In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Chase,” Captain Picard’s archaeology professor gifts him an ancient artifact called a Kurlan Naiskos. A sculpted bust of a humanoid, it opens to reveal a number of smaller humanoid figurines inside. This represents the Kurlan belief that a person’s consciousness is made up of a chorus of sometimes cooperative, sometimes conflicting personas.
Twentieth and twenty-first century psychology has largely vindicated the Kurlan view of human personalities, and as our understanding of the various facets of our own minds evolves, so do our standards for literature, art, and storytelling. Classical literature featured largely two-dimensional characters driven by a single trait or desire, like Odysseus, the ancient Greek hero renowned for his intelligence and guile. Beginning in the Renaissance and perhaps best exemplified by Shakespeare, literature begins to feature complicated, three-dimensional characters with conflicting and contradictory drives.
Walt Whitman, American poet famously wrote in his Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Storytelling in Star Trek vacillates between more plot-centric narratives that focus on ethical dilemmas and more character-centric narratives that focus on the development of the personalities of the crew.
Intentionally or not, the Kurlan Naiskos is a recursive symbol in Star Trek. Many of Trek’s most compelling characters are linked with this exaggerated image of the one who is many.
The two most popular characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data and Captain Picard, were the most obvious embodiments of the Kurlan Naiskos view of the humanoid psyche.
The android Data was designed by the cyberneticist Noonien Soong to be a close mechanical approximation of a human. Equipped with an advanced computerized brain and a robotic, humanoid body, he was stronger and smarter than any of his crewmates aboard the Enterprise, but had trouble with much of the nuance and subtlety of human culture, social interactions, and emotions. Noonien Soong designed and built Data on a remote colony on a far-away planet called Omicron Theta. Early in his life, Soong imported all of the personal information — personal journals, letters, &c — of the 411 colonists on the planet into Data’s memory. Thus Data’s early personality is, to a large extend, a composite of the personalities of the colonists on his home planet. While his personality evolved over time as he accumulated experiences unique to his own life, the basis for his identity began as an amalgamation of the ideas and experiences of 411 distinct individuals. Data is the most literal embodiment of the Kurlan Naiskos conception of personality.
While Data’s experience having the colonists’ memories downloaded into his brain is the most clear example, Captain Picard’s experiences also make him a prime example of Naiskos psychology.
Arguably the two most defining moments in Picard’s career in Starfleet that we see on TNG, are his experiences in the episodes The Inner Light and The Best of Both Worlds.
In The Inner Light, an alien probe makes a psychic connection with Picard, and he falls into a brief coma. While unconscious, he lives out the entire life of another person in what, to him, feels like decades although it has all taken place during a half hour. He initially believes he has been kidnapped or transported and spends a long time trying to get back to the Enterprise before he finally gives up and settles into his new life, starting a family and eventually having grandchildren. Only later does Picard learn that the planet on which he is living this comatose, second life, died out a thousand years prior. The inhabitants of the planet, knowing that their planet was doomed, programmed the probe with the biography of a man from their planet and the technology to transmit memories into other humanoids in the hopes of ensuring that their homeworld would not be forgotten. The probe floated in space for a millennium before encountering Picard aboard the Enterprise and “downloading” the memories into Picard. That second life continued to influence Picard long after he awoke from that coma and resumed his normal life.
Earlier, in The Best of Both Worlds, Picard is kidnapped and forcibly integrated into a cyborg collective with a shared consciousness. The Borg operate as a hive mind made up of drones with no dissent or individuality. They forcibly install computerized, mechanical components onto people, “assimilating” them into the collective and connecting their minds into the hive. Once assimilated, drones lose all their free will and their ideas, memories, knowledge, and skills are integrated into the collective which knows everything they know and can do everything they can do. When Picard was assimilated, the collective used his knowledge of Starfleet tactics and technology to destroy dozens of starships in the Battle of Wolf 359. Picard was eventually rescued from the Borg and disconnected from the hive mind, but the Borg retained Picard’s memories, and Picard retained theirs, at least in part.
In the same way that Picard and Data are two of the most compelling characters in Star Trek, at least in part because of their complex and diverse internal lives, the most frightening villains in the history of Star Trek are the grotesque, inverted embodiment of the Kurlan Naiskos.
As I’ve already mentioned, the Borg are a group of cyborgs with a collective consciousness. Rather than individual identities, the Borg are a harmonic chorus, speaking always in the plural. Borg drones have no distinct personalities, no individual motivations. They are a monolithic mass, traveling through space absorbing all the people they encounter into their half-living, half-machine collective. They are terrifying because while they are partially human, they lack all human emotion, individuality, doubt, hesitation, all the things that separate a person from a machine.
The Borg represent the anti-Naiskos. Rather than multiple personas interacting to create a textured identity, the Borg take textured identities to create a seamless harmony. Rather than one who is many, they are many who are one. The Borg create a lowest common denominator of multiple identities that erases all trace of human psychology.
While the Kurlan Naiskos may be a minor prop in an oft-forgotten episode, its relevance is underrated, both as an enduring artifact — it remains in Picard’s ready room until it is damaged and discarded after the Enterprise D crashed on Veridian III — but also as a lens through which one can examine some of Star Trek’s most interesting and endearing characters as well as some of its most repellent and terrifying villains.