Thursday, May 16, 2013

Edith Keeler Must Die

Don't copy-paste legends
I saw the midnight premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness early Thursday morning. The initial 2009 reboot of the franchise was an intriguing blend of classic Star Trek motifs through a 21st Century sensibility, so I thought I'd enjoy this continuation of the new films even more than the kickoff  movie.

 As I soon discovered, that idea was a colossal miscalculation.

Yes, it's obvious that the franchise needs to be geared toward a mass audience, and a market of Star Trek aficionados simply can't pay enough in ticket purchases to offset the costs incurred by Paramount every time the studio mounts one of these productions. The movies, therefore, have to follow a strict diet of predictable action, adventure, pretty people, and explodey stuff in order to maintain ticket sales and repeat business.
This is a mandatory, yet completely unessential, three-second scene that fulfilled
Paramount's requirements for "a sexy new Star Trek."

   Yet, there still has to be something of the heart of Star Trek-type stories to consider these films part of the Star Trek universe. Director J.J. Abrams doesn't seem to agree with this idea, as evidenced by the plot of the latest adventure of Captain Kirk & company.

Abrams famously stated he was never a Star Trek fan growing up, and really never watched much of the series until he was hired to direct the first reboot film. It's almost a matter of pride to him that he had no love for Trek as a child, and this lack of affection seems to percolate through the latest film.

Note: before I continue any further, I want to assure you that I do not want to spoil any plot elements for people who haven't seen the movie, so I'm going to talk in general terms about the problems in this film. My criticisms will probably make more sense after you've seen the movie, but I think it's important to view the film without having any plot surprises ruined for you.

The attitude of the script seems to be that it was written by someone who screened several key episodes of Star Trek and watched a few of the films, but had no idea about the personalities of the characters mentioned in the shows. It's as if they had watched "City on the Edge of Forever," and then decided to rewrite Edith Keeler as a Romulan spy. Sure, everyone in the film is saying  the same catchphrases that resonate from earlier episodes and films, but the screenwriter Damon Lindelof doesn't seem to understand why the characters say the things they do. The ignorance of the why part turns the phrases into gibberish, or worse, unintended comedy.
The Squire of Gothos? Cadet Finnegan? Sure, pick a TOS villain and cast Cumberbatch in the role.

You don't have to be a Trekkie to know the basic rules of Star Trek: Kirk makes bold decisions, Spock's favorite word is "logic," guys in red shirts don't live long. But the characters and their interactions were more complex than superficial features. Even the guest stars on the old TV show had backstories that explained their reasons for doing things: Commodore Decker was driven by guilt over the loss of his crew to attack the Planet Killer in a shuttlecraft; Khan Noonian Singh was the pride-drunk leader of a remnant of 20th Century supermen whose weakness was his arrogance; Commander Balok was a master of deception because his diminutive  race had previous run-ins with aggressive species. The aliens and opponents the crew of the Enterprise faced each week had motives and desires that made sense in the context of the plot of every show. 

May the Force be with you, Frodo. Epic misunderstanding of a franchise.
Star Trek Into Darkness? Not so much. The biggest failure of the film is the outright looting of previous Star Trek characters and situations in order to evoke audience nostalgia for those original TV and film moments. We're given a bad guy named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who turns out to be a character from the TV show - - except this character doesn't act anything like the original character. When dialog from the original character's appearance is repeated in this film, then, it doesn't quite make sense with what we see on screen. Imagine, for example, having a Klingon suddenly appear on screen without introduction and shout "HARCOURT FENTON MUDD!" at Mr. Spock - - - it's almost at that level of incoherence.

The motivations of the villains are breathtakingly shallow. They are bad guys simply because the script needed bad guys at certain points in the film. New locations crop up only because the Enterprise crew required a new place for fight scenes scheduled at regular intervals in the movie, and the previous venues had been destroyed during earlier fights. Ships are destroyed, crash, and somehow fly again because they're needed for the next battle scene. In one particularly absurd moment, a starship, already blown up by six dozen photon torpedoes, reappears for another barrage of phaser fire.

Don't worry, it's only a scratch.
The biggest problem (and I'm going to be as vague as I can so as not to spoil anything) is the lack of loss in this film. Yes, there are deaths of characters, but the solutions to otherwise fatal situations are telegraphed so early and often in this film that the audience doesn't care when people fall off the roofs of speeding cars, or get shot, or have their ships blown up around them. There is no peril that can't be erased, and without the high stakes of life or death, character mortality is no more of a concern than losing a turn during a Super Mario Bros game.

I could continue with nitpicking the howling continuity errors, the usurption of the laws of physics, and the over-reliance of jam-packing every single scene with floating debris and shuddering camera angles, but those points don't begin to match the immensity of the ineptness of the script. This is a Star Trek film, mostly in the sense that Paramount owns the intellectual property and that the character names are the same as those used in the original Roddenberry series. It is not a Star Trek film, though, in any aspect where it's supposed to match the quality of the original series' story-telling, or show respect for the characters and their motivations. It's an auto-tuned version of Star Trek, replete with mandatory set pieces to please the ticket-buying audiences of the world. I'm not saying it wasn't a fun movie - - it's just not really about Star Trek anymore. If Edith Keeler must die, the reason shouldn't be so that there's a satisfying explosion at the end of the film.

Let's cram some more merchandise onboard, shall we?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Last of the First

MA-9. the final Mercury flight

Last year, my erudite buddy Brian Fies and I were discussing (via blogs) that the next few years were going to be chock-a-bloc with 50th anniversaries of the Space Age. May 15th, 2013 marks yet another golden anniversary - - this time an ending, rather than a beginning.

Mandatory image of all manned Mercury launches
The Mercury 7 astronauts were the trailblazers of the American space program. In just six flights (Deke Slayton was sidelined with a heart murmur), the Mercury astronauts tested their vehicles, their navigation skills, and even their own bodies as lone pilots in space.  Although NASA moved ahead with construction of the Gemini two-man vehicle and the Apollo moonship, the results of the Mercury program's flight data would shape all manned space programs to come.

Alan Shepard rode his Mercury craft in a parabolic suborbital flight lasting just fifteen minutes. John Glenn's first orbital flight lasted just a little over four hours. As the Mercury mission continued, the flight durations lengthened.

By May of 1963, NASA felt ready to attempt a 24-hour flight in space. Preparations for such a long-duration mission required the removal of the ship's periscope to provide room for extra oxygen tanks and batteries to power the instruments.  To offset the weight of the extra batteries, redundant attitude thrusters were removed from the nose of the ship.  NASA engineers decided that since the primary thrusters had proven reliable, backup thrusters were no longer necessary.

Cooper was the first American astronaut to be seen
on video, live from space.

Just after 8:04am on May 15, 2013, astronaut Gordon Cooper's MA-9 spacecraft Faith 7 lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Cooper had a full plate of experiments to run through in this mission: tracking a blinking ball that was jettisoned overboard during the first orbit, examining atmospheric drag effects on a tethered balloon trailing the spaceship, collecting blood and urine samples after trying a variety of foodstuffs to see if there were any problems metabolizing things like powdered roast beef or chocolate brownies. The experiments resulted in varied levels of success: Cooper spotted the blinking ball, the balloon never deployed, Cooper didn't open the brownies out of fear that floating crumbs would damage the instruments.

The astronaut managed to doze off for several orbits as the first day in space drew to a close. With his ship powered down to conserve fuel and electricity, Faith 7 drifted lazily along its prescribed path. On the 30th orbit, the first signs of trouble with the ship popped up - - a small panel light indicated that the ship detected a minute change in the g-forces that would signal the beginning of reentry.

Cooper believed the signal was an instrumentation flaw, and ground controllers confirmed that there had been no change to the orbit. During the next orbit, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. The main circuit buss for the instrument panel shorted out, knocking all navigation controls offline. Cooper was left with a radio, his wristwatch, and his eyeballs to navigate his 17,500 mph ship.
Mission accomplished
Fortunately, NASA had trained Cooper for just such an emergency. In contact with John Glenn at the Mercury Control Center, Cooper twisted manual thrust knobs on the sole attitude control system and aligned his retrorockets using a visual gauge on the ship's porthole aimed at the horizon of the Earth. With his stopwatch, Cooper called out a countdown that matched the calculations Glenn had passed up to him from ground controllers. Cooper opened a manual valve as the countdown reached zero, and his three retrorockets fired. Less than twenty minutes later, Faith 7 was bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean, only 4.4 miles from the recovery ship Kearsarge,  -- the closest landing of any Mecury spacecraft to its intended target.

Gordon Cooper would be the last American to launch into orbit by himself, and, until Dave Scott became Command Module Pilot of Apollo 9 in April of 1969, the last American to pilot his own spacecraft in orbit by himself. Project Mercury ended, and was soon eclipsed by the greater challenges of the Gemini missions. May 15th, 1963, though, was the end of America's first tentative steps into space.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A House in Space

An amazing machine, despite all its difficulties.

Forty years ago, I lived about fifty miles north of New York City, in a little town just far away enough from Manhattan for the light pollution to dim and for the Milky Way to shine in the night sky. I didn't know many kids in town as I had just moved there over the previous Christmas, so I spent a lot of time in the evening just enjoying the brilliant stars overhead.

The Moon missions were over. With the cancellation of Apollos 18-20, I didn't think there would be another lunar landing until after I was out of high school. On May 14th, the final Saturn V would launch NASA's Skylab orbital workshop into space. I managed to talk a guidance counselor at my school into letting me watch the launch on a school TV during lunch time. It looked like this:


After the Saturn disappeared into the cloud deck, horrible things started to happen. The micrometeroid shield running the length of the converted S-IV-B stage sheared off the side of the lab, yanking one of the extensible solar panels with it.  The remnant cables of the missing solar panel coiled around the ship, knotting over the other solar panel and preventing its deployment. It would take two of the three planned missions to repair the Skylab enough for it to do many of the experiments for which it was designed.

Despite the near-disaster at launch, Skylab proved to be a remarkable workshop. By the end of the program, the United States had gained an 84-day record of continuous habitation in space. Many of the lessons learned would be put to use decades later on both Shuttle missions and in the construction of the International Space Station.

There's lots of minutiae to talk about in the history of Skylab but I just wanted to mention something I experienced with my own eyes. Before the first crew arrived at the station at the end of May, 1973, there was a detailed series of articles in the New York Times about what had gone wrong with the ship, and what the plan for the repairs would be. At the end of the article, there was a list of viewing times in the NY area for spotting both Skylab and the S-II Saturn stage that had pushed the ship into orbit. I remember standing in my front yard in the darkness, waiting to see if anything would be visible in the night sky.

Suddenly a dim bead of light appeared from the southwest, followed by another, much brighter light traveling at about the same speed. The S-II was slightly ahead of Skylab, as it was continuing in a slightly lower (and therefore faster) orbit. I had never seen two objects orbiting the Earth at the same time, and it struck me that this would probably be a common sight when I was older, as the sky filled with many orbiting Shuttles and stations.

I was wrong about the number of ships I'd see, but I was correct that I'd see multiple ships in space at the same time in my old age. By 2009, I was living in Massachusetts, and I remembered the Skylab flyover from so many years ago as I watched the Space Shuttle Discovery maneuver to dock with the International Space Station.

The ISS outshines the accomplishments of Skylab in just about every way, but Skylab's pioneering experiences (both operationally and in its repair) made the later achievements of the ISS possible.

And the stars look very different today

The Internet is agog with the release of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's video cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" - - a musical interpretation filmed almost entirely onboard the International Space Station.

Hadfield is seen floating in the Tranquility module's cupola, the Japanese Kibo module, and the hatchway to a waiting Soyuz spacecraft. A  unattended, velcro-studded guitar spins languidly through the station, while Hadfield sings lyrics of a space pilot surrounded by technology, viewing a Universe beyond all imaginings.

When people think about the "importance" of manned space flight, it's usually about having someone on hand to repair broken equipment and second-guess computer errors far from home. The true reason people are in space, I believe, is for moments such as this video. We need people in space to interpret and humanize the exploration so that we, as a planet, can share the experience. Folks like Chris Hadfield take the known (a Bowie song, a guitar, a piano) and show us the unknown (looking out the window and seeing a planet) with the reference point of our culture. It's why everyone remembers Alan Shepard's golf shots on the Moon during Apollo 14. It's why we still watch archival footage of Dave Scott and Jim Irwin driving the first lunar rover across the Moon's surface during the Apollo 15 trip. It's even why Ron Howard made the Apollo 13 movie - - when something goes wrong in space, the only time we really care is if there are people onboard.

Hopefully, someday before the centennial of human spaceflight, a human being will make a cover video of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" -- from the surface of that planet. Certainly another cultural moment everyone on our planet will enjoy.