Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Attack of William Shatner, A Vulcan Televangelist, and Christopher Plummer With An Eyepatch; or, Farewell to TOS

The year was 1989, and Star Trek: the Next Generation was finishing its second dismal season.  The new spinoff, born of the unprecedented success of Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home (aka "the one with the whales") three years before, was now foundering in deep waters.  The new cast, crew, and setting, hampered by behind-the-scenes stress and Gene Roddenberry's titanic ego, had resoundingly failed to catch on with the general public, even as Trek fans continued to watch and wince.  In the summer of 1989, these loyal fans were dealt their worst blow yet: for positioned in the coveted season finale slot, the culmination of two years worth of storytelling, was Shades of Gray, a budget-saving clip-show in which an unconscious Riker is forced by an alien parasite to relive scenes from the first two seasons of The Next Generation.  Star Trek had officially hit rock bottom.

For watchers both devoted and cynical, there was, really, only one conclusion to be drawn: the attempt to recreate the success of the original Star Trek from the ground up, without the original cast and crew, was clearly a failure.

On the other hand, fans and critics alike were no doubt delighted to learn that, for all the failure and misery of Star Trek on television, Star Trek the film franchise was poised to continue.  The original cast and crew, beloved icons of American popular culture, with nearly a half-century of unprecedented success behind them, were once again poised to storm American cineplexes.  On June 9th, 1989, while the TNG creative team were desperately bailing water out of their sinking ship and trying to find someone--anyone--to steer it, the time-tested cast and creative team of the Star Trek film franchise launched proudly out of the harbor, headed for glory once again.

And promptly sank like a stone.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Brief History of Church-State Relations Over the Last Two Thousand Years

This is a (relatively) brief outline of Church-State relations, mostly just the big phases and conflicts, focusing on the West and on the Papacy, from my own perspective, based on my own reading, and for my own purposes:
The birth of Christianity coincides almost perfectly with the divinization of the Roman Emperor. By means of the new Imperial cult, the Emperor was treated as divine or quasi-divine, and the cult of his sacred person and authority quickly became one of the basic cores of Roman and Imperial identity. The Roman Empire, as embodied by the quasi-divine Emperor, was, by this understanding, absolutely sovereign, and not capable of being challenged from the standpoint of divinity, since it was itself, in a very real sense, divine--it also had, naturally, absolute power over religious matters, funding cults and temples and regulating them for its own purposes. Even prior to the Empire, of course, civic and religious life were generally indistinguishable, with political and religious offices and authority going together in most cases.
Christians in the first centuries, though, had a complex relationship with this Imperial ideology. On the one hand, they consistently refused to pay the Emperor divine (or even pseudo-divine) honors, which was one of the primary reasons why they were persecuted. On the other hand, Christians labored to present themselves as good citizens, loyal to the Empire and especially to the Emperor himself--and they sometimes even appealed to the Emperor for internal dispute resolutions, or for aid against local persecution (most persecutions of Christians were local rather than Imperial). As the Church expanded, though, it took on more and more the status of a "society within a society," even an "Empire within an Empire"--the Church as a highly organized institution, shadowing the Roman Empire in all its major cities, participating in its intellectual life and utilizing its infrastructure, but with its own authorities totally separate from, and frequently opposed to, the general public authorities and ideologies. A bishop was a public figure, to be sure, but he was not a civic one--and he represented, in his person, a set of ideas radically different from those animating the state at large. He and the Imperial governor were not likely to get along.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Love of God

I wish to speak of the mercy of God.

God has loved each one of us with a love that is greater than what we are, greater than what we will be, greater than hell, greater even than creation itself. For his love is himself.

God does not love us inasmuch as we are powerful, or good, or in control, or able to repay his love. God loves us precisely as nothing. For we are nothing.

Hence, there is no shame, no futility, no sin, no darkness, no confusion, no lack, that the love of God has not already embraced and enfolded.

God loved us in creating us—that is, in causing us to be precisely as beloved, as the nothingness that is beloved. By loving us, he has created us, and caused us to be. We are in his love, and only in his love.

Hence, there is no more stable foundation for life and action and thought and indeed existence than the love of God. It is this, and not any necessity or chance, that is the cause of all things.

Yet this is simply the order of creation. It does not exhaust the order of grace, which is greater.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Next Generation of Television; or, It's Tough Being the Bastard Child of a Legend; or, How Gene Roddenberry Destroyed Star Trek; or, How Michael Piller Saved Star Trek; or, One Big, Happy Family; or, Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes

When last we encountered the intrepid hero of our articles--the mythic property "Star Trek"--he found himself at last in a truly enviable position.  Having braved the dangerous world of big-screen cinema, he had carved out a place for himself as a fun, character-driven franchise for the 1980s.  Star Trek IV, to no one's real surprise, was an absolute mega-hit, reaching an unprecedented audience of ordinary, movie-going Americans and thoroughly delighting them with its clever character comedy about a crew of misfits and their adventures in the contemporary world.  This was a film that anyone--emphasis anyone--could understand and enjoy, from the most fervent Trekkie to the most hardened Queen fan.  Star Trek was now an indelible part of the cultural mainstream--and it was also on a roll.

Faced with such unprecedented success, the studio rubbed its metaphorical hands together, and contemplated what to do next.  That there would be yet another big-screen Star Trek adventure was all but a given--and in a future post, we will consider that film and its sequel in turn--but Star Trek now was so popular that executives began to wonder if its audiences could not, perhaps, handle even more Star Trek than this.  Perhaps it was time to diversify the franchise, and take it back to its roots.

Star Trek was going to return to television.

There was, however, one big problem with this: or rather, a whole set of cascading problems, all leading to one extremely unpleasant conclusion.  First and foremost, the cast and crew of Star Trek, now much older and much richer, were not at all willing to return to the back-breaking 14-hour days of television, nor did the studio have any intentions of not making more films in order to let them do so.  If Star Trek was going to return to television, then, it would have to be on the basis of an entirely new cast, and thus probably an entirely new crew and setting.  This, however, presented its own set of problems; for Star Trek the film series had, over time, come to rely almost entirely on the strength of these original characters and their associated actors.  Star Trek IV had been a character comedy; and what it showed was that Kirk, Spock, and company were now so iconic and so beloved that they could be plunked down in 1980s San Francisco and still hold audiences riveted.  Casting a new crew, with new characters and new actors, would be a massively difficult undertaking, and would face significant opposition, not only from the hardcore fans for whom the original cast were gods of a sort, but also from the public at large, for whom Star Trek had become indelibly linked with these particular names and faces.  Even if this problem were overcome, any revival of Star Trek would also face an extraordinary, uphill battle in establishing itself as a television show; for by the 1980s, science fiction was, once again, basically extinct on television--meaning that any new Star Trek show would have to rely largely on the large and growing Star Trek fanbase, and not the general television-watching public, for its success.  This, though, presented its own problems; for the original show's fervent fanbase had watched and rewatched and scrutinized the original 79 hours of TOS so many times, and with such devotion, that virtually every deviance from the original would be noticed and criticized.

Hence, the studio quickly concluded, any new Star Trek show would have to possess some utterly undeniable imprimatur of true Star Trekness--something that would ensure that both the general public and the most hardcore fan alike would accept it, not just as a random sci-fi or drama show, to be judged on its own terms, but as Star Trek.

Faced with this dilemma, the studio, finally, was brought to take a very difficult and very dangerous, step; they went to Gene Roddenberry, and asked him to make the show for them.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Spock Returns and Goes to San Francisco: or, How Star Trek Became A Franchise

The year was 1982, and Star Trek was back with a vengeance.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, despite being made on the cheap in a very short amount of time, had come out to rave reviews and the highest box office numbers ever.  In the world of American popular entertainment, Star Trek had officially arrived.  No longer was this odd little space property from the '60s to be the butt of jokes, tarred with its cheesy acting and the obsessiveness of its fans.  Star Trek had entered the ring of cinema--the epicenter of the mainstream, the home of the culturally respected and esteemed--and made a name for itself there.  Star Trek belonged.

More to the point, for the studio at least, Star Trek II was quite simply a success, financial and critical.  It was the kind of film every studio executive wanted to be responsible for: a hit.

Still, the studios, and Harve Bennett, were not yet satisfied.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Wrath of Khan, the Recreation of Star Trek, and the Redemption of Kirk

If there's one key insight that animates the Wrath of Khan, fueling its action and driving its plot, it is this: Kirk is not a very good person.

Yes, Kirk, the heroic exemplar of Kennedy-era masculinity, Horatio Hornblower for the Space Age Gene Roddenberry's fantasy of an ideal military commander, is, in truth, a shallow, irresponsible man, egotistically obsessed with winning at all costs, who has spent his life flitting from one easy success to another without ever dealing with the consequences of his actions, his human limitations and flaws, and his own mortality.

This may seem harsh and one-sided; and indeed, Kirk is without a doubt the hero of The Wrath of Kahn.  But if this central point is not grasped, in all its starkness, then it will be completely impossible to understand what makes TWOK tick: and, more than this, what makes The Wrath of Kahn without a doubt the greatest of all Star Trek films, and, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest works of American cinema as well.

Where does this insight come from?  Well, to really understand that, we will have to go back in time just a bit, to explain the origins of TWOK as a film, and to tease out a number of other insights that ultimately paved the way for this one.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Death and Highly Improbable Posthumous Success of Some Show From the '60s; or, Almost Everything Was Terrible in the '70s; or, The Messiest, Bloodiest Television Revival Ever; or, Why Star Trek the Motion Picture Is Not Very Good

Famously, Star Trek went off the air, finally and for good, only a matter of weeks before the Apollo moon-landing.  Later, people involved with Star Trek would wonder what might have been if this momentous event had happened earlier: would the reality of outer-space travel, beamed live to televisions across the nation, have given the nation's top dramatic space show a new lease on life?

Well, maybe.  But if so, it probably would have doomed Star Trek forever.

Getting cancelled, it turns out, was probably the best thing that ever happened to Star Trek.  If Star Trek had run for a few more years, winding down in the manner typical of a reasonably popular television show, it almost certainly would not have become a phenomenon at all, and we probably wouldn't remember it at all today: not any more than we remember Wagon Train, the popular, long-running show Star Trek was based on.

Why was Star Trek cancelled?  Well, really, the question is why it wasn't cancelled before.  CBS had in fact planned to cancel it both after its first year AND after its second year; both times, the show was belatedly saved by a letter-writing campaign, the first led by a number of respected science fiction authors, the second by a few ordinary fans, the legendary Trimbles.  Why the studio wanted to cancel it is a bit more complicated; but it mostly came down to the fact that Star Trek was very expensive and not quite popular enough to justify itself in the network's eyes.  According to some, Star Trek was, in fact, very popular with the "youth" demographic especially coveted by advertisers, which means that in this day and age it would probably have stayed on the air a good deal longer; but Star Trek came before networks had begun to think in this way.  Judged on an absolute scale, it simply wasn't popular enough for CBS and Desilu to continue underwriting its exorbitant budget.

And by the end of its third season, Star Trek was tired.  Gene Roddenberry, its creator, had already jumped ship for easier and more profitable pastures; and despite managing to pull together a decent season, Star Trek seemed to be feeling its age.  Death was, to a degree, a welcome respite.

This was bad news for a lot of people, though, including the many who had drawn their paychecks from the show; but it was especially bad news for William Shatner.  Having just gone through a costly divorce, he found himself completely insolvent, forced to travel the country with a theater troupe, a dog, and pickup truck, living out of a camper because he couldn't afford to pay hotel bills.  Eventually, by taking every single role available to him, he was able to get back on his feet in time for Star Trek's eventual revival.  Leonard Nimoy did much better; he continued to work on television and theater in various high-profile roles, including on Mission Impossible and as Sherlock Holmes.  Deforest Kelley took a supporting role in one of the greatest worst films of all time, Night of the Lepus, about giant, mutant killer bunnies with a taste for human flesh (I highly recommend it), and then retired to his house and wife.

Life, it turns out, goes on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Computer, a Space Hippy, and the Ubermensch Walk Into A Bar

Following on my previous analysis of Star Trek TOS as a whole, here, taken pretty much at random (based, that is, on my own personal likes, dislikes, and fascinations) are discussions of three individual episodes of Star Trek TOS.

Where No Man Has Gone Before

This episode has a very special place in Star Trek history; it was the episode that convinced CBS that Star Trek could work as a network television show.  The network had been naturally impressed by Star Trek's concept, which promised a relatively simple and potentially lucrative way to do science fiction on television; however, it was ultimately disappointed by the first pilot produced, the "Cage."  Led by Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, and featuring large-headed alien zoo-keepers with the power of illusion, the network felt that the show was, in a quote that has since become legend, "too cerebral."  Really, they were basically right; the Cage, for all the bluster of its lead character, is a rather stiff hour of television, appreciably strange, but patently lacking in human interest.  By the time Pike has angrily and defiantly, for the fourth time or so, declared to his captors that human beings will never stop resisting cages, even pleasant ones, and will always prefer difficult reality to pleasant illusion, we appreciate the point, but do not really feel much affection for the man making it.  An entire twenty-six episode season of such breathless didacticism would be difficult to take; and CBS was right in saying so.

However, as it goes, the network was, in fact, so interested in the basic concept of Star Trek--Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train to the Stars," science-fiction-as-Western-and-military-drama brainwave-- that they took the unprecedented step of commissioning a second pilot for the proposed series.  Left to his own devices again, Gene Roddenberry booted the entire cast--with the exception of a certain pointed-eared alien--but kept the sets and format basically the same.  What he needed was not so much a better concept as better storytelling, by a better writer, with more human and sympathetic characters.  He found his writer in Samuel A Peeples, an old hand at television (and Western) writing; he found his leading man in William Shatner, as I discussed in my last post.  CBS was much more impressed by what they saw this time, and ordered a full season of Star Trek; and they were, frankly, right to be impressed.  Even with all the rough edges typical of a pilot episode, Where No Man Has Gone Before is a truly excellent piece of television, with both an intelligent and worthy moral AND effective human drama.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Original Series and the Myth of Originality

When I spoke in my last post about Star Trek as a myth, I used that term in a very specific sense: that of a body of stories produced by a society and reflective of it.  I did not use in its more common, colloquial sense, of a story that is simplistic, fantastical, and false.

However, in discussing Star Trek The Original Series (as it is now commonly known) and its origins, I must use the term in the second way.  I must now talk, not about Star Trek itself, but about the stories told about Star Trek--stories that are commonly believed, but false.

I first heard these stories when I was a child, reading various officially licensed "behind the scenes" books about the franchise and its development.  These books were the product of the great 1990s zenith of Star Trek, when Star Trek shows and movies multiplied in abundance, along with their officially licensed offspring.  I still hear these stories repeated from time to time, and their influence is still easily discernible among fans and even in the culture at large.

This cycle of myths begins with the Myth of Gene Roddenberry: a kind of modern-day creation myth about a benevolent deity, his "grand vision," and his many heroic struggles to create, preserve, and protect that vision from the evil forces of Bigotry, Pessimism, and Studio Politics.

Gene Roddenberry, of course, is generally acknowledged as the Creator of Star Trek, and is commonly worshiped by fans under the title of "Great Bird of the Galaxy."  Roddenberry, the story goes, had a grand and original vision in the 1960s...a vision of a bright, optimistic future, where mankind had at last outgrown its troublesome childhood, abandoning war, hatred, and religion, and creating a global utopia of peace and plenty for all races and nations.  Unfortunately, when Roddenberry tried to share these ideas with the world, he was cruelly defeated by the awful, reactionary Television Censors of the Studios, who refused to allow him to share his Gospel.  Undaunted, Roddenberry came up with the idea of sharing these ideas through a science fiction show, where the foolish Censors would be unable to detect their presence.  With the Great Bird working heroically and almost single-handedly to bring his vision to life, in the face of setbacks and omnipresent Studio opposition, Star Trek was born, an utterly unique and original vision of a progressive, rational, and enlightened future for all.

This was, more or less, the story that was repeated, ad nauseam, by licensed Star Trek products in the '90s.  It has much to commend itself: a noble hero, dastardly villains, and a magnificent triumph against odds.  What it lacks is the truth. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Brief Introduction to Star Trek

What is Star Trek?

On some level, that's an easy question to answer.  We all know Star Trek: a television show (five television shows!); a Motion Picture (13 movies and counting!); some vast, indeterminate number of (licensed, non-canon) novels and comics and video games; action figures and mouse pads and perfume; a "franchise" (whatever that is).

What is Star Trek about?

That's where it gets a lot harder; because the answer to that question gets very different, depending on who's doing the asking and answering.  For JJ Abrams, it's about Kirk and Spock, a bromance of opposing types.  For Michael Piller, Star Trek is about character, the stable warmth of family and community, a gentle humanism of difference.  For Nicholas Meyer, it's about eternal, universal human nature, with its friendships and bigotries, its governments and diplomacies, its great literature and its petty quarrels, and above all with its mysterious destiny of old age and death.  For most Americans today, it is some hodgepodge of Kirk and Spock, "Beam me up, Scotty," William Shatner's overacting, Patrick Stewart's gravitas, laser guns, and some vague sense of progressive intellectualism.  For Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek is...well, that's not at all an easy question to answer, though it is one we will quickly be confronted with.

The purpose of this post is to announce (to whom?) that I will be, for reasons of my own, writing a series of posts (essays) about Star Trek over the next weeks (months?).  The thesis of this series will be that Star Trek is, in a real way, a myth; or rather, a whole series of myths, a corpus of mythology for the utterly bizarre monstrosity that is the modern world.  Like all myths, it is the product of collective labor: it has no auteur, no Michelangelo painstakingly crafting every fold and wrinkle, no Kubrick perfecting every frame.  And like all myths, its meaning is not as easy to tease out as your typical work of art.  This is not because it is meaningless, as a shallow critic might think; rather, the trouble with myth is that it is too meaningful, too packed with significance.  Mythology is like a scarecrow stuffed with straw by a whole village, every man putting in his piece, until the whole thing threatens to fly apart.  For while ordinary works of art (perhaps) are the product of individual men and women, mythology is the work of a whole society--if not several.

It is in this way that I will approach Star Trek: treating it as a body of mythology, created collectively by many men and women living in many different times, and even different societies.  Star Trek is, of course, indelibly American--the product of that heroic, self-creating America for which Europe, not to mention the rest of the world, is at best a romantic background.  Star Trek is also, at this point, a very old thing; this year, 2016, is officially its 50th anniversary.  In that 50 years, Star Trek has seen a lot.  It was born in the '60s, in that bright, catastrophic explosion that created our modern society, and died just before the decade ended; it was revived in the '70s, in the midst of cultural malaise and despair; it found its footing in the more stable '80s; expanded and retrenched itself in the eternal '90s; died in the turbulent early 2000s; and was brought back in newer, shinier form again just in time for the beginning of this decade.  As I write, a new television series is scheduled for 2017.

My own qualifications for writing about all this are almost nil.  I grew up watching and reading Star Trek--reading especially that strange form of official mythmaking that is modern tie-ins and "behind-the-scenes" books--and have at this point so absorbed much of it into myself that it has become a part of me, influencing the way I live and see and think.  I am (for better for worse) currently on track to become an academic, and am profoundly interested in philosophy, theology, and history in many periods-- though my academic specialization, such as it is, is over a thousand years prior to Star Trek's creation.  Perhaps one day there will be great works of academic scholarship produced about Star Trek; perhaps, for all I know, there already are.  These blog posts will not be any such work; far from it.  This series will be, at best, open and avowed pseudo-scholarship.  I will discuss many things with which I have little competency, work almost entirely from memory, and not cite my sources.  Nevertheless, this I can offer; that I have spent a truly shocking amount of my life thinking about Star Trek, reflecting on it, and reading other people reflecting on it.  I love Star Trek--I hate it--I am, like many, fascinated by it.  Many people--many talented artists and writers--have grappled with the great myth of Star Trek, without managing to pin it down.  I am content to be simply one more such person.

Over the coming weeks (months?) I will be writing various posts on the various Star Trek series.  At this stage, I anticipate writing one (lengthy) post at least on each of the first three Star Trek series, TOS, TNG, and DS9 (I apologize if these acronyms mean nothing to you).  These may mushroom into more than one each.  I will most likely not write a lot about either Voyager or Enterprise, parts of which I have never seen, and neither of which were ever of great interest to me; that is not to say, though, that they are not fascinating in their own right, only that they will have to wait for other, more willing, pens to do them justice.  I will at some point also attempt to tackle the films as well, probably in batches--but TWOK (more acronyms!) will almost certainly take an entire post of its own.  Will I ever complete this monumental task?  Will it make any sense?  Will anyone read it?

As Spock once said-- in a line that helped resolve a dispute between studio and filmmaker and bring about both a sequel and a resurrection-- "There are always possibilities."