Posts Tagged Star Trek

The Space Rush

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchThey say space is the final frontier, and like all terran frontiers, people are rushing to claim it.

In a way, we’re in the midst of a space-exploration renaissance, with a bizarre mix of nations, corporations, and random billionaires looking to stake their claim in the heavens.

Earlier this week, China announced that it had landed a robotic rover named Jade Rabbit on the Moon, while Iran is sending monkeys into space. Its the 1960s all over again.

Meanwhile, a host of private entities are making their way into space, helmed by a list of names that looks like it was generated by a random search of Wired.com.

There’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and hopes to modify its Dragon capsule to carry human passengers.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ mysterious Blue Origin, which is testing rockets and capsules at a top secret facility in Texas. Is Bezos trying to explore the galaxy, or conquer it?

Other, less practical schemes include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to send a few (very wealthy) tourists to the edge of space soon, and Mars One, which plans to send colonists on a one-way trip to the red planet. Don’t laugh: there are already 200,000 volunteers.

While it may seem haphazard and–at times–zany, this should be encouraging for those who believe space exploration is an important pursuit.

That’s because while we’re a long way from Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, space exploration is taking on the exact same tone as nearly everything else humans do on a large scale.

Exploration purely for its own sake is a nice sentiment, but what really drives people is money and competition. Whether its the Cold War or potential business opportunities, things tend to get done faster when there’s another motive.

Today’s space pioneers may turn out to be more like the money-grubbing Ferengi or expansionist Romulans than Starfleet officers, but hopefully they will at least ensure that humans leave Earth orbit at all.

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Why “Into Darkness” will be a great Star Trek movie

Star Trek: Into Darkness posterI haven’t seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, but I know it will be good. How do I know? Because I love Star Trek, and that means having pretty low standards.

Let’s face it, the majority of the Star Trek canon is pretty bad, and it has been from the beginning.

Any viewer that (metaphorically) sets foot on the Original Series’ USS Enterprise, with its cheesy sets, pajama-wearing crew, and overacting captain, and decides to stay is truly dedicated.

Even when the Enterprise warped off to the big screen, and its increased budgets, there was still a lot to endure.

There were plots that didn’t just require fans to suspend disbelief, but to murder it, dissolve its body in acid, and dump the residue in the Gowanus Canal. Remember the sentient mass of space junk known as V’ger (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)? Or the alien masquerading as God on a planet at the center of the galaxy (The Final Frontier)? What does God need with a starship anyway?

Then there were the terrible attempts at comedy, like the one that led the main cast to spend an entire movie looking for whales on 20th century Earth (The Voyage Home), or the time Kirk and Spock sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire (Final Frontier).

Star Trek: The Final Frontier posterYet Star Trek fans stuck with the franchise through all of this and more.

Star Trek: The Next Generation brought more believable special effects and the gravitas of Patrick Stewart to the table, but even this honed and refined series had its missteps.

Remember the tim Dr. Crusher accidentally de-evolved the Enterprise crew (“Genesis”)? What about the time she fell in love with a ghost (“Sub Rosa”)? Every time she yells “The flame was plasma-based!” at the end of that episode, I die a little inside.

Then there were Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. All good series in their own ways, but never in a position to make up for the sins of the ones that came before.

So even if Into Darkness is the worst movie to air this year, it could still be among the best Star Trek films ever. It will definitely be better than Nemesis.

Over the years, Star Trek fans have demonstrated the same faith and patience that an actual five-year mission of space exploration would require. They’ve endured some pretty terrible schlock because the core ideas of Star Trek appeal to them.

That demonstrates the staying power of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a future where people live in harmony and fulfill humanity’s potential. Or that people really like seeing movies with pointy-eared aliens. Either way, I can’t wait to see Into Darkness.

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Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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Weather can’t stop the Postal Service, but government cutbacks can?

United_States_Postal_Service_LogoAs I sit here typing while watching snow persistently fall, I can’t help but think about the people that have to work to make mine and everyone else’s lives happen even when it gets inconvenient. You’ve heard the mail carrier’s mantra, right? They may not be out delivering mail in the Northeast today, but if we were expecting slightly less than two-to-five feet of snow, they probably would be.

That’s why I find it so ridiculous that we can’t agree to fund the Postal Service, and that this logistical marvel is cutting Saturday mail delivery because of that. We may be in the midst of a rather heated federal spending debate, but really? Even this is up for debate?

Even postmaster general and stereotypical corrupt political appointee Patrick R. Donohue has pointed out, mail may be cheap, but e-mail is free. However, as long as we live in a physical world, we’ll still need a way to move physical objects from one place to another.

I’m not being sentimental: until someone perfects Star Trek-like transporter technology, there will literally be no way to send a magazine or a college care package anywhere with a computer.

Also, considering that Chinese hackers can seemingly take down the New York Times at will, I’m not too comfortable with online banking.

The Postal Sevice is one of those modern conveniences that people take for granted, and maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps, because they sit in front of their computers, tablets, and smartphones all day, and not their mailboxes, they assume they can do without it.

Which is why a blizzard happening days after the postmaster general announced an end to Saturday letter service is quite fortuitous. Massive power outages are expected, so all of that hyper-efficient 21st century communication technology will soon be useless. The Internet isn’t sounding so superior right now.

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Why stop at Seven Samurai?

So, rumors are going around that Zack Snyder (director of 300 and Watchmen) is working on a Star Wars version of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. I’m assuming that means seven warriors will band together to defend a small village, only this time they’ll have lightsabers.

Whether this actually happens or not, it shows the flexibility of Kurosawa’s original story. Seeven Samurai has already been adapted as Magnificent Seven and an anime called Samurai 7. Tropes from the original have also been recycled in countless actions films.

Which begs the question: What other sci-fi adaptations of Seven Samurai are possible?

Seven Gundams: I’m thinking specifically of Gundam Wing; they’re only two pilots short of a full contingent already. The plot would involve seven laconic teenagers and their mobile suits defending an unarmed space colony, with space rice as their only payment.

Seven Redshirts: A Federation starship is dispatched to defend a small outpost from the Romulans and/or Klingons. An away team is dispatched. Everyone dies.

Seven Klingons: Klingons consider a glorious death in battle as payment. Three survive (as in Seven Samurai) and their shame is passed down for three generations.

Seven Superheroes: Pretty much a standard Avengers (Marvel) or Justice League (DC) story, but substituting an impoverished village for New York/Metropolis.

Seven Transformers: Not that Optimus Prime would ever accept payment for defending humans against a Decepticon attack, but some Energon would sweeten the deal and give Megatron a reason to attack.

Seven Mandalorians: Factional differences lead to the destruction of all seven before the Hutts get to the village.

Seven Soul Reapers: A group of Soul Reapers has a dispute with the Soul Society (it happens all the time) and redeem themselves by entering the World of the Living to stop marauding Hollows.

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Other people’s starships: Oberth-class

USS Grissom bow viewWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

Last week, the “bucket of bolts” Constellation-class got its time in the spotlight. This week, the focus is on the Oberth-class science ships.

As research vessels, ships of the Oberth-class were designed to deal with the unexpected. However, as seen in various episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the unexpected often caused serious misfortune for the people that manned them.

Named after German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, the Oberth-class definitely has the Red Shirt spirit. With its unusual biplane hull design, this class was never going to look heroic on the screen. Instead, it looked like someone had tried to assemble a starship model kit without reading the instructions.

Starfleet may not have been too fond of the ships either: The Oberth-class is the only known starship type to be operated by both Starfleet and civilians.

Even if you do like the Oberths’ ungainly appearance, it’s hard to argue with the ships’ record. Nearly every Oberth that appeared in TNG suffered some misfortune. Here are a few highlights:

SS Tsiolkovsky (NCC-53911): In The Naked Now, the Tsiolkovsky’s crew is exposed to polywater intoxication. The crew of 80 is killed when drunken revelers tamper with the ship’s environmental controls, and the ship itself is destroyed by a fragment of a red giant star’s core, allowing the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) to escape.

SS Vico (NAR-18834): Destroyed by a “black cluster,” a gravitational phenomenon that reflected the ship’s shield output and essentially crushed the Vico with its own shields.

USS Yosemite (NCC-19002): Quasi-energy microbes caused a plasma explosion on board. Four survivors were trapped in a transporter beam as a result of the microbes’ interference, but were discovered by Lieutenant Reginald Barclay in the episode Realm of Fear.

USS Pegasus: (NCC-53847): It’s not surprising that Starfleet kept this a secret. The Pegasus was testing an illegal interphasic cloaking device, which overloaded the ship’s plasma relay system and caused an explosion.

Part of the ship’s crew mutinied, and Captain Eric Pressman, Ensign William Riker, and others abandoned ship. The Pegasus was seemingly destroyed by a second explosion, which was actually plasma from the relay venting into space.

The cloak allowed the Pegasus to phase through solid matter, and the ship drifted into an asteroid until its power systems shut down while it was half-buried. It was found fused with the asteroid by Pressman, Riker, and the Enterprise crew in an eponymous TNG episode.

USS Grissom aft three-quarterThis is far from an exhaustive list of every Oberth-class ship that appeared in Star Trek, but it definitely denotes a pattern. It does make sense, though: from a writing standpoint, it wouldn’t be very plausible to destroy a huge cruiser every few episodes, and the producers already had an Oberth model to reuse. Still, if you ever find yourself enlisting in Starfleet, try to avoid shipping out on an Oberth.

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Other people’s starships: Constellation-class

Constellation-class starship profile largeWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

When Star Trek was revived with the 1980s’ The Next Generation, it got a bigger budget. That meant designers could build starships that were visually different from the main Galaxy-class Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), instead of reusing one or two models as in the Original Series.

Ships like the Constellation-class helped fill out Starfleet, giving it the appearance of an actual fleet with ships of differing sizes and purposes. The big Galaxy, Ambassador, and Excelsior-class ships were designed for long-term missions of exploration, but the Constellation had a more mundane role.

The most famous Constellation-class ship was the USS Stargazer (NCC-2893), because it was the first command of a certain Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. The future Enterprise captain’s experience on the Stargazer shows that life in Starfleet isn’t always glamorous.

Picard called the Stargazer “an overworked, underpowered vessel that was always on the verge of flying apart at the seams.” That’s not something one would expect of Starfleet, an organization with a responsibility for protecting a vast section of the galaxy, and nearly unlimited resources with which to do so.

As Picard’s career on the Stargazer shows, that duty often involved sending ships out on long patrols, where the enemy often had them outgunned. The “Picard Maneuver” from the TNG episode “The Battle” showed that intelligence could even the odds, though.

USS Stargazer bowThe other major appearance of a Constellation-class starship featured the USS Hathaway (NCC-2593) being pulled out of a mothballs for a war game in the episode “Peak Performance.”

Given the Hathaway’s condition, it’s obvious that the Constellation-class ships weren’t meant to last. While the 80-year-old Hathaway needed lots of work in order to be made ship-shape, Excelsior-class ships of similar age were still cruising; the USS Gorkon was the flagship of Admiral Alynna Nechayev at the time.

A Constellation would not make a very prestigious flagship, but maybe that’s just as well. Picard always felt sentimental about his first command, so if it wasn’t a piece of junk he might never have wanted to leave.

Tune in next week for the unlucky Oberth-class.

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