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."