Star Trek

Borag Thung, Earthlets! Sometime in the early, early eighties, the BBC showed what seemed like an endless rerun of the original Star Trek series. I watched every episode (they seemed to be on each weekday, at an appropriately post-school hour), but if you’d asked me at the time whether I liked Star Trek, I’d have replied with a definite no.

Why? Because I was a Doctor Who fan, of course! In my near-teens, it was a question of Catholic/Protestant proportions. If nothing else, Star Trek was US, Doctor Who was Brit. (And there was a general US invasion of British TV at the time, most of it rubbish — probably slightly better rubbish than our rubbish, but that wasn’t the point.) On a more practical level, BBC2 were showing whole weekdays-worth of original Star Trek, but no Doctor Who! And this was at a time when, thanks to collecting the Target novelisations and faithfully buying every issue of Doctor Who Weekly (then Monthly), I was desperate to see some of the old Doctor Who’s that I’d read so much about, and seen so many tantalising photos of — actually, in those pre-video days, I’d have been just as happy to see repeats of stories I’d already seen. Anything for more Doctor Who! Instead, what I got was endless Star Trek.

But, really, I enjoyed them, and it only occurred to me a few weeks ago that I’d never seen any of the original Star Trek episodes since those early eighties repeats — and certainly I’d never watched any of them while actually allowing myself to like them. So I bought the first season on DVD, and have started watching it. (I never got into the spinoffs. They seemed a bit too self-conscious of the weight of the tradition they were following; they lacked the sheer wackiness and innocence of the original series. Perhaps TV SF will never be as free again, simply because it’s become successful.)

I was at first disappointed to find that, as well as being remastered, the original show had had as many effects shots as possible replaced by computer-generated digital sequences. I was prepared to be outraged. But, having watched a few — and though I do miss those endless shots of the Enterprise orbiting a different-coloured but otherwise identical swirly-atmosphered planet each episode — I have to admit the new effects don’t at all stand out like the fistful of sore thumbs I was expecting. They fit right in. (The important thing is that those studio-bound planet sets are still there — so much a part of the feel of the original series, just as the studio-bound alien landscapes of Doctor Who’s like “The Brain of Morbius” or “Planet of Evil” are. I don’t care about their lack of realism, I even quite like their obvious theatricality.)

It’s been strange seeing the show after a gap of — eek! — almost thirty years. No doubt because of the age I was when I first watched it, I remembered the show begin quite different. I thought it was all action and sci-fi fantasy, but now I’m seeing a lot more character stuff than I ever was aware of at ten or eleven. Also, genuine SF-style ideas! Not every episode, but the one I’ve just watched (“The Enemy Within”) does present its theory of what makes a hero a hero, a captain a captain, with its story of Kirk’s tussle with his darker side. (An episode written by Richard Matheson, I note. That’s one thing I was never aware of when I saw the series originally: the fact that there were some big SF names involved. But then again, I’d never heard of Harlan Ellison or Richard Matheson when I saw Star Trek the first time.)

One question I had to answer was what order to watch the episodes. There seem to be so many options — by stardate (internal chronology), by production date, or by original broadcast date. I went with original broadcast date, and my initial reaction, on watching the first, “The Man Trap”, was to wonder how anyone watching it could have understood it. There was no effort at introducing the characters, let alone the SF ideas — transporters, phasers — that the show relied on. But obviously it worked.

The next thing that struck me was how every one of the five episodes I’ve watched so far — the first five to be broadcast — were about some sort of enemy within, or an enemy masquerading as a human. The Enterprise may have had its mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations, but its first five stories are really all about the invasion of the Enterprise itself. (Well, as Nietzsche said, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”.) We have a shape-changing alien, two lots of humans transformed into monsters by the acquisition of super powers, and then two lots of strange influences that cause the crew of the Enterprise to become a danger to itself. Just when I thought this had to end, episode five was entitled “The Enemy Within”! Was this all post-McCarthy communist witch-hunt aftershocks? Or pre-shocks of the coming flower-power revolution? (The show seems to have one foot planted in the fifties — in Forbidden Planet rocket-power and spaceward-ho optimism — and another in sixties introspection, self-exploration and far-out-ness. The episode “Charlie X”, for instance, gives us a teen very much in the bryl-haired fifties mould, still innocent enough at the age of 17 to have some respect for authority, while the crew’s women are, generally, very much of the hive-hairdoed, cone-bra’d fifties type; while “The Naked Time” seems almost explicitly to be about the coming drop-out generation’s “let it all hang out” philosophy — and its use of LSD — alongside fears of society’s fragmentation as a result. The Enterprise is on a five-year trip, man.)

One obvious difference between Star Trek and Doctor Who is that the main characters in Star Trek all wear uniforms. They’re integrated parts of an established (and admirably inclusive) society. The Doctor, on the other hand, is not just an individual, he’s an outcast, an outsider, one who has rejected his originating society. This isn’t by any means a criticism of Star Trek, but it is something that makes these “enemy within” style stories possible, perhaps even necessary. Doctor Who has done something similar (right near the beginning, with the TARDIS-bound paranoia-fest, “The Edge of Destruction”), but certainly not on the scale of Star Trek. Star Trek is about a society venturing into space, facing the unknown; Doctor Who is about an individual (or a small, disparate gang) bumming around, turning up at random, doing good on principle rather than by mandate. Star Trek, which really seems more rooted in Forbidden Planet than merely its use of Commander John J Adam and crew’s mission to other planets, is much more about facing “the Monster from the Id”, and that whole Freudian idea that man can never truly live as himself in a well-ordered society, but must suppress his wilder, weirder, more alien, impulses. Doctor Who (which, if it has a single story-seed, would of course be The Time Machine, with the Thals and Daleks as its Eloi and Morlocks), though it has of course battled with its own “Monsters from the Id” (in “Planet of Evil”, it’s own Forbidden Planet rip-off), is less Freudian and perhaps more Jungian, with the Doctor’s impulse to explore the universe more along the lines of the sort of quest for individuation Jung saw as the prime psychological motive for us doing what we do.

But enough amateur psychology, I’m off to enjoy another episode.

Live long and prosper!

(Oh, and talking of Forbidden Planet, I’m really looking forward to this coming out.)

The Future Goes Bleep

When the coldness of electronic music combines with futuristic imagery it can create something bleak, ominous, forbidding, but also beautiful, if some sort of human feeling manages to come through all those buzzes, twoops and bleeps. For a while I’ve been collecting soundtracks to science fiction films that use electronics in their score, but it’s turned out to be a surprisingly limited subgenre, no doubt thanks to the example of Star Wars, where, rather than spacey electronics, John Williams used an orchestra in full Romantic mode to humanise the film’s technological imagery. Star Wars is certainly a great score, and perfectly fits the type of film it was made for, but here I’m more interested in the music of dehumanising dystopias and isolating voyages into deep space, perhaps because finding the human element amidst so much visual and aural coldness is all the more rewarding.

barron_forbiddenplanetMother of all sf soundtracks is Bebe and Louis Barron’s score to Forbidden Planet (1956). It’s perhaps the most extreme, experimental soundtrack for a film of any era that’s meant for popular entertainment. Remade today, Forbidden Planet would certainly get the orchestral treatment. Its having an electronic score seems to be more down to the innocence of the times, and the idea that electronics would simply sound more spacey. In an era before even the most primitive of synths, the Barrons built their electronics from scratch, each track being played by a series of custom circuits. The result is something it’s difficult to sit down and listen to in one go — there’s no conventional music, but a soundscape of thuds, whines, swoops and alien growls — but when seen with the film, it provides a perfect destabilising influence on the 50s conventionalities of an otherwise rather mainstream horror-sf plot, making the final revelations about the dead Krel race and their technology that allows Morbius’s subconscious urges to come through all the more authentic and menacing.

vangelis_bladerunnerIf you have one electronic sf score in your collection, it’s most likely to be the one that started me off — Vangelis’ peerless Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack. Vangelis doesn’t use the harsh electronic sounds of the Barrons, but, while his score is often as lush and romantic as John Williams’, it doesn’t attempt to hide from the strangeness, and darkness, of the imagery it accompanies. Vangelis’ synths add an ethereal, fairy-tale magic to those spine-tingling opening sequences of a futuristic Los Angeles that would otherwise seem like nothing but Hell on Earth. His use of melody is exquisite. At times his music seems to be the lingering ghost of all that is essentially human but which Ridley Scott’s future-noir world has almost strangled from its characters. And who would ever have thought Demis Roussos could sound so lovely?

carlos_tronThere are two soundtracks that mix a traditional orchestra with electronic instruments to an equal degree. When recording the soundtrack to Tron (1982), Wendy Carlos (back then not Wendy but Walter) had the orchestra perform its part of the score on its own, not letting them know that an electronic part using some early synths would be added. Like the film, the Tron soundtrack is more about the action of the chase and the wonder of the weird digital otherworld it takes us through than the feelings of its characters, though there is of course that underlying quest for individual freedom that’s to be found in all dystopias, giving a triumphant note to its brassy synth fanfares. Jerry Goldsmith’s Logan’s Run (1976) score, on the other hand, uses its orchestral and electronic elements in somewhat the same way that black & white and colour film was used in The Wizard of Oz. Within the futuristic city where Logan is a Sandman gleefully despatching those poor Runners who try to live beyond the age of 30, Goldsmith uses unapologetically harsh electronics, particularly in the pulsing rhythm you hear when Logan is in the presence of the all-controlling city computer. As soon as we get out of the city, the music changes to orchestral, emphasising the difference between the two worlds.

goldsmith_logansrunGoldsmith is a prolific composer, and of course provided the score to many other sf films, though none as electronic as Logan’s Run. Alien (1979), wholly orchestral, nevertheless evokes a creepy weirdness with the skittering strings of its opening titles. (His score to Legend (1985) is one of my favourite film soundtracks, but it’s fantasy, not bleak sf.) He also provided the score for Outland (1981), that grimly futuristic remake of High Noon, which was again predominantly orchestral, apart from one notable musical cue. This piece, called “The Rec Room” on the CD, is a good way of introducing an obscure sub-subgenre within the already obscure subgenre of electronic science fiction soundtracks — the leisure zone sequence. Don’t ask me why, but there’s a scene in almost every sf film where the characters go into some sort of recreation room or centre — and the more dystopian the film, the more self-indulgent and sensual the recreation is likely to be. Quite often this provides the composer with an excuse to do something a bit more weird and futuristic, as with Jerry Goldsmith’s attempt at what future dance music might sound like in Outland‘s “The Rec Room”, or the distinctly Forbidden Planet-sounding whoops and tickles of his piece to accompany the “Love Shop” sequence in Logan’s Run. Of course, in Star Wars, John Williams takes this the other way, going completely retro with his aliens playing Big Time Swing Jazz, but mention also has to be made of the descent into funky sleaze in Soylent Green (1973) where Charlton Heston enters an apartment to find it full of lounging women. It seems to be a rule of late 60s/early 70s sf that, where there’s women, there’s wah wah. (Soylent Green‘s score is mostly orchestral, but gets some nasty electronics in for the sequence where Heston enters the Soylent Green factory and learns just what that foodstuff is really made of). Funky kitsch — sleazy or not — is another subgenre of sf soundtracks, mostly for films emerging from the groovy sixties, starting with Barbarella (1968), and including the soundtrack to La Planète Sauvage (1973), a film I reviewed in an earlier blog entry.

toto_duneSolaris (1972 & 2002) has managed to garner a weird soundtrack both times it was filmed, the first being electronic (composed by Eduard Artemiev, to be found on the CD Tarkovski par Artemiev), the second being orchestral but with enough glassy-sounding percussion to give it a haunting oddness. Rollerball (1975) uses Bach’s Toccata in D minor in such a way that the church organ it’s played on sounds like a futuristic instrument of oppression. By the time Toto did the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Dune (1984), synths were getting better, producing fuller, more lush sounds rather more like orchestral strings than the harsh early versions, but the Dune soundtrack is electronic enough to still sound weird in that spacey, futuristic way. (Some of the best examples of science fictional electronica, of course, aren’t to be found in the movies at all, but in the lower-budget world of TV, such as the BBCs Radiophonic Workshop’s music for such shows as The Tomorrow People and Doctor Who.)

Electronic music in sf films is sometimes used to simply accentuate the weirdness of the science fictional imagery — all those theremins in 50s alien invasion films trying to convince us that the wobbling plate on a string is, in fact, a menacing flying saucer (though the theremin was used to excellent effect to impart an unearthly grandeur to The Day The Earth Stood Still). But sf electronics are at their best, for me, when they evoke a sense of the numinous, the ethereal, the unearthly. I find myself wanting to include some non-electronic music which has the same effect. I’ve already mentioned a few (Cliff Martinez’s Solaris, Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien title sequence), but the ultimate example has to be György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna at the end of 2001. This is nothing but human voices, undulating in disturbing microtones, perhaps illustrating that, when it comes down to it, nothing sounds as strange or unearthly as the human voice doing what it isn’t normally heard to be doing. (See also the theme music for the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Day of the Triffids.)