The dead end above us

A recent note on Slate about Tom Gauld’s Mooncop discusses Mr Gauld’s vision of life in a decrepit and soon-to-be-abandoned lunar colony as “the residue of an older fantasy,” of the Cold War-era dream of thriving human settlements on other planetary bodies.

No doubt there is an element of this at work in Mr Gauld’s imagination, and in other visions of a future in which settlements and stations in outer space are decaying, forgotten remnants of failed enterprises of expansion. Films such as Moon (2009) and The Martian (2015,) with individual space travelers alone on the surface of alien worlds, play to the image of outer space as a realm of abandonment. Yet such visions were part of science fiction before the end, or even the beginning, of the US-Soviet Space Race. Even the founding text of space travel-themed science fiction, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865,) ends tragically, with its heroes forever separated from the rest of humanity, dying pointlessly in a metal ball orbiting the Moon. A work like Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930) is steeped in an overwhelming sense of decline, introducing one species after another descended from humans, each of which meets extinction in its own way.  

Some of the most prominent science fiction productions of the Cold War days also represent space travel as a dead end. Robert Altman’s film Countdown (1968) depicts a US project to land a man on the Moon. The film ends with a lone astronaut wandering the lunar surface, finding a crashed Soviet space-craft and the corpses of the cosmonauts. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, as the astronaut finds a device that may or may not enable him to escape back to the Earth. The overall sense of loss and futility is the same as that with which Verne’s novel ends. The relationship between the cosmonaut and the planetary being in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) develops the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, though where Altman contrasts the isolation his astronaut suffers on the Moon with the professional camaraderie and relatively satisfactory married life he had enjoyed in his life in Texas, Tarkovsky’s film is openly critical of the Soviet Union as a place where the kind of social isolation his cosmonaut suffers in space is commonplace on Earth.

Arthur Clarke, a novelist strongly influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s work, returned throughout his career to a story set a thousand million years in the future. He turned this story into novels twice, as Against the Fall of Night (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956,) and explored it in many of the unfinished tales published in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001.)  The heart of the story is that humans had once created a vast stellar empire, an empire fragments of which perhaps still existed in some remote corners of space, but that the Earth had been separated from this empire, and its people had forgotten the major points of the empire’s history.  The abandoned empire, the isolated Earth, and the forgotten history of the conquest of space are also the background of a much more famous series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1993.)

The two most familiar products of Cold War science fiction are Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Wars (1977.) The image of outer space as a realm of unkept promises figures in those as well.

The background of Star Wars is a fight, not to claim new territory or develop new settlements, but to restore the liberties of a lost Republic. We meet the hero, a young man unaware of his true parentage and his lofty destiny, in the grubby place of exile which he has grown up regarding as his home. Using battered ships, antique weapons, and a plotline recycled from 1930s movie serials, the good guys score a victory for their nostalgic cause.

While Star Trek is set in the early days of an expanding interstellar federation, in many episodes our heroes encounter the ruins of lost civilizations and other traces of abandoned developments. The initial pilot, “The Cage”(produced in 1964-1965,) shows us the ship’s captain as the prisoner of a species who have retreated underground after a war found millennia before, and while there have lost so completely lost their technological skills that they can no longer “even repair the machines left behind by their ancestors” and are faced with inevitable extinction.

Many other episodes show societies that have declined from extraordinary heights of technological development into primitive conditions, conditions that suggest either control of the population by a computer mistaken for a deity (for example, “Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,”) impending doom (for example, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” “Miri,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,”) or disconnection between intellectual and carnal satisfactions, resulting in a society of casual sadism and implied cannibalism (for example, “The Man Trap,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Nor does Star Trek present decline and abandonment as things that happen only in alien cultures. We meet such luminaries from the history of the Earth as a former ruler of India (“Space Seed,”) the inventor of faster-than-light travel (“Metamorphosis,”) the god Apollo (“Who Mourns for Adonais?,”) and Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (“The Savage Curtain,”) all forgotten and imprisoned in the infinite void of deep space.  Our heroes encounter nightmarish doppelganger versions of political entities such as the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses,”) the United States of America (“A Piece of the Action” and “The Omega Glory,”) and Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force,”)  showing that space is a realm in which not only individual humans can become isolated and powerless, but that whole human societies can be cut off, condemned to stagnation and historical irrelevance, by a misconceived response to technological development.

In developing an image of outer space as a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness, this line of science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Tom Gauld may be harking back quite far into literary history. It is often said that Lucian (circa 125-circa 180 CE)’s “True History,” a satirical tale recounting a journey to the Moon, is the first science fiction story. Lucian’s story is itself more than a little reminiscent of two plays by Aristophanes (circa 450 BCE- circa 386 BCE,) The Birds (414 BCE) and Peace (421 BCE.)  In each of those plays, disreputable characters fly to the heavens and pull off unlikely schemes.

Particularly relevant to our discussion is the scene in Peace when Trygaeus, a poor farmer, arrives in the heavens, having flown there on the back of a giant dung-beetle. Trygaeus’ goal is to arrest Zeus and prosecute him in the courts of Athens for having allowed the wars among the Greek states to go on so long that Greece is weakened and in danger of a takeover by the Persian Empire.  Once in the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Zeus and almost all of the other gods have abandoned their usual realm, going off deeper into space in their disgust at the warlike habits of the Greeks.  Only Hermes remains in his usual spot, and he is a degraded figure, so impoverished that that Trygaeus can easily bribe him with a small bag of meat, so powerless that when the god of war and some of his minions come through, Hermes hides from them.  The lower heaven from which the rest of the gods have departed is as much a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness for Hermes as any of the heavenly bodies are for the characters of the gloomier sort of science fiction.

Advertisements

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:

I disagree with David Gerrold

A friend of mine posted a link to some remarks David Gerrold wrote on Facebook on 17 February.  Mr Gerrold is responding to this essay by William Lehman.  I have some reservations about Mr Gerrold’s remarks.

William Lehman has written a screed about how he who controls the mythology of a nation controls the identity of the nation. I’ll agree with that original assertion. But then he uses that as a springboard for a somewhat ill-considered extrapolation that people afflicted with fuzzy-wuzzy thinking have spoiled his precious nuts-and-bolts science fiction.

I think the words “his precious” get us off to a bad start there.  I’d be the last to say that nuts-and-bolts science fiction is the only kind we should have, but it is precious to lots of people other than Mr Lehman, and for good reason.  Any work of art, whether literary art, dramatic art, visual art, whatever, derives much of its power from the way it intrudes itself into your experience of the rest of life,  sort of annexing other aspects of life to itself.  So with a nuts-and-bolts science fiction story, the actual science that is related to the events and setting of that story blends in with it in the reader’s imagination, so that you can’t be quite sure where one ends and the other begins.  Other kinds of science fiction have equally great strengths, and graft themselves onto other parts of the reader’s experiences, but nuts-and-bolts is uniquely strong in that particular area.

SF is not a narrow domain, it’s a smorgasbord.

And if nothing else, science fiction is about sociology — because it’s not just about the engineering, it’s also about who we become when we reinvent our technology. It’s about the continuing evolution of the human culture. Lehman’s essay seems to imply that even after we have jet packs and flying cars, robots and starships, we should still keep our twentieth century “golden age” attitudes. Um, no. The history of the last seventy years isn’t just about computers and smart phones and the internet and electric cars — it’s also about how we as a people have progressed in our attitudes, some good, some not so.

That’s certainly true; the great promise of science fiction is in its ability to help readers visualize whole societies. This always involves a degree of commentary on the society in which the authors are working, though sometimes this commentary can be far down the list of reasons why we like a work of science fiction.  I’d cite my favorite nuts-and-bolts science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke’s social vision was rather horrifying; read his early drafts of Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars and note the patronizing attitude Clarke takes at the Earth-bound characters objections to the plan the men from the Empire bring to demolish the planet.  And of course Childhood’s End also comes to its climax in the demolition of the Earth.  Anyway, Clarke’s geocidal vision not only does not ruin his novels, it doesn’t even stop them being great achievements of their kind, because even works like Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars, which are set so far in the future that there is almost no actual science in them, do lead the imagination back into the real world of science and technology and merge with that world to create an unforgettable artifact in the reader’s imagination.

So … here’s where I kinda pull rank. He points to Star Trek, The Original Series as a catalyst for the engineering students. And to a great degree, he is right. The optical disk happened because two engineers saw “All Our Yesterdays” and wondered how you would store data on a big silver record. Sliding doors and flip phones and tablets and phasers all showed up on Star Trek and certainly there were people wondering how to make those devices.

But where Lehman has completely missed the point is that he uses Star Trek to justify his own beliefs while overlooking the much more important fact that Star Trek, The Original Series wasn’t about the engineering as much as it was about the “Social Justice Warriors Glittery hoo ha” stuff.

I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned. He went on at length about it in almost every meeting. He wasn’t about technology, he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out. Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors. You don’t get to claim him or his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.

Most of the stories we wrote were about social justice. “The Cloud Minders,” “A Taste Of Armageddon,” “Errand Of Mercy,” “The Apple,” “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and so many more. We did stories that were about exploring the universe not just because we could build starships, but because we wanted to know who was out there, what was our place in the universe, and what could we learn from the other races out there?

Star Trek was about social justice from day one — the stories were about the human pursuit for a better world, a better way of being, the next step up the ladder of sentience. The stories weren’t about who we were going to fight, but who we were going to make friends with. It wasn’t about defining an enemy — it was about creating a new partnership. That’s why when Next Gen came along, we had a Klingon on the bridge.

Lehman blew it. He missed the point. He uses science fiction — and Star Trek — as a justification for playing a game of “us” v. “them.”

Here’s a clue. When you divide humanity into us and them, you automatically become one of them.

The continuing denigration of women and minorities as “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” leaves me wondering … are you folks in favor of social injustice?

If you’re against “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” then we to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities?

Because if that’s what you stand for — a return to the days of sexism, racism, misogyny, and discrimination — then you really shouldn’t be pointing to Star Trek as your inspiration. Because that’s not what Star Trek was about. Honest. I was there.

In these closing paragraphs, things get very problematic very quickly.  Mr Gerrold may not know what Mr Lehman is talking about when he uses the phrase “Social Justice Warriors.”  This phrase is not synonymous with “people who advocate for social justice,” still less with “women and minorities.”  It is a sarcastic phrase that refers primarily to internet trolls who try to bully people into silence by accusing them of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, speciesism, and other forms of hatefulness.  Right-wingers are quite fond of the phrase “Social Justice Warrior,” since it focuses attention on ugly behavior perpetrated by people who think of themselves as being on the left, but no one can seriously deny that there are at least as many right-wing trolls online as left-wing ones.  There just isn’t a name that covers all right-wing trolls as a category the way “Social Justice Warrior” covers left-wing trolls.

I’ve read some good pieces about the damage that left-wing trolls, or “Social Justice Warriors” if you must use that phrase, have done to the left.  Michelle Goldberg write a good piece in The Nation a year ago about the success bullies on Twitter have had in poisoning discussion among feminists.  More recently, Jon Ronson admitted in the New York Times Magazine that he had once been been a left-wing online bully, intoxicated with the power to whip up virtual mobs that did real harm to people for offenses real and imagined.  Mr Ronson covers the case of Justine Sacco, who, because of the response to one poorly-phrased joke that she posted on Twitter, lost her job and found that “no one could guarantee her safety” if she were so reckless as to travel.   And Fredrik de Boer wants “a left that can win,” and shows how leftists who busy themselves bullying each other have done as much as any rightist could wish to prevent the formation of alliances that could actually advance social justice.  I’d think that reading any one of those pieces would relieve Mr Gerrold’s concern that we have “to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities” if you use the phrase “Social Justice Warrior.”  Though I admit, I try to avoid the phrase, since it does conjure up the same image of a sullen bigot that comes to mind when we hear complaints about “political correctness.”  I understand that, of course.  But if you still think that “Social Justice Warriors” is a code word for “women and minorities,” I’ll have to refer you to Mr de Boer’s piece linked above, where he gives example after example of working-class women and people of color hounded out of university classrooms because they didn’t discuss social issues in the “progressive” language that the richer white students had learned in private schools.

The part where Mr Gerrold discusses Star Trek is troubling in several ways.  First, a work of art always means more than its author intends it to mean.  I think D. H. Lawrence said that, and it is the sort of thing that would have to be true.  Otherwise you’d have to have the artist standing around explaining the work to you every time you encountered it.  So even if Roddenberry were the sole author of Star Trek, and even if Mr Gerrold’s interpretation of Roddenberry’s intent were exhaustive and infallibly true, it would still not follow that “You don’t get to claim… his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.”  And thank goodness it doesn’t follow; imagine how impoverished the imaginations of those of who support gender-neutral marriage or transgender rights would be if we couldn’t learn from the writings of authors who had never had the opportunity to consider the case for those causes.

Second, Roddenberry was not the sole author of Star Trek, any more than any other single individual can ever be the sole author of a collective endeavor like a television series.  Line producers Gene Coon, John Meredyth Lucas, and Fred Freiberger made tremendous contributions, rewriting every script and overseeing innumerable practicalities in the making of the episodes.  Coon invented huge slabs of the Star Trek mythos; in the third season, after Roddenberry effectively left the show to find a more lucrative way of spending his time, Freiberger was for all intents and purposes the primary creator of the show.  This is all spelled out in marvelous detail, along with documentation and photographs, in Inside Star Trek by Robert Justman and Herbert Solow.  As associate producer, Justman was also one of the leading architects of the show, and as executive in charge of production during the first two seasons, when the show was made by Desilu Studios, Solow also played a key part.  Other major authors would include story editor Dorothy C Fontana, John D. F. Black, and also “nuts-and-bolts” science fiction patron saint Robert A Heinlein, whose story “Space Cadet” NBC bought as the basis of the series.  Indeed, the single episode which Mr Gerrold wrote for Star Trek, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” was very similar Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones, which Mr Gerrold had read many years before.  Offered payment for the screen rights to the novel, Mr Heinlein asked only for Mr Gerrold’s autograph on a copy of the script.

And then, of course, there were the writers who were credited with particular scripts or stories, the actors, the composers of music, the set designers, video editors, special effects people, etc, etc.  I bring all of this up to show how implausible it is to say of Gene Roddenberry that Star Trek was “his show” in some simple sense.  To give one obvious example, there were few causes that Gene Roddenberry “disdained” more openly or more vigorously than the Roman Catholic Church, yet John Meredyth Lucas, line producer for much of the second season, was a devout Catholic who became producer of Paulist Productions’ Insight: Stories of Spiritual Conflict in the Twentieth Century. So there’s an example of two of the major authors of the series taking utterly different positions on a big question.

Third, Mr Gerrold raises a question about levels of intentionality when he says, “I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned… he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out.”  I’m sure that’s one of the things Mr Roddenberry envisioned.  But if you read Justman and Solow’s book, it is crystal clear that the number one thing he envisioned was himself having lots of sex with lots of attractive young women.  That makes him a more pardonable figure than he would be were it true that he goal to structure a life around than if he had been “one of the great Social Justice Warriors,” in the sense in which that phrase is actually used.  Further, it suggests that Roddenberry’s politics should be taken with a grain of salt.  I think that goes a long way towards explaining how the pro-Cold War politics of episodes like “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory” found their way into a series that was usually so clearly left of center.  The politics Roddenberry really cared about were those built into his interpersonal relationships with women whom he wanted to take to bed, and national or international politics were a means to that end. So to the extent that we think of Roddenberry as the author of Star Trek, and to the extent that author’s intentions inform our interpretation of the show, we will need some kind of critical methodology to separate one of his intentions from another.  Simply saying, “I was there!  He told me so!” is no answer at all- Roddenberry told different people different things for different reasons, not because he was dishonest, but because he was human.  That’s what we all do.

Fourth, and rather awkwardly, there are some, how does one put it, surprising bits in Mr Gerrold’s recollections of his involvement with the original Star Trek.  Mr Gerrold has written extensively and quite informatively about his experience as the author of one teleplay for that series, even publishing a book in 1973 called The Trouble With Tribbles: The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode.  Mr Gerrold’s references to episodes from all three seasons and to what Gene Roddenberry said in “every meeting” leave one with the impression that Mr Gerrold was a regular member of the staff, behind the scenes on a daily basis from beginning to end.  This is not the impression that one gathers from his book, or from other accounts he gave when Roddenberry, Justman, and others were alive, nor does it jibe with information published elsewhere.  All of that material suggests that his single writing credit is a fair representation of his contribution to the series. Dorothy Fontana and others kept in touch with Mr Gerrold and encouraged him to submit more scripts, but I haven’t seen any indication that he was involved in the show in the way that he here suggests. Just how many meetings were included in the “every meeting” which he and Roddenberry both attended?  I hate to bring this up, but Mr Gerrold is leaning so heavily on the “I was there” in his attempt to shut Mr Lehman down that it is impossible not to point out that the place where he was and the place where a person could learn the information he wants us to think he has are not, in fact, the same place.  Maybe Mr Gerrold is auditioning for Bill O’Reilly‘s job, or Brian Williams‘, but I don’t see these remarks helping him in this fight he’s picked with Mr Lehman.

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.

(more…)

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.”

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.

 

 

Ambrose Bierce and The Man Without Illusions

Several weeks ago, The Nation ran a review-essay about Ambrose Bierce.  A few days before happening on this piece, I’d my old Dover Thrift Edition collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories, a paperback I’d bought for a dollar in 1996 and had been meaning to read ever since.  I was interested in the reviewer’s remarks about one of those stories in particular:

In another powerful story, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.

The cannon drooling blood is certainly a memorable image, and as I read the story I was sure it would be the detail that stayed with me.  By the end, however, even that horror has been put into the shade.  At first we think that Captain Coulter’s commanding officer sent him to that desperately exposed position and ordered him to shell the house opposite simply because he “wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true.”  Then one officer tells another that Coulter was a southerner who had left his family behind Confederate lines to join the Union army.  He goes on to report a rumor that the commander had led an occupying force that patroled the area where Coulter’s family was.  This rumor held that the commander had made advances to Coulter’s wife.  She rebuffed him, and the officer wonders if that was why the commander put Coulter in such danger.  By the end of the story, even this grotesque idea is shown to be short of the full horror of the situation. 

The Nation‘s reviewer quotes Bierce’s definition of “realism” from The Devil’s Dictionary as “The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”  This quote is at the center of a little disquisition on Bierce’s use of improbable events in his fiction.  The last two paragraphs of the review sum this disquisition up:

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn’t do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways “probability” can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

This point is very close to something that came to my mind while I was reading that collection of Bierce’s Civil War stories.  The stories are full of wildly improbable events; random shots fired at distant enemies can be relied upon to kill the gunners’ fathers, brothers, wives.  Bierce presents these freak occurrences not to undercut the sense of his stories’ reality, but to emphasize their truthfulness.   

What truth does Bierce want us to think fills his stories?  I think it is the same truth that was publicized almost two decades ago, when a hit movie was advertised with an image of a Marine colonel shouting “You can’t handle the truth!”  Even though the movie passed through theaters in 1992,  a Google search for “You can’t handle the truth” restricted to results that went up this week draws over 16,000 hits.  I wonder if the resonance of that line and the power of Bierce’s stories don’t combine to show that there is an idea at large in American culture of truth as something necessarily violent, of war as the ultimate truth.  If so, the colonel in the movie and the highly decorated Civil War veteran Bierce would both figure as men with a privileged access to truth, as warriors who had seen the heart of battle. 

(more…)

The American Conservative, June 2010

I’m a strange sort of American, one of a handful who has reached middle age without ever having read To Kill a Mockingbird or seen the movie based on it.  Evidently Bill Kauffman also avoided the novel in high school, but has since read it repeatedly and “seen the movie 20 times.”  He makes a fine case for both.   Apostle of “placefulness” that he is, Kauffman defends the book against the charge that it is  “the Southern novel for people who hate the South” by saying that Alabaman Harper Lee is one of a long line of American writers who have shown that “the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it.”  Kauffman puts her in the company of “Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, William Appleman Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Edward Abbey.”  He quotes his favorite line from the novel, noble defense attorney Atticus Finch’s injunction to his daughter to “remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” 

Lest we forget that the magazine is a populist right-wing journal called The American Conservative, Kauffman uses the word “liberal” to mean “self-important hypocritical scold,” as when he writes of that the movie’s “occasional cringe-inducing moments of liberal fantasy- as when the black citizenry, packing the segregated courtroom balcony, stands as one when Atticus passes by- I chalk up, perhaps unfairly, to the vanity of Gregory Peck… Peck’s sanctimony works very well in the film, however; it infuses, rather than embalms, Atticus Finch.” 

My own favorite specimen of the fantasy life of 1960s US liberalism is Star Trek, and Kauffman works a mention of that series into his column.  Praising child actor John Megna, he tells us that Megna would later “chant ‘bonk bonk on the head’ in a famous Star Trek episode.”  I would only point out that the episode in question, “Miri,” is really much better than the line “bonk bonk on the head!” might suggest.   Kauffman’s devotion to the importance of place may inhibit his appreciation of a TV show about people wandering around the galaxy in a spaceship, and his aversion to self-important hypocritical scolds may also get in the way of his enjoyment of Star Trek

Attorney Chase Madar scrutinizes the legal thought of Harold H. Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School, chief legal advisor to the US Department of State, and very likely to be an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court before many more years have passed.  Mr Koh is a renowned expert on international law, which in Madar’s words is supposed to be “much more civilized than mere national law.”  In a recent address to the American Society for International Law, Mr Koh defended the USA’s use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones,” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries where people might be found whom the Obama administration would like to kill.  The same speech praises in glowing terms the administration’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force Base, and other locations around the world.  In Madar’s words, “Koh’s lecture- warmly applauded by the conventioneers- demonstrates once again the amazing elasticity of international law when it comes to the prerogatives of great powers.”  Madar’s article is titled “How Liberals Kill”; again, the sense of “liberal” here seems to be self-important hypocritical scold. 

A review of Garry Wills’ new book about official secrecy and the US national security state includes a line that reminds me of one of my favorite phrases, C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realism.”  “Insiders to the world of secrecy loved the idea that they had access to special high-quality knowledge, but as often as not they were victims of wishful thinking, gulled by confidence tricksters  and fake experts.”  Ushered into an exclusive world of secrets and power, people often do become intoxicated by their situation and overly impressed by each other.  As a result of this intoxication, people who might under other circumstances be relied on to show excellent judgment may very well make unbelievably foolish decisions.  Mills developed the concept of crackpot realism in a book called The Causes of World War Three; that title shows just how far he thought the foolishness of such groups could take us.

Buick’s target demographic

Via our friend Duncan Mitchel‘s blog:

SpockwithBuick