Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Strange New World

I wonder … what would Gene Roddenberry think?

A little context here:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of “Star Trek”, the television series that went where no man — where no one — had gone before.

Meaning out into the stars, yes … but in the context of the mid-1960s and what was considered okay to put on television, this series went to a few places and did a few things that were just about unheard of, at the time – beyond doing what science fiction does best, namely under-the-radar commentary on current events.

On the bridge of our fair starship Enterprise: well, yes, a white fellow in the commander’s seat, and a white fellow in charge of keeping everybody well and healthy … but look at the folks who are helping them out:

An African-American woman in charge of keeping the Enterprise in touch with the outside world.

A Russian fellow — at the time, you’ll recall, Soviet Russia wasn’t exactly considered your warmest fuzziest neighbor — in charge of figuring out how to navigate the ship from place to place.

An Asian man in charge of steering the darn truck! (And firing the phasers, when sadly necessary.)

Yes, a white fellow in charge of keeping the ship propelled properly, but sporting an accent that was darn near impenetrable.

And a green — green! — alien. Not an illegal alien. And not an alien that is here to menace our heroes. And not a “little green man”, as early science-fiction writers imagined. A tall, dark (greenish) and handsome native of another planet entirely. And, um, friendly. If a bit bemused by the humans surrounding him.

As opposed to hell-bent on conquering our world. Or taking our jobs.

The crew of the starship Enterprise was meant (overtly or not) to be a microcosm of the sort of world that Gene Roddenberry believed was possible, some day in the future. His vision has been derided by some as full of Pollyanna BS in its utopian glee; but honestly, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone was judged by their character and not by what they looked like?

Who, indeed.

Fast-forward fifty years from the first appearance of Captain Kirk and his merry band of genuine friends, and … well, politically, we’re not exactly in a happy-clappy utopian mist of bliss, out here.

This morning, I was listening to a segment of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, an interview with a Florida resident who is likely to vote for Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. He didn’t see himself as a hardcore, rally-attending, rally-protester-punching, campaign-press-corps-threatening Trump supporter. No indeed. Rather, he saw himself as a person who, after much consideration, really did think that voting for Trump was his best option “in a weak [election] field.”

And to wrap up his self-assessment, he said a most curious thing.

This is not one [vote] that I’m gonna be bragging about in the future. This is the first presidential election cycle in my lifetime [in which] I have not had a yard sign, a bumper sticker, a pin, a shirt, a hat … there is nothing on my property that would tell you who I’m going to vote for. I told somebody, you know, I like ‘Star Trek’, but I am not dressing up like a Klingon and going to the convention, okay? I’m going to vote for Donald Trump, but his yard sign is not going in my front yard.”

Setting aside the fact that, well, in this case, as in many others throughout history, at least one voter is glad that American elections are done by secret ballot, so no one has to know that you actually voted for Candidate X … and also setting aside the inescapable impression that he held beliefs for which he really didn’t want to have to stand up and be counted …

Here we have a self-professed fan of “Star Trek”, a program whose underlying point was that the wonderful thing about the people that is going out and exploring the wonders of outer space is that they represent race full of human beings who have figured out how to live peaceably and productively with themselves, and have matured to the point that they have begun to appreciate and value people and things and aliens that are different, rather than continuing to be spooked and scared by “strange new worlds”, and probably to be violent toward “new life and new civilizations”.

And this Florida man is supporting a candidate who has managed to awaken many Americans’ latent hatreds, by way of behavior and policies that espouse exactly the opposite philosophy from that “Star Trek” show.

I wonder what Gene Roddenberry would think.

I can’t speak for him … but as for me, at the very least I think that Florida man fundamentally misunderstands “Star Trek”.

Either that or he just likes it for the phaser guns, and spaceships, and fistfights wherein William Shatner rips his own shirt, again.

What really makes me nervous is that, according to the original Star Trek canon, Earth and its humans had to endure a Third World War before they could come out the other side and start to rebuild their civilization into something that would one day become the Roddenberry vision.

Here’s hoping Mr. Roddenberry was wrong, at least in this one detail.

Twenty days.

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October 19, 2016 Posted by | current events, Famous Persons, news, npr, politics, radio, science fiction, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boldly Go

The boy stopped in at his dorm room briefly, after his mid-morning class. A couple things to fetch before the afternoon’s slate of activities kicked in. He flicked on the radio, set to the very local AM station, and noted his good fortune: a news update.

The report had begun already. The boy tried to discern what was going on in the story being reported, but without the introductory remarks to help him, he was a little at-sea. The reporter was hushed, speculative, without a bit of the usual “hey I’m on the radio” news-but-nearly-entertainment spark in his voice. Occasionally another voice emerged from the audio background, and the boy instantly recognized it.

Mission Control.

The boy had been greatly interested in the American space program ever since he could remember. He’d lie on the living room floor with a map, taken from the centerfold of an issue of National Geographic, of The Solar System, and study it for great long periods of time (as was befitting of a universe that was very old indeed). His imagination had been fired by episodes of original-series Star Trek, and by dim memories of the Apollo moon landings. Any time there was mention of the space program, or of space exploration, the little kid in him dropped everything and listened.

And so, he listened.

It was bad.

Well, something was bad, at least, but the boy was still having trouble taking the radio-reported puzzle pieces and assembling them into a completed mosaic.

Downrange” … “obviously we have a major malfunction” … “there is no downlink” …

Rockets had gone up and then come down, unceremoniously, before. Film clips of that sort of thing were common in video montages of “the agony of defeat” – especially the attempts by the Soviet space program, oddly-shaped projectiles that leapt briefly into the air before coming straight back down and setting their own launch pad on fire. Nothing like the majestic Saturn V rockets thundering off the pad at Cape Canaveral …

Oh wait. Oh hell. That was happening today, wasn’t it. That was supposed to be this morning.

The teacher going into space.

And something went wrong. But they still won’t tell me what it is. Because maybe they don’t know.

The boy had to get to lunch, on his way to afternoon classes. He picked up his things, shut off the radio, and headed out, with that awful sense that something is very wrong in the world but without the proper details to suggest just what.

On a whim, the boy detoured from his usual dorm-to-dining-hall path and headed for the campus center. Something suggested to him that there might be more information there.

Sure enough. There were at least sixty students crowded around a television mounted on a tall metal cart just outside a campus center convenience store, staring, shaking their heads, not saying very much. Dan Rather was the talking head, and next to him was a scale model of a Space Shuttle, mounted on its maroon fuel tank, flanked by its two solid-rocket-boosters. The boy instantly knew exactly what he was going to hear, as he tried to get closer to the TV.

There was no announcement on the fate of the crew, but it appeared … there was no way they could survive …”

He stood and watched for another few minutes. Then he turned and headed back to the dining hall. Such a cliché to say that while the world looked exactly as it had for days and months and years before, there was now something completely different. But it was true.

Hi all,” the boy said to a table full of his friends. One of them pulled out a chair and pointed to it, and the boy sat down, with a small smile of thanks. “Ready for this?”

What?”

Challenger just went down.”

What?”

Space Shuttle. They think it crashed just after lifting off, just now.”

The boy had to do quite a bit of work to convince his friends that he wasn’t pulling their legs. “Would I make a joke about that sort of thing?” Not merely because he wasn’t heavily into pulling practical jokes that had to do with seven astronauts reportedly dying horribly; but because people knew he was something of a Trek nerd, and therefore probably was a space program nerd too.

Since the Internet and smartphones were decades away, they had to take his word for it until they could get to a TV or a radio and see for themselves.

Meanwhile, the boy thought, for the first time in his life, manned space flight was not certain to end in triumph, like all those TV episodes. Really, it was just as dangerous as it always had been. For heaven’s sake (pun?), for years we’d been parking humans on top of a container full of many tons of intensely flammable fuel and lighting the stuff on fire, in the hopes that the humans could be launched into orbit, and then somehow those humans could make their way to the moon or somewhere, and then could actually make it home. (And usually, those efforts were supported by a roomful of computers, the equivalent of whose computing power now resides in the single iMac sitting on my desk here, from which I am blogging.)

What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, the investigation eventually concluded, the effects of unusually cold Florida weather upon a tiny little O-shaped rubber ring inside a solid rocket booster. That’s what could go wrong.

Eight zillion little details, and not a one of them is allowed to go wrong. Otherwise … disaster.

The boy used to think it was ridiculous that, on every single Star Trek episode, something went wrong aboard the Starship Enterprise. What kind of rattle trap are they sending Captain Kirk out there on? That’s the flagship of Starfleet Command?

The boy didn’t think that, so much, anymore.

He even started to think about the eight zillion little details involved when cars started. Or when basement furnaces kicked in on a chilly morning. Or when band buses pulled out of the parking lot, headed for faraway places that were not, in fact, that far away really.

So he had even greater, even more firmly renewed respect for the people who were willing to climb on top of all that rocket fuel and agree to have someone light the fuse … and then spend a week surrounded by nothing but vacuum that you can’t breathe when your air hose snaps, and surrounded by no gravity to push against and nothing to grab hold of when you let go of your tether or your handhold.

Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, brain-freezing, heart-in-your-throat -grade peril … cheerfully accepted. That’s the reality of space exploration, and that’s okay with us, say our astronautical hero types. Or at least that’s what we’re showing the cameras, even if there’s a tiny sliver of terror hanging out in the back of our minds, since with Gemini and Apollo and Skylab behind us, we know full well what potential challenges we’re getting ourselves into.

Thirty years ago this morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger made its final launch, Mission STS-51-L. Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnick, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe went out to explore, and didn’t come home. Doubtless they had some idea that there was risk involved; but that didn’t keep them from going. There was work to be done; there were things to be learned.

And now, there are folks in orbit, as we speak, aboard the International Space Station, and it doesn’t ever make the news. They’re up there, quietly doing great work, in their little tiny bubble of hospitable environment, surrounded by the great beyond. They have to get up there, somehow, and they do. They have to get back to Earth somehow, and they do that too. In part, they do all that thanks to the people who were charged with figuring out what (and who) went wrong, thirty years ago, so that humans might continue to focus on more lofty goals than just getting up there and getting back down.

As it turns out, the folks who first wrote the words “to boldly go where no man has gone before” either were strikingly prescient … or they didn’t know the half of it.

January 28, 2016 Posted by | heroes, news, science, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canon Fodder

Over the course of more than 275 posts to this blog – I know, right? – I have been a good boy.

In spite of the fact that at age 10, I was a burgeoning science-fiction / fantasy / space opera fan, having spent any time at all in front of episodes (and in fact published fiction titles) of the original Star Trek TV series …

And in spite of the fact that not long after I hit eleven years old, my dad took me to see this little B-movie called Star Wars, and that pretty much sealed the deal …

And in spite of the fact that in the intervening years, while I have have offered up tepid protestations like “I watch it, but I don’t wear it,” I have historically done spectacularly well at those online quizzes with titles like “How Devout a Trekkie Are You?” and also tended to quickly give up on the online articles that claimed to be all things Star Wars-ical when they didn’t even know that the little red droid that blew a head gasket and gave R2-D2 the opening to get bought by Owen Lars and the rest as they say is history is not *either* an R2 unit!! …

And I’ve come to appreciate items like the Battlestar Galactica re-boot TV series as doing what good sci-fi is supposed to do – making veiled but pointed commentary on our earthly issues.

With all this borne in mind … only a couple of times in this space have I gone Full-On Nerd Alert.

You have been warned.

It was not a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, that the lunatic fringe barked. It was maybe several months ago.

J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie! We’re all gonna die! You saw what he did to the Star Trek re-boot movie! Lightsabers with crossguards? ‘The Force Awakens’?? From what, a nap?! And did you see all that lens flare?? That’s not what Star Wars looks like!!”

Because that’s why the original Star Wars trilogy was so good: we all, every one of us who saw it more than once, got so into it that we thought of it as ours. When Mr. Lucas, who, ummm, came up with it in the first place, added lame things like Jar Jar Binks, those little nasal-voiced battle droids, and Hayden Christensen to the saga [I was going to say “Jake Lloyd” but then I thought better of it; he was a kid in that movie, so let’s lay off the acting critiques] … a great many of us were so protective of it that we wanted to protect it from its own creator.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t horrified that those three items, and more besides, were part of the official canon. But it wasn’t my call.

In many cases, I could have pointed to numerous characters and concepts from the <*ahem*> several Star Wars novels published in the years between the two trilogies’ releases. Timothy Zahn, and a few other justly-famous sci-fi writers, created sidekicks and villains and fleshed out little tiny movie-era scraps of detail into fully-realized interplanetary cultures that would have been great to see on the big screen. Or at least I thought so. And it could have been done – clearing both creative and copyright hurdles.

Because everything in all those novels, and all the ones since – at least until a few months ago – was considered canonic. From the wonderful to the woeful, everything that made it onto the printed page and into stores was part of the “Expanded” Universe.

Star Trek had gone in the other direction, all those years ago.

The Trek legal department decided that, whether the published Trek fiction was well-written or not, it was not canon. Even if it deserved to be. Only the Trek that made it to the silver screen or the boob tube was Official. And for every story or character or reference that was awkward, embarrassing, or really pushing the bounds of credulity for us die-hard fans who knew everything about everything (I know, but we’re working on a sliding scale of credulity here to start with, so ease up) … there was a story or character or reference or whole novel in the Trek fiction world that by rights should have been included in the Official Trek Universe.

(See my thoughts about Diane Duane’s exquisite historical novel, “Spock’s World”, and how it was so much more elegant and logical than a lot of the planet-Vulcan details that made it into Star Trek V, and then J.J. Abrams went and literally blew it all up anyway.)

Also, if a novel was fluffy or poorly-written or just plain unlikely – I mean, how can one single starship crew save civilization as we know that many times? – a reader could chuckle, park it on the bookshelf again, and forget it.

It was also easier to keep track of everything.

So, some time ago, the Disney juggernaut had laid out untold billions of dollars to buy the rights to the Star Wars franchise from its creator – and the fan base twitched.

And then the new keepers of the Star Wars flame determined that the extensive Expanded Universe of the SW fiction world … just wouldn’t do. So they effectively hit control-Z. Busted the whole project back down to “six movies, two animated series [now that a certain former Jedi Padawan has shown up in the “Star Wars Rebels” season finale] and that’s all, thank you.”

And the fan base largely freaked.

I not-so-humbly assert that I didn’t. I did pause to offer well wishes to Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Kal Skirata, and the Jedi mental-group-battle-meld (what… the actual… frak??) as they settled in to their new home in the Star Wars Phantom Zone, yes. But the logic of the move quickly became obvious.

The Expanded Universe had expanded beyond the point where any screenwriter was going to have a prayer of writing Episode VII without banging into some other author’s established reality.

At this writing, there are at least a hundred and fifty-nine Star Wars novels in print. And that doesn’t include the myriad of lighter-weight items pitched at the kiddies, or the e-books, or the short story collections.

Not only was that going to be unwieldy, but … sorry, but not everybody knows all the details of “The Courtship of Princess Leia”, not everybody has read “Han Solo at Star’s End”, and not everybody is aware that Princess Leia and Han Solo had a daughter and two sons, and one of the sons killed the other one in a lightsaber duel, and went on to become a Sith Lord himself. And some yahoo somewhere in the online world (possibly me) was going to get on their cases about screwing up the Established Order Of Things.

You can’t do that in our Universe!”

J.J. Abrams didn’t have that to contend with, when he re-booted Star Trek. And on top of that he created an alternate-universe story that allowed him to thumb his nose at established Trek canon. There are a few of us Trek fans out here who would have preferred that maybe he and his writers had lashed themselves a bit more firmly to the canonic mast.

But anyone with experience in alternate-reality stories knows that the “prime” universe is still there. We’re just not looking at it, right now. I’m living in this house, right now; but the house I grew up in is still there, just like it was. I’m just not there at the moment.

Perhaps the reason that the second trailer for the upcoming Episode VII movie fractured the Internet somethin’ fierce … with utter whoops of joy … was that ol’ J.J. saw fit to park at the end of it a single line of dialogue, Han Solo’s first new one in more than thirty years, and one that was tantalizingly reassuring:

Chewie… we’re home.”

This might be okay, after all.

At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of all this: while the actual, moneymaking franchises belong to Lucas (okay, now Disney) and the Roddenberry estate (okay, now Paramount Pictures) … and therefore we out here in Fandom Land don’t get much of a say in what shows up on the Official Entertainment Screens … it’s a free country. You can make your own personal decisions.

If ya don’t like what they’ve done to “your” Trek, you can choose to not ever watch “Star Trek V” again and instead put “Spock’s World” in a prominent place on your coffee table.

Not happy with a droid that looks like R2-D2’s head got caught on a madly-rolling beach ball? By all means, huddle on your couch with Karen Traviss’ thought-provoking series of clone trooper novels (you heard me), or even go cue up your VHS cassette copy of the “Star Wars Christmas Special”.

Okay, that might be pushing it.

But I know what “characters and situations” are included in my personal Wars and Trek canons. And inside my head and my hovel, they’re what count.

What’s in your wallet?

April 21, 2015 Posted by | entertainment, film, media, movies, science fiction, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment