Friday, February 27, 2015

He was, and always shall be, fascinating

There was news some days ago that Leonard Nimoy had been rushed to the hospital.  A story I read concluded that he was feeling better because his Twitter feed had resumed, but when I saw that the tweets were previously published poems, I had a feeling that all was not well.

Still, it was a shock to wake up to the news today that he had died.  It's a major moment that will take time to absorb.  Sobering and sad, but occasion to remember his many contributions, especially to the living mythology of Star Trek.  Coincidentally I've been focusing recently on that mythology, and those contributions. This event will sharpen and deepen that exploration.

My relationship with Nimoy was brief and pleasant.  I interviewed him by phone and met him once in person in connection with a New York Times article I was writing on Star Trek, just as what turned out to be the final season of Enterprise was starting.  He emailed me to say how much he had enjoyed the article, and the feedback he'd received about it.  We exchanged emails, as he advised me on book publishing matters.

This past week I caught up on his recent interviews on YouTube--I especially liked these, with Geoff Boucher.  Also this one with Pharrell Williams. Nimoy had a singular life, and a very full one. He had a lively mind and a complex personality.  He was large souled.  In many ways he was a keeper of the soul of Star Trek.

Of all the Nimoy photos floating about today, I like the one below, with the Buddha statue in the background (Trek Movie used it, among others.)  I ended my phone interview with Nimoy by telling him a story that involved the San Francisco Zen Center.

I stayed there once, a few months before our conversation, in one of the rooms they rent to visitors.  My room didn't have its own bathroom, so that night I walked down the hall to the large common bathroom and shower.  Monks, many of them young, also lived on that floor.  I took a wrong turn on the way back to my room and found myself in the monks' wing.  As I turned back in the correct direction I noticed a bookcase in the hallway outside the monks quarters, filled with books.  I couldn't see the titles in the dim light, except one: I Am Spock.

He laughed and said, "Thanks for that."  Along with difficulties and travails, he had rewarding careers and a rewarding life, but it turns out that all I have to say today is just that: Thank you, Leonard.  It's been fascinating.

May he rest in peace.  His work and his legacy live on.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Take on a Deep Breath & Listening Trek

The first Peter Capaldi season of Doctor Who is now available on DVD etc., my preferred medium, so I've recently seen the first one, "Deep Breath."  This is also the long episode that got shown in movie theatres (a la the 50th anniversary ep "Day of the Doctor") following a world publicity tour.  So the most disappointing thing about this DVD is that the special features are mostly about the pre and post showing hype.  Although even that has its moments.  No commentary on the episode, though.

It's interesting that the guests and fans on the BBC and BBC America post-episode shows were so breathlessly hyped up about "Deep Breath," and talked about its most pleasing surface features, its cute, exciting, touching and tweetable moments, so the show succeeded on that level immediately.  The opening image (a dinosaur in Victorian London, spitting out the Tardis) got predictable wows, and everybody loved Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.

But what really interests me is that once producer/writer Steven Moffat got all the flashy stuff going, and all the coy references that fans will get, he actually did what he probably didn't have to do and gave the story some texture and substance, as it dealt with the Doctor's questions about his own identity, and went head-on at the most obvious change: he's older.  In the process, the ep said some things about how people feel as they get older, that you maybe have to be older to get.

There are these writerly, even classical moments of reflected meanings, as when the Doctor (apparently asleep) seems to be vocalizing the thoughts of the dinosaur roaring outside but ends up saying something that's about himself, identifying himself in some sense with the dinosaur, as a stranger and perhaps--in a way--as old.

Later Calpaldi in a Scrooge-like nightshirt has a great rant as he tries to deal with his new self after regeneration, muttering that he's seen his face before (and of course, fans know where--in the David Tennant episode about Pompei), speculating on what message he was trying to send himself with this face, but still not remembering where it came from.

Then when he confronts the android (derived from yet another Tennant episode) who is a machine remaking itself with human parts, he accuses him of not even remembering where he got his face. To emphasize the connected point, he's holding up a shiny metal tray to the android's face as a mirror, but we can also see the Doctor's face reflected in the other side.  (Mirrors as well as various kinds of reflections and projections are prominent in this ep.)

You've changed so much and so many times, there must be very little of who you were originally, the Doctor shouts, in a nice piece of projecting, so you wonder if he's not wondering if that's his fate as well.

Moffat neatly disposes of the possible awkwardness of quite older Doctor and quite younger companion by having the Doctor say directly, I'm not your boyfriend.  But he also manages to broaden the Doctor's post-regeneration identity crisis, and Clara's not being able to accept him because he's much older than her boyfriend Doctor (Matt Smith, who makes a brief and emotionally effective appearance), by having the Capaldi Doctor say, "You can't see me, can you?  You look at me and you can't see me.  You have any idea what that's like?  I'm not on the phone.  I'm right here standing in front of you.  Just look at me."

Besides the Doctor talking to Clara, he's speaking for many older people, who may no longer look like the person they feel they are inside.   Younger people do tend to look right through them, but even worse, they don't see who they are.

The episode also includes that intrepid trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax, fighting crime in Victorian London.  Strax is great comic relief, Jenny is appealing and apparently a fan favorite, but I am most impressed with Neve McIntosh as Vastra.  I sense their repeated appearance is setting up the possibility of their own spinoff series, which would only be right: since the Moffatverse has eliminated Sherlock Holmes from late 19th century London, it's only fair to replace his crime-solving skills with Madame Vastra and her crew.

Meanwhile in Trekville...

Speculation and consternation continue as, soon after the new director for the 2016 official NuTrek feature film was announced, so were the new writers.   Consternation seems natural, whatever the gifts of the people newly in creative charge, since 2016 happens to be Star Trek's 50th anniversary, and so far there is no clear connection to that living legacy.  Even Abrams' Trek films had a connection through Leonard Nimoy.  Now so far there's nothing, except rumors of cameos.  Meanwhile there are all these talented and experienced directors, actors etc. whose lineage goes back to Gene Roddenberry, who know what Star Trek is about, with many of them quite eloquent on the subject.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to look at the Star Trek sites in this period between movies, and the Doctor Who sites, between seasons.  Though both announce new ancilliary stories through comics and novels, and both tout products (toys, memorabilia), the balance on the Trek sites is much more towards products, and on Doctor Who sites towards stories.  And it's worth seeing why.

Doctor Who seems much more active in revisiting its past, in creating new stories for past characters, and especially in using actors from that past.  That's largely through an emphasis on audio/radio drama, something that Star Trek has never really done much of.

Partly that's a cultural thing--radio drama (as well as stage drama) is much more part of UK culture (and Canadian, come to that) than US.  Some years ago, Star Trek actors employed themselves in radio/audio drama, doing (for example) non-Trek science fiction, through Alien Voices and L.A. Theatre Works.  But official Star Trek has not embraced this medium.  Which means that those great voices out there associated with various Star Trek series are not doing the new stories they could be doing, adding to the Star Trek legacy as well as reviving it.  Instead, we get the Star Trek cuckoo clock.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Star Trek Movie That Could Have Been

Since I've adopted the more civilized practice of watching TV programs on DVD (or when more convenient, online), life has been better.  But in this tweeting-hysteria world, I'm out of step with what others are watching.  Nevertheless, sometimes there's a coincidence with what I've just seen, and something happening in the world of now.

That was the case recently when my viewing of the first disk of the fifth season of the TNT series Leverage coincided with the moment that the next Star Trek movie didn't have a director anymore.

In that moment (or those few days) there were stories that some fans wanted Jonathan Frakes to direct the 50th anniversary movie--and he enthusiastically agreed. Reportedly he let Paramount know he wanted to do it.

 It was about then that I watched his direction of "First Contact."  No, not the Star Trek movie--the one that's generally regarded as one of the best, that Frakes directed.  The 2012 episode of Leverage that Frakes directed.

The story isn't that important (dishonest tech mogol tricked into believing he's been contacted by aliens), just the date: 2012.  That was just a bit more than two years ago, as opposed to the 18 years since Star Trek: First Contact. 

Much of the positive response to the idea of Frakes directing the next Trek film had to do with his connections to the Trek past, as part of the Next Generation that had direct contact with Gene Roddenberry, and worked with members of Star Trek crews of all its eras, from the fictional 22nd to the 24th centuries.  He knows how to make Star Trek, as opposed to just movies.

Which seems both true and very important to me.  But what maybe got lost is that while he'd directed about a dozen episodes of  the three Trek series on the air in the early 90s before he directed First Contact, he's been directing films and especially television ever since.  In fact, a glance as his IMDB profile suggests he's done much of his directing since 2010.

So with the Trek possibility in mind, I took note of this Leverage episode: it had story, character moments, action, visual effects in a complex story with a large cast.  From a directorial standpoint, it had pretty much all the elements of a Star Trek story on film.  And the direction was really good.  The visual style, camera movement, the cuts, were all up to date for today's audience.

I was disappointed that he didn't do the commentary, but on the other hand, the alias of one of the con artists was Willie Riker.  The point is, Frakes is a more experienced and better director now than he was 18 years ago.

Then Paramount pretty quickly announced that Fast & Furious director Justin Lin would be the director of the next Trek.  On TrekMovie at least, fans greeted this with less than total happiness-- to say the comments were half and half is generous.  That seems to be the mood of Trekdom in general concerning what I've called Star Trek JJA but has elsewhere been dubbed JJ Trek, and (now that JJ is in another universe far far away) NuTrek.

Much of the discontent over the direction of NuTrek was reflected in a Trek Movie editorial by Lukas Kendall of Film Score Monthly.  I don't agree with everything he wrote but the general point is one I've made here in different ways.  Kendall focuses on the central importance of story to Star Trek, as opposed to CGI action, and that's certainly part of it.  Story is in many ways intrinsically soulful, and highly important to the soul of Star Trek.

I guess my point here is that I agree that Jonathan Frakes could have brought a sense of institutional memory, of Star Trek's identity, to what is going to be (after all) the 50th anniversary film.  But I would also add: the movie would lose nothing in terms of contemporary filmmaking.  Frakes is not just an excellent Star Trek director, he's an excellent director.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Star Trek: Voyager on its 20th anniversary.  A good time to revisit this 2013 piece on why Voyager is the ultimate Trek series. (Not that I think it is, but it's an interesting piece.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

R.I. P. 2014

We pause to remember those in Trekdom who passed away in 2014.  Among them are: Arlene Martel (T'Pring in TOS Amok Time,) Bob Orrison (stunts), Bob Baker  (puppeteer), Joseph Sargent (director), Sarah Marshall (actor), all from the Original Series.  Also animator and director Hal Sutherland, the animated series (TAS.)

From TNG: actors Wendy Hughes, Stephen Lee, James Becker; director Bob Wiemer (also for DS9), art director Joe Longo.

 From Voyager: director Nancy Malone, actors Booth Colman and Lynn Meneses, stuntman Jophery C. Brown.  Kim Koscki, stunts for Enterprise.

From the Doctor Whoverse, director Jane Baker, writer Michael Hayes and actor Billy McColl.

Science fiction writers Frank M. Robinson (Nebula and Hugo winner, Judge Dredd), Michael Shea, Sue Townsend.

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

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.