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2001: A Space Odyssey

 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a science-fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke and an MGM film with screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Clarke. The film stars Keir Dullea (as Dave Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (as Frank Pool).

2001’s Discovery – via Wikipedia

It is probably best for sci-fi fans to read the novel after seeing the enigmatic film. The novel helps to make sense of the movie, but for me it’s a bit pedantic. On the other hand, the movie is widely regarded as a cinematic classic. It was even on Pope John Paul II’s top 10 list of favorite films. And before the Star Wars debut of 1977, this sci-fi film was a benchmark for all the others.

In a time before CGI and the first moonwalk, 2001 was groundbreaking, and rightly recognized as such. The apes in the opening shots were painstakingly researched and constructed. Actors studied the movement of real apes and were filmed with actual baby apes. Anthropologists were consulted, partly because “Man The Ape” was a resonant theme back then.¹ In fact, in the late 60s, it was hip to be “Anthro.” And the apes in 2001 were leaps and bounds ahead of the apes in the original Planet of the Apes movie (also released in 1968).

Watching the film today, we find some awkward anachronisms that just wouldn’t wash in 2016. For instance, when Dr. Heywood Floyd he arrives in an orbiting space station, he is generically asked by a computer to enter his “Christian Name.” Russians are cast as a sneaky lot (this negative stereotype continuing until the new millennium, around which point Hollywood branched out to find new ethnicities, cultures and personality types for their cardboard cutout characters).²

English: The famous red eye of HAL 9000

The famous red eye of HAL 9000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The special FX in 2001 were mind-bending for 1968. Today they seem pretty lame and most of the sets dated. But we have to remember that this is an older film with big ideas.

With a bare minimum of dialog and certainly no love story, two related themes are explored:

  • The evolution of Mankind
  • Mankind vs. Machine

The machine, a HAL 9000 computer, malfunctions and murders astronaut Frank Pool and several others traveling in suspended animation en route to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel). The catalyst for the Jupiter mission (and for the eventual transformation of Bowman) is a signal emanating from an anomalous, rectangular monolith discovered just underneath the Moon’s surface (TMA-1).

The film tells us that another, identical object was present on Earth at the dawn of mankind, which we see in the opening scenes with the apes. (The novel explains that the monolith was planted by aliens in order to guide mankind’s evolution through the centuries.)

In an eerily dramatic scene, the lone survivor, Dave Bowman, disconnects HAL’s higher processing modules, despite HAL’s psychiatric advice to “take a stress pill, relax, and think it over.” HAL then sings a song learned in “childhood” as his voice processor slows down to nothingness.

The "Star Gate" sequence, one of man...

The “Star Gate” sequence, one of many ground-breaking visual effects. It was primarily for these that Stanley Kubrick won his only personal Academy Award. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bowman is directly transported through an alien gateway to a distant world. Back in the day people used to talk about the “fantastic” special FX of this segment, which nowadays seem unspectacular.

The next segment, perhaps the most interesting and odd, sees Dave in a strange kind of Renaissance room, where he ages rapidly.³ Dying in front of another monolith, he is reborn a Star Child.

In the novel the Star Child orbits the Earth and safely detonates a low-orbiting hydrogen bomb to prevent it from being used for violence. Unsure what to do next, the Star Child will “think of something.” The film, however, leaves us with an ambiguous ending. We see the Star Child in orbit. And that’s it. Close curtain.

On the whole, the screenplay is far more open-ended than the novel. But both portray astronaut Dave Bowman’s metamorphosis in a way consistent with world myths illustrating the mythic cycle of death/rebirth and transformation. So 2001 could be taken as another myth situated in a longstanding tradition of death/rebirth and transformation myths.

Subsequent novels like 2010 (also a film, not nearly as respected by critics), 2064 and 3001 use the literary device of retroactive continuity. Retroactive continuity means that some plot and setting details are modified (or elaborated on) for a greater, holistic sense of coherence. For instance, in the sequel film 2010 we learn that the HAL 9000 was told to lie by Washington, which was incompatible with HAL’s programming. So the computer’s somewhat sinister ‘malfunction’ in 2001 becomes something of an unavoidable, forgivable psychosis ultimately caused by human error, as HAL ironically suggested in the original film.  

Stanley Kubrick

To me, this kind of retroactive continuity detracts from the magic of the original film. Not to mention charm. Perhaps that’s the difference between Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick. One a very talented but essentially pragmatic writer who likes to tie up all the loose ends. The other, a cinematic genius who realizes the value of mystery.

Having said that, Clarke’s novel 3001 explores an idea where human consciousness (Dave Bowman) eventually merges with a computer program (HAL) to create a new kind of hybrid named Halman. And this is an intriguing idea, considering our potentially endless future.

Related » Cylons

Book cover

Book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Desmond Morris published the massive bestseller, The Naked Ape in 1967 and the popular imagination was very much attuned to our roots in Africa along with the mind-boggling achievements of NASA. Oval pottery and anything remotely “tribal” was equally as trendy as rounded plastic chairs. So this film came along at the right time, to put it mildly.

² This constant updating of marginalized types arguably reflects and reinforces the bigotry and xenophobia of a given era.

³ The renaissance room is explained in the book (which itself is based on Clarke’s earlier short story, “The Sentinel”). The aliens have been monitoring Earth. But due to the time it takes for light to travel to their home world, their information about a “normal” living space is dated by a few centuries. Today, we think about wormholes, bending the space-time continuum and the instantaneous transfer of information across space and time. So this explanation seems not only pedantic but also dated. In this regard, the TV show Star Trek (1966-69) was light years ahead with its warp drive and several episodes about time travel.


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Sargon

Image via memory-alpha.wikia.com

In the original Star Trek TV series Sargon is a forceful, intelligent mind residing in a glowing orb. Sargon abducts Captain Kirk and plans to inhabit his body.¹

This fictional Sargon is named after two ancient Sargons who walked this Earth. Sargon I was a Akkadian king (2400 BCE) said to have built Babylon. Sargon II was an Assyrian king (around 700 BCE). Both were successful militarists.

More and more people are saying that the Star Trek franchise has created something of a modern myth. One of the ingredients for Star Trek‘s lasting success is the recasting of elements from history, myth and legend within an optimistic, socially progressive future.

King Sargon II and a Dignatary by Sharon Mollerus

King Sargon II and a Dignatary by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr

Depth psychologists and cultural theorists say that the use of history in storytelling sets off a subconscious resonance, giving a story charm, fascination and, as religious studies scholars would put it, numinous allure.

The use of Sargon in this episode is a good example of calling up the past, injecting it into the present while imagining the future.

¹ Excellent outline of the story » http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Return_to_Tomorrow_%28episode%29


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Seven of Nine

Jeri Ryan aka 7 OF 9 by Jim Bacon

Jim Bacon – Jeri Ryan aka 7 OF 9

Seven of Nine is a  female Borg, masterfully played by actor Jeri Ryan in the American TV series, Star Trek: Voyager.

Originally a human girl (Annika Hansen), Seven of Nine was transformed into a semi-cybernetic entity when assimilated by the Borg during her childhood.

Seven’s humanity was restored when Commander Chakotay stimulated her human memories through a technologically augmented mind-link.

She joined the crew of the starship Voyager and, through trial and error, relearned how to interact appropriately with her fellow human beings and the other bipedal life forms that constitute the ship’s crew.

Seven is a fascinating symbol of something gone wrong, going right again. She adds a new twist to the fall and resurrection motif so common in mythic stories, old and new.


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Sisko, Commander Benjamin

Benjamin Sisko

Benjamin Sisko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commander Benjamin Sisko is the Head of a Federation Space Station located at the edge of a wormhole as portrayed in the American TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

DS9 is a checkpoint for travelers before they enter the farthest reaches of the unknown through the wormhole, and many different species come and go.

Avery Brooks, the black actor who portrays Sisko, was a part-time university professor prior to becoming part of the Star Trek franchise. His mother was one of the first African-American women to receive an Masters degree in music at Northwestern University, USA.

He says he accepted the role to provide black children “who are planning their own funerals the chance to think the long thought, to believe that our people will be alive 300 years hence.”¹

Brooks has appeared on several TV shows and films. He is also a singer who recorded an lp with sax player James Spaulding in a tribute to Duke Ellington.

¹ http://www.oocities.org/area51/corridor/2721/StarTrek/trekterm.htm

 


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Mr. Spock

Can Art 14 (Spock): Matthew Niemi

Can Art 14 (Spock): Matthew Niemi via Flickr

In the TV show Star Trek: The Original Series Mr. Spock is a Vulcan science officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, famously portrayed by actor Leonard Nimoy (1931 – 2015).¹ As Captain Kirk‘s right hand man, Spock plays a pivotal role as the only non-human crew member. In fact, he acts as a foil for not only other characters, but also for some of the prevalent cultural biases of the so-called developed world of the 1960s.

Spock’s father was Vulcan and his mother human. As such he has an internal conflict between suppressing his emotions, which Vulcans are known for, and permitting their expression, as human do.

Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William S...

Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program Star Trek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While this was a clever idea back in the 1960s, the notion that any species would try to live purely on logic, as Vulcans claim to do, seems impractical. Along these lines, the Swiss depth psychiatrist C. G. Jung advocated the integration of thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition (albeit for human beings).

When Star Trek first appeared in 1966, Spock’s skin was reddish in color, he looked more devilish and his speech was somewhat rough. He originally conformed to the “red Martian” stereotype of the 1950s and 60s. But Trek producers quickly became interested in developing a more complex character and Spock’s appearance softened.

His looks became more elfin than devilish and he began to harbor intense emotions under a somewhat fragile veneer of Vulcan rationality. The changes paid off. At times Spock’s popularity among viewers rivaled Kirk’s. The Vulcan psychological, cultural and political tension between logic and emotion is also brought out in Star Trek: Enterprise through the female character, T’Pol.

Zachary Quinto as Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film

Zachary Quinto as Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Director J. J. Abrams’ 2009 hit movie Star Trek brought Spock back into the spotlight. This time Spock is both an old (played by an elderly Leonard Nimoy) and a young man (Zachary Quinto).

The fact that Nimoy is showcased in this blockbuster film while William Shatner (who played the original Captain Kirk) is absent is perhaps telling as to Spock’s ongoing popularity and cultural significance in the 21st century. Or possibly it just tells us more about internal friendships and politics within the Star Trek franchise.

Spock also had a cameo role in the successful film Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). Again, Shatner was not included in this production.

Spock’s signature Vulcan saying “Live Long and Prosper” is perhaps equally popular as the phrase “May the Force be with you” from the Star Wars films—two instances where science fiction has had a significant impact on pop culture.

Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that Nimoy had a difficult time differentiating himself from the Spock character while the original series was in production. Apparently the cool logic of Spock would stay with Nimoy all week and into the weekend, right up to Sunday afternoon. So he’d have Sunday night as Nimoy, only to return to Spock again on Monday morning.²

Vulcan (Star Trek)

Vulcan (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, an asteroid in our solar system was renamed 4864 Nimoy in his honor.³

¹ Younger Trekkies might not know that, at the time of the original series, a certain Dr. Benjamin Spock was a famous pediatrician, child psychologist and bestselling author. So quite possibly the name Spock was chosen in hope that it would resonate with viewers on some level. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Spock

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Nimoy

³ http://www.space.com/29627-leonard-nimoy-asteroid-name.html


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Star Trek: Enterprise

Star Trek: The Tour Beamed up in the Transporter: Conrad Quilty-Harper

Star Trek: The Tour Beamed up in the Transporter: Conrad Quilty-Harper via Flickr

Star Trek: Enterprise, originally called Enterprise, is the most recent incarnation in the Star Trek TV franchise, running for four seasons from 2001-2005. The action is set in the future but before the time of Captain Kirk (of the original series), making it a prequel.

Enterprise is the story of the very first U.S.S. Enterprise, equipped with recently developed warp drive technology, all set to leave Earth and the solar system for deep space exploration.

The alien, technologically superior and emotionless Vulcan race has been on Earth for a while, holding back the Earth’s space program because the ‘overly emotional’ human race wasn’t ready for extended inter-species contact.

Captain Jonathan Archer doesn’t like how Vulcans have been stalling humanity for years, but initial tensions between Archer and his Vulcan Science Officer, T’Pol, gradually resolve into mutual respect.

The series initially received encouraging reviews but its fan base dwindled and, despite attempts at innovation, the show became increasingly lackluster and Enterprise eventually fell out of warp in the TV ratings.

However, Enterprise did have some bright moments amid its steady decline, especially when dealing with the topic of time travel. And the cultural and mythic importance of the entire Star Trek franchise is hard to overlook. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, now includes in its database the word Klingon.

Scott Bakula

Scott Bakula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s some more information from the entry, Jonathan Archer:

Some critics of Star Trek: Enterprise, a series initially with good ratings that steadily dropped, said [Scott] Bakula was miscast or, worse, unworthy of the role. The series was canceled after four seasons, which in the Star Trek universe isn’t a total flop nor a great success.

From watching reruns today it seems the commercial demise of the show wasn’t about casting Bakula as captain. If anything, it was about inconsistent writing (sometimes lapsing into formulaic trash), bad timing and other factors. Co-creator and executive producer Branon Braga once said it pained him when his series wasn’t up to scratch. So even he knew it had problems.

Newer programs like BattleStar Galactica: Reimagined, Kyle XY, Dr. Who (series 1) and Oprhan Black suggest that sci-fi was heading in new directions at warp speed, whereas Enterprise and its writers seemed to be stuck in impulse drive. And for a while, it seemed like the franchise had gone the way of the dinosaur.

Wrong.

Enter director J.J. Abrams with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and others to reboot the idea [in 2009] for a whole new generation.


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Star Trek : The Next Generation

Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Je...

Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Jean-Luc Picard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Star Trek : The Next Generation is the first and highly successful remake of the original Star Trek TV show. The Next Generation ran for seven seasons from 1987-94.

The captain of the new, beefed up United Federation of Planets starship Enterprise is Jean-Luc Picard, played by the British character actor Patrick Stewart. It seems that Stewart was made for the role. His popularity rivals that of William Shatner and the Captain Kirk character.¹

A new cast of characters and innovations such as a holodeck – where interactive environments are created through holograms – are added. Also noteworthy is the fact that Klingons are no longer arch enemies of the Federation. Lt. Commander Worf, a Klingon, serves on the new Enterprise. And whenever the crew is unhappy or estranged by its various space adventures, a psychological counselor, Deanna Troi, is available.

Another memorable character is Lieutenant Commander Data. He is an android who, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, wants to know what it’s like to be human. And “Q,” played by actor John de Lancie, was something akin to a classical Greek or Roman god in that he had powers and knowledge extending beyond our normal understanding of space and time. Also like the pagan gods, he abused these powers in childish ways and even challenged the authority of the Q Continuum (the ruling body of the Q, representing the status quo), resulting in Q’s frequent punishment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most formidable new enemy of the Federation is the Borg, a horrid collective of cyborgs who suck the life and technological knowledge out of any living creature deemed worthy of its cold malice.

These and other innovations made TNG rival the original Star Trek series in terms of sheer creativity. This isn’t surprising because Gene Roddenberry, the producer of the original show, was directly involved in TNG.

TNG‘s immense popularity attracted the film star Whoopi Goldberg,who played the super-intuitive bartender and wise advisor Guinan. Goldberg apparently approached the producers of TNG, expressing her desire to be on the show.

Other notable guest actors in the show in show include Erich Anderson, Billy Campbell, Nikki Cox, Ronny Cox, Olivia d’Abo, Kirsten Dunst, Mick Fleetwood, Matt Frewer, Walter Gotell, Kelsey Grammer, Bob Gunton, Teri Hatcher, Stephen Hawking (as himself), Famke Janssen, Mae Jemison, Ken Jenkins, Ashley Judd, Sabrina Le Beauf, Christopher McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Terry O’Quinn, Michelle Phillips, Gina Ravera, Jean Simmons, Paul Sorvino, Brenda Strong, James Worthy, Tracey Walter, Liz Vassey, David Ogden Stiers, Ray Wise, and John Tesh

Several films based directly on the TV series were released at theatres: Star Trek Generations (1994); Star Trek: First Contact (1996); Star Trek: Insurrection (1998); Star Trek Nemesis (2002). TNG video games have also been released.

Cover of the US release of the first I, Claudi...

Cover of the US release of the first I, Claudius DVD. There has since been a remastered edition with a different cover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Stewart has taken on many significant roles. In the 1970s, before Star Trek, he played Sejanus in the highly acclaimed BBC series, I Claudius. An ambitious Roman soldier cum commander who gained power through cunning and deception, for me, Stewart’s Sejanus is overplayed. His facial expressions and head movements are often overdone. It’s almost as if Stewart hadn’t settled down yet. I’m not sure a younger Stewart could have played the rock solid Captain Picard that many of us have come to know. Rumors abound that, before becoming Picard, Stewart didn’t know anything about Star Trek or sci-fi, for that matter. Apparently he missed doing Shakespeare and more “serious” roles while committed to Star Trek.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation