The Subspace Cafe

The Subspace Cafe is a semi-regular publication about recent (or not-so-recent) developments in the world of Star Trek and other science fiction-related issues. Check back often for reviews and commentary, musings about (fictional) politics and ethics, rants about inconsistency and idiocy, or any other sort of soapbox material! Yes, it's another blog.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Trek

Published July 18, 2016

(Or if you like a clichéd title, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reboot”)

I’m not exactly a prolific writer these days. (Or ever, depending on your point of view.) As we approach the premiere of Star Trek Beyond, the third movie in the reboot franchise, I think it’s high time to speak up and explain why I’ve enjoyed the story so far.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for 23 years now. That’s not even half the life of the franchise itself. As television and storytelling has evolved, so too has the series. Looking back on the 50-year journey, each series has been distinct from its siblings, a reflection of the time in which it was made.

Reboot Fever

Let’s start with the obvious: I think that reboots have gone overboard in general. It was a relatively interesting idea when Ron Moore launched the new Battlestar Galactica, which I think was a compelling story and a great exploration of the original premise. (Though my sister was a fan of the original, and to this day refuses to watch the reimagined series.)

What can make a reboot good or bad? There’s three general elements to a story: characters, setting, and plot. A reboot basically reuses at least two of these elements—usually the characters and the setting. This can be both a shortcut to get audiences involved in relatively new characters, and a way to establish a universe without having to spend valuable screen time focusing on lots of background details. I think the problem is when reboots reuse too many elements from their predecessors—the shortcut has become a crutch.

I have to admit my sister has a point, too: if there are enough differences, why even reuse the title at all? I think that sadly, that’s not up to the writers, but it’s driven by the executives who would rather have an allegedly sure-fire blockbuster by building on the success of an existing franchise. This can result in great stories, but is certainly still a cheat.

For the first 43 years, Star Trek was a constantly expanding universe, always adding new crews and ships (and a station). The decision to go back and explore the same familiar characters was certainly something that bothered me. We’ve learned plenty about Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the others—why can’t we get to know someone new?

New characters would have been preferable, but J.J. Abrams and the other writers came up with a clever in-universe justification: the alternate timeline. This device allowed them to take well-known characters and settings and transform them into something that is both familiar and different at the same time. I think this is what bothers most long-time Star Trek fans: I know I’m watching Kirk and Spock, but it’s not MY Kirk and Spock!

Does this make the new characters better, or worse? No, it just makes them different.

Getting to Know Old Friends Again

Star Trek came out in 2009, and it’s been 7 years since I first watched it. The opening scene drew me in and then immediately blew me away—as it was clearly meant to. It was an emotional and dramatic demonstration that Star Trek would never be the same. And yet it’s taken me almost 7 years to truly accept the lesson that I told myself I’d learned watching the trailer for that movie: that the franchise has evolved and changed.

I could nitpick all sorts of details all day. Fans always love to do that. I think the biggest flaw was the conceit of ensuring that Kirk, and Kirk alone, was qualified to be Captain of the Enterprise. This was a flawed assumption, in my opinion, but they made it work. Mostly.

Then came Star Trek Into Darkness. I very much enjoyed watching the movie the first time, but as I walked out of the theater, I was already starting to second-guess my feelings:

I wanted to like Into Darkness. I could get over most of the plot holes, and I could even accept the villain turning out to be Khan. (It didn’t help that Abrams and others outright lied to the fans before the movie came out.) But Kirk’s death scene didn’t feel like a homage. It felt like an outright ripoff. Spock’s “dramatic” shout was inexcusably out of character, even for such an emotional moment. It just felt like a joke that was too clever for its own sake. And Kirk’s resurrection, though technically justified by the plot (and amply foreshadowed), still felt like a complete cheat.

So maybe Into Darkness left a sour taste in my mouth, but I’ve still wondered what felt different about the reboot movies. Am I reacting differently because I want to cling on to the past stories? Is this like the Babylon 5 DVD movie, which almost but didn’t quite recapture the spirit of the original show?

Feature Films are Not Television

And now we get to the real reason, I think, for a lot of the die-hard fan backlash. We’ve only had four hours to get to know the new variations on these characters so far. That’s hardly a fair comparison to the 80-plus hours with the original crew! We grew up (literally or figuratively) with Shatner’s, Nimoy’s, and Kelley’s portrayal of the Enterprise crew. Now, all of a sudden, we’re introduced to people who are almost, but not quite, the same. We’re still in the getting-to-know-you phase.

Feature films are by definition short, distilled action and character development. We get two, maybe two and a half hours to develop connections with the characters. That’s a tough challenge for even a normal story to overcome, so how can we expect to fall in love with Chris Pine’s or Zachary Quinto’s characters when we’ve barely just met them?

Feature films also can’t tell the same kinds of stories that we got in our beloved television shows. Feature films always deal with the extreme, the dire, the extraordinary, and a thousand other superlatives. Star Trek is popular now, maybe even mainstream, but it still can’t draw blockbuster crowds with a two-hour discussion of the consequences of immortality, or an introspective journey to discover the values of emotion versus logic. Mainstream blockbuster movies are about action first, story and character second. Good blockbuster movies should strike a sufficient balance between all three—while certainly favoring the action, still including meaningful character development and insightful thoughts.

The first Star Trek was clearly plot- and action-heavy. I easily forgave this when I saw it, because it was all about establishing the characters and setting. The first and most important task was to create this new alternate timeline.

In some ways, Into Darkness was actually a huge success for developing character: it explored the consequences and implications of Kirk’s cocky, overconfident leadership style when he runs into a situation that he can’t handle. And it explicitly addressed the age-old friction between logic and emotion that Spock has dealt with, but in a different way than past stories. This Spock is far more in tune with his emotions (though he might not admit it). Does that make him better or worse than Leonard Nimoy’s Spock? No, it just makes him different.

And so, I may not have liked all of the plot elements in these movies, but do I like the characters? Yes.

Star Trek is About the Infinite

Is this like the Star Trek that I grew up with? In many ways, the answer is clearly no. But is that really a bad thing?

Nostalgia is a very powerful feeling. Everyone longs for the familiar, but there’s an inherent paradox: you can never recapture the same feelings again. No show will be exactly the same. Besides, why would it be worth making a new show that is exactly the same as one you’ve already seen?

This is why I continue to appreciate the genius of the alternate timeline concept. No matter how you argue the minutiae of temporal mechanics, it’s perfectly reasonable to most fans that any changes in characters and circumstances can be explained by the different sequence of events in the alternate timeline. Sure it’s a cheat, but it’s a damn clever one.

Star Trek has always been about diversity: diversity of culture, diversity of belief, diversity of life itself. The reboot movies are not the same as the stories that came before. They may not be perfect, we may have different favorites, but the core philosophies are still there. Star Trek has changed, but it hasn’t lost its identity. We are still exploring the final frontier.

And that final frontier is infinite… as long as there are more stories to tell. I can’t wait for the next one.

“I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.” — Surak of Vulcan, “The Savage Curtain” (TOS)

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 9:15 PM

Getting Philosophical

Published May 17, 2013

I’m slowly trying to get a sense of my conflicted feelings about Star Trek Into Darkness. I definitely enjoyed watching the movie, but I’m still not sure if I think it was a good movie or not. I want to like it, but I’m very leery of this trend of turning Star Trek into an action franchise.

In the mean time, I think that my uncertainty is made worse by this gem of a quote (he wrote sarcastically) from J.J. Abrams in an interview earlier this week:

I never liked Star Trek as a kid. My friends loved it, and I would, like, try, and I would watch episodes. It always felt too... philosophical for me.

I couldn’t help but exclaim to an empty room, “Are you out of your goddamn mind?!” I had to stop and rewind the video to make sure I’d heard that right. I’m so glad I missed seeing this clip before I saw Into Darkness, because it definitely would have colored my reactions to the film. Even so, this quote has started to epitomize the problems I see in the entire reboot series.

The entire point of Star Trek is its philosophy. Gene Roddenberry’s goal was to tell stories about contemporary society by couching them in terms of a fantastic future. If you just wanted to watch exciting stories in a futuristic setting, you watched Lost in Space. If you want to see stuff blowing up in an absolute good-versus-evil contest, you watched Star Wars.

Star Trek may have been “just” a television show, but it strove to be more than that: it wanted to show that the problems of the present could be overcome, that the things that we think divide us can instead unite us, and that the things which are unknown or different should not be feared. Classic episodes like “A Taste of Armageddon,” “A Private Little War,” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” were compelling precisely because they lacked nonstop action, yet presented a futuristic but recognizable interpretation of modern and important issues which seemed impossibly huge.

As I already discussed a few weeks ago, making a successful summer blockbuster movie is very different from making a successful television series. Previous Star Trek films—even the most popular and best-selling ones—were generally less action-oriented. Maybe that’s the reason the 2009 movie was so fantastically successful by comparison. But given a choice between being popular or being intelligent, I’d choose intelligent any day. (...Oh, the classic choice of any geeky Trekkie while growing up, right?)

It's becoming clear that Abrams doesn't really understand what made Star Trek a great series in the first place. While he was looking only at the explosions and cool ships (and honestly, we all love those aspects!), the very “philosophical” aspects he’s dismissing are what made the series special. In which case, it seems that Abrams is in the process of reviving the Star Trek franchise by destroying its identity.

My only hope and consolation in all of this is that the popularity of these movies will bring renewed interest into the previous series, where new fans will discover the fascinating stories that are both exciting and insightful at the same time.

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 3:58 PM

Optimism

Published April 23, 2013

Ron Moore recently wrote a very interesting response to a question about Star Trek on film versus television. He made a very good point, something that I’ve felt was wrong with the “reboot” series... that a Hollywood blockbuster film can never tell the same kinds of stories as a television show.

The features are very big action-adventure movies, lots of spectacle, run and jump, shoot-em-up and blowing things up. The fate of the Earth, or the universe itself, is always at stake. It’s always about the captain, and one other character has a strong B-story, and everyone else sort of has very small roles beyond that. But Star Trek, as originally conceived, and as you saw play out in all the other series, was really a morality play every week, and it was about an ensemble of players. They were exploring science fiction ideas, sociological ideas and moral ideas.

That’s a very big part of it. People who go to the theater are a very different kind of audience; they want action, excitement, sex. They don’t want to see the captain living 50 years of another man’s life, or a man trying to find his place in a world he no longer recognizes if he’s been “asleep” for 75 years. People want to see the fate of the universe at stake, they want to see exciting or affirming stories where they don’t have to question anything, or even think very much.

But I think the problem goes deeper than that. Star Trek’s spirit can be summarized by a sentence that has almost passed into cliché, such that it gets ignored despite its meaning: “...to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

I don’t think we’re going to see that in Star Trek Into Darkness. But then, we didn't see a lot of that in many of the other movies, either.

The essence of Star Trek can be boiled down to one single word: optimism. Most of the first ten movies were infused with it. Even—no, especially—the most popular, action-packed films. First Contact was a life-and-death struggle against the Borg, but it was also about witnessing the promising beginning of everything good in the Star Trek universe we know and love. The Undiscovered Country was about coming to terms with the possibility of peace with a previously implacable foe, summed up with a simple statement, “People can be very frightened of change.” And The Wrath of Khan...where should I start? The very threat of armageddon was from a device that could create life, not just from a simple destructive weapon. Kirk rediscovered his calling, and (re)discovered his family. And finally, Spock’s sacrifice was one of the most meaningful deaths in science fiction, in a bittersweet but uplifting way.

There was none of that in 2009’s Star Trek. Just an angry man out to blow shit up. We didn't see Kirk and Spock become friends, they just developed mutual respect through adversity. (Sure, I know true friendship takes time to develop.) The entire conclusion was treated as a fait accompli, because we knew that Kirk should be the captain, and so what if he’s only one day out of Starfleet Academy and hasn’t proved himself to be a capable commander yet? (No, leading one fight doesn’t count. That just means he’s a good tactician, not a good leader.)

I want to hold out hope. There are glimmers of future greatness: I love the cast, the effects are awesome, the story itself looks exciting. I know that a trailer can’t give away the whole story; it’s designed to get people excited to watch it. But I’m afraid that I will sum up Into Darkness in the same way that I sum up the last movie: It’s a great movie, but it’s not a great Star Trek movie.

Well, we’ll see in about three weeks. In the meantime... Optimism, captain!

Screenshot of Doctor Phlox with his crazy grin

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 8:49 PM

The Best DS9 Episodes You've Overlooked

Published March 2, 2013

I still find it hard to believe that I’ve been a Deep Space Nine fan for almost twenty years. And like anyone else on an anniversary of note, I want to take a look back and find my favorite moments. It’s pretty easy to pick the best episodes of DS9. Most fan lists I’ve seen contain all the classic standbys: “Duet,” “The Visitor,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “The Siege of AR-558,” and “In the Pale Moonlight.” Those are my favorites too.

But DS9’s strength was the depth of its characterization, the depth of the story itself. Some early critics mocked the show’s premise for “boldly staying” rather than “boldly going.” How could it be Star Trek when you weren’t seeking out new worlds each week? But the stationary nature of the show gave it the opportunity to find its own voice by developing an impressive roster of recurring guest characters, and allowing the actions from one episode have consequences in later stories.

None of this is news to any true DS9 fan. But when many lists of favorite episodes are so similar, that minimizes the impact of all the other episodes. Sure, there were plenty of notable stinkers (which shall go nameless here, we all know the ones). But there were lots of episodes that added to the richness of the story, which weren’t quite as memorable, but were nonetheless great stories.

These are my favorites, ones that never show up on the list of DS9’s best episodes.

Twenty Years Ago, I Almost Became a Star Trek Fan

Published January 3, 2013

On January 3, 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered with the excellent episode “Emissary.” I was 11 years old, just starting to get interested in science fiction. My parents were fans of the original series, but had never watched The Next Generation, and wanted to give the new series a try. They asked me to watch it with them.

For some reason... I didn't.

I don't remember why. I loved Star Wars, but hadn't yet explored much else in the genre. For some reason, I just didn't want to watch “some dumb show called Star Trek.” The only part of the pilot I saw was near the climax, when Kira was facing down the Cardassians. I have no idea why the show didn't catch my interest then and there.

Of course, that wasn't the end of the story. My parents kept watching the show, and occasionally I'd sit in the living room and catch parts of it with them. I remember bits and pieces from episodes like “Captive Pursuit,” “Vortex,” and “Dramatis Personae.” But the first show that I watched from beginning to end, the one that made me sit up and notice, was the classic tale “Duet.”

DS9 remains my first and favorite Star Trek. Each and every series has its own great elements to commend it, but somehow none of them are as interesting, or as real and relatable, as Sisko, Kira, Bashir, Quark, and all the others. And even as television storytelling has evolved to tell more complex tales, the close interrelationship of personalities, politics, religion, and ethics that was explored in DS9 feels just as interesting today as it did when I first watched it.

In any event, today is the twentieth anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the show that made me a Star Trek fan. I've since moved on to enjoy many other shows... Babylon 5, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, and others. Many of them, in their own way, were “better” than DS9. But to paraphrase Miles O’Brien, “I love Star Trek, but I like the other shows more.”

Twenty years. Wow, do I feel old now.

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 8:10 AM

It's All About People

Published October 6, 2011

It’s funny. By nature I’m extremely introverted. I would never consider myself a “people person”. And yet, tonight I’ve realized that no matter what we do, it’s always about how we interact with each other. Take any task, any object, and its ultimate purpose is to enable people to relate to each other.

So many people lose sight of that. We focus on the process, and the faces and bodies just blur into the background. And then some event comes out of the blue and somehow, someway, makes you see things differently. Sometimes you have to look at your own everyday world through someone else’s eyes to realize how amazing it is.

When I look at a computer, I see a tool that lets people save and share the most important moments in their lives. I see a toy that lets people enjoy themselves, their surroundings, and their friends. I see an instrument that lets them be more productive at work and at home, so they can do more things with the people who are important to them.

Every day I sit at a table, casually chatting with people young and old, novice and experienced, looking to find new ways to realize some dream. Usually it’s a small one, at least to an outsider, but its impact is still enormous. Sharing vacation photos with family. Sending holiday greetings. Writing a journal. Perfecting a résumé. There are ways we can accomplish these things today that were almost inconceivable thirty years ago. And I help people realize those dreams.

No words can really describe—or even summarize—the impact Steve Jobs has had on the world. The best way to fathom his impact is just to take a look around you. Think about how technology affects your world, your family, your daily routine. He didn’t invent the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad on his own. But he had the vision to see things that were thought impossible, the insight to recognize what’s important (and what’s not), and the tenacity to make them happen, even when everyone around you is telling you that you’re wrong.

It’s been my privilege to help others become a part of his vision. In Steve Jobs’s world, I am a people person. I get to help people connect with everyone around them.

I can think of no better words than Steve’s own: “Here’s to the crazy ones.”

A few other tidbits that have stood out for me as everyone (people!) share their thoughts:

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 12:48 PM

A New Friend

Published May 28, 2011

This cool-looking new application for HTML 5 web design came out last week. Hype seemed pretty cool, so I bought it right away, and now I'm experimenting by building a slideshow. And in the finest tradition of the interwebs, why not make a slideshow with pictures of a cute kitten?

I just adopted a kitten from an orphaned litter this week. My sister suggested the name Vala (she's a black cat, after all, and a troublemaker to boot) and the name stuck. So, here are ten cute pictures of a cute kitten in action!

Design Note: This is a new application, so I'm learning the kinks here. Plus, it's HTML 5, so if your browser doesn't show it properly, you probably just need to upgrade. So there.

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 2:08 PM

Holding the Future in My Hands

Published April 7, 2010

For as long as I’ve been a Star Trek fan, I’ve always read about how the show has influenced the advance of technology. The cell phone, of course, is the most obvious example, but it’s just the best-known. And I grew up in a decade where cell phones and pagers had already penetrated the public consciousness. So I’ve never fully appreciated just how visionary Star Trek was until today.

The PADD The iPad

I don’t know just what makes the iPad so different—especially compared to the iPhone, which I’ve had for almost three years. Maybe it’s the size, maybe it’s the way I interact... It may be marketing hyperbole, but the larger screen really does make the whole experience much more immersive.

Here’s something that I used to see exclusively on the TV screen: Jake Sisko editing his novels, Picard preparing an archaeology speech, Janeway reviewing some scientific data... and now, I hold a slab of aluminum and glass in my hand, and for all intents and purposes it’s indistinguishable from what I saw on the show.

I can do the same things now. I’ll walk down the hallway with the iPad in my hands, checking up on the latest news over a wireless data connection. I’ll sit with the iPad in my lap and sketch out a drawing. I’ll watch a movie or send messages to friends. No need for a computer terminal.

These are the things that I used to dream about. Star Trek was among the first to visualize them. Now I get to live one of those dreams.

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 8:50 PM

Supreme Irony

Published March 31, 2010

Sometimes the world just seems to want you to laugh. Especially at someone who seems to have no sense of irony. Take, for example, this choice quote from the beginning of David Pogue’s review of the iPad:

“This device is laughably absurd,” goes a typical remark on a tech blog’s comments board. “How can they expect anyone to get serious computer work done without a mouse?”

Thirty years ago, someone probably said the exact same thing, except that they probably wondered how anyone could get serious work done with a mouse.

I don’t know exactly what the future will be like. But I know it’ll be cooler than anyone imagined. Fifteen years ago, we watched Jake Sisko edit his novels with a stylus and PADD in his lap. Today we’ve got touchscreens clearly inspired by—but just as clearly superior to—those same little tablet computers.

What kind of technology will we be using thirty years from now?

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 9:35 PM

Two News Bits

Published March 16, 2010

Every once in a while I see items in my news feed that I think are worth a mention, but today there’s two! So I gotta write about it here:

First up: Apparently Syfy (I hate that name) loves the Battlestar Galactica story so much that they want to get another series. Gee, maybe they should’ve thought about that before they waffled over canceling the frakking show. If they loved the show so much, we would’ve gotten a fifth season like we were supposed to.

Do I mind having the prospect of more excitement in the Galactica universe? Of course. I just wish that the idiots at Syfy would make up their damn minds.

Second up: Word is spreading that Fox and Brannon Braga are in cahoots for some new sci-fi show. Considering Fox’s stellar record with science fiction recently (*cough*DOLLHOUSE*cough*FIREFLY*cough*), I’m quite dubious. Besides, with Fox’s abominable tastes in programming and Braga’s tendency for overwrought high-concept sci-fi, this seems like a match made in hell to me.

Ah well. At least we’ve still got Stargate Universe and Caprica.

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 7:43 PM