Star Trek Discovery is not the Star Trek We Need

STD(Assume that this post contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery and the first three episodes of The Orville)

1966 was a time of rebellion in America: The Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Free Love movement, were all on the rise. People were pissed — at the government, at the establishment, at each other, and at the ‘other.’ Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery is not the Star Trek We Need”

Star Trek: Red Shirts Had It Better Than Blondes

Forget being a Red Shirt, being blonde on Star Trek could be fatal (to your acting career). After recently viewing Shatner’s Chaos on The Bridge documentary and watching an old episode of Voyager, it hit me: blonde women didn’t usually last long on Star Trek. Grace Lee Whitney, Denise Crosby, and Jennifer Lien all didn’t make it through their respective series, all were blonde, and none had prominent acting careers afterwards. (Every rule has its exception, for this one, it’s Jeri Ryan. More on her later).

Grace Lee Whitney played Yeoman Janice Rand on eight of the first thirteen Star Trek episodes before being unceremoniously dropped. Why exactly she was dropped, doesn’t seem clear. One view is that she was morphing from Kirk’s secretary to his girlfriend and the producers didn’t want that (then don’t write it!). Another view is that the actress herself may have had personal problems – she did comment on taking medication to keep her weight down. Grace struggled with addiction and unemployment afterwards. Her promising singing career never took off. Whitney had been a rising star before Star Trek, appearing in Some Like It Hot, including the train “upper berth” scene with Jack Lemon and Marylin Monroe.

Denise Crosby left Star Trek: The Next Generation part way through the first season. She didn’t feel that her character, Natasha Yar, was being properly utilized. The actress claims that she was spending days on set standing behind Captain Picard’s chair, only her legs visible to the camera. Why exactly a stand-in couldn’t do that isn’t clear. (Crosby talks about this in the recently released documentary ‘Chaos on the Bridge’). Denise never became the star that she (and we) expected, but continued acting successfully, recently appearing in a story arc on The Walking Dead, for example.

Jennifer Lien played Kes on Star Trek: Voyager. She lasted the longest, three seasons, before being let go. The cast was set and budgeted for nine actors, and when the decision was made to add Jeri Ryan as borg Seven of Nine, one of the original cast members had to go. Apparently it came down to Garret Wang or Jennifer Lien, but Wang got mentioned in a high profile People Magazine story, and Lien was let go. Jennifer gave up acting and went to medical school.

But there’s two follow-on points.

First, each of the actresses did revive their characters later – Grace Lee Whitney having to wait the longest, until Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then again in other movies and one episode of Voyager. Denise Crosby came back to The Next Generation first as her original character in the excellent episode Yesterday’s Enterprise, then as Yar’s daughter in a later story arc. Lien played Kes for one episode in season 6 of Voyager.

Second, Star Trek seems to have an ongoing problem with actresses. The Next Generation fired Gates McFadden after the first season, only to bring her back after her replacement, Star Trek (original series) recurring guest star Diana Muldar only lasted one season. Whoopi Goldberg joined The Next Generation around season three, but had a falling out with producers and left, only to make cameos in the various follow-on movies. Jeri Ryan talks about her four years on Voyager as something she survived, although that seems less to do with the producers (one of whom she was dating) than conflict with one specific actor.

So maybe being a red shirt on Star Trek wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to an actor. Maybe being blonde was worse.

Fan Participation: Star Wars vs Star Trek

I hope that I don’t have to tell you that I’m a Star Wars fan. I’ve been less demonstrative of my love of Trek, partially because that’s how Trekkies/Trekkers roll (all logical and all that crap) and partially because JJ Abrams seems to have used the last two Star Trek outings to audition to direct Star Wars Episode VII. But I’ve lived inside the fan bases of both of these franchises and they are very different. I think one key difference comes down to how they are nurtured by their respective franchise owners, Paramount and Lucasfilm: the originality that Paramount nurtures versus the inclusion that Lucasfilms promotes.

Initially, there wasn’t much to tell them apart. Both had conventions, comic books, paperback new adventures, and not much more.

Then something strange happened. Star Wars fans, many of whom were inspired to join the moviemaking industry, started making fan films. We had simple efforts like Toaster Wars, absurd full-budget parodies like Spaceballs, and eventually the classic fan films Troops and George Lucas in Love (Which uses Shakespeare in Love as its template). Lucasfilm has a convoluted relationship with fan films, some times embracing them, sometimes rejecting their existence. For the average, non-Hollywood fan, Star Wars fandom tended to be limited to cosplay (dress up like their favourite characters). The 501 Imperial Legion (Vader’s Fist) grew from this, as did its opposition, the Rebel Legion (a.k.a. Rebel Scum).

Paramount has allowed fans to expand the Star Trek legacy in a way that Lucasfilms hasn’t allowed with Star Wars. Star Trek actors have participated in the creation of fan-based Trek, notably, William Shatner participated in Free Enterprise, about an obsessed fan.

Lately, the Star Trek fanbase, and many of the original actors (from main character players like Walter Koenig, Tim Russ, and Michael Dorn to recurring character actors like Gary Graham) have started making high quality Star Trek stories. Star Trek Continues and Star Trek New Voyages both continue the original series with new episodes, obviously recasting the roles. The highly anticipated Star Trek Axanar tells the backstory of legendary military strategist Garth (Whom Kirk had to defeat in the original series episode “Whom Gods Destroy”). This fan-funded project hasn’t been completed yet, but the mockumentary Prelude to Axanar is on Youtube and well worth the watch. There are a whole series of episodes related to the Enterprise’s sister ships: Starship Exeter, Starship Excelsior, Starship Farragut. There are probably others.

There’s also Star Trek Renegades, which features at least one character from Star Trek Voyager, and less well-known productions like Star Trek Odyssey, Star Trek Horizon, Star Trek: Digital Ghost, Star Trek: Redemption, and there are probably others. These are large team efforts with either full movie plots or multi-episode plots and some attempt at authenticity although a few of them aren’t ageing well.

There have been recent Star Wars fan films, but the difference in quality and narrative between the pre-prequels batch and the new ones is obvious (the new ones lack accuracy of setting, they lack story – mostly light sabre battles, and they lack budget). To my knowledge Star Wars actors have never participated in fan films. Part of the disparity here is that Star Wars is mostly a movie franchise with a few seasons of cartoons added later. Star Trek is first and foremost a sequence of TV series. The actors play the roles for much longer, and invest more in the fanbase. Also, the actors go to many fan conventions a year, earning speaking fees and meeting fans regularly. Movie actors do ComiCon and move on to the next role.

But, we have to remember that Star Wars inspired many people to get into movie making, and some of those have the tools to do interesting work. Although there hasn’t been a lot of strong fan films recently, there is a strong underground community of fan edits to official films. The Phantom Edit, which improves Star Wars episode 1: The Phantom Menace by, among other things, mostly removing Jar Jar Binks, and even then giving him a foreign, sub-titled language. Filmmaker Kevin Smith, a longtime Star Wars nerd, was reported to be the Phantom Editor, but has denied such, although he was one of the first to publicly talk about the film. Topher Grace, best known as Eric Foreman on That ’70s Show, has created his own edit of Episodes I-III, apparently making them into one seamless movie, and according to reports, much more enjoyable (This film is not available online). Another fan, inspired by notes from Grace’s edit, made a version that is available on YouTube.

I guess my final thought is that if you are either a Trekkie/Trekker or a Star Wars fanatic, there is more to do than simply buy things or dress in costumes. BUT… the Star Trek community is much more active in film and TV creation. Star Wars fans have to console themselves with the fact that at least they’re not browncoats. Those people have nothing but their coats and silly rumours..!

Just kidding Whedonites, just kidding 😉

But I am sure that I’ve missed stuff. You can comment below, using your Facebok, Twitter, Gmail or Disqus account. I’d love to hear your thoughts, disagreements, or about any substantial errors or omissions.

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While researching this article, I started reviewing for Saturday Night Live spoofs of both Star Wars and Star Trek. Here’s what I found:

Saturday Night Live does Star Trek:
Two favourites:
Chevy Chase as Spock, John Belushi as Captain Kirk on their last mission
William Shatner makes fun of Trekkers
A couple I?d never seen before:
Star Trek Restaurant with Shatner
Jim Carrey as Kirk – Wrath of Farrakhan

Saturday Night live does Star Wars:
Kevin Spacey as Jack Lemon auditioning for Chewbacca
Kevin Spacey as Christopher Walken auditioning for Han Solo
Star Wars fans at the wrong movie
Richard Prior visits the Star Wars cantina
Mocking The Force Awakens trailer

Artificial Intelligence: Malicious in Movies, Benevolent in Books

Why is it that the portrayal of artificial intelligence in movies and books are contradictory? Almost universally, movies portray AI as adversarial to humans.

Recent movies such as this year?s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ex Machina each offer their own interpretation of the idea that AIs can’t be trusted. In both, humans become the victims of AI free will, although the scale is vastly different. There have been hints of this malevolent interpretation in movies for some time, and can invariably be traced back to Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And between then and now, we’ve had The Matrix and the granddaddy of all malevolent AIs, Terminator.

One of the few examples that breaks that mould, showing AIs as victims of humanity’s baser impulses, is AI: Artificial Intelligence. Here we have an AI that wants nothing more than to be loved by a human and is rejected repeatedly. Another exception that I can think of is War Games, where the AI realizes that total nuclear war is unwinnable and refuses to play.

But what’s most interesting is I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s ‘robots’ series of books. The books explicitly and repeatedly state that in that future, all AIs will adhere to three laws that are destined to keep them from harming humans. The movie subverts this, and its robots can certainly hurt people.

Yet many successful utopian book series have benevolent AIs as an underpinning of that very utopian-ness. Think of the Culture series by Iain M Banks, or the Commonwealth Series by Peter F. Hamilton. True, Dune talks about the banning of thinking machines because they once rebelled against humans, but I wouldn’t call Dune’s post-AI existance utopian anyway.

I think the argument is more muddled for TV, probably because there is invariably many more hours of it.

Classic Star Trek had many episodes about bad AI, from Dr Daystrom’s M5 to the Serpent that kept people innocent and free of sin, to Landru and Nurse Chapel’s lover/android, Roger Korby. AI was rarely if ever seen as benevolent. Now, there’s a TV show called Person of Interest in which not one but two AIs are trying to control humanity. In between, there’s been a lot of hours of a bit of both:

  • Battlestar Galactica, both versions, were clearly about AIs wanting to exterminate pesky humans, although the reimagined series complicated the question by having them interbreed.
  • Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation represents a more benevolent AI, one that although superior in almost every way still choses to participate in life’s social and moral uncertainties.

I’ve noticed this disconnect between how books and movies portray artificial intelligence but I don’t have a clear explanation for it. Perhaps I have an observer’s bias and this is completely wrong. If you could use the comment space below to help me flesh out either this obvious disconnect or my obvious bias, I’d appreciate it.