Author: Dan Foster

Daniel T. Foster spent the last twenty years in the United States Armed Forces where your tax dollars helped move his sizable toy and comic collection all over the globe, and have supported his short fiction and essay writing habit. Daniel, his wife, their daughter, and their dogs and cat have settled in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy uniform non-conformity.

Old Trekkie, New Universe: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Abrams’ Trek

I am forty years old and have quite literally been watching Star Trek as long as I can remember. I must, alas, admit that by accident of late birth I did not catch Star Trek in its original airing. However, some of my earliest TV memories are the animated series (I was born in 1972 to save you the math) and reruns of the original. I was a child in the ‘70s running around with my Mego phaser toy that shot little discs and my Dad had built the old AMT model of the Enterprise, which on rare occasion I was allowed to zoom around the room under careful supervision. Additionally, my Dad gave me the Science Fiction Book Club edition of the Star Trek Reader which collected three of the James Blish prose adaptations of the classic episodes. I read it and I kept reading it, until it fell apart. I still have that original gift from my now departed Dad held together with electrical tape from a poor 12-year-old’s rebinding.

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Then, in 1977 I saw Star Wars and most of my interstellar travels involved the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon rather than the bridge of the Enterprise. I did though pay close attention to The Motion Picture when it came out, and later The Wrath of Khan. I even got the Dinky toys die-cast 1701 to woosh around any time I wanted, and periodically hyperspace had to make way for Warp Speed.

Then, Christmas of 1983 my Dad — much to my Mom’s chagrin — continued to further his over-smart, under-sized son’s development by buying me the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set in the red box. I found l really liked role-playing and saw ads in the included flyers for TSR’s Star Frontiers. As much as slaying orcs was cool, rolling the dice to ply the spaceways would be better, so I caught a ride to my local game shop with Mom to look for that. (She was convinced D&D would make me a Satan worshipper, so the jump to SF RPGs was highly encouraged.) I did not find Star Frontiers that day though; what I did find was FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game. With but a single Starfleet character generation, my love for the universe was reignited and despite Lucas’ best efforts I was once more in the hands of the Great Bird of the Galaxy.

Keep in mind we were still in kind of a Medieval Age of fandom. Sure, if you were near a city there were conventions, but if you were thirty minutes south of Sierra Vista, Arizona — itself at the time only a town of 30,000 or so — no one was throwing conventions or making clubs etc. My fandom came from scouring thrift and used bookstores to find old issues of Starlog, the rest of the Blish books, and finally little collections called Best of Trek.

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Trek: The Magazine for Star Trek Fans started out as your typical fanzine and ended up running for nearly 20 years. A lot of the shared fan speculation now known as “fanon” came from articles in Trek and eventually its notoriety became great enough for the editors, G.B. Love and Walter Irwin, to start collecting well regarded articles into paperback book collections. As my own fandom grew in the years leading up to the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation the Best of Trek volumes helped me fill in gaps left by the Original Series. They discussed things that seemed odd about Classic Trek and its two — then three — movies and made them work.

See, here is a dirty secret we tend to forget these days: Classic Trek was not perfect.

I love Classic Trek like I love my wife, kids, and dogs combined, but there are flaws. That’s okay though, because back in those days of fandom we didn’t sit around complaining about continuity fails on the part of Trek writers. We figured out how they weren’t failures. When Spock says in Classic Trek that Vulcan has no moon, but The Motion Picture shows one, an article in Trek magazine posited Vulcan’s sister planet of T’Khut. When “Turnabout Intruder” says women cannot command starships, but The Voyage Home has a woman in command of the Saratoga, Trek talked about why Janice Lester’s belief was part of her madness. We loved Star Trek so much we wouldn’t let it be wrong.

I realize I am nearly eight hundred words into this and haven’t started my argument, but I wanted to establish two things: I am a Trekkie (and I neither balk nor shy away from said moniker) from way back, and those things we love that entertain us deserve our protection rather than our derision. Now, let’s talk about JJ Abrams.

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I saw the 2009 Star Trek film with one of my dearest friends, also a Classic Trek fan from way back. We went in prepared to hate the film. How dare this upstart Abrams — who damn near ruined Superman with a horrible script a few years earlier — think he can remake our beloved show? Arms crossed, I scowled through the Bad Robot stinger and then, well, I fell madly in love with this film. Yes, it was bigger, louder, and faster than the Treks we were used to, but the characters were there; more importantly the adventure so ingrained in Classic Trek, and perhaps lost in subsequent sequels, was also there. Even some of that fanon or pseudo-canon from the old days was there. A nearly exact update of the teasing Vulcan children from the Animated Series was there. The Katric Ark and Vulcan Hall of Ancient Thought from the novelization of The Search for Spock were there. We even, finally, got an actual first name for Nyota Uhura. That’s right; no previous canon version of Trek had given us that.

Yet, I saw some things that made me go “grrrr” from the continuity perspective as well: The Enterprise launched in 2258 and it’s now bigger than the 1701E from a century later? The Kelvin has a crew of 800? Chekov is 17 when he was born in the Prime universe only 13 years earlier? Engineering looks like a brewery?

Honestly a few of these changes happen because of the chosen visual style. The Narada is a “simple mining ship” but looks like a nightmarish behemoth easily dispatching older warships. It looks that way so the bad guy is scary. Enterprise was originally going to be about the same size as its classic counterpart, but the physical shuttle set was much larger than the classic shuttle and therefore led to a scale increase in the CGI model. That’s nothing new to Star Trek however. Fanon found it necessary to create three different models of the Klingon Bird of Prey, identical in appearance but completely different in size, to account for different directors in episodes or films choosing to film the single model at different scales. In First Contact the Defiant is reduced in scale to appear tiny next to the Enterprise E during the Borg battle. I won’t even discuss how Voyager’s Delta Flyer would not fit in an Intrepid Class shuttle bay. I argue though that rather than just ignore some stylistic changes there’s a better option: go old school, and give some Trek Magazine like explanations.

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How does the Kelvin, which should be unaffected by changes until the arrival of the Narada, have 800 people on board? Don’t assume it’s a standard fleet patrol. It’s assigned to colony duty. A vessel would drop a colony, ferry supplies and then likely remain assigned to an area of space to protect said colony. When we catch up with the Kelvin it is about to drop its first group of colonists and equipment and then head back to Earth. The Kirks plan to stay on Earth for the birth of their second son, but the Narada attack sends her into labor early. (That may not be necessary to resolve the story change; James Kirk never says he was BORN in Iowa, only from there. I’m from Arizona, wasn’t born there.) What colony could the Kelvin be attached to? Obviously it was Tarsus IV. We know Jim Kirk is living on that failed colony in the Prime Universe when he is 12. Why? Because his family, still assigned to the Kelvin, will be patrolling that sector and he is a Starfleet brat. This explains the enormous compliment on the Kelvin, and ties nicely to canon on the original series.

So why is the 1701 suddenly so damn big? I see two logical reasons. Remember in the canon universe, no one really knows in 2233 what a Romulan looks like. The Kelvin gets Romulan language transmissions from the Narada, establishing this doomsday vessel has come from one of Earth’s oldest enemies. No one in the Fleet recognizes the Narada has come from the future until 2258, which means Starfleet has to assume the Romulans may have an entire fleet of five-mile long killer ships massing on the far side of the Neutral Zone. The Abrams-verse Starfleet would have a completely different attitude from the Prime Universe. They are also going to need more tech. Luckily, 800 (or slightly less) people survive the Kelvin with all of that sensor telemetry. Retroengineering that data takes some time, so rather than the 289 meter 1701 rolling off the assembly line in 2245, the future enhanced version takes until 2258 to complete. The Narada data would change all Fleet tech on some level, as would a stronger focus on weapons technology. Hence, everything from transporters to torpedoes to phasers are different. (Some of the spoilers I have seen for Star Trek Into Darkness would indicate this trend continues.)

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How about the brewery? Not my favorite part, but it is there. The Narada itself is the source of this particular switch. We see she is a fairly unfinished looking beast, but aspects of that design are going to be driven by the tech. Some of those aspects will make it into the tech derived from those scans, hence an unfinished looking Starfleet engineering section. The Narada itself? A killing machine dubbed “simple mining vessel”? I know we have the explanation in the Countdown comics of Borg technology on top of what was once a mining ship. However, I think that was Kurtzman and Orci bravely doing what I am doing here; offering in universe explanations to stylistic decisions, and I respect that. Let me say though, I don’t think you need it in this case. The Narada is a mining ship, but what does it mine? Likely asteroids: Huge chunks of planetary matter. Of course it had giant grabby arms on a five-mile long frame; it needs to hold enormous space rocks in place. It has a laser capable of drilling through a planet’s entire crust. It has missiles capable of breaking big planetoids into little rocks. This thing really would need Doomsday Machine like capabilities depending on its mission. The interior simply proves that Romulans have no OSHA. Otherwise, more handrails I think.

And Pavel Chekov? The Star Trek Chronology by Mike and Denise Okuda give Chekov’s birthday in 2245 based on the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” in which Pavel is 22 years old. 2245 is extrapolated from the idea that season two of the Original Series took place in 2267. Here is a simple fact though: nearly every date in the Chronology for Classic Trek history is supposition based on Data placing the first season of The Next Generation in 2363 in the episode “The Neutral Zone.” When Roddenberry first created TNG he put it 79 years after The Voyage Home (roughly 2284). From there we only have generalizations on when things were supposed to have happened. The Wrath of Khan was likely about a year prior to The Voyage Home. In that film Kirk states “a man out there I haven’t seen in 15 years is trying to kill me.” That would put “Space Seed” from the first season of Classic Star Trek in 2269. My point is not to show how wrong everything is, and my respect for the works done by the Okudas to assemble their encyclopedia and chronology is profound. Many of these dates are nebulous however, and it would be no great stretch to place the original five year mission at least a hundred years before TNG. Just moving the first season to 2263 makes Chekov 22 in 2264 and brings us within 18 months of the 2258 date for the modern film.

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That brings me to my final point. I railed against Star Trek: Enterprise for its seeming continuity violations even in episodes I found entertaining. What should my focus as a fan be? Yes, consistency in character and story telling is important, but any narrative when it gets long enough begins to have holes: Star Trek, comic book histories, Doctor Who, real history. All of these long narratives have details that don’t jive with other details. We as fans can decide we hate something pretty entertaining because it doesn’t line up with our own interpretation of previous stories, or we can try to figure out ways it does. That’s why Trek Magazine existed. That’s why Marvel handed out “no prizes.” That’s why we still mourn the Ponds even though the Statue of Liberty can’t possibly be a Weeping Angel because it’s made out of copper and not stone. Star Trek has been around long enough to tell some pretty diverse stories in some pretty diverse ways. Let’s give people who are trying to mold stories out of the existing eight-hundred hours of Trek the benefit of the doubt for trying to actually entertain us. I am not saying you have to like Abrams’ vision, but it is Trek and worth at least a fair comparison with other versions. As a long time fan I will be first in line when Star Trek Into Darkness opens, hoping to revisit new takes on old friends and see some great new Star Trek.

You better not screw it up, JJ.

Deus Ex Scriptorum

What happens when Science Fiction calls on the Gods?

In Greek theater, the authors would at times get so caught up with creating drama or peril for their characters only a god could save the day. This “Deus ex machina” or “god from the machine” would refer to the sudden appearance of a deity to fix the problem, usually to facilitate a happy ending. Horace warns writers against that in “Ars Poetica” (basically a 1st Century BC famous writer ‘how I write’ book), but indeed, that does not seem to slow too many authors down. Even geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov might be said to employ such a tactic; when Lolita’s mother is conveniently hit by a car freeing Humbert Humbert to start his…relationship which will serve as the crux of the book, it is a mighty convenient accident.

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Sometimes though, it is not just a plot device or convenience that fills this role. At times, there is a literal spiritual entity or system a writer (or writers) may employ as a character. When this happens in certain genres, it seems to be met with more than a little hostility on the part of the audience. Two recent, popular television shows ended on a spiritual note, and elicited a fair uproar from their fans for their efforts. I am here to defend each of these shows: I am not defending the idea that a gimmick is used to conveniently save a story gone off the rails, but rather that each show in fact had narratives leading to a logical conclusion; fans simply did not listen to what the writers were telling them all along.

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I realize time has passed since each of these television shows concluded, but we are in a marvelous new age of enjoying such things when we as an audience want to, rather than when a network decides to air them. Let me then give fair warning that I will be discussing in detail (perhaps excruciating detail) important plot points and the concluding episodes of two of my favorite shows: Lost and the 2003 Ron Moore version of Battlestar Galactica.

Lost gives us a collection of flawed, yet fascinating characters that I am happy to compare with any classical literary cast. Certainly we see archetypes in a character like Jack, who as a reluctant and troubled protagonist seems destined to be the star of the show. Look however at the development Sawyer goes through as he changes from basic criminal scumbag to a hero in his own right, even seeing in the “sideways” universe of the last season that within his spirit is a noble protector, personified there as a police detective.

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Wait; spirit?

Yes. Lost begins with some very serious science fiction overtones, and for many that set up an expectation for a very serious science fiction conclusion. It is however less Arthur C. Clarke who influences the universe in which Lost occurs, but rather the Bhagavad Gita. In the often dark and cynical environment that is fandom on the Internet, I see again and again people complain how at the end of the show we find out they were “dead the whole time.” This simply is not what the story is about. I do not want to play the “well you just didn’t understand it card” but I think many members of the audience expected either an SF ending with everything explained in some fantastical supercomputer, alternate universe, time travel kind of fashion (and to be fair, those elements are there) but in the end the show defaults to one simple fact: It is, and always has been, about a magic island. Good and evil play out on this island, with the souls of the Oceanic passengers caught in the balance. The island serves as a sort of Gotterdammerung where champions vie to become the next Master of this gateway between our world and the next; not “another” but rather a different world, a higher form of existence.

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Indeed, this struggle is so important to these people and their lives, that there is nothing else they will ever do more important to the universe. Hence, when each of them dies in their own way and time, they gather in the same church waiting to cross into the afterlife together. The church is not where they were the whole time; it is a timeless place where these souls prepare. We the audience get the hint when Hurley and Linus congratulate each other on their tenure as the boss and number two on the island…even though it was only a few moments earlier we even knew they had assumed those roles from Jacob and the Man in Black. Those who do manage to escape the island will go on to live out their lives (and it is indeed fascinating to speculate how Kate or Sawyer as survivors have been changed by their experiences, and what they will do with their new freedom) and when they do eventually die, they will get to the Church at the same time as Jack who closes his eyes for the last time at the conclusion of this episode. My apologies for the run-on sentence; however, these are in fact rather deep concepts, more typically found in religious text. An afterlife where the temporal world’s view of time has no effect? Forever and ever, Amen. Lost does leave some threads hanging, and indeed don’t we all? When I die (and I certainly hope it is later rather than sooner) I imagine there will be unfinished books, projects, and mysteries the caretakers of that very, very old man (fingers crossed) will never quite solve. No, the show does not spell out for us exactly the process by which The Man in Black claims the image of the deceased John Locke. That’s not the point, the point is the mystery, and the role these characters, with all their foibles, play in this sweeping struggle across spiritual realms.

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Science Fiction? Perhaps not, but still compelling drama and one that made me question how I understood not just the structure of the show, but my own understanding—and ability to understand—the universe around me.

Lost might not be as well disguised in its science fiction trappings as my all-time favorite show: Battlestar Galactica (2003). Like many of my generation, I harbor a strong nostalgia for the original BSG produced by Glen Larson. Even then, as outdated as those sets, costumes, and performances seem now, there was certainly an epic feel to the flight of the rag-tag fleet to find the lost human tribe. As well there should have been; Glen Larson was a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and many concepts of the Book of Mormon find their way into his narrative. Ask a Mormon friend about the planet “Kolob” sometime, and marvel at its thematic and phonetic similarities to BSG’s “Kobol.”

So, in 2003 when it turned out there would be a “re-imagined” Galactica from the producer of arguably the best Star Trek (Deep Space Nine; I know, we’ll argue about that later), I expected the spiritual themes to be diminished compared to the original. Indeed, they most certainly were not. I realized they were in fact less subtle, and more deeply integrated into the lives of our characters. Actors like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell take their roles very seriously, and we seem their characters not as just modern Buck Rogers archetypes, but rather as real people struggling deeply with their own spirituality, or lack thereof.

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Early on, the show establishes a great twist. The humans with whom we identify are the polytheists, worshipping some form of the Greek gods. The killer-machine Cylons are the monotheists. The one appearing in some form within the mind of Gaius Baltar claims that one, true God has a plan. Many viewers with whom I would discuss this show continually speculated on the nature of the Cylon god, particularly when it was revealed that mankind’s war with the machine life they create had happened before (and might happen again). Was the Cylon god a leftover from the original Cylon colony on Kobol? Was there some outside influence affecting both races? Why were their myths so similar?

When we do get to the end, we again find a conclusion more along the lines of a great spiritual work than just a sci-fi TV show. The entire story is wrapped around the grandiose—and very Hindu—idea of “The Eternal Return;” that is the idea that certain events continue to recur throughout history, or even spiritually throughout all histories. Even the Christian Bible is written along these lines with patterns of events established in ancient texts, playing out for the character of Jesus in the later books. It is a deeply Eastern concept that lies in the foundation of many faith systems worldwide. Without getting off on too much of a tangent, certain cosmological theories reflect some form of expansion/contraction cycle repeating eternally in Bangs and Crunches. In Battlestar Galactica’s case the Cylon God has been behind the creation of humans, allowing them to create their own lifeforms, and then hoping that those two species can adapt to one another. The cycle of man makes machine, machine rebels, and man and machine wipe each other out has happened over and over, and this latest version can only be resolved when both man and machine lay down their arms and come together in harmony on a new planet…where in 150,000 years we as their descendants are again faced with the challenge of living with our own technological progress. The Cylon God is in fact God watching it unfold, offering help where possible; unless God—who hates being called that—is a bit more active here and periodically topples our Cylon Towers of Babel.

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Yet, so many people in the blogosphere, or around me, were angry. Somehow feeling betrayed when the show that had been dealing with angels and gods and destiny and prophecy since the pilot actually reached a spiritual conclusion. One of the biggest complaints I hear is about the ambiguity of the character Kara Thrace, Starbuck. Her death midway through the show punctuated by her return and eventual disappearance left many wondering. Put in the context of the show’s spirituality though, an explanation emerges clearly. A person with a father figure who leaves their life early, is good at everything they attempt, dies, is resurrected, leads people to salvation, and then ascends to “The Other Side”? The Jungian archetype is clear, and the implication is apparent.

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The use of a modern “Earth” song surprised many of us in Season 3 when we had all assumed the similarities between the Galactica crew and the viewer would have to have been established long before. I too was left rather aghast when the final five begin quoting Dylan (he wrote “All Along the Watchtower”, not Hendrix). It is a key left to a chosen few with instructions on how to escape a cycle if it reaches an apocalyptic ending. The song hangs in our collective subsconcious, waiting for us to need it; a failsafe in case our tower falls and the Toasters start killing us. I don’t know why the producers chose that particular song, but I was amused to no end to learn that Bob Dylan wrote “Watchtower” in 1967; in that same year the Department of Defense’s “Dendral” project created the first knowledge-based computer-reasoning program. I hope someone is interpreting stellar coordinates from the Joker and the Thief right now.

So here is what I ask: if you hated how these two shows ended, accept the fact they are spiritual fantasies and give them another shot. The drama, the characters, the performances, and effects: all are top notch and on a second viewing I think you will see neither ending was in fact Deus Ex Machina, or just to save the writers from too much setup that could not be satisfactorily answered. These are shows about a magic island, and about peace coming to the Children of God, and they cover those subjects damn well. Remember this most of all; if you are not a believer or someone of a different faith than espoused in either, they are in the end simply fiction meant to entertain. Is it really difficult as an Atheist to accept God as a fictional character if you already think him to be such? Battlestar Galactica is a show with killer robots and spaceships: Apply that suspension of disbelief just a bit further, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well crafted each show really is. And maybe you’ll find yourself thinking in depth about how you really see the universe around you. In the end, that is what all good art does.

So say we all.

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