Saturday, August 19, 2006

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner publicizing Star Trek on TV Land. AP photo by Rick Francis. Posted by Picasa
News Update

I've been invited to participate on a panel at the 40th anniversary Star Trek convention in Seattle. I'm hoping to be able to make arrangements to do so. It's a pretty exciting prospect.
UPDATE on the update: I will be moderating the panel on Soul of Star Trek: The Prime Directive and Beyond, probably on THE anniversary, Friday, September 8.

You may have read the depressing quotes purported to come from a Paramount executive, pretty much dissing Star Trek fans for abandoning "Enterprise" and "Nemesis," and stating that the new Trek movie will be a complete reboot of the original series. If fans like it, fine, but basically they're going for a totally new audience, the kind that watches "Lost."

I can't imagine J.J. Abrams could be happy about such a statement. I haven't seen it denied yet, but I expect it will be, though it remains to be seen how truthful it really is. It does remind me of at least one prior instance, when the people who decided to "reboot" the Lone Ranger went out of their way to distance their project from the original series, to the point of denying its star, Clayton Moore, the right to wear his trademark mask at personal appearances. When I read this statement from a supposed Paramount source, I suddenly remembered an odd detail--that Paramount had refused William Shatner the right to use "Captain Kirk" in the title of the special he did for the History Channel. This supposed source was openly contemptuous of Shatner's statement that he'd been happy to appear in Star Trek XI. Is it possible they are trying to distance Shatner from the character he created?

It's hard to believe they could be that obtuse, but then a certain executive broke up the championship Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, and so that team became the NBA punching bag for a decade. For Trek, it goes beyond diehard fans. At a time in the 1990s when it was said that half the world's population had never used a telephone, a quarter of it could recognize the face of William Shatner as Captain Kirk. I think that demands a little respect.

Anyway, that Lone Ranger movie failed dismally, and destroyed its own future. How many "reboots" or remakes (as the first story is as a feature film) were really better than the original? I just saw part of Peter Jackson's "King Kong" and it's not even as good as the De Laurentis version, let alone the original.

Does Paramount want a war between the old fans and the new (assuming there are any)? Do they think it will come out like the TOS v. TNG wars, in a story marriage? It's quite a risk. Conflict could stimulate publicity, but how bad blood and wars turn out is anything but certain.

Some Star Trek fans active on Internet discussion boards have been pretty negative and even toxic in the recent past. But that's not the majority. If Paramount succeeds in alienating traditional fans, it may get itself a hit movie anyway. But only one. The whole thing could end up being such a debacle that there will be no Trek XII. They risk the end of Star Trek, except for what fans create.

What follows here is the first in a series creating the context of Star Trek's debut in 1966, and then examining aspects of its legacy and meaning for us now. We begin with the dawn of the space age, which was both exciting and frightening--both aspects important to what Star Trek was and what it is today.

the typical alien invasion movie poster Posted by Picasa
Countdown to 40: On the Final Frontier

by William S. Kowinski

First in a brief series leading up to the 40th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode to air in the U.S.

On a Friday afternoon in October 1957, Gene Roddenberry could have been among commuters driving on the freeways of Los Angeles, with their radios playing. He was 36 years old, and finally and officially living in a world of stories, and now some of them were his.

His script, “The Great Mohave Chase,” had been filmed for the third episode of the new adult western series, “Have Gun, Will Travel,” which aired the previous Saturday. “West Point Story,” the first series he’d written for regularly, would have been on tonight except that a month ago it switched networks, and was broadcast on Tuesdays now. Tonight “Court of Last Resort,” would be broadcast on NBC, a drama about crime experts who reviewed cases in which convicted criminals might be innocent. Gene’s friend and mentor, the mystery writer Eric Stanley Gardner, had started this panel in the real world. An actor was portraying him on the series. Perhaps GR was planning to tune into that. In the east, where it was already 8 p.m., people were already watching it.

But a few hours before, news of an astonishing event began to spread quickly in government and scientific circles. At about 6:30 pm on the east coast, President Eisenhower had been alerted at Camp David.

Commuters in LA might be listening to Jimmie Rodgers sing “Honeycomb,” the current number one hit, or the song it dethroned, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. But a few minutes after 8 p.m in New York, NBC technicians recorded something completely unpredicted, shocking and alarming. Soon everyone would hear it. An NBC announcer broke into programming coast to coast.

“Listen now for the sound,” the announcer said, “which forevermore separates the old from the new.”
I don’t know when Gene Roddenberry heard this sound. I know when I did.

Sputnik Posted by Picasa
I was 11 years old. (So was Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Steven Speilberg would turn 11 in a couple of months. George Lucas was 13. ) I was at home, just outside a small town in western Pennsylvania. I was in my room, sitting at the heavy, dark-grained hand-me-down wooden desk that was surely older than I was. I had set aside the brown notebook in which I was writing a story about an alien invasion called “The Desert Menace,” to concentrate on my homework. It was already dark outside, and most of the room was dark as well, except for a circle of bright light from the lamp hovering over the desk, a green-shaded bulb at the end of a long, multi-jointed arm. It was quiet, and I didn’t even notice the muffled sound of the television set beyond the far wall behind my bed.

My door opened suddenly and startled me. It was my father, who seldom knocked. He and my mother were watching TV in the living room. I knew it wasn’t time yet for “The Life of Riley,” which our family often watched together on Friday nights, sharing a bowl of popcorn. My father asked if I’d been listening to the radio. I glanced up at it—a supposed “short wave” radio he’d assembled from a kit, but despite its impressive dials, slate gray face in front of exposed glowing tubes, transistors and resistors, it seldom pulled in more than the local AM station. It sat on the bookshelf just above my desk, next to the globe. I answered, “no,” defensively, thinking he was checking on my attention to my homework. But that wasn’t it. He told me that they’d just said on television that the Russians had launched a satellite into space, and it was in orbit around the earth at that very moment. They’d broadcast the actual sound of the signal coming from the satellite, called Sputnik.

I was too amazed to move. Nothing like this had ever happened before. After my father returned to the living room I turned on my radio, and eventually I did hear the eerie, even-toned beeping sound from space. Even though many people—even other kids—made fun of the whole idea of spaceships, I was already fascinated by anything to do with rockets and outer space. Besides Saturday morning science fiction on TV and Saturday matinees at the movies, I’d seen the “Tomorrowland” program on Disneyland with Werner von Braun, that went step by step through the history of rocketry, the problems that had to be solved in order to get into space, ending with an animated dramatization of the first manned space shot.

In school I read about the International Geophysical Year going on this year, and I was always looking for news about the satellite the U.S. hoped to rocket into orbit as part of it. I’d even heard one of the smartest men in America, the quiz show champion Charles van Doren, talk about it on a television documentary about the IGY. The newsman asked him if the Russians might orbit a satellite first. He just chuckled.

But now the Russians had. I had absorbed enough of the Cold War mentality to be alerted and perhaps a little afraid. I couldn’t think of anything to do but record my thoughts that moment in my brown school notebook:

"The Russians, Conquerors of Space. Oct.4, 1957. I have just heard some news which will affect my whole future. Russia has just successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space…How did the Russians do it? Out of their own ingenuity? Did they get information from a spy in America? A traitor? All the work our scientists and top brains did, what for? Will the Russians take advantage of this and use it to start a war?"

The technical achievement of humans sending a rocket into space to deliver an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth marked a monumental moment. For some, this very fact was profoundly shocking. “It is hard for people now to realize how stubbornly the idea of any form of space travel was opposed before that date," wrote Brian Aldiss, “and not only by the supposedly ignorant.”

But besides boys with stars in their eyes, many of those who had flown sophisticated aircraft high into the darkening sky, and those who had read and written science fiction, must have felt some universal thrill at the news. Gene Roddenberry of course had done all of those things (his proposal for a Science Fiction Theater episode the year before had been turned down, but the basic idea would someday recur in the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise-D.) He may well have noted that an important threshold had been crossed, from science fiction into reality that would transform the future.

Baby Boomers will remember this: part of our Duck & Cover filmstrips. Posted by Picasa
I know I was thrilled to imagine it, but my eleven year old mind had also seized on what would be the predominant message in America, and would in fact affect my future. Men of Roddenberry’s age and military experience must have grasped its importance immediately.

They would have understood especially what the next Sputnik launch meant, just a month later. Sputnik II not only carried a live being into space—a dog—but the orbiting satellite weighed over 1100 pounds. No U.S. missile even on the drawing board could carry an object that heavy, let alone send it into orbit. The military significance was enormous.

Although the U.S. had exploded the first true hydrogen bomb, it was too large and fragile for a weapon. The bomb the Soviets designed and exploded the next year was not as powerful, but it was already a weapon. The U.S. soon had created useable hydrogen bombs, but the Soviets had a brief advantage which had shaken the military establishment.

Now it seemed the Soviets had leapt ahead and were a much greater threat. Until then, an attack on the U.S. or Russia could be conducted only by using bombers. Although the U.S. was rapidly developing guided missiles, Sputnik proved the Soviets had built missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and delivering atomic bombs. Sputnik itself was beeping over America to remind them.

Missiles were much faster than bombers and harder to detect. Airplanes could be shot down, but not guided missiles. Hydrogen bombs didn’t have to be delivered to precise targets. To destroy New York or Moscow might require as many as 24 atomic bombs. The first hydrogen bombs were each as powerful as a thousand Hiroshima bombs. New York could be destroyed by one of them, which would also produce radiation lethal to the population of Washington, D.C., and would contaminate most of the Northeast, into Canada. The "lethal zone" in H-bomb tests in the Pacific after the Bravo test proved so powerful was equal to 20% of the continental United States.

It would take a few years for both sides to make the transition to missiles. But the Early Warning System in Canada and the Ground Observer Corps of volunteers in cities and towns would rapidly become obsolete. (I joined the Ground Observer Corps at the Civil Defense office at the courthouse when I was 12. Volunteers stood on the roof of the county hospital and scanned the horizon for unauthorized airplanes, even though we were many hundreds of miles from an ocean or an international border. I was too young to be a scanner, so I was designated a Messenger. I was never called to do anything, and the organization quietly melted away.)

For Gene Roddenberry’s generation (which was my parents’ generation) the missile threat evoked images of the sneak attack, the bolt from the blue that brought America into World War II. Only now, everywhere was Pearl Harbor. Now the sudden flash of light that preceded nuclear fire could come at any moment, with little or no warning. We were potentially fifteen minutes from the end of the world, every day.

My generation had been schooled on filmstrips projected in our classrooms that showed a huge white cloud suddenly blooming, then ferocious wind, buildings bursting and flying apart, before the cartoon Bert the Turtle told us how to protect our little heads against atomic bombs. We’d dutifully practiced our "duck and cover" techniques under the old desks bolted to the floor at Sacred Heart School, perhaps glancing up at the initials scratched on the hidden wood by former students who were probably deep into the lives we might never have. We didn’t do that as much after Sputnik. Thermonuclear apocalypse became a daily possibility that we were now supposed to forget. Nevertheless, some children had recurring nightmares about nuclear attacks. Writer Landon Jones described it as “a vague, ceaseless anxiety…The doomsday dread was pervasive in the baby boom generation.”

George Pal version of Wells' "War of the Worlds" Posted by Picasa
But this was also the era of big, colorful cars with enormous tail fins, situation comedies and growing prosperity, ever-bigger houses in the suburbs, and rock & roll on the transistor radio. There were few psychological studies of public feelings about nuclear war. Eventually, the government quietly sponsored research into why the public wasn't reacting. The theories ranged from "cognitive dissonance" to a kind of apathy later identified as "learned helplessness," to the simple but powerful psychological defense mechanism known as denial.

But the Cold War had clearly intensified, and along with Sputnik, provided new nuclear themes for the drive-in and Saturday matinee outlets for suppressed anxieties. Besides the mutation monsters (a number of them hitting the screens in 1957), the instantly deadly bolt from the blue came in the form of invasion from outer space, usually by technologically superior aliens with no conscience or aim other than destruction.

Many of these films predated Sputnik, for the fear of the Soviet threat was cultivated from the beginning of the atomic era. "In order to make the country bear the burden, " said President Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, referring to the arms race of the Cold War, "we have to create an emotional atmosphere akin to a wartime psychology. We must create the idea of a threat from without." But the fear that had been subsumed in early alien invasion films became more potent when that satellite beeping overhead added its alarm.

The aliens were technologically superior but otherwise mindless and implacable: instead of monsters created by radiation, they were monsters with ray guns and death rays as radiation weapons. Most rose or fell on how convincing their effects were, while their plots were all in their titles: Earth v. the Flying Saucers, Phantom from Space, Invaders from Mars, Killers from Space, Target Earth, It Conquered the World, It! The Terror From Beyond Space.
The best of the alien invasion films, and the one with the most visceral Cold War themes, was producer George Pal’s 1953 “War of the Worlds,” adapted from the H.G. Wells story. Set this time in contemporary California, it updates the technology and Americanizes the characters, and the protagonist is a credentialed scientist—a physicist, like the fearsome geniuses behind the Bomb.

It remains a remarkable film for its bright technicolor humbling of humanity. Neither our technology, our innocence (up to and including the atomic bomb) nor our religious faith could stop the mute Martian invaders and their death machines that floated in the air. The first victims of the Martian death ray were turned into piles of cinders on the ground with human outline, a clear reference to Hiroshima. The scientists who in most alien invasion and monster movies would figure out the enemy’s weakness, are in this film savagely beaten by a mob on their way to their laboratory with promising research. There is heroism, love and a happy ending, but once again this story has the power to tap into the solemn fears of the moment.

Some movies showed the aliens invading not by overwhelming force but by stealth; not by killing humans but by inhabiting them, “taking them over.” “Red Planet Mars” (1952) and “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” (1958), for example, were fairly explicit parables of alien subversion. The classic of the genre, Jack Arnold’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1955), showed the slow horror of alien plants turning a town’s population into pod people. The danger of being “taken over” by Communist subversion was a relentless theme of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who was an important public figure in the 1950s.

Gene Roddenberry Posted by Picasa
Moviemakers were not alone in expressing these anxieties. A steady flow of novels and short stories dealt with these themes, including best-sellers. They envisioned a future of technological oppression, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953.) Orwell’s message according to one critic “is simply that our industrial machine civilization is tending to deracinate and debilitate us, and will finally destroy us…”

Some writers tried to imagine the nuclear apocalypse itself, and its aftermath. As early as 1950, Judith Merril examined the impact of nuclear war on a single American home in Shadow On the Hearth. In The Last Day (1959), Helen Clarkson wrote about the immediate aftermath of a thermonuclear attack on a family and relatively isolated community (the 1983 film Testament had a similar story.)

Science fiction authors and magazines were particular obsessed with the ramifications of nuclear apocalypse. Poul Anderson wrote one apocalyptic fiction after another, with titles that told his attitude: Un-Man, Cold Victory and After Doomsday among them. As he emphasized in his non-fiction book, Thermonuclear War (1961), these times were “the most dangerous in the history of mankind.”

Astounding after the war was a very black magazine,” science fiction chronicler Brian Aldiss writes of the premier sci-fi pulp. “Many stories were of Earth destroyed, culture doomed, humanity dying, and of the horrific effects of radiation, which brought mutation or insidious death.” He cites titles like “Dawn of Nothing,” “And Then There Were None,” “There Is No Defence” (by Theodore Sturgeon.) So pervasive were these themes that even in a science fiction novel for juvenile readers, a teenager’s adventures with an expedition on the moon turned suddenly somber when nuclear war erupts on Earth.

In the movies nuclear problems were beginning to come out from behind the monster and alien metaphors by the end of the decade. There had been several films attempting to portray the immediate aftermath of nuclear war in the early 1950s, but a new level of realism, at least in terms of human reaction, made On the Beach (1959) a major popular and critical hit. With current and upcoming movie stars (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins) and an A List director in Stanley Kramer, it is credited with bringing a new sobriety and engagement among a broader range of the public.

By the end of the decade, the nuclear cloud blotting out the future became more and more explicit. Working steadily at his expanding career, GR may not have been paying a lot of attention to this yet. But he could hardly fail to absorb it, for it was just about everywhere.

But then, something changed. While this mood continued into the 1960s, there were other events, and a sudden new atmosphere, that inspired a more hopeful vision. Many became convinced again that this bold and human future, this electrifying adventure, could happen-- and even that it was happening, and they were making it happen. The mood and many of the events were centered on a member of Gene Roddenberry’s generation---in fact, another a veteran of the war in the South Pacific--- who came to Los Angeles to talk of a new frontier.