Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sensor Scan: The Transformed Man

William Shatner is one of those personalities who is so ubiquitous that their reputation precedes and obfuscates their actual contributions to art and pop culture. Shatner is so famous as Captain Kirk and the the king of unironic and self-evidently ridiculous camp that his iconic public persona dwarfs and overshadows his entire creative body of work. One of the reasons why I focus so heavily on Shatner in my overview of this period of Star Trek history (if not the primary one) is that his status as an omnipresent and immediately recognisable part of pop culture has ironically made it difficult to discern any reasonable erudition about the kind of actor he is, the style of performance he delivers and what the positionality he draws it all from really is. That's not to say Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig aren't equally as iconic and memorable in their roles, they are, but everyone knows they're brilliant and, more to the point, everyone largely knows why they're brilliant. That's not really the case with with William Shatner.

All of which is to say that in 1968 William Shatner released an album of spoken-word poetry.

This is, it should probably go without saying, manifestly not the sort of thing anybody expected of William Shatner at the time, two thirds of the way through the original run of Star Trek. It is also probably fairly safe to say it is still not the sort of thing people expect of William Shatner today, because despite his subsequent musical performances becoming part of his camp reputation, the sort of bemused detachment this part of his oeuvre attracts from would-be fans and critics is rather telling. But the existence of The Transformed Man is in fact a very revealing look at not only the approach to Soda Pop Art in the late-1960s but also Shatner's own worldview and how his presence helped re-shape what Star Trek came to represent. So with that said, what the heck even *is* The Transformed Man?

It may actually be beneficial to begin with an overview of what The Transformed Man *isn't*, as this is the source of the overwhelming majority of confusion and bafflement this record attracts. In this regard it's worth comparing it, if for no other reason then the comparison is unavoidable, with Leonard Nimoy's musical catalog. In 1967, just as Star Trek was starting to gain a significant following, Dot Records released an album called Mr. Spock's Songs from Space, which was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: A collection of fluffy novelty songs Nimoy recorded in full-on Spock-the-logician mode to abjectly hilarious results. Literally the only reason this album exists is because Spock was the show's breakout character, and in the 1960s releasing an album of novelty music to tie in to a popular TV show was just sort of the thing you did, no matter how nonsensical it might sound if you think too hard about it (see also “Snoopy's Christmas” by The Royal Guardians). However, the album was popular enough it spawned a follow-up release in 1968 entitled The Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, which added the twist of having one side be the in-character Spock one and the other side being dedicated to Nimoy singing as himself. This album also featured the mythically bonkers “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”, which has gone on to become Internet Famous.

The thing about both of Nimoy's releases however is that, like all novelty music, it's abundantly clear none of this is meant to be taken remotely seriously. This is Nimoy goofing around and clearly having a fantastic time running with the self-evidently ridiculous (and amazing) idea of Spock singing songs to children (in fact, next time a Trekker approaches you to complain about something or other betraying the sanctity of these characters, just remind them Spock once recorded an album full of songs with names like “Music To Watch Space Girls By” and “A Visit To A Sad Planet” and that it's 100% canonical). Go watch “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” again and it very obviously looks like the sort of thing you'd see on a variety show targeted towards children to get them excited about literature-There are even direct references to slogan buttons and Carnaby Street fashion. This is largely because that's exactly what it was.

This is not, however, what The Transformed Man is. Shatner's release had the spectacular ill fortune to come out around the same time as Nimoy's, and while Star Trek was more popular and visible than it had ever been before to boot. It would have been impossible to not compare the two and mentally associate them with each other, when in truth the two records couldn't have been more different. The first clue should be in the artwork and liner notes: Nimoy's albums unabashedly cashed in on the popularity of Spock and Star Trek and latched onto the delightfully lunatic concept of Mr. Spock recording a novelty album. However, Shatner barely references Star Trek at all, except to say he met his collaborators in between filming blocks. There's a solitary picture of Shatner in costume as Kirk and while he is credited as “William Shatner: Captain Kirk of Star Trek”, I presume for marketing purposes, this had the side-effect of fundamentally altering people's expectations. As a result, fans picking this up expecting a cheerfully tongue-in-cheek comedy record about Captain Kirk singing space songs instead got a somber and profound meditation on the nature of performativity and the meaning of life. Suffice to say, this made Shatner look cataclysmically self-indulgent.

But if we cast aside all preconceptions of The Transformed Man being a celebrity novelty cash-in, which it's not, and try to take it at face value, it starts to become clearer what Shatner may have been aiming for here. At its most basic, The Transformed Man comes out of the spoken word poetry most famously associated with the Beat Generation movement of the 1950s. Spoken word is fundamentally focused on the dynamics of language, especially the tone and sound of words, often combined with an emphasis on nonverbal gestures. The genre has its origins, as much avant-garde art in North America does, with black culture, in particular modernist Jazz, blues and the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. This is an environment that will also provide some of the inspiration for the early Mod scene and many art rock acts of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, thus linking the Mods with the Beats and the literary underground. Spoken word performance then, at least this kind of spoken word performance, is thus an extremely countercultural form of creative expression, such that if you come up with a list of spoken word performers, it will also double as a roughly comprehensive introduction to some of the most significant artists, thinkers and social justice activists of the past half-century (Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson, just to name a few).

What William Shatner realised, and indeed what he was uniquely poised to realise, was that there is an intrinsic connection between something like spoken word poetry, theatre and music. Namely, that they are all explicitly, and in fact almost uniquely, performative. In the liner notes, Shatner talks about how as a child visiting the theatre he was always fascinated by orchestral music and how it complimented the performance, and how he's always wanted to do a project that explores the interconnection between the two art forms. The Transformed Man, he goes on to say, is the product of a chance meeting with producer Dan Ralke after working with his son Cliff on Star Trek where they would talk about Shakespeare, music and poetry on breaks, and that he knew he needed to make an album after being exposed to the wonderful poetry of Frank Davenport. Seeing this album released, he claims, is the realisation of that dream he's had since boyhood. Shatner may be pulling our leg here, but then again he actually does seem like the kind of person who would talk about poetry on his lunch break. What he does on The Transformed Man then is use his perspective as a thespian to explore this interlinking performativity.

The way Shatner accomplishes this is by taking a mixture of poetry and classic Shakespeare scenes and pairing them up with spoken-word renditions of famous contemporary pop songs. This basic approach is usually a source of derision, but I have nothing against reinterpreting pop songs in different genres. What Shatner is saying is that pop music, poetry and Shakespearean prose are all equally creative outlets for people to explore human experience, which is something I really can't find fault with. After all what is Vaka Rangi but a long-winded experiment in treating pop culture like any other form of “serious” art? And anyway, you can't help but smile to hear Shatner breathlessly introduce each track like an old-fashioned stage manager, quite literally “setting the stage” for the audience at the beginning of a play. He's clearly having an absolute blast.

And furthermore, the structure works great. The album opener, for example, “King Henry the Fifth; Elegy for the Brave” takes the bombast and zeal of King Henry rousing his troops to action and sets it up against a somber poem about soldiers lying dead and dying on a battlefield after a conflict. The glory of the battle is shown to have little meaning in the hereafter, as the bodies of the deceased are unable to know of the effect their efforts had on the ordinary people at home, or of the comings and goings of nature's cycle, indifferent as it is to human ambition. Similarly, “Hamlet; It Was A Very Good Year” and “Romeo and Juliet; How Insensitive (Insensatez)” look at anguish and nihilism in opposition to rose-tinted nostalgia and obsessive young love contrasted with the clumsy, confused coldness of a relationship coming to a close, respectively. Crucially though, Shatner is saying that all of these conflicting emotions are things everyone experiences throughout life, and that expressing them is itself a kind of staged artifice.

The pinnacle of this theme would appear to be “Theme From Cyrano; Mr. Tambourine Man”, which seems like Shatner's exploration of the creative process, and how creators struggle between appealing to to the demands of fandom and doing what they personally find intellectually rewarding and stimulating. It's possible to read this track as a bit of autobiographical embellishment on Shanter's part, especially knowing what was going on with Star Trek at the time (or indeed what we know the Star Trek phenomenon is going to eventually become), but I think there's something altogether more subtle going on here. Never once on The Transformed Man does Shatner ever indicate he's doing anything different than what he normally does, that is, play a role. The creator of “Theme From Cyrano; Mr. Tambourine Man” isn't meant to be a crass stand-in for Shatner himself any more than he's the lover in “Romeo and Juliet; How Insensitive (Insensatez)”, the soldiers in “King Henry the Fifth; Elegy for the Brave”, or Captain Kirk in Star Trek, for that matter (And anyway, Shatner plays the creator as frenzied and standoffishly huffy, so if he is talking about himself he's being *extremely* self-deprecating about it). These are all different *characters* Shatner is playing, and while they may come out of his positionality as all art by definition has to, he's frankly too good a writer and a performer to do something like that.

But one of The Transformed Man's many hidden virtues is its ability to slowly and methodically build tension all the while lulling the audience into a false sense of security with fake climaxes. The real stunner comes on side two, which features only one track (the title one) as Shatner and his producers very wisely recognised it stands on its own. This track, a recitation of a poem of the same name, tells the story of a person who gives up a day job and house in the city to seek wisdom and inner peace in the wilderness. The speaker begins a lengthy meditation amongst and communion with the land, the sky and the wild creatures before eventually experiencing something that can very easily be described as ego death: A complete dispossession of the Self leading to an understanding of their place within and connection to a cosmic consciousness. Interestingly though, the last line of the poem mentions “touching God”, which would imply a pop Christian reading, despite the rest of the poem describing a very pagan version of enlightenment. The lynchpin, however, is, as always, William Shatner.

Although the words are not his, I'm going to speculate a bit and hazard a guess this is a kind of experience not altogether unfamiliar to Shatner. See, despite becoming known mainly for being part of a ubiquitous and iconic piece of United States pop culture and being seen primarily as a US actor, William Shatner is, of course, actually Canadian and was born and raised in Quebec. Canada has the largest, most unbroken stretch of wilderness in the world: The Boreal Forest, and Quebec, one of the nation's oldest and most storied provinces, is situated right where the forest's great expanse truly begins to open up. I don't think it's unreasonable to presume this might have left an impact on him. Furthermore, as a performer, and in particular thanks to his unique style of performance, Shatner is very, very good at conveying and drawing attention to artifice, and that's the entire point of The Transformed Man, both the album and the poem: Shatner's overall message here is that our conception of reality, all the way up to the way we can attain enlightenment, is subjective. Furthermore, enlightenment, wisdom and inner peace are deeply personal and ethereal things, and in the end it's ultimately impossible to convey them to others in a way that is 100% loyal. So, if Shatner's rendition of “The Transformed Man” feels hammy and stilted, well, that's the point: It's a metaphor unto itself, and the almost audible twinkle in Shatner's eye lets us all know it's a grand, cosmic joke that he's in on as much as we are.

What's even more marvelous is that “The Transformed Man” comes directly after “Spleen; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, where the contrast is despair and hopelessness pitted against the euphoria of describing a transcendental experience (and the ultimate futility of trying to get someone who didn't experience it firsthand to understand it the same way you do). While “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” may not actually be about LSD, it was definitely the poster song for altered states of consciousness for a very long time, and certainly would have been seen as such in 1968. The easy thing to do here would be to draw parallels between the two songs and declare Shatner is endorsing the 1960s counterculture and the possibility enlightenment can be found by allying with them. However, I'm going to go one better.

While the youth culture themes are there, I think it's even more rewarding to put Shatner amongst a larger group of colleagues. See, reading William Shatner as someone who is first and foremost invested in the performativity and artifice of human interaction puts him square in the tradition of Avital Ronell, who is herself operating in the tradition of Giles Delueze, Goethe, George Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Søren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. Ronell regularly likens writing, and really all creativity, to drug tripping. Writers, like junkies, let go of the sense of Self and independent will and let themselves be taken over by an outside force. Writers and creators, if we can allows ourselves to momentarily use those words despite their patriarchal connotations, take dictation from an ethereal spirit and become “writing beings”, in the language of Kafka. The text exists only inasmuch as it is a dead signifier of some long-forgotten intangible mental and physical confluence. In the language of William Shatner and Avital Ronell, we're all putting on some stilted and awkward show in an attempt to pay our dues to writing. We transform ourselves every day in an attempt to grasp and understand truths that will transform us spiritually.

In case it wasn't abundantly clear after all that, I consider The Transformed Man to be something of a masterpiece. It's not Shatner's absolute best effort (there are in fact moments where it feels like Shatner is trying a bit too hard-His histrionics at the end of “Theme From Cyrano; Mr. Tambourine Man” tread dangerously close to “Omega Glory” territory), but it's an absolutely staggering debut album and piece of work once you figure out what it's trying to tell you. See, the big secret about William Shatner is that, in truth, something like this record is a far better showcase for his style of acting then something like Star Trek, and it's in an environment like this where he's finally and truly allowed to shine. The end result of all this is that we finally have a handle on what William Shatner really is and the perspective he brings to the table: Shatner certainly isn't a musician, but he's not an actor either.

No, William Shatner is a performance artist. And his subject is the performativity of our lives.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sensor Scan Bonus: Mysteries Five and 1968

Before I began Vaka Rangi, I was toying with the idea of doing projects of similar size and scope for other pop culture phenomena. I posted most of these "pilots" to this blog's sister site Soda Pop Art, if anyone's interested in some of the things I write about outside of Star Trek. One of the projects I've considered doing off and on for the past three or four years is a comprehensive critical history of the Scooby-Doo franchise, which, in my opinion, is one of the most frequently misread things in pop culture. And, when I was planning the between-season material for the gap between the end of the Original Series and the beginning of the Animated Series, there was one show from 1969 I knew was an absolute no-brainer for me to cover.

Unfortunately, I'd already written about it.

So yes, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is getting a Sensor Scan post sometime after "Turnabout Intruder". But as it's part of a larger project I'd still like to write someday and as its sociopolitical and ethical roots really date back to 1968, the production history of the show has its own post, which you can read below.

This essay then, as well as the planned one on the show-as-aired, is a revised, remixed, expanded and otherwise tweaked version of a piece I already posted to Soda Pop Art about a year ago. Because of that, I'm not comfortable making this an "official" Monday/Wednesday/Friday post (even though it's certainly long enough to be one) and you're free to skip ahead and go read up on Scooby-Doo over there if you like. Or if you'd prefer to wait to see the strangled way I try to connect this all back to Star Trek, you can certainly do that as well.

Mysteries Five

The year was 1968.

Hanna-Barbera, long having proven itself one of the major pillars of the children's television animation genre they helped create, was under fire from Parental Rights and moral guardian activist groups who were complaining that their Saturday Morning Cartoon market, at the time dominated by sci-fi action serial inspired offerings such as Space Ghost and Jonny Quest, were too violent and scary for children and demanding their programming be changed to reflect more “suitable” content and topics. Despite being Exhibit A, Hanna-Barbera were far from the only studio targeted by this campaign, and one of the earliest, and most influential, responses was Filmation's The Archie Show, which reconceptualized the Riverdale high kids from the popular evergreen comics as a teen pop band and centered around themes of teenage relationship and parent drama.

With the complaints by parental watchdogs echoing in their ears, Hanna-Barbera set to work trying to come up with a show that would both please the activists and serve as a tentpole series for their upcoming season. While all this was going on, Fred Silverman, then head of CBS' children's television department, contacted producers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears with an idea he had for a new show that combined elements from I Love A Mystery and Armchair Detectives, two popular radio serials from decades past. The twist would be this new show would star characters overtly meant to represent contemporary youth, perhaps modeled off of The Archie Show or the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

This is frankly already not off to a terribly promising start. Anyone with a passing interest in the aesthetic value of fiction, especially children's television, knows that no good ever comes from making a fuss that things are “too scary” for kids or demanding anything be “toned down”, especially when so many of these arguments are built around the presupposition that children are televisually illiterate and naive to the point of being unable to distinguish fiction from reality, as indeed these were. It doesn't help that the arguments of the activists are patently ludicrous at face value, as anyone who actually *watched* Space Ghost or Jonny Quest can attest to. Those shows were about as frightening as one would expect a mid-60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon to be.

This is all, however, sadly, mostly business as usual for US children's animation. More concerning is Silverman's apparently sincere belief that the The Archie Show (based as it was on notoriously static and, at the time, conservative-leaning comics) or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was a legitimate and even-handed representation of late-1960s youth. For those unfamiliar with the latter series, it was a CBS sitcom that ran from 1959-1963 and chronicled the misadventures of the titular teenage lead Dobie Gillis. Most of the plots of the series' episodes related Dobie's frequent, and just as frequently failed, attempts to attain money, popularity and the admiration of women. The show's biggest problem was Dobie's best friend Maynard G. Krebbs, the first character overtly coded as a representation of the Beat Culture on United States television and who would perhaps be more of a historical milestone were he not an appallingly crass, inaccurate and offensive stereotype created solely for the purpose of derision. Maynard's defining character trait was sloppiness and his adamant aversion to any kind of work, often played up for comedic effect. It's about as ugly and transparent an attempt at bullying and marginalization as exists, and is almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of the “beatnik” stereotype Jack Kerouac went to his grave vehemently protesting.

There were two other main characters worth mentioning. One was Thalia Menninger, an enterprising young lady Dobie was always hopelessly infatuated with. Thalia was cold, calculating and cynically manipulative and often abused Dobie's trust in and admiration for her in order to use him in her many and varied get-rich-quick schemes. So, perhaps not the most favorable portrayal of femininity then. Finally there was Zelda Gilroy, a brilliant academic and star athlete who was as smitten with Dobie as he was with Thalia, but who always spurned her advances because she wasn't as conventionally attractive as Thalia. In terms of reaching out to the blossoming contemporaneous youth counterculture and giving them a charitable reading and fair podium, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was pretty much, well naught-for-naught. Turning to it for inspiration for a youth-centric show in the much more turbulent years of 1968-1969 then, would seem to be not heading for trouble so much as careening headfirst towards it in a blind rage, an altered state of consciousness and with a broken accelerator pedal. Surely there's no hope of this ending in anything other than immediate and catastrophic failure; there's no way, with these guidelines, the show is destined to be anything other then a spectacular affront to quality and taste.

Then Ruby and Spears promptly ignored all of that and came up with Mysteries Five.

It's at this point I have to be careful with how I proceed in my analysis. Mysteries Five exists to me as two separate, though connected, television artefacts and neither of them is a physically extant cartoon show. The first is the Mysteries Five I can try and piece together from old concept art and written accounts left behind by the people directly involved in its creation. The second is the Mysteries Five whose potential the former show hints at; the show I desperately wish I could have seen and can only dream about. As I'm playing the role of an amateur animation historian here, it's my job to do my best to describe the first show as best I can, but I'm not going to lie and pretend the second show isn't the one with the most tantalizing material for critique or the one I'm really the most interested in. With that on the table, let's see what we can do to square away what Mysteries Five actually was, or at least could have been.

With Mysteries Five, Ruby and Spears seemed to take the most basic of their dicta and distilled them into the most cohesive form they could manage. Our young heroes were a teenage rock band, the titular Mysteries Five, who would travel around from gig to gig in their groovy van The Mystery Machine. Along the way, they would have the uncanny knack of stumbling into a new baffling mystery every week, hence their band's name. Alongside solving mysteries, the gang would also be challenged by drama with relationships, elders and so on. Each episode would feature a mixture of all these interlinking plots, with the mystery as the omnipresent background. Eventually, however, most of the non-mystery aspects of the show were thrown out by Ruby and Spears, who felt it might make the show a bit too unfocused.

Ruby and Spears also gave the band a dog, at this point named Too Much, because they knew Fred Silverman liked dogs (in network television it's always wise to play to your boss's ego). Ruby and Spears were initially undecided as to whether or not Too Much would be better off as a large, cowardly and silly dog or a small, feisty and humourously pugnacious one (a small piece of trivia it might be worth holding on to) before finally settling on the former and giving him the position of bongo drummer in the band. Ruby and Spears always wanted Too Much to be a Great Dane, but first settled on a sheepdog because they felt it would attract confusion with the comic strip Marmaduke, before Silverman assured them this wasn't anything to worry about and changed him back.

Following some early refinements, the initial cast of five was reduced down to four well-defined leads, in addition to the dog Too Much: Kelly, Linda, W.W. (who was to be Linda's brother) and Geoff. After some further planning sessions, they were renamed Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Fred, respectively (in network television it's always wise to play to your boss's ego). At this stage, these characters are essentially the same ones we're familiar with from the later Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! save for one or two key differences. Because of this I'm going to reserve going into too much detail about exactly who these characters are and what they represent until I tackle the actual televised show (Teaser: Despite being frequently compared to them, our new gang are about as far away from the Riverdale kids and Dobie Gillis as is actually conceivable of being). Also because what's really the most interesting aspect of Mysteries Five is what its underlying structure and philosophy seem to have been saying.

Mysteries Five was fundamentally created as a comedy/horror genre fusion piece, trending towards the horror. A quick glance at some of the concept art, aged, faded and scanned in maddeningly low resolution as they may be, reveals something positively stunning. This was no blockbuster Universal-style monster mash or cheesy 1950s B-movie pastiche: Mysteries Five was borrowing its horror iconography from the very roots of the genre-the German Expressionist masterpieces of the celebrated and long-departed Weimar cinema. The history of German Expressionism and the meaning behind its distinctive and incalculably influential look is inexorably bound up with the environment into which it was born: In brief, German Expressionism was a reaction to the devastation The Great War wrought across Europe and the ensuing runaway societal breakdown that it left in its wake. This was particularly gruesomely noticeable in Germany, the country deemed wholly responsible for the war by a world sociopolitical order left shell-shocked by the scale of the meltdown it had just lived through, bringing it face-to-face with the limitations of Modernism for the first time and desperate for someone, anyone, to hold accountable.

Though certainly not blameless during the war, the resulting effect on German culture and morale was frankly horrific and it's a hard person indeed who'd wish it on any people: In the lead-up to the Treaty of Versailles approximately 700,000 German citizens died of hunger partly as a result of a draconian military blockade that surrounded the country. Thousands more died in the revolutions that sprung up from both sides when protestors were shot dead in the streets even as the new Weimar republic struggled to maintain some semblance of legitimacy. Interwar Germany was defined by systemic and catastrophic social collapse the likes of which it's hard for a contemporary viewer to actually conceive of, let alone get a hold on. In a bizarre mirror image of the bloodshed surrounding it, Berlin became a cosmopolitan centre and served as a meeting ground for artists, poets, philosophers and radical thinkers of all sorts, the blend of music from the jazz clubs and the gunfire in the streets providing an unnervingly constant background. For many of these intellectuals, this nightmarish juxtaposition symbolized that the world had ceased to make sense, instead revealing itself as a warped, grotesque truism where abject horror was everyday reality. But at the same time there was an overwhelming sense of revolutionary solidarity and hope, and their art reflects this bizarre, paradoxical, dreamlike world.

Films of the German Expressionism school had an extremely unique look, utilising light and shadow to create stark visual contrast, everyday objects warped and distorted almost beyond the point of recognition and unorthodox set design techniques to make utterly singular cinematic worlds that turned familiar settings into threateningly alien and unearthly landscapes that instilled a constant sense of foreboding. Nosferatu, for example, adapts Bram Stoker's Dracula in a way that would be unfamiliar to those only acquainted with the Bela Lugosi film; overtly playing up the concept of the vampire as a diseased undead neither of one world or the other in a permanent state of decay. The best, most vivid example of German Expressionism's link to the everyday life of Weimar Berlin in my view is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, taking place in a haunting dreamscape comprised of unnatural shadow that refuses to return to normalcy even after the protagonist awakes and it's revealed to be a dream (because, of course, the grotesque dream *is* normality) and that concerns a silent killer who stalks the night. The fact this genre was now being invoked to form the aesthetic backbone of a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show in 1968-9 aimed at the youth is...telling, to put it mildly. While it's best to save precisely why until next time, some background about the state of youth culture in 1968 is perhaps in order.

Although arguably beginning with the dual assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy on April 4 and June 5, 1968, the shockwaves of collapse reverberated most strongly later that year in Chicago, where brutal riots sprung from attempts to do psychedelic street theatre at the Democratic National Convention. Mayor Richard Daley proceeded to order the Chicago police force to use whatever means necessary to clamp down on the rapidly deteriorating situation after already issuing a “shoot-to-kill” order on Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result of the ensuing bloodbath, which Daley was able to pin on the protestors despite it being entirely his fault and that of the riot squad, the tide of public opinion was swayed irrevocably away from youth groups leading centrist Vice President Hubert Humphrey (seen by the young left as too close to then-President Lyndon Johnson, whose actions during the Vietnam War made him an enemy of the progressives) to easily secure the Democratic ticket over antiwar favourite Eugene McCarthy and, eventually, to lose spectacularly in the general election to Richard Nixon due in no small part to the young left bailing out of mainstream politics entirely in the aftermath of 1968, retreating in equal parts to third party candidates and cold bitterness.

Behind the scenes the climate was even more dire: All throughout his campaign Nixon, it has since been revealed, was working clandestinely with the Saigon government to sabotage peace talks initiated by the Johnson administration in an effort to use the worsening state of the Vietnam War as political leverage. The information was relayed to Christian Science Monitor reporter Beverly Deepe in October, 1968 by her contacts in South Vietnam. Although the story was heavily edited, then buried by Deepe's editors, it eventually reached as far as Johnson himself who threatened to go public with the story before it was decided by his aides that it would be too destabilizing on the morale of the country to publish it and that it was now too late to make a difference in the outcome of the election anyway. Consortium News' Robert Parry outlines the full timeline of events here. While it may not have been a matter of public knowledge at the time, Nixon's unabashed acts of treason fit into the general zeitgeist of 1968 chillingly well.

The truly astonishing thing about Mysteries Five is that all of these wildly disparate and gravely serious themes ultimately wound up influencing the finished product. That Ruby and Spears honestly thought they could write all of this into their new show aimed at seven-to-ten year olds and actually get away with it is a frankly stupefying amount of confidence and courage matched only by the even more unreal fact they almost did. Fred Silverman loved the show, as did Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera themselves. After a last minute name-change to Who's Scared? at Silverman's request, the completed concept art was submitted to the CBS higher-ups for approval...and that's when it all fell apart. Ruby's and Spears' unbelievable good luck finally ran out when the CBS executives leveled at their show that most damning of accusations: “It's too scary for the kids”. Here is where the fateful choices were made: Without an anchor programme for the upcoming season and desperately needing Who's Scared? to pass, Silverman, Ruby and Spears frantically went back to the drawing board to see what could safely be placed on the chopping block.

When the show reached it's final form it had been veritably gutted: Gone was the rock band motif (leaving the continued existence of The Mystery Machine a tremendous plot hole) and more distressingly, with it went the show's basic tone. While Mysteries FiveXWho's Scared? was created from the beginning to be a comedy horror piece, the horror and drama aspects were apparently always intended as the primary ones (although to be fair expecting any Hanna-Barbera show to be a work of weighty pathos is a bit far-fetched). Now, the show's major focus was to be the comedy stylings of Shaggy and Too Much, (now renamed Scooby-Doo after Frank Sinatra's scat at the end of “Strangers in the Night”, a change that, if I'm honest, I can't really contest) with Velma as a third wheel, and this was to become the central thrust of every episode. This change was made partially because Fred Silverman, as expected, was absolutely in love with the dog, but mostly to divert the CBS censors' eyes away from the Expressionistic nightmare world the show took as its setting. Additionally, at some point during development Velma and Shaggy stopped being siblings, which opens up a whole special can of worms all unto itself. Ruby, Spears and Silverman resubmitted the retooled show, dubbed Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, where it was accepted without incident.

This, at last, is the original sin of Scooby-Doo. While the unforgettable visual style miraculously remained intact (which, to be fair, was always probably going to be the most important thing about Mysteries Five) and catapults Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! to classic status almost by its merits alone, it's been irreparably defanged. We have an ending that is, unfortunately coded with an awkward brand of poetic justice: The show born with the spirit to rebel against hegemonic anti-intellectualism from within is shot down by the very forces it carried the promise of overturning. Even though we'll never know exactly what Mysteries Five would have been and whether or not my conclusions have any sort of merit, the troubling fact remains that no matter how good Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and its successors get, there will always be uncertainty hanging over the franchise as to what it could have really achieved had it been allowed to live up to its full potential. Given the achingly tantalizing clues we get in the various seasons of television to come, it's a maddening truism to come to terms with indeed.

A little-known fact about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is that the original ending would have revealed the titular doctor, after having been revealed as the source of the murders, to be in truth a raving inconsolable lunatic who is literally an escaped inmate running the asylum. The ending was changed, at the behest of the studio, to make the protagonist the mental patient and the obvious toothy commentary about the state of authority and social structure in interwar Europe was lost. How fitting then that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the work of German Expressionism that the visual aesthetic of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! seems the most inspired by.


Mysteries Five may be dead and gone, but that's not to say the simulacrum now wearing its visage doesn't bear some traces of its predecessor’s squandered potential. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is a show born out of aesthetic death and given life by forces of hegemony. It draws its visual style from the unnatural foreboding of German Expressionism, a genre created in response to a shattered continent trying to come to grips with the aftermath of a bloody, devastating war and widespread social collapse. And, perhaps most intriguing of all, it stars four avatars of 1960s youth culture...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sensor Scan: Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

The question of exactly how radical and progressive a television show can get when it's airing on major network television and supported by corporate advertising and ratings is an interesting one. On the surface the answer seems like a flat “not in the slightest”: Simply put, it's a rather noticeable conflict of interest to have a work deeply invested in overturning the current social order dependent on the tools and infrastructure of the very hegemony it's set itself in opposition to. On the other hand, one does sort of hope there's at least a little-wiggle room for this kind of thing in pop culture mass media: If you're a young person just starting to come to terms with your worldview and unaware of big underground counterculture movements, it's really helpful to be able to turn on the TV and see you're not completely alone, especially in a world without the Internet.

In the past, we've looked at this issue on the context of Star Trek: Supposedly the most forward-thinking and youth-embracing show on television in the late 1960s, the Original Series has in truth proven to be somewhat changeable on the ethics front. There have been moments that seem to support this claim, most noticeably in the last third of the second season, but there have also been just as many, if not more, that would seem to give the indication Star Trek was anything but, and in truth pretty regularly and reliably (and disturbingly) reactionary. But that's Star Trek, and in spite of the numerous overtures it can and has made towards a more socially-conscious approach, it's still burdened by some pretty major liabilities (in particular the one named Gene Roddenberry) and its potential to make a positive impact is frustratingly not always as clear as it should be. The question remains though: Can you have a truly countercultural television show? We can, in fact, take an even broader scope: Can you have countercultural Soda Pop Art at all?

In my opinion, the only real satisfactory answer is “yes and no”, and for a good example let's take a look at the other iconic NBC show of 1968, and the show that kicked Star Trek out of its primetime slot: Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Conceived by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin as an evolution of the “straight man/dumb guy” act they had honed in nightclubs, Laugh-In was a weekly sketch comedy show most famous for its innovative style marked by rapid-fire editing that cut between various discrete images and scenarios. The jokes and sketches on Laugh-In were frequently only seconds in length, just there long enough to deliver a punchline before cutting away to something completely different. The show lasted an impressively long time, from 1968 until 1973, and helped launch the careers of future luminaries like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, not to mention Lorne Michaels, a staff writer on Laugh-In who would go on to produce Saturday Night Live.

The most obvious thing that set Laugh-In apart from its predecessors in television and stage comedy, and what it's most remembered for, is its overt courting of the 1960s counterculture, and in particular the Mods and the Hippies. There was a *lot* of Carnaby Street imagery in Laugh-In: One of the reoccurring settings of many of the one-liners was a wild-looking Mod party where everyone would be entranced and dancing wildly. Then suddenly, everything would stop, someone would tell a joke, then everything starts up again just in time for the show to cut away for something else. There was also a fair bit of youth culture lingo, or a reasonable stab at it (the legendary “Sock it to me!” and a family-friendly version of “You bet your ass!” are probably the most famous examples), not to mention a healthy portion of sexual humour. This is where the show gets really changeable, and I'm assuming it probably varies depending on who wrote the sketch: Laugh-In could either make a charmingly inclusive and innocent comment about the ubiquity of the Free Love movement or land square in unwatchable “sexual assault is funny” territory. Speaking of Free Love, the name Laugh-In itself is quite obviously a reference to the concept of a “sit-in” or “love-in”, the idea of a peaceful form of organised protest in favour of civil rights made famous by its popularity in the 1960s.

Another way Laugh-In tried to reach out to the youth culture was by having a lot of their jokes be about actual contemporary social and political issues. However, like its take on sexuality, this also had a tendency to vary in tone and quality from time to time. One of the better exchanges I found goes like this. Dan Rowan's character is talking to Hippie lady in a silver sequined bra and dress. She says “You know, Dan, blacks have a really rough time in the union of South Africa”. Rowan responds “Well, minorities have it rough all over” to which she responds “Yeah, but it's tougher to be a minority when there's more of you then there is of them”. Now today this scene wouldn't seem like anything special, but in 1968 it was sort of a new thing to have comedy like this that not only took that blunt a look at world issues, but have the half-naked Hippie chick be the one delivering the punchline to the dimwitted establishment figure in a suit, and on primetime on NBC to boot (Also brilliant is “My church accepts all denominations. But my favourite is the five-dollar bill”). However, for as many clever exchanges like this as the show gave us, it also had an almost equal amount of ones that were...less than successful, such as “All the kids in my school are really proud of the astronauts. Imagine: To stay that high for that long!”.

In moments such as this it almost feels as if Laugh-In was self-consciously trying to reel itself in and make sure it never crossed the line too much, and to go out of its way to make everyone look equally slow and imbecilic on different occasions so as not to offend people. The problem is, comedic satire only works when it's directed towards figures of authority and oppression: When you start leveling it at the oppressed, which the youth culture absolutely was in 1968, you stop being agents of change and start being tools of The Man (this isn't even getting at people of US-African descent, which Laugh-In had an equally rocky, yet incredibly more awkward, relationship with). When the show slips up and starts delivering cringe-inducing moments like this, two things happen: Either the joke lands at toothless and unfunny if it's lucky, and if it's not, it lands square in the territory of reactionary. The absolute nadir of Laugh-In in this regard has to be the episode where Richard Nixon made a cameo in a “Sock it to me!” joke during his campaign in a pitiful attempt to gain favour with the youth...That is credited by political historians as pretty much being the thing that won him the election. That alone really ought to be reason enough to throw out the whole show.

(Although I will say I found seeing Leonard Nimoy in a similar cameo remarking “Does NBC even know this show is on the air?” to be legitimately clever, hilarious and completely unexpected.)

However the real problem with Laugh-In, and the true reason why it became a show that could get away with selling the frankly bewildering idea that Richard Nixon was in some way a hip ally of the counterculture was because, ultimately, it was too indebted to the United States variety tradition. This was not some bristling bit of anarcha-humour that targeted the hegemony, this was a Mod-themed Vaudeville routine. And, like all Vaudeville, Laugh-In had a tendency to be, well, awful. On an alarming number of occasions, the bits of Laugh-In I saw felt uncomfortably like someone took a “1001 Happening Hippie Jokes” book and built an entire show around that. Stuff like “I hear Governor Reagan is really worried about earthquakes in California. He's afraid Berkeley may shift even further to the left!” is at best the worst kind of stand-up platitude (Right Wing politicians don't like Left Wing activists? I mean wow, what a keen observation...) and at worst dangerously reactionary. This kind of joke is the 1960s version of those terrible “humour” books from the 1980s and 1990s that tried to cash in on the personal computer craze with “witticisms” like “What does the President use with his computer in the Oval Office? A White mouse!”.

Although to be fair to Laugh-In, this isn't entirely its fault: Vaudeville was a genre defined by how defanged it was due to the draconian moral codes instituted by studios and touring companies. The fact is, there's not a whole lot of difference between that system and the one that existed on network television in the 1960s. Television sketch comedy is a direct descendent of Vaudeville, and it suffers from the same intrinsic drawbacks. And to its credit, Laugh-In does seem to have gotten it right at least as often as it got it wrong, at least if you forgive them Richard Nixon, and it does seem to be ahead of the curve on several things. For one, the people making the show seem on the whole aware of its limitations due to the profusion of self-deprecating humour on this show, in particular directed at NBC or the producers (Leonard Nimoy's cameo being merely the best example). That's something you wouldn't see in Vaudeville or earlier television variety or comedy shows because as soon as someone made a joke like that they'd mysteriously disappear from the playbook. But, as I mentioned in the “I, Mudd” post, it's this kind of self-awareness that comes to define this style of performance in the future (and that was lacking from the episode in question) and it's Laugh-In where it's the clearest this is beginning to be more widely disseminated.

It's also worth stressing that the overt references to recreational drug use and sexuality as part of a larger acknowledgment that the counterculture was part of the fabric of society such that it could become the source of gentle ribbing instead of fear and scorn, and on primetime television, was sort of a watershed and definitely would have left a powerful impression. Despite its stumblings, Laugh-In does seem to have a higher baseline target for how it handled this sort of thing than Star Trek did, and the ratings would seem to back this assertion up (although it is telling that Laugh-In and Star Trek were considered comparable enough such that there could be crossovers). It's tough to fault NBC for keeping it in its Monday timeslot and knocking Star Trek to Fridays.

Furthermore, the legacy of Laugh-In is quite palpable. While I disagree with what seems to be the common statement that Monty Python's Flying Circus is somehow a successor to it (Monty Python comes out of a very particularly British tradition of comedy and is in some sense quite culturally specific, and Laugh-In is about as United States as it gets), its influence is clear in other places. The connection to Saturday Night Live is obvious, and there's a direct link between Laugh-In and Mark Evanier's career, especially Garfield and Friends. It's also peculiarly enough, easy to see the impact it had on Jim Henson's work, particularly Sesame Street. Both use a very rapid fire style of editing to quickly convey information and symbols as part of a larger sensory experience (it's obvious on Sesame Street in the “commercial” segments) and while I was watching Laugh-In to prepare for this article I found myself being reminded of the kind of “MTV Spectacle” style best exemplified by the music videos of the 1980s, in particular the late-1980s.

But what I think is most important about Laugh-In is that it did get a somewhat positive version of the youth culture on television in 1968. It's not a perfect portrayal (it's definitely sanitized for family viewing) and I'm not even sure this is the best show of its time to tackle the issue, but it is there and in 1968: The year where the 1960s counterculture essentially died out in the mainstream and was forced underground. That's frankly unbelievable, and it's tough not to be heartened by the fact a show like this lasted all the way until 1973. What I think this shows is that yes, it is in fact possible to have an expressly radical Soda Pop Art. There are going to be compromises and trying to get a show like this made is always going to be a gamble, but it's at least possible. And I'll just say this: I have a distinct feeling it was a whole lot easier to do a show like Laugh-In in 1968 than it would be if you tried to make it today.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Bjo Trimble and “Save Star Trek!”

Yes, Star Trek did in fact come back for a third season. Barely.

Critically however, this wasn't a renewal in the traditional sense either. What happened in March of 1968 was something the likes of which had really never been seen before in US television, and about which there is a considerable amount of myth and contradictory lore, most of which seems to have been deliberate. Central to these events is a woman name Betty JoAnne Trimble, better known as Bjo. So, in the first entry of the “Ship's Log, Supplemental” series, which looks at miscellaneous aspects of the Star Trek pop culture phenomenon, in particular the history and historiography of its fandom, I'm going to try and piece together as best I can the extent of her influence and connection to the franchise and the series of events leading up to Star Trek's unexpected renewal...And inevitable, if postponed, cancellation.

Although Star Trek never commanded acceptable, let alone impressive, ratings in its original run, what fans it did have were notoriously passionate and vocal. Throughout the duration of the first season, NBC got close to 29,000 letters from fans gushing about the show, which was the most amount of mail they got for any of their shows save The Monkees. Although a comprehensive cross-section of Star Trek fandom in the 1960s is difficult to establish, it is clear a great many of these early fans were women. Numerous producers, executives and other creative figures associated with the franchise for decades have pointed this out, despite their tendency to make spectacularly unfounded inferences from this fact, mostly in regards to how all those women were apparently just lusting after Spock (Ron Moore is particularly egregious in this regard, having made a somewhat thoughtless comment in the context of one of his early Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts but we'll get to that). Although there were most certainly more then a few women who fixated on Spock and who turned him into a sex symbol for one reason or another, the sexism implicit in assuming the *only* reason women watched Star Trek was because of this should be self-evident. In truth there is a long tradition of a feminist Star Trek fandom which goes all-but-ignored thanks to the unbelievably patriarchal nature of science fiction culture, and which will start to become more of a theme once we reach the 1970s. This outpouring of fan mail is the first manifestation of it.

It's not terribly difficult to see why women would feel inspired and empowered by Star Trek in 1968. Gene Roddenberry may have had a tendency to act like a misogynistic bastard, but in the two years since the series has been on the air people who aren't him have used the show to make considerable strides for more egalitarian representation: We've had characters like Ann Mulhall and Charlene Masters being depicted as colleagues in equal standing with their male shipmates, not to mention Uhura, who's become a strong and capable character in her own right over the course of the last season. Even characters like Daras in “Patterns of Force” got to be surprisingly nuanced for the time with detailed backstories and complex, multifaceted personalities. Of course, for every Ann Mulhall or Daras there's been a Nona or Sylvia, but the fans were right to hold up the good examples in lieu of the bad ones, especially if they were trying to argue for the show's merit. There was also the matter of William Shatner's and Leonard Nimoy's acting, which most certainly drew the attention of more then a few woman fans, but that's beyond the scope of this particular post.

It would make sense then that the monumental letter-writing campaign spanning the last half of 1967 and the first half of 1968 to save Star Trek from cancellation would be spearheaded by female superfan Bjo Trimble and her husband John. Trimble initially reached out to a 4,000 member mailing list for a science fiction convention to write NBC as a show of support for the struggling series, and to ask ten additional people to do so in turn. The campaign quickly snowballed to frankly ludicrous proportions, with NBC receiving a staggering 116,000 letters between that December and the following March, 52,000 of which arrived in the month of February alone (one executive, Norman Lunenfield, vividly describes looking out his window at NBC's Burbank office and seeing a fleet of mail trucks stretching to the end of the road). Rumours even circulate this wasn't even the real number, with the network actually receiving over a million responses but never making the rest public. Eventually, what had come to become known as the “Save Star Trek!” movement grew to include mass demonstrations on college campuses such as Caltech, Berkeley and MIT. Eventually, NBC had to relent and, as the traditional account goes, made the unheard-of decision to announce Star Trek had been renewed for a third season on air just after the initial broadcast of “The Omega Glory”. However, this doesn't tell the full story of what exactly happened in March, 1968 and the events that led up to it.

First of all, Bjo Trimble was no ordinary Star Trek fan, and I don't mean in just the fact she organised one of the most massive and famous letter-writing campaigns in history. In what's perhaps evidence of precisely how insular and niche Star Trek always was, Bjo Trimble was absolutely an insider in the science fiction community of the late 1960s. She got her start attending the Tenth World Science Fiction Convention held in Chicago in 1952, where she was stationed as a WAVE (part of an all-female Navy volunteer emergency response system instituted during World War II). There she met both Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison, the latter of whom had just sold his first story and decided to propose as soon as he met her (she obviously turned him down, and eventually went on to meet her actual future husband John at the same convention). She became a regular at the conventions in subsequent years, organising some of the first science fiction themed art and fashion shows. It was at one of these shows that she met Gene Roddenberry after being captivated by a screening of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and even convinced him to show off the Star Trek uniforms at one of her exhibitions, thus providing one of the first glimpses fans would get of the new show's costume design.

Most interestingly, according to Herb Solow and Bob Justman in Inside Star Trek, it was Roddenberry who gave Trimble the idea to launch the 1967-8 letter-writing campaign due to their prior familiarity and who secretly provided the effort's necessary funding. Now, I have to quickly add this isn't meant to diminish what Trimble did in the slightest: Even if “Save Star Trek!” wasn't all her, she still pulled off one of the most remarkable and foundational feats in the history of genre fandom. Equally though, Trimble was not merely an average, if uniquely passionate and driven, Star Trek fan who took it upon herself to do something to help save her favourite show on principle, which is how certain pieces of official literature have had a tendency to depict her. And if Roddenberry was indeed at least partially behind “Save Star Trek!”, it's hard to fault him for it: Roddenberry was first and foremost a businessman who had an eye on what sold, and he did what any savvy businessman would have done. With it becoming abundantly clear Assignment: Earth was dead on arrival, Roddenberry may have decided to take action to save his other line in the water. And, seeing how big of a following Star Trek was getting, he merely took advantage of it. This would be neither the first nor the last time Roddenberry mobilized Star Trek fandom for leverage.

No, what's more telling is the reasoning NBC cited for bringing Star Trek back, and what the actual details and meaning behind the announcement really were. This is best summarised by a pair of quotes from contemporary newspaper stories about the letter-writing campaign. Vernon Scott from the Oxnard, California Press-Courier said

“The show, according to the 6,000 letters it draws a week (more than any other in television), is watched by scientists, museum curators, psychiatrists, doctors, university professors and other highbrows. The Smithsonian Institution asked for a print of the show for its archives, the only show so honored.”

while Cynthia Lowry of the Pasco, Texas Tri-City Herald wrote

“Much of the mail came from doctors, scientists, teachers, and other professional people, and was for the most part literate–and written on good stationery. And if there is anything a network wants almost as much as a high Nielsen ratings it is the prestige of a show that appeals to the upper middle class and high brow audiences.”

Both of these statements expressed sentiments that were echoed in NBC's actual publicity material, and I find that incredibly revealing. Although Bjo Trimble may not have been the complete embodiment of Star Trek's everyday female (and feminist) fanbase because of her insider connections, she absolutely spoke for them. She was a person they could relate to, and her campaign gave them a way to express their voice. And while yes, Star Trek has always held an appeal for the technoscience sectors, this isn't the exclusive domain of the franchise's appeal, despite the impression you might get from contemporary fandom. In this regard, it is imperative to note that NBC made a conscious, deliberate attempt to publicly court one type of fan over the other, and this is decision that will hold repercussions for the entire rest of the history of Star Trek fandom. From here on out, it's the upper-middle class, “highbrow”, “educated” (and tacitly white cis male of 18-25 years of age) and technologistic demographic who will be seen as Star Trek's “Real” fans, and not the women who actually made it a cult phenomenon to begin with (look even at the schools who were doing the protesting: All universities known for their technoscience and industry connections).

There's also one more thing. NBC may have gone out of their way to court this demographic, but they also immediately recognised it for what it was: Small. Star Trek's fans may have been loud and prolific, but the ratings weren't backing up the amount of fan mail they were getting, and a network can't justify keeping a show like Star Trek on the air by virtue of fan mail alone. So NBC made, ironically enough, an incredibly logical decision. Star Trek would be renewed for third season yes, but there would be an unspoken implication the third season would also be its last. Oh yes, it couldn't be more clear to me that NBC always intended to pull the plug on Star Trek in 1969. NBC made a big deal about moving the show to Mondays to court its newfound audience, but then backtracked and moved it to Fridays instead to avoid competition with Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and, allegedly, to appeal to Star Trek's younger fans. This led Roddenberry to complain "If the network wants to kill us, it couldn't make a better move" and to promptly walk off the show during the summer hiatus. Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana and John Meredyth Lucas soon followed suit.

There's a lot of secret messages telegraphed in that series of choices. First of all, NBC was *never* going to privilege Star Trek over the wildly successful Laugh-In, which was culturally significant in its own right. Secondly, while a Friday timeslot may well have been good for children, the flip side of that is because the reason for that is children are the only people who are home watching television on Friday nights. It's called the Friday Night Death Slot for a reason, and this had the added bonus of giving a pretty damn good clue as to who NBC really thought Star Trek's audience was comprised of. Dropping the budget by $3000 should probably have been another sign the writing was really on the wall. This led Nichelle Nichols to famously fume

“While NBC paid lip service to expanding Star Trek's audience, it [now] slashed our production budget until it was actually ten percent lower than it had been in our first season ... This is why in the third season you saw fewer outdoor location shots, for example. Top writers, top guest stars, top anything you needed was harder to come by. Thus, Star Trek's demise became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I can assure you, that is exactly as it was meant to be.”

Nichols is absolutely right, of course. And while this decision may be seen as a criminal act of betrayal by the fans (and even TV Guide, who are gigantic Star Trek fans anyway, called it the fourth “Biggest TV Blunder Ever” in a special), it makes absolute perfect sense from the perspective of the network. And anyway, as difficult as it may be to believe, NBC's move to kill off the Original Series may have been the final event that guaranteed Star Trek's immortality. See, had the show been canceled in its second season, there wouldn't have been enough episodes to sell a syndication package. Giving Star Trek a third season tipped the total episode count over the minimum. NBC knew they had a show that was floundering in primetime, but they also knew that if they could sell it as part of a syndication deal the loyal fans would follow it and turn it into a regular and reliable source of income. And that's exactly what happened, and furthermore, Star Trek proved to be even more popular in syndication than it was in its original run. So popular, in fact, Paramount approached Gene Roddenberry and the team a decade later with the idea to maybe bring the franchise back to television. This is the very definition of what a Cult Sci-Fi show is, and this is how Star Trek became the archetypical example of the genre.

And that's the story of how a ropey show that had pretty much everything working against it turned into one of the most lasting pillars of Western popular consciousness. And, although NBC had a part to play, it was really the female fans who came together to let the network know they had something that was special (in spite of itself) and that shouldn't be discarded. The real criminal act of betrayal was not that NBC eventually did pull the plug on the Original Series: Rather, that was what allowed Star Trek to undergo its own true Metamorphosis. No, the real act of betrayal was that these women were never given the respect and credit they deserve for providing the imaginative spark that allowed Star Trek to become Star Trek.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

“Creators of history”: Assignment: Earth

“Assignment: Earth” aired on March 29, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4. Synchromysticism is the study of “happenings” and reoccurring patterns and synchronicity in human behaviour and world events, and the end of April is regarded in synchromystic circles as a “red zone” with a high concentration of violent activity. Sixty-nine days after King's death, Robert F. Kennedy was also assassinated. June 5, the date of Kennedy's death, also has synchromystic connections, being the date of the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbouring countries. June is a major month on the whole with Midsummer (around the 24th) being a particularly important date. The flying saucer era began on June 24, 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing unidentified flying objects flying in formation at supersonic speed over Mount Rainier in Washington. The date has also marked several occasions when mysterious objects fell from the sky.

Looking back on the pilot of any long-running television series can be a strange experience. The reoccurring motifs we're accustomed to aren't there, or are at least present in forms different to the ones we're accustomed to. A pilot is by definition a first draft, and the one for Assignment: Earth is no different in this regard. What's especially strange about this pilot though (simply and uninspiringly titled “Assignment: Earth”, though I suppose it gets the point across), at least for someone used to what the show eventually becomes, is that it opens up not with Supervisor 194 Gary Seven in his swanky apartment, but with an oddly-shaped spaceship in orbit around Earth. The ship's captain, played by Canadian Royal Shakespearean actor William Shatner, exposits that he and his crew come from the far future and have travelled back in time to 1968 for historical research. Gary then transports aboard the ship, looks around in confusion and we cut to the intro credits...of an entirely different show.

Knowing a little background about how United States TV worked in the late-1960s would probably be beneficial. Back then it was customary for new pilots to be not-so-subtly disguised as regular episodes in currently-airing shows, so that the new show could piggyback off of the existing one, hopefully inheriting its audience. This still happens on occasion today, but not with the same kind of regularity as it used to. In this case, Assignment: Earth actually began life as a spin-off of an earlier, lesser-known series of Gene Roddenberry's called Star Trek, which followed the adventures of Captain Kirk (Shatner's character) and the crew of the USS Enterprise, which patrolled and explored the galaxy in the far future as part of an interstellar conglomerate called the United Federation of Planets. Star Trek was indebted to the Pulp and Golden Age science fiction genres of the 1950s and early 1960s, in much the same way as Assignment: Earth was to the “spy-fi” fad of the late-1960s and 1970s, at least at first.

Part of the reason Star Trek isn't as well remembered as its successor is today is that it never scored particularly good ratings, partially due to the fact that it largely wasn't any good, and it ultimately burnt itself out after two seasons. But let's bear in mind we all know Assignment: Earth was no great shakes in its earliest days either, and there's every reason to believe Star Trek might have been just as successful had it been given the chance. Certainly from what we can see in this episode alone it looks like it had promise-Shatner is likeable, and Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan deliver equally memorable turns as science officer Spock and chief engineer Scott, respectively. Nevertheless, this would explain why it ran a backdoor pilot as its series finale.

In this regard we need to talk about the episode itself a bit. Aside from the framing device of having the Enterprise crew from Star Trek intervene and slow the plot up a bit, the story here is largely the same as the one we're familiar with from the premier episode a year later: Gary is sent to Earth to tamper with the launch of a nuclear warhead and scare the major powers into abandoning the Cold War arms race and the concept of balance of power. The biggest difference is Roberta: While she's still Gary's fabulously Carnaby Street liaison and assistant, here she's the former secretary of the deceased agents, and depicted as a flighty, easily perplexed scatterbrain. While erratic loopiness is something of a character trait of Roberta's at this point in the show's history, it does help to approach Assignment: Earth from the perspective of the future, where we know she'll eventually transform into a stronger, more interesting character. Here though her confusion causes more than a fair share of major problems for the rest of the characters, and this combined with the dominating, controlling “You're not allowed to leave, you've seen too much” attitude Gary has toward her for the majority of the episode makes her scenes borderline unwatchable.

The one saving grace about Roberta in the pilot is that she's played with impeccable earnestness by Teri Garr, who at least sells every bit of her ditziness and endeavours to make her charming. Garr would go on to have marquee roles in movies like Tootsie and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and shadows of her future performances are visible here. She would have made an excellent Roberta, and it's a shame she didn't return for the series. Not that Garr can really be blamed, though: She was treated absolutely horribly on the set by Roddenberry, who kept ordering the hemline on her skirt raised over and over again to the point it actually ruined the look of the costume. Yet another reminder of how much of a problem Roddenberry's influence was early on in Assignment: Earth, and how much of a godsend for the series' future prospects it was that he was eventually replaced as showrunner. While not as huge of an issue as Roberta, Gary has problems of his own that touch on probably the fundamental issue this series is going to have to address: As a perfect human from space who comes down to Earth to teach us all how to think and behave, there's an undeniably patriarchal streak to Gary, especially as Roberta, the show's representative of youth culture, is depicted here as someone who has good intentions but is very hapless, needing the guiding hand of the much older man to help her along. This is...distasteful, to put it mildly.

On March 29, 1968, A.D., a Federation Temporal Agent code-named Gary Seven clandestinely transported down to that period's Earth, setting up a base for undercover operations in the region known at the time as New York City. His first mission was to secretly sabotage the launch of a rocket-mounted orbital nuclear weapons platform, the last-minute destruction of which would frighten the major world powers into abandoning the Cold War arms race they were engaged in. This is an example of a situation where direct intervention in the local time-stream was in fact not only called for, but required. Had the United States and the Soviet Union continued their policy of mutually assured destruction, this would have risked preventing our timeline from coming to pass. In certain such cases, an effect comes into play known as the predestination paradox: In short, this means that the events transpiring must, in fact, transpire in order to uphold the sanctity and integrity of the timeline. The events of March 29 and Gary Seven's actions are one such example of this phenomenon. Modern timeships are equipped with specialized temporal scanners that allow their crews to easily determine if they are working with such a situation.

There are many myths and urban legends surrounding this particular temporal event. The most prominent of these is the rumour that a third party was at play, or perhaps even another Federation timeship (in some versions of this myth, the timeship is none other than the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 under the command of James T. Kirk. The practical absurdity of such a claim, given both Kirk and the Enterprise date from a point in history centuries before the Federation had mastered temporal mechanics, should be self-evident). The truth is that there was no such intervention, from Kirk or anyone else: Gary Seven caused the rocket to malfunction, just as he was meant to. The Enterprise was in fact involved in this event as per popular speculation, being in the same time-space on an unrelated mission of historical research. Seven's motives were naturally unclear to Kirk and his crew, and it was a critical lapse of judgment on Seven's part to not share such crucial information with them, and his actions put his mission in grave jeopardy, could very well have destabilized the timeline, or worse, resulted in a Temporal Civil War.

Our “successors” don't want us to know that not everyone living tacitly under Federation jurisdiction shares its cultural assumptions, nor keeps in lock-step with its talking points or received history. There is a long tradition of Starfleet timeships that have gone rogue. Jim Kirk knew that his future was in danger. That's why he interfered with Gary Seven's plans. The textbooks may *say* that this was some “predestination paradox” or that “everything happened the way it was supposed to”, but then they would, wouldn't they? History is written by the people who have the power and the agency to write it.

“Assignment: Earth” isn't a Star Trek episode. It's a backdoor pilot for a TV series Gene Roddenberry hoped to launch for the fall 1968 season. The original script, dating to late 1966, was a standalone story Roddenberry retooled to include a Star Trek framing device so he could sell his new show as a spin-off. As a result, the Enterprise crew is barely in this episode, and when they do get involved they mostly screw up the *real* heroes' plans and get themselves uselessly captured due to their incompetence. The basic cynicism of the brief aside, this is quite telling: To be blunt, you don't do an episode like this if you expect the parent show to live a long and healthy life. No, when this was being filmed all signs still pointed to Star Trek being canceled at the end of its second season, and Roddenberry did what any Hollywood businessman would have done: Gear up to put the old show to rest and get the new show sold as quickly as possible.

And the episode as aired does reflect this: If “Bread and Circuses” last week was the end of the Star Trek story, “Assignment: Earth” is the bonus episode we get that lets us know what's coming next. More than anything else in the Original Series, this belies the truth about Gene Roddenberry's attitude towards Star Trek: It was never some grand, utopian vision for the future that was deeply personal and meaningful to him. No, Star Trek was a show an LA scriptwriter pitched to a network, and when it looked like it was about to run its course he tried to pitch another, because that's what you do when you have that sort of job. What's most revealing honestly is the fact Roddenberry was planning Assignment: Earth as early as 1966: That should say everything about how much confidence anyone had in Star Trek ever seeing any manner of success.

What's equally as telling is that Assignment: Earth was an even bigger disaster than Star Trek, and it's entirely due to Gene Roddenberry's overbearing incompetence. First of all, Roddenberry was selling a pilot for a potential show that wasn't going to have any of its cast carry over (again). Robert Lansing, who plays Gary Seven, made it very clear he was unwilling to commit to a television series, and Teri Garr, who played Roberta Lincoln, was so horribly treated by Roddenberry she walked off the set and refuses to speak about him or Star Trek to this day (apparently he kept raising the hemline of her skirt to make it more revealing, which even managed to piss off William Ware Theiss). Even if Lansing and Garr hadn't been driven away though, there are a number of fundamental problems with this concept that would have made Assignment: Earth extremely problematic. Gary Seven himself is concerning on a number of levels: What's important to note about him at first is that he seems loosely based on accounts of “contactees”. This phenomenon dates (at least in the modern UFO era) to at least the 1940s, and involves people who claim to have had contact with benevolent extraterrestrial beings. These beings are reportedly concerned about the future of Earth and humanity, and offer to help us solve our problems by, among other things, ending nuclear testing, ending warfare outright or using their contacts on Earth to spread their message of peace and solidarity.

This would at least make Assignment: Earth come across as comparatively current (although it'll be another decade or so before anything of Roddenberry's comes close to seriously engaging with UFOlogy and Forteana), although an even better point of comparison might be the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, where a highly advanced alien comes down to Earth to try and get humanity to end all warfare and conflict, by force if he has to. Curiously, both the contactee phenomenon and the basic themes of “Assignment: Earth” and The Day the Earth Stood Still seem more in tune with the 1970s Glam-style concept of the Starman who beams down to enlighten us all, at least superficially. What's different about Gary Seven is his modus operandi and general tactics are also drawn from spy-fi, a fusion of science fiction and spy fiction-Seven has to conduct all his operations undercover.

The main problem is that this is still pretty patriarchal: Once again, we have an enlightened male authority figure teaching us the proper way to behave and do things, and this is especially egregious in “Assignment: Earth” as Gary Seven is paired off with Roberta Lincoln, a character who straightforwardly proves Gene Roddenberry knew as much about youth culture as he did women, that is to say, absolutely nothing. Roberta could have been a cool character, a Mod action superheroine who shows us the idealized future Gary Seven wants can only come about by embracing women and the youth. Instead, Garr gets to stand around slack-jawed as magic future aliens beam in and out of her office, lock her up, physically restrain her and just generally dismiss her as she's clearly too stupid to understand what's going on or to help out in any meaningful way. Garr does make Roberta charming and likeable (actually, “Assignment: Earth” is on the whole more then decently entertaining to watch, even if it's nowhere near as good as I remember it being), but, predictably, she's hideously wasted on the part.

When paired with Gary Seven, this becomes abundantly obvious: Roddenberry clearly only thinks the youth have their hearts in the right place and are too naive, flighty and scattered to actually bring about any real change. What they need, according to him, is an older, wiser, male authority figure to show them how things really work. Also, Roberta is supposed to be twenty. Gary Seven looks middle-aged. This makes the pseudo-romantic relationship the show clearly is setting them up to have (crucially, Isis gets jealous, because the only two modes a woman can have are nagging and jealousy, even if they're shapeshifting cat aliens. Seriously, Roddenberry can even screw up shapeshifting cat aliens) beyond creepy. Compare this to Raumpatrouille Orion, where the headquarters of the Rapid Space Fleet is in the Starlight Casino, a Mod bar, and everyone has Mod-inspired hairstyles and uniforms. There, the Mods were depicted as literally being from the future, even if we'll ultimately need to move beyond them someday to get at real, material social progress (which was, in 1966, not only a fair comment but a damn prescient one). Meanwhile here, in 1968, almost 15 years into the Mod movement, and Gene Roddenberry can't help but write his Mod lady as an excruciating stereotype.

But really, there's only one way I could close out the second season of Star Trek, and the show's original intended run. While we are, in fact, coming back next year thanks to one of the most unprecedented acts in United States pop culture history, the story of Star Trek and its original creative team is over now. It's fitting then the “finale” last week was co-written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, as this is their last real opportunity to make a firm declaration about what Star Trek is about. If “Assignment: Earth” was largely Roddenberry, “Bread and Circuses” was largely Coon (well...up to the end). Coon was also the person really responsible for the unbelievable Hail-Mary pass that was the run from “The Immunity Syndrome” to “The Ultimate Computer”, the first real time we had an unfiltered look at the beating heart of Star Trek. The heart that Gene Coon gave it. While we'll be seeing them both more next year, along with D.C. Fontana and John Meredyth Lucas (and Roddenberry of course sticks around until 1991) it's not quite the same after this.

So let's briefly take a moment to think back on the achievements of Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, Dave Gerrold and John Meredyth Lucas. These are the people who took a ropey, ill-conceived retrograde bit of sci-fi and, within the space of a year and a half, made it into a legend. We know they did even now, in 1968: No sooner does this episode go out than the unthinkable happens, and the people make it clear just how much the show Star Trek became meant to them.

“Assignment: Earth” involves Gary Seven attempting to sabotage a nuclear warhead loaded into a Saturn V rocket. On April 4, 1968, NASA did indeed launch a Saturn V rocket, except it was carrying the Apollo 6 test craft. Just as depicted in the episode, the rocket did in fact suffer a malfunction and go off course. Star Trek fans are quick to claim this is evidence of the truthfulness of “Assignment: Earth” as Kirk and Spock say the details of the malfunction were never fully made public.

Isis generously decided to provide the nominal cat picture every website must have by law. I expect this to become my most popular post.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

“When the wayfarer whistles in the dark...”: The Omega Glory

"I'll see two and two."

It's bad.

What more do you want me to say? It's terrible. Everyone knows it's terrible. You don't need me to tell you that. The plot is literally nothing more then capture and escape sequence after capture and escape sequence liberally peppered with intolerably drawn out and boring fight scenes in between. It is so chest-thumpingly, simperingly jingoistic it practically loops back around to parody (at least William Shatner is playing it that way). It is racist on some kind of transcendental level, depicting the Yangs as noble savages while portraying the supposedly technologically-advanced Cohms as identical, mute, smiling Chinese stereotypes and it even has Kirk literally call them yellow. It is the picture-perfect case study of the ugly racism, sexism and unreconstructed United States neo-imperialism that always lurks just below the surface of Star Trek, threatening to eclipse everything that makes the franchise actually worthwhile. It was also one of the leading contenders, along with “Mudd's Women”, to be the second pilot. Bob Justman was so appalled by the script Gene Roddenberry turned in, he drafted a multi-page memo savaging it; railing into it from every possible angle before throwing it away at the last second and delivering a few comments in person because he thought he was being too brutal. A shame he didn't save it: I'dve loved to reprint it. Not that this phased Roddenberry in the slightest: He was was so proud of his work on this one he personally submitted it to be considered for an Emmy Award.

I'm not going to go into a lengthy critique of “The Omega Glory” to point out what's wrong with it. It's far easier (and more accurate) to just say “everything” and that it commits an unforgivable sin simply by existing. No-I'm much more interested in the question of “why now?” and looking at how Star Trek, which had been on such a terrific streak since “The Immunity Syndrome”, suddenly turned out a story so irredeemably awful even Trekkers can't defend it, and this is a group of fans so loyal and dedicated they'll make apologies for “The Enemy Within” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?”. Tell someone unfamiliar with Star Trek that this episode and “Patterns of Force” are from the same season, let alone the same series, and they'll laugh in your face. That this was produced directly after “The Ultimate Computer” is unthinkable. But there are, sadly, easily discernible reasons that explain “The Omega Glory”, and it's also depressingly telling that this episode, along with “Spock's Brain”, are the ones that stick out to fans as the bad ones amongst five years of television that are about half excellent and half intolerant, bigoted garbage if we're being charitable. There's also the matter of Gene Roddenberry: For all intents and purposes this is his final significant contribution to the Original Series. He's behind “Assignment: Earth” next week of course, but there's a lot going on there that's not to do with him. He's got two credits in the third season, which are also terrible, but they're also both joint scripts. As far as a story that comes directly out of Roddenberry's own positionality and beliefs, however, this is pretty much it.

This is quite a lot to tackle and digest, so let's take it one thing at a time. Let's begin with the obvious question: Why does “The Omega Glory” even exist in the first place? Last time it threatened to show itself, in 1965, it was quickly and aggressively rejected by the studio and the network, both of whom quite rightly realised it was a catastrophic pace of shit and would make for possibly the worst television pilot ever (discuss among yourselves whether “The Omega Glory” or “Mudd's Women” being the pilot would actually have been worse for either the future of Star Trek or the world's peace of mind). Why are we seeing it materialize three years later when Star Trek not only went to series, but has proven its capable of doing far more? Even with all my qualifiers and all that does bring the show circa 1968 down sometimes, this is quite frankly a story that doesn't actually belong here. The simple answer is that Gene Roddenberry wanted it here: Although concrete historical details are, as always, sketchy, the gist of it seems to be that Star Trek was either once again out of scripts or, given the prevailing feeling throughout the set that the show was going to be canceled after the year was up, Roddenberry just really wanted to get this story made before the shooting block finished because he liked it that much. So, we get a destructively retrograde and irreparably broken and bigoted script going into production because the show either needed it or its creator was an overbearing, dominating control freak. Possibly both.

Which brings me to the real problem with “The Omega Glory”: Its writer. If there was ever conclusive, damning evidence of the harm Gene Roddenberry's presence did to Star Trek, this was it. He's lucky this time that the show was on unstable enough ground there was little risk “The Omega Glory” was going to get Star Trek *more* canceled, but that's the absolute best that can be said of it. Let's be absolutely honest with ourselves here. Everything that's gone wrong with Star Trek over the past five years can almost without exception be directly traced back to Gene Roddenberry. This is going to continue to be the case for many, many years: Every criticism you can level at any other incarnation of Star Trek Roddenberry lived through can be safely and automatically laid at his feet with little risk of being unfair or fingering the wrong person. Star Trek is the rare work of fiction that only works when its original creator is kept as far away from it as is physically possible, to the point I'm having a hard time coming up with a remotely comparable situation (George Lucas is a popular punching bag these days, but I think the faults of Star Wars are as much to do with fans suddenly taking a more nuanced and critical look at their franchise). Roddenberry is something different: As a writer and showrunner he is a provably regular toxic and destructive force, and the fact he's the one who sticks around the longest out of Star Trek's first generation of architects is unbelievably frustrating.

But while “The Omega Glory” is infamous, it remains bad in the same ways Roddenberry's other scripts have been. Show someone this episode without context, then show them “The Cage”, “Mudd's Women”, “Charlie X” and “A Private Little War” and I'd wager they'd be hard pressed to make a case “The Omega Glory” is especially worse then any of those episodes. Just don't expect this person to talk to you again, for they will likely hate you for the rest of your life for forcing them to sit through them. On the other hand though, it must be possible to make such a case as so many people universally agree this is one of the Original Series' worst hours. This reveals some very distasteful things about Star Trek fandom, however (though perhaps not as many as their similar pillorying of “Spock's Brain”. Not that “Spock's Brain” is any good, I hasten to add, but the reasons it's criticized tend to speak more of the people doing the criticizing then of the actual episode). If this is the worst, then why isn't there more honest problematizing of Gene Roddenberry's ethics and conception of Star Trek? This is all him, after all. Why does “The Omega Glory” become the riffer's darling while “A Private Little War” becomes at the very least a respected, average episode, if not a classic?

Part of it is most likely William Shatner, who delivers another scenery devouring performance (indeed, his climactic “WE the PEOPLE” speech is the stuff of legends). And I mean Shatner may be easy to make fun of as he has a tendency to play the most obviously insane thing on camera, but look: I'm never going to have any sympathy for people who attack Shatner's acting style for being overly campy, especially when he only cranks up the pork dial when he's beyond bored with and insulted by the material he's given. Did you honestly expect him to gamely take something like “The Omega Glory” remotely seriously, especially when as far as he's concerned he's been given his two-week notice and will be out of a job in a few days? Of course not. “The Omega Glory” is a disaster, and guess what? “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was too. Shatner's the most enjoyable thing about either one of those turkeys.

Furthermore, there's a motif we're going to have to start talking about in the very near future about how William Shatner uses a lot of theatrical humour in his performances. It's not quite as noticeable in Captain Kirk at the moment, though it will eventually be and it's an important part of Shatner's worldview and approach to acting. Think back a moment to something even as comparatively distant as “Where No Man Has Gone Before”: There Shatner said the biggest problem with Star Trek was that it took itself too seriously and would never be successful if it continued to do that. He was right, and on a number of different levels, but the thing I want to emphasize in the context of situations like this is that Shatner very rarely, if ever, actually, plays a character whom we're meant to take at face value: That's in fact the whole reason he's able to turn Kirk into a drag action hero. For him, it's the recursive and multiplex performance of human experience that might be the most important thing about life, and this can be taken as a kind of joke. So yes, Shatner is very, very funny here. But if it's a joke, it's a cosmic one and it might just be on us.

This is the uncomfortable thing about slagging off “The Omega Glory”: So many times when it's done, it's done on account of how campy and silly it is, not how godawfully reactionary it is. If we're going to call “The Omega Glory” the worst of Star Trek, and I'm certainly not opposed to that, we have to do it for the right reasons. No, the problem is not the camp. The problem is not William Shatner overacting. The problem is Gene Roddenberry, and if we're going to throw this one out we really ought to seriously consider doing the same for everything else he wrote and everything Star Trek inherits from him. The argument also works the other way, though: The disaster of this week really reflects poorly on Roddenberry and Roddenberry alone, if for no other reason than everyone else was desperately trying to keep this from happening and trying to use “The Omega Glory” as fodder for dismissing almost fifty years of Star Trek is equally as foolhardy. Star Trek is better than this: We know it is, because it's already proven it can be better than this just in these past few weeks. “The Omega Glory” is evidence the show's themes and ethics need to continue to evolve, not that the whole thing needs to be scrapped and binned.

I bring this up because I'm thinking of one scholar in particular who has became rather infamous for arguing pretty much exactly this, such that he's frequently wheeled out as one of the stock responses to “The Omega Glory”'s racism (he's even cited on Memory Alpha, which should tell you precisely how maligned this story actually is). In his book Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future, film studies professor Daniel Leonard Bernardi states

"'The Omega Glory' is not, however, a counter-hegemonic episode. In fact, the episode not only reveals an unwillingness to be critical of the hegemony of racist representations, but also systematically participates in the stereotyping of Asians. As the story progresses, the Yangs are constructed as noble savages; their cause to annihilate the Comms is established as justified. The Comms, on the other hand, are constructed as brutal and oppressive; their drive to suppress the Yangs is established as totalitarian. This more hegemonic articulation of race is made evident when Kirk and Spock realize the extent to which the Yangs and Comms parallel Earth's civilizations. In this light, the Yangs are no longer savages, but noble warriors fighting for a just and honorable cause. They want to regain the land they lost in a war with the Asiatics."

Bernardi then goes on to cite “The Omega Glory” as a prime example of how white privilege and hegemony are intrinsic to Star Trek and irreducible from it, and that the oft-touted utopia the franchise espouses is merely an extrapolation of white, middle-class, Western values that reinforces and celebrates contemporary social stratification. And look, I'm not going to pretend Star Trek is perfect here. I definitely agree it has hegemony problems that can be directly traced to its hyper-Western origins. I was making this argument as recently as “Return to Tomorrow” and just go back and see how nasty I was in the first season if you need a refresher on how much I tolerate normalized oppression.

But here's the thing. I choose to read Star Trek as an idea that's transcended its origins to become something greater. As much as I tear into the franchise, and I'm far from through doing that, I do think its overall impact and legacy on Western pop culture and global society has been a net positive one, and it has the potential to do even more good today thanks to the form it's metamorphosed into. And I think Bernardi is dead wrong to use “The Omega Glory” as a trump card, and in doing so it makes him no better than the Trekkers he's attacking. If you take this episode as some kind of Original Sin for the franchise that marks it for life, you're essentially equating the entirety of Star Trek with the positonality and flaws of Gene Roddenberry, and in doing that, you're falling into what I consider to be one of the most dangerous fallacies of reading any kind of work of fiction: The idea that one creator is a singular, godlike being from which creative works spring fully-formed in the manner of Athena and who is solely and consciously responsible for everything about said work.

Readers who know me from my other blogs will understand I approach media studies from a pseudo-Lacanian approach I've derived from the writings by people like Shoshana Felman and Avital Ronell. I believe writers do not will their work into existence out of nothingness but rather, as Ronell puts it, act as “secretaries of the phantom” who take dictation from an intangible ether and can only hope the words on paper are a crude facsimile of the particular truth they have taken into themselves. Writers are drug addicts, and writing is death. One does not “write”. One is possessed by “writing”. Similarly, one does not simply “read” from what I gather from Felman: The act of reading is comprised of the interaction of three separate, though linked, spheres from which meaning is generated: The text, the author's positionality and the reader's positionality (for the one person who will catch this, this is not Death of the Author or New Criticism either. This is different). Because of this, I very strongly believe the idea of authorship as is commonly used in literary criticism and especially film studies is a patriarchal construct that, like all elements of patriarchy, must be destroyed. “Author”, “Authorship” and “Authority” all share the same root, after all.

Film studies, really thanks to the movie industry and their reaction to being dismissed by literary critics in the 1920s about how motion pictures could never be art because they lack a Singular Creator, have latched onto the idea of the director or producer as Author and Visionary. And, as films have now become the dominant form of creative expression, film studies culture has permeated Western discourse on a profound and intimate level. Look at how video games and television shows are praised if they manage to successfully emulate movies, and how contemporary fan lingo calls a statement made by a creator about their work “The Word of God”. Look at how there are wildly popular Internet review shows made by fans that explicitly crib their critique from film studies. It's a Frankensteinian blend of white cis male middle class pop Christian Modernist Western tropes, and it's just as rampant in academia and critique as it is everywhere else. So, by this line of thought Gene Roddenberry is the Godlike Author to whom all of Star Trek can be traced back. Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry and Gene Roddenberry is Star Trek. You may recognise this as the exact same language the most rabid Trekkers use, and I'm going to be just as opposed to that line of thought cropping up in media studies as I would be at its manifestations in fandom and the work itself.

Let's put aside for the moment the fact that all language like this does is prove how the film critics and the fans are shouting at each other from the same cultural perspective. Let's put aside for the moment the fact critiques like Bernardi's reinforce Roddenberry's frankly insultingly oppressive and disrespectful (and blatantly deliberate) carjacking of Star Trek's legacy and the pop culture discourse about it such that he successful managed to position himself as the figurehead for the entire phenomenon, manufacturing what can reasonably be described as a significant cult of personality around himself while going out of his way to downplay, marginalise and erase the contributions of every single person he ever worked with that helped make Star Trek a part of our shared cultural heritage. Let's just go back to the origins of this project. When I was thinking about starting a critical history of Star Trek, most of my friends, family and colleagues were extremely supportive and encouraged me to go ahead with the endeavour, citing my long personal connection to the franchise and my...unique and unorthodox...reading of it. But there were also some people who made sure to let me know they thought I was taking on a pointless exercise. Star Trek has been done to death in media studies, they told me. Nobody has anything interesting or productive to add to the discourse about Star Trek. Oh, you're doing a Star Trek book? Well, you obviously haven't read the literature. It's been done.

Were I someone with less confidence and lower self-esteem (read: Were I less stubborn and belligerent) that probably would have been it and Vaka Rangi wouldn't exist. But instead, I recognised this as the silencing tactic of the patriarchal authority that it was. I know my enemy well enough by this point I can spot his movements, no matter how subtle. Hegemony takes many forms, including that of those who claim to be fighting it. Star Trek discourse is built on a multitude of people sharing their voices and experiences with one of the few things about contemporary Westernism that could convincingly be argued is a shared mythology. And the same is true for the television show itself: Just as there is no one single Universal Authority on Star Trek criticism there similarly isn't one for Star Trek. No one person gets to definitively claim once and for all what Star Trek is, no matter which side of the camera or TV screen they're on, for that way lies death, and Star Trek is about life.

The true horror of “The Omega Glory” is that it was almost the last episode of Star Trek, and the threat that it might become that remains very real to this day. Let's try to keep in mind what the consequences would be if we were to let it.