The meaning of Star Trek

The Thinker by Rodin

The media is agog over today’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Yes, it was fifty years ago tonight that the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” first aired on NBC. Then a product of Desilu Studios this futuristic show of zipping across the cosmos on starships quickly became a cult classic, but not enough to spare it from being canceled after three seasons. In fact it had been canceled earlier, but was saved for a while from petitions from fans.

What Gene Roddenberry hath roth! Roddenberry had no particular aspirations for the series when he produced it. In fact, he was a pretty inept producer of the series. TV series fifty years ago are going to suck by modern standards, and many of these original episodes badly sucked. For the most part this was due to Roddenberry’s inattention, NBC’s unforgiving cost controls and using a lot of hack writers. Roddenberry was never that much into his creation, at least not its management. His contribution to his phenomenon was mainly inspirational.

Star Trek depicted a far future for humanity that was hopeful, although it was originally badly depicted on screen. Roddenberry also threw in a few characters that caught our imagination: Captain James T. Kirk as an American cowboy in outer space but mostly Mr. Spock. Spock was a wholly aspirational character: a glimpse of not how ideal aliens should be, but how humanity could be. All this was wrapped around 49 minute episodes with five commercial segments, cheesy costumes and generally poor acting.

And yet Star Trek took off, in spite of NBC and in spite of Roddenberry’s inattention. Its meme was hopeful and a few of its characters were interesting enough to get into. The original series was never really reprised again. The movies were binary: either good or bad, with only the even ones being any good. It took twenty plus years for Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) to emerge and a year or two for its shakedown cruise before Trekkies got what they really wanted: real Star Trek without the warts and blemishes of the original series. It got a lot better when Roddenberry stepped back, mostly due to his health, and let professionals manage the franchise. With STTNG, better budgets and independent syndication, the franchise really took off spinning off other shows, most not so memorable.

In 2003 I proclaimed the death of Star Trek, but it’s reimagination in the 2009 movie proved me wrong. Star Trek now sails into its next half century with a planned CBS series reboot, Star Trek: Discovery, apparently only available to paid subscribers. Curiously it’s no longer NBC property: CBS has taken over the franchise, as it owned by National Amusements, which own ViaCom, which owns Paramount.

There is a mystery to its longevity, as there is with Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and certain other series that manage to become timeless. The original series was not really that good, and it’s third season truly sucked. The same is true with Doctor Who and many of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Keeping a series feeling fresh is hard.

Star Trek managed it with STTNG by keeping Star Trek’s essence and ejecting its bad parts. The 2009 Star Trek reboot movie succeeded by putting the original series in its own time warp, essentially creating an alternative timeline. Star Trek: DS9 worked by abandoning most of Star Trek’s peaceful premise and going back to Gene Roddenberry’s premise of a western in space. Commander Sisko became the sheriff for his part of the Wild West and tried to keep the peace. It’s clear what didn’t work. Voyager really gave us nothing new except a woman captain; many of its episodes we had seen many times before in other iterations. The short-lived series Enterprise proved even less interesting: its chief character of interest was the captain’s cute dog.

So what is Star Trek’s essence? Why do we find ourselves addicted to it, even when it is often mediocre? For me, I see two prominent memes in the Star Trek experience.

First is that no matter how interesting life is for us humans in the 21st century with its ever-expanding technologies, we crave a quantum leap. Our human potential is boundless, even as our humanity frequently proves that we don’t deserve to trek the stars. Star Trek opened the door to new possibilities: the universe on a grand scale that we could easily zoom around in. There we would find wonders beyond our imagination as well as challenges too. These wonders are its lure, but what really interested us are the challenges it posits. Just like a hacker is never satisfied with his latest cyber break in, we look for ever more challenging puzzles to solve and ultimately master. The universe, at least as depicted in the relativity-free world of Star Trek, offers us this tableau of potential to exploit.

Second, at its core Star Trek is hopeful. It speaks to our potential as an enlightened species, not the depressing reality we’re mired in. We crave utopia, but what we crave more is an enlightened and well-ordered society where we get along well with each other and channel our collective and individual energies in ways that help, not harm, but also enrich us as human beings. In Star Trek we see this reality modeled in a hopeful way. It’s a powerful meme and it — not Star Trek’s warp drive — is what really powers this series and its many spinoffs. There’s a place for all of us in this posited reality. Even conservatives can play in this universe, as evidenced by the many fans out there emulating the Klingon culture.

As I noted before, one of the curious things about Star Trek is how much of it has already been realized in just fifty years. Both the universal translator and the communicator are 21st century realities, albeit in different and less powerful forms than Star Trek depicted. Perhaps because of its warp drive, Star Trek is inspiring engineers to see if a warp drive is feasible. Star Trek’s impulse drive looks like a real possibility, although it is not quite out of the lab. It may get us to the stars, much more slowly than with a warp drive, but enough to be practical. It will leverage the power of solar energy and microwaves, if this research bears fruit.

It turns out there is nothing like a model to stimulate human imagination. Star Trek provided a model, both on a technical and sociological level. Since its appeal is universal, it connects all cultures and provides a common foundation to ponder our place in the universe and how to actually sail these oceans of stars all while inspiring us to live up to our ideals. It’s taking us from imaging a new reality to inspiring us to implement it.

Yes, Star Trek is ultimately just a meme. But it’s a meme for good and a meme that calls us to our potential. It’s often great entertainment but it’s not a waste of our time. Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry’s experiment of a western in outer space may literally help take us to the stars and help mankind reach its most noble purpose. It’s a long shot, but it’s a meme with huge energy behind it. I hope it can sustain our passions for the next half-century.

Two movies reviewed

The Thinker by Rodin

Star Trek Beyond

If you like action movies, you will like Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of this latest franchise reboot. It moves crazily fast, so fast you might want to hold onto the arms of your seat for its 122-minute duration. It is visually dense. Director Justin Lin won’t allow your attention to linger for a second. It also looks crazily expensive.

However, because it’s an action movie, it doesn’t really take you to brave new worlds. You’ve seen variants of this plot many times and in many shows and movies. For me the best Star Trek shows, or at least its best episodes, was when I was taken to these new worlds, or at least new thoughts. Here we have a standard villain Krall (Idris Elba) who wants to destroy the Federation. He only respects warriors and wants the universe full of Spartans like himself. In other words, he’s very much a Republican and he has a problem with the whole “let’s peacefully get along” meme. So maybe his real target is the late Gene Roddenberry. Can Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest stay true to the ideals of the Federation when confronted by such a pathological killing machine?

It won’t spoil too much to let you know that the Enterprise is his first big target and Krall and his fleets of crazy Ginsu knive-shaped ships are going to do more than kick its fenders. Lin seems to be going for what worked in Star Trek’s best movie, The Wrath of Khan. Its plot is not all that dissimilar but at least Lin succeeds in making it not feel like an imitation of that movie.

As for character development, there is a bit of that. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) get to spend too much time together in tight quarters causing Spock to sound more human than Vulcan at times. We learn about a minor tiff between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and that Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling his age a bit, as his birthday is upon him and he’s older than his father when he died. Frankly though none of these characters need more development and have had their personalities dissected many times. What we need are new characters to care about. With the untimely demise of the actor Anton Yelchin (Chekov) maybe we’ll get some in the next movie.

While not exploring any brave new worlds, you are unlikely to care. You won’t have time to analyze your feelings until sometime after the movie, but you will appreciate being taken for a hell of a roller coaster ride. Lin steps into J.J. Abrams’ big shoes to direct this movie, and he does a great job of it, giving it a fresh look … the warp effects are particularly well done. It’s clear that it cost a bundle and it’s so well done, just not particularly nourishing. Here’s hoping in the next movie we get less action and more inspiration. That would make Gene Roddenberry happy but perhaps not Paramount’s stockholders.

3.4 out of 4 stars, however.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Ghostbusters

Speaking of rebooting a franchise, 32 years after Ghostbusters we get this reboot where four women audaciously play the comedic roles played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis in 1984. And crazily enough that’s a problem for some people who think casting women in these roles is somehow to cheapen the films. Jeebus, it’s a comedy people and Democrats have just nominated the first woman to be president of the United States! Get out of 1950 already!

I think the real sin of director Paul Feig is to go with “body positive” women. It makes a change to have a few plus sized women for the lead roles in movies, including Melissa McCarthy (Abby) and Leslie Jones (Patty). It makes it harder for men to fat shame women when they are normalized on the screen. One of my complaints about movies is that actors are predominantly thin and pretty. Obviously it’s a successful formula if you are chasing profits but for a comedy the rules can be relaxed. All four women including Kristen Wiig (Erin) and Kate McKinnon (Jillian) will keep you engaged in laughing in this pointlessly silly plot about ghosts taking over Manhattan. It makes no sense whatsoever and adds little in material to the premise, but 32 years have elapsed. Many of those coming to see the movie were not even alive when the original came out.

It’s harmless good fun and if you are old enough to remember the original movie you will see some actors that look familiar, just older and greyer. These include Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver in bit parts. (Dan Aykroyd stayed behind the scenes as one of the writers.) It certainly captures the spirit of the original movie while of course not being quite the same. The four women develop quite an ensemble, and Chris Hemsworth (probably best known as Thor, but here he plays “Kevin”) proves he has comedic talent too, this time as their receptionist.

A better than average piece of comedic fluff.

3.1 out of four points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 1)

The Thinker by Rodin

How strange to watch this series again nearly thirty years later. I watched episodes of the original Star Trek series many times, not because they were that good, but because repeats were so easily available. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a much better show but I never took the time to go back and watch the episodes again, except sometimes when they were first broadcast, or in hotel rooms when I caught an occasional repeat.

STTNG (for short) lasted seven series where the original series lasted only three. STTNG’s first season was notably bad, while the original series (STTOS?) was best in its first season. STTNG though managed to shake off its first season and won eighteen Emmy awards, not to mention two Hugo awards, five Saturn awards and a Peabody award.

My Netflix streaming account gives me the opportunity to see STTNG again easily and in high fidelity that was simply unavailable when it was broadcast (1987-1994). Thirty years later it still looks quite slick; in fact it’s hard to believe nearly three decades have passed. Unlike STTOS, which had to contend with pennywise network overlords, STTNG (since it was independently distributed) had the money to build expensive sets and do gorgeous special effects. Still, watching the first season of STTNG again, many episodes are cringe-worthy. The whole first season was very much a shakedown cruise for this fancier version of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I also watched on Netflix an interesting documentary that discussed the behind-the-scenes power plays going on, not really among the actors, but among the producers, curiously produced and narrated by William Shatner. The major problem was that the series original creator Gene Roddenberry couldn’t delegate and became myopic on the series. After two years Rick Berman effectively took over, Roddenberry’s health deteriorated, he became a figurative role (he died in 1992), and the series started to improve a lot.

Under the circumstances the actors did pretty well considering that behind the scenes writers and directors were being hired and fired right and left. Still, many of the episodes are so poorly written that even fabulous actors like Patrick Stewart could not make the manure of their script into a rose. The third show, “The Naked Now”, stinks to high heaven, even worse that the episode 4, “The Naked Time” from STTOS which it references. It’s amazing the series survived after this episode, but perhaps not so much given that the subscribing stations were locked in for the season and Trekkies were so desperate for new material they could overlook these stink bomb episodes.

Anyhow, some random observations and thoughts:

  • Boy, the Enterprise is awfully white-bred. This part looks really off. Oh, they do have their token black (Geordi – LeVar Burton) and of course Michael Dorn who played the Klingon Worf is black. But the crew is mostly lily white; you would think in the 24th century we’d all be pretty interbred. A lot more people of color were needed.
  • Thirty years gave me a chance to appreciate Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher). She did not resonate with me at all in my twenties. It’s not that she suddenly looks hot thirty years later but I discovered that she is actually quite a talented actress.
  • The whole boy wonder Wesley Crusher thing really annoyed me thirty years ago. Wesley (Wil Wheaton) seemed pretty contrived: a crass attempt to bring in the youth market to make the show more successful. It’s still annoying seeing this in Season 1 again, and it is still feels contrived and artificial. However a second viewing showed me that Wil Wheaton actually does a good job with the role, although his part often seems saccharine. For a teen actor in a half-baked part, he did a great job.
  • In the “whose the better captain” argument, obviously I vote for Patrick Stewart. He gave Captain Picard real gravitas. But Picard is cerebral where Kirk is instinctive, so being introverted of course I’m going to appreciate that more. But there is also the obvious fact that Stewart can act and that Shatner could not, at least not without a very good director. To me there is no comparison and it mystifies me why others would disagree.
  • Technology: they got most of it right, to their credit. A few things seem off thirty years later. In one episode Picard orders people use “printouts” for security purposes. So I guess they still have HP Laserjet printers in the 24th century. The Internet was not a thing in 1989 so the idea of a World-Wide-Web was something not yet envisioned, but it can be forgiven because starships are separated by space and time, so it was implausible anyhow.
  • Data (Brent Spiner) remains an interesting character. Thirty years later though you wonder what he’s got that the ship’s computer doesn’t, other than artificial arms and legs. Data’s quest to understand and emulate humans seems kind of silly and kind of like tilting at windmills. Overall though Spiner does an excellent job with the part and makes androids look admirable.
  • The United Federation of Planets often seems a saccharine place. Rick Berman changed that when he got control of the series, adding necessary drama that was often missing or seemed forced in the first season. It’s unclear how the UFP got to be so cohesive. Some species in the federation fight with other species. Klingons insist on their own starships and seem loosely aligned at best.
  • It still makes no sense to bring children along for the ride. Yes, the saucer section is supposed to separate in time of crisis, and they actually show it twice in the first season. I don’t recall it afterward. I mean, pretty much every episode the Enterprise is put in mortal danger. Picard does his best to keep his people safe but geez, what were they thinking?
  • Gene Roddenberry did think up the holodeck, something the late creator can take credit for. It’s a really interesting idea and presaged our current virtual worlds. Indeed, it might have been the impetus for emerging technologies like Oculus Rift.
  • One thing I like, even though it is unrealistic, is how much work and decisions are delegated to human beings. Everyone has a duty and a task that a computer can’t quite master by itself. The computer aids the crew, rather than supplants it. Humans are in charge and an integral part of the future, perhaps by design. Today that looks a bit off but it is at least consistent with the Trek philosophy that a hopeful future for humanity is possible.

If you want to scan the first season, here are some episodes to watch and avoid:

  • Watch: 5 (first Ferengi encounter), 9, 10 (Q is interesting to watch, but insufferable in the series opener), 13 (meet Data’s brother), 22, 23 (goodbye Tasha Yar), and 25 (I love a good conspiracy, even if this feels a bit contrived).
  • Avoid: 1/2 (series opener), 3, 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 (too much like “And the Children Shall Lead” from STTOS).

Spock lives!

The Thinker by Rodin

When us denizens of the Internet yesterday weren’t debating whether a certain dress was gold and white or blue and black we were mourning the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, famous in his portrayal of the logical and taciturn Vulcan (well, half human-half Vulcan) Mr. Spock in the original TV series Star Trek, not to mention a bunch of Star Trek movies and even some animated episodes in the 1970s. It was unclear to me which topic won the day, but I do know which topic will endure: Leonard Nimoy’s outstanding portrayal of our favorite Vulcan. Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy who defined him, has become immortal.

Here’s the truth about Star Trek: it was always far more about Mr. Spock than it was about Captain Kirk. This was because Leonard Nimoy could act and William Shatner could not, unless he had a really good director (e.g. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)). But of course it was also because Spock was a far more interesting character. He was deep and mysterious, in spite of his projected lack of emotions and clockwork-like brain. He was different but somehow cool, an outsider but someone most of us secretly wanted to emulate. He was Sherlock Holmes on steroids, a super outsider fighting for truth, justice and the United Federation of Planets. He was virtually flawless: an intellectual giant that specialized in synthesizing disparate information for the benefit of good. His only flaw to my way of thinking was his dopey, over the top and undeserved loyalty to James T. Kirk, his friend for life who frankly deserved his scorn, not his admiration.

Unsurprisingly, Nimoy was thrice nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Spock while Shatner never got a single nomination. Maybe it was the 1960s, but we couldn’t get enough of Mr. Spock. Women in particular were fascinated by Mr. Spock. In a time when women were required to tightly reign in their passionate sides, Mr. Spock gave them a safe channel to vent. In particular women were fascinated by the Kirk-Spock relationship, mainly because it hinted that two men could have a relationship of great depth during a time when men’s relations with other men were typically superficial. Women knew there was something deeper there that us men did not see: a homosexual context. Perhaps Kirk was a repressed homosexual, or at least a bisexual. Spock’s puppy dog admiration for Kirk hinted that Spock’s ultra logical personality was a mere projection. Inside he was a cauldron of passion for his true love: Kirk, and certainly not Nurse Christine Chapel.

Spock was the infectious character of his time. While the series died in 1969 the character simply would not go away. Star Trek lived principally because of the subtext of the Kirk-Spock relationship. It was women more than men who kept the show in their hearts and petitioned Paramount for movies and spinoffs. When the movies became successful (and they did when the Kirk-Spock relationship became front and center in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) of course the demand would spin off all sorts of Star Trek themed shows, some good, some not so good.

The emotional subtext of Spock aside, we grooved on Spock because of what he stood for. Our world today is far messier than it was in the chaotic late 1960s. But Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry laid out an idealistic but somehow hopeful vision of humanity’s future where we had overcome issues like racism and classism. We lived in peace and in something close to utopia, except for the Klingons, Romulans and other another assorted unenlightened species we encountered exploring brave new worlds that wanted to do the United Federation of Planets harm. Star Trek inspired us. It inspired me. The Prime Directive (which Kirk often ignored) was an enlightened way that acknowledged the greater forces at work shaping civilizations. Maybe it inspired the Beatles to create their song Let it be. It shaped my thinking on our war in Iraq and how we should handle our current conflict with ISIS. It was Spock, not Kirk that modeled this new and enlightened universe. As long as this half-breed could maintain his civility and logic, there was hope. I often think that President Obama channels Mr. Spock, so much so that I wrote a post about it. Due to Nimoy’s death, the post has surged to the top of my most popular posts list.

It was Nimoy of course who impressively pulled off a plausible and coherent character that the rest of us could latch onto. Unsurprisingly, Nimoy developed a love/hate relationship with his character. It caused him write a book, I am not Spock and years later another book, I am Spock where he wrestled with his feelings with being saddled by the character. However, it was Nimoy that really brought Spock alive. The character brought Nimoy huge celebrity and also drove him to drink, but like it or not it made him and his character immortal.

Nimoy quickly became typecast by Spock, which put a serious dent on his acting career. He wanted to be more than Spock, but for the most part he wasn’t allowed. He dabbled in directing and summer stock. His most impressive non-Spock role was as Morris Meyerson, the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t feel too bad for losing, as he lost to Laurence Olivier.

Nimoy is gone but Spock has endured, and was most recently portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was tutored in the role by Nimoy himself. At one time (2003) I was convinced that Star Trek was dead. These newest Star Trek movies proved me wrong, thankfully, because they were done so well. However, the reason they survived was because Spock, not Kirk, proved too popular to die. After all Spock died in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and we had to resurrect him, just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from certain death.

Nimoy, a Jew, did not believe in resurrection but his character is likely to endure and may prove as immortal as Sherlock Holmes in the decades ahead. It would not surprise me if when the 22nd century dawns that portrayals of Mr. Spock will still endure on popular media and Star Trek, in it’s 22nd century projection, will as well. United Federation of Planets, here we come! And here’s hoping that Spock will be in charge.