...busting up my brains for the words

Monday, May 09, 2005

Sci-fi hack

I started writing this post a few days ago. Then I ran into some browser problems and had to put it on ice.
But I've successfully installed Firefox this evening and everything looks grand. So back to blogging.

There is an essay that's been getting passed around a bit on the blogosphere this past week that is in need of a thorough fisking because it is offensively wrong on just about every level. I am speaking of this piece by science fiction hack Orson Scott Card. I call myself a sci-fi fan. In the 60s I ravenously read the masters; Heinlein, Clark, Azimov, Bradbury, etcetera. I also took stabs at reading authors who were not recognised as being among the top greats, but who were great just the same, such as Simak, LeGuin, Herbert and the list is practically endless.
When Star Trek came out on network television in 1966 I was enthralled. I have vivid memories of biking home from little league practice, keen on getting planted before the t.v. in time to see this amazing and wondrous sci-fi adventure show.
Now, I was, and remain, a big fan of the show, but I am most certainly no disfunctional nerd of the sort that Card describes in this piece of garbage article. I have never, and have no intention of ever attending a Star Trek convention.

I also have no intention of ever reading anything again by Orson Scott Card. I first heard of Card back in, oh 1998 or so. I'd heard he was a good writer and that one of his best books might be a novel called Ender's Game. This novel was an insufrable read. It's embarrassing, it's so badly written. Somehow, I forced myself to read the entire piece of junk, hoping its ending might redeem the author. It never did and I'd like to have back the 120 minutes or so that I wasted with my nose stuck between this worthless book's pages.

Ok. Now for the fisking; Strange New World: No 'Star Trek'

So they've gone and killed "Star Trek." And it's about time.
They tried it before, remember. The network flushed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down into the great septic tank of broadcast waste, from which no traveler…. No, wait, let's get this right: from which rotting ideas and aging actors return with depressing regularity.

So far, Card is on Terra Firma. Yes, they tried to kill Star Trek before. I am strictly an OS guy; Original Series. Those first three seasons of this groundbreaking sci-fi show were golden. And NBC television didn't even know they were golden. But the fans were summoned by Bjo Trimble and a few highly intelligent Trekers who saw the magic of this show and persuaded the network to keep it alive for a third season. But that season saw the show suffer a devastating cut in budget.
Card is right to point out that a good show should have been allowed to stay dead, rather than be resuscitated in the fashion it was. This goes the same for the movies which are all pure tripe.

It was the fans who saved "Star Trek" from oblivion. They just wouldn't let go.

This was in the days before VCRs, and way before DVDs. You couldn't go out and buy the boxed set of all three seasons. When a show was canceled, the only way you could see it again was if some local station picked it up in syndication.

A few stations did just that. And the hungry fans called their friends and they watched it faithfully. They memorized the episodes. I swear I've heard of people who quit their jobs and moved just so they could live in a city that had "Star Trek" running every day.

And then the madness really got underway.

It was this manner of artifical resusitation that imbued the new Star Trek franchises with their putrid and self-conscious rot. The network knew that the fans were loyal and nostalgic. All they had to do was go to one of the many Trek conventions and they could see what William Shatner was talking about in that famous SNL skit in which he told the Trekkies to "Get a life".
This was going to be easy. The show was already sold. All they had to do was wrap it up in gawdy paper with a big pink bow on it and they would lap it up.

So Card and I are pretty much on the same planet so far. He asks a question;

So out of the ashes the series rose again. Here's the question: Why?

Then, attempting to answer it, he takes this dip into an alternative universe that bears very little resemblance to our own;

The original "Star Trek," created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad. Nimoy was the only charismatic actor in the cast and, ironically, he played the only character not allowed to register emotion.

This is where Card should have an agonizer applied to his head. This is the juncture where this Zaon pig should die as an example.
Star Trek was wonderful science fiction. Nothing like it had ever been seen on television before. Gene Roddenberry had done his homework well. He'd studied many different science fiction movies and borrowed some of the best ideas and designs to create a new vision. Any casual viewer would notice that Forbidden Planet was inspirational.
When Roddenberry assigned the job of designing the Enterprise, he eliminated the option of giving the ship a cliche'd appearance. Saucers and cigar shapes were out. His instruction was to "make it look like it's got power". Clearly, Star Trek was a gizmo show. With its communicators, tricorders, phasers, laser cannon and that beautiful ship Star Trek was pure action/science fiction. And the invention of the Transporter seems to be entirely a Star Trek original idea, not found in any other movie or t.v. show prior to it. Roddenberry shrewdly saw the need for a device that would quickly get his characters beamed down to the planet where the action of the story would take place, doing away with cumbersome shuttle craft everytime they needed to get to the surface.
Card doesn't understand the most fundemental chemical component of the show; Spock, Kirk and McCoy were a trio. For this oversight Orson Scott Card should be blasted with phasers set on stun.

Then Card babbles on some drivel about how in the days of Star Trek television shows were frozen and characters did not grow within the program. While that may be true, it is a stylistic design that all television shows observed up until Twin Peaks was made. It entailed what we refer to as The Golden Age of Television. Is Card claiming that The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke were inferior programs? Card should be attacked by a wild Mugatu for even thinking this.

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s — a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.

Little of this seeped into the original "Star Trek." The later spinoffs were much better performed, but the content continued to be stuck in Roddenberry's rut. So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?

Here's what I think: Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.

This is the part where Card should be placed into the Transporter and then beamed directly into solid rock. He evidently has never even watched this classic television show. Many, many a Star Trek was written as social commentary in just exactly the manner that Card says it did not. There was an episode in which a planet was overpopulated and people were crammed like sardines in every room. There was an episode that paralleled the Vietnam war and examined that conflict with the objectivity of a science fiction setting. There was an episode in which people became so accustomed to civilizing war that they had allowed its horrors to continue unabated. There was an episode in which two brothers were half white and half black and hated each other because the values were switched on the other. There was an episode in which the people of a planet revered a false god merely because it provided for them.

Now, granted, these themes were not central to Star Trek. It's true that Roddenberry sold the show and conceived of it as a "Wagon Train to the stars". These social commentaries were not shaking the foundations of our society, causing viewers to discuss these hot button topics at the water cooler the next day. We must remember, this was still 1960s television.
But Card is wrong. Star Trek was wonderful science fiction. The t.v. show was blessed to have some of the better writers of the genre weigh in with an episode or two. Harlan Ellison wrote The City On The Edge Of Forever. Theodore Sturgeon wrote Amok Time. Robert Bloch wrote What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Here's what I think; Science fiction fans who had been reading science fiction for years discovered one day that there was finally a great show for them. Star Trek.

Now we finally have first-rate science fiction film and television that are every bit as good as anything going on in print.

Charlie Kaufman created the two finest science fiction films of all time so far: "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have created "Lost," the finest television science fiction series of all time … so far.

This is the part where Spock performs the Vulcan Mind Meld on Card and discovers that his brain has been stolen. Every hodunk in all of creation knows full well what the greatest science fiction movie ever made is; 2001; A Space Odyssey. (Sorry James, it's not Wrath Of Khan). Charlie Kaufman has my greatest admiration for Being John Malkovich and for Adaptation. I have yet to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Funny, I'd never thought of Being John Malkovich as a science fiction movie, but Card is right about that. It is. And it's a very good science fiction movie. But "the finest"? I'd say that Slaughter-house Five is of the same ilk of the genre and is a better movie.

Lost? I'd heard of this show and have never seen it. I'll check it out and see if this is good science fiction. But I doubt it is. Why do I say that? Because just about everything I see on television these days is utter rubbish. The Simpsons is one of the few exceptions and I'm sorry to say that last Sunday's installment was weak.

Now I have an idea I'd like to share. This comedy program called That 70s Show caused a bit of a stir, no? Well how about this; How about if we don't retire Star Trek just yet. How about if we launch another spin-off with the idea of melding Star Trek and That 60s Show? The program should be remade in the vintage mold, harkening back to 30s Westerns. The budget would be ridiculously meager so as to inspire ingenuity in the artistic department to make the show look good without throwing a lot of money at it. This was one of the charms of Star Trek OS. Such a show might somewhat resemble Gallaxy Quest. It would have thrills, spills, occasional laughs, camp, social commentary.

Now that's a show I'd like to see.


  • At 8:34 PM, Blogger R-Five said…

    Well done, sir! As it happens, I've been toying with getting the 3 season DVD pack, and then this "piece" showed up in the Strib. I had to indulge myself a little, but I hoped you would really go after him. You did not disappoint.

    My punishment for him would be Stella #500: "Orson! Orson Scott Card, you've been drinking and blathering again..."

  • At 8:56 PM, Blogger pinkmonkeybird said…

    Yes. That's the model that doesn't shut up when you tell it to.

  • At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Stella #500 only, or how about the whole series?

    good catch on Forbidden Planet, one of my all time favorites. And then there is Outer Limits, a contemporary series with the Twilight Zone.

    Sturgeon also wrote Shore Leave, which was a fun episode. And a great SF writer.

    Some other SF greats: George Clayton Johnson (Logan's Run), Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), Norman Spinrad, big time sf writer, wrote the episode Doomsday Machine.

    Unfortunately, the trend for great SF writers doing Trek ended with the second season.

    Here's a thought...maybe Orson Scott Card was thinking of Lost In space...


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