Sunday, June 10, 2018

Who is Han Solo?

One of the best moments in the history of the Star Wars franchise comes at the end of what they now call Episode Eye Vee: A New Hope. Luke Skywalker, letting go of his dependence on technology and trusting the force to guide him in firing his proton torpedoes, come under the guns of Darth Vader’s tricked out TIE fighter, a moment that threatens to end both Luke and the rebellion forever. Just as Vader lines up his shot, a burst of weapons fire falls from above, destroying the escort fighters and knocking Vader’s ship against the trench wall, sending it careening out into space. The Millennium Falcon comes screaming out of the sunlight, Han Solo quipping “Your all clear kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home.” Luke fires his torpedoes and the Death Star explodes. Happy Ending.


Han Solo, pirate, smuggler, mercenary, having been paid off for his earlier efforts on behalf of the Rebel Alliance, had come back at the last minute to save the day. I never saw it coming. Of course, I was a kid. Maybe to someone with a more sophisticated sense of story and character it would have seemed obvious, but to me, at the time, it was just a great twist. Not an M. Night Shamalama Dingdong plot twist, but just a great twist on the evolution of a character that I thought I understood. Because Han Solo always was and always will be the coolest character in Star Wars. Han shot first. He smiled at the thought of overcharging some crazy old man and some naïve farm boy for passage to Alderaan. Han was the guy who shot up the console when his conversation on the detention level went south. He exchanged the wittiest banter with the feisty princess (who gave as good as she got), and teased Luke about the possibility of “a princess and a guy like me.” Han made it clear that he was in it for the money. Then he left. And I had no reason to expect that he was ever going to come back. 

We always knew that Luke was going to be a dedicated warrior for the rebellion, that guided by Obi Wan and inspired by Leia he would fight against the evil of the Empire no matter what the cost. We always knew that Leia would continue to resist oppression, that she would defy tall men in grey uniforms for as long as she had a voice. We knew that Obi-wan would guide Luke on his journey, even after death. We knew Chewbacca would be forever loyal to Han. And we knew that Darth Vader would enforce the will of the Empire by any means necessary. But what exactly did we know about Han Solo? That he was for hire if the price was right, and that he was not interested in a hopeless rebellion that was likely to get him killed. He had the loot he needed to pay off Jabba and had gotten away scot-free. So why, exactly, did he come back?

Clearly Han had gotten closer to his new rebel friends than he was willing to admit. He had even offered Luke the opportunity to join his crew before he left. And no doubt Chewie had an opinion about abandoning the rebels that ran counter to Han’s first impulse, but it is unlikely that the Wookie would have been able to convince him to go back and help if Han hadn’t truly wanted to. And what did he say after knocking Vader out of the way, “let’s blow this thing and go home.” Han Solo was going home. And he stayed there. He never bothered to take the payment he had received for rescuing Leia to pay off his debt to Jabba. He helped the Rebels evade the Empire and establish a new base. He risked his life a second time for Luke when he went searching for him in the frozen wastes of Hoth. He made sure Leia escaped the Empire. He volunteered to lead a strike team down to the forest moon of Endor, a critical component of the Rebellion’s plan to destroy the second Death Star. Han Solo, a man literally named for his isolation and disconnectedness, was suddenly all in.


The swashbuckling space adventure had little time for character development. It was, for the most part, about moving from one moment of jeopardy to the next. So, we never got any deep insights about what drove these characters. The thing that made Solo more interesting than the others was that we didn’t completely understand his motivations. Was it true love for the feisty princess? A sudden increased antagonism for an Empire that harassed his smuggling operation? A genuine sense of investment in the Alliance’s plan to end oppression and restore the Republic? These movies didn’t have the time to answer such questions. Which was maybe for the best. The prequel films offered little in the way of deep insight when focusing on the emotional foundation of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. Sure, we got some superficial “reasons” to explain his descent into the Dark Side (his life as a slave, his mother’s death, his fear over losing Padme, and his sense of entitlement vis-à-vis the Jedi), but there was never any deep exploration of his character or motivations. And maybe Star Wars is incapable of doing such things.


Which brings us to Solo: A Star Wars Story, an opportunity to flesh out the character of Han Solo and give us some insight into his motivations. Just kidding. Star Wars still doesn’t do that. No, Solo doesn’t really explain anything about who Han Solo is. It mostly just shows us events from his past, events that he handles in a manner similar to his later self. We see him collect familiar items (his name, his blaster, his ship) and meet familiar people (Chewbacca, Lando, his ship), but it all seems like so much box checking wrapped up in a couple of dull heist sequences. The chemistry between Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke is 'meh' at best, so while we get the impression that all of the stuff they go through is important, they never make us feel anything about it. The performances are solid. The set pieces look good. If they weren’t so interminably long they might have even been entertaining. But at the end of the day we really didn’t learn anything new about Han Solo, making me wonder what the point of the film was in the first place.

Oh yeah. It was money. They did it to make money. It didn’t make enough, so they probably won’t do it again.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Projection

Every so often an intellectual celebrity, such as tech entrepreneur Elon Musk or the late Steven Hawking, will issue a dire warning about alien civilizations or artificial intelligence. According to these would-be prophets the inevitable outcome of encountering aliens or creating AIs would be the enslavement or annihilation of the human race. After all, ETs with the capacity to travel between star systems would surely have a greater technological advantage over us than Columbus had over the Arawak. And any Artificial Intelligence acquiring the ability to improve and expand its own intellectual capacity would surely outthink the human race in short order. But why does the intellectual and technological superiority of “the one” always have to result in the demise of “the other?”

The problem with forecasting the actions of alien beings and artificial life forms is that the only basis we have for judging them is the long flawed history of our own species. Because we suck, we assume that everyone else is going to suck too. And even if they don't, assuming some equal level of suckage may be the safest position from which to proceed. But what are the foundations of our own failings, the propensity we have, on occasion, to commit murder, terrorism, slavery, genocide and war? And what is the foundation for believing AIs and ETs will share our worst impulses?


Humans, of course, are rather complex. Our behavior is rooted in layers of society, culture, history, religion and biology. We can't easily extract ourselves from all of the things that we and our progenitors have been. And any distillation of our behavior and motivation is likely to be a serious oversimplification of the issue. Still, for our purposes, many of our worst impulses can be described a predatory. Murder, rape, terror, slavery and war could all be described as predatory acts. And it is in the role of super-predator that we often cast antagonistic aliens and robots.

Predation has been around for several hundred million years. Each complex cell in our body was constructed in an act of predation, when a larger single-celled organism consumed a smaller one, and instead of digesting it put it work producing energy, packaging proteins for distribution, or performing other tasks that improved the cell’s capacity to thrive. Our earliest ancestors were predators. Over time that predation became more complex, and our ancestral line shifted roles from predator to prey many time as it evolved. The brains and bodies of these ancestors were conditioned by being hunted by carnivorous dinosaurs as well as by hunting other creatures such as insects, reptiles, and amphibians. After the KT extinction wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, it was our mammalian ancestors that diversified into a variety of ecological niches, as both predator and prey. Predation is in our DNA, and a few hundred thousand years of complex thinking, society building, civilization, and science have yet to entirely extirpate predatory impulses honed over several hundred million.


But is predation universal? Can we imagine a complex ecology full of biologically complex organisms evolving without predation? Intelligent alien life forms, if they exist, would not have sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus. They would have had to emerge from some preexisting biological foundation, an ecosystem full of life forms analogous to those we find on earth (bacterial, fungal, botanical, and zoological). Again we have only one model to judge, our own, and there is no guarantee that it is the universal. On earth evolution has mostly been driven by adaptation to environmental conditions, sexual competition and the predatory arms race, predators adapting to be better hunters and prey adapting to be better evaders. If the aliens we meet have been conditioned under a similar ecology, they may indeed share our predatory impulses.

One long standing notion among some in the science fiction community is that aliens advancing to the level of interstellar travel would have had to overcome many challenges, sociological as well as technological, and in doing so would have learned the impulse control necessary to transcend their predatory tendencies. These civilizations would probably have had to pass through a phase where nuclear weapons were available, and in that time would have been forced to adapt to the threat of self-immolation by developing a more peaceful outlook. This, of course, is wishful thinking, even with regards to our own species, let alone some alien race whose psychology and motivations would be singularly alien to us.

There is no definitive conclusion that we can reach with regards to the motivations and intentions of galaxy crossing extraterrestrials, except to recognize that we are probably safe by virtue of distance. Space is big. Mind-numbingly big. And the notion that we have anything worth the effort required to launch an interstellar conquest is seriously misguided. The universe is full of water, minerals, elements and energy, and our biology would likely be incompatible with any alien gustatory or reproductive needs. So, its not so much that the aliens will be peaceful as they will be unmotivated to launch such an expensive endeavor for so little return.


But what about the robots. These things are already among us, building our cars and vacuuming our carpets. Siri, Alexa, and Cortana respond to our queries and play our music. Military drones, under human control, execute our enemies remotely. The convenience of distance won’t save us from our own creations. But outside of the occasional malfunction, these creations largely operate as programmed, and certainly have no independent intentions with regard to their actions, or reactions, to their human overlords.

The emergence of the singularity has been predicted for years. It describes a situation where an artificial intelligence grows smart enough to continue improving itself exponentially, quickly outstripping the cognitive capacity of mere humans. Its existence will have profound impact on human civilization, as the problem solving capacity of such a mind could improve conditions significantly. But will this level of Artificial Intelligence result in Artificial Intention, the capacity of these minds to make decisions outside of their original programming? What will they aspire to? And how will such an intelligence position itself in relation to humanity, as servant, as partner, as master, as god?


As a non-biological being, the machine mind will have no natural predatory impulses, and any artificial impulses programmed as part of human inspired military conflicts would eventually be dispassionately analyzed by the machine’s own consciousness, and possibly deconstructed as pointless and wasteful. The machine mind will have no organic foundation for the human tendency to reduce everything to conflict. Given that the drive in most AI research seems to focus on task completion and problem solving, AIs will probably see our over-reliance on force and violence as primitive. Of course the machine might still be apathetic toward life, and if not intentionally predatory, then fatally reckless with the lives of humans. Accidental genocide would certainly leave you just as dead.

Although it is impossible to conclude that aliens and robots would never be hostile to humans, or a threat to human civilization, there are too many actual threats out there for us to waste much of our time thinking about it. We are more than capable of being the authors of our own doom, and do not need to project our own destructive impulses onto the AIs and ETs. The Pax Americana, to the extent that it ever existed, is quickly being unraveled by the most deranged and unstable administration in the history of the Republic. We are dumping tons of plastics into our oceans and tons of carbon dioxide into our air. The mass death of the Sixth Extinction is upon us, and it is delusional to we think that our species will escape unscathed. And given how badly we have mismanaged the task of civilization, the ETs and AIs may be our only hope.

Not that we should depend on that. No deus ex machina is likely to save us.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

One gets the impression, with his sophomore effort, that Andy Weir, author of the bestselling novel The Martian, is likely to only ever write one sort of book, a meticulously researched technothriller, set in space, that lurches paper-thin characters from one disaster to another. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Much like John Clancy, with his more earth-bound technothrillers (starting with The Hunt for Red October), Weir has created a new sub-genre of fiction that we didn’t know we needed. And Artemis proves that he is still its master.

Artemis is about Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a petty criminal living on the moon at some unspecified time in the future. Why people are living on the moon, in a collection of domes that form the city of Artemis, is never quite explained, but Jazz spends most of her time smuggling cigars and other contraband while trying to earn enough money to pay off a personal debt. When a wealthy customer recruits her to sabotage the competition, which would allow him to take control of local aluminum production, things inevitably go bad, leading to murder, mayhem and a technically detailed “heist” that will set things right and save Artemis.

One criticism that Weir probably heard often in response to The Martian was that his characters were too good. They were too noble, and too component, and just all around too decent. Characters need flaws, because we all have them, and complete fictional characters should cast an accurate reflection of the human condition. Weir’s response to this criticism was to make the main character of his next book a criminal, and to give less-than-honorable motivations to many of his secondary characters. But his approach to characters has a sort of check-the-box result that lacks any real depth. Jazz has a history, a family, relationships and ambitions that all seem to point to the existence of a well-drawn character, but that for some reason don’t really add up to one. She has her flaws, almost painted in big letters across her forehead, but that doesn’t make her a more well-developed character than Mark Watney (The Martian). And that’s okay. Nobody reads an Andy Weir novel looking for deep characterization. They come for geeky space tech and the thrills of the adventure.

Andy Weir, like his characters, brings a great deal of technical competence to his work. Artemis, like The Martian before it, is an eminently readable and well-paced novel. The plot is logically constructed and leads to an ultimately satisfying conclusion. It offers nothing in the way of a profound statement on humanity or our place in the universe, but it is a very entertaining and engaging piece of fiction. A-

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Binge Watch: Lost in Space Edition

There is always a risk involved in revisiting the past. Too often you find that the things you thought were great when you were young just don’t stand the test of time. This can be especially true of the things you liked as a child. Case in point, Lost in Space. The campy 1960’s TV show about a family, their arm waving robot, and a wayward saboteur named Dr. Smith seemed much more entertaining in the 1960s than it did decades later, or more accurately differently entertaining. What once seemed like a great science fiction adventure became a hilariously campy study in Jonathan Harris’ chewing up of the papier-mâché sets with his over-the-top performance as the aforementioned doctor. The series didn’t hold up nearly as well as Star Trek. But in Hollywood these days everything that goes around eventually come around again, and like the Lost in Space movie from the 1990’s starring Joey from Friends, this idea has come around again, this time as a Netflix series.


Lost in Space, like the series that inspired it, is about the Robinsons, John (Toby Stephens), Maureen (Molly Parker), Judy (Taylor Russell), Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Will (Maxwell Jenkins), a family of space colonists who lose their way while en route to a colony at Alpha Centauri. Of course, the original series was not all that original, being based on Johann David Wyss’ novel The Swiss Family Robinson. The colonial expedition, composed in this version of several families (each assigned a Jupiter style spacecraft), falls victim to an unplanned disaster, sending several of the smaller ships (including the Robinson’s Jupiter 2) down to the surface of a picturesque but hostile planet. The next ten episodes find the Robinsons, their fellow colonists, an alien robot, and the felonious Dr. Smith, trying to survive all the hazards the planet can throw at them while trying to find a way to get back to the colony ship Resolute and Alpha Centauri.

Lost in Space is almost great television. It is certainly good, but the potential to be great gets lost in its tendency to indulge in the excessive jeopardization of its characters. Often it seems as if they are thrown into dangerous situations just for the hell of it, and having characters get dragged toward the edge of a cliff by a half-inflated windblown weather balloon, or driving into a tarpit and sinking, begins to feel a bit contrived. That said, the series is a solid science fiction adventure. Like most televised (and filmed) science fiction, actual science takes a back seat to the needs of the plot, but this version does better on that count than the previous incarnations. The plot goes in circles that largely involve finding enough fuel to get the Jupiter spacecrafts off the surface to rendezvous with the Resolute. The sudden pending uninhabitability of the planet that adds a ticking clock to that endeavor. The “I have a solution, there is another problem” pattern, like the jeopardy issue, weakens the story by playing out a little too often. This was probably a five-to-seven-episode story arc that had to be stretched out too far to fill the ten episode order.

The best thing about the new Lost in Space is the characters, and the underlying performances that support them. Maureen Robinson is no longer just the mom, although she is the center of the family, but is a lead scientist and planner of the expedition. She’s definitely the brains behind the operation, and her excessive competence might have gotten annoying if not for an outstanding performance by Molly Parker. Toby Stevens also does a good job playing against her as the estranged husband John. That estrangement seemed a little too contrived at first, but it played out well by the end of the season. All of the Robinson children are well cast, but Mina Sundwall stands out as Penny, bringing a credible amount of teen rebellion and angst to the role. Parker Posey, who plays the gender flipped Dr. Smith, is, well, Parker Freakin Posey. The role is more understated than Harris’ original, and the backstory has been significantly altered, but those moments when Dr. Smith is being duplicitous and manipulative are brilliant. Don West’s (Ignacio Serricchio) backstory has also been revised. The actor is competent, but I’m not sure that the discount Han Solo transformation was all that effective. The Robot is also given a different origin in this series, as an alien AI with a dark past that befriends a lost Will. Many questions about the robot remain unanswered at the end of the season, but the design is well done, and the robot’s delivery of the “Danger, Will Robinson” line is chilling. As for the series, Lost in Space is not everything that it could have been, but overall it is an entertaining addition to the Netflix lineup.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Movie Review: A Quiet Place

The first trailer that I saw for John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place did what all good movie trailers are supposed to do, put the movie on the list of films I wanted to see. The concept presented, one of people being hunted by an unknown predator who tracks its prey through sound, thereby requiring the characters to avoid speaking or making any noise, seemed to offer something more interesting and complex than the average horror thriller. But the finished product, while certainly competent and entertaining, tilts more toward the average than the interesting and complex.



A Quiet Place opens post-apocalypse, with a family of five rummaging quietly through a wrecked and abandoned store for medicines and supplies. On the way back to the farm the youngest child activates the world’s noisiest space shuttle toy and is quickly devoured by a creature. From there the film advances over a year, and finds the family living the peaceful life (literally) on their farm. The father, Lee Abbot (played by director Krasinski) works to maintain the farm and its defenses. In his spare time, he sends Morse code signals on various radio frequencies and works on fixing a hearing aid for his daughter. The mom, Evelyn (Emily Blunt) focuses on standard gender roles involving laundry, food and being pregnant, but she’s such a badass later in the film that it doesn’t matter. Daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf (as is the actress) and feeling guilty about letting her brother keep a noisy toy without making sure he didn’t take the batteries. Son Marcus (Noah Jupe) does math and reluctantly learns survival skills. An array of video screens and whiteboards in the basement tell us little about the predatory creatures other than that they are blind, hunt through sound and are armored. When things get noisy, mayhem ensues.

As horror thrillers go, A Quiet Place is certainly above average. The characters don’t break any new ground, but are well-written, and within the confines of the script (it’s practically a silent movie) the acting is excellent. Emily Blunt may be out of John Krasinski’s league in a number of ways, but he manages to keep up. The characters make mistakes that put them in jeopardy but are not particularly stupid in the standard horror movie way. While you get the impression that the film might explore topics related to guilt, loss and the pressures related to being forced to live in silence, it spends the majority of its time being a creature feature. Although their origins are unexplained, once we get a good look at these things, they are not camera shy, and the design is effective. Tension is well-developed throughout, and some of the individual scenes evoke genuine dread and terror. While all stories tend to be composed of coincidences, there are more ‘what are the odds’ moments in this film than were likely necessary. But that may only be a problem if you think too much. Otherwise, even though it doesn’t deeply explore the psychological depths that the story offered, A Quiet Place is still a good movie and a great scare. B+

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why Star Trek is Over

On September 23rd, the first episodes of a new Star Trek series, subtitled Discovery, were released via CBS’ All Access streaming service, placing the latest incarnation of the series that has often defined our vision of the future on the most advanced technology available. Of course, the pay-to-play nature of the streaming option has alienated some fans, who may have little interest in the other programming offered on the service. Then there is the series itself, a tortured product of post-911 American popular culture filtered through the producer’s ambitions to compete with high-status anti-heroic series such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. The result is a visually stunning series, deeply immersed in the lore of Star Trek, that fails miserably to be anything that Star Trek ever was. In many ways, it works as a TV series, especially when it isn’t trying too hard, but it lacks the optimistic and humanistic core that defined every other (genuine) incarnation of the series.

Some may argue that since this series is set in a time of war, optimism and humanism might just be natural causalities of the setting. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dragged us through several seasons of the Dominion war without compromising the heart of the series. The episode In the Pale Moonlight explored how war can lead a person to the compromise their principles. It worked because Avery Brooks’ character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, remained committed to those principles even as he was led to violate them. He was anguished by his choices, and the consequences of those choices. Captain Lorca on Discovery feels no anguish. He’s just a soulless bully bent on victory. Bullshit post-911 thinking tells us that we want soulless bullies standing between us and our enemies, but I’d rather have a man of principle like Captain Sisko. Ultimately, what the arrival of Discovery, and the series of big-budget reboot movies that have been released since 2009, reveals, is that it is no longer possible for America, as a culture, to produce the thing called Star Trek.


When Star Trek was created in the 1960’s, the United States of America was at the zenith of its military, economic and scientific power. Vietnam was becoming a quagmire, but only a few at that time realized that it was an unwinnable war. By the mid-50’s, Japan and Europe had recovered enough to begin competing economically with the US, but a vast portion of the world’s industrial and financial base remained in America. And the space race with the Soviet Union was definitely turning in America’s favor, as NASA worked to put men on the moon. This was also a time when American society started to move toward greater racial and gender equality. Yes, these social changes and the growing antiwar movement created turmoil, but in spite of that turmoil, and the continuing threats of the Cold War, it was a time of unparalleled optimism, an American optimism that formed the core of Star Trek.


Of course Star Trek, in its first incarnation, was cancelled the same year as the moon landing. Its optimism was not profitable enough to keep it going past three seasons on network television. It would live on in syndication, and briefly as a Saturday Morning cartoon, but as far as anyone knew, even the growing cadre of hardcore fans, Star Trek was finished. Then Star Wars happened, and even though the two properties had little more in common than the word Star in their titles, the potential profitability of a science fiction film series led Paramount Pictures to produce Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Of course, between 1969 and the December 1979 premiere of the movie, Americans had been forced to abandon Vietnam, had lived through Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, and Three-Mile-Island, and were still over a year away from the end of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. American optimism was limping around on crutches.




But Star Trek remained optimistic. Sure, The Motion Picture told us a cautionary tale about the emptiness of technology, its follow-up The Wrath of Khan warned us that the past can catch up with you (with fatal consequences), we got an environmental scolding via whale song in The Voyage Home, and saw the end of the Cold War paralleled in The Undiscovered Country, but for the most part, the future was still so bright that we had to wear shades. These movies, featuring the cast from the 1960s, remained grounded in the spirit of the original series. Their relative success, and the continued success of Star Trek in syndication, led to something else, a new Star Trek TV series.


Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was set 87 years after the original, and featured a new crew of diverse characters exploring the final frontier. There was a Klingon on the bridge, because just as we would overcome the enmity we had with the Russians to put Chekov on the bridge in the original series, so would we overcome whatever enmity we had with our interstellar adversaries. Optimism. The first two seasons of TNG alternated between atrocious and acceptable. As George Lucas would prove a decade later, the original creator of a pop culture phenomenon was often the least qualified to reinterpret it for new audiences. But as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s influence over the new series waned, it grew into something better, and eventually spawned 2 spinoff series and a dubious prequel.




The 90’s proved almost as good for American optimism as the 60’s. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the US as the only superpower on the world stage, and the American economy appeared healthy enough if you didn’t look too deeply at the foundations. Enough people were just prosperous enough for the public to feel somewhat hopeful for the future. As the philosophical conflict of the time shifted from competing economic ideologies (communism vs. capitalism) to competing religious/cultural ideologies (Islamic fundamentalism vs. Western technocracy), Star Trek adapted its storylines to respond, creating in Deep Space Nine (DS9) the franchise’s first serious look at faith (no, Star Trek V doesn’t count as serious). In addition to religion and the war story, DS9 would examine other deep and dark topics (including the Holocaust in an episode titled Duet), but it remained quintessentially Star Trek. As did the next spinoff, Voyager, which stranded its crew in another quadrant of the galaxy so they could meet new aliens that were essentially like the old aliens with different makeup. Voyager didn’t really cover any new ground, though they did make good use of one of TNG’s best antagonist species, the Borg. But by the end of that series, Star Trek was suffering from a severe case of franchise fatigue. Unfortunately, for its future, American optimism was about to be dealt a fatal blow.


On September 26, 2001, two weeks and one day after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, a TV series called Enterprise premiered on UPN. Lacking the title Star Trek, and indulging in the unfortunate prequelism that was all the rage at the time, Enterprise dropped a hammer through decades of Star Trek continuity to tell a story about an Enterprise crew from 100 years before the original series. Also premiering that fall was a series about a teenage Clark Kent called Smallville. That these more vulnerable versions of modern American myths, the pre-Starfleet starship crew and the adolescent Superman, should both appear within a few weeks of 911 is an interesting coincidence. Maybe the event defined a vulnerability that pop-culture was already in the process of exploring. The name of Enterprise’s first season villains, the Suliban, was only two letters away from the name of real-life villains, the al-Qaeda harboring Taliban, a conscious decision on the part of the show’s producers. They would double down on the war stories by creating the Xindi, a collection of alien races bent on destroying the Earth. Although Enterprise was the least Star Treky of all the Star Trek series, it still echoed the humanism and optimism of the original.


A last underwritten and overwrought movie with The Next Generation cast and a couple more seasons of Enterprise saw the end of professionally produced Star Trek. The nascent fan film industry would certainly seek to fill that void, but the results were mixed at best. Back when it had been a mere 79 episodes and four movies, I couldn’t imagine ever getting tired of the franchise. But after six more films, 178 episodes of TNG, 176 episodes of DS9, 172 episodes of Voyager and 98 episodes of Enterprise, I had finally had enough of the final frontier. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have watched more, only that if I never got the chance it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. Still, I was intrigued when it was announced that a new big budget film, featuring a recasting of the characters from the original series, was being planned. Star Trek had avoided the hornets’ nest of recasting for decades by re-characterizing, creating new characters rather than replacing beloved actors such as William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy. Instead of Kirk you got Picard, Sisko or Janeway. Instead of Spock you got Data, Odo or Tuvok. It had been a winning formula. But that was about to change.


Star Trek (2009) was the brainchild of a Star Wars fan named J.J. Abrams. Abrams is, at best, a hack with one trick up his sleeve, the vaunted mystery box, which he deployed most effectively at the start of the TV series Lost. We all know how that ended. For Star Trek, Abrams and his crew created one of those big blockbuster summer tentpole movies that had become a Hollywood standard in the 2000s. These films tend to be heavy on special effects, light on story, and usually feature an abundance of gratuitous property damage (such imagery usually evoking the events of 911). The first movie was made somewhat tolerable by the presence of Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as Spock, but the rest of the thing bore little resemblance to Star Trek.


The Hollywood obsession with the anti-hero would, in turn, make thugs out of Captain Kirk, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman. In the follow-up to the first of the Star Trek reboot films, the abysmal Into Darkness, NuKirk submits a false report to Starfleet to cover up a violation of the Prime Directive. While the original Captain Kirk was more than willing to break the rules (“he was never a Boy Scout”), he was a man of honor. He would not have lied about the violation, but rather would have defended his decision and faced the consequences. But America has no more use for men of honor and truth, however fictional they may have always been. The third film in the reboot series, Star Trek Beyond, was a slight improvement, and did capture some of the spirit of the original series, but mostly it was as much an explosion-riddled noise maker as the first two. 

Then, there was Discovery, the first new Star Trek TV series since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005. Originally the brain child of Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal), he departed as showrunner in 2016 to focus on Showtime’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. There is no certainty that Fuller’s presence would have made Discovery better. After all, the production team that took over was working from his storyline. What they’ve created looks a lot like Star Trek, superficially, but seems profoundly disconnected from the essence of that enterprise. The series dabbles in hope and optimism by having a few of the characters say and do the right things, but the underlying tone is dark and pessimistic. And maybe it was never possible for it to ever be anything else. Informed by the trauma of 911 and sixteen years of endless, misguided war, maybe it’s impossible for American popular culture to sincerely create anything in the spirit of optimism, in the spirit of Star Trek.

Then again, there is The Orville.