

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