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What Is Needed for Good Science Fiction

This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion.  There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind.  It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.

Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots.  I watched Star Trek:  The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged.  I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov.  Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references).  Certainly, Asimov knew better.  The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created.  It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us.  The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.

The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right.  This leads to the topic I want to talk about here:  What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy?  That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.

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STTMP, Part 7: Director

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In the course of this reconsideration of Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, we’ve looked at all the major aspects of production except for what some consider the most important, the director.  I don’t really have any strong feelings either way with regard to the auteur theory–I think there are cases to be made both ways.  In either case, the director is certainly one of the most important aspects of any film; and the director chosen to helm STTMP was the distinguished veteran filmmaker Robert Wise.

Robert Wise was a Hollywood veteran of long standing, who had worked in almost all cinematic genres.  He won Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music.  More germane to the present consideration, he directed the movie widely considered to be the best science fiction movie of the 1950’s, The Day the Earth Stood StillHe also directed the science fiction thriller The Andromeda Strain.  Unlike later directors who often stamped their personality onto all their films, Wise had a reputation as a consummate craftsman who worked with what he was given to make the best movies he could.  Wise had not been familiar with Star Trek, but he had been a favorite director of Gene Roddenberry.  Thus, after several possible directors were discussed, Wise was chosen to direct Star Trek:  The Motion Picture.

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And Now for Something from Captain Jean-Luc Picard

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Space: 1999–A Brief Appreciation

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In the most recent installment of my series on Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, I referenced the series Space:  1999.  I thought it appropriate to say a small bit about it before going on with the series on STTMP. 

Gerry Anderson was a British television producer and director best known for his Supermarionation process of using puppets in dramatic television series, although he did work with live actors, as well.  His works were primarily oriented towards science fiction.  His best known works using puppets are Stingray (about a futuristic sub and its crew; this series was more children-oriented), Thuderbirds (about a futuristic family involved with an international rescue organization), and the slightly more adult Captain Scarlet (about war between Earth and evil invisible Martians, the Mysterons).  Later, in the early 70’s, Anderson produced the live-action alien invasion series UFO.  Perhaps his best-known non-puppet work, at least among Americans of a certain generation, is Space:  1999.

In 1975, the original Star Trek (henceforward TOS) had been off the air for six years and had gradually developed into a cult series.  Its creator (purportedly, anyway–for more on that, see here and here), Gene Roddenberry, had been trying unsuccessfully to resuscitate the series (finally succeeding with STTMP in 1979) ever since.  Meanwhile, the appetite of the public for more science fiction had been whetted.  Gerry Anderson decided to feed that appetite with a new sf series.  Enter Space:  1999.

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STTMP, Part 6–A Few Words about Costumes (ugh!)

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Not that costumes are the most important aspect of the movie, but I have discussed the music, special effects, and art direction; and the costumes, for better or worse, are a huge departure from those of TOS, to say nothing of being a big part of the look of Star Trek:  The Motion Picture.  Thus, I decided to discuss them a bit.  Also, as a matter of minor housekeeping, I’ve decided to abbreviate the title of the movie and to remove the “Movie Review” for the remaining posts in this series.  It  has, after all, gone far beyond a standard review.  I may emend the titles of past installments, too, but we’ll see.

As discussed in the very first installment of this series, originally STTMP was to have been a television series, Star Trek:  Phase II.  While the redesign of the ship was much like what made it to the screen in the movie, there were originally no plans to change the costumes substantially.  Observe the screen test photos below of Persis Khambatta as Ilia (left) and David Gautreaux as full Vulcan Xon (the character was dropped, but Gautreaux was given a cameo as commander of the station that first detects the attack of V’Ger on the Klingon ships in STTMP).

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The material of Xon’s shirt seems slightly different from that used in the costumes on the old series, and his hair is inexplicably long and seventies-ish.  It is also clear that Khambatta wasn’t fully committed to the show yet, as it’s clear that she has bald makeup on, rather than shaving her head, as she did for the movie.  The main point, though, is that both the design and color scheme of the uniforms is unchanged from TOS, right down to the plunging neckline and miniskirt for the women’s version.  All that would change, though.

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture: A Reconsideration

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The posts on Star Trek:  The Motion Picture have gone beyond the number I’d originally expected.  At this point, I’d thought I had no more than a couple posts left.   As I’ve continued, however, and as more themes and ideas have come to mind, it seems as if I’ll need at least four posts, and perhaps more than that, to finish what I have to say about it.  Thus, while leaving the essays on STTMP at the general Star Trek index, and putting the future ones there, as well, I’ve decided to give it an index of its own right here.  Enjoy!

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, Part 1–Pre-incarnation

STTMP, Part 2–Synopsis

STTMP, Part 3–Pretty Sounds and Colors!

STTMP, Part 4–Script

STTMP, Part 5–Cast

STTMP, Part 6:  A Few Words about Costumes (ugh!)

STTMP, Part 7:  Director

STTMP, Part 5: Cast

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Continuing in my long-on-hiatus series of essays about Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, I’d like to discuss the cast very briefly before I go on to interpretation.

As I pointed out last time, there are major problems with the script.  To their credit, the cast make the best of what they’re given.  I can’t really single out one bad performance.  The returning supporting members of the original TV cast–Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, James Doohan as Scotty, Walter Koenig as Chekov, George Takei as Sulu, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry as Nurse (now Doctor) Chapel–are all good, turning in professional performances in character, as if it had been only the previous season and not a decade previously that they’d last played their roles.  It is most unfortunate that they were given so little to do.  Doohan gets the most screen time, given the long sequence where he ferries Kirk to the refurbished Enterprise, and  he makes the most of every second.  Star Trek lore has it that Doohan was particularly resentful of William Shatner for his supposed jockeying for screen time at the expense of everyone else.  Indeed, Doohan is said to have nursed a grudge against Shatner until shortly before Doohan’s death.  I can’t help but think that Doohan was getting a kick out of upstaging Shatner in this sequence!  None of the other supporting cast is given more than a line or two, but they do what they can with them.  At least Uhura doesn’t have to say, “Captain, I’m frightened!”

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An Interview with Leonard Nimoy

In which, among other things, he explains the origin of the Vulcan salute, and does Shatner.

STTMP, Part 4–Script

This story conference doesn't look like it's going to go well....

This story conference doesn’t look like it’s going to go well….

Previous installments are  here, here, and here.

Practically every name science fiction writer was suggested to write the script: Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison, to name a few (the latter two had written scripts for TOS, in fact).  Finally, the decision was made to go with a script that was originally to have been the pilot episode of Star Trek:  Phase II.  The script was “In Thy Image”, about a damaged and repaired space probe returning to Earth (personal quibble–it ought to be “In Thine Image”–the form with the euphonic “n” comes before vowels).  One could be charitable and say that if waste were recycled as much as this script, we’d live in a garbage-free utopia….

“In Thy Image” is essentially a remake of TOS epidose “The Changeling“.  Insofar as it features an Inexplicable Looming Menace From Space, the script is similar to the episodes of TOS  The Doomsday Machine” and  “The Immunity Syndrome” (this theme would be reused yet again in Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home).  In the theme of Kirk having to reason with or outfox an implacable computer, the script resembles “The Ultimate Computer“, “Return of the Archons“, and “The Changeling” once more.  At least re-writing its own episodes is a venerable Trek tradition!

In any case, fans immediately caught the derivative nature of the plot, and this has been much discussed and derided.  It is also a long-standing custom to beat up on the extremely long FX shots with the actors doing nothing more than giving silent reactions, while the movie drags ponderously along.  These are valid criticisms, but they have long been made and are a part of fan lore.  Moreover, even a derivative re-write could have been done well, and excessive length is as much a matter of editing as script.  What I want to do is look at other problems with the script that in my view have not been adequately discussed.

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STTMP, Part 3–Pretty Sounds and Colors!

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The first two installments of this review are here and here.

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The theme of the original series (TOS)–the familiar dah dah DAH dah dah dah dah DAAAAHH–was composed by Alexander Courage.  Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics for the theme.  They were never sung or performed in any of the series or movies of the Star Trek franchise, nor were they intended to be.   Roddenberry, chronically short of cash (until much later, after the franchise was re-started with this movie), did so merely to claim 50% of royalties on the theme.  He did so without consulting Courage, who long held a grudge against The Great Bird of the Galaxy (Rodenberry’s nickname among the cast) for this reason.

Veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith was hired to do the score for Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (STTMP).  Goldsmith was talented and well-respected in Hollywood.  Goldsmith was also known as an innovator, always on the lookout for new sounds and methods.  A good example is his use of unique instrumentation in this movie, particularly the peculiar sounds used as a theme for V’Ger.  Goldsmith made two audacious moves for STTMP.

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