Friday, March 07, 2008

After a section in which the Enterprise at first tries to escape but then, realizing it is impossible, Picard detaches the saucer section and sends the bulk of the crew and the families aboard to safety, while from the battle bridge he prepares to surrender the Enterprise.

But the core of the bridge crew—which at this time is Picard, Data, Troi and Tasha Yar-- is taken away in that Q-style flash of light to what Picard recognizes as the “mid 21st century—the post-atomic horror.”

That there is a World War III with nuclear weapons is mentioned in the original series as occurring in 2053—which in our world is just a little farther in our future than the debut of Star Trek on television was in our past.

This moment in Farpoint is the first time in all of Star Trek that we actually see some part of that war’s effects. But Star Trek as a TV show, a saga about the future, or even as a phenomenon, cannot be understood without considering what the threat of nuclear war meant in the years leading up to its creation, as well as throughout the years of its existence.

The threat of nuclear war to human civilization was forecast and dramatized in science fiction even before there was a working atomic bomb. For all the secrecy about it, stories began to appear in the sci-fi pulps as early as 1941, months before the U.S. got into World War II and more than four years before the first A-bomb was tested in New Mexico. One story published in Astounding magazine in 1944 led to the author being visited by the FBI, interested in how he knew so much.

Many of these stories dramatized the destruction and ultimate doom of humanity caused by atomic warfare, which was widely believed by scientists and military experts. It was so widespread that immediately after World War II ended, there was close to a consensus that the Bomb should be controlled by treaty or an international organization. Even General Omar Bradley (who later nevertheless became an advocate for the H-Bomb) referred to humanity as “nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

Nuclear doomsday became such a persistent theme by a year or two after the war that (according to James Gunn in his history of sci-fi pulps, Alternate Worlds) that stories about the post-atomic horror were “almost impossible to place in a science-fiction magazine” because there were so many. But, he added, such stories were also becoming impossible to avoid in mainstream magazines.

The writers of these stories included many of the major science fiction writers, beginning with Robert Heinlein who wrote that 1941 story (under another name.) Poul Anderson wrote one apocalyptic fiction after another, with titles like Un-Man, Cold Victory and After Doomsday. As Anderson 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 over the next decades that even in a science fiction novel for juvenile readers (Return From Luna by D.S. Halacy), a teenager’s adventures with an expedition on the moon turned suddenly somber when nuclear war erupts on Earth.

But by the 1950s and the start of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, the official view in America was that nuclear war could be prepared for, and to fear or especially oppose nuclear weapons was unpatriotic. So nuclear fear was driven underground, into the collective subconscious, and emerged at first mostly in monster movies, beginning with “Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” in 1953 (based loosely on a Ray Bradbury story) and the original Japanese Godzilla film, “Gojira” in 1954. Both movies were about monsters awakened by atomic bombs. (This is much more explicit in the original “Gojira,” now restored and available on DVD.)

But probably the breakthrough film was “Them!” in 1954, starring several future television stars: James Arness (“Gunsmoke”), Fess Parker (“Davy Crockett”—in fact, Walt Disney first spotted him in this film) and James Whitmore (“The Law and Mr. Jones.”) There was even a bit part for a very young Leonard Nimoy. This riveting tale of ants transformed into mutant giants by nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert remained the best American movie of its kind, but it opened the floodgates to giant grasshoppers, preying mantises, crabs, etc.—all reanimated or created by nuclear explosions or radiation.

There were also the alien invasion (War of the Worlds, 1953) and subversion (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1955) from outer space movies, that were also psychological stand-ins for the Cold War fears of helplessness before enemies armed with nuclear weapons, and to some extent for nuclear fear itself.

Gradually the fear got more literal on the silver screen. In the midst of the monsters there were human mutations. The best movie of this kind was “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” directed by Jack Arnold from a story by Richard Matheson (who would later write for Star Trek.) Then came the movies that attempted to realistically portray some aspect of nuclear war (“On the Beach” in 1959 was the best and most popular) and of its bleak aftermath (“The World, The Flesh and the Devil” in 1959, “Panic in the Year Zero” in 1962, and others.) Television treated the topic occasionally, especially in several stories in the original Twilight Zone series.

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