Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thank you, President Obama

You were the President of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Sherlock Circle

The latest set of three episodes of the BBC/PBS series Sherlock--and probably the last--aired over the past three weekends in the US.  In an approach that might be termed metafiction or self-parody with equal justification, the series came full circle while completing the process of developing the characters of Sherlock and Watson to a contemporary equivalent of the characters that Arthur Conan Doyle presented.

All three--but especially the first and third--again concentrated on Sherlock's immediate circle, which contracted suddenly in the first story and expanded again in the third.  The middle story was the only one to introduce and dispatch a new villain.   What follows contains numerous references to the stories, otherwise known these days as spoilers.

The first of the three episodes was "The Three Thatchers," built for awhile at least on Conan Doyle's story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."  (Star Trek fans may be interested in the dramatization of the actual Conan Doyle story in the Jeremy Brett series for Granada TV--it features a pre-Next Gen appearance by Marina Sirtis, and was directed by David Carson, who directed Trek episodes as well as the feature Star Trek: Generations.)

As usual, there are bits of other stories--some lines from "The Red-Headed League," the fruitless search with a dog from The Sign of the Four and one or two others.  But the basic "Six Napoleons" story is a deliberate red herring, a joke on Sherlock who guesses the Conan Doyle solution but is wrong, at which point the story takes a different turn.

This turn involves Mary Watson's past as a member of an assassination team for hire coming back at her.  A series of implausible events (she dons elaborate disguises and throws dice to decide on increasingly arcane hiding places but fails to notice that she's carrying a tracking device; her pursuer jumps to the conclusion that she betrayed her close-knit team on the flimsiest of evidence, etc.) end up in a showdown in an aquarium.

There Sherlock confronts the actual betrayer--a secretary who'd been selling secrets--and goads her while she points a gun at him.  She fires and Mary jumps in front of him (ostensibly to push him away, but it looks more like she's taking the bullet--and by the way, her reaction time versus Sherlock's is superhuman.  Also the police are there but none do anything to disarm the secretary, perhaps to avoid disturbing the fish.)

It's a terrific death scene, leading to several reappearances on pre-taped, pre-death messages that together give Amanda Abbington opportunities for some fine acting. The episode does humble Sherlock, manic and arrogant, as he makes several errors of deduction and judgment that end up in Mary's death.

There's one more minor implausible, though it might be a joke: Sherlock professes he doesn't know who Margaret Thatcher is, but he knew enough to guess a password would be based on her name in the season two "The Hounds of Baskerville."

Oh, and Mary had a baby in the episode, the occasion for several comedic and emotional scenes.  But the two remaining stories do little to suggest that John Watson is much of a dad to his now motherless daughter.  We do know he is angry with Sherlock, and the two separate.

Though it had the best ratings of the three in the UK, this was apparently not a fan favorite.  Mary's motherhood followed immediately by her death did not sit well with some.  But contemporary TV series drama --especially the most praised--does tend these days towards soap opera.

The second story fared better: "The Lying Detective," which is a pun on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Dying Detective."  There are similarities, especially at a key moment towards the end.  For me it was the best of the three (I also liked the middle one in series 3.)

Sherlock has given into addiction to distance himself from emotions over Mary's death and Watson's anger.  But a visit from a prospective client, a young woman who is the daughter of a famous and dangerous man, starts him back on the road to detection.  He makes a series of brilliant deductions about the young woman that leads him to take the case.

It involves another super-slimy villain, a famous entertainer and pitchman who is also a serial killer with access to his own hospital (he's their biggest fundraiser), which offers everything a serial killer needs to capture, kill and dispose of his victims (an elegant idea.)  The villain bears resemblances to the famous UK entertainer and charity fundraiser Jimmy Saville, though some critiques also mention Donald Trump.

In addition to a well-conceived and highly Gothic mystery (with a few surprising moments for Mrs. Hudson, wish there were more), this episode advances the arc by expanding the Sherlock circle.  Various hints have been dropped that Sherlock and Mycroft have a sibling, that Watson guesses is another brother.  But it turns out it is a sister--and it was she who appeared as the villain's daughter, as well as Watson's new therapist and a young woman he semi-sexted with in "The Three Thatchers."  What she is able to do in this story justifies Mycroft's description of her in the next, as the most brilliant of the three.

Of course we're required to make certain leaps, like the villain's real daughter showing up and Sherlock immediately believing that she is the real one and not an imposter. Or the plausibility of this guy confessing his crimes to friends and family hooked up to IVs with a drug that erases chunks of their memory---people would sit still for that, seriously?   Otherwise this is the best combination of a tightly plotted story and one that advances character and the Sherlock circle arc.

Then comes "The Final Problem."  Again as in series 3 the final episode is the most extreme.  It rushes ahead with a Kafkaesque story centered on Eurus, the sister, and her seemingly superhuman abilities.  I won't even attempt to describe the plot.  I'm more interested in investigating the style of it, and what it may mean.

First of all, it gives Mark Gatiss as Mycroft a lot more to do, and there is some wonderful three-way repartee with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson. Throughout the three episodes Cumberbatch is more dashing as ever, and convincing in Sherlock's various emotional states.  With longer and blonder hair, Freeman gets to be more of an equal, especially in this third story.  Some of these scenes are exhilarating.

But so much of this story is implausible in ways that must be deliberate.  When Sherlock, Mycroft and Watson realize the room on Baker Street is about to explode, Mycroft runs for the door while Sherlock and Watson dive through the windows.  We are treated to a shot--a not very convincing one-- of Sherlock and Watson crashing through the windows with exploding debris and flames behind them.

And in the next scene they are all perfectly fine, with absolutely no explanation.  Perhaps the same giant bags that broke Sherlock's dive from the roof in "The Empty Hearse" were employed to save them from this dive from the second floor.  Or perhaps they landed on Mrs. Watson's garbage bins.

This sets the mood for the scenes in the easily pregnable impregnable prison that Eurus takes over.  She sets up a series of psychological tests involving no-win situations in which they have to decide who dies--which by the way real behavioral psychologists love to do, though not necessarily with the actual dying part.  The motivation is to save a little girl all alone on a passenger airliner.

So even though Erus is completely unreliable, they believe all her tricks, including the girl on the plane.  (The very first scene shows the girl as the only conscious passengers, all the others passed out but with the oxygen masks hanging down at every seat.  So our little girl is immune to loss of cabin pressure or whatever-- how likely is this?)

And when Sherlock believes that Eurus has boobytrapped Molly's apartment so he has to get her to say "I Love You," which he does with of course just two seconds left, Eurus tells him there never was a bomb, blowing up an apartment doesn't make sense.  And he gets very angry with himself, apparently for believing her, even though she had in fact blown up his own apartment.

There are a series of revelations about Sherlock's childhood (many of which pay off a throwaway line from the first series, in which Mycroft reveals that as a child Sherlock wanted to be a pirate--as does the best joke in this episode: Man on boat: "Sherlock Holmes, the detective?"  Sherlock: "No--Sherlock Holmes, the pirate.")

Eventually he figures out the key to his psychotic sister's distress (she of course is the little girl on the imaginary plane), saves Watson, recovers repressed memories and becomes more emotionally available, as they say.

And it turns out that the return of Moriarity, the cliffhanger of the last series, was also a red herring, or maybe a Mcguffin, although Andrew Scott gets another show-stopping scene in a flashback.

The final scenes show a newly humanized Sherlock (he even remembers Lestrade's first name) and Watson made whole (Sherlock referred to him as family) watching yet another pre-recorded pre-death message from Mary, who wishes them well as a crime-fighting duo and champion of the oppressed, her "Baker Street Boys."  But what really matters, she says, are the stories.

That is, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as mythological figures.  Or at least action figures--our last look is a fairly embarrassing shot of the dynamic duo running heroically out of a building.

There is not much here from Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem," but the essence of that story was used in seasons 2 and 3.  Probably the final problem here is Sherlock Holmes himself.  In the first episode of season 1, Lestrade offers the opinion that Holmes is "a great man" but only potentially a good one.  At the end of series 4 he responds to someone calling Holmes a great man by saying that more importantly he is a good man.  I don't think the moment comes off very well, but it does sound like the point.

There are lots of good moments, dramatic, comedic, lyrical (I did find these scenes moving: of Sherlock playing violin for his once again imprisoned sister, then together with her, and then duets with her parents listening.)  But there was much more than seemed deliberately, let's say non-naturalistic.  And Mary's insistence on their importance as stories suggests a metafictional approach in general (and it was always postmodern.)  But scenes like the Baker Street explosion come off more as parody of the action genre as well, and perhaps of Sherlock itself.

Bringing all of this full circle suggests as well that this is the end of an era for the BBC Sherlock saga, and perhaps the end of it, at least as it is currently constituted.  (That this final episode got the lowest UK ratings in Sherlock history won't help, even with the bizarre controversy of a Russian language version being leaked on the Internet the day before broadcast.)  

Conan Doyle's tales were considered Gothic for their day, and this version has been moving more into horror territory, especially this series.  At the same time it's gotten brisker and lighter (other have seen resemblances to James Bond and inevitably, Doctor Who) with alternating attitudes towards violence.  There are themes and layers, and games within games.  To me, the intricacies and multiple agendas may have caught up with them in the obvious implausibilities.  It seems with all the time between series, those would have been corrected.  I would have preferred more credible stories.  These days, though, that may just be a difference in taste.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Trek50: The Devil in the Dark: The Us/Them Opportunity

Who is “Us” and who is “Them”? This key question in the human experience is the direct subject of “The Devil in the Dark,” a late first season episode, but in its full extent, it is a basic subject for all of Star Trek.

The question is implicit in the adventure of exploration, or of being explored: the inhabitants of strange new worlds, or the arrival of strangers. It is the social analogue to the internal exploration, as in “The Enemy Within”: Who is Me and who is the alien (the devil, the enemy) within?

 “The Devil in the Dark” deals with the starkest example: confrontation with a creature unlike Us in almost every apparent way. But there are gradations of otherness, which Star Trek exhibits in the course of this story.

It opens with a scene similar to the standard opening of the many 1950s “creature features.” After some expository talk among human miners (50 people have already been killed, but the Enterprise is expected soon), we follow a single person alone, suddenly turning with an expression of horror, killed by something large but unseen.

 After the teaser, we join Kirk and Spock as they learn why the Enterprise was called to Janus VI. Miners were being killed and their machinery simply dissolved by an unknown creature that strikes and disappears. “A thousand worlds” depend on the “pergium” and other minerals they mine, so there is an economic incentive for the Federation to send a starship to deal with the situation. “I don’t know what this butchering monster is,” says the mine boss, chief engineer Vandenberg, “but I know what it’s doing.”

There is the operative word: monster. The word goes back to at least the 14th century and over time its meaning included deformed animals and creatures of great size, and eventually was applied to humans of surpassing “inhuman” cruelty.

 But lurking in the word were suggestions of significance—it is derived from Latin words meaning divine portent or sign, a warning.

Monsters were often creatures of the imagination, either by size or by combining features of several fearsome beasts (griffins, comprised of parts of lion and eagle), sometimes including human components (werewolf.)

The monsters of the 1950s movies were most often creatures enlarged and deformed by atomic radiation: Godzilla for example, and the giant ants of Them! (A 1954 film that included an uncredited appearance by young Leonard Nimoy, and an impressive scene by Fess Parker, seen by Walt Disney who tapped him for the Davy Crockett role that started a craze demonstrating the power of the TV medium. Fess Parker went on to star in the Daniel Boone TV series that was Star Trek’s lead-in on NBC.)

Some movie monsters were sympathetic, like King Kong and the Gill-Man of the three Creature of the Black Lagoon movies in the 50s, in which the real monsters were the human scientists caging and torturing him.

 But the main significance of monsters was inherent in that one-word title: Them! Monsters were at the clearest and most obvious end of the spectrum of beings who are not Us.

 That’s a crucial difference, because once a being is defined as “them,” almost any outrage can be attributed to them, and they can be said to have nothing in common with “us”—not our emotions, thought processes or ethical standards.

 Defined as “them” engages fears and aggressions that makes killing them or mistreating and exploiting them easier, almost automatic, without qualm or question. This is why in modern warfare, opponents deliberately exaggerate the monstrous qualities of the enemy—even when the truth is monstrous enough. For example, opponents in both world wars spread stories of the enemy killing and disfiguring children—stories that turned out to be untrue.

 Another way to put this is with the terminology of evil beings derived from Christianity and other religions, namely devils or demons. They are by nature evil and malevolent, and the unknown or obscure Other is assumed to be evil (the devil in the dark.) Especially if it is defined as an enemy, this labeling as evil without reliable evidence, this assumption of evil, is often called “demonizing.”

 Eventually, everything bad that happens is attributed to “the demon.” That’s part of the psychology of the Salem witch hunts.

 In this episode, the “monster” is the most basic kind, with no human or even mammalian features. But Star Trek in this episode as well as in others, and in general, deals with other gradations of “them”—of The Other.

One of the next category of Others is standing with Captain Kirk analyzing the problem. He is the alien Mr. Spock, a humanoid with a Vulcan father and Vulcan features, and with a human mother and human features-- a version of the griffin or the werewolf, with the ears of the devil.

It is the alien Spock who notices the “silicon modules” on Vandenberg’s desk. As identical perfect spheres, they would raise questions, but not in these circumstances. Vandenberg dismisses Spock’s inquiries and interest. “We didn’t ask you down here to collect rocks.”

 But Spock is the alien whose mind is open to the possibility of something more alien—a silicon-based creature. Spock seems to have intuited from the beginning that these modules are eggs, but—especially after being chided by Doctor McCoy—he does not want to risk seeming to be too different, too alien, and not be accepted as a scientific observer, his main common ground with human beings.

 There are other Others aboard the Enterprise—but their effect is subliminal, because they aren’t considered Others in the Star Trek universe of the 22nd century. But a black woman officer and an officer of Asian extraction are Others in the 1960s, especially 1960s television.

While Uhura and Sulu are accepted as equals on the Enterprise, and therefore as “Us,” Spock is somewhere in between: he is Science Officer and second in command, but as several first season episodes show, he is not quite understood or accepted as one of Us by everyone. Still, for some viewers (and not just in the 1960s), they are all somewhere along the continuum of Them. They all have that alienness, that “not-Usness” of the monster.

The Enterprise officers are piecing together a picture of the monster. McCoy identifies a chemical corrosive it uses. Then the monster not only kills a man, but steals a key component of a machine that pumps air for the miners to breathe underground. But it seems they are all slow to acknowledge what this theft means—that the monster is intelligent, not a mindless killer.

 This has long been a limitation in human dealings with the first Others in human experience: animals. In fact there is ample evidence that early humans understood more of humanity’s relationship and resemblances to animals than did modern science until recently, when examples of animal intelligence (and such formerly human-only activities as tool use) as well as social behavior that might be described as ethical are finally being acknowledged.

 But at this point in the story, the miners are intent on one thing: “find that monster and kill it.” By then, Kirk has accepted the possibility of a silicon-based lifeform that Spock theorized—one that extruded a corrosive chemical to move swiftly through rock “as we move through the air,” as Spock said. And that machine component was not taken “by accident,” as Spock says.

 But Kirk’s mission is to get the mines operating again, and his duty is to defend the human life in the tunnels, so he orders searchers to shoot on sight, to kill.

 Kirk and Spock then see the creature, and their phaser fire wounds it. Having modified his tricorder, Spock discovers that within a hundred miles there is only one creature. It is possibly the last of its kind. To kill it, Spock says, would be a crime against “science”—reviving an argument about genocide that began in the first episode, “The Man Trap.” But he quickly agrees with Kirk that they have no choice but killing it.

There then occurs a very interesting dance of attitudes between Kirk and Spock that bears upon the dual attitude towards the Other.

 Human intelligence developed two very different and sometimes contrary sets of survival skills: one to identify danger, the other to identify opportunity. Dangers were to be avoided or overcome, but opportunities—for new food sources, dwelling spaces, mating and social contact—were to be pursued.

 So humans are endowed with fear and curiosity, with frowns and smiles, fists and open hands. Sometimes risks are seen as worth the potential reward. Sometimes supposed dangers get redefined as opportunities, or at least as non-threatening, and maybe even interesting for the differences. Difference is a source of knowledge, a way humans learn and add new skills. What constitutes Us can even be expanded.

So Spock has voiced his regret but his agreement that the creature must be killed. But instructing another set of searchers, Spock suggests they might capture it. Kirk quickly intervenes, reiterating his order to shoot to kill. “I will lose no more men.”

 When Kirk then tells Spock not to join the search but to assist Scotty in trying to repair the damaged machine, Spock and the rest of us understand that Kirk is worried that Spock’s doubts will prevent him from killing the creature. But without confronting that doubt, Spock convinces him that he is more useful in the search.

 Yet when Kirk eventually confronts the wounded creature, he does not kill it—and it is Spock, rushing to his aid, who urges him to kill it because “you can’t take the risk.”  This isn't a contradiction--but a subtle example of the effect these two have on each other, and an illustration of the two alternatives. While Spock's paramount concern in that moment is the safety of Kirk,  Spock has at least put Kirk in mind of the possibility that the creature should not be killed if it's not necessary.

Once Kirk assesses that the creature won’t attack as long as he has his phaser at the ready, he relaxes. He has heard his alien officer’s feeling about an alien life form, and taken this risk. He sees an opportunity.

Kirk appears curious. But he doesn’t know what to do. Spock comes upon this impasse. Kirk then suggests that he use the Vulcan technique of the joining of two minds. He knows the opportunity of the impasse is for communication, and the mind meld is the surest way.

 Spock’s mind meld (actually two separate melds, with the Horta’s attempt at communicating between them) reveals the truth: the creature is a member of a highly intelligent species, the Horta. At a certain point in their cycle (every 50,000 years), all Horta die except one, who nurtures the thousands of eggs that will become the next generation.

 This Horta is not only a sentient life form—it is a mother defending its eggs, the silicon nodules that the miners have mindlessly been destroying. A mother defending its young is something humans understand not only from their own behavior, but that of their original Others, the animals.

 But that’s not all that results from Spock’s mind meld. He is able to repeat the Horta’s internal cries of pain, and anguished thoughts about the actions of the human miners. From the Horta’s point of view, the humans are murderers, devils, destroying the Chamber of the Ages, the Horta’s very future. So the Horta feels compelled to kill the “monsters.”

 This contradicts the usual monster story in several ways. First, the monster is not killing without reason, or for the sake of killing: it has a reason, fully understandable. Moreover, it is a reason that would motivate humans to kill, if they were in its position—in its “shoes.”

And were humans in its position, they too might consider their enemy as monsters, as devils. But these humans weren’t purposely killing or committing genocide (though humans have been known to do so, employing various rationalizations, such as considering Native Americans as less than human.)

 In this story the miners were aghast at what they had done, in mistakenly destroying the eggs they believed were lifeless. “We didn’t know,” Vandenberg says, when confronted with Spock’s explanation.

 Kirk orders McCoy to heal the Horta’s wounds, and brokers a mutually beneficial agreement between the Horta and the miners. It is an agreement that still seems a bit colonialist (the Horta tunnel for the miners in exchange for not being killed) but it is an agreeable solution.

 Intelligence put the Horta in a different category, more akin to humans. The “mother” defending the eggs caused empathy. Both changed the ethics involved.

 Had this not so elegantly removed any point of conflict, the ending might not have been so happy. But the point of allegory is to elegantly make its point, and the understandable motivations of the Horta moved it out of the category of Monster, of Them, closer to Spock’s status of acceptable Other.

The script by Gene Coon is generally praised as countering the monster movie and (too often) even science fiction assumption that the “monster,” the alien, the Other, is automatically malevolent. In fact, some movies after this—like “Close Encounters” and E.T. but not limited to Spielberg—dramatized peaceful aliens, though most movies have since returned to the more explosive plots and violent visual effects involving completely evil aliens.

 The episode succeeds as allegory and human drama, despite production deficiencies and unconvincing plot points. Sometimes it succeeds because of these. For example, the miners at one point form what is essentially a mob, armed with clubs—implausible in terms of effective weapons against the creature’s known capabilities, but very suggestive on the allegorical or metaphorical level of a mob armed with clubs and pitchforks in pursuit of the Frankenstein monster, or witches or demons.

 The tragic error of reflexively demonizing the Other extends to racial, ethnic, national and other human conflicts. As such reflexes and such conflicts exist in some profusion today, it is a timely allegory still, fifty years later. And one that is essential to the soul of Star Trek.

 By showing how prejudices operate in the extreme situation of the monster, the danger of prejudice is exposed in less obvious situations—with a diverse crew, for instance, in which a sense of Us versus Them on a smaller scale can flare with bewildering swiftness and power, resulting in a breakdown of teamwork and worse.

 In Star Trek, the alien often provides a focal point for drama and for human self-examination. Only by getting a perspective outside itself—an alien perspective, even if only imaginatively—can humanity see itself more clearly. Just as humans first learned who they were in comparison to animals, in Star Trek they learn their differences and similarities from encounters with aliens, and often by means of those with both a human and alien heritage, like Spock.

The view towards non-humanoid aliens would become more complex in Star Trek, especially in the Next Generation series. The positive side of The Devil of the Dark allegory would enable Star Trek’s boldest value, expressed as the Vulcan motto of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.”

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Trek 2016: R.I.P.

The shocking accidental death of Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the three Abrams "Kelvin timeline" movies, especially tempers this year's 50th anniversary commemorations.  Considered a promising young actor beyond the Star Trek films, he died at age 27.

Don Marshall
Among those associated with Star Trek over the years who died in 2016 were actors Don Marshall, Seaman Glass and Jim "Hagan" Beggs who all appeared in episodes in the first Star Trek season, 50 years ago in 1966-7.

 Marshall played Lt. Boma in "The Galileo Seven" and Glass (who died at age 90) played Benton in "Mudd's Women."  Beggs played Lt. Hansen in "Court Martial" and "The Menagerie."

David Speilberg
Actors who played in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation include Barbara Tarbuck (who also appeared in Enterprise), David Speilberg (as the talkative Commander Hutchinson in "Starship Mine") and David Huddleston ("Emergence.")

One of the more prominent actors outside Star Trek to appear in an episode was the renowned stage and film actor Fritz Weaver, who played Kovat in DS9's "Tribunal."

Fritz Weaver
  Other DS9 actors who passed in 2016 include Barry Francis Jenner (who played Admiral William Ross in seasons 6 and 7) and Richard Libertini. Larry Drake and Angela Patton acted in Voyager.  Susie Stillwell, Brian Demonbreun and Roma Lee Tracy were background actors in various series.

John Hostetter
John Hostetter played Lt. Commander Adislo in the feature, Star Trek: Insurrection.  Lee Rehermon acted in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Gary Dean Hutzel was a visual effects artist for TNG and DS9.  Kenneth Adam, famous as production designer for Dr. Strangelove and other films, created designs for the 1970s Star Trek feature that was never made: Star Trek: Planet of the Titans.  Ray West mixed sound for Star Trek II as well as Star Wars.

Famed Man From UNCLE actor Robert Vaughn never appeared in Trek, but he was a regular on Gene Roddenberry's previous series, The Lieutenant. Vaughn also appeared in the offbeat Roger Corman sci-fi self-parody feature Battle Beyond the Stars.

The Star Wars family most prominent loss in 2016 was Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia and most recently General Leia Organa.  She died at age 60 from a heart attack in December, shortly after completing her filming for the next Star Wars feature.

Star Wars also lost actors Kenny Baker, Peter Sumner, Eric Bauersfeld and Drewe Henley, as well as award-winning special effects artist Kit West (Return of the Jedi.)

The Doctor Who family lost actors Barry Howard (in the final David Tennant episodes), John Carson and Michael Leader (who was also a Star Wars stormtrooper,) as well as "Destiny of the Daleks" director Ken Grieve.

Noel Neill was the first actor to play Lois Lane--beginning with the Superman movie serial in 1948.  She joined the George Reeves Adventures of Superman on TV as Lois in its second season, for the rest of its run.  She appeared as Lois Lane's mother in the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman feature.  Her dialogue scene was cut from the theatrical version but restored in the current home video.

Ron Glass appeared prominently in the Firefly series and in the Serenity film sequel.

 Alan Young played a major character in the 1960 feature film version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, produced by George Pal.  He later reprised the role in a short sequel for the movie's DVD with the film's star Rod Taylor.

Among other sci-fi actors were Janet Wright (Taken) and Jerry Doyle (Babylon 5.)

David Kyle was a science fiction writer and a member of the Futurians in 1939 during the first New York science fiction convention.  He later became a mainstay of sci-fi fandom.  Bud Webster was another veteran sci-fi author and essayist.  Bernard Bergonzi was a British literary scholar who wrote and edited several books on the science fiction of H.G. Wells.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Trek 2016: Star Trek Beyond

Technically, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek's first season continues into spring 2017.  But 2016 was the anniversary year.  There were conventions, related books, videos, fan tributes, though not as much as you might expect.  And there was the latest feature film, Star Trek Beyond, shown in theaters last summer and released on DVD and related formats late in the year.  That's how I've finally seen it.

The random observations first.  There were a number of echoes from past films and series, like Doctor McCoy discussing Kirk's latest birthday with him.  There were also some interesting variations to Trek conventions, such as a very brief visual which was easily the closest Star Trek has gotten to more realistically depicting the Enterprise in warp.  Warp is usually shown as just a much faster speed, but it's not that--it warps space.

Similarly, the convention of people speaking different languages, which the unseen universal translator is turning into English.  But such a device doesn't govern how an alien's mouth moves, yet the actors are always shown speaking English.  In one scene here at least, we see the alien speaking the alien language (and hear it muffled) while we hear the translation.  And then there's that futuristic device aboard the Franklin, the seat belt.

We can note that McCoy gets a lot more to do, including action sequences, as does Scotty, with Spock getting less.  Uhura is now a martial arts fighter, too.  In a much heralded but very brief scene, Sulu is shown greeting his young daughter in the arms of a man, meant to convey that he's gay.  John Cho continues to be impressive as Sulu, making the most of his moments.

It's a fast-paced adventure with lots of interplay moments for a good cast, both regulars and guests.  The story revolves around yet another single psychotic villain and his henchmen, but except for a wan attempt at hanging the plot on the difficulties warriors have when the war is over, it's almost a McGuffin--an excuse for the action and other plot developments.

There are the usual absurdities of people getting hit and falling but jumping right back up without injury. Generally it has all the silliness of action movies, which tend to detract from it as Star Trek.  But either I've lowered my expectations, or this is better handled in this film than in the previous two JJA-produced movies.

The core idea seems to be the one expressed by Scotty (quoting his grandmother)--that you can't break a stick in a bundle.  In other words, that we're stronger together. (Where have we heard that before?)  With the corollary that by being united as a team means that every individual is important--that no one gets left behind.  It's the union of "the needs of the many" and the needs of the one.  Diversity and unity--very basic Star Trek concepts, very subtly handled.  Maybe too subtly for some, within all the joyous action noise.  On the other hand, the way it is presented makes it just as similar to the US Marines ethic.

The most elegant moment of contrast was when the villain says he was born to conflict (kill or be killed), and Kirk says he was born to rescue (all for one and one for all)--literally true, for his father saved the Kelvin at the cost of his own life as Kirk was being born, which ties in with Kirk and McCoy's first birthday conversation.

The dramatic arc is Kirk and Spock at the beginning both planning to leave the Enterprise, though neither knows what the other is thinking.  After 3 years in space, Kirk is disillusioned with Starfleet's mission--what are we doing out here?  (It's a question that the villain addresses in the negative--suggesting issues of conquest etc. that aren't really dealt with.)  Spock is reacting to the death of Spock prime, for the actor Leonard Nimoy and the character he played have both died.  The Kelvin timeline, movie Spock feels a duty to replace him in reviving his civilization on New Vulcan.

In the end, Chris Pine's Kirk decides to stay because being captain of the Enterprise is fun (a  kind of echo of Shatner's Kirk in Generations.)  Spock sees that Spock Prime carried with him a photo of his Enterprise crewmates--a poignant scene and very brief 50th anniversary tribute to the prime universe crew and actors.  So he apparently realizes that the Enterprise is his true destiny.  And at the end of the movie that turns out to be the Enterprise-A.

I recall seeing an interview with Chris Pine suggesting that to expect anything more than an action movie isn't realistic these days. Maybe so. But apparently it hasn't improved the box office all that much.  There's less to dislike and more to like about this movie than the previous two, to my mind.  The actors are more comfortable in their roles, the dialogue is better and quicker.  Beyond the "how," the film doesn't break new ground.  I only wonder if even its most basic core--the Star Trek ethos of unity in diversity, gets beyond military-inspired references. Or if it is strong enough to communicate to audiences, new or old.  

It seems clearer to me that we're dealing with a Paramount Star Trek and a CBS Star Trek in terms of new stories.  In retrospect, J.J. did everyone a favor by creating the alternate time line universe.  It can be embraced or ignored.  Either way this film seems to make no change, let alone addition, in the soul of Star Trek.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Trek50: Exploration Within

The Enemy Within,” only the fifth original series episode to air, is a defining story in the Star Trek saga. To the adventures, discoveries and confrontations with strange new worlds and situations, this episode added the dimensions of metaphor and allegory exploring what it is to be human.

This became a thematic constant: the exploration outward was also the exploration within, and strange new worlds were to be found in both places.

 This became and remains particular, characteristic and essential to Star Trek. Fifty years later, this is even more clearly true. If not unique, this stubbornly repeated intent is rare in popular entertainment storytelling.

 This goes beyond the ethical dilemmas and “Gulliver’s Travels” layer of social comment often present in science fiction, familiar to discerning readers and viewers who are capable of experiencing these layers or levels simultaneously as part of the adventure.

 “The Enemy Within” is a direct and dramatic exploration of the human condition, and its clarity signals Star Trek’s intentions, so viewers are alerted to these elements in other stories where they may be less apparent.

Richard Matheson, science fiction author and writer for film and television, had recently adapted a series of classic Edgar Allen Poe stories for films by director Roger Corman. He realized that another classic tale he’d re-read, Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” could be the basis of a Star Trek story involving the transporter.

 But in his telling, and with significant contributions from Gene Roddenberry, “The Enemy Within” was more than yet another Jekyll and Hyde retread, or an Evil Twin story that also has classic roots, but has since been ground into mostly comic cliche by soap opera repetition.

 Stevenson’s story told of a doctor who felt burdened by unspecified but presumably ungentlemanly vices that he had to hide and repress to be accepted in his society. Though he was a mixture of “good” and “evil” impulses, he liberated his less acceptable tendencies by creating, through a drug he developed, another self—the younger, physically smaller and internally deformed Mr. Hyde who replaced him until the drug wore off or was counteracted. But eventually Hyde would not stay hidden and destroyed them both.

 Although some aspects of this split are similar (especially the identification of evil with the animal nature of humans), there are important differences in the situation aboard the Enterprise.

 Members of the Enterprise crew, including Captain Kirk, are on the surface of a planet, Alpha 177, on a specimen-gathering mission. When geological technician Fisher injures his hand in a fall, he is beamed aboard the ship. His transport is difficult, which Scotty—manning the transporter—attributes to unknown qualities of ore dust clinging to his uniform.

 While the transporter seems normal, Scotty sends the attendant to fetch an instrument to check it further. Scotty beams Captain Kirk aboard, who seems woozy and disoriented. Scotty helps him to his quarters, leaving the transporter room unattended. It is then that the transporter engages again, and a second Kirk materializes.

 This Kirk crouches, his nose twitching to pick up smells. He runs his fingers over the transporter panels. He is a creature of the senses, of the physical. He departs unobserved.

The “good” Kirk lies down in his quarters, exhausted, with a carved statue that appears to be from some “primitive” culture clearly in view on the shelf to his side.

 The “evil” Kirk storms into sick bay and demands brandy from Doctor McCoy, who reports to Spock that the Captain was acting like “a wild man.”

 After convincing Spock that he hadn’t left his quarters and McCoy was putting him on, the good Kirk joins Spock and Scotty in the transporter room where they see that in beaming aboard an animal from the planet, two animals arrived: one docile and one extremely violent.

Meanwhile, in the most controversial scene of the episode, the evil Kirk enters Yeoman Rand’s quarters and attacks her sexually. She scratches his face and she attracts the attention of a passing crewman, who attempts to report the incident until the evil Kirk attacks him and flees.

 After Rand tearfully reports what happened, Spock—mindful of what he saw in the transporter room-- concludes that a Kirk imposter is on board.

 We’ve seen that the evil Kirk is prey to his appetites. Now we see a quality of the good Kirk—his compassion for Sulu and the other crew members stranded on the planet below in danger of freezing to death as the temperature drops. The transporter can’t be trusted, equipment duplicates when beamed down, and apparently the Enterprise is not yet equipped with a shuttlecraft (as indeed the Star Trek series was not.)

 But good Kirk has also lost his decisiveness, “my strength of will,” and he feels it continuing to ebb. From Rand’s account, Spock has concluded that his double has equal knowledge of the ship. (We’ve also seen that he is cunning enough to cover his facial scratches.) Where would Kirk go to escape detection? The lower decks—engineering.

To this point the good Kirk seems puzzled; he is drawn to stillness and contemplation. He can barely understand the evil propelling his double. When they meet in engineering, he advances with the certainty of reason.

 His evil twin cowers, then strikes out. Though good Kirk pleads with him to accept that they are part of each other, evil Kirk—like Mr. Hyde—wants his complete freedom, and aims a phaser blast at good Kirk.

Spock’s well-timed Vulcan neck pinch spoils his aim, but the blast further damages transporter circuits. (Leonard Nimoy invented the neck pinch for this moment, although viewers had seen it in “The Naked Time” because that episode—seen immediately before this one—was actually made immediately after “The Enemy Within.”)

Noting good Kirk’s continuing indecisiveness, Spock makes these key description: “His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which earth people describe as compassion, love, tenderness.”

Then he asks, “What is it makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it is his negative side that makes him strong---that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.”

 This is the first brave insight. So much of action adventure is the simplistic battle between Good and Evil. Here Star Trek boldly goes into the realities of human complexity. The split itself demonstrates that James T. Kirk is not entirely Good. He has Evil—or traits associated with evil—within him.

At first the difference between the two Kirks still seems as simple as Good and Evil. Good Kirk is governed by intelligence and reason. He is genial and gentle, and above all he is compassionate. He has the capacity for empathy—his concern for the marooned crewmembers for instance. Evil Kirk is all selfishness and uncontrolled appetite.

 But now Spock suggests the negative side contributes to the good that the positive side can do—to its effectiveness.

This is hard for the good Kirk to accept. In a key conversation with McCoy in sick bay, he is repelled by the idea that the evil Kirk is part of him. “I have to take him back inside myself, I can’t survive without him. I don’t want to take him back! He’s a thoughtless, brutal animal! Yet it’s me! Me!”

 “Jim, you’re no different than anyone else,” McCoy says. “We all have our darker side. We need it. It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly—it’s human. Yes, human. A lot of what he is makes you the man you are.” McCoy is forced to agree with Spock, “Your strength of command lies mostly in him.”

 “What do I have?” the good Kirk asks. “You have the goodness…” “Not enough!” “The intelligence, the logic---it appears your half has most of those, and perhaps that’s where man’s essential courage comes from. For, you see, he was afraid. You weren’t.”

 This is another unusual and intriguing idea. We often think of courage as being physical, as “animal courage.” But McCoy suggests it is a product of consciousness.

Meanwhile, Spock and Scotty have rigged the transporter to reverse the original process. But when they tried it out on the two animals, the re-integrated animal died. Spock insists the animal died of shock, frightened by the reintegration it couldn’t understand. “You have your intelligence controlling your fear,” he tells good Kirk.

 After McCoy insists this is only a theory, Spock retorts almost angrily: “Being split in two is no theory with me, Doctor. I have a human half as well as an alien half, submerged, constantly at war with each other...I survive it because my intelligence wins out over both, makes them live together.”

The split represented by the two Kirks becomes even less defined as good v. evil in the most passionate wishes each utters. “I can’t let them die!” good Kirk cries, referring to the crew freezing on the planet below. His compassion and responsibility are clearly good. But what of evil Kirk’s cry?—“I want to live!” This can be considered the most fundamental desire—and right—of any life form.

The evil Kirk has been restrained in sick bay, where he appears to be dying, even as the good Kirk continues to weaken. After another escape attempt is eventually foiled, good Kirk struggles onto the transporter pad with the appropriately unconscious evil Kirk.

The transporter magic reintegrates the two halves into the single decisive but good captain, who saves Sulu and the other crew freezing on the planet surface.

There are several ways to characterize this divide within.

Various religions explained evil as possession by the devil or evil spirits—that is, forces from outside. The Catholic Church provided the doctrine of original sin, which in some sense meant that humans were born with the internal capacity to sin. The remedy was faith, good works and obedience to authority.

 The terms used in this episode suggest an interpretation of human evolution from the mid 19th century, in which evolution meant a kind of progress upward. So evil tendencies—sensuality, appetite, acting on impulse rather than reflection—were associated with the earlier and “lower” attributes shared with animals, the legacy of our animal ancestry. Good tendencies were associated with attributes of intelligence, logic and reason, self-control and will, and sometimes including the compassion gained from religion or social contracts, and generally through education and following the rules of civilized society.

So when Kirk is repelled by realizing he contains “a thoughtless, brutal animal,” he is expressing this interpretation. More recent research into animals suggest this is somewhat simplistic (A preliminary sort of conclusion on this research is suggested by the title of a book by one of the leaders in the field, Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?)

 To further complicate matters de Waal has found in his own research that humans are heirs to the genes of primate species with two nearly opposite natures: the combative chimps and the peace-loving bonobos. This implies what other evidence also suggests: that the standard picture of evolution that stresses the “selfish gene” and “nature red in tooth and claw” is inadequate if not biased. In any case, the popular interpretation of evolution as progress has been suspect since Darwin. H.G. Wells in particular battled against it.

But humans as a combination—and crucially, as a balance—between the attributes associated with the animal or physical nature and the attributes of intelligence appears constantly in Star Trek, and in various configurations. The need to control conflicting tendencies was at the heart of the previous episode, “The Naked Time” and would be again in other stories such as “This Side of Paradise.”  It’s partly behind the McCoy/emotion versus Spock/logic conflict, that informs the mediating decider, Kirk.

 And as Spock indicates, it’s part of his own internal conflict. It is also a key to the conflicts the Enterprise finds in confrontations with other worlds. In “Arena” for example, Kirk had to prove that humans weren’t simple animals, but capable of compassion, or at least fair play.

 On the other hand, Kirk stood for the reality of the physical against the abstraction of war in an over-civilized society in “A Taste of Armageddon.” Kirk admits that humans were killers by nature, but that they could overcome it.

 It remains one of his most famous speeches: “It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we’re not going to kill—today.”

 The “today” admits that these instincts are always present. (The language is strikingly akin to that used in addiction programs.)

 Again, more detailed and subtle knowledge of human prehistory and primal societies makes this a simplistic analysis of the sources of the internal conflict. But as the Enterprise encounters civilizations both much more advanced and much less technologically capable, the virtues of the human way, the middle way, between primitive superstition and soulless technology often recur. In accepting the dynamic combination of forces that may coalesce as good or evil, humanity finds freedom, equality, diversity and a necessary humility.

There are other, newer ways of seeing this internal division. The psychological terms most fashionable in the mid-1960s when this episode was created came from Freud. It was a conflict between the “superego” (the rules set down by society through parents, and by extension, any ethical or moral principles and restraints) and the “id” (the primitive instincts and drives.) The id in particular was identified with the unconscious (most dramatically in science fiction in the classic film Forbidden Planet.)

 Though Freud would make guest appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the guiding psychological light of that series was C. G. Jung, who was especially popular in the 1990s. In Jungian terms, the two Kirk conflict is between consciousness and the unconscious, particularly eruptions from that part of the unconscious called “the shadow.”

 The shadow is a part of the unconscious where the unwanted and unapproved parts of ourselves reside. It is the dark, hidden counterpart of the human profile—it contains all that has been rejected by consciousness. That usually includes such “negative” feelings and behaviors as racial hatred, greed and rage. (This kind of dominant shadow was externalized in "Mirror, Mirror.")

 But if the society values greed and selfishness, the shadow may also include selflessness that society would consider stupid or self-defeating. Or if a certain kind of rationality is paramount in consciousness, the shadow might contain imagination and artistic yearnings.

 In other words, the shadow holds tendencies we usually call evil, but can also contain good qualities that our society forces us to repress, like the impulse to give away all your money to a homeless person who somehow touches your heart at that moment.

 The Jungian shadow emerges into the outer world through such mechanisms as projection and denial (words that have entered the common language, if not the common understanding) but which masquerade as rational, especially to the individual (or society) whose shadow it is. The human struggle is to integrate as much of the unconsciousness into consciousness as possible, where it can be evaluated and dealt with, while allowing the unconscious its integrity, and respecting its power.

For as in this Star Trek episode, Jung suggests that our shadows are not only part of us, but necessary parts of us. (A good explanation of Jung’s ideas of the shadow, as well as suggestions for integrating it into our lives, can be found in Robert A. Johnson’s short book --just over a hundred pages-- called Owning Your Own Shadow.)

 For Jung, this process is not just important to each individual: To understand the forces and workings of the unconscious is vital to our survival as societies and perhaps as a species.

He was especially insistent about this in the 1950s, in the early atomic age. “ The world hangs on a thin thread,” he said in a video interview. “That thread is the human psyche… We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger.” But we know nothing about it, he added. Nobody gives credit to the idea that the psychic processes of the ordinary human have any importance. But, Jung maintained, the future of mankind depends very much on the ordinary human, on all humans, recognizing the shadow. This seems an appropriate point to emphasize at this moment in America.

 In “The Enemy Within,” the split is accomplished through what H.G. Wells would call “the magic trick” of the story: a transporter malfunction that can more easily be accepted than explained. (How does a matter/energy transfer system divide a human into duplicates with exactly these mysterious differences?) But accepted dramatically, it provides the means to usefully apply the concepts.

 Respecting the power of the unconscious and honoring its contribution while conscientiously applying consciousness and intelligence to guide behavior are central to Jung’s psychology and to this Star Trek episode.

 To take it all a little further than we’ve gone before, this balancing act, this harmonizing of instinct and thought, physical and spiritual, emotion and reason, is central to a concept of what the soul is—a concept common to early western thinkers as well as Jung and such contemporary post-Jungian writers as James Hillman (The Soul’s Code) and Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul.) So in this way, we’re really talking about the soul of Star Trek.

I have two more thoughts inspired by this episode—one about allegory, and one about the shadow.

The idea of humans hosting a dual nature is common enough (it’s essential to film noir, for example), and can lend itself to exploitation and sensationalism.

 But to deal with it in an explicit but fairly sophisticated presentation is decidedly unusual in popular entertainment. How Star Trek accomplished this in this episode is basically how it succeeded in telling other stories with allegorical and metaphorical dimensions.

 First of all, it tells a dramatically structured story that involves the viewer in dramatic questions and what happens next. Each incident and revelation suggests a question that, when answered, leads to another question. The story is both an exploration of those questions, and a series of problems to be solved and dangers to be dealt with.

 Drama is intensified by time pressures: both Kirks are weakening and may die. A solution must be found and implemented before they do. Meanwhile, that same solution is the key to saving the lives of freezing crew members on the planet’s surface, as the temperature gradually drops.

 The dramatic structure is in the writing. But other equally important factors involve not only the writing but the actors and all facets of production, beginning with the decisions made that apply to the series as a whole. Roddenberry grouped these under the term “believability.”

 They include the plausibility of the Star Trek technology and the Star Trek universe in general. It means a consistent universe—warp engines will always operate the same way, the phasers have the same settings, etc. This consistency grows throughout the series, as new elements are added—technologies, alien races, the Federation and its Prime Directive, etc. So now that the Spock neck pinch has been established, it will be used in basically the same way forever.

 The actors invested in their characters make them believable by both consistency and growth. How they played moments helped to define interesting characters in interaction with each another. (The responses of viewers as well as writers also contributed.)  Writers and particularly directors come and go, but the actors remain as the guardians of their characters, and to some extent, of the series.

 Star Trek’s tendency towards metaphor and allegorical storytelling was undoubtedly encouraged by the limitations of low budgets—the series couldn’t depend on flashy phaser fights and space battles. The stage experience of many of the principal actors also helped to make the most of simple if not cheesy sets.

 Acting in this kind of story is tricky—it combines a kind of expressionism with a naturalistic, believable portrayal. William Shatner in particular works on this dangerous line in this episode. Some viewers find it excessive but mesmerizing. Several viewings reveal how subtle it actually is.

 So in general, it was the dramatically structured storytelling in a believable and increasingly attractive universe that helped make stories like “The Enemy Within” memorable, and alive for several generations.

To create these stories and this series required many hands working together. That aspect was emphasized in many interviews given in the 60s and 70s especially. “There was a very good team feeling,” said Dorothy Fontana. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a great team spirit on any other show I’ve ever worked on...The whole unity of everybody, from the top to the least important production person, was right there.”

  “I never had a problem,” recalled Al Francis, Star Trek’s director of photography. “I would go in and talk to Gene, and it was a big family. That’s the way I saw it. It was the closest relationship I ever had while making a picture, from the producers right down to the crafts servicemen.”

“We were very free creatively,” said veteran director Ralph Senensky. “Everybody worked together.”

 “It was a marvelous place to work,” said music editor Robert Raff. “We worked long, hard schedules on that show...During some long nights we would pop in on Gene to have a drink with him. He had a living room suite where he stayed, writing in his office. He kept his office open to all of us.”

 But there was another side to all of this, that erupted in quite different views and accounts in more recent years. The three years of the original series involved intense schedules, long work days and work weeks as well as career pressures. They all took a physical toll, particularly on Roddenberry and the other producers, but also on actors and other creative and technical staff, and their families.

 It all may have involved abuses of various kinds. It apparently also involved some bad feelings and resentments that erupted in the guise of new revelations. Participants who previously sang each others’ praises and expressed satisfaction with their contributions to Star Trek began to complain about various injustices and insults in books and videos—about lines stolen by another actor, scripts unnecessarily and badly re-written, credit for their work taken by another. In particular, the reputations of Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner have taken more than a few hits.

 It’s impossible to entirely know what is true and what isn’t, especially fifty years in the Hollywood past. It seems likely that some questionable if not unsavory behavior happened and was discreetly hidden. But some of the “revelations” lack credibility (though far too many consumers are prey to believing them) or smack of sour grapes that do the purveyors no credit.

 It’s possible and even likely that some of these revelations were prompted and shaped by profits and profile, but that’s more an element to consider in general than to apply specifically without evidence. Because the point is that it’s all likely evidence of the shadow side, both in the complex reality of making the series, and in the careers and lives of participants since.  As for the public, the tendency to hero-worship is often matched with the eagerness to believe the worst as it resonates with one’s own shadow.

What we have for certain are the episodes, which is what everyone concerned produced through their talents, hard work and conflicts.  As “The Enemy Within” maintains, humans have both sides within them. And the shadow side is not totally an enemy. It is part of the whole. This does not excuse bad behavior in anyone. But it is a fact of being human.

(Thanks again to Trek Core for screencaps.)