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.)

Vampires, vampires everywhere…

Somehow I’ve ended up reading a couple of vampire novels recently, something I’d normally avoid like a plague of moaning, groaning, tapping-on-your-window-pane-at-night undead. Vampires, to me, are one of those genre tick-boxes that just don’t tick my box. Particularly when they get caught up in the tired old recombinations game, where you take a slightly tatty genre element and “re-imagine” or “re-invent” it by adding a lame twist. As in, “Yeah, man, it’s vampires, but it’s vampires on the moon…” Or steam-punk vampires, or vampires versus the CIA, or vampires in hoodies, or vampires with sat-navs. I used to get caught up in that sort of game with Doctor Who, thinking up all the monster-related adventures you could squeeze out of those pulpy titles: “We’ve had Destiny of the Daleks, so we’ve got to have Destiny of the Cybermen, and Destiny of the Sontarans, and Destiny of the Ice Warriors, and Destiny of the Wirrn…” But I was eight years old at the time.

Back to vampires. Twilight (I’ve only seen the film, not read the books) seemed to me more X-Men sequel than horror film — more about troubled, “gifted” teenagers whose gift just happens to be called vampirism. I could see how the film would work for teens, but it didn’t quite do it for me. The vampires just weren’t dangerous enough, and it was all a little bit too reassuring. (I never watched Buffy, but I suspect it owes far more to Buffy than Dracula.) Having said that, there are a few vampire novels I like — Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (covered on this blog some while back), Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (the first horror novel I ever read), Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and the first half of Stoker’s Dracula (the second half just devolves into rather dull action-adventure). Now I’m going to add one of the two I’ve just read to that list. (But don’t strain yourself trying to guess which one. I’m only going to let the right one in.)

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First up is The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read it because of del Toro, who I admire as a spokesman for the fantastic, and because Pan’s Labyrinth is the only film for many an age I got excited about a full year before it came out (just from seeing the poster, and reading the title), and it more than lived up to my expectations. Del Toro has dealt with vampires before — sensitively in Cronos, sensationally in Blade II — and it was in the hope I’d get something more on the Cronos side that I read The Strain. But it was Blade II I got. I tried to tell myself the book was probably del Toro’s initial idea, which was then filled out by Hogan in standard “adapt me, Hollywood!” thriller style, complete with manly heroes with troubled marriages and technical descriptions of how to bag an infected corpse, but from the interviews that surrounded the book’s release, it seems the whole thing is as much del Toro’s fault as Hogan’s.

The Strain (whose title got me off on the wrong foot by reminding me a little too much of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song of the same name, which is about constipation) “updates” the vampire story by (a) taking it to America and (b) providing a scientific explanation of vampirism by having it be the result of a parasitic infection. But both (a) and (b) have been done before, and much better, in I am Legend (which does a lot more with its ideas, besides). The trouble with making vampirism just a plague is you end up with hordes of dumb, blood-hungry vampires roaming the streets, which means you’re really writing about zombies, not vampires. And zombies are, when it comes down to it, a lot less interesting than vampires. Why? Because they’re dumb, and all they do is roam the streets hungering for blood. They’re video game fodder. (I am Legend escapes this dead end because its appeal, for me, is more from it being a Last Man on Earth book, a disaster novel in the Day of the Triffids or War of the Worlds mold, and not what I’d think of as primarily a vampire book.)

What makes vampires interesting, for me, is that as well as being supernatural monsters, they’re human beings. The like us/not like us factor brings out the real power of a monster — monsters only begin to mean something when they’re part human, and it’s monsters with meaning I want. (The exception is when your monster is a pure killing machine, as in the shark from Jaws or the Scott/Giger Alien. It’s this category zombies fall into. (Zombies are dumb, they’ll fall into anything.) But if you’ve got a pure-killing-machine monster, the story has to work on the strength of its human characters. The Strain’s humans have about as much depth as the paper they’re printed on.)

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Let the Right One In, on the other hand, is brilliant. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m dying to.) There’s a brief (and not too successful) attempt in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel to give a scientific explanation for vampirism, but fortunately it’s far enough into the book that it doesn’t matter, and Lindqvist doesn’t try to push it to the point of explaining, for instance, why vampires can’t enter a house till they’re invited, which is (and should stay) a purely supernatural element. The result is that the book’s vampires are weird, dark, and genuinely supernatural — properly disquieting monsters, not merely scientific aberrations.

But what makes the book really work for me is that, as well as being genuine monsters, the vampires are also more human than any others I’ve read about. The basic premise of the book could be couched in those “another twist on the genre” terms I so abhor (“what if there was a vampire, but it was a child“), but simply because the author goes to the bother of creating real characters, and not just out of the victims but out of the vampire itself, the whole thing opens up all sorts of deep, dark possibilities. Right to the end, I had no idea where the book was headed. What was more, it meant the book wasn’t just about another twist on a genre, it was about what all good books should be about — what it means to be human. It’s about childhood, about the way people (normal, non-vampire people) treat each other, and the way they get treated by the world, about the difficulty of finding true friendship amidst all this bleakness, and the lengths people will go to hold onto such friendship should it be found. The presence of a vampire just heightens the drama that was already there — gives it that extra spark and spice, which is what good fantasy does best, raising a story about real human beings that little bit beyond where normal fiction can go.

I was glued to Let the Right One In, and it ended too quickly. The Strain, on the other hand — well, let’s just say I skipped bits.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

matheson_iamlegendEvery so often when I finish a book, I give a little nod and think, “Yeah, this could be a read-in-a-day book.” This is something that goes back to when I was a kid — when, that is, I was a lot more likely to actually have a whole day to dedicate to nothing but reading — though I think it was Garen who was the first to actually perform the feat, by getting through Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth in a single day. Naturally, I felt the need to rise to the challenge; my first book-in-a-day was Doctor Who and the Robots of Death. Since then, I’ve accumulated a short list of titles that can, if the need arises, be called on to be read in a single day.

Now, a read-in-a-day book doesn’t just have to be a short book. In fact, it shouldn’t be too short, otherwise reading it one day doesn’t really mean much. (The Mr Men books are out.) It has to be a book just long enough that reading it really does take most of a day. The most important thing about it is that it should really call out to be read in one day. In other words, it should be exciting, compelling, and absorbing.

I’m happy to say that Richard Matheson’s SF/horror classic, I Am Legend, is a definite addition to this category. The reasons:

First off, its basic premise. Robert Neville is the last human alive on a near-future Earth whose population has been turned into bloodthirsty vampires. Simple, immediately dramatic, and definitely appealing to my particular hunger for man-versus-monster situations (AlienThe Thing, etc.). (I’ve also had several dreams of being in a similar situation, which is always a plus point.)

Secondly, its prose is clear, but not so simple as to be boring. I’ve been reading some Hemmingway short stories recently, and I thought I detected a bit of influence there — though maybe that can be said of all mid-20th century American fiction, I don’t know. Anyway, the images flick off the page as effortlessly as frames in a film.

Thirdly, the story keeps moving. In some cases, there are the situations you just know, from the premise, are going to have to happen. For instance, we know at some point Robert Neville’s just going to have to get caught outside his vampire-proofed home when the sun goes down; it happens. It’s no surprise, but it’s still thrilling. Then there are the turns you don’t expect, and for me, this includes the ending, which I won’t give away, but I will say it was definitely a more intelligent conclusion than you’d expect from a pot-boiler. So this book, as well as being thrilling and readable, is also intelligent.

Thrilling. Readable. Intelligent. The perfect ingredients for a read-in-a-day book.

I Am Legend. I recommend it