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Space, the Final Frontier–and Why It Will Stay That Way


Long-time readers are aware I’m a science fiction buff.  Heck, perusing the content here is enough to demonstrate that.  As I’ve discussed in the past , I’m a Star Trek buff from way back.  Most of my reading as a kid and young adult was science fiction. and so were many–perhaps most–of the movies I watched.  Given all this, I have to apologize a bit to sf fans for this post.  As the title implies, I’m going to try to show why the “final frontier” will always be just that–the final frontier–since, in my opinion, there will never be a substantial human presence in space.  In short, alas, the future envisioned by Star Trek (or Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica or Andromeda or any other space-oriented media franchise) is never going to come to pass.  I don’t like that either, but there it is.  Let me explain.

As I’ve noted before (here and here), scientific illiteracy is rife in our culture, even in the context of science fiction movies, novels, and such, where the writers ought to know better.  Probably one of the biggest areas of ignorance, misunderstanding, and misinformation is in the area of space travel.  There are many issues involved.  Therefore, I will consider each category of problems under the appropriate heading.  Off into space we go, then!

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Space: Stars, Solar Systems, Galaxies, and Such

I had been mulling over making a post on this topic when I saw this story in my Facebook newsfeed.  A new galaxy, tiny and dim, has been discovered orbiting our own.  That was a fascinating piece of news, and it confirmed my intention to write about the topic of space.  More specifically, I want to discuss how the structure or layout of space seems to be widely misunderstood, even by some writers of science fiction.  In this regard, this post is a sort of follow up to this one and this one.  Thus, let us now boldly go into space and see what we’ll find there!

Since October 4th, 1957, with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be sent by humans into Earth orbit, we have lived in the Space Age.  Press coverage of space and space travel seemed wall-to-wall throughout the 1960’s and into the early 70’s.  Space figured largely in pop culture, too, with the 60’s giving us Star Trek and the monumental 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  With time, the allure wore thin and the extraordinary became humdrum.  Still, over sixty years later, we are more deeply connected to the inventions of the space program than ever before.  Cell phone signals, Internet transmissions, and GPS all depend on satellites to function.  Many of us get satellite TV as a matter of course.  There has even been a resurgence of interest in space in both pop culture and reality.  In the former, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, after periods of dormancy, have re-started.  In the latter, Elon Musk is making plans for manned travel to Mars, while various government sources have spoken of returning to the moon and of founding a military “space force”.

Given all this, one would assume a certain amount of science literacy regarding space.  Certainly in the beginning of the Space Age, there was a strong push towards what we’d now call STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, out of fear of the head start of the Soviet Union in space.  With space more integrated into our lives than ever, a permanent international space station in orbit, and the aforementioned space exploration plans, it would seem more imperative than ever that we have a good grasp of science and terminology of space.  Most particularly, one would expect such science literacy from the writers of science fiction, which is perhaps the most characteristic genre of our age.  Alas, that seems to be far from the case.  Thus, along the lines of previous posts of mine which detail areas in which sf writers often fall short, I want in this post to look at some of the basics of space.

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Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that?  Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….

Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old.  Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade.  I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well.  I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.

It doesn’t really matter, though.  Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another.  Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it.  For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired.  I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once.  I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did.  In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.

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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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