Tag Archives: star trek

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

Why I like science fiction films

This was meant to have been posted in July, but when I scheduled it, I accidentally scheduled it to post in 2010 not 2014, so it was filed where no one could find it! Enjoy.

For the oral exam in my French class last week, I drew a subject out of a hat and talked about it in front of my classmates. The question was which genre of film do I particularly like and why. My answer was science fiction, a fact recently bolstered by re-watching Alien and taking in last summer’s Oblivion (not bad, if not great) and Pacific Rim this month.

Why do I like science fiction movies?

First, growing up in a small town in Alberta leaves most opportunities for adventure up to the imagination. Of which I had no short supply as a child, I admit. What science fiction films provided for me was adventure far beyond the world of the Clearwater Forest, the North Saskatchewan River, the Rocky Mountains. A world where adventure was as thrilling as what I imagined was going on during a hike in the mountains.

Science fiction fuels the appetite of young boys and young men, provides us with vicarious adventures we’d not otherwise have. And not all sci-fi adventure is violent (not denying the violence of the Alien and Terminator franchises, though) — in The Empire Strikes Back we have the battle on Hoth at the beginning and then some firefight and a legendary light sabre duel at the end. Most of the adventure is spent in running from the Empire and meeting Yoda, the adventure of training young Luke Skywalker.

Second, and related, science fiction can help open our eyes to a bigger universe, a universe not simply of adventure but even of opportunity. My cousin who grew up in actual middle of nowhere at a missionary station in Africa says that Star Trek was a very important influence on her when young because it helped her see a world, a universe, larger than what she knew. Star Trek doesn’t just stave off boredom, it opens minds and eyes to the universe, to the potential of humanity. It can make clever young minds realise that perhaps they aren’t alone in the universe. (For the clever do so often feel alone. And I don’t mean aliens; I mean other clever people.)

Third, science fiction films can discuss issues of philosophy, politics, and society in an imaginary forum without the heat generated by real, live conversations. This way, a person who is being entertained can begin questioning him- or herself about his’er own life. Famously, Star Trek includes the first televised interracial kiss in the 1960s. It also features an episode where two races are at ceaseless war on a planet where one race was black on the left and white on the right half of their bodies, the other race the opposite. And that was the basis of their conflict. Star Trek shows the utter folly of racism.

District 9 raises questions about the treatment of refugees. Elysium makes us probe into the growing disparity between earth’s rich and poor and the mental apparatus for a just society. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country makes us ask: what is it to be human? Can ancient enemies become friends?

The final frontier is not space, my friends. It is the human mind, and human potential is the subject of many of the greatest science fiction stories, from Forbidden Planet through classic Star Trek to Inception. What are the limits of the mind? If you give a human brain too much power, what sort of person do you get? What does character have to do in relation to this intectual potential?

Finally, it’s fun. This is coming full circle to the first reason. Beyond the questions of what is human and what is just action and all of that, I like science fiction because I enjoy it. I read a lot of books all day and work fairly hard at my PhD. It is nice sometimes to come home and watch a movie like Pacific Rim that has a good story and is visually stunning but doesn’t require as much brain power as I’ve expended all day.

These are the reason I gave, only much more eloquently and with more examples in English than in French!

The Importance of ‘The Naked Time’ (Star Trek: TOS, S1, E4)

In Berlin, the thing that excited me the most was not the Brandenburger Tor (which is cool), or Checkpoint Charlie (also cool), or a bit of the Wall (also cool), but Queen Nefertiti. And then, after Queen Nefertiti and the stuff from Schliemann’s Troy —

English-language cinema.

Indeed.

First, Iron Man 3. Then Star Trek: Into Darkness. And, for all its flaws, the latter was a good time. I’m glad I saw it in the theatre, and I enjoyed the ride. But it has reminded me of … well … Star Trek.

So now, when I’m not locked away reading books for fun or for work, I’m going to be watching Star Trek and Doctor Who. This will tide me over until the new season of Castle begins. And today I watched ‘The Naked Time.’

‘The Naked Time’ is the fourth aired episode of Star Trek back from 1966. In it, the crew of the Enterprise become infected by some sort of alien disease that Dr. McCoy can’t figure out, the result of which is to bring sublimated desires from the subconscious to dominate the entire conscious behaviour.

Most famously, the intrepid George Takei as Hikaru Sulu turns swashbuckler:

Another very famous moment is when Mr Spock has an emotional breakdown in one of the briefing rooms. He weeps and pours out his heart to Captain Kirk, saying that he’d never told his mother that he loved her — a poor Earth woman living on an alien planet. He admits that he feels shame when he feels friendship for Jim Kirk.

Kirk becomes infected. Kirk who is ridiculously caricatured by J J Abrams/Chris Pine as an incorrigible womaniser, declares himself wed to his ship (not unlike the Doctor in the first Neil Gaiman-penned episode of Doctor Who, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’). He notices Yeoman Rand, but there’s nothing he can do. There is no walk on the beach for Jim Kirk. The Enterprise is his love, and the life of a starship captain has no room for romance.

This is a very important scene that brings out the two relationships that undergird all of Star Trek, in an episode mostly remembered for its comic moments of Mr Sulu and Mr O’Reilly.

First, Kirk and Spock. The third in the triad is McCoy, but he’s too busy saving the day to bare his soul. James Tiberius Kirk and Spock are fast friends, bound together by the starship, by their past experiences, by a genuine affection. They work well together as commanding officer and science officer, and captain and his number one, as human and Vulcan, as one friend to another. The Kirk-Spock dynamic, where each is a foil for the other, where we see that they have a long history together, is what binds together the scattered episodes of Star Trek, from Gary Mitchell to Spock’s brain to Tribbles to Khaaaaaaan!!!!

This moment in ‘The Naked Time’ is an important step in the journey towards one of the most famous lines and moments in all of Trek:

I have been — and always shall be — your friend.

Second, Kirk and the Enterprise. No Orion Slave Girl could ever take her place in Jim Kirk’s heart. His sense of duty and calling will even keep him away from pursuing interest in Yeoman Rand and her beehive hairdo. Before all else, James Kirk is a starship captain. This fills his life and all of his adventures. The Enterprise is home to Kirk. Without her, he is lost in the 1980s … well, lost anyway. When we understand this, those many women, human and alien, whom he is so fondly remembered as having romanced, wooed, kissed — sometimes under alien mind control — make sense; he cannot lead a settled life with wife and children, so this is all he’s got. In ‘The Naked Time’, Kirk says of the Enterprise:

She won’t permit me my life. I’ve got to live hers.

He goes on to say to her:

Never lose you… never.

So do not underestimate any episode of Star Trek. As I make my voyage, I hope that even ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ will reveal some of the deeper undercurrents of the Enterprise and her intrepid crew.

Q is a space fairy

I recently watched the “top 1o” episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘TNG’; as listed here).  Two of these episodes featured the character Q (played by John de Lancie).  Q is there at the beginning and at the end of TNG.  He is a being of great power, almost beyond limits.

He (and possibly the whole Q Continuum?) put humanity on trial for being a “dangerous, savage child-race.”  Q made the USS Enterprise-D fly all the way to the ‘Delta’ Quadrant where they encountered the Borg (the journey at full speed would take several decades; Q brought them there in a moment).  Q could make people travel through time (or seem to), create scenarios right before their very eyes that seemed very real, snatch people right off their starships — basically, mess around with how human beings interacted with what, for us, is a stable space-time continuum.

Q is also responsible for Lt. Worf’s line, “I am not a merry man!” (see it here!)

But what is Q?  I think he’s a fairy.  Trek will probably tell us that he is a highly-evolved being with powers to control things and perceptions that we, too, may some day develop.  I think, though, that he’s a fairy.  The things he does are basically magic, after all.

But not only is Q essentially a magical being, he is also capricious.  Star Trek likes to have evolved beings with, in the words of Capt. Picard in Star Trek: First Contact, “an evolved sensibility.”  Q lacks this.  But why should he mirror a more highly evolved version of human ethics and good behaviour?

Fairies don’t.

And by fairies I mean those “dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns . . . . Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs . . .’*  I mean the Sidhe.  I mean elves.  I mean leprechauns.  I mean the Gentry, the Children of Dana, Puck, Auberon, kelpies, wood-sprites, brownies, the Dagda, the man with the thistle-down hair and so on.  Not “little twinkly guys” who live in your garden.  Beings of great power who can perform, often with ease, what we consider “magic”, but — if you recall Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, they don’t really get what we mean by that.

Fairies are capricious.  They do things for their own realm, for themselves, not for us.  For example, to resuscitate a young woman recently deceased, a fairy may take her pinky finger.  This finger will give her a link to the realm of the Sidhe, and she will spend her nights dancing in an endless ball, never sleeping.  Or someone accidentally stumbles into a fairy ring.  He dances, has a jolly good time, finally escapes the dance, and finds it’s 200 years later.  Poor soul.  Or they’ll turn your head into that of an ass.  For fun.

They don’t operate the way humans do.  Fairies operate by their own ethics, morals, and so forth.  They sometimes play tricks on us — “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”  They sometimes use us for their own ends.  They sometimes exact a terrible price for something that seems relatively trivial to us.  They sometimes do great, magnificent things for us for no apparently good reason or benefit to them.  They operate by their own whims.  They are, then, whimsical.

Q plays games with Capt. Picard.  He says that this enables him to see how humans act much better than confrontation, and gives insight mere observation never can.  He also, as mentioned, puts humanity on trial.  He does things to Picard to show Picard insights into his own life.  He is capricious.  He is whimsical.

Q is a fairy.  A powerful being who is not God/a god who does things to humans for his own pleasure and for reasons humans do not always perceive.  He is whimsical.  He is a space fairy.

*CS Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 122, quoting Martianus Capella.