Monday, April 30, 2007

Captain's Log

A big week in space, sort of. The first potentially Class M planet in another solar system was located. The famed physicist, Stephen Hawkings, took a zero gravity flight aboard an airplane that creates the weightless in space experience. And a portion of James Doohan's ashes were briefly wisked through space on a sub-orbital flight.

But Scotty's flight wasn't the only Star Trek connection. I caught a little of a cable news interview with an astronomer about the earth-like planet, some 120 trillion miles away. Have they started getting "I Love Lucy" yet, the interviewer wondered, referring to the fact that our TV transmissions continue traveling through the universe at the speed of light. The astronomer thought for a moment and said, not only that, but if there are any intelligent beings on that planet, they might think we are space travelers, because by now they'd be getting "Star Trek." (Shades of Galaxy Quest!)

In the runup to Hawkings flight, at least one network used images of him on the set of The Next Generation (he appeared in an episode, with actors playing Newton and Einstein.) There he was with Data standing next to him--the pictures just went by, without explanation.

But it was true Trekkie Keith Olbermann who made the more sophisticated Treklore comparison. On his MSNBC "Countdown" show, he introduced his segment on Hawkings by citing the Star Trek pilot in which Captain Christopher Pike chooses to stay on a planet where he could be liberated from his broken body. Hawkings, who is almost totally paralyzed from ALS, experienced such a liberation of weightlessness.

Which reminds me-- I want to sneak in mention of a Trek reference from a TV show that left the air, perhaps never to return: Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on Sunset Strip." The Bradley Whitford character, who has just lectured some puzzled writers about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem, "Kubla Khan," asks the Matthew Perry character if he knows who wrote the poem, "Kubla Khan." "I don't know," Perry says, "Gene Roddenberry?" "Kubla," Whitford says, "not 'Wrath of.'" So this rapid-fire throwaway gets the most literary Trek ref of the Year award, so far.

Two recent statements by Trek XI director J.J. Abrams give me some hope for the new movie. (By the way, the commander of the spaceship in Forbidden Planet, long thought to be a Trek forerunner, was named J.J. Adams. Coincidence?) First, he said that he's been talking to futurists and scientists about the future. That's something that Star Trek has lacked for a long time. GR used to meet with these people regularly, and eventually he was a guest speaker at their gatherings. Those ideas were important to Trek, and when the creative leaders stopped having that kind of contact, an important source of ideas and inspiration just dried up.

Second, he's gone out of his way to emphasize GR's vision, that getting away from it in the later Trek series was a mistake, and even referring to Rick Berman supposedly calling it a "Pollyanna" vision, saying maybe we need more of that now. This is also a good sign--sort of. "Pollyanna," an expression derived from a series of childrens books, has come to mean " someone who is cheerfully optimistic and who maintains a generous attitude toward the motives of other people." I wouldn't describe GR's vision exactly that way. I'd say he had a generous attitudes towards the possibility of people being guided by their good motives. But it's a choice.

That's why I never call GR's vision "optimistic." I call it "hopeful," because in the Trek future, humanity has chosen to do the right thing. The real power of the vision is this: if they hadn't chosen to be better, if they'd gone on as before--as by and large, we are now--there would have been no future, the human race will destroy itself. (And many forget that in the Trek history of the future, it almost does.) The Star Trek future depends on the ideals being realized.

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