Star Trek: Picard – “Remembrance”

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.

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/f0/4e/f3/f04ef3456d333bee3907dace0c0d4839.jpg

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.

This now is the Trek I’ve been waiting for.

Bottom Line:

References:

Our Man Bones

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.

Here’s just a few things to mark the milestone.

A nice tribute from the people who worked with him.
Some interviews from around the time of Star Trek VI

And here’s “Remembering DeForest Kelley” from TrekMovie.com.

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.

“In this Galaxy…”

Quick Take: The Billion Dollar Boy

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.

Bottom Line:

The UFP Flag and Beginning Vexillology

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.

United Federation of Planets - Wikipedia

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:

  1. The design of the flag should be simple enough that a child could draw it from memory.
  2. It should use clear and understandable symbolism.
  3. The flag should use common colors; probably no more than four different ones.
  4. Both text and seals should be avoided.
  5. 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.

Flag of  Nebraska

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.

Flag of  Alaska

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.”

Flag of the United Nations.svg

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.

Here's what the Milky Way may look like from deep space ...

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.

References:

The Doctor Who New Year’s Special

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.