Tag: Star Trek

Nerdy things recently found on social media

First: How does one combine love of Corvettes, Star Trek and dogs?

With the Meme Generator, of course:

OK, some people prefer Spock to Kirk, so …

Meanwhile, a Facebook group revealed a drag racing video …

… which proves that the great Dick Enberg could announce anything, just like …

… the great Vin Scully.

Meanwhile, if you want to see what professional Steve is up to, click here. (Hint: It involves guns.)

 

Contrasting views of Star Trek

First, from the way left, A.M. Gittlitz:

In the postwar period, however, scientists inspired by Cosmism launched Sputnik. The satellite’s faint blinking in the night sky signaled an era of immense human potential to escape all limitations natural and political, with the equal probability of destroying everything in a matter of hours.

Feeding on this tension, science fiction and futurism entered their “golden age” by the 1950s and ’60s, both predicting the bright future that would replace the Cold War. Technological advances would automate society; the necessity of work would fade away. Industrial wealth would be distributed as a universal basic income, and an age of leisure and vitality would follow. Humans would continue to voyage into space, creating off-Earth colonies and perhaps making new, extraterrestrial friends in the process. In a rare 1966 collaboration across the Iron Curtain, the astronomer Carl Sagan co-wrote “Intelligent Life in the Universe” with Iosif Shklovosky. This work of astrobiological optimism proposed that humans attempt to contact their galactic neighbors.

Interest in alien life was not just the domain of scientists and fiction writers. U.F.O. flaps worldwide captured pop cultural attention, and many believed that flying saucers were here to warn us, or even save us, from the danger of nuclear weapons. In the midst of the worldwide worker and student uprisings in 1968, the Argentine Trotskyist leader known as J. Posadas wrote an essay proposing solidarity between the working class and the alien visitors. He argued that their technological advancement indicated they would be socialists and could deliver us the technology to free Earth from the grip of Yankee imperialism and the bureaucratic workers’ states.

Such views were less fringe and more influential than you might think. Beginning in 1966, the plot of “Star Trek” closely followed Posadas’s propositions. After a nuclear third world war (which Posadas also believed would lead to socialist revolution), Vulcan aliens visit Earth, welcoming them into a galactic federation and delivering replicator technology that would abolish scarcity. Humans soon unify as a species, formally abolishing money and all hierarchies of race, gender and class.

“A lot has changed in the past 300 years,” Captain Picard explains to a cryogenically unfrozen businessman from the 20th century in an episode of a later “Star Trek” franchise, “The Next Generation.” “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

For all its continued popularity, such optimism was unusual in the genre. The new wave of sci-fi in the late ’60s, typified by J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in the United States and by the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem in the East, presented narratives that undercut this theme of humans’ saving themselves through their own rationality.

The grand proposals of the ’60s futurists also faded away, as the Fordist period of postwar economic growth abruptly about-faced. Instead of automation and guaranteed income, workers got austerity and deregulation. The Marxist theorist Franco Berardi described this period as one in which an inherent optimism for the future, implied by socialism and progressivism, faded into the “no future” nihilism of neoliberalism and Thatcherite economics, which insisted that “there is no alternative.”

The fall of the Soviet Union cemented this “end of history,” in Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, and signaled a return to late-capitalist dystopian narratives of the future, like that of “The Time Machine.” Two of the most popular sci-fi films of the ’90s were “Terminator 2” and “The Matrix,” which both showcased a world in which capital had triumphed and its machinery would not liberate mankind, but govern it. The recent success of “The Road,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Walking Dead” similarly predict violent futures where only small underground resistance movements struggle to keep the dying flame of humanity alight.

Released the same year as “Star Trek: First Contact” — and grossing three times as much — “Independence Day” told a story directly opposed to Posadism, in which those who gather to greet the aliens and protest military engagement with them are the first to be incinerated by the extraterrestrials’ directed-energy weapons. (In Wells’s 1897 vision of alien invasion, “The War of the Worlds,” the white flag-waving welcoming party of humans is similarly dispatched.)

The grotesque work of 1970s white supremacist speculative fiction, “The Camp of the Saints” by Jean Raspail — recently referenced by the White House strategist Steve Bannon — has a similar story line. A fleet of refugee ships appears off the coast of France, asking for safe harbor, but it soon becomes apparent that the ship is a Trojan horse. Its admission triggers an invasion of Europe and the United States.

The recent rise of right-wing populism indicates a widening crack in the neoliberal consensus of ideological centrism. From this breach, past visions of the future are once again pouring out. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg feel empowered to propose science fiction premises, like space colonization and post-scarcity economics, as solutions to actual social problems. Absent, however, are the mass social movements of the 20th century calling for the democratization of social wealth and politics. While rapid changes in the social order that are the dream of Silicon Valley’s disruptors are acquiring an aura of inevitability, a world absent of intense poverty and bigoted hostility feels unimaginable.

Shortly after World War II, [H.G] Wells became so convinced of humanity’s doom, without a world revolution, that he revised the last chapter of “A Short History of the World” to include the extinction of mankind. Today we are left with a similar fatalism, allowing the eliminiationist suggestions of the far right to argue, in effect, for a walling-off of the world along lines of class, nationality and race, even if this might condemn millions to death.

If humanity in the 21st century is to be rescued from its tailspin descent into the abyss, we must recall the choice offered by the alien visitor from the 1951 sci-fi film classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

“Join us and live in peace,” Klaatu said, “or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

I think of it as science fiction’s useful paraphrasing of Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary ultimatum: “socialism or barbarism.”

The last sentence reminds me of the UW–Madison journalism class where I had to sit through a lecture about Luxemburg. That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

Be that as it may, I suppose it might never occur to a writer “who specializes in counterculture and radical politics” that socialism understood as everybody sharing everything preceded Karl Marx, to include various Greek philosophers and the 12 Apostles. (By choice, not government edict, in the case of the Apostles.) It is always tiresome to hear or read those who believe the world revolves around them.

I doubt creator Gene Roddenberry was a socialist. He was, however, a progressive, and progressives believe mankind can be improved with the right people in power. That utopian view has been proven false in the 100 years or so since the Progressive Era, to everyone but progressives.

I blogged an opposing view from the Claremont Institute, from which I excerpt:

Roddenberry and his colleagues were World War II veterans, whose country was now fighting the Cold War against a Communist aggressor they regarded with horror. They considered the Western democracies the only force holding back worldwide totalitarian dictatorship. The best expression of their spirit was John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, with its proud promise to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

This could have been declaimed by Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner), of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, who, as literature professor Paul Cantor observes in his essay “Shakespeare in the Original Klingon,” is “a Cold Warrior very much on the model of JFK.” In episodes like “The Omega Glory,” in which Kirk rapturously quotes the preamble to the Constitution, or “Friday’s Child,” where he struggles to outwit the Klingons (stand-ins for the Soviet menace) in negotiations over the resources of a planet modeled on Middle Eastern petroleum states, Kirk stands fixedly, even obstinately, for the principles of universal freedom and against collectivism, ignorance, and passivity. In “Errand of Mercy,” the episode that first introduces the show’s most infamous villains, he cannot comprehend why the placid Organians are willing to let themselves be enslaved by the Klingon Empire. Their pacifism disgusts him. Kirk loves peace, but he recognizes that peace without freedom is not truly peace.

This was not just a political point; it rested on a deeper philosophical commitment. In Star Trek’s humanist vision, totalitarianism was only one manifestation of the dehumanizing forces that deprive mankind (and aliens) of the opportunities and challenges in which their existence finds meaning. In “Return of the Archons,” for example, Kirk and company infiltrate a theocratic world monitored and dominated by the god Landru. The natives are placid, but theirs is the mindless placidity of cattle. In the past, one explains, “there was war. Convulsions. The world was destroying itself. Landru…took us back, back to a simple time.” The people now live in ignorant, stagnant bliss. Landru has removed conflict by depriving them of responsibility, and with it their right to govern themselves. When Kirk discovers that Landru is actually an ancient computer left behind by an extinct race, he challenges it to justify its enslavement of the people. “The good,” it answers, is “harmonious continuation…peace, tranquility.” Kirk retorts: “What have you done to do justice to the full potential of every individual? Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life.” He persuades Landru that coddling the people has stifled the souls it purported to defend, and the god-machine self-destructs.

This theme is made more explicit in “The Apple,” perhaps the quintessential episode of the original Star Trek. Here Kirk unashamedly violates the “Prime Directive”—the rule forbidding starship captains from interfering with the cultures they contact—by ordering the Enterprise to destroy Vaal, another computer tyrant ruling over an idyllic planet. Like Landru, Vaal is an omniscient totalitarian, and he demands sacrifices. The natives, known only as “people of Vaal,” have no culture, no freedom, no science—they do not even know how to farm—and no children, as Vaal has forbidden sex along with all other individualistic impulses. This sets Kirk’s teeth on edge. There are objective goods and evils, and slavery is evil because it deprives life forms of their right to self-government and self-development.

What differentiates “The Apple” from “Archons” is Spock’s reaction. In the earlier episode, he joined Kirk in condemning Landru; now the half human/half Vulcan is reluctant to interfere with what he calls “a splendid example of reciprocity.” When chief medical officer Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) protests, Spock accuses him of “applying human standards to non-human cultures.” To this cool relativism, McCoy replies, “There are certain absolutes, Mr. Spock, and one of them is the right of humanoids to a free and unchained environment, the right to have conditions which permit growth.”

Kirk agrees with McCoy. Spock—who in later episodes invokes the Vulcan slogan celebrating “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”—is comfortable observing Vaal’s servants nonjudgmentally, like specimens behind glass. But Kirk believes there must be deeper, universal principles underlying and limiting diversity, to prevent its degeneration into relativism and nihilism.

This is an insight Kirk shares with Abraham Lincoln, who—as we learn in a later episode—is Kirk’s personal hero. When in 1858 Stephen Douglas claimed to be so committed to democracy that he did not care whether American states and territories adopted pro- or anti-slavery constitutions, Lincoln parodied his relativism as meaning “that if one man would enslave another, no third man should object.” Instead, Lincoln insisted, the basis of legitimate democracy was the principle of equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Without that frame firmly in place, democracy could claim no moral superiority to tyranny. Spock, by regarding this as a merely “human standard,” and defending Vaal’s suzerainty as “a system which seems to work,” falls into the same relativistic trap as Douglas. By contrast, as Paul Cantor notes, Kirk believes “that all rational beings are created equal,” and extends the Declaration’s proposition “literally throughout the universe.” Kirk orders the Enterprise to destroy Vaal. “You’ll learn to care for yourselves,” he tells the people. “You’ll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves, work for yourselves, and what you create is yours. That’s what we call freedom.”

Spock’s hesitation here is an early glimmer of the relativism that would eventually engulf the Star Trek universe. Roddenberry’s generation emerged from World War II committed to a liberalism that believed in prosperity, technological progress, and the universal humanity they hoped the United Nations would champion. In the Kennedy years, this technocratic liberalism sought to apply science, the welfare state, and secular culture to raise the standard of living and foster individual happiness worldwide. Then came the rise of the New Left—a movement that saw the alleged evils of society as the consequence not merely of capitalism but of technology and reason itself. Civilization was not the perfection of nature or even a protection against nature, but an alienation from nature. Throw off its shackles, and man could reunite with the universe; unfairness would fall away, and peaceful coexistence would reign. “Peaceful coexistence” was especially crucial. The war in Vietnam and other crises helped foster a debunking culture that saw American principles of justice as a sham, as cynical rationalizations for American greed, racism, and imperialism. The older generation of liberals—and their literary proxies, including Captain Kirk—hardly knew what to make of it, or of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” escapism that often accompanied it.

The original Star Trek savagely parodied such Age of Aquarius romanticism in the episode “The Way to Eden,” in which theEnterprise encounters a group of space-age hippies searching for a legendary planet where all will be equal, without technology or modernity, living off the land. Almost all of Kirk’s crew regard these star-children as deluded, and their longing for prelapsarian harmony does turn out to be a deadly illusion: the Eden planet they find is literally poison—all the trees and even the grass are full of an acid that kills them almost the instant they arrive. Kirk is hardly surprised. All Edens, in his eyes, are illusions, and all illusions are dangerous.

Spock is more indulgent. “There are many who are uncomfortable with what we have created,” he tells the captain, “the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmospheres.” Spock insists he does not share their views, yet he secretly admires them, and devotes his considerable scientific skills to helping locate their paradise planet. Later he tells one of the few survivors of the acid, “It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden. I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves.” The skeptical, spirited Kirk could never utter such words.

Kirk, it turns out, has personal reasons for his skepticism. In “The Conscience of the King,” we learn that he is something of a Holocaust survivor himself. When he was young, he and his parents barely escaped death at the hands of the dictator Kodos the Executioner, who slaughtered half the population of the colony on Tarsus IV. Having eluded capture, Kodos lived 20 years under an assumed name, making a living as a Shakespearean actor, until one of Kirk’s fellow survivors tracks him down. Now Kirk must decide whether the actor is really the killer.

Aired in 1966, this episode is a commentary on the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, and it typifies the original Star Trek’s moral outlook. During the show’s three seasons, over 20 former Nazis were tried for their roles in the Holocaust, including five who only two weeks after this episode aired were convicted for working at the Sobibór extermination camp. Intellectuals like Hannah Arendt were preoccupied with the moral and jurisprudential questions of Nazi-hunting. “Conscience” puts these dilemmas into an ambitiously Shakespearean frame.

Like Hamlet, Kirk faces a crisis of certainty. “Logic is not enough,” he says, echoing Hamlet’s “What a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy. “I’ve got to feel my way—make absolutely sure.” Yet one thing Kirk is already sure about is justice. Hamlet may curse the fact that he was ever born to set things right, but he knows it is his duty. Likewise Kirk. When McCoy asks him what good it will do to punish Kodos after a lapse of two decades—“Do you play god, carry his head through the corridors in triumph? That won’t bring back the dead”—Kirk answers, “No. But they may rest easier.”

For Shakespeare, justice is less about the good prospering and the bad suffering than about a harmony between the world of facts in which we live and the world of words we inhabit as beings endowed with speech. When the two fall out of sync—when Claudius’s crime knocks time “out of joint”—the result is only a perverse and temporary illusion. And Kirk is, again, not impressed by illusions. “Who are you to [judge]?” demands Kodos’s daughter. Kirk’s devastating reply: “Who do I have to be?” …

By 1987, when the new Enterprise was being launched on the new series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the liberal landscape had changed. The show premiered a year after feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding referred to Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual,” and a year before Jesse Jackson led Stanford student protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” The Kennedy-esque anti-Communist in the White House was now Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat and union leader who thought the party had left him.

Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) was more committed to coexistence and non-intervention than to universal liberty and anti-totalitarianism. Following Spock’s lead, Picard would elevate the Prime Directive into a morally obtuse dogma and would seek ways to evade the responsibility of moral judgment. Time and again, the show featured false equivalency on a grand scale, coupled with the hands-off attitude that the Kirk of “The Apple” had dismissed as complicity with evil. …

What accounts for this incoherent foreign policy? Nothing less than Picard’s commitment to non-commitment. He represents a new, non-judgmental liberalism far shallower than that embraced in Roddenberry’s era. Where Kirk pursues justice, Picard avoids conflict. Just as Kirk’s devotion to universal principles goes deeper than politics, so does Picard’s sentimentalism. When it comes to the universe of real suffering, real need, and a real search for truth, he is content not to decide, not to take responsibility, and not to know.

The Claremont piece is much better than the New York Times piece, not merely because I agree with the Claremont point of view more than the Times’ point of view. Kirk is an idealist, as is The Original Series, but he is not naïve. Kirk also has much more moral fortitude than Picard, as seen in episodes of each series. In TOS’ “A Taste of Armageddon,” Kirk brings about the end of a computer-run war between two planets by destroying the computers that conduct the war:

I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikans now assume that you’ve broken your agreement and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They’ll want do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do a lot more than count up numbers in a computer. They’ll destroy cities, devastate your planet. You of course will want to retaliate. If I were you, I’d start making bombs. Yes, Councilman, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.

The conflict in The Next Generation episode “The Hunted”  is between a planet’s leadership and its war veterans, at the end of the last act Picard is asked to intervene, but answers:

In your own words, this is not our affair. We cannot interfere in the natural course of your society’s development. And I’d say it’s going to develop significantly in the next few minutes.

What kind of answer is that? We don’t care if you blow yourselves up in the next few minutes; that’s your problem. (Reportedly a different ending was shelved due to cost considerations, but a better ending could have been set entirely on the Enterprise bridge, with Worf reporting explosions on the planet’s surface. That would stick a knife in the heart of that Enterprise’s moral preening.) There are other examples (“Syubiosis” and “Pen Pals,” to name two) where Picard’s first impulse is to leave the primitives be, even if that means they die. That’s like washing your hands of what you’ve heard taking place in Nazi Germany to Jews in World War II.

 

The Roddenberry Box

At the risk of generalizing, fans of the original Star Trek series have not been happy with the J.J. Abrams-led reboot, and they haven’t been particularly happy with the prospect of the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.

Entertainment Weekly gives those fans ammunition, perhaps:

Star Trek: Discovery is shedding a creative restriction that’s long frustrated top writers on previous shows in the franchise.

Showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg — working from a creative roadmap laid out by executive producer Bryan Fuller — are delivering a Trek saga that gets rid of one the franchise’s decades-old limitations in an effort to evolve the series.

As part of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future (and one that Trek franchise executive producer Rick Berman carried on after Roddenberry’s death in 1991), writers on Trek shows were urged to avoid having Starfleet crew members in significant conflict with one another (unless a crew member is, say, possessed by an alien force), or from being shown in any seriously negative way.

This guideline wasn’t strictly followed across all 700 previous franchise episodes, of course. But in an aspirational effort to make the future more idyllic, Starfleet crew members typically weren’t supposed to demonstrate baser human flaws. For writers on Trek shows, the restriction has been a point of behind-the-scenes contention (one TNG and Voyager writer, Michael Piller, famously dubbed it “Roddenberry’s Box”). Drama is conflict, after all, and if all the conflict stems from non-Starfleet members on a show whose regular cast consists almost entirely of Starfleet officers, it hugely limits the types of stories that can be told.

So for the CBS All Access series coming Sept. 26, that restriction has been lifted and the writers are allowed to tell types of stories that were discouraged for decades.

“We’re trying to do stories that are complicated, with characters with strong points of view and strong passions,” Harberts said. “People have to make mistakes — mistakes are still going to be made in the future. We’re still going to argue in the future.”

“The rules of Starfleet remain the same,” Berg added. “But while we’re human or alien in various ways, none of us are perfect.”

The handling of these inner-Starfleet conflicts will still draw inspiration from Roddenberry’s ideals, however. “The thing we’re taking from Roddenberry is how we solve those conflicts,” Harberts said. “So we do have our characters in conflict, we do have them struggling with each other, but it’s about how they find a solution and work through their problems.” …

There’s also the fact the last Trek series (Star Trek: Enterprise) went off the air 12 years ago and the TV drama storytelling has evolved to be more realistic since then — and so has sci-fi. A former Trek writer, Ron Moore (who, like Piller, was outspoken about Trek‘s limitations), conceived of his acclaimed 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot as a way of telling the types of morally murky stories that Deep Space Nine and Voyager wouldn’t allow. Moore, Piller and Discovery‘s Fuller all worked on late 1990s Trek shows, collectively trying to push the format’s creative envelope in bold new ways. Mind you, Discovery isn’t nearly as dark as BSG — it’s very much Star Trek and Starfleet officers have still evolved in all respects from where we are now. As always, they’re admirable people you wish you knew in real life. But the show will also depict a wider and more realistic bandwidth of human (and alien!) drama.

It may well be that this is EW’s attempt to hype the series, possibly for money. So keep that grain of salt in mind as you read on.

The no-conflict rule, like the Prime Directive, was honored more in theory than in practice, particularly in The Original Series. It was beyond doubt the worst feature of The Next Generation. When you have to import conflict by importing aliens, that’s writer laziness. Starfleet, remember, is, or will be, a semi-military organization. Conflict exists in the military, but subordinates follow lawful orders and respect the rank, if not necessarily the person holding the rank.

The Roddenberry Box is one of several Star Trek weaknesses that will probably not be fixed. Humans have existed for between thousands and millions of years, depending on your religious and scientific worldview. The idea that humans will evolve beyond conflict in just 300 or so years makes as much sense as the TOS episode “Spock’s Brain.” (How are we evolving with conflict now?) Roddenberry was as wrong as the creators of the Progressive Era in their mistaken belief that mankind can be improved.

The answer to this and the supposed evolution away from capitalism is that thanks to replicators, to quote Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in TNG’s “The Neutral Zone,” “We have eliminated need.” I’ve written before here how ludicrous that is. Basically if resources are unlimited, there should be no need for an all-powerful Federation and its Starfleet enforcement arm to administer those unlimited resources. Since not everyone in the Federation has a starship, obviously resources are in fact scarce.

The concern Star Trek fans have, and this is a valid concern, is that the new Star Trek will be full of the reboots’ explosions and lens flares, with bad stories and none of what made TOS and TNG work — the relationships between characters. (Sci-fi fans know that the Battlestar Galactica reboot was closer to “House of Cards” than to the original.) The no-conflict rule was a bad idea, but going completely in the opposite direction — say, the first officer scheming against her captain, or lieutenants looking to undercut each other — is no better.

As for how else to do a better Star Trek, read here.

50 years ago tonight

Tonight 50 years ago premiered …

Although Burt Reynolds was a megastar, the more important TV program premiered right now 50 years ago (in the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones) on your favorite NBC station:

At a minimum, Star Trek was the best non-anthology science fiction TV series to that point, and for years afterward. Other than “The Twilight Zone” (hence my “non-anthology” description), most science fiction on TV was monster-related or rocket-related, each with bad special effects.

There has been considerable revisionist history in the ramp-up to Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. The hard truth is that Star Trek was not a commercial success in its first iteration. Despite having a lead-in of “Daniel Boone,”  rated 25th, and followed by eventually the color version  of “Dragnet,” rated 21st, and “The  Dean Martin Show,” rated 14th, Star Trek was third in its time period, behind ABC’s “Bewitched,” rated seventh,  and CBS’ “My Three Sons” and “The CBS Thursday Night Movie,” rated 29th. The second-season ratings were bad enough (CBS had “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” rated third) that  NBC considered canceling the series. Star Trek was canceled after its third season, unable to compete against CBS’ Friday movie and ABC’s “Judd for the Defense.”

Or was it a commercial flop? Star Trek Fact Check suggests otherwise:

Recently, however, author Marc Cushman has been challenging this account in a series of self-published books and a flurry of interviews promoting them (my review of Cushman’s first volume, These Are The Voyages: TOS – Season Onecan be found here). In one of those interviews, at Trek Core, Cushman said:

Star Trek was not the [ratings] failure that we had been led to believe.

It was NBC’s top rated Thursday night series and, on many occasions, won its time slot against formidable competition, including Bewitched, ABC’s most popular show. And when they banished it to Friday nights, as Book Two will reveal, it was the network’s top rated Friday night show. Yet NBC wanted to cancel it! Even when they tried to hide it from the fans at 10 p.m., during Season Three, it’s [sic] numbers were not as bad as reported. So, once I made this discovery, then, of course, I needed to find out the real reason for the way the network treated Star Trek, and the documents regarding that, which build as we go from Book One to Two and then Three, are quite fascinating.

Cushman elaborates upon his argument near the end of his first volume, These Are The Voyages: TOS – Season One:

One must wonder why a network would even consider cancelling a Top 40 series that was almost always a solid second place in the ratings — often hitting the No. 1 spot in its timeslot — against formidable competition, pulling in, on average, just under 30% of the TVs in use across America. (On the few occasions when it slipped to third place, it was always in a close race for the number two spot.)

– Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, These Are The Voyages – TOS: Season One (2013), p. 541

The views expressed in These Are The Voyages about Star Trek‘s ratings performance are, needless to say, irreconcilable with previous accounts. Either the series was a ratings failure — as has been so often understood — or it was, as Cushman argues, a ratings success. …
Marc Cushman closes These Are The Voyages – TOS: Season One by asking why NBC would even consider cancelling Star Trek at the end of its first broadcast season. This question, however, is predicated on the assumption that Mr. Cushman’s argument about the ratings is correct. I believe I have pointed out enough flaws in his reasoning and presented enough counter-evidence that such claims should be held in considerable doubt.

Therefore, I believe a more appropriate question to ask would be this: why was Star Trek renewed for a second season? After all, the show was an expensive one to produce, and following an initial flash of success, its ratings had dropped to a level that was nothing to shout about. I can think of three reasons which may have been the tipping point convincing NBC to go forward with the program – although I hope my readers will be able to come up with others that I haven’t considered.

First, Star Trek had garnered some awards recognition at the close of its first season, with five Emmy nominations (including the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series) and a Hugo Award (for “The City on the Edge of Forever”). NBC may have hoped the publicity surrounding this recognition would have translated into increased viewership.

Second, as argued by Solow and Justman in their book, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, at the time the series was produced, RCA was the parent company of NBC, and Star Trek helped sell color television sets for RCA:

In 1966, NBC, at the behest of RCA, commissioned the A.C. Nielsen Company to do a study on the popularity of color television series as opposed to all television series. The results were expected–and very unexpected.

Favorite series were popular whether or not they were viewed in color. For example, NBC’s Bonanza series was a top-rated series on the overall national ratings list as well as on the color ratings list.

However, in December 1966, with Star Trek having been on the air only three months, an NBC executive called with some news. The Nielsen research indicated that Star Trek was the highest-rated color series on television. I distributed the information to the Star Trek staff. We thought it was all very interesting, nothing to write home about, and went back to work. We were wrong; we failed to see the importance of the research

Perhaps those initial and subsequent Nielsen color series ratings contributed to giving Star Trek a second year of life. Putting aside low national ratings and lack of sponsors, perhaps a reason for renewing Star Trek, other than all the phone calls, letters, and demonstrations at NBC, was its position as the top-rated color series on the ‘full color network.’ NBC’s parent company was RCA. Star Trek sold color television sets and made money for RCA.

– Herbert F. Solow, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.305

Third, NBC may have simply had nothing better to replace the series with. Star Trekwasn’t generating huge ratings, but the ratings weren’t disastrous, either, at least not during its first season. According to Television Magazine in 1967:

Disaster…is the shock word in network programming. One of the best ways to avoid it is to put on even a weak grey-area show [a show ranked 30th-70th in the ratings] rather than take a chance with the least promising of the new batch of programs.

Fourth, renewing the series might have made sense because of the overall younger demographic it appealed to, which even in the late 1960s was becoming more important to advertisers. Paul Klein, the vice president of research for NBC, told Television Magazine in 1967 that “a quality audience – lots of young adult buyers – provides a high level that may make it worth holding onto a program despite low over-all [sic] ratings.” He went on to tell the magazine that, “‘quality audiences’ are what helped both Mission Impossible and Star Trek survive another season.” In a later TV Guide interview, Klein specifically mentioned Star Trek again, telling the magazine that the series was renewed in spite of weak ratings, “because it delivers a quality, salable audience…[in particular] upper-income, better-educated males.”

Even one of the writers most recognized for the series, David Gerrold, called “The Man Trap” “The Giant Salt Vampire.” It was not the best first episode the series could have begun with; the first filmed episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” would have been better.

At least the series got going by halfway through the first season, unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation, which took two seasons. (No series with episodes as poor as some of TNG’s were would have survived to two years had it not been for TOS’ post-cancellation popularity.)

Certainly TV critics weren’t fans, as StarTrek.com reveals from newspaper clippings:

They may not have been fans because of what had passed for sci-fi on TV before then, including CBS’ “Lost in Space,” the supposed reason CBS rejected Star Trek. (Interestingly, CBS now owns the Star Trek franchise thanks to being part of the Paramount world; Paramount purchased Lucille Ball’s Desilu studio, the original producer.)

Everything seems obvious in retrospect, and it’s obvious why Star Trek should have been able to be on the air longer. What creator Gene Roddenberry described as “‘Wagon Train‘ to the stars” (referring to an eight-season Western) was an ideal format for whatever kind of episode you wanted — adventure, action, drama, comedy, romance, camp, and whatever “Spock’s Brain” was. The format also allowed old stories (Moby Dick) and movies (“The Enemy Below”) to be recast as outstanding episodes (“The Doomsday Machine” and “Balance of Terror,” respectively). Roddenberry also demonstrated rare (for the period) ingenuity and courage in using the format to explore contemporary issues, including racism and war. (Not sexism, because this was the swinging ’60s.)

The series worked because of the characters Roddenberry created — characters that haven’t been equaled in any Star Trek iteration since then. James T. Kirk is one of the ultimate commanders in fiction. There was no character in fiction like Spock before Spock. In Kirk’s world Spock was his brain and McCoy was his heart. And the other characters as well — the always-loyal and inventive engineer Mr. Scott, Lt. Uhura, whose impact exceeded her role, and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or they could have been had they been used more together), Sulu and Chekov  — if Roddenberry’s work before and after Star Trek left a mixed record (quick: name something else Roddenberry did), Roddenberry hit a grand slam with Star Trek’s characters. (Which is one reason for the negative reaction to the J.J. Abrams reboots — he screwed around with the characters.)

I have written a lot about Star Trek on this blog, including about its failings, including bad economics and an excessively Utopian view of human nature. Another problem specific to the series that premiered 50 years ago tonight was the realities of 1960s TV. NBC at the time was the second-place network unwilling to devote enormous resources to something the suits probably didn’t understand. By the third season Star Trek was already recycling tropes from the first two seasons’ episodes, leading to Gerrold’s description of …

“The Enterprise approaches a planet (…) Kirk, Spock, and McCoy get captured by 6-ft green women in steel brassieres.
“They take away the spacemen’s communicators because they offend the computer-god these women worship.”
“Meanwhile, Scotty discovers that he’s having trouble with the doubletalk generator, and he can’t fix it. The Enterprise will shrivel into a prune in 2 hours unless something is done immediately. But Scotty can’t get in touch with the Captain.”

“Of course he can’t. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have been brought before the high priest of the cosmic computer, who decides that they are unfit to live. All except the Vulcan, who has such interesting ears. She puts Spock in a mind-zapping machine which leaves him quoting 17-syllable Japanese haiku for the next 2 acts.

“McCoy can’t do a damn thing for him. “I’m a doctor, not a critic!” he grumbles. Kirk seduces the cute priestess.”
“On the ship, sparks fly from Chekov’s control panel, and everyone falls out of their chairs. Uhura tries opening the hailing frequencies, and when she can’t, she admits to being frightened… Scotty figures there’s only 15 minutes left. Already the crew members are wrinkling as the starship begins to prune.”

“Down on the planet, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are being held in a dungeon.”
“The girl Kirk’s seduced decides that she has never had it so good in her life and discards all of her years-long training and lifetime-held beliefs to rescue him, conveniently remembering to bring him his communicator and phaser. Abruptly, Spock reveals how hard he has been working to hide his emotions and then snaps back to normal. Thinking logically, he and Kirk then drive the computer crazy with illogic.
“Naturally, it can’t cope, its designers not having been as smart as our Earthmen. (…) It shorts out all its fuses and releases the Enterprise just in time for the last commercial. For a tag, the seduced priestess promises Kirk that she will work to build a new civilization on her planet – just for Kirk – one where steel brassieres are illegal.”

“GREEN PRIESTESSES OF THE COSMIC COMPUTER has no internal conflict; it’s all formula. Kirk doesn’t have a decision to make (…) It’s a compendium of all the bad plot devices that wore out their welcome on too many Star Trek episodes. It’s all excitement, very little story. (…) FORMULA occurs when FORMAT starts to repeat itself. Or when writers are giving less than their best. (…) Flashy devices can conceal the lack for awhile, but ultimately, the lack of any real meat in the story will leave the viewers hungry and unsatisfied.”

By that point Roddenberry was Executive Producer In Name Only, already thinking of his next project. Star Trek’s current existence may be to the credit, almost as much as Roddenberry, as Lucille Ball, whose Desilu Studios produced Star Trek until Paramount purchased Desilu. From all indications, Ball was as ardent a supporter of the series as anyone. (Which makes it too bad that there was never an on-camera role for Ball during the series, though screwball comedy was probably one of the few formats that didn’t fit into the series.)

It should be obvious that Star Trek went far beyond what even its creator, Roddenberry, thought it was capable of doing. Roddenberry was certainly a visionary, but necessarily imperfect, because the future is very difficult to predict, as the fact that we already have communicator- and tricorder-like devices, but we haven’t had a third world war, nor a eugenics war. As I’ve stated before, Roddenberry was, and Star Trek’s most ardent fans are, wrong about at least two things — (1) the idea that economic realities will go away in 300 years even if everything can be made in a replicator, and, even more importantly, (2) the fairytale that human nature will be overcome 300 years from now.
Given all of that, what has happened after Star Trek’s cancellation is nothing short of remarkable. Had you told me upon my fourth birthday, when the last (and arguably worst) TOS episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” aired, that the canceled series would be remade into six movies, four spinoff series (and three movies from the original spinoff), remade in its original premise into three movies, and spawn an entire universe of fan fiction, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about, and neither would have anyone else with more knowledge than a 4-year-old has about the TV business.

At an absolute minimum, Star Trek was entertaining TV, and TV that even in its original iteration stands up better than most of what else was on TV in the late 1960s. Regardless of the series, there is no substitute for good characters and good stories.

 

The important word in “science fiction” is “fiction”

Because there are always naysayers, and because the naysayers are not always wrong, something called The Geek Nerdom has a few negative things to say about “Star Trek: The Next Generation”:

Star Trek: The Next Generation was my first genuine Star Trek series. It appeared when I was in my teens and I was totally taken in about everything. This ranged right from Picard’s serenity to Troi’s diving necklines. I devoured each new episode and couldn’t wait for more. However, I shouldn’t have re-watched the show recently. Here are ten things I detested about the show;

1. Offensively Inoffensive

Interpersonal clash was a relic of the past in Gene Roddenberry’s brain by the 24th Century. This makes for some dreadfully dull viewing especially when the greater part of the regular cast is one huge happy family. They get along well except when one, or many of them, gets possessed by some alien that was simply searching for understanding right from the beginning. TNG is a great therapist-friendly show. It refuses to blame in any direction. It would most likely make for an idealistic culture in which to live, yet not one to set a drama in.

This is the biggest flaw in TNG, though changed in “Deep Space Nine,” although in both cases the interpersonal conflict mostly occurred when the Enterprise types interacted with non-Federation species, or non-Enterprise people, such as Captain Jellico vs. Commander Riker in “Chain of Command” (read here for comments from actor Ronny Cox, who played Jellico) or Riker vs. Commander Shelby in “The Best of Both Worlds” (both two-parters, interestingly), or Riker vs. his father in “The Icarus Agenda.” As I’ve said on this subject before, if you think thousands or millions (depending on your worldview) of years of human nature will be nullified in the next 300 years, you’re mistaken. Whenever you have human interaction, you will have conflict, and conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For that matter, accepting orders without question should be somewhat frightening to contemplate.

From here on, the reasons start to get less and less logical:

2. It Was Clearly A Product Of Its Time

The Next Generation is so much more awful than the first Trek. I don’t mean culturally. However, the visuals: Being shot on video and with special effects that extended from truly cool to truly horrible, the show now looks more like something cheaper and lower quality than the normal Syfy Saturday Night film. This is difficult to get that out your head while you’re viewing it.

Every TV series is a product of its time. The Original Series was a product of the 1960s (hence the female Enterprise crew’s “skorts”); TNG was a product of the 1980s.

3. It’s An Allegory

The original Trek had many allegories. Don’t misunderstand me, yet it felt as if that is all TNG might have been: Every single week, the show would handle a genuine subject with the state of mind of “But it’s happening to aliens.” Thereafter the crew of the Starship Enterprise would come, glare and reprimand aliens like their parents and everything would be over within 60 minutes.

Wrong reason, right rationale. It isn’t that there were too many allegories; it’s “glare and reprimand aliens like their parents.” The moral smugness in the series sometimes got quite overwhelming; it marred one of the best first-season episodes, “The Neutral Zone,” when Picard proclaimed “We have eliminated need.” (Irrespective of the bad economics, but you knew about that.) I used to hate episodes with Q (which included the first and last episodes, plus the introduction to the Borg), but at least Q smacked the Enterprise crew in their moral preens.

4. Very Inoffensive

For a show that was so unequivocally politically right, it was shockingly timid too. Do you recall when the first Trek made TV history by having the first on-screen interracial kiss? Definitely, not at all like that in TNG. Additionally, after the multi-cultural unique cast, the altogether caucasian TNG team appeared like a step taken in reverse. This is particularly considering one of the black on-screen characters played an alien and the other invested a large portion of his energy keeping the engines running.

Well … I’m not sure from this what the writer has in mind. It’s one thing to be “diverse”; should you count cast members’ ethnicities based on their characters (La Forge is black, but there are no Asians) or the actors (Michael Dorn as Worf)? Or: How about following the suggestion of Martin Luther King (a big fan of TOS) to judge others based not on the color of their skin (or what planet they’re from, presumably) but on the content of their character?

5. Riker And Troi: Science Fiction’s Most Passionless Unrequited Love

Better believe it, truth is stranger than fiction: For the majority of their assumed backstory of lovers torn apart because of duty, Riker and Troi figured out how to keep their feelings covered up. They did this by having no chemistry onscreen. I find the actors at fault. However, Jonathan Frakes had a demeanor of steady amusement about him amid everything past the second season. Therefore, the scripting must be blamed too.

I believe Riker and Troi were not supposed to be an item in TNG, in order to be able to (1) have Riker channel his inner Kirk the ladies’ man and (2) have Troi be able to be unattached. I admit to not liking the Worf and Troi romance (if that’s what it was), but they fixed that when Riker and Troi got married in the “Insurrection” movie.

6. Nearly Everything About Data

I realize that this is similar to saying that I abhor Santa Claus. However, Data never truly did anything for me except give deus ex machinas and irritate me. We’d seen the “What does it mean to be… human?” thing before with Spock (and, peculiarly enough, again with Ilya probe in The Motion Picture), and Brent Spiner’s depiction moved from innocent to strangely conceited amid the show’s run, making him even more irritating.

To quote the late John McLaughlin of “The McLaughlin Group”: “WRONG!” So Data was TNG’s Spock. I fail to see what is wrong with that. One would expect a science fiction series to cast at least one alien to observe us humans, wouldn’t you? Data was played sort of as a cross between Spock and, well, a puppy, eager to learn and eager to please. (Well, minus the part about using the floor as a bathroom. I think.) Odo played a similar role in “Deep Space Nine,” and Neelix and eventually Seven of Nine did the same thing in “Voyager.”

7. The Rest Of The Crew

OK, maybe Patrick Stewart can be spared from the storm of “Well, they weren’t the best actors on the planet” hate. However, there truly was a level of acting skills from the regular cast that appeared to support soap opera scale responses to anything unpretentious, enchanting or reasonable. I’m taking a look at you specifically, Michael Dorn. Klingon or not, there was a great deal of howling there.

Well, maybe the directors watched TOS, which was filmed in a day where TV acting was closer to stage acting than movie acting. I can’t say I buy this objection, though some characters were easier to watch (Riker, told by Roddenberry to act like Gary Cooper) than others (“Shut up, Wesley!”).

8. Those Uniforms

I’m sure you agree with this. Especially the main couple of seasons, where they were all wearing those all-in-one things.

The uniforms certainly improved when they became less form-fitting. Maybe by the 23rd and 24th century everyone will be in perfect physical condition, but 20th-century actors are not necessarily so. (See Shatner, William.) Others would argue that the uniforms shouldn’t have deviated from TOS’ palette of greenish-gold for command, red for engineering and the security redshirts (R.I.P.) and blue for science and medical. (For that matter not that many characters died in seven seasons of TNG vs. three seasons of TOS.)

10. It Ruined The Franchise Until JJ Abrams Saved It

The Next Generation changed what had been a series about adventure, exploring and quite goofy into something calmer, genuine and less fun. It took a ton of the imperfections of humankind out of the thoughts behind the show and supplanted it with… well, I don’t know.  Each successive series attempted another trick to fill the gap. You can watch an original Trek and although it’s not perfect, there’s a feeling of excitement and revelation and is convincing to watch. However, The Next Generation has this embarrassing quality to it. It’s as though simply doing sci-fi is excessively lowbrow for its own tastes, thus it’d rather accomplish something more brainy and “important.”

The concept that Abrams “saved” Star Trek with a bad ripoff of TOS is blatantly offensive and demonstrates that the author has as much brainpower as a Morg.  As with every Abrams thing not named “Lost,” Abrams’ approach is to assume that original fans will be satiated by references to the previous series, while doing a shoot-’em-up for today’s attention-span-deprived audiences. Abrams’ second Star Trek movie grotesquely miscast Benedict Cumberbatch, a fine actor who nonetheless looks like neither an Indian (Khan) nor a Hispanic (Ricardo Montalban). His third movie, which swiped the tired trope from the previous Star Trek movies of destroying the Enterprise, has done so poorly at the box office that it may well have killed Star Trek as a movie franchise.

 

Space, the socialist, PC frontier

George Mason University Prof. Ilya Somin writes about the politics of Star Trek, and finds …

Libertarians Should Love That The Good Guys Are Tolerant and Diverse…

Relative to most other science fiction shows—and popular culture shows generally—Star Trek has a long history of addressing political issues in a thoughtful way. Some of its themes are definitely congenial to libertarians, and supporters of liberal values more generally.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stressed the virtues of tolerance and cooperation across racial, ethnic, and national lines.

In the original 1960s series, the bridge crew of the Enterprise includes an Asian, a Russian (included at the height of the Cold War), and a black African, at a time when such diversity in casting was unusual. The inclusion of a black female bridge officer was considered such an important breakthrough for racial equality that Martin Luther King persuaded Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura, to stay on the show when she was thinking of quitting.

Star Trek also featured the first interracial kiss on an American network TV show, and—in the 1990s—one of the first lesbian kisses.

The Federation—the interstellar government that rules earth and numerous alien worlds—seems to successfully incorporate a wide range of cultures and lifestyles, and offers a combination of material abundance and toleration.

Contrast that with the Federation’s rivals, such as the oppressive and homogenous Klingon, Romulan, and Cardassian empires, to say nothing of the totalitarian Borg. Many scenes in the various Star Trek movies and TV series emphasize this difference, and laud the Federation’s tolerant values as a model for the future of humanity.

In a number of ways, the Federation exemplifies a utopian future for humanity, as envisioned by the late-twentieth century American left. In addition to the emphasis on diversity and toleration, Federation leaders, including Star Fleet officers, put a premium on thoughtful deliberation and on negotiation as a preferable alternative to force; though Star Fleet is willing to use force when necessary—especially if it also makes for an exciting plot twist!

….But Hate the Federation’s Socialism

But at least from a libertarian perspective, the otherwise appealing ideological vision of Star Trek is compromised by its commitment to socialism.

The Federation isn’t just socialist in the hyperbolic sense in which some conservatives like to denounce anyone to the left of them as socialist. It’s socialist in the literal sense that the government has near-total control over the economy and the means of production. Especially by the period portrayed in The Next Generation, the government seems to control all major economic enterprises, and there do not seem to be any significant private businesses controlled by humans in Federation territory. Star Fleet characters, such as Captain Picard, boast that the Federation has no currency and that humans are no longer motivated by material gain and do not engage in capitalist economic transactions.

The supposed evils of free markets are exemplified by the Ferengi, an alien race who exemplify all the stereotypes socialists typically associate with “evil capitalists.” The Ferengi are unrelentingly greedy and exploitative. Their love of profit seems to be exceeded only by their sexism—they do not let females work outside the household, even when it would increase their profits to do so.

The problem here is not just that Star Trek embraces socialism: it’s that it does so without giving any serious consideration to the issue. For example, real-world socialist states have almost always resulted in poverty and massive political oppression, piling up body counts in the tens of millions.

But Star Trek gives no hint that this might be a danger, or any explanation of how the Federation avoided it. Unlike on many other issues, where the producers of the series recognize that there are multiple legitimate perspectives on a political issue, they seem almost totally oblivious to the downsides of socialism.

Does Lack of Scarcity Make Good Economics Moot?

Defenders of the series’ portrayal of socialism claim that economic systems are no longer relevant in a “post-scarcity” society. Thanks to the remarkable technology of the replicator, Federation citizens can effortlessly produce almost anything they want, rendering the difference between socialism and capitalism meaningless.

But the world of Star Trek is not in fact one where the problem of scarcity has been overcome. Some crucial goods cannot be replicated. The most obvious are the replicators themselves; in all the many Star Trek TV episodes and films, we never once see them replicate a replicator! The same goes for the dilithium crystals, which power starships. Planetary real estate also apparently cannot be replicated, which is why the Federation and its rivals often fight wars over it.

Just as we enjoy far greater material wealth than our ancestors, so the Star Trek universe is one with vastly greater abundance than what we have today. But that does not mean either we or they have completely overcome scarcity, and thus can ignore issues of economic organization.

The Federation’s Diversity Turns Out to be Only Skin Deep

The uncritical acceptance of socialism may be a manifestation of the Federation’s more general troubling ideological homogeneity. Especially among the human characters, there seems to be remarkably little disagreement over ideological and religious issues. With one important exception (discussed below), few human characters oppose the official Federation ideology, and those few are generally portrayed as fools, villains, or both.

The Federation is a collection of racially and ethnically diverse people who all think alike, at least when it comes to the big issues. The series’ creators likely intended this as an indication of humanity’s future convergence toward the “truth.” But it is also subject to a more sinister interpretation: just as socialism tends to stifle independent economic initiative, it also undermines independent thought.

Both socialism and other political issues are dealt with in a more evenhanded way in Deep Space Nine. That series—the first created after the passing of Gene Rodenberry—raises some serious questions about Federation ideology, and treats some of its opponents sympathetically.

Most notably, it features a favorable portrayal of the Maquis, a group of humans who rebel against the Federation after the government signs a treaty handing over their homes to the oppressive Cardassian Empire. One Maquis leader claims that the Federation is “obsessed” with crushing his movement “because we’ve left the Federation and that’s the one thing you can’t accept.”

Significantly, the name “Maquis” is adapted from French resistance groups who fought against the Nazis.

With the important exception of Deep Space Nine, however, Star Trek’s blindness to the potential dangers of socialism and ideological homogeneity contrasts with its relatively nuanced treatment of many other issues.

Most of the above analysis of Star Trek ideology does not apply to the two recent Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams. They are notable for abandoning serious engagement with political issues in favor of superficial action scenes, punctuated with occasional, equally superficial homages to the original series. Abrams’ Federation and Star Fleet are not noticeably socialist, but neither do they seem to stand for any other political values worth mentioning.

A new Star Trek movie has been released, and CBS is planning a new Star Trek TV series. Hopefully, they will avoid both the superficiality of the Abrams movies, and previous Star Trek series’ uncritical portrayal of socialism.

Well, don’t bet a quatloo on that.

Off the top of my head there are only two TNG episodes in which Starfleet isn’t portrayed as if, to quote from “The Lego Movie,” everything is awesome. The first-season “Conspiracy” portrays several high-ranking Starfleet officers as taken over by an alien. (Unfortunately, nothing was done with this past this episode.) “The Drumhead” features a Starfleet admiral on a Joe McCarthy-like witchhunt. Beyond that there are no episodes like “The Galileo Seven,” in which a Federation high commissioner makes the Enterprise leave before it finds its shuttlecraft and the crew on it; “The Deadly Years,” where a commodore (who, unlike in “The Doomsday Machine,” has never commanded a ship before) who takes over blunders into the Romulan Neutral Zone; or “The Trouble with Tribbles,” where a Federation is too caught up in his self-importance to realize that his assistant is a Klingon spy. (I suppose in the ’60s jabs at authority were considered to be anti-establishment and anti-conservative.)

For that matter, don’t bet a quatloo that the new “Star Trek: Discovery” will be anything but 2016 PC, with plenty of diversity except for intellectual diversity. (Or, for that matter, religion, based on online comments that claim that God is going out the door. Really.)

Trek Movie interviewed several representatives of the new and previous series:

[Executive producer Heather] Kadin confirmed to Trekmovie.com that Discovery would feature female, minority, and LGBTQ characters as she felt modern television did not accurately represent those groups in television shows featuring predominantly-caucasian casts. On the subject of LGBTQ characters specifically, Kadin commented that “is something that’s very important to Bryan [Fuller], and very important to all of us to portray.” …

Kadin: I think, sadly, still if you look at most television today, it’s pretty caucasian, and I’m fortunate enough to produce a show called Sleepy Hollow and in our first season there were more African-Americans in our cast than there were caucasians, and a lot of people talked about that. I think, at the time, it was called groundbreaking, which is sort of sad because it really reflected our country and so, on one hand, I think Gene Roddenberry’s original vision reflected what the world looked like more than what a lot of television does today. So hopefully our show can remind people that it should be that way and, hopefully in the future, we can all be together. …

TM: Talking about the new show and how it is really going to carry on the Star Trek legacy, yourself and the rest of the cast and crew talked about in the junket how Star Trek is all about inspiring people and pushing boundaries. As Star Trek hasn’t been on television for over a decade now, what, in 2017, new boundaries should we be pushing in the new show?

Michael Dorn: I think they had it correct. We’re at a place in our society where there was a lot of hope back in the 60s and 70s about where we would be in the 2000s, and I think we haven’t lived up to that hope. I think that that is, from what I hear…this is the first I’ve really heard from the producers about what they want to do…I think that’s very important. Science Fiction in the 60s always pushed boundaries because it was science-fiction, and it wasn’t mainstream so it was kind of like relegated to, yeah, you know, b-movies, but The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone really, really tackled some major issues and I think that’s what the original Star Trek did, and that’s what these guys are going to do because they really have a passion for it, and I think it’s a good idea because if it’s not going to come from science-fiction, then it’s not going to come from anything else. I think, hopefully, they’re going to be allowed to push those boundaries as much as you can and, you know…personally, I think the boundaries need to be pushed always. I think that we think of New York and LA as America, but that’s not America. America is the center of the country and it seems that they need their boundaries pushed.

TM: I always say that Trek seems to work best when the network are biting their fingers over what the producers want to do…

Dorn: Oh my god, yes. Like, you know, “are you sure you want to do that?!” And the thing is, they [the networks] have to realize that the world is not going to get sucked into a black hole if you see a black and a white woman kissing. You know, I’m sorry but…I went to school in San Francisco from 1973 to 1976 and people were gay and it was no big deal. And people now go, “did you see that interracial kiss?” “Did you see that two women were kissing?” And I’m going, “Are you kidding me? That’s not weird.” And here we are in 2016 and people are freaked.

TM: Hopefully we can change that.

Dorn: I think so, and if Star Trek can’t change it…then I’m moving to Australia, I don’t know…

Well, I do. (Dorn apparently took his cultural snobbery pills the morning of the interview, and now we now what he thinks about flyover country.) According to the new series’ producers 23rd-century human beings are all about whatever identity we feel like having, instead of each of us being individuals dependent on each other for our very lives in a universe that is filled with wonders great and small, but is also dangerous and deadly. (Which outer space is supposed to be, right?)

A mature society would say do your job, and what you do on your time is your business and not anyone else’s, but that’s not the future, apparently. Apparently in the future everyone identifies ___self on genitalia and dating preferences instead of, say, character. Based on that I’m glad I won’t be living that long. Nor will I probably be watching, because I’m not going to pay to watch a poor Star Trek series.

 

Uniformly original Star Trek

With the 50th anniversary of the original (and best) Star Trek coming up Sept. 8, Esquire decided to look at its 23rd-century 1966 look:

In “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” an episode of the original Star Trek, the good ship Enterprise accidentally time warps back to 20th Century Earth. A gung-ho U.S. Air Force colonel captures our hero Captain Kirk and, upon giving him the once-over, snarls, “What is that? Is that a uniform of some kind?”

“This little thing?” replies a coy William Shatner. “Something I slipped on.”

Actually, it was a lot more.

In today’s over-the-top world of fantasy entertainment, where everyone from Batman on down wears self-conscious, rubbery body armor, there is something reassuringly relaxed and classic about the original Star Trek uniform. Trekkies still embrace that quality as the 50th anniversary of the premiere of their beloved NBC series approaches on September 8.

The original look was blue for science (Spock, left), red for engineering and communications (Scott, right, and Uhura, third from right) and gold for command (navigator Chekov and helmsman Sulu seated in front of Captain Kirk).

“You go to a convention,” said Tod Sturgeon of Auburn, Washington, “and there are all these people in different costumes, and you say, ‘Well, I’ll have to research that.’ But when you walk in wearing a Starfleet uniform, there’s just no question. Everyone says, ‘Captain!'”

Credit the designer, William Ware Theiss. He took his cue from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who envisioned a blissful United Federation of Planets with only quasi-military garb aboard its otherwise mighty starships.

“Gene wanted something on the order of a shirtsleeve environment,” said Star Trek story editor Dorothy Fontana. “It was more like being around the house than being around the ship.”

Theiss’ final product was sleek and trim, with no pockets or visible fasteners to disrupt the clean lines. The single arrowhead breast insignia constituted decorative minimalism, and the limited use of wavy rank braids didn’t clutter your forearm. Still, you could tell your superior and inferior officers at a glance. In most Star Trek spin-offs, by contrast, tiny pins and pips signify your standing—a strain on the eyes of viewers and crew alike.

The uniform’s tripartite color scheme delineated functions vividly: Gold was for command, blue for sciences, and red for engineering and support services (including, of course, all those doomed security guards). Not only did the bright hues explode on the small screen, they set off the uniform’s black bottom half smashingly. Mid-calf trousers made the leg look longer, while the high-topped boots were perfect for unexplored alien terrain. The combination was altogether unfamiliar and futuristic without being outlandish.

The materials themselves were otherworldly: Theiss used a stretch cotton velour for the tops and, in the last two seasons, a black Dacron with a sprinkling of iridescent silver fleck for the pants. Both emitted a subtle, subliminal glitter of stardust under the bright studio lights. (Alas, “that rotten velour,” as many insiders called it, shrank when laundered. So in the series’ third and final season, a nylon double-knit was substituted.)

Like Theiss himself—a reclusive, humorless man who died of AIDS in 1992—the uniform was quirky. The command tunics were green in real life but photographed and transmitted over the small screen as gold. And all of the tops, no matter what their designation, featured a raglan construction that concealed an invisible zipper along the left front seam. Naturally, this novel arrangement often jammed and broke.

“That zipper was weird,” said Shatner’s stand-in, Eddie Paskey, who played the red-shirted Lieutenant Leslie in many episodes. “It started at the neck and went down to your armpit.”

Paskey also recalled that despite the lack of pockets, the pants had a small hidden slot, inside at the beltline. “You could put a few folded dollars in there so you could go to the commissary.” James Doohan, a.k.a. Scotty, used the enclosure to stash cigarettes.

Some of Theiss’ wardrobe decisions were determined by sheer necessity; he used material that was cheap and available. “We had very little time,” said co-producer Robert H. Justman, “and even less money.”

And the colors themselves “were chosen purely for technical reasons,” the designer confessed. “We tried to find three colors for the shirts that would be as different from each other as possible in black and white as well as color.”

Remember, this was the Age of Aquarius, when bold hues reigned supreme and NBC was billing itself as the “full-color network.” You can also see nods to the costumes’ 1960s heritage in the boots’ go-go contour, especially their Cuban heels. The flared trousers even suggested the evolution of bell-bottoms.

Beyond the prevailing cultural mood, Roddenberry’s working kit entailed some heavy ergonomic thinking. “No matter how many times NASA described the outfit of the future,” he once quipped, “it always sounded like long underwear.”

“Gene’s idea was that a replicator would redo the clothes every day,” said Andrea Weaver, a Star Trek women’s costumer. “In his mind, the crew would go in and the clothes would materialize, molded to the body form.”

That form was all-important. “Roddenberry’s theory,” said Joseph D’Agosta, the casting director, “was that by the 23rd Century, diet would be down to a science and everyone would be thin.”

Unfortunately, 20th Century reality didn’t always match 23rd Century fitness. “We found ourselves having to stay away from longer shots wherever possible,” Roddenberry observed, “as the simple plain lines of our basic costume render most unflattering any extra poundage around the waist.”

Shatner, who exercised fiercely but tended to gain weight, found that out the hard way. “As the season progressed and time passed,” recalled Justman, “the top of his pants and the bottom of his tunic moved inexorably away from each other as they got smaller and he got larger…The eternally slim Leonard Nimoy [Mr. Spock] and DeForest Kelley [Dr. McCoy] were much easier to outfit.”

Others had their own problems with the look. “Personally, I didn’t like the flare legs,” Doohan griped. “I thought that they came on kind of fey.” At least one director agreed. Running over a certain script, he intoned, “OK, our team materializes on the planet in their ballet pants.”

And George Takei—the unflappable helmsman Lieutenant Sulu—wasn’t exactly enamored of the boots. “We weren’t used to wearing high heels,” he said recently, “and I began complaining about this ache in my foreleg. And DeForest said, ‘I have the same ache.’ Then Jimmy chimed in. And we deduced it was the heel.”

On the whole, though, Takei thought the uniform “a joy,” especially when compared with its fussy, complicated big-screen variants. “You just jumped into it and pulled the sweatshirt over you.”

“If you were looking for a new pair of pajamas, you could look to that uniform,” chuckled Walter Koenig, who as the navigator Ensign Chekov manned the command console with Takei. “It never registered that it would become iconic.”

Just the same, he said, “It was a very simple design and did not take away from the person in it. It’s not something you would find yourself experiencing to the exclusion of the performance. It doesn’t feel like we were trying to overwhelm somebody with a sci-fi element.”

Ultimately, said Takei, the garb was a mere extension of something far more important.

“Gene Roddenberry had a utopian, peaceful, diverse vision of the future,” he reflected. “That’s what viewers responded to. That’s why the show has endured. And that’s why the costumes have endured.”

They endured in the J.J. Abrams reboot, another sign of how Abrams makes enough references to the original form of his remakes to make the viewer forget that no one is acting as they should.

To quote Costume & Culture:

J. J. Abrams’ Star-Trek Into Darkness, and the forthcoming After Earth(Shyamalan, 2013), are reminders of how film and TV so often depicts future fashion as skimpy or skin-tight. The uniforms in Abram’s recent Star Trekrevival have progressed from previous versions, but retain the hallmarks of the originals. The men’s uniforms have a mesh outer layer, reminiscent of moisture-wicking sportswear. The female uniforms are more precise replicas of the  originals, with miniskirts and knee-high boots. …

Science is also transforming the way we create clothes. Clothes have historically been produced by sewing flat shapes of fabric together, thereby transforming multiple flat shapes into a single three-dimensional shape. New technologies are beginning to make sewing obsolete. Issey Miyake has established a research institute in Toyko with the aim of exploring new possibilities in fabric and garment creation. This research has yielded new bonding methods that may change our approach to garment manufacture. As in A-POC (a complete outfit that is manufactured at once, from a tube of fabric), the acts of weaving fabric and sewing pieces together are no longer separate processes. The weaving of the fabric and the bonding of the layers can be a single automatic process. There is no sewing, and therefore no seams.

A collaboration between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art resulted in the invention of Fabrican, a spray-on-fabric. Fabrican canisters contain wet fibres which may be sprayed directly onto the surface of the body. … As the fibres dry, they bond, forming a single piece of flexible shaped fabric[2]. Spray-on-fabric has the potential to revolutionise the fashion industry. As it is sprayed directly onto the body, it removes the issue of sizing from the dressmaking process. It also changes the way that garments may be repaired. In order to fix a rip or tear, more fabric may be sprayed to invisibly seal the hole.

Fabrican is like a second skin: tight-fitting and seamless. This gives credence to the theory that skin-tight garments may become more common, and provides further evidence that future fashion is likely to be seam-free. As in the reinvented Man of Steel (2013) costume, and wetsuits in Star Trek Into Darkness, clothes may be moulded to fit our bodies perfectly.

I had not heard of Fabrican before this. It looks like another example of how technology has moved faster than Star Trek predicted.

About gold: It wasn’t. Star Trek Myths explains:

Contrary to most people’s perception of what Captain Kirk’s original command division tunic looks like, the costume worn by William Shatner on Star Trek (1966) was actually not the color of gold or mustard, but a shade of avocado green! In order to create a uniform design that photographed gold on original 60s film stock and under the lighting conditions on set, costume designer William Ware Theiss had to use a greenish hue when he dyed the velour for the uniforms. “It photographed one way – burnt orange or a gold. But in reality was another; the command shirts were definitely green”, Theiss recalls in an interview.

Contemporary versions of the uniform as costumes, however, try to emulate the gold look of the television appearance rather than replicate the authentic (but ultimately false looking) lime green color. Below is a comparison of how the uniform appeared on television and how the original costume actually looks under more normal lighting.

In case that wasn’t green enough (and evidently it wasn’t; read the longer explanation here), Kirk got three additional outfits …

… which actor William Shatner didn’t care for due to their wrap design, intended to obscure Shatner’s, uh, horizontal growth. (On the other hand, the green wraps are almost all from the best Star Trek episodes. The wrap disappeared in the third season, which says something about the quality of third-season episodes.)

It may interest those who haven’t stopped reading already that what followed the original Star Trek got away from Roddenberry’s only-as-military-as-necessary look. The first Star Trek movie made one think we were in the process of evolving away from color:

If you’ve read this far, you undoubtedly are aware of the Legend of the Redshirts — that red-shirted Enterprise crew inevitably died during the episode, memorialized in …

Well, for the second movie and thereafter …

… everyone was a redshirt of sorts, explained by Empire Online:

Determined to make a change, Robert Fletcher stayed on as costume designer for the next three movies. The uniforms went back to a more military style for The Wrath Of Khan, with the main cast wearing burgundy jackets with overlapping lapels that they could dramatically rip open if their character was called upon to look tired or stressed out. The change in colour scheme, by the way, was not so much for design reasons as because the new uniforms were actually the old uniforms from The Motion Picture, dyed to a dark red (picked because it was the best dye that actually stuck to the Motion Picture costume fabrics).

Budgetary serendipity struck again, and the burgundy colour, combined with a variety of Naval-inspired turtlenecks, stuck around until the Star Trek movie torch was passed on to Captain Picard and the Next Generation crew. With the exception of the casual-looking suede bomber jackets worn when characters beamed down to an alien planet, the 1980s uniforms didn’t date too badly — mostly because they largely adhere to what we think of as a traditional military dress uniform. The boxy tailoring is more formal than anything seen earlier in the series, and details like vertical stripes down the side of the trousers are a direct reference to real-world military traditions.

For The Next Generation and beyond, red and gold were flipped.

 

Star Trek before (or instead of) Kirk

They Boldly Went (the non-infinitive past-tense, or something) writes about Star Trek with its original captain, who was not played by William Shatner:

One of the main (and some would say the single largest) difference between “The Cage” and what came after is the man sitting in the center seat. Originally named Robert April (and then changed to James Winter for a single draft), the character that would become Christopher Pike was created with a very different actor in mind: Lloyd Bridges.

Roddenberry reported in The Star Trek Interview Book that he approached Bridges even before he’d written “The Cage,” because he had a definite sort of captain in mind, someone who could pull off military gravitas but still have sufficient charm to be compelling for the audience. Bridges, however, wasn’t interested in doing science fiction, which at the time meant Flash Gordon serials and Captain Video to the vast majority of people in the entertainment industry.

Among the forty or so actors that Roddenberry looked at seriously were Peter Graves, Robert Loggia, Jack Lord, Leslie Nielsen and even William Shatner, but that certain something that Roddenberry wanted was missing. Majel Barrett even recommended that he talk to James Coburn, but the man who would become Flint was at first rejected because he was judged insufficiently sexy by the production team.

After some reconsideration, though, Coburn’s name appeared a second list of names submitted to NBC that included Patrick O’Neal and Jeffrey Hunter, an actor whose most famous role had been playing John Wayne’s nephew in the western classic The Searchers. Despite the fact that Coburn and O’Neal elicited “a strong reaction” from the NBC team, Roddenberry thought Hunter had a magnetism and coolness that the role required. He even joked that Hunter’s performance as Christ in the 1961 bomb King of Kings meant that he could easily command a starship.

When we watch “The Cage” now, it’s immediately obvious how different Christopher Pike is from the man who’d succeed him in the center seat. We see a man who’s burdened by command, someone who is haunted by the deaths of two crewmembers in the recent past and is actually considering resigning his commission instead of continuing to send young people to death.

At the time, Roddenberry and director Robert Butler believed Hunter perfectly embodied the character that’d been conceived from the beginning as a far-future Horatio Hornblower, a complex personality whose drive and position alienated him from the rest of the crew. Even as he experienced the loneliness of command, Pike’s character was written to feel the plights of others. Hunter’s sober, deliberate performance is fine (especially in the context we’re used to seeing it now), but it’s easy to see how the network found his calculating, thoughtful manner off-putting.

Despite the network’s notes on the matter, Roddenberry and his team wanted to keep Hunter in the center seat and refit the character and the show around him. Hunter’s wife Barbara felt otherwise and let her feelings be known almost as soon as the pilot screening at Desilu ended. She thought her husband was above science fiction and pressured him to walk away.

Within two weeks of the pilot’s screening, Hunter wrote to Roddenberry to let him know that he wasn’t going to continue with the project despite the fact that NBC had made the unprecedented decision to give the show another shot. Roddenberry’s return correspondence shows the esteem with which he held the actor. He wrote: “I am told you have decided not to go ahead with Star Trek. This has to be your decision, of course, and I must respect it. You may be certain I hold no grudge or ill feelings and expect to continue to reflect publicly and privately the high regard I learned for you during the production of our pilot.”

A second pilot was commissioned and the production team went back to its list of performers to see who might be the next captain of the Enterprise. Once again, Lloyd Bridges and Jack Lord were considered (with the former getting his second offer after Roddenberry screened “The Cage” for him to prove how Trek would be different) but it was William Shatner who got the role that would define his career.

Hunter’s career was in freefall after Star Trek, dominated by appearances in foreign-made B-movies like 1969’s Viva America. He auditioned for the role of Mike Brady inThe Brady Bunch in 1968 but lost to Robert Reed. Hunter’s last TV appearance was on an episode of Insight in 1969.

On a flight back from filming in Spain, Hunter suffered stroke-like symptoms with paralysis in his right arm and loss of speech. Doctors believed that injuries he’d received on the set of the movie may have caused them, Shortly after, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and fell in his home. He died during surgery to repair the skull fracture that he suffered, just one week before “Turnabout Intruder,” Star Trek’s final episode, was aired.

Captain Pike and science officer Spock, who seemed to have usual human emotions …
… unlike the Enterprise’s first officer, known in the pilot as “Number One.” Has anyone seen her and Nurse Chapel in the same room at the same time?

“Book ’em, Spock”? No, that wouldn’t have worked, though Lord certainly would have had command presence. (Recall that in “Hawaii Five-O” Steve McGarrett was a former naval commander in intelligence.) Bridges would have been a different captain than either Hunter or Shatner, though roles are written for the actors playing them.

Nielsen, on the other hand, had already done science fiction, the classic “Forbidden Planet,” which certainly inspired Roddenberry.

It’s impossible to say what kind of captain Hunter would have been based on one pilot. On the other hand, Shatner would have played the first pilot differently from Hunter. The scene with Pike and the keeper where Pike finally captures him is intensely done:

(The group is apparently dozing when the Magistrate opens the hatch to get the laser pistols Pike dropped there. He grabs him and pulls him into the cage, and starts to throttle him)
PIKE: Now you hold still, or I’ll break your neck.
VINA: Don’t hurt them. They don’t mean to be evil.
PIKE: I’ve had some samples of how good they are.
(the Talosian appears to be a vicious monster)
PIKE: You stop this illusion, or I’ll twist your head off. (it stops) All right, now you try one more illusion, you try anything at all, and I’ll break your neck.
MAGISTRATE: Your ship. Release me or we’ll destroy it.
VINA: He’s not bluffing, Captain. With illusion they can make your crew work the wrong controls or push any button it takes to destroy your ship.
PIKE: I’m going to gamble you’re too intelligent to kill for no reason at all.
(Pike hands the Magistrate over to Number One and picks up the laser pistols, firing them at the glass wall. Then he puts one to the Magistrate’s head)
PIKE: On the other hand, I’ve got a reason. I’m willing to bet you’ve created an illusion this laser is empty. I think it just blasted a hole in that window and you’re keeping us from seeing it. You want me to test my theory out on your head?

Remember that NBC rejected the first pilot for being “too cerebral.” Hunter looks like he’s either going to fire the laser or shove it through the Magistrate’s skull.

It’s interesting that the author brings up Horatio Hornblower, and the book Hornblower seems to accurately describe Pike. The movie Hornblower (played by Gregory Peck), however, accurately describes Kirk. Peck’s Hornblower is not “alienated from his crew” like the novels’ Hornblower is. Kirk might be closer to an excellent naval model for a starship captain, Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, though Aubrey had not been created yet when Star Trek premiered.

All this comes to mind with not only the 50th anniversary of The Original Series, but the new series coming up. Read here if you want my input on what the new series should and shouldn’t have.

Star Trek vs. Star Trek vs. Star Trek

Ben Branstetter compares the original Star Trek, the three reimagined movies, and the future TV series:

While one might think the re-energized intro could bring “fun” to the Star Trek universe, many geeks expressed dismay at the new, hip turn for a franchise entering its fifth decade. …

Unlike most Hollywood fare, Star Trek, for most of its existence on screens big and small, has kept and renewed one of the most rabid fan bases on Earth with smart, cerebral plots dense with backstory, character development, and moralistic musings. The TV series, especially, have been notably free of the kinds of action scenes that have filled their competitors and would today stand in stark contrast to the CGI-heavy worlds of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones.

That contrast will hopefully come to light sooner rather than later as CBS prepares to reintroduce Star Trek to the airwaves with a brand new TV series, the first sinceStar Trek: Enterprise ended its mediocre run in 2005. As The Guardian’s Luke Holland noted upon the announcement of the reboot, the series tradition in tackling the human condition through analogy and debate may pale in our action-packed present. “Viewed from the post–Breaking Bad TV landscape of 2015,”writes Holland, “at their worst–and apologies to any Trekkies out there–they were sometimes ponderous, pious and slightly dull.”

A rush to keep young people on broadcast television has encouraged a newfound wave of TV shows based on geek culture standbys saturated in special effects, violence, and action sequences–network shows like Arrow, Gotham, The Flash, and Agents of SHIELD are creating an entire generation of comic book fans who have never opened a comic book, and the reboot of the Star Wars universe will soon come to your TV or streaming device, as well.

If you line up any of the Star Trek TV series on your Netflix queue in parallel with any one of these shows, the difference becomes clear. Star Trek has always been episodic and philosophical, even breaking political ground as it opened audiences to new and challenging ideas. The top-rated shows of this “Golden Age” are serial, building tension and relationships with audiences over entire seasons The first series became famous for tackling issues about race and inequality, featuring one of the most diverse casts on TV.

Which is not to say a show can’t do these things while including a few stunt sequences, but the two qualities often find themselves at odd with one another.

A warning for the writers of this latest Star Trek series should lie within the last season of Game of Thrones. Based on the immersive and literary A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, the HBO show retains a massive following despite being a story primarily about politics. As showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been forced to go off-script from the books (fans await the sixth installment of the book series with intensely baited breath), however, the fifth season became more filled with gratuitous rape and violence as well as lengthy, choreographed battle scenes. In short, what was once an intelligent, complex show about the ethics of leadership and the cost of war has refocused on sensationalized tactics verging on smut.

Such a road is a nightmare for most Trek fans, but the newly-released trailer seems to indicate no disdain among CBS and Paramount for rollicking sci-fi blockbusters. While one could imagine a situation in which CBS and Paramount (the studio licensed to produce the two previous entries into the Star Trek film canon) would keep one tone on film and another on television, it doesn’t seem likely. CBS announced the new series will be headed by Alex Kurtzman co-writer and producer for 2009’s similarly tense Star Trek (directed by new Star Warsdirector J.J. Abrams) and Heather Kadin, producer on shows like Matador, Sleepy Hollow, and Limitless.

Those are not comparisons that might be welcome to fans of one of the oldest franchises in American television. But relying on dense arguments, sprawling backstory, and space operatics while still remaining entertaining is risky–any writer could easily come across as preachy rather than academic, heavy-handed rather than scholarly. By taking the film series and, potentially, its new TV series in a more modern direction, CBS could be saving the franchise from obscurity.

There remains something to be said, however, for what will be lost. Science fiction has long been a genre for toying with big ideas about philosophy, ethics, politics, or society. While writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Arthur C. Clarke used the genre to such ends on the page, Gene Roddenberry and the original Star Trek series brought big concepts out of the pages of pulp magazines and into the average American living room. As we encounter science fiction concepts in real life–mass surveillance, virtual reality, gene editing, transhumanism, artificial intelligence–it’s easy to see how the world could benefit from a thoughtful version of the show instead of yet another computerized festival of explosions and stunts.

 

My Trek

As you previously read, a new Star Trek TV series of some sort is coming to CBS’ new streaming service.

I decided after noticing the length of the earlier post (about the same time as it takes for the Enterprise to get toward the Andromeda galaxy, even with the Kelvans and most of the crew reduced to tetrahedrons) that my thoughts about the next Star Trek should go into another post.

(That, and reading the Washington Post’s post’s comments, which included the unwelcome insertion of politics along with this idiocy: “I’m one to eye-roll at runaway progressivism in 2015 but it’s right at home in Star Trek. In fact, getting rid of firm genders (both physiological and psychological) all together would be a very interesting facet of the future.” The second part of that statement seems to the first assertion.)

What many people with a Star Trek opinion appear to forget is this: This is a TV series viewed by early 21st century people. The original had a ’60s sensibility because … guess what? It was written and performed by late ’60s human beings! Even if Trekkies, or Trekkers, or those who watch Star Trek are more, shall we say, utopian than the median, there are some things that will not cut it in the early 21st century. (See the idiotic statement about gender one paragraph ago.)

There is a valid argument for the Post’s post’s position of setting the new series in the mid-22nd century. Given the connection long-time Trek viewers have to the existing characters (even if it’s impossible to bring them back because the actors are dead), redoing one of the five series seems likely only to alienate Trek fans while not necessarily bringing in new fans. That means a new ship, probably, and definitely new characters. Whatever problems the successors to The Original Series have had, they weren’t really tied to the existence of new characters.

Going to the mid-22nd century, which is the setting of the last Star Trek series, “Enterprise,” would, from what I read online (and yes, we are talking about events written in the past about one or more centuries from now), be about the time the earliest iteration of Starfleet encountered both the Klingons and the Romulans.

The other thing going to the 22nd century would do is get the new series past the excessive utopianism of The Next Generation. That includes, but is not limited to, economics. Jonathan Newman points out:

With the recent successes and announcements of sci-fi movies and TV shows like The MartianInterstellar, and new incarnations of Star Trek and Star Wars, no one can deny that we crave futurism and stretching our imagination on what advanced technology can accomplish. Many look to the example of these fictional worlds as an indication of what life might be like when technology can provide for all of our basic needs, a condition some call “post-scarcity.”

The same people call on dramatic government interventions to make sure everybody can earn a “living wage” when robots and automation do all of the producing. They say that “post-scarcity” conditions will completely overturn economies and even economics itself.

But, scarcity can never be eliminated because our infinite human wants will always outnumber the means available in this finite universe. Scarcity is found even in the shows and movies that supposedly represent worlds without scarcity.

A prime example of what is meant by “post-scarcity” and its contrast to present-day is presented in theStar Trek: The Next Generation series.

In the final episode of the first season, the Enterprise happens upon an “ancient” vessel floating through space. Lt. Commander Data and Security Officer Worf find three humans from Earth, frozen in cryonic chambers for 400 years, which gives the twenty-fourth century crew a chance to interact with people from the viewers’ time period.

One of these late twentieth-century humans, Ralph Offenhouse, was preoccupied with regaining control over what he expected to be a gigantic fortune from a 400-year-old stock portfolio. Indeed, one of the first things he asked for after being thawed and resuscitated was a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

Captain Picard informed him that “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

The show paints a Marxist picture of how humans arrived at being able to warp across space with food replicators and beaming devices and all sorts of technology that renders even our early twenty-first-century scramble for scarce resources a mere curiosity.

During centuries that stretch between the crew of the Enterprise and their time capsule visitors, technology changed in such a way to abundantly provide for people’s material needs. Therefore human society phased out of capitalism and trade and into socialism, which Karl Marx predicted in his theory of history. …

Unfortunately for all of us, however, scarcity isn’t going anywhere. And the only way to maximize human want satisfaction with a limited pool of resources is with unhampered markets: private property and prices. Scarcity is a fundamental fact of our universe — we are bound to it by physical laws and logic.

Scarcity is even present in the fictional Star Trek universe, as well as self-ownership and private property. In the very same episode, Captain Picard and the crew have a tense confrontation with the Romulans, who have invaded Federation space. Both parties were investigating the destruction of some of their outposts in the “Neutral Zone.” Space is not only the final frontier, but apparently ownable. The Romulan and Federation outposts are also scarce and owned.

When Ralph Offenhouse wandered onto the main bridge during this confrontation, Captain Picard ordered security officers to “Get him off my bridge!”

We can’t even conceive of a fictional universe with no scarcity. There can be no time, space, or anything that has any limited capabilities in satisfying our desires. Such a universe would be timeless, incorporeal, and all satisfying. It’s hard to imagine a TV show based in such a universe because there could be no conflict for the characters to overcome.

What Manu Saadia and Noah Smith mean by “post-scarcity,” then, is just that some things are more abundant than before. But this prospect does not mean the end of economics, because even today many goods are more abundant than they have been in the past.

No matter what, individuals will still be making choices about how to use the resources that are scarce. We may make things relatively less scarce, but we can never repeal scarcity as a fundamental condition of our universe.

Suppose every household in the world has all of their biological needs abundantly satisfied. Food is provided by replicators like those on the Enterprise. Everybody has as at least as much shelter as they need. Super-medicines and all health services are easily provided with the touch of a button in your own home.

All this means is that people can pursue other ends besides survival, like art, entertainment, learning, or simple relaxation. Our demand for goods and services does not stop once we are at subsistence levels of consumption. This is obviously true for anybody with the means to read this article.

Also, there may be demand for food and other goods specifically made by human hands even when robots or replicators could have made something identical or more precisely machined at a lower cost. We see this today, and we are far from Star Trek.

Sometimes we like knowing something was made in a certain way, and this translates into demand for goods with a specific, usually labor-intensive, production process. Craft and hand-made trade fairs are common, even when many of the items offered are mass-produced elsewhere.

Toward the end of the episode, when Ralph Offenhouse is reeling in an existential crisis, he asks Captain Picard about the purpose of twenty-fourth-century life if it’s not “accumulating wealth”:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Material needs no longer exist.
Ralph Offenhouse: Then what’s the challenge?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.

What Picard doesn’t realize is that improving and enriching yourself, even with the Enterprise’s mission: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before” involves the use of scarce, material resources, like starships, starship crews, planets to explore, communicators, teleportation machines, phasers, and warp drives.

Picard also doesn’t realize how wealthy he is. Wealth is the ability to satisfy ends, and his spot on theEnterprise makes him enormously wealthy, with all the replicators and the holodeck (environment simulator) and the instant access to top-notch medical care. For someone who rejects accumulating wealth, he has accumulated a lot of it.

Although biological needs may be abundantly satisfied, human desires outnumber the stars.

Even the Enterprise demonstrates scarcity. Robert P. Murphy demonstrates from episodes:

For example, in “The Galileo Seven,” Spock must make difficult command decisions when the shuttlecraft is stranded on a planet. Yet, the suspense in the episode derives from Galactic High Commissioner Ferris bickering with Kirk over how long they should continue searching for the landing party while the plague-ridden people of Makus III await the medical supplies the Enterprise is delivering. There is obvious conflict because of the trade-off involved: despite the wonderful ship at his command, Kirk (it seems) must choose between his stranded friend and the planet of sick strangers.

Indeed, even though the opening sequence of each episode mentions seeking out new life and civilizations, and of course “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” the Enterprisequite often is tasked with delivering physical supplies to various people. The famous episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” with the white/black-faced men, involved a medical mission to decontaminate a planet. In the Next Generation series, the memorable episode “Brothers” involved Lieutenant Commander Data seizing control of the Enterprise when he is summoned by his creator. The situation is dire because a very sick child (accidentally placed in his predicament by his brother) cannot be cured of a parasite while on the Enterprise, and time is running out.

So we see that it is a common theme in Star Trek for people to argue over how the ship should be used, and often people will die from illness depending on whose will prevails. Whether they have a 24th-century version of Obamacare is irrelevant; there is definitely scarcity there, and it operates just like scarcity today.

Even the technology in the Star Trek universe is not a given; it is a response to incentives. For example, in the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” the crew goes into a different timeline where Lieutenant Tasha Yar is still alive (she had been killed off in the first season when the actress asked to be let out of her contract). In this timeline, the Federation has been at war with the Klingons all along. At one point, Yar says, “Deflector shield technology has advanced considerably during the war. Our heat dissipation rates are probably double those of the Enterprise-C, which means we can hang in a firefight a lot longer.” Thus we see that the capabilities of the Enterprise-D — the ship commanded by Jean-Luc Picard — are themselves dependent on the preferences of the humans who own it and the associated resources.

Economics is one problem, but not the only one, with Star Trek from TNG onward. The TNG producers apparently were convinced by Roddenberry, or something, that there would be no interpersonal conflict either. That is more ridiculous than Trekonomics, for two reasons. First, it’s bad for stories. TOS featured plenty of conflict between Spock and McCoy, or between Kirk and an episode’s antagonists. The Enterprise crew was professional enough to not let the vagaries of interpersonal relations affect ship operations. (As it is, TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had to import conflict from the aliens our heroes encountered.) And, obviously, if humans haven’t really changed in thousands to millions of years (depending on your views of evolution), they’re not going to change significantly in 300 years. (More than the bad economics, the moral preening of many TNG episodes made that series subpar to TOS.)

The problem with setting the new Star Trek in the early Klingon/Romulan conflict days is that it runs the risk of making the series too similar to the rebooted (and hated by Trek fans) movies, which are derided as shoot-em-ups with phasers. Independent of screwing around with what the characters should be like (Kirk was not an immature punk in TOS, and Spock was not unable to control his emotions), the science fiction in the reboot has consisted only of gadgets in the hands of the bad guys (“red matter” in the first movie and the Dreadnought in the second). No exploration, no discovery, no commentary on the human condition.

Two things make any TV series worth watching, or not — characters and stories. One facet of TOS I liked, but was used far too infrequently, was the byplay between Lt. Sulu and Ensign Chekov, who sat next to each other on the bridge. In “Amok Time” they commented on setting, and then unsetting, and then setting again course to Vulcan. In “The Deadly Years” Chekov complains about undergoing every possible medical test because he’s not aging while the rest of the landing party is. It was like watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “MacBeth.”

More famously, TOS had Spock and Dr. McCoy, who spent three seasons arguing with each other. (TNG tried to duplicate that with second-season Dr. Pulaski and Data, but it didn’t work.) TNG had Data, the android trying to become human, and Geordi LaForge. The quality of the characters and their interrelationships can overcome bad stories (see the third season of TOS); arguably the best thing about TNG, particularly early, was the characters. Even the darker Deep Space 9 featured Odo the shape-shifting security chief and Quark, through whom greed flowed like blood flows through humans.

Others have noted that it was illogical (get it?) for the most valuable officers of a ship to go down to a planet and risk their lives when you’ve got junior officers to do that. Coast Guard cutter captains do not board ships they’re intercepting for whatever reason. But studios didn’t pay William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and the rest big money to portray someone sitting in a chair while lower-paid actors got to do things, fight and die. (One way to get around that issue is to make the new ship considerably smaller, perhaps like the six-person patrol ship Orion.)

Every Star Trek series to date has been seen through the eyes of its captain, beginning with TOS’ James T. Kirk. The five series have gone through the obvious gamut of diversity, from white males (Kirk and Jonathan Archer of “Enterprise”) to black male (Benjamin Sisko of “Deep Space Nine”) to woman (Kathryn Janeway of “Voyager”) to, well, bald white male with a British accent who is supposedly from France (TNG’s Jean-Luc Picard). It is possible the next captain will be an alien (that is, not from Earth), but for obvious reasons he or she will probably be recognizably human (i.e. Spock the Vulcan).

What are those obvious reasons, you ask? Simple: For the series to succeed, the viewer has to be able to put himself or herself into the shoes of at least one of the major characters. That was, for me, Kirk in TOS, first officer William Riker (because I’m neither bald nor very French) in TNG, Sisko (though, yes, I’m not black) in DS9, and first officer Chakotay (because I’m not female) in Voyager. (For scheduling reasons I didn’t watch that much Star Trek after TNG.) That is probably why the next captain won’t be gay or gender-creative, because as tolerant as someone might be, most people are not gay, and again this series is being viewed by people, some of whom may not be hard-core Trek fans, who see the aforementioned Post comment as just strange.)

Instead of hyphenation diversity, how about we explore intellectual diversity instead? Perhaps the next captain should be, if not an out-and-out cynic, then less of an idealist about the Federation, and a skeptic of whether interstellar democracy can work. (Some have claimed that Star Trek is a lefty’s Utopia in economics, health care for all, gun control, etc. Our captain might point out that there are Federation-member planets where slavery is still legal, and where people are required to commit suicide upon reaching a certain age, as with a TNG episode.) Renegades are more fun to watch if their characters are created carefully.

One reason Kirk was a more appealing captain than Picard was (is? will be?) is that Kirk was a man of action and a man of passion. (I am not referring to Kirk’s alleged womanizing, which in TOS included a woman who tried to kill him, a woman from the 1930s who looked suspiciously like Joan Collins, and two androids.) Picard thought everything through; Kirk did things, whether or not they were always the right things or the wise things. Kirk also didn’t let rules get in the way of doing the right thing, while Picard seemed to do nothing that couldn’t be justified by a Starfleet rule, or violated a Starfleet rule.

Kirk’s character was based in part on British sea captain Horatio Hornblower of C.S. Forester’s novels. (Or perhaps more like the 1952 movie starring Gregory Peck.) An excellent starting point for a new captain would be British sea captain Jack Aubrey of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, similar to Hornblower and Kirk in their ability to compel near-fanatic loyalty among their crew. Wikipedia describes Aubrey (who apparently had a real-life model) and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin thusly:

Jack Aubrey is a large man (both literally and figuratively) with an energetic, gregarious, cheerful, and relatively simple personality and a deep respect for naval tradition. Remarkable early success earned him the nickname “Lucky Jack Aubrey” and a reputation as a “fighting captain”, a reputation which he sought to retain throughout his career. … Aubrey’s professional life of daring exploits and reverses was inspired by the chequered careers of Thomas Cochrane and other notable captains of the Royal Navy from the period.

Irish-Catalan Dr. Stephen Maturin ostensibly serves as an adept ship’s surgeon on Aubrey’s various commands. … Unlike his action-oriented friend, Maturin is very well educated with several intellectual pursuits. He is passionately fascinated by the natural world,and takes every opportunity to explore the native wildlife of his ships’ ports of call around the world. He is also deeply introspective, and frequently muses on philosophical concepts of identity and self-understanding in his ciphered personal journal. …

Despite their many differences, the pair are invaluable and indispensable companions throughout many years of adventure and danger. Reviewers have compared Aubrey and Maturin to other seemingly mismatched yet inseparable fictional duos such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in “Don Quixote”, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Kirk and Spock in the original Star Trek TV series.

Logical (Kirk and Spock predated Aubrey and Maturin, who first appeared on the literary landscape in 1969), except that Trek fans think of the Big Three — Kirk, Spock and McCoy, with Kirk’s decisions informed by Spock’s brain and McCoy’s heart. Good characters can make up for mediocre stories or even dubious premises. Bad characters, bad show.

 

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