If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!
~Dr. Beverly Crusher
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about memory, since even before my daughter fell off her horse, concussed herself, and forgot everything from our family’s new truck to the very existence of one of her managers at work. (Interestingly, she remembered the code to our entry gate and the plot of Battlestar Galactica through the last episode viewed.)
Memory is our most important link to personal history, and studies indicate that it’s a lot more subjective and less reliable than we’d like to think. My own childhood memories are vivid but disjointed, with baffling gaps in the continuum. Often I recall some isolated incident and wonder, “Gosh, what happened next?” or, “What happened beforehand? How did that situation even come about?” I also “remember” some things that couldn’t possibly have happened, like the time I walked in on the Easter Bunny playing my grandfather’s piano. That can’t be right, can it? Maybe these memories are based on dreams that I confused for fact or even stories I heard about other people; I don’t know. Sometimes I try to fact-check with family members, but they are generally at least as confused as I am, and they can’t explain the Easter Bunny thing AT ALL.
Even within its limited capacity for usefulness, memory can let us down, and we can only do so much to correct it. The past doesn’t exist as a thing we can see or touch, like some incredibly detailed bas relief timeline stored in space somewhere, or even a computer file we can access. It’s immutable but invisible; once it happens it can never be changed and never be perfectly recalled. That’s why we use physical memory markers. We write things down, we take pictures, we hold onto objects as evidence. We even store memories in other people, which is one reason why the end of a relationship is so painful and disorienting.
But memory markers, like memory itself, have their limits. Even a high-quality video records an event only from a certain visual point of view. It doesn’t capture smell or touch or the emotional state you were in that day or the exact thoughts running through your head or that pain in your ankle or what the ambient temperature was. And like all markers it can be altered, lost, or destroyed.
Sometimes we don’t want to remember things anymore, so we get rid of our markers. We throw out old photos, letters, and journals; we purge old files. Once our markers are gone or destroyed, does that mean the thing never happened? Of course not. It doesn’t even make the memory itself go away. Michel de Montaigne said, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
Sometimes our markers get lost. A marker is a material thing and subject to decay or destruction, as fragile as memory itself in its own way.
Years ago the kids and I spent Thanksgiving with my grandmother. She’d been having issues with dementia for a while, but I hadn’t realized how bad things had gotten until that visit. At one point I said something to one of the kids about the time Uncle Kevin refused to eat his spinach when he was a boy.
There was a pause, and my grandmother said, “Who?”
“Uncle Kevin,” I repeated.
She looked puzzled. “Kevin who?”
“Kevin Siddall,” I replied. “My brother.” Another pause; another quizzical look. “The younger boy. He died when Anna was a baby.” My tone was calm but my heart was wrung at having to describe my brother to my own grandmother, having to convince her that there had been such a person as Kevin Siddall. It was a rough holiday.
There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Dr. Crusher ends up caught in a sort of parallel universe where people keep vanishing from the Enterprise. (Turns out the whole thing is caused by some experiment with a warp bubble being performed in Engineering by her teenage son, which just figures.) The creepy thing is that the people who are left on the ship can’t remember that the people who have vanished were ever there at all.
It’s fitting that the first person to disappear from the ship is Dr. Quaice, an old friend and mentor of Dr. Crusher’s whom she welcomes on board at the beginning of the episode. Dr. Quaice is recently widowed and about to retire to his home planet. He has lived long enough to experience a lot of loss and is pensive now at the thought of leaving behind his remaining Starfleet friends and associates. Dr. Crusher, who lost her husband after only a few years of marriage, understands his melancholy. He says, “You know what the worst part of growing old is? So many of the people you’ve known all your life are gone; and you realize you didn’t take the time to appreciate them while you still could.”
Later, Dr. Crusher goes to see Dr. Quaice again and finds his quarters empty and unused. She asks the computer where he is, and the computer says there is no Dr. Quaice on board.
She tells Lieutenant Worf, who agrees to order a search but claims he never knew of Dr. Quaice’s arrival, though as Chief of Security he’s supposed to be informed of all planned guests. Captain Picard says Dr. Quaice’s visit is news to him as well, but Dr. Crusher insists she submitted her request and got it approved weeks ago. O’Brien doesn’t remember beaming Dr. Quaice aboard; Data checks Starfleet records but can find no evidence that he ever existed.
Then six members of Dr. Crusher’s medical staff vanish. Picard asks if they were associates of Dr. Quaice; he can’t remember that they ever worked on the Enterprise.
The disappearances continue. The rest of the medical staff vanishes; sickbay is emptied of patients. Crusher informs Riker and Data, who tell her she never had a staff. When Dr. Crusher asks Data if it makes any sense for her to be the sole medical officer on a ship of 1000, he informs her that there are only 230 people on board—crew members only, no families.
The loneliness of Crusher’s situation is truly poignant. She knows what she knows, but as far as the rest of the crew is concerned, the names of the missing are only so many nonsense syllables. Numbers are against her: she is only one against many, and even the ship’s computer says she’s wrong.
More and more crew members disappear, with the computer keeping up with their diminishing numbers at each stage. Finally it’s down to just Crusher and Picard. The captain has no recollection of his vanished crew and thinks it’s perfectly reasonable for Crusher and himself to roam the galaxy alone in the flagship of the Federation. Crusher desperately tries to revive his memory with a speech that begins as a rant and ends as a lament.
Will Riker, your First Officer! He’s…he’s very good at playing poker, loves to cook; he—he listens to jazz music, plays the trombone….Commander Data, the android who sits at Ops. Dreams of being human. Never gets the punch line of a joke….Deanna Troi, your ship’s counselor, half-Betazoid, loves chocolate; the arrival of her mother makes you shudder. O’Brien, Geordi, Worf. Wesley, my son! They all have been the living, breathing heart of this crew for over three years! They deserve more than to be shrugged off, brushed aside, just pinched out of existence like that. They all do. They deserve so much more.
Finally Picard vanishes too. Crusher is all alone on the Enterprise with just the ship’s computer to talk to, and the computer isn’t making any sense. Crusher tries to reason with the automated voice.
Crusher: What is the primary mission of the starship Enterprise?
Computer: To explore the galaxy.
Crusher: Do I have the necessary skills to complete that mission alone?
Crusher: Then why am I the only crew member?
Computer: [makes error noises]
Crusher: Aha, got you there!
Computer: That information is not available.
Imagine catching a computer in faulty logic, and the computer just blows you off! Loneliness doesn’t get much worse than that.
Crusher decides to set course for Tau Alpha C to get help from The Traveler or his people—but there is no Tau Alpha C. The entire planet has vanished. The universe itself is now closing in.
She says to the computer, “Here’s a question you shouldn’t be able to answer: Computer, what is the nature of the universe?” The computer replies, “The universe is a spheroid region, 705 meters in diameter.”
Finally Crusher understands. Her “universe” is actually contained within the warp bubble Wesley created earlier—and the warp bubble is collapsing.
By now the Enterprise is being destroyed, crushed by the shrinking boundaries of the false universe. Eventually, with The Traveler helping Wesley back in the real universe and Crusher figuring things out at her end, Crusher returns home through a combination of “seeing beyond the numbers” and jumping through a sucking vortex thing.
I love Crusher’s courage in this episode, her refusal to believe she’s wrong though everyone is against her, and her ruthlessly logical problem-solving in the face of an existential nightmare. I love her faith that the people she’s lost existed and mattered, and her determination not to forget them.
What a terrifying thing it would be to have your circle of people diminish and diminish and diminish, until all that’s left is you, alone in space with only a computer to talk to.
Sometimes I feel as if the universe is closing in on me. People and animals and pictures and belongings keep vanishing. I wish I could make them come back. Maybe I’m actually trapped inside a collapsing warp bubble, and the real universe is out there somewhere. It would explain a lot.
Safe and sound in the correct universe once again, Crusher asks Picard how many people are on board the Enterprise. “One thousand fourteen, including your guest, Dr. Quaice,” he replies. “Is there something wrong with that count?”
“No,” she replies. “That’s the exact number there should be.”