Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Science Fiction

This week, a tiny corner of the Internet flipped its lid. And that lid-flipping reminded me of some writing that I did awhile ago about first impressions.

Recently, a documentary has been produced on the subject of geocentrism. I confess: I had to go look that one up. Not many words in the English language give me pause – which I don’t say with hubris; it’s just that in my life, I’ve read a lot, so I’ve banged into arguably the majority of useful English words. Geo-, having to do with earth. -Centric, having to do with perhaps an overemphasis upon.

Geocentrism, as a concept, is at odds with heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has to do with the idea that stuff revolves around the sun. Therefore …

Wait wait wait wait. Geocentrism: a belief that all cosmic stuff revolves around the Earth??

Is this not still 2014? Have not Copernicus, Kepler and what remains of NASA not weighed in on this issue?

For context, we note that this is the year 2014, and yet science has been taking it on the chin lately. There are a bunch of people in positions of policymaking authority who are challenging the scientific method and its recent results (e.g. stuff we’ve had figured out since the seventeenth century) … and whether they’re doing it for political reasons, or at the behest of organized religion, or because they genuinely didn’t pay attention in class all those years ago … well, I bet a lot of my science teachers have been grinding their teeth a lot.

Enter this particular documentarian, or polemicist, or whatever we shall wish to call him. Robert Sungenis is his name, and he funded the making of this film called “The Principle”, whose tagline is “Everything we think we know about our universe … is wrong.”

That tagline smacks of Buzzfeed hyperbole, of course, and that stands to reason, because otherwise who would pay two eyeblinks of attention to a science documentary? I mean really.

But Sungenis had previously published a book called “Galileo Was Wrong, The Church Was Right”, which claimed to “give Scripture its due place and show that science is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Just so we’re clear on who and what we’re dealing with here.

The makers of “The Principle”, backed by Sungenis’ money (which, even before Citizens United, has aphoristically talked), have been accused of a number of procedural no-no’s, not the least of which is “quote mining”. That’s an editing technique: cherry-picking bits of information and assembling them so they appear to support one view, even if in their context those bits of information would support no such view. I wonder where I’ve heard of that happening before …

Statements were allegedly taken from an interview with noted theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss that made him appear to be supporting the idea that everything astronomical revolves around the planet Earth. Krauss issued a statement that put a super lot of distance between himself and “The Principle”. Its tone of recoil was reminiscent of many muskets I have seen at Fourth-of-July parades: sharp and unmistakable.

Krauss’ statement insists that he was featured in the film without permission, and that he concurs with the scientific community’s contention that geocentrism has been debunked. He hoped that people would ignore it; “maybe then it will quickly disappear into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A number of other scientists who were in the film also have insisted that they were misled about “The Principle”’s agenda, and that they would never have taken part had they known about it.

One of the producers of “The Principle”, in a publicity statement interview this week, said this about Krauss’ participation: “Lawrence says he has no idea how he ended up in our film. I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.”

What has gotten me to the keyboard, though, is the similar apparent participation (and subsequent reversal of gear) of the nice lady who contributed a very small amount of narration to the film’s promotional trailer.

Her name is Kate Mulgrew, and she portrayed the captain of the nearly-ill-fated Federation starship Voyager, a decade and a half ago.

She is an actor. Significantly, she is an actor who has participated in “Star Trek”.

When you do that, you become part of a piece of entertainment which, for all its inherent fluffiness (it IS part of American television entertainment), has gotten credit for causing many, many Americans in the last half century to think about science. Several US astronauts have cited their childhood viewing of “Star Trek” as one of the major influences in their lives that caused them to consider science as a profession.

Star Trek” is a lot of things, and as science fiction, one of those things is fanciful. Light-speed travel is something that, according to august scientific minds, only light can do; so the initial premise of the show (warping around the galaxy, rather than just crawling around the solar system) is presently a scientific non-starter. And most of the techno-babble that Spock and Data, and Scotty and Geordi LaForge, and just about every other Trek character ever, spout when faced with a cosmically daunting plot-resolution challenge is – to be charitable – somewhere between intensely theoretical and a writer’s desperate invention. “In this one particular episode,” say the producers, “we have to be able to transport Captain Picard from one ship at warp speed to another ship also at warp speed without lowering the deflector shields (which goes against a rule that’s been in place since we were on NBC in 1967), because otherwise the severance package for Patrick Stewart after we kill off his character will bankrupt the studio outright.”

But “Trek” has invited many people to go look up some actual scientific things. So by no fault of any “Trek” actor’s own, they are part of that show’s legacy, which includes advocacy for and advancement of the study of science. Thanks to the importance that American society puts on entertainers, those “Trek” actors often become more prominent symbols of scientific study than do a lot of actual scientists.

They’re not scientists, though.

One of the things that actors do is portray characters. Someone who plays the part of Jack the Ripper presumably does not espouse the views of Jack the Ripper in real life. (Or if they do, they tend not to get a lot of acting work after that.)  Someone who portrays Gen. George Patton may actually in fact be a screaming pacifist.

Another thing that actors have to do is eat. For that to happen, they need money. And most actors (I hear) have a great deal of experience with poverty, or at least with knowing that they’ll never retire and draw a pension. Every job is finite. Even while you’re working on one project, you’re looking for the next one. Only the most absurdly lucky actors finish a job knowing that they’re set for life. Guaranteed, very few people probably knew who (for example) Nichelle Nichols was, before she spent three TV seasons opening hailing frequencies for Captain Kirk. Now? She’s part of that Trek legacy, and her name gets her in the door – the same door that would slam in the faces of the vast majority of working actors.

So even the terrific actors like Kate Mulgrew, who will forevermore draw residuals from being Captain Janeway, are conditioned to take work whenever they can find it.

And sometimes, I imagine this can get them into tight spots like this.

A website that breathlessly reported Mulgrew’s “Principle” trailer narration said, “To be fair to Kate Mulgrew, she’s not a scientist, and as an actor she’s not required to make sure that her paychecks are coming from factually accurate sources. But you’d hope that she’d be a little more discerning as a former member of the Starfleet Federation. After all, Star Trek did and continues to do so much for the advancement of science and space exploration, and getting involved with a movie that outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about our solar system is upsetting, to say the least.”

On her Facebook page, Mulgrew released a statement disavowing the film. “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”

I’m split on this one.

I’m somewhere between “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “do your homework”. I’m working to find out whether her contribution to this film is anything more than the opening voiceover sentence in the trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists her as “Narrator”, but doesn’t get any more explicit.

The comments that followed Ms. Mulgrew’s Facebook apology post contained an awful lot of (forgivable) blanket-condemnation of the documentary producers and blanket-approval of Ms. Mulgrew. A lot of “Star Trek” fans rose to her defense.

Oh thank God. I felt so betrayed there for a little bit.”

Kate Mulgrew’s part, so far, is that one sentence about everything we know about the universe being wrong, at the very beginning of the trailer. And, again, that sentence could be about anything. All they have to do is fill the narration with vague statements like that, then put any images they want over it. And include commentary by geocentrists making it look like she’s supporting their statements. … Because the only part of the script that she’s going to get is the narration. And since the documentary isn’t out, and all you have to go on is the trailer, those of you who insist on giving her crap about it really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just like kicking people when they’re down. You gotta be mad about something, and this is it.”

The trailer I saw was a blatant hack job. You shouldn’t need to apologise, you’re a victim of a fraudster and should have support from your fans. Thank you for clearing it up, I hope you aren’t too badly affected by this.”

[E]veryone makes mistakes and gets reeled in by the worst of people, accidents happen. [T]he fact that you admitted your [sic] wrong and told us you don’t believe in what was said is enough. [L]ive long and prosper[.]”

No need to apologize. You’re an actor. It’s what actors do. If Patrick Stewart narrated Doctor Seuss, that wouldn’t mean he’s promoting a fear of green eggs and ham. Your fans understand. Don’t sweat it.”

Additionally, the follow-up post by the website which had initially posted about Mulgrew’s involvement with the project was entitled “OH THANK GOD: Kate Mulgrew Is Mad About the Geocentric Documentary, Too”.

Some Facebook commenters weren’t quite as starry-eyed though.

I think sometimes people forget that actors, by definition, say things they don’t believe for a living.”

Didn’t you read the words on the page? I get you did this for the money, but still do not claim to be ‘misinformed’ when the words were on the page you were READING!”

Finally, this comment was combination reality check and fanboy defense:

This reminds me of the Congressional committee that had Meryl Streep testify on agricultural matters. She was an expert because she played a farm wife in a movie. Come on, people. You regard Kate Mulgrew as a Voice of Science because she played a starship captain once? And it’s her *duty to you* to do in-depth research on *every* script she’s offered so she doesn’t accidentally *deceive* you?”

Maybe not, but it may represent an added layer of responsibility when you’ve been part of “Star Trek” and you’re considered, rightly or not, a science role model.

Perhaps what this boils down to is our desperate discomfort about finding that one of our first impressions might be mistaken, and/or finding that something or someone we admire isn’t as admirable as we thought (if all that indeed turns out to be so). And, justifiable or not, the feeling of betrayal that we as fans feel about the objects of our fandom.

It’s unnerving when it seems possible — even for a moment — that, to paraphrase the tagline of “The Principle” … everything we know about our favorite actor … is wrong.

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April 10, 2014 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, film, Internet, media, religion, science, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

O, Ye of Little Faith

Or, How I Thought the Latest Star Trek Movie Was a Violation of Every Trek Rule In The Book… Till I Actually Watched The Thing.

 

During the previous entries in this blog, there may be one detail which has not come through loud and clear. Faintly, perhaps, but not at all in the heavy-handed way that it should. That detail is that I am a Trekkie… a Trekhead… a Trek nerd… whatever the current term is, I am him.

Since the age of 9, not only have I been entertained by this phenomenon – I have gotten quite good at details like, Captain Kirk didn’t always wear the yellow shirt, he sometimes wore the slightly more green-looking wraparound jersey, and besides, the shirts only looked yellow on TV, they were actually much more green if you saw them in person while filming was going on, even though I obviously never saw the filming in person, but I read about that in a pretty official-sounding book when I was 13.

To be equally clear, when I went to my first Star Trek convention, during the “Next Generation” era, I went largely to hear Patrick Stewart give the keynote speech. I did NOT wear a full Starfleet uniform like the people sitting next to me on the subway, a family of four who were also going to the Con. I have the books, the CDs, the videos, and the Internet bookmarks … but I also have my dignity.

And although The Original Series was clearly done on a shoestring budget, with only the cinematic technology of the 1960s (only slightly more advanced than the stuff my fifth-grade best friend had in his basement), and even though the entire last third of the series sounded like it was written by someone who wasn’t smarter than a fifth-grader, a lot of it is still a heck of a great basis for an American entertainment franchise. It has a terrific (if unrealistically Utopian) philosophy: lots of different-looking people (and non-humans) working together for the common good – on a spaceship with lots of fun blinky lights.

A lot of the writing on the “Next Generation” series (after the first year or two, when they’d figured out that Captain Picard would never say that!!) did what great science fiction should do: it told stories (thinly-veiled or not) about current controversial issues – and slid their social commentary in right under the noses of whatever TV network was distributing it. “Deep Space Nine” did a version of that, taking on religious issues as well as the Bosnia/Herzegovina situation of the years of its production; “Voyager” was an interesting concept (kick the cast halfway across the galaxy and introduce a whole new set of adversaries and situations) and featured the wonderful Kate Mulgrew as, essentially, Captain Katharine Hepburn; and “Enterprise”… well, perhaps best not to delve too deeply. (I liked the idea of using that pop tune as the theme song, but I might have been the only person in the world who did.)

And that seemed to be the trend. The further away from the original series the Trek franchise got, the more diluted it seemed to get. Or maybe that was just the response of the fan base. The movies tried hard, and occasionally succeeded, in getting things right, but for every great Trek moment, there was a truly awful one. Are the people making these films, these TV shows, aware that there is a history here, a canon, that needs to be followed, or at least understood?  (Talk about a subject about which there has developed a corps of True Believers…)

 

So, a few years ago, word came down that J.J. Abrams was making the next Star Trek movie. And it wouldn’t involve Captain Picard. It was going to be a re-boot. Re-invent the franchise. Start from Kirk and Spock again. Get younger actors to play the parts. Some fans rejoiced (“oh hey, J.J. Abrams!”). Some fans despaired (“oh Lord, J.J. Abrams!”). After all, the last two decades of American filmmaking have been littered with re-boots and re-imaginings and re-envisionings of Classic American Entertainment Franchises. I’m not sure I was the only fella who went to see the Dan Ackroyd/Tom Hanks movie version of “Dragnet” and actually chuckled at it, but I might have been.

I awaited the movie release with guarded interest. I saw the opening episode of “Lost” and it looked interesting, after all… so maybe this Abrams fellow would have the same effect on the Trek franchise as Nicholas Meyer did with “Wrath of Khan”. I was willing to hope.

But the more images of “Star Trek” (2009) that I saw via the Internet – even as I desperately attempted to avoid finding out too much about it because I hate spoilers – the more skeptical I got. To wit:

[] The Starship Enterprise was built on planet Earth? Not true; it was built at a shipyard in Earth orbit. It was supposed to be too big and too heavy to land on a planet and then get off it; that’s why Gene Roddenberry invented transporters.

[] The Enterprise bridge looks like an Apple Store? Me, I was kinda hoping that the basic look of the bridge, and the rest of the ship, would look like the 1960s version, but with more blinky lights because we now have the money and technology to build sets that look and work realistically. The rail around the edge of the bridge isn’t red? What is this?

[] Spock and Uhura are kissing in a turbolift?! A Vulcan and a human are in a relationship? Not tr– … oh, wait, Spock’s parents were Vulcan and human, respectively, so that’s not so far-fetched. But the last I heard, Spock was desperately trying to fight down his human half and would never, ever, in a million zillion years, smile at humans, let alone smooch them. Have ye not known, have ye not heard about the “Nurse Chapel is hopelessly infatuated with Mr. Spock” recurring subplot?

All right, so they found someone to play Spock who was the spitting audiovisual image of Leonard Nimoy in 1967. The rest of it looked suspect to me. And, as I have been out of the habit of going to see movies in the movie theaters over the last several years, I therefore knew I’d wait for the thing to come out on video. And then I didn’t even have the grit to buy the DVD. After all, I gave “Star Trek: Nemesis” the same treatment, and Patrick Stewart was in that one. This Abrams re-boot didn’t have a prayer.

 

I discovered some more details. It didn’t give me a lot of hope.

[] Kirk’s father died without meeting his son? Not true. Not according to the “Star Trek Concordance”, a tome assembled in the 1970s to package all the known facts about the known Trek story (all 67 episodes and no movies yet, at the time).

[] Kirk and Lt. Uhura and Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock all knew each other before they got aboard the Enterprise? Not true. Besides, what are the odds? Starfleet’s a huge organization. What are the odds of me being on the same teaching staff as someone I knew in third grade? Remote, thanks.

[] The entire crew is intact from the start? Hmm. The Enterprise‘s first crew, in the original pilot episode, “The Cage”, featured many characters, but not: Kirk, McCoy, Scott, Sulu, Chekov or Uhura. The Enterprise crew in the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, features more of the well-known regulars but still not McCoy or Uhura, and Chekov was added only during the second Trek season in 1967 as a response to the accusation that no Russian was aboard the ship even though the first man in space was a Soviet cosmonaut (and that Trek needed a younger, “Beatle”-looking cast member). Everybody knows that.

[] No Romulan has ever had a name like “Nero”. Or had a tattoo. And no Romulan ship has ever looked like that.

[] The planet Vulcan is destroyed before the movie is 45 minutes old? If they plan to do lots more Trek movies or even TV, you’ve just lost a huge part of the Trek universe in which or about which to tell stories. Wise?

Then I heard that Leonard Nimoy was in this thing. That should, logically(!), have given me happy pause, but then I remembered that he was in “Star Trek V”, which was awful in nearly every way, and he was heavily involved in the creation of “Star Trek VI”, which had more than a few little details and large performances that went spectacularly against the original Trek canon. Nimoy’s presence did not necessarily guarantee quality or authenticity.

 

Then, a friend of mine suggested to me that “if you liked the original Trek, you’ll like this one.” And eventually herded me in front of a large-screen TV, sat me down, and forced this thing on me.

It takes a brave guy to admit he’s wrong.

So. I was forced to be brave.

I liked it.

A lot.

Partly, the story involves time travel, which, from the moment of James Kirk’s birth, throws the Trek universe into an alternate timeline. Granted, this plot point was not explained unto the audience till more than halfway through the movie, so the first 75 minutes of the thing had me appreciating a lot of the nice touches but still maintaining my air of jaded skepticism – I know Trek, after all. I had to admit that the sound effects alone started the process of dismantling my defenses within the first five minutes of the film. But out of some desperate need to defend the Original Version of the Original Intent of the Original Series, I remained safely guarded.

But as soon as prime-universe-Spock told the film’s backstory, I got the idea. Within this story, it’s okay (even helpful) for some things to be slightly different, to be slightly “wrong”. I’ve been a fan of alternate-reality stories for a long time, and Star Trek has done them at least as elegantly as any science-fiction franchise (the Original Series’ first-season award-winning “City on the Edge of Forever” and Next Generation’s “Parallels”, for starters).

And, as soon as the movie was finished, I realized that Abrams and his writing team had managed to include every famous Trek line of dialogue, integrating each “logically” and appropriately into the story. “Captain, we’re being hailed,” says Uhura. Doctor McCoy gets more than his share of the fun: in his first scene, he gets to deftly and canonically-accurately foreshadow his “Bones” nickname. “Green-blooded hobgoblin,” he mutters sotto voce, after asking Spock, “are you out of your Vulcan mind?” As Spock explains a plot point, McCoy responds, “Dammit, man, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” There’s a 15-second riff on Chekov’s Russian accent. In his first scene wearing the yellow captain’s jersey, Kirk bounds down the bridge steps and calls out “Bones!” in a manner that is vintage Kirk and yet not precisely a William Shatner impression. At the last moment, Spock gets an opportunity to say, “Fascinating.” And, gloriously, in a Scots accent that is in fact finally authentic, Chief Engineer Scott cries out from the engine room, “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got!!”

Which, in the end, it looks like J.J. Abrams might have been saying, too.

Yes, the film is heavy on ferociously-paced action sequences and a bit low on the classic Trek philosophical and ethical themes, but I suppose I can hope this was because Abrams needed to use this film as setup for some other ones he wants to do, in this new, slightly revised Trek world. And those Trek ethics lectures could be a bit long in the tooth, way back when.

I was even a little bit wrong about the musical score of “Star Trek” (2009) as well, but that’s a thought for another day.

 

It’s possible that there may be a lesson in all this (speaking of philosophical and ethical lecture opportunities). But for the moment, I’m content to sit down every about couple of weeks and screen this movie again, and just chuckle. The kids are alright.

December 27, 2011 Posted by | entertainment, film, media, movies, science fiction, technology, television, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment