Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Shuttle Disaster that wasn't -- Barely

I follow space flight fairly close, but here's a chilling bit of history I wasn't familiar with. 21 years ago, just after the return to flight after the Challenger explosion, the Space Shuttle Atlantis came dangerously close to being destroyed by the same sort of tile damage that later destroyed Columbia.
Except that, in many respects, the tile damage to Atlantis, also caused by an insulation impact during launch, was actually worse than the Columbia accident. More than 700 tiles were damaged, and one tile in a critical area was completely destroyed, resulting in melting in the exposed aluminum underneath.

And because of a communications blackout on the top-secret military flight, NASA remained blissfully ignorant of the damage, even while mission commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson was looking at images of the tile damage and thinking, in his own words, "we are all going to die."

I just read the story on the web site Space Flight Now. Here's the gist of it, with some added insights of my own (based in part on the rather mundane picture from the NASA archives seen above):

In 1988, the second post-Challenger mission, STS-27, was launched with a secret spy satellite on board. 85 seconds after launch, a chunk of insulation broke loose from the nose of the right solid-rocket booster and struck along the right side of Atlantis.

It isn't clear from the story if the discovery of tile damage was accidental, but it appears so, and the astronauts were extremely alarmed by what they saw. The insulation had impacted near the nose, and resulted in a triangular-shaped cone of damage all the way down the right side of the spacecraft, from the nose almost to the rear of the wing. You've read Gibson's immediate reaction above.

But because of limitations on communications, the crew were unable to properly communicate their concerns to the ground. During military missions, strict limits are places on communications with mission control to insure secrecy. Anything that might even remotely reveal information about the payload, its characteristics, purpose, or orbit, are closely guarded. One hard-fast rule in this case was, no video.

Finally, reluctant permission was given to send encrypted video of the damage to the ground. But the encrypted video system was black and white, low resolution, and could only send one frame every three seconds or so.

It's also interesting that the only photo I could find in the searchable NASA photo archives referencing the damage is the one above. It shows the crew attempting to repair a video tape containing the video of the tile damage. Yes, that is a roll of duct tape floating there.

The implication I take from this is that video was recorded (using the shuttle's robot arm) of the damage was recorded on tape in order to be converted into encrypted format and sent back to Earth. Only the tape jammed somehow, and... This is a SNAFU of historic proportions. You can read a million things into the bemused expression on the mission specialist's face at right. I like to think he's something like, "we're f*cking about to die, and it all comes down to duct-tape and a Betamax."

Because of the poor quality video, engineers on the ground thought they were just looking at shadows on the surface of the tile and assured the crew there was no danger. The astronauts knew otherwise, but did not attempt to convince the ground, perhaps unaware of their line of reasoning. It was nothing a little open discussion couldn't have fixed, but apparently the communications restrictions didn't allow for that, or at least, encourage it.

And so, the mission continued as planned, with NASA doing nothing (not that there was a lot that could be done, since no repair tools or materials, besides that duct tape, were carried, nor had even been developed at this point), and the astronauts soldiered on, plauged by doubts that they would survive reentry.

Upon landing, they discovered the damage was even worse than the astronauts had realized. Without the new cameras and extension boom now routinely carried on the Shuttle, there was no way to image the entire underside of the shuttle, including large areas of damaged. In told, more than 700 tiles were damaged, including the missing tile, located under the orbiter's nose, an area subject to high heating. Upon landing, it was discovered that the exposed aluminum under the tile had actually begun to melt.

If it had burned through, a literal torch of plasma would have cut into the shuttle and its fragile systems underneath, quite likely dooming the spacecraft. Perhaps, as with Columbia, one of the first warnings would have been the pressure in the landing gear tires, as heat caused them to expand, and finally explode. Except, the indicator might have been on the front tires, rather than the rear.

It didn't happen though. One bit of luck, the missing tile exposed a mounting plate for an antenna, and so was thicker than the skin only inches away. That one detail may have saved Atlantis and its crew.

Post flight, NASA apparently minimized the damage and the risk to the crew. Secrecy may have been an issue, but it's almost impossible to ignore the potential CYA factor. A near disaster only two flights after Challenger, following what was supposed to be a complete safety overhaul of the program, could have grounded the shuttle again and heads were certain to roll. It's interesting that, even now, there are apparently no photos of the tile damage in the searchable on-line archives, though they exist (Space Flight Now has a few).

Of course, if Atlantis had been lost, the shuttle would have definately been grounded, and it very well could have been the end of the shuttle program, and perhaps American manned space flight. That's one grim alternate universe.

But in another one, NASA learned from the mission and launched an immediate review of the potential for tile damage. Methods might have been developed for routine examination of the tiles during each flight. Improvements might have been made to reduce foam shedding and ice build-up. Repair tools and techniques might have been developed. And in that world, Columbia might have survived, or at least its crew might have been rescued by an emergency launch of a second shuttle.

But that didn't happen.

are their grim alternate reality.

The shuttle is scheduled to be retired next year, and I will miss the capabilities we lose when that happens. But I will not miss the shuttle itself, with its inherent design flaws and dangers. There's no reason that the Constellation system that replaces it shouldn't be far safer for the women and men who fly in it.

Let's hope that's so. Space is a dangerous business, and more people will die in its conquest. But those deaths shouldn't be tragically avoidable, as was the case with Challenger, Columbia, and almost, Atlantis.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Alabama Shooting Hits Close to Home

You know how sometimes you'll turn on the radio or the TV with the news already in progress, and you get this bit out of context that really doesn't register till later, if at all?

It started like that for me. I turned on the car and the radio came on, and I was focused on backing out of a parking space. I'm not listening, but a few words call out to my unconscious. I hear "shooting," "gunman," "Alabama," and that bit before "Alabama." Was it "south-east?"

Surely not.

Though I live on the Oregon coast now, I was born in south-east Alabama, and spent most of my childhood there. Though we moved a lot later on, my folks always had a house there, my mother's family lived there, and it was always "home" no-matter where we lived. It's poor country, sparsely populated, and generally speaking, not much happens there. When something from from there makes the national news, I pay attention.

But in this case, I was quickly out of the car and distracted by something else. It wasn't until that evening that I checked into Google News and saw the headlines, and dug into the reports with increasing alarm. This was all familiar territory. All the pictures showed familiar places. This was hitting close to home. Very close indeed.

I knew intimately almost every inch of the gunman's rampage, and had history with it all, and it had ended shocking close to the house I grew up in.

After fretting for a few minutes about the late hour, I called my Brother who still lives a half-mile or so from my parent's house in Chancellor, Alabama. My parents are snowbirding in Gulf Shores, but I couldn't be sure where he'd been that day. His first words on answering the phone weren't "hello," or "who is this?" They were, "I'm alive."

Yes. That was the answer I was looking for. Death had come to southeast Alabama, trod through my memories with an assault rifle in-hand, and come perilously close to people I love.

It had been worse for Tim. He'd been 3o or so miles away, in Dothan, Alabama, when he heard about the incident on the radio, but his girlfriend had been home. The news reports said only that the gunman had been cornered "on highway 27 between Geneva and Enterprise," which is exactly how you'd describe Chancellor if anyone asked.

I make that phone call sound grim. Actually we laughed and joked through most of it. Gallows humor. Whistling in the dark. A defense mechanism. We're good at it.

We didn't talk long. It was late on a work night. But it didn't stop me from thinking about it.

The part of the shooting spree I'm least familiar with is where it started, in a tiny town called Kinston. Yet Kinston lies along probably the first road I ever traveled. Kinston is on the road between Opp and Samson. I was born in a hospital in Opp, and that road is the one my parents would naturally have taken driving me home.

Michael McLendon started his rampage there by killing his mother and her dogs and setting her house on fire. Talk about someone feeling walking on your grave? This is the exact opposite. It's like death walking on your birthplace.

He then proceeded to the tiny town of Samson, one I know very well. I never spent a lot of time in Samson. There was no reason to.

The downtown is just a few blocks long. But it was a place you went through on the way to somewhere else. We usually passed through on our way to the beaches in Florida, so I associate it mostly with happy time. We stopped there to eat a couple times, or for gas. But unless you have business or family in Samson, there isn't much there, there.

My dad got us in a fender bender there once when I was a kid (just to be clear, it was the other guy turned right from the left lane, and it was definately his fault), and that's probably the most time I've spent in the town, sitting there while waiting for the police, trading insurance information, filling out accident reports.

It was almost certainly the most exciting thing that happened in Samson all day. And it might have been the most exciting day that week. That was the kind of town it was.

McLendon killed seven people in Samson.


In a town of less than two-thousand people. Five of them on one block of Pullum Street.

I can't get over that.

I looked Pullum Street up on Google Earth. Near as I can tell, it's only a few blocks long. My Uncle Wayne had an apartment very close to there until he passed away a couple years ago, maybe no more than a block or two away. Though I don't know Samson that well, I could drive you there without a map.

From Samson, he drove the road to Geneva, another one I know well. If you were coming home from Florida and needed to pick up some groceries or stop for a bite to eat, you'd probably detour over to Geneva rather than taking the direct route through Coffee Springs (a few miles from Samson, where I attended school until the sixth grade).

Just outside of Geneva, there's a grain silo. It's visible in many of the news photos. It's been a landmark as far back as I can remember. It was once the tallest thing for miles in relatively flat country. There are some new water towers and radio masts, but it's still one of the tallest things in the area. Seeing the grain silo in the distance, as you were driving highway 27 from Chancellor, was the first sign that you were approaching Geneva. Though the silo was on a different road, it could be seen from miles away.

The police set up a road block in front of the silo, on the Samson-Geneva road, and tried to stop the gunman. They failed, though they succeeded it slowing him down. Two policemen were injured, and according to some reports he shot at people in the Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly grocery-store parking lots nearby, both places I've shopped while visiting my family.

Geneva I know very, very well. It was the closest town of any size to our home, and we frequently went there to shop or eat. Our family doctor's office was just a few blocks from where the roadblock took place. Next door was the drug store where I first discovered comic books. Even closer is the hospital where they set my first broken bone. The place is loaded with memories, good and bad.

McLendon proceeded through Geneva, then turned left onto highway 27. Highway 27 leads directly from Geneva to Chancellor.


Chancellor is on highway 27. The tiny town is only a block wide. A short block, one house deep. My brother's house is on the highway. My parent's house is a block off it.

Fortunately he didn't make it that far. That was the first moment of recognition when I logged on and started reading news reports. Not where it started. Where it ended. The Reliable Metals plant.

It wasn't called that when I lived there, but I remember when the building was put up. It was a big deal, a modern steel industrial building going up in a declining town that had seen better days. I recall that, for some strange reason, there was a golf course built around the building, greens and sand-traps where there are fenced parking lots today. The golf course didn't last long, and the building changed hands, but I still recognized it immediately in the news photos.

It's well out of Geneva on the road to Chancellor, just past the little Geneva airport where my dad got his pilot's licence, where we spent many a happy afternoon watching airplanes when I was young, where my parent's friend Lynda and Jerry once lived in a mobile home behind the tie-down area, and had a German shepard dog.

McLendon was maybe ten minutes at most from my brother's front door when he decided to turn off and make his final play. Seven miles according to Tim. And not any random seven miles. Not any random ten minutes. He was on the right road, going in the right direction. There aren't even any other major roads to turn off on. There was almost literally no other place for him to go.

But thankfully for me, death took a detour, then left the building. Leaving bodies and grief and confusion, and for me, so far away, a disturbance in the Force.

It's a sleepy place that lives mostly in memories for me now, and in the occasional phone call or visit to my parents and brother. How did a gunman get in there? How did mass murder intrude on my past, invade my lazy days of childhood?

Like most people, I study the news reports and try to make some sense of it all. I scan the names of the dead and wonded, and give some thanks that none of them are familiar. Strangers are dead. Good. That's just human nature.

But the odds still eat at me. There are less than 27000 people in Geneva country. Less than 2000 in Samson. Less than 4500 in Geneva. It's almost surprising that I didn't know someone.

And among the dead, some of the surnames are familiar, the same as classmates I went to Coffee Springs School with. It's very likely that I know someone related to those killed. It's that kind of place. Nobody is that far seperated from anyone else, even when one of them is completely across the country.

I almost wish I was there. If I could drive that road and see those places, maybe I could make more sense of it all. But I can't, and I'm left to sort it out from postage-stamp news photos and a lifetime of memories.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sprinkles, Frosting, and a Twist: Taking Fictional Tropes Beyond the Next Level

A few months ago, my wife Chris was taking a badly needed break between writing books on a tight deadline. All she wanted was to veg out in front of the TV for a while. Unfortunately, it was somewhere in the Holiday/new-year wasteland of TV. All of the shows we follow were either off the air or in repeats.

As it happened, I had just then stumbled on a deal at a liquidator store on an anniversary release of James Bond DVDs. I brought a couple home, and Chris spotted them. Before we knew what we were doing, it was back to the store for more Bond DVDs. All the Bond DVDs in fact (except for the two most recent "reboot" films, which we already had).

We ended up spending the entire holiday break on a Bond marathon, watching not only the films, but many of the bonus documentaries, which this release generously provided. I don't consider it wasted time at all. Quite the contrary, it was quite educational.

The classic Bond films aren't just films, they're grand entertainments, joyously excessive in every way. They're clearly born of the pulp magazine tradition of storytelling: fast moving, exotic, suspenseful, action packed, engines for over-stimulation. But of course, the pulps only described the things that James Bond movies brought to life.

I don't think the younger generations can appreciate a world-changing experience it was for audiences seeing "Goldfinger" or "Thunderball" for the first time. It did what "The Great Train Robbery" or "King Kong" did for the generations before, or what "Star Wars" or "The Matrix" did for later generations.

But of course, Chris I don't make films, or even write screenplays these days, so what's to be learned here for prose writers? Well, one thing we learned was the power of taking fictional tropes to the next level, to not just have things happen in your stories, but to have them happen with pizazz and style. In any kind of fiction, not just adventure, it could be the difference between bland story that just sits there, and exciting fiction that engages the reader and won't let go.

Here's how Chris and I came to call this, "Frosting, Sprinkles, and a Twist."

We were watching a typical Bond action sequence, I don't remember which one. I remarked to Chris, glancing at the plate of holiday sugar cookies looking for a metaphor, "You know the thing about Bond. It isn't just about viewer cookies ("cookies" in this instance, referring to those story elements placed to offer special pleasure to the audience). They all have frosting."

At which point the scene immediately topped itself. I did a double-take, and struggling to adjust, said, "Okay, frosting and sprinkles."

At which point, the scene again managed to top itself, taking to outrageous to an unbelievable level. Chris looked at me and grinned, "Frosting, sprinkles, and a twist!"

The pattern was revealed, and once we recognized it, we saw it again and again. Like I said, I don't remember that first scene where we spotted the pattern, but I do remember one that came immediately after, a chase scene in "Live and Let Die" which repeated the pattern twice in quick order.

In the scene, Bond and the inevitable lovely companion are being chased by bad guys. That's the cookie, and it's the sort of thing that could (and usually does) happen in any adventure or suspense story. It could be pretty exciting, except for the fact, we've seen it a million times before.

But this being a Bond film, we don't leave it there. They're on foot, so Bond steals a handy motor vehicle to make an escape. Frosting? Maybe, but weak, thin frosting. We've seen it all before.

Which is why Bond steals a bus. That's frosting.

But wait, there's more. Not just a bus. A double-decker bus. Now that's sprinkles!

The bad guys also make motorized pursuit, some on motorcycles, which some might consider a twist. A bus chased by guys on motorcycles with guns. Pretty exciting.

But not enough for a Bond film. Chased by the motorcycles, Bond cranks the bus steering wheel and puts the top heavy thing through a 360 degree spin, driving the motorcycles off the road. Not only a great twist, but a literal one!

But the scene isn't over, and there's time to run through the cycle again.

Though Bond has gotten rid of the motorcycles, there's still a car back there, and the way is blocked by a low bridge! That's a pretty darned good cookie, and many a writer would be willing to stop there. But this is a Bond film.

Bond keeps driving! The bus hits the bridge, and the entire top deck of the bus sheers off and falls to the ground, blocking the car's path, allowing Bond to escape. Excellent frosting! One could well be satisfied with such a cookie and such frosting.

But this is a Bond film, dammit! The pursuing car crashes into the upper deck of the bus, gets stuck under it, and the car and severed roof drive away blindly! Action sprinkles with humor added!

But that isn't quite enough. As I said, it's driving blind, so the car (still under the bus roof) veers off the road and crashes into a lake. A light but refreshing twist to finish off the scene.

Frosting, sprinkles, and a twist. It's a classic "rule of threes." There are several examples of this sort of thing in storytelling. For example, there's the classic structure for a short-story:

Character in a setting with a problem. Character tries to solve problem. Fails. Things get worse.

Character tries again to solve problem. Fails. Things get worse.

Character tries one last time to solve problem. Succeeds (or fails ultimately).

It's also used in humor, from fiction to stand up.

Set up the joke. Reinforce the setup. Break the setup with the punch line. (Bad example. Man tells doctor, "Doc, my father thinks he's a chicken." "Oh, that's terrible. But don't worry, I've dealt with cases like this before, so I'm sure we can cure him." "Oh, I can't have you doing that, doc! We need the eggs!")

But Bond movies apply their rule of threes to everything! Bond can't just go someplace to find the villain. It has to be exotic, colorful, and dangerous. He can't just have a weapon. It has to be unsual, exciting, and disguised as some common object. He can't just drive a car. It has to be a fast, sexy car, loaded with weapons and gadgets. He can't just meet a woman. She has to be stunningly beautiful, have a suggestive name, and hide a dangerous secret.

In one of documentaries, the son of original Bond producer Harry Saltzman quotes him as saying, - "(I'm) thinking about another way to die. Death is really quick. A bullet to the brain, you're dead. But what I've got to do is think of something glamorous. You've got to die Hollywood style. It's got to look beautiful, it's got to look graphic, and it's got to give the audience a sense of revenge."

Exactly. Why use a gun when a poison blow gun would work? Why have the hero duck the dart when he can use his murderous dance partner for a human shield?

Of course, you could say, "What a stupid bad-guy. A gun would be better, and with a steel jacketed round, that human-shield trick wouldn't work at all."

But that's the real secret of "Frosting, sprinkles, and a twist." The viewer (or reader) can figure this out just as easily as you. But if you've entertained them, surprised them, stimulated them, titillated them, they don't care! In fact, they'll move right past it and want more. In fact, if you're good (as in the chase scene described above) you've got another helping lined up before they even have time to want more.

Of course, you may be saying to yourself, "this doesn't apply to me. I don't write James Bond, or action, or thrillers. I write romance (for example)!

No, it still applies. Sure, the tropes you use may not be as broad, but there's still no reason you can't take them up a level. Or two. Or three.

Maybe in your romance, the scene where your ugly-duckling, small-town heroine meets the potential mother-in-law just lays there. But what if the mom is brilliant and beautiful? And is soon revealed to be a jet pilot. And, oh-yeah, a retired astronaut. It all piles on to grind all your heroine's worst insecurities into the dirt.

Maybe the break-up scene at the corner coffee-shop is strictly by the numbers. What if instead you put your characters on a roller-coaster at Coney Island? And one of them says "I think we should see other people" just as the train tops the first hill and takes the plunge. But the roller coaster malfunctions, and they end up stuck together, in uncomfortable silence, with hundreds of people looking on from the station platform only 30 feet away.

Romance, mystery, science-fiction, it doesn't matter. If the story needs something, just take the elements that are already there, the settings, the characters, the situations, and take them up a notch -- two -- three.

Just remember, when in doubt, ask yourself, "what would James Bond do?"

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Star Trek: "It Ain't Canon"

As usual, the fan whining began many months ago (maybe years at this point) about the upcoming J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise. As it happens, I've seen two things in the past couple days the reenforce the idea that this reboot is not only going to be good (maybe even great), it's also going to be true to the roots of Star Trek. Roots that even many die-hard fans have (often conveniently) forgotten.

First thing, is the latest trailer. Check it out if you haven't seen it. I'll wait...

I feel like I've a little street cred to talk about Trek. I've been a big fan since I watched the first airing of "Man Trap" live on NBC back in (mumble-mumble), and I've since worked on three Star Trek prose projects for Pocket Books with my wife Chris (two "Star Trek SCE" ebooks, one since reprinted in paperback, and a "Next Generation" ebook, all of which are, I believe, still available for download, ebook fans).

A lot of what you hear is griping about it not being "canon," that is, the established history of Star Trek. There really has been a fantastic amount of effort over the years to document all things (on-screen things, that is, the books were never considered "canon") Trek and bind them into some sort of whole.

But behind-the-scenes efforts at this really didn't take root until well in "Next Generation's" run, and they were never entirely consistent. Despite what you may have been told, Trek has repeatedly contradicted itself in dozens of important ways, through it's entire run, in all of the series, and pretty much all of the movies.

Don't believe me? If you've got half an hour or so, check out the following series of fan-produced videos on Youtube highlighting a good number of these contradictions. Actually, if you don't have 30 minutes, the first few minutes of the first video should be plenty to convince you.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The fact is, Star Trek "canon" has never held up to close scrutiny, and this is especially true of the original series, where such continuity was never a large concern, and "facts" were established with no thought of how it might fit into a larger continuity or time-line.

Yet that hasn't stopped the endless sniping, based on the few stills and trailer clips that have been released.

In fact, these are probably the same people who were bitching all the way through the three year series run of "Enterprise." Let me tell you, Enterprise had a lot of problems, but continuity is among the smallest of these. Really, is the "first contact" date for the Ferengi really that important in the greater scheme of things? (Don't get me wrong. I love the Ferengi, but you can pretty much ignore anything about them that happened until Deep Space Nine came along.)

But let's not get side-tracked (and there's so much Trek, it's easy for that to happen). Let's address the cries that, based on what we've seen so far, the new Trek movie "isn't Trek," and "isn't canon."


First of all (mild possible spoiler here) it's clear that the plot of this movie deals with some kind of time travel plot from the future mucking up young Kirk's life. What little we know about his early life (that which doesn't already contradict itself) from the original show and movies just doesn't necessarily apply.

Get over it. The details aren't important. What matters to me is, are we going to end up with the Kirk, the uber-captain, that we all know and love? (And watch the moment in the trailer when he apparently first takes the Big Chair, and tell me it isn't so?)

Another common complaint. Spock shows emotions. Spock fights. That's not Spock!

Sorry, kids. You weren't paying attention. That's very much Spock.

First of all, as Leonard Nimoy (in a performance whose depth and subtlty is constantly overlooked, even by fans) and the writers developed him, Spock is not some kind of meat-robot without emotions. He's the son of a violent warrior race that has learned to supress and control the expression of emotions, born of a mother whose species revels in them.

It's where pretty much everyone else who played a Vulcan in the other series (other than Mark Leonard, who played his father, Sarek, and maybe Jolene Blalock by the end of Enterprise) got it wrong. The brilliance of Nimoy's performance was to act out all the emotions while almost always keeping a mask over them.

The full range of emotions were still there in the eyes, in the posture, in the subtlty of expression, if you were watching closely enough. But even if you weren't watching, you were unconsciously aware of them, and it kept him from being a stilted, human-shaped computer. It was as though he was always performing the role of a poker-player in mid-bluff -- a poker player with a "tell."

And on occasion, the mask slipped aside (think specifically of the moment in the TOS episode "Amok Time," Spock believes he has killed Jim Kirk. On seeing him alive, the mask slips totally aside for a moment of unbridled joy, and then is pulled back with embarrassment.

And that's the key. It's like a proper church-lady. Yes, she certainly has breasts and a vagina, but she certainly isn't going to show them in public, or even acknowledge their existance in polite company. And yes, those five kids came from somewhere, but we certainly aren't going to talk about details, and you'd be unspeakably rude even to draw attention towards the subject.

(Looked upon this way, and in retrospect, the occasional taunting and prodding by McCoy, and to a lesser extent, Kirk, seems cruel and culturally insensitive. You can perhaps excuse it a bit by imagining that they see Spock as a human with some Vulcan ancestry, rather than as a Vulcan with some human ancestry, though Spock clearly portrays himself as the latter. And some of it can simply be written off to the pre-PC era in which the show was spawned. But I prefer those moments in which Kirk very appologetically asks Spock to engage in a mind-meld with an alien for the greater good, despite the way it will force him to lower his emotional screens. Okay, to be honest, I'll be happy if the movie brings back the Kirk/Spock/McCoy banter. Those were good scenes. I just hope it's better justified in the context of their relationship this time.)

And the entire run of the series, and even more so in the movies, it's made clear that Spock has always struggled to control his emotions, and that this was even more true of young Spock. And by definition, the Spock in this movie is going to be a younger Spock. Why shouldn't he slip more?

Nothing we've seen of Spock in any of the trailers contradicts this. Sure, there's a lot of emotion in those early trailers, a lot of physicality. About five seconds of it. Don't the most dramatic bits always end up in the trailer? Even if Spock is that way through the whole film (and based on this last trailer, I don't think that's the case), it still could be justified in the context of what we take as "canon."

Which brings me to my last bit of evidence. The other night, which trying out streaming video on the computer I was hooking up to my television, I stumbled into the site, and discovered the Star Trek episodes available there. I pulled up the HD, remastered version of the first-season episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" is actually the beginning of the Trek most of us are familiar with it. It's actually the second pilot, the first pilot (Starring Jeffry Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike) having been rejected by NBC. Even more confusingly, it was the third episode to air in the original run. But it's more-or-less "our" original Trek. It's got Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Sulu (McCoy was yet to come, however).

See it here in standard definition or here for HD (remastered version) if you have the bandwidth.

I got sucked into watching the first few minutes of it. There was something very familiar about it, not just because I've seen it a zillion times before in my wasted youth (and occasionally since). It had a rawness, an energy like -- that last Trek movie trailer. It was there in the sense of adventure, the playful banter between the crew in the turbolift, the feeling of always heading into unknown territory.

Sure, it wasn't as fast-paced and kinetic as the movie. Nothing on TV was in those days. The shorthand language of storytelling just didn't exist yet. To a large extent in those days, television series (even Star Trek) were more like stage plays with cameras pointed at them than anything else.

But it feels much the same to me. And that's not a bad thing at all.

And of course, there's Spock. Spock, who claims not to have emotions, but who grins and smirks and growls and frowns through many of his scenes...

What is "canon" for Star Trek? The general rule is that it's anything that appears on-screen in any of the series or movies (with the exception of the 70s animated series, except for one episode, and maybe "Star Trek V," don't ask). This is on-screen, in-series, and Spock is pretty out there.

"Oh," but the die-hards argue, "it's the pilot. The character is still evolving. It doesn't count."

Bull. Purists don't get to pick an choose that way.

I do, of course, because I'm not a purist. I know that allowances have to be made for time, and human error. I get to embrace the emotional version of our Vulcan first-officer (not literally, this isn't your damned slash fiction!).

I get to pretend that the episode "Spock's Brain" never, ever, happened.

You're stuck with it, mr./ms. Purist!

As a kid, I always hated history, because it was always about memorizing dates and battles. It was only later, when I discovered that those things were only a template some stuffed shirts had put over a real world, where people had lived and loved and fought and built the entire world I knew.

That's how I feel about the purist view of Star Trek canon.

It remains to be seen how good or bad the new Trek film will be. I'm hopeful, but I haven't seen it yet. But if it succeeds, it will do so not on its slavish adherance to "canon" but on its ability to tap the spirit of Star Trek and its characters, and to reach not only us old-timers, but an entire new generation of fans.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

An update to "Writers and Other Delusional People," and the "Truths of Writing."

Having learned new truths, and caught myself in a self-delusion, I find it necessary to update this three-year-old post. A lot of people seem to have found it useful the first time around, so go check it out here.