Friday, December 28, 2018

R.I.P. 2018

Late in 2018, Star Trek lost another of its original creators in John D. F. Black, a producer, story editor and writer and collaborator in Trek's earliest days.  He wrote the classic episode "The Naked Time."  He then repeated that formative contribution in the early days of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Many believe that the first season episode "City on the Edge of Forever" was the best of the original series.  Harlan Ellison wrote the script upon which that episode was based.  The outspoken and mercurial Ellison was a force of nature in science fiction from the 1960s onward.  In addition to his own prolific fictions (like the classic "A Boy and His Dog") his contributions included the Dangerous Visions collection of stories, and its sequel, which helped define the New Wave era in American science fiction.

Emmy-winning sound designer Douglas Grindstaff populated the Star Trek universe with many of its defining and memorable sounds.  Similarly, John M. Dwyer helped create the look of Star Trek as set decorator for the original series, a season of TNG and six of the feature films.

Richard H. Kline, cinematographer and Frank Serafine, sound director and editor, both for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, died this year.

Veteran actors did guest turns on various Star Trek episodes, including Joseph Campanella and Georgeann Johnson, who passed away in 2018.

Celeste Yarnall made a lasting impression with one role as Yeoman Martha Landon on the original series episode "The Apple."  After her TV and film career she again became part of the Star Trek family, appearing with other Trek alums in the independent film Of Gods and Men, produced by Sky Conway and directed by Tim Russ.

Also making a lasting impression with one TOS role was Roger Perry as the 20th century astronaut taken out of time by the Enterprise in "Tomorrow is Yesterday."

Perhaps the most tragic Trek-related death of 2018 was the suicide at age 33 of John Paul Steur, an actor and musician who was the first to play Worf's son Alexander in TNG.

Other guest actors who died in 2018 include James Greene,  Richard Merrifield (TOS), John Eskobar (TNG), Robert Mandan (DS9) and Yyonne Shoz (Voyager).  Donald R. Pike (Star Trek VI) and Ann Chatterton (Star Trek II) did stunts.  David Bischoff was a writer for TNG.

Peter Miles (right)
Among the guest actors during the decades of Doctor Who who died in 2018 were Peter Miles, Pamela Ann Davy, Helen Griffin, Jacqueline Pearce and Allan Bennion.  Also Who directors Derrick Sherwin and Bill Sellars.

Other contributors to science fiction classics on screen were actor Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the Chris Reeves' Superman films,) Douglas Rain (the unforgettable voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gary Kurtz (producer, Star Wars), Al Matthews (actor, Aliens), Michael D. Ford (art director, The Empire Strikes Back), Michael Anderson (director, Logan's Run), Donnelly Rhodes (actor, Battlestar Galactica), and Kin Sugai (actor, Gojira/Godzilla.)

The crossover comics/s.f. genre lost two of its originators in 2018: writer, editor and impressario Stan Lee and writer Steve Ditko, who among other things, each co-created The Amazing Spider-Man.

The written word of science fiction lost one of its greatest in Ursula K. LeGuin.  Among her many classic works is the novella "The Word for the World is Forest", which first appeared in the second Harlan Ellison anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions, and won a Hugo. Her legacy continues to grow.

Other valued and remembered contributors include writer and elder Karen Anderson, Peter Nicholls (editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction), and writers Dave Duncan and Mary Rosenblum.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Who Is This? The Doctor Is Back

The new season, new Doctor and new showrunner had their debut on Sunday.  Thanks to the BBC America ap on our Firestick or whatever it is, I got to see it.

So the long whatever that was of Steven Moffat is over, as thrilling and challenging as some of it was. With Chris Chibnal we are back in Russell T Davies territory, with the emphasis on real life and family, along with the interstellar multi-dimensional adventures. Like in Davies stories, good people and sympathetic characters die, but the Doctor carries on.

 Similarly, Jodie Whittaker returns the Doctor to the exuberant pro-active David Tennant mold.  But those early reviews I saw quoted at Doctor Who News that claimed, apparently as praise, that within a few minutes they forgot the Doctor is now a woman, really missed the point.  Jodie Whittaker brings a different flavor of exuberance to the Doctor, and it's unlikely that this will be the only difference that feels like it comes from this actor who is a woman.  This Doctor is definitely a woman.

The Doctor Who News review felt the regeneration was handled most similarly to the first Matt Smith episode, but I definitely saw resemblances to the first David Tennant story, right down to the wisp of regeneration energy that escapes the Doctor while she sleeps.  But regeneration was even more of a theme--as the Doctor turns it into a possibility for everyone at every decisive moment: the chance to change while remaining the same person.

The result is that I felt good after seeing it in a way I haven't since Tennant and Davies' "Christmas Invasion" (however much I admired the episodes introducing Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi). I think I get to see a couple of more episodes of this season before BBC America shuts me down.  Oh well--I'm not used to the commercials anymore, and I could really use subtitles, so I hope they will still make DVDs because that's likely to be the way I will eventually see it.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

The Return of Picard--and the Future?

"Old men ought to be explorers."
T.S. Eliot

Patrick Stewart's announcement that Jean-Luc Picard is coming back is exciting news in a number of ways.  The return of the character of Picard--arguably the essence of the Star Trek vision--is potentially wonderful.  But part of why that is so is the return of the person playing him: Patrick Stewart.

At his unheralded convention announcement, Stewart also said that while there are no scripts, they have been talking about story lines for months.  This clearly means that he is part of creating those stories.  This is important in at least two ways.  First, because of who he is, his experience in drama and in Star Trek as well as life.  Second, because he is the first living connection from the Roddenberry era who is so intimately involved in these initial character and story concepts as well as actual stories and plots.  Sure, there was the occasional TNG star who directed episodes.  There was at least some contribution from Rod Roddenberry and Nicholas Meyer, but Gene's son was too young to be involved in his father's Star Trek, and though Meyer wrote and directed several of the best movies, he never really worked with GR.

That connection is important, as experience has shown.  Whatever their virtues, the films and TV show created since the cancellation of Enterprise severed the professional connection and emptied Star Trek of everyone who worked with Roddenberry or was mentored by him as a writer or producer.  These newer incarnations have not quite connected with Star Trek fans in the same way, because something of the soul of Star Trek was lost.

Stewart announced that the new Picard stories will take place some 20 years after the events of Nemesis.  This takes us at least a little farther into the future, which is where Star Trek must boldly go again (as I argued here recently.)  It is an opportunity to imagine the future anew.  A lot can happen in 20 years.

It is an opportunity to revive Star Trek as a model of that future.  The essence of GR's vision was that it's not only technology that changes from today--people change as well.  Though writers moan about the lack of "conflict" and the too-perfect crews that GR insisted on, they are missing the point.  Modelling the people of the future is the most important aspect of what Star Trek is about.

The worst thing that happened to Star Trek was 9/11.  Suddenly stories were all about terrorism and torture, covert groups and and warfare. (This was especially true in the novels, but I think even some cast members will argue that 9/11 threw Enterprise off the track.)   It is true that Star Trek deals with aspects of the present in metaphor and allegory.  But it is also about the future, as a guide to the present.

The opportunities for this new series are almost infinite.  For example, we last saw Picard about to take the Enterprise farther into unexplored space.  Suppose instead of continuing to get involved in diplomatic missions, Federation politics and confrontations with the Romulans etc. (leaving that up to Captain Riker perhaps), Picard spent those 20 years exploring, farther and farther.  Perhaps he encountered intelligences that are inconceivable, on the kind of scale that Olaf Stapledon wrote about in Star Maker, for example.  Perhaps he returns to a changed Federation, with different technologies and problems.  Perhaps others find him hard to understand, after what he has seen and experienced, and how it changed and deepened him.

In such an enterprise, Patrick Stewart and the other series creators could do worse than look for inspiration to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.  These poems reflect on the lessons of age.  There are many lines (in addition to the one quoted above) that can inspire useful ideas and perhaps even stories.  "In the end is my beginning... As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated... History may be servitude, history may be freedom.  See, now they vanish... For us, there is only trying.  The rest is not our business..."

O dark dark dark.  They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains...

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation...

Update: There are rumors that the Picard series won't be set in the Prime universe in continuity with TNG etc.  Normally I wouldn't bother with rumors, except that Alex Kurtzman is in charge, and based on his track record with Star Trek, I don't trust him.  I can only trust that Patrick Stewart, who spoke at Gene Roddenberry's funeral, will not get involved in a project that breaks from the Star Trek that GR created.  These people must know that such a betrayal would doom the series instantly.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Has Star Trek Stopped?

It may seem odd to ask at this particular moment if Star Trek has stopped.  After all, the second season of a Star Trek television series is soon to begin, with rumors of several other television projects, including the possible return of Jean-Luc Picard.  The fourth feature film in the current series is reportedly getting itself organized, with another feature in the planning stages. There hasn't been this much Star Trek activity since the 1990s.

But in the way I mean it, Star Trek did stop shortly after that. On television, it stopped in 2001 when the last episode of Star Trek: Voyager aired.  At the movies, it stopped a year later with Star Trek: Nemesis. That's when Star Trek stopped exploring a new future, moving ahead on the timeline of tomorrow.

It stopped in the 24th century (Voyager in 2378 and Nemesis in 2379. The 24th century backstory for the 2009 Abrams film is said to have happened in 2387. Arguably, scenes of various series episodes projected a little further.)

 Since then it's been backwards to the future: a prequel series to the Kirk era with Star Trek Enterprise, alternate universe stories but in the 23rd century in the Abrams movies, another prequel series to the Kirk era currently underway as Star Trek:Discovery.  Though the time frames of projects now in the works haven't been announced, everything said about them suggests they are mostly 23rd century stories, with perhaps a 24th century TNG era limited series in the mix.

But Star Trek started with a future imagined from the ground up.  Gene Roddenberry consulted with science fiction authors (notably the ABC giants: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke) but he also consulted with scientists and futurists.  In fact, the one book by Arthur C. Clarke that Roddenberry said he'd read was Clarke's nonfiction Profiles of the Future, which helped ignite the futures studies movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Roddenberry and his team created a self-consistent, credible 23rd century future, with new technologies--and new ways in which humans had to interact with technology--and a new society.  It envisioned a future in which individuals weren't restricted by race or gender, and that kind of equality was accepted.  It posited a united Earth with world government, a United Federation of Planets, and a Starfleet with a new ethical foundation.

Almost two decades after this original series was broadcast, Gene Roddenberry was given the opportunity to create a new Star Trek series.  He didn't do a sequel or a prequel.  He and his team imagined a new future, of the 24th century.  We saw how the original vision developed and met new challenges in the next century.

In those intervening years, Roddenberry spoke at conventions about mistakes he'd made with the original series, things he wanted to do but couldn't, and where he saw the Star Trek future going.  From the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he began exploring that farther future.

We are more than 50 years into the actual future from the original Star Trek series. Future possibilities from this perspective are quite different than they were in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  The kinds of technologies we can envision are different, as are the issues involved in their use.  Scientific knowledge, or at least theories and informed speculation, about the universe are greatly different as well.

If Star Trek were true to its original mission, it would envision a post-24th century future that better reflects what we know and what we think about now.  Instead, Star Trek is stuck in its own past.  It is no longer an enterprise of exploration.

At best, it has become a static myth, like King Arthur or Robin Hood. New stories are woven with old cloth.  At worst, it is what people most often call it: a franchise, a Kentucky Fried Chicken of space opera.  As long as it keeps familiar elements and pushes the old buttons, it can generate stories and cash flow.

I don't have a bad word to say about Star Trek: Discovery or anyone associated with it.  I haven't seen it.  (Okay, one personal observation: mirror universe stories are almost invariably evidence of lack of imagination.  The only one that meant anything was the first one.)  I don't envy the difficulty of creating anything under the intense pressure of omnipresent social media.  Star Trek was probably the first story universe to be kept alive because of its fans.  Its ideals and exemplary characters had deep meaning to its most ardent viewers.  But Gene Roddenberry explicitly said he would not allow fans to dictate creative decisions or direction.

New Star Trek stories may well be taking on issues of our present, as Star Trek stories always have.  But that's only half of the mission.  The other half is envisioning and modeling a future.  A brand new future might be expensive to create, but even more, it would take research and imagination.  But that's how Star Trek started.  Has it stopped?

Monday, March 05, 2018

Captain's Log: Benny Would Be Proud

It's a major studio Marvel Superhero movie with a black African hero, a largely black cast, a black director and writer--not only was this movie made and released, it quickly broke records at the box office.  

Black Panther is an immense success. Released in 2018, it is already a favorite in several categories for next year's Academy Awards.

Benny Russell would be proud. Benny was the 1953 science fiction writer who imagined Ben Sisko as captain of a space station in the famous DS9 episode "Far Beyond the Stars," with Avery Brooks starring and directing.  Prejudice stifled him.

Benny would also take note of Ta-Nehisi Coates, an award-winning journalist and author, who recently has been writing for the Black Panther comic books.  It was just announced that he will be writing a story for the Captain America comics, the first black writer to get that assignment.

There's been a troublesome trend building for the past 20 years or so but becoming highly charged and visible the past few years, of a vocal group of gamers and fans, including Star Wars and Star Trek fans, with belligerent racist and anti-women demands,trying to force their twisted conceptions on everyone else through bullying, boycotts and other tactics.  These along with the most extreme online trolls have injected poison into the process.

Star Wars and Star Trek, and the Marvel and DC superhero movies, have all become massive "franchises" with billions of dollars at stake.  And they have become increasingly sensitive to fandom, sometimes appearing to be making creative decisions based on what's popular with the most vocal groups of fans. (Which is something that Gene Roddenberry said very plainly that he would not do.)

Fortunately, and almost against expectation, these franchises have not pulled back in the areas of diversity and equality.  Star Wars films and the latest Star Trek TV series feature prominent non-white and non-male characters.  And the superhero franchises especially have proven that these white and male supremacist bullies are not representative.

DC had its biggest superhero hit, both critically and at the box office, with Wonder Woman.  Marvel is now enjoying its biggest critical and box office success with Black Panther, and it's not nearly over.

Benny--and his fellow writer Kay Eaton-- would be overjoyed by this, too.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Oumuamua and This Ocean Earth

Here in December 2017 Terran scientists are watching an unusual celestial object from outside the solar system just cruising past Jupiter.  They're calling it Oumuamua.  Part of what has them fascinated is its strange and yet somehow familiar shape.

Some are studying it as an asteroid but others, especially at the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, are checking it out as a possible alien probe.

So far they're frustrated because they aren't hearing anything.  My answer to that is (quoting Spock to Doctor McCoy): "There are other forms on intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man."

If this probe is an earlier version of the one that appears in the 23rd century, it may be in the neighborhood to chat with old friends, the humpback whales.

As you recall from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a similar alien probe threatened Earth when it could not contact any humpbacks, because they'd gone extinct by the 23rd century.

 Because of global heating and other large scale problems, it is still likely the whales will disappear from the oceans in the next century, along with most species on land larger than rats. But right now the humpback whale population is in pretty good shape.

Thanks in part to whaling bans and the awareness represented by that popular 1987 Star Trek feature, the humpback population has slowly recovered. Most species of humpbacks were removed from the endangered species lists about a year ago.

So a probe would have no difficulty contacting some.  And after their conversation, the probe might simply continue on its way, silent to our ears.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Trek50: Star Trek and the Future

Star Trek's first season fifty years ago was just the start.  Some of the best- remembered episodes of the original series come from the second and even the third season, and of course, the Star Trek saga itself was only beginning.

But I'll conclude this Trek50 series of posts with a few characteristics of the saga that may bear upon the actual future, both the one that many people now alive will live, and the future of several centuries from now.

As for the premises of the Star Trek universe--namely the human exploration of the stars and their planets, and our adventures involving other species of intelligent humanoids from such planets as well as more exotic forms of intelligent life--our current science has a few encouraging words, but not many.

Regarding the stars and their intelligent life, I outlined some of that science here. There seems some likelihood that if intelligent beings exist on interstellar worlds, they would be vaguely our size--though "between the size of a puppy and a redwood" doesn't suggest the kind of relationships that Star Trek dramatized.  But whether such beings exist at all, and whether we would recognize them, is still not apparent.

The numbers game is also more complicated than supposed in the 1960s.  With the immense number of stars and the now more or less proven fact that many have planets orbiting them, probability suggests there should be many worlds with civilizations enough like ours to make communication possible.  But that doesn't factor the other part of the continuum: time, which is just as vast.  Such civilizations may arise and fall so comparatively quickly, that few coexist.

Could we get to them anyway?  Most scientists continue to say flatly that a spaceship traveling faster than light is impossible.  Can humans even exist on other planets outside our solar system, or for long periods in space?  Again, there's a lot of scientific doubt, especially absent warp drive.

Kim Stanley Robinson deals directly with these issues in his recent novel Aurora.  He is among those writers who doesn't believe warp drive is possible.  Beyond that, his arguments are biological--a field of science that science fiction writers in the past didn't much consider.  Our bodies, which are in a sense clusters of forms of life in delicate balance, were fashioned out of the biology of only one planet: Earth.  And, he insists, they can survive only on that planet, except for relatively short periods away.

So in KSR's universe, humans have spread through the solar system, but they all must return periodically to the Earth to renew their physical beings by exposure to the biology of their body's home planet.  Beyond that, in Aurora the first expedition into interstellar space (a several generation voyage aboard a habitat) discovers a fatal paradox.  If a planet is alive, the indigenous life--such as viruses-- may well be fatal to humans.  If a planet is dead, a human community cannot survive (biologically and psychologically) long enough to terraform it.

" is a planetary expression," one voyager concludes, "and can exist only on its home planet."  The only hope would be to find an Earth twin close enough for the voyage to be made, and that's a very unlikely possibility.

Star Trek's technology is beautifully self-consistent, and the entire Star Trek universe really depends on it.  But it also ignores a great many other realities, from the profound (the relativity of time that in its ham-fisted way, the movie Interstellar tried to suggest, which would make relationships among space travelers and planet dwellers bizarre if not impossible)  to the fairly obvious compromises involved in making TV and movies (the similarities of aliens to humans with facial putty, the unique ability of the universal translator to make alien's mouths move in English.)

But in the end none of this matters, because the Star Trek universe is a story universe.  Its background must be consistent, and its foreground wondrous and surprising.  At that it has succeeded beautifully, and through more stories than any other modern saga.

Moreover, it is the stories and what they say that tell us most about the actual future, from tomorrow afternoon to the 24th century.  They suggest what we will need in that future: in our own lives as the present moves forward, and especially to meet the challenges we can see in the future of the next decades.

Most broadly, the Star Trek saga tells us of a future, especially in the next century, in which human civilization is shredded and in some ways shattered.  TNG's "Encounter at Farpoint" especially portrays a grim reversion to ignorance and brutality.

The better future of the 23rd century is born by an immense technological breakthrough but also by new social organization and new attitudes, motivated in part by the desire to reject the failures and brutality of the previous century.

The first part of this timeline is beginning to look as prophetic as anything in Star Trek.  We are now pretty certain that the effects of the climate crisis will challenge civilization, beginning some time in this century and well into the next.  Those challenges may well lead to devastating warfare and societal breakdowns in various parts of the world, perhaps involving most of the planet.

But whatever the challenges turn out to be, people will still live, and live their lives.  How will they best do that?

On Star Trek's 40th anniversary, I outlined seven aspects of the soul of Star Trek that could apply to how we live in the present but most importantly, how to live in the future and help build a better world.

The seventh is "The future is an adventure."  Perhaps the adventure will not at first--or ever--be serving on a starship and exploring the stars.  But it might require engineers to invent and adapt new power systems for communities and cities, or doctors and emergency technicians to deal with complex emergencies happening simultaneously in a number of places, because of disease and injury due to climate crisis-caused catastrophes or conditions.

In this adventure, people will do things that matter, rather than spend their lives in the ultimately tragic pursuit of money (which is #5: Making money is not humanity's prime directive.)

It will be an adventure of that essential Star Trek activity: a group of people working together to solve problems (#6: It takes many hands to make a future.)

 But the basis of that adventure will be the individual contribution and spirit, and the skills of self-examination and self-knowledge (#1: For a better future, we must become better people, and #2: The journey out is the journey in.)

In all these endeavors, there is the essential insight expressed in many ways throughout Star Trek: of looking beyond differences to find what we have in common.  In large, this is the Prime Directive in its meaning as #4: We are not invaders, we are explorers.  

But it operates personally, as many encounters with aliens in Star Trek dramatize. It follows directly from that "voyage in" because we all harbor prejudices we can't admit even to ourselves.  And it follows as well from the "many hands" of common effort.  One of its results is to refrain from reflexive violence and #3 Respect all life.  It results in the ultimate value of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

Many people in the past 50 years have lived their lives with these ideas in their hearts, derived in part from Star Trek.  When I attended a dinner at one large Star Trek convention with people wearing Star Trek uniforms mixed in with those who weren't, I could feel what the commitment of many of them meant: not just that we're all fans of this story saga, but we believe in these ideals, they mean something to us in our lives.

Through its heroes, Star Trek stories do what many favorite stories of the past have done, but in a particular way: they model virtues like courage, kindness, service, judgment, compassion, foresight, perseverance, audacity, loyalty, honesty, creativity, resilience, responsibility, empathy, civility.  All of those virtues and more will be needed by generations of the future.

The Star Trek saga has contributed in many ways.  One significant way is to provide common stories for people to discuss, debate and gain insights into problems and situations they encounter in real life, personally and as citizens.

Another is to inspire.  This includes the more publicized inspirations to technological innovations, or to particular careers.

But it is both broader and deeper than that.  Star Trek has characteristically used drama--as well as courageously refusing to settle for the usual kinds of dramatic conflict--in order to model a better future.  That to me is its most significant contribution.

"I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, "if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"  For many people around the world, for fifty years and counting, one answer has been Star Trek.  And that's one happy source of hope for the future.