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.
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!