Sunday, November 30, 2014

To Explore Strange New Worlds



I saw this video here at Slate, which explains more about it.  Using the words of Carl Sagan and images of other worlds (which I wish were identified), it speaks to one aspect of the soul of Star Trek: the urge to discover, to explore.  Sagan talks about its evolutionary efficacy, and that's also the impetus for the voyage in the new movie Interstellar.  I have my doubts about whether humans will ever travel to other planets, in person.  We may have waited too long.  The immense costs may be too high and not available, as resources are increasingly needed to deal with the causes and effects of the climate crisis.  There may not be the political and societal will to see it through.  I'm not sure what will change that.  Not even the discovery of life elsewhere is guaranteed to do it (even though my bet right now is that some form of life will be confirmed on Europa within a generation.)

I just watched again the middle section of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In this 1968 dream of the year 2001, humans have evidently been on the Moon continuously for awhile, with permanent bases.  They discover a "deliberately buried" object, that suddenly sends a signal out into space.  This part of the movie is based on Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "The Sentinel," about aliens who visit the Earth millions of years ago, sense the potential for intelligent life developing, and bury an object on the Moon that when uncovered, will signal their faraway civilization that humanity is sufficiently advanced and moving outward for further contact.  It's sort of the equivalent of  a "warp capable" species that the Federation can contact in Star Trek.

This procedure makes perfect sense  Watching this section of the movie in 2014, I realized that although humans made it to the Moon in 1969, none stayed long enough--nor ever returned--to find a buried sentinel.  One may be up there, waiting.  But we may never find it.

 It's also not clear to me that humans actually can live indefinitely anywhere but on the Earth. We don't really know how dependent we are on being replenished by the constituents of our air and water, minerals and microbes and so on.  It may turn out that our urge to discover must be turned to aspects of our own planet.  We must discover new resources, new ways to survive with our planet, rather than by using it up and deforming its ability to foster life.  We must discover how to live together.  But the dream of exploration will remain.  And who knows, by the 23rd century it may return humans to space.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Of A Larger Reality


Ursula LeGuin is a revered writer and a prophet of the imagination.  She received an award from the National Book Awards, and used the occasion to note that such literary awards are rare for science fiction writers:

"And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists."

But it is not just because an entire branch of writing has been snubbed, just as television awards snubbed Star Trek and other science fiction for most of its history.  It is the value--and the future value--of those visions:

"I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

LeGuin then made some pointed comments about today's publishing world.  They may seem unrelated to her previous point, but they really aren't.  It is only when writers and creators can create and express their visions, including visions of a better future, that they can be shared.

We all know that television and movies are expensive to make and especially these days to market, and that the extent of profits have become increasingly the measure of success, and determines what is allowed to be seen.  (Not just profits, but the extent of profits.)  That's become dominant in book publishing as well.

These are ultimately self-destructive values, and the wrong measures, yet they are so easy to adopt. I've noticed for instance that instead of discussing the issues raised by Star Trek and other stories, or the visions of the future they suggest, the dialogue is increasingly about money, about blockbusters, profits and "the franchise."

Once we start talking about "the franchise" instead of the Star Trek saga, or the stories, then we're defeating ourselves.  Star Trek is not about profits, tent poles and maintaining a franchise.  It's about stories, visions, complexities, models and hope for the future.  Yes, the money involves some constraints.  But a sense of proportion and always remembering what it's actually all about--they are more necessary than ever.

Here's more of LeGuin on publishing:

 Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

 Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. 

 Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words." 

 This post is probably longer than her speech, and quotes almost all of it.  But you have to see her give it, in under six minutes. The complete transcript is here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Captain's Log: Where the Soul Is

There's no new Star Trek on TV to talk about, the movies are few and far between, and so a lot of what fills the Trek sites is news of merchandise: replicas, figures, jewelry, dresses, an Enterprise pizza cutter, a Borg cube cake.  It all has its place, these tools to increase the feeling of participation in the Star Trek myth (probably the best light to shine on it all.)  But it's not the essence.

Neither is the speculation on how to make Star Trek a better "franchise," which has the positive goal of increasing the number of Star Trek stories.  But it might have its drawbacks, and besides, it's mostly on the level of business.  That's certainly an important consideration, but it's not the essence either.  The mythos is part of it.  The franchise isn't.  It's not the soul of Star Trek.

There's an analogy between the merchandise and the technology in Star Trek.  Trek tech is exciting and integral to the Trek universe.  But on its own it is empty.  In an essay on Slate called "Forget the Tricorder," Joey Escrich (in writing about a new book called Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions of a Better Future) asserts "the most important innovations that will shape our future aren’t the gadgets, but the beliefs, values, communities, and relationships that will determine how we use them."

Here's another thought or observation to throw into the mix.  I admit I have been surprised that the JJA or Abramsverse movies, with all their much bigger budget contemporary effects and style, haven't overwhelmed the GR era Star Trek TV shows and movies.  Specifically in their alternate Original Series universe, one might expect New (or Nu) Kirk and Spock to have replaced the old.  That has not happened.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are admired for their portrayals, but William Shatner is still James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy is still Mr. Spock.

The conventions (such as October's New York Comic Con) affirm this, as well as the firm grasp on the Trek imagination of the Next Generation crew.  The GR era shows and movies own the conventions, especially when the new cast isn't promoting a new movie.

The conventions are one place that the soul of Trek is enacted, as fans and Trek creators interact within the Trek mythology that includes the stories and the values that Trek promoted and that fans extract from Trek to guide and enhance their own lives.

Another place--which combine these two observations--seems to me to be in the independent films, the web series etc. otherwise known as fan films--pretty much set in the GR Trek mythic universe.

 That's found for example in the Star Trek Continues promotional videos through Wired.  This is participation in a deeper way--creating stories within the Star Trek universe to share with others.  Yet clearly the participants cherish the experience of creating with each other.

That was part of Star Trek from the beginning.  The airing of grievances, chronicles of conflict and misbehavior etc. since may have obscured the fundamental facts of it, that are so often expressed in the earliest interviews and accounts:  people who worked together to solve creative problems, united by the joy of each other and also their belief in the better future Star Trek stood for, the equality of opportunity and the diversity of contributions to the common enterprise.

Some of that future evolved through storytelling, such as the full historic meaning of The Prime Directive.  But a lot of it was there in what people often refer to as simply the relationships, both of the creators and of the characters.

I see the Star Trek universe as a series of concentric circles, with the creators at the center (producers, writers, actors, directors, designers etc.) and gradually expanding rings of ancilliary storytellers (novels, independent films, fan fictions etc.) and the rings of fandom from the most actively involved to the devoted viewers.  That they have always interacted is one reason that the soul of Star Trek is still so strong.  You see this today in the conventions but especially in the independent films--done with love, care, sacrifice, and for no monetary profit.      

Meanwhile, more is happening in the real world that might influence new Star Trek stories in a post-1960s or even 1990s understanding of the universe... First on my list is the astonishing idea that a third to half the water on planet Earth is older than the sun.  It's become fairly orthodox science that a great deal of Earth's water arrived from space, probably borne by comets.  But this discovery, if it holds up, makes that certain--not only from space but from outside our solar system... And right on cue, other scientists believe they've detected water on an exoplanet for the first time, on a Neptune-sized planet in the constellation of Cygnus.

A new study concludes that there indeed may be thousands of alien civilizations in the galaxy, but the vast distances make contact unlikely or at least very rare.Without warp drive anyway, but we knew that.   A survey found that 37% of the Americans polled believe space aliens exist, but proof of them has varied effects on their religious beliefs.  Meanwhile, a researcher of terrestrial life wonders if we will even recognize intelligent alien life if we run into it out there, especially since we have so much trouble recognizing it here.

So long for now.  And thanks for all the fish.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Internet Factor

From Tom Tomorrow via Daily Kos.  Signed prints available.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Captain's Log: Braga, Geekie and the New Doctor Who

Welcome to the Captain's Log at Soul of Star Trek, where your vision will never be blocked by a popup ad that you can never shake, so for better or for worse, you can actually read what's on this site.  Is that science fiction or what?

Readers of this past post at this site will not be surprised that at a convention appearance, former Star Trek producer/writer and producer of the Cosmos series Brannon Braga reportedly said of his work on Cosmos: "I did bring a lot of my Star Trek sensibilities to the show. The ‘Ship of the Imagination’ might as well be the Starship Enterprise."  (I suggested it looked like the Enterprise D before they put the stuff in, except for the captain's chair.) Check out the Trek Movie story that reports on some of what he said about the Star Treks he worked on. (That's Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos--can't you just hear him? "Engage!")

Speaking of the Trek Movie site, I was genuinely surprised to see (in several comments sections) that such a negative tone towards Star Trek Into Darkness has developed.  I've made my own caveats and qualms known here, but the trekgeist seems to have turned against it definitively.  I don't know what that means for the next JJverse movie, unofficially as yet to be directed by a writer on the past two who is a writer on this one, Roberto Orci.  Word there is that the script is complete, and 2016 is still the release year.

Congratulations to Star Trek Continues for winning as Best Web Series at the 2014 Geekie Awards.  Also to Geek of the Year LeVar Burton.  His successful Kickstarter campaign for Reading Rainbow apparently was the clincher.

 Doctor Who did not fare as well at the Hugo Awards.  Despite having four entries among the nominees for short form TV, it lost to an ep of that other Brit global hit, Game of Thrones.  I really, really dislike that series.

However the world is being prepared for the new season of Doctor Who, a series now of global reach.  The actors playing the new Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and the current companion (Jenna Coleman) participated in a tour that touched down on five continents.  Cities included Mexico City, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and Seoul, South Korea.  Each stop included screening of the premiere episode, "Deep Breath."

The episode will be aired in the UK, US, Canada, South America and Germany (though in undubbed English) on August 23, as well as in at least four other countries the next day or the next week.  Thanks to the successful theatrical screenings of the 50th anniversary show, "Day of the Doctor," this episode (70 minutes plus) will also be shown in theatres in a number of countries.

The BBC publicity machine hit a snag however when scripts of the first five episodes were leaked on the Internet.  But from my point of view, this was not all bad since one of the online "reviewers" of the scripts suggested that the new Doctor, while definitely darker than the previous, will have humorous moments, and that the scripts include humor as well as drama.  That would be in keeping with past Doctors but the official publicity shows Capaldi glowering all the time.  I began to wonder if the series is taking itself too seriously.


But then I've only recently been catching up with the last Matt Smith episodes on dvd, lacking a couple of the Christmas specials and the final regeneration story.  I loved "The Day of the Doctor" 50th anniversary story. John Hurt and especially Billie Piper were superb.  David Tennant and Matt Smith work very well together, as do their Doctors.  Though I've come to appreciate Matt Smith's Doctor more, I still feel partial to the Tennant/ Russell T Davies years.  Davies' East Enders Meet the Time Machine approach grounded the stories better for me. Tennant did comedy and drama, the big gestures and subtle moments, all so well.  Matt Smith had unique strengths as the Doctor but he didn't quite have all those colors, and neither did the stories.  Capaldi has done drama and comedy well in the past.   So we'll see.  Although you'll probably see first.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Giant Leap

Forty-five years ago today, a human being first set foot on another world. Some 600 million people on Earth were watching and listening as Neil Armstrong descended to the surface of the Moon from the Apollo 11 lunar lander, saying (in words slightly obscured by static) "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

 Those of us who were alive and old enough usually remember where we were. I was visiting Colorado, and had spent the afternoon in a car winding through the dry bare mountains near Denver, which seemed to me as desolate as a moonscape. Kathi, the driver, and my girlfriend Joni were from Denver and we were seeing the sights, but I remember that landscape (and possibly the thin air that I wasn't used to) just made me despondent.

 A few hours later we were in the basement rec room of Kathi's parents' house as we watched the ghostly image of Armstrong on the Moon. I felt it--that I was watching in real time an extraordinary moment in human history. At the same time, that indistinct black and white image was a little like watching Captain Video on an early black and white television set when I was five or six.

 Years later the worlds of science fiction and factual history collided again at a Star Trek convention dinner. I stopped to speak to Nichelle Nichols at a table in the darkened ballroom when she said she wanted to introduce me to someone. From the seat next to her up popped a man in a suit holding out his hand--it was Neil Armstrong. I shook the hand of the first human to really touch another world. 

Earlier in this 45th anniversary year, MIT Press published Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, which I mentioned in an earlier post.  I've posted a review of this book and further observations of this day on other sites.

As I wrote in that earlier post, humans rocketing into space was considered childish fantasy even as late as the 1950s.  Just a few years after Apollo 11, the  Apollo 17 astronauts left the Moon, and no human has returned.

Today we know that many things went wrong with technologies that we'd find laughably primitive in 2014 as the Eagle was trying to land on July 20, 1969. But somehow it did land, and that moment inspires awe even today. Perhaps even more so, since such a voyage has returned to the realm of fantasy, only with better visual effects.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Pale Blue Dot



This is about three minutes from the final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which (along with one of the producers, Brannon Braga) has just been nominated for several Emmys.  It's the voice of Carl Sagan, who hosted and co-wrote the first Cosmos series, reading from his book The Pale Blue Dot.  The visual is an animation ending with the view of Earth that Voyager 1 got as it passed Neptune on its way to interstellar space (where, by the way, it was further confirmed this week, Voyager definitely is.)

As one of the comments on YouTube suggests, the views Sagan expresses so eloquently in this clip are basic to Gene Roddenberry's vision for Star Trek.  That's one reason I'm posting it.  Another is that the episode this clip comes from can be seen for free on the Internet, but (at least at this site) only for a few more days.  Some earlier episodes will be available there longer. The whole series is available in other ways, including DVD.  I wrote about it here at the beginning, and since then, my admiration for it has grown.  It really is a stellar series.