Category Archives: Star Trek

Richard Matheson, RIP

Richard Matheson, science fiction legend, is dead at the age of 87.

Richard Matheson, science fiction legend, is dead at the age of 87.

One of the greats of the science fiction world passed away on Sunday at the age of 87.

Richard Matheson’s work is remarkable because he was one of the first writers to truly master the emerging mass media of science fiction and horror, and combined science fiction-horror. He wrote 16 episode of The Twilight Zone, including some of the most inventive and frightening episodes. Personally, I loved the silent terror of The Invaders most, but the shocking Terror at 20,000 Fathoms is widely recognized as one of the best, if not the best, Twilight Zone episode.

I also find his episode of Star Trek, The Enemy Within, to be one of the very best. In that episode, a technology accident rips Captain Kirk into two separate beings, one strong and evil, one weak and good. It is a morality play of the very highest order, as are almost all of Matheson’s works.

He entertained and inspired many. Fans of horror and science fiction are mourning the news today. The man will be missed. His work, and his legend, live on.

 

 

 

Is Star Trek Better Than Star Wars? Is J. J. Abrams The Saviour?

Yoda shows disrespect to Star Trek

Yoda shows disrespect to Star Trek

In this month’s GQ magazine (May 2013 issue, p. 68 in my print copy) John Ritter has an article about J. J. Abrams, the Lost creator-director whose speciality has becoming reviving old franchises like Mission Impossible and Star Trek. About Star Trek, he opines–with an opiate reference–in relation to J.J. taking on the challenges of building the new Star Wars Disney franchise:

  • “The idea that the same man can mainline both Gene Roddenberry and the Force is mildly alarming. Think of what opposite Star Trek and Star Wars are. We’ve been defined since childhood by which we prefer: rationality vs. mysticism, robust and morally complex characters vs. good-and-evil archetypes. A guy who can reunite the two halves of the Great Sci-Fi Schism shouldn’t be making movies, folks–he should be our envoy to the Middle East.”

This is an incredibly rich paragraph. A veritable treasure trove.

Let me first offer my opinion on whether Star Trek and Star Wars are actually opposites or, more accurately, oppositional poles. Although I know many fans will choose one franchise over another, or that fans often say that they are “Star Trek people” or “Star Wars people” like they say they are cat people or dog people, I also know that there are many people who, like me, have worshiped at the altars dedicated to both Spock and Yoda since they were children (and yes, I am also both a cat person and a dog person—jeez, I wonder if there is a correlation).

But I think the dichotomy that Ritter sets up in this paragraph is incorrect, particularly on the Star Trek side. Star Trek is “rationality” devoid of “mysticism”. Um, not so fast. Have you seen what’s inside Mr. Spock? Like, telepathy and mind control. How many times has a false god been mistaken for the real thing: Apollo, Vaal, Q, Trelane, the Metrons, and on and on?

As numerous authors have written (for three strong examples, see Porter, Jennifer E. and Darcee L. McLaren (1999), ed., Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture, Albany, NY: SUNY Press; Wagner, Jon and Jan Lundeen (1998), Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, Westport, CN: Praeger; Jindra, Michael (1994), “Star Trek fandom as a religious phenomenon,” Sociology of Religion, 55 (Spring), 27-51), Star Trek in all of its vainglorious iterations is chock-full of mysticism and spirituality. Many, many episodes in the original series could, for example, be seen as symbolizing humanity’s ongoing quest for God, or gods, and an overturning or ambivalence towards this seemingly inescapable yearning in modern times. And as Wagner and Lundeen’s book demonstrates, Star Trek has plenty to do with mythology and archetype. As has any great story.

Which franchise do you think Ritter favors? My bet is that he sees himself more as a rational type than a mystic, and prefers “morally complex” characters to “archetypes” (or is that fictional stereotypes?).

But comparing fan debates in the fictional space to long-standing territorial and religious conflicts in the Middle East is particularly revealing. The fact that a writer can devise and a publication can publish such comparisons can only point to some deep resonance of belief, belonging and identity that comes from fan identity, particularly this, one of the core fan identities of our time.

J.J. Abrams is a master director who plays with mysticism and ambivalence to science. Like creator Chris Carter of The X-Files, his works often peer into the (small v and plural) existential voids, they look at the holes and gaps in technoscientific rationality and human society (even its sciencefictional reflection) and find there the ever-unfulfilled need for certainly and belief, and even spirituality and mysticism.

His works vividly portray this ambivalence and fear and hope and desire, which burns at the very heart of our society. And that is exactly why he is such a good choice to continue to tell these precious modern myths which so many of us hold so dear.

Why Utopia Got a Reboot: Reflecting on the New Star Trek Movie

startrek_movie_poster.jpg

There is a point towards the end of the successful new Star Trek movie where the Enterprise is stuck in a black hole’s gravity well and can’t escape, and Captain Kirk gives the order to jettison the ship’s warp core, its main source of fuel.

It is a climactic moment in a movie full of cliff-hanging intensities. And it’s also symbolic of what has been done with the Star Trek franchise.

By God, Jim, they jettisoned the Warp Core.

I’ve waited long enough to comment on J.J. Abram’s long-awaited adaptation of the Star Trek, intended to revive the flagging and much-loved franchise. I waited so that I can include all the spoilers I want. So if you don’t want me ruining the movie for you, and you haven’t see it, then Stop Reading Now.

I’m not going to offer a detailed review. I will say that I thought the move was very entertaining. The key thing I like about this reboot is that the script and the director really capture the essence of each of the main characters. I loved the casting, and really enjoyed the acting and the script. For the first time in a long time, a lot of fans feel like the franchise is in good hands.

But I’m writing here not so much to praise J.J. as to wonder about what was lost. And I don’t actually mean LOST. I mean lost.

Overall, I think the utopian future message of Star Trek, which many fans would claim to be at the heart of Trek’s appeal, appears in only very faded out fashion. Like a pair of faded old dungarees, tried on for size at the very end of the show, with Nimoy’s sonorous voicing over the retro old Star Trek soundtrack. For the old timers, who made it to the end.

I know, I’m old school, but I was disappointed. With so much going on in the world today, the film doesn’t really offer any sort of vision of a future where we can actually see a united Earth, with people actually united together. A guy with a Russian accent on the bridge doesn’t for Diversity make. And lots, and lots of white people everywhere. Turbans? Burkas? Nah. The occasional alien appears, just as the occasional non-white person appears. But the basic canvas, the mass, the average, is lily white.

And how about that 23rd century environment? Am I supposed to believe that we are still driving cars down dirt roads in the 23rd century? No public transportation?

The idea of a para-military force that unite the Earth? Nah, not really. Star Trek looks a lot like Starship Troopers. “Join Star Fleet, see the Stars.”

Ditto with the idea of “credits” and Star Trek’s veiled socialist utopia, where people only work by choice. The economics of the future escape me entirely. They’re just kind of irrelevant. This is entertainment, not philosophy. Yes, Star Trek’sgrand messages could sometime get a little annoying. But they also were inspiring. Especially, I think, to kids.
If there is any big message here that Gene Roddenberry would have put his stamp on, I don’t see it. In fact, I’d venture to say this isn’t the same Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry created. It is “loosely based upon” some of the ideas in Star Trek. It lacks the authentic Star Trek cred. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me. But I don’t see it. Casting Leonard Nimoy to deliver a few old lines about his friendship with Kirk doesn’t make this “real” Star Trek. Then again, maybe “real” Star Trek died along with Gene Roddenberry.

This is a gutted Star Trek movie, a Star Trek without ideology. It isn’t about technological utopianism. It isn’t about a united earth. It isn’t about an optimistic, hopeful, guiding vision of the future. This is all about relationships, special effects, suspense, entertainment, humor, and adventure. That’s what J.J. Abrams does well with Lost. That’s what he does well in this movie. But it’s not really all that Star Trek is about. This is Star Trek as space opera. Star Trek as Star Wars without the mysticism.

Compare that with my favorite Star Trek movie, the 4th one, called The Voyage Home. Aka, “the whales” Star Trek movie. Although its fashion and references are dated, the message in that movie is just as current as it was when Leonard Nimoy directed it. In our time of environmental crisis and culture clash, I was thinking that a new Star Trek movie had an opportunity to make a statement about a positive future. Maybe even insert some insight into the difficult relationship between the environment and technology–something that the original series avoided.

But, clearly, Gene, that’s what got jettisoned. The hope. The long speeches. The worn-on-the-sleeve optimism. The difficult, ever-imperfect struggle to work through a troubled past to an idealistic future.

And it’s interesting to wonder both how and why this happened.

How does one universe shift into the other? Well, through a weird kind of reboot. We are told that this movie is set in an alternate universe. So it’s not really the “real” Star Trek that we all know and love, but something new.

An alternative reality explanation basically gives the producers the latitude for lots of riffing: “Shut up, fanboy, it’s an alternative universe. We can do what we want here”

But that doesn’t really account for major disjunctures like personal cars and motorcycles in use.

What is amazing to me is how many little a-ha, nice, compact, meaningful, character-laden explanations for original series mysteries manage to get stuck into the film, even though it’s supposed to be an alternative universe. Kirk as a bar-brawler makes sense in light of the original series. It explains why there are so many fist fights in that series. Maybe it even explains why Kirk is always part of the landing party. Because he’s the best fighter on the ship, dammit.

Bones as a desperate, divorced alcoholic also makes sense. Actually, Kiwi actor Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. McCoy was among my favorites. It was a worthy tribute to DeForest Kelly. Spock’s schooling is also very right. I also really liked how young and bright they made Checkov, and how they made Sulu an expert sword-fighter–that explains his swordplay in series’ episodes. The new, hot, purring Uhura is also a great extension of the original character. Huge plusses for these characters. There’s a new authenticity to them, their accents, their demeanor, their backgrounds.

Kirk and Spock hating each other at first also makes great sense, and although fans seem to dislike it, I loved the confrontation scene where Kirk makes Spock break down. How many times has he done something like that in the original series. Jeez, what are friends for?

So there are these interesting intersections of this Star Trek 2 universe–which are fun and explanatory–and the old Star Trek that we all know. Why are they there? If Kirk’s dad dies, and changes the whole universe and the way that this story progresses in the process, then we don’t actually need those connections.

That leave the Why question. Why don’t we have Gene’s utopian vision in this movie?

  • Because talk is boring? Who needs another set of big long speeches, the kind that Star Trek became infamous for? Because action leaves no time for reflection? Because we don’t need Hope and Change anymore?
  • Because you can’t have everything in a sequel?
  • Because the producers and director decided to make a big, clean break from the fan base in order to wider the franchise’s appeal and aim for a young, hip, target that doesn’t worry about the future like those Boomer and Gen X kids of the past did?

Maybe Star Trek the Franchise was stuck in its own gravity well, its own black hole. That’s probably true.

But I keep wondering if the optimistic utopian vision of Gene Roddenberry was what really needed to be jettisoned for the series to get unstuck? It seems to me that, like the 60s, we are entering a time of crisis where we crave powerful myths and visions of the future.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just living in the moment. Enjoying the relationships. Willing to jettison whatever to get wherever. And to me, that’s a very scary thought.