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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Difference in the Stars

What forthcoming movie with "Star" in the title dumped its first screenwriter and story ideas, and was being written in a hurry up to its deadline, even as the rest of the production was clamoring for information so sets could be built etc.?

If you're a Trek movie fan, you're probably thinking of recent interviews by Simon Pegg, now co-writer of its next movie as well as actor in it.  But apparently this also describes the new Star Wars film, coming out this December.

That however is where the resemblance between these two projects pretty much ends.  How they differ is interesting and maybe illuminating.

The promotional machinery for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is getting into gear, not only with teaser trailers but with appearances on the convention circuit.  Some of the movie's actors--both new and beloved from the classic "middle" three films (but first three released)--have made appearances, along with executives like Kathleen Kennedy.  But the star of those shows and clearly the new face of the franchise is the film's director, J.J. Abrams.

The next Star Trek film has yet to go into production (scheduled for this summer) for its release in 2016, and so promotional machinery hasn't been engaged.  But it's still eerily quiet.  And it suggests this question: who exactly is the face of the Star Trek franchise?  Or even the active half--the Paramount movie?  Or the face of Star Trek in general?

For a generation of course it was Gene Roddenberry, and then when there was a lot of Star Trek on TV it hardly mattered, because the cast of TNG for example were active leaders, and Rick Berman was visible when needed, and the original series stars were making Trek movies.  After the Trek business was divided between CBS and Paramount, the only active projects were the Paramount films, and the face of them was...J.J. Abrams.

He was producer, he was director and had his hands in the scripts.  One of the writers, Roberto Orci, maintained a very visible presence on fan boards and Twitter.  Abrams had the smarts to bring Leonard Nimoy aboard his movies, which added cred and continuity.

Now Orci is out of the picture in more ways than one (and may have damaged his ability to represent Trek by a pattern of let's say controversial comments and responses to fans and writers on the Internet,) and Star Trek has suffered the enormous loss of Leonard Nimoy.  And J.J. Abrams, whose company is still pretty much in charge of the next movie, is busy on his other job.  His face is on another movie with Star in the title.

So basically, as an ongoing project, Star Trek has no face.  Or apparent leader.  Or much in the way of continuity.

Continuity is certainly something that Star Wars has, and is making an important part of its promotions.  While Star Trek has a hot director who has apparently never directed anything like a Star Trek movie before,  and two writers who have never written anything like a Star Trek movie before, and have never worked together before either, the new Star Wars movie was written by Abrams with Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back.

No one knows if any actors from Star Trek's past will appear in the next movie.  It seems doubtful, even though its release on Trek's 50th anniversary would make it pretty appropriate. In fact the Paramount film seems to have spurned offers of participation by past Trek icons.  Star Wars however has three beloved human actors and several other beloved characters which we can safely guess are featured prominently.

 This includes a bona fide Hollywood star in Harrison Ford, who has coincidentally enhanced his Hans Solo stature by becoming a real world hero: he piloted a crashing plane to safety and without endangering others, with what other pilots describe as perfect skill, including precise knowledge of that specific and rare aircraft.

Meanwhile, J-Trek has a group of attractive actors who appeared in the past two films, but beyond fandom are not really associated with their Trek roles, and aren't major presences on the Trek convention circuit.  Several of them are in other prominent films and franchises, which is great for their careers, but does not create an iconic presence for Star Trek.  Two films is probably not enough anyway to create that kind of presence.  No matter how many movies and plays Patrick Stewart does, he will always be Jean Luc Picard, and not only to Star Trek fans at conventions.  William Shatner has assumed more of a leadership role in representing Trek among fans, but gets little love from its corporate masters.

Morever, J.J. Abrams never was accepted as the face of all of Trek.  He was J-Trek, and perhaps that's all he tried to be. But by embracing Star Wars past, including the actual actors as well as the original characters, he's become the emblem of Star Wars as a whole, the heir apparent to George Lucas.

Months from now, when the next Trek film is finished or closer to it, its director and cowriters and stars will trot around the convention circuit hoping to hype excitement--who knows, maybe the currently unengaged J.J. will be prominent among them.  In the meantime, judging from a YouTube or two I've seen of Abrams etc. Star Wars appearances, the kind and quality of fandom that Star Trek pioneered is being reconstituted elsewhere.  I take particular note of the Star Wars Force for Change project that raises money for UNICEF--a lot of money.  It's the kind of thing Star Trek fandom used to do, although I'm not aware of such official organization and support (Disney kicked in a million bucks to get it started.)

Trek fans are obviously still involved in worthy projects, like supporting LeVar Burton's efforts on behalf of Reading Rainbow.  But most of what I see on the Internet is about products.  Star Trek as a living enterprise appears to be floundering, and with it perhaps the essential value, its soul.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Earth or the Stars: Interstellar's False Choice

Interstellar, last year's science fiction theatrical film hit, was released on DVD at the end of March.  My main purpose in writing about it here is to relate it to concerns of this site, the soul of Star Trek.  But if you haven't seen it and don't want it spoiled, read no more of this.  Or if it means so much to you that any criticism would drive you nuts, that's another reason to give this a pass.

There is of course a lot to like about this movie. The film's scope and detail, the cinematic narrative, the acting, the technical accomplishments all carry us along in an adventure that uses past science fiction, especially in film, as a baseline, and then adds its own contributions.

 Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most obvious narrative, visual (and at key moments, musical) source and touchstone.  There are nods to Star Wars and other films of that era.  Since the 1970s and 80s, we've also seen a lot more very good imagery from real space launches and flights, and Interstellar makes excellent use of those images.  (I didn't have to be told that the launch was based on Apollo footage--I recognized it.)

There is much more that is reminiscent of past science fiction.  The exposition meted out as dialogue while in spaceflight is straight out of the earliest 1950s space travel movies.  What does a black hole look like? the pilot wants to know, just before he sees one.  Whereas real astronauts are thoroughly briefed on everything they will or might encounter long before they leave.

Interstellar even has a contemporary take on the basic characters of 1950s sci-fi and creature features: the Cowboy Hero, the Elder Scientist and the Scientist's Beautiful Daughter (When Worlds Collide, Them! etc.)  They're treated very differently, though. The Cowboy Hero as Dad is a more recent addition of the past few decades (The Day After Tomorrow, Speilberg's War of the Worlds, etc.)

Even some of the key ideas aren't new.  The future deliberately affecting the past, and the past sending messages forward to the future, have been done ( recently for instance in the Doctor Who episode Blink.)  An alien species that turns out to be future humans is as least as old as a 1940s Edmund Hamilton Captain Future novel.  And to a lesser extent, time dilation was dramatized in Star Trek: The Next Generation.   (Though the relative speeds of aging involved in space travel even without black holes are usually ignored in Trek and most other space stories.)

What is new is how well this film humanizes these concepts, especially the consequences of time dilation.  Matthew McConaughey watching 23 years of his childrens' lives he missed in (for him) a matter of hours, was a powerful scene.  There's some sense of its effects in those on earth, particularly in his son, who seems burdened with the plod of time from being left behind, as well with the realities of his hard life.  It is perhaps in this sense that Interstellar brings together technology and human feeling, as was the original theme of the early sci-fi film Metropolis.

It's the actors who make the characters believable.  I had no trouble in believing Anne Hathaway as a scientist-astronaut.  In particular her speech about science and love was pitch perfect, right down to her enunciation--I've heard that voice from real scientists. Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain were appealing as Murphy, a character that is more believable as a mythic figure than a person.  The most memorable acting I thought came from the unacknowledged Matt Damon, who created a thoughtful--and therefore believable--villain.

Much of what the film had to say moment to moment was about human nature. Most science fiction heroes since the 1990s have been motivated by love of their children, (lots of divorced fathers in Hollywood I guess) and it's true of this film as well.  The Michael Caine character represents a point of view on human nature --he believes that people won't work together unless their own survival and that of their children is at stake.  It's an interesting point of view given our current circumstances, but I'll get back to that.

The individual's survival instinct (as a parent, apparently, since according to the Matt Damon character, the last thing people see before they die is their children) is another statement on human nature, leading to something that should be familiar to Star Trek fans--two people who have traveled through space to another galaxy, having a fist fight.  According to Gene Roddenberry, the studio insists on it.

The film carries us along and into a fantastical ending that gets people who've seen it talking and arguing about what it means--which again is very much like the ending of 2001.

We see a kind of quantum relativity timey-whimey view that beings existing in the fifth dimension would see---essentially without time as a factor, all events just are.  (Which is how the Tralfamadorians see things in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Events in time are simultaneous, like peaks on a mountain range.)  We see father and daughter come to the same not exactly obvious conclusions at the same "time," so humanity of the very far future saves the past, which is the daughter's present.

It's to the filmmakers' credit that we believe all this long enough to enjoy a satisfying coda, in which the time paradoxes are humanized again--aged daughter sees young father before she dies, and he goes off to help Anne Hathaway's character set up her colony, because even though it is years later in the solar system, it's just  hours later for her.

So maybe it is possible for patterns in sand to be read as a binary code yielding map coordinates, and books dropped to the floor somehow represent dots and dashes in Morse code.  Not to mention translating complex numerical data into dots and dashes represented as ticks on a wristwatch.  Maybe it's possible and makes sense, but once again, accepting it is part of the ride.

What I really don't get is how humans survived into the far future in the first place, so they could construct the wormhole and become five dimensional beings and make things better in the past so they could survive into the far future. Unless it is a multiple paradox you have to be a five dimensional being to figure out.

But that's actually not what really bothers me about Interstellar.  The movie was promoted on the basis of scientific accuracy, with physicist Kip Thorne as an executive producer.  I'm willing to accept that the physics applied to black holes etc. is state of the art, even the stuff about gravity transcending time. But the same can't be said for the biology and chemistry of Earth. So let's go back to the premise of the movie.

As the movie starts, the Earth (not just Iowa, or the US Midwest) is in crisis from a blight that is killing food crops, beginning with wheat, and apparently the human population has taken a major hit.  The last crop standing is corn.  We see one effect of this crisis in the titanic dust storms.

The imagery of the dust storms was taken directly from photos and descriptions of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s that swept the western prairies, especially Oklahoma. The farm we see, despite modern computerized implements, is also taken from the 1930s (more directly from film depictions of the farm where Clark Kent grew up, originally in the 1930s.) Farms aren't like that anymore in 2015, especially when they farm corn.  They are huge industrial tracts, managed intensively with GMOs and pesticides, by corporations.  They don't include family farmhouses.  It's hard to believe the solution to a global food crisis would be left in the hands of individual farmers.

Maybe the filmmakers wanted the archetype.  And maybe NASA being out there in (presumably) Iowa is a nod to JJA's Star Trek in which Jim Kirk grew up in a 1930s landscape as well. All that avoidance, or denial of the contemporary world might be forgivable except for two things.

The first is the bogus crisis that threatens humanity.  A single blight that affects the world's crops of everything is mind-boggling enough.  But the film doesn't posit starvation as the ultimate.  The loss of these crops is supposed to snuff out the planet's oxygen, so people will suffocate.  In a few years.

But the science is off.  And according to experts, not by a little.  By like thousands of years.  That's what it would take to deplete the planet's oxygen by this method.

So why do this?

It's interesting that some people assume the basis of Interstellar's apocalypse is the climate crisis, because, well, apocalypse is what scientists tell us we're heading for if we don't address the climate crisis.  And truly, this movie had an opportunity--without very much fuss or bother-- to make the climate crisis the basis of its apocalyptic future, and thereby humanize that, make that real.

That would be something that might actually help us address the climate crisis and make the real future better.  But inexplicably they blew the opportunity.  I'd like to think it isn't because they got chickenhearted, afraid of offending that part of the audience that goes in for advanced physics but doesn't believe in the climate crisis.  Or perhaps the fossil fuel billionaires who materially encourage such sentiments.

I understand the "ticking clock" device of humanity about to suffocate, however bogus it is scientifically.  Surely a climate crisis that results in drought and starvation, the spread of insect-borne illnesses and so on could be made sufficiently apocalyptic to motivate our spacefaring heroes to hurry up.  How much better it might have been, even as a movie, to start with a real crisis that actually threatens the future, as a growing number of people realize.  It's a credible threat, because it is a real threat now.  How much better, dramatically as well as morally, to use it in this film.

The second major element I object to is related.  Very early in the movie, Dr. Brand, the Elder Scientist played by Michael Caine, asserts that humans are not meant to save the earth, they are meant to leave it.  No one in the room--including several of the major characters--disagrees with him.

 This statement is more or less paired with a scene in which a teacher explains that the new textbooks say humans didn't really land on the moon.  But her reason is not the fundamentalist and anti-science zealotry we might expect (since such things for those reasons are happening right now in our world.)   No, it's because space exploration wastes resources, and she represents a "caretaker" generation for the Earth.

So an either/or is stated and supported: either save the Earth or be explorers in space.  Is that the choice?  Certainly the allocation of resources and money is an issue.  But what does that mean?  Do we literally stop efforts to save this biosphere, this ecosystem to--do what exactly?

If we want bigger space programs and we need to save money somewhere, maybe we should look at the budgets of blockbuster films.  For it took more money to make and sell Interstellar than it took India to send a space probe to orbit Mars.  (Actually it took less for this space mission than the even smaller budget of Gravity.)

Compounding this folly is Dr. Brand leading an apparent effort to save much of existing humanity that he knows is a lie. He is using up immense resources on a lie, because he knows that the formula he is supposedly working on, that is supposed to make this possible, won't do the job.

Set aside for a moment that creating space habitats doesn't require mastering gravity at its basic level.  But apart from the genetic seeding of planets in the other galaxy,  in this movie all of NASA's eggs are in this one futile basket.  This doesn't pass my smell test, but if we grant it, as we grant a movie its own rules, we are still left, not with that "save it or leave it" choice, but the choice not to apply these resources to try to save the planet or humanity, but to spend them to support a great lie.  This is apparently raging against the dying of the light (the Dylan Thomas line that gets repeated several times.)

There is something profound hidden in this, which is that hope is a feature of the present, regardless of what the future holds.  But hope for its own sake is empty, and hope generated by a big lie is worse that empty.  It might even be called evil.

Once we leave the movie and apply this to the real world, the real trouble begins.  Starting with the either/or: Earth or the stars. The folly of believing that the climate crisis can be ignored and a space program advanced is nicely suggested by this real world recent event: that NASA has recognized that the only launchpads that now exist in the U.S. space program--at Cape Canaveral--are threatened by sea level rise, not in the future but now.

Doing all we can to address the causes of the climate crisis and battle its effects may be ultimately futile in some senses, but we don't know that it is.  So it is honest, and it infuses life with meaning.  It is enacting hope, because as far as we know we can still make a difference.

The Star Trek future begins with  21st century war and a societal return to the Dark Ages. The discovery of warp drive and first contact with another intelligent and space-faring species leads to a major change in how we view ourselves and life itself. There is no choice made between space travel and life on Earth.  If we would choose to abandon our planet in that way, we would simply be extending our history of ravaging each "new" place, of  wasting and destroying ecosystems, of war and empire, and of taking our fistfights to other galaxies. Because we don't value life, just ourselves.  That's not what happens in Star Trek.

For one thing, people who are consciously and deeply committed to life--of humanity but also of the Earth--have no trouble working to better the future for unborn generations, for life they'll never see.  That's what being rooted in this planet means, even as we take this ethic with us into space.

In our world today, we advance technology and explore space.  We also use the vantage we've gained to see our planet whole from beyond it, to help us address our biosphere's challenges.  We may (as some scientists suggest) find evidence of life elsewhere in a decade or two.  But we don't have warp drive, or worm holes for easy travel to other stars or galaxies. Right now we have no where else to go.

It also is entirely possible that humans cannot live anywhere other than Earth.  Human travel to the stars is at present a beautiful and exciting metaphor, an exercise of the imagination.  And it may remain only that.

Right now this is the only planet we've got.  Fittingly if ironically, our space program showed us this, showed us the beauty and fragility of our special planet in those first photos of the whole Earth that have become the emblem of our age. We can't allow our love affair with our technology to blind us to the reality that our lives are sustained by the life of this Earth.  It is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

We need to confront the climate crisis, both for generations now living who will suffer its first effects, and--in a way that Dr. Brand and the others didn't believe humans would do--we need to address the causes of the climate crisis for generations unborn. And for the conditions and diversity of life that support our lives, and the planet we know and should cherish.  That's our version of the conscious evolutionary step that humanity takes in Star Trek.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Captain's Log: Next Movie Chatter, Dark Matter and Watery Worlds

A few items approaching news surfaced recently regarding the next Star Trek Paramount feature film, due for release in the 50th anniversary summer of 2016.  Actually they were more like somebody spilling tea leaves on your plate, but then a lot of news is like that.

One story (which flared like a meteor and disappeared) was about a prominent British actor "in early stages" of negotiations to play the "villain" in the next Trek feature.  While Trek bbs parse the idea, nobody seems to be asking the key question: where did this story come from? It's possible it leaked from Paramount, perhaps as a trial balloon but the phrase "in early stages of negotiation" suggests to me that it's much more likely to have come from this actor's agent or publicist, who seems adept at getting publicity for this client that has no substance beyond speculation.

If that's so, it seems less likely that this bit of casting is going to happen.  It looks too strategic in terms of the actor's career.  Doesn't mean it won't happen, but it doesn't feel that way to me.

Of course the V word is discouraging to a number of Trek fans, who've seen three straight Trek features try to reinvent the single-villain success of exactly one of the previously successful movies, namely the second, The Wrath of Khan.  And even that film was about more than revenge or Kirk v. Khan.

The other tea leaves spill was an interview by one of the new writers for the movie, who also plays engineer Scott, Simon Pegg.  It seems to confirm that the story for the film as well as the previous screenplay have been totally thrown out, suggesting to some fans that there isn't enough time for (a) a movie in summer 2016 or (b) a good movie in summer 2016.

However, several of the first ten Trek movies were made on tight schedules, with new screenplays written quickly after prior ones were rejected.  Whether it works out this time, and especially with the complexities of visual effects and editing of movies now, remains to be seen.

Some fans see Pegg's insistence on being true to the original series as hopeful, which it may be.  On the other hand, it is the 50th anniversary of a saga that went well beyond the original series.  Star Trek began but did not end with the original series or even its films.  The soul of Star Trek contains elements from the entire saga.

There seem to be two concerns building about this feature.  First, that it will be the kind of pandering big villain misfire as some believe the last one was, and second, that it will not honor the saga by including actors from prior Trek series, especially the first.

As one comment on the Trek Movie thread noted, the JJA Star Wars movie in preparation includes its classic crew while it seems unlikely that this 50th anniversary Trek movie will.  It makes the death of Leonard Nimoy--the only such actor to appear in the JJA features-- just a year before the 50th anniversary especially poignant.

Trek Universe V. Real Universe

The Trek universe includes a mirror universe, and with the JJA films, embraces the reality of parallel universes.  This week's science suggests that if there is a mirror universe, it isn't made of dark matter.  But what dark matter is remains a mystery.  Since it comprises some 70% of the known real universe, that's a big mystery.

We may experience first contact with a parallel universe however, along with a the creation of a mini-black hole, at least in this interpretation of what the Large Hadron Collider will be up to next.

But like a lot of phenomena (and inventions) that draw Trek universe analogies, these are much more modest and technical.

The more understandable stuff, and in its way the more exciting, has to do with recent discoveries about our own solar system, which gets short shrift in Trek but is likely to be our outer space future, if any, for a considerable time, and perhaps forever.

Scientists announced recently that they believe observations by means of the Hubble Telescope confirm the existence of liquid water--of an underground ocean in fact-- on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter.  Scientists were already excited about the possibilities for life on two other moons of Jupiter: Europa and Callisto.

  At almost the same time, other research suggests that Saturn's moon Enceladus has hot springs in its own underground ocean, which on Earth hosts some of the more exotic forms of life on the planet.

The existence of water at one time or another in so many places, and especially these latest findings, means life may be possible to find elsewhere in the solar system, or at least evidence of life in the past.  But proof of life will take actual observation, and the outer planets are still very far away.  So even if probes are sent soon, it will probably be near the end of this century before the questions can be answered.  (The discovery of nitrogen on Mars however is another plus in the search for life in that nearer planet's history.)

The solar system itself is sort of changing, at least in our view.  There's a theory that there are actually one or two more large planets on its outer edges beyond direct observation, and another theory that there once may have been more small planets closer to the sun, until Jupiter blew them away.  It turns out we're still not sure there aren't more very small planets in our solar system, especially since scientists can't decide on what qualifies as a planet.

Evidence grows also for the possibility of panspermia--the spread of microbial life from one place in the universe to others, including to Earth--and also of lithopanspermia--the spread of life from Earth to Mars and elsewhere.  Life arising independently on planets and moons, or life transferred from a common ancestor to several places---both are exciting possibilities.  Though we seem tantalizingly closer to answers, we are still in the realm of science fiction.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

His Star Trek Statement

In my 2004 interview with Leonard Nimoy, he talked about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the film he created and directed. "That was the high point of my experience with Star Trek," he said. "That was my Star Trek statement."

My essay on The Voyage Home can be found here , although you'll need to scroll down past a few related posts.  Even better, watch the movie again, and remember.

Leonard Nimoy was buried in Los Angeles today.  Once more, may he rest in peace.  His work lives on, into the future.