Thursday, May 12, 2005

Now For Something Important

Well, the blogging's been rather heavy this week. So for today's post I thought I'd spend some time discussing something truly important:

Star Trek: Good science fiction or bad?

Science fiction icon Orson Scott Card weighed in on this subject for the Los Angeles Times. The occasion was the impending conclusion of the UPN series Enterprise, a Star Trek prequel that somehow never really took off. Once it leaves the air, there will be no Star Trek series on television. And since there is currently no film in production, that means we will, at least temporarily, be living in a Trekless universe.

Card is pleased by this. He writes:

So they've gone and killed “Star Trek.” And it's about time.

They tried it before, remember. The network flushed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down into the great septic tank of broadcast waste, from which no traveler…. No, wait, let's get this right: from which rotting ideas and aging actors return with depressing regularity.

And later:

The original “Star Trek,” created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad. Nimoy was the only charismatic actor in the cast and, ironically, he played the only character not allowed to register emotion.

This was in the days before series characters were allowed to grow and change, before episodic television was allowed to have a through line. So it didn't matter which episode you might be watching, from which year — the characters were exactly the same.

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s — a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

Now, I went through a period in graduate school when I was a big fan of Orson Scott Card. I started to lose interest in him when I noticed that many of his novels were devoted to pushing certain political and religious views that I found objectionable. (As a little kid I had a similar falling out with C.S. Lewis. Turned out Aslan the Lion was a Christ substitute. Who knew?) I'm afraid on this one, he's all wet.

First of all, there is only one Star Trek. That's the one with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest. The subsequent pseudotreks certainly had their moments, but no one would mistake them for the real thing.

So was Star Trek as terrible as Card says? By modern standards, yes. Science fiction has come a long way since the sixties, and nothing as hokey as Star Trek would last long today. Good science fiction has good science at its core, but Trek could never seem to get the hang of it. They never actually explained which part of general relativity was wrong to make it possible for large objects to travel many times the speed of light. They also never explained which part of Newtonian mechanics was wrong to make it possible to go from light speed to dead stop in two seconds, without flying head first through that little viewscreen Lieutenant Sulu had to be ordered to turn on.

And they certainly had some funny ideas about logic. Who could forget Mr. Spock intoning “Without facts there can be no logic. You must trust your human emotion.” (Episode 55: Assignment: Earth, and yes, that is only an approximate quote).

But for all of that Star Trek also had some real triumphs. They did the very best anti-racism episode ever done on television (Episode 70: Let That be Your Last Battlefield). That's the one where Frank “The Riddler” Gorshin plays an alien from planet Ariannus whose face is black on the right side and white on the left. He is sent to apprehend a traitor from his planet who comes from a race that is white on the right side and black on the left. This difference had led to centuries of civil unrest back on Ariannus. Long story short, the Enterprise gets sucked into this dispute and ends up journeying back to Ariannus. They discover that the race hatred on the planet has led to the complete destruction of the entire Ariannun civilization. Are the two aliens on the Enterprise moved to reconsider by this devlopment? Not at all. They are only moved to despise each other even more. Who could forget the episode's final moments, in which scenes of destruction on the planet below are intercut with shots of the two aliens continuing their endless blood feud on the ship above?

I know it's just a television show, but that's friggin powerful.

Star Trek put on what I still consider to be one of the most suspenseful hours of television in history (though the Locutus of Borg episode of the Next Generation is a close second). That would be Episode 3: The Corbomite Maneuver. This is the one where the Enterprise is stopped dead in its tracks by - are you sitting down? - a giant golf ball. That's what it looked like anyway. Special effects have improved since the sixties as well. The Enterprise was informed that it had tresspassed in alien space and would be destroyed as a result. The Enterprise is hopelessly outgunned by the golf ball and the alien (played by Clint Howard, brother of Ron) refuses to talk to them. Even Mr. Spock declares their situation hopeless. What to do? Well, I won't give away the ending, but you might guess it from this classic example of William Shatner's unusual approach to line delivery: “You're playing the wrong game.....Mr Spock. Not chess......Poker......You know the game?”

And while it is true that characters were not developed much during the season, who could deny that Star Trek provided some of the most memorable characters in the history of television? Leonard Nimoy was so good as Mr. Spock that it looked downright weired to watch him emote during his brief stint on Mission: Impossible.

James Doohan was equally memorable as Scotty (“I can't change the laws of physics, Captain! I have to have th-ahr-ty minutes!” Episode 7: The Naked Time. Long story short, it turned out they didn't really need thirty minutes). And only the genius of William Shatner could turn bad acting into the stalwart Captain Kirk. DeForest Kelly's Dr. McCoy was an excellent counterpoint to Mr. Spock.

And, best of all, let's not forget that Star Trek gave us what is perhaps the finest moment of defiant secularism in the face of religious feebleness ever seen on television. It came in Episode 33: Who Mourns for Adonais? This is the one where the Enterprise is stopped dead in its tracks, by a large green hand this time, and is forced to beam most of its senior officers to the planet below. There they meet Apollo. Yes, that Apollo (turns out those Greek gods were just really powerful aliens. Clever gimmick! The ID folks would be proud).

Anyway, Apollo informs them they will remain on this planet to worship him, and shows off a few parlor tricks (making himself thirty feet tall, shooting lightning bolts from his fingers) to show off how powerful he is. Totally unimpressed, Kirk is all “What else can you do?” and Apollo is like “You will worship me!” and Kirk is all “Unlikely, dude. We beat that giant golf ball and we can sure as heck beat you.”

Anyway, the episode concludes with the discovery that Apollo's power source comes from a Parthenon-like structure that Spock procedes to destroy with a sustained phaser blast. A now powerless and defeated Apollo truns to Kirk and says something like “Was it so much that I asked? I would have given you everything. I would have loved you like my own children.” The actor who played Apollo was so moving and convincing that I was all set to bow in front of the television and worship him myself.

Kirk was less impressed. He uttered one of the finest lines ever uttered on a major television show: “We've outgrown you,” he said. Ah, if only that were true.

I could go on like this (believe me, I could go on for a very long time indeed like this) but hopefully the point is made. Star Trek was a genuine milestone in the history of television and it was far better than any science fiction show that came before it or for twenty years after it. Considering that the science fiction of the seventies brought us such dreck as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, I think Card should pay Star Trek a little more respect.

Besides, if it weren't for all those Star Trek fans Card sees fit to deride, it is unlikely that he would be able to make a living as a science-fiction writer today. So there!


At 4:58 PM, Anonymous tshandy said...

Baltimore Public Radio reviewed the last episode, the "prequel" series, and Star Trek in general. It likened the original to Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" which, while sometimes downright juvenile in special effects, gave television parables that went beyond the special effects. It gave us the first interracial kiss on television; and William Shatner did not sing. The "Enterprise" series had much more sophisticated special effects, but, alas, did not match the original in meaning.

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous lori said...

I believe that it is from Star Trek that I learned "humanism".

At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Pratik Patel said...

And don't forget the first ever interracial kiss, between Uhura and Kirk, to be broadcast on TV anywhere in the world.
Roddenberry deserves much acclaim for that act alone and for having the balls to stand up to the network executives who were desperate to cut the scene for fear of a backlash from the 'Bible Belt'.

At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you grew up in the pre-TV years reading science fiction as I did and as Card probably did you couldn't help noticing that compared to A E Van Vogt or Bob Heinlein Rodenberry was a clueless wanker. The sf in those days wasn't particularly well-written but it had real ideas while Star Trek was just a ride in a 1930's spaceship. Those unfortunate enough to have grown up with television seem to have neen hypnotized into losing all sense of values when they recall fondly their childhood viewing. Sure, I don't care much for Card either but he's right on about Star Dreck. As for Star Bores...

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Noturus said...

In that episode Adonis says something like "you will kneel before all the gods" and Kirk replies "We find the one sufficient." They were under pressure from the network of course, but still.

At 2:18 AM, Anonymous Ian H Spedding said...

Don't forget Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It was one of the worst of the movies but it had one of the best lines to throw in the face of all the cretins and IDeologues who seem to believe an all-knowing and all-powerful God cannot survive without their support: "What does God need with a starship?"

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Card is more than a little pompous in this commentary. He sneers at Star Trek as "juvenile," an intro to sci-fi for the non-sci-fi crowd. Meanwhile, he praises the Greatest Science Fiction of all Time: surrealist movies like "Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine," as well as Whedon's "Firefly"... which, if you'll recall, failed in less than a season. (Not entirely due to bad stories, but still.)

Card overlooks all the positive messages that Trek tried, however clumsily, to convey: the anti-racism, the enlightened humanism already commented on. And best of all--as many more insightful reviewers have pointed out--Roddenberry presented a future that was POSITIVE, in a world and culture where fear was the predominant attitude toward science and the future.

Sure, there was no character devlopment. (That's not much of a drawback in my book, since continuity is an optional seasoning, not a vital ingredient.) And sure, the acting was hammy or inept. But the underlying _theme_ was a future where humanity has gained wisdom along with knowledge and mastered their own destiny. That sort of powerful concept outshines cheesy effects and weak stories.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Milo Johnson said...

Card? An "ICON" of Science-Fiction?


He's a writer of drivel. I couldn't bring myself to even finish the two novels I started to read.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger pinkmonkeybird said...

Nice piece.
I also fisked Card's piece.
One thing I must disagree with you on is your oversimplification of the alien ship as a "golf ball". The only golf ball I ever saw that looked like that was the one I used when I took a tab of LSD before I headed to the green. The SFX for Star Trek were sublimely beautiful in their simplicity and lo-fi process. I prefer such an effect to any amount of big-dollar solutions.
Did you also find Douglas Trumbel's SFX trite for 2001; A Space Odyssey? They looked like the fog hanging over the green that day.

Once again, nice post.

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The original Star Trek had stories written by or adapted from such stalwarts of printed SF as Jerome Bixby, Robert Bloch, Fredric Brown, Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, Norman Spinrad, and Theodore Sturgeon. Non of the other Treks used well-known print SF writers. It makes a big difference.

--Art Nevsky

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There have been great, good, fair, poor and abysmal episodes of all the Star Trek series. I grew up with the original series and was part of the early fandom. The optimism and humanism of the series is a major part of why I have enjoyed the series over the years. Compared to much of what was being broadcast on network television in 1966, Star Trek was ahead of its time. Compared to much of what passes for entertainment on television today, specifically "reality" shows, both old and new Star Trek are worlds more enjoyable.

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At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The aliens in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" were from Cheron. Arrianus was the place they were going to "decontaminate" I've tried to look up this episode to find out what the title refers to (besides one line from Kirk), but I have absolutely no idea otherwise. It's certainly fun to say isn't it?


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