I was on the couch watching Star Trek. It was the original pilot episode with Captain Pike getting trapped on a planet called Talos IV. I’d seen it so many times it no longer felt like watching television; it felt like remembering. And like all the reruns they allowed me to watch, the episode comforted me and reminded me of home. More so than this horrible apartment, which was an exact replica of my old place in New York, right down to the water stain in the shape of South America on the living room ceiling and the cat scratches on the front door. My cat wasn’t here, though. He was gone, along with my real apartment and everyone and everything else on Earth.
Now Captain Pike gets snatched by a couple of Talosians with giant-scrotum-looking heads and they take him to their zoo. I laugh. If I didn’t, I’d go insane. The TV helps me to focus, to block everything else out. When I’m watching Star Trek or The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, it’s like I never left Earth and everything’s okay.
I reminded myself, once again, that the apartment was fake, but the shows were real.
The wall to my left faded away. Class was in session.
I ignored the students—all of them looking like upright caterpillars—and instead watched Captain Pike argue with the big-headed aliens from inside his cage. I remembered watching this episode with my girlfriend, Karen. She loved the Original Series, though she would never admit to being a Trekkie. She turned me on to the show, actually, and we always watched it together. She left me months before the Hanlar destroyed the Earth.
My body stiffened as the Hanlar instructor began speaking.
“Behold Jason, the last being of the planet called Earth,” it said in Hanish. “Notice the blank stare, the bloated and slumped body. Notice his lack of arms, the two of them remaining motionless and idle. Jason is addicted to entertainment, particularly in the form of television transmissions. He is the ultimate nema’kemon.” That, I interpreted as “big, lazy loser.” It’s the worst thing you can call the Hanlar. The class booed and hissed.
“Greetings, Jason of Earth,” the alien teacher said, enunciating each syllable as if it were a separate word, even though I knew Hanish fluently. “Can you tell my class what you find so appealing about mindless entertainment?”
I’ve learned not to engage with the aliens. They only want to hear what they want to hear. I focused on the television and Vina, the beautiful blonde the Talosians were trying to force on Pike.
The Hanlar despise entertainment, especially passive entertainment like television shows. It threatens Ardnung, which is the belief system upon which their society is based. Ardnung is all about being productive and maintaining order. The Hanlar have six arms and they are always moving, always building or fixing or creating. It’s worked out pretty well for them. The Hanlar are the most advanced race in the universe.
Things were running pretty smoothly for them until they started receiving our TV signals, which had been leaking into space for decades. It took them a while to figure out what they were seeing, but by then it was too late. The entertainment-starved Hanlar loved Earth TV. They couldn’t get enough of it. They binge-watched, they named their offspring after characters on The Brady Bunch, they even started to create TV shows of their own. This, of course, didn’t sit well with the elders of Hanlar. Productivity was down. Hands were idle. Society was collapsing, or so they believed. Something needed to be done. So the Hanlar High Command decided to cancel the planet. Ha-ha. Except me. They saved the Earth’s biggest couch potato to be the ultimate negative example. “Hey, kids, see that fat lump in the box? If you watch TV, you’ll end up just like him.”
The students barraged me with questions:
“Is it true that media consumption resulted in near-extinction decreases in your population levels? Do you still have procreative desires?”
“Have you noticed an impairment in your rational thought?”
“Is your morbid obesity a result of your excessive viewing habits?”
“Are you no longer able to tell the difference between reality and fantasy?”
“Is it true media consumption lowered the aggregate IQ on Earth by an average of two points a year?”
“Did The A-Team desensitize earthlings to violence, accounting for the increase of war in the twenty-first century?”
“Is it true that the entertainment producer Joss Whedon caused more harm than Krydax the Obliterator of the Seven Worlds?”
Anger boiled up inside me. I used to tell them that none of that was true. Their ideas about entertainment were ridiculous and unsubstantiated. Once I said, “You hate TV, but you blew up my planet. Killed billions! What influenced you to do that?” That got me a month with their mind disruptor.
“Jason of Earth,” the teacher said, “please explain to my class the meaning of the term ‘boob tube’?”
I jumped up and flung my remote control at the teacher. It disintegrated as soon as it hit the force barrier.
And with that, the apartment wall returned and the TV went out. It wasn’t because of the remote control. That doesn’t control anything. It’s just a prop. The Hanlar control the TV.
The television flickered and George Clooney appeared on the screen. “Jason,” he said, but sounded nothing like George Clooney. He sounded like the heartless Hanlar. “You have been found in violation of Code 477: Acting belligerent toward a schoolteacher; as well as Code 863: Refusing to answer a student’s question.”
I clenched my fists.
“A scan of your vitals determines that you are within appropriate health parameters, though your blood pressure is slightly higher than normal. Are you getting enough exercise, Jason?”
“I am following the required minimum physical fitness requirements.”
“That is good to hear, Jason. We want you with us for a long time. We want you to be happy. Are your dietary needs sufficient? We can bring you a different kind of pizza. Perhaps chips and beer? Nachos?”
“No, no. The food is fine.” It wasn’t by a long shot. The pizza tasted like damp cardboard covered in Spackle. But it didn’t matter. All the food sucked.
“Obviously, your excessive television viewing has caused you once again to lash out.” I kept still, held my breath. “We must discipline you.”
I could have picked up the TV, smashed it to pieces. But the reruns were all I had.
“It has been decided that your viewing privileges will be taken away. Instead we will loop an educational video.”
My right hand trembled. “When will you bring back my shows?”
The camera zoomed tight on the alien George Clooney’s face. His unblinking eyes were pools of darkness. He said, “You provide an important function.”
The TV went black.
I slumped back onto the couch, depleted.
I stared at the blank screen. I could have been looking into outer space, into that dark emptiness where the Earth once was. I wanted to plunge into that void. Let the television take me away to oblivion, capture me for eternity and send me back across the cosmos at the speed of light.
The video started. An alien version of Jon Stewart went over the history of the Hanlar, the three pillars of Ardnung (productivity, order, tradition), and the devastating effect of mindless entertainment.
I closed my eyes and watched, from memory, as the Talosians let Pike and his crew go. When I was a kid I called it Mind TV. On long trips in the car I would close my eyes and “re-watch” cartoons in my head. When I wanted to see a different show I would hold a fist up to one of my eyes and pretend I was turning a channel selector. As usual, I took special notice of Pike’s escape. The Talosians free him after realizing that humans would rather kill themselves than live in captivity. They had big heads but were pretty dumb. The Hanlar aren’t dumb. I’ve tried killing myself. It never takes. As I said, Ardnung made the Hanlar incredibly advanced—especially in the biomedical sciences. By my calculations, I’ve been watching reruns for more than a hundred and fifty years. The Hanlar want me here for a long time. Maybe forever.
The Hanlar control the transmissions, but sometimes they honor my requests. I usually stick with the sci-fi programs. They’re wrong, of course. Television isn’t mindless or useless. TV characters have solved every problem imaginable. So I watch, study, and gather ideas, even when they take the boob tube away.
I raised a fist to my eye and switched over to an episode of Lost in Space called A Day at the Zoo.
TV got me into this predicament, it would get me out.
© 2016 by James Aquilone
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