Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Final Frontier

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary TV series Star Trek. Although both the series and its standard storytelling formulas are well enshrined in popular culture, many people do not realize how much the series changed from Roddenberry’s original conception to the version that finally aired on network TV. Numerous changes were made between the unaired pilot film “The Cage” and the series’ onscreen debut, and the most interesting of these involve an entire character who was deleted in the transition between the two versions of the series.
“The Cage” featured a cast that was mostly different from, but roughly corresponded to, the crew of the series proper. The most significant divergence was in the second in command character; instead of being Spock (who was still part of the crew, but a less prominent character in this version), the second in command was a woman referred to only as “Number One”, played by Majel Barrett. Number One was an intellectual, cerebral, unemotional character in a position of authority…the exact opposite of how most female characters were portrayed on 1960s television, and a rarity among female characters in science fiction of the time. Not merely a female authority figure, she also became involved in the action, beaming down to the alien planet several times and demonstrating to the Talosian race that humans would die for the sake of their independence. There was no female character in the series proper who could compare to her in terms of being a female authority figure—in fact, the original series had an entire episode that revolved around the fact that women were unsuitable for service as Starfleet captains!
In the series proper, Number One’s stoic demeanor and stoic qualities were folded into the Spock character, who became second in command of the revised crew. This effectively eliminated a character while preserving some of their essential qualities in the group dynamic; it also makes watching the more emotional Spock of “The Cage” a surreal experience for longtime fans of the series. This brings up an important question; why would a 1960s audience that was willing to accept such supposed taboos as alien and Russian crew members and television’s first interracial kiss still be deadset against a female authority figure? Roddenberry claimed that Number One was too cerebral and cold to meet the approval of female test audiences, and this claim is supported by some of the campier Season 3 storylines that seemed to revolve around Captain Kirk becoming romantically linked to “hot alien babes” who functioned primarily as eye candy.
Not only was Roddenberry’s original vision of an inclusive universe compromised with the deletion of the Number One character, Star Trek writers seem to have been traumatized for decades over the fate of the original pilot. The Next Generation was even more inclusive than the original Star Trek was, but still struggled to promote female characters. Of the two most significant female crew members, one of them, Beverly Crusher, seemed to serve largely as a “Team Mom” in script dynamics and the other, Deanna Troi, functioned as a romantic interest for Commander Riker, the ship’s second in command.  An actual female captain would finally emerge in Voyager’s Captain Janeway…in 1995, nearly thirty years after the first Trek’s launch. Clearly the fallout of audience test reactions to “The Cage” left deep scars indeed if it would take nearly thirty years to create a series with a female Starfleet captain! Nonetheless, Number One lived on in both fanfiction and officially licensed Star Trek novels and comic books for decades, providing readers a “what if” scenario in which she had maintained her original prominence. Over fifty years later, she will finally receive a clear nod in the latest series, Star Trek: Discovery, which will feature a female lieutenant commander named “Number One”. Perhaps this latest series will finally provide a sense of closure for the fate of a character once retconned out of existence due to the taste of 1960s focus groups and cultural mores.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What We May Do For Mars

                “Ask not what America can do for you…” John F. Kennedy famously once said.  Perhaps we should apply the same approach in our preparation for eventually putting some of our species on the planet Mars.  Though the son of a gangster and terrorist sympathizer and probably unelectable by today’s purportedly superior standards, JFK remains the only US president who has so far voiced a coherent policy about exploring outer space. Most recently, Bush II and Obama have made ludicrously inappropriate statements about ambitions for human expansion to the Red Planet, while the real groundwork is being done by capitalist adventurers like Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow.  The real inadequacy, of course, comes as usual from the US Congress, which is filled not with scientists or thinkers, but with scheming money raisers and media personalities who know little enough about our own world, not to speak of others.  It is true that Boeing, Lockheed, GD, or some other defense contractor will build anything we eventually choose to get to Mars (at many times the actual cost).  Still, it is perhaps time to think more about what will happen when we get there.
                Let us consider that only this past week, potential astronauts emerged from a year-long experiment  designed to test extended human habitation on the target planet.  This Bio-dome-like environment was completely anthropocentric, since it was supposed to test the effects of Mars on man rather than man on Mars.  Once the trash and debris was carted off to a dump in Hilo, Hawaii, there was little concern about what might come crawling out of it, since it would predictably be no worse than other local vermin.  It determines only what we may do for Hawaii, but not what we may do for Mars. 
                So far, Mars strategic planning is going on the assumption that the planet is lifeless, or at least home to microbial life that will not cause immediate harm to humans.  Nevertheless, people seem to have forgotten that Mars is an environment, and one that in all probability was at one time able to harbor life.  I cannot identify any long-term experiment that has been able to truly recreate a simulated Martian environment where humans, and all out little cooties, could be introduced to see what might happen biologically in such a scenario.  It puts me in mind of an old episode of the original “Outer Limits” television program named “Wolf 359” where a scientist did something much like this, simulating the environment of a planet near a distant star.  In that case a form of life did emerge that eventually threatened earthly creatures, including the scientist himself.  A dangerous biological development would not have to take the form of the spectral Pacman creature of the “Outer Limits” – merely a rogue bacterium would be enough to provide a formidable obstacle. 
                The first instinct of any potential colonist would be to consider a harmful organism as an alien menace, ignoring the fact that we humans would actually be the alien menace on Mars.  Lest we dismiss the idea that we would constitute a harmless explorational presence on another planet, it is useful to apply lessons now obvious in our own colonialist history on Earth.  The very existence of early Earth colonies tended to follow a pattern of occultation of real purposes.  Jamestown, for example, was never really conceived as a “plantation,” but rather as a pirate base, and was actually constructed at the location of a once-planned Spanish base to guard against pirates.   It is reasonable to expect that adventures in outer space, particularly of a corporate nature (remember: Jamestown was also an example of an early corporate enterprise), would also operate with similarly concealed motives.  Early human colonies often resulted in the extinction of vulnerable local species.  More frightening still is the fact that highly developed technological exploitation is not necessary to bring about such human-caused extinctions.  Stone-age Maori tribesmen landing on New Zealand were able to eradicate the indigenous giant Moa birds in the matter of a few hundred years.  Simply put, we humans are just bad news for the natural inhabitants of any place we choose to appropriate as ours. 
                More preliminary research is necessary before we land humans on Mars.  We will have only one chance to make a true first contact with that extraterrestrial environment and, in the absence of more solid proof than we currently possess, we have to consider it as pristine and capable of engendering its own expectable forms of life.  Even though that life may prove to be harmful to us and our greedy purposes, we would be mistaken to treat it with a lack of respect.  Recent films such as “The Martian” have flamed the imagination of many with the prospect that the only challenge to overcome in dealing with Mars is one of the technological survival of us – a challenge we are bound to overcome with innate human ingenuity.  It is essential to keep in mind that “The Martian” is partially based on an earlier film, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” which is much more explicit in its reliance on eighteenth-century rationalism and its postulate that the human mind is capable of solving all problems without limitation.  Even a rationalist like Dirty Harry Callahan knew that “A man has to know his limitations.”  Research can tell us more about ours, and not just as concerns the viability of discrete individuals, but of entire environment.