Setting a spaceship safely down on a newly discovered planet is fraught with danger, even in the technologically advanced future of 1997 (as represented in 1963, when this episode aired), the year in which Spaceship E89 is traveling around the galaxy, searching for sources of food for an over-populated Earth. This particular spaceship has three astronauts, and while there is a captain of the ship, there is disagreement from the start about how to proceed. Should they land, or is it too dangerous?
“Death Ship,” like “The Passersby,” “The Hunt,” “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtebank,” “A Nice Place to Visit,” and “The Hitch Hiker,” explores philosophical questions about the nature of death by adopting the perspective of individuals who are dead, and imagining what it would be like to be dead, it also treats other questions that we face in the more prosaic circumstances as living creatures, namely how to explain things that have happened, how to predict what will happen, and how to choose among alternative actions based on those explanations. Sometimes we seek explanations and make choices based on those explanations by ourselves. At other times we do so as members of a group or team. Group explanation and group choice of action require coordination and agreement. The challenge of such coordination and agreement is as much the subject of “Death Ship” as the phenomenon of death itself.
The three crew members of E89 disagree about whether to land on the alien planet, after spotting a possible sign of intelligent life on the surface of the planet. The captain is cautious. The other two are in favor of landing and exploring. On landing, they discover the wreckage of a ship that appears identical to E89, and when they investigate they discover the bodies of three crew members, whose bodies are qualitatively identical to their own. They are of course, freaked out by this state of affairs, and they begin to try to explain it, and then to figure out what they should do.
Between them, they come up with three theories: (1) They crashed and are dead, and they are somehow seeing their crashed craft and their dead bodies. (2) They are seeing their possible future. They may crash if they land, but if they don’t land, they won’t crash. (3) The crashed craft and its content are an illusion. They are alive, but aliens on the planet are deceiving them, perhaps with the goal of scaring them away. They consider each theory, and argue for or against it on philosophical grounds, and they also argue about the possible consequences they would face should one of the theories turn out to be true.
If they crashed and died, then it seems that their personhood somehow continues to exist, but it living, qualitatively identical bodies to their former bodies. The captain supports this view when he points to the bodies in the crashed ship and says: “Those are not our bodies. These are our bodies!” The captain is claiming that the bodies they are looking at are not them, which suggests that they didn’t die. Their personhood is intact, and is related to their bodies, which have also continued to exist over time. It’s difficult to make sense of how they could be dead, since they seem to have what we have when we endure as persons over time.
There are other puzzles about describing the situation. Carter asks the captain: “How can there be two of me dead, two of you, two of Mason?” Someone could be qualitatively identical to you, but that would still not make that person you. This suggests two other possibilities that may at least be coherently stated, that either they are imagining a possible future state of themselves, or they only appear to be seeing their crashed ship and bodies.
There are further complications. Carter and Mason each escape into imagined scenarios where they are back on earth with their families. The captain literally wrestles them back to reality. The captain suggests that this fits with the theory that there experiences on the planet are illusions. They have the same status as Carter and Mason’s flights of imagination. Perhaps the epistemological situation of these astronauts is like that of Mike Ferris in “Where is Everybody?”
The vigorous debate about which of these theories is correct is an impressive set of applications o f principles of logic. In several cases an astronaut will challenge another by pointing out that their current claim is inconsistent with a claim they made earlier. In another challenge, the Captain is asked why he claims to be certain that the illusion theory is correct. The answer, that attempting to leave the planet will prove that he is correct, is not a good answer, and that is duly noted by the others. The debate is rigorous and spirited, but also analytical and probing. Perhaps the astronauts majored in philosophy, or at least took a course in logic.
The decorum of studied argument vanishes when the Captain makes a unilateral decision that the Carter and Mason reject. Here the failure to agree is worse than fatal, it leads to an infinite loop or eternal recurrence. Their failure to agree results in no resolution of the question of whether to land on the alien planet.
See the suggested readings for “The Hitch Hiker”.