My Star Trek Story

official Star Trek 50th Anniversary logo

I first encountered Star Trek at a library. They displayed the 25th anniversary VHS set on a shelf under a window, placing it at eye-level for two budding sci-fi fans desperate for something to watch other than Star Wars (which I love, but once you can recite every line of dialogue in A New Hope from memory it’s time to broaden your sci-fi horizons). When all the videos were checked-in, they formed a picture of the most beautiful spaceship we’d ever seen. Star Trek aired 23 years before I was born and yet I was obsessed before seeing a single episode.

star trek VHS My mother’s only experience with Star Trek was seeing Wrath of Khan in theaters, which convinced her it wasn’t child-appropriate. So my sister and I followed the course of action that worked when we wanted to watch Star Wars. We talked to Daddy. He remembered watching Star Trek with his dad, so we got the go-ahead to bring home one of those marvelous videos.

The Motion Picture wasn’t quite what were were expecting. I’m ashamed to say I was a bit disappointed. Who are these people (and why are they so old)? Why isn’t anyone happy, and why’s Spock trying to get rid of his emotions? Where are the space battles? This plot doesn’t make sense! We were undaunted, though, and Daddy sent us on a quest to find TV episodes. We came back with “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

This was more like it! I instantly fell in love with Spock and my sister with Kirk. We watched several episodes as a family, which was made doubly interesting because my Dad shared his memories of watching The Original Series with his dad. One of those memories involved his dad’s coinage of the word “scrooched.” You can find this in dictionaries with the definition “to crouch or bend,” but the much better definition is “to bring under alien influence.” As in, “That red shirt’s going to get scrooched if he investigates the suspicious sound.”

Star Trek’s 50th birthday is this week on September 8. It’s a great time to be a Trekkie. We got a fantastic feature film (I liked the first two movies set in the Kelvin timeline well enough, but Beyond was the best. It felt like “real Trek,” just as Simon Pegg promised). A new series is coming next year after 11 years without Star Trek on TV and there was a new episode of Star Trek Continues released this past weekend (this fan-made series is fantastic — it’s like getting a season 4 for the Original Series!). My sister and I are watching “Embracing the Winds” together this afternoon, ready to be those two little girls awed by the U.S.S. Enterprise and giddy about the prospect of quality sci-fi once again.

The Essence of Star Trek

A couple days ago, we finally got a new trailer for Star Trek: Beyond that felt a bit more like “real Star Trek.” Now, there are Trekkies who will say none of the new films are “real Trek,” but I’m not one of them. Though parts of Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) irritated me as a life-long Trekkie, overall I thought they were good stories and I’m nothing but pleased with the cast’s performances of my favorite characters (especially Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy).

The Essence of Star Trek | marissabaker.wordpress.com
image credit: my screenshot from Star Trek Online

I did, however, feel these films were missing a focus that has always been core to the idea of Star Trek. Star Trek’s mission is about exploration, science, new cultures, and ideas. It’s not a space-battle heavy type of science fiction nor was it a “crisis of the week” type of show. It’s much more thoughtful than that. The new movies engaged with ideas of this nature to a certain extent, but they were also fast-paced, explosion-heavy, and largely earth-centric blockbuster films. The first trailer for Star Trek: Beyond made it look like the new film took that to an extreme. It was so bad that Simon Peg admitted he “didn’t love it” and told Trek fans “hang in there, be patient.”

In this new trailer we get discussion about Kirk’s motivation and character. We finally see hints of exploring new worlds, engaging with different cultures, and wrestling with tough ideas. This makes me happy because, at its core, Star Trek is about people trying to do the right thing in complicated situations. Trek should engage with current cultural topics in a unique way. It should support the idea that “good” and “right” are a real things rather than abstract concepts while also acknowledging it’s not always easy to know what’s the good and right thing to do.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about. I could list many others (the TNG episode “Measure of a Man,” for one), but for the sake of space I limited it to three episodes. *Spoilers for all episodes below*

TOS: City on the Edge of Forever

Written by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, “City on the Edge of Forever” is regarded by many as hands-down the finest episode in the Original Series and perhaps all of Star Trek. After Doctor McCoy inadvertently alters earth’s history, Kirk and Spock travel back to the 1930s to repair the time-line, at which point Kirk (predictably) falls for a woman who needs to die for history to play-out as it should. Edith Keeler is a social-worker who runs a soup kitchen and seeks peace for the entire planet. In the correct timeline, she dies in a car accident. If Doctor McCoy saves her life, her peace movement delays U.S. involvement in World War II.

Kirk is the product of a society with the type of peaceful, one-world government Edith dreams of and fights for. He agrees with her ideologically, but he also knows that if she lives Germany’s victory prevents the formation of his unified future-earth. The whole episode grapples with the ideas of responsibility and accountability. Letting someone die is wrong, but letting a planet’s future die would also be wrong. Which is the lesser evil? Can we allow one personal tragedy in order to prevent a global catastrophe? Those are questions we’re still wrestling with today.

DS9: In The Pale Moonlight

While not one of my favorite episodes, “In the Pale Moonlight” is a good example of what we’re talking about today. The story is set during the Dominion War, and the Federation is losing. To borrow from Memory Alpha’s description, “Captain Sisko enlists Garak’s help to ‘persuade’ the Romulans to join the Federation/Klingon alliance to win the war. Sisko unwittingly learns that to save the Federation, he may have to sell his soul and the values Starfleet stands for.” Sisko, and the audience, wrestle with the question of how far the “good guys” can or should go to win a war. He begins with “good intentions,” but they’re the sort that proverbially pave a road to hell.

As the plan becomes ever more complex, he moves from spying, to fabricating false evidence, to paying off dangerous criminals with the ingredients for biogenic weapons, and finally he becomes complicit in an assassination. But Sisko hasn’t gone off the deep end — he simply came up with a plan, received approval, and kept moving forward with sanction from the Federation. Though the assassination wasn’t part of the original plan, there aren’t any repercussions for it. Romulus declares war and the Alpha quadrant is saved. Mission accomplished. But not without great moral wrestling. The episode ends with Sisko staring into the camera ending his personal log with the words, “So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it.”

STC: Lolani

Star Trek Continues really feels like a 4th season of the Original Series, and it continues Star Trek’s rich history of dealing with complicated ethical questions and current cultural issues. In this episode (click to watch), the Enterprise rescues a frightened Orion slave girl from a damaged ship. Having been taken from her family and enslaved, Lolani’s situation is very much akin to trafficked victims here on earth. You might think freeing her is the obvious, moral thing to do, but Star Trek is never simple. The episode wrestles with other issues as well, such as whether or not Lolani’s victimization can excuse her crimes and to what extent Kirk and his people can legally help her.

Since the Orion system isn’t part of the Federation and their law demands any slaves found revert to Orion control, the Federation insists Kirk return Lolani rather than risk an international incident. Kirk initially complies, then chooses to rescue her in violation of Starfleet orders. Before he can, Lolani kills herself and her master by destroying the ship. It’s too late for his change of heart to help; for his moral core to over-ride his nation’s law. That saves the Federation from war with the Orions, but what does it do to Kirk’s soul?

I’m hoping Star Trek: Beyond and the new series coming next year continue Trek’s history of tackling complex ideas, pushing us outside our cultural comfort zones, and looking at issues and ideas from multiple angles. I want more stories that make us think while they’re entertaining us.

Binge-Watching River Song

Since River Song is coming back for the Doctor Who Christmas Special (hurrah!), I thought a bit of re-watching was in order. My sister had already suggested watching the episodes from River’s perspective, so that’s what we decided to do. Selecting an order is more difficult than it might seem, though, because there’s so much wibbly-wobbly happening that you can’t just watch them backwards by air date.

We decided to start with the episode when River met the Doctor (and was old enough to know it was him), then continue from there following her adult timeline. I used the timelines on Comparative Geeks and Tardis Wikia as references. What follows isn’t the exact order we watched them in, but it’s the one I’d recommend after re-watching them all.

Warning: watching in this order will leave you emotionally compromised by the end of “Forest of the Dead.” Like, even more than usual when watching Doctor Who.

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Na Na Na Batman!

My younger sister had a birthday this weekend, and we celebrated with Batman. Though the first episode aired 23 years before I was born, my sister and I grew up watching classic Batman on TV Land at our Grandma Baker’s house. Even now, the first thing I think of when I hear someone say “Batman” is the voice of the 1966 narrator talking about the batphone ringing in the “stately home of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson” as Adam West and Burt Ward run toward the secret batcave access poles in the library.

When the series finally came out on DVD last year, we knew we had to have it. Amazon ran a special earlier this year, and I’ve been hiding the collection in my bookshelf for months praying my sister wouldn’t decide to buy it before her birthday. Well, she didn’t and we’re watching episodes 3 and 4 as I type.

For me, running around on film in cape and cowl doing rather strange square-jawed things was much like playing Batman as a kid. The great difference being tongue planted firmly in cheek. Yes, it is a comedy, but certainly not to kids. — Adam West

I’m enjoying Batman just as much today as I did when a child, but in a different way. As Adam West said in his introduction to the DVD set, the show is a comedy, but I didn’t see it like that as a kid. I laughed, of course, but Batman was a hero to be taken seriously (at least, most of the time). Now, I’m laughing because I get the humor, and much of it is rather clever.

Take the episode we’re watching now, for example. The Penguin doesn’t have any ideas for a dastardly crime when he’s released from prison, so he gives Batman a tricky umbrella that Batman thinks is a clue. The umbrella is bugged, so all Penguin has to do is wait for Batman to figure out what he thinks the Penguin is planning so Penguin can use that plan to commit a crime. Only three episodes in and they’re already using self-referential humor, gently poking fun at Batman’s ability to make sense out of even the most senseless clues. I love it ❤

Robin Hood Meeteth the Lord of Time

I knew I would love the latest Doctor Who episode, “The Robots of Sherwood.” I’ve been curious about it since the first set photo of Clara in a Medieval dress was released, and giddy with anticipation when the title let me know it had something to do with Robin Hood. I can’t remember not being fascinated by Robin Hood. The first time I met him was in the animated Disney film, which my Mom says we brought home from the library so often that the librarians teased her, “Aren’t you ever going to buy that movie?” I vaguely recall finding a copy of Howard Pyle’s “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” in a little back corner of the library, then buying my own copy and wearing it out (quite literally — the cover fell off).

“There’s no such thing as Robin Hood”

“The Robots of Sherwood” begins with Clara making a request I can easily identify with: take me to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor obliges by setting course for 1190-ish, though he maintains that Robin Hood is merely a legend even after the TARDIS is shot by the famous bowman. The episode progresses in a lighthearted story that covers classic elements of both Doctor Who and Robbin Hood, and culminates with a conversation between the Doctor and Robin about how history lost sight of Robin the man and turned him into stories, much like the stories Clara tells Robin about the Doctor.

Doctor: “I’m not a hero.”

Robin: “Neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps, we will both be stories.”

Are They Heroes?

As a child-fan of Robin Hood, I saw him as an heroic figure — the good in a good-verses-evil conflict. But even the versions of the legends specifically written for children have a complicated definition of morality. Robin Hood steals and kills people (typically in defending himself or others) to fight against a government which commits worse crimes. But does he really have the right to take justice into his own hands when his country’s law dictates that justice belongs to appointed authority figures and his God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”? (Robin is presented as Catholic in most legends.) I want to root for him and justify his every action, but I can’t always do that.

Errol Flynn (who the Doctor has apparently fenced with) as Robin Hood

It’s much the same with the Doctor. He flies around the universe saving people, but there’s often a lot of things that go wrong. As a show, Doctor Who has a surprisingly high casualty rate. In the tenth episode of “new-Who,” the 9th Doctor joyfully shouts, “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once — everybody lives!” And as far as I can remember, it really was “just this once” that everyone makes it to the end credits alive. And the Doctor has a thoroughly dark side which complicates defining him as a hero (if you need convincing, here’s an article discussing the Doctor’s 13 Darkest Moments).

So, are they heroes? Depends on your definition.

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. — Joseph Campbell

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. — Christopher Reeve

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

These sound like rather good descriptions of the Doctor and Robin Hood. I couldn’t find the quote (even with Google’s help!), but I read once that heroes are simply people who’ve been observed doing what good men do as a matter of course. There’s some question of whether or not the Doctor qualifies as a “good man,” but he has been seen doing good and heroic things. As for Robin, all but the earliest legends present him as someone who does more good than harm. Even if they’re not “heroes,” they want to be.

The “Real” Robin Hood

Robin Hood by Louis Rhead

Speaking of the earliest legends, I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my one peeve with how this episode portrays Robin Hood. I’ve done no little research into the history of the Robin Hood legends, and know that the earliest tales set him during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), not during the time of King Richard and Prince John. The earliest version of his character that we can track down presents him as a “famous cutthroat” and “forest outlaw” who was both intriguingly mysterious and alarmingly unknowable (Stephen Knight; Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography).

Now, for Doctor Who’s version we could say that the Robin legends took on a sinister aspect in the 100-some years following Clara and the Doctor’s meeting with the “real” Robin, before shifting back to something closer to “reality” in the 1590s, when stories of Robin Hood as a displaced earl begin showing up. But it would have been much more in keeping with the records we have of Robin Hood legends, to present Robin Hood in Doctor Who as a clever, outlawed yeoman. Someone could have at least done enough research to know that the legend of Robin Hood splitting his opponent’s arrows at an archery tournament didn’t show up at all until the 1820 publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (though it did make for a humorous scene with the Doctor).

Perhaps Mark Gatiss, who wrote this episode, agrees with his version of Robin Hood that,  “History is a burden; stories can make us fly.” And I’m inclined to cut him some slack, in terms of how “authentic” Robin Hood has to be for Doctor Who. Most viewers just want to see the typical aspects of Robin Hood — the fight on a bridge between Robin Hood and a stranger, the archery competition for a golden arrow, the battle between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham — with the familiar Earl of Locksley back-story. At this point, trying to bring Robin back to something the Doctor and Clara might actually have discovered in history would have been more confusing than anything else. Gatiss made up for ignoring the oldest Robin Hood source material by including references to multiple version of Robin Hood in film, an almost-quote from Shakespeare, and several nods to both classic and new-Who. All-in-all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, though fairly typical, episode of Doctor Who.

Thoughts On The New Doctor

I started watching Doctor Who a few years after “new Who” started, begining with Eccleston and continuing on in order. I liked Nine, but fell in love with Ten. Even though I was still catching up at that point, knew it was coming, and had Matt Smith episodes that I could watch, I went into mourning for a month after he regenerated and refused to watch any of Eleven’s episodes. But I finally did, and I liked him almost instantly.

And then just a few years later he left. By that time I’d caught up with all the episodes, so there wasn’t the assurance of knowing who’d replace him. It was, in many ways, more traumatic than David Tennant leaving because on top of losing a Doctor I loved, I didn’t know who might replace him. It could have been anyone — a woman, an American (the Horror!), a non-Whovian …

… and then it was Peter Capaldi, and I stopped freaking out. That’s when some of my friends started freaking out, though — he’s too old and too grumpy and shouldn’t be trusted with our favorite character. But I had a good feeling about him for some reason.

SPOILER WARNING

I think I was right. It takes a while the first episode after the Doctor regenerates for him to settle into a personality, and he flitted through a few of the old ones before we got a good sense of who he’ll be now (including asking for a very long scarf and screaming “Geronimo”). Still, I think I’m going to like the Doctor this way. And I have very, very high hopes for the upcoming “Robot of Sherwood” episode (I’m a bit obsessed with Robin Hood legends. Actually Medieval things in general).

There’s plenty of in-depth reviews already, so I’ll just touch on a couple things I though were of note …

Steampunk title sequence! Last time they changed the title and music I was upset, but this time I liked it. I suppose the gears are actually supposed to make me think of time and watches rather than steampunk, but who cares — it was cool. Like bow ties.

The cameo appearance of Matt Smith might not have been surprising for some people, but it was for me. And it was splendid. Clara needed it, and I think some of Matt’s fans probably did, too. *cue sobbing*

“Girl In The Fireplace” is my favorite episode, so I loved the parallels here. Well, “loved” in the sense that I liked how it reminded me of this episode even though robots harvesting human beings for spare parts is bloody creepy.

Clara was splendid. There have been rumors floating around that Jenna Coleman will be leaving in the Christmas episode, and I really hope that’s not true. I’ve liked her as a companion, and I like her even more after seeing her stand up to Madam Vastra and try to convince The Doctor that she’s not an egomaniac by shouting “Nothing is more important than my egomania!”

One of my favorite scenes is where the Doctor is talking with a homeless man (didn’t catch his name, but planetclaire.org says it’s Barney) about his new face.

The Doctor: Why this one? Why did I choose this face? It’s like I’m trying to tell myself something. Like I’m trying to make a point. But what is so important that I can’t just tell myself what I’m thinking? I’m not just being rhetorical here. You can join in.
Barney: I don’t like it.
The Doctor: What?
Barney: Your face.
The Doctor: Well I don’t like it either. I mean it’s alright up to the eyebrows. Then it just goes haywire. Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle caps off with these.
Barney: They are mighty eyebrows indeed sir.
The Doctor: They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows. That’s Scot, I am Scottish and I’ve gone Scottish.
Barney: Yes you are. You are definitely Scot sir. I hear it in your voice.

Love the bit of Scottish attitude that’s showing up along with his new accent, and I particularly like the more reflective side we’re glimpsing in this Doctor as he puzzles over why he chose this face — what message his past selves are trying to send him. On the same subject, there’s a particularly heart-tugging line of dialogue at the end where he tells Clara, “You can’t see me, can you? You look at me and you can’t see. Do you have any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone, I’m right here. Standing in front of you. Please just… just see me.”

We see you, Mr. Capaldi. And you look like The Doctor. Not my Doctor perhaps, but certainly a Doctor we can learn to love.

12th Doctor Sale going on at my Etsy store until the end of August