Tag Archives: science fiction

Brave new worlds: STAR TREK BEYOND and FORBIDDEN PLANET

Note: Incoming SPOILERS, captain. Or whatever.

O brave new world / That has such people in’t! –  The Tempest, Act V, Scene i

The early destruction of the starship Enterprise, at first glance just a repetitive stunt, is in fact Star Trek Beyond’s boldest gambit.[1] Narratively and thematically, it destabilises the character dynamics just enough to put the ship’s crew in a position where seeing them work together when re-united has an additional impact. This forms the core (the ‘warp core’, if you will … no, I’m not sorry) of the filmmakers’ approach to pushing their version of Star Trek forward.

Visually and iconographically, however, the stricken ship’s descent into the atmosphere, having been torn apart at the neck by a swarm of alien drones, recalls all those flying saucers of the early science fiction films of the 1950s (and the sci-fi pulp art which preceded them) from which artist and designer Matt Jeffries took inspiration in imagining the Enterprise. Like an archaeological excavation, its ruin reveals something of its origins.

star trek beyond enterprise

Eight years before Gene Rodenberry pitched a sci-fi television show called Star Trek to television executives, and a full ten years before the first episode aired on CBS, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet was released in American cinemas.[2] Famously riffing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the plot of Forbidden Planet follows the crew of a saucer-shaped spaceship from Earth who, arriving on the desolate world of Altair IV in search of a missing colony, discover that the only intelligent inhabitants on the planet are an elderly scientist named Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a friendly robot named Robby.

The boisterous but well-meaning spacemen, led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen in an earlier, more serious role than the comedies he is now mostly known for), nevertheless undermine by their very presence the prolonged innocent girlhood of Altaira, and threaten to disrupt Morbius’s investigations into the hyper-advanced technology of the Krell, a long-dead alien race native to the planet. As tensions rise between the scientist and the crew, a series of inexplicable and increasingly violent attacks are mounted against the visitors and their vessel by an unseen entity.

Forbidden Planet C57D

Then, in a final act twist, this entity is revealed to be Morbius’s own subconscious id, actualised by the advanced alien technology hidden in the depths of Altair IV into an unstoppable force of destruction, lashing out against those who threaten Morbius’s peace of mind, attempting to destroy the crew just as it did the scientist’s fellow colonists. “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine”, says Prospero of Caliban in the last act of The Tempest; the Monster from the Id is only disarmed when Morbius acknowledges his subconscious actions and desires, his animal and base self, and rather than denying it exists, repudiates it consciously and with clarity of thought and vision.

Separated by sixty years though they may be, more specific resemblances between the two films, deliberate or accidental, are apparent.[3] Following its alternately melancholic and bombastic opening, the second act of Beyond’s plot finds the crew of the Enterprise marooned on the desolate world of ‘Altamid’, struggling to prevent an ancient and deadly technology  constructed by a long-dead alien race from falling into the hands of a dangerous, barbarous foe named ‘Krall’ (Idris Elba).

star trek beyond krall.jpg

Then, in a final act twist, Krall is revealed to have once been a human Starfleet officer, Balthazar Edison, a starship captain like the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), but from a more violent era of interstellar wars and interspecies conflicts. Edison resents the utopian Federation not only for failing to rescue him and his crew from Altamid, but also, on a more fundamental level, for making lasting peace with the alien enemies he spent his life fighting against.

This revelation does come, perhaps, too late for the film to fully flesh out Edison’s character in the same way that Forbidden Planet does for Morbius. The nature of and expectations for what constitutes a science fiction spectacle has, of course, changed greatly over the last sixty years, and the fast-moving action-adventure of Beyond will invariably have less time to spend on character work than the dialogue-laden atmosphere-building drama of Forbidden Planet.[4]

forbidden planet morbius.jpg

Unfortunately, despite the fascinating ideas behind the character and Elba’s performance, the lack of definition early on means the character never becomes as central to the narrative as he is to the film’s themes. This is a particular shame, since the parallels between Morbius and Edison are, on paper, quite fascinating. Both men become the thing they hate: Morbius, the rational scientist, is revealed to be a territorial beast, a Faustus whose passions overwhelm his intellect; Edison, once a heroic defender of humankind, is transformed into a monstrous, inhuman brute – a Kurtz who has lost his moral compass in the darkness of space.

The scientist is the more complex, developed character, but the soldier is (in theory at least) the more tragic. A fallen Faustian magus he may be, yet Morbius is able to reconcile with the beast within him, and even though it costs him his life, he is able to save the lives of his daughter and Commander Adams, as well as ensuring that the Krell technology will not be misused by anyone else in the future.

forbidden planet adams altaira

Edison is faced with a similar moment of self-realisation, at long last seeing clearly not his depravation, but rather his humanity. He ultimately rejects the epiphany offered to him, however, and makes one last nihilistic attempt to kill Kirk and destroy millions more lives. Beyond being the earnest, optimistic film that it is, he fails, dying alone in the vacuum of space, consumed by the very weapon he hoped to use to render his vengeance on the Federation, while Kirk is saved by the efforts of his faithful crew.[5]

Morbius was a tragic figure for the Atomic Age, a scientist who had tapped into a power too great to control, a father figure whose attachment to his daughter unambiguously recalls Freud, who needs a good, sensible, down-to-earth military man like Command Adams to fix his mistakes and bring his daughter into Adams’s own ‘household’ (or spaceship, in this case) as, essentially, husband and wife. Beyond, equally, is in small ways and large, very much a film conscious of the current historical moment. In contrast to the bridal Altaira, the alien survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the Enterprise’s crew encounter on Altamid, is not primarily defined as any other character’s daughter or love interest and is instead accepted into the crew and Starfleet on her own terms.[6]

star trek beyond jaylah chair.jpg

Moreover, that Beyond’s themes of tolerance, unity, and mutual cooperation seem to strike a particular chord in light of the current political situation in both Britain and the United States has already been remarked upon. Not only is Edison ultimately shown to be an embodiment of xenophobic hatred (an unusually layered example, in fact), but when Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) praises Kirk for saving the day once again, his humble but honest response that “It’s never just me” comes across as an astonishingly direct rebuke to Donald Trump’s conceited, dictatorial line from the Republican National Convention of “I alone can fix this”.[7] The film’s stubborn adherence to the principles of teamwork and, yes, togetherness, is emblazoned by its stirring final moments in which whole crew, for once, gets to follow Captain Kirk in uttering each a part of the original series’ iconic opening narration:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, Star Trek’s progressive credentials have always been somewhat qualified and even compromised – leaving aside the original series’ Sixties sexism (trying saying that three times fast), the oft-acclaimed ‘first interracial kiss on television’ occurred when both characters involved (William Shatner’s Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura) were under the influence of mind control. Never particularly adept at dealing with issues of sexuality and gender, even the recent revelation that the character of Sulu in the new films is gay – partly to further diversify the crew and partly to honour the original actor and gay rights activist George Takei – encountered controversy when Takei objected on the ground that this interpretation of the character was not accurate to Rodenberry’s original conception.

Rodenberry himself has been suggested to have used his show’s ideals to further his own commercial interests, and his invention of the Vulcan ‘IDIC’ insignia (standing for the very Trek-like mantra of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) was accused by none other than Leonard Nimoy as an example of blatantly fan-exploitative merchandising. Even Trek’s famed celebration of the frontier is fraught (except for the excellent and underrated Star Trek: Deep Space 9) with mostly un-interrogated colonial baggage and primarily Western assumptions about discovery and exploration.[8]

star trek beyond yorktown

And yet. Star Trek is, at its best, a cultural manifestation of a wistful yet vital dream – one which has ebbed and flowed alongside the last fifty years of American and world history. It dramatizes the belief that better institutions, better ways of living, the discovery of our better selves, are all, in fact, possible. Though it may be a bit rough around the edges, Beyond exemplifies the best of Star Trek in ways Into Darkness and even the 2009 reboot only managed to hint at. “How far you’ve come,” Edison murmurs when he beholds the Yorktown – a complex, colossal, yet ethereal space station on the edge of the known galaxy; a strikingly imagined symbol of ingenuity and inclusiveness. Perhaps he is merely being ironic, or just maybe, despite his disillusionment, he can’t help but be a little impressed.

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[1] The ‘original’ Enterprise was also destroyed at the end of its third cinematic outing, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, directed by Leonard Nimoy.

[2] Star Trek Beyond thus managing to mark both the 50th anniversary of the franchise itself, and the 60th anniversary of one of its most notable pre-cursors.

[3] Given, at the very least, co-screenwriter Simon Pegg’s well-documented fondness for sci-fi history, the former is perfectly plausible.

[4] Seen as light fare in its own day, of course, but positively contemplative in comparison to its modern descendants.

[5] Not that the precise nature of the threat is particularly important to the plot (we’re firmly in MacGuffin territory here), but where the technological fears manifested in Forbidden Planet focussed on nuclear power, in Beyond the threat has been updated to a biological weapon, matching more modern fears of what scientific manipulation of the natural world can do.

[6] It’s just a shame she and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura never have an actual conversation, at least as far as I can recall.

[7] Which is doubly remarkable given that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung must have scripted the film long before Trump was even the de facto GOP nominee.

[8] And don’t talk to be about the Prime Directive, the sloppiest narrative conceit outside of Doctor Who’s ‘fixed points in time’.

Things Long Overdue: ‘Orphan Black’ Comes to the UK (and I Write a Blog Post)

Note: Since this post is supposed to be a general introduction to Orphan Black, I’ve attempted to minimise detailed spoilers.

Easily one of the most distinctive new science fiction shows since the conclusion of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Orphan Black is a techno-thriller created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, produced by BBC America and Canada’s Space channel, and which originally aired in the spring, but is now available to watch in Britain for the first time.[1] With a vocal cult following in North America, the show’s central appeal, and its main strength, is in the phenomenal performance (or, rather, performances) of Tatiana Maslany in a break-out role (or, uh, roles) for the Canadian actress.

The premiere begins with orphan, grifter and general ne’er-do-well Sarah Manning (Maslany) returning to an unidentified city with mixed intentions: to make things right with her young daughter, Kira, and sell a package of cocaine she procured from ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), with the intention of raising the money to begin a new life with her child as well as her loyal foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris).[2] When Sarah encounters Beth Childs (also Maslany), a seemingly wealthy suicide who looks exactly like her, with Felix’s aid she steals the dead woman’s identity, but gets much more than she bargained for as the con throws up unexpected and dangerous complications.

Maslany doesn’t quite get to display the full range of her powers in this first episode, with Sarah’s doppelgängers flitting only briefly in and out of the story here at the start. However, this does serve to ground the more uncanny elements of the show thoroughly in Sarah’s experience, as she falls down the rabbit hole of Beth Childs’ unraveling life, and begins to uncover the threads which will lead to the secret tying the two of them together.

What the first episode does showcase, then, is the show’s other central strength: the rapid, and thrilling, escalation of its plot and the use of expertly constructed narrative set-pieces which ratchet up the tension and prove earlier on that the show doesn’t need to rely on violence for engaging action (though both this and later episodes have their share). Through ever more precarious improvisations in her disguise as Beth, as she attempts to hide the deception from key figures in the dead woman’s relationships, both professional and personal, Sarah finds that every victory only leads her to become more entangled in the complexities of a stolen life. Eventually, Sarah’s decisions further endanger her relationship with her daughter, and put her own life in peril. 

Like even the most illustrious of its predecessors, there are times throughout the show’s run so far where the more absurd elements of its emerging mythology threaten to displace the human drama, but the concrete foundation of its plot turns and revelations in the experiences of the central characters, and in Tatiana Maslany’s performances in particular, prevent it from becoming too disconnected from its audience. For while the murky world of Orphan Black is based around hidden conspiracies, weird science and secrets cults, its story hinges on something more elemental and essential: the fractious relationship between the deliberate choices people make, and the uncontrollable factors which influence them – empowering and limiting their actions in equal measure.[3]

Virtually everything that happens in the premiere emanates from the choices Sarah makes, beginning with stealing the handbag of a woman who stepped in front of a trains, yet she is also increasingly trapped both by her own choices, past and present, and by a greater history which she is on the cusp of uncovering. At the end of the show’s first hour, the stage is set for a fascinating season of television which confronts the variances of nature and nurture, and explores the eternal, irresolvable conflict between pre-determination and free will – not in abstract fashion, but in the material and immediate concerns of Sarah and those like her, despite their extraordinary circumstances.

OrphanBlackMorgue

Orphan Black premieres on BBC Three on Friday 20th September with a double bill at 9:00pm, but the first episode is currently available on iPlayer.

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[1] That’s not including the inessential 2010 Battlestar Galactica TV Movie The Plan, which unfortunately only served to show that there really was never much of one at all.

[2] With no effort made to disguise the CN tower, the city in question is implicitly Toronto, where production of the show takes place, yet it is an inexplicably Americanised version, most notably reflected in a depiction of police hierarchy which shares more with fictionalised depictions of American police departments in other TV shows than it does with the actual Toronto Police Service.

[3] Speaking of Orphan Black‘s murky world, the capturing of Toronto’s bleak skies and its elegant but cold modern buildings serves the show well in establishing a distinct texture and tone, which is at once both mundane and totally alien.

Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and the Dawn of the Science Fiction Movie

The “New Tower of Babel” at the centre of the city.

George Méliès’s Le voyage dans la Lune (1902) is, quite frequently, referred to as the first science fiction film.[1] If that is where the genre was conceived, however, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is where it emerged, almost fully-formed, into the light.  The lunar travel of Le voyage dans la Lune occurs in a dreamlike, nonsensical space; the astronomers who take part in the expedition appearing more as wizards than scientists; the moon itself a fairytale wonderland with a face. While they may both be films of the silent era, the contrast with Metropolis, released a quarter of a century later, could not be more stark.

City of Tomorrow

From the beginning, Lang puts great effort into establishing a coherent sense of place in the film’s opening scenes, leaving the reveal of the city’s majestic yet oppressive towers aside for a good fifteen minutes into the film. Instead, he focuses on contrasting the underworld, through which the workers march in step like mindless robots, against the Arcadian paradise of the Son’s Club, where the offspring of the city’s aristocracy frolic (no, really, there is a great deal of frolicking going on). Here we are introduced to Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of the city’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder becomes entranced by the saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm), a mysterious women from the world of workers below, who leads a group of workers’ children into the city’s pleasure gardens. Pursuing her, Freder finds himself in a hellish nightmare of voracious machinery and ceaseless human toil.

The machine which induces Freder’s vision.

This sequence establishes two concepts which are at the core of the world depicted in Metropolis. The first is Freder’s vision of one of the city’s great machines transforming into something between a sacrificial temple and the maw of some ancient, chthonic god.[2] A workplace accident becomes a ghastly ritual as Freder sees a column of robot-like workers marching to their doom, an image made all the more haunting by his return to reality, as victims of the accident are removed and replaced without a second thought. This ties directly into the second concept presented in this sequence, that of human beings as nothing more than components, their physical selves controlled by and subsumed into the machines at which they work.

Robot of Dawn

Lang returns to both ideas frequently throughout the film, but it is the latter which is more pervasive, and which taps into one of the central concerns of science fiction: the way technology reshapes and, potentially, controls our lives. The blurring of man and machine is, ultimately, literalised by the film’s most famous image, the machine woman created by the mad scientist Rotwang, which was originally designed to recreate Hel, wife of Joh Fredersen, with whom Rotwang was clearly infatuated.[3] Fredersen, however, uses the robot to impersonate Maria and subvert her influence over the workers while Rotwang, in turn, attempts to turn Fredersen’s plan against him to undermine his rule and, ultimately, destroy the city.

Rotwang’s machine woman as she begins transforming into Maria’s image.

Religious imagery heightens the difference between the real and false Marias. The true Maria is a prophet and a mother to the workers, with elements of both the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. She predicts the arrival of a Messianic ‘Mediator’, who would reconcile the workers with their masters and save the city from violent revolution. The false Maria, the robot, the machine woman, is depicted as nothing less than the Whore of Babylon, the apocalyptic figure of Revelation, and is responsible for rousing the workers into acts of violent sabotage. In their hatred, the workers are still subordinate to the will of a machine, which proves to nearly be their own undoing. Only through peaceful reconciliation, in which Freder takes on the role of the Mediator, is the city saved.[5]

Tomorrow is Yesterday

The film’s resolution and message, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”, were criticised on release  – and later by Lang himself – as being hopelessly naïve. In truth, Thea von Harbou’s trite parable about class relations does seem to belong in a lesser film. The real strength of Metropolis is, instead, in the presentation of the city and its people, where cathedrals and catacombs exist alongside towers and sky-bridges, and the primal and the industrial are merged into one. There is a sense of history and myth to go along with the film’s famed futurism, an understanding that, in fact, the future is not new. It’s older than anything that’s ever been. Science fiction, at its heart, is not and cannot be about disconnecting from the present or the past.[6] It’s about the possibilities and ideas, the fears and hopes, which emanate from our time and before, and exploring them in new ways and contexts. Metropolis, in many ways, codifies this in film, and that is what gives it its fascination, and its enduring power.

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[1]  Recently and notably, the role which Le voyage dans le Lune and the films of George Méliès played in the early evolution of cinema was celebrated in last year’s Hugo by Martin Scorcese.

[2] Freder’s vision causes him to scream “Moloch”, the name of an ancient Ammonite deity worshipped by Canaanites and Phoenicians. Moloch is mentioned in Leviticus 18:21, where God forbids the Israelites from sacrificing their children to him.

[3] Hel is also the name of the ruler of the underworld in Norse mythology, a daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboða. According to the Prose Edda, “Hel’s people” would join her father and her siblings, Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungandr the serpent, against the gods in the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok.

[5] The film’s pacifism and anti-extremist message, however, did not prevent it becoming a favorite of Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels. Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s wife and the film’s writer, ended up joining the Nazi Party in the early ’30s. Lang (who, despite his Catholic upbringing, would have been classified as a Jew under the Nuremberg Laws), eventually divorced her and left Germany for the United States.

[6] Just look at Dune, or Star Wars, with its famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …”