Thursday, May 30, 2013

"But I remember his words as though they were yesterday.": Balance of Terror

"I've just seen it happen too many times."

After weeks of stumbling half-starts, frustratingly retrograde moves and absolutely awe-inducing spectacles of catastrophic, system-wide failure, we at last have the very first episode of Star Trek that can be unambiguously called an absolute masterpiece. “Balance of Terror” is an unmitigated triumph on all accounts and is exactly what the series needed to make up for the misfires of the past few episodes. In a bit of actually lovely irony, this still doesn't save this incarnation of the show. Not only does it not save it, it gives even stronger evidence that it should be killed off and retooled as quickly as possible: Far from redeeming the Star Trek we've been watching since “The Corbomite Maneuver”, everything that makes “Balance of Terror” work as well as it does is something that decisively proves Gene Roddenberry's original version of Star Trek is completely unworkable. We're nine episodes in and we already have the show's definitive deconstruction.

“Balance of Terror” is almost the inverse of “The Corbomite Maneuver”: While that episode went out of its way to glorify militaristic bravado and the chain of command, this one shows us in stark, terrible detail the tragic consequences of this way of thinking at a very intimate, personal level. Where Balok was an unseen Other throughout the majority of “The Corbomite Maneuver” before being revealed as friendly baby Clint Howard at the last minute, half of “Balance of Terror” is dedicated to the Romulan crew. We get to know each and every person on the Bird-of-Prey personally, especially Mark Lenard's commander, and their tired, beaten down and world-weary demeanor bleakly, and all too well, foreshadows their ultimate fate.

Ah yes, the Romulans. A reveal so historic it threatens to overshadow the rest of the episode (though perhaps not as much so as that of the Klingons will to their debut episode later in the season). As one of the pre-eminent alien cultures in Star Trek, it would be beneficial to spend some time talking about them, although in this sentence I've already touched on the first important thing about them: The Romulans are a culture, and that's a significant milestone for the series. Up 'til now, aliens in Star Trek have been portrayed as blunt metaphors for the show's moral-of-the-week: The Talosians are an extension of the Platonic cave theme of “The Cage”, Gary Mitchell was absolute power incarnate, Charlie Evans embodies the troubles of puberty and Salt Vampire was...a Salt Vampire. Or a buffalo. “The Man Trap” wasn't especially clear about that. Anyway, if they weren't straight metaphors, they were Deus Ex Machina: The Thasians exist primarily to provide a convenient way to get Charlie Evans off the Enterprise so he wouldn't blow it up. We don't get any sense of what their culture or lifestyle is. Balok is just an Other for Kirk to practice his manly command skills with, albeit one who happens to be friendly We get no idea of what the First Federation is like, though the design of the Fesarius is certainly imaginative.

But the Romulans are actual people, and within the span of one episode we learn pretty much everything we need to know about them. Firstly, and most obviously, the Romulans are the Roman Empire extrapolated into outer space. More to the point though, they're the Roman Empire past its pinnacle and entering into a decline: Though his crew seem eager to secure a Glorious Victory for their emperor, the commander himself seems from another age, openly questioning the value of imperialistic expansion, war for the sake of war and the cost in lives it demands. The Centurion sympathizes, but feels too bound by duty and tradition. The primary reason this works and the reason the Romulans are so memorable and easy-to-read is because the show gives us three different individuals (four if you count the subspace radio operator) and each one has a distinct personality: We see how the culture plays out across an actual group of people. What this means is that without really needing a bunch of exposition, “Balance of Terror” gives more depth and characterization to the Romulans than any episode of Star Trek has for its aliens-of-the-week before and, arguably, will after. There is absolutely no question why they get brought back.

But there's also another side to the Romulans' imperialism: “Balance of Terror” explicitly makes it clear the Romulan commander and Kirk are, for all intents and purposes, the same person and furthermore, that the Bird-of-Prey is just a reflection of Enterprise. There are numerous scenes where the two captains remark on how similar their thought process are (i.e. “that's what I would have done were I in his place”), how both are forced to work in dangerous, dehumanizing situations because they're at the behest of duty and circumstance and how neither desires to take the other's life because of how much they respect each other as equals.

The editing jumps back and forth between the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey, taking care to point out how each character has a compliment on the other side. The ensuing pointlessly destructive battle thus becomes a reiteration of an ancient scenario two groups of likable people are forced to act out against their will that prevents them from moving on to greater, happier things. Arguably the most moving scene comes in Act 3 as the Bird-of-Prey attempts to hide itself in a comet's tail: The commander gets a lovely line where he remarks on the comet's beauty, “shining in the dark”, before his crew presses him to explain its strategic merits. The majestic wonders of the universe must take a backseat to the mission. We're not explorers, we're conquerors, soldiers and policemen.

This is not an entirely original concept: Indeed, this episode is pretty much an exact shot-for-shot remake of the 1957 World War II movie The Enemy Below which concerned a US destroyer crew hunting down a German U-Boat (a fact which allegedly caused Harlan Ellison to flip out and refuse to speak to writer Paul Schneider). Certainly just taking a superficial look at both texts this seems obvious, and the Bird-of-Prey is a more than fitting stand in for a submarine with its small array of windows and cramped, self-contained bridge helping to craft an appealingly claustrophobic atmosphere. Indeed, it's the best bit of model work on Star Trek so far: With all due respect to legendary designer Matt Jeffries (and apologies to the generations of fans who will surely hunt me down for this remark), I never found the original Enterprise an especially inspiring bit of design. The Fesarius was provocative in a kind of Asimov Golden Age sense, but given how little of it we actually saw its effect is muted somewhat. The Bird-of-Prey is amazing though: Designer Wah Ming Chang gives us a truly evocative and iconic look, bringing together elements of raptors, rocket ships and flying saucers to produce something immediately distinctive and memorable.

But I'm going to make a bold claim here: “Balance of Terror” is actually a far more effective telling of this story than the movie on which it's based. Part of this is the acting; William Shatner, DeForest Kelley and Mark Lenard are all absolutely chilling, each one delivering what has got to be a career high water mark performance. But the bigger reason is the setting: In The Enemy Below the German U-Boat captain is shown to be in some sense “special” because he isn't a Nazi and is in fact quite hostile to Hitler's regime, he's just following orders and doing his job which makes him easier to compare with the destroyer captain. “Just following orders” has always been a flimsy excuse however: The Romulans are culturally obligated to valorize duty and glorious conquest and the crew of the Bird-of-Prey are just products of their time. It's much easier to sympathize with them than it is a bunch of Nazis. Furthermore, The Enemy Below is historical fiction, and in my view, this is a genre with a very noticeable limit on how emotionally compelling it can be.

I've never found the fictionalized past effective as a setting because the cinematic tradition's pretenses of realism at once require us to take it seriously as a work of representationalism while at the same time accepting it's weaving a yarn. Also, as history books are inevitably written by the “victors” (i.e. authority and hegemony) works of fiction based on them almost always wind up with a glorification of master narratives that inevitably marginalize certain viewpoints. Like, say, for example, the idea that the Europeans were the bold discovers of the Americas and thus “exploration” becoming equated with “European colonialism” when pretty much all historical evidence points to the Polynesians being familiar with the shores centuries beforehand but not settling them because they were already inhabited and the fact the ancient navigators were more interested in free exchange of goods and ideas and weren't imperialist assholes.

But as speculative fiction “Balance of Terror” doesn't have any of these problems, and what this also does is really highlight the theme of reiteration: What, exactly, makes the Romulans so very different from us? Yes, they crossed the Neutral Zone and launched an unprovoked attack against the Earth Outposts, but Stiles was also chomping at the bit to cross into Romulan space and exact vengeance on them for the pain his family endured during the Romulan War and one could imagine an alternate scenario where Earth made the fist move. No, if the commander and Kirk are the same, as are the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey, then so are the Romulan Star Empire and Earth Command.

Schneider is making an impossibly strong claim here, and I'll be honest: The fact this episode got greenlit under Gene Roddenberry is utterly shocking, Because “Balance of Terror” is nothing if not a gravely serious treatise on imperialism in all its forms and the devastating cost it extorts from everyday people and a definitive claim that Star Trek is absolutely imperialistic. The episode just revels in showing us the ugly reality of military bravado: The very first scene has Kirk about to preside over a wedding and he gives a heartfelt speech about how one of his “happier duties” is officiating shipboard weddings. All of a sudden he's interrupted by Uhura, who informs him Outpost 4 is under attack. The tone shifts suddenly and dramatically like a switch has been flipped. We get a painfully graphic scene of the outpost's complete destruction, with its last survivor dying in brutal agony live on camera before the entire bridge crew. As the Enterprise trails the Bird-of-Prey it slowly dawns on the crew a battle is imminent and unavoidable and Kirk informs the crew that should the conflict break out into war, in the eyes of his superiors they, him and the ship are all considered expendable. The show plays this as a tragedy with the music swelling dramatically and various low-angle shots of Kirk which, combined with Shatner's wonderfully expressive acting that displays every single iota of his exaggerated pensiveness and guilt-wracked consciousness, makes Kirk look for all the world for a man walking to his death.

Once the two ships finally do engage, we don't get some glorious and thrilling action set-piece where the Enterprise and the Bird-of-Prey exchange a manly amount of firepower, we get an excruciatingly drawn out cat-and-mouse game where the ships take turns brutally crippling each other and maiming each others' crew. First the classic scene where the Romulans turn out to be an offshoot of the Vulcans, immediately casting doubt onto Spock's loyalty and bringing Stiles' generations of pent-up trauma and rage to the surface (which results in one of Kirk's best lines so far: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There's no room for it on the bridge.”). Then the Enterprise picks away at the Bird-of-Prey with proximity blasts, each one tearing into the ship and causing the bridge to visibly collapse around the commander with each successive charge, ultimately resulting in the death of the centurion. The Bird-of-Prey responds by unleashing its plasma weapon, capable of vaporizing entire planets in one shot, which also saps its own energy reserves. As the bridge crew watch helplessly while the plasma blast overtakes them, Kirk and Rand get what they expect to be their first, last and only moment of intimacy as they hold each other close, fully prepared to face death together. The Enterprise gets lucky: It's out of range enough that it doesn't get hit by the blast at full power and is merely rendered immobile with its electrical systems overloaded, but that just as easily might not have been the case.

On the Bird-of-Prey the situation is considerably more dire. With the ship in critical condition and his officers perishing one by one, leaving him the sole survivor of his ship as much as the doomed Command Hanson was the last left alive on Outpost 4, we can not only see, but *feel* the moment where the Romulan commander realises his mission is forfeit and, more to the point, that he'll never see the skies of his home again. Mark Lenard plays this with absolutely gut-wrenching conviction, depicting a person fully ready to take his death and those of his crew upon himself, but deeply saddened that he has to. And with that we get the horrifically tragic emotional climax-The single greatest line in the episode, arguably all of the Original Series. As Kirk contacts the Bird-of-Prey and asks for their terms of surrender, the commander politely turns him down and, just before he destroys himself and his ship in a nuclear explosion, looks Kirk dead in the eye and says:

“I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

And then he's gone. The Enterprise has ended the battle and prevented another Romulan War, but Earth hasn't won anything. All this has accomplished is the deaths of four people who were no different from us: People just as motivated by a desire for peace, love and cooperation, but who, just like the crew of the Enterprise, were never allowed to find it in their lifetimes. And the cost on “our” side is no less devastating: In its closing moments “Balance of Terror” helpfully reminds us we began by interrupting a wedding as McCoy tells Kirk the only fatality among the Enterprise crew was Lieutenant Tomlinson in the phaser wing, who was supposed to get married today.

Kirk tries to console Angela Martine, Tomlinson's fiance by saying "It never makes any sense. We both have to know that there was a reason”. Martine briskly tells Kirk she's “fine” and walks away. She's not convinced. We're not convinced. Neither is Kirk. There was no reason for this, for any of this: There was no reason for the Praetor to order the Bird-of-Prey to attack the outposts and violate the nonaggression pact, there was no reason for Earth to demand a swift militaristic response from the Enterprise and there was certainly no reason for people to sacrifice their lives in a bloody, messy conflict to prove nothing except why it's pointless to fight this way at all. It's far beyond the days where empire building was considered the norm, if indeed those days ever existed.

Rome is in decline: It's time we stopped looking to the city on the hill for guidance and instead looked to it as a monument for the tragic, failed and misguided aspirations of generations long since departed.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Your emotions make you weak!": The Naked Time

Genies and Ladlemen, presenting the Kevin Thomas Riley Revue...

An argument could be made that “The Naked Time” is the first “proper” Star Trek episode, at least to a certain number of fans. It's definitely the first truly memetic one: Everyone remembers Sulu fencing, Uhura's “sorry, neither” line (which is, admittedly, brilliant) Nurse Chapel professing her love for Spock and Spock's subsequent meltdown and Kirk's “I'll never lose you! Never!”. I've even read reports of Trekkers going full Rocky Horror Picture Show on this episode when it's screened at conventions, hissing along with the PSI 2000 virus and cheering at appropriate intervals, although being a lonely shut-in who spends their time marathoning Star Trek and flailing desperately at a keyboard into the wee hours of the morning I wouldn't have any hands-on experience with that.

This episode was also Bob Justman's choice for the premier on the grounds that the reduced inhibitions brought upon by the disease would be a good introduction to the characters and their personalities. Justman has a point and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the thinking that went into making an unapologetic remake of “The Naked Time” the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation twenty years later. There are issues with Justman's argument here I'll look at a little later, but I do agree with him in the broader sense that the strength of “The Naked Time” is in the fact it's an Actor Showcase Episode, which is a good thing to put near the beginning of a TV series. Before I get into that though, I want to square the plot away because, well, it has all the same problems every other Roddenberry-produced Star Trek episode does. It's not as bad in this regard as something like “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Charlie X” or “The Enemy Within” so I don't need to go into the same level of detail as I did with those episodes, but it is worth mentioning if for no other reason then to point out how systemic a problem this has become for the show.

The PSI 2000 virus works by producing an effect similar to serious intoxication and strips the victim of all inhibitions. “The Naked Time” thinks this is absolutely disastrous. The Enterprise quite literally spirals out of control because the bridge crew can't keep their heads about them (a plot point telegraphed in the bluntest, most obvious manner known to mankind by Scott in the briefing room in the first act). It's clear the episode is treating this as another reiteration of the logic vs. emotions conflict, and given how upfront it's being about its symbolism we should take this as the definitive statement of Star Trek's position on the matter, or at least that of Star Trek under Gene Roddenberry. While there was some room for debate when Spock touts the superiority of logic in something like “Where No Man Has Gone Before” or “The Corbomite Maneuver” because it's Spock and we're always meant to be at least a little suspicious of him, there's really no other way to read the Enterprise screaming towards a fiery death because the crew can't control their emotional desires. Also, just for fun, count the number of times the word “irrational” is used in this episode, and keep in mind that there is a very strong Western patriarchal tradition of associating rationality and logic with men and irrationality and emotion with women and see where that leaves you.

In the “Mudd's Women” post I looked at the notion of sexuality as taboo and the subsequent fetishization of it in Western culture. “The Naked Time” has this in droves as well, most clearly observable in its really strange conception of romantic love. Kirk's attraction to Janice Rand, already broken beyond repair thanks to the appalling rape culture mess of “The Enemy Within”, is once again framed in terms of a forbidden fruit because of his responsibilities to the Enterprise (which, taken on its own, is of course only problematic if you're thinking purely in military terms) and now we have the added metaphor of Spock's inner turmoil over his human desire to express his emotions conflicting with his Vulcan desire to repress them. Now it seems we have Star Trek equating romantic love with blunt sexual drive, which is not only laughably puritanical but also really confusing: If the show is trying to make a point other than that we need to suppress each and every one of our emotions and strive to be unfeeling automaton taskmasters I can't find it.

But the plot and ethics of “The Naked Time”, eyeroll-inducing as they may be, are par for the course at this point. This episode also adds the troubling wrinkle of Joe Tormolen, whose “irrational” thoughts seem to be concern that humanity's unchecked expansion into space will damage or pollute it, which is a self-evidently valid and laudable thing to be worried about that the episode once again completely glosses over and disregards, but even that is still run of the mill Roddenberry Ethics. That said, this also ties into the other big thing to note about “The Naked Time”, which is that it's an Actor Showcase, and it's a good one to boot. It's easy to see how this could become an instant fan favourite: It's an absolute riot watching the actors freed from any kind of constraints just allowed to completely run wild with their characters in ways they'd never typically be allowed to.

As much fun as it is seeing George Takei run around the hallways shirtless brandishing a rapier, the immediate standout has got to be Bruce Hyde as Kevin Thomas Riley. Hyde's performance is completely at odds with something that's supposed to reduce inhibitions: Far from “giving in to baser instincts” as the script tells us the PSI 2000 virus makes people do, Hyde has Riley put on a one man musical comedy act, hijacking the Enterprise through engineering, declaring himself captain, belting out “I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” throughout the entirety of the last two acts over the loudspeaker and giving everyone ice cream. It is absolutely glorious. Spock gets some tossed-off line how Riley's actions are the result of his “longstanding belief” that he's “descended from Irish kings”, but this of course does not take at all: Riley's role in the story is to do nothing more or less than singlehandedly turn Star Trek, for a few beautiful, fleeting moments, into a Vaudeville routine and that alone makes this possibly the best episode in the series so far.

Though Hyde is amazing, this also segues into the episode's biggest problem (aside from its ethics, of course): A lot of people, Bob Justman included, praise “The Naked Time” for using its Actor Showcase structure to convey intimate details about the main characters (hence Justman's claim it would have made a good premier) and this isn't entirely true I feel. While it's fun to watch the cast act against type, “The Naked Time” is actually rather thin on character development. Let's look at what we learn about each main character through how they act under the influence of the virus: Sulu is apparently “at heart a swashbuckler”, and while the episode was kind enough to telegraph this early on through his conversation with Riley about fencing, this is never actually brought up again in any subsequent episode (although his interest in small arms is briefly mentioned in “Shore Leave” and the Animated Series episode “The Slaver Weapon”). Even if it were, though, “enjoying fencing” is hardly a significant, intimate reveal about Sulu's personality.

Similarly, Riley's fascination with Irish royalty is only mentioned in an offhand comment by Spock to handwave away the aforementioned impromptu musical theatre performance: Riley never mentioned Ireland before or after and when next we see him it isn't even brought up at all (that Star Trek doesn't turn him into an excruciatingly awful and bigoted comedy stereotype like the last time an Irishman showed up is something of a miracle, however). Tormolen has his environmental concerns which were again mentioned at the outset, which was good, but he's dead so it doesn't matter. Kirk gets some painfully generic speech about the burdens and responsibilities of command which was stale and boring when Pike gave Doctor Price the exact same story in “The Cage”. Everyone else just defaults to “act silly”.

Really the only genuine moments of character drama we get here come from Spock, who I'll touch on in a minute, and Nurse Chapel, played by Majel Barrett, who makes her first appearance in this episode. Even though she didn't get the lead role originally written for her, of course Majel Barrett was going to show up on Star Trek once it went to series: She's just as inexorably linked to it as Gene Roddenberry is, and it makes sense for her to reappear in a Roddenberry-penned episode (once again, the name on the credits says John D.F. Black, who was also working as the show's story editor at the time, but apparently the script was completely rewritten by Roddenberry before going to air, who didn't even bother to consult or inform Black).

Chapel is the first character we see who actually does seem to be affected on a personal, emotional level as we learn she's in love with Spock and, shockingly, the show actually plays it like a serious, proper love scene: Chapel isn't lusting after or fantasizing about Spock like how every single other relationship on the show to date has been framed, she genuinely seems to love and care for him as a person. And, to her credit, Barrett sells it like an absolute pro, delivering a very sweet, caring, mature and affectionate performance that's probably her best bit of acting in the entire Original Series. Of course, the show does her no favours given that this is Chapel's first appearance and thus we've had absolutely no opportunities to see this side of her character meaningfully develop to the point where this scene could serve as an effective dramatic climax, but I'll take what I can get.

Leonard Nimoy is no slouch here either, and plays off of Barrett's tender confessions to absolutely brilliant effect, portraying Spock as at first recalcitrant and taciturn, then confused, and finally heartfelt, vulnerable and apologetic as he tries to express to Chapel his fear that he'll never be able to reciprocate and care for her the way she does him. And Barrett is once again magnificent, showing Chapel to be overwhelmingly compassionate and unwaveringly loyal. It's little wonder this scene is so well remembered and why there is such a strong contingent to pair up these characters. Actually, having seen both “The Naked Time” and its Star Trek: The Next Generation remake quite recently as of this writing, I have to wonder if Denise Crosby and LeVar Burton echoed and inverted this scene for their own private moment on the latter show. As great and iconic as this scene is however, I do leave it up to you all to draw your own conclusions about the significance behind Gene Roddenberry making all the female crewemembers (save Janice Rand) swoon over Spock and then giving him a love scene with his own loverXmuse.

Of course Nimoy's best performance comes immediately after this as he breaks down in tears alone in the briefing room lamenting his inability to love others. It's by far the defining moment of the episode, sold even better by the absolutely brutal camerawork: We slowly follow Spock as he staggers out of sickbay into the briefing room, passing graffiti that says “Love Mankind”. Then, once he sits down, the camera creeps around him, just wallowing in his breakdown. It's pure cinematic voyeurism, but it's effective. What's the most astounding thing about this scene is that none of it was scripted: The original plan for this scene was to have a *really* dumb comedy bit where someone draws a mustache on Spock. Nimoy felt he needed something more emotional (how ironic) and ad-libbed this entire sequence starting from where he leaves Chapel and ending when Kirk storms in and screams about antimatter implosions. Shatner's reaction here is a bit changeable; he doesn't seem sure of how he should respond to Nimoy's raw emotion. In the end he decides to have Kirk just flip the hell out and start whaling away at Spock to get him to snap out of it before Nimoy has Spock throw him backwards over the table.Shatner's performance is suitably histrionic and he rightfully devours half of the conference room in the process, but he really could have played off of Nimoy here a lot better: This exchange doesn't hold a candle to the one with Barrett.

But even so it was enough: This is Shatner and Nimoy's first real hyper-emotional scene together of the type they'll soon become famous for (the exchange in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” having clearly been written for Jeffrey Hunter's Pike and Barrett's Number One), and, pairing it with Barrett's show-stealing scene in sickbay it's easy to see how “The Naked Time” got a reputation for being a strong character drama even if they're in truth the only two real character moments in the episode. They're iconic, memorable moments that stick with people, and that's really all something like this needs to go down in history. That's the real strength of “The Naked Time” I feel: reconceptualise it as a collection of fun and giddy setpieces and these moments of tender character drama fit right in alongside Bruce Hyde's grandstanding and George Takei's rapier. I wouldn't call it the episode where we get to know the characters better, but I would call it the episode where Star Trek proves it can have fun once in awhile and stumbles onto the path towards becoming an evergreen pop phenomenon.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"I am he and he is me!": The Enemy Within

Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction to this episode too.
“The Enemy Within” plays like an almost paint-by-numbers example of how Star Trek works at the moment. This of course means it's terrible. It has a crassly simplistic and poorly thought out moral delivered with zero semblance of tact, form, structure or good sense and almost painfully earnestly and gamely conveyed by the cast. This leaves me in a really frustrating position: It's bad, but it's bad along exactly the lines I've been drawing over the past several posts. This one manages to fall face first into rape apologia, which I will of course take it to task for, but only for the same reasons the show's been reactionary so far. It's a particularly egregious execution of this formula, but other than that, “The Enemy Within” brings nothing new to the analytical table.

However, I have a job to do here so let's see what I can make with this. First of all, if “Charlie X” doing a melodrama about teenage issues irritated me, “The Enemy Within” doing an evil lookalike plot where the baddie frames our hero and gets his friends to turn against him for half the episode before he clears his name is enough to send me straight into smash-the-television-in-blind-rage mode. Ignoring the plot for the moment, which I would sorely like to scream and yell about but shall restrain myself from doing, “The Enemy Within” could possibly be described as something I call an Actor Showcase Episode: These are special episodes, meant to give a specific cast member or members the opportunity to play against type and and show off their reach. These are typically made when shows get a particularly skilled cast who are normally pigeonholed into very tight, programmatic roles to let the audience know the full extent of their range. Actor Showcase Episodes tend to crop up either at the beginning of a show's run (to get the audience used to the new cast) or in the middle (to let them see a side of the cast heretofore unseen) and they're usually delightful changes of pace from standard operating procedure (indeed these become characteristic of Star Trek: The Next Generation once Michael Piller becomes showrunner).

In that regard, calling “The Enemy Within” an Actor Showcase for William Shatner is tempting, especially as the highlight of the episode is arguably Shatner's performance as both crazed madman Evil!Kirk and gentle, thoughtful Good!Kirk. However, as this episode seems consumed by a desire to thwart my attempts to say anything intelligent about it whatsoever at every turn, it comes literally right before an episode seemingly custom-tailored to be a full Cast Showcase, so there goes that reading.

So Roddenberry Ethics it is then. Although this problem is systemic throughout Roddenberry's entire tenure as showrunner, “The Enemy Within” is probably the most clear-cut example of just how badly this can go for the show (so far). The core theme of Richard Matheson's script is a kind of grade school retelling of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Each person is literally composed of a honest-to-goodness Good and Evil half and both are needed for us to survive. The Good Half is intelligence and compassion and the Evil Half is, of course, aggression, ambition, confidence and lust. This isn't even Freud's id/ego/superego distinction, which would be bad enough, this is straight-up “some human traits are by definition Good and some are by definition Evil and that's the Law of the Universe”. It's also very, very Christian, or at least Western: Sexual desire is equated with rape and blind lust and declared Fundamentally Evil. Furthermore, as both Spock and McCoy state, it's “intelligence”, which is here described in terms that makes it sound suspiciously like “logic” and “rationality”, that gives humans their innate goodness and strength, so we're right back at that whole “emotions are fickle and corrupting” thing again, so that's fun.

Let there be absolutely no mistaking what Matheson is suggesting here: Good!Kirk, composed of only his compassion and intelligence, is rendered increasingly frail, indecisive and unfit for command without the moderating influence of Evil!Kirk. There is one scene near the end where the episode seems to be trying to push a Freudian interpretation where Good!Kirk is unable to decide between Spock's logic and McCoy's passion: A common reading of the Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley triple act is that they in fact represent the id, ego and superego. Especially as this follows McCoy and Spock's “intelligence” comments, one could read this scene as the divided superego (the twin Kirks) being unable to moderate between the id (McCoy) and the ego (Spock). Director Leo Penn seems to like this angle, as do the editors, who frame the shot cutting back and forth between Spock and McCoy with Good!Kirk caught in the middle unable to take a stand. DeForest Kelley seems to be in this camp as well, playing McCoy as bristling with unchecked passion, but neither Nimoy nor Shatner seem to be responding to this.

Shatner continually plays Good!Kirk as someone determined to prove his strength, though his strength lies in different areas. When he faces down Evil!Kirk in engineering, he manages to gain the upper hand merely by calmly standing his ground. Nimoy, on the other hand, seems to be playing up Spock's own duality trying to remain cool and logical even has he grows more and more commanding and forceful. Indeed, Matheson even gives Spock a line where he tells McCoy he knows from experience what it's like to live as two people at war and having to keep a handle on both. But at the same time this is as passionate as we've ever seen Spock as he desperately tries to keep control over the ship: The show is at the same time trying to push the Freudian reading as a multi-leveled recursive metaphor, but not everyone seems to be quite on the same page about it. Even if the Freudian theme were completely intentional and not misguided and reductive, it wouldn't really come across all that well anyway.

And then there's the rape angle. Evil!Kirk straight up tries to rape Janice Rand and the show handles it in just about the worst possible way imaginable. First off, we have the Pop Psychology 101 for Dummies ramifications of the scene, which pretty much forces us to conclude Matheson thinks male sexuality is fundamentally based around rape which, wow, I'll let you all hash that one out on your own. Then we have Rand telling Spock, McCoy and Good!Kirk that she “wouldn't even have reported it...but Fisher saw it too” and Holy Goddamn I don't even know where to begin with that. Even so though, even despite all of this, the show *almost* pulled it off by having the attempted rape be portrayed as an absolutely horrible, trust-shattering thing, but then it ruins all its goodwill by having Good!Kirk be primarily confused because he was in his quarters the whole time and knew it wasn't him. He doesn't get a single scene where he acts devastated that someone tried to rape Rand in his name or a single line expressing remorse or sadness for her: It's all about him and he's just confused.

And then there's the ending. Rand eventually finds out Evil!Kirk and Good!Kirk are two sides of the same person (having previously been told the white lie that Evil!Kirk was an imposter) and on the bridge she confronts the newly-rejoined Kirk. The two have an awkward moment where she tries to apologise and he brushes her off. Rand then delivers some schematics to Spock who grins and says “the 'imposter' had some interesting qualities, wouldn't you say, Yeoman?” and this is where I finally draw the line. There is absolutely no way I can redeem this. Absolutely no way I can discern any kind of positive, edifying analysis out of this. This is undistilled rape culture, no, rape apologia in all it's ugly glory. We've moved beyond merely *threatening* to derail the series to actually derailing it outright. There's no way up from this. Star Trek, in this incarnation, is finally and irreparably broken.

Because, while the name on the script says Richard Matheson, this is all Gene Roddenberry. In her memoir The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy, Grace Lee Whitney express her disgust with this episode (thank god) and this scene in particular, writing:

"I can't imagine any more cruel and insensitive comment a man (or Vulcan) could make to a woman who has just been through a sexual assault! But then, some men really do think that women want to be raped. So the writer of the script gives us a leering Mr. Spock who suggests that Yeoman Rand enjoyed being raped and found the evil Kirk attractive!"

Some fan lore tries to spare Matheson, speculating the scene at the end was tacked on by someone else, and if that's the case it's perfectly clear to me who that was. I have no doubt someone with Gene Roddenberry's conflicted, confused ideas about what femininity is and how gender roles work would put in a scene like this. But even if Roddenberry didn't write it, this episode still went out under his watch. As a showrunner, and a showrunner who was known for being especially anal, hands-on and controlling, Roddenberry could have, and should have, kept something like this from being filmed. But of course he wouldn't: He oversaw the bungled sexual politics of “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and put out something as misogynistic as “Mudd's Women” and something as carelessly, needlessly reactionary as “Charlie X”.

And the show is in a real sense tainted by this: I can't even fall back on the actors here, except Whitney I guess, as they all seem either perfectly fine with what's going on or, at worst, getting a little too into it. Shatner gives a strong performance, but none of his characters, even Good!Kirk, seem equitable with the person I saw and praised in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and that's to nothing except the show's detriment. That Good!Kirk displays absolutely no empathy or remorse for Rand is inexcusable, and it's not helped by Shatner's Hitchcockian, Kubrickian method approach of slapping Whitney off-camera between takes to get her to sell the sickbay scene better. Nimoy's performance is good, but I'm probably never going to get over how he has Spock just leer at Rand: He sells it altogether too well. The best thing here by far is George Takei, who keeps Sulu in good spirits even as he's slowly freezing to death: It's a wonderful acting job that's as heartening and human as it is tragic and bittersweet. Shame he couldn't have done anything about the rape scene though.

I've gone at great length in the past to stress that while Star Trek isn't the hopeful, idealistic, imagination-filled show I love it's slowly sewing the seeds that will allow the franchise to one day become that. But that future has never seemed further away then it does while watching “The Enemy Within” (although I should probably watch my words, as I previously said that about “Mudd's Women” and “The Corbomite Maneuver” and look what happened. You'd think I'dve learned by now). The show as it exists now isn't just not that future, it's working actively contrary to realising that future. With callous, ill-thought out morality plays supported by some of the most stilted and clumsily reactionary writing I've ever seen on a television show I'm not sure how I can even call this Star Trek. But that's the awful thing: It *is* Star Trek: If anything, it's the version of the franchise I like that's the weird anomaly: How on Earth do we get from this to Vaka Rangi? How on Earth do we go from this to something that's actually watchable?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sensor Scan: Lost in Space

Lost in Space
If we're going to try to piece together the climate Star Trek was entering in the mid-1960s and the way it might have first been received, it would be beneficial to spend some time talking about its closest contemporary TV cousin. Star Trek was but one of many science fiction shows on the air during this period, but the one it's most frequently compared with is Lost in Space. There are a number of very good reasons for this: One, the two shows ran nearly concurrently, with their premiers and finales less than a year apart and two, both were voyaging starship shows loosely based around going to a new place every week and stumbling into adventure. Also, from a mid-1960s US perspective, Lost in Space would have been seen as “the other big space show” as while there were quite a few shows built in the adventure sci-fi model a great deal of them were German or British productions and would remain unknown to US audiences for decades.

The flipside of this is that for a long time Star Trek fans had a history of speaking derisively about Lost in Space, typically holding it up as the chief representative of an older, sillier, and campier method of doing TV sci-fi that Star Trek's emphasis on Hard Science thankfully swept away. And superficially at least the two shows do in fact seem strikingly different: While the Enterprise crew is often, and rather erroneously in my opinion, referred to as a family, the crew of the Jupiter 2 literally is one: Expedition commander Dr. John Robinson bundled his wife and children up into a flying saucer and departed an overpopulated Earth in an attempt to colonize a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. This leads into the next point of contrast: While the Enterprise's mission is supposedly to Seek Out New Life And New Civilizations (though recall we haven't actually heard those words spoken yet), the Robinsons want basically the exact opposite: To find a habitable planet, settle down and start life anew.

It should be rather obvious by now that the premise of Lost in Space is lifted pretty much wholesale from the novel The Swiss Family Robinson, just updated for the Space Age. Indeed it's not even the first work to do The Swiss Family Robinson In Space: That would be the Gold Key comic series The Space Family Robinson. The ramifications of this are interesting though; having just sort of panned “The Cage” for not being Vaka Rangi and for serving as proof positive Star Trek isn't quite what it's remembered as or thought of as being about, it's tempting to say Lost in Space is much closer to that concept and call it a show ahead of its time. Here we have a family setting out on a voyage purely for migratory and population concerns looking to find a new home for themselves. This would, on the surface at least, seem like a straightforward translation of Polynesian navigation philosophy to the Space Age. So why am I following Star Trek and not Lost in Space on this blog?

Well, to be perfectly blunt Lost in Space isn't Vaka Rangi either. Not even close. Sure, Star Trek isn't, at least not yet, but the thing is Star Trek does eventually get there I argue, and the story of how it does is equally paradoxical, multi-layered and fascinating. Despite its surface level pretensions, Lost in Space never does. The reason why turns out to be rather simple: It's flagrantly, almost painfully, of its time. It's straightforwardly a bit of Cold War Space Age futurism where humans move into space as is their natural right. The fact Earth is overpopulated gets glossed over both in the pilot and in the first episode: There's no real concern expressed about the devastating effect unchecked Westernist-style population growth had on our planet or fear it will happen again; it's just the setup for the Robinsons to get into space and do cool space things.

Most damning, however, is the fact the expedition is framed in explicit nationalistic terms: Powerful countries are all jockeying to be the first to populate space, and the United States wants to be the first with the Jupiter 2 mission. Dr. Smith, the cowardly villain comic relief character played by Jonathan Harris, is introduced in both the pilot and the first episode as a foreign enemy agent trying to sabotage the endeavour who inadvertently stowed aboard and the predominant story arc of the first season involves his various attempts prevent the US from achieving dominance in space. As beloved a pop culture icon as Harris made Smith, however, he's still written as overtly a villainous character: We're meant to both cheer and laugh at his bumbling attempts to submarine our rugged, competent US leads and go “oh look, the evil foreign man is so silly and afraid he even cowers behind adorable and plucky little Will Robinson”. Lost in Space is no Space Age tale of navigators and explorers, it's blatantly and unarguably a pro-colonialist fairy tale for the Cold War-era US neo-imperialist set. Despite the clunky flirtations with militarism in “The Cage” and elsewhere in the original Star Trek, even Gene Roddenberry never managed something quite at this level of jingoistic empire building.

The most interesting thing from my perspective about Lost in Space and its interactions with Star Trek and Star Trek fandom actually comes about as a consequence of ratings and timeslot competition. In its latter two years, Lost in Space ran opposite the Adam West and Burt Ward Batman TV show and, like most things that ran opposite Batman, was hurriedly re-tooled into a campy monster-of-the-week adventure series and in particular played up Dr. Smith's flamboyance. This displeased many fans of the show, who had up until that point praised it for the more Hard Sci-Fi approach that defined its first season. This was fascinating for me to read, because in Star Trek fandom, at least the Star Trek fandom I grew up in, Lost in Space was *always* derided for being cheap and silly and the sort of thing we needed Star Trek to come along and deep-six when really it would seem the two shows are actually closer than some might want to admit. See, the thing about Star Trek is that it's frequently praised for being innovative in the wrong areas. What's special about Star Trek is not its utopian idealism, of which there is actually vanishingly little of as originally conceived, and nor is it being beholden to either Hard Science or Hard Sci-Fi. No, what makes Star Trek unique is its ability to blend elements from Pulp Sci-Fi, Golden Age Sci-Fi and philosophical fiction and, once it comes back next year, a gloriously camp aesthetic.

It's this wholehearted embrace of camp that's one of the things that will allow Star Trek to last for over 40 years and put it into the position to transcend its origins, but I'll hold off on discussing that in too much detail until we meet the person most directly responsible for bringing camp to Trek (and you get no points for guessing who that is). Yes Star Trek technically failed and burned out after three years, and honestly as far as I'm concerned it burned out after one episode. But what's important here is that it was brought back-Not in quite the same form, it must be said, because there is still the sense that every Star Trek after “The Cage” is a reinterpretation of the original concept. Star Trek as we know it really isn't one cohesive thing, despite what the most outspoken Star Trek fans would have you believe, it's actually a diffuse group of loosely connected concepts and ideas that people have tried to nail down into a single constructed fantasy world with varying degrees of success. But Star Trek gets a second pilot, a TV series, an animated series, a film series and a subsequent reimagining on TV. Something about that idea stuck with people enough to keep digging it up decade after decade, year after year. But why does Star Trek get so lucky? Lost in Space only got three seasons too and Jonathan Harris loved to camp it up, and all that show got for its troubles was an embarrassingly abortive 90s action sci-fi film reboot starring Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman.

I think the answer lies once again in the fact Lost in Space was simply too much of the mid-1960s, and the hegemonic mid-1960s to boot. Despite the problematic connotations I've observed already, and some more that will crop up as the series proper begins, Star Trek is simply nowhere near as blatantly colonialist and neo-imperialist as Lost in Space is, or, if I'm honest, the majority of science fiction from this period. Somehow, some way, Star Trek was able to transcend this and survive its troubled birth with approximate success. Lost in Space couldn't do that, and it was never going to be able to: It can never be Vaka Rangi because firstly true navigators were never imperialists and secondly the Ancient Polynesians were not homesteaders of the sea motivated purely by population statistics, either. They were sailors, poets, philosophers, astronomers, musicians and spiritualists. This is the soul of a traveller. Lost in Space doesn't understand this. Star Trek does. Granted, Star Trek doesn't get it either, but the series is on its way towards figuring that out and it eventually will.

Even though I admit the show in the 1960s is far from my favourite take on the concept and it's tough to tease out even throughout its best years I'm confidant it does, otherwise I wouldn't be making it the centrepiece of Vaka Rangi. Also, given the position it has in pop culture it would seem, at first glance at least, that I'm not the only one who feels this way: Star Trek is still held up to this day as the Ur example of science fiction as not just utopian futurism, but also the embodiment of pure idealism and hope themselves. Even people otherwise aware of the New Frontier Liberalist, neo-imperialist and heteronormative undertones much of the franchise has, and I'm not denying they're there, still feverishly cling to Star Trek as a beacon of light in a dark and confusing world. So why does Star Trek work? Why does Star Trek endure? The answer to that is complex and many faceted, and really the best way to find out is to take a careful look at it with renewed curiosity and a fresh perspective. So let's begin again, then.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek Is...: The Cage

Rare Playmates Cage-era "Innerspace" toy prototype.
“The Cage” occupies a strange space within Star Trek lore: As a pilot created by Gene Roddenberry and those closest to him to demonstrate to NBC what they envisioned Star Trek to be all about, but one that never actually aired on television, it is at once the progenitor of the entire franchise and also the only part of it impossible to reconcile with the rest of the series' canon. “The Cage” is a very strange specimen indeed then: It's not quite Star Trek, at least not the Star Trek that fans would come to recognise and love years later, but, by virtue of it being a pilot designed to embody the show's core values and themes made before executive compromises changed the tone of the series, it is in many ways the purest Star Trek of all.

The one individual irreducibly linked to “The Cage”, what it is and what it does, far more so than in anything else bearing the Star Trek name, is Gene Roddenberry. Over the years mainline fandom has all but deified Roddenberry, and people tend to hold him up as a figurehead for everything they want Star Trek to embody and strive for (particularly so in the years immediately following his death in 1991 and the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005). This is also not helped by muddy and at times completely contradictory historical accounts of key moments in Star Trek history and Roddenberry's own biographical details perpetuated by what can frankly best be described as rampant hearsay and cult of personality. As a result, it can be hard to actually get a solid critical handle on who Roddenberry was, what the extent of his contribution to Star Trek was and what exactly he wanted it to be.

“The Cage” then really is the best place to talk about Roddenberry and his influence on Star Trek, because no matter what Star Trek is going to become over the next several decades it will never again be as closely tied to Roddenberry's personal conception of it as it is here. There are several reasons for this, the most immediately obvious one being its aforementioned status as a pilot, but also the fact that even as of the early Original Series Gene Roddenberry had a lot of help and input in shaping the direction of Star Trek that he didn't have as much of here. The fact he was willing to entertain and genuinely listen to everyone's ideas for, and criticisms of, his project is telling, but so is the fact their influence has been all but effaced from the history of the franchise to the point Roddenberry is, implicitly at least, held up as the source of every single good idea the series ever had, which is simply and flatly not true. But there is a reason Majel Barrett called “The Cage” her favourite episode and “Pure Star Trek”, and anyone who is seriously interested in the history of the franchise and Gene Roddenberry's “vision”, whatever that may turn out to be, really ought to study it.

Firstly, some things we do know about Gene Roddenberry: He was not a futurist. Nor was he a scientist, engineer or prophet. He was, however, a retired Air Force Pilot and LAPD officer who had done some freelance work for television before pitching the concept of Star Trek to Desilu Studios in 1964. What's the most immediately interesting about these early documents is that far from describing some long-winded space opera myth arc that sings the praises of Hard Science, Roddenberry is actually pitching Star Trek as as a combination of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, the absolute pulpiest of the pulp science fiction works. In private, Roddenberry is alleged to have claimed to be basing the show on Gulliver's Travels, and that he intended each episode to be structured around both an action adventure story and a morality play. Roddenberry did want his show to be believable though, so he brought in physicist Harvey P. Lynn to serve as his technical advisor, which also invites comparisons to Foundation-style Golden Age science fiction. So we can pretty safely say that even this early, Roddenberry is not thinking of Star Trek as either “A Wagon Train to the stars” or Horatio Hornblower in space.

The other person indelibly linked with “The Cage” and prototypical Star Trek is Majel Barrett herself. There isn't as much fandom lore or as many legends surrounding Barrett as there are Roddenberry, although there are several. Firstly though the most important thing to note about Barrett is that she and Gene Roddenberry had a very complex and nuanced relationship that isn't really adequately summarized by simply saying “they were married”. At the risk of turning Vaka Rangi into the celebrity gossip papers, this really is something we need to square away right now because it actually holds ramifications for formative decisions made about what Star Trek is and where it goes. Here's the thing: The primary reason Number One exists (and by association the character Spock will become) and the reason she's played by Majel Barrett is straightforwardly because of her relationship with Roddenberry. This isn't to suggest something so crass as the only reason Barrett was cast was because she was sleeping with Roddenberry, but rather to posit that Number One was probably written with Barrett in mind.

I get the feeling Barrett was not only Roddenberry's romantic partner, but a kind of inspirational muse to him as well. Number One is the first character described in the original pitch to Desilu and supposedly the first one created for all of Star Trek. She's explicitly written to be the most coolly competent character on the show and as the Enterprise's “most experienced officer” she is implicitly connected to the soul of the ship at a very deep level thanks to western naval tradition. What's also interesting, however, is that her femininity is consistently a matter for debate both in the treatment and what made it to air. Captain Pike is visibly uncomfortable with having women on the bridge other than Number One (as seen by his dismissive attitude towards Yeoman Colt) and in the script a big deal is made out of the fact Number One is icy and logical even going so far as to state “From time to time we'll wonder just how much female exists under that icy facade.” In other words, Number One is special because she's a woman who has acclimated to rational, male culture.

As much praise as Star Trek gets for its progressive attitudes towards gender roles, this isn't especially satisfying from a feminist perspective and it's clear Roddenberry wasn't entirely sure how far to go in this direction, but the fact Number One exists at all is a decisive move that will leave a big impression on people as a part of the series' developing lore and mythology. Barrett was important enough to Roddenberry that he restructured his entire television pulp science fiction throwback project to accommodate her, a project that he was even now becoming increasingly possessive of and attempting to turn into his masterpiece (often, sadly, at the expense of everyone else who contributed to its success). Number One just being on the bridge was a bold statement that cemented Star Trek's commitment to egalitarianism, if only in the pop consciousness and not on actual television. And that's solely due to Majel Barrett.

I'm spending so much time picking over biographical details about Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett and Number One because, well, they're really the most interesting things about “The Cage”, doubly so in terms of what we know the future holds. As an actual episode of television “The Cage” is surprisingly underwhelming, especially as the first, most definitive incarnation of Star Trek. That said, the ethics and general structure of this episode do prove revealing in sussing out Roddeberry's basic intent in regards to Star Trek, so I'm going to dedicate the remainder of this post to that instead of summarising or analysing the plot, which every Trekker knows by heart at this point. It's essentially Plato's allegory of the cave retold in pulp sci-fi terms (with one big twist I'll get to), which is noteworthy insofar as it was uncommon, though not unheard of, to get that kind of distilled philosophical fiction on television in 1964, and there's also the really galling laddish humour of the Talosians' “Adam and Eve” scheme and the crew's reaction to it, but that's about the extent of what's actually edifying to talk about in regards to the plot.

What's more revealing is what “The Cage” shows us about what Gene Roddenberry initially pictured the world of Star Trek to be like. You'll notice this episode bears no mention of a utopian United Federation of Planets with a mission to Seek Out New Life And New Civilizations and Boldy Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. I'll save you the trouble of checking the original pitch and treatment because you won't find it there either. In fact at this point there's little to no discussion about what, actually, the Enterprise does at all. All we get is a line about how Pike is recovering from a battle at Rigel VII and that the ship and its crew are en route to deliver some medical supplies when they picked up the manufactured distress signal. Frankly, at this point there's no reason to suspect the Enterprise is anything other than a battlecruiser working for some futuristic military organisation or law-keeping task force.

Because that's exactly what it is.

It doesn't take a Talosian to put the pieces together here. The Enterprise isn't going out to make friendly contact with undiscovered cultures or mapping uncharted star clusters, it's running errands back and forth between Earth colonies and occasionally sparring with enemy hostiles in disputed territories. It's a glorified patrol boat. Now I also hasten to add I don't think Roddenberry meant this as a bit of neo-imperial US chest thumping: There's nothing in anything he said or that was written about him to lend any sort of credence to that accusation. It is true Star Trek, especially in its 60s incarnations, does develop a very problematic and tangled connection to imperialism, but that develops generatively as the show morphs and evolves over its first three years. Equally though Star Trek wasn't meant as some kind of idealized, post-scarcity fairy tale either. Those connotations are indeed all part of the series and do come later, but they don't spring from Roddenberry, at least not at first.

What I think is a more fitting explanation for Star Trek is that Roddenberry was a fighter pilot-There's a unique kind of camaraderie amongst and bond between US Air Force pilots, and it would be silly to suggest this didn't have a big influence on Roddenberry's writing. No, what probably happened was that Roddenberry had this idea he really liked to do Gulliver's Travels in space and decided to set it on a ship that was part of the Space Air Force because that's the environment he knew. Also, he thought it'd be a good idea to let women into the Space Air Force too because he liked women and was inspired by his loverXmuse and figured that would be a sensible thing to do. It's pro-military only in the sense that doing a story about the Space Air Force is going to tautologically be that way by default simply by virtue of being about such a concept in the first place, not because Roddenberry had some imperialistic agenda to push. However, we didn't excuse this with Asimov and we shouldn't excuse it here either: Combine this with the elements Star Trek inherits from both pulp sci-fi (its action adventure trappings and general setting) and Golden Age sci-fi (the attempt to make the science somewhat realistic) and you wind up with a concept that is fundamentally, if not entirely intentionally, militaristic.

More support for this reading can be found in the Enterprise’s oft-celebrated multiracial crew. Like the addition of Number One and Yeoman Colt, this is frequently cited as proof that Star Trek was far and away the most progressive thing on TV in 1964. If you believe Gene Roddenberry, this was his idea and a favourite story of his to tell in later years on the convention circuit was how he had to fight Desilu and NBC tooth and claw to keep the Enterprise diverse because they wanted a “suitable”, i.e. white, cast. This popular claim is contested, however, by Bob Justman and Herb Solow (two Desilu executives and production associates who helped Roddenberry create Star Trek and who became producers themselves once the series proper began) in their 1997 book Inside Star Trek, which became an invaluable source for debunking myths and lore the franchise had accumulated up to that point and *especially* during the notoriously insular and self-congratulatory mid-90s fandom. According to Solow and Justman, NBC in fact requested that Roddenberry make the Enterprise crew multi-ethnic as they encouraged diversity in all of their TV shows. Once again like the addition of female characters, I believe this was at least partially Roddenberry's idea: There is a line in one of the very early treatment scripts where the captain, then named Robert April, chews out a crewmember for firing on friendly life-forms because they “looked hostile” and dismisses him in disgrace. However, it's very clear the idea is not *entirely* Roddenberry's, nor is it even unique to Star Trek, and to cast Roddenberry as some prodigy ahead of his time fighting valiantly for Diversity against the oppressive forces of Old and Evil is not only an oversimplification, it's a fallacy.

But the most damning evidence that Star Trek isn't a grand utopian ideal at this point is the episode's resolution: It's rather fascinating, and more than a little alarming for someone used to later Star Trek, to see how Pike escapes the Talosian zoo: He overwhelms the zookeepers with “primitive, hateful” thoughts which their telepathic powers cannot pierce, thus shattering their ability to maintain their illusions. It's hard to imagine even Captain Kirk resorting to this kind of action and seems completely at odds with Star Trek's supposed utopianism: There's no rousing speech about how humanity has moved beyond such things or how more evolved species have no need of such thoughts-It really is merely the bit of plot detail Pike needs to escape his predicament and it's not treated as anything more substantial than that. Furthermore, while we do get a token rumination on the nature of humanity at the end, it's couched more in terms of our lovable stubbornness, strong will and our unwillingness to be fenced in, not on how evolved we've become or our potential for greatness.

And that's really the takeaway here: “The Cage” isn't some super-cerebral musing on a idealized future with no war, poverty or bigotry: It's a square-jawed, manly pulp adventure story for the mid-1960s. It's maybe more intellectually-minded and has more of a diverse cast then other shows of its time, but it's by no means the most intelligent or interesting thing on the air right now either (we'll touch on one of those later on). I don't think it's bad enough to warrant NBC rejecting it on its own merits, though the pacing is tedious and the plot is thinner than it'd like you to think it is, but it's equally easy to see why the Star Trek team went back to the drawing board. When next we see them, the show will have changed significantly. Not all of the changes will be for the better, but one thing that's clear is that for Star Trek to work it's going to *have* to change. It's not Vaka Rangi yet, but if I'm honest it won't be completely Vaka Rangi for decades. More pressingly, the show as it exists now isn't the strange phenomenon that will last for over 45 years, but it *is* Star Trek and it's Star Trek the way Gene Roddenberry first wanted it. This is very important to keep in mind, as the spectre of “The Cage” will always haunt Star Trek from here to eternity, and for better or for worse.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sensor Scan: Foundation

It is a maxim among some writers that all science fiction, no matter how varied and diverse it may be, can ultimately trace its lineage back to the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction literature. Despite this being far too reductive a statement for my personal taste, there is some genuine erudition to be gained by examining it as the era's signature works are indeed fundamental inspirations for a particular approach to writing science fiction that defines early Star Trek (or at least they way Star Trek is perceived) and the intellectual tradition it's a part of.

Some background: The Golden Age of Science Fiction, as it has come to be known, is a period (roughly spanning the years between 1938 and 1953) during which marked interest in futurism and the potential of scientific and technological breakthroughs influenced authors to craft stories set far into the future featuring, and often explicitly about, technology written to feel plausibly extrapolated from that of the time of writing. This approach, and the intellectual tradition that comes out of it, is often referred to as “Hard” sci-fi in an attempt to stress its focus on scientific realism and to distinguish it from (and in more than one instance tacitly imply a superiority over) other “pulp” or “fantasy” inspired science fiction. Indeed a great many sci-fi writers claim that this is the defining feature of science fiction: That it portrays a future that can reasonably be expected to derive from real-life science and technology. This is a very pervasive attitude and one that will crop up on more than one occasion on our journey, so it's best we take a look at it here.

In many ways then Foundation is the text best representative of the Golden Age style, at least as it pertains to Star Trek: A sprawling attempt at a space epic spanning multiple generations that chronicles the decline, collapse and rebirth of humanity's galactic empire written by Isaac Asimov, already famous as one of the leading lights of the period for his Robot short stories. The Foundation and Star Trek series are not directly connected, but there are enough superficial similarities between the two and Asimov's influence on later science fiction is ubiquitous enough it merits a discussion.

Perhaps the biggest point of comparison between Foundation and Star Trek is that both franchises started out as one self-contained work that very quickly snowballed into a series of sequels, prequels, retcons and continuity-laden spin-off works handled by first, second and third generation fans. In the case of Foundation, the, er, “foundational” work in question is a series of short stories Asimov wrote for Astounding Magazine in the 1940s and then edited and re-published as a trilogy of standalone novels in the early 1950s under the titles Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. While Asimov himself went on to write four additional novels in the series during the 1980s and 1990s (two sequels and two prequels) for the sake of brevity, scope and chronological relevance I'm only going to be looking at the original trilogy here.

The central premise of the trilogy, as explained in the original Foundation, is that a mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon has invented a new science called “psychohistory” that blends math, sociology and psychology in such a way so as to allow him to accurately predict human behaviour on an individual and societal level millennia out into the future. This methodology has led Seldon to predict that the Galactic Empire, at the time over 12,000 years old and seemingly stable and prosperous, is actually on the verge of a systemic collapse that will plunge the galaxy into 30,000 years of darkness and regression. Seldon believes the only alternative to this is to set up a Foundation to collect the entirety of human knowledge into an Encyclopedia Galactica-This will, according to Seldon, help to prevent the loss of the accumulated progress humanity has made and shorten the duration of the Dark Age by 20,000 years. This angers the Empire's decadent aristocracy who sentence him for treason, but, unwilling to turn him into a martyr by executing him, Seldon is exiled to the planet Terminus with those loyal to him to form the Encyclopedia Foundation.

The rest of the first novel follows the development of the Foundation on Terminus over the next century as it faces threats from four rival kingdoms who have split from the Empire, in particular the life of the heroic Terminus City mayor Salvor Hardin, a charismatic maverick leader concerned that his hands are being tied by the Foundation's managing Board of Trustees who don't take the dangerous political situation seriously. At crucial moments of crisis, pre-recorded holographic messages left by Seldon appear to Hardin and the other protagonists assuring them that everything is going according to plan and, miraculously, the most recent disaster was predicted and accounted for in the Master Plan and that Seldon knows that the Foundation (revealed as a front for Terminus to become the seat of the Second Galactic Empire) will make the correct choices to ensure its survival. Eventually the Foundation spreads beyond Terminus and becomes a collective built on a network of traders who exchange advanced technology for alliances with neighbouring kingdoms, and by the end of the novel it becomes a powerful Empire in its own right that even boasts a state religion called Scientism, based on worship of and complete devotion to Foundation technology and scientific progress.

At the end of the first novel the most egregious and worrying flaws in Foundation, and indeed all of Asimov's brand of Golden Age science fiction, should be apparent. From a contemporary perspective (or at least mine) it's an almost appallingly crass and paternalistic work that utterly revels in technological determinism and the virtues of a specific Western, and if we're being honest United States, brand of neoliberal imperialism. Hardin is the classic American individualist, heroically fighting the corruption and inefficiency of bureaucracy and the ever-present threat of The Other and the protagonists of the last two sections are both rugged frontier traders.

Then there is, of course, the Church of Science and Scientism, an idea so stupefyingly and self-evidently wrong its name has been rightly re-appropriated by modern thinkers looking to criticise any manner of western scientific arrogance and authoritarianism. Asimov pays us lip service near the end of the first novel by having Seldon say something about how The Church is a means to an end and will eventually outlive its usefulness, but this is nowhere near satisfying and is actually worse: Asimov is essentially admitting here that something like Scientism has to exist in some form at some point to keep those of lesser intellects in line. It's for their own good to join the Foundation, see, and The Church is there to make it easier for them to accept its natural authority. Somehow this doesn't make me feel any better.

Foundation and Empire

But for me the most distasteful aspect of Foundation is Seldon himself: The whole concept of psychohistory is a horrifyingly dehumanizing one, positing as it does that all of human culture and behaviour can be reduced down to equations, models and proofs. Asimov seems to recognise at least some of the negative implications of this and tries to work around them in Foundation and Empire with the character of The Mule, an aspiring despot disguised as a circus clown who, thanks to a freak genetic mutation, has the ability to control thoughts and emotions. Seldon didn't account for The Mule in his plan, forcing the Foundation of his time to improvise lest the entire nascent empire fall before him. But this doesn't work either, because, far from showing how flawed something as distant and overreaching like psychohistory is by neglecting the inherent, well, humanity of humans, The Mule is instead the personification of the outlier: A data point that doesn't doesn't match the existing theory but can be safely disregarded. And despite his enormous power and the threat he poses, The Mule can ultimately be rejected because the Foundation finds a way to counteract his abilities and safely lock him away on an insignificant planet. It's not entirely clear how this result is any different than it would have been if Seldon *had* predicted The Mule: Seldon has always seemed to bank on people improvising in times of crisis before, so why is this time so unique? The theory just needs to be tweaked a little, it doesn't need to be tossed out entirely.

Another reason The Mule fails to in any way engage with the series' fundamentally flawed premise is that, once again, he's one outstanding individual with special gifts. He's not the face of some populist revolution to out the new boss, who really, really is just the same as the old boss, he's one outstanding man who is dangerous because he doesn't conform. Furthermore, he's dangerous because he can forcibly turn people against the Foundation: In other words, the biggest threat the Foundation will ever face is not that people might collectively decide they don't want to live under a Scientistic theocracy, but because one man might poison their thoughts and blind them to the Foundation's true righteousness. This is Red Scare tactics 101.
Second Foundation

Asimov also halfheartedly tries to problematize the series with the concept of the Second Foundation, a mythical counterpart to the Foundation “at the other end of the galaxy” that provides the impetus for the plot of the second half of the second book and the entirety of the third. The idea, as I understand it (though I never found it especially clear in any of the books), is that this Foundation is designed to nurture the growth of telepathy and other “mental sciences” (interestingly not anthropology, philosophy or the humanities, though) to counteract the original Foundation's emphasis on physical sciences. Asimov attempts to justify this by retroactively making Seldon a social scientist, which doesn't fly at all as he is perfectly clearly a mathematician in the original book. The Second Foundation is also dedicated towards refining psychohistory to predict even the most unlikely of occurrences, such as The Mule. In other words it's basically just a a metaphor for the notion of scientific replication and the refining of the experimental method in subsequent trials, so it's done nothing to redeem the series or address its glaring issues.

It's hard to imagine how Asimov, born to a Russian Jewish family in 1919 (i.e. Old enough to witness the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War) could have penned something so clearly in favour of empire building, but that's precisely what Foundation is: The goal of the Encyclopedia (itself a top-down concept based on archiving and reiterating a historical master narrative rather than the generative sharing of knowledge and ideas) is expressly to serve as the first step in building a new, better Empire, just one built on science and technology instead of brute military force, hence the dual meaning in the name. While we're still a little ways off from the most overt links between science fiction and US neo-imperialism, the seeds of that partnership are sewn here.

Ultimately though Foundation is a work of Golden Age science fiction, and these sorts of prejudices are things inexorably bound up in the entire genre: The fact of the matter is the “Golden Age” happened concurrently with the end of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. There was a prevailing sense that scientists would build the future for us and if society could be reoriented around science and rationality we'd all be a happier, healthier and more prosperous people (just witness any of the “House of Tomorrow”-style pop futurism that also characterized the era). We can't really fault Foundation for being so firmly of its time and genre. It's a defining work in Golden Age science fiction, so of course it's going to act like Golden Age science fiction. However, historicizing these themes doesn't make them any more palatable to a modern reader, nor does it excuse their reiteration in future works far removed from this specific context. Unfortunately though, for a very long time afterwards this is going to be the defining model for how “proper” science fiction “should” work and the consequences of this are going to be far from ideal.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Traversing the Heavens' Expanse

What is “Vaka Rangi”?

The name Vaka Rangi comes from the common language of the Polynesian islands and the area making up the larger geopolitical region known as “Oceania”. Although each region in the Polynesian triangle has its own variations on it, it is commonly believed all of these dialects can be traced back to a common language, which would account for the striking similarities to be found in all of them.

The Ancient Polynesians and their ancestors were simply put the greatest mariners the world has ever seen and the term vaka (meaning canoe, or canoe hull, in several languages) displays the centrality of the concept to their culture. Spurred on primarily by limited resources and the need to manage sustainable populations, the Ancient Polynesians used voyaging canoes to settle remote and previously unpopulated islands throughout the Pacific Ocean, and many scholars claim they further managed to reach any shore that touched the Pacific and Southern Oceans. The Ancient Polynesians were explorers, navigators, poets, mystics and philosophers, not conquerors or empire-builders: For them, each vaka was not merely a watercraft or a means to an end, but a microcosm of Polynesian society and an island unto itself symbolizing the interconnectedness of the village, the sea, the Earth and the Heavens.

Rangi is thought to be derived from the hypothesized proto-Polynesian word “*laŋi”, meaning the sky, or the heavens. The variant “rangi” is found in several Polynesian languages, most notably that of the Maori and Rapa Nui. In Polynesian Reconstruction, a vaka is often given a secondary name to distinguish itself and its people, thus a “Vaka Rangi” would be “A Canoe for the Stars”.

Today, traditional Polynesian navigation is undergoing a renaissance, bolstered by, among other things, the rediscovery of ancient oral history and techniques on the outlying island of Taumako and a renewed sense of cultural pride in places such as Hawai'i and Samoa. Fleets of vaka once again roam the Pacific, this time to share their message of solidarity with the natural world. It is this spiritual exploration of the universe's interconnectedness that has been a guiding inspiration for my life and provided the impetus for this project, which I hope will help translate these concepts for those who, like me, grew up during Western post-industrialism. I felt the best way to explore this was to call upon another major interest of mine: Experimental comparative media studies.

What This Project Is

Vaka Rangi is the account of a spiritual journey. Vaka Rangi is a personal memoir. Vaka Rangi is an unauthorized post-structuralist critical history of Star Trek. Vaka Rangi is many things at once.

Fundamentally, this project an attempt at a critical history of utopian futurism in televised science fiction, particularly science fiction involving voyaging starships, from a specific perspective and using the Star Trek franchise as a “guiding text”. I chose Star Trek for a number of reasons, most notably for its substantial cultural capital in Western regions and my personal connection to it. I coined the term “Soda Pop Art” in another blog project of mine to refer to a product of commercialized pop culture that attains enough significance and ubiquity to become a kind of shared Western mythology. It is my belief Western cultures have a unique shared oral history all to themselves, but one that is paradoxically and often problematically bound up with concepts like corporatism, copyright and profit. It's this contradictory dualism that I invented the term “Soda Pop Art” to convey, and Star Trek is the Soda Pop Art that is the archetypical utopian voyaging starship story.

This blog is also the account of my personal history with Star Trek and similar science fiction stories and the many ways I have interacted with it throughout my life, but also the many ways in which I've found myself in opposition to it. My primary aim here is twofold: Firstly, it is to offer a unique critical re-evaluation and reinterpretation of Star Trek, and more generally the concept of the voyaging starship series, around themes of sustainability, communalisim, spiritualism, idealism and the troubled relationship between exploration and imperialism in Western literature. I'm particularly interested in how these themes have been dealt with and interpreted by various creative teams at various points in history and the repercussions caused by them being examined via Soda Pop Art. At the same time, Vaka Rangi is also an examination of my own positionality and how that has shaped my reading of Star Trek and works like it over time.

What This Project Is Not

Despite using Star Trek as a kind of “guiding text”, concerning itself with the series' ups and downs and frequently looking at various licensed spin-off works, Vaka Rangi is fundamentally not an attempt to craft a definitive, authorial history of the franchise. As it's structured around very specific themes and is at once built around my personal experiences with Star Trek and larger than it, readers already versed in Star Trek fandom might be surprised to find the sorts of things I've chosen to include in this critical history, and indeed some of the things I've chosen to omit. Perhaps strangely, given my extensive history with it, I only consider myself a casual Star Trek fan and this project reflects that. Those looking for episode guides, cast lists, discussions of canon, in-universe minutiae and behind-the-scenes information won't find it here and would be better served by something like the tremendous Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha or the great dead tree work of Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann (both of which are sources I highly recommend). I'm interested in exploring one specific strain of thought within the franchise, not in writing a comprehensive documentation of every single thing ever to go out under the Star Trek banner.

How This Blog Works

I will be going through most, but not all, the works under the Star Trek name on a roughly episode-by-episode basis with frequent tangents (called "Sensor Scans") to look at related books, TV shows, movies and other comparable works. I'll also put a heavy emphasis on certain Star Trek spin-off projects in posts under the header "Myriad Universes" and plan to examine at length different aspects of Star Trek history and lore as a way of tracking how different groups and individuals have interpreted the franchise over the years in the "Ship's Log, Supplemental" posts. As Star Trek is Soda Pop Art, and a very ubiquitous breed of it at that. the merchandise side of the franchise is something I'll have to address as well: At the moment I plan to deal with that side of things in the "Totemic Artefacts" sections and, once the time comes for them, "Flight Simulators", i.e. video games. New entries will go up on this site each and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for as long as I can stretch this theme and metaphor out.

Star Trek is an entity that has had a profound effect on my life and will remain a part of me forever. This is my best attempt at expressing why and how. I do hope you'll find the journey as rewarding and as enlightening as it will be for me.