Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gene Roddenberry-The Day The Great Bird Flew Away

                    On this day in 1991,an extraordinary day occurred-not only in my life but to those who admired,and perhaps felt that their lives were saved in some way by, Star Trek. The shows creator Gene Roddenberry passed away at the age of 70 from what was described as cardiopulmonary arrest. What I personally remember most was that the Star Trek-The Next Generation two part story 'Unification' contained a special dedicatory preface to him before the episode began. It was a sad day for sure. It felt as if I had lost a family member. The just and progressive universe Roddenberry projected in Star Trek was extremely inspiration to anyone who marched to the beat of their own drummer,and were fascinated by the possibilities about how humanity would interact with others in the cosmos. It was so positive for the imagination and creativity.

                       What can be said about Gene Roddenberry today? One of the most important factors in Roddenberry's life was the fact that he was born in what William Strauss's documentary novel Generations describes as the GI generation-having been born later in that particular era in 1921. These were the generation who,in youth through early middle age,lived through the Great Depression and fought the second world war. Historically they were known as great intellects and industrialists-able to create great physical feats in a then unheard of shortness of time. Yet at the same time,many of that generation seemed to lack what many might call a soul. They tended to view the human race,and the world, with a clinical cynicism and were usually more competitive than cooperative with other people. The most important thing about Gene Roddenberry is that,in this context,he was a complete generational aberration.

                       Gene himself ranked above the ninetieth percentile administrated for his college entrance exam,however he chose to follow what he called the "solidly blue collar" political science curriculum. During World War 2 he was in the US Air Force and was awarded some of its highest honors. As a trouble shooter for Pan Am in the late 1940's and later work with the LAPD in the 1950's,Gene was exposed to a very well rounded side of life. He was able to experience first hand the ironies of post war America: the contradictions of hope for a better country combined with the fearful paranoia of McCarthyism.  In the late 50's he of course became interested in television writing. And his initial ideas of course mostly had to do with then contemporary police drama. But gradually this grew into new ideas for Roddenberry's creativity and his personal growth as well.

                    Beginning production on the first Star Trek pilot in 1963,he of course managed to convince NBC to commission as second pilot-starring William Shatner as (strangely enough at the time) a James R. Kirk. A few tweaks to this idea and television history was made. Gene Roddenberry's legacy with Star Trek was its encouragement of progressive social ideas to a nation that was facing sometimes frightening social change. He vehemently advocated and praised the idea of the Starship Enterprise as a "spaceship Earth"-representing many different races celebrating a familial sense of teamwork-exploring the cosmos while making pointed social commentary along the way. During an era when most of society was motivated by the fear of a premature death to humanity by weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons,Star Trek-at its very least,showcased that humanity had a happy future to look forward to.

                    The story of Gene Roddenberry's vision projected in Star Trek has come very near to having a very sad ending,however. Almost exactly at the time of his passing,American pop culture made an almost total about face rejection of just about everything that Star Trek had stood for. A complete sense of anger and cynicism overtook people as science fiction-including some elements of later Star Trek spin-off's,became more and more focused on violence and lack of hope. The most cynical aspect of this began to come into the public's view of Roddenberry following his death. The "Great Bird" suddenly became known as being a mildly lecherous person,with drug habits of epic proportions who primarily entered into the world of television writing due to the lack of quality income from his LAPD career. And therefore,long story short,Star Trek as he'd conceived it seemed to die a long and slow death as well.

                    It might seem that little has changed. The societal cynicism and often very anti humanistic viewpoints touted from the early 1990's onward are still strongly in place. And as of today no new Star Trek series currently runs on television. At the same time,reruns of the many branches that came out of Gene's original idea-from The Next Generation,DS9 and Voyager are always on the air somewhere in the world. And who knows-perhaps someone who has lost hope in life gathered the same inspiration from Gene's vision of the future of humanity as the earliest generation of Star Trek admirers. To me what Gene Roddenberry created with Star Trek is all about generations: the ethics of the generation before him,the one after him who challenged authority and were out to change the world and most importantly,the cynically hopeless later generation who actually needed what Star Trek had to offer more than even they realized. No matter his public perceptions,flaws and foibles Gene Roddenberry will always represent to me the best qualities of futurist humanism.



Sunday, October 13, 2013

Star Trek And It's Great Message Episodes

            One of the primary reasons I've continually returned to watching Star Trek over the years is its adherence to delivering vital sociopolitical messages and commentary in an entertaining and futurist setting. This has in fact been stated both implicitly and overtly in most of my blog postings here. In 1995 William Shatner described this aspect of Star Trek merely as a method for drawing in the audience. Considering the cultural zeitgeist of that era,I'd tend to disagree. Which is why here I am going to be showcasing one individual Star Trek episode,from each spin off that to me best demonstrated Gene Roddenberry's message and vision.
                        ENTERPRISE-"CHOSEN REALM" (JANUARY 24'TH,2004)
       When NX-01 is searching for a weapon a race called the Xindi plan to use to destroy Earth, they encounter a group of religious zealots who,after Captain Archer and his crew help repair their damaged ship,attempt to take over Enterprise to fight their leader's holy war regarding their mythologizing of the Xindi spheres. After retaking Enterprise,the crew return them to their home world where they find a horrible sight-the end result of their war. A level of religious fanaticism of a type that can (and in this case did) destroy a society is showcased here-one of the this controversial series' stronger episodes,personally. 
     Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are assigned with a Federation Ambassador to open up a space port on a planet that,as it turns out, is using computers to fight a politically correct version of war with its inhabited planetary neighbor-colonized by some of their own people ironically. When their leader insists the Enterprise crew have been declared a casualty of their cyber warfare,he tricks the Ambassador to beam down-to report to suicide chambers par the agreements for their conflict. Kirk is put in the position of using force to destroy their battle computers in order to show them the physical consequence of war. This anticipates strong the "war as entertainment" scenario that humans are still facing today in this powerful and original anti war story.
      Investigating the treasonous actions of a Klingon medical exchange officer trading secret information to the Romulans,Captain Picard brings in Admiral Norah Satie in to investigate the matter further. After her evidence shines a light on the Klingon's actions,she begins fingering a half Romulan med tech on the Enterprise even after his innocence in discovered. Observing the witch hunt occurring around him,Picard is able to suss out the Admiral's true intentions by evoking her father whom she hero worships. In this story,acted to pieces by Patrick Stewart and Jean Simmons as Admiral Satie,this story thoroughly explores a scenario not unlike a 24th century McCarthyism in which Captain Picard utters perhaps Trek's most cynical line: that there will always be someone such as Admiral Satie who spreads fear in the name of righteousness.
               DEEP SPACE NINE: "DUET" (JUNE 13TH,1993)
        When a Kobheerian freighter arrives at DS9,Kira is disturbed that the Cardassian passenger being dropped off by the freighter is afflicted with a disease that could've only been the result of an accident at a labor camp that Kira helped liberate. While interrogating the Cardassian,an investigation by Dax reveals that she is actually interrogating the sadistic Gull Darhe'el who was responsible for atrocities against the Bajorans at the labor camp. It is later revealed that this man was actually his file clerk who'd had cosmetic surgery in order to pose as Darhe'el in order to make a political statement about Cardassian improprieties to the Bajorans. Upon letting him go,he is killed by an angry his own admission simply because he's Cardassian. This dragic drama is a wonderfully executed "bottle episode" similar to "The Drumhead"-only a 'Schindler's List' style scenerio mainly between two characters. A superb look into a misdirection that,for a change,could actually lead to a peaceful resolution to past misdeeds.

                  VOYAGER-"JETREL" (MAY 15'TH,2013)
        A freighter from the Haakonian order,a species who had annexed Neelix's home world of Talax after a war,approaches Voyager searching for Neelix. The man in question is Ma'Bor Jetrel-a scientist who developed a weapon of mass destruction that destroyed the Talaxian moon Rinax and all of its inhabitants-save Neelix. Jetrel presents himself as trying to treat Talaxians with an illness resulting from the weapon-an illness he insists Neelix has. Jetrel's actual plan involves using biomatter and Voyager's transporters to re-animate those killed by his weapon. In reality Jetrel himself has the disease,not Neelix and is trying to undo his mistake before he passes on. Though his experiment fails,he and Neelix come to a amicable resolution upon Jetrel's death. This episode is an excellent example of Star Trek's "hey,its happening on another planet" idea of projecting implicit social messages. The story of Neelix and Jetrel could easily be between any citizen of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945 and those involved in the first two atomic missions. Neelix's guilt about him being a war resister,feeling he betrayed his own family to death,adds extra wait to this story as well

*In addition there are many honorable mentions. Episodes of this same orientation I simply could not list in this manner. Here they are in order of accompanying series:
"The Apple" (TOS)
"Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" (TOS)
"Justice" (TNG)
"The Measure Of A Man" (TNG)
"The High Ground" (TNG)
"The Masterpiece Society" (TNG)
"The Quality of Life (TNG)
"Journey's End" (TNG)
"Paradise" (DS9"
"Past Tense Parts 1 & 2" (DS9)
"Bar Association" (DS9)
"Doctor Bashir,I Presume?" (DS9)
"Far Beyond The Stars" (DS9)
"Covenant" (DS9)
"Death Wish" (Voyager)
"Remember" (Voyager)
"Living Witness" (Voyager)
"Memorial" (Voyager)
"Author,Author" (Voyager)

      Here we have 25 excellent examples of,what within the Star Trek universe is best symbolized by the Vulcan symbol IDIC,which you see in an artists rendering above. Of course it stands for infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Through its highly topical story telling Star Trek has always been able to put a perspective on many different issues humanity still cannot face in real life. There are some who many argue Star Trek's absence from television is partly due to the fact that non sci-fi programming is now free to make more explicit social commentary. Since its clear that televisions adaptability to topical storytelling on real life issues still not as concrete as it may seem, Star Trek's message and presentation of the future is all the more important.