Thursday, February 13, 2014

“The future is now, thanks to SCIENCE!”: Year Four # 5

It is said our visions of the future tell us the most about the present. In the case of Star Trek, the futurism it imagines is oftentimes most revealing about what the loudest voice in its fandom currently is.

The Enterprise is overseeing a large-scale deep space particle acceleration experiment using a gigantic collider made up of twin space stations. The goal is to scale up similar experiments done by twentieth century physicists in an attempt to create quark-gluon plasma, a kind of primordial matter that existed at the birth of the universe, the theory being this would give them a unique insight into what the universe looked like at the dawn of time. While Spock oversees the experiment on the stations, Chekov takes his place at the Enterprise science station while his own relief officer Arex (that orange three-armed extraterrestrial we first saw in issue 1) expresses concern the experiment could have disastrous side-effects. Kirk dismisses Arex's worries, stating that taking risks in the name of furthering science is what their mission is all about. However, Arex's concerns prove to have merit as no sooner does Spock initiate the acceleration then the ship is hit by a bolt of energy as the plasma forms a singularity and engulfs the stations, taking Spock with them. It now falls to acting science officer Chekov and the rest of the bridge crew to find a way to salvage the experiment, rescue Spock and also themselves, as the Enterprise becomes trapped in the black hole too.

This book is, plot-wise, probably about as banal and uninteresting as Star Trek: Year Four has been since its first issue. It essentially boils down to yet another “lengths the crew will go to to save one of their own” bit of loyalty and camaraderie, which for me sort of feels like character development-by-numbers: I know this is a signature type of Star Trek story, but by this point it's feeling pretty worn and rote to me. We know Chekov is going to pull through, we know Spock is going to have some snarky quip ready when he beams back so it seems like he's ungrateful and we know Kirk and McCoy are going to angst and snap at each other in the meantime. Again though, like we said with the debut story, generic is still preferable to godawful. It's a testament to the average level of quality Year Four has been able to reach that a kind of character drama driven plot like this seems like filler whereas it felt like a welcome change of pace in something like “The Immunity Syndrome”. Without knowing what next month's finale is going to be like and the wild extremes of issues three and four perhaps notwithstanding, Year Four has done a more-than-acceptable job of coming up with a kind of “baseline Star Trek”, which is something worth taking note of.

(And indeed, part of the reason issue four was able to work as well as it did is because it relied on the audience having some kind of understanding about what a “generic” Star Trek episode is supposed to look like.)

What strikes me about this issue the most is that the character drama plot notwithstanding, the actual story here seems to be mostly about the particle acceleration, and that's quite telling. There's a lot of buildup to the actual physics experiment, with lingering beauty shots of the reaction, close-ups of the characters' faces in awe at the beauty and majesty of the whole thing and a bunch of “Return to Tomorrow”-style speeches about how “risk is our business” and “that's what we're out here for”, to the point the actual stuff about rescuing Spock feels rushed and tacked on. Which is curious as, by and large, that's actually *not* “what we're out here for”. The Enterprise's mission is one of exploration, and largely of the stellar cartography and astroanthropological kind (hence the whole Seeking Out New Life and New Civilizations bit). Of course astrophysics is a part of this and necessary for the crew to function in the environment they work in, but particle physics isn't technically their domain.

That's not to say there aren't conceivably parts of Starfleet or Federation science that do work on those things, but I imagine they'd be largely clustered around stationary dedicated scientific research labs, not things hoisted onto starship crews. The job of a starship, as I understand it, is to work something like a combination of ethnographer, cartographer, diplomat and old-style natural scientist, travelling about in search of discourse and exchange of knowledge. Yes, I prefer to read starship travel as wayfinding (hence the whole "Vaka Rangi" business) and yes, there can be imperialism connotations to be concerned about with that setup, but I think Star Trek on the whole has proven to be at least somewhat capable at resisting those impulses. The point is, what a starship isn't is a giant floating physics lab.

(I'm not going to comment on the accuracy of the actual physics in this story mainly because I'm not at all qualified to do so, but the cursory research I did do leads me to believe “quark-gluon plasma” is indeed a thing that exists, or at least a thing that is theorized to exist, and not something the creative team made up to sound sciencey.)

The fact of the matter is that even though Gene Roddenberry wanted the original Star Trek to be “believable”, doing stories overtly about or built around scientific concepts was manifestly not something that interested him: He was pretty clearly far more invested in the action and blunt moralizing. And, with the debatable exception of Star Trek Voyager, all the other incarnations of the franchise have followed suit: While Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine eschewed the blunt moralizing of the original series, those shows were pretty clearly still about things other than Hard sci-fi futurism (and before someone comments, recall the technobabble on The Next Generation was there mainly to paper over plot convenience and flesh out the show's world, and Brannon Braga's work was something else entirely). But while Star Trek hasn't traditionally been the domain of that kind of blunt technologism textually, a very large, or at least very vocal, segment of its fanbase most certainly is, and it's the segment of the fanbase that's certainly the most visible as of 2007.

Perhaps because the franchise has traditionally been so good at using its imaginary technology as world building such that things like the official Technical Manuals can exist, Star Trek has always been much embraced by certain divisions within the technoscience sector, namely among (male) physics, engineering and computer Nerds. This is clear even as far back as “Save Star Trek!”, as so many of the places protesting the loudest to keep the original series on the air, or at least the ones that got the most media coverage, were in fact big universities known for their technoscience research and connections (and of course it certainly didn't help that this was the demographic NBC most publicly tried to court at the time). For a number of reasons, it's tended to be people from this segment of the fanbase that's most successfully made the transition to professional creator and most certainly by the late-2000s it would have been the version of fandom most heavily and popularly associated with Star Trek.

So in 2007, we get a story ostensibly set during the Original Series in love with the wonder of Western-style cosmology and particle physics even though this flatly would never have been made in 1970. This is practically Star Trek for the Pale Blue Dotians, and even though that's not a worldview I subscribe to, I can certainly see how it would find appeal within in Star Trek. No, the problem I have, which isn't, to be honest, entirely fair to bring up in the context of Star Trek: Year Four, especially after last issue, is when this type of fandom monopolizes the discourse, which it quite obviously has on numerous occasions throughout the history of the franchise. Surely the point of something like this series is that Star Trek can and should continue on without becoming restricted or beholden to one specific medium, worldview or interpretation (well, within reason I mean)? So, when I get a story where Kirk gets all starry-eyed over every Physics Nerd's dream particle accelerator while proudly declaring this is what the Enterprise is for it does rub me the wrong way a bit.

Going beyond the boundaries of the actual book, there is, I feel, an interesting symbolic thread to explore in the fact the big threat in this story is a black hole caused by an attempt to look back at the beginning of the universe. You could, I suppose, read Western cosmology as the ultimate mythogeneaosophy, or at least, the big budget blockbuster version of it: Straining ever harder to look back at the dawn of things to find out where we all came from in the hopes that will shed light on how we live our lives today. Then we have Star Trek: Year Four itself, a project so consciously invested in looking backward in on itself in an attempt to make sense of a discordant past and present. Considering Star Trek is so often seen to be about going forward, these seem to, at least on the surface, be somewhat incompatible goals. Maybe this is why Kirk's physics experiment almost literally swallows up the entire narrative.

But then again it's not at all too much of a claim to say we have things to learn from our ancestors.


  1. This story is also one of those really, tired, obvious tie-ins of a sci-fi franchise to the coming activation of the Large Hadron Collider. Coming out in 2007, this would have fallen in the year when public — I don't want to say hysteria, because it was only believed by uneducated conspiracy theorists — discourse included the fanciful notion that the LHC was going to create a black hole that would swallow and destroy Earth.

    As well as expressing in yet another new form the 21st century cultural anxiety in the West about the inevitable undignified extinction of humanity at our own hands, it was part of a trend of terrible sci-fi products referencing the LHC's experiments. There was an abysmal Torchwood radio play in the same era about otherworldly happenings at the LHC that took all of John Barrowman's camp channeling powers to make even listenable.

    So this would make Year Four #5 a sad example of Star Trek falling far from its reputation as an innovator in sci-fi narratives and following a rather pathetic popular fad.

    1. Gracias for the historical context, Adam: I did briefly wonder if this was meant as some commentary on the Large Hadron Collider, but I was unsure about the timeline of popular opinion on that thing and wound up more interested in talking about Star Trek fandom's connection to physics. This does add another layer to how utterly trite this story is.

  2. Yeah Adam I was going to mention the, as you say, uneducated ideas flying around at the time and especially how forgettable the Torchwood play was. What galled was how much build up there was for the play, and how much for that it fed into detracting from the real experiments going on. Anyways, seems like a story so pointless it wants to swallow itself.

  3. Ah, 2007. I remember at the time I had an idea for a novel that was going to be a giant upraised middle finger to H.P. Lovecraft. A key point would involve using the LHC to create a micro-black hole, causing one character to exclaim rather incredulously, "You mean it actually can make a black hole!?"

    To which another character would reply, "No, don't be stupid, that's conspiracy-theorist garbage," then pull a lever and say "NOW it can make a black hole."

    I eventually decided that the whole novel was a terrible idea.