Star Trek: The Animated Series

I have been using Netflix to re-watch Star Trek.  And I mean all of the Star Treks.  I’ve already completed DS9 and the original series.  Both were excellent.  I just finished the animated series.  I had never seen any of the animated series before, so I figured I’d give my impressions.

For starters, it was weird.  It wasn’t exactly bad, but it certainly wasn’t good.

It made me wonder about copyrights and studios and ownership.  It was clearly Star Trek.  It was called Star Trek.  Gene Roddenberry was listed as executive producer.  But, the theme music was different.  It was clearly intended to sound similar, but it was different.

Larry Niven wrote an episode (The Slaver Weapon).  That’s an awfully big Sci-Fi writer to pen an episode of a second rate cartoon.

The animation was mostly bad.  But it was nice the way they actually had alien looking aliens.

Most of the actors are not really voice actors.  When Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett did voices other than Uhura and Nurse Chapel, they sounded just like Uhura and Nurse Chapel.

William Shatner impressed me.  He was the one that seemed to know that voice acting is different than regular acting and rose to the occasion.

There are only 22 episodes.  So, if you’re curious, it is relatively painless.  But, I’d only recommend it to someone who has a strong desire to see everything Trek (like me).

Now, I’m really excited for Next Generation.

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Star Trek

I just finished watching all three seasons of Star Trek on Netflix.  It seems to be becoming a tradition to record my thoughts when I finish a series, so here goes.

Star Trek was a really great show.  Not every episode was great, but every episode was trying for something.  I’d always rather watch people try and fail than play it safe and be boring.

William Shatner is actually a very good actor.  I can’t understand the criticisms.  Yes, he was often campy.  But, the show was often campy.  In three full seasons and a bunch of movies, there was never a time when his performance was out of place within the show.  A subtle, measured performance would have stuck out as inappropriate.  He nailed it.

Speaking of unfair criticisms, I enjoyed the third season.  People complain about it a lot, but “The Tholian Web”, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and “The Savage Curtain” are three of my favorites.  I mention “The Tholian Web” later, but Abraham Lincoln floating in space and the people with one black half and one white half are two of the other images that never left me.  As an adult, I can see that the messages were a bit heavy handed, but that doesn’t stop them from being entertaining.

As a kid, I completely missed the casual sexism in the show.  It is a bit jarring now just because the show was trying to be so progressive.  It’s hard to believe that even progressives had such views of women only fifty years ago.

Netflix has the versions with the updated special effects.  I have no problem with the idea of updating, but I wasn’t thrilled with the way it was done.  They only updated the scenes without people, so there was a clear difference between the updated scenes and non-updated scenes.  I found this distracting.  I was also annoyed during “The Tholian Web”.  One of the images that has always stuck with me from watching the show when I was a kid was the Tholian ships building the web.  In the new version, it looks completely different.

The best episode is pretty clearly “The City On the Edge of Forever”.

My favorite episode is “The Trouble With Tribbles”.

I love the relationship between Spock and McCoy.

Spock is, and always shall be, my favorite character.

I really wish Uhura had been given more to do.

I’ve always liked the theme music.  Must be the prominent horn.  It reminds me of Les Jazz Modes with Eileen Gilbert.

I think I’ll check out the animated series next, but I’m really looking forward to Next Generation.

Mr. Spock

I’m sure you have heard that Leonard Nimoy died.  I, like almost everyone else, will forever think of him as Mr. Spock.  And I, unlike most people, will forever think of Mr. Spock as my first philosophy teacher.

Of course everyone associates Spock, and all Vulcanians (that’s what they were called in the original TV series), with logic.  While logic is a branch of philosophy, many people don’t realize that, and I’m not really talking about his logic.  Many people also know that Gene Roddenberry used stoic philosophy as a sort of guide in the creation of Spock’s character.  But, that’s not what I am talking about either.  There are two elements to Mr. Spock that are essential to all great philosophy.  One is the fact that he is always an included outsider.  The other is his sense of wonder.

The position of included outsider is important to philosophy.  What I mean by the phrase included outsider is that a philosopher needs access and distance.  Too close and there is no objectivity, but too far and objectivity is sterile. From Socrates’ gadfly to Nagel’s “View From Nowhere”, this has been a part of the philosophical tradition for as long as there has been a tradition.  Spock is the perfect embodiment of an included outsider.  He is an alien from the point of view of the audience and most of his shipmates, but he is a part of the crew and a friend.  Even on his home planet, he is half human and not fully accepted.  His outsider status allows him to see things that no one else can.  But his relationships are what allow him to use those insights.

The ancient Greeks said that philosophy begins in wonder.  Without wonder we wouldn’t progress, we wouldn’t question.  Wonder, even more than intelligence and society, is what defines us.  Spock’s sense of wonder is constantly on display, but rarely talked about.  Everyone associates Spock with the word, “Logical.”  I was always struck by his use of the word, “Fascinating.”  He is not looking for profit or power.  Spock wants to learn just because he is curious.  And I think this is where Nimoy really shines.  Vulcanians are cold and calculating when played by anyone else.  When Spock says, “Fascinating,” the sense of wonder comes through.

As I have studied philosophy, Spock has always been a kind of model.  Not because I follow any of his specific ideas, but because I try to emulate his style.  I try to cultivate a sense of wonder.  I try to be objective while still being involved and caring.  Leonard Nimoy created a character that truly impacted me and I think helped to make me who I am.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

Remakes and Reboots

I saw the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.  Apparently (according to the credits), it is based on a novel by JRR Tolkien called The Hobbit.  I have read a book called The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien many times, but I’m struggling to find the connection.  I can only conclude that Peter Jackson and all of the others who were involved with this film either did not read the book or there is another book out there called The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien with which I am unfamiliar.  If anyone knows which of those is the case, please let me know.

Anyway, seeing this movie got me to thinking about aesthetics, an area of philosophy I have long found interesting.  It is an area, in my opinion, that is not taken seriously enough in the academy.  In particular, I have always been fascinated with remakes.  When I watch Romeo and Juliet and then watch West Side Story, in what way am I watching the same thing?  In what way am I watching different things?  Exploring these questions will teach us a lot about identity and meaning, among other things.

There is a long history in the arts of recycling.  There has never been a definitive Pieta or Annunciation.  These sculptures and paintings have been done over and over again by many different artists.  Composers have long used folk melodies in their works and paid tribute to other composers by using their themes. Brahms has an excellent piece known as Variation on a Theme by Haydn and Shostakovich used Rossini’s William Tell Overture in his 15th Symphony.  I can’t even count how many vampires have been put on film.  Fairly recently, however, people’s views seem to have changed.  Remakes and sequels are more common than ever, but people tend to see them differently than before.

On the one hand, people get very protective of their preferred version of something.  I suppose that is what I was doing in the first paragraph of this piece.  People get legitimately upset that Kid Rock would do a hybrid of “Werewolves in London” and “Sweet Home Alabama”*.  People were furious over a shot for shot remake of Psycho, especially because it was in color the second time.  People were even mad at Bob Dylan for painting based on photographs rather than using models.

On the other hand, there are people that see these remakes as a way for artists to put their own stamp on a canonical character, song or story.  They are no longer stand alone pieces, but part of a continuum.  People loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot.  No one is sorry that Jimi Hendrix changed “All Along the Watchtower”.  While this might seem like a description of the old ways, it is different.  In the reboot view, the new version directly impacts the old version.  It’s not enough that JJ Abrams made a couple of bad Star Trek movies. That had been done before (Star Trek V anyone?).  These movies were made into canon.  People spent time talking about alternate timelines and how both Into Darkness and Wrath of Kahn are part of the Star Trek universe.  What would have been just a bad movie years ago is now forced on all Star Trek fans and has to be dealt with.

While I prefer the old way (which is weird for me), I don’t think either of the new ways are wrong.  I appreciate the fact that the change basically comes down to a new way of consuming art.  In general, people are much more savvy than ever before in their aesthetic consumption.  It’s refreshing that people recognize Hitchcock’s Psycho as a work of genius.  Frankly, prior to the 20th century, it was unlikely normal people would have been familiar with multiple versions of artistic works.  There’s a good chance that if everyone knew Michelangelo’s Pieta from St. Peter’s, they would have been scornful of whatever version happened to be at their local church.  We live in a world where everyone can know Alfred Hitchcock and it turns out that most directors aren’t as good.

I also appreciate the fact that part of the aesthetic experience is living with, or even in, the work of art.  Anyone my age knows that half the fun of going to see Star Wars was coming home and playing Star Wars.  Anyone who knows a young girl has seen the same thing with Frozen. Because of this, artists need to be aware of how their new editions will affect the fans of the originals.  If Star Wars and Frozen are real for the fans, if the fans are truly invested, artists are constrained.  I think this is where the reboot concept came from.  It was once taken for granted that each new movie, story or song was specific.  Now, it is taken for granted that it is connected.  Announcing something as a reboot gives the artist some freedom back.  It announces that while Christopher Nolan is working with the same source material as Tim Burton, he is not beholden to Tim Burton’s vision.

There are complications with both of these views nicely illustrated by Star Wars.  When people get attached to a specific work of art as definitive, they start hating George Lucas.  We spent countless hours with Han Solo.  We like Han Solo.  We admire Han Solo.  Then, twenty years later, Lucas comes along and tells us that the character we have spent so much time with, the one we like and admire, was actually a different guy.  He didn’t start out a scoundrel and grow and change into a hero.  He was a hero all along and Greedo shot first.  And, by the way, your dog isn’t living on a farm, he’s dead.  This is a legitimate complaint.  However, this is also horribly constricting for an artist.  George Lucas created Star Wars.  It’s not his fault his vision conflicts with the fans’ vision.  If artists rely on the audience too much, we get the happy ending of “Return of the Native”.  Servicing the fans will never satisfy them and it will compromise the end product.

This gets us back, finally, to what I mentioned at the beginning.  Thinking about aesthetics gives us insight into identity and meaning and these need to be our guides when it comes to questions of remakes and reboots.  JJ Abrams should have asked himself what makes Star Trek special.  He should have wondered what makes it Star Trek, because he missed it completely.  The continuity of story from Kirk to Picard to Sisko to Janeway is huge.  By abandoning that, he made a gigantic mistake.  The world of Middle Earth is defined by its characters.  Peter Jackson missed that.  He seems to think that it is defined by incredible fight sequences.  But, by having Sam leave Frodo alone with Gollum in the third Lord of the Rings movie and by having Kili prioritize his feelings for an Elf over his loyalty to Thorin in the Hobbit, it ruined any chance either trilogy had of working.  In contrast, Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins understood exactly what made Romeo and Juliet work.  They were able to change a play set in Italy hundreds of years ago to a musical set in 20th century New York and make it work.  They knew that the themes of love, loyalty and prejudice were the keys.

Remakes and reboots are still fertile ground for making artistic statements.  I just wish the artists involved would think more carefully about it.  If they are going to change something fundamental, they should make something original.  Remakes and reboots carry additional responsibilities.  They are tied to, and commenting, on someone else’s vision.  If they stomp all over that vision, it is just insulting to any fans of the original.

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* This is weird since they are the exact same song.  They were practically begging for the Kid Rock treatment.

DS9

I just finished watching the entire series of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  It was wonderful.  I’ve been a Trek fan as long as I can remember.  My mom and I would watch reruns of TOS when I was little.  I watched TNG, DS9, Voyager, and even Enterprise while they aired.  I’ve seen all of the movies.  A few months ago, after talking to a friend, I decided to re-watch DS9 in its entirety.  This isn’t an essay or a review or anything formal.  I just wanted to write down the random thoughts I’m having now that I finished.

Deep Space Nine is unquestionably my favorite Trek.

The cast is amazing, even Nog and Jake.  You worry a little when children are going to be regulars or semi-regulars, but in this case there was no need.  Not only did everyone fully inhabit their characters, but they had great chemistry with each other.  I do feel like Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko and Armin Shimmermin as Quark deserve special credit.

Avery Brooks’ voice makes me jealous.

The relationship between Ben and Jake Sisko is perfect.

No other TV show, except maybe The Simpsons, has such a rich cast of supporting characters.  Garak, Dukat, Weyoun, Zek, Brunt, Leeta, Rom, and Morn are real characters.  And so are the female changeling, Vic Fontaine, Kai Winn, Zyal, and Dumar.  Most shows don’t manage to flesh out their main characters as well as DS9 fleshed out its background characters.

The guest stars are pretty great, too.  My personal favorite was Iggy Pop.  I remember when I was originally watching the show and I saw in the opening that Iggy Pop was a special guest star, I spent the first 40 minutes of the show watching every alien that passed through Quark’s to see if I could recognize him.  And then, there he was, as a Vorta, and perfectly recognizable.  Brilliant.  They also had Wallace Shawn as Zek.  That’s a Princess Bride connection.  Gabrielle Union played a Klingon once.  They took one of the prettiest women in Hollywood (although she was awfully young at the time) and put forehead ridges on her.

DS9 got social commentary way better than any of the other Treks.  At no point did it feel like they were saying, “Hey, look everyone, we cast a black man as the commanding officer!”  Avery Brooks simply was Benjamin Sisko, commanding officer of Deep Space Nine.  The only times the series every went into the showy, look we’re making a point, mode was the Ferengi episodes.  And, let’s face it, you just can’t be subtle when dealing with Ferengis.  The fact that the social commentary wasn’t so obvious made it that much more powerful.

Trials and Tribble-ations is one of my favorite hours of television.  The bit about the crew not recognizing the Klingons and Worf refusing to explain was hilarious.

The theme music is really pretty good.  I have to admit I was disappointed 20 years ago when I first heard it.  I had been used to TOS and TNG which both had rousing, exciting theme music.  They both said, “We’re going on an adventure!”  DS9’s music is slower, more stately, and more ambiguous.  The trumpet fanfare is certainly heroic, but with a sense of melancholy.

When I first watched the show, Sisko’s last scene with Kassidy didn’t leave the same impression on me.  I used to think it was a Frodo and Gandalf getting into the boat kind of scene.  But this time, I really feel like Sisko will be back.  That it is a time of sadness, but he will be reunited with Jake and Kassidy.  When I first watched, I was closer to Jake’s age than anyone else on the show.  Now, I’m closer to the Captain’s age.  It’s a different way of watching.