Saturday nights are always tricky at the Maison Des Girrafes. That’s the night when Mrs Crox, Crox Minor and Crox Minima stay up to watch Ritual Humiliation of Mindless Obese Proles with Ant and Dec or some such nonsense, and last night was worse because after that there was that annual festival of kitsch, From Russia With Love The Russia House the Eurovision Song Contest. In past years this celebration of decerebrated pointlessness was made almost bearable by the avuncular, hibernaceous tones of Lord Terence of Wogan, but even he’s gotten fed up with it, so instead we are forced to tolerate it in the company of a particularly vile homunculus, whose tones, while equally hibernaceous, are very far from avuncular.
I have lately discovered that My Brother-in-Law and fellow Cromerian is similarly afflicted, so we are getting into the habit of escaping on Saturdays to our favourite hostility, The Horse’s Neck, for a pint or two of Lobster’s Finger. Last night, however, we did a detour by way of the Cromer Enormodrome to see the latest Star Trek movie, called – eponymously, if you will – oh, heck, it’s the age, you know, that’s what does it. Thingy.
I am here to report that it’s a rather good film, especially for those who grew up seeing the original series.
“Yes, Mr Spock?”
“I’m picking up a Strange Message on the Subaetheric Hypergalactic Warp Relay, Captain.”
“What does it say, Mr Spock?”
“Captain … I can’t believe my ears…”
“I can’t believe your ears either, Mr Spock.”
It tells of the youth of Kirk and Spock, and something of the origins of the famous crew of the U. S. S. Enterprise, and their first mission in space together. A tear leaped to the eye on first glance at the rubric ‘N. C. C. 1701′, which to the uninitiated might refer to the recent Ruling on the Harmonization of Combine Harvester Blade Width Regulations from Norfolk County Council, but which, in fact, doesn’t. Dramatic irony is added by a very confusing time-paradox-loop-wossname, and the fact that Lt. Uhura has the hots for the young Spock, rather than – back in the swinging sixties – for Kirk, an occasion which led to the first on-screen inter-racial kiss ever seen in the Sirius Sector.
Now, I have seen comments from the more aspergic scientifically minded among my friends and colleagues, picking holes in the plausibility of various aspects of the plot and general miso soup, such as ‘black holes couldn’t work like that’, and ‘that’s no way to park a supernova’. It might come as a surprise to learn that practically everything in Star Trek is total and utter phooey, and always was, from the existence of warp drives (which the Late Arthur C. Clarke – though he was very much alive when he said it, in his novel The Songs of Distant Earth – famously damned as a device used by the Producer in the Sky to get from point A to point B in time for Next Week’s Exciting Episode) to the disturbingly terrestrial gravity in all the spacecraft (even the little shuttles) to the fact that the aliens, most of whom look suspiciously like actors with pointy ears, can interbreed freely with humans. What my friends are doing, of course, is missing the point, transnadgering their fusion spandrels in the Eczema System when they should really be in orbit around Alopecia by now.
Back in the day, Star Trek existed to make a point, or, rather, several interrelated points, about the importance of humanity – human unity – in the face of great and often seemingly overwhelming adversity. Forty years ago, segregation was still a live issue, and so was the Cold War, and the War against Japan was still fresh in the minds of many. Yet here we had a crew that included a Russian (Chekhov) a Jap (Sulu) and (gasp) women, some of whom were of color (the fact that an interracial kiss on TV is nowadays hardly cause for a raised tentacle owes much to Gene Roddenberry boldly going where nobody etcetera etcetera). Not only that, the enigmatic Mr Spock was the product of an interracial union that went very much further than the other side of the tracks. To be sure, the whole shebang was led by the all-American James Teflon Kirk – to have had Nichelle Nichols personing the bridge would have been too much to ask back then, and maybe, even today – but it’s hard to underestimate how forward-looking Star Trek was. So much so, that all the talk of phasers being set on stun and dilithium crystals was so much scientific jabber-jabber, indistinguishable from magic.
What Star Trek always had was a quality I’d like to call mythic depth, and it is to this quality that the new movie owes its success. Even while watching the minutiae of the action, you know that there’s a backdrop, a history, a reason for the characters to be doing what they are doing with such conviction, and that these reasons are ones which should be comprehensible to any viewer – and yet still, somehow, retain a remnant of the exotic. Mythic depth is especially important in SF, and especially in Space Opera – the genre to which Star Trek belongs. Space Opera, which began, eighty years ago or so, with the pulp romances of the likes of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, always had backdrops of dizzying vastness – the histories of planets and even entire galaxies came to rest on the actions of one or a few protagonists, as if they were characters of myth. The sense of depth is heightened by the apparent boundlessness of the vistas, and the sense that whatever problems the protagonists might encounter, they will overcome them because it is their destiny. It’s no coincidence that Space Opera grew out of the Western, and that the genre is peculiarly American. (It’s a curious fact that latter-day resurgence of Space Opera in print comes from British writers – Iain M. Banks, Justina Robson, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton – but one has the impression that the settings are, to a degree, ironic).
What the pseudoscientific chat about warp drives and matter-transporter beams and so on does is heighten the sense of mythic depth – that important element of the exotic that’s so necessary for Space Opera to succeed as fiction. So much so, that the plot of the latest movie turns on such phooey – black holes, time paradoxes, matter transportation – and nobody gives a damn. In the same way that stars heading towards the more explosive end of the Hertzsprung Russell Diagram balance their crushing gravitational fields with the outward push of ever more exotic fusion reactions, disbelief is suspended by the force of mythic depth. And as someone once said in another (but remarkably similar) context – may the force be with you. One might say that SF, and indeed all fiction, is really all about how ordinary people react to extraordinary situations. The additional trappings of SF, as opposed to fiction more generally – the aliens, the space drives, the apocalyptically powerful weaponry – are there to turn the screws that little bit tighter. In conventional literary fiction, the predicaments suffered by the characters are more or less internalized. By that, I mean that, in general, their actions affect only a small number of people directly, and most of all, themselves. SF is the reverse – actions are in the main externalized, and the choices of the protagonists will materially affect the lives of billions. It’s that scale – the contrast between split-second action and massive consequence – that drives SF, gives it its mythic depth, and explain why the various trappings of SF, and Space Opera in particular, are at the same time ephemeral rubbish and central to the story.