Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Nichelle Nichols: Portrait of a Lady

 


I first met Nichelle Nichols at what’s become known as the Farewell Scotty convention in Los Angeles in 2004, when I was writing a story about Star Trek for the New York Times. I believe I was the only reporter at the Saturday night formal dinner, seated with several Star Trek fans at a table near the front, and the area in front of the dais where distinguished guests would dine.  The lighting in that area was dim, so I could not distinguish all the figures whose backs were to us, but I did see Nichelle Nichols arrive and sit at one end of the table nearest to me.

 So in a lull before serving began, I approached that side of the table.  I quietly introduced myself to her, so she might recognize me in the hubbub of the convention when I would seek to briefly interview her.  I was ready to duck back to my table when she said, “Let me introduce you to someone.”  That someone was Neil Armstrong, the main speaker that night. I hadn’t even seen him when he popped up out of the darkness near the other end of the table, and suddenly I was shaking hands with the first human being to touch another world.

 I’ve often wondered why she did this, what prompted her to instantly, spontaneously perform this act of grace that included introducing me by name, even though she had only heard it once.  It was a moment of singular generosity and thoughtfulness.  It was the act of a singular lady.  

She was Uhura, and (as asserted in the title of her autobiography), she was beyond Uhura.   Her story as she told it in her book is a very American story.  The heritage within her included African American, European White (a grandfather) and Native American (her mother was half Cherokee.)   She grew up in Robbins, Illinois, a town founded in the late 19th century by Henry E. Robbins, who purchased land some 30 miles from Chicago from disappointed speculators, and began selling lots and homes to Black and mixed race families, otherwise shut out of home ownership solely because they weren’t White (Robbins was himself a White southerner.)  That’s why from that day to this, Robbins has always had a Black mayor.

 In the 1930s, that mayor was Nichelle’s father.  It was in the era that Al Capone and other mobsters fought and ruled in Chicago over the liquor trade that Prohibition made illegal, and gave Chicago an international image that lasted well beyond that decade.  This led to a situation that begins Beyond Uhura, in which, just months before Nichelle’s birth, her mother held a gun on Capone’s brother in her parlor. 

But mostly her childhood was idyllic, full of art and books, though her mother was troubled by a psychic gift for precognition.  Nichelle loved to sing and dance, and after rigorous local training in early adolescence, she became the first Black dancer to be accepted into the Chicago Ballet academy.  But after two years of training to become a ballerina, she wandered into a class of Afro-Cuban dancers, and quickly converted.  This soon led to her first professional appearances.

 But there were difficult times.  A failed early marriage left her a single mother with a young son to support. She became a popular night spot singer and entertainer, which at times involved her with organized crime figures who for decades either owned or controlled many clubs.  Once on tour in the 1950s she was brutally refused a hotel room because of her race (not in the deep South but in Utah.) In another incident, a prominent citizen in the town where she performed sexually assaulted her, and left her alone overnight in an isolated cabin in the woods.  But she was not intimidated: she reported him to the police and returned to testify at his trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to prison. 

The brief summaries of her life and career that have appeared since her death often leave out important details.
  She not only sang with the Duke Ellington band—Duke himself commissioned her to choreograph and perform in an Ellington dance suite, in addition to later featuring her as a singer.  Years later, she not only acted in a triumphant Los Angeles premiere production of James Baldwin’s first play, she essentially produced it for the theatre company she started with her partner, actor and director Frank Silvera. That production went on to succeed on Broadway.

   When more years later, she created a one-woman show in which she sang new songs in the style of past greats, she didn’t have to research them through old records and film clips.  She’d known many of them and heard them perform, including Josephine Baker, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. 

 A small part in the movie of Porgy and Bess made her known to Sammy Davis, Jr. (with whom she had a sort of romance), Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and her dancing partner, Maya Angelou, whose fame was to come later as one of the great writers of the age.  

She costarred in an ill-fated Broadway show with Burgess Meredith, and was a hit in her debut as a singer at New York’s Blue Angel. Through Frank’s theatre and film work, Nichelle came to know many other luminaries, including Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Tony Bennett.  But hobnobbing with the stars didn’t stop racism from being a fact of life and occasionally surfaced in a blatant way, as when she and Frank were refused residence in a house they had rented in Manhattan when the caretaker saw Nichelle.  Sexism of the most Hollywood sort also came into play, when she lost a lucrative contract with MGM because sleeping with an executive was required. 

Then in 1963, Frank asked her to do an acting scene with one of his students, Don Marshall.  Another student named Joe D’Agosta was so impressed that he told his employers at a television production company about them. The executives watched Nichelle and Marshall do the scene (from Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge—a title that would soon take on different meaning), and hired them both.  It was for an episode of the TV series The Lieutenant, produced by Gene Roddenberry.  D’Agosta would become the casting director for Star Trek.

 With Star Trek, she would become probably only the third Black woman featured in a continuing non-stereotyped dramatic role in series television. (The first two played the same social worker-- a very young Cicely Tyson, with Diana Sands substituting for one episode-- in the short-lived but significant social drama East Side West Side in 1963, starring George C. Scott.) Nichelle Nichols’ presence was more prominent, but still…

 With prodigious talents expressed on stage and screen, Nichelle Nichols lasting fame results mostly from what must be described as a relatively small role. For three years she had to get up in the middle of the night to appear on set, where typically she would sit in one place, and say and do very little.  Given her skills and experience, it is reasonable to wonder why she bothered.

 The answers begin with expectations: she had reason to hope her part at Lieutenant Uhura would be larger.  She saw scripts in which she had better scenes, more lines and more to do.  Her book makes it clear that in Star Trek’s first year, her part was diminished due primarily to network and studio demands, which involved fears of audience reaction, but in the end reflected race and gender bias.  How deep that went is indicated by her assertion that executives kept most of the fan mail she was getting (almost equal to that of stars Shatner and Nimoy) from being delivered to her. In other words, she’d proven them wrong—she was accepted and she was popular.  But they had to deny it.

  By then she was ambivalent about her role (a feeling played in a different way by Celia Rose Gooding as the younger Uhura on the Strange New World series, which also seems to be dramatizing aspects of Uhura’s backstory that Nichols and Roddenberry invented, but never could portray.)


 So it wasn’t surprising that she was leaving the series after that first season, until her now famous encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr., who talked to her about the power of her presence on television, and in the 23rd century.  Her status as a role model for Black and minority viewers, especially children, and most especially girls; the ground she was breaking in television for other Black and minority performers, and the simple fact that she embodied a Black presence in the future, were all reasons to stay, even knowing that she was missing other opportunities, and possibly typecasting herself indefinitely.  And even when her role was further undermined in the second season and thereafter by William Shatner’s insisting (with the connivance of the Suits) that scripts focus heavily on Captain Kirk, and then Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy.

 But an equally compelling reason that she stayed seems to have been that she believed deeply in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Star Trek future.  Her book describes the vagaries of their personal relationship, but her devotion to his vision never wavered.  Her absolute conviction is expressed in this extraordinary sentence in her book: “Every time I sat down at my console on the bridge of the Enterprise, I felt that I was in the twenty-third century, that I was Uhura.” 

 It was this conviction that resonated with fans and made her a convention favorite.  It was this nobility as well as her intelligence, experience and cultural depth that made her an eminence as her hair turned silver.

 By accounts and observation, she was energetic, thoughtful, kind and at times mercurial, with a wicked sense of humor. Her book makes clear that she was a proudly passionate person, as also suggested in person by her occasional naughty references and raucous laugh.  But from the start, and especially as she grew older, she radiated and embodied a confident dignity.

 Before her final years and the conflicts surrounding them, she valued her prodigious memory. She put it to work in Beyond Uhura. Those who wish to honor her life can do so by learning more about it—by reading her autobiography.  Our lives and what we experienced and learned ultimately are our legacy. 

She was always more than what was obvious. It’s become widely known that in the period between the Star Trek TV series and the movies, she helped recruit minority and women to NASA, especially candidates for Space Shuttle astronauts.  But this achievement has also been slighted in some quarters.  In fact, this inclusion was a need she saw, and a proposal she made, carried out as one of a number of contracts by the company she ran.  She was astute at business and organization as well as artistically multi-talented.

 Her efforts were among the principal reasons that the world of fictional space exploration and real space exploration intermingled in public, leading to among other things, the first human to step foot on the moon speaking at the Scotty Farewell Star Trek convention of his wish to pilot the Enterprise.


 I did interview her on the Sunday at the end of that convention. She was direct and articulate. “Because the fans are loyal to Gene’s dream,” she told me, “we are loyal to the fans.” But she also wasn’t abject before them.  When a fan tried to talk to her during our interview, there was iron in her voice when she prevented the interruption.

 When my story appeared on the New York Times arts section cover Monday morning, she was the one who held it up to the crowd gathered to witness the ceremony marking the installation of James Doohan’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 I saw her again two years later at the 40th anniversary convention in Seattle, where I led a panel on the soul of Star Trek. I was one of several people greeting her as she entered “the blue room,” where participants gathered, and wondered if she would recognize me. Perhaps she didn’t, but in any case she greeted me with an embrace and the brush of a kiss.   

May she rest in peace.  Her work and her legacy live on.

Monday, June 06, 2022

Revisiting TNG "Journey's End"


I am revisiting the TNG seventh season episode “Journey’s End” for several reasons.  The most obvious and proximate is Wesley Crusher’s brief scene in the final episode of Star Trek: Picard’s second season, his first official reappearance since this TNG episode, some 28 years previously.  (His very different kind of moment in the 2002 feature film Star Trek Nemesis wound up on the cutting room floor, and in discarded scenes special features.)

 The second reason is that the story of “Journey’s End” relates to the story of the ninth Star Trek feature film, which is next on my list to write about in this site’s way too longstanding “Trekalog” series.

 But the third reason is the most compelling: I’ve always wanted to write about it, because contrary to other opinions, this is one of my favorite TNG episodes, especially as it informs this site’s theme of the soul of Star Trek.

 “Journey’s End” came late in The Next Generation’s final season, when elements that would be important in the ongoing Deep Space 9 series, and the upcoming Star Trek: Voyager were shoehorned into TNG stories, not always to their benefit.  So this episode featured Cardassians—major DS9 villains—and established the existence of Native American settlers in Cardassian space, anticipating Voyager.

 The episode title primarily applies to Wesley Crusher, whose TNG journey began with the first episode, when as a 14 or15 year old boy (played, as he always would be, by Wil Wheaton), he was accompanying his mother, Doctor Beverly Crusher, in her new assignment, living on the new starship Enterprise-D. When this story begins (six years later), he is in his final year at Starfleet Academy.  

 The title can also be applied to the group of North American Indians, whose search for a new planetary home had ended after two centuries on the remote world called Dorvan Five.  But because of the new peace treaty between the Federation and the Cardassians, Dorvan Five was to be no longer a Federation planet but under Cardassian jurisdiction.  The Indians would be required to leave this new home for another. These two superpowers determined that their journey had not ended--until they come together to allow it.

 The Indians' journey to a new home remains over, but in a sense a new journey begins: the Indians under Cardassian rule. And after ending one journey Wesley begins another with the Traveler—which eventually leads him to becoming a Traveler himself, and to return to Earth to also recruit a new member. 

Journey’s End” begins with Cadet Wesley Crusher visiting the Enterprise-D for a school break. His mother Dr. Beverly Crusher escorts him to the new separate quarters he requested. He is welcomed by Geordi and Data, but barely manages to say what he believes they want to hear, and the scene ends with him sitting alone on his bed, isolated and uncertain.

  Admiral Necheyev also arrives on board the Enterprise to meet with Captain Picard.  She shows him the new borders of Federation and Cardassian space resulting from three years of negotiation as part of their peace treaty. 

According to the treaty, several planets switch governances and colonists must relocate.  One of these is Dorvan Five, settled 20 years before after a long search by a group of North American Indians, who left Earth to preserve their culture.  Picard immediately sees a problem in historical context.  “You see, Admiral, there are some very disturbing historical parallels here.  Once more, they’re being asked to leave their homes because of a political decision that has been taken by a distant government.”

 In fact, virtually all American Indian peoples had been driven from their ancestral lands, none more dramatically than the five tribes, including the Cherokee, forced in the mid-19th century to walk across the country from the Southeast to the West, leading to thousands of deaths in what became known as The Trail of Tears.

 The Federation is aware of this, it was debated but ultimately the decision was made “for the greater good,” the Admiral says.  It will be up to Picard to persuade the Indians to leave (with promise of aid in finding another planet) or, failing that, to forcibly remove them—also a painful part of American Indian historical experience, as Picard knows. 

Meanwhile Wesley’s repressed emotions boil over in an ugly scene with Geordi in engineering, a combination of undergraduate sneering at elders’ supposed old-fashioned ideas, and a late adolescent snit.  Beverly learns that his Academy grades have been falling, that he’d been moody and distracted.  He would later admit that he’d been depressed.

 Picard and Counselor Troi meet with an Indian council to get them to agree to relocation but the parties seem to be talking past each other.  Troi points out that there are three other nearby planets with similar environmental conditions.  But Anthwara, the council leader, speaks of other “more intangible concerns.” “When I came here twenty years ago, I was welcomed by the mountains, the rivers, the sky…This planet holds a deep spiritual significance for us.  It has taken us two centuries to find this place.  We do not want to spend another two hundred years searching for what we already have.”

   They agree to reconvene the next day, and Picard invites them to a reception on the Enterprise that evening. At the reception, Anthwara asks Picard to tell him about his ancestral family, for ancestors are very important to his people.  “They guide us, even now.”

 Wesley arrives late and meets Lakanta, an Indian who tells him that two years before he had a vision that Wesley would come to Dorvan Five. “I know why you came to us, Wesley.  To find the answers that you seek.”  

 Wesley beams down to the surface and is met by Lakanta, who asks Wesley what is sacred to him.  But that concept is not part of Wesley’s world.  “Look around you,” Laconta says.  “What do you think is sacred to us here?”  Wesley guesses Laconta’s necklace, and designs on a building wall.

 “Everything is sacred to us,” Laconta says.  “The buildings, the food, the sky, the dirt beneath your feet. And you.  Whether you believe in your spirit or not, we believe in it.  You are a sacred person here, Wesley….So if you are sacred, then you must treat yourself with respect.”

 Wesley responds that no one has ever told him he was sacred, but admits that he’s been lacking in self-respect lately.  Laconta sees this as a sign that Wesley is ready for his own vision quest.

 Some viewers have denigrated what Laconta said as a Hollywood version of Indian spirituality.  This episode doesn’t get everything right (and the vision quest, a real ritual in some tribes, seems to have captured the non-Native imagination.) It requires a suspension of disbelief to accept that an Indian culture would choose to leave the Earth that nurtured it, but many tribes did relocate over the centuries for one reason or another, even before Europeans showed up. The ceremonial space of the “Habak” where Wesley’s vision occurs is decorated with designs and objects that seem often to miss the point of real Native designs and objects, but this is partly because the real American Indian consultants to this episode did not want anything to identify a particular tribe (the original idea was a Hopi or Pueblo kiva.)

 But this key concept—that everything in the given world is sacred—is not Hollywood; historical research and contemporary accounts, including those of tribal members, affirm that it is central to Indigenous beliefs among peoples across North America and Central America.  It is as well a core concept in Buddhism. It is moreover a major moment in Star Trek, because it runs counter to the assumptions of our technological civilization—but might be another way to express a key value in Star Trek, especially TNG.

 Laconta makes another important point in a seemingly casual way that is true to today’s Native peoples.  Wesley notes that in the Habak collection of ceremonial figures (similar to Kachinas) is one that looks Klingon.  Laconta laughs, and acknowledged that it is.  “Our culture is rooted in the past,” he says, “but it’s not limited to the past.” This is something that non-Natives often don’t realize, at least at first. 

In the Habak, perhaps under the influence of a ceremonial hallucinogen, Wesley has a vision of his father, a Starfleet officer who was killed in the line of duty when Wesley was very young.  “You’ve reached the end, Wesley,” he says. When his father died, Wesley “set out on a journey that wasn’t your own.  Now it’s time to find a path that is truly yours.”

 Wesley says he doesn’t understand.  “Yes, you do.  It’s just hard for you to accept.”

 Later, when talking to his mother, Wesley admits that the vision only crystallized what he already knew. (Recall also that in the fourth season episode “Family,” Wesley saw his father as he was when Wesley was born, in a holotape he made that Beverly had just retrieved with other possessions she’d left behind on Earth. His father mused then that Wesley might grow up to wear the Starfleet uniform.) 

 Meanwhile, the Native leader Anthwara tells Picard that one of his ancestors had participated in a brutal and bloody slaughter of southwestern American Indians, and that they believed he was sent to make amends.   Picard tries again to petition Starfleet to revisit their decision, but to no avail.  The Native villagers will not leave.  Picard orders Worf to make plans for their removal via the transporter.

  But the situation on the planet has become more complicated with the premature arrival of Cardassians to conduct a survey of the buildings and other resources they will inherit.

 When Wesley leaves the Habak, he sees Worf preparing the beam-out.  He shouts out a warning to the villagers to resist.  The Starfleet team is forced to return to the ship.

 Captain Picard is livid in his confrontation with Wesley, but Wesley calmly tells him, “What you’re doing down there is wrong.  These people are not some random group of colonists.  They’re a unique culture with a history that predates the Federation and Starfleet.”

 Picard responds, “this does not alter the fact that my orders are to—“

 “I know Admiral Necheyev gave you an order, and she was given an order from the Federation Council.  But it’s still wrong.”

 This speech will echo in the future, but this time Picard tells Wesley he must follow orders as long as he is in Starfleet, and Wesley tells him he is resigning.

 Before a shocked Picard can respond, he must meet with the Cardassian Gul Evek.  It is at this point that Wesley explains to his mother how the vision revealed what he had already known, that his path did not include Starfleet.  She then remembers the Traveler telling Captain Picard that Wesley “was destined for something quite different from the rest of us.”  But at this point, his new direction isn’t clear. 

Meanwhile, villagers have taken some Cardassians prisoner, and things are moving swiftly towards an armed confrontation between the Cardassians and the Enterprise, which would lead to a resumption of war.  Wesley is on the surface when a villager and a Cardassian are struggling over a weapon, and a Cardassian is hit.  Wesley shouts “No!”—and everything stops.

 Across the frozen tableau, Laconta strides towards Wesley.  “You pulled yourself out of time,” he tells Wesley.  “You took the first step…to another plane of existence, another way of thinking…You’ve found a new beginning for yourself. The first step on a journey that few humans will ever undertake.” 

Laconta then reveals himself as the Traveler, who offers to take Wesley with him.  “You’ve evolved to a new level—you’re ready to explore places where thought and energy combine in ways you can’t even imagine.  And I will be your guide, if you would like.”  

 They leave, with the Dorvan Five situation unresolved. The Traveler tells Wesley to have faith in the others’ ability to solve things on their own. “They must find their own destinies.”

 After Picard pleads with him not to restart the horrors of war, Gul Evek pulls back from confrontation.  An arrangement is made for the Native villagers to remain on Dorvan Five, but under Cardassian jurisdiction. Anthwara believes Picard has “wiped clean a very old stain of blood.” 

The final scene is Wesley’s transporter room sendoff by Doctor Crusher and Captain Picard. “Where will you go?” Picard asks. “The Traveler said that my studies would begin with these people,” meaning the Natives on Dorvan Five.  “He said that they’re aware of many things.  I can learn a lot from them.” 

 After emotional goodbyes, his transporter trace ends with a benevolent smile, and Beverly and Picard leave together, mother and father-figure, with the prospect of never seeing their son again on his unimaginable journey.

 Though Laconta and the Traveler seemingly being the same person complicates things, that the Traveler has Wesley begin his explorations with this Native culture is also a major moment: a further acknowledgement of the legitimacy, the importance, of their very different knowledge and point of view.


Star Trek crews explore the universe with high technology, and they meet other technological species. But from the beginning, the Star Trek universe has included beings that defy the science upon which those technologies are based.  They reflect aspects of reality that these sciences don’t touch.  Each contact with another culture raises questions of ethics and principle, and causes them to reevaluate their sense of themselves and their place in the universe.

 Similarly, Star Trek ships are crewed by individuals responsible for using and maintaining that technology. Their jobs require technical skill and knowledge, and often enough, technical creativity and brilliance. But beginning especially aboard the Enterprise-D of the Next Generation, many of those individuals explore other aspects of their inner beings, through music, art, books, drama, dance as well as spiritual pursuits and engaging with animals and plants. 

 They explore history and archaeology, engage in rituals, and explore their minds through psychology and meditation.  They confront ethical questions, both in relation to other species and each other.  They pursue relationships and confront elements of their past relationships, including family. They do so individually and in groups, and they support each other’s endeavors.  In other words, they take care of the machinery, but they also cultivate soul.

 This is what has set Star Trek apart from other space opera.  Star Trek takes another step in this episode by recognizing a way of seeing and experiencing reality different from the technological and sometimes technocratic premises and practices of the dominant culture, by a culture with more ancient roots on Earth.

 It would not be the last time a Star Trek story explored cultures with such beliefs—these became more common in DS9 and Voyager.  The results were mixed and arguably superficial, but they were acknowledgements. 

 In this episode, however, a particular move is made: the core beliefs of Native Americans and many Indigenous peoples is linked to the realities beyond scientific knowledge and mindset, the unimaginable “levels of existence” known to the Traveler—and that Q on occasion suggested to Picard. 

 This is daring, and causes a certain amount of disbelief, resentment and even anger among some Star Trek viewers.   Yet it is a vital contribution to the soul of Star Trek.

Moreover, among Native peoples these beliefs have motivated practical care for life and the Earth that is the basis for ecology. Today's Native tribes often practice sound ecological science on their tribal lands, and several are taking on responsibility in managing national parks and forests, because of their commitment and expertise.  These sciences and these transcendent beliefs coexist. 

 It is worth noting that this episode aired in early 1994. Beginning in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus to the New World, there was an unprecedented degree of attention to the history, arts, literature, beliefs and contemporary lives of the Native American peoples who had been living in that New World for thousands of years. 

 The relevance of these beliefs to the plight of the planet Earth became more recognized, as did the sometimes uncomfortable relationships of some Indigenous beliefs to ideas implied by the most advanced physics. 

  This episode, like others from the seventh season (for instance, “Phantams,” “Parallels,” “Genesis” and “All Good Things) and before (such as “Inner Light,” “Darmok,” “Transfigurations” and “Where No One Has Gone Before,” the first season episode in which the Traveler and Wesley meet) broke ground that led to later Trek explorations as well as the many time-dilation and multiverse stories of today.  But this episode stands out in suggesting that societies with advanced technology (historically based on heedless destruction of the natural world) are not innately superior to so-called primitive cultures—that it is not a question of a linear “superior” versus “inferior” civilization, or a sense of evolution as “progress” towards high technology. 

 Granted it is only a suggestion: there is not much depth in this episode.  Profound ideas can sound trite without context or relationship.  But the basics—the sense of sacredness of nature and community, and the consequent attitudes of respect and connection—are correctly if simply stated.  By definition the sacred is not to be disrespected, dishonored or carelessly exploited.  

This is also the respect for life that is at the center of many TNG episodes—be it alien life of a previously unencountered kind, or sentience in machines.  There are hints that this respect extends to environments, though the issue of self-destructive exploitation arises too seldom.  In this regard, I note one of the special features to the latest TNG movie collection that discusses the villains in Star Trek features.  Towards the end when villains of 9 of the first 10 features were described, writer and director Nicholas Meyer asks, Who is the villain in Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home?.. "It’s us.” 

 It is human beings who hunted the whales to near extinction.  There are Native peoples who traditionally hunted whales, but they consider them sacred, so they take only what they need, with respect and rituals of appreciation.  This is just one aspect of these cultures that mitigates against hunting whales to extinction, or otherwise destroying their environment for future generations.  The respect for life--and our planetary life support--is more than logical (at least in human terms.)  It is a profound outcome of a certain understanding of the universe.

In “Journey’s End,” the two journeys that end and begin again will eventually be joined by a third new journey, when Captain Picard faces a situation very similar to what he found on Dorvan Five, but makes a very different decision.  That’s the subject of the third TNG feature film, Star Trek: Insurrection.

Thanks to Trekcore for screencap images.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Don't Look Around

 

By sheer number of viewing hours, the new feature film Don’t Look Up is an enormous hit—the biggest Netflik has had since it began.  Adam McKay’s movie portraying responses to the warning of a comet about to obliterate life on Earth has also been met with deeply divided critical and popular opinion.  Presumably a large proportion of that opinion is guided by the movie’s metaphorical target: America’s response to the climate crisis.

 Apart from comparisons to the satirical standard of Doctor Strangelove (1964), few written reactions to the movie reach back much farther than 1998’s Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis saves the world from an oncoming asteroid (the other such movie of that year—and the better one—Deep Impact, is seldom mentioned.)  But the basic movement of Don’t Look Up follows a template that goes back at least to the 1951 George Pal classic, When Worlds Collide:  Astronomers accidentally find the planet-killing object, they sound the alarm to “the authorities,” they are ridiculed and disbelieved. 

 It is the specifics of how the plot plays out in contemporary America that McKay portrays with mesmerizing precision.  He also manages to get laughs, but it is really the laughter of recognition, the release of seeing the absurdity of our reality playing out. 

 When Worlds Collide emerged at the beginning of another age of absurdity, the nuclear age.  The history of the period makes clear that almost immediately after Hiroshima, a lot of people realized how craziness had come to rule the world.  But official denial in the decade of conformity and McCarthyism forced an eerie and sometimes frantic quietism.  Besides which, the specter of sudden nuclear apocalypse at any moment was too overwhelming to contemplate.  Official denial became deliberate and then unconscious national denial.

 But then there were all those atomic monsters, alien invasions and cosmic catastrophes in mostly B movies all through the decade. On the Beach (1959) was a drama about nuclear war without showing it. There never was a feature film that depicted nuclear holocaust—and it wasn’t until the 1980s that television took it on, notably with The Day After (1983), watched by 100 million Americans—and President Ronald Reagan, who was powerfully affected by it. 

But by 1964 it could be the subject of satire.  Though Doctor Strangelove is now a widely recognized classic, it was controversial in its day.  Its plot was absurd and yet could happen.  Several of its key characters seemed like caricatures, yet they resembled known types and even real people.  The difference between real life General Curtis Le May and movie character General Buck Turgidson may have chiefly been that George C. Scott was a more expressive actor.

 The characters in Don’t Look Up are notably not so exaggerated.  In the age of Trump, not even Meryl Streep’s President is as over the top.  (Jonah Hill as her son and chief of staff—presumably a stand-in for Don Jr.—may be the movie’ s only overt comic character.)  The absurdity of nearly everyone else is in the main plot is real—in some cases, speeded up, but true to contemporary life. Without blatant stereotypes and simplistic caricatures, some viewers don’t recognize this as satire.  But the history of satire is richer than recent movie history. 

The satire is partly in the metaphor.  The filmmakers are apparently not being shy about saying their intent was to make this movie metaphorically about America’s treatment of the climate crisis.  As some writers have recognized, the metaphor can also extend to the Covid Crisis, and the ongoing political crisis symbolized by January 6/2021. 

 The climate metaphor works in some ways and not in others, but that’s par for the course—otherwise it wouldn’t be a metaphor.  Unlike an annihilating comet collision, the effects of climate distortion destroy over a long time.  Its causes are different, and different measures are required to address it.  Those measures are not as simple as shooting a rocket at it.  In terms of awareness and acceptance, the expensive and long term campaign by giant fossil fuel interests to deny its existence may well have been decisive, and that factor is absent from this film. 

But like a comet on the edge of the solar system, climate catastrophe was a future threat not discernible to the naked eye. And political self-interest as well as media trivializing have been factors in supporting the natural reluctance, the manufactured resistance and the toxic denial that prevented society from facing the consequences before they become inevitable.

 There’s a difference between oversimplifying (always a tendency in movies about a complex subject as well as  in traditional conventions of satire), and simplifying in order to concentrate on similarities, which is what this movie mostly succeeds in doing.   For its subject, after all, is not climate or comets.  The subject is how America reacts to a credible if unfamiliar threat to its existence--such as the very real and extremely consequential example of the climate crisis.

 In an otherwise cogent article in Vox, Kelsey Piper rejects the climate metaphor by glibly and without explanation dismissing the idea that the climate crisis is a threat to human survival.  Clearly such destruction would not necessarily happen all at once, like a comet colliding.  But there is plenty of evidence that the threat to the survival of human civilization as we know it is real and profound.  The UN has more or less officially linked the climate crisis with the threat of a mass extinction event, meaning that life as we know it on this planet would be over.  If the climate crisis gets predictably worse and mass extinction occurs, some remnants of the human species may survive, but life as we know it almost certainly will not. 

Which brings us to the final scene of Don’t Look Up.  The political conflict in the latter part of the movie is between those who plead for people to “look up” and see the comet, which is the analogue of seeing the evidence, both scientific and in the fires, floods, sea rise and extreme weather in the obvious world.  But the metaphorical MAGA crowd follow their leaders’ chants of “don’t look up.” Which is: don’t look at the fires, don’t notice the Covid death toll, and don’t look at the footage of the attack on the Capitol. Again, as blatant and absurd as the real American moment.

 Throughout the film, the astronomers played by Leonardo DiCaprio (Dr. Mindy) and Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Dibiasky) have tried to get leaders and the public to face the reality and do something about it before it is too late, while their personal lives spiral out of control.  By the end, as the comet is about to arrive, they come together in the DiCaprio character’s Midwestern suburban home, forming a last family, for a final dinner.  They pointedly ignore talking about what’s about to happen, though they do each say what they are grateful for, a ritual that some now observe at Thanksgiving. 

After the meal is over, and they are chatting about apple pie and coffee, Dr. Mindy leans back and says, “We really did have everything, didn't we?”  And then the walls explode.

 To me those are the most devastating lines in the film. As defined by its ending, this is an apocalyptic movie.  Like When Worlds Collide, there are a few human survivors, both on Earth and in the far future and far reaches of space—though in this film it is more than hinted that in neither place are they likely to survive for very long.  The implication of Doctor Strangelove’s ending is that human civilization is totally destroyed, but to the absurdly inappropriate tune of “We’ll Meet Again,” a sentimental song of weary courage from World War II.  The satirical point of it in Doctor Strangelove is that once the bombs start to fall, we won’t meet again. 

 There is some irony in Dr. Mindy’s statement when applied to the climate crisis metaphor, since that “everything” came at a cost of deforming the climate and everything that results.  Still, given the circumstances of that scene, a couple of other interpretations are possible.

 In his Vox article, Piper sees this scene and this statement as motivating action before it is too late. He sees it as urging us to “look up,” to become aware of survival threats, to “acknowledge, and then to actually act.”

 That’s the traditional role of an apocalyptic story: as a cautionary tale.  I might add that “look up” is applicable to more than the sky—especially when there are so many people walking through the unseen world with their eyes constantly cast down to the devices in their hands, and their heads and hearts in virtual communities where agreement is more important than observing the real world.

 This cautionary tale interpretation is perfectly appropriate, especially for viewers who will likely live into the decades when the dangers increase substantially, particularly the effects of the climate crisis as it jars the world order, and the mass extinctions that tear at the support systems of the planet.

 But I could not help but think of the experience of the person saying those lines in that last scene.  Jennifer Lawrence has her own connections to dystopian stories (The Hunger Games films) but Leonardo DiCaprio is extensively connected to the possibilities of apocalypse in the real world. 

For there is no prominent actor on the planet more deeply and obviously involved in environmental action, and particularly in warning of the threats to survival because of the climate crisis than Leonardo DiCaprio.  Those efforts go back to at least 1998 when he formed his foundation to address these issues.  I count at least three documentaries on climate that he narrated, hosted, produced or co-wrote, or a combination of these roles: The 11th Hour in 2008, Before the Flood in 2016 and Ice on Fire in 2019.  He used his best actor Oscar speech in 2016 to talk about the climate crisis. He was an official UN representative on climate, and spoke at UN climate summits in 2014 and 2016.

 During that time (from the 90s to now), addressing the climate crisis went from being a bipartisan promise to a wedge issue dividing political parties as well as families.  Actions taken so far, or even pledged, are widely known to be insufficient.  Meanwhile, effects have gotten worse faster than even worst-case scenarios predicted. For the past several years, activists have concentrated on efforts to prevent the worst from happening in the far future, while warning that we need to prepare for the devastating effects that are by now all but inevitable in the nearer future, and in fact are underway.

 But this past year particularly shows that American society is not up to the challenge in significant ways. The ongoing response to the Covid crisis and the crisis of American democracy as well as the ongoing effects of climate suggest this society can’t deal coherently with much of anything.  That’s the awful truth we like to avoid confronting: don’t look around.  But if there is any chance to limit climate related devastation, this must be faced and fixed.  Releasing us to first laugh about it and then deal with it is this movie’s chief contribution.  

When Midwestern American academic scientist Dr. Mindy utters those last words, he knows what’s going to happen, and why.  I suspect that with his own set of experiences in learning the dimensions of the climate crisis, trying to communicate and then observing how things are at this moment, the actor Leonardo DiCaprio might, at least in part, be joining in the same sentiment.  For this remarkable scene in particular makes Don’t Look Up not only a cautionary tale, but an elegy. 

In the Star Trek universe, the future is interrupted by a devastating world nuclear war in the mid-21st century, leading to a new Dark Ages until the first warp flight and First Contact with the Vulcans.  Civilization resumes, with new goals, new attitudes, new rules.  As we get closer to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, it's increasingly possible that climate crisis effects (drought, hunger, etc.) could itself trigger nuclear exchanges.  There are all kinds of ways the world could devolve into chaos before the worst effects of an unaddressed climate disruption change our Earth for a very, very long time.  That future would look nothing like the same San Francisco and New Orleans of Star Trek's 24th century.

But Star Trek at least imagines a future and how we might get there.  At the same time, through the metaphor of aliens, it imagines the lives of others who are different.  Imagining the future is a step towards taking responsibility for how the present shapes that future.  Imagining others engenders the empathy needed to work together to create a better future--and not incidentally, a better present.  There is a sense that elegy is appropriate and inevitable, given our current circumstances.   But a commitment to the kind of future Star Trek represents constitutes grounds for hope, and perhaps opportunity.


  Footnote (or maybe the after the credits bonus)

In When Worlds Collide film, there’s also intervention at a key moment by a very rich man.  The difference is that in the Pal movie, the millionaire wants to save his own life, so he finances the building of a spaceship. In the McKay movie, the tech billionaire prevents the effort to break up the comet for the prospect of profit—and then when that doesn’t work, he escapes in his own spaceship.  The alarming new roles of tech billionaires, as well as the more familiar corruption and cynicism of politicians (who don’t have to be Trumpians) and the conscious and apparently endemic failures of news media, together move this movie way too close to being a documentary. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Star Trek/Doctor Who R.I.P. 2021

 

The first impression of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as the nearly perfect way for the original crew to end their adventures has only been strengthened in the years since.  Part of that film’s success is due to a strong supporting cast, especially David Warner and Christopher Plummer. 

 Plummer began as a classical actor in Canada.  He was already a star at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1956 when he was stricken with a sudden illness, and his understudy—a young actor named William Shatner-- had to replace him in performing the lead role in Henry V.  It was the beginning of Shatner’s career as a leading actor.

 But Christopher Plummer didn’t exactly fade away.  He maintained an astonishingly long and varied career, both as a stage actor (classical and otherwise) in England and North America (including Broadway), and in supporting and lead roles in Hollywood movies.  He won an Oscar, several Tonys and Golden Globes, as well as the British academy award. 

 Plummer had been acting all around the world for almost 40 years when he reunited with his Canadian understudy in Star Trek VI, in between Harold Pinter’s stage play No Man’s Land with Jason Robards, Jr. and Spike Lee’s movie of Malcolm X.  His portrayal of a smirking Klingon villain, General Chang, was a perfect stylistic match to Shatner’s Captain Kirk.  Plummer’s career continued unabated well into the 21st century, and he won his Oscar at age 82.  His last (award-winning) film was in 2019. 

Norman Lloyd was another well-known actor (especially for St. Elsewhere) who had a memorable appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing Dr. Galen in the key episode “The Chase.” 

 





Veteran actor Dean Stockwell appeared in one episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, reuniting him with his Quantum Leap co-star Scott Bacula, captain of the first Enterprise.

 



Clarence Williams III, known forever for The Mod Squad, appeared in the Deep Space 9 episode “To The Death.” 

Eddie Paskey was at the opposite end of the stardom continuum from Christopher Plummer.  But his appearances in original series Star Trek (mostly uncredited) were unique.  He was the ultimate Redshirt, appearing in 62 episodes—more than George Takei (51.).  His one named role was honored in an episode of the independent series New Voyages when he played Admiral Leslie.

 

Distinguished television actor and acting teacher Joanne Linville made a memorable appearance as a Romulan commander attracted to Mr. Spock in the TOS episode “The Enterprise Incident.” 

Writer-producer Jeffrey Hayes helped develop Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Douglas Cramer was a producer on TOS third season.

 Though I’d been a Star Trek fan since the beginning, my enthusiasm went into warp drive when the original series was first in syndication, especially after seeing a little noted but favorite episode “The Empath.”  John Erman was its director. 

Science fiction novelist Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Star Trek novel Stranger From the Sky reached the New York Times Best Seller list in 1994.  Her other Star Trek fiction includes Saturn’s Child, co-written with Nichelle Nichols.

 Reuben Klamer designed an early TOS phaser.  Robert Fletcher (Wycoff) designed costumes for the first four Trek features.  Chuck Hicks was a stunt player for TNG and two movies, but got his acting moment as the drugged soldier in TNG’s debut episode, “Encounter at Farpoint.” Gil Mosko was a makeup artist for three series and three features.  Robert Herrion and Anthony Sillia were stunt players on the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage.” 

Fran Bennett
Other deaths in the Star Trek family this past year include: researchers Kellam de Forest (TOS) and Richard Arnold (TNG), special effects artist (TNG) Peter Greenwood, stunt players Ralph Garrett (TOS) and Danny Rogers (3 movies), and actors Mimi Cozzens (TNG), Nathan Jung (TOS), Gregory Sierra (DS9), Peter Mark Richman (TNG), Camille Savida (DS9), Walker Boone (TNG), Ron Arrants (TNG, VOY), Henry Darrow (TNG, VOY),  John Paragon (DS9), Mary Linda Rapelye (TOS), Byron Bealine (TNG). Tom Le Garde (TOS), Fran Bennett (TNG), Willie Garson (VOY), Gavan O’Herlihy, Richard Evans (TOS), Patrick Hagan (TOS), Jan Shutan (TOS), Mario Roccuzzo (TNG), William Lucking (DS9,ENT.) 

 



Among 2021 deaths in the Doctor Who family were Bob Baker (writer and creator of K-9), directors Michael Ferguson and Frank Cox, and actors Tony Selby, Damaris Hayman, Jackie Lane, Arthur Cox, David Baillie, Myra Francis, Harry Fieder, Alan Curtis, David de Keyser, Ken Sedd, Bernard Holley and Clifford Rose.

 

Apologies for omissions and misspellings.  May they rest in peace—their work lives on.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Message To Star Trek at 55: Don’t Ruin It

 

Star Trek turns 55 on September 8, the anniversary of the first episode to air in 1966.  There are extensive posts on this blog about Star Trek history from the 50th and even the 40th anniversaries.  But instead of just the past, this time I have thoughts about the future—and a plea: please don’t ruin Star Trek.

 Unlike the 50th anniversary, this year sees Star Trek feature films and television under single command.  While the landscape continues to change for feature films (theatrical v. streaming), in television the transition from broadcast to cable to streaming is much more complete this year.  There are (or will soon be) five Star Trek television series being streamed. And there are proposals and plans for more, plus a number of proposed and/or in the works feature films.

 The 55th anniversary will be celebrated on the Paramount streaming service with a series of panel discussions, some of which will focus on the legacy of Star Trek, and one on Gene Roddenberry’s vision that was the rationale for Star Trek’s particular storytelling.  Star Trek evolved based on it, and at its best expanded that vision (especially in the Next Generation era), until it had a more definite identity: its soul.  The question has always been, can the soul of Star Trek survive and thrive as the world around it changes?

 Today’s media corporations prize the “tent pole franchise” with a history and built-in fandom, and Star Trek is again a hot commodity in the media marketplace.  So the temptation to diversify, to create all kinds of programs and stick the Star Trek name on them is strong.  So is the temptation in feature filmmaking with enormous budgets to follow trends regardless of the integrity of what became a unique saga with a soul.

 But populating a story with Star Trek uniforms, even with characters, ships and plots derived from stories deep in the “canon,” does not make it Star Trek, no matter who owns the trademark.  Nor is slavishly obeying the demands of the loudest fans on social media.  And it’s not even paying pious lip service on the margins to previously championed values.

 In my view, the current series Star Trek: Discovery (at least in its second and third seasons) enacts the value of diversity while continuing in other ways as well to model a better future through its characters and stories in the Star Trek tradition.  While adopting contemporary visual and storytelling styles, it continues the mythic qualities of Star Trek heroes.  It even provides that Kirk-like, almost over the top acting style in Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham.  

 But another current series, Star Trek: Lower Decks makes me nervous.  It’s a cartoon series focusing on the lower ranked officers (apparently Starfleet has no enlisted personnel) that employs broad comedy. For those who enjoy this approach, it can be a workplace comedy on a starship, with a series of in-jokes for Trekkies. 

 But even though some implied pretensions of previous Star Trek series and its bridge officers are satirized at times, notice that the series focuses on what essentially is the starship’s working class, not the bridge officers.  Making fun of the lower class has been an historically easy comedy reflex.  It’s akin to the broad ethnic humor that characterized much of the American past, well into the 20th century.  


Compare this approach with the much-praised (and fan favorite) episode of The Next Generation that ostensibly inspired this series, titled “The Lower Decks.”  It followed several young lower rank officers in a story that is primarily dramatic, but with the same kind of character-based comic moments as the rest of the series.  It portrayed them as awkward but learning without demeaning them, and ultimately as heroes.

 Classic Star Trek created recognizable characters but with a difference: the Starfleet culture of the future. Making a contemporary situation comedy on a starship risks diluting the Star Trek difference and therefore its identity as Star Trek. The cartoon series will do well to avoid such easy pitfalls.

 I worry as well about how the (sometimes) imminent Section 31 series could be handled.  Invented for Deep Space 9 in 1998, the black ops Section 31 truly emerged in Trek fiction during the fevered post-9/11/2001 years in which alien terrorism became an obsession, and “extraordinary rendition” and torture suddenly became okay, because terrorism was the greatest danger.

 Nowadays we’ve got a deformed climate literally wrecking the world, we’ve got an ongoing pandemic, armed white supremacists and Orwellian cults running state legislatures and apparently the Supreme Court—all much greater threats than alien terrorism, and still the obsession with off-the-books violence against the violent.  Where is Starfleet’s Climate Corp?  Starfleet Medical bringing public health to the galaxy? Michelle Yeoh is always watchable, but if Section 31 turns into a decades-old video game, haven’t we seen enough of it already? 

 More worrisome are two other proposals (or rumors of proposals) for Star Trek stories. One is the much-discussed Quentin Tarantino feature film.  When it was first announced, and met with near universal gushing online, I was more than skeptical but kept quiet because I didn’t believe it would actually happen.  And it hasn’t.  

 But more recent news (assuming it is modestly accurate) suggests the plan was for an R-rated movie (I assume for violence) based on the original series episode in which the Enterprise confronts a planet run by gangsters imitating human mobs of the Capone era. It’s not impossible for a director as talented as Tarantino to develop a good story. But if this report is true, it’s really troubling that an ultraviolent feature with an easily exploited premise was even contemplated for Star Trek—or may still be.

 The second proposal I’ve seen referred to more than once is for a Star Trek horror series, a truly horrifying prospect.  There are so many ways such a series could shatter Star Trek.  Even the idea of depicting horror movie violence as entertainment in a Star Trek context is so antithetical to Star Trek storytelling that it could damage the credibility of other Star Trek series. Though the Star Trek identity can probably survive two cartoon shows, it is already being diluted. A horror series attacks that identity directly.

 (If the idea is inspired by the Borg and the First Contact feature, we may be actually talking about a Star Trek zombie series. But that sounds like simple and degrading exploitation.  Star Trek is not genre cardboard.)

 Star Trek became an international phenomenon partly because of what it stood for, and how it told its stories so that generations could watch it together, parents and now grandparents and children sharing a culture of the future.  If Star Trek gets sliced and diced into niche programs for different audiences, its universality could evaporate. A horror series is the definition of a niche that repels other viewers.  It’s a horrible idea. 

At their best, Star Trek stories exist on a particular but very thin line. They are not realistic, but moment-to-moment they are truthful.  They ground the symbolic and allegorical in human response. They deal with the complexities of existence, through heroes and heroic institutions. They may contain irony and even physical comedy, but basically they are sincere. They provide models in the future for people in the present, and models of a culture worth aspiring to and especially worth building.  

 For all its drama and science fiction adventure, in the classic sense Star Trek has also always been a comedy. It follows the classic U shape of comedy defined by literary critic Northrup Frye and others: the story starts at a high point when all’s right with the world, plunges into difficulties with whatever danger it faces, confronts the danger at its worst, then ascends as it works together to solve the problem, until it basically reaches the high point where it started,though with something added, like knowledge, even wisdom. 

 This is not exactly real life; this is Story World.  But it is the kind of story that Star Trek is.  It is the way it explores and excites, dazzles and inspires. It is how it contributes to the lives of its viewers, the aspirations of the culture, and the soul of the future.

 In a way, new Star Trek shows are none of my business.  I am not the audience for them.  But still, I repeat my plea: in the rush to “expand the Star Trek universe,” please don’t ruin it.  Because if you do, you could ruin to some degree not only its future but its 55 year old past.

I've revised part of this piece thanks to a comment correction by Unknown, about which one of the original series episodes was the basis for the proposed Tarentino Star Trek film.