J. Zornado

A blog site about various and sundry things that have to do with writing, reading, film, and the end of the world as we know it.

Month: September, 2012

Captain’s Blog–Operation Star Trek

In “Captain’s Blog” I want to take up the issue of Star Trek, the Original Series, one episode at a time.  After watching Star Trek for nearly a lifetime, what else is there to do but write about it and niggle over ridiculous little details that make up a pretend world full of unreal characters in an impossibly far-fetched setting doing absurd things with earnest?  Honestly, what is Star Trek really about?  It’s set in the 23rd century, but it’s more 1960s than 2260s. What was Gene Roddenberry and company trying to say with this show when it first aired on NBC in 1966?  And what, if anything, do those original 79 episodes say to us now?  Questions like these give me the perfect opportunity to watch it all one more time, but this time with a purpose—I want to take a look at each episode, one at a time, and see what makes it tick.


Roddenberry filmed the Star Trek pilot “The Cage” the month I was born in 1964—and so looking into Star Trek is a bit like looking into my own past, yet it’s a past I’ve shared with millions of people at the same time.  I am not alone in feeling a connection to the Star Trek universe, but what is the nature of the connection?  I am particularly interested in exploring the reasons behind Star Trek’s staying power—why has it been a part of our cultural fabric for the last four decades and counting?

Let’s start by remembering the fact that Star Trek came into the world as a failure.  Star Trek’s first pilot episode, “The Cage” fell flat.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator, sometimes writer, and executive producer of the series underwhelmed NBC executives with his vision of a space-faring future as he presented it in “The Cage.”  But as in all failures, there is much to learn, for from “The Cage” we learn a great deal about Roddenberry’s vision for what the show would, in the end, become.  “The Cage” made its television debut not until 1988 after the Star Trek universe was deeply entrenched in the popular cultural discourse. Still, “The Cage” was not unknown to Star Trek fans. Long before 1988 fans had already seen 50 of the original 63 minute pilot because Roddenberry artfully repurposed “The Cage” as the material for a two-part episode later in season one called “The Menagerie” (1966).  He had, it seems, the last laugh on studio executives who rejected his pilot.  “The Cage” would remain an inalienable part of the Star Trek universe.

A good start is a good end, as they say, so we start with the beginning, and the beginning is “The Cage;” and thanks to re-mastering and CGI the episode looks better than ever.  For those die-hard fans that take special pleasure in the old, beat-up plastic model of the Enterprise amid the cheap special effects space shots from the original pilot, who enjoy the washed out colors and grainy film, I do not share your aesthetic.  Roddenberry shot the series on film, which restores quite nicely. “The Cage” now looks and feels like some wonderful old Cadillac from 1965, carefully restored to showroom condition, and here it is right in my garage ready for the road.  Let’s go.

Image                                              The original “Cage” Enterprise, circa 1965

                                                CGI “Cage” Enterprise, circa 2008

In 1964 NASA was still only launching uncrewed rockets that orbited the earth and tested the new Saturn systems designed to take men to the moon.  It wouldn’t be until  July, 1969 that Neil Armstrong would set foot on the moon—and Star Trek would have already been cancelled!  But when Roddenberry made “The Cage” NASA was still in earth orbit.  Even so, NASA made so much progress so quickly that, Roddenberry seems to say, that if we kept up the pace of technological innovation in space flight, surely we would be traveling faster than the speed of light by 2265 a.d.   I suppose the success of launching heavy lift rocket vehicles into outer space, combined with the heady knowledge that the same rocket technology could carry our hydrogen bombs to any point on the planet, made us feel awfully confident about the future.

Aye, there’s the rub.  I do not think Roddenberry was terribly confident about the future, or if he was, his optimism informed only the candy-coated exterior of his vision.  Inside the candy shell made up of warp drive and universal peace on earth was the inner, bitter nut of conflict and war that defined life in the Star Trek galaxy.  It turns out that some life forms just don’t like humans, or the Federation of Planets, or, for that matter, Jim Kirk.  In other words, even though Roddenberry’s predictions about earth technology were brightly optimistic, Star Trek—like a lot of science fiction—uses its vision of the future to explore issues of the present day, like war, freedom, racism, religion, science, love, death, friendship, honor, pride, sex, and power. So, even though we are going warp speed in Roddenberry’s future, in a lot of ways Star Trek suggests we are going no where fast.

I think all this is at work in one way or another in “The Cage.”  Perhaps Roddenberry’s first draft did not impress studio execs because it was too much about human frailty, and not enough about how powerful and active our technology would be three hundred years from now.  In “The Cage” one Lt. Tyler claims that the Enterprise could destroy “half a continent” but the telepathic Talosians make all of that power irrelevant.  As a result, “The Cage” represents Roddenberry’s “ideal man” whose desire for freedom stands for all of humanity.  No, Captain Pike resists the temptations of the flesh. No pleasure filled cage for Captain Pike.  It is freedom, or death.  But how does one achieve this state of perfect will, strength, focus and purpose?  According to Roddenberry, Captain Pike must tap into his “primitive” feelings to find his true power.  Time and again Star Trek reminds us that to be fully human we need to be fully integrated beings, and not split and in conflict with our feelings, for our feelings make us human.  Later in the series Mr. Spock is the symbolic and literal site of the conflict between head and heart.  But in “The Cage” Mr. Spock has not yet been imagined as the logical Vulcan battling his half-human emotions.  In the pilot Spock smiles, shouts, and behaves in very non-Vulcan ways.


                                              “The Cage” and the Laughing Spock

I think Roddenberry originally wanted to play out the conflict of head versus heart with the Enterprise’s first officer, “Number One,” played by Majel Barrett. Though she only played the part for one episode, her performance hints at the conflict between being a woman with feelings, as well as the ships “most experienced officer” in a male-dominated world.  She seems keenly aware of her status as a woman on a man’s bridge.  When Pike leaves her out of the landing party, she can barely contain a pout, or when Pike refers to being uncomfortable with women on the bridge, she looks at him, but remains silent.  He realizes what he’s said and apologizes and acknowledges that “she’s different.”  Again, “Number One” can barely restrain herself from pouting and moping.  She’s a woman, dammit.  Why doesn’t Captain Pike notice?  But Pike is not Kirk.  Pike’s great strength in “The Cage” is his ability to resist the female, no matter what color she is.


                                        Gene Roddenberry notices “Number One” circa 1964    

Majel Barrett would later marry Gene Rodenberry in 1969, and stay with him until his death. But in 1965,  NBC execs didn’t like a female first officer in this or any century.  Majel Barret would stay with the cast of Star Trek, but she would have to be demoted to a proper “woman’s” role in order to remain. Even so, Roddenberry would have his way vision of the future his way one way or another, and so rather than women in command positions, he placed an African-American female, an Asian-American and, later, made a Russian the ship’s navigator.  The bridge of the Enterprise was diverse, and a symbol of a united Earth.

In 1965 NBC execs thought “The Cage” “too cerebral,” and that the 63 minute drama lacked action.  I wonder what were they expecting?  It’s hard to know.  Still, NBC saw something in the pilot and, in a rare move, asked Roddenberry to try again, and he did.  We will take a look at that episode, the first episode of the original series–though it was aired as the fourth episode–“Where No Man Has Gone Before”–in my next Captain’s Blog.

In spite of the fact that the original Star Trek pilot defines the series in numerous ways, “The Cage” has a look and a feel all its own.  In it we meet the Enterprise and its crew, but it’s not exactly like the Enterprise from later episodes.  The uniforms are different, we see crew members in casual clothing, and the primary and secondary cast members are almost entirely different from the later series—with the exception of Mr. Spock.  “The Cage” is Star Trek’s cradle, yet it is not, I would argue, the Star Trek ur-text.  That distinction should be placed elsewhere.

Roddenberry had his influences.  If I had to guess, I would say that Roddenberry was a fan of Forbidden Planet (1956) staring Leslie Nielsen as the intrepid captain of a flying saucer, one of a fleet of earth space ships cruising the galaxy in the 23rd century.  Sound familiar?  Forbidden Planet was the first science fiction film to imagine a future in which space ships from earth would be sent on missions across the galaxy, much in the same way naval ships of the line ply the oceans of earth today.

Image                                                            It is amazing, sort of.

A young Leslie Nielsen plays Captain John J. Adams who commands the United Planets Cruiser C57-D  as it travels to Altair IV, some sixteen light years from Earth.  Their mission:  to discover the fate of an expedition that was sent there twenty years before only to disappear.  Adams’ ship arrives at Altair IV and he receives a transmission from a survivor of the lost expedition, one Dr. Edward Morbius—a space faring English professor and the lost expedition’s linguist, played by Walter Pidgeon. Morbius warns Adams to stay away. The captain lands anyway.


                                     Disney animators helped with the special effects.

I think Forbidden Planet must have really moved Gene Roddenberry as a young man, for his first Star Trek pilot seems to me to be an obvious attempt to bring Forbidden Planet-type science fiction to television.  The parallels are too obvious to be ignored.  Roddenberry’s pilot could easily have been named “Forbidden Planet,” and perhaps would have gained something if it had been.

Both Forbidden Planet and “The Cage,” represent visions of the future in which the military—in naval mode–has left the oceans of earth to set sail on the oceans of interstellar space. Both stories imagine a future in which the inexorable exceptionalism of the human race has lead it to mastering technologies that would allow us to hurl ourselves across vast distances beyond the speed of light.  Apparently spreading “our way of life” beyond the stars and to other planets is a given.  It’s why we’re here.  It’s why we go there.  That’s progress!

The parallels between the two stories go beyond the surface.  In “The Cage” an interstellar “United Space Ship” called Enterprise intercepts a transmission indicating that an expedition which disappeared 18 years before has crashed on Talos IV. Captain Pike learns that, against all odds, there are survivors in need of rescue.   Captain Pike decides to investigate in spite of the fact that his crew is tired and beat up after a previous mission.  If you look carefully you’ll see that the Enterprise crew members have bandages on.  Spock walks with a limp.  They all need a rest, and hospital.  Some crew members have died we learn.  Pike wants to ignore the distress signal they pick up, but once he hears of survivors, he decides he has to go in for the rescue.

Like Forbidden Planet, Captain Pike and his landing party meet a beautiful and beguiling blond that distracts them, and sets the plot in motion.  But let’s not over state things.  Motion is a relative term.  Both Forbidden Planet and “The Cage” are slow moving, thoughtful, and hail from a different science fction-film tradition.  Both stories depend on the audience’s imagination to be gripped by the sheer enormity of the situation.  Both narratives are built not on action per se, but on the tension of the situation in which the audience and the characters comes to grips with the fantastic, and other wordly, the unknown.  There is a sober, dramatic realism in both stories, as if to say to the audience that in the future these sorts of trips, adventures, sites, and sounds will be par for the course.  It’s the new normal, and we’re getting a glimpse of it three hundred years early thanks to Star Trek.  Fortunately for the audience, the future is not so different from the present: space ships run a lot like sea ships—with captains, officers, cooks, and crews.  With one exception–something called a computer helps to run things.

I think it’s fair to say that “The Cage” has considerably more action in it than Forbidden Planet.  As a stand alone piece of science fiction “The Cage” is quite good.  Certainly Roddenberry thought so. He imagined that it could be easily expanded into a feature film, and that’s probably true, except Jeffrey Hunter who played Captain Pike had no desire to go on with the project either in film or television.  Perhaps that was for the best, for Jeffrey Hunter died in 1969 and would not have lived to enjoy the enormous popularity and staying power of Star Trek.  But that begs the question—would there have been a Star Trek as we know it without William Shatner?  Perhaps not.


Vina from “The Cage,” good and bad hair days.

Vina, the Talosian human captive, is compelling enough, but unlike the love interest in Forbidden Planet, Captain Pike of the Enterprise realizes very quickly that Vina is bait, and he resists her considerable charms no matter what color she is.  The point of all of this, however, is that Vina’s beauty is just an illusion, placed in everyone’s mind by the Talosians.  Really she looks like the piteous thing on the right hand side of the images above.  According to the story, when her ship crash-landed, every one was killed except for her, and so the Talosians had to save her, put her back together, but tragically, they had “never seen a human being before,” and so they had no model to follow.  And so she turned out misshapen, unbalanced and not quite so smooth and sexy as the imaginary Vina.  It’s on this last point that I think the whole episode falls apart.

1) The Talosians are humanoid, bipedal creatures whose bodies are, for the most part, symmetrical.  They sure must be dumb about such things to think that a bipedal creature would like to have a large, ungainly hump on one side of its body.

2) More importantly, though, if the Talosians are such potent mind-readers, could they not have reached into Vina’s mind and looked at an image of what a human being looks like?  Surely they could have, and so one has to wonder:  either a) this is a serious gaffe on the part of the writers—gaffes like this are avoidable, but sometimes hard to catch when creating science fiction and trying to keep all the details consistent and believable. Or, b) this is all a part of the Talosian power of illusion.  Vina is not misshapen, they only want us to believe she is.  If this is so, then perhaps everything everywhere is an illusion—perhaps television is a tool of the Talosians, and perhaps there simply is no “real world” other than the one we mistakenly perceive and call our own.


                                       A Talosian of Talos IV. Big brain, bad medical care.

And perhaps it’s questions like these that upset NBC execs, and so they sent Roddenberry back to the drawing board.  Don’t make us think so much!  This is TV for Christ’s sake!  Give us action, ray guns, battles to the death, good guys and bad guys.  Make it clear.  We do not need any more television that questions the nature of mind control.

What ever its flaws, “The Cage” is about more than the speculative future it presents.  Even the evil Talosian zookeepers on Talos IV appear not so evil by the end of the episode.  They release the humans once they realize holding them is futile.  They even reward their prize specimen with an illusion all her own, a virtual Pike that she can love and talk to, and, well, it all gets very complicated because he’s not really there, but no matter.  As the Talosians say, “may your real life be as pleasant as Vina’s imaginary one.”

“The Cage” is, in many ways, Roddenberry at his best—the pilot is an exploration about what makes us human—and in this case he is answering back the claims of Forbidden Planet.  In that story, the technology of the forbidden planet unleashes “monsters from the id,” and this primitive “id” which is supposedly inside all of us will, if unleashed, seek to destroy, murder and otherwise make life unbearable.  But for Roddenberry, our “primitive emotions” are not so destructive as they are humanizing, necessary, and the source of our strength, our desire for freedom, and our need to push the boundaries of our existence. And so in many ways “The Cage” is tried and true Star Trek right from the start:  Captain Pike saves the day because he taps into his “primitive” emotions.  Rage and hate become a defense against the telepathic manipulations of his jailors.  It is because of his “primitive” emotions that he is able to capture one of the aliens holding him and two female crew members.  Once free, they make it to the surface of the planet.  At this point, it’s interesting that “Number One” sets her laser gun (not yet a phaser) on overload in the final moments of the episode; in those final moments  she becomes a suicide bomber without even looking at her captain for approval.  She knows, apparently, that he as well as she would rather die in a fiery explosion than live as slaves, even comfortable ones.  I am not sure 1960s television had such a female character on any other show, but here she was, the woman of the future–but don’t blink or you’ll miss her.  As I mentioned, in future episodes Roddenberry demoted Majel Barret from the ship’s first officer to the ship’s Nurse Chapel.  Mr. Spock—no longer laughing—became first officer in her place.  Ah, much better say the executives.  Engage.

The Handsome Pilgrim: A New England Folktale

It was autumn in the year of our Lord 1659, and the hardworking, well-meaning villagers of New Shire feared for another lean harvest in spite of their hopes, labors, and prayers.  A summer drought had smitten their corn and withered their wheat.  Their beans were bust and their flax mere flecks, hardly specks, and not worthy of harvest and barely enough for seed.  No Indian tricks or Indian summer could raise what God would not bless, and so the earth only begrudgingly gave up its fruit that year, and then only with the parsimony of a parson’s widow.  It looked to be another hungry winter for the villagers of New Shire, and they wondered what God meant to teach them.

Even in the midst of their consternation and earnest soul-searching, yea, even as they wondered profoundly why God had smote them thusly, an unsettling rumor crept from ear to ear about the bountiful harvests happening to the north and to the south of them, and even in the wilds of the western lands.  Why not here, they wondered?  Regardless of the rumors, New Shire villagers grew only enough crops to keep their bellies from shrinking utterly.

Young Goodman Winthrop looked upon all of this and prayed for his people even as he himself began to question and to grow desperate.

“Why do others have so much!” they cried.  “And we so little?”

That sabbath day Young Goodman Winthrop went with his neighbors to church, and Parson Willowdale led his flock in what had become a most common prayer.

“Oh Lord,” he beseeched the air, “send one of your angels to come and bless our crop!  Let your light shine upon your poor servants in this wilderness!”  Young Goodman Winthrop looked at the dull buckles on his shoes as he prayed. It was too late for crops, he thought.  But perhaps a miracle might set things right.

That night, a golden Harvest Moon crept up over the tree tops as the villagers of New Shire gathered together to share the first fruits of the year’s meager harvest.  Even as they muttered and complained about their near empty larders, they heard the sound of a wagon coming up over the hill and down into the village, and they turned and saw him riding high, a yoke of draught oxen laboring hard to pull the largest wagon this side of Antwerp right into the village center.  The driver was an exceedingly fine-featured stranger, tall and straight, blond and pale, and he rode up high and fine. He cracked a whip as if to keep the time.

His dress was no different than a New Shire villager, but Young Goodman Winthrop thought this strange pilgrim wore it well.  His black trousers had the look of one of the elect, and his leather boots were supple and their buckles glinted and shone in the golden moonlight.  He sat high before them all now as they flowed out to meet and greet him.   The stranger’s broad-brimmed hat was big, black and blocked tight, and its buckle made you think of heaven’s pearly gates.  The women whispered and called him the Handsome Pilgrim.  Young Goodman Winthrop could not deny the rightness of the description.  This stranger was handsome, more handsome than any pilgrim, even the governor. 

The stranger guided his oxen with voice and whip, and he called to them.  “Hah!” he yelled. “This a-way,” he cried, and the whip cracked and dumb team labored to a halt before the villagers.  Behind the oxen followed what looked like a wagon from the Old World—but it towered over them, all woodwork and canvas stretched on high, and it rode on high red wheels, and the back end rose up and up, and when you saw it you wondered how the thing could ever stay upright it was so tall and grand.  But there it rode, as if a hand from above kept it upright and guided it on its way.

The villagers gathered around the stranger’s wagon and he stood up and smiled as if making ready to speak.

“I have seen your lives and how you suffer,” he said quietly, but his voice carried easily to Young Goodman Winthrop’s ear.  “You work hard and you deserve more, much more, but you need to make room to prepare for a much larger harvest.  You think too small.  Dream large. Only then will your harvests grow.”

“Tell us how do we do that!” Goody Cuthbert cried.  The other villagers murmured.  They knew they were lean, but they had not realized it was their own fault.

“You need a new village pot,” the Handsome Pilgrim announced, and he spread his arms wide, “large enough for a mighty harvest.”

“A village pot?” they replied, dumbfounded. Goodman Bradford spoke up:

“Friend, we have pots.  Every family in New Shire has a pot of its own.  Many of us have two pots in fact.  We are not just off the ship, you know.  No one in our village is without a pot, at least to my knowledge.  God has blessed us these many years in the wilderness.”  Goodman Bradford looked around for assent and the villagers nodded and encouraged him.  “Why do we need another village pot?” he asked.  Some turned away from the Handsome Pilgrim and headed back to the village.

The stranger folded his arms, smiled gently and shook his head as if he were gazing upon ignorant children.

“You see?” said the Handsome Pilgrim.  “I say to you that you are overrun with pots in this village.  Look here: you each have a pot to cook in, a pot to piss in, a pot to wash in, a pot for the morning water and a pot for the evening water. You have small pots, large pots, and all sizes in between. This I have seen.”

“Indeed we do,” Goodman Bradford called back.  The truth be told, Young Goodman Winthrop knew his neighbors were each prideful of their pot collection, but the Handsome Pilgrim turned a cold, dark look upon them and Young Goodman Winthrop felt a chill run up his spine.

“You are ignorant,” cried the stranger, and his voice cracked like a whip, but before it could sting he went on and his voice seemed to sooth at once.  “But you were born that way, so I do not judge you for it.  From the beginning of time our Father in heaven has made it . . . thusly.  But let me ask you this:  do you wish to remain in the dark your whole lives?  Look here:  other villages all around you have changed their ways for they have seen the light and so received God’s blessing.  Do you want not want you and your children to experience the miracle they have felt in their bones?”

“Of course we do.  We live only for our children.  Tell us what to do,” cried Goody Cuthbert.

The Handsome Pilgrim smiled and opened his arms once again as if to embrace them all.  “New Shire needs one giant pot,” he declared simply.

One pot?” they asked, confused.

“One giant pot,” the Handsome Pilgrim corrected them.  “The progress of the saints means one giant pot, and it belongs in the middle of the village where everyone can reach it.  Right here in the center.”

“In front of the church?” Goodman Smithy asked.

“Right in front of the church,” replied the Handsome Pilgrim.

“In front of the village meeting house?” asked Goodman Cooper.

“Right in front of the village meeting house,” replied the Handsome Pilgrim.

“In front of the cemetery?” Goody Clowy crooned.

“That’s right,” said the Handsome Pilgrim snappily.  “I speak of a great pot—I am talking about a great, blessed pot. A great pot fit for an entire village, a pot full of blessing, of wonder, of God’s chosen people.”  Young Goodman Winthrop thought this last part sounded dangerously close to blasphemy, or worse, but the Handsome Pilgrim’s words had the villagers enthralled and they let it pass.  “Just think of it,” the stranger went on.  “In this one giant pot you can put everything.  If you throw in your dirty trousers, out comes a clean wardrobe.  If you throw in your muddied hats, and out comes a hat like mine!  Put in last year’s roots and out comes this week’s stew.  And if you throw in this autumn’s harvest–even a lean harvest, mind you, leaner even than yours—you will be blessed.  Others have enjoyed this miracle.  Why not you?”

The villagers murmured amongst themselves.  It sounded good to their hungry and benighted ears.

Now the Handsome Pilgrim crouched down and he spoke with an oily voice as if they were all his kin.  “I offer peace, cousins.  Lay your burdens down.  Come and help me forge a pot that will fill even the hungriest belly.   Let there be an end to your suffering.”

Some of the older folks doubted the stranger when they heard him make his promises, for they knew life was anything but secure, and that God taught them through suffering, but still, the Handsome Pilgrim was so thoroughly handsome that even the skeptics were won over.

“We want a giant pot!” they cried.

The Handsome Pilgrim nodded a serious nod, rose to his full height, raised his arms and spoke in a loud, commanding voice.

“Bring to me your little pots and from the confusion, and I will fashion one ever-blessed great pot.”  And the villagers of New Shire did as they were beseeched to do, for they were an ignorant, superstitious and foolish people, easily swayed by flashing buckles and blocked hats.

And so in the following days the villagers brought to the Handsome Pilgrim their various pots of all sizes, and his wagon swallowed them up and blazed hot during the day and glowed red through the night, and the figure inside labored not in vain, for on the morning of the third day, the day of the year’s first snow fall, a massive, smoking black globe tumbled out of the back of the gypsy wagon, hissing and spitting as it came to rest on the snow covered earth.  Young Goodman Winthrop stood in awe even as it nearly bowled him over.  It was, well, giant, thirty feet high if an inch, and many times that across and around.  The pot was many times larger than the wagon from which it came, such was the miraculous nature of that giant pot.

The Handsome Pilgrim leapt down after the pot and grinned.  He looked strong in his black-smithy leather, and he was strong.  His arms were shining with sweat and his muscles were lean and cut.  He had no trouble pushing the giant pot to the middle of the village with one hand while in the other he held a great, blackened hammer.

Some villagers marveled and murmured miracle.

“It’s awfully large,” whispered one villager.

“It is giant,” the Handsome Pilgrim corrected him.

“Ay, that it is,” said another, and some were troubled because every window around the village center now gave way to a black view of the cast iron pot.

“You may thank me now with a feast,” cried the Handsome Pilgrim, and he said it in such a way that the people, many of them hungrier than they had ever been, and with the winter just coming on, found it difficult at first to give up what they had laid aside for the coming season, yet finally they did because they believed.  Once they poured in all that they had, ten-fold would fill the pot, and so they threw corn and tomatoes and lettuces, they threw small bushels of grain and whatever else they had hidden away for the worst moments of hunger yet to come, sand they waited for the miracle that would transform their meager sacrifices into a horn of plenty.

A freezing rain began to fall as the last of the villagers threw in what harvest they had.  The pot swallowed it all even as it began to hiss and steam as the cold rain fell.  Some mistook this for the beginning of the miracle, but a boy—Goodman Smithy’s son–climbed high in a tree in order to look down into the pot.

“What do you see?” they cried to the boy.

“Just a small pile of beans and roots and corn soaking in the water, way at the bottom.  How we gonna get to it now?”

Some of the villagers intended to ask the Handsome Pilgrim this pressing question but when they turned to ask him, he was gone.

“What will we do now?” the village cried.

“Let’s go to Parson Willowdale.  He knows,” Goody Cuthbert cried, and so the villagers marched around the giant black pot and headed for the church and there, on the front steps, stood Parson Willowdale.

“Where is the bounty that we were promised?” they asked the parson.

The parson wrung his hands and shook his head.  “Perhaps the Lord is testing our faith,” he said.  “Be patient.  Have faith.  Do not be greedy now.  Perhaps there is still more to throw into the pot.  Come now. Give with two hands.”   So the villagers did as they were told, but soon they found that they had nothing to eat and they were hungry.

“We will starve!” they cried.  “What do we do now?”

“Let us beseech the governor!” they cried, and so they marched around the giant pot to the town meeting house and there was the governor standing on the front steps.  “What do we do?” the villagers cried.

“We need to be practical at a time like this.  Ladders, men. Let us climb into the pot and get what we can, just enough until the miracle begins. Perhaps the miracle has already began.  Let us go and see for ourselves.”

“He is wise,” the villagers cried, and one by one, over a series of days, the hungriest climbed into the pot first, and then the rest, all to take back a morsel of food for themselves and their hungry children. Those at the bottom of the pot realized that once they climbed into the pot, they could not climb back out, but this was of no immediate concern, because they had plenty to eat.  Unfortunately they had no pot to piss in.

Even Young Goodman Winthrop and the Smithy boy finally climbed into the pot, so curious about what had happened to their neighbors, and so hungry.  Only when the last of the villagers had climbed in did the Handsome Pilgrim return to the village even as a hard rain began to fall.   Slowly the giant pot filled with water and the villagers cried in terror as the waters rose about them.  Those that could tread water did while others sank.  Some prayed.  Some waited for the miracle to begin while others began to worry that no miracle was forthcoming.  When the rain finally broke and the clouds parted, a bright autumn sky shone above New Shire.  That was when the Handsome Pilgrim began to gather and stack wood all around the giant pot–a massive effort to say the least–and he kindled a mighty, smoky fire that turned the sky black for miles around.  It took many long days, but finally that pot came to a roiling boil and the Handsome Pilgrim–hungrier than all of God’s creation put together–sat himself down in the village center of New Shire and he ate Pilgrim Stew for a year, some say two.

However long it took him, the Handsome Pilgrim was thorough.  Slowly but surely, he ate it all and only when the pot was drained to the lees did he finally move on, and it’s said that even then he was not yet satisfied.  But it was no matter, for no one ever heard of New Shire again, or if they did, they chose not to believe such an old wives’ tale.  That giant pot, though, well, some say that you can still find it deep in the woods of New England, somewhere west of the last homely village, and there it sits right where the Handsome Pilgrim left it, hissing and spitting on a smoking bed of coals that never cools. 

If Only the Earth Would Stand Still

Possible solutions to current global environmental problems remain, at least in first-world economies, mostly all talk.  At least we’re talking, but it’s high time we moved well beyond talk and addressed the serious crisis that’s unfolding all around us.  One web-site that denies global warming declares that people just don’t care about it, not really.  Perhaps it’s not as bad as all that—and conferences and papers like mine are merely hysterical rituals of chicken-little –like minds.  I hope so, for all of our sakes.  But what I believe is that the situation is bad, very bad, and we’re so inclined to self-delusion, cognitive denial and ego-rationalizations that we cannot handle the evidence that scientific researchers of all disciplines continue to gather about the state of the human habitat.

As a way into the current ideological discourse about the myriad problems that plague us, I want to tell you about a recent film, at once a speculative warning, a mechanism of ideological consensulization and a pretty bad piece of movie making.  But even bad films, like bad dreams, have something to tell us about what’s on our minds.

As a film the remake, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a failure.  The narrative is saddled with an earlier sensibility—when the world was larger and there were no cell-phones or internet, or spy-satellites, or Google earth, and we were all just waiting for the Cold War to become a nuclear holocaust.

In the original film from 1951 Klaatu and Gort visit earth on a mission to warn Earth: either live peacefully without nuclear weapons or be destroyed!  In the 2008 remake, nuclear holocaust has taken a back seat to environmental holocaust.  And in this version our not so friendly space alien is humanoid in the shape of Keanu Reeves.  The remake retains the limited scope of the first version—the attempt to communicate with all nations turns into a very local affair and our space visitor ends up hanging out with two other rather ordinary human characters. The end result keeps special effects shots to a minimum.  This may have worked in 1951 but in our brave new world of digital movie making this cautionary tale leaves one feeling a little gypped in terms of the sci-fi we’ve come to expect on screen these days.

Still, the film for all its limitations can be understood as a kind of dream our culture—or someone in Hollywood–is having, and it’s a dream about human extinction.

In this latest version of the story Klaatu is an alien intelligence in human form born of human DNA.  He is, the film establishes, fully human yet alien at the same time.  The point here is to establish that the alien is new to the human body and doesn’t “get” being in it, and this he states from the outset that it will take some time adjusting to his new material condition.  He is, though, fully human, and when he finally “gets” what it means to be human—to love, to feel connection to others, to fear their loss—we’re supposed to “get” it too, and his change of heart should be ours.  This, Klaatu realizes, is what it means to be human, but just what “this” refers to is where the film’s ideological agenda unspools.  “I feel it now,” Klaatu declares near the end of the film just as the human race is being swallowed by a swarming storm of mighty metallic grasshoppers unleashed only moments before by Klaatu himself.  This plague of locust he unleashes feeds on the material world eating all the steel and concrete in their way.

Klaatu initially has determined that the human race is guilty of crimes against the planet.  In the film we learn that life-supporting planets are rare and that Earth is in serious trouble.  Keannu plays Klaatu like a latter-day Neo from the Matrix, and the parallels don’t end there.  In the Matrix Agent Smith informs us that the human race is “a cancer on this planet” and in The Day the Earth Stood Still, we’re still the cancer but now Keaanu as Klaatu—rather than Agent Smith—is the cure.

“You’re killing the earth,” declares Klaatu, and the film explains that it is the Earth—and, gasp, not humans!—that is special, and in order to save the planet and its biosphere humanity must be removed, for it is a cancer, and Klatuu and his robot Gort have come to do some radical surgery in a last-ditch attempt to save the diseased and dying blue gem.

But then, suddenly, as the film winds down and the plague of locusts swarm, and feed, and grow, Klaatu finally “feels” what it means to be human—his body and his mind catch up to one another and he understands that humans—not just the earth—are special.  He’s heard from humans that we can change, but now he understands why they believe it, and what drives them.  And so fulfilling his role as a kind of figuration of the Christ, Klaatu decides to sacrifice himself, or at least his human body, to turn off the savage swarm of judgment day and save humanity.  Now, as in the original, and as in the Matrix, humanity gets a second chance and the message of the film is a familiar one: the rest is up to us.

But will we change? Can we change?

In the film Klaatu is won-over by an argument made by a scientist played by John Cleese.  This scientist defends humanity and its future by arguing that it is precisely these “precipices” of survival that drive the evolutionary process, and our current crisis will finally register on our collective consciousness and so motivate us to change, to evolve.  But what the cause of our problems is the film remains silent, and so the solutions are reduced to an emotional platitude:  “we can change!”

But how?

Evolutionary crisis, the film blithely implies, will force change upon us and then the indomitable human spirit will step up and respond.  We’ll be okay!  It will all work out.  Have another soda, have some more popcorn.  Drive safely on your way home!

But this is nothing short of lulling us to sleep in the name of waking us up.  The film’s ideological narrative casts the viewer back onto familiar and reassuring assumptions: first, that humans are, in short, special.  The film challenges but then ultimately endorses our unshakable belief in biological exceptionalism.

I’ll admit that in a way we are special—if only because we’ve come to dominate the planet as no other species has—7 billion, going on 9 billion by 2050 and still on track to make 12 billion by the turn of the twenty-first century.  Why there are so many people on the planet today is debatable.  That population growth continues to expand exponentially is an obviousness that has become almost invisible.  Yet it remains the greatest, most pressing symptom of our dysfunctional relationship to the ourselves and our environment.

And The Day the Earth Stood Still tries to address this in its own way by quietly suggesting that pollution is such a problem because there are so many people polluting the planet.  Yet in the end the film draws away from this conclusion and represses the uncomfortable reality of over population in the name of “hope” and “change.”  As if talking about things is the same as changing them.  It’s a start, but it’s not an end.

I am no believer in a determined fate that leads us to Armageddon or judgment day.   There may be a Malthusian catastrophe this century, or a truly devastating pandemic, or a catastrophic war over water, but any and all of these fates will be of our own making, yet I believe that they are not inevitable. The best we’re being offered right now is the chance to make a few adjustments to our way of life so that things can go on as they are but this is a dubious proposition.

My argument is that our problem is not just our “carbon footprint.”  It’s the human foot print—nearly seven billion and still trending upwards at an alarming, exponential rate.  Even if we do manage to cut green house gas missions substantially—say, by 80% by 2050–the population by then will have grown by nearly 25%, from today’s numbers.   In other words, even the most draconian cuts will not, in the end, be enough to account for the billions more consumers who will join the planet between now and 2050.

What will these people eat? Drink? Let alone drive?  Consider that, according to the UN’s 2007 report, Global Environment Outlook known as GEO-4, on average human demand for natural resources currently equals 21.9 hectares per person while the report states that the carrying capacity of the planet is only 15.7 hectares per person.  This is one way of saying what Klaatu says in The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Our footprint is too big, and there’s just too many feet.

Even now we can pull back from the precipice the film assures us, if we want to.  Klaatu realizes that humans are special—they love, they suffer, they sacrifice—and so he shuts down the genocide machinery he brought with him.  He shuts it down because he has realized the great obfuscating, ideologically conservative truth that reassures and benumbs:  in spite of everything he has come to know about human civilization, he chooses to forget the facts and instead the film retreats to the greatest of romantic myths in order to offer humanity a stay of execution. Humans are special.  Especially American ones.

And this is where the film can’t help but reveal its conservative agenda.Apparently through terrible, unimaginable crisis we’ll grow, we’ll change and we’ll survive.  I hope so, but what that crisis might look like, and how we move from this world to a smaller, more sustainable one remains a riddle shrouded in a mystery.

The biggest challenge to wholesale political, cultural and societal change in the near term are deeply ingrained notions of “private property” and unconscious practices that are rationalized by a latent, though potent, Social Darwinism.  A just and sustainable world will only come when our cultural discourse moves beyond “a form of society which was founded on the pseudo self-interest of selfishness.” We must reject, he says, those social and economic practices that appeal “solely to the anti-social and brutal side of human nature” (Edward Bellamy).

In short, Greed does not work.  Greed is not good.  Sorry, Gordon.

We need a new vision–we need a new story. And I suspect this story will include the need for great sacrifice for all, everywhere.   The symptoms of our greed and our arrogance—pollution, population, climate change and human misery–are already too great to ignore.  We may already be in the midst of an evolutionary crisis that will make clear that it is in our self-interest as human beings to end plutocracy and re-direct our concerted efforts towards global environmental justice.  A new vision must include the radical transformation of civilization’s “market ideologies” of unending “growth” and  “profit” into a sustainable way of life based upon universal rights of birth and the inherent right to dignity of all sentient life.

2050: A Future History

2050 a.s.


Volume One: Gods of Little Earth

The Book of M

There is SIMON who in Little Earth is called Blessed, and the One, and World-Killer, and the Great God, and He came into the world as the Ancients fell and He fashioned a Little Earth from the frozen wastes of Antarctica at the bottom of the Ancient’s world.  He raised the Arclight and He raised His Great City and He called it the Seventh Realm.

After the Blessed Simon came upon the land and took it as His own, the lesser gods banded together to contend against Him and out of jealousy and spite they plotted together to cast Him down and steal His Power of M, and they did.  And it is a great mystery for on that day they scattered Simon to the seven corners of the Seven Realms, and Simon’s face disappeared from the surface of the world.

And on that day the Four took the Little Earth into their own hands and used what Power of M they could master to re-make the Seventh Realm, and they tore down what Simon had built up and put their own works upon the land, all but Simon’s Great City and His Arclight—these things of Simon the gods took as their own.

For in their hubris the gods decreed that the Seventh Realm would become a Little Earth where immortals reigned over the children of the gods.  The children of the gods would work to tame the land and draw a new world from the ashes of the old, and the gods would look on the work of their children and take credit for their accomplishments.

But always the Four sought to claim the greater power of Simon as their own, but Simon had hid it from them when the Four overmastered Him.  And so the Four were forced to contend among themselves for that portion of the Power of M each desired, but none of the Four were contented.  They chafed and bit at one another in vengeful greed until finally they turned their minds to making war against each other.  Because of war all they turned their hand to took seed only to fail, and finally, the Arclight of Simon failed and the long day grew cold and the long night grew dark and Little Earth stood upon the edge of ruin.

Even as the gods despaired of ever finding where Simon had hidden the Power of M, Vilb Solenthay set out on his Pilgrimage to the Great City in search of the truth about why his world was dying.  Of his companions, and how he met them, and who they were, and how he found his answers and embraced his fate, more follows in this record.  Little did Vilb know that he would become an ember to ignite a great conflagration across the Seven Realms.

To know the gods of Little Earth

Pilgrim needs a second birth.

Go seek the Martha about her Son.

(for His is the name for our Destruction)

Next Lord Qir, who blinds the just,

Then Quadros Prang who feeds his lust,

Last is Azo who serves the Martha’s trust.

What deed provoked the Four against the One?

Simon, Simon, where have you gone?

2050: A Future History

Volume One: Gods of Little Earth

Volume Two: The Power at the Bottom of the World

Volume Three: When Immortals Reign

Cartoon Apocalypse

Save us from ourselves, Wall-E

It’s 2012, and we are fast approaching the latest apocalypse deux, at least according to Mayan calendar aficionados.  It reminds me of the most recent (of many) back in Y2K.  Other prophets have warned us the end is nigh (or is it Nye?) but they and their predictions have come and gone, as will the latest Mayan prediction for reasons that go beyond the scope of this meager blog post.  Suffice to say that these faux-Casandras distract from real threats that face all of us even as they stand as symptoms for some greater sense that, well, things just ain’t right.

As varied and diverse as culture and religion tend to be in this world, there is something in us that loves an end.  Since I began reading—and now writing—speculative fiction (more on what that is in a minute) I have come across what I’m calling the “speculative tradition.” I’ve written about that already in a previous post, “What is the Speculative Tradition.”   What I will say here is that the speculative tradition in fiction and film is not necessarily a western thematic, for the Mayans had it too, and the Hindu tradition comes complete with an end of the world story, as do other traditions and cultures.  I’m interested in the western thematic because that’s where I live.  Be that as it may, the “speculative tradition” has been, like so many other global cultural traditions, taken up and given a particular spin by western culture going back as far as Plato on the one hand, and the Book of Revelation on the other.

I think it is important to note here that that though speculative fiction can also be described as science fiction, science fiction is not always speculative fiction.  Science fiction includes the heroic romance—as in the case of Star Wars–where as speculative fiction of the sort I am talking about takes up a cultural discourse motivated by critical questions like,  “How will we then live?” which is another way of asking the question, “how do we live now?”  Implicit in the question is that there is something most decidedly wrong with the status quo and pursuing its path will result in catastrophic disaster.  Suffice to say the speculative tradition takes a dark and disturbing turn in the twentieth-century, around the time of the great wars as well as at the beginning of the environmental movement of the 1960s and Rachel Carpenter’s environmental warning, Silent Spring. 

Perhaps Orwell’s vision is the most consistently dystopic, the most bleak, and the most depressing writer within the speculative tradition.  Even today, I would argue, it’s difficult to find a story as uniformly hopeless (and important) as 1984.  As a result, the dystopic fiction and film of the later twentieth-century is usually alloyed by the promise of hope—the latent feature of the Christian mythology rises again, like the ghost from the machine to save the day—from Neo in The Matrix to the miracle birth at the end of Children of Men, the contemporary speculative tradition looks into the existential abyss and blinks, pulls back, and offers us a blast of hope from the past.  To sell tickets, we have to be told again and again that the proverbial phoenix will, finally, rise from the ashes.

Even as the dystopic warnings about the impending apocalypse (or is it the apocalyptic warnings about the impending dystopia?) continues to vie for our attention—consider the hysteria around Y2K and now the Mayan 2012 purported apocalypse—we hold utopia and its dark twin in our collective consciousness like two sides of the same dream coin.  Consider for a moment the enduring popularity of Star Trek franchise.  Star Trek in all of its many iterations  is a prominent example of the utopic in contemporary speculative fiction, and its popularity demonstrates the pervasiveness of the utopic-born-of-human-reason mythology, that is, the representation of a future world in which the human colonization of space is the great fruit of humanity’s conquest of war, hunger, political strife, and so on.  I think it is worth noting that the future Star Trek imagines partakes of both the utopic and the apocalyptic, for on the one hand we learn that some how human beings, along with technological innovation, has put an end to human suffering on earth after a devastating global war in the early twenty-first century.  From here, the phoenix rises, and the rest is all warp-drive.  Note how our “re-birth” apparently justifies the conquest of other civilizations for we’ve “perfected” ourselves and so we have something to offer the less evolved species out there.

I want to focus finally on a recent film that is a unique example of the Speculative Tradition—Pixar’s Wall-E (2008). Wall-E is a narrative torn between two visions.  On the one hand, the film invites the young and old into the charming vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth buried in garbage. Along with the image of the City awash in waste, the film offers up short scenes that do little to explain the back-story about why things have turned out so badly for humanity.  We’re left to surmise that we simply consumed too much, wasted too much, polluted too much.  It all rings true, at least at first.

“Buy ‘n’ Large” represents the film’s serio-comic condemnation of the Wal-Mart/corporate/consumer culture run amok.  The first twenty minutes or so of Wall-E make it clear that corporate entities like Buy-n’ Large are bent on ruling humanity for their own gain, even if it means killing the world in the process.  This critique of corporate power is implicitly present in the opening half of the film on earth as well as the second part of the film on the Axiom, the  “Buy-n-Large-Love-Boat-City-in the Sky.”

At work in Wall-E remain all the dominant themes of the Speculative Tradition, with special emphasis on what concerns us in the present moment figured as a vision of the future:  beware, the film tells us, of over-consumption, pollution, environmental collapse and the fall of human civilization.

Wall-E is also a buddy film, a romance, a love story and a meditation on the desire to reach out and touch—and love—and perhaps regain–what we’ve lost.  What, according to Wall-E, have we lost?  The film makes it clear: in the not too distant future we lose the Green World, the world of Eve, the world of Life; we lose the Garden.

In case you missed it, let me summarize it here:  Wall-E the robot’s mission is to clean up the City (civilization) and as he attempts to fulfill his programming he also collects (or perhaps hoards) human memorabilia from a dead past.   His collection of yard-sale items is a symbolic representation of what he’s lost and what he longs for—love and connection.  His only access to community is through material items—junk that can only stand for what he longs for, like the video of Hello, Dolly!  All are substitutes for the real thing, but not the real thing.   It is both ironic and pathetic that Wall-E’s desire for love can only be obliquely addressed through his hoarding of junk, and his desire for a relationship with a robot that looks suspiciously like an iPod.  In many ways it is a sly commentary on the emotional roots of addiction even as it pushes our buttons to feel nostalgic for all-things Apple.

Wall-E is going in two opposite directions at once.  On the one hand, the cautionary vision of Wall-E, especially the first twenty minutes, represents one of the most poignant, devastating speculative visions since the spate of dystopic films from the 1960s and 70s.  On the other hand,  Wall-E is for children and so there has to be a happy ending, and plenty of consumer products that go along with the film.  And so, like so many other films influenced by the dystopic yet bent on selling tickets and junk, the film invites us to stare down into the abyss of environmental apocalypse, but then look up as if looking in offers an inoculation against such a vision. The film’s solution to the end of life as we know it is as ridiculous as the problem is overwhelming as the film imagines it.  Suffice to say that by the end of Wall-E, the “phoenix” rises from the ashes.  Eve finds life, Wall-E finds Eve.  Humanity returns to Earth.  Life goes on. See you next time.

But who among us would, if we were the denizens of the Axiom,  prefer to return to a life of toil and hard labor when all our work is done for us by a willing crew of self-correcting robots?  By the end of the film it’s as if we’re being thrown out of Paradise all over again, but this time in reverse.  The Axiom appears to be a perfect, self-sustaining habitat.  Why return to a world still overrun by pollution and garbage?

The ridiculousness of the film’s final scene and dialogue–when the Axiom returns triumphantly to Earth–allows for the child in the audience to take away a hopeful message—but finally, the ending makes no real sense, for it violates the cautionary message established most vigorously at the outset of the film.  We’re told by the end that the infantilized, obese inhabitants of the Axiom want to leave their spaceship-home-utopia in which robots tend to their every need and whim for the hard toil of agriculture in a barren and garbage-covered land.  It’s absurd, it’s comic, and it’s almost certainly a sell-out.

Perhaps the ending of Wall-E is a satiric plot-device meant to allow the cautionary dystopic message to exist just under the thin veneer of saccharine glaze.  Or perhaps it’s all just a device to sell popcorn and computer games.  After all, it’s just a cartoon apocalypse. No need to panic.