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.

The Story of Vokaya: Beyond a Fan’s Wildest Dreams

Published July 29, 2016

Dan at the premiere of Star Trek Beyond, July 2016
Dan at the premiere of Star Trek Beyond, July 2016

Everyone has a passion in their life: something they love to learn everything about, something that makes them fanatical. Most fans only ever watch their favorite television shows, or sports teams, or other activity. Some seek out like-minded fans who share their passions at conventions and other social gatherings. Meeting an actor or writer who helped create the stories you love can be a highlight of your year. But a few—a lucky few—get to create part of that story.

I never thought that I would actually get to create a small part of the canon Star Trek universe.

Prologue: How I Helped Start Memory Alpha

Since the very early days of my fandom, I’ve always been fascinated with the rich background and technology of the Star Trek universe. My parents gave me a copy of the first edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia for Christmas 1994, and over the following years I eagerly read and re-read every single entry it contained. I learned about many of the details of Kirk’s and Picard’s missions before I even saw the episodes in reruns, but knowing those little details only made me want to see the episodes even more.

I was also fascinated by computers, and I used my dad’s copy of FileMaker Pro to create a personal Star Trek database, which I used to record all the details I saw in the shows I watched. I started out with a list of starships (cross-referenced by which episodes they appeared in), and eventually added lists of episodes, characters, planets, and more. In some ways, this database was even better than the Encyclopedia, because I could update it the very same night that I saw a new episode. But due to the limitations of the internet at the time, I couldn’t share that database with anyone else.

In the fall of 2003, I saw a message from Harry Doddema posted on the Flare Sci-Fi Forums. He had found this new site called Wikipedia, and it had a pretty radical concept: it was an encyclopedia that anyone could edit. He noted how most Star Trek fan pages were limited or incomplete references, and you needed to browse multiple sites to find the information you were looking for. He wondered if the Wikipedia concept could be applied to a Star Trek reference site. With my existing interest in building my own database, I jumped at the chance to build something like that. We named the site Memory Alpha, after the Federation’s central library from the TOS episode “The Lights of Zetar”.

Harry and I poured a lot of time into Memory Alpha in the early years, assembling lists of episodes to set up the structure and writing example articles that others could build from. I particularly enjoyed writing articles about historical events like the major battles of the Dominion War, because I could recount the events of the episodes in great detail but also connect the events together in a way that the Encyclopedia’s necessarily terse entries couldn’t. I think this style is what made Memory Alpha stand out, and it quickly gathered a thriving community of contributors.

I gradually stopped contributing to Memory Alpha after the first few years; I’d gotten a little burned out from writing so many articles, and I also got promoted to a full-time position at work, so I had less time to waste spend writing and editing articles. I also fell out of touch with Harry, as we stopped posting frequently at Flare and moved on with our lives.

I continued to visit Memory Alpha, though, and was very pleased to see how it continued to thrive—thanks to the efforts of all the other fans who contributed their time, thoughts, and energy into creating the most comprehensive Star Trek reference in the world. And over the years, Memory Alpha got noticed: Mike Sussman, co-producer of Star Trek: Enterprise, contributed fascinating background details about the stories that he wrote. Many authors of licensed novels thanked Memory Alpha in their acknowledgments, too.

I was proud to have helped this invaluable resource and thriving community to take off.

An Incoming Hail from Scotty!

Jaylah shows Scotty the Franklin
This was pretty much my reaction!

Stardate: April 14, 2015. It started as just an ordinary, lazy day off for me. I was sitting at my desk around lunchtime, catching up on some news on my iMac. I spotted the red notification badge that an email had arrived. I switched over to the mail app and read the subject line: “From Simon Pegg”.

No way, I thought. I opened the message in growing disbelief and geeky exhilaration. It truly was from Simon Pegg, with a personalized photo attachment and everything! I already knew that he’d been co-writing the next movie. The email, addressed to me and Harry, thanked us for starting Memory Alpha and described how he’d been using the site as a resource for writing the new movie. But more than that, he was looking for a little help with with creating an element in the story!

What he was looking for was a Vulcan mineral with some unique properties: a stone or gem used in jewelry, which transmits a harmless anergy field that could be detected by a scan, and was uniquely identifiable to Vulcan.

(If you’ve already seen the movie, you know exactly where this is going… but those were all the details that we had to work with.)

Naturally, Harry and I exploded with excitement and jumped at the chance to contribute to our favorite show! For the next few hours we furiously emailed back and forth, pitching ideas. Harry thought of trininite, a real-world radioactive mineral created during the Trinity atomic bomb test that was briefly used in jewelry before the consequences of radioactivity were fully understood. Vulcans were known to have detonated atomic weapons during the Time of Awakening, so a similar mineral could easily have been created from the desert sands of their planet. It would be very slightly radioactive (and have become less so over the 1500 years), giving off an energy signature that could be detected by a scanner. And as a physical relic of Vulcan’s illogical wars, it would hold deep meaning for them, justifying its use as a memento in jewelry and similar artifacts.

So, what to call it? We dove in to a bunch of references, starting with Memory Alpha (of course!). I found a few promising words: vokau (“remember”, from “The Forge” [ENT]) and heya (“mountain”, from the novel Spock’s World). This felt like a perfect starting point for a name, since this stone would be a physical reminder of the memory of Vulcan’s past. We tried a few different variations, but the translation was always meant to roughly be “remembrance stone” or “memory stone”. I suggested vokau-heya as a tip of the hat to other hyphenated Vulcan words (like koon-ut-kal-if-fee), and we eventually shortened it to vokaya.

I was lucky it was my day off, because I was so excited I dropped everything to work on this—and I’m pretty sure Harry did too. We did all our research, brainstorming, and discussion in about 5 hours, and then sent off a reply to Mr. Pegg with our ideas.

We heard back the very next day, and if we were excited before, we were thrilled when Mr. Pegg loved our idea! We had a nice little email chat, sharing some feelings about the reboot series in general. It was refreshing to hear from someone so closely involved in making Star Trek, and to hear that even a fan who helped make the films might not have liked every single plot and detail (the Enterprise hiding under the ocean was mentioned), yet still was proud and excited about the movies. I’d been a little bummed about the future prospects of Star Trek after seeing Into Darkness, but this brief conversation reassured me that my favorite fictional universe was in excellent hands.

The first trailer for the now-named Star Trek Beyond came out in December 2015, and it was a pretty discouraging trailer for a Star Trek fan. Plenty of comment threads raged about the motorcycle, the rock music, the destruction. And in retrospect, all of these elements were certainly present in the movie. I reassured myself that this teaser was edited to attract the general public, not Trekkies. Based on my experiences with Mr. Pegg, I was still confident that this would turn out to be a good movie. But I couldn’t tell anyone else about that yet!

I saw a few interviews about the writing and production. It was exciting to read about our contributions to the movie, even if we weren’t mentioned by name. Mr. Pegg described how he’d used Memory Alpha, and gotten help from “the Memory Alpha guys”. I think it was reassuring to other fans who saw these interviews, as Harry and I had been reassured in conversation, that the writers, actors, and director were invested in making a Star Trek movie, not just an action-heavy sci-fi film with the words “Star Trek” slapped on it.

I was definitely looking forward to seeing the movie in July!

A Surprise Away Mission to San Diego

Invitation to the premiere of Star Trek Beyond
Invitation to the premiere of Star Trek Beyond

Stardate: July 9, 2016. The release date of Star Trek Beyond was getting close. It started as another ordinary work day for me. At lunch, I checked my email on my phone, and saw a message waiting. As I read it, it slowly dawned on me that my life was about to get even more exciting. Folks from Paramount and Wikia (the host of Memory Alpha) had heard about Harry and my contributions to the movie thanks to Mr. Pegg’s interviews, and were inviting us to attend the world premiere at Comic-Con in San Diego!

My reflexive reaction was, I can’t possibly go! It’s only 10 days away, I’ve already got my work schedule for that week! And I wasn’t sure I’d want to go, even if I could—I’ve seen pictures of the crowds at Comic-Con, I would be overwhelmed. I started to write a reply, graciously declining due to the last-minute timing. But on a whim, I asked one of my managers, Steve, a semi-hypothetical question: “How much trouble would it cause if I needed to take a last minute trip in 10 days?”

Now, I’ve always known that I have amazing managers and co-workers, some of whom I count as close friends. I knew that a sudden absence would place a bit of a burden, but they’d support me if at all possible. And I’m also rather introverted in person; even though I work at a fairly busy store, big shouting crowds are definitely not my thing. But I was still a bit surprised—though I shouldn’t have been—at the enthusiastic outpouring of support from everyone I talked to. Steve immediately looked into the schedule to see what changes could be made. When he heard that I was still uncertain about going due to the crowds, Fred threatened to beat me up every day of the rest of our careers together if I didn’t go. (But that’s Fred for you—he means well, he’s just sarcastic!) Becca was more productive, she checked out the location with me, and helped find a few candidate locations for booking a room. Ultimately, I realized that I’d probably regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t go!

Harry, sadly, couldn’t make it. He lives in the Netherlands, so it was a longer trip, and the obstacles were more difficult to overcome. I promised to video chat with him if anything interesting happened.

It was a nerve-wracking week making preparations. I was more nervous than I’d been in a long time. Some of my comments on Twitter made it sound like I had some major upheaval in my life. …Well, it was a major upheaval, it was just the good kind. I had to arrange time off from work, book flights and lodging, find other activities during the trip, arrange for my cats to be fed… I’m not very comfortable making last-minute plans. But I got some help, and I got it done.

Picking a friend to go with me was a little tough. Several of us at work hold a semi-regular “Star Trek Night”, where we either watch old episodes and movies, or play games like Fleet Captains or Five Year Mission. I didn’t want to pick favorites, but this wasn’t a group trip! I decided to ask Becca—she’d been very supportive in convincing me to take the trip in the first place.

Our flight departed Philadelphia airport at 6:30 AM on Tuesday. I was barely awake, but I was naturally incredibly excited. Because of the last-minute nature of the trip, we’d decided to keep it short—but we still managed to pack a decent amount of fun in! We landed in San Diego in the early afternoon, spent a few hours at the San Diego Zoo, slept like the dead that night, and visited the aircraft carrier USS Midway Museum on Wednesday morning. Then, it was time to rest up and get ready for the big night. As if to prove that the universe really does have a sense of humor, we grabbed dinner on our way to the premiere, and the bartender’s name was… Scotty! (Yes, really.)

The World Premiere

Stardate: July 20, 2016. I really didn’t know what to expect at the premiere. I’d been in contact with Brian and Brandon from Wikia, and Mr. Pegg’s assistant Claire, but due to the busy nature of the event, a lot of the planning was last minute. I was told to text them when we arrived at the park, and to be there around 5:30 PM. Becca and I scouted out the park the morning of the premiere when we picked up our tickets. There was a certain irony in our being in San Diego just as Comic-Con was about to start, but we weren’t too disappointed at having to miss it. (I’d tried, but there was no chance in Gre’thor of us getting tickets so close to the convention. And frankly, as cool as it would be, the crowds were a major drawback for both of us.)

So we threaded our way through the crowds lined up for the preview night of Comic-Con, then past the long line waiting to get in to the Beyond premiere. I met up with Brian at the head of the line, and… they let us right in. Becca was shown to our seats—they played “The Corbomite Maneuver” for everyone who was already in and seated. Meanwhile, they gave me a press pass so everyone knew I was supposed to be where I was, and then I was taken over to the red carpet.

The red carpet. Was this actually happening?

Sure, my place was the very last spot at the end of the line. I was completely out of sight of the exciting photo ops that everyone sees. (In one of the photos below, you can see the reverse side of the black backdrop that’s in all the promotional shots.) But I didn’t care. It was the freakin’ red carpet.

It was a long time waiting for all the stars to arrive. Luckily I had a great time hanging out with Brian and Anthony from Wikia. We chatted about the reboot films, our favorite stories, the proper way to pronounce “Wikia” (it’s “Wih-KEY-ah”, for the record), and other fun stuff. Somehow, we three became the guardians of the bottled water—mainly because it was just an ice-filled bucket on the corner of the platform, and we happened to be standing right next to it. I didn’t mind.

We heard cheering as the first stars finally arrived at about 7:00 PM. Unsurprisingly, it took a while for everyone to slowly make their way down the whole red carpet. I saw plenty of familiar faces as they filed past. I didn’t get a chance to actually talk to any of them—I could tell the whole thing was fairly tightly scheduled. Still, it was amazing to actually see Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoë Saldana, and all the others walk past!

I called Harry on my iPhone, and got the video chat started. I’d already been in touch with him by email, and we both agreed that this definitely qualified as “something interesting”! Simon Pegg was getting close… and then he was pulled away! Fortunately, it was just for a group photo, and then he came back. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was this close to turning into a stereotypical blabbering fanboy.

Then, it was suddenly happening. I was talking to Simon Pegg, so glad to meet him in person after chatting over email. It was a short, but friendly and sincere conversation. He really is as cool as he appears in the interviews. I’m so glad that Brian and Anthony were there to record it on video, because the entire thing was a blur! And Harry got to join in too, even if it was only on a video call.

After that, I had just enough time to make it to rejoin Becca at our seats. I felt a little drained, but the excitement was far from over. Conan O’Brien was his usual witty self as MC, introducing the cast and producers.

Then there was an absolutely spectacular laser and fireworks show, accompanied by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. There are some photos available, but frankly they don’t do the show justice. It was simply 10 minutes of pure geeky awesomeness.

Finally it was time for the movie itself. On an outdoor IMAX screen. With the soundtrack played live by the orchestra. Yes, it was amazing. (They said it was the very first time there had ever been an outdoor IMAX screen.)

Despite having spoken with Mr. Pegg, I didn’t really know how our idea was going to be used in the film. Harry and I had seen a promo clip that we strongly suspected featured vokaya, but we didn’t know for certain. And so, when Spock started talking about modifying the Franklin’s scanners, my ears perked up. This was it… and then I heard it said aloud, “vokaya”! The scene itself was funny, as Bones and Spock discussed the utility of the mineral. I laughed at Bones’ quip—“So… you gave your girlfriend a tracking device?”—followed by Spock’s hilariously subtle look of shock as he realized the implications. And then the scene was over, and I sat back to enjoy the rest of the movie.

(I’ll save my thoughts on the film as a whole for another post. Suffice to say, I loved it, and it was everything the Star Trek fan in me had hoped for. And I could tell that everyone around me enjoyed it too.)

After a night of excitement, it was time for one more surreal moment. Mr. Pegg had suggested that it was coming, but I’d never heard anything official, so I’d never quite believed it was going to happen. But Becca and I were watching for it, and then, there it was:

Star Trek Beyond credits, with thanks from the producers to Daniel C. Carlson and Harry Doddema

There was my name, and Harry’s name, in giant letters on a giant screen, thanked by the producers in a major movie. A Star Trek movie. Becca cheered and I clapped, grinning from ear to ear.

We slowly filed out with the rest of the crowd, grabbed our gift bags with lots of cool swag, and headed back to our room. There had been mention of an after-party, but I’d never gotten any details on exactly where it was or how to get in. It’s my one—very slight—regret in the whole adventure. But Becca and I didn’t mind much, our bodies were telling us it was after 2 AM (those pesky time zones get you every time).

Conclusion

The next morning, it was time to fly home. Less than 48 hours on the ground in San Diego, but what a trip!

As I said before, I’m a fairly introverted person. But I’m so glad that I got to take this trip, and to contribute to my favorite sci-fi universe. I couldn’t have done it alone. I’m grateful to so many people who helped me along the way:

Becca, who joined me for my surprise away mission. It was a little scary to take a trip at the last minute, but it was so much more fun to have someone to share it with.

Steve, Fred, and Mary, who were all so encouraging in their own ways, and helped convince me that I had to take the trip.

Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Justin Lin, and the entire cast and crew, who made a fantastic Star Trek movie. It was an honor to be included, even in such a small role.

Brian, Brandon, Anthony, Claire, and Casey, who arranged the invitations and helped me once I got there. It was a bit overwhelming, but I made it through with their help.

Harry and I may have set up the Memory Alpha website, but we only wrote a tiny fraction of the articles that can be found there. Memory Alpha is a true group effort, and I’m grateful for everyone that has contributed to it over the years. We always were aware of the potential in the project, but I never really thought that it would become the single most authoritative Star Trek reference in the world. It wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without so many diverse contributions.

Star Trek has been a part of my life for years, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my chance to be a part of the Star Trek community.

See also: Harry’s Facebook message

Posted by MinutiaeMan at 5:51 PM

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