Saturday, August 13, 2016

Trek50: When It All Began 4

Many viewers come to Star Trek when they are young. But what was going on when the first Star Trek creators were young--the 1930s? How did that time contribute to the soul of Star Trek? This is Part 4 of 4. Part 1: Fear Itself is here. Part 2: Must It Be Again? is here. Part 3: Palaces of Imagination is here. A series marking Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

The World of Tomorrow

In the 1930s, visions of the future were evoked by the science fiction pulps (and their memorable cover illustrations), by comic strips and through the mind’s eye from stories on the radio. Such visions could be seen in a few movie serials (mostly Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers) and in a very few movies that didn’t make it into every movie palace: Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon and Metropolis from Germany, and especially H.G. Wells’Things to Come from England—which among other futures, accurately forecast what the Nazi bombing of London would look like in a few years.

 But the 1930s ended with the most famous example of a three-dimensional, scaled-up future that millions of people could walk around in. It would remain the most famous physically represented and sustained future until Star Trek in 1966. It was the 1939 World’s Fair in New York: The World of Tomorrow. 

 The vision of the 1939 World’s Fair influenced many science fiction writers over the years, though I don’t know if it had a direct impact on Gene Roddenberry (who was 18 when the Fair opened) or other Star Trek creators. Yet it was so famous in its time—even unavoidable—that those who were young then must have had it imprinted somewhere on their psyche.

 Spread over 1216 acres at the far edge of New York City, the 1939 World’s Fair was one of the largest ever attempted, with participation by more countries than any before it, and it was the most carefully planned to be more than an international trade show or patriotic pageant (though it was both of those.) It was, noted Harper’s, “revolutionary in its contrast to other Fairs.”

 “See the sun through the gray/It’s the dawn of a new day,” went lyrics to the World of Tomorrow song, as belted out by Ethel Merman.
In the anxious drabness of the 30s landscape, the Fair built a gleaming and hopeful future.

 President Franklin R. Roosevelt opened the Fair, promising those who came that “they will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.” Though there were only 200 TV sets to receive it, the opening was the first public event in America to be broadcast on television.

 One of the tragic ironies of the Great Depression was that America had productive farms, massive factories, willing workers, skilled technicians, but they were idled by mysterious forces of finance. The Fair expressed pent-up creativity as well as hope, a practical ingenuity as well as positive spirit. Strip away the hokum and hucksterism and self-serving corporate forecasts, and the Fair envisioned modern solutions to current and age-old problems, in a cooperative if not united world.  A kind of vision that we've seen again.

 The technology was beautiful as well as amazing, and this future was nestled in the embrace of green nature. Exciting design characterized the Fair, with every expression of technology and scope streamlined towards the future.

The Fair was centered on the slender Pylon, soaring 50 feet taller than the Washington Monument, and the balancing Perisphere, a globe with space enough inside for two Radio City Music Halls, but which actually contained the Democrcity exhibit depicting America of 2039. These were the gleaming white trademarks of the Fair, and now its enduring symbols.

Chrome doors at the foot of the Trylon opened to the longest escalator in the world, made of clean stainless steel and nearly silent, that moved upwards into the gleaming white interior of the Perisphere. Author Stanley Applebaum wrote of the Trylon and Perisphere in particular, “a walk around them at ground level yielded innumerable views of subtle geometric elegance, reminiscent of William Cameron Menzies breathtaking sets in the 1936 science fiction film Things to Come.”
 But the key words are “a walk around them.”

 Inside the Perisphere, under the tall blue dome, visitors stood on balconies to look down to a dramatic model of a landscape a hundred years in the future, in 2039.  A city of elegant tall buildings stood near a flowing river. Rolling countryside radiated out from it, dotted with towns and parks where people lived in bright modern homes, connected to the city and to factories by white ribbons of superhighway. A recorded voice told the story of Democricity, and projected faces floated over the scene as the music swelled.

At the Fair itself, hundreds of buildings, thousands of exhibits fanned out from this dramatic center, in organized sections subtly marked with changing colors.

 After Democricity, the most popular show at the Fair was Futurama in the streamlined General Motors Building.

In its theatre, visitors sat in plush chairs, each with its own sound system. The chairs moved along a track flying over another vision of the future—this time depicting 1960. Superhighways linked the entire nation. Cars were faster, more affordable and more comfortable. Superhighway travel was safe—lanes were banked and separated, lit at night by radiant strips, while traffic was controlled automatically to (as the narrator said) “make automobile collisions impossible and to eliminate completely traffic congestion.”

They left this experience bearing a white button with dark blue lettering that said simply, “I Have Seen the Future.”

 There were many other impressive exhibits, including the first demonstration of television in the RCA building, and Elektro, a rudimentary robot that interacted with crowds in the Westinghouse display.

 The Aviation Building simulated a futuristic airport. (At the time a cross-country commercial flight could take 26 hours.) Among the technologies introduced at the fair were FM radio, florescent light and nylon. And in Chrysler’s building, visitors could take a simulated rocket ride through outer space, to Mars and back.

 Among the shows and amusements were some that seemed to enhance the excitement of this future: the nightly dances with the latest swing music, and especially the displays of fountains, lights and fireworks at the Lagoon of Nations.

There was always a star attraction—including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Hot Mikado, Albert Einstein, the King and Queen of England, and in his first personal appearance, Superman.

 It wasn’t all show. Design and exhibits were meant to demonstrate the rationality and practicality of innovations—and their benefits for all.

 “We were great believers in Science in the Thirties, the Depression time,” wrote Arthur Miller, in his foreword to works by Czech science fiction author Karel Capek. “Our problem seemed to be that scientific objectivity was not being applied to social problems, like that of scarcity in the midst of plenty.”

One exhibit admitted the extent of poverty in the present. It showed four economic categories—subsistence, maintenance, the good life and luxury. A third of the nation was indeed below subsistence (as President Roosevelt had famously said), and 90% of Americans were below the “good life” minimum income.

But the exhibit also asserted that to raise the income of the entire population to the good life minimum was no fantasy. “With modern technology and power production, it is not long physically impossible...we need now to discover a workable formula for its distribution to ‘Three-Thirds of a Nation.”

 Showing this future as exciting and dramatic was a key principle of the Fair. Applebaum noted that the Fair’s designers—“men like Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague,” came from “careers in theatrical design or other artistic backgrounds... without them and their decisive influence, the Fair might well have been a stodgy curio show.” It would be an insight made again with Star Trek.

It was this physical aspect that gave the fair its particular power. These were not just words or artist’s paintings. The fair was a vast area of real buildings of a kind never seen before, carefully and artfully arrayed around a lagoon and a lake, dramatically lit and accompanied by sounds emanating from the Perisphere that one fairgoer described as “space music.”

 So it was little wonder that the first World Science Fiction convention was held in New York the summer of 1939 in conjunction with the Fair, attended by Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury (among others), who explored the grounds.  And it during this convention that editor Mort Weisinger came up with the character made famous by Edmond Hamilton’s novels: Captain Future.

 It seems that everyone who could afford to go, went to the Fair. Both major long-distance bus companies—Greyhound and Trailways—advertised transport to the Fair, as did railroads, airlines and ships. Transportation choices from other parts of New York included subway, train, bus and boat. And of course, automobile.

 Some 44 million attended, many of them returning four, 20, 100, even 200 times. A third of those attending in the Fair’s closing month of 1939 were making at least their fifth visit. According to a survey, 90% of Americans said they wanted to see it.

 “I have talked to people who went to the Fair only once but were struck by the experience and still vividly remember some of the details,” wrote David Gelernter in 1995. “I have met people who visited nearly forty times. I have encountered people who were inspired to make their careers by what they saw there.”

 “I think it stayed with every child who saw it,” wrote John Crowley, author and science fiction writer, who himself first visited as a ten year old. It certainly stayed with Carl Sagan, who said that being taken to the Fair at the age of four was a defining moment in his life. He marveled at science exhibits, Futurama and television. He loved the Fair’s time capsule, an inspiration for the record and items he later sent on with the Voyager spacecraft.

 But even children and others who didn’t get there could hardly escape knowing about it, and seeing its images—even in far off California, for instance.

The Fair was the star of newsreels at the movies: one called it “the greatest peacetime project ever undertaken,” another “the greatest exposition in history.”

The Fair was the cover story in Life Magazine the month before it opened, with a 16-page preview inside. It was on Life’s cover again the month after it opened, in May 1939. The Fair’s opening was covered on radio.

A Collier’s magazine cover had a cartoon version of New York Mayor LaGuardia cutting the ribbon opening the Fair, and a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration showed enthusiastic young people hanging out of two cars passing each other, with “World’s Fair or Bust” scrawled on both cars. (There was a smaller but similar World's Fair in San Francisco.)

More specialized periodicals, from Household Magazine to magazines for camera and railroad buffs featured stories on the Fair. Mechanix Illustrated had two cover stories, as did Popular Science magazine, including one illustrating the rocket to Mars ride.

 Radio-Craft revealed the internal workings of Electro, the robot that interacted with fairgoers in the Westinghouse building. Superman and Batman visited the Fair in Action Comics.

The Fair’s symbols—the Trylon and Perisphere—were seen on postage stamps and posters, roadmaps and brochures, tie clasps and rings, children’s games and women’s dresses, carpet sweepers and typewriters—and on the side of Howard Hughes’ airplane as he circled the globe. They were everywhere.

The future the Fair portrayed sparked imaginations partly because it was so different from the present. Outside in the real world of 1939, almost half of American families did not own a car. There was yet to be even a four lane highway with no crossings or traffic lights anywhere in America. The first would be a 160 mile stretch of what became the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It opened just as the fair was closing.

An animated cartoon of the time by Max Fleischer suggests the cultural implications of this future, depicting a rural couple that arrives at the Fair in a horse and buggy, and thanks to various automated processes, they leave as swinging cosmopolitans in a fast new car.

 With the economy at a standstill during the Depression, businesses provided little support for innovations. (Some New Deal programs, on the other hand, did show that intentionally shaping the future was possible.) But the Fair provided the opportunity for visionaries to show that the creativity and practical ability to create a new future were just waiting in the wings.

 So the Fair did not portray the future as an unrealizable dream. Its slogan was Building the World of Tomorrow. “The tools for building the world of tomorrow are already in our hands,” said the Fair’s science director. “Action is our slogan...If the world is awry we can change it.”

 And why not? The 1930s had already built parts of the future—from the TVA dams to the Golden Gate Bridge, from highways to airports and national parks. America had the know-how, the factories, the creative spirit.

 But in 1939 that energy and skill was already turning in a different direction.

The New York World’s Fair closed in 1940, as German bombers and British fighters battled in the English skies. The Trylon and Perisphere and most of the other buildings were torn down. Their steel was used to make weapons.

 Some Europeans working at the Fair, fearing a return to war-torn countries, tried to stay in America. The cooking staff of the French pavilion went into the restaurant business in Manhattan. But many of the cooks at the Italian pavilion were sent to an internment camp as enemy aliens.

At Star Trek conventions and elsewhere, Gene Roddenberry would later speak with pride and wonder of human accomplishments, of what humanity had built, despite its sad and violent history. While ignoring the meaning of an apocalyptic present might make some utopian dreams seem deluded and insipid, the fact remains that it is often in such deadening times that utopian visions arise most clearly and strongly. A horrific present seems to clarify what people want in a different time to come.

 Envisioning a better future and ways to attain it become more tangible, more emotionally powerful and more urgent. The 1939 World’s Fair gave physical form to the hopes that had endured, grown and flowered in those dark, tumultuous days. At least for awhile, the future was almost real.

And the New York World’s Fair of 1939 lived on in the dreams of those who walked its avenues, or even those who gazed at the brilliant, mysterious color renderings that remain magical today.

Meanwhile in 1940, Gene Roddenberry was attending college classes, dating his future wife, and learning to fly. He’d been recruited for an aircraft pilot training program instituted by a U.S. Army Air Force general. Aviation was still so new that the general (Henry “Hap” Arnold) had himself been trained in flying by the Wright Brothers.

 Even though the United States was not yet in the war, Gene knew what he was training for. Still, for the rest of his life he remembered the exhilaration and feeling of complete freedom of his first solo flight.

 Many others who helped create Star Trek would also soon go off to war. The dream of a gleaming white future would stay with some, though it seemed to fade in the fog of war, the smoke over European cities and the mushroom cloud. But it didn’t die.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Trek 50: When It All Began 3

Many viewers come to Star Trek when they are young.  But what was going on when the first Star Trek creators were young--the 1930s?  How did that time contribute to the soul of Star Trek?  This is Part 3 of 4.  Part 1: Fear Itself is here.  Part 2: Must It Be Again? is here. A series marking Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

3. Palaces of Imagination

Paramount in Oakland CA 1931
For those growing up in the 1930s, the Great Depression or the looming war sometimes became a focus, but (as memoirs of the era suggest) often they were an anxious background to family and neighborhood life, and the pursuits of childhood and adolescence. Even in these circumstances, worlds of imagination had compelling reality for the 1930s young.

Some of those worlds had a long tradition, some were near the beginning of a perhaps lost tradition, and some in that era were new, at least in their presentation. All informed the worlds imagined decades later when these children grew up, including influence on creating the Star Trek universe.

Los Angeles CA
One place the 1930s young could find such worlds of imagination was in the movies. And in the 1930s, the movies lived in buildings that were themselves marvelous other worlds.

This was the era of the movie palaces. They had the opulence of opera houses and stage theatres of previous generations (and some were converted from these uses.) Some were huge, seating thousands, elaborately decorated in Art Deco style (Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall which opened in 1933) or in the exotic decor of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

This recently restored mural from the 1930s was darkened by time
when I saw countless double features in this western PA theatre in
the 1950s. It's now called the Palace, but does mostly live shows.
But even in small towns and city neighborhoods they followed the formula pioneered by Sam “Roxy” Rothafel in New York’s Strand Theatre: curtained balconies, marble staircases, chandeliers, classical statuary and elaborate murals.

For a Saturday matinee, children might leave bright sunshine and pass through a cool outer lobby festooned with colorful movie posters (though the movies were still mostly in black and white; a few big features began appearing in technicolor in 1936.) This often led into a dimly lit inner lobby with furled heavy drapes and polished columns, and a brightly shining candy and popcorn counter at the end. Uniformed ushers stood at the entrances to the curtained, darkened auditorium.  Inside, barely visible, were row upon row of plush seats.

Orinda CA
 As their eyes adjusted to the dark, they might glimpse a decorated ceiling high overhead and the cavernous walls of filigreed plaster. At the far end, looming high, behind tall plush curtains, was the huge gleaming white screen, and the thrilling sound was already booming.

 In many if not most towns and neighborhoods and city downtowns, these were the largest, strangest, most mysterious and wondrous buildings children could enter, especially on their own. And once inside, they owned it. For a nickel or a dime they saw a newsreel, cartoons, a comedy short, an ongoing serial and a double feature. These were the palaces of imagination.

Gene and other children his age entered the worlds of Tarzan, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Daniel Boone, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, endless westerns and gangster movies, the first Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, the classic Frankenstein and Dracula films, older perennials like The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and H.G. Wells' visions of the future in Things to Come.

Movies poured out of Hollywood--even in 1933, one of the worst Depression years, Warner Brothers studio alone released 55 movies.  As the double feature became the everyday standard, the major studios plus independent companies added "B" pictures to their releases: shorter, more quickly made, with lesser stars.

Many movies weren't appropriate for Saturday kids shows but there still were plenty.  Those young audiences could share adventures in the air with daredevil aviators, in jungles of India and Africa, Arabian deserts, through icy blizzards in the Yukon and Tibet, aboard pirate ships and submarines, in castles and ancient Egyptian tombs, or in the mysterious "lost worlds" of King Solomon's Mines and She.

There were comedies with Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.  There were fantasies of The Wizard of Oz and the first Disney animated feature, Snow White.    

 Perhaps as they got older they might see some socially conscious comedies of the 30s, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and Sullivan’s Travels, Or film series like The Thin Man and Torchy Blane (female reporter and crime-fighter.)  Aspects of the Depression and the warfare and turmoil in Europe were in the newsreels, and made it into the movies, too, including socially conscious features (both "A" and "B"), culminating in the drama about the Oklahoma migrants to California, The Grapes of Wrath.

The excitement and lasting impact of the movie palace matinees were felt by slightly younger kids as well. Born in 1931, eight year old Leonard Nimoy went with his older brother on Saturday afternoons to a similar cinema in Boston, “in the cool darkness to look up at the indigo ceiling with the twinkling little white lights that looked like stars.”

 He vividly recalled the impact of seeingThe Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)  and entering the journey of the misunderstood outsider, Quasimodo, who finally is blessed by beauty, liberating his soul. “I carried Quasimodo’s haunting image with me from the theatre that day; the seed that would become Spock was planted.”

 Also born in 1931, William Shatner would remember racing from theatre to theatre in Montreal, seeing as many movies as he could afford on his allowance (“two, four, even six films.”) “It was my introduction to the dream of being an actor,” he recalled.

Those movie afternoons included the serials seen before main features. Sliced into short episodes with cliff-hanger endings each week, the serials followed the exploits of Dick Tracy, the Three Musketeers, the Lone Ranger, Captain America, Jungle Jim, and the Shadow, among others.

The most famous serials of all were set in the future, featuring Flash Gordon and young Gene’s favorite from the newspaper comic strips, “Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century.”

Buck Rogers was also popular on radio (as were the Lone Ranger and Dick Tracy.  Radio was another palace of the imagination.) There were Buck Rogers badges, disintegrator pistols and a Buck Rogers spaceship, made of tin and selling for twenty cents. The Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials bristled with futuristic technology (Buck Rogers had a ray gun with the equivalent of a stun setting, and this 25th century had matter-transferring transporters and remote viewscreens.)

 Some of these serials would continue to be shown for decades, and would continue to inspire. Steven Speilberg would remember seeing 1930s serials at the movies in his 1950s Arizona childhood, including Tailspin Tommy (1934) and Zorro Rides Again (1937).  But it was the Flash Gordon serials that fascinated young George Lucas in Modesto, California.

These movies, comics and radio shows provided other worlds to enter into, and some suggested models to consider and heroes to admire and maybe emulate. Amidst the action and excitement, their heroes demonstrated courage, energy, perseverance, compassion, self-sacrifice.

 All were in this sense pertinent to growing up, and specifically to growing up in the 1930s. In some ways this was especially true for the hero who would eclipse the rest, first appearing in the pages of the relatively new form, the comic book. For the hero who emerged most directly from the times was Superman.

Jerry Siegel was 20 when he and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1934, influenced, he recalled, by “President Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats...being unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany...seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden...”

 Siegel was also reading about crusading heroes and seeing them in the movies. He wondered how he could help these victims of the 30s. “How could I help them, when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”

Superman would become even more of an icon in future decades, and quickly led to an entire genre of superheroes. But strikingly unlike recent years, when superheroes exclusively battle super-villains and each other, Superman’s first exploits were saving an unjustly condemned woman from the electric chair, and stopping a wife-beater.

 In his 1930s adventures, he rescued miners in a cave-in, battled stock market manipulators and munitions manufacturers fomenting wars to sell their wares. He fought crime, but also poverty and unsafe labor conditions. He came to the aid of individuals in trouble, and was devoted to the common good. He was a compassionate, high-spirited and humorous hero of the people.

Movie theaters were dramatic, physical palaces where imagination was king. But Gene Roddenberry had also discovered the personal palace of imagination represented by books. His hunger for reading would lead him to another discovery, another relatively new form—the science fiction pulp magazines.

One such magazine had in fact named the genre. Before Gene Roddenberry was born there was nothing called science fiction. He was five years old when a magazine first appeared called Amazing Stories, eventually devoted to “scientifiction.” It was started, published and edited by Otto Gernsbach, an early enthusiast, inventor and impresario for communications technologies.

 Gernsbach made his fortune before World War I designing and selling the first home radio sets, and then by designing and marketing home kits for hobbyists—mostly adolescent boys—to build their own radio sets and radio telephones. His first magazines were little more than marketing for his kits but they became even more successful.

 So from his Modern Electrics, Radio News and Science and Invention magazines (whose fervent readers included Marconi, Edison, Tesla and rocket pioneer Robert Goddard), he moved on to Amazing Stories, and later to Science Wonder Stories and other titles. Among his talents, Gernsbach had a way with naming things, like “television” and, after a false start or two, “science fiction.”

Despite the Depression, these magazines grew in number and circulation throughout the 1930s. At first, Gernsbach reprinted classic tales by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe (which had sometimes been described as “scientific romances.”)

 But soon the pulps were publishing new writers. Those stories often emphasized the wonders of new technologies (called “gadget fiction”) though sometimes their perils as well: a 1933 series in Wonder Stories depicted a future Earth depleted and ruined by pollution.

By 1938 there were more than 20 pulps publishing science fiction stories—from Astounding and Amazing and Astonishing Stories to Thrilling Wonder Stories, Future Fiction and Planet Stories. The ideas were exploding—and some may seem familiar. For example, the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories included “A Martian Odyssey” presenting a silicon based creature that ate sand and excreted bricks, which it used to build giant pyramids.

But magazine science fiction took a more deliberate direction when John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding in 1938. According to writer and editor Lester del Rey, “he wanted them [his writers] to live in their futures. And he wanted those futures to be livable.” 

The writers responded by becoming “future-oriented, with the sense that the present was not the permanent center of everything: to them, the future was a real place. It was three-dimensional.”

 To make these futures “real,” Campbell urged his writers (who would eventually include names like Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Van Vogt and Lester Del Rey) to imagine the social implications of new technologies.

He urged them to question their assumptions based on the present or even prior science fiction. “’Yes, but’ was one of his favorite openings to a discussion,” Del Rey recalls. Campbell “had no desire to ‘bring science fiction into the mainstream,’ Del Rey observed. “But he was totally serious about the fact that science fiction was the only fiction that dealt fully with modern reality.”

 As he recalled years later, Gene Roddenberry became aware of the science fiction pulps when he befriended a classmate who was unpopular because of his physical ailments. Gene also had experienced health problems. His new friend shared with him his treasure trove of magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing. (While Gene’s health improved in adolescence, he recalled that this boy died at 16.)

Through another unusual friendship (with a young man living over a garage in his neighborhood, who lent him books collected while in prison) Gene supplemented these pulps with the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and novels by E.E. “Doc” Smith, who became a particular favorite. Smith was also appearing in Astounding magazine—in 1937 he began his “Lensmen” series, about the Galactic Patrol and the planets led by a democratic Earth battling an evil galactic empire.

 One aspect of science fiction that appealed to the young in the 1930s (said classic sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl) was the evident failures in society in the midst of technological success—these stories spoke to that discrepancy.

Gene added such science fiction to his omnivorous reading. Out on his porch, he might sprawl on an old couch with a stack of crackers held together with peanut butter, and read for hours in the soft air and sharp light of a southern California afternoon.

At the beginning of the decade he might have discovered the series about the young scientific adventurer and inventor Tom Swift that began earlier in the century but added new titles in the 1930s, such as Tom Swift and his Sky Train, Tom Swift and his Planet Stone, Tom Swift and his Giant Telescope. Together with stories about young detectives (The Hardy Boys, Bob Dexter, etc.) these were popular books that public libraries typically collected for their young readers.

 There were also books that provided shorter illustrated versions of classic stories like Gulliver’s Travels. A series in twelve sturdy volumes called My Book House began appearing in the 1930s—it collected verse and stories, from nursery rhymes and fairy tales to longer adventures and stories about many cultures.

 From In the Nursery through Story Time and Through the Gate to In Shining Armor and Halls of Fame, each volume of My Book House increased in sophistication as a child grew older. Many classic tales were included, from El Cid, Don Quixote and Joan of Arc to Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Children got a taste of Greek myth, Shakespeare, Dickens and Jonathan Swift.

 Later in his adolescence Gene might lose himself in the pulps and the science fiction novels, along with  Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and other tales of adventure. Though King Solomon’s Mine was made into a movie in 1937 and She in 1935, the original late 19th century novels by H. Rider Haggard were perennial favorites with young readers—tales of exploration that include elements of the mystical and philosophical (it was in She that the phrase "the heart of darkness" first appeared.)

In 1937, a series of novels and stories by C.S. Forrester about an early 19th century British naval officer named Horatio Hornblower began to appear. These became lifelong favorites for many, including Gene Roddenberry. The introspective, courageous, astute, compassionate leader with a strong sense of duty and ethics, Hornblower became a model for both Captain Kirk and Captain Picard.

 The adventure tale, the hero’s journey, the tests of courage, perception and integrity; the voyage to the unknown, the romance of encounters with strange new worlds: all the themes that run through these classic stories were the backbone of the better science fiction, newly available in the 1930s. This was the first generation that absorbed them all together in their formative years. To their eager eyes and open imaginations, it was all new.

The books that stretched young imaginations often had lasting and formative effects. Young Isaac Asimov, devouring the same pulp magazines as Roddenberry, recalled that he read them in “vivid and agonizing transport because I wanted to be part of the story and couldn’t.” These stories “ravished my soul and opened it to a music of the spheres that few can hear.”

 Or the writer Henry Miller remembering his youth a couple of generations earlier, as a reader of H. Rider Haggard, which he shared with his blood brothers in a secret hillside cave. “These books were part of our Spartan discipline, our spiritual training.”  In the 1960s, when the first moonshots were planned, he wrote: “Our children have already voyaged far beyond the moon. They are ready, at a moment’s notice, to take off for Vega—and beyond.”

 “Something so absurd as a boyhood book momentarily captures the mind and never quite releases it,” a character muses in a novel by Jim Harrison. But these books spoke not only to boys.

There was twelve year old Ursula LeGuin, for instance, who found a little leather bound copy of Lord Dusany’s A Dreamer’s Tale in the living room bookcase one boring evening. Later she and her brother shared copies of Thrilling Wonder Stories, making favorite phrases from the stories a part of their secret language.

 And the young Margaret Atwood, hiding from homework in the basement by reading H. Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells in old volumes forgotten by her father.

 They were responding to the age-old fascination of stories. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle," Vladimir Nabokov remarked. "That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science."

 Then towards the end of the 1930s, imagination met present reality in a disconcerting way. On Halloween night of 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air performed on national radio a version of H.G. Wells,'The War of the Worlds, updated to the present in the United States. Suffused with war anxieties, some late listeners believed they were hearing actual news reports of New Jersey under attack from merciless machines, from Mars.

 For young Gene, these stories from the palaces of imagination could inform the dramas invented and acted out with his brother and sister and neighborhood friends on the grassy, wooded hill behind his house. Or they might be the subject of his reveries while feeding the chickens in the backyard or the rabbits hiding in their hutch.

 Some stories might also inspire other reveries. Los Angeles in the 1930s was still a city of clean air, so from his house on the many sunny days, he could see distant mountains. And on clear nights, the immense black sky was layered with stars, thin carpets of them strewn in glowing white waves, while others seemed nearer, and boldly bright. He could watch them and wonder.

 But beyond the movies, the radio show, comics and science fiction pulps, a vision of the future—in three dimensions and physical form—would fascinate the nation at a moment of impending peril. That vision will complete this tour of the 1930s, next time.

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.