Sunday, November 6, 2016

November's Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman STAR TREK: boldly going--and going and going

"If man is to survive, he will have learned to take delight 
in the essential differences between men and between cultures. 
He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, 
part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear."
- Gene Roddenberry 

Netflix notes the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek, The Original Series (TOS), by its streaming appearance, sparklingly remastered, with approbation on many fronts of Star Trek's value to generations of fans. Created by Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991) TOS ran 1966-69 on NBC. Five more series followed, 13 big-screen films, web sites, Trekkie followers, books, comics, encyclopedia, toys et al (below) -- Star Trek is industry. 

The adventures of the Starship Enterprise in the 23rd century were full of optimistic can-do -- human beings working together to figure things out and fix problems, said first fan, President Obama to WIRED (see the video link at end). Earth belonged to a federation of planets and had cold war foes, but the Enterprise mission was peaceful -- to assist planets in straits or in need of problem-solving.

The half-century milestone is a good point to tally up Star Trek's actual contribution to science and social progress. In all its dated glory it looks and feels like comic book adventure mixed with bible reading -- not for adults as much as select watching with children to help them process current events about war, peace, progress, and human behavior. It's a Roddenberry celebration of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Original Star Trek took time to catch on. It took a letter writing campaign to get it renewed for a third year. NBC insured its failure in 1969 by cutting the budget and scheduling it when its young audience wouldn't be there to watch. It found its footing in syndication in the 1970's late day thru supper (ritual at my house) and in later series.

Star Trek TOS, our focus here, based its subject matter on the space race, cold war, atomic fear, anger at endless war, dated 1950's social morays, and gender/race inequities; it drew its energy and optimism from JFK's New Frontier, LBJ's Great Society, and confidence in our ability to solve anything. It was a time in American life when it seemed the family of man could unify in Gene Roddenberry's humanist federated world government that would be multi-cultural, interracial, moral, embracing of science, learning, and the spread of freedom. Some of the subject matter was controversial in the late 60's -- tactics were employed to foil the script censors such as pushing boundaries in one area to distract from another knowing the former would be cut and the latter let stand.

The multi-national and-planetary officers of the Star Ship Enterprise ( "wagon train to the stars") and their bonds of affection, irritation, and loyalty led the series to be about humanness as much as science or politics. In the lead was dashing ship's commander, James T. Kirk -- William Shatner, still working in his mid-80's. Pointy-eared First Officer Spock, half-human/half Vulcan scientist from Federation planet Vulcan is much beloved; his emotionless affect steered the crew thru problem-solving with beams of logic -- Leonard Nimoy, actor/director, deceased in 2015. Nimoy/Spock was eulogized by NASA and influential in inspiring space science and travel. Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, was chief medical officer, an emotional Irishman -- DeForest Kelley, died at 79 in 1999. The perpetual heat between Bones and Spock underlined the tension between emotion and logic in problem-solving.

Lieutenant Uhura ('uhura' means 'freedom' in Swahili) put a woman on the bridge at a time black women characters were mostly servants and never real-life astronauts or military officers. Uhura and Kirk had the first U.S. inter-racial screen kiss --Nichelle Nichols is now in her 80's. While Scottish Engineer Scott, James Doohan, is also deceased, two other command crew are busy today: Russian Ensign Pavel Chekov, the placement of whom on the bridge previewed a peaceful end to the Cold War -- Walter Koenig, 80, his parents Russian Jewish emigres, has had a long career as writer, director, teacher, actor; and Sulu, George Takei, 79, is an activist and spokesperson for gay rights and politics, especially as an advocate for former internees of Japanese-American internment camps following Pearl Harbor. His busy life and bits of Star Trek are documented in "To Be Takei" on Netflix.

The extent to which the series imagined our modern high tech era (despite having missed the internet) is described here in a recent article by NASA physicist, David Allen Batchelor, Goddard Space Flight Center, a Star Trek fan, along with colleagues. Batchelor lists the devices familiar to series watchers such as communicator (below), transporter, tricorder, warp drive, cloaking device, replicator, phaser, et al -- describing what came true, is in the pipeline, or is still wishful thinking. His article includes a 1976 photo of the unveiling of NASA's space shuttle named 'Enterprise' in honor of the series and in the presence of many original cast attired in their 1970's bell-bottomed best.

Roddenberry made magic embedding imaginary space tech into plots. In "The Enemy Within", a transporter (used to move crew back and forth between ship and land) malfunction causes Kirk to be both duplicated and divided resulting in one weak captain and the other maniacally strong. Bad Kirk wreaks havoc on board ship while good Kirk grows passive, indecisive. The transporter repaired, the two captains are sent thru and come back as one. But Kirk has seen shocking parts of himself -- his decisive command authority from his dark side (below) and kindness and empathy from the good side. Spock, half-human, half Vulcan, explains he uses his reason to manage his own two warring halves; likewise Kirk must also manage his negative and positive traits to function as their commander.

In "Balance of Terror", Kirk discovers that a string of Federation outposts is being destroyed by a predatory Romulan bird-of-prey ship. The Enterprise attacks, launching a game of wits between well-matched competitors. Kirk finally cripples the Romulan ship, outwitting its captain who expresses regret: "You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend." Maintaining a 'balance of terror' is offset with regret that one's enemy would be a peer and friend in other conditions.

The original Star Trek offered 79 of these stories on unique planets in weird situations, some frivolous, some badly written, hammily acted, and decorated with silly paper mache props. But many episodes contained some unsubtle nugget of wisdom whether it be about power and its abuse, friendship, empathy for the stranger, the unknown, and the like.

In later iterations of the Star Trek universe, mid-century optimism has struggled, the mood frayed around the edges, no longer suitable for kids but aimed at those who have matured in a world of roiling threat.

It's fitting to end this weekend with mention of the uber-capitalist Ferengi (below) who appeared often in Star Trek series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Writer/producers Ron D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr of Outlander were major contributors to both. Behr, showrunner for DS9, will release a documentary about it in 2017 and he wrote the Ferengi sacred code-- 285 'Rules of Acquisition', the bedrock of Ferengi society. A few of the code's uncanny tenets are: 'when in doubt, lie'; 'once you have their money, never give it back'; 'always exaggerate your estimates', and the formula for the velocity of wealth is 'rate divided by time = profit'.

The Ferengi of Planet Ferenginar were entirely devoted to unregulated capitalism, profit, trade, and swindling of the innocent. Workers benefits were frowned on -- they would interfere with worker exploitation. The Ferengi were unremorseful misogynists; they pressed women into the sex trade. After a Ferengi died he would meet up with the Blessed Exchequer who would dispatch him to the Devine Treasury or the Vault of Eternal Destitution, depending on his net worth. The alt-right Ferengi were too ridiculous to be political threats to the Federation. Likewise our 2016 comic-book villainy now requires similar dispatch to footnote status plus regulation to minimize harm to victims.

It may be that our young, broad-shouldered nation is experiencing adolescent growing pains following our post-WWII late twentieth-century growth spurt and burst of optimism. Original Star Trek offers moral support for the energy it will take to muster new national maturity. Star Trek TOS is not entirely dated after all (the cold war and mini-skirts are back in style); keep a lookout for some kids to share its infinite varieties with.

Note:  In this video, President Obama talks to WIRED about the true meaning of Star Trek....

The above post is written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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