Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Star Trek Wars

There is a story within the movie Star Trek Into Darkness that goes something like this: in the alternate Trek 23rd century (the JJverse?)--in the year 2259--Starfleet is in danger of being militarized.  A terrorist attack prompts a rogue admiral into setting up conditions to cause a war he has already decided he wants to wage, and for which he has been aggressively preparing.

Because this terrorist attack cost the lives of citizens and valued Starfleet officers, there was no initial resistance to organizing a mission of revenge.  When Spock, Scotty and finally Kirk object and decide to capture the fugitive for trial, the admiral's plan goes awry.  He is forced to show his cards, and his plans to sacrifice the Enterprise and its crew in order to force his pet war.

As an allegory, this story tracks pretty well with events after 9/11/2001 and the American invasion of Iraq.  Members of the Bush administration claim that the Bush White House was intent on waging war on Iraq even before 9/11. They were looking for an excuse.  In the movie there is a further suggestion of 9/11 when the rogue starship crashes in San Francisco, toppling towers.

Ultimately the rogue admiral is defeated. We hear Captain Kirk's voice, and then see him addressing a Starfleet audience.  He says these words: "There will always be those who mean to do us harm.  To stop them we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.  Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us, but that's not who we are."

"We are here today to re-christen the USS Enterprise, and to honor those who lost their lives nearly one year ago.  When Christopher Pike gave me his ship, he had me recite the captain's oath--words I didn't appreciate at the time.  Now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again.  And those words..."

And then Kirk recites the standard opening to Star Trek, one of the most famous poems of the 20th century that begins "These are the voyages..."  The Enterprise then sets off on its five year mission, the one that in the GR universe commenced in 2264.

This central story was obscured by the unfortunate choice of melding it with the Khan story, and specific echoes of Star Trek II.  Upon seeing this film again, the central story seems clearer, and the Khan story--though it would make sense within this story if it wasn't familiar from another setting--takes us way out of this story, and the echoes are mostly unfortunate, however well done.

But by the end of the film there is a sense that this is an attempt to move into the exploratory mission and away from a militarily aggressive Starfleet.  And there are hints that this military tendency is not just one rogue admiral.  Starfleet uniforms are more military than any seen before, especially with the hats which I identify with Nazi uniforms, and others suggest are more like Soviet uniforms.  I also noticed that the architecture of San Francisco is uncharacteristically monumental, suggesting a sense of empire.  And Kirk's speech pretty much says that the rogue admiral was only an extreme example.  Why else would he say that they needed to "remember who we once were and who we must be again."

These are words that might be applied not only to the JJverse but to almost all of Star Trek of the past 20 years.  Since the 1990s, Star Trek has been fighting wars--in the 24th and 22nd centuries.  An entire generation of Star Trek left behind its origins in GR's Star Trek in the 1960s. In the original series, Earth had fought and won a war with Romulus without becoming war crazy.  True, there was a Cold War quality to the rivalry with the Klingons, and there were certainly mixed messages about Vietnam in the 60s, but Starfleet was meant to be a model of peaceful exploration, and a mature attitude towards difference and violence.  These themes were deepened and extended in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But in the 90s, the Federation in Deep Space Nine went to war in the 24th century--briefly with the Klingons, and more comprehensively with the Dominion.  In the real world of the 1990s, the Soviet Union had crumbled, and some were declaring an "end to history" and complete victory to western capitalism.  In this historical context, the Dominion War might be viewed as analogous to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds as an attack on complacency and a smug belief in superiority.

Then a new Star Trek series began, set in the 22nd century, before the time of the original series.  Enterprise began with stories about the first steps into space exploration.  But then in the real world came 9/11, and an analogous attack on the Earth began the Xindi war that dominated the rest of the series.  Terrorism also became a more prominent theme, and torture as interrogation technique was notoriously shown.

  All of this echoed real world attitudes and events.  After 9/11 there was fear of terrorism, support for military action which resulted in military incursions into Afghanistan.  The existence of covert warfare and violence perpetrated by "intelligence" agencies became common knowledge. The U.S. invaded Iraq and began a war that became the longest in U.S. history, though the weapons of mass destruction that served as the pretext for the invasion did not exist.  Eventually it became public knowledge that the U.S. engaged in torture.  Suspected terrorists were held at Guantanamo and unknown other sites without trial or definite sentence or even charges.  Laws were passed with near unanimity that restricted the civil liberties of U.S. citizens and gave new powers to intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

Many of these subjects became themes that dominated Star Trek fiction long after there was no Star Trek on television.  It is only now in 2014 that the themes of war, insurrection, covert warfare (the "Section 31" of many 24th century novels that is mentioned as existing in the JJverse 23rd century) may be coming to an end--or at least that's the suggestion by a Trek Core writer, reviewing the latest batch of Star Trek novels in "The Fall" series.

All of this means that an entire generation has grown up with Star Trek at war, at least in almost every new story (and lots of games.) What began in the 1960s as an alternative to the primitive emotions, the ongoing violence and threat of even greater consequences of open warfare in that era, has reverted and succumbed to those emotions as well as the temptations of easy dramatics in storytelling.

So even more than a decade after 9/11, when the people of the western world are manifestly tired of war, Star Trek is still mired in its themes.  This is not to say that these emotions and issues of self-defense or aggression aren't pertinent or real.  Kirk's speech in Star Trek Into Darkness is eloquent on these matters.

 But in concentrating on this--as well as easy emotional themes such as revenge--almost obsessively, and getting caught up in the politics of a constructed universe so deeply in Star Trek fictions,  Star Trek has lost its edge.  It is no longer in the vanguard of zeroing in on new important issues in a new way, of revelations and of modeling a better future where problems are understood and addressed.  Even an even bigger-budget superhero epic like Man of Steel dealt metaphorically or allegorically with the transcendent issue of this age, that is truly threatening the survival of human civilization: the climate crisis.

Star Trek should be about the present and the future, but lately it seems to have become mired in the past, including its own.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cosmos Trek

One of the many articles about the new Cosmos series (Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey) quotes a professor of science communications at Cornell (where Carl Sagan taught) saying that when he asks scientists between 30 and 60 years old to name something that made them want to become scientists, a "huge number" name the original Carl Sagan Cosmos series that first aired in 1980.  But I suspect a huge number also name one Star Trek series or another, especially if you widen the discussion beyond the hard scientists to engineering, computers, etc.  Or science fiction writers, like Carl's son Nick Sagan ,who wrote for a couple of 1990s Star Trek series.

So it shouldn't be too surprising that the new Cosmos project unites Carl Sagan's widow and collaborator on the original Cosmos, Ann Druyan, with Star Trek television veteran Brannon Braga.  He's executive producer of the series, and directed the first episode, seen recently on various Fox channels and available to view online  for the next month or so.

Most of the ink has been going to series host, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson and The Family Guy's Seth McFarland, who spearheaded the project and took it to Fox.  Not even the usual Star Trek sites have noticed Braga.  (For Nubies, Braga was a writer and producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise.  He also co-wrote two features, Generations and First Contact.)

But it's hard to miss the influence of Braga's Star Trek years, or at the very least, the plain old influence of Star Trek.  It's pretty obvious in what amounts to the title sequence, a zip through planets and cosmic dust that resembles especially the opening to Voyager, to music by Alan Silvestri (Captain America, Back to the Future) with strong hints of the Voyager theme, plus touches that remind me of the Insurrection soundtrack as well as other science fiction films.

Tyson begins the series by describing the scientific method that opens the cosmos to us all.  But his "spaceship of the imagination" obeys the non-scientific Trek standard of making plenty of whooshing sounds as it flies by.  The interior resembles the Enterprise D bridge, but before most of the stuff was installed.  The exterior reminds me of a flying Norelco shaver, but it's pretty cool anyway.

The visuals are mostly pretty spectacular (and suggest what a truly contemporary Trek TV show might look like) though the animation seemed comparatively crude, reminding me of the 1950s Disney Man in Space science shows.

I haven't seen the original Cosmos in awhile but I have the book.  There obviously is a lot of Sagan still in the series (he even gets a writing credit) and there's one of his classic lines in this first episode: "We are made of star stuff."  I still remember the way he said it, and it still sends chills down my spine.  I don't envy Tyson trying to figure out how he should say it.  Must have been quite a few sessions in front of the mirror on that one.

With only the book to go by, I notice that Sagan didn't make a big deal about Giordano Bruno as this episode did (he was the star of the long animation sequence.)  Bruno was the 16th century monk who had a vision of the universe (the earth revolving around the sun, our sun a star, one of countless stars with planets orbiting them) that was far ahead of his time.  The 2014 Cosmos goes into great detail about all the religions that persecuted and imprisoned him.  His burning at the stake by the Catholic Church is fully animated.  I'm not sure what the point was here, except to provoke the right wing Fox audience.  According to the ratings, they mostly weren't watching it.

Still, as long as I can stomach sitting through the same four commercials (for cars and high fashion cosmetics--who do they think is watching?) shown with increasing frequency online, I'll watch the rest.

Update: Here's James Downie at the Washington Post with a different interpretation of the Bruno sequence.  His point is well taken, but somehow the animation of Bruno being burned at the stake seems the more likely takeaway.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Trekanomics: Ubiquity and the Economy of the Future

by William S. Kowinski
Star Trek's history can be divided into three phases: creativity, popularity and ubiquity.  For example, creativity in 1964-69 when the Star Trek series and its stories were being created.  Popularity when they were on the air and especially in the mid 1970s when they became very popular in syndication.  The features and the subsequent TV shows (TNG etc.) were a period of creativity, and of popularity that had its highs and lows.

Then after the 10th feature and Enterprise left the air, the creativity moved to independent films, novels and games until the JJA features and their ancillary comics etc.  But by this time, Star Trek had firmly entered its period of ubiquity.

The dictionary defines ubiquity as "presence everywhere or in many places, especially simultaneously."  A common feature of the ubiquitous is that it becomes almost invisible.  It's so present, so much part of everything that you barely notice it, unless you're looking for it.

So in this past fairly ordinary week or so, there was a news story about a man who resigned from his town council with a letter written in Klingon.  In an email sent mostly to members of a university music department, I got a link to a YouTube video of an opera performed before a screen showing the "Amok Time" episode from TOS.

Then one day I turned the radio on in the middle of a panel discussion.  They were talking about languages in opera for some reason, mostly in a humorous vein.  A woman said that "we all grew up with Star Trek where people from different planets could understand each other."  A male panelist mentioned the universal translator.  A third panelist referred to Klingon opera.

Notice that these are adult professionals, and that spontaneously three of them showed knowledge of the Star Trek universe.  That's ubiquity.  The key phrase is "we all grew up with Star Trek."  Episodes of one series or another have been on television channels for decades, and now are easily available online.  The first ten films are still shown on one cable channel or another every year.   So generations have absorbed the Star Trek universe into their lives.  This is particularly true of those who experienced one or another of the Star Trek series in their youth, and are now well into their adult lives.

We've seen how (for example) Google scientists are consciously trying to design a search system that functions exactly like the Enterprise computer in Star Trek.  So when professionals thinking about the economy of the future, some apply amazingly detailed knowledge of the little that is evident about the economic system in Star Trek.  And at least one finds Star Trek is not only a desirable model for the future economy, but probably an accurate one.

The one provocative and overriding fact of Trekonomics that everybody knows is: there's no money in the 23rd and 24th centuries, at least in the Federation. So one of the first tasks for the TOS crew arriving on 20th century Earth in Star Trek: The Voyage Home is for Kirk to sell his antique glasses and get them some ready cash.

Poverty has been eradicated on Earth. Yet members of Starfleet aren't paid to work, and don't work for pay.  We work to better ourselves and humanity, Captain Picard explains in Star Trek: First Contact.

This concept, which Gene Roddenberry insisted on, was enormously attractive to creative artists on Star Trek, for it spoke to their lives.  "You don't have to work at something you don't like," noted production designer Herman Zimmerman.  "You can find the thing that allows you to contribute and that is what you can do for a living."

Without the anxieties, insecurities, resentments and wasted energies involved when your ability to live depends on working for the purpose of making money (which also means pleasing employers who themselves are at the mercy of unseen others,) people have the time and freedom to delve more deeply and creatively into the work they love, and into their own souls.  They can concentrate also on work that benefits others. "When you take away the need to make a living," said TNG and Voyager producer Jeri Taylor, " a lot of other things are possible."

But what could possibly make this a basis for a future economic system?  And what kind of an economic system is it?

One reason there is renewed interest in this is what a couple of writers have called (in their book's title) The Second Machine Age.  They and other writers (such as Illah Reza Nourbakhsh in a book I like a lot, Robot Futures) see that for a number of technical reasons, robots of one kind or another are about to become an even greater part of our economy as well as our everyday lives.

Though attention has been focused on low wage workers in other countries, industrial robots in the U.S. have already transformed American industry over the past several decades, with economic consequences that include the need for fewer human workers.  These authors suggest we're poised for even greater changes that will affect non-industrial employment.  And talk about ubiquity--that's the apparent future for robotization, which transforms wage earners into "surplus labor"--that is, a lot of unemployed and unemployable people.  This inevitably will put a great deal of pressure on the current economic system.

Pondering this future, The Second Machine Age authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have said: "We can't foresee if it's going to be more like Star Trek, where no one worries about a paycheck and people are freed up to explore new worlds, or more like Elysium, where a small elite works hard to separate itself from the miserable masses."  (Elysium is the 2013 film starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.)

But one writer sees Star Trek as a viable model: Ric Webb in his essay "Star Trek Economics."  One of his starting points is also the coming robot revolution, but he includes as well the concept of the "post-scarcity economy"--when there is technically enough for everybody.  All economic systems that now exist are based on scarcity, he writes. "Traditional economics, of course, deals with the efficient allocation of inherently scarce materials. Post scarcity economics deals with the economics of economies that are no longer constrained by scarcity of materials — food, energy, shelter, etc."

He also finds that in at least some ways we are already in a post-scarcity world. "But we actually have the capacity to feed them, to feed everyone, even now, even if we don’t have the will. It’s not a matter of scarcity; it’s a matter of the organization of labor and capital."

He finds the existing economic systems--capitalism, communism and their variations--to be inadequate to this post-scarcity future in which a great many humans can't make a living because fewer jobs will exist. "Then I got to thinking. Screw the dodgy world of heterodox economics. Let’s go full-on fantastical and look at sci-fi. There IS actually a model out there that deals fairly realistically with a post scarcity economy. Not only that, it actually takes into account the difficulties of migrating from a capitalist society to a post scarcity society incrementally. It’s not just a theory in a vacuum. It’s called Star Trek."

Webb notes that while the Trekanomic future isn't pure capitalism, it isn't communism either (a charge that gets raised in the perennial debates on various Trek sites.) "The Federation is clearly not a centrally planned economy, and therefore obviously not communist. Individual freedom of choice is very obvious."

After discussing various issues that follow from the Trek dictim that money doesn't exist, he concludes: "Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor."

Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible? I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek."

Webb goes on to discuss a continuing relationship between energy and economic value but his point remains this: "I believe the federation is a proto-post scarcity society evolved from democratic capitalism. It is, essentially, European socialist capitalism vastly expanded to the point where no one has to work unless they want to.

It is massively productive and efficient, allowing for the effective decoupling of labor and salary for the vast majority (but not all) of economic activity. The amount of welfare benefits available to all citizens is in excess of the needs of the citizens. Therefore, money is irrelevant to the lives of the citizenry, whether it exists or not." 

In some sense, Webb suggests, people probably still get paid for their work but  "you take whatever job you want, and your benefits allocations are adjusted accordingly. But by and large you just don’t care, because the base welfare allocation is more than enough."

Webb finds ways within this system to account for Sisko's restaurant, the Picard winery, Quark's bar, latinum, etc.  He summarizes: "The thing I love most about this theory is that it seems plausible for our future."  Money as currency "slowly fades into the background" and "From there, perhaps a cultural shift takes place as we realize that 'everyone in a job' isn’t the same as a full economy, and we start to look for models beyond capitalism that aren’t all communist hoo-ha."  He concludes:

"I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It’s real. It’s a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else." 

It is worth mentioning that Trekonomics, even as vague as it's expressed in the stories, was not just some fairy tale that emerged from GR's wishful thinking.  It was a response to economic discussions that were very current in the 1960s.

For example, one of the people who pointed out that the post-scarcity world already existed was John F. Kennedy, who said so in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 1960, given in a stadium in Los Angeles within miles of where GR lived.  He said so again in some of the first lines of his Inaugural Address, as he expressed the living paradox of the age: "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

In his nomination acceptance speech JFK referred specifically to the "revolution in automation."  Automation was the name given to the changes in industry and other businesses due to robots, the first computers and other machine systems.  It basically meant machines doing what human workers used to do.  Forward-looking economists and others were concerned about where it would lead, and how the economy and society could deal with its effects, chiefly "surplus labor" and the inability of a growing number of people to work and thereby earn a living. Apart from the stark human consequences, this was particularly acute in a consumer economy, which depended on people with money to spend.

One widely discussed partial solution in the mid 1960s came to be known as the "guaranteed income" (also called the Guaranteed Minimum Income and Guaranteed Annual Income.) Economist Robert Theobald, author of Future Conditional, edited a book of essays on the subject in 1966 called The Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution? It advocated the idea from economic, political, institutional and psychological points of view. Psychologist Eric Fromm called the guaranteed income the key to the transition from a pre-human to a fully human society. Other books explored the moral dimensions. We're talking facts and figures, studies and complex argument.

Something like this almost passed Congress during the Nixon administration.  Even today, variations are under discussion, with new names such as the "Citizen's Dividend" and the "Basic Income Guarantee:" " an unconditional, government-insured guarantee that all citizens will have enough income to meet their basic needs." There's a U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network with a website, academic papers and an annual Congress. The 12th was last May in New York (a joint project of Basic Income Canada Network and the U.S. network.) The 13th joint confab is scheduled for June in Montreal, perhaps to prepare a proposal to the Canadian government.

Now there's some question in my mind that the future will remain on a "post-scarcity" track.  Even in Trek, there was a period of chaos before the transformation, with a decrease in human population.  The chief barrier in our future is the climate crisis and its consequences, which could include such dire effects as famine, plagues and nuclear war, up to and including near extinction by the 23rd century, but which will almost certainly disrupt the international economy and the easy access to global resources even in this century.

Still, even without replicators and warp drive, Trekanomics offers not only hope for a better world but a rough blueprint.  And the Trek mythos is so widely known that it is a focus for a real discussion by professionals as well as everyone else on the way forward to a better future.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


After more than two years since the last ones, the latest three Sherlock movies have aired on the BBC and PBS (and here in the U.S. can still be seen for awhile on the PBS site.)  What follow contains many "spoilers."

  There are two aspects that interest me at the moment--the stories themselves and the status of the series as a contemporary media/pop culture phenomenon.

Though I loved the Jeremy Brett TV versions, I hadn't read the Conan Doyle stories thoroughly until recent years.  The Steven Moffat/ Mark Gatiss series takes bits and pieces from many stories for each of theirs, so there's an added pleasure in recognizing them.  There's this annotation of many in mostly the last of the new three, but there are more that I saw.  A text message says something about "Watson, John or James?" which refers to a mistake Conan Doyle made: after naming him John Watson, in a later story he referred to him as James.  He also moved his war wound around, which was slyly referenced in the first series.  In one of the new ones, Mycroft and Sherlock deduce a man's life from his hat.  Holmes does the same in "The Blue Carbuncle."  And so on.

In the first of the new series, "The Empty Hearse," the first order of business was to reveal how Sherlock survived what seemed like a fatal jump from a rooftop in the last series.  This has been a topic of conjecture for the two years plus since the previous episode aired, and that becomes a comedic plot point, as two scenarios are shown that turn out to be fan fantasies.  Then Sherlock presents the third: Mycroft and he had set Moriarty up, and a virtual army was ready to spring into action.  Sherlock texted them the code name for the suicide scenario, they readied a substitute corpse, a giant air bag for him to fall into, which Watson could not see from his vantage, as well as the cyclist who delays Watson etc.

When I saw this I thought it could well be yet another put on, but statements by Moffat afterwards suggest that this is supposed to be the true story.  It still doesn't make sense to me.  It seems to have been all rigged for one purpose: to fool John Watson (although knowing when and where Watson was going to arrive is a stretch.)  I thought Sherlock took the plunge to convince gunmen that M. had positioned not to shoot Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade.  But someone at a different vantage from Watson's would have seen the massive charade.  The answer Sherlock gave was that Mycroft had his own gunmen on Moriarty's gunmen.  Then what was the point of faking the suicide?

Sherlock disappears from London to track down and somehow destroy Moriarty's remaining network--perhaps fooling them was the reason, except that anyone looking out a window of the hospital or buildings opposite would have seen what really happened.  So it's not a very satisfying solution.  Along with not telling Watson for two years that he didn't die, it seems sadistic.

Still, the rest of "The Empty Hearse" is excellent, with a particularly fine performance by Martin Freeman as Watson.  We're also introduced to Watson's girl friend, who he marries in the second movie, "The Sign of Three."  Judging from comments on the PBS website, this was not a popular episode.  But it was my favorite.  I loved the long comic scenes, especially between Sherlock and Watson.

"His Last Vow" introduces a slimy villain, and Mary Watson's shocking secret.  (By the way, John's acceptance of Mary's past is similar to a situation and scene in Doyle's "The Dancing Men.")  The villain is yet another Sherlock mirror image--a man with an even more impressive "mind palace" who uses it for evil.  There is a good story by Doyle about a master blackmailer, and the Brett movie based on it is strange but powerful.  This however is well acted but mostly just flashy and clever.  Unmoored cleverness is in danger of becoming a Moffat habit.

The blackmailer in this story simply isn't credible.  It's revealed he has everything in his head, with no physical evidence.  But without such evidence, he can't make good on his threats.  Sure, he's a scandal sheet magnate, but the UK has strong libel laws--somebody with nothing left to lose could challenge him, and he'd be done.  And if he does have only the evidence in his head, and he tells someone that, it's an invitation to kill him, since there's no physical evidence that might still turn up. Most blackmailers know better.  All of this is in addition to the premise that a human being can have that much information so easily accessible in his brain, which is literally science fiction.

There are two dismaying shocks in this movie: Mary Watson turns out to have been a CIA hit man in her past.  Really?  That's the best you can do?  And Sherlock shoots the blackmailer in cold blood and kills him.  There's a through-line in this movie of reminding us that Sherlock is not "normal"--he pretends to be in love, drugs his own parents etc. but the blackmailer still believes he can safely tell him that if he dies everybody else is safe.  That's his miscalculation--Sherlock is a sociopath, with no qualms about killing him to keep his "last vow" of protecting John and Mary and their unborn child.

So Sherlock is not normal, and neither are John and Mary, according to this episode.  They are the New Normal of the age of terrorism: kill to protect.  It's the post 9/11 morality, a good deal more Dick Cheney than Conan Doyle. And Mary turns out to be the great cliche of the era, the CIA/freelance assassin. Sure, Doyle's Sherlock let bad people die, and he let criminals--even killers--escape if he thought they were justified.  But this was cold-blooded calculated murder.

So we end with sweet Mary and our hero Sherlock as people who solve problems by assassinating people.  Tune in for their next exciting adventure, in two or four or five years.  Oh yeah, and Moriarty appears to be alive.  As television, this was a terrific moment, and it may turn out to be fascinating in the two or four or five years that Moffat suggests it might take to make some new ones.  Maybe they have a great idea for doing it, but at the moment it seems like pandering, especially to the fanbase.  So a polished and at times elegant movie, but verging on soulless manipulation.

Which all feeds back into my feelings about the franchise.  These are all talented and attractive people, and it doesn't really bother me that the actors who play John and Mary are "together" in real life, or that Sherlock's parents are Benedict Cumberbatch's parents, or that the boy who plays young Sherlock is the son of Moffat and producer Sue Vertue.  Cumberbatch and Freeman are huge international stars now, and not just for Sherlock.  Cumberbatch seems to have been in a dozen recent major movies, and Freeman is the Hobbit.  With two international hits in Sherlock and Doctor Who, Moffat is riding high as well.  So sharing what little wealth there is from a BBC/PBS show with family and friends is little enough to ask.  (Still, in interviews does almost everybody have to wear scarfs knotted exactly as Sherlock's?)

But there is the aroma of keeping a big hit going, feeding its fandom with ever more sensational twists. On the one hand, there are the the pitfalls of  too much self-conscious cleverness and manipulation in the contemporary feeding frenzy of fandom.  On the other side, there seems to be an ethos developing that it is the right of fans to influence actual stories, not because they made really good suggestions, but because they are fans.  It was a different time, but that didn't happen with the GR-era Star Trek, though it may well have with the JJA movies, and not to their benefit.

The after-hype adds to my disenchantment.  Either some of Moffat's statements about the Moriarty ending etc. are being distorted or he's carelessly contradicting himself and being disingenuous.  If he is teasing fans about how long it might take to make new Sherlocks, it's unseemly and even a bit repulsive.  He might be in danger of becoming like his Third Series villain--licking and flicking faces out of boredom and arrogance.

As for me, I don't care if it takes five years.  As much fun as these films have been,  I'm just not holding my breath anymore.  

Upon further review: I think I've clarified something of how I feel about this series.  The original Sherlock Holmes stories dealt most often with ordinary people, and usually a single crime.  The process of solving the mystery was one part of the story, and another had to do with the motivations of the criminal, or supposed criminal in some cases.  There was a specific human dimension to them.
These stories were told quite well by the Jeremy Brett series: the short stories translated fairly easily into a series of one hour television presentations (plus the novels, which were given feature-length treatment.)

Sherlock however is so far a series of 90 minute to two hour movies, shown in sets of 3.  They are more like feature films are today--everything very big, spectacular crimes and criminals, heroes who are more like (flawed) superheroes (Batman, Robin and now Batgirl), and what are called larger than life characters --although these often turn out to be exaggerations of one or two qualities, and in some ways lesser than life.  I suppose at this point I miss the human scale and am put off by the inflated Hollywood tentpole movie approach.  And by the third movie in the latest series, it's clear that this approach is going to continue.  I'm out of sympathy with this direction.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

Among those Star Trek lost in 2013 were several actors in the original series: Katherine Woodville (Natira in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), Jay Robinson (Petri, ambassador from Troyius in “Elaan of Troylius”) and Peter Duryea (Lt. Jose Tyler in “The Cage.”)

 The Klingon Empire lost actors Michael Ansara (Kang in three TOS episodes,) Victor Lunden (a Klingon in “Errand of Mercy” who costarred in the cult s/f film Robinson Crusoe on Mars and who insisted that Star Trek was really his idea) and Tom Deishley (who played Motog at Star Trek: The Experience.)

 Malachi Throne appeared as Pardek in both TNG Spock “Unification” episodes as well as “The Cage.” Ed Lauter appeared in TNG “The First Duty,” Robin Sachs in Voyager, and Mary Carver in Enterprise.

David Richard Ellis was a stunt player on the feature Star Trek V; Susan Rossitto on Voyager. Legendary stunt player Hal Needham doubled Gary Lockwood on “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Dick Butler was stunt coordinator on TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint” and stunt double for Brian Keith on the DS9 first season episode “Progress.”

Richard Matheson
 Behind the camera, Richard Matheson was a legendary s/f writer who wrote the classic episode “The Enemy Within” for Star Trek. Mike Gray, an Oscar-winning writer for The China Syndrome, was a TNG producer for 13 episodes of its second season, and wrote “Unnatural Selection.”

 James Mees was the Emmy-winning set director for TNG, VOY and Enterprise. Marvin Paige was the casting director for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. A.C. Crispin was a Star Trek novelist.

 The science fiction world lost the prominent writer and s/f historian Frederik Pohl, possibly the only Nobel Prize for Literature winner to publish several volumes of science fiction, Doris Lessing, and s/f authors Andrew J. Offutt, Patricia Anthony, Jack Vance and Steven Utley. Jacques Sadoul was the French literary critic whose 1973 history of science fiction jump-started the academic study of s/f.

 May they rest in peace. Their work lives on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Captain's Log: 50 Year Anniversaries

There were two 50 year anniversaries of public interest this week.  One was the 50th birthday of the Doctor Who series that began on BBC television on November 23, 1963.  The BBC and the cable TV station  BBC America have been building up to the day with old episodes and documentaries, then on Saturday a  Doctor Who special episode, "Day of the Doctor," starring Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt, with a cameo by Tom Baker.

It was a ratings hit in the UK and the U.S., over here becoming the most watched BBC America program ever, and the most watched cable show in its time slot.  It was simulcast to movie theaters around the world, and was the number two movie in the U.S. on the day.  It got very good reviews as well, such as this one and this one--both heavy with spoilers.

But it was preceded by another anniversary, marking 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.  I've reflected on its immense significance here.  But it's worth noting the importance of President Kennedy to Star Trek.

John Kennedy served in the Pacific in World War II at the same time as Gene Roddenberry.  Kennedy captained a PT boat that was cut in half by a Japanese vessel.  For several days he and his men were lost.  Kennedy led the survivors swimming to the nearest island, towing one of them by holding a rope in his teeth.  Roddenberry was flying B-17 bombers from a base in the vicinity. He was involved in a crash on takeoff at about the same time.  Otherwise he might have joined in the air search for Kennedy and crew.

GR's aversions to war and authority came from his wartime experiences.  As Thurston Clarke notes in his new book JFK's Last Hundred Days, so did Kennedy's.  His wartime experiences made him question the pressure he was getting from military brass that might have led to thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was important to his championing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

When JFK accepted the Democratic Party nomination for President, it was at the convention in Los Angeles, where GR was beginning his TV writing career.  In his acceptance speech, he outlined his vision of a New Frontier:  "The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges…Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." "…I believe the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that new frontier."

In his Inaugural, Kennedy called for cooperation among all countries, especially the U.S. and USSR:“Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

All of this and more suggest the vision GR would extend to the Star Trek universe.  Some commentators suggest that JFK was one of the models for Captain Kirk.

And of course it was JFK who greatly expanded the U.S. space program, and challenged America to send a man to the moon and return him safely by the end of the 60s.  In a 1962 speech in Texas he talked about the importance of space: "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war." "

"I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours."

 " We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone..."

Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral just six days before his assassination, and saw the Saturn rocket--seven times taller than the previous Redstone that had taken the first Americans into space. He talked about this new frontier, what Roddenberry would call the final frontier, on his trip to Texas fifty year ago.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Captain's Log: Old Frontiers

From the beginning many if not most of the elements in the Star Trek universe were from what was then the 70 year tradition of science fiction in literature and film.  Trek honored that part of the tradition that favored scientific plausibility, especially in the technological foundations of its universe: warp drive, phasers, transporters etc. Many such elements were either projections based on new but existing technology (so that doors that swoosh open automatically would be in supermarkets in twenty or thirty years)  or fairly daring and imaginative extrapolations from scientific theories.

But as a television show, Star Trek was unique in using the latest scientific findings or theories as elements in stories or even as springboards for stories.  I think this much is generally acknowledged.  But in reading a few stories about recent scientific findings and controversies, especially regarding space and physics, I was struck by the realization that this adventurousness in using the latest science has been gone for a long time--perhaps since the later Berman era, but more surely in the Abrams era.

I felt the plausibility slipping away towards the end of Voyager, though there were of course lapses before that.  (I think the armor on Voyager did it for me finally.)  The writers for the first Star Trek JJA movie justified their new timeline reality with certain theories derived from quantum physics, but these theories weren't at all new.  I've noted that more scientifically literate fans than I have pointed out a number of plausibility lapses in the second movie.

Contrast this with the relatively new and very popular TV genre of the forensic science crime shows.  Producers for the one that some science publication judged the most scientifically accurate (Bones) embrace the idea of using the science and keeping up with new discoveries as a way to build stories.  There are staff members responsible for providing this information.

Though in some ways science is still catching up to Star Trek (and will for awhile longer), it sobering to realize that its essentials were established almost a half century ago.  Plate tectonics, for example, which is an axiom in earth sciences, was not even yet an established theory when Star Trek went on the air.

Black holes were such a new idea that there wasn't yet an established name for them. (A Trek episode referred to a "dark star.")  The term "black hole" was first used in 1967.  That was also the year that pulsars were first discovered.  The thermodynamics of black holes weren't mathematically described until the 1970s.

Just recently however an entirely new theory is being applied to how black holes behave internally, because neither general relativity nor quantum physics seem to work there.  New research is applying something called loop quantum gravity to the problem, and coming up with brand new theories involving fundamental questions about the universe.

Could this be used in a Star Trek story?  Could it even be the basis for one?  I don't know.  But recent experience suggests that it won't be, maybe not even in Star Trek novels anymore.

 Similarly, there are stories to be told that center on the vitally important and still evolving dynamics of Earth's climate crisis--not the science alone but the human responses.  But the Trek imagination seems stuck on wars and war metaphors, revenge drama and mostly on re-telling old stories with bigger visuals.  There's simply too much money at stake.  The tent pole must never shake.

Meanwhile, one basis for Star Trek from the beginning is accumulating more evidence: the existence of many worlds where life should be possible.  Applying the number of extra-solar planets already "found," the math suggests there are, yes, billions and billions of theoretically habitable planets. Geoffrey Marcy, a professor of astronomy at Berkeley, extrapolated the findings across the open void of space, adding: "With tens of billions of Earth-like planets in each galaxy, our entire universe must contain billions of billions of Earth-like planets." 

Other recent discoveries should spark all kinds of stories.  Scientists are realizing that the universe is even bigger than believed.  A galaxy has recently been found that is thirty billion light years away.

Or recent discoveries about Mars suggests that it not only once had water--it was once a watery world.  NASA has a video suggesting what it was like, and the project to study the Mars environment--launching tomorrow (Nov. 18)  is explained by LeVar Burton in this video:

[Update: This spacecraft was successfully launched. ]Which might remind us that how scientists believe the Earth obtained water and even how life may have started has completely changed since the 1960s.

Even something like the Cassini photo of Saturn with the Earth a distant dot (at the top of this column--click on it to see it much bigger) inspires not only wonder but recalls the wonder that Star Trek represents, as in this story.  Although I feel existing Trek stories still have much to suggest in other ways, it does seem that new science and its implications has dropped out of new Trek.

R.I.P. Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing died last week at the age of 94.  Famous for pioneering realistic fiction, she is quite possibly the only Nobel Prize for Literature winner to have written science fiction novels. When she did so she was criticized both by science fiction fans and guardians of literature.  Even as her first book in her Canopus in Argos series was published, she was defending herself against criticism from the literature side.  She said that "space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now...I do think there is something very wrong with an attitude that puts a 'serious' novel on one shelf and, let's say, First and Last Men on another."

She meant Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, who was also the author of The Star Maker, which Brian Aldiss in The Billion Year Spree calls "magnificent...the one great grey holy book of science fiction."  There are of course a number of very good science fiction writers as well as many bad ones.  But there is definitely a line of writers who combine literary quality with science fiction, beginning with H.G. Wells and Stapledon, and continuing through Kim Stanley Robinson.  That line runs through Doris Lessing as well.

Trekville News

In Star Trek news, there's an interview in which Bob Orci expresses some regret for his outbursts insulting fans (see previous Captain's Log) though I'm not sure his logic would pass the Spock test.  And I don't see  he understands that he began it by abusing the writer of a legitimate and composed critique, not a rant in a fan comment.

And there's this from Patrick Stewart.  Though I question the premise--nobody listens to old men of any race if they're not famous--he's still making us proud.