Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

So, for Memorial Day I am going to talk about Christopher. Infantry guy from Roswell, New Mexico. Married, had a little girl. Loved rock music, particularly Black Label Society. He had a big BLS flag which hung over his rack in the barracks. Had a sweet little electric guitar he used to play along to their albums to, along with an amp which would occasionally piss off the people in the bay with him. He loved old rock too- Tom Petty, Skynard of course. Had a fair amount of Johnny Cash.

He wasn't politically stupid either. Read a lot of Right side stuff; some O'Reilly etc., but also had a well dog-eared copy of Howard Zinn's “A People's History of the United States.” He liked video games, usually ones where he did what he did in real life- war games where you go out and shoot the bad guy and keep going until someone gets you. He had his games crammed in with his movies- mostly stuff he'd bought there in Iraq, playing the games and the movies on a little TV he'd crammed into his little space with his guitar and music and books.

When I met him, all that were left were these mementos. I went through it, item by item, meeting the man with whom I would never speak. Filing the pictures of his wife and daughter. Counting the CDs (nearly 300!) and movies and placing all of it into footlockers, carefully inventoried and then locked away.

Christopher and his squad walked into a building north of Baqubah, Iraq that morning, and the entire thing blew up on them, killing him and his entire squad. I was the officer who inventoried and packed his things to make the trip home he never would. I was sorely tempted to put a note, some little piece of comfort or condolence for his wife and daughter, but luckily I was wise enough to forego this; I didn't really know him. I only knew what was left. I only had an evidentiary connection to who he had been, and somehow in my mind that created a relationship of some kind, a bond with a man with whom I had a lot in common, but whose name I only learned when I was handed the info sheet with his name, last, first, middle initial across the top. I had no right to him though, and what could I say to his wife or child except, “he seemed like a good guy.”

It's been more than a year and a half since I put together Christopher's personal effects. He still comes to mind when I see a Black Label Society t-shirt, or hear Tom Petty's “Full Moon Fever.” I hope his family has learned to cope, and I hope they remember him fondly. Even though I have no right to...

...I miss him. Weird huh? For Memorial Day, I ask you all to remember someone who shouldn't be gone, but since they are, should be missed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Story, and another plug!

As I am sure you are aware, I also run a website publishing my original fiction, and I know for a fact I entertain at least three people beyond myself. To give myself a little protection, I put the fan fiction (usually GI Joe or Star Trek) out for everyone, and keep the original stuff in a members only section so I can monitor who reads it. This story appears in the Members Only section, but the wonderful woman who provided me with marvelous advice on making the whole thing seem more real asked if she could link to it. Both wanting to please her, and always looking for free publicity, I am posting the story here. If you do enjoy and would like to see more, please go to the website linked above and see how to become a member, or drop a note to Otherwise, please enjoy:

Thinking Cap

by Daniel T. Foster

On Thursday evening, Doctor Randall Goodwin went to visit the home of his friend, Doctor Geoffrey Curtis. Both men lived in Tucson, Arizona. Both men were researchers and teachers at the University of Arizona's physics program. The two men had originally met ten years before when finishing their Ph D. programs at Cambridge. Doctor Goodwin was the type of man who used his knowledge of physics to win bets in bars; a scientist-cowboy who was as comfortable appearing on the Today show to discuss recent developments in string theory and quantum mechanics as he was in front of a classroom or as he was singing karaoke in front of a group of drunken strangers. Doctor Curtis was his opposite. A family man, devoted to his wife, less comfortable in a classroom than a library. His focus was infamous; on occasion while demonstrating an equation on the white board, the math would take him and he would drift away lost in the calculations, finally turning back to the class to find empty chairs. Their friendship was unlikely, but true, and the men often relied on each other, and as a pair of physicists were nearly unequaled.

Together, Goodwin and Curtis authored several papers, and now had names bandied about in the same circles as Hawking, Mermin, or Cohen. Together, Goodwin and Curtis moved to Arizona to work with bright students. Together, Goodwin and Curtis were Nobel Prize winning physicists.

Together, they came to realize all was not well with Geoffrey Curtis's infant son. Adam Curtis barely made a noise before he was a year old. Adam Curtis sat quietly, no gesturing, no words, no “ga” or “goo.” Even when they spoke directly to Adam, it seemed he looked everywhere but at the person addressing him. Both Randall and Geoffrey, and Geoffrey's wife Jean, tried their best but nothing brought Adam out of his shell. Then they noticed his repetitive behavior. The only thing he showed interest in was drawing. At 20 months, he would sit, a single black crayon in hand with a ream of paper, and would put a single dot in the center of each page. Then he would turn the ream over and start again on the blank side. A single dot on each page.

Geoffrey and Jean took Adam to the pediatrician. Though Geoffrey shared the title “doctor” with Theresa Walker, she was the expert in this realm of science. She administered the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers- the MCHAT. Afterwards she explained the test was known to give false negatives, but almost never gave false positives. The positive result they had received was not conclusive but likely. As time went by it became more than likely; Doctor Walker diagnosed Adam with autism.

As Doctor Goodwin locked his Acura and walked to Doctor Curtis's house, he remembered long hours sitting with his friend, discussing the possible reasons Adam had this condition. Geoffrey wondered if his own complex focus problems somehow passed to his son, if he might be responsible. For about a month after Adam turned two (and finally began speaking, albeit only in pairs of words, strung together in simple expressions of want or need) Geoffrey and Randall would sit in their shared office at the U of A, long after student hours. Randall would drink from a bottle of Scotch he kept in his desk, while Geoffrey lamented. It was one of those nights Randall was struck by Scotch influenced inspiration.

“So, autism is about connections, right? The connections in the brain?” he asked. Geoffrey, as always sober, nodded, then shook his head, his mind racing somewhat faster than his gestures and speech.

“Yes, it, well no. And yes. See, parts of the brain don't talk to each other enough, other parts suffer from hyper-connectivity. It's a different type of wiring. Some people don't even consider it a handicap, just a different type of thought.” Randall drained his glass before he continued.

“So think about it- where there should be yes, there's no. Where there should be no, there is yes. Now, think about this- what do we deal with every day? The whole basis of quantum mechanics is states of flux. SchrÅ‘dinger's cat isn't alive or dead, it's both and neither. What if we applied that to Adam's brain? What if we got his synapses to work like that? Wouldn't observer effect dictate his synapses would work the way everyone expected?” Geoffrey was quiet for a moment. Then he walked out, barely remembering to mumble goodnight as he left. Randall was used to that from his friend. Hell, in college he had to remind him to shower.

A month before Adam's third birthday, Geoffrey walked in on Randall, and was smiling. Randall was supposed to be answering questions for a web article, but it was a pretty vapid interview asking questions about causality any decent Star Trek fan could answer, much less someone with a Nobel prize in Physics. Geoffrey never smiled, so Randall was immediately intrigued. Geoffrey sat at his desk, and for a moment looked at the pictures Adam had drawn pinned around his office walls. Some time ago, Adam had abandoned his dot obsession in favor of circles. The dots had gotten progressively larger on the paper, and eventually Adam had stopped filling them in. He drew concentric circles, or just spheres- some where so round they almost looked manufactured. Randall had considered getting Adam a child's compass for his birthday, but decided the boy didn't need one. Finally Geoffrey opened his notebook, and pushed a set of drawings and equations across the table. Randall was confused at first. “What's this?”

“You were right,” Geoffrey responded. Randall still wasn't sure what he was looking through.

“I was right about what?”

“You can apply quantum field theory to the way Adam thinks. We can build it.” More than two years later, Randall still smiled when he thought about Geoffrey's enthusiasm. Ringing the doorbell, he only wished it had all played out with more success.

Jean Curtis opened the door. There was a time, years ago, when Randall had considered the idea of dating Jean, but once he saw her meet Geoffrey he knew it wasn't going to happen. Jean understood Geoffrey in ways no one else would. To this day, she was his interface with the real world. Randall knew she managed the mortgage, the checkbook, Geoffrey's calendar; pretty much anything which involved her husband dealing with responsibilities to society. In the last three years she had become something of a lay expert on autism herself. “Hello Mrs. Curtis! You are looking as lovely and delightful as ever this evening...” She smiled at Randall's trademark flirtation, but unlike most nights did not return it.

“Hey Randall, c'mon in. Can I get you anything? Geoff's in his office.” Jean was the only person he knew, including himself, who called Geoffrey Curtis 'Geoff.' Maybe she was the only one who really knew him.

“I don't know-- I am still trying to figure out if this is a social call or if I should maintain a clear head.” He followed her down the hall toward the large office space Geoffrey kept in the back of the house. It was actually where the two had worked out the math for their last book. Jean looked a bit tired.

“When you hear what Geoff tells you, you will need a drink, either to keep the joke rolling or dispel your horror; I'm not sure which.” She cut into the kitchen to pour two fingers of the scotch Randall always bought for his own usage but kept at the Curtis house. Randall went on toward the office.

He walked past Adam's room, which was as always ridiculously meticulous. Everything exactly where it should be, and only the favored toys of the moment out. In this case there was what looked like a battalion of toy soldiers, probably some type of GI Joe figures. Probably five hundred figures stood on the floor. They were arranged in perfect formations, and seemed almost to be having some kind of ceremony. Randall felt disquiet for a moment with all those little plastic faces looking his way, but then was amused at his own discomfort. Adam often arranged his toys in lines or rows. Elsewhere in the house, he could hear Adam's five year old's voice making growling noises of some sort. After a moment trying to figure out what Adam was thinking, and then abandoning the idea, he knocked and went into Geoffrey's study.

Geoffrey sat in near darkness, his desk mostly cleared, but some of Adam's things on the surface. He was rocking slightly, a frenetic little nervous tick he usually only displayed when deep into “theorizing” as he called it. “Geoffrey- what's going on?” The other man didn't respond for a moment, and then looked up.

“Oh, Randall, sorry. I called you right? I mean, I called you on the phone to come here and talk, right?” Randall came the rest of the way in, and sat in his customary chair across the worktable from Geoffrey. About that time Jean came in with Randall's drink, and quietly excused herself after a nervous glance at Geoffrey. Randall took a sip.

“Yes, Geoffrey you called, me, now what's going on?” Geoffrey again glanced over the toys and drawings on his desk.

“Do you remember the day we tried the cap on Adam?”

Of course Randall remembered. Nine months of working with the neural pathology department to make an interface which would allow electric readings and feedback to and from the subject's brain. They had basically jumped on a device meant to allow paraplegics to control a computer with their thoughts. The original “BrainGate” device as it was called required surgery; a sensor interface implanted in a subject's brain. Neither Geoffrey nor Jean had wanted to implant anything in Adam's head, so the next step was contacting the Honda Corporation in Japan. They had been working on the Brain/Machine Interface, or BMI for short, as a method of using thought to control their Asimo robot. Though not as integrated as the BrainGate, it used electroencephalography and near-infrared spectroscopic sensors to transfer thought information. Once Randall was able to convince the Honda development team they were not simply committing industrial espionage, and that a young boy's ability to think was the subject at hand, they were happy to help. After trial and preparation, the then nearly four year old Adam came to the University with his father and mother. Adam had visited the campus before, but this was supposed to be special.

Adam was very quiet, and repeatedly stroking a small stuffed animal Randall remembered Jean had bought for Adam in the University gift shop. It was supposed to be a microbe, something you'd find floating in a brackish pond. It was the type of toy only a science nerd would buy, but it was the latest focus of Adam's attention. His fascination with circles and spheres had passed, and now it was microbes and bugs. Randall remembered at that moment really feeling that empathy and sympathy that had led him to come up with this idea in the first place.

Geoffrey and Randall led Adam into the small chair connected to a larger console with controls, and a small cap which would fit over Adam's head. Geoffrey had been meticulous in making sure the process would not be frightening nor uncomfortable for Adam. To be safe, there were two representatives from the neuropathology department, as well as Dr. Walker, the pediatrician. Randall had convinced her to be there, and shown her there would be no physical discomfort whatsoever. Indeed, once the interface was established, all Geoffrey would really be doing is transmitting equations into Adam's brain. She glazed over a bit when Randall told her the Schrődinger equation defined how the Hamiltonian observable energy would itself define how time evolution occurred within the environment of Adam's brain. Hell, half of his students would have glazed over at the explanation too. She agreed however, and helped them convince the University's governing board this was not human experimentation in the classical sense. To someone who didn't get off on doing math for hours on end as recreation, it would nearly appear to be magic; the math would tell Adam's brain it was fixed, and so it would be.

Adam sat, Geoffrey typed. Adam continued to stroke the toy, supposedly a stuffed version of the bacteria believed to be early life on Earth from a Martian rock. Everyone waited.

No one knew what to really expect, but no one had expected the effects which had manifested; none. Adam continued to communicate when directly asked questions, but no spare speech ever came from him. He continued to demonstrate obsessive behavior focused on themes and objects. He continued to periodically go into the refrigerator and line up all the condiments by colors in the spectrum. Months went by, and though the project had definitely made breakthroughs for the Neuro Pathology department and had helped them move forward with a neural interface for prosthetic limbs, Adam seemed exactly the same. Jean, Geoffrey, and Randall had almost gone through a small mourning process based on their disappointment, but had gone on. Adam was still the wonderful child they enjoyed before, and a blessing to them despite his being different. After all, they were Nobel prize winning scientists; weren't they different in their own ways? Ask any of the students who periodically had to sneak out of Geoffrey's mathematical fugue states. So they coped, and the day they used the “thinking cap” as Jean called it was left behind...but never truly forgotten.

“Yes Geoffrey, I remember using the cap. Why? Have you seen a result?” A warm flicker of hope tickled Randall's stomach, but perhaps it was the Scotch. Geoffrey picked up one of Adam's old drawings.

“I've been thinking. Look, this is Adam's first theme he perseverated. We had pages of nothing but a spot on a page.” He traded out for another drawing. “Remember these? His concentric circles drawings. Every now and then, there would be a spot along the circles.

“Then this,” Geoffrey said, holding up the stuffed microbe Randall remembered from the day of the Thinking Cap. “This was what Jean called his bug phase. That's kind of misleading- he didn't really look at insects until later. He would perseverate amoebas and parameciums, and I think somewhere we have a stack of pages where he traced the diagram of protein peptides out of the encyclopedia. Then look. His plant phase, his dinosaur phase.” Geoffrey punctuated the dinosaur phase by holding up broken dinosaur toys. “He'd never broken his toys, but one day he decided there wouldn't be any more dinosaurs, and he went out back and smashed them all with a rock. That was when he started carrying this.” Geoffrey picked up a stuffed monkey, which had seen better days. Much of it's fur was plucked out.

“See, he liked monkeys, then he decided it needed to lose its hair and become like a person. That's when he started asking for action figures like his GI Joes. Do you see the pattern?” Geoffrey looked a little obsessive himself. Randall emptied his scotch, and had to admit he had no idea what Geoffrey was talking about.

“It's what Adam plays with. Typical autistic behavior, bouncing from object to object or subject to subject, demonstrating obsessive behavior. What pattern?” Geoffrey shook his head.

“No- the spots. That's the cosmological zero point. The concentric circles; those are atoms, then solar systems. Then microbial life, turning to plants, then the reptiles, mammals, and finally man. This is the history of the world playing out in his head.”

“So what?” Randall replied. “You have no shortage of books in this house, you're a professor. Your wife might as well have her doctorate. He absorbed things you weren't expecting, why is that bad?” Geoffrey got up and started to pace now as he continued. This was usually reserved only for his most concentrated theorizing sessions.

“What if we made a mistake? We've been looking at how the thinking cap would affect Adam's brain, his behavior. We never considered how his brain would affect the science.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Exasperated, Geoffrey continued. “Randall! For thirty minutes, we shoved half the theoretical concepts defining how the universe is made up into a four year old autistic brain. We expected observer effect and waveform collapse to help him think, but look what we did- we made him the observer! We opened him up to states of quantum flux and entanglement, and dear Lord, even anentropic stasis outside of time/space! We planted the keys to the kingdom in his head, opened the door to infinity!” Geoffrey was almost ranting, and Randall was becoming annoyed.

“You're usually a better scientist than poet. You really think your son is having some effect on the universe as a whole? How does a four year old affect events billions of years old?”

“That's my point! If we opened him up to states of existence where time is either fluid or non-existent, then we made him timeless. Picture it in your head. If you are traveling on a highway, but then get in a helicopter and hover high enough to see the whole highway, its like observing the entire journey at once. Now instead of a highway, think of it as linear time. Once you step out of linear time, the observer will always have been outside of linear time. The observer can affect things before the observer appeared in the timeline because the observer now predates, postdates, surrounds time itself. Any observer who leaves time becomes infinite in scope!”

Randall was still unconvinced. “Even assuming there is a 'doorway to the infinite' to have opened and shown to Adam, how does a four year old human mind or consciousness possibly affect the entire universe, much less evolution on Earth?” Geoffrey went to his whiteboard, pulled the cap off a dry erase marker and began to sketch out an exponent series.

“The mind would then have time to develop- well, that's a misnomer, there wouldn't actually be time, but there would be a infinite amount of 'now' to become whatever it wanted. The observer mind could evolve endlessly, with no temporal or physical constraint. It begins to observe itself as something greater, and the observer effect starts working like two mirrors facing each other, continually passing the observation.” His number sequence done, having reached enormous quantities through exponential multiplication, Geoffrey collapsed back into his chair. The two men sat silently. Finally Randall spoke.

“You're trying to tell me the mind of God is that of an autistic four year old.”

Geoffrey slowly nodded. “I just don't know if he's still connected to that plane, or if the Adam who touched infinity now exists independently from all of us.” Randall wished he had more scotch.

“Geoffrey. You're being irrational. You're a scientist- we tried to help your son, and it didn't work, so now you are transferring your guilt into fear. Just stop. Take tomorrow off and play with your son, hang out with your wife. I'll cover your two o'clock. Rest up with your family, and we'll get together on Saturday to laugh about this, OK? Just get some rest. Adam is a good boy. You need to stop feeling guilty about his autism, and about not being able to help him. You need to let it be Geoffrey. I will see you Saturday.” Geoffrey remained quiet for a moment more.

“Before you go, you should know. Adam stopped playing with his GI Joes today. He set them up in a last formation to be deactivated.” For a moment, the scene of the meticulously placed toys flashed in Randall's mind's eye, then he dismissed it.

“Bye Geoff. Relax, OK?” Randall got up, and turned to the door. Adam was standing there. He didn't quite look at Randall, almost as if embarrassed. He was in his pajamas, and held a strange little doll, a four armed creature of some sort with reddish skin and a huge head.

“Hi Adam. What do you have there?” In response to Randall, Adam held up the toy for a better look. Pretty grotesque. “What do you call it?”

“This is specimen JS5467. He was genetically engineered by humans to go to space. Instead he takes over the world and makes more like him. He's the next step.” As was typical, Adam would respond to a direct question, and provide technical reasons for his answer. If Randall had said, “what's new with you?” Adam would likely have listed new toys in purchase order.

“Cool. Go tell your mom I am leaving and I will call Saturday, OK?” Adam nodded, and padded away in his little footies, JS5467 in his hands while Adam stroked it like a pet.

Randall let himself out, and went back to his car. For just a moment he looked up into the warm Arizona night sky. Even in a city like Tucson, the skies were usually clear enough to make out most stars. Randall compared them in their universal journey for a moment to the crayon circles of a child. Then he got in his car and went home.

Doctor Jorge Suntila had champagne for lunch in Helsinki, Finland about the same time Doctor Randall Goodwin arrived home. He was celebrating. For the first time, his attempts to combine recombinant DNA into an amalgamated life form had maintained stability for more than a few minutes. Nearly six hours had passed before the protein bonds let go, and the labelled petri dish then held the equivalent of the primordial soup. This was a victory; the bonds were getting stronger. Soon, he would be able to get them to stick- he could create bio-forms which would convert CO2 into oxygen faster than plants, or eat oil and excrete water. Perhaps he could engineer bio-forms which could go into environments in which humans could not survive and work; the reactors of nuclear plants, the bottom of the ocean- even distant planets where they could explore for us. He'd been working so long at it. He glanced at his sample label on this last one-- JS5461; well over five thousand attempts. Nonetheless, he would start work on JS5462 tomorrow. Just a few more experiments, then he could show his findings. He could feel it- no more than a couple more steps. From there, who knew what he could accomplish.

The End

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

For my hundredth post, I become a Trek Protestant.

Wow- 100 posts here on Black Owl. Those of you who read, thank you. Those who don't but still manage to get this... who are you? Are you stalking me?

Seriously though, let me point out on this occasion that I recently started Twittering. It's not really a useful thing, but it is oddly enjoyable, particularly when people you don't know start following, and you can follow people you wish you knew. Appealing on some social level I guess, though I wonder if it takes away too much time from experiencing the Big Blue Room. Of course, I am still in Washington, so the Big Room is usually gray and wet.

If you haven't checked out the website the above picture is from, please do. Much funny there if you know your Trek, and even if you are only familiar with the cliches, it is amusing. I credit and thank them as I steal from them for the picture below. I feel a little bit like Martin Luther nailing up 95 theses... perhaps even a little dirty. But do you see it? It's there... it's there. Indulge this shameful mancrush! Old Kirk defined cool- new Kirk's taking the ball and running with it.

Heck yeah!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What did you know, and when did you know it?

Ok, so according to this CNN story, Nancy Pelosi knew about the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used by CIA operatives in Abu Ghurayb. Knowing about it, though something of a problem for me, is not what I really have a problem with. It's the lying about knowing about it. It's the same problem I had with Bill Clinton- I don't care he got a hummer while on the phone with a congressman; I care that he looked me and my fellow Americans in the eye and lied about it. There are secrets- got it. Then there are lies to cover your ass.

If these charges against the Speaker are true, she needs to step down. She needs to get out of the way as an example that no one is immune in this situation. Officials who approved it should be indicted. People who covered it up should be indicted. I don't know if Pelosi covered up the torture, or just the fact she knew about it. Either way, she was covering her ass, and she needs to take responsibility. Personal responsibility is becoming as uncommon as common sense.

Monday, May 11, 2009

OK, I give up.

+++++++spoilers follow!!!+++++++++++++

So, I watched it again, and by it I of course mean the new JJ Abrams Star Trek. Pour my Kool-Aid, shave my head, I'm joining the cult. I do indeed believe this is not only a great movie, but a great move for Star Trek. Don't think I have lost my affection for TNG or DS9 or ENT even (never had too much affection for VOY). I can however accept that this is the way forward for Star Trek.

Sure, I had to sacrifice Vulcan. However, as I think back at how many times I have sat in practiced expectation while watching an episode of Trek, waiting for someone to push what I like to call the “Temporal Reset Button” and undo whatever time travel induced changes the villain wrought, I realize this is a great way to show there's no going back. We are playing for keeps. If that is so, then think about the possibilities for future films-

Imagine real Klingons- not bumpy headed Vikings, real honest to God Klingons with smooth brows and goatees, foils for Kirk matching him intellectually as well as physically. Imagine Romulans who return to their Roman-like roots, creatures of honor and discipline, as passionate as their Vulcan cousins are repressed. Boldly going again, optimistic, yet ready to make sure some asses get kicked when they need it. Imagine certain tales being re-experienced. “A Taste of Mercy” where the Enterprise tries to stop the war between Eminiar 7 and Vendikar before the Klingons can take advantage of two planets with virtually no weapons. Imagine Sarek trying to get Spock to leave Uhura and marry T'Pring because there are only a handful of Vulcans left, and there's a responsibility to his heritage. Imagine there's still a sleeper ship from the late 20th Century floating out there, it's crew waiting to be thawed. Amazing possibilities.

On a second viewing, I noticed some more golden moments- the Shatnerian delivery Pine gives during the Kobayashi Maru. Punk Kirk truly becoming Captain Kirk when he starts talking to “his” crew. Spock telling Kirk “out of the chair.” Pike's “punch it,” twice, to Mr. Sulu. Chekov swearing loudly in Russian when he beams up Kirk and Sulu. Spock pulling a Star Trek IV Scotty with Scotty (how d'ya know he dinna invent the thing?). Now, think about this- even in the Next Generation timeframe, warp beaming only works if you can match speed. So, if Scotty wrote the equations, then he must have done it after he reappeared in the 24th Century! Very subtle reference, very nice.

So, there's a whole new Trek, and I have 19 year old kids asking me to burn classic episodes for them because they fell in love with the characters in this film. One day, I can show this movie to grandkids. And best of all, this is new Star Trek, no-colon-fill-in-the-blank Star Trek, but new Star Trek with Kirk, Spock, and Bones, and they aren't seasoned adventurers, but rather in their prime, galloping around the Galaxy, practicing cowboy diplomacy, and going boldly.

Yeah, I'm on board. Sign me up. I just wish I could tune in next week for the next voyage.

Friday, May 08, 2009

So I boldly went to a movie...

Never let it be said that I don't fulfill my promises! I said I would give my review of the new Star Trek movie, and indeed here it is. I have to start out by saying I really need to see this movie again, once it was finished, I was immediately struck by how full this movie was, and there was no way I had absorbed it all in a single viewing. The thing is this; I can't just review the film, because I have to put it in context with my general love of Trek. To be completely honest, I still have to figure that part out, as I will talk about as we go along.

Let me give my quick non-spoiler version-- it is an excellent, smart, summer blockbuster. It's full of adventure, and great moments, and great characters. If you know nothing about Trek, you will love it. If you know everything about Trek, you will probably still love it. There are nitpicks, but what Trek movie or series hasn't had its share of those? Despite some clever elements to the contrary, this in essence is a Battlestar Galactica style reboot, and makes for a Trek fresher than we've seen in quite a while. For my personal hangups, you have to delve into spoiler territory.


NO, SERIOUSLY SPOILERS!+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

ENGAGE SPOILERS++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I won't get into how great the cast is as these characters- they really are. The only standout as not feeling genuine is Simon Pegg, and that is nothing against him, but rather a script which has a character named Scotty who is a lot more Simon Pegg than Scotty.

Pine isn't Captain Kirk at first, but basically just your typical wiseass, however, there is a particular moment in the film when Kirk has assumed command of the Enterprise, and he start giving orders and... there he is, Captain Kirk.

Quinto as Spock has a scene where he is standing before the admissions board of the Vulcan Science Academy, and its a scene we've seen alluded to in Trek repeatedly. In this moment though, Quinto takes ownership of the character of Spock, particularly against the backdrop of Leonard Nimoy in the film. Nimoy's Spock seems less the character he's been playing for 44 years, and more... well Nimoy. Ironically, I came out of this film feeling Quinto was more Spock than... Spock.

Now- the two real standouts here are Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy and Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike (above). Neither one had as much screentime as I wanted them to, but both instill their characters with the delightful essence of the original characters. Can't wait to see these two in these roles again.

Zoe Saldana has a remarkable confidence as Uhura, but it is almost overshadowed by the decision to have Spock and Uhura romantically involved. I don't mind that relationship. There's certainly precedent for the idea in the Original Series. However, I would love to have seen the relationship actually develop on screen as opposed to catching it already in place.

John Cho's Sulu and Anton Yelchin's Chekov get some good moments each, and I love Chekov as this 17 year old Russian whizkid. It's funny to listen to a guy who really is Russian deliver the cheesiest fake Russian accent you will ever hear. Sulu gets some swordplay, and flies the hell out of the Enterprise, and that's cool.

Be fair-warned if you are a fan; we do get a bone about this story originating in the Trek universe we know, however the explanation they give really doesn't explain how different everything is. It's a clever thought, and not a throw away, but falls apart under careful scrutiny. Warp physics, transporter technology- completely different. Starfleet ships, including the Kelvin which shows up as existing BEFORE the time incursion from the future which changes everything, are far larger and more mechanical than before. In the "Prime" universe, a ship like the Kelvin in the year 2233 wouldn't have a crew larger than 200- the Kelvin would seem to have four times that. Instead of cramped hallways and clean spaces we get these cavernous areas on the ship much larger than anything we've seen even on ships like the Enterprise D in Next Generation. For the most part though, with these differences, you don't care. It's all exciting. I don't care for a lot of the external features of the new Enterprise, but I wasn't really impressed in my initial impression of the 1701D, so it may grow on me.

So what's my hang up? They destroy the planet Vulcan. Vulcan epitomizes the universe Trek exists in for me. Now, it's gone. I am not sure I can get over that. I am not sure how interested I am in a Trek universe which only has 10,000 Vulcans in it. It was a ballsy thing to do, and certainly demonstrates the fact that this is not a movie which suffers from the prequel curse that we know how it all turns out in the end. However, there's no fixing this timeline. Vulcan is gone, so TNG will not happen that way in this universe. DS9, Voyager- precluded (though maybe with Voyager, that's not a bad thing). I would personally have been more comfortable with them destroying Earth than Vulcan. Only time will tell how I will adapt to that change.

There's a few more little things I think I would have done differently. I would like to have seen a few more familiar aliens; would an Andorian have killed them? Not sure how I feel about the bastard child of the Jem'Hadar and the Oompa Loompa either. Since we're on the subject of Willie Wonka, I would certainly have cut Scotty's wild ride through the Enterprise's waterworks (at least it wasn't a sewer line).

However, I think I am overall quite pleased, and do look forward to seeing it again to absorb a little more. It is ultimately a very re-watchable movie, and exciting, and cool, and not stupid. Gotta see how my Vulcan feelings go though before I can decide how I truly feel about Crisis on Infinite Treks. Welcome to Star Trek's new age.

Before I go, there's another factor I have to discuss, and that is the second and third order effects of this film. I saw the movie with my wife, children, dear friends, and good acquaintances. Some of them were big Trek fans, some just moderately knowledgeable, and some (like my daughter) downright hostile toward Trek (I had to offer her a day off from school just to get her to go). When it was over, my daughter liked it a lot, and only we of the long time Trek fan variety had any real reservations about it. So, we came home, and my TOS fan friend and I started talking Trek, and spent the next two and a half hours really talking nothing but- favorite episodes, least favorite, what we liked or didn't like about the other series, etc. Then, the next day at work, I spent most of the day talking about the movie with people who hadn't seen it and wanted my opinion, and a couple who had and wanted more insight into Classic Trek. I spent a good thirty minutes talking over forty year old Trek episodes with a young man who was born during the third season of Next Generation! He wants to watch some of the old ones, and so does his young wife. If this movie can get attention for the original, and give we old timers a chance to remanence to each other and bring young fans in, I really can't fault it. If I am going to drink the kool-aid on this one, if I am going to part with my beloved Vulcan, it's that factor which will do it.

And maybe this will do for this generation what TOS did- already I see it on the cover of Newsweek, and on blogs and websites which wouldn't touch the subject a few weeks ago. Maybe last years The Dark Knight, though great, was as far as we need to plumb our depths of entertainment despair as a nation. Maybe it's time we looked across the street at those different than us, and then looked up and said "let's go out there." Hope isn't outdated and campy and dressed in cardboard sets. It isn't something we left behind in the 60's... it's now. It's exciting, and palpable, and it's moving at warp speed. Maybe, regardless of "canon" and technobabble, it's time for Trek to be cool again.

Wow. What a world where Battlestar Galactica is the emotion driven drama, Star Trek is the epic mythological space fantasy, and Star Wars is the kid level TV show derivative of better properties.

I may just need to beam aboard for that.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

I told myself I wouldn't do this...

So, I have been very specifically avoiding any discussion of the new Star Trek film here until I see the movie (this Thursday in Imax if you are waiting for my review...). Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, I was really looking forward to the fact new action figures for the film were coming out in 3 3/4" scale, my favorite figure scale. Sure, I still have some Star Trek: The Motion Picture 3 3/4" figures from 1979, and some Star Trek: The Next Generation 3 3/4" figures from 1987. Finally though I was going to get Classic Starfleet uniforms in the type of scale which would allow Kenner Boba Fett to flee from Hasbro Indiana Jones in my Mattel Dark Knight Batmobile until stopped by GI Joe's Snake Eyes, and beamed onto the bridge by 3 3/4" Scotty. Dream come true, right?

Well, the lovely Jennifer went out and bought all ten of the new figures for me on the day they came out, and they were awful- really poorly produced by Playmates toys. I also bought the Bridge playset (needed it for the above scenario), and it came out of the box damaged.

So, not one to stand for having Geekus Interruptus, I emailed pictures of all the problems- bad molds, lousy paint jobs, broken screens, all to Playmates toys. I then went off on a rant about how well they handled the Trek license in the 90's (I still have a couple HUNDRED of those figures!) and how disappointed I was over this new line. I figured that was that.

Today in the mail, I received free of charge replacement parts for my bridge, and a whole new Kirk figure. Oddly enough, it is much better produced than the ones I bought in the store! Here's a couple of pics:

The non-lipstick wearing Kirk on the right is the gratis Captain...

Playmates had my money- I had already bought all their crappy action figures, yet they bothered to send me not only replacements, but improvements! Good on them. That's a type of customer service sorely lacking these days. Hopefully the next set they put out meet this figures standards.

As for the movie... I will give you my deep thoughts in a week or so, until then click here to read my 2006 dissertation on Trek. Live Long and Prosper.