Wednesday, December 30, 2015

R.I.P. 2015 From Star Trek and Doctor Who

More than anyone else, Leonard Nimoy had come to represent and embody the enduring spirit of Star Trek.  His death early this year had immediate global impact, but his absence for Trek's 50th anniversary year ahead I believe will be felt even more.

Besides creating the character of Spock for the original series, a notable two-parter on The Next Generation, and for all 12 Star Trek features to date, Nimoy directed and helped create two of the "trilogy" films (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and IV: The Voyage Home) as well as performing a famous scene in the first of the three, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.   Two other principal figures in creating the trilogy also died in 2015: producer and writer Harv Bennett (pictured with Nimoy at the top) and Oscar winning composer James Horner (pictured right).

Others who were part of Star Trek from the beginning also died in 2015 and sadly will not be part of the anniversary year.  George Clayton Johnson wrote "The Man Trap," the first episode to air--marking the exact anniversary date of September 8, 1966. Cinematographer Howard A. Anderson, Jr. ran the Anderson Company, the lead special effects house for TOS, beginning with the first pilot, "The Cage."

Grace Lee Whitney performed as Yeoman Janice Rand in the first season, and returned in later years for appearances in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and other features, as well as several independent films.  She was cherished as well on the convention circuit.

Bruce Hyde appeared as Lt. Kevin Riley in two early TOS episodes, and was one of the few previously introduced characters (in gold shirts, at least) to be killed--he was murdered in "The Conscience of the King."  Hyde later went against type to have a distinguished academic career as a professor of communications.

Also appearing in "The Conscience of the King"was David-Troy, who had studied acting with Leonard Nimoy.

Yvonne Joyce Craig made a lasting impression as a captive Orion dancer in "Whom Gods Destroy."

Others from TOS include writer Don Mankiewicz ("Court Martial") actor Carolynne Barry ("Arena"),  actor Gregg Palmer ("Spectre of the Gun") and stunt player Eddie Hice ("Day of the Dove," "Wink of An Eye").






In 2015 Star Trek: The Next Generation lost actor Theodore Bikel, who played Worf's father, and Rusty McClennon, who served as Michael Dorn's stunt double as Worf.

TNG also lost writer-producer Maurice Hurley, actor William Newman (memorable in "Up the Long Ladder" as pictured left, he had once been considered to play Jean Luc Picard), actors Karen Montgomery ("Angel One"), Ellen Albertini Dow and George Coe.



Karen Montgomery
From Voyager and DS9, Star Trek also lost actors Tom Towles and Terrence Evans, and from the feature films actor Jeri McBride (TMP), actor John Miranda (Star Trek IV), actor Alan Marcus (Star Trek VI), producer Bernard Williams (Star Trek: Generations),  stunt Borg Tom Poster (Star Trek: First Contact), and stunt player Dina Lupo (Star Trek: Insurrection). Though she was best known as an actor (the "Log Lady" on Twin Peaks), Catherine Coulson was a production assistant on Star Trek II.

Penny Juday was art department coordinator for Star Trek features from Star Trek VI through Star Trek: Nemesis.  She had cameos in "Generations" and "Insurrection," and as a dedicated archivist she was also a fan favorite.

Olaf Pooley was one of the small number of actors--estimated at 28--who appeared in both Star Trek and Doctor Who episodes.  He appeared in "Inferno," a Jon Pertwee story of Doctor Who in 1970.  Exactly 30 years later, he appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Blink of an Eye."  He died in 2015 at the age of 101.



The only television science fiction saga to rival Star Trek in longevity is the British series Doctor Who.  In 2015 it lost Anthony Read, who was its script editor in the classic Tom Baker period of the late 70s. He supervised  the season-long Key of Time episodes (with Mary Tamm as the female Time Lord Romana) and he welcomed a young writer to Doctor Who named Douglas Adams, who juggled some of the best classic Who episodes with his other project, A Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

In 2015 the series also lost actor Kenneth Gilbert (one of many actors on Doctor Who--usually playing villains--who also played classical parts with the Royal Shakespeare Company) as well as actors Rex Robinson, Clifford Earl, David McAlister, Hugh Walters, stunt players Derek Ware and Richard Bonehill, and director Fiona Cummings.

Also passing in 2015 were Melissa Mathison, screenwriter for the Steven Speilberg classic  E.T. :The Extra-Terrestrial, Robert Kinoshita, designer of Robbie the Robot; Rex Reason, star of the classic 1950s films This Island Earth and The Creature Walks Among Us; and Jack Larson, famous as Jimmy Olsen on the classic 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman  with George Reeves. Larson later
had a career as a producer and playwright.  In 1952, the same year he began acting in the Superman series, he appeared in the film Kid Monk Baroni, which starred Leonard Nimoy.

May they rest in peace.  Their work lives on, into the future.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Back to the 50s Future

It's a newsmaker when a discovery or new product looks at least a little like something in the Star Trek science fiction universe.  But the big news today was something that was a regular feature of the universe of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (besides the automatically opening doors and the forward view screen) and other pre-1960s science fiction.

The private SpaceX company landed a spaceworthy rocket (or the first stage anyway) upright onto a pad at Cape Canaveral--just the way Rocky Jones, Tom Corbett and Buzz Corey of Space Patrol did on Saturday mornings in the 1950s, but which had never been done in the more than fifty years of actual space flight.
(Unless you count the smaller craft that did it recently, launched by another private company, Blue Origin.)

But the SpaceX feat was widely considered a landmark, for if rockets can be reused, it might well make using rockets, especially for space travel, a lot less expensive.

For what Rocky Jones and other rocket jockeys did routinely has been out of reach of actual rocketeers.  When real manned spacecraft began "lifting off" (rather than "blasting off!") in the early 1960s, they left their booster stages behind to fall into the sea or remain in orbit, and astronauts huddled in the top capsule that returned attached to parachutes.

The best that was done after that were the Space Shuttles that landed like airplanes on a runway.  Of course, the even more budget conscious Star Trek series solved the problem in 1966 by never landing the Enterprise, and beaming people down and back up.

Though science fiction got a lot right in the years before actual spaceflight--and in fact inspired a lot of what actually was done, like the design of spacesuits and the countdown--this was a key difference.  If rocket ships just took off and landed (even if, like Flash Gordon, the ships belly-flopped rather than landing upright), they could be more plentiful.

If rockets were as reusable and cheap as airplanes, they might have had a greater impact on life on Earth, as well as making space travel more frequent and even ordinary.  That's the kind of near future that Robert Heinlein saw, for instance, in his first 1950s science fiction novels for young readers, Rocketship Galileo.  In a future that seemed a lot like the 1950s, rockets were routinely used to transport cargo, because they were faster than airplanes and reusable.  In fact, it's an old cargo rocket that our young heroes refit for their pioneer voyage to the moon.

Arthur C. Clarke once said that the only thing that surprised him about manned space exploration was that it stopped.  The gigantic expense was a big reason it did.  The head of SpaceX is Elon Musk, who despite his name is believed not to be an alien himself, but he's very focused on manned space exploration, especially to Mars.

It's still a pricey proposition, with lots of technical problems that may never be licked, especially involving how to keep humans alive for the voyage and on Mars.  But the reusable rocket is a step in that direction.  Maybe a big step.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Captain's Log: Trek v. Wars, premiere v. trailer, and the Day We Became One Planet

             illustration from UFOP: Star Base 118

As the premiere of The Force Awakens approached, there were a surprising number of Star Wars v. Star Trek debates in the media (for instance, here and here)--so much so that the business-oriented wire service Reuters noticed.

 While fans of each saga can be... fanatical about their favorite, in truth many if not most of them will eventually see both. Paramount apparently saw it that way when they announced that a trailer for Star Trek Beyond will be seen at showings of The Force Awakens.

Though Trek fans were there first in most expressions of fandom, it's hard not to view with awe the dedication of some Star Wars fans. They began lining up to see the new film some 10 days before it opened in Hollywood. Though it was in part a promotional gimmick, this Mashable  story makes it clear that it was also a community expression.

Some participants had done the same thing for previous films--officially as part of this promotion since the first prequel film in 1999, but at least a few who'd lined up at this theatre as children for the original Star Wars (now Episode 4) in 1977. For them, the experience of being together with other fans--including friends they made at similar events for the prequel films--is an important part of Star Wars.

 The premiere itself was huge--taking up three theatres and several Hollywood city blocks--and the advance bookings themselves made The Force Awakens a major hit. Media reports of responses by the first audiences were also highly positive.

 Among his many media interviews, The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams did this one with the Los Angeles Times, inevitably commenting on the difference between the Stars he's been part of. This is what he said: "At the heart of “Star Wars” is the idea of the Force. It’s this spiritual thing – it’s almost antithetical to science-fiction. And “Star Trek” is such a science-fiction story."

Abrams speaks eloquently and movingly of the essence of Star Wars. And "spiritual" is a strange word, open to many interpretations. But could it be that he never really got the essence of Star Trek? His comment suggests that possibility.

 Abrams as the director of The Force Awakens must realize that its story and its buzz and its preordained success is based at least partly--and perhaps, at this point before the movie has been widely seen, primarily-- on the fact that the beloved stars of the original Star Wars are in it.

 But apparently as the producer of Star Trek Beyond, he did not see that a movie released deliberately during Star Trek's 50th anniversary year might benefit from tangible ties to its storied past, especially in casting. Granted that Harrison Ford is a huge movie star apart from Star Wars, and Star Trek has no actor of that wattage, not even Sir Patrick. But the crews of Star Trek and TNG are beloved international icons. If some had been included, might we be seeing lines of Star Trek fans camping out for the 50th anniversary film premiere this summer?


On the day of the new Star Wars movie premiere in Hollywood, somebody "leaked" the first Star Trek Beyond trailer, "forcing" Paramount to release it. Some s/f and entertainment sites (like Cinema Blend) were all agog, but fans logging onto Trek Movie were divided, as they were (though a little less so) at Trek Core and (a little more so) at Trek Today.

 Some complained about "Star Fast and Trek Furious." Some of the disappointment was poignant, as the fan who commented: "I'm nearly 25 years old, and I've been a life long Trek fan. My parents were divorced growing up and Trek was something for me and my father to bond over. Now when he and I watch the new films, we just feel sadness and shame."

 As many noted, the trailer emphasized action, and only a rudimentary idea of what could be a complex story was suggested. Most of those who liked it or defended it did so because it looks like an exciting action movie that updates Star Trek, while many (though not all) of those who reacted in the negative said it didn't feel like Star Trek. One comment at Trek Core for instance: "There is nothing of the contemplative, exploratory, intellectual, dreamy, optimistic, humanistic, or political Trek in this trailer. It's being marketed as Fast and Furious in Starfleet uniforms. The characters may be moderately recognizable, but the essence of Trek is dead in this one."

 Apart from those who were definitively disappointed and those who were excited were others who pleaded to suspend judgment of an entire film on the basis of a first trailer.

 Okay. I'll go with that.

 But I will say this. The response of many fans affirms that there is something more than "science-fiction" action entertainment that they value about Star Trek....That there is an essence, a soul of Star Trek, which is as deeply important to these stories as the Force is to Star Wars.

Update: Co-writer and actor Simon Pegg responded to the response to the Trek trailer, saying he was puzzled by the trailer and a bit disappointed. He suggested the movie has more substance than that, and director Justin Lin suggested at least one question about the nature of the Federation that the movie deals with, through the antagonist, while adding some 21st century terrorism-inspired asymmetrical warfare to the alternate universe 23rd.

The Day We Became One Planet 

 It seems the world is catching up to Star Trek technology, with Trek being mentioned when anything develops that looks vaguely like tractor beams or the tricorder, or the TNG communicator pin. But in an even more essential way, the world has unexpectedly behaved as if it is finally growing into the Star Trek future.

 It happened on Saturday, December 14, 2015 in Paris, when delegates of nearly 200 nations passed by acclamation an agreement on addressing the global climate crisis.

 It's taken a quarter of a century from the first United Nations attempt to do so, but the words of the delegates, of national leaders who attended the first day of the conference in force, and of the media covering the event--all emphasized this agreement was made for the future of the planet.

 “History will remember this day,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after the pact was sealed by thunderous applause. “The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people.”

 It is the first time that the planet Earth united on behalf of the planet Earth.

 There were no huge apparent changes--nations still dealt with internal and international politics, bombs still fell, terrorism still exists, as does hunger and disease. The challenges remain of addressing climate crisis effects already on the way, and this pact alone may well not be enough to save civilization. But it was a kind of paradigm shift, towards the united Earth that gets its act together at home, and works together to go into space (as some experts say must happen if humanity is to explore what's beyond), determined not to make the same mistakes of invading in the guise of exploring.

 George Takei has said that Gene Roddenberry's vision was of the Enterprise as a Starship Earth, representing the diversity on the planet, working together. That's part of it. But the term "Spaceship Earth," just becoming widely known in the Star Trek 1960s, had another meaning.

 As coined by Buckminster Fuller (designer of the geodesic dome, a U.S. Navy vet and a sailor), "spaceship Earth" was a specific metaphor. Earth, like a ship at sea, has limited resources and must use them intelligently, or all aboard will perish. Gene Roddenberry, a sailor himself as well as a flyer, knew the practicality of that metaphor.

 Just a few days ago, leaders of the world's nations acted on that fact, and the language they used made it clear. The planet is in peril, not by an alien invader, but as a result of what humanity has done--at first unknowingly, and then unheedingly. Now the nations of Earth have begun to unite for the sake of future generations, the future itself, and the planet Earth.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Back on TV--New Trek or Nu Trek?

The announcement by CBS that a new Star Trek series will be available on its streaming service in 2017 has set off intense speculation here in cyberspace.  So a few more or less random thoughts:

Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first TV series to be made for syndication.  That was the beginning of the end for network domination. Star Trek: Voyager was created as the flagship of UPN, the Paramount cable network.  That didn't work out as well.  So it's not unprecedented that Star Trek is used to pioneer something new, like a streaming service.

A lot can happen before 2017 however, or even after the series starts.  CBS will adapt to marketplace demands.  But however it works out, the chance of a new Star Trek TV series actually being made seems very good.

  CBS has a very successful approach to TV drama.  NCIS is the most watched drama in the world.  I was impressed with what CBS did with Elementary in adapting Sherlock Holmes to contemporary New York, an idea that could have been schlocked to death.

The typical CBS series is character-driven, with reasonably strong stories, and a balance between character-driven humor and drama.  I expect this is what a new Star Trek series will be like.  (NCIS already has done Star Trek, mostly in the character of Ziva--an "alien" who never uses contractions and gets cultural references comically wrong, yet is stronger and smarter than others, etc.  Ziva=Data.  And I suppose Mossad=Android.)

There's a lot of chatter about what story universe it will be set in--Roddenberry's or Abrams'.  No one really knows yet, but my educated guess is that it will not be Abrams.  There are apparently legal questions about what exactly Paramount and CBS divided in separating films (Paramount) from TV (CBS.)  But it can't be possible that CBS got Trek TV rights without getting rights to everything in the Roddenberry universe.  And the deal separating them happened before Abrams and Co. created their universe.  The Roddenberry universe, the prime universe, is the Star Trek of TV.

So if it were me the new Star Trek series would be set in the 25th century.  It would begin with the launch of the Enterprise, and some recognizable 24th century character will be on hand for the launch.   But though there may be occasional references to the past, and maybe a guest character for an episode once in awhile, it won't matter that much.

Thanks to digital technology, this Star Trek universe can push future tech even further, and aliens don't have to be actors in makeup.  But the series will rise or fall on the appeal of the characters, and on the spirit, or soul, of the stories.  Relevance to contemporary problems and future possibilities as we see them today. People working together to solve problems was Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek formula.  It's the right one.

And as an aside, the producers would be crazy not to hire Jonathan Frakes as a frequent director and story consultant, and LeVar Burton if he's still interested in directing TV.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Where Trek No Longer Goes?


What will the new Star Trek movie be about?

An article in The Guardian states its premise in its title: "Climate change is so dire we need a new kind of science fiction to make sense of it." Writer Claire L. Evans suggests that it's a need that isn't being sufficiently addressed.

Climate catastrophe is implied in recent science fiction films, but they are mostly dystopian, post-apocalyptic.  The article (originally published online at Creative Times Reports) asserts: "The stories we tell ourselves can help us understand, and maybe even adapt, to this new world. But the dour dystopias and escapist fantasies of our current science fiction diet just won’t do. We need something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality."

The article (or more properly, the opinion piece) notes the existence of a subgenre called cli-fi (climate science fiction) but calls for something broader, to be called "Anthropocene fiction," from the term that many scientists propose for the current epoch on Earth dominated and determined by humanity.

The article ignored at least one work that qualifies, although I suppose it can be argued it isn't science fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in Washington trilogy, which he's updating and condensing for his upcoming Green Earth novel.)

  But the paragraph that caught my eye began: "Sci-fi has always mirrored the time of its writing. The themes of Star Trek – race relations, Cold War fears, American imperialism – were rooted in the politics of the 1960s."

Of course we all know that original series Star Trek stories dealt on some meaningful level with important issues of the time as well as examining implications of the future it portrayed.  This is one of the essential qualities of Star Trek, basic to its identity and its soul.

But the article goes on to discuss issues of subsequent decades, especially environmental issues, without mentioning Star Trek again.  Star Trek, according to this view, is a 1960s phenomenon, period.

Strictly speaking, it's not true. Fans can point to episodes of subsequent series' that dealt with issues of their time. The Next Generation took on many, including terrorism and torture.  It can even be argued that the film Star Trek Into Darkness was basically about the Iraq war, although long after it was mostly over.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had an environmental message for the 1980s: saving the whales is saving us.  But even though I'm sure fans can think of other stories, it does seem to me that Star Trek tended to assume environmental responsibility in the future rather than tell stories about it.

One reason could be the tension between technology and nature, and Star Trek's deep involvement in technology.  But there was one brave story that dealt with technology and metaphorically with one aspect of the climate change challenge.  That was the TNG seventh season episode "Force of Nature."

 Apparently nobody much liked this episode, but in substituting a disastrous effect of warp drive for the disastrous effects of industrial processes on Earth, it pretty courageously got to the nub of the problem for some people--the painful realization of the environmental harm accidentally caused by expanding technology, and the costs--cultural and personal costs--of addressing it.  It's threatening, and more than physically.

Ironically, the writers may have had in mind the issue of damage to the ozone layer rather than global heating, but as it has turned out, threats to the ozone layer from certain chemicals and processes were rather quickly and painlessly dealt with, with international treaties and the cooperation of businesses.  The episode is now more relevant to the larger problems of dealing with global heating and the climate crisis.  And perhaps with that in mind, the story improves.

There was a highly praised episode of TNG that metaphorically dealt with the possible apocalyptic effects of the climate crisis, "The Inner Light."  I make this parallel in my posts on it here.  It suggests the consequences of inaction, of ignoring the issue.  That's especially important in 2015, as the world gathers for what may well be its last chance to forge an international agreement to save the future from ultimate catastrophe.  But even with efforts to deal with the causes of the climate crisis, the planet faces the many effects of past greenhouse gas pollution.

The point suggested by this comment on Star Trek of the 1960s remains.  The climate crisis is the most consequential issue of our time.  It may threaten civilization and life on this planet, including humanity's future--and including the ability to take humans to other worlds.  In any case, it is clearly going to change the lives and occupy the time of generations into the foreseeable future.  If Star Trek were doing now what it did in the 1960s, this profound subject would be unavoidable.

What will the new Star Trek movie be about?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Captain's Log: Summer Updates

Time for a brief review of Trek-related items on the web that caught my eye over the summer.

There's the new movie in production, of course, watched avidly by the general Trek fan sites like Trek Core, Trek Today and Trek Movie.  There have been a few interview comments by Simon Pegg, one of the movie's writers, in which his confidence and enthusiasm seem to vary.  Apparently there's a lot of re-writing going on, even during production?


Actually, I'd forgotten until a recent re-view of early Russell T Davis Doctor Whos that Pegg was involved in that series, as actor and as narrator on Doctor Who Confidential.  With his acting in the new Star Wars, that makes Pegg the only person I can think of who participated in these three great story universes.  Sweet!

There were also the first statements by Justin Lin, the new movie's director, indicating that he actually did grow up with Star Trek.  So deciding to direct the movie was a "very personal and emotional decision."

As for Star Trek stars, there's the new  video by William Shatner about the first years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Chaos on the Bridge," which seems to entail a lot of anti-GR promotional hype, regardless of the video's contents.  Adam Nimoy conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign for the documentary he's making about his father Leonard Nimoy and Star Trek called For the Love of Spock.  (That's Adam and dad on the Trek set in the top photo.)

 Allegiance, the musical inspired by George Takei's experiences of his family's internment during World War II--a story he told very effectively at conventions--is scheduled to open on Broadway.  Takei also helped the Japanese American Museum of  Los Angeles acquire artifacts that illustrate and document the internments.  Now if he--or the media he feeds--could just get over his anti-Shatner schtick.

Even after suffering a mild stroke, Nichelle Nichols announced she will fly on a NASA mission--not quite into space, but close.  Publicizing his new series "Blunt Talk" Patrick Stewart said that he wished politicians would spend more time watching Star Trek: Next Generation, because Jean-Luc Picard showed that "people don't have to die to achieve a satisfactory solution to anything...I believe that we reach for the weapons far too quickly."

And they all had a lot of fun at conventions.  I'm hoping for some good YouTubes out of Las Vegas.  But then, this year it seems what happened in Vegas has stayed in Vegas.

Speaking of Doctor Who (wasn't I?), two pieces caught my eye: one that interested me because it expressed some of my misgivings about the Steven Moffat era, and about the last Sherlock series as well.  However the piece also made me want to immediately defend Moffat, especially as an amazing writer.  I guess that means I have misgivings but not as many or much as reported in that article.

The other was on the apparently hot topic of whether the next Doctor should be a woman.  Among those saying "no" is a woman author, AL Kennedy.  This Guardian piece is fascinating not only for her point of view on this element but on the Doctor in general.

Back to Trek: Slate has a podcast with Manu Saadia, author of a book entitled Trekonomics.  It links to a site with an "amusing" clips video about it.  What I've heard and read is not as impressive as the Rick Webb article I cited in a post here that I called, oddly enough, "Trekonomics." And some of what he says on the podcast about the characters is completely wrongheaded. But it's interesting that people are seriously examining Trekonomics, particularly at this historical moment, for reasons I begin to suggest in my earlier post.

Slate also republished an essay-answer to the question "Which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek?" by Jon Ferreira.  He came out in favor of Star Trek as the more substantive.  One of the factors he named was "The Soul of Star Trek."  Now I know I was the first with that one.

Billions and Billions of Earths?

Science and science fiction exist on a continuum; neither category is pure.  But taking the speculations of science seriously for a moment,  the discoveries (though that word should be taken with a grain of salt) of so many extra-solar planets, including those that seem in some sense "Earth-like" (including the latest Earth.2) has led a NASA scientist to estimate (or exclaim) that our single galaxy is host to at least "a billion Earths."

Like a lot of the extra-solar planet news, you need to go beyond the headlines.  It doesn't mean a billion Earth duplicates, even physically.  But it does evoke the "similar worlds" theory that provided so many Star Trek stories in the original series, when budgets precluded more than atmospheric coloring, old movie style props and some makeup for "alien" actors.

But in terms of actual observation, the pictures that came back from Pluto were scientifically fascinating.  Detail of Pluto and satellite Charon enabled scientists to make more detailed maps and at least tentatively name places and features.  By the time the New Horizons mission team got to Charon, they'd run out of standard mythology and were heading into the mythologies of science fiction.

So at least for the moment, Charon has craters named after Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and other Star Trek characters, as well as names from Star Wars, Doctor Who and Serenity.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Godzilla vs. Gojira, 70 Years After Hiroshima


On the first of March in 1954, sailors were on the deck of a Japanese fishing trawler out in the Pacific when they were startled by an astonishingly bright light at the horizon. It lingered long enough to illuminate the clouds and the ocean itself. One of the sailors ran to his cabin where another sailor was humming a song, and blurted out the same sentence as did a distant witness to the first atomic test at Los Alamos: “The sun rises in the west!” Crew members still on deck finally heard the deep rumble of an explosion, and were soon coated with gray ash.

This was the Diago Fukuryu Maru, translated into English as the Lucky Dragon #5. By the time it returned to port two weeks later, some in the crew of 23 were covered with sores from burns, and many were suffering the classic symptoms of radiation sickness: nausea, bleeding gums, pain in their eyes, headaches. The first death was recorded in September.

The bright light and radioactive ash came from the Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. exploded its most powerful hydrogen bomb. It was twice as potent as expected. Its fireball was more than four miles wide. Its 62 mile-wide mushroom cloud reached 130,000 feet into the sky, dropping radioactive dust on more than 7 thousand squares miles of the Pacific. Susceptible to this fallout were several small islands and more than a hundred fishing boats like the Lucky Dragon #5.

 Doctors and scientists in Japan immediately recognized the radiation effects. They had seen them before. They also measured excessive radiation in the fish aboard the Lucky Dragon and other boats, and this new threat caused panic in Japan that spread around the world. United States officials responded to Japanese requests for information with official lies. The head of the Atomic Energy Commission, responsible for the tests, denied any ill effects could be from the Bomb test. It took more than thirty years for such official lies to be fully exposed.

 Almost immediately, Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka took clippings about the Lucky Dragon incident to the Toho Motion Picture Company and proposed to replace a foundering film project with a movie about a prehistoric monster awakened by the Bomb.

Ishiro Honda, a young documentary filmmaker and friend of Japan’s greatest director, Akim Kurosawa, wanted to direct it. The son of a Buddhist monk, he’d been drafted into the Japanese military during World War II and was a prisoner of war in China. Returning to Japan at war’s end, he passed through the devastated city of Hiroshima.

The resulting movie, called Gojira, was released later that same year to great acclaim in Japan. (That's the same year as the event that inspired it.)  In its original form, it was not seen in the US or the rest of the world for fifty years.  It had a limited theatrical release in the US in 2004, and was released on DVD in an excellent two disk collector's edition.  I've seen it several times, you might even say many times, and it is a masterpiece.

The Americanized version using the monster footage of the original was released in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and was a worldwide hit. One of the major elements of Gojira that is largely absent from Godzilla is its strong connection to the Bomb, and specifically to the Lucky Dragon #5 incident, or any engagement with the issues they raised.

Last year, on the 60th anniversary of Gojira, Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. released their Godzilla, which appeared this year on DVD and Blu-Ray.  It is a monster of a movie, with 3D and IMAX versions, and a total estimated cost of $225 million.  It was a worldwide hit.

Godzilla starred in more than 20 movies after the first one, many of them for children.  So this 2014 blockbuster couldn't be the worst one, at least in general quality.  But in evoking the memory of the original, and then perverting so much about it, this movie is contemptible.

It's not just that it violates any sense of actual science repeatedly--though we're all supposed to be good sports and eat our popcorn while we roll our eyes.  The real violation is to history, to a very dangerous history of nuclear weapons that is not over, and insults the real feeling and the ethical explorations within the allegory of the original movie.

In the new movie, Godzilla was awakened in 1954, not by the hydrogen bomb test, but by deep sea exploration by the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus.  Both the US and USSR became aware of the monster.  "All those bomb tests in the 50s?  Not tests.  They were trying to kill it."

Forget that the Nautilus didn't make an actual voyage for several years after it was commissioned in 1954.  Explaining away the bomb tests of the 1950s (which actually began in the 1940s) for the purpose of a monster movie is itself monstrous.  It is absurd, first of all, and shows an utter ignorance of history--not just of tests but of everything around them, up to and including the Cold War.  It's an insult to everyone who lived through those years of terror.  Specifically it is an insult to the entire original movie it purports to honor.

Of course they were tests.  After the war, exactly 69 years ago as I write this, the first atomic bomb detonated in peacetime in the aptly named Operation Crossroads was dropped from an airplane off Bikini Island in the Pacific. Its explosion generated three times the light and heat inside the sun. The power of the second bomb in the series surprised everyone involved. Anchored on the ocean floor, it created a column of water half a mile wide, and sent it up a mile high in one second.

The first U.S. thermonuclear device detonated in 1952 in the Pacific was approximately a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It sent a four mile-wide fireball five miles into the sky, with a cloud atop it that rose twenty-five miles high, and left a canyon in the ocean floor a mile long. It vaporized the island where it stood.  But it was not a true bomb yet, capable of being dropped from a plane.  That's one reason they tested.

The Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan in 1949, and their first hydrogen bomb in 1955--and it was a bomb.  There were hundreds of bomb tests in the 1950s, in the US, the Pacific, in Europe and in Asia.  The Soviet Union exploded 30 large bombs in just 1961. The US responded by exploding 25 test bombs between spring and fall of 1962.  And it quickly became apparent that such explosions caused radiation that sickened and killed people, sometimes years later, and sometimes creating mutations in the next generation.

  This radiation was carried in the air, something called fallout, and though it diminished with distance, it could travel thousands of miles, even entering the upper atmosphere.  There were 20 atomic bombs exploded in Nevada by 1953.  Radioactive fallout from a test in 1951 was measured in Rochester, New York.

The lies and coverup in the 1950s weren't about a radiation-eating monster in the sea.  They were about the real effects of radiation on human beings and the environment.  And who were the first victims?  The Japanese.  Starting with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 70 years ago in August.

When news emerged from Japan of radiation sickness and the resulting deaths, the official U.S. position was that this was just Japanese propaganda. And even if there was deadly radiation, the head of the US bomb program General Leslie Groves told Congress, radiation poisoning is "a very pleasant way to die."

But the facts were soon documented.  Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire. By five years later, effects from the radiation had more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. Radiation was eventually responsible for the vast majority of the Nagasaki bomb deaths. Some effects of radiation were apparent within days and weeks, which included very ugly and painful immediate illnesses, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years.

The US hydrogen bomb test that affected Lucky Dragon #5 was also more than a thousand times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb. It vaporized part of the island. United States officials responded to Japanese requests for information with official lies. The head of the Atomic Energy Commission, responsible for the tests, denied any ill effects could be from the Bomb test. He hinted darkly that the Lucky Dragon was actually a Soviet spy ship, spreading doubt and propaganda.

Forced finally to admit the existence of the radioactive fallout, the U.S. claimed that the Japanese had been warned but ignored the warnings, and when that turned out to be a lie, claimed that the winds had suddenly shifted and so the U.S. hadn’t known where the radioactive dust would fall. That was also a lie. The winds did shift, but (as revealed in the 1980s) the U.S. knew that the fallout would reach the islands and the fishing lanes, but went ahead with the test as scheduled.

When Dr. David Bradley published the revised edition of his best-selling No Place to Hide, he reported on 406 Pacific islanders exposed to the fallout from the test in 1954: nine of their children were born retarded, 10 more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be “not recognizable as human.”

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered in August 1945. The US occupied Japan, supervising its government and everything else, until 1952.  Only two years later, an independent Japanese film company made Gojira.  It did not and could not overtly criticize its former occupier that was now its ally and protector.  But through the allegory of a monster raised from the depths, the horror of the atomic age was evoked, and more than that, the ethical issues bravely delineated.

This even as the memory of the war was still fresh, and Gojira's destruction of Tokyo was a replay of what US conventional bombs had done to the city. (There was an indirect reference to the war, when a bomb huddling in a doorway with her young children as Godzilla rampaged, promised them that they would soon be joining their father.)  

The 2014 American movie done with some participation by Toho, the Japanese film company that made the previous Godzilla movies beginning with the first (and excepting the 1998 Hollywood remake), featured one major Japanese character: Doctor Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe.  Like the other major character, he mostly stands tall and looks calmly at the surrounding monsters and mayhem, although he often looks befuddled or aghast while the young soldier played by Aaron Taylor looks bravely calm or just emotionless.  There was a Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, but this version is less an homage than another travesty.

publicity still--not a real scene: far right: Dr. Yamane and Serizawa
There were two scientists in the original, the elder Dr. Yamane, played by the great Japanese actor Takashi Shimura (who would soon star in The Seven Samurai ) and the younger Dr. Serizawa.  The Watanabe-played character has studied the monster, as Dr. Yamane wished to.  Otherwise, he bears no resemblance to either character, and certainly is no tribute to the importance of either--especially Serizawa.

While Yamane figured out what Gojira was and that he was revived and mutated by the bomb test, Serizawa had the key to destroying the monster.  He had inadvertently invented the "oxygen destroyer" that when set off in the water killed everything in it. But he had kept the invention secret, tortured by its power, and knowing that if he announced it, others would turn it into a weapon.

When his fiance pleads with him to use it against Godzilla he refuses--it would become known, and even if he destroyed his notes and refused to tell his secret, he was sure some military would find ways to get it out of him.

The meaning of this could not be clearer.  He was in the position of the atomic scientists. He had invented the ultimate weapon, that could mean the destruction of humankind.  He could not in conscience allow it to be known.

These were the stakes in 1954, and they got even higher as the bomb tests went on and provided the knowledge to make smaller bombs with higher yields, then place them in guided missiles--faster than airplanes, less detectable, cheaper to make in quantity, and impossible to defend against.  Soon there were thousands of missiles carrying several hydrogen bombs, each bomb capable of destroying a city and killing people for hundreds of miles.  Even by 1960, there were enough atomic bombs to kill everyone in the world seven times over.

When the 1954 Dr. Serizsawa (himself a disfigured war veteran) watches a tv broadcast of a school of young women singing (very reminiscent of the singing that traditionally is part of the Hiroshima commemoration), he realizes how many innocent people could be killed by another Godzilla rampage.  So he agrees to use his weapon, knowing that he will sacrifice his own life, because he alone knows the secret of how to make one.  The only way he can guarantee that his discovery will not be made into an ultimate weapon is to die setting it off. (There's a more detailed essay on this film elsewhere on this site.)


In contrast, the 2014 Dr. S. represents only a strangely limited idea of the balance of nature, which in his case means that two prehistoric natural enemies will cancel each other out.  Huh?  It's the pretext however for Godzilla to fight other monsters (as he often did in the increasingly silly Toho movies), this time a couple of contemporary looking monsters, conceptual children not of the original Godzilla but of "the bitch" in Alien.  This leads to plenty of disaster porn, the coin of the blockbuster realm these days.

 This version starts in Japan and ends in America, recapitulating the first journey from a meaningful movie to exploitation, even quoting at the end the title of the 1956 blockbuster that drained the original of its soul, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Like other recent blockbusters, it cannibalizes previous movies for effect, sometimes effectively.  The slow reveal of the monsters that some reviewers thought so brave in 2014, the filmmakers say they took from Jaws, though Speilberg had grown up on other 50s monster movies that also built suspense that way, including two of the best: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! (with an early uncredited appearance by Leonard Nimoy.)  Though done in what I experienced as a confusing manner, it nevertheless built suspense.

 I didn't need to read about this movie to know that another Speilberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was a model, not only in Spielberg's characteristic scene setups and angles, but copying stuff he'd copied: for instance the Close Encounters scene of two people finding and rushing towards each other in a crowd, which Speilberg had taken pretty directly from George Pal's War of the Worlds.)  Nothing wrong with all that, it's how movies are made, but a movie needs a life of its own.  This one to me did to these other movies what it did to Gojira: copied aspects of it but missed the point.  A lot of attention was also paid to  to what Godzilla fans demanded--an important aspect of this kind of moviemaking these days, but not always a guide to a good movie.  It's a movie without a soul.

None of that really matters as much as its dangerous and willful ignorance.  It is compounded in the final scenes when a nuclear device, supposedly more powerful than the 1954 bombs and so many, many times larger than the Hiroshima bomb, detonates in San Francisco Bay without any effect on the city or other inhabited area.  Just a flash within view of shore.

  That I fear is what generations who did not experience the 50s through the 80s may actually believe about nuclear weapons.  They're just special effects explosives.  They're ordinary bombs but maybe a little bigger.  They don't even make waves, let alone set the air on fire or spew radiation.  Millions of people will see this movie, and may even believe this.

And so a movie that invents a monsters so large that it could not possibly exist--bones simply couldn't make it stand up, let alone move--ends up minimizing the destructive power of something that does exist, and is an actual danger to humanity.

  There are still hundreds of hydrogen bombs and atomic bombs and their delivery systems, all over this planet. That we understand this, and what nuclear weapons really mean, is vitally important, and even more important than the grosses of a Hollywood film.  Such a film may not bear the responsibility to tell people what the nuclear dangers are--even if it is a remake of the first film to try to do so.  But it does have the responsibility not to mislead its audience into believing that it's no big deal.

This movie may invoke Hiroshima in a line or two but it otherwise displays ignorance about what it meant and means.  That's a horror story.