David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats”

I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.

He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes.  For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.”  Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.

I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional.  The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis.  Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.

So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.

That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however.  In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet.  Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see.  All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures.  Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways.  The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.

Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence.  One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.”  A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death.  In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others.  Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.

I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium.  Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time.  That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”  The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented.  Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare.  I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Here are some links people have been sending me since Leonard Nimoy died:

1. Sugar Smack Spock

It is illogical to suppose that you can touch my Sugar Smacks and live

2. 20 Cool Things Nimoy Did Other Than Star Trek

3. Her heart belongs to Beard Spock (nsfw)

4. A Star Trek comic book that never existed:

5. Leonard Nimoy was definitely my favorite member of the original cast of In Search Of…, and here’s one of the most endearing episodes:

My wife and I have some connections to the Episcopal Church, and one of the things that first attracted me to that institution was this In Search Of… episode about the tragic life of Bishop James Pike.  All the remarks from clerics reminiscing about the efforts they made over the years to keep their friend Jim out of trouble showed me that, whatever its faults, it was an organization in which there was an abundance of clear heads and warm hearts:

5. When I was about twelve years old, my brother gave me an LP I still have.  I should say “the LP I still have,” since I haven’t had a record player for 20 years and got rid of all the others long ago.  This one is The Touch of Leonard Nimoy, and it’s a prized possession.  Here’s my favorite track:

6. There are a couple of outstanding made-for-TV-movies Leonard Nimoy was involved in that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the tributes.  One is 1991’s Never Forget, in which he played Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who in the 1980s found a way to fight Holocaust deniers in court.  The movie makes it clear that Mermelstein is Good and the denialists are Bad, of course, but there’s a lot more complexity and humanity in the film, as it explores Mermelstein’s relationship with his family and shows how the consequences of the Holocaust continue to play out in all of their lives.

Another is 1971’s The Assault on the Wayne, where he plays the commander of a nuclear submarine against which enemy agents are hatching evil schemes.  He’s the good guy, but watching him I’m very glad I am not a sailor- it would be quite exhausting to serve under a commanding officer like that, especially in the confined world of a submarine.  His first encounter with his supply officer is terrifying:

7. Many dolls of Mr Spock have been brought to market over the years, and I’ve never wanted any of them.  But I may one day be unable to resist buying this Leonard Nimoy action figure, based on his appearances in two episodes of The Simpsons (the one with the monorail, and the one that spoofed In Search Of…):

“You didn’t do anything.” “Didn’t I?”

8. And no tribute to Leonard Nimoy would be complete without a remembrance of this, the definitive dramatization of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien:

And a comment thereon:

In which I demonstrate that I am the world’s nerdiest nerd

In a recent email exchange with the cofounders of this blog, known here as VThunderlad and Lefalcon, I shared some thoughts about Star Trek, including a synopsis of an idea for a new Star Trek movie.  Find the relevant bits below the jump.

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“A fan base primarily comprised of people who got to the store after Mad sold out”

Contrary to the cover, it is very unlikely that anything funny was going on there.

I just stumbled on the Wikipedia article for the late, unlamented Cracked magazine.  It’s hilarious, 10,000 times funnier than anything that ever appeared in Cracked magazine, on a par with the best material that appears on that magazine’s descendant, Cracked.com.  Who could fail to laugh out loud at an article that includes this sentence: “In Germany, there were three publications that included Cracked reprints. First was Kaputt, which ran from 1974 to 1983; it was followed by Stupid, which ran from 1983 to 1984, and, finally, Panic.”

Considering what happens to interesting writing on Wikipedia, it will probably be deleted and replaced with something unreadable by the end of the morning, so I’ve preserved its text here, after the jump.   (more…)

George McGovern

Former US Senator George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s 1972 presidential nominee, died the other day.  Since 1972, it has often been possible to argue that one major party’s presidential candidate was a lesser evil than the other party’s offering; I thought Barack Obama was a demonstrably lesser evil than John McCain in 2008, for example.  But Senator McGovern was not at all evil.  He was quite admirable and thoroughly sane.  Of course he lost by one of the biggest landslides in history, to Richard Nixon.

Four years ago, I posted a link to a commercial the McGovern campaign put on television in 1972.  Here’s another link to the same commercial, the only political ad I’ve ever seen that is 100% free of bullshit.  The senator talks with a group of veterans just returned from Vietnam with newly acquired disabilities; it’s as uncomfortable to watch as you’d suppose it would be, and that seems to have been the intention.

King Kong falling off the Empire State Building

This animated gif appeared in Slate some time ago, I love it:

May the Great Bird of the Galaxy Bless Your Planet

From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, I watched Star Trek about 4 times a week.  I’ve had occasion to watch it since, and it holds up.  It’s a good show, and an interesting specimen of 1960s liberalism.  Of course, when I see it now I also feel strong nostalgia for that period 30 years ago when I watched it regularly.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve spent a good deal of time indulging in that particular nostalgic feeling.  Webzine io9 ran a story about a Flickr photostream called “Bird of the Galaxy“* maintained by a man called Tom Redlaw.  Mr Redlaw has collected a great many photographs taken on the set of Star Trek.  This photostream consists of scans of the photographs that depict moments that did not appear on the show.  So we glimpse alternate takes, deleted scenes, images meant to be combined in double exposures, stagehands at work, structures on the soundstages, miniatures under construction, bloopers, practical jokes, et cetera.  Mr Redlaw discourages embedding of his photos, so I won’t embed them  But I will link to a few:

Here’s another set of behind the scenes Star Trek photos, including some shots very similar to ones Mr Redlaw has posted.  For example, this picture seems to have been taken a couple of  seconds before the one linked first above:

*If the phrase “Bird of the Galaxy” rings a bell, you may be thinking of “The Man Trap,” the first episode ever broadcast, in which Mr Sulu thanks Yeoman Rand for a favor by saying “May the Great Bird of the Galaxy Bless Your Planet.”

JFK, George Quintana, and tumblr

Our tumblr page is called “Thunderlads After Hours.”  If you are a tumblr user, you will be familiar with the service’s “Dashboard” feature.  All the posts on all the tumblr pages you follow appear before you in a constant stream. We follow lots of people, so we see lots of images when we log on there.  Below are a few we’ve seen there.

This is the avatar for a page we follow that goes by the name “Jack Ruby Tuesday“:

President John F. Kennedy projected a public image that was in many ways the opposite of the image Colonel Harlan Sanders projected.  They both came to international prominence in the 1960s and have remained familiar ever since, and each is strongly associated with a three-letter abbreviation.  So I think this image is worth a chuckle.  Because it simply replaces Colonel Sanders’ three-letter trademark “KFC” with Mr Kennedy’s familiar “JFK,” I think it is much funnier than the image on this T-shirt.

Also, this image caught my eye a few days ago:

I’d say this picture is sensational in more than one sense of the word.  The artist worked under the name George Quintana, though his given name was George Quaintance.

Punchline search

I started using the web back in the mid-90s, when the top search engine was Yahoo.  I loved its “ontology,” the categories and subcategories into which it divided sites.  I would sometimes click on a heading for a topic I didn’t know much about, then on a subheading that I knew even less about, and end up with links to a dizzying array of sub-sub-sub-categories I would never have dreamed existed.  It was great fun.  Long before the success of Google’s radically simple format forced Yahoo to scrap its ontology, however, I had tired of that little game, and simply typed text into the search window.  So the switch to Google was seamless for me.

I’ve been wondering if people would use Google differently today, and if the web would therefore be structured differently, if the first generation of Google users had not included such a high percentage of people whose first experience of search engines had involved a lot of time monkeying around in the labyrinth of Yahoo’ old ontology.  For people like me, the search window was a straightforward place for relatively serious business; the ontology was for goofing off.  So when Google came along, we may have used it as a tool to find fun things, but we didn’t see it as a toy in itself, not at first.

The other day I passed a few idle minutes on Google typing in punchlines, looking for the jokes that went with them.  I was surprised at how little I found.  After a moment of thought, I was surprised that I didn’t run a series of searches like that the first day I used Google.  Without the experience of the old Yahoo, I suspect I probably would have done so, and that a great many other people would have done so as well.  That initial burst of inquiries might have led to the creation of any number of sites matching jokes with punchlines.  Such sites might have become one of the major components of the web, up there with blogs devoted to people telling stories about their cats and conspiracy theories that begin in the 1960s and experiments with Photoshop.

The information superhighway showed the average person what some nerd thinks about Star Trek

I cannot allow you to approach my Sugar Smacks.

It was 45 years ago last night that Star Trek was first broadcast, which means that it was 45 years ago this morning that kids first went to school and asked each other if they’d seen Star Trek.  By the time I was born, Star Trek was no longer in production, but reruns of it were on TV all the time.  So wherever nerds gathered, it was steady a topic of conversation.  The show is now so old, and the spinoff shows and other attempts to cash in on its success were so tedious, that I’m always surprised when anyone younger than me expresses interest in it.  It really was a good show, though.