Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Trekcheck: The Home Stretch

After two stand-alone episodes, Enterprise completed the first of its last multi-episode arcs of the season, and of its life as a series on UPN. While fan efforts to save the series accelerate, and rumors circulate about a possible new home for another season of new stories (Spike TV, with the former head of Comedy Central as its new chief, is currently the most credible possibility), those involved in making Enterprise seem less hopeful. As reported on TrekWeb and Trek Today, during his short-lived attempt to gather support for a new Trek series with himself at the helm, J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) got word from "a trusted source" at Paramount that any new Star Trek series wouldn't begin for a year or two. (Rick Berman had said publicly perhaps three years.)

While episodes will air into May, production on Enterprise will cease on March 8. Paramount is hosting selected national press and other guests for the last few shooting days, both recognizing the end of an era and using the occasion to celebrate Star Trek's almost four decades of success (as well as the upcoming start of Enterprise on DVD.)

Speculation now centers on the concluding episode. At a recent convention Jonathan Frakes confirmed that he and Marina Sirtis will appear in the final episode as their TNG characters, Riker and Troi, which a Paramount spokesperson isn't disputing. TV Guide is repeating the rumor, and that magazine is likely to be as close to an authorized source as there will be for future news concerning the final episodes.

But what no one is saying yet is who else might also appear. Since Rick Berman has described the last episode as "a Valentine" to Star Trek, perhaps the story will allow for appearances by other Trek characters, from other series, including the ever-elusive appearance by William Shatner. This is sheer speculation, with no inside tip or confirmation. But remember that just because negotiations seemed to go nowhere doesn't mean he won't actually appear. After all, he's the guy who hoodwinked a town into believing he was shooting a Star Trek movie when he wasn't, for a "reality" show on Spike TV. It would seem fitting that he might appear in a Star Trek episode he's hoodwinked us into thinking he won't.

After a shaky start with "Daedelus" and the brilliance of "Observer Effect," the Andorian-Tellurite arc ("Babel One," "United" and "The Aenar") gave us some connecting Trek history, some affecting moments, good acting and character development, and a lot new about an old species, the Andorians. We see a beautiful ice planet, and meet a beautiful new sub-species, the Aenar. It seems obvious that the prominence of the Andorians in Enterprise is largely due to the character of Shran created by Jeffrey Combs (and maybe to the articulated antennae, too.) But "The Aenar" in particular opened possibilities that Enterprise might have explored further in the future, but sadly won't get the chance. However, I can picture a dozen hungry Star Trek novelists devouring this arc for future books. There was even something of a science fiction premise, the linking of virtual reality with telepathy.

After the imminent Klingon arc and Mirror universe stories, the final episodes, set on and around Earth, will deal directly with xenophobia (reacting to the foreign or alien with fear and prejudice) a theme discussed here at Soul of Star Trek as central to the first half of the season as well. In fact, xenophobia is also what will divide Trek's 21st century history into the Mirror Universe opposite of the TNG timeline in the upcoming two-part arc. (This prior post also correctly predicted that the discrepancy in Klingon appearance problem would be addressed in the Klingon arc, but now I'm not sure whether this was informed intuition or something I absorbed from Manny Coto's stream of consciousness conversation on the Paramount lot last summer.)

That xenophobia is the last theme Star Trek Enterprise will address is fitting, given Star Trek's cultural history in the forefront of proposing the astonishing idea that aliens aren't necessary evil monsters automatically bent on conquest and destruction. That whole theme started in the 1890s with H.G. Wells' novel, The War of the Worlds. But Wells tale was complex and cautionary, meant to show western civilization in the inferior position it routinely inflicted on "primitive" cultures it conquered, like the Tasmanians and the American Indians. Moreover, Wells gave the Martians a reason for their attempted conquest: their planet was growing cold and would soon be unable to support life.

But the rash of space invasion stories that followed over the next half century or so---especially on screens---quickly dispensed with complexity and rationale, and space visitors were rarely anything but grotesque marauding monsters (even if they looked more like men in ape suits wearing diving helmets) who bellowed, screeched and killed, when they weren't shooting lethal rays from their foreheads. At first, humans were shown to be good-natured but naïve in trying to make friends, but that formality was soon dispensed with, and the appearance of an alien was automatically followed by concerted attempts to kill it, as sheer common sense reflex.

Star Trek fans all know the story of the Horta, and how in one episode of the original series, the stereotype was broken. A very alien species was portrayed as acting rationally based on a value shared with humans, protecting its young and the species' future. Once understanding was achieved, a mutually beneficial solution followed.

It was an approach that Star Trek cultivated in ever more complex variations in later TV and film stories, resulting eventually in examining our prejudices concerning other species on earth (the whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) and each other (the Russians, in the guise of Klingons in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

This helped to open up the possibilities further explored in particular by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 and Steven Speilberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The monstrous aliens soon returned of course (in the Alien series, for example), occasionally balanced by other examples of foreign wonder and alien possibility (The Abyss, Contact, Mission to Mars.)

Lately it seems the alien monster has dominated, beginning even before fear became the official response to actual violation on 9-11, and Cold Warriors morphed into neocon chicken-hawks, while waves of racism returned in more elusive, coded disguises. With two new versions of Wells' War of the Worlds about to flood movie theatres this year---the more prominent being a blockbuster by Steven Speilberg-- the cycle may even reach new heights of artificial hysteria before the circle is closed.

While these new movies shouldn't be pre-judged (for they may revive and expand on Wells' themes lost in prior adaptations), it's safe to say that it's been a rather long time since anybody, in science fiction or out, has taken a popular culture stand against xenophobia. It looks like once again it's up to Star Trek, and meeting that challenge is a fitting end.

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