Saturday, September 02, 2006

Further Than We've Ever Gone Before

"Attempting to define science fiction, " writes Arthur C. Clarke, contemporary science fiction eminence and elder, "is an undertaking almost as difficult, though not quite so popular, as trying to define pornography."

Issac Asimov once divided the history of sci-fi into three eras, and whatever their accuracy, his categories do suggest three of the major components of sci-fi that all became part of the Star Trek synthesis.

As a genre, sci-fi was defined during Gene Roddenberry’s boyhood, through the pulp magazines founded and edited by Hugo Gernsback and others, beginning with Amazing Stories in 1926. By publishing new work and illustrations in the context of stories and novels by Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe, Gernsback (who was also a writer) established what he at first called scientifiction, and later, science fiction.

Though the pulps introduced millions to half-forgotten classics and exciting new writers, their often lurid covers and often less than stellar writing marked the genre forever as outside the mainstream, if not downright disreputable and weird.

In terms of story, Asimov suggested the first era that began before the pulps and continued for their first decade was science fiction as tales of adventure. Some of these stories simply took the basic operatic melodrama of hero overcoming powerful villain to save the virginal maiden, and transposed it to other planets and times. Some dramatized the adventure of discovering new worlds, and the dangers of new inventions in the hands of mad scientists or evil beings, human or otherwise. Many of these tales had their roots in 19th century stories responding to the wonder of new machines, the fear they inspired and the change they brought. In a more specific way, they fed off the 19th and early 20th century expeditions to the last unexplored areas on Earth.

Many now-classic novelists of the period, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, owed their first successes to public curiosity and appetite for chronicles of adventures on the high seas and among unknown peoples in distant locales. Such explorations were made possible by new technologies, also a subject for writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Jules Verne, who was not content with actual technologies or explorations, and became famous for inventing new examples of both.

By the 20th century, there were few undiscovered countries on Earth, so, following Edgar Rice Burroughs (who went from Tarzan’s adventures in African jungles to John Carter’s on Mars) new imaginary adventures took place on others planets, and in the process of getting there.

Inherently dramatic, sci-fi as adventure was the first emphasis of radio and movie serial science fiction stories, derived from books (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon) or as original “space opera.” Television continued the adventures, at first simply re-running movie serials. One of the earliest original TV dramas of any kind was a sci-fi series: Captain Video, which premiered in 1949 as a series seen in the early evening every weekday. Saturday morning became the favored venue for a host of sci-fi shows, from the quirky Johnny Jupiter to the action adventure of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.

Captain Video was a huge hit in early TV, despite being on an underfunded network that didn’t make it out of the 50s (Dumont.) But it wouldn’t be until Star Trek went into syndication in the 70s that another sci-fi show would be seen everyday, often in the early evening.

But even before then, Star Trek linked back to several those Saturday morning shows, which many in Star Trek’s 1966 audience had seen as children. One of the most popular, Space Patrol, had originated in Los Angeles in 1951, when GR was in the LAPD and thinking about how he could write for television. The show as about the police arm of an otherwise peaceful federation of interstellar governments, United Planets.

Another popular show was Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, which had the distinction of appearing on all four broadcast TV networks (including Dumont) at one time or another, and for awhile appeared simultaneously on two. It was based on the Robert Heinlein juvenile novel, which GR read as he prepared Star Trek, and which affected him profoundly. The series pioneered special effects techniques, despite the fact that like most of these early sci fi shows, it was done live. Its viewers were prepared for Starfleet Academy because Tom Corbett was a graduate of the “best school in the universe—Space Academy,” where he took an oath to “safeguard the freedom of space, protect the liberties of the planets and defend the cause of peace throughout the universe.”

Corbett served aboard the spaceship Polaris with a crew that---like the first crew of the Enterprise-- included a woman and an alien (the Venusian cadet, Astro). It was the 24th century, when all nations formed the Commonwealth of Earth, which had eliminated warfare and banned deadly weapons. The show ended its last episode with the Polaris was ready to head off into space. “Where are we going?” a crewman asked. “Out,” Tom Corbett replied. “Further than we’ve ever gone before!”

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