Sunday, March 30, 2014

“I live my life like I've been raised by wolves”: Savage Syndrome

It's Margaret Armen again. That's really all you need to know.

It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect Margaret Armen-penned Star Trek Phase II to be: Almost comically terrible, offensive and unworkable drivel that largely misses the entire point of the show. So structurally unsound as to actually become some kind of cosmic anti-structure and loaded up with the most unforgivably ghastly racism and misogyny you can think of, “Savage Syndrome” is without question the worst episode of the show to date. No contest. It's also probably her very worst submission overall, which wow, we're really hitting record lows here.

There's no point in any kind of summary, but basically, the Enterprise gets hit with a space mine that “reverts” the crew to a “primitive”, “animalistic” mindset, all save for an away team comprised of Decker, Ilia and McCoy, conveniently the three crewmembers who could most easily resolve the plot at the end of the episode, who were conveniently off exploring a derelict spaceship and conveniently decided to use a shuttlecraft so they wouldn't have to be beamed back aboard (no, the script does not explain why they just happened to decide to use a shuttlecraft on the precise mission where it was absolutely vital that they do so). And of course, Armen's conception of “animal instinct” is the absolute worst it could possibly be, firstly totally misunderstanding how gender roles manifest in real life animals by embracing the patriarchal assumption that female animals are always submissive breeding stock for alpha males and the appallingly racist notion that evolution is linear and that indigenous cultures are closer to animals and thus more “primitive” and “savage”. I can't even muster up the energy to get righteously angry at this shit anymore. It just sucks. That this evil, reactionary, talentless hack is still getting paid writing gigs in fucking 1978 is beyond belief. Fuck this.

(Ironically, in spite of all of this, “Savage Syndrome” is, somewhat horrifyingly, Decker and Ilia's best outing yet. Both get really sizeable and important parts and carry the majority of the episode's narrative weight, given that everyone else save McCoy is incapacitated. Ilia in particular is quite good: She does manage to get kidnapped a couple times, but she frees herself, and she uses her “Deltan powers of sensuality” to manipulate the male crewmembers because of course she does, but she runs all over the ship rerouting power and just generally fixing things and, scary as it is, this is her best episode to date.)

As it would be terrible for my patience, temper, mood and general mental well-being to do so, what I'd rather do instead of meticulously going through this episode's litany of flaws is to talk about the story's underlying assumption. This would be, in an attempt to strip away as much of the hideous racism as is possible, the idea that simplifying one's life is tantamount to being retrograde, going against the idea of progress. The affected crewmembers, for example, do not know how to use the modern technology of the Enterprise and resort to fashioning basic implements out of metal rods and bars. Of course, the notion of progress is already built around colonialism and racism: There's no way to actually separate them, they're too intrinsically linked as part of the larger Westernist hegemony.

In addition, the idea of technoscientific progress in particular also carries with it classist and capitalistic overtones. Innovation-speak tells us that it's good for corporations to constantly invent and release new products for us to buy, and it's functionally retrograde not to play into the system and buy them. Lower class people thus become shunned for their inability to buy their voice and play their ordained role. This, then, becomes hegemony: The interaction of patriarchy (which by definition desires nothing more then power and domination), capitalism, classism, racism, teleology and a modernist conception of technoscientific progress. Really, Margaret Armen's work is a perfect demonstration of how hegemony manifests in the late capitalistic West, in particular California, which was significantly transformed by the personal computer, electronics and semiconductor industries and their military-industrial complex backing.

(The electronics industries are, as it happens, some of the most wasteful and ecologically devastating: Through a combination of unnecessarily and deliberately costly manufacturing processes, a top-down and closed-box attitude, planned obsolescence, reliance on outdated components and architecture and just basic greedy scalping, they manage a truly astonishing and unprecedented turnover rate from “new-and-improved” to “worthless” and generate a monumental amount of unsalvageable technological waste that could otherwise have proved solid, reliable and useful for decades.)

One series of video games I could never get into was Civilization. This isn't my video game book and Vaka Rangi really isn't the place for me to articulate a lengthy criticism of it, but my basic complaint is that the entire game seems built around the very teleological conception of history I'm taking Armen to task for here. For those unfamiliar with Civilization, it's a series of turn-based strategy games where everyone plays as a nascent nation-state (and it *has* to be a nation-state, you can't play a diffuse group of allied people or some other kind of culture or social structure) starting at the Stone Age and moving throughout history for as long as the game lasts. The strategy comes from taking your group, who are hunter-gatherers at the start of the game, throughout the various stages of history and evolve them over the course of the game into a spacefaring civilization.

(It should be noted that you don't have to follow the actual pattern of real-world history, as that would be stultifyingly boring: You could, for example, play the United States as a tyrannical dictatorship that goes around nuking all their neighbours and taking all the resources by force. Wait...Maybe that's not actually so different from the real United States after all...)

Now to me, the deal-breaker with Civilization is that it's basically Modernization Theory: The Video Game. It ticks absolutely all of the boxes: You can't develop certain technologies until your country “advances” to a certain level, and social, cultural and technological development is all expressly linear. Literally so, in fact-You go into the sub-menus and you can see the Grand March of History laid out all neatly as a tech tree. (there are branching paths, but it's essentially one big line). And this is just as much of a problem as it would be in any other form of media for me, because it's yet another example of how hegemony reasserts itself through our media artefacts and how insidiously it can seep into our consciousnesses unless we're constantly aware of it.

What I always wanted to do whenever I found myself playing Civilization was to try and go through the entire game without ever leaving the hunter-gatherer stage. I wanted to see if I could get as far as the Space Age without ever actually establishing a permanent settlement. I never managed to, for one reason or another. Well, OK, the main reason it never happened because the guy I would play with was always in a mad rush to get nuclear weapons, so he always managed to destroy the planet (literally cracking it like an egg) before I could get my strategy in place. Now, granted, it's been awhile since I've played Civilization, this speaks more to the calibre of person I play video games with than it does the aesthetic merit of the games themselves and it's entirely possible I just suck at Civilization, but I've always remembered that nevertheless.

Now, I know I've digressed rather significantly from Star Trek (but come on dude, it's Margaret Armen. Cut me some slack), but the reason I bring this up is to pose an open question: What does this say about our franchise? I'm thinking in particular about “The Jihad” here-In that episode we had a really provocative contrast between Kirk, depicted there as the best representative of Starfleet and the Federation and all its technoscientific wonder, and Lara, someone who consciously lives her life by a code of simplicity. We're not yet at the phase of Star Trek's history where post-scarcity becomes a major theme, but, nevertheless, “The Jihad” depicted Lara as someone who deliberately rejected the technoscientific fetishism of the Federation in favour of living by the land, but whose people still managed to develop space travel. The implication, at least, that there are ways to Star Trek's galactic utopia that don't involve going through Starfleet was still there, not only intellectually, but materially as well.

Because this is the thing about simplifying your lifestyle: It's not, in point of fact, about making sacrifices. It's about cutting out everything extraneous and unnecessary. The trick is to figure out what all that is *before* you make your choices about what to keep in your life and what to abandon. And, if you believe people like John Muir, Robert Burnham, Jr. or any number of other similar thinkers (such as, er, me), simplification also involves rediscovering the bond that connects humanity with the cosmic natural world. There are ways to live in a modern world, and even utilise some of its tools and artefacts, without subscribing wholecloth to hegemony. Hegemony, like Margaret Armen, thinks simplification is retrograde and anti-progress. I'm inclined to think the opposite is likely true.

But the question remains, can Star Trek actually convey this? And furthermore, can science fiction itself, given the genre's roots in teleological, technofetishistic modernity? There are many who would say the answer to both questions is a resounding “no”. I tend to think the answer is a bit more nuanced then that: Star Trek can, and it's in fact uniquely poised to do so, but the problem is it so very rarely did. Margaret Armen's influence may be a ghost that perpetually haunts Star Trek and my attempts to engage with it, but she's no more of one than modernistic hegemony itself. Margaret Armen may be the single worst writer we've seen so far, if not of the entire franchise, but in truth the things she's most egregious at were the exact same bits of toxic hegemony that weigh down the rest of Star Trek, and really all of Soda Pop Art. It just so happens that she's the most blatantly and obviously hegemonic writer we've looked at. Ultimately, for Star Trek to move beyond Margaret Armen, is has to move beyond Westernism.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

“Rumors, conjectures, that's a giant leap forward.”: Deadlock

“Deadlock” is incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, it's the first Star Trek episode to deal overtly with the dark side of the Federation and Starfleet, but on the other hand it's not because it doubles-back on itself and refuses to actually fully commit to the accusations it levels and issues it raises. It opens seemingly promising to make explicit a lot of the implicit concerns and reservations we've held about Star Trek from the very beginning, but because of its ultimate balking and painfully bog-standard climax and conclusion, it actually ends up feeling less satisfying and critical then previous efforts.

Answering a distress signal from the USS Intrepid (no, not that one) in “Uncharted Region 019”, the Enterprise is suddenly and inexplicably called away to Starbase 7, leaving Kirk suspicious and Decker enraged. Upon arrival, a Commodore Hunter informs Kirk that he called the Enterprise away to participate in a series of top-secret Starfleet psychological experiments. The crew's first assignment is to shut down all power to the ship and await further orders from behavioural scientist Lang Cardon. Troubled, Kirk asks Scotty and Xon to come up with an algorithm that would allow them to take the ship from a cold stop to mission stations at the first sign of danger.

While powered down, the crew experiences a series of hypnotic, flashing psychedelic images. The crew becomes entranced, with the exception of Xon and Ilia, who have altogether different and disturbing experiences. Afterwards, Xon tells Kirk that he and Ilia had visions of grave danger, and a message: “Enterprise, you must escape! Report to Starfleet...A plot-Cardon is...”.After learning Cardon's experiments had been suspended some months prior with no official explanation given, the crew decides to investigate the starbase themselves. Kirk beams over to check things over for himself, instructing Decker to wait an hour, at which point, if Kirk hasn't checked in, he's to seize and secure Starbase 7, using any means necessary.

While “Deadlock” initially seems like it's going to be a deconstruction and criticism of Starfleet ethics and operational structure, what it in practice turns out to be is another of Star Trek's semi-regular “let's try and do a current events story” type of episodes. This time, it's Star Trek's stab at Project MKUltra, which was a series of CIA experiments looking into the feasibility of controlling human behaviour through various stimuli. From in the 1953 to 1973, Project MKUltra tested a whole suite of techniques running the gamut from illegal to unethical to completely ridiculous, such as sexual abuse, torture, hypnosis, sensory deprivation and, most famously, clandestinely dropping LSD into random people's drinks to see if the ensuing acid trips could be used as a form of mind control. Some historians believe the endgame of Project MKUltra was to create a kind of mentally servile supersoldier, while others posit the theory that the more out-there experiments were deliberately emphasized by the CIA to draw attention away from its real purpose, which, according to this theory, was to find more effective means of that favourite government buzzword: “Enhanced interrogation”.

For whatever the reason though, Project MKUltra was made public in 1975 following an investigation from a congressional committee and the Ford administration, so, while “Deadlock” is arriving somewhat late to the party in 1978, this still would have been an issue that would be relatively fresh in audiences' minds. And, attributing a Project MKUltra-style mind control experiment to Starfleet is a pretty bold move, I have to give it that-This show is definitely unafraid to shake things up and take risks. That said, there's a problem. A big one. That problem being, the experiment isn't actually Starfleet's. Yeah, it turns out it's all the work of some aliens who live in Sector 019 who can imprint on thought and emotion and consider the presence of humans and their angry, conflicted personalities to be dangerous to their people. So, they cooked up the whole scheme to test the Enterprise crew to see if they posed a threat to them. Eventually, the aliens decide the humans need to destroy each other, and start manipulating the minds of the Enterprise crew and the Starbase 7 personnel until Kirk can find a way to defend humanity to them.

At this point “Deadlock” throws out all potential of being a challenging critique to Star Trek's internal logic and ends up another generic “Kirk has to justify humans to advanced aliens” story. And there's not much more to add to that, except to say it's a very tired story archetype by this point, and will remain so until it gets a much-needed twist nine years later. That said, I'm not going to pull the teleology argument here by saying that somehow Star Trek doesn't have the maturity or hasn't evolved enough to do this kind of story yet and “Deadlock” is some needed stepping-stone to, say, the Section 31 stuff from the Dominion War arc. Star Trek can absolutely do this story in 1978, it frankly should have done it a long time ago and the only reason it hasn't is because the production team is either too afraid or unwilling to cast that critical a lens on Starfleet. And it all comes back to that dangerous and fallacious conflation of the idealism of Star Trek with the idealism of the Federation: It's entirely possible, and preferable, for that matter, to have the former without the latter.

But when I say “the creative team”, I of course mean "people other than D.C. Fontana", who has forever been reticent about lionizing and glorifying the more militaristic aspects of Star Trek, which may well have been a reason she's walked away from the franchise at least six separate times. Fontana tried to do a very similar story to this (even tying it into current events) in “The Enterprise Incident” and, when that didn't go so well and just to drive the point home, she did it again, and decisively, with Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Experiment. The whole point of both was to look honestly at the negative implications of a world the likes of which the Federation posits, which giving Starfleet their own Project MKUltra, which consisted of involuntary experiments conducted on its own people, would certainly have managed. The fact that it takes until 2008 to get this kind of story told and told properly is very telling. Both in regards to Star Trek forever avoiding engaging in serious self-critique (perhaps for fear it wouldn't be able to hold up to its own scrutiny) until a point in time when it absolutely didn't matter anymore, and in terms of how royally screwed D.C. Fontana was and is.

There are other issues with “Deadlock” too, and, while they're bad, they're minor compared to simply being unwilling to commit to itself. This is again a story that revolves mostly around Kirk and Xon, though Decker and Scotty get quite a bit of action too. Ilia is once again an issue: Though she senses the danger message at the same time as Xon, the script attributes this to him “projecting onto” and “influencing” her instead of giving her any actual agency. And later, Xon basically takes control of Ilia and works her like a marionette to get her to type out his equations, which she wasn't on the bridge to see, as proof that the Enterprise crew have peaceful intentions and their transmissions are genuine, which is pretty uncomfortable to watch. Ilia is swiftly becoming a problem, with none of these writers seeming to understand her potential as a character: At her best she's basically used as interchangeable with Chekov's old role (excepting that great bit at the end of “Tomorrow and the Stars”, which actually did manage to use her properly) and at her worst we get, well, this. And “The Child”.

Thankfully, there's at least one angle to this story that I can have some fun with: “Deadlock” is the most late-night radio-friendly bit of Star Trek produced to date. Project MKUltra is a favourite debate topic for the future Coast to Coast AM set, and it's exceedingly charming to have this story come so soon after William Shatner's “Rocket Man”. Imagine a version of this story from that perspective: Lonely Space Truckers of the future driving down the galactic highway call into Long John Shatner's subspace radio show to discuss the conspiracy theories. What does Starfleet really get up to in those remote and isolated starbase laboratories? How much does the Federation really know? Do we have the full story behind Project Genesis? From the city of Angel One to the High Desert and the Great Vulcan Southwest, good morning, good evening, wherever you may be. This is Quadrant to Quadrant AM.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on”: Practice in Waking

“Practice in Waking” is an interesting submission. It's written by Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This is not, in and of itself, altogether promising, considering Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a cornerstone of the middlebrow, populist, mystique-chic New Age movement with a plot so dull and facile it led Roger Ebert to once memorably compare it unfavourably to The Little Engine That Could. There's a very serious line to be drawn between actual magick, narrative or otherwise, and the kind of thing championed by the Western, and mostly United States, New Age fad, which more often than not tends to be built out of the exact same imperialism, syncretism and cultural appropriation that defines the rest of the West. If Star Trek wants to take its spirituality seriously, it really ought to stay as far away from this kind of thing as possible. Clearly, “Practice in Waking” is screaming towards disaster.

And, wouldn't you know it, this is could possibly be the best episode yet. Funny thing that.

“Practice in Waking” opens up hauntingly prescient, very strongly evoking Star Trek: The Next Generation, in particular the first season finale “The Neutral Zone”: Out in deep space, the Enterprise discovers a derelict spaceship called Project Long Chance, one of the last sublight ships built by Earth in the early 21st century. After Xon exposits that the crew must have been placed in suspended animation, Decker takes an away team, consisting of himself, Scotty and antiques buff Sulu over to the Long Chance, where they find one active unit: The casket of chief engineer Deborah MacClintock. Before they can fully relay their findings to the bridge crew, Scotty accidentally touches a panel on MacClintock's chamber, generating a massive pulse of energy that knocks the away team out and places them in instantaneous suspended animation.

Decker, Scotty and Sulu awake in sixteenth century Scotland in the middle of a forest. Having no memory of who they are and where they came from, they scarcely have time to get their bearings before they see a woman, MacClintock, who is being chased by a royal garrison and about to be put on trial for witchcraft. As the away team fights off the guards, MacClintock reveals that she does in fact believe herself to be a witch, because she has the power to dream events and objects into reality and declares that they too must be witches as well. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, Kirk, McCoy, Xon and Uhura work feverishly to find out what's happened to the away team and to find a way to safely wake them, for as long as they stay in a coma, their life signs will deteriorate, to the point they have only hours to live. Curiously, this parallels with events in the “dream world”, as pursued and eventually captured by the witch hunters, MacClintock, Decker, Sulu and Scotty only have hours before they're burnt at the stake for witchcraft.

Right away, this is once again an episode that's both structurally very sound and ahead of its time. Like in “Tomorrow and the Stars”, we have another A/B plot: Although, strictly speaking, this and “Tomorrow and the Stars” don't technically constitute an A/B structure as both halves of the episode relate to the main plot (they're more intermediary steps) “Practice in Waking” is closer because the half of the episode dedicated to the Enterprise bridge crew is just as much about how the relationships between the characters have changed now as it is about rescuing the away team. There's, naturally, the whole fact that Kirk isn't leading the away team, which no longer constitutes him, Spock and McCoy. But even on the bridge, the dynamic doesn't automatically default to Kirk, Xon and McCoy (as it did last week), implicitly because Xon is a new recruit and doesn't have the same rapport with the others Spock did.

And this becomes a very real concern for this episode: Kirk and McCoy lean harder on Uhura than they ever have before, who fills the narrative space Spock and Scotty used to, handling the technical side of the problem and even channels Kirk's reputation a bit by being the one who always tries to come up with “another way”. A number of times throughout the episode, Xon will recite a list of possible outcomes to a situation, usually very unpleasant ones (this is fast becoming a signature trait of his: He did this a lot in “In Thy Image” as well), making Kirk increasingly frustrated until Uhura improvises a better way out. But Kirk is also tougher on and less forgiving of Xon than he would have been of Spock, precisely because their relationship lacks the closeness of the one he shared with Spock. Or rather, he is at first: There's a lovely moment in the climax where Xon risks his life to mind-meld with Decker in a last-ditch effort to bring the landing party back (by “showing them the things they love the most”). At first, Kirk implores him to stop, but Xon responds by asking him “Would Spock have stopped?”, which silences not only Kirk, but McCoy, who he had been bickering with as well. Eventually, Xon falls into a coma himself. But then, Kirk leans over to him and finally tells says:

“Xon, you're my officer and you're my friend. If you can, give Decker his ship, let him see the ship. If you can't, I know you did your best to save their lives, and I'll never forget.”

Xon succeeds and Decker gets back in the nick of time just as he begins to burn alive, by fading out of the sixteenth century landscape, but not before reminding Scotty and Sulu who they are and where they belong. But this scene really belongs to Kirk and Xon, and the fact they finally trust and respect each other enough to call each other friends. Furthermore, it serves as another major turning point for Kirk as a character: At what other point would you have heard Kirk describe the Enterprise as somebody else's ship? While “In Thy Image” didn't dwell on it, the fact remains Decker *is* still technically a Captain, and it shows a great maturity on the part of Kirk to not throw his weight around as a flag officer.

(There's also a landmark Star Trek moment that gets tossed out as essentially a throwaway line: In another uncanny parallel with “The Neutral Zone”, when MacClintock comes out of her coma, Kirk has her beamed aboard the Enterprise. As she materializes, Chekov says “Commander MacClintock, this is the Starship Enterprise. Welcome to the 24th Century”. While there was dialog in “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Balance of Terror” that seemed to imply Star Trek took place in the 22nd Century, this is actually the first time a concrete date is mentioned in the history of the franchise.)

That would have been enough, but then “Practice in Waking” throws us a massive belter: Once Deborah MacClintock wakes up (tellingly, by Scotty imploring her that if she doesn't, they have a "Long Chance" of survival) and is welcomed onto the Enterprise, Scotty is eager to resume his relationship with her, him having falling for MacClintock when they were in Scotland and is pleased to discover she's just as passionate about engineering and propulsion as he is. But then, MacClintock apologises and informs the stunned Scotty, and audience, that her prolonged sleep has given her an intimate understanding of the nature of dreams, and that this has led her to the conclusion that the Enterprise, and everyone aboard it, is itself a dream, at which point MacClintock fades away right in front of the entire bridge crew.

Now, there's one reading of this scene that paints this as a very facile, Jonathan Livingston Seagull-style revelation. That would of course be the Stoner Philosophy reading, which can be aptly summarised in the following: “Dude...What is all just a dream? And like...The real world...No man, I mean the real, real world...Is something else? And somebody out there is dreaming of us right this second? Just think of it, dude”. In other words, basically The Matrix without the 1990s cyberfetishism aesthetic. But that's not actually what I think Bach is angling for here, and in order to get at what that might be, we need to remember what Star Trek really is, how it works and, more importantly, how it's perceived and understood by people. Recall this is going out before the rise of Nerd Culture, so the predominant discourse in Star Trek fandom is still dominated by the overwhelmingly female and multiethnic zine culture, much the same sorts of people who gave us Star Trek: The New Voyages. For them, Star Trek represented an ideal to strive for, something inspiring and affirmational that validated their life experiences and gave them a voice, or at least made a case to others for why they should have a voice. In other words, Star Trek was a dream.

But Bach is also working through two different definitions of the dream here: Both the utopian ideal that fans project onto Star Trek, but also actual dreams-The visions we see when our consciousness is, for all intents and purposes, in a different place. And in this regard, Bach seems very much in favour of lucid dreaming: The ability to manipulate your dream to your likening through your own intuitive and conscious awareness of it. This, Bach says, both diegetically and extradiegetically, is magick: It's how Decker, Sulu, Scotty and MacClintock can exert agency over their environment in Scotland and also what gets them branded as witches. And not only is this a lucid dream, it's a communal lucid dream, as the away team gets to join MacClintock in her dream and help shape it. The conclusion now becomes obvious: Star Trek is a utopian dream, in every sense of the word, given form, and MacClintock, a woman, is dreaming of it right now. And maybe she's not the only one. I could go deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole, but I think I'd rather wrap up this thread for the moment by saying Bach is anticipating a lot, and that this is a theme I'd love to come back to in more detail another time.

There are still one or two minor quibbles I have with this episode: The story still doesn't showcase everyone equally and once again Ilia gets glanced over (one would expect, for example, that she'd have something to say about the fact her ex-lover is in a coma), though she's treated no worse then Chekov ever was on the Original Series, and knowing what happens when this show *does* try to do stories about Ilia I can't complain too much anymore. And, apart from her, this story really does make excellent strides: Uhura is great, actually better than she's ever been, and Deborah MacClintock is a showstopper, managing to steal the show from the regulars. And the cast dynamic is both incredibly solid and explicitly its own thing: Decker, Sulu and Scotty are terrific together and it's great to see Scotty in such a big role. And of course, the story of Kirk, McCoy and Xon's growing relationship is a definite highlight. Considering we're only four episodes in, Star Trek Phase II is frankly shining: Our dreams of a better future never looked brighter.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

“Shiny Happy People”: Cassandra

Theodore Sturgeon is an obvious pick to write for Star Trek Phase II. He wrote one of the most beloved and influential Original Series episodes ever, “Amok Time”, so it would make sense to give him the opportunity to make something equally memorable for Phase II. However, the thing about Sturgeon is that he *also* wrote “Shore Leave”, which was such a hot mess it was possibly the only work of fiction in the history of time to be actually improved by getting a retread sequel. So, would “Cassandra”, Sturgeon's submission to Star Trek Phase II, channel the grandiose brilliance of “Amok Time” or the misogynistic clusterfuck of “Shore Leave”?

Naturally, it had to be the misogynistic clusterfuck.

“Cassandra” is pegged as a “comedy”, which is already a bad sign because Star Trek sucks at comedy unless Gene Coon and Dave Gerrold are writing, and neither of them are in this case. The Enterprise is monitoring a diplomatic conference on the planet Manlikt (an aside, here's a stock Star Trek theme that gets more pronounced in Star Trek: The Next Generation that I never understood: Why is the Enterprise crew frequently put in charge of hosting diplomatic conferences? Aren't they supposed to be explorers? Isn't this the job of ambassadors?) between the warlike native peoples the Manlikt (great names) and the Breet. It seems to have gone smoothly at first, but no sooner does the conference wrap up than the Manlikt make a planetwide declaration that they will detonate a doomsday device if the Breet do not return their Sacred Monitor, a priceless Manlikt cultural artefact that seems to have gone missing.

As the bridge crew try to figure that out, our “heroine”, a young, fresh-faced and exceptionally clumsy Yeoman named Myra Kart stops by sickbay to give McCoy and Chapel a strange alien egg she found, but that she also managed to drop and crack. The egg hatches into a small, fuzzy bird-like thing named Cassandra, who seems to have the ability to parrot people's words before they say them. Cassandra then escapes, and the rest of the episode pretty much consists of Kart chasing her all over the ship as she causes all manner of wacky and whimsical mischief while Kart runs into walls, pushes the wrong buttons and just generally wrecks shit and acts like a dumbass. Eventually, she manages to accidentally capture some Breet spies after Xon reveals to Kirk what everyone who wasn't asleep figured out forty-five minutes ago, that Cassandra is the Sacred Monitor, was stolen by the Breet and hidden aboard the Enterprise and must be returned to Manlikt. Apparently, somewhere in all of this is there's supposed to be humour.

Wow. I haven't seen an episode this manner of bad in quite awhile. This is the sort of thing that defines *painfully* bad: It's physically difficult to watch because of how awkward, stilted and forced it is and how completely it lacks any manner of self-awareness of just how badly wrong and embarrassing it's gone. This was literally intended to join the ranks of episodes like “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action”. I just...Wow. I can't wrap my mind around that. This is “I, Mudd” again except without the banter between William Shatner and Roger C. Carmel to save it. This is comedy by people who I'm not sure know what comedy actually is. This is V'Ger's idea of comedy.

And at this point do I really need to explain what's wrong with Myra Kart? A young, ditzy woman who can't keep her act together for more then five seconds and who is an exasperating burden to everyone? Nobody this incompetent would ever have been given an assignment on *any* starship, let alone the Enterprise, and knowing this creative team is eventually going to sideswipe us with the jaw-droppingly awful “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”, it's really hard for me to read this as anything other than ugly, unfiltered misogyny. And no, don't try to tell me the other female characters make up for Kart: With the exception of Chapel, none of them do a goddamn thing. Uhura's back to playing switchboard operator and Ilia sits out her third episode in a row twiddling her thumbs at the nav console doing fuck all. Kart is the only woman who plays a major, active role in the plot and she's a bald-faced patriarchal stereotype.

Aside from the misogyny and terrible, unfunny slapstick and pratfall routines, “Cassandra” also has a really lazy structure. Even though we're only three episodes in, this doesn't feel like a Star Trek Phase II story at all: It feels like an Original Series one, and a bad one at that. This is most evident in the bridge scenes, where the crew's dynamic operates exactly the same way it did in the 1960s. Kirk tries to understand and get control of a situation, the doctor comes in every once in awhile to say something and Uhura answers the phone. Meanwhile, the clever, logical Vulcan science officer fiddles with stuff in the background before popping up at a crucial moment with the solution that saves the day. Remove Chapel from the McCoy/Chapel Dynamic Duo, then replace Chekov with Ilia and Spock with Xon and you've essentially got “Cassandra”. I don't think Will Decker even *appears* in this episode, let alone does anything.

It's of course with Ilia and Xon that the most serious problems crop up. Ilia I've already talked about, but writing Xon as essentially Spock with “Spock” crossed out and “Xon” written on the margins in Crayon couldn't actually miss the point of his character harder then if the creative team had specifically tried to. The whole point of Xon is that he's not going to act like Spock: He's an overly energetic workaholic. At this point, the typical rebuttal would likely be that I shouldn't be too hard on “Cassandra” because it's only the third episode of a brand new Star Trek and obviously they haven't quite worked out how the show and the characters are going to work yet. But that's just the thing...they have: “In Thy Image” and, for all its quirks and eccentricities, “Tomorrow and the Stars”, did establish the groundwork for how Star Trek Phase II was supposed to work and what made it different from the Original Series. This was one of the first episodes accepted, so it likely went into production before either of the other two episodes aired...but they had surely been filmed by that point.

But the larger issue is that not only does “Cassandra” not understand how Star Trek Phase II works, it doesn't understand how the Original Series worked either: It baffles me to read this was written in the spirit of “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action”, because the way it plays out you wonder if the writer had ever even seen those two episodes, let alone understood what made them great. So I suppose this leaves us with one question: Why does Star Trek fall down at comedy so frequently and so frequently spectacularly? We can't answer that just yet because this doesn't get any better in any of the subsequent TV series, but my best guess so far is that it's yet another thing the franchise lost when it lost Gene Coon. He had a sublimely talented ear for comic timing and rapport and a deep understanding of what constituted a good farce or satire. Writing comedy requires a skill set just like any other kind of writing: Despite what people seem to think, not just anyone can start writing brilliant comedy right out of the blue and, oftentimes, the people who think they're the funniest are nowhere near as funny as they think they are. I know I'm definitely not.

And it would seem Theodore Sturgeon didn't have that skill set. And that, for whatever reason, Star Trek doesn't tend to attract the kinds of people who do.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

“In Blue Hawaii”: Tomorrow and the Stars

It makes sense that one of the first things Star Trek Phase II would attempt would be a revisit of a major Original Series story, theme or motif. In fact, it makes even more sense here than it did in the context of Star Trek: The Animated Series: That show was pegged as more or less a continuation of the Original Series, tweaking and revising it where necessary. It also only came five or six years after “Turnabout Intruder” fist aired, whereas “In Thy Image” came a decade afterwards and into a very different cultural landscape. The world, not to mention Star Trek itself, has changed, and Star Trek Phase II has to update itself accordingly.

It also, though I hate to admit it, makes sense that the first such story, and the first regular episode to air after the pilot, would be a revisit of “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Much as I despise it, it's without question the most popular and iconic episode of the Original Series and usually considered the very best, or at least it is if you're pretentious and joyless enough to turn your nose up at “The Trouble with Tribbles”. You'd want to kick off your new show with something that reminds people of the old show's highlights, while also demonstrating that you're now capable of improving on them. So, doing an episode inspired by and very much like “The City on the Edge of Forever” is eminently logical.

The thing about “Tomorrow and the Stars” though, is that it's not *like* “The City on the Edge of Forever”, it *is* “The City on the Edge of Forever”. In that episode, a dangerous ailment plagues one of the crew leading to an accidental time travel incident where Kirk ends up in mid-20th century Earth, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be involved in a major world event that cannot be altered for fear of changing history, so Kirk must let her die to preserve the timeline. In this episode...a dangerous ailment plagues one of the crew leading to an accidental time travel incident where Kirk ends up in mid-20th century Earth, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be involved in a major world event that cannot be altered for fear of changing history, so Kirk must let her die to preserve the timeline...

Oh sure, the details are fudged around with a bit: In “City...” Kirk ends up in the 1930s and his paramour is a social worker who will bring about the downfall of civilization with her radical and dangerous idea that maybe bombing the shit out of each other isn't the best approach to world politics, while in “Tomorrow...” he ends up in the 1940s (and, of interest to me and this blog, Hawai'i) and his lady friend happens to have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Namely, Pearl Harbour on December 6, 1941 Also, Kirk is translucent for reasons that are never really explained and which serve no purpose to the story. But in every other respect, this is the exact same goddamn story.

This is not to say, however, that “Tomorrow and the Stars” does not manage to actually improve on “The City on the Edge of Forever”-It does, and the changes it makes are noticeable and important enough that this is without question the better version of the story. On just a structural level, “Tomorrow...” blows “City...” out of the water: The older episode relied upon an incredibly convoluted and implausible series of mishaps involving the ship suddenly getting the chills, McCoy accidentally overdosing and beaming down to a random planet where the crew randomly encounter the Guardian of Forever who happens to be in charge of time and happens to be looking at 20th century Earth at the moment. This one is far more elegant and streamlined: It basically amounts to Kirk needing to beam down to Earth and, thanks to taking damage from a recent skirmish, the transporter's circuits got fried and it works like a time machine now. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense and certainly the Guardian of Forever is a far more intriguing concept, but it does what it needs to do and gets the job done.

Also different this time is we get a now-familiar Star Trek A/B plot structure. “The City on the Edge of Forever” was one of the only times the Original Series really played the notion of Kirk as the heroic leading man straight and unironic: The vast majority of the episode is devoted to him and his inner crisis, while Spock muddles about in the background and McCoy drops out of the story for the middle two acts. Meanwhile, everyone else just disappears completely, being left in temporal limbo twiddling their thumbs outside the Guardian of Forever while the fate of the universe is at stake. “Tomorrow and the Stars”, however, splits its time evenly between Ghost!Kirk and his girlfriend (this time named Elsa Kelly) and the Enterprise crew trying to figure out what happened. These scenes are really interesting, as they give our first real indication of how the crew's dynamic is different now.

Primarily, this part of the episode is a familiar “Four Musketeers” problem-solving story, but this time the players are Decker, Xon, McCoy and Scotty. Decker is far more hands-on and far more of a team player than Kirk ever was on the Original Series, working closely with Xon and Scotty in all the technical stuff and even helping them formulate the theory that eventually gets Kirk back. Were this an Original Series episode, that would have been all on Spock and Scotty while Kirk went and put on some kind of extravagant and flamboyant distraction. McCoy is in some ways the odd person out here, but there's a bit of interesting stuff to do with him too: He naturally blows up at Xon and while there are shades of the old Spock/McCoy animosity, here the scene wants to play out a bit differently, as if the implication is that McCoy distrusts Xon just as much for his youth and inexperience as he does for his Vulcan blood, if not more so (though McCoy would never admit this, of course).

Ilia is a bit undeserved by this episode (so, actually, are Chapel, Rand, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, but that's sadly par for the course by now and Ilia's a new character, so we might have hoped to see some more of her), or at least for the majority of it, because she ends up playing a very important part in the denouement. As Kirk sits alone in his quarters inconsolable at yet another doomed love affair, Ilia comes in to comfort him and help him move on. It reminds me of nothing else except the scene with Spock at the end of “Requiem for Methuselah” where Spock helps Kirk forget Rayna, but this scene is considerably more effective for the simple fact it's more mature. In “Requiem...” we're of course moved by Spock's gesture, but the fact remains his solution was ultimately to make Kirk forget everything: In short, a diegetic reset button that restores the status quo and once again dodges any attempt at proper character development. We get the emotional voyeurism without actually allowing our characters to deal with, learn from or move beyond their pain, and those are very Star Trek themes. And that's what this scene with Ilia is about: It's recognising and reaffirming that these *are* in fact important and healthy things. Ilia is showing Kirk that working through pain is a very human thing to do, and is another way for people to grow and learn.

(That's not to say “Tomorrow and the Stars” doesn't have its own share of problems: The reason given for why Kirk needs to return to Earth is to seek special treatment for a disease he and Chekov contracted, but as soon as the time travel shenanigans start that plot thread is swiftly abandoned and is never addressed again after that. Also, I still cannot figure out for the life of me what the purpose of turning Kirk translucent was-It just sort of happens and there doesn't seem to be any underlying symbolism behind it. There's also a really dodgy scene where Uhura picks up old-style radio communications in a strange and indecipherable language, even the Universal Translator is stumped and nobody on the bridge can figure it out until Sulu pops up and recognises the language as that most archaic and mystical of tongues: Japanese...)

The most obvious improvement “Tomorrow and the Stars” makes over “The City on the Edge of Forever”, however, is in the status of the doomed woman Kirk falls for: The fundamental problem with “The City on the Edge of Forever” is that any position that holds letting forward-thinking class warriors like Edith Keeler die because of the emasculating effects of their pacifist ideology is unequivocally morally and ethically indefensible and completely at odds with Star Trek's fundamental values. In fact, despite of how beloved this story still remains, even Star Trek's own luminaries have raised concerns with it, such as Mike W. Barr, who completely inverted “City..” and turned its ugly reactionary dialog against it in “The Final Voyage”. In “Tomorrow and the Stars”, it's not Elsa Kelly who's vital to history, it's the event she lived through, and the debate isn't over saving her, it's about using Kirk's future knowledge to stop the Pearl Harbour attack and potentially save Elsa and change the way her life plays out (her fate at the end of the episode remains uncertain).

(Elsa is also married, so there's that, but I don't think this fact had much of a purpose other than attempting to make the episode seem “edgier” and more “adult”. Her husband, though supposedly a serviceman, is barely in it and he never interacts with Kirk, though the fact the Admiral was translucent at the time may explain why. I, uh, keep coming back to that.)

So, freed of its predecessor's crippling ethical issues, “Tomorrow and the Stars” becomes a far better showcase for the sci-fi tragedy it's trying to tell, but at the same time a far more straightforward and simplistic one. The basic conflict boils down to the age-old changing history query, which rather seems like a philosophical dilemma that's loaded itself up with so many premises and qualifiers it becomes too self-dependent to hold water. I mean, from a moral standpoint there's no way to argue against doing the best you can in whatever situation you find yourself in and to take a stand against evil wherever, and whenever, you see it and it's in your power to do something about it.

Secondly, from a pragmatic standpoint it's not even worth raising this question because Western-style time travel does not currently exist and isn't likely to in the near future, and so long as Star Trek wants to maintain a chronology that is at least superficially comparable with one from the real world, there's no actual way to prevent historical events within the memories of the writers from happening in the first place because that would immediately undermine the show's narrative logic. In other words, obviously if you ever get the chance to go back in time and stop a massive world catastrophe that had a net negative effect on the world from happening you should absolutely take advantage of it, but because we *can't* do those things and Star Trek had to extradiegetically acknowledge this, stories of this type are ultimately going to end up as particularly pointless shaggy dog stories. History can't change, even the bad parts, so we have to come up with a bunch of convoluted technobabble reasons for why it can't.

This episode is not as pointless as I was afraid it was going to be from the summary. It manages to improve upon one of the most beloved episodes of the Original Series by making it actually watchable, which is a major plus right from the start. This, combined with quite a few really intriguing character moments make “Tomorrow and the Stars” an excellent and tantalizing hint at any number of directions Star Trek Phase II could go that pull it out of the shadow of its precursor and show that the Star Trek myth continues to evolve. But it's not a perfect episode either: There are a fair few really cringeworthy moments and even more that simply refuse to make any sense. We haven't quite topped (or even equaled) the batting average struck by Star Trek: The Animated Series so far, but there are certainly worse places to be in than this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

“It's only human”: In Thy Image (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)

We are urgently requesting backup and further advice...Intel on the ground indicates that this timeline has been effectively secured by our forces for the moment, though installing a permanent presence here seems unlikely...While they've been mostly keeping quiet for the moment, there's no doubt The Empire will eventually take notice of what we're doing here and strike back with a vengeance, and skirmishes with the other renegade factions are a constant problem...We followed your instructions and The Prototype codename “VOYAGER” is complete and ready for a shakedown cruise, though we are concerned as to its structural stability and overall viability and worry it may not yet be capable of fulfilling The Purpose for which it was designed, and that activating it will alert The Empire as to our whereabouts...Please inform as to further action ASAP...

At some point it became inevitable.

While a tenaciously niche property throughout the 1970s, Star Trek gave no indication of ever going away, especially once new generations of fans started to get introduced to it. It had a uniquely built-in self-regenerating audience, and one that was big enough to eventually attract the attention of the higher-ups. It was never a question of if Star Trek would come back, but how and when. The answer to all of those questions eventually came in 1977, when Paramount announced plans to enter the television market with their own network, and a new Star Trek series as its flagship programme. The series, chronicling a second five-year mission of the newly-refitted USS Enterprise under the command of Admiral James T. Kirk, eventually got the name Star Trek Phase II and premiered the following year.

Star Trek Phase II was not the first idea Paramount had for ways to revive the franchise: Originally, there were plans for a British-produced feature film called Star Trek: Planet of the Titans, to be handled by a pre-Star Wars Ralph McQuarrie. This film was in development throughout 1976 and 1977, but was eventually abandoned in favour of doing this show instead (and, presumably, due to McQuarrie's commitments to the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg camp). It was an interesting story, involving heavily redesigned Enterprise following the original five-year mission involved in a territorial dispute with the Klingons over a planet rumoured to be home to a mythical race of cosmic Titans, who apparently were very influential in the history of life in the galaxy. After a brief dust-up involving a black hole and time travel, the Enterprise finds itself back in time and orbiting prehistoric Earth, where the crew soon discover that they are in fact the mythical Titans.

But returning to Star Trek Phase II, the series premier, “In Thy Image”, was a real event: Unlike the Original Series, which sort of just appeared out of nowhere, Star Trek Phase II was hyped up with a big PR machine and took off with a massive two-hour pilot movie. With much of the original creative team returning, as well as the addition of talented and professional new team members like Andy Probert and Robert Wise, who will go on to leave their own marks on the history of the franchise, this is as good an introduction to the new Star Trek as we could have hoped for, showing genuine maturation and development of themes we've seen explored before, and that most Star Trek of promises to continue growing and learning along the way. In fact, “In Thy Image” is basically about this, at least on one textual level.

But wait, we can't just leap into this like it's a run-of-the-mill Star Trek story. This is a series premier, a proper one, which means we need to take some time to examine the show's setting, cast of characters and status quo. The first obvious change is, of course, the completely redesigned Enterprise: The designs of Matt Jeffries, Andy Probert and Mike Minor give both the ship's interior and exterior a unique look, one that both feels like an evolution of specific design themes from the Original Series and distinctly 1970s, though early 1970s (which makes it also feel curiously outdated). This philosophy extends to the rest of the look of the show, which also evokes a crisp and distinctive style of Golden Age science fiction iconography (especially, and perhaps appropriately, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

The characters too have gotten a noticeable upgrade, and across the board its for the better. Everyone's been promoted, and each person feels older, wiser and more worldy then they did on the Original Series. This is best embodied in Admiral Kirk, a seasoned veteran space traveller who is consciously depicted differently than the brash hothead Kirk at least had the reputation of being on the Original Series. Some characters, like newly-minted Doctor Chapel, feel completely different: In both the writing and Majel Barret's performance I see shades of Lwaxana Troi to come: An affable, gregarious, outgoing chatterbox who's about 180 degrees from any previous depiction of the character and immediately likable (she even gets to carve out a sizable role in the actual plot, which leads me to believe this was the beginning of Gene Roddenberry and his team really recognising Barrett's strongest when you just let her be herself and don't make her actually act). Even Janice Rand is back, serving as Commander Uhura's relief communications officer.

We also have a crop of new characters. The most notable is Vulcan Lieutenant Xon, the new science officer, and Spock's replacement. It's hard to read the loss of Spock as anything less than a tremendous blow to Star Trek Phase II, given how absolutely central he was to both the Original Series and the Animated Series. But, Leonard Nimoy didn't want to commit to another Star Trek show, still stinging from how wholly and completely he'd been typecast in the role he played for three years. So, we get a new Vulcan, and, while he's not Spock, he's an engaging and interesting character in his own right. Unlike Spock, Xon is overtly interested in exploring and understanding human emotion, and his attempts to become more human define much of his character arc on the show. He's also a fresh-face youngster, always eager to please and endlessly enthusiastic about throwing himself into his work, to the point he places doing his job, far, far and away above his own personal well-being. And, the energetic David Gautreaux conveys all of this admirably.

Without Spock present, though, this also means that Kirk and McCoy get to have a much closer relationship in this show than they did in either of the two previous ones. Most of the big character moments in “In Thy Image” are between Kirk and McCoy, and the episode is great at conveying that these are two very old friends who know each other inside and out and who are capable of stepping in to make decisions on each other's behalf they wouldn't necessarily make on their own. Two scenes in particular that stick out in my mind are when Kirk approaches McCoy in the wilds of San Francisco and after V'Ger starts towing the Enterprise to Earth: In the former, McCoy expresses ambivalence about serving in Starfleet as Kirk begins to reminisce about the five-year mission, which also doubles as a bang-on critique of the Original Series patently ridiculous and obscene body count:

“What I remember, Jim...are the friends who couldn't be put back together. For five many of them.”

Kirk tries to get McCoy to sign back on for the new Enterprise's crew, while McCoy straight-up asks why he's not back in the captain's chair. It's a great moment that shows off these characters' dedication, loyalty and restlessness. In the latter scene, meanwhile, McCoy does his usual making sure Kirk gets some rest in the middle of a tense situation, but what's great here is that it comes right after a scene where Kirk gives a similar speech to Xon, and another where Kirk requested McCoy and Chapel keep a close eye on them. Not only is it Star Trek camaraderie at its finest (and probably a nod at how their relationship was supposed to work all along before Spock came around) and a decisive argument against the tired “triumvirate” and id/ego/superego reading of the Original Series, it's also a great bit of just basic structural continuity that goes a long way towards proving this show has finally grown up a bit.

Then there's Will Decker, Kirk's new first officer, and Lieutenant Ilia, the new navigator. The addition of Decker is the aspect of Star Trek Phase II that makes it the most evident a substantial amount of time has passed: He's clearly going to be the character who filled Kirk's earlier role, the commanding and virile lead man (although this episode at least seems a bit uncertain about this), and there's a bit of a generation gap situation between him and Kirk, though Kirk obviously considers him a friend and a reliable ally. Decker has something of a complicated history, son of the infamous Matt Decker and still haunted by his father's actions in “The Doomsday Machine”, Will is bound and determined to prove himself, and he was almost given his own command before Kirk requested him as his XO for the Enterprise's emergency first mission (for which Will is a bit resentful). Will has a history with Ilia, a member of a mysterious species called the Deltans, renowned for their almost psychic empathic abilities and love of sex and sensuality (so much so that they have to take an oath of celibacy before working with non-Deltans). Will and Ilia were romantically involved at some point in the past, but have since broken up, and moving beyond this forms the basis of their character arcs on the show.

(I also have to give major props to Persis Khambata, who plays Ilia: Deltans are supposedly hairless, and, while she was offered a bald cap, she instead opted to get into character by shaving her entire body. That's dedication, girlfriend.)

Another milestone “In Thy Image” gives Star Trek is the first real textual confirmation of the universe's express utopianism. Although previous Star Trek hinted at this and it was largely assumed to be the case by fandom, “In Thy Image” makes it very overt that the world it takes place in is very much an idealistic one more peaceful and prosperous than the one we live in today. This is most evident in the scene where Kirk goes to meet McCoy, which doubles as the first time we actually get to see Earth in Star Trek. And it's a profoundly weird scene: San Francisco is a mishmash hybrid of futuristic architecture and untamed natural wilderness that seem to organically grow around each other, such that the park we see McCoy in features happy children mingling with actual wild animals, and in particular cheetahs, who just loiter around and play with the kids. The implication, interestingly enough, is that material social progress might eventually get us to a point where there's no tangible distinction between humans and nature, and that nature itself recognises this. It's at once Star Trek for the environmental age but at the same time not: This is a genuinely bizarre and unprecedented vision of the future and conception of utopia and I don't think I've seen it anywhere else, yet alone in any other Star Trek.

To me though this is also very indicative of how indebted the new creative team is to fandom, and how much they really, truly did listen to them throughout the 1970s. That utopianism and idealism the fans saw in Star Trek and wrote about in droves was actually written back into the next bit of Star Trek Soda Pop Art to be produced: Weird as it is, this is idealistic on every level, and the show goes out of its way to make this clear at every opportunity. What this tells me is that, one again, Star Trek was never explicitly utopian from the beginning: If you actually watch the Original Series, it becomes pretty clear what it was originally supposed to be: Roddenberry's Fables. But, because of the diverse casting and a few memorable moments, fans read a wonderful, captivating, engrossing utopian dream onto it, and that was so infectious that when Star Trek came back to television it made sure to make this a central theme. Even so though, the universe Star Trek Phase II presents, while idealistic, is not a flawless one. It's still imperfect and is still growing and learning, and this is in fact the entire message of “In Thy Image”.

It may seem unusual to get this far into an analysis without talking about what “In Thy Image” is actually about, but really, I haven't done: Given its status as a series premier, by definition a huge swath of the story is going to be taken up introducing everything. And this extends to the rest of the story as well. First of all, while the script was written by Harold Livingston, the original story treatment was actually by Alan Dean Foster. Knowing this, in hindsight, it does make the wonderfully surreal scene in San Francisco make more sense. However, it is also worth pointing out that the experience of “In Thy Image” is also what convinced Foster to abandon writing for Hollywood altogether and focus on his novel work, which is unfortunate (though sadly prescient: Thus begins a long, not-so-proud tradition of Star Trek getting such a horrible reputation for frustrating writers it burns every bridge it ever had the potential of having).

Even so, the script he and Livingston came up with is just terrific: Years after the end of the five-year mission, Admiral Kirk is called upon to once again take command of the retrofitted USS Enterprise, the most advanced vessel in the fleet, and the one that happens to be closest in position to investigate a mysterious force that has destroyed an entire Klingon armada and is making its way to Earth. Rekindling relationships with old friends and making some new ones, Kirk and the new crew of the Enterprise try to make peaceful contact with the alien life force before it wipes out the entire Federation. Engaging the force at the end of the solar system, it's soon revealed that it's a gigantic sentient starship that calls itself V'Ger, thinks the Enterprise is alive as well and is gravely concerned about the 400 carbon-based “parasites” that “infest: its body. To make matters worse, after scanning the ship's records (which the Enterprise computer helpfully provided for it) V'Ger determines that a similar infestation is plaguing The Holy Home of the Creator, that is Earth, and, as its chosen champion, is destined to cure its ancestral home.

Eventually it's revealed that V'Ger is actually Voyager 18, one of the last space probes sent out be NASA. It was thought lost, but actually fell through a black hole and wound up on a planet of machine-people, where a sharing of minds took place and the newly emerged V'Ger went on a journey to find its origin. Now right away this is probably ringing some bells for my ever-astute readers: This is pretty much the same plot as “The Changeling”, a second season episode of the Original Series about a space probe sent out by 20th century space agencies that disappeared, had an encounter with an extraterrestrial intelligence and then went on a journey to find its origin. Similarly, the space probe, in this case known as Nomad, was deeply concerned about imperfect carbon-based lifeforms and, because its tapes had been scrambled, felt it was its duty to cleanse the universe of all imperfections.

Back when I talked about “The Changeling”, I mentioned the fundamental problem with this story was twofold: Firstly, this is a very Pop Christian kind of story because it's about a journey to essentially find God (which is clearly meant to be one specific being or thing), and secondly, related to this, it relies on a Western conception of metaphysics because it presupposes a singular objective Truth. “In Thy Image”, however, plays with this concept a bit, and it's a far more enjoyable and multi-faceted story than “The Changeling” because of it. For one thing V'Ger, unlike Nomad, isn't looking for perfection, it just can't understand life that isn't machine-based. This means V'Ger is a mirror for the ignorance and self-centredness of humans (and, actually, the narrow-mindedness of the early Federation as seen in Original Series episodes like “Arena” and “The Devil in the Dark”-Tellingly, Kirk and McCoy reference the Horta here) and their unwillingness to broaden their horizons to other worldviews and ways of living, which makes it a far more effective metaphor for humanity.

That said there is a scene near the climax where Kirk, speaking to V'Ger's representative (a probe that's temporarily assumed the form of Ilia) tries to convince it of the virtue of imperfection and human foibles, V'Ger not being able to understand why humans would want to settle for such things and about ready to vaporize the Earth. Kirk's point being, of course, that humans pride themselves on being able to learn from their mistakes and are always growing and trying to better themselves. What's great about this scene though is that it's in the same park where Kirk met McCoy at the beginning of the episode: As idyllic as Earth is it's still not perfect because, in truth, it can't be. Eventually, Ilia-Probe gets V'Ger to call off its attack by lying to it, a human imperfection she learned the situational value of. The point being on the one hand another affirmation of the Star Trek lesson to never stop growing and learning, but also what can be gained when two people talk to each other and share perspectives.

But the other needed twist on this story “In Thy Image” provides is how it conceives of truth and the divine. One of my favourite moments comes where Kirk gets indignant at V'Ger's insistent use of the phrase “The Holy Home of the Creator”. This irritates Kirk because, according to him, there can be no one “Home” of a singular “Creator”: The point of origin of not just V'Ger, but humans, and every other form of life in the universe, is not one place but everywhere at once. The entire Cosmos. We are all stardust. “In Thy Image” is not quite Star Trek's definitive statement on the divine, nor even of the Original Series story, but it's a damn good one, a clear step forward for the franchise and the moment where the philosophy of Star Trek really starts to crystallize for the first time. The structure of the story may retain some of the Pop Christianity of “The Changeling”, but it's shunted all of that onto V'Ger's role and is trying very hard to come up with an alternative. It doesn't have one just yet, or at least hasn't expounded on it, but the fact it's working hard to get there is one more sign that Star Trek is growing and learning.

With all of that in mind, it's hard for me to claim that “In Thy Image” isn't simply one of the single best pieces of Star Trek we've yet seen. It's without question one of the best episodes yet made: Aside from the engaging and mature philosophy, a breath of fresh air from the two-fisted moralizing of the past, it's also a structural song, and I attribute all of that to Livingston and Foster's influence. The Original Series had an annoyingly reoccurring problem with pacing, and a *ton* of the episodes on that show felt badly, badly padded; stretching really basic, pulp material far beyond the point anyone should have tried to stretch it. But “In Thy Image” doesn't have any of those problems: Every single moment feels worthwhile and important, and every moment comes back in some form or another later on, tying the whole story up into a neat and tidy bundle. Furthermore, any worries that the creative team might feel tempted to get self-indulgent with a feature-length story are quickly put to rest as “In Thy Image” moves along at a crisp, jaunty pace. It's always provocative, always engaging, and always a pleasure to follow.

...But that said, there are a few problems with it. For one thing, as much time and care as it takes to introduce the new characters and the new setting, it still tends to fall back on focusing on Kirk, McCoy and Xon pretty heavily. At least this episode also elevates Chapel and Will Decker to that league, which is nice, and Chekov, Sulu and Uhura each get their moments to shine, which is also very much appreciated. But other characters aren't so lucky: Janice Rand is basically an extra, which is annoying, but the real problem is Ilia. She's supposed to be a major new character, and the script does basically nothing with her. She gets to sex up Sulu for a laugh, but that's the extent of her role in this episode as she's quickly whisked away by V'Ger due to her empathic abilities (not the last time Ilia would be used as a vehicle for an alien to try and explore and understand humanity). Persis Khambata gets a meaty role as she comes back as “Tasha”, one of V'Ger's probes who temporarily takes on Ilia's form and sort of becomes its spokesperson, but it still seems odd to not have her play the role she was actually hired to play for the majority of the episode she was introduced in. For all of the feminist strides Star Trek has made over the years, we're still seeing women used primarily as plot devices, so I guess we've still got a ways to go.

Then there are the special effects. Which, OK, hate complaining about effects, this is the most money Star Trek has *ever* had and the overwhelming majority of this episode looks *gorgeous* to be sure. However...this is still television in 1978, and it's painfully obvious there were corners cut in places one would perhaps like corners to not be cut in. One thing that bothered me was the reuse of a lot of costumes from the Original Series, which jar pretty horribly with the look-and-feel of the rest of the show. But the biggest VFX fail for sure has to be V'Ger itself: If I were to be charitable, I'd say it looks like an update of the Planet Killer from “The Doomsday Machine”, which would be altogether fitting given the presence of Will Decker, but if I'm being honest...It looks like a dunce cap. And don't get me going on the CSO composite shots with V'Ger and the Enterprise: The script says our ship looks like a golf ball against the incomprehensible vastness of V'Ger and that's exactly what it looks like. There's no getting around the fact that when you're trying to convey a sense of cosmic awe and wonder, golf balls and dunce caps are not quite the best way to go about doing that.

But, even in spite of its quirks and imperfections, I'm still going to call “In Thy Image” one of my absolute favourite Star Trek episodes to date. It's conclusive proof that not only is Star Trek back, it's grown to become something bigger and better than what it used to be. And, in doing so, it's reaffirmed its commitment to neverending personal growth on its neverending journey through the stars. After all, isn't that the whole point of this episode? That humans can better themselves and shouldn't settle for a simulacrum of perfection, as that way lies complacency and a toxic stasis? The least I can do is take the lessons of this episode and apply them to “In Thy Image” itself. All art ultimately comes from our own experiences and positionalities, and no matter how hard some try, that can never be distilled out of the finished product. If that's the image Star Trek reflects for us now, it's hard not to feel heartened by it.


The first thing we should square away is that of all the possible ways for Star Trek to come back, this was by no means the inevitable one, or even, really, one that would be seen as in any way logical or reasonable.

For ten years, it seemed obvious that whatever form Star Trek would return in, it would always remain something particularly niche. As recently as 1977 we had the entire cast and Gene Roddenberry himself positing that, for the foreseeable future at least, fanfiction was the future of Star Trek. Even when we looked at things like The Star Fleet Technical Manual and Star Fleet Battles, those were still, ultimately, products of fan love and ingenuity. Comics and tie-in books? Bantam's, and later Pocket's, Star Trek line was full of wild experiments and world building and Doug Drexler was writing for Gold Key. All by fans, for fans.

In other words, it would be absolutely unthinkable for anyone even a year or two prior to 1979 that Star Trek's actual return to the world of Soda Pop Art would be in the form of a massive, sprawling, self-consciously epic “Motion Picture Extravaganza”. What everyone would have expected would be something like a revived Star Trek TV series with a comparatively larger budget and studio support airing on a niche timeframe either on a niche network or even direct to syndication, especially considering Paramount had announced precisely that exactly two years ago. What eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture began life as a special two-hour pilot movie, “In Thy Image” for a proposed new Star Trek TV show entitled Star Trek Phase II, which would have premiered in 1978 as the flagship show of a new Paramount-owned network.

The only reason we have this movie, and by association the film series it spawns, instead of the should-have-been third Star Trek TV show is because Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind happened and Paramount suddenly thought they should be competing with them. Now, there are a great deal many and varied reasons why Star Trek cannot compete with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not the least of which is that none of the three are remotely comparable works aside from the fact they can all be loosely called science fiction, but that's a discussion for another time and place. The bottom line is that the move to scrap Star Trek Phase II and rewrite “In Thy Image” to be a feature film was a decisive one, and a damning one, and it's impossible to properly talk about one without also talking about the other.

Let's not beat around the bush here. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a deeply flawed and problematic film. It's nowhere near as bad as Star Trek fans say it is (which is somewhere in the vicinity of “The Worst Movie Ever Made”): It has a great deal of captivating moments and paves the way for a lot of really good Star Trek to come. But it doesn't really work either, and the reason for this is entirely because it's a television episode (and not just any episode, but a pilot) artificially stretched to become a movie (and not just any movie, but a barnstorming cinematic epic) and also because Gene Roddenberry was the guy who did the stretching. This is without question the reason this film is frequently accused of having the pacing of glacial melt, aside from the fact that it does.

But this is worth parsing out, because while this criticism is perfectly valid and likely the biggest issue with this film, the argument is almost always made completely the wrong way; citing things as problems that aren't actually problems and flat-out ignoring cripplingly serious flaws. In this regard, my biggest gripe with those who denounce this movie on the basis of its pacing is their claim that the various VFX shots (in particular the V'Ger Cloud stuff and the scene where Scotty takes Admiral Kirk on a tour around the exterior of the refit Enterprise) linger forever and drag the film out intolerably. First of all, in the context of V'Ger I just have to flat-out disagree: Those special effects are incredible and are without question some of the most evocative and mesmerizing science fiction images ever conceived, let alone put to film, bar none, and I'll debate anyone on that. The film was right to linger on those shots, because that's precisely the sort of imagery you should linger on.

I used to be a huge fan of this movie: Before rewatching it for this project, I would have called it one of the three or four best Star Trek movies (admittedly not a title with a ton of competition or prestige). Seeing it again with a new perspective, I found it to be the *definition* of “slow motion train wreck”, but even still V'Ger was the *only* thing from it that was anywhere remotely near as powerful and imaginative as I remembered. Seriously, I could do an entire essay just on how V'Ger looks and what that means to me.

As for the Enterprise scene, bear in mind this was the first new footage of the ship people had seen in a decade, and it was on a movie screen and completely redesigned by Matt Jeffries and Andy Probert to look slick and cool: This is Star Trek's moment of triumph, and it's allowed to indulge itself. The problem is that the actual effects shots used in filming that scene are nowhere near as good as they need to be to justify that indulgence. We've got this lovely new model and, while it's clear the workbee, drydock and starbase models are equally as intricately designed and we do get more of a sense for the presence of the greater Star Trek universe, this is all conveyed...through a crappy 1970s CSO job. It *doesn't* look as good as Star Wars, it *doesn't* look as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (though it's clear Roddenberry and his team are painfully trying to ape both) and it doesn't even look as good as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was eleven years old by this point.

I'm not one to pull the eye candy card, but I think the fact the VFX comes up a bit short here actually proves to be a massive problem for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and here's why: See, Roddenberry isn't just envisioning this as a Star Trek movie, he's very clearly envisioning it as a cinematic epic. Roddenberry's not only trying to compete with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even with 2001: A Space Odyssey (by which “compete” of course means “try very hard to show that we can do everything bigger, better, more spectacular and more extravagant than everybody else”), he's genuinely trying to make a case that Star Trek: The Motion Picture deserves to stand alongside Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. He even went so far as to pluck Douglas Turnbull (who worked on 2001) to be the VFX supervisor (which is probably why the V'Ger stuff looks as good as it does), tapped Hollywood veteran Robert Wise to direct and got Paramount to host the biggest, most lavish press conference in their history to that point to announce the project. Gene Roddenberry actually thinks he's Cecil B. DeMille.

And he absolutely isn't. Just like the VFX shots of the Enterprise in drydock, Roddenberry isn't remotely as up to the pale as he thinks he is, because the story is just as over-stretched as the effects are. What I find so completely baffling is that Roddenberry somehow took a tight, perfectly functional script and for some inexplicable reason decided to thin it out before adapting it into a movie! I've read the original script for “In Thy Image” and it was a terrific piece of work. In fact, I'd say with a few minor tweaks and revisions it could have been filmed as-is and would have been one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made. Roddenberry, however, takes a hack saw to it and his usual deft hand ends up introducing a whole new raft of problems. This is another reason Star Trek: The Motion Picture moves along at the speed of continental drift: The vast majority of the runtime is actually taken up not by lingering special effects shots, but with military procedure.

Without question the most aggravating and unwatchable moments in this film for me came when Roddenberry has the crew spend agonizing minutes reciting bits of starship procedural lingo at each other, making reports from their stations and waxing profusely on Starfleet rules and regulations. It's the exact same shit that drags down all of Roddenberry's other scripts, from “The Cage” to “The Savage Curtain” and he's clearly learned nothing in over a decade. It's not even that the movie has too much exposition, another common complaint. Actually, the problem is the exact opposite: There is no exposition! The original script for “In Thy Image” had a lot of really well done, really *relevant* scenes introducing the new setting, the new status quo and showing us all the important moments that explain who all the characters are and the relationships they have with each other. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has precisely none of this, Roddenberry deciding it best to take all of it out and replace it with more of his Little Boy Soldiers military pornography.

It's the characters who get shafted the most, obviously, to the point where entire motivations were changed without any real rhyme or reason. Admiral Kirk gets it the worst: In “In Thy Image”, Kirk is reluctant to take command of the Enterprise again considering himself to be too old and at too much of a different point in life. He actually has to be pushed into taking action by McCoy, who reminds him that this is where his heart truly lies, and Admiral Nogura (who is an actual character in this version, as opposed to merely being mentioned occasionally in passing, like he is in the movie) who points out Kirk is the best person for the job, Also, Kirk *personally requests* Will Decker as his XO, who was about to take command of an entirely different and unrelated ship because he valued his judgment and needed someone younger and sharper around. In the movie, meanwhile, Kirk becomes a total asshole, selfishly muscling his way into command, alienating McCoy and Decker for no real reason and the story becomes generic burden-of-command, married-to-the-ship drivel.

(There's also a great scene in Kirk's quarters in the original script where he explains to Decker, McCoy and Chapel that his repressed desire for the Enterprise might cloud his judgment, while Decker also confesses his bitterness at losing command might do the same, and they both ask the doctors to keep an eye on them: It's a great, idealistic scene where two people talk about their feelings, and it got cut right out, replaced with a far more antagonistic and confrontational one. Actually, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is far less utopian than “In Thy Image” across the board, yet another reminder that what Star Trek means to the professionals and what it means to the fans are two very different things.)

The one thing I will give this movie is that it does a good job fleshing out the relationship between Will Decker and Ilia, which “In Thy Image” never quite managed to do (though the later Star Trek Phase II scripts do explore their relationship, it really should have been introduced in the pilot. It's one of the minor tweaks and revisions I would have made). The film also has the good sense to have Decker be the one interacting with the Ilia-Probe instead of Kirk, though ultimately this is all pointless because Decker and Ilia ascend to a higher plane of existence at the end of the movie, just as we always knew they were going to. But apart from this, the movie just doesn't seem to care about them: There's no mention of Ilia's Deltan heritage and what that means (which is the whole reason V'Ger picked her, because she was empathic) and nothing about Decker's backstory and personal demons. As the two legacy characters introduced for the abandoned TV show, of course they have to be the ones to snuff it, so it becomes impossible to actually get invested in anything they do. Originally intended to be major characters in Star Trek Phase II, Star Trek: The Motion Picture turns Decker and Ilia into glorified redshirts, which makes their story, much like most of this film, feel like a complete waste of time.

There's also an entire character who doesn't make the cut at all, science officer Xon (though his actor, David Gautreaux, has a minor role in the movie), because Paramount rightly decided they couldn't have a Star Trek movie without Spock. Writing him in, however, required another massive change to the original script, and this had the side effect of messing up the story's primary theme. Originally, the point of V'Ger was that it was incapable of comprehending a form of life that wasn't like itself, making it a kind of mirror of the Federation. The plot was resolved by V'Ger and the “Carbon Units” learning to communicate and coming to understand how similar they were. Now though, V'Ger ends up a massively overblown metaphor for the standard Spock story about learning how both logic (here defined as “quantitative information”) and emotions (here defined as “sensuality”) are necessary to live a fulfilling life. And while that's not terrible, it feels less effective, especially since D.C. Fontana did this story twice already and her combined efforts are a fraction of the length of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's runtime.

But the biggest conceptual problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture's V'Ger is the end resolution, where Spock describes it as a “child” and encourages Kirk to “treat it as such”. This opens up a *huge* swath of worrying implications and subtexts it flat out submarines any remaining vestigial potential effectiveness this movie had. Back when I discussed “Bem” for the Animated Series I took issue at that script's conception of God as a benevolent, divine authority beyond reproach, a description and phrase which longtime readers will probably figure would get under my skin a bit. So now, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we have a Jobian, Pop Christian concept of godhood once again, and now we've gone an extra alarming step and attributed this perspective to Kirk and Spock. Forget all those criticisms Star Trek: The Next Generation gets about being holier-than-thou and entitled, this has me the most concerned: After all, humanity is explicitly V'Ger's God, so this movie is tacitly endorsing the selfsame benevolent dictator perspective that will most assuredly run Star Trek aground faster and more catastrophically than anything else. But this is worse than even "Space Seed", because now Star Trek isn't just claiming to be your augmented, superior philosopher king, it's claiming to be your patrician GOD.

(The implication is likely supposed to be that humans too are like children, as we're in some sense still meant to be seen as comparable to V'Ger, but that meaning is absolutely not conveyed anywhere close to how explicitly it would have needed to be to actually work.)

The result is all of this is that we're right back at the presumptuousness and hubris that Gene Roddenberry burdened Star Trek with from the beginning. Though there have been many examples, I can't think of a more perfect embodiment of this problem than this movie. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an overstuffed, overwrought, pretentious, middlebrow slog that's demonstrative of nothing else except Star Trek enthusiastically and ineffectually trying to punch above its class. And it kills me, because there are a lot of things to recommend here: Robert Wise's work on this film gets a bad rap, but it's actually pretty good: His feel for actor placement, blocking and visual symbolism is pitch-perfect. It gives Star Trek a cinematic scope that it usually doesn't have and shouldn't have, but is appropriate here. The scenes with V'Ger are nothing short of landmark science fiction, and there's a great story buried underneath all of that just waiting to be told. But it's just not enough in the end. When you aim that big and miss, you're only gonna crash and burn big too.

Shakedown trials to commence *immediately* on The Prototype codename “VOYAGER”. Proceed with swiftness, as the enemy grows ever stronger and wiser.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sensor Scan: Rocket Man

Elton John and Bernie Taupin's “Rocket Man” is usually read as a very poor imitation of David Bowie's “Space Oddity”. Both songs explore the mundane reality of space travel and both came out just as the wave of public interest in outer space and spaceflight had crested and was beginning to roll back (though “Space Oddity”, at least the original version, was far more timely in 1969, with “Rocket Man”'s 1972 release date already making it feel curiously dated, though do recall “Space Oddity” was re-released that year too) and, to top it off, both songs were even produced by the same guy: Gus Dudgeon. And of course, the critical consensus goes, no-one is going to call Bernie Taupin an especially poetic, captivating or moving songwriter, and David Bowie is, well, David Bowie.

But this misses, I feel, a big part of the nuance “Rocket Man” actually displays. Yes, I'll come right out and say it: This is pretty clunky song, and there are a fair few embarrassing verses and questionable lines. But I'll also freely admit this is one of my favourite pop songs, and while I'm well aware my taste in music can be described as “eclectic” at best and “suspect” at worst, just hear me out for a bit. First of all, that chorus has got to be one of the most achingly beautiful things ever recorded, and that's really all “Rocket Man” needs to become an instant classic, because in pop the hooks and chorus are unabashedly the most important parts of the song. Secondly though, “Rocket Man”'s origins are a bit more interesting than most people tend to give them credit for, as it was inspired both by a Ray Bradbury short story of the same name and Taupin witnessing a meteor or faraway airplane when looking up at the sky at night. Far from echoing David Bowie's indictment of (or at least very mixed feelings about) the Space Age on “Space Oddity”, what “Rocket Man” is actually about is a world where rocketry, at one time the most exciting and fashionable technology around, is so commonplace and mundane that astronauts become like truck drivers.

This is what takes “Rocket Man” from being curiously out of time to being very much of its time: In the mid-to-late 1970s pop culture in the United States had a particular fascination with truck drivers and trucker culture, brought upon by a number of movies from this period glamourizing the lifestyle and the widespread popularity of CB radio. With the 1970s fuel crisis in full swing, many people, but especially truckers, used CB radio to coordinate fuel runs to stations that had the best gas prices and to organise protests against new regulations. Truckers were seen as, in a sense, bringing back lost “American” values of rugged cowboy individualism (never mind the fact this assumption had zero historical precedent and is due more to the popularity of John Wayne movies: The fact is it existed) and, as a result, truck drivers, CB radio, and the distinctive language of slang they used, became very fashionable.

This peaked in 1975 with the release of the movie White Line Fever, about a Vietnam veteran who takes over his father's truck driving business and is forced to contend with corrupt executives who want him to haul illegal cargo, and the novelty song “Convoy”, which uses a bunch of CB radio slang to tell a story about a massive convoy that drives 24/7 across the United States in defiance of new federal truck driving regulations. So, in 1972, “Rocket Man” would have been an actually very savvy release, coming as it did right between Space Fever and the trucker fad and incorporating elements of both (Elton John even appears on the sleeve cover of the single in a spangly cowboy outfit).

But, of course, we're not looking at “Rocket Man” in 1972. We're looking at it in 1978-9, which is an altogether different cultural landscape. Actually, by the way I measure zeitgeists and timescapes, we're for all intents and purposes in the 1980s now, the changeover between the Long 1960s and Long 1980s happening about a year ago. And, while the trucker fad continued into the late 1970s, with other movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and F.I.S.T. (1978), it never again quite matched the popularity it saw in the earlier part of the decade. But even so, “Rocket Man” remains relevant because there's a secondary thread to its invocation and likening of space travellers with truck drivers, and that's most clearly revealed in what remains, in my view, the song's definitive performance in January 1978.

When we talk about “Rocket Man” in the context of Star Trek, really only one thing comes to mind: William Shatner's legendarily insane interpretation of it at the 1977 Saturn Awards. Apart from Captain Kirk, this may actually be the one thing Shatner will forever be most remembered for: It has been mercilessly parodied any number of ways ever since, and is probably singlehandedly responsible for Shatner's reputation as a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, out-of-touch egotistical blowhard. You don't need me to tell you by now that I consider this to be a terribly unfair and undeserved reading, but let's take a moment to unpack this reaction as I concede “Rocket Man” is likely Shatner's most difficult and easily misread work. More so than even The Transformed Man, this is the thing that's going to cause people who are only familiar with Star Trek to think Shatner has absolutely lost his goddamned mind: Captain Kirk sits under a spotlight on stool in a velvet smoking jacket in the middle of a darkened stage, then begins monloguing a pop song from six years ago while other, smaller, CSO Shatners suddenly and inexplicably pop out of hammerspace and start having a conversation with each other.

At this point, if you only know Shatner from Star Trek, the immediate, and understandable, reaction is to stare at the screen blinking for a few moments before exclaiming “what the actual fuck” and then wondering which of the two of you has snapped and become unhinged from reality. But we of course know the kind of performer William Shatner really is, and we can see “Rocket Man” for what it truly is: The next step in Shatner's evolution as a performance artist and his first stab at a mixed media work that incorporates television and televisual logic. The first clue ought to be that Bernie Taupin himself is actually on hand to introduce Shatner's performance personally, claiming he's very proud to do so “due to the interest in the meaning of the song”, as if somehow Shatner was the only person who could actually explicitly spell out everything the song was about.

Which, actually, he does. There are two major things about this performance that make it really unique and effective. The first of these is the fact this was done for the televised broadcast of a live event: Already, this piece is playing with the interaction between different mediums. Given that this is William Shatner, we have spoken word poetry, theatre and pop music by default, but now we throw television into the mix as well. But this performance is meant as much for the actual audience at the Saturn Awards as it is for us: You can hear the live attendees reacting to the piece in progress which, given the fact it relies upon CSO to work, means there had to have been a viewscreen in the actual auditorium for people to watch. So we have Shatner performing the song for the cameras, which is performing his performance for the live audience, and we at home can watch the audience watching the live feed of Shatner's show on the monitor on site. This is incredibly medium aware, actually recursively so, which puts it firmly in the Long 1980s tradition of postmodern cinematography, which we'll talk about a great deal more as the era progresses. It not only ties into Shatner's own predilection for recursive artifice, it builds upon it and takes it to the next level.

(Another thing worth noting about the switch to television is this also provides Shatner with a kind of memorable “music video” to go with his performance: MTV isn't too far away, and the genre had been around for several years already. Combine this with the choice of covering an iconic single, and making sure to maintain the chorus and all its melancholy beauty, means “Rocket Man” is, paradoxically, William Shatner's most accessible and radio-friendly song yet. This awareness will help him relaunch his music career decades later.)

Tying into this is the use of CSO itself. CSO, or chroma key, or colour separation overlay, is what we commonly refer to day as bluescreening or greenscreening: That is, composting two images together by superimposing one over a flat, unnatural colour in the background. Here, Shatner and his editors use to it create the multiple Shatner effect that this video is so famous (and derided) for. But if we watch those scenes keeping in mind that we're watching a performance artist, they start to make a whole lot more sense. The purpose is to indicate different facets of the titular Rocket Man's personality: Watch how the performance opens with a solitary Shatner sitting alone in darkness smoking and reciting the song's opening verse, as if he's contemplating the meaning of it (the smoking actually shows off Shatner's incredibly formidable dedication to performing a role: In real life he's firmly straight edge and doesn't even drink alcohol, but he's playing a Space Trucker, and Space Truckers would probably smoke). We get the first chorus, and it's only *then* that the CSO performers come out.

And when they do, they deliver their lines an entirely different way to the seated Shatner's pensiveness: The performer on the right puts on a show of being a bold gruff, manly renegade hero (AllMusic describes this as Shatner's “Private Dick” performance), but this is clearly a facade, as he grows increasingly lonesome and neurotic as the song progresses. The performer on the left, meanwhile, acts like a fun loving, uninhibited stud who clearly wants to be the life of every party, but who also seems to be using this as a mask to disguise his inner loneliness. This is a perfect showcase for Shatner's recursive artifice, and he takes full advantage of the repetitiveness of Taupin's lyrics: Note the wildly different ways each performer delivers the lines to the chorus (such as in the wordplay joke of delivering “rocket” one time as “rock it”), and yet how each one seems to be using it to convey the Rocket Man's conflicted emotions. Take, for example, the line

I'm not the man they think I am at home

Oh no, no, no

Shatner runs the gamut here, delivering it every way it could possibly be delivered: The Rocket Man thus becomes someone who's both claiming to be a more suave and courageous person than people think he is, but who also worries about living up to other people's expectations of him. Much as he did in The Transformed Man, Shatner is showing us that this contradictory melange of emotions is something common to everyone and part of the human experience.

And this also brings us to the other important factor about this performance: That William Shatner did it for a science fiction awards show in 1978. Because “I'm not the man they think I am at home” is a sentence that describes William Shatner himself as much as it does the Rocket Man. The Transformed Man came out in 1968: At a time when Shatner was trying to carve out a new career for himself in the wake of Star Trek, and before he realised what a big deal that show was going to become and how much he was going to be burned because of it in the 1970s. That record, despite its reputation and packaging that misled people into thinking it was a celebrity cash-in, wasn't about Star Trek or science fiction overtly: It was about how central performance is to our lives. Furthermore though, The Transformed Man wasn't autobiographical, at least any more then we would expect given it was a project that was important to Shatner and was about something he felt united all humans. “Rocket Man”, meanwhile, came out a decade later and at the cusp of Star Trek being relaunched, when it was probably safe to say science fiction fans were the only people paying any sort of attention to William Shatner, and it *does* carry a whiff of self-reflection about it.

Thus, one of the many interpretive layers to “Rocket Man” becomes William Shatner working through the phenomenon that is Captain Kirk and Star Trek and what both have meant to him over the past ten years. William Shatner is not “the man they think [he is] at home”, because William Shatner is not Captain Kirk, and Star Trek fans have an irritating and unhealthy tendency to forget this. The real kicker comes when the Shatner on the right says

And all this science, I don't understand

It's just a job, five days a week

and the way its delivered, you can totally read Shatner's confusion and bewilderment at the way Trekkers obsess over a TV show from the 1960s in it (recall the Star Fleet Technical Manual was out by now too) and his awkward attempts to remind people that Captain Kirk was only someone he played on television for an acting gig years ago. Not that Shatner doesn't respect Trekkers' passion, of course (Star Trek: The New Voyages came out the previous year, and you can see Shatner working through many of these same themes in his introduction to “Mind Sifter”, yet he remains positive, gracious and encouraging throughout), it's just that...well, he doesn't quite understand yet.

But the coup de grace comes when all of this is taken together. The real power of “Rocket Man” comes from its expressly working class heart. It is, after all, a song about a world where astronauts became truck drivers, and it's even possible to use this to excuse some of Taupin's sketchy songwriting: One would not necessarily expect a truck driver to speak like a refined and educated Oxford Dean, for example. And the thing about truck drivers that the mid-70s fad didn't pick up on was their tendency towards introspection and crushing loneliness. But “Rocket Man”, both the original and William Shatner's re-conceptualization, do get this: You can't take a job like that and not be OK with having a considerable amount of time to yourself, and when you're driving down a highway in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep, you tend to get lost in your own thoughts. It's why late night radio is so popular with truckers: It's the only thing on, and when you're in a state of mind like that your imagination drifts towards more esoteric and cosmic things anyway.

(While Coast to Coast AM, the archetypical example of this genre, wouldn't premier until 1984, truckers in previous decades would have been entertained by Long John Nebel's show out of New York, considered the pioneer of paranormal radio. Coincidentally, Nebel died in 1978.)

This is what “Rocket Man” is really about to me. And while this theme is present in the original song to some extent, it's William Shatner who seizes and doubles down on it. “Rocket Man” sounds like nothing here so much as it does the ruminations of a trucker driving down a cosmic highway contemplating his place in the universe. Shatner wears these mixed feelings as a mask in a grand performance that makes a theatre out of the mundane and of himself. And, in doing so, he not only highlights the original motif of rocket men as truck drivers, he also, given the positionality and perspective he injects into this performance, equates Captain Kirk with these sorts of people as well. Once and for all then, the soul of Kirk and Star Trek forever becomes that of the working class spaceman, just like D.C. Fontana always knew it was and that we long suspected it to be.

And furthermore, it's really funny: Not because of the reasons most people give (that Shatner is comically bombing due to his complete lack of self-awareness, which he's not) but because it's supposed to be funny: You can hear the live audience laughing at a number of points: They clearly get the joke, and so does Shatner, who gives us one of his trademark twinkling smiles at the end of the show, which is met with a thunderous applause. Perhaps people from the Long 1960s and Long 1980s weren't more naive then we are today. Maybe they just saw and understood some things we don't know to look for anymore.

Of the almost innumerable things William Shatner has done over the years, I think this may well be his truest masterpiece. All of the themes that are the most important to him as a performer and an observer of human nature are on display here, and they're all wrapped up in a package that's as provocative as it is memorable and charmingly funny. It's an art house piece about, and done as, a pop single, which puts William Shatner squarely in good company with the blossoming counterculture of the Long 1980s. In a different universe where this Star Trek thing never worked out, maybe he'd be seen as a contemporary of William S. Burroughs or Laurie Anderson. As it stands though, for a few glorious moments in January, 1978 that continue to this day, William Shatner captured something of the human experience.

And the human adventure is just beginning.