Sunday, August 05, 2018

The Return of Picard--and the Future?

"Old men ought to be explorers."
T.S. Eliot

Patrick Stewart's announcement that Jean-Luc Picard is coming back is exciting news in a number of ways.  The return of the character of Picard--arguably the essence of the Star Trek vision--is potentially wonderful.  But part of why that is so is the return of the person playing him: Patrick Stewart.

At his unheralded convention announcement, Stewart also said that while there are no scripts, they have been talking about story lines for months.  This clearly means that he is part of creating those stories.  This is important in at least two ways.  First, because of who he is, his experience in drama and in Star Trek as well as life.  Second, because he is the first living connection from the Roddenberry era who is so intimately involved in these initial character and story concepts as well as actual stories and plots.  Sure, there was the occasional TNG star who directed episodes.  There was at least some contribution from Rod Roddenberry and Nicholas Meyer, but Gene's son was too young to be involved in his father's Star Trek, and though Meyer wrote and directed several of the best movies, he never really worked with GR.

That connection is important, as experience has shown.  Whatever their virtues, the films and TV show created since the cancellation of Enterprise severed the professional connection and emptied Star Trek of everyone who worked with Roddenberry or was mentored by him as a writer or producer.  These newer incarnations have not quite connected with Star Trek fans in the same way, because something of the soul of Star Trek was lost.

Stewart announced that the new Picard stories will take place some 20 years after the events of Nemesis.  This takes us at least a little farther into the future, which is where Star Trek must boldly go again (as I argued here recently.)  It is an opportunity to imagine the future anew.  A lot can happen in 20 years.

It is an opportunity to revive Star Trek as a model of that future.  The essence of GR's vision was that it's not only technology that changes from today--people change as well.  Though writers moan about the lack of "conflict" and the too-perfect crews that GR insisted on, they are missing the point.  Modelling the people of the future is the most important aspect of what Star Trek is about.

The worst thing that happened to Star Trek was 9/11.  Suddenly stories were all about terrorism and torture, covert groups and and warfare. (This was especially true in the novels, but I think even some cast members will argue that 9/11 threw Enterprise off the track.)   It is true that Star Trek deals with aspects of the present in metaphor and allegory.  But it is also about the future, as a guide to the present.

The opportunities for this new series are almost infinite.  For example, we last saw Picard about to take the Enterprise farther into unexplored space.  Suppose instead of continuing to get involved in diplomatic missions, Federation politics and confrontations with the Romulans etc. (leaving that up to Captain Riker perhaps), Picard spent those 20 years exploring, farther and farther.  Perhaps he encountered intelligences that are inconceivable, on the kind of scale that Olaf Stapledon wrote about in Star Maker, for example.  Perhaps he returns to a changed Federation, with different technologies and problems.  Perhaps others find him hard to understand, after what he has seen and experienced, and how it changed and deepened him.

In such an enterprise, Patrick Stewart and the other series creators could do worse than look for inspiration to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.  These poems reflect on the lessons of age.  There are many lines (in addition to the one quoted above) that can inspire useful ideas and perhaps even stories.  "In the end is my beginning... As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated... History may be servitude, history may be freedom.  See, now they vanish... For us, there is only trying.  The rest is not our business..."

O dark dark dark.  They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains...

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation...

Update: There are rumors that the Picard series won't be set in the Prime universe in continuity with TNG etc.  Normally I wouldn't bother with rumors, except that Alex Kurtzman is in charge, and based on his track record with Star Trek, I don't trust him.  I can only trust that Patrick Stewart, who spoke at Gene Roddenberry's funeral, will not get involved in a project that breaks from the Star Trek that GR created.  These people must know that such a betrayal would doom the series instantly.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Has Star Trek Stopped?

It may seem odd to ask at this particular moment if Star Trek has stopped.  After all, the second season of a Star Trek television series is soon to begin, with rumors of several other television projects, including the possible return of Jean-Luc Picard.  The fourth feature film in the current series is reportedly getting itself organized, with another feature in the planning stages. There hasn't been this much Star Trek activity since the 1990s.

But in the way I mean it, Star Trek did stop shortly after that. On television, it stopped in 2001 when the last episode of Star Trek: Voyager aired.  At the movies, it stopped a year later with Star Trek: Nemesis. That's when Star Trek stopped exploring a new future, moving ahead on the timeline of tomorrow.

It stopped in the 24th century (Voyager in 2378 and Nemesis in 2379. The 24th century backstory for the 2009 Abrams film is said to have happened in 2387. Arguably, scenes of various series episodes projected a little further.)

 Since then it's been backwards to the future: a prequel series to the Kirk era with Star Trek Enterprise, alternate universe stories but in the 23rd century in the Abrams movies, another prequel series to the Kirk era currently underway as Star Trek:Discovery.  Though the time frames of projects now in the works haven't been announced, everything said about them suggests they are mostly 23rd century stories, with perhaps a 24th century TNG era limited series in the mix.

But Star Trek started with a future imagined from the ground up.  Gene Roddenberry consulted with science fiction authors (notably the ABC giants: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke) but he also consulted with scientists and futurists.  In fact, the one book by Arthur C. Clarke that Roddenberry said he'd read was Clarke's nonfiction Profiles of the Future, which helped ignite the futures studies movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Roddenberry and his team created a self-consistent, credible 23rd century future, with new technologies--and new ways in which humans had to interact with technology--and a new society.  It envisioned a future in which individuals weren't restricted by race or gender, and that kind of equality was accepted.  It posited a united Earth with world government, a United Federation of Planets, and a Starfleet with a new ethical foundation.

Almost two decades after this original series was broadcast, Gene Roddenberry was given the opportunity to create a new Star Trek series.  He didn't do a sequel or a prequel.  He and his team imagined a new future, of the 24th century.  We saw how the original vision developed and met new challenges in the next century.

In those intervening years, Roddenberry spoke at conventions about mistakes he'd made with the original series, things he wanted to do but couldn't, and where he saw the Star Trek future going.  From the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he began exploring that farther future.

We are more than 50 years into the actual future from the original Star Trek series. Future possibilities from this perspective are quite different than they were in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  The kinds of technologies we can envision are different, as are the issues involved in their use.  Scientific knowledge, or at least theories and informed speculation, about the universe are greatly different as well.

If Star Trek were true to its original mission, it would envision a post-24th century future that better reflects what we know and what we think about now.  Instead, Star Trek is stuck in its own past.  It is no longer an enterprise of exploration.

At best, it has become a static myth, like King Arthur or Robin Hood. New stories are woven with old cloth.  At worst, it is what people most often call it: a franchise, a Kentucky Fried Chicken of space opera.  As long as it keeps familiar elements and pushes the old buttons, it can generate stories and cash flow.

I don't have a bad word to say about Star Trek: Discovery or anyone associated with it.  I haven't seen it.  (Okay, one personal observation: mirror universe stories are almost invariably evidence of lack of imagination.  The only one that meant anything was the first one.)  I don't envy the difficulty of creating anything under the intense pressure of omnipresent social media.  Star Trek was probably the first story universe to be kept alive because of its fans.  Its ideals and exemplary characters had deep meaning to its most ardent viewers.  But Gene Roddenberry explicitly said he would not allow fans to dictate creative decisions or direction.

New Star Trek stories may well be taking on issues of our present, as Star Trek stories always have.  But that's only half of the mission.  The other half is envisioning and modeling a future.  A brand new future might be expensive to create, but even more, it would take research and imagination.  But that's how Star Trek started.  Has it stopped?

Monday, March 05, 2018

Captain's Log: Benny Would Be Proud

It's a major studio Marvel Superhero movie with a black African hero, a largely black cast, a black director and writer--not only was this movie made and released, it quickly broke records at the box office.  

Black Panther is an immense success. Released in 2018, it is already a favorite in several categories for next year's Academy Awards.

Benny Russell would be proud. Benny was the 1953 science fiction writer who imagined Ben Sisko as captain of a space station in the famous DS9 episode "Far Beyond the Stars," with Avery Brooks starring and directing.  Prejudice stifled him.


Benny would also take note of Ta-Nehisi Coates, an award-winning journalist and author, who recently has been writing for the Black Panther comic books.  It was just announced that he will be writing a story for the Captain America comics, the first black writer to get that assignment.

There's been a troublesome trend building for the past 20 years or so but becoming highly charged and visible the past few years, of a vocal group of gamers and fans, including Star Wars and Star Trek fans, with belligerent racist and anti-women demands,trying to force their twisted conceptions on everyone else through bullying, boycotts and other tactics.  These along with the most extreme online trolls have injected poison into the process.

Star Wars and Star Trek, and the Marvel and DC superhero movies, have all become massive "franchises" with billions of dollars at stake.  And they have become increasingly sensitive to fandom, sometimes appearing to be making creative decisions based on what's popular with the most vocal groups of fans. (Which is something that Gene Roddenberry said very plainly that he would not do.)

Fortunately, and almost against expectation, these franchises have not pulled back in the areas of diversity and equality.  Star Wars films and the latest Star Trek TV series feature prominent non-white and non-male characters.  And the superhero franchises especially have proven that these white and male supremacist bullies are not representative.

DC had its biggest superhero hit, both critically and at the box office, with Wonder Woman.  Marvel is now enjoying its biggest critical and box office success with Black Panther, and it's not nearly over.

Benny--and his fellow writer Kay Eaton-- would be overjoyed by this, too.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Oumuamua and This Ocean Earth


Here in December 2017 Terran scientists are watching an unusual celestial object from outside the solar system just cruising past Jupiter.  They're calling it Oumuamua.  Part of what has them fascinated is its strange and yet somehow familiar shape.

Some are studying it as an asteroid but others, especially at the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, are checking it out as a possible alien probe.

So far they're frustrated because they aren't hearing anything.  My answer to that is (quoting Spock to Doctor McCoy): "There are other forms on intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man."

If this probe is an earlier version of the one that appears in the 23rd century, it may be in the neighborhood to chat with old friends, the humpback whales.

As you recall from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a similar alien probe threatened Earth when it could not contact any humpbacks, because they'd gone extinct by the 23rd century.

 Because of global heating and other large scale problems, it is still likely the whales will disappear from the oceans in the next century, along with most species on land larger than rats. But right now the humpback whale population is in pretty good shape.

Thanks in part to whaling bans and the awareness represented by that popular 1987 Star Trek feature, the humpback population has slowly recovered. Most species of humpbacks were removed from the endangered species lists about a year ago.

So a probe would have no difficulty contacting some.  And after their conversation, the probe might simply continue on its way, silent to our ears.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Trek50: Star Trek and the Future


Star Trek's first season fifty years ago was just the start.  Some of the best- remembered episodes of the original series come from the second and even the third season, and of course, the Star Trek saga itself was only beginning.

But I'll conclude this Trek50 series of posts with a few characteristics of the saga that may bear upon the actual future, both the one that many people now alive will live, and the future of several centuries from now.

As for the premises of the Star Trek universe--namely the human exploration of the stars and their planets, and our adventures involving other species of intelligent humanoids from such planets as well as more exotic forms of intelligent life--our current science has a few encouraging words, but not many.

Regarding the stars and their intelligent life, I outlined some of that science here. There seems some likelihood that if intelligent beings exist on interstellar worlds, they would be vaguely our size--though "between the size of a puppy and a redwood" doesn't suggest the kind of relationships that Star Trek dramatized.  But whether such beings exist at all, and whether we would recognize them, is still not apparent.

The numbers game is also more complicated than supposed in the 1960s.  With the immense number of stars and the now more or less proven fact that many have planets orbiting them, probability suggests there should be many worlds with civilizations enough like ours to make communication possible.  But that doesn't factor the other part of the continuum: time, which is just as vast.  Such civilizations may arise and fall so comparatively quickly, that few coexist.

Could we get to them anyway?  Most scientists continue to say flatly that a spaceship traveling faster than light is impossible.  Can humans even exist on other planets outside our solar system, or for long periods in space?  Again, there's a lot of scientific doubt, especially absent warp drive.

Kim Stanley Robinson deals directly with these issues in his recent novel Aurora.  He is among those writers who doesn't believe warp drive is possible.  Beyond that, his arguments are biological--a field of science that science fiction writers in the past didn't much consider.  Our bodies, which are in a sense clusters of forms of life in delicate balance, were fashioned out of the biology of only one planet: Earth.  And, he insists, they can survive only on that planet, except for relatively short periods away.

So in KSR's universe, humans have spread through the solar system, but they all must return periodically to the Earth to renew their physical beings by exposure to the biology of their body's home planet.  Beyond that, in Aurora the first expedition into interstellar space (a several generation voyage aboard a habitat) discovers a fatal paradox.  If a planet is alive, the indigenous life--such as viruses-- may well be fatal to humans.  If a planet is dead, a human community cannot survive (biologically and psychologically) long enough to terraform it.

"...life is a planetary expression," one voyager concludes, "and can exist only on its home planet."  The only hope would be to find an Earth twin close enough for the voyage to be made, and that's a very unlikely possibility.

Star Trek's technology is beautifully self-consistent, and the entire Star Trek universe really depends on it.  But it also ignores a great many other realities, from the profound (the relativity of time that in its ham-fisted way, the movie Interstellar tried to suggest, which would make relationships among space travelers and planet dwellers bizarre if not impossible)  to the fairly obvious compromises involved in making TV and movies (the similarities of aliens to humans with facial putty, the unique ability of the universal translator to make alien's mouths move in English.)

But in the end none of this matters, because the Star Trek universe is a story universe.  Its background must be consistent, and its foreground wondrous and surprising.  At that it has succeeded beautifully, and through more stories than any other modern saga.

Moreover, it is the stories and what they say that tell us most about the actual future, from tomorrow afternoon to the 24th century.  They suggest what we will need in that future: in our own lives as the present moves forward, and especially to meet the challenges we can see in the future of the next decades.

Most broadly, the Star Trek saga tells us of a future, especially in the next century, in which human civilization is shredded and in some ways shattered.  TNG's "Encounter at Farpoint" especially portrays a grim reversion to ignorance and brutality.

The better future of the 23rd century is born by an immense technological breakthrough but also by new social organization and new attitudes, motivated in part by the desire to reject the failures and brutality of the previous century.

The first part of this timeline is beginning to look as prophetic as anything in Star Trek.  We are now pretty certain that the effects of the climate crisis will challenge civilization, beginning some time in this century and well into the next.  Those challenges may well lead to devastating warfare and societal breakdowns in various parts of the world, perhaps involving most of the planet.

But whatever the challenges turn out to be, people will still live, and live their lives.  How will they best do that?

On Star Trek's 40th anniversary, I outlined seven aspects of the soul of Star Trek that could apply to how we live in the present but most importantly, how to live in the future and help build a better world.

The seventh is "The future is an adventure."  Perhaps the adventure will not at first--or ever--be serving on a starship and exploring the stars.  But it might require engineers to invent and adapt new power systems for communities and cities, or doctors and emergency technicians to deal with complex emergencies happening simultaneously in a number of places, because of disease and injury due to climate crisis-caused catastrophes or conditions.

In this adventure, people will do things that matter, rather than spend their lives in the ultimately tragic pursuit of money (which is #5: Making money is not humanity's prime directive.)

It will be an adventure of that essential Star Trek activity: a group of people working together to solve problems (#6: It takes many hands to make a future.)

 But the basis of that adventure will be the individual contribution and spirit, and the skills of self-examination and self-knowledge (#1: For a better future, we must become better people, and #2: The journey out is the journey in.)

In all these endeavors, there is the essential insight expressed in many ways throughout Star Trek: of looking beyond differences to find what we have in common.  In large, this is the Prime Directive in its meaning as #4: We are not invaders, we are explorers.  

But it operates personally, as many encounters with aliens in Star Trek dramatize. It follows directly from that "voyage in" because we all harbor prejudices we can't admit even to ourselves.  And it follows as well from the "many hands" of common effort.  One of its results is to refrain from reflexive violence and #3 Respect all life.  It results in the ultimate value of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

Many people in the past 50 years have lived their lives with these ideas in their hearts, derived in part from Star Trek.  When I attended a dinner at one large Star Trek convention with people wearing Star Trek uniforms mixed in with those who weren't, I could feel what the commitment of many of them meant: not just that we're all fans of this story saga, but we believe in these ideals, they mean something to us in our lives.

Through its heroes, Star Trek stories do what many favorite stories of the past have done, but in a particular way: they model virtues like courage, kindness, service, judgment, compassion, foresight, perseverance, audacity, loyalty, honesty, creativity, resilience, responsibility, empathy, civility.  All of those virtues and more will be needed by generations of the future.

The Star Trek saga has contributed in many ways.  One significant way is to provide common stories for people to discuss, debate and gain insights into problems and situations they encounter in real life, personally and as citizens.

Another is to inspire.  This includes the more publicized inspirations to technological innovations, or to particular careers.

But it is both broader and deeper than that.  Star Trek has characteristically used drama--as well as courageously refusing to settle for the usual kinds of dramatic conflict--in order to model a better future.  That to me is its most significant contribution.

"I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, "if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"  For many people around the world, for fifty years and counting, one answer has been Star Trek.  And that's one happy source of hope for the future.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Trek50: The Spock Factor

Fifty years ago this spring, Star Trek completed its first season and went into summer reruns. Though apparently it was a close thing, the series was renewed for another season.

 Star Trek had a lot going for it, a number of reasons why it became a cult hit even in that first season, then an enduring popular hit, an immense saga and ultimately a mythology as well as an entertainment and popular culture legend.

But despite some hype to the contrary, complete originality wasn’t one of those reasons, because Star Trek wasn’t totally original. There had been science fiction television shows set aboard a spaceship before—in fact, quite a few of them, including one of the first television series ever, Captain Video.

 Even much of the fondly recalled Trek tech had appeared before on those early TV shows as well as movies and print stories as far back as the 1930s (including transporters, forward viewscreen, automatic doors and phasers with a stun setting.)

 In fact, the existence of those shows was part of the pitch for Star Trek. Popular shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (as well as local variations like San Francisco’s Captain Z-ro) were the 1950s equivalents of popular westerns like Hopalong CassidyThe Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid—that is, shows primarily for children.


Then in the late 50s and early 60s, television drama was dominated by the so-called Adult Westerns, with the same Old West settings but with more complex stories and characters: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and the series that Gene Roddenberry wrote for often, Have Gun, Will Travel.

 But the adult western was waning by the mid-60s, and television was looking for the Next Big Thing. If adult westerns had worked so well, how about that other staple of early TV? Why not Adult Science Fiction?

 “Wagon train to the stars” became part of the Star Trek pitch, but there were also explicit parallel to what shows like Gunsmoke did to the standard western: a full hour to get beyond the simplistic stories of those old half-hour westerns, with more believable settings, stories and characters. Adult westerns also featured slightly more graphic violence and a bit more sexuality, at least implied.

 Still there was the central western hero, with supporting cast of regulars for added interest and comic relief. In its own way, Star Trek replicated all of this with one crucial difference: an important character who was a good guy but looked like a bad guy, a hero who was an alien. Not just somebody who looked a little different, but somebody who was different, and definitely not comic relief. (Most of the time anyway.) Star Trek had the Spock factor.

Captain Kirk was the hero figure, the protagonist—he was Marshall Dillon as well as Ulysses, Horatio Hornblower, Gulliver, Hamlet. Every adventure has a Captain Kirk.

 Mr. Spock however was in many ways an original. Yet he became the template, not only for characters in future Trek series (Data, Odo, 7 of 9, T’Pol) but in significant ways created a standard character for many other television series (Ziva in NCIS, Parker in Leverage, Bones in Bones, even Sherlock in Elementary, etc.)

 He clearly wasn’t the sidekick, Matt Dillon’s Chester. He wasn’t just the brain who supplied the cool gadgets, Tut to Captain Midnight. He was sometimes the second in command who differs with the captain of the ship or the commander of the expedition, but that wasn’t his most significant role.

 He wasn’t the antagonist either, the inside enemy who tries to undercut the hero, like Othello’s Iago. He was loyal, he was a friend, but he was Other. He was the alien. He was a different voice.

Star Trek is rightly famous for its diversity on the bridge. But functionally, most of the racial and gender diversity was neutral in effect. That is, the race or gender or nationality of the navigator, the communication’s officer, or the chief engineer didn’t matter, didn’t make a difference in their jobs. Which was part of the point—there was no reason not to have a woman officer, she could be just as competent.

 Of course that’s a generalization—the specific talents of an individual may well be shaped in some sense by these factors. But in terms of what they actually did on the show, the differences didn’t much matter. But Spock’s differences mattered.

 His special mental and physical gifts, his knowledge, his skills, his very being as a Vulcan, all contributed to what he did, and why he was valued on the Enterprise. The others provided visual and audible evidence of diversity. Spock embodied it.
 The others provided evidence that diversity works. Spock sold it.

 There is some sense of this in mythology, where the hero is aided by helpers with a specific gift or skill. That aspect is mirrored in superhero teams like the Avengers or the Fantastic Four whose members have different powers.

 But Spock is more than that, too. Spock crucially offers a different point of view. He contributes to how Captain Kirk sees a situation, analyzes it. Before he decides a course of action, he often asks Spock for recommendations.

 One of Captain Kirk’s great qualities—which William Shatner brought to the role—is his curiosity. He wants to know what Spock thinks, not only because of the mission, but because he is curious, he wants to understand, to see things (at least for a moment) through Spock’s eyes.

 What makes Captain Kirk curious is that Spock is an alien.  Kirk is not threatened, though others feel the visceral discomfort.  While aliens in a lot of sci-fi were automatically evil, just their status as Other, as very different and therefore unknown, creates doubt and unease.  Kirk bypasses this and goes directly to that other aspect of the alien--as a resource, with different skills and abilities, and above all, an inherently different point of view.

And in just a few broadcast episodes, the alien became a very popular character with the Star Trek audience. He remains probably the most beloved.

So why were so many viewers identifying with an alien?

 Especially in his first book (I Am Not Spock) Leonard Nimoy focused at length on this aspect of the Spock character. He noted his own feelings of alienation growing up, personally and as a member of a relatively poor Jewish family in Boston. The first movie character he identified with was Quasimodo, the noble monster otherwise known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

He later faced a kind of discrimination as an actor in Hollywood, at a time when dark-haired actors with certain facial characteristics were typecast as “ethnics” (Jewish, Italian, American Indians) or as “heavies” and villains. In other words, he was often typecast as an alien (and actually played a space alien in a low budget 1952 movie serial called Zombies of the Stratosphere.)

 He also mused on Spock’s appeal to the alienated segment of his audience, particularly adolescents. While younger children were fascinated with his exotic, even demonic and slightly scary appearance, teenagers who felt misunderstood or not accepted by the popular crowd could identify with the alien aboard the high school Enterprise. (That Spock was half-human, with constant internal conflicts, only added to the identification, which was not restricted to adolescents.)

But there was another reason why a lot of viewers in the 1960s were alienated, and they were not all so young. As noted here previously, Mr. Spock was a symbol and an icon used on placards carried by protestors in recent marches supporting science and addressing the climate crisis. But Spock was also enlisted as an ally in protests almost fifty years ago: against the Vietnam War.

The reasons are roughly the same in both instances. Spock became the hero of “logic” or rationality. But it meant more than the words imply. Certainly, Spock championed a certain objectivity that is central to the scientific method. But logic is basically a process, and it can turn out to be wrong if the initial premise is wrong, or if the facts within the process are incorrect.

 In a strict sense, that Spock would be an anti-war hero in the 60s isn’t, well, logical. For proponents of the war cast themselves as the rational ones, as contrasted with anti-war protestors, who—in proponents’ view—were operating basically on emotion or unrealistic idealism.

 That’s how the argument was often cast, especially in the first years of controversy, in the early to mid 60s: Everybody hates war, proponents said, and no one wants war, but sometimes wars must be fought. Unfortunately there are victims, including non-combatants. But society must face the hard facts that this war is necessary.

 One of their arguments seemed unassailably logical: the so-called Domino Theory. Once one southeast Asian state became Communist, then the next would, etc. like falling dominoes, until the United States faced a huge block of enemies.

These arguments carried weight because it was the position of most leaders in Washington. The Secretary of Defense in particular was renowned as a brilliant thinker, tough minded and strictly if not brutally rational. Military leaders had facts and figures, and news shows paraded serious men in dark suits to soberly describe both the necessity for the war and the case for how it was conducted, including the strong likelihood of victory. They also marshaled ideals with emotional weight—patriotism, love of liberty, duty, for example—in support of their cause.

 Meanwhile, their anti-war opponents were much less impressive and credentialed, and were dismissed as uninformed, misguided and unrealistic sentimentalists.

 As the war expanded, however, opponents began to include the highly educated and credentialed, and eventually sober-suited leaders in Washington. They argued not from ideals but from different premises—different accounts of past events, of history, geopolitics and other factors. For instance, they argued that the Domino Theory was too simplistic to account for differences and complexities in the region (as later proved to be the case.) Thinking more appropriate to three-dimensional chess was needed.

Proponents also argued on the basis of facts, which were selected and at times falsified to make their case. With these different premises and facts, they used logic. They showed that proponents were being illogical.

 Eventually the arguments of these opponents proved out, especially as a series of revelations showed that officials had hidden or distorted facts, particularly about the conduct of the war, its failures and the true (as opposed to the public) opinions of some of those conducting it as to the likelihood of success.

 As the arguments of proponents looked more and more phony, fatuous and hypocritical, the war looked tragically irrational. It was clearly illogical.

But Spock logic had two other dimensions beyond simple scientific or rhetorical logic that also featured in the Vietnam War debate.

 The first is that Spock’s logic is alien logic—that is, it is rational observation from the Other, from an outside perspective.

 After other arguments were exhausted, some proponents of the war confronted opponents with what they considered an unanswerable question: how do we get out of Vietnam? There were only two outcomes to a war: victory or defeat. The US could not simply leave without losing immense prestige and abandoning allies.

 This argument (which in fact I heard from across the table in a formal debate in 1965, when I believe I was the first student on my campus to publicly argue against the war) was most insistently made by Washington officials who simply could not imagine any other alternatives. Only those outside the establishment, or outside their frame of reference, could imagine (many) ways out. They tended to be the alienated, and were by definition the Other.

But even more broadly, the Vietnam War, along with the madness of the Cold War thermonuclear standoff, required a kind of alien point of view to even articulate how mad that establishment logic was.

This was expressed for example most strongly in 1960s satire, from the movie Doctor Strangelove to Beyond the Fringe on stage and That Was the Week That Was on British and US television. It was applied to Vietnam in popular songs, perhaps most directly in “Fixin’ To Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish.

It’s notable also that two of the last famous World War II novels that were published during the Vietnam War, could see it only in satirical, absurdist terms: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. They artfully demonstrated the craziness—the illogic—involved in these wars.

 By the late 60s, satire became part of political and social movements. There was also serious and angry demand for radical change, including advocacy for revolutions of one kind or another. Vietnam, the Bomb and more mundane aspects of society (conformity, suburbia, etc.) along with the high spirits of booming youth fueled and formed what came to be known as the counterculture.

 Without getting into detail about factions, personalities and analysis, this much can be said about the broad impulse towards counterculture. The word itself implies not only an opposing culture, but a point of view outside the main culture. It’s the culture of the aliens. Spock was one of its heroes.

The second added dimension of the Spock factor is that Spock’s logic was not only alien but based on particular values. Those values were mostly implied, expressed mostly in action and attitude in various episodes and movies.

 Their role can be discerned in an exchange that the newly reborn Spock has with his mother Amanda at the beginning of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Spock at this point is engaged in relearning everything, and is testing himself with interactive computers. She asks him if he believes in the statement “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Spock replies that “I will accept that as an axiom.”

 An axiom is a statement accepted as true that becomes the basis for inference and argument. That is, the process of logic begins with the axiom. We would also call this particular axiom a statement of values. It is not a basic physical truth or a necessary foundation for a system like geometry.  It is a foundation statement for ethical decisions (though as Amanda points out, this particular axiom can be ethically reversed.)   Spock’s logic is often applied with such axioms in mind.

 There’s another example later in this movie. When Spock learns that 20th century whalers are knowingly killing the last Humpbacks, he observes “Hunting a species to extinction is not logical.” A human scientist counters, “Who said the human race is logical.”

 But it is not logical to hunt a species to extinction only if you value the existence of that species, even if solely as a source of food. That value placed upon the species is not intrinsic. It’s possible to imagine an axiom by which it just doesn’t matter. In fact, human behavior in this case implies an axiom that freedom to exploit resources at the present moment is paramount.

But alien logic makes us face our implied values. “Nobody wants war” or “nobody wants the whales to go extinct” are statement often made, but do humans act in ways which logically follow from these axioms? Spock’s logic makes us examine this, and in many cases it exposes hypocrisy. At minimum, it provides a useful and invigorating challenge.

 We need the alien point of view. We need to see the slaveowner from the point of view of the slave, the majority from the minority, institutions from individuals, the privileged from the dispossessed, the rich from the poor, the well from the sick, the able from the disabled, the bully from the bullied.

 This is Spock’s logic. It paid off many times, as in The Voyage Home when it was the non-human science officer who suggested that the alien probe might be trying to contact members of an intelligent but non-human Earth species—the whales.

Spock’s character was enriched in the feature film series. He accepted the importance of feelings in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. By Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, he was counseling a young Vulcan, “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” But it always was that, in Spock. This was simply the recognition, that values as well as experience are crucial.

A sense of values therefore informed the Vietnam War reaction, for not only was it illogical on geopolitical and societal terms, in the immense number of human lives it destroyed and deranged, it was tragically and immorally illogical.

There are other appealing aspects of the Spock character  Like the alien who came to Earth and became Superman, Spock's differences include powers and abilities beyond those of humans. These make him less vulnerable, but also separate him from humankind--a combination that may appeal on several levels to alienated humans.

A more subtle element, yet probably the most impressive feature of the character was crucial to Spock's importance and popularity. It involves behavior, attitude and presence.

 In developing the character of Spock, Leonard Nimoy made a fateful choice. Rather than play Spock as utterly cold and machine-like, he translated the Vulcan retreat from emotion and emotional display into stillness and apparent calm.

 Instead of impatience and disdain, he exhibited a courtliness, and a gentle irony (except perhaps when Bones provokes him, when it becomes more biting.)  His occasional arrogance was played for comic effect, but he was also self-aware, and took note of the feelings of others, even if he did not feel those emotions himself.

Nimoy combined this sense of logic and objectivity as a calm attentiveness with the curiosity of a scientist, and an open sense of wonder.  His key word was, of course, “fascinating.”

 Nimoy’s sense of the character and of the Vulcan culture informed Star Trek’s further treatment of that culture.  What evolved was a kind of Buddhist culture, complete with meditation. Vulcan was portrayed as an arid planet of plains and mountains, with the vaguely Asiatic trappings of Tibet. And Tibetans actually were a warrior race that made the cultural turn to Buddhist non-violence and a kind of rigorous logic, the same as the Vulcans.

But even in that first season, Nimoy developed the Spock posture in a particular way. His pose on the bridge was not rigid but both formal and relaxed, his hands folded behind his back. Above all, he was centered, exuding self-control. “Lack of emotion is pathological,” Nimoy said. “Restraint is civilized.”

 So in all the furor of the 60s, with all the frenzied noise in the lives of young American viewers, there was this example of an anomaly, and yet a role model: the alien as a civilized man. Which made sense, since it seemed a civilized person would be seen as an alien.

 The irony of the 23rd century alien—or the 20th century alien—is that he’s a throwback to a 19th or 18th century ideal of civilized behavior: restrained but kind, useful, dignified, ethical, courteous, curious, large-minded and large-souled, open to new ideas and observations, fascinated.

 In our culture of vulgar and violent extremes, that might still be pretty alien. And it’s possibly another reason that Spock was an admired role model for many, and still is.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Captain's Log: Star Trek in the Streets

Thousands marched this past weekend to advocate addressing the climate crisis, and to protest the current US regime's apparent opposition to doing so.

That gave the marches more of a protest flavor, and that inevitably evoked the 1960s, according to a Los Angeles Times story.  It mentioned the 60s music especially, but the photo used to illustrate the story was this image--a sign that echoed similar sentiments in anti-war demonstrations in the 60s and 70s with the image of Mr. Spock.

"Ignoring climate change?" it said, over a photo of the skeptical Spock.  "Highly illogical."

Signs carried during the earlier March for Science in Washington and elsewhere also used Star Trek to make their point, emphasizing as well the role science must play in the future.  The Trek Movie site collected a number of these signs, some of which follow below.

So it's not just the Star Trek icons but the message, the meaning, the soul of Star Trek that continue to live and apply to our strange new world.