Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Star Trek: Nothing Ages Like The Future

When my kids heard that Leonard Nimoy had died, they said, "The guy from Mission Impossible?" They've been working through the classic '60s Mission Impossible series on NetFlix. It started at the same time as Star Trek, and as soon as Star Trek was cancelled, Nimoy went on to take the role of Paris in seasons Four and Five of Mission Impossible. They have yet to see any Star Trek.

As a kid, I watched old episodes of the classic Star Trek over and over again. We had about a third of them on VHS, and I watched those over and over again. When Star Trek: The Next Generation started, I watched most of that too. Some of my earlier memories of story critique: tearing down the writing of something, discussing how it didn't work, and how it could have been re-written as a good story spring from listening to my parents discuss how the (pretty universally bad) first two seasons of STNG could have been better, and by the time the bright point of seasons 3-5 was fading towards the dotage of seasons 6-7, I was old enough to join in these conversations myself. During the launch of Deep Space 9 I was probably at my deepest point into Trek fandom, but then when Babylon 5 launched my allegiance wavered and I eventually quit watching all the Trek shows in favor of B5. (By the time newer SciFi shows like Firefly and the Battlestar Galactica reboot came along, I had pretty much run out of time and stopped watching TV.)

So I certainly have many fond memories of Star Trek, but as of yet they haven't caused me to plunge the kids into those series. Some of that is perhaps that I've drifted away from science fiction in general over the last fifteen years, but another element is that I've pretty consistently found that the science fiction I was attached to in my youth has not aged nearly as well as the fantasy and other genres. As a young reader, I was deeply attached to the "juvie" SF novels by Heinlein and Del Rey. I tried to get our oldest to read them as she got into reading science fiction and fantasy and she shrugged them off, so I re-read them myself. I was, of course, not around reading novels in the SF "golden age" of the '50s and '60s, but there was a basic if slightly retro currency to Heinlein when I was 10-15. Rereading them a few years ago, I realized that age had set in during the intervening couple decades. Fantasy books written in the '20s through the '50s at times have a period feel, like a historical novel, if they're set in their own present day, but they are not that hard to follow. However, Heinlein's project future of the '80s and '90s as written in the '50s is far more alien and far harder to explain. Even re-reading the much more recent Ender's Game (a 1980s SF book which deeply affected me when I read it at the age of about 13) now reads as deeply dated: the warmed over Cold War tensions, the early internet projected into the indefinite future, the futuristic novelty of video games.

And this, I think, is also part of the problem addressing Star Trek from the distance of almost fifty years. (Next year will makr 50 years since classic Star Trek first started airing.) It's not just that the special effects now look incredibly old fashioned. It's that the vision of the future and the problems we project into our future have changed. Episodes that seemed to be important commentary at the time, like the plant with the never-ending war which has been turned into a simulated war in which virtual attacks are carried out, casualties are assigned, and those "killed" then report to vaporization chambers to meet their fate (all this so that the infrastructure of civilization will not be destroyed by conventional war), or like the endless fight between the half-black, half-white faced aliens, are now inexplicable and vaguely silly. In order to understand why they seemed important at the time, it's necessary to explain so much about '60s history and culture that you'd be better off watching a historical movie about the '60s and understanding it first hand.

In this sense, it's perhaps significant that one of the episodes that's held up best is a historical: City of the Edge of Forever, a story in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to depression era Earth. Because the setting is one that's now explicable, the story has held up much better.

Of course, there's also just the fact that City on the Edge of Forever was a well written episode, and many of the classic Star Trek episodes weren't. Out of the three seasons, maybe a third of the episodes were actually pretty good, mostly from the first two seasons. Part of what was so pioneering about Star Trek was that there hadn't been a for-adults semi-realistic science fiction show on television before. This was a new kind of storytelling and people were willing to forgive a lot because of that. Science Fiction is no longer the outcast genre that it once was, and as a result people don't have the tendency to put up with as many mis-steps.

There's something compelling about writing about an imagined future, and yet it seems like a genre of peculiar impermanence. I'm trying to think of a work of science fiction from more than fifty years ago that doesn't seem incredibly dated at this point, but although perhaps I'm missing something, nothing is really coming to mind.


John Farrell said...

Well, I'm old enough to remember seeing Start Trek when it was on NBC, but you're spot on. Recently I went back to re-read Joe Haldeman's Forever War--and was struck by how--well, quant it came across now. Philip Jose Farmer has dated horribly, and so has much of the work of writers--like AJ Budrys and James Blish--who were fundamentally better writers than both Haldeman and Farmer.

Joseph Moore said...

Cordwainer Smith. Holds up very well, partly because the stories are mostly set in the very far future, partly because the author was very immersed in history.

Of course, these days he's mostly known as that guy other Sci Fi authors list as an important influence, but few people read.

mrsdarwin said...

I've read Cordwainer Smith! It's been twenty years, but I still remember a lot of images from his stories: the living toy that morphs into different shapes, now too old to change out of the shape of a doll; the soldiers who only turn on their senses when they're on leave; a girl answering an important question (and the editorial comment that actresses in the future would all put their own different spin on her one-word reply). The stories were strange and sometimes hard to understand, but all intensely original.

We heard a medley of Star Trek themes at the local Fourth of July concert, and it struck me that a large portion of the audience, mostly the younger part, didn't know what was being referenced. Sic transit gloria.

Robert Lennon said...

I'd say Frank Herbert's "Dune" also holds up incredibly well, but when I re-read it late last year you could definitely see the hopes and dreams of the post-Vatican II religious liberal set, though that was more in the appendices than the story.

Son Mom said...

I was once reading an online discussion of my favorite sci-fi books, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, in which several younger fans (mid-20s) were wondering why the planet settled by Russian colonists had no religion traditions (other planets in her world do). "But aren't Russians Orthodox?" one young woman asked. I realized that these readers, born in the late 1980s, had no idea that one of the major characteristics of Soviet Russia had been its strict atheism. (The earlier books in the series had been written in the early 1980s). I'm sure they had learned it in history class, but it didn't really sink in, whereas when I was growing up (I'm 38) that was definintely one of the things that culturally made the Soviets the "bad guys."

mandamum said...

Interesting.... I think one of the strengths of Science Fiction is the chance to take on issues of the day and play them out in different setting so as to come to grips with them, so I guess it makes sense it would be so much a child of its time.

Two sets of SF that I wonder about (which might be more "fantasy"?) would be Zenna Henderson's "The People" books and Alexander Key's "Witch Mountain" books (and "Forgotten Door" which I just discovered is by the same author, a fact my daughter suspected). Some issues speak to the truth of human experience in every age - being an outcast, feeling different from those around you, needing a place to belong, etc.

Jamie said...

When I was in high school I read Heinlein's Glory Road and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress again and again. Even at the time (this was mid-80s) it seemed dated to create a lunar civilization in which newspaper offices used typewriters.

Boonton said...

Nice post, my wife (who was never a Star Trek person) watched the episode about the planet with a 'simulated war' three weeks ago. Yes it was kind of silly but also it did make you think a bit. These days we are big on series like Breaking Bad, Walking Dead or Battlestar Galactica. I like these series but they do require a lot of time. You are investing dozens of hundreds of hours to fully consume a series and you may have to supplement that with online research with wiki's dedicated to the show. In some ways this is unprecedented in human history. What does it take to read 1,000 pages of War and Peace? 20 hours? The Sopranos have 86 episodes, Breaking Bad 62 hours, Battlestar Galactica requires 75 hours plus 2 full length films and multiple 'webisodes' (leave aside the prequal series Caprica and a new film in the works).

The original Star Trek came from an era of very episodic television. Without on demand, DVR's or extensive reruns you couldn't count on your audience being able to keep up a long story arc. So each episode had to be contained enough so that someone could watch it without having a lot of backstory. While you could have 'complex characters' in that environment there's a limit to what you could do with them.

It's not just that the special effects now look incredibly old fashioned.

One thing I was surprised about was that the special effects actually looked better than I remembered as a kid. Did they remaster the episodes for modern TV broadcasts or is it that I just have a better TV these days? One thing I do notice is just how little the show cared about the lives of non-main characters. People are killed offscreen and onscreen and no one seems to care about them, even the actors themselves don't seem to care much that they are being killed.

Boonton said...

In terms of Sci-fi that has held up over time...

A Canticle for Leibowitz - seems to hold up a bit despite being 55 yrs old now. This is, of course, because it assumed thousands of years of dark ages caused by nuclear war followed by a re-rise of modern society to be followed by yet another nuclear war. You can solve the problem of trying to predict future science by predicting the destruction of knowledge. Battlestar Galactica did the same thing with its 'all this has happened before and will happen again" mantra.

1984 - Also works well IMO. Again it is removed from an actual history.

Star Wars still works for me.

2001 and 2010 work as movies for me still but clearly you have to push them up a few decades to make sense now...and HAL would now be the size of an iphone.

But nonetheless I see your main point. Watching Blade Runner, for example, and it 'smells' like the early 1980's with flying cars. Just does. Is it possible to create quality science fiction in history without being dated as time goes by? I'm not sure.