On 8 September 1966, after two years in development, Star Trek finally debuted on the teevee. Fans have celebrated this date as “Star Trek Day” unofficially for a while now, but the producers of the show have now gotten on board and today, 2020.09.08 is the first Official Star Trek Day with events like marathons, cast reunions and more. “Encounter at Farpoint” is airing on StarTrek.com as I write this.
In our little corner of the Alpha Quadrant, we’re marking the occasion by flying the flag of the United Federation of Planets. We’ve flown the UFP flag before and you can read my original post about the flag here.
That post contains my thoughts on the flag. For today I thought we’d look at two precursors of the UFP flag and a proposed redesign. The UFP apparently had no flag in the Original Series. The Star Fleet Technical Manual (Joseph, 1975) had a Banner, which can be seen in “And The Children Shall Lead” and it had a seal shown here, possibly designed for the book cover. This seal would make a passable flag itself.
The first place we see an image similar to the “current” UFP flag is on a view screen in Star Trek the Motion Picture when Kirk addresses the crew. This same image is seen as a flag, draped across the Torpedo Tube at Spock’s funeral in The Wrath of Khan.
This clearly looks like a hybrid of the Tech Manual’s seal and the current flag design. There are two advantages over the current design for me. There’s no text and the wreath looks less like something of terrestrial origin.
The last image we’ll look at today is a proposed redesign of the UFP flag that I found on Reddit, created by Doliam13.
This fixes a lot of the issues with the current UFP flag. The text is gone and the star field is more symbolic, looking less like a literal map of our local piece of the Milky Way. This also fixes some of the symbolism in the current design. There are four stars to represent the four founding civilizations of the Federation where the current flag highlights only three. The notion that the three stars represent three of the founding worlds as seen by an observer standing on the fourth is an inane retcon contrivance. Better to just fix the flag and not try to explain it.
A few last things to mark the day. Science Officer Leonard (named for McCoy, Leonard H. Son of David) is properly attired and ready to face the day while I have two different pairs of let’s call them “Spocky socks” that I’ll wear throughout the occasion. The blue, black, and gold pair were made by my lovely wife, Joanne while the pair with the Vulcan salute was a gift from my sisters-in-law.
I’ve been looking forward to Star Trek: Lower Decks for a while now. Maybe more than a while. They’ve been talking about a Star Trek series featuring the support crew for a long time. I think that initially morphed into the Next Generation episode that was also called “Lower Decks.” That was a fine, but not a spectacular episode of TNG. The notion surfaced again, sort of, with Star Trek Discovery, the only Trek series where the captain was not the central character. Lots of people seem to like Discovery, but I don’t really care for it.
It was the show-runner who got my attention. Mike McMahan had a twitter feed, and that twitter feed spawned a book. It’s called Warped, and it’s about a mythical eighth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This season, kept secret, was purposely so bad that it would force Paramount to cancel the series. Warped is pretty good, but not so good that I actually finished it. There are still some good bits like Westley splicing tribble DNA into Data’s cat, Spot, and the final fate of the Vulcan Punk band “Logic Lice!”
McMahan was also a writer on Rick and Morty which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it is consistently well written and interesting. It’s also deeper than most people probably think it is. If you want to see a classic trek concept (“The Enemy Within”) spun in an interesting way check out “Rest and Ricklaxation.” McMahan didn’t share a writing credit on that but he was head writer for a while and he did write “Total Rickall“, “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” and “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat,” all of which are both excellent and hilarious.
That’s a lot of preamble if I’m here to talk about Lower Decks. How was the first episode? I really enjoyed it. More importantly, I laughed. A lot. It’s recognizably Trek. It turns out that what that idea to make a show about, as McMahon puts it, “the people who put the yellow cartridge in the food replicator so a banana can come out the other end,” work is animation, comedy and some good writing. The pilot, “Second Contact” is a lot of fun. Mariner and Boimler immediately fall into some familiar patterns and Tendi reminds me of Bashir when he first arrived at Deep Space Nine; full of awe and enthusiasm.
I liked how a much bigger story involving the senior staff developed behind the more mundane adventures of the ensigns and how these all dovetailed into a satisfying denouement. There are enough references to classic trek to give an old fan like me a warm feeling about the show. That includes the theme music by the way. It’s evocative of Alexander Courage’s original theme but just when you think you know where it’s headed it veers off in a different direction. Paradoxically the theme seems simultaneously very much the same and very different from the original series’ theme.
“Second Contact” isn’t perfect. Like most pilots, it’s an origin story and like most origin stories the plot takes a bit of a back seat to character introductions. At this stage, most of the characters feel like archetypes, but the broad outlines are solid and I’m looking forward to watching the show fill in those outlines. It’s refreshing to see a lighter take on Star Trek again. Modern trek has taken itself very seriously up til now, but comedy is also part of the franchise’s DNA. I’m looking forward to seeing the spiritual descendants of “Q Who” or “A Piece of the Action” and Lower Decks may be the show to give us those.
Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help.
Two frequently used themes within Science Fiction are Evolution and Future History. Within these, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men is a towering achievement, inspiring generations of science fiction writers with a scope that transcends even geologic time frames. I read it for the first time almost thirty years ago and it is not a light read; it requires patience and attention but it’s well worth the effort. Arthur C. Clarke said “No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination” and it echoes in his greatest works, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So I was intrigued when I discovered that Last and First Men had been made into a film by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It would seem to be unfilmable; the novel has few characters other than humankind itself and spans the time from the 1930s to the terminus of the solar system two billion years hence.
And it may be a film, but it isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. What it is, is a skillful melding of music, imagery, and narration.
The music is central as is to be expected, Jóhannsson was primarily a composer, known for the score to Arrival and other films. The score here is both haunting and melancholy. It supports the narration and underscores the imagery; many moments rely only on the music and the images, building the mood between sections of monologue.
The narration adopts the framework of the book. It is a monologue by one of the last men, a member of the eighteenth distinct species of humanity, as they contemplate the impending extinction of humankind. Tilda Swinton’s performance is understated, yet effective. The script seems to be portions of the book spliced together into a shorter but coherent form, mostly from the introduction and the later chapters about the last men. I haven’t checked this in detail, but the words themselves are Stapledon’s own with some occasional modernizing of the language.
Visually, this film is stark and beautiful. Bare trees and the sun failing to shine through overcast skies are recurring motifs that suggest desolation and the depths of winter. Mostly the film is in black and white with two exceptions. The bright green of an oscilloscope occasionally emphasizes the dialogue. The central image of the film is the sun glowing red through the clouds as the narrator explains that changes in the sun will bring about humanity’s demise. The inclusion of color in an otherwise monochrome film is jarring and effective. It’s a nice touch that the one note of red in the film visually reminds us of Hal from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001. That movie may not have existed without Stapledon’s influence and a thoughtful and subdued SF film like this one might not have existed without 2001.
The other important visual motif is the sculptures, spomeniks, monuments to the Second World War in the former Yugoslavia. These are essential to the tone of the film. They evoke the distant future by suggesting buildings with geometry that seems utterly alien and strange and yet they also manage to suggest that you’re traveling through the ruins of a long-extinct civilization.
Most of Stapledon’s novel doesn’t make it into this film, particularly the long sweep of history that covered so many species of humankind. But the tone is there; the emotional resonance is there and much of it, in 2020, seems prophetic.
Our prospect has now suddenly and completely changed, for astronomers have made a startling discovery, which assigns to man a speedy end. His existence has ever been precarious. At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly.
Like Stapledon’s novel, this movie is well worth watching but it too requires patience and attention. If you’re looking for a summer-blockbuster of a Sci-Fi movie, this is certainly not one of those. 2001: A Space Odyssey is famously slow but this film makes it look like Independence Day. It’s weighty and it’s philosophical and it showcases a classic. As his directorial debut, it’s also a fitting swan song for Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died in 2018 at the age of 48. Much like the film, it makes you wonder what more might have been accomplished.
Stapledon, Olaf, Last and First Men, (c) 1930, Orion Publishing Group, 2011
The first episode of Star Trek: Picard just premiered three days ago as I write this. There will be some spoilers, I won’t know how big they’ll be until I write them. You are warned.
I’ll prattle on a bit first to give some spoiler-free space before I get into Remembrance.
I’m not a fan of Star Trek: Discovery. I don’t hate it and they’ve done some good stuff, but as I said after the first episode, “This is not the Trek I’m looking for.” It’s a bit of a slog for me to get through the episodes. There was too much of a focus on war, but ultimately, it was the ethics that bothered me the most. I’m very much an old school Sci-Fi kind of guy and a fundamental part of that is that humanity is supposed to progress, to get better. The Federation and Starfleet have always represented that better version of humanity in Star Trek and even when they’ve lost their way, like in Insurrection, the plot revolved around the main characters setting it right. A first officer committing mutiny because she thinks she understands a situation better than her captain isn’t Trek. Even worse was the treatment of the tardigrade, which you have to compare to the Horta from the original series. In “Devil in the Dark,” Kirk, Spock, McCoy et. al. investigate a creature that’s killing miners on Janus VI. They take pains to understand the creature, discovering why it was attacking the miners and ultimately helping it. When the crew of Discovery encounters the tardigrade, they exploit the creature, even to the point of risking its life to basically make their ship go faster.
There are “reasons” and “context” for these actions and the Discovery crew eventually stop being horrible, but I think previous crews would have just dismissed the idea out of hand. Discovery got better by the second season, but it still leaves a bad taste. Like the first two Abramsverse movies, I’m left wondering how well the writers understand what makes “Star Trek” be Star Trek.
And here’s why I’m hopeful about this new series: it’s getting the ethics right. The universe is darker and there is some violence at the start of the episode that I found jarring in the context of a Star Trek episode, but the essential core is there. This was driven home in one particular moment for which I have to set the stage. Now-Admiral Picard has retired and is tending to the family vineyard in France. We’ve gotten some hints that his separation from Starfleet was contentious and we see that when he consents to an interview about the Romulan Supernova.
This event lead Jean Luc to step down from commanding the Enterprise in order to lead the rescue armada. Then, a group of synthetics attacked the colony on Mars, destroying the planet and the Utopia Planitia Shipyards where most Federation starships were constructed. Two subsequent decisions clearly bothered Jean Luc. The Federation banned synthetic humanoids and they canceled the rescue mission to Romulus. He resigned from Starfleet in protest, refusing to be complicit in the Federation turning its back on people in need. “The Federation understood that there were millions of lives at stake,” he told the interviewer. “Romulan lives,” she tried to clarify. “No, lives!” he replied. There it is. That is the core of Star Trek. We’re back to the classic situation, The Federation has lost its way and, in this case, it’s up to our titular character to put things right.
It is impressive how well constructed this episode is. The theme of memory is skillfully interwoven through the episode as one would expect for the pilot of a show built around a beloved character from a generation ago (not to mention an episode called “Remembrance.”).
There are also many, many so-called “Easter eggs.” You can check those out here.
And here. Thanks to Todd Egan and Forrest Meekins for the info and the links.
Really, calling these “Easter eggs” is an understatement. These are skillful callbacks to previous episodes and movies and they all point to what appears to be the central themes of the series; the rights of synthetic beings and the social evolution of the Romulans. Both were significant themes in TNG and they have philosophical and ethical heft. The callbacks to The Measure of a Man, one of the best and most significant episodes in all of Trek, were particularly acute. There’s an intriguing mystery developing involving both of these things and Jean Luc’s sense of right and wrong is right at the center.
One of the more intriguing allusions is the title of the stage-setting Short Trek “Children of Mars.” At first glance, the title seems straight forward; the story revolves around two school children who have parents on Mars. In rapid succession, we get to see their connection to those parents, a bit of their lives and then their devastated and devastating reactions as they watch as the synthetics’ attack on Mars unfolds in news reports. If you combine this with the fact that Romulus and Remus are not only the homeworlds of the Romulan Empire, but also the sons of Mars in Roman mythology, this short trek may be key to how the two primary threads of the series will weave together.
I think that a lot of the credit for the quality of this episode is due to Michael Chabon, Star Trek: Picard’s showrunner. I first encountered Chabon’s work 20 years ago when I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This novel centers around two young men who created a superhero back in the Golden Age of Comics, paralleling the story of Superman’s creators, Seigel and Schuster. The book is excellent; I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the genre. But, more than that, it is clearly a labor of love, very much like Star Trek: Picard. Chabon has been a fan of Star Trek since he was 10 years old and I expect that this new series will be a testament to how great new installments to venerable old properties can be when talented people who truly understand them are allowed to take the helm.
The first time I visited Los Angeles, I went, like many visitors to Hollywood Boulevard. There were two things that I wanted to see. One was the signatures of the Star Trek cast at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The other was DeForest Kelley’s star on the Walk of Fame. That second one took a while. Even after cries of “There’s Shatner’s star. Isn’t that good enough?” I persisted. This was the actor who played my favorite character in my all-time favorite teevee show. I wasn’t about to settle for second… or fourth… best.
If he were still around, DeForest Kelley would have turned 100 today. That warrants a tribute.
There were two other things I wanted to include in the tribute. The first was a website written by a fan who had gotten to know De in his final years. It really drove home just how kind and decent a person he had been. No luck tracking that down just yet, but if I ever come across it again, I’ll update this post.
The other was a tribute, also called ”Our Man Bones,” that I’d seen on UPN shortly after De passed away. It took a while to figure out where I’d actually seen it. I remembered the segment being part of an Anniversary Special, but the timing didn’t make any sense. As it turns out, it was from a special called “Ultimate Trek: Star Trek’s Greatest Moments.” Judging from the single clip that I can find on-line, it was pretty awful. Jason Alexander lampooned Kirk with other actors reprising Spock and McCoy. “Our Man Bones” is the only part I remember at all. It, I hope, was pretty good. I’m sure it ended strong, with the clip below from Balance of Terror. Powerful and moving given the circumstances, we’ll end with it ourselves.
A few weeks ago, I was thinking back fondly about Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I used to read those all the time even once I aged out of the YA target audience. These hold up nicely. Not too long ago, Joanne and I enjoyed Starman Jones and Have Space Suit Will Travel as audiobooks on a long drive or three.
My nostalgia turned to the Jupiter Novels. In the mid to late 90’s, Tor books published this series as an homage to these works of Heinlein. I read a couple and they were pretty good. Maybe I’d like to reread a couple of those or track down the ones I hadn’t read, I thought.
By an odd coincidence or a creepy not-a-coincidence, if Facebook is eavesdropping on us, I soon received an e-mail from Arc Manor Publishers offering a free copy of the e-book of The Billion Dollar Boy by Charles Sheffield. This was one of the Jupiter Novels and it was one that, to the best of my recollection, I had not read.
And it was fine. After the first couple of pages, I knew in broad brushstrokes how the plot would unfold. The main character, a spoiled rich kid would, through some contrivance, end up in space. He’d be forced to earn his keep while he discovers amazing things and some dramatic stuff occurs. By the end, of course, he’s no longer an entitled jackass. Wikipedia tells me this is essentially the same plot as Captains Courageous.
But even with the predictability, this is a fun read. The story moves along quickly. The happenings are engaging, the conflict is exciting and the resolution is satisfying. The Billion Dollar Boy is nothing more or less than the science fiction equivalent of ordering comfort food in a restaurant. It’s not exactly what you grew up with and it’s fundamentally unchallenging but it’s reminiscent enough to be enjoyable.
We’re flying a new flag this morning; specifically the flag of the United Federation of Planets. If flew for a day a few weeks ago, but it was wet and windy and the flag kept getting tangled around the pole so I decided to take it down for a bit.
In the meantime, we purchased a Valley Forge Tangle-Free Aluminum Pole (not pictured above) from the Horseheads Do It Center. It’s working beautifully so far. The flag is affixed directly to the pole through the grommets and the entire top section of the pole rotates freely. The weight of the flag itself keeps it from wrapping around the pole.
I like this flag, however, it puts me in mind of a lot of state flags, most of which are pretty dreadful. I therefore thought I’d look at it in terms of the North American Vexillogical Association’s criteria for evaluating/creating flags.
NAVA’s five criteria for creating a good flag were first codified in 2001 when they conducted a survey to choose the best and worst flags on the continent. These are:
The design of the flag should be simple enough that a child could draw it from memory.
It should use clear and understandable symbolism.
The flag should use common colors; probably no more than four different ones.
Both text and seals should be avoided.
Finally, the flag should be unique as it represents a distinct entity. It can however, show similarities to other flags, to show connections.
A nice example of the last criterion is the similarities between the flags of Ohio and the United States. The flags are distinct but the common elements make it clear that the US and Ohio are closely related.
We could segue to a long discussion of state and province flags, but we’ll save that for another day. The existing state flag closest to the bottom of the NAVA survey was Nebraska.
The dubious distinction for last place was given to Georgia, but that flag was changed in 2003. Meanwhile, my favorite state flag has to be Alaska; simple and elegant with clear symbolism. It’s a classic.
The UFP flag fares pretty well according to the NAVA standards. The design is simple and clean. The colors, blue and white are classic and attractive. The weakest element of the flag is the text. Like the conventional wisdom assumes, it’s difficult to read as the flag waves in the wind, especially as the text is backward on one side of the flag. It’s also an odd choice; the Federation contained over 150 member worlds at one point, each of which probability had its own language. I think it remains an odd choice even though English had evolved into “Federation Standard.”
To think about the symbolism, it makes sense to look back to the obvious inspiration for the UFP flag, the Flag of the United Nations. The blue color was chosen in contrast to “red, the war color.” The world map represents all the people of the world. The map projection is surrounded by olive branches, a common metaphor for peace.
The similarities to the UFP flag are striking and the symbolism transfers in a straightforward manner. The branches are similar, though may not be of terrestrial origin. The galactic map with the density of the stars in an off-center diagonal line is evocative of a section of one of the spiral arms of the galaxy.
Earth and presumably most of the other member worlds of the Federation are located in the Orion Spur, a minor arm of the Milky Way, which exists between the Perseus and Sagittarius Arms of the galaxy. In universe and otherwise, the similarities between the UFP flag and the UN flag make sense since one organization is clearly an inspiration for the other. If the UN still existed in the 23rd Century, the two flags might be too similar to be flown together, but I suspect the UN flag has been supplanted by a “United Earth” flag.
One place where the symbolism of the UFP flag seems lacking is that there are three stars in the galactic map that are stylized as four-pointed stars rather than circles. These stand out and in a standard flag, these might represent the founding worlds of the Federation. Unfortunately, there are four; Earth, Vulcan, Andor and Tellar Prime. This is not surprising. The UFP flag was designed long before the founding worlds were codified in “These are the Voyages…” the series finale of Star Trek: Enterprise. I might be inclined to add a fourth four-pointed star.
It’s a sad commentary on the new season of Doctor Who that we actually forgot about the New Year’s Special until today. We still purchased it from iTunes, but our usual pattern is to look forward to the Christmas Special, pay for it in advance and watch it as soon as humanly possible.
Here are my thoughts on the special.
“Resolution” is perhaps the single least creative title for a New Year’s episode possible.
The science fictional elements (in the context of season 11) started off surprisingly well. To avoid spoilers: the special took a classic Doctor Who adversary and added in elements from one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. It goes downhill from there and some of the elements of the final confrontation are downright cheesy.
Like the rest of season 11 the character moments lacked all subtlety and were frequently over written and difficulty to watch.
Jodie Whitaker may have finally settled on a personality for her Doctor, although if she has, it’s a pretty generic one. At least she was finally recognizable as the Doctor, which evidently, is no small feat. None the less there were some false moments. The Doctor should be a source of strength for her companions and that precludes telling people that she is “panicked.” Every other Doctor was able to convey the gravity of a situation without undermining morale. The 13th Doctor should be able to as well, but this incarnation seems weaker. Further, this Doctor still seems less competent than previous incarnations. These differences take on greater significance in the context of the First Female Doctor, who needs to be as confident and as competent as her predecessors. Anything else undermines the entire premise of the gender-swap and is simply bad writing.
Overall, I’d give the New Year’s Special a “C.” Somewhat better than any individual episode of the last season, but not great.
Most of the issues with season 11 were in the writing and I can think of three simple things that could be improved for season twelve.
1) There’s no reason to think that Chibnall isn’t a competent show runner. He should concentrate on that role and appoint a new head writer, preferably someone with a number of good strong Doctor Who episodes under his or her belt.
2) Bring back some seasoned Doctor Who writers. Clearly the experiment of having a staff of all green writers working under Chibnall led to a weak season.
And 3) drop the policy of creating all new adversaries for next season. There’s a reason the classic villain are the classic villains; they’re known and they work. The audience is familiar with them and so, more time and energy can be devoted to other elements of the plot. That’s part of the reason that the New Year’s Special was a bit stronger than the episodes within the season proper; it used an established adversary. It’s possible that if the show could maintain this level of quality, it could limp along well enough that there could be a season 13 to follow 12 after which Whittaker and Chibnall plan to make their departures.