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

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Ten: “Oh, Master”

Today’s blog challenge writing prompt:

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 10: First celebrity crush?

 

Now we’re getting personal.

 

At this time in my life, I wish the answer to this question had been a famous person who was in a sober, intellectual line of work, someone more on the level of a UN ambassador or university professor, or if it has to be in the entertainment industry, a groundbreaking director or the equivalent, who broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for women to earn the same paycheck and the same respect as their male counterparts, who became known for their agile and creative mind, …

That, of course, is not what a crush is. Celebrity or otherwise.

A crush happens based on a whole lot of factors that don’t (in the harsh light of early morning) involve a whole lot of logic … or rather, based on a whole lot of factors that involve a whole lot of logic that doesn’t involve a whole lot of thought, sober, intellectual, or otherwise.

There is a deeper, more Neanderthal line of reasoning at work here, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so why should we be mortified, years or even minutes later? Nature. Human nature. End of story.

Now then. We were discussing my first celebrity crush, I guess.

The object of mine was not exactly subtle … actually, that’s unfair. Rather, I should say, the circumstances and accoutrements into which she had been placed were not exactly the product of subtle minds or intentions … nor were they necessarily her choice, other than “I’m a working actor in the early part of my career; this is work; I am thankful.”

It was late 1960s/early 1970s television, after all.

It was the remarkable Barbara Eden.

 

It was because as a relatively small person, I stumbled onto a rerun of the old “I Dream of Jeannie” sitcom. Larry Hagman, pre-Dallas, as an astronaut who crash-landed in the South Pacific, happened upon a genie-in-a-bottle, released her, and (following the instructions of all genies in all bottles) found himself the unwitting Master of a Genie.

It wasn’t because of the rather, um, revealing outfit.

OK, maybe it was a little bit.

Partly.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, I was eleven years old.

I blame the TV producers for producing an outfit that adhered (somehow) to the 1960s’ network television Standards and Practices, and yet had potential to kinda light a young feller’s imagination on fire.

They did their job perfectly.

But there was something else.

 

I know you don’t believe me. Thus far we have been fixated on skin tone and relative dearth of fabric. In an young eleven-year-old male’s perception, was there anything else that made an impression?

There was. Truly.

There were, in fact, two things.

One was Ms. Eden’s smile.

Fire up a search engine and you’ll see. Her smile was bright and wide. It was not a come-hither smile, because Jeannie was not that kind of genie. It was not a snarky smile, or a smile with any kind of hidden agenda, because Jeannie wasn’t that kind of genie either. It was perhaps an overly trusting smile, because that was the kind of genie Jeannie was. The pilot episode established that she fell in love with the astronaut at first sight. It was perhaps fortunate that Jeannie met Larry Hagman before he became J.R. Ewing, since ol’ J.R. would have taken ferocious advantage of that smile in ways that would have really offended this eleven-year-old boy.

Anyway. In addition to that smile, there was one other thing that convinced this eleven-year-old boy that Ms. Eden was probably a really great person to hang out with (there being no other specific thought at that point, which was just fine too).

It was Ms. Eden’s voice.

It wasn’t a squeaky Kewpie-doll cutesy-pie voice, no matter how much the TV producers might originally have wanted that, during the casting process … no matter how much they might originally have thought that such a voice would help rake in the ratings … no matter how insistent the stereotypes of the time might have been.

It was a surprisingly contralto voice that probably communicated something else to the older teens and fellers in their twenties, thirties … fifties … oi … who were watching TV carefully at that time. But to me, it was a voice that – silly dialogue requirements aside (“Oh, Master!”) – communicated warmth, and friendliness, and humor.

And, at various moments in various “Jeannie” episodes, it communicated a steely resolve, quite often in the defense of this astronaut that the genie rule book said she was to serve. Somehow, Barbara Eden took a character created for a very-specific and not-a-little-sexist reason … and overlaid as much dignity and nobility onto that character as was probably possible. She made something out of nearly nothing.

 

And while everyone watching (including, I freely admit, this eleven-year-old) could not help notice the, um, look of the character … well, I still hope I wasn’t the only one who was taken with what we were hearing. The Barbara Eden voice made an impression on this future musician, whose stock-in-trade was much more audio than visual.

I was such a weird kid. But she just seemed very nice.

May 10, 2016 Posted by | blogging, celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, media, 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