Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Back to the Future

In terms of time, science fiction takes us as far as we can imagine in one direction of human experience: the unknown future. But drama takes us back far into our past, farther than we can really imagine. We pretend we know what we were like in the past, but our imaginings are paltry: we envision our pre-history as the Flintstones, just the Honeymooners (or perhaps the Simpsons) with stone-wheeled cars. It isn't in our dramas we connect with the past, but in drama itself.

Drama---or theatre, performance---is our lifeline back to our earliest selves and societies, to religious ritual and frenzied festival, to mesmerizing storytellers and singers, dancers and shamans, back even to the stories we told each other of the hunt-and how we told them, with gestures and laughter, making faces and mimicking sounds--- as we walked across continents.

Star Trek has a peculiar relationship to this tradition. Actors learn their craft in various media, but it is particularly interesting how many Star Trek actors were trained for the stage, and had their formative experience in theatre. That Patrick Stewart was a Shakespearian actor first is well known, but so was William Shatner. James Doohan was an acclaimed acting teacher at Manhattan's prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse; Gates McFadden was accomplished in physical theatre. And as I write this, the actor who played Catherine Janeway is playing Katharine Hepburn on the stage, and the actor who was Captain Sisko is playing Othello.

Theatre training turned out to be very useful for bringing a sense of truth to strange characters: to grown men and women running around in pajamas and boots and waving ray guns, or aliens with lobsters on their foreheads. It helped them find the Shakespearian king in a starship Captain, or an Odysseus on the bridge of the Enterprise.

William Shatner has said that doing the original series was like mounting a Greek play every week, partly because of the nature of the stories, and partly because of the skimpy television budget: the sets got to be little more than stage sets for live theatre. There were a few props, a bit of scenery, and a lot of words, emotions, ideas and drama. It was always life and death, with the nature of humanity in question and the survival of a human soul---or the human soul---in the balance.

So we come full circle, back to drama, as a key element in Star Trek's mythological feel and presence. Only television series actors could accumulate such reality, give us so many colors in so many different stories, and thanks to the continuation of the original series and the Next Generation in the movies, a mythology over time, about time, in time. But because Star Trek could not afford to be typical television as much as other worldly theatre, it established a kind of storytelling that survived when the sets were more lavish and the effects more visual and special.

Now it is a mythology of three generations in three different centuries. It has been experienced by at least three generations of viewers; sometimes three generations of a single family experience it together.

They gather around the glow of the screen. But they could be gathering around the glow of an ancient fire, where the flickering shadows seem to dance the story the teller is singing. Soon some will all go to the sacred place and put on their robes and masks, their regalia. They will sing our songs, dance our dances, and tell our stories of the wondrous future.

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