Monday, March 24, 2014

The Final Frontier, Episode 1: 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'

Update: I originally posted this in... like... October or something ridiculously long  ago, but when I was adding tags, it somehow got moved to the top. Sorry, I have no idea how the frak to fix it. :(

A few weeks ago, I bought the Blu-Ray box set of the movies from Star Trek: The Original Series. I'm inching my way through the actual series and have some ideas for blog posts there (that "Corbomite Maneuver" episode is SO RIPE for identity and international relations theory, and the draft has been sitting here for over three months...), but I thought I'd do some reviews/overthinkings of the movies as I go through them. Because, to my shame, I've never seen any of them all the way  through; or if I did, I was so little, I'll basically be watching them for the first time. My method will be taking little notes in a Word document as the movie is playing, then going back to them to try and get some themes and philosophizing out of the movies in something more orderly than, essentially, live-Tweeting or some kinda jazz. If anyone is interested in me live-Tweeting any movies, be they  these or others, though, since I'm not entirely terrible at peanut-gallery-ing, give me some suggestions/requests in the comments. (Just know that if it's not on Netflix, I'd of course need to have my own copy in order for that to work.)

Today's film  is Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

To get started, three things in the pre-movie phase. First, way too many previews, Paramount. Seriously, I watched almost an entire episode of Crash Course: U.S. History during the previews. Get it together.

Second, I'm curious as to who this woman on the poster is. Can't say I'm familiar with her off the top of my head, but I'm vaguely aware of much of the mythos and whatnot of the Star Trek universe, so mayhap it'll come back to me. If not, oh well. Although I gotta say, this speaks to the whole "pioneering" aspect of the original series, and I don't mean in the space-exploration sense, but with respect to women  and people of color actually having important roles in a series. Yay Roddenbery. 

Third, um, why the  heck is the theme to The Next Generation playing for the menu screen? This movie is about Kirk, not Picard. Who the frak packaged these??????

Okay. So a quick Wikisearch teaches me that Jerry Goldsmith composed the music, and  it was remixed to serve as the theme to Next Gen. Cool beans- I like his soundtracks a lot. 

So the not-so-thoughtful reflection is that the movie could probably have been at least twenty minutes shorter because of all of the sweeping shots of the Enterprise and the ship it encounters. Lens flares are to the reboot what pan-shots of ships are to this one. 

Now more importantly, I see two major themes or conflicts in this  movie. The first and central one for most of the time is the classic Old v. New one. It involves the now-Admiral Kirk and the current captain of the Enterprise, a young man named Decker whom Kirk had personally recommended to take over the ship. As this conflict usually goes, the previous person in charge "has" to take over (by asserting some area of expertise the  young upstart doesn't have- in this case, "five years' space exploration"  or something along those lines; as in, "I've been to space more. Neener.")- so literally the old person  pulling seniority- but they  aren't familiar with how things have changed since the last time they were around. Naturally, there comes a moment  when Kirk's unfamiliarity with how the electronics and power on the ship have been changed, and he gives a command that, if executed, would have blown up the ship- and Decker's intervention saves everyone. This pisses Kirk off, until Decker explains, but the older man soon throws a tantrum and it takes Bones being, as usual, the conduit for exposition, to state it pretty plainly- Kirk is somewhat obsessed with the Enterprise and it makes him dangerous to have at the helm. 

I did see this conflict extend more, though- Spock sort of gives Decker a hard time, too, and whether that's the bromance between him and Kirk, or you know, it's not, I'm not sure, but I think  this helps set up the choice Decker makes in the end  of the movie. He's the new guy, and with Spock's arrival, even though Decker is quite pleased to have him aboard (because it seems Spock has kept up-to-date with the evolution of Starfleet technology, unlike, I dunno, the rest of the gorram original crew that is somehow still on board), Decker's position on the ship is entirely unnecessary and obsolete. Which is ironic, as he's the new guy. But Spock has that unique position of bringing with him the knowledge of the new while the experience and connection of the old. So what can Decker do? He likely could have gone back to Starfleet and captained another ship, oh sure, but I doubt that would have been satisfactory. 

And this touches on all kinds of human institutions and organizations. There are whole theories of bureaucracy about how old fuddy-duddies (called "conservers") resist change and resent the young whipper-snappers that come in and want to "improve" things. But it doesn't need to be a formal institution for this sort of dynamic to present itself. I think we've probably all experienced it at some point, generally.

But specifically, consider that the main changes didn't have to do with protocol per se, but rather the technology on the Enterprise and how the different systems on board interact and make the whole ship run. Kirk's problem wasn't that he didn't understand Starfleet, or even how operations on his former ship would go on a normal day. His problem was that he was unaware of the evolution of the technologies used on the Enterprise. Meanwhile, younger members of Starfleet were being trained in the new technologies. He had no idea that a small change in how energy gets filtered through the ship could lead to catastrophic results if the systems on the ship were used the same way. No clue.

I think this is pretty apt for comparison to how quickly technology changes, how large those changes can be, and how easy it is to not realize technology has evolved so much so quickly. I'm guessing most (if not all) people reading this are under forty. It's the 25-35s I'm going to aim this particular part at, because  I feel like people within that age range are more like Spock (or a combination of him and Kirk); people older than that are like Kirk; and our younger siblings, cousins, etc. are like Decker. See, people in their early twenties or younger are growing up in a time where having the Internet on your phone is everyday and expected, not special. People around my age are young enough to get it and incorporate it without much hassle, but we very distinctly remember  when  stuff like that was a surprise or something exceptionally special- we prolly even remember a time when a CAR phone was amazing, let alone a mobile. And our parents? They remember a time before the Internet was available even at the home, let alone on a mobile telephonic devise. And it can be really hard for this last group to adapt sometimes because  as they do things the way they're used to, they don't realize things are being done entirely differently all around them.

I don't intend to sound like my generation is the most important in a normative sense, but I think it's our duty to sort of attempt to be like a combination of Bones and Spock. The latter does sort of give Decker  a rough time a little, but he also is able to adapt and understand the technologies that have developed since he  left the Enterprise  (and  this is from Vulcan, might I add). Meanwhile, Bones acted as the expository voice of reason with Kirk, reminding him he needs to cool his jets and give Decker (read: new technology) an honest chance. And importantly, Bones reminded Kirk that his  behavior is, at the very least self-destructive; at worst, it's threatening to everyone around him.

And there's an unfortunate truth to that today for people that don't digitize, use cell phones, etc. Setting aside the rather crude and mean treatment you may get if you don't have a cell phone (which, no, I don't agree with), there are strategic disadvantages to not having the Internet at least within the home: most job applications are online now; banks and insurance companies insist on using email and digital account services; utilities and housing properties prefer digital statements to paper; etc. 
And Word Processors and/or email addresses are required for a lot of parts of job applications, for college papers and requirements (like signing up for classes, accepting financial aid, etc.); and we often need a computer/printer for printing things at home, like boarding passes, tickets to events, or coupons. While sure, a body could go to the library to use the Internet (and the library printer, if necessary) for any  of these things, the time and inconvenience it would entail to make an outing of every attempt to handle your finances or get a coupon would be staggering.  And sure, some people may manage their study time better if they could only do it at a library, but what about things like  course registration, where there's only a specific period in which they can do it, and the time they'd lose getting to a library?

And personal inconvenience gets in the way, too. Since cell phones are so ruddy popular, the instinct  for a lot of people is  to expect the other person to use a GPS program in a smart phone, to text an address or date/time of some event, to have someone call from a specific destination in order to confirm a timeframe or "the plan," as it were, or to "check in" easier as they're out and about to keep someone concerned about them up-to-speed*. It's just kind of expected that people have cell phones today, and whether that's good or bad isn't the issue, it's the fact that society is structured that way. It wasn't like that even ten years ago, when I was still in high school; but my sister that graduated last year is too young to remember when it wasn't weird to be cell-phone-less. 

So it's in the best interest of generations not used to the digitization to try to adapt. But it's sometimes difficult to understand this. And I find younger people that have never known a world without cell phones and home Internet  have trouble explaining this to people that don't get it, and they're kind of unable to help directly, however much they may want to. So it's sort of up to the people in the middle to help out and foster adaptation and understanding as technologies evolve.

And that leads into the second major theme, one that actually doesn't really show up until the last twenty minutes (less, even) of the movie. It'd be lamesauce  to go after that female I mentioned before, Ilia, because hers is a pretty generic "consciousness" thing- she gets killed,  then a copy of her, with all of her memories, gets sent to the ship. Battlestar Galactica goes after that pretty much the. entire. series.

No, what I want to get at is the evolution of humans as a species. Because remember when I said Decker  "makes  a choice"? He chooses to merge himself  with a living machine, what he, Kirk, Bones, and Spock (again, through blatant  expository dialogue) come to realize is the Voyager 6 satalite (a made-up edition to the real-life Voyager program)- it conveniently got sucked into a wormhole at some point, was shat out near some organic robots that found it and gave it their own, organic technology, then shot back toward Earth. 

Now I talked before about the evolution of technology, but what happens when that gets combined with evolutionary biology? The dudes on the Enterprise, with yet another hammer of un-subtlety, muse about whether they witnessed the "birth of a new species," and it makes me wonder, what's the line between human and not-human? And this is different from the question in BSG- it's the reverse. The conflict in BSG is about what it takes to be human; I think Star Trek asks what it takes to be  not human. 

(Sidenote, and minor SPOILERS for BSG in this parenthetical aside: I'll admit, okay? This sort of does come up in the last few episodes. As the ship is literally falling apart, as in there are cracks within the hull, Adama decides to incorporate Cylon, organic technology into the hull to try and keep it together; the conflict there was, basically, "You're turning Galactica into a Cylon!" as in, "By adding these little blobs of organic goo to the cracks, you're changing the thing SO MUCH I CAN'T EVEN CONSIDER IT A BATTLESTAR ANY MORE!" And the answer never becomes entirely clear: Adama does it anyway, in order to save the ship and the people on-board, and I'm never under the impression he thinks Galactica isn't Galactica any longer, but he's one of the people against using the gel stuff in the first place, and once done, it gets conveniently not-dealt-with because of Reasons and Plot and Things.)

Because a new species when he entered the shining white light?

So this is human

but this isn't

Kirk says something about V'Ger, the Voyager-now-living thing, being able to have a "sense of purpose" now that Decker has merged with  it. Okay, cool, but what constitutes this being a new species entirely? Usually that "sense of purpose" would be the criteria for counting as human  in a sci-fi flick. 

I guess, perhaps, and I'm no evolutionary biologist, but perhaps this is because of how the whole "gene pool" thing works, and how cross-breeding leads to new things? Because eventually, the DNA gets different enough and it's a new species, right? But take plants for example, or better yet, apples. I love me some apples. Take a look at these:

These are all apples, right? But they're the result of specific breeding to create deliberate alterations in the offspring of the "parent" apples that were cross-bred together. A red apple gets mated with a green one, and you get a yellow one (maybe- this is hypothetical, you get the  gist). But the yellow one is still an apple.

Or when people of different races make babies, those babies are still human. That's not up for debate, either. Even the racist biologists in the  nineteenth century  thought different races were human, even if the differences were used as justification for colonization, slavery, etc. 

So if humans were able to merge our DNA with technology somehow, would that mean we were no longer, biologically speaking, human any longer? How many chromosomes or helixes or whatever in our genetic make-up would have to change before we were no longer human?

I mean, maybe that's why Darth is still a human- he lost his legs (and arms, and lungs, and part of his face, and prolly some other stuff...), but his DNA didn't alter. We don't really get to know what happens to Decker himself, but the last time we see him, he's staring at Ilia's double with lovey-dovey eyes, and I think we're supposed to be under the impression he lives on within V'Ger itself. So then, uh, would the resultant babies be the offspring Bones so terribly  jokes about "delivering"**?

I guess I find the conclusion that Decker's merging with V'Ger creates a whole new species troubling. Because being human is more than just biology. You know, that whole "human experience" thing? Yeah, it's pretty speceist, I'll admit. But why exclude an entity that was the result of the merging of an undisputed human with something else from humanity?

And what was the reason for that merging, anyway? You could say it was because, as stated before, Decker didn't see much of a future for himself on the Enterprise. But beyond that, his act saved the whole friggin' planet Earth. V'Ger was about to destroy it. It was an act of love, compassion, and sacrifice- some of the "defining" characteristics of humanity. I'd feel safe and secure being around a hybrid like Decker. 

I'd say Decker and any offspring from his merging with V'Ger would be leaps and bounds more human than Darth Cheney. 

Scary-ass shit, right?

*I also think  of cell phones as a potential increase in safety. For example, if you're on a long trip  and the car breaks down,  you don't have to rely on the graciousness of others in order to get help- you can call for it (barring you have the  bars), rather  than wait for someone to let you hitch a ride. If something bad does happen to you and you have your phone, the authorities can use that to figure out who you are and maybe  even trace your last steps (and this  isn't to say your ID won't help, but if your ID is missing, it's of no use; and your ID isn't going to clue them in on your last conversation). But  this  whole  "safety" thing isn't really the "everybody has a cell phone" culture, though, it's more like one of the externalities of that culture. 

**I blocked the joke word-for-word out of  my memory because it was so bad, but there was definitely something about "delivering" in there that just... I mean... UGH.

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