Monday, July 25, 2016

Captain's Log: Star Trek Purpose Renewed

A pause between parts of the Trek50: When It All Began posts to note the successful opening weekend of the feature film Star Trek Beyond and especially the 50th anniversary panel at ComicCon that introduced news about the new Star Trek television series slated to begin in January.

The series is to be called Star Trek Discovery, and Discovery is the name of the starship featured.  It will be in the Star Trek prime universe (as I believed it would be), though no time frame was announced.  Showrunner Bryan Fuller had previously revealed that the first year would tell a single continuous story over 13 episodes.

The ComicCon panel seemed motivated by the darkness revealed most recently through the just concluded Republican convention, in contrast to the intent of the new series.

“Think about what’s happening in America, and think about the promise of Star Trek, and what we can all do to get there,” Fuller said, as quoted by the Hollywood Reporter.

"Star Trek, in general, has been about individual rights, about respecting everyone, no matter who and what they are,” said Brent Spiner. “We’re living in a world right now where that respect is being challenged. It’s disturbing. I think a lot of our politicians and a lot of our fellow citizens could take a page from Star Trek, and have more respect for humanity.”

Michael Dorn pointed to the Klingons, Starfleet's enemy in the original series but an ally later. Dorn thinks there’s a lesson there from Roddenberry to the rest of us: “He wanted to show that we had moved on, that the characters had evolved…. There were a lot of guys who didn’t like Klingons, still. But they learned a lot about each other.”

Scot Bakula sees Star Trek as a beacon of hope, even at our lowest points: “I continue to be hopeful that, even when it gets dark, we as a species will figure things out.”

 Fuller ended the sessions by asking all the cast members and fans in the audience to take the hand of the people next to them and “make a promise to leave this room with love, to leave this room with hope, to leave this room and take responsibility to craft a path to Gene Roddenberry’s vision.”

Further quotes come from the Guardian: “The time is coming to figure [our problems] out. We need to figure it out,” [William] Shatner said. The original Captain Kirk was especially passionate about his desire for our planet to overcome the many obstacles – environmental, social, and political – that consume us. Star Trek has always been a liberal, inclusive voice in entertainment. 

 Pressed for details on the new series, which premieres in January 2017, Fuller said: “[It] has to continue to be progressive, to push boundaries, to tell stories in the way Gene Roddenberry promised.” 

Noting that the big ComicCon hits were more recent superhero sagas, the Guardian continued:  Some stories never die; they just get renewed and refreshed for the present. 

 In the case of Star Trek, that story has never been more necessary. Toward the end of the panel, Fuller requested the audience turn to the person next to them and take their hand. “Let’s make a promise to everyone in this room. Look at each other and leave this room with love,” he said.

 Everyone did as he asked, because if there is one thing that defines the Star Trek fan, it’s their belief in the inherent goodness of the human race and their undying optimism that even as we gratify the years behind us, we never forget that the great project given to us by Gene Roddenberry was one defined by a never-ending passion for making the world better each and every day that we have on this planet."

Bit of an update here with some more quotes from a TrekMovie followup:

Bryan Fuller: “The state of this country right now terrifies me and saddens me and I feel like we need something like Star Trek to remind us that, collectively as a human race we’re going to get our shit together, and we’re going to build a better future, and we have to start working much harder on that today.”

Rod Roddenberry and Trevor Roth hoped the new show would inspire people to think, to act and to live a better life. "If they’re just entertained, I don’t think we’ve done our job" Roddenberry said.  He added that the mission of Discovery would be "not just discovering aliens and new planets necessarily, but discovering things about ourselves. Star Trek has always been about that, so I think you’ll get a lot of that in the new show."

Next Gen's Michael Dorn seemed to like what he heard in terms of plans for the new series. "We’re at a place in our society where there was a lot of hope back in the 60s and 70s about where we would be in the 2000s, and I think we haven’t lived up to that hope... Science Fiction in the 60s always pushed boundaries because it was science-fiction...really tackled some major issues and I think that’s what the original Star Trek did, and that’s what these guys are going to do because they really have a passion for it, and I think it’s a good idea because if it’s not going to come from science-fiction, then it’s not going to come from anything else."

The sense that the TV series title communicates is a return to Star Trek stories of exploration, and clearly Fuller intends them to explore as well the soul of Star Trek for a new generation.

Accounts of this session and the excerpts available on YouTube have given me more hope for Star Trek's future than anything else in years.

Also of recent note are this Washington Post piece on the history of Star Trek in championing diversity, and this National Geographic article on seeing real versions of Star Trek planets in the night sky.

Coming here soon, the final two parts of Trek50: When It All Began, about the 1930s when the early Star Trek creators were young:  "Palaces of Imagination" and "The World of Tomorrow."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Trek50: When It All Began (2)

Many viewers come to Star Trek when they are young.  But what was going on when the Star Trek creators were young--the 1930s?  How did that time contribute to the soul of Star Trek?  This is Part 2 of 4.  Part 1: Fear Itself is here.  A series marking Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

2. Must It Be Again?

 “Must it be again? Have the fires of humanity then burned in vain?” 

 These anguished words were written by Pierre van Paassen in his book Days of Our Years, the biggest-selling non-fiction book in the U.S. in 1939 and 1940. Decades later, Gene Roddenberry remembered reading it in his youth.

 In the 1930s van Paassen was a foreign correspondent and popular lecturer in the United States, when public talks were well-attended events. Born in the Netherlands, he emigrated to Canada with his family and fought in France with the Canadian army in World War I. Beginning in the 1920s he reported from the Middle East, Africa and Europe for newspapers in Canada and the U.S.

 In the 1930s he covered the rise of Fascism and the European wars that preceded World War II. He watched the world moving towards an even larger and more violent global war. His anguished questions in the book continued:

 “Is humanity to make yet another attempt to wipe out its name with its own blood? Is it not all an endless cycle, a horrible wheel of suffering to which we are chained forever?” 

 This was a question on the minds of many beginning directly after the Great War (as World War I was called before there was a second) and the peace treaty afterwards. H.G. Wells in England was one of the first to decry the treaty terms and the weakness of the League of Nations (the first attempt at an international organization to keep the peace.) Consequently, he foresaw another world war as nearly inevitable. Others would come to agree, including historians.

H.G. Wells
 (Wells as a commentator on current affairs was much read in the U.S. in the 1930s—thanks to the enormous success of his Outline of History, which outsold every book but the Bible. His topical articles were reprinted in newspapers and such high profile magazines as Liberty, Collier’s and American Magazine. His early “scientific romances” like The Time Machine were not yet well remembered.)

Van Paassen shared that analysis of World War I and its aftermath, which led to those passionate questions he asked. His questions became more urgent with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s, as the likelihood gradually grew of a larger and more devastating war. (Van Paassen’s analysis of what was behind international conflicts in the 30s remains cogent and revealing.)

 His questions also became of particular personal interest to young men of Gene Roddenberry’s generation, who would likely find themselves fighting in a new world war, or at least would have their lives transformed by one.

 The Great War of 1914-18 had left Europe traumatized. At least ten million soldiers were killed, almost an entire generation. Casualties were 38 million, with 17 million dead.  Millions more died in the influenza epidemic that raged afterwards.

 The soldiers who died were mostly young, and among them were the best of their generation, wrote literary historian J.B. Priestley. “This is something that nobody born after about 1904 can ever fully appreciate...Europe’s total loss is beyond calculation.”

Revulsion to the Great War in America was also widespread, and led to reluctance and resistance to the country becoming involved in the increasing warfare in Europe in the 1930s.

Charles Lindbergh
This ranged from college campus pacifism through skepticism to isolationists and those sympathetic with Hitler. Another best-seller on library shelves in 1940 was The Wave of the Future by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, writer and wife of American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. She wrote that fascist governments like those in Germany and Italy were the dynamic forerunners of the future, while exhausted and inefficient democracies were relics of the past. Her husband held similar views.

 Van Paassen did not share these views. He saw Hitler and Fascism as evils that must be stopped, and said so in Days of Our Years.

But the debate was not restricted to books. The rise of Hitler and war in Europe was front and center in newspapers, radio news and the newsreels that ran before features in every movie theatre.

 By 1938, while Nazi Germany was threatening Europe, Japan was attacking China. Both Hitler's Germany and Mussolini’s Italy had begun moving against the Jews in their countries.  Many in America were already alarmed—Arthur Miller recalled his series of nightmares about Hitler and how no one stopped him.

But everyone in the U.S. soon had a front row seat. In the fall of 1938 a speech by Hitler was broadcast on national radio, and his hate-filled voice poured into homes across America. For the first time Americans heard delirious crowds crying “Heil Hitler!”

 In March 1939, Hitler’s forces took Austria and Czechoslovakia. On September 1, they invaded Poland, an ally of France and England. World War II had begun, and polls showed that most Americans believed it was only a matter of time before the United States joined the fighting.

deporting Jews to concentration camps in 1938
In high school Gene was also a member of the International Forum, a world friendship society. But also as a debater known for his patriotism as well as a boy moving quickly towards his 18th birthday, it’s likely he followed these dark events as they happened. Soon he would be in college, but also taking flying lessons, knowing what those lessons were for.

 But even when war was a reality for America and for Gene, the passionate questions van Paassen asked remained: Must it be again? Is war and destruction, hatred and tyranny, all an endless cycle, a horrible wheel to which we are chained forever?

 These questions did not go away—not for others in America, including many who fought the war, and not for some who came together years later to shape a new television series that dared to ask these questions again. They didn’t go away for Gene Roddenberry.

Before we leave the 1930s, there are two other aspects of the decade—two related and happier aspects-- that impressed themselves on young minds and hearts and imaginations, and specifically on GR, in the next two posts of When It All Began.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trek50: When It All Began

Beginning 50 years ago, many if not most viewers first encountered Star Trek when they were young. This was as true in the first run of the original series as it has been for subsequent series and movies. Even today, many children and adolescents are introduced to Star Trek by parents and grandparents who became fans when they were children, adolescents or young adults.

Impressions that influence a lifetime are often made in these early years, and there are countless examples of career, personal and even ethical decisions made in response to Star Trek. These influences can also be unconscious, contributing to attitudes and aspirations that guide subsequent years.

 But what about the people who created Star Trek in the first place? What was going on when they were young that may have deeply influenced them, and helped to inform the soul of Star Trek? In all the words written about Star Trek over the years, this seems to be rarely considered.

Gene Roddenberry undated; publicity for Trek Nation
 Born in 1921, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry grew from childhood through his teenage years into early adulthood in the 1930s. Many others who helped create Star Trek and its stories also experienced their formative years in the 1930s.

 While GR was growing up in Los Angeles, so was Robert Justman in New York, Gene Coon in Nebraska, Matt Jeffries in Virginia, Alexander Courage in Philadelphia, Harve Bennett in Chicago, DeForest Kelley in Georgia and James Doohan in Canada.

 Even the slightly younger generation that was crucial to Star Trek were children in the 1930s, including Leonard Nimoy in Boston, William Shatner in Montreal, Nichelle Nichols in Chicago, Walter Koenig in New York, Majel Barrett in Ohio, John D.F. Black in Pittsburgh, among many others who were involved in Star Trek’s first decades.

So what was happening in the 1930s that might attract and influence the young?  Especially those who would some day create Star Trek in the 1960s and after?
In this and three posts to follow, I engage in some informed speculation on those questions.

 The 1930s are remembered as the decade of the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II. So it was in some respects a grim and even terrifying time to grow up. But there was more to the textures of those years.

 It was a time of great trauma and turmoil, but also of high hopes and new visions of a bright tomorrow. It was a decade of idealism in the midst of harsh realities, of urgent questions that went to the heart of how human societies might survive and flourish, and what it meant to be human.

 It was also the decade when such words as “science fiction” and “television” were first heard. For Gene Roddenberry and for Star Trek, the 1930s were when the future was born.

 1. Fear Itself 

Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression gripped America for most of the 1930s. To different extents and in various ways, it touched every life, while also being a widely and deeply shared common experience.

 It brought poverty and hardship to millions, so those families that didn’t experience great deprivations always could see others who did. The discouragement and despair of suddenly unemployable fathers and husbands, the fear that spread through families that was echoed on the radio and in the newspapers—even children could feel aspects of all this.

 For example, according to David Alexander’s biography, Gene Roddenberry’s father was steadily employed throughout the Depression, as a policeman in the growing city of Los Angeles. His job was secure, so his son Gene’s life was outwardly stable.

 But Gene went to school with children who didn’t have shoes, and he could see the travails of neighbors or hear them discussed by his parents. He could also glimpse the haunted strangers, the poor and displaced families that poured into California from Oklahoma and nearby states, after black walls of wind turned farmland into sand in the Dust Bowl storms.

But as Gene got older he had other ways of becoming aware of the ongoing Depression. He was a reader. He often caught the trolley outside his house to return an armful of books to the public library, where he would borrow more.

Later he would remember it as a kind of compulsion. “In my youth, I realized I had this terrible hunger for knowledge,” he recalled. ”Like an addict for knowledge. I remember that I just couldn't sit down without my mind working, without reading something, some experience. It seemed that this was more of a flaw, this terrible hunger."

 In high school he was part of an advanced education program that included a two-hour class in social studies. In addition to a creative writing group with an inspiring English teacher, he was active in a club that sponsored public speaking opportunities (he was its president one semester) and was on the debate team.

These would increase his interest in newspapers, magazines and radio programs about current events and history. The Great Depression was an inevitable topic. Why was it happening? Who was responsible? What should be done about it? These were all-consuming questions that involved politics, economics, science and ethics.

 These were not abstract questions. Gene visited homes of fellow students that had visible signs of poverty. Earlier in his childhood, his grandparents escaped hard times in Texas by moving in with his family (which consisted of Gene, his parents, his brother and sister) in their small three-bedroom house.

The official unemployment rate had hit nearly 25% in 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of “a third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-fed and ill-clothed.” Even in the late 30s, unemployment was above 17% and more than 1 in 6 Americans depended on government relief.

 Middle class families sacrificed everything else to keep their homes. Poverty meant hunger, or an early death from untreated illness. While cities teemed with overcrowded slums, the vast rural reaches of the country hid unheated shacks which might house a family of several generations, including malnourished children and old people who might not live long enough to benefit from a new government program of the late 30s called Social Security.

Something like a million men rode railroad boxcars from one end of the country to the other, looking for work or just drifting, month after month.

 The Great Depression was the focus of the race for California governor in 1934, particularly due to writer Upton Sinclair, leader of a popular movement to end poverty through massive public works and other state government programs. Sinclair seemed likely to win until close to the election. He was defeated partly due to a concerted negative campaign against him financed by big business interests, including Hollywood studios. But many supporters of Sinclair’s programs were elected to the state legislature.

 Students in Gene's high school debate club would have also observed all the political turmoil in the U.S. There were riots and talk of revolution. Socialism and the Communist party were on the rise in some parts of the country. At the same time, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana and a radio preacher named Father Couglin were agitating for their versions of American fascism.

In part such turmoil was propelled by fear, fed daily by remorseless realities. At the very beginning of his Inaugural Address in 1933, President Roosevelt recognized and addressed this danger. “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

 He spoke also of positive alternatives. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money,” he said. “It lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” 

 He spoke of the responsibility to help others, and the society as a whole. “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well.” 

Compassion, fairness, effort and optimism--FDR spoke of them and symbolized them.  They were the antidote to fear.

 Playwright Arthur Miller was six years older than Gene, so he experienced the 1930s as an adolescent and young man. It wasn’t all kindness and working together, as some would like to remember it, he noted. People were often selfish and even cruel. But the feeling for others, of all being in it together was also real.

 Gene saw his father help relatives, neighbors and even strangers. His father made up boxes of food for people he knew who were down on their luck, and strangers were invited to big Sunday dinners. Gene saw courage and dignity in the midst of want.

TVA hydroelectric project
 Yet even with all the travail and confusion, there was excitement and action. Federal programs—many of them instituted by FDR’s New Deal—employed millions in projects that visibly changed the landscape in all parts of the country, from cities to the rivers and forests.

When judging statistics of the 1930s, it’s useful to begin with the fact that the total U.S. population was 123 million at the start of the decade—the current population (323 million) is two and a half times larger.

At the height of the Depression in 1933, some 18 million Americans were unemployed. Starting that same year, the Civil Conservation Corps put two million (some sources say three million) young men to work in state parks and wilderness from coast to coast. The Civil Works Administration employed another four million during the winter of 1933-34, including thousands of women. In only five months, its workers built or improved 255,000 miles of roads and 40,000 schools, among other infrastructure.
 The Works Progress Administration that followed the short-term CWA eventually employed a total of more than eight million Americans to build and repair thousands of roads, bridges, parks, schools, libraries and other public buildings, and infrastructure all over America that became the physical foundation for the future. The Public Works Administration accomplished large projects.

The Federal Writers and Artists Projects lifted spirits and left a legacy of documentation (such as the state American Guide series) and creativity.  The Federal Theatre project provided entertainment affordably and spread live theatre throughout the country.

All three projects employed many who would be leaders in the arts, and icons of entertainment, for future decades (including Arthur Miller.)  Later in Hollywood, GR would know and work with people who managed to survive and even start a career with the help of these programs.

Golden Gate Bridge
Largely with federal help, huge and enduring projects were built in the 1930s, marked by grand openings (often featuring President Roosevelt) that became subjects of newspaper accounts and glossy photo layouts in weekly magazines like Life and Colliers.

 The massive Hoover Dam on the Colorado River opened in 1936, one of many hydroelectric projects in the West and South built or begun in the 1930s. The Triborough Bridge complex in New York—later called (by author Robert Caro) “the biggest traffic machine ever built,” also opened in 1936.

 In 1937, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel opened, and construction began on the La Guardia Airport (which opened two years later.) Also in 1937, the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh (the tallest university building in the western hemisphere) was completed, as was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Not far from where Gene Roddenberry was growing up, the Griffith Observatory opened in 1935, which became a Hollywood icon in Rebel Without A Cause and many other movies. And throughout the 1930s, a number of roadways, tunnels and bridges were built in the Los Angeles area-- some by the WPA-- for what would become the first California freeway.

Against the continuing uncertainties, the fits and starts of the economy, the weary years of hardship and frustration, there was unmistakable idealism and optimism in these efforts, and an enduring magnificence in their quality and purpose. This was true not only of the largest projects, but the parks and infrastructure that added to daily life.

Those who lived through this time, especially if they were young, might see a possibility: People could work together to create a better future. For in this tumultuous present of the Great Depression, some eyes turned towards things to come.

 “Then and now, you have to wonder what really held it all together,” said a character in Arthur Miller’s play about the Great Depression, The American Clock, “and maybe it was simply the Future: the people were still not ready to give it up.”

 Historian William Manchester agreed. In contrast to their elders, he wrote, the 1930s young had a different look. “There is an intensity to their expressions. They are leaning slightly forward, as though trying to see the future. And they are smiling.” 

 The Great Depression was sometimes at the forefront but always at least in the background of the 1930s. Yet there was much more in this decade, good and bad, to make deep impressions on impressionable youth. So there’s more to come on Trek 50: When It All Began.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Captain's Log: Nu Sulu

The upcoming release of the new nu Star Trek feature film has been accompanied by some unusual events.  The most shocking was the sudden death of one of its young stars, Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the nu alternate timeline.  But these days there's a lot of attention to a feature of the nu Sulu in the new movie: namely a scene indicating that he is gay, with a life partner and a daughter.

That this is the first openly LGBTQ character in a Star Trek story onscreen has been met with the ironic opposition of the actor who played Sulu in the classic universe, George Takei, a gay man who came out long after his last appearance in Star Trek.

Takei's reason is striking: while he welcomed an openly gay Trek character, a gay Sulu is contrary to Gene Roddenberry's vision of that character.

It's striking to me because Takei, who has become famous for castigating William Shatner as Captain Kirk, remains so loyal to Gene Roddenberry (even if, in this case, he may be mistaken.)   GR's reputation has fallen in recent years, it seems, as critics have dwelt on his shortcomings so thoroughly that they seem to define him, even as STrek's 50th anniversary gets closer.

The distance of Nu Trek from GR is perhaps another factor, as it is the first onscreen Star Trek without a real connection to GR's, especially now that Leonard Nimoy is gone.

The defense for the nu Sulu being gay by Simon Pegg and Zachary Quinto makes a lot of sense.  Takei does seem to not take into account that this is an alternate timeline. And it does make more of an impact that it is an established character. Update: Simon Pegg blogs about this and the new movie, via TrekMovie.

 As for why GR didn't portray a gay character, it's also worth mentioning that the image of a gay man with a life partner and child could not have been seen until recently, for such a family simply didn't exist, at least openly. Though bold and visionary, it would have been very difficult for most viewers to envisage, even in the far future.

But I keep returning to Takei's loyalty to GR and his vision, at least as he sees it. It is worth remembering then, that even with all the GR revisionism, many who actually worked with him--from Takei and Nichelle Nichols to  LeVar Burton of the Next Generation--continue their loyalty and admiration.

Some producers and writers who worked with GR have since complained about him (for allegedly hogging credit mostly) and reacted against his prevailing image. But actors who worked with GR have generally remained loyal, and many of them were in a better position to see his flaws that many of his critics today who never even met him.

As for the new film, I find myself guiltily uninterested.  It may be the first Star Trek movie I don't see immediately upon its release.  I reserve the right to change my mind about this, but I doubt I will write about it anytime soon in this space.  I am much more focused on the 50th anniversary, and the soul of Star Trek as expressed in the GR era, especially in the original series and Next Gen.  So there will be more Trek50 to come.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Captain's Log: Another Step on the Journey

"We just did the hardest thing NASA's ever done," said participant Scott Bolton, as the spacecraft Juno confirmed that after a five year journey it had successfully gone into orbit around Jupiter, on July 4, 2016.

 The space age commenced in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, often described as about the size of a basketball. Juno is a sophisticated, heavy shielded research vehicle that is the size of a basketball court.

 Jupiter is in one of the most dangerous places in the solar system, due in part to the heavy radiation of this massive world. Jupiter is also the first planet in the solar system to be formed, and so Juno's observations may shed light on obscure cosmic history.

An article in the Washington Post expands on the science to come during this mission, and adds this: "Jupiter is so massive that it's heftier than everything else in the solar system (except for the sun) put together. More than 1,000 Earths could fit inside it. It's a mystery wrapped in an enigma — both its raging surface storms, which include the Great Red Spot, and its hidden core remain largely unknown to science — and learning more about the strange planet could help us understand the building blocks of life on our own planet and beyond." 

In addition to all the scientific instruments, there is a camera, the JunoCam, that is reserved for public use. As a New Yorker article notes: "Freed from the burden of scientific responsibility, amateurs and enthusiasts will be able to vote online to determine where JunoCam points and which features it captures. “It will provide the very first views of Jupiter’s poles, and the most incredible close-up views of the planet ever seen,” Bolton said. “I expect we will probably discover some new moons, too. But it’s really a public camera.” Already, JunoCam’s discussion boards are alight: six-year-old Bee wants more photos of the red spot, while Hogarth-11 is voting for a closer look at greenish dots near Jupiter’s equator."

 NASA also recently extended the working lives of 9 ongoing spacecraft missions. As Carl Sagan pointed out in the final episode of Cosmos--which by coincidence I watched again in its digital restoration on the night Juno went into orbit--it was by studying other planets that scientists here discovered the ozone layer (recently showing signs of healing, thanks to efforts begun decades ago) and the likely phenomenon of nuclear winter.

Even earlier, James Lovelock began formulating his Gaia theory based on studies of Mars. Recent observations by the Curiosity Rover suggest more strongly that Mars was once much like the Earth, with an atmosphere and watery oceans. What went wrong? Venus is another cautionary tale, for it seems to be a lifeless victim of runaway greenhouse heating.

 These planetary neighbors are reminders of how fragile is our purchase on this planet, with its wisp of an atmosphere as our life-giving protection. Sagan remains a touchstone for the ethics of space exploration. For him (unlike, say, the makers of the film Interstellar) it's not an either/or proposition. Space exploration and care of the Earth must coexist, and the Earth always comes first.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Trek50: Science Fiction, Science and Star Trek

Trek50 is a series exploring aspects of the soul of Star Trek in its 50th anniversary year.

When Star Trek began nearly 50 years ago as the first prime time television science fiction drama series, it deliberately set out to maintain strong ties to both science fiction writers and science itself.  In the decades since, science fiction or "space opera" on screens has drifted away from these connections.  Many feature films employ scientific advisers, and some notable recent near-future space movies attempted to stay within scientific and technological knowns.  But that particular combination of science fiction and science that Star Trek achieved remains special.

However, the intention of Star Trek's creators to involve science fiction writers was not entirely new at the time.  On radio, Dimension X dramatized some classic science fiction stories by Robert Heinlein (including his story, "The Roads Must Roll"), Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Isaac Asimov and others. "It was the Star Trek of radio," wrote radio historian Gerald Nachman, "praised for its basic dramatic strengths."  It ran only one season (1950-51) but spawned a more successful series X-Minus One, which partnered with Galaxy Magazine for its stories.  Ironically, this series ran on the NBC radio network in the mid-50s, for--you guessed it--three seasons.

Star Trek tried to use stories by science fiction writers, though writing for network television within budget was a challenge.  Some Trek teleplays adapted science fiction stories, but perhaps the biggest influence from science fiction writers came informally, through their writings (including Robert Heinlein's), advice and ultimately the friendships that Gene Roddenberry and others made with such important writers as Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

An important characteristic of many of these science fiction writers is their knowledge and even expertise in science and technology.  Asimov was a professor of biochemistry and Clarke had degrees in mathematics and physics.  They were not unusual in this regard.  Even sci-fi pulp authors like E.E. Smith had degrees in chemistry and physics. Others were engineers or worked in applied technology.  This goes back all the way to H.G. Wells (degree in biology) and Jules Verne (who "worked very closely with scientists," according to Robert Heinlein, an engineer with graduate work in math and physics.)

A science background linked to imagination sometimes meant that such science fiction writers made real world contributions.  Perhaps the most important so far was Arthur C. Clarke, who came up with the idea of communications satellites. But a more direct contribution is the fascinating story of the space suit.

According to his account, Robert Heinlein first saw a description of a space suit in a 1931 story by Edmond Hamilton, who became most famous for his Captain Future stories.  In 1939, Heinlein wrote a story "which made much use of spacesuits" and created an "elaborated version" of Hamilton's.  Heinlein had been in the Navy, and a former shipmate who was by then engaged in aviation research read this story.  When World War II started, that shipmate--Rear Admiral A.B. Scoles--put Heinlein in charge of developing a real high-altitude pressure suit.

Heinlein worked on it, and passed the project onto L. Sprague de Camp, who in addition to being an aeronautical and mechanical engineer was also a prominent science fiction writer.  Eventually, the high-altitude pressure suits that not one but two science fiction writers helped develop became the basis for NASA spacesuits.  As well as spacesuits in science fiction movies and print stories, including Heinlein's 1958 juvenile s/f novel "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel."

When it comes to the science of space travel, science fiction writers in some ways came first. “Astronautics is unique among all the sciences because it owes its origin to an art form," writes astronomical artist Ron Miller. "Long before engineers and scientists took the possibility of spaceflight seriously, virtually all of its aspects were explored first in art and literature, and long before the scientists themselves were taken seriously, the arts kept the torch of interest burning..."

In fact the early 20th century pioneers of rocketry were inspired by science fiction, and eventually wrote their own science fiction stories.  In Russia, Konstatin Tsiolkovsy was inspired by reading Jules Verne.  American Robert Goddard was inspired by H.G. Wells.  German Hermann Oberth, also inspired by Verne, not only made practical contributions to rocketry--he was also a science advisor to the 1929 German space travel movie, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), directed by Fritz Lang (whose Metropolis would be a s/f classic.)  This movie inspired a boy of a later generation to become a rocket engineer.  He was Krafft Ehricke, designer of the Atlas booster that sent the first Americans into orbit.

This film, incidentally, made another contribution to real rocketry: the countdown.  It was the first (but hardly the last) time the simple 5-4-3-2-1 was used to launch a fictional spacecraft.  Eventually NASA elaborated it into a long checking process, and substituted "Lift-off" for the (by then) traditional BLAST-OFF!

Even long before the 20th century, pioneer astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a very early science fiction tale called The Dream, which depicted in great detail a visit to the moon, largely based on the science of the day which included the first telescopic observations.  (Carl Sagan's Cosmos book goes into detail, noting that partly because of misunderstandings based on this book, Kepler was forced into exile, which he spent in a town called Sagan.)

The intermix of scientists and engineers with science fiction forecast other aspects of our Space Age.  Artificial space satellites were first proposed in science fiction novels as early as Edward Everett Hale's The Brick Moon in 1869.  An Austrian engineer and a German science fiction writer each described a working space station in 1928.  Such a space station was most elaborately described in Arthur C. Clarke's 1952 novel Islands in the Sky, which kicked off the celebrated Winston series of science fiction novels for young readers.

But science savvy and training also alerted science fiction to future dangers.  H.G. Wells wrote about (and named) the atomic bomb in 1914, and in the 1930s and 40s, science fiction authors wrote so much about the atomic bomb and atomic energy that John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine who presided over the Golden Age of the pulps (and was trained in physics), was questioned by a US government agent alarmed that pulp fiction writers might be stealing ideas from the still secret Manhattan Project developing the real atomic bomb, rather than using their own knowledge and imaginations.  Tales of atomic warfare horrors became so common even before the first atomic bomb was exploded that Campbell complained he was receiving too many.

Star Trek continued this intermix of art and science in developing the Enterprise and the Star Trek universe.  Few elements were strictly speaking original, but they were chosen and orchestrated with both artistic possibilities and scientific plausibility in mind.  Since Star Trek---or at least since Carl Sagan's novel Contact--the roads of science and science fiction no longer lead as often to the movie or television screen.  Yet the informed vision of Star Trek has not only itself inspired new technologies (and new scientists) of the past 50 years, but formed the basis of its durable storytelling universe.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Captain's Log: New Trek Series, Old Star Wars

A flurry of news on the upcoming Star Trek series on the CBS pay site: Bryan Fuller, writer for Deep Space 9 and Voyager, is the showrunner.  Nicholas Meyer, writer and director of several Trek movies, is consulting producer and staff writer.  And GR's son Rod Roddenberry is executive producer, along with the COO of his Roddenberry Entertainment,  Trevor Roth.   Alex Kurtzman, of the NuTrek regime is also an exec producer, along with tv producer Heather Kadin.

Roddenberry said in a press release: “Moral dilemmas, human issues, complex characters, and a genuine sense of optimism: These are the cornerstones of Star Trek and are what have made it such an influential and beloved franchise for the last 50 years.”   Meyer mentioned his Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as a key to the direction of political comment.

At the same time, Fuller and Meyer emphasized that the series would be "different."  The initial press release indicated that it won't be about characters from past Star Trek shows.  (It should be noted however that "executive producer" and "consulting producer" can mean a lot of things in television.)

I still stand by my first prediction: that it is likely to be set in the 25th century or beyond, in the "prime" or GR timeline. Or possibly between TOS and TNG, but in that timeline. The CBS pay site is clearly building around Star Trek, and it is showing other TV series in the GR Star Trek universe.  So staying in the GR/TV timeline would make all kinds of sense, from "branding" consistency to a feedback effect from show to show to providing the new series with the depth of history.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if Nick Sagan were brought aboard, assuming he's available.  And I say once again, they'd be crazy not to at least ask Jonathan Frakes to direct and consult, and Levar Burton if he's still interested in directing.

On the Star Wars front, a fascinating pattern continues to play out.  Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was an immediate blockbuster by any standards.  The opening reviews were mostly glowing and the fans were ecstatic.

Much was made of J.J. Abrams decision to go old school and avoid CGI where he could, in contrast to George Lucas in the previous three Star Wars films (now the first three in the chronology.) Abrams also brought back the beloved stars of the first trilogy (now Episodes 4-6), and introduced a new generation of characters, more diverse than the last. These new actors also got good reviews (mostly) and good fan reaction.

This film's gigantic global success, and the decisions made in contrast to Lucas's last three films (as well as Disney's rejection of his proposed storyline for this and subsequent episodes in what he'd initially envisioned as a 9 film series) seemed a melancholy repudiation of the old guy who created the Star Wars universe.

 But then the coverage took some odd turns.  A couple of Los Angeles Times writers wondered at length whether they'd all been taken in by the hype.  And then emerged: George Lucas.

In hype-related statements, he'd professed enthusiasm for the movie and Disney's plans for much more Star Wars.  But  then in an interview by Charlie Rose, George Lucas said he didn't much like The Force Awakens, and made some awkward joke about Disney being "white slavers" who kidnapped his children (meaning Star Wars.) Very soon he backtracked both on that comment and his opinion of the movie.

Not long afterwards Bryan Curtis in the New Yorker, noted that the conventional wisdom was that fans were glad to see Lucas exiled from new Star Wars.  But...

"Then the new movie came out, and a strange thing happened. Even as critics saluted “The Force Awakens” and fans turned it into a billion-dollar hit, both camps have come scurrying to the feet of Lucas, the master, rather than Abrams, the apprentice. To call what’s happening a full-blown critical reĆ«valuation is perhaps going too far. It’s more like a reawakening. For the first time in a more than a decade people are talking about Lucas with something other than withering contempt."

Even his reviled prequels (Episodes 1-3), Curtis wrote, were now being seen as "noble failures."  But Curtis' colleague at the New Yorker Richard Brody went further than that.  He wrote in ecstatic praise of two films in the more recent Lucas trilogy, Attack of the Clones and especially Revenge of the Sith.  (It's perhaps worth mentioning that though their reputation became fairly low, that trilogy was also successful with filmgoers worldwide.)

So people were talking about George Lucas in positive terms again. However as time went on, J.J. Abrams did not fare as well. "It took a unique—well, derivative—sequel to create an atmosphere in which Lucas could be viewed in a new light," Curtis wrote. "The biggest reason Lucas looks better is because “The Force Awakens” is an admission that, thirty-eight years later, the original can’t be topped."

The 'derivative' notion gradually became elaborated. Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times was perhaps the first to complain that The Force Awakened was maybe too much like Episodes 4-6.  Others pointed out resemblances in the story to Episode IV: A New Hope, the one that was once called just Star Wars.  Most recently, a Wired article described the findings of a computer science professor who did a data analysis that showed intricate mirroring that another site somewhat sarcastically headlined as Data conclusively proves that The Force Awakens is just A New Hope.

All this might be deja vu for Star Trek fans, who saw lots of resemblances between the villain of Abrams' Star Trek and Khan in The Wrath of Khan.  And then of course lots more resemblances between The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Abrams reportedly first refused to do this Star Wars film because he didn't want to become known as the maker of sequels.  But does he make sequels?  Or does he make remakes?  None of this invalidates the movies he does make, and both the differences and similarities to these previous films have meaning. Obviously millions of people like these films.  But the Star Wars experience may help clarify responses to the recent Star Trek films that have evaded definition.