Tag Archives: Star Trek

Should SF Be More Optimistic?

A panel at Chicon 7 discussed whether science fiction has become too pessimistic. Dystopian dramas such as The Road, The Walking Dead, and I Am Legend seem to dominate today’s market. Is this a reflection of current societal woes, or a more widespread sense of doom towards the future by writers and producers? What part do readers and audiences play in contributing to the popularity of these darker stories?

My feeling is that modern science fiction is no more or less optimistic than it has ever been. Classics such as Metropolis, Dr. Strangelove, and Blade Runner have often painted cautionary pictures of the future, warning us of what might be, not what will be. I would argue that dystopian SF is generally more thought-provoking than utopian SF. The best literature relies on conflict to propel characters to change and grow. Utopian societies are often bland and uninteresting.

Things like Buck Rogers and Star Trek are loved by millions for their optimistic visions of technological innovation and political harmony, but even they have conflict to drive their stories. They are often criticized for their naïvety, too.

Taking a look at this year’s Hugo Award nominees, I see optimistic stories far outnumbering the dystopias. Among the novels, Deadline is really the only dystopia, and even it has an underlying optimism that says society will learn to deal with a zombie apocalypse with new medical testing and security technologies. Among the dramatic presentations, Game of Thrones could possibly be considered a pessimistic fantasy universe, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows certainly has some very dark moments before the forces of good spectacularly triumph over the forces of evil.

Last year saw pessimistic films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion, but they were more than countered by generally optimistic offerings such as Source Code, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Thor, Cowboys and Aliens, and Paul.

Science fiction TV has been dominated for several years by Doctor Who, the ultimate in optimism. Battlestar Galactica was certainly dark, but depicted the eventual triumph of humans. I think one reason Terra Nova failed was that audiences were not attracted to a world where running away from a dystopian society was encouraged rather than staying and working to improve it. Meanwhile, shows like Eureka, Alphas, and Warehouse 13 continue to offer lighthearted SF adventure.

To me, no matter how dark or depressing a science fiction story is, there is a fundamental optimism inherent in all science fiction. After all, science fiction (at least the majority that’s set in the future) imagines that there will be a future for mankind. You can’t get much more optimistic than that!

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The Captains, a Film by William Shatner

The Captains (2011)
Written and directed by William Shatner

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

This documentary is a series of interviews, actually conversations, between iconic actor William Shatner and the other actors who have played Star Trek captains. Jetting around the country, Shatner talked with Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Avery Brooks, Captain Sisco from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Kate Mulgrew, Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, Scott Bakula, Captain Archer from Enterprise, and Chris Pike, Captain Kirk from the 2009 Star Trek movie.

Interspersed with the interviews were clips from a Las Vegas Star Trek convention at which Shatner appeared, where he met other Star Trek actors, including Rene Auberjonois, Jonathan Frakes, Robert Picardo, Connor Trinneer, and Nana Visitor, among others. Shatner also had a short interview with his old friend Christopher Plummer for whom he understudied at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario early in his career and who played the villainous Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). The only really obvious omission was Leonard Nimoy.

This documentary was fascinating in how it revealed as much about Shatner as his subjects. Topics ranged from how they got started acting, to how each actor got their Star Trek role, to how the Star Trek experience changed their lives and affected their families, to philosophical musings on death, and many things in between. Most of the captains are classically trained stage actors who weren’t necessarily immediately onboard with playing a science fiction character for TV. Bakula and Brooks both have extensive musical backgrounds, Bakula as a singer and Brooks as a jazz pianist. In fact, Brooks provided the documentary with a pleasing smooth jazz score.

All of the captains came off as intelligent, hard-working, and frank. It was nice to see that they all still took their roles seriously and were truly humbled by the fan reactions to their work. Shatner, especially, seemed genuinely moved when he found out that the Canadian head of Bombardier Aerospace was inspired to take up aerospace engineering from watching Shatner on Star Trek. There was also a poignant scene at the convention where Shatner greeted a young wheelchair-bound man whose devotion to Star Trek seemed to be about the only thing that kept him going.

The interview with Stewart seemed to have the most resonance. It was obvious that there was genuine rapport between him and Shatner. When they talked about how the long hours playing their roles negatively impacted their marriages, it was heartbreaking. Mulgrew’s take on being a single mother during her tenure as captain was also touching.

Shatner turned out to be an excellent interviewer. He kept things light and often humorous, such as when he conducted Pine’s interview at a card table on a busy intersection or when he met Mulgrew sitting in a cardboard box. This allowed him to get his subjects relaxed and able to open up about some of the deeper questions. Shatner used his personal experiences to draw out measured responses from the other actors. Shatner has a reputation for being egotistical and antagonistic, but none of that was evident here. Maybe time has mellowed him out.

The Captains is a journey of discovery for Shatner that is an enjoyable look at the world of acting in general and the Star Trek universe in particular. It is a sincere glimpse into the heart and soul of Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Animated Series

Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974)

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Coming four years after the live-action series ended, the Saturday morning incarnation of Star Trek reunited many of its creative staff and actors. Produced at Filmation Studios by Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott (who were masters at bringing low-budget licensed properties to Saturday mornings), the 22-episode run was actually a decent show, at least as good as, if not better than, the third season of the original. The problem was that the animation was terrible. This was an era of declining animation budgets, before animation was routinely outsourced to Korea and other cheap labor markets. Today, we would charitably call this “motion comics.” Back then it was just limited animation. Honestly, I’ve seen PowerPoint presentations with more animation than the Star Trek series. They relied heavily on stock footage and didn’t seem to care about continuity. Hairstyles, in particular, seemed to regularly flip back and forth.

What made the series interesting, though, were the stories. Gene Roddenberry oversaw the production and several veterans of the original series wrote scripts, such as Samuel A. Peeples, Marc Daniels, Margaret Armen, Stephen Kandel, Paul Schneider, David P. Harmon, and D.C. Fontana (also the series story editor and associate producer). As with the original, notable science fiction writers contributed stories. David Gerrold had a couple of scripts, including a return look at his creation, the tribbles. Larry Niven produced a script that included his Known Space aliens, the cat-like warrior Kzinti. One big advantage the animated series had was to be able to show non-humanoid aliens and truly alien landscapes. They also introduced the concept of the holodeck (although it wasn’t called that), which was used extensively in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Which is not to say there weren’t some clunkers in the batch. One episode had Spock cloned by an alien, but the clone was about 30 feet tall! In another, several of the crew were surgically modified with gills by an underwater race and then easily restored to normal at the end. There was one episode where the crew was artificially aged and then returned to their original ages by going through the transporter. Another episode did the opposite: the crew regressed to children and was returned to normal by going through the transporter. Stardates seemed to be chosen haphazardly; they certainly weren’t in a discernible order.

Six out of the seven original principal actors, plus Majel Barrett as Nurse Chapel, provided voice work for the series, not only their own characters but many of the other crew members and aliens; only Walter Koenig was excluded, reportedly for budgetary reasons (however, Koenig did write one episode). A three-armed and legged alien named Lt. Arex (which sounded like “Erics,” not a particularly alien sounding name) voiced by James Doohan replaced Chekov on the bridge. A feline alien, Lt. M’Ress (Majel Barrett), occasionally replaced Lt. Uhura at the Communications Station. Some of the original guest actors reprised their characters: Stanley Adams as Cyrano Jones, Roger C. Carmel as Harry Mudd, and Mark Lenard as Sarek. In addition, some of the locations from the original series turned up in the animated series, for example, the Guardian of Forever from “City on the Edge of Forever” (although I don’t think they called it that, probably for copyright reasons) and the amusement planet from “Shore Leave.” Klingons and Romulans made regular appearances as well, creating an expanded look at some of the characters and worlds from the original series.

Look past the horrible animation and you will be rewarded with wonderful examples of some of the best that Star Trek had to offer.