Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Star Trek: Beyond the Farthest Star

My friend Maurice Mitchell and I are embarking on a new journey to watch all 22 episodes of Star Trek's animated series.  We'll be posting on Wednesdays.  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of our adventure.

But first, an acknowledgement of the great loss suffered by the Star Trek community this past week.   There isn't much I can say about Leonard Nimoy that hasn't already been said.  Spock is Trek.  Nimoy was Spock, and a whole lot more.  He lived long and he prospered.  The legacy will certainly outlive the man.
via Wikipedia
RIP, old friend.  Thank you for sharing part of your journey with us.

Episode: "Beyond the Farthest Star"
Series: Star Trek: The Animated Series
Season 1, Episode 1
Original Air Date: September 8, 1973
via Memory Alpha
Four years after cancellation, Star Trek was thriving in syndication.   Fans clamored for new stories and a Saturday morning cartoon was the result.  The show's run was very short, only 22 episodes over two seasons.  The jury's still out on the place of the series in the overall franchise canon.  But this much is beyond dispute: since 1969, these 22 episodes are the only new stories about the original characters to air on network television.  As such, they're certainly worth a gander.

"Beyond the Farthest Star" finds our heroes exploring the outermost rim of the galaxy, thus the title.  Pulled into the orbit of a dead star, the Enterprise finds another ship in a similar predicament, apparently trapped for the past 300 million years!  Our friends manage to pull away, but not before a non-corporeal entity sneaks onto the Enterprise and gains control of the starship.

The story is solid Trek.  Losing control of the ship to a more powerful being is a long-standing formula.  Our heroes win by convincing their nemesis that they would rather destroy themselves than submit to its domination, knowing the damage it could do to others.  The franchise's moral compass is intact.  There's some subtle elegance in the storytelling, too.  The tale begins and ends with essentially identical log entries about star charting - rather Jabberwocky-esque.

The animation is a mixed bag.  Characters are very stiff, almost like shadow puppets.  But everything else is gorgeous.  One of the advantages of an animated show in that era was that you didn't have to worry about special effects.  If you could draw it, you're all set.  The alien ship the Enterprise crew discovered is genuinely beautiful and would have been a major challenge to produce in a live-action show.

Overall, a strong opening offer.  There are no references in future Star Trek stories, though a similar narrative is explored in the third season TNG episode, "Booby Trap."

*****
via Memory Alpha
Arex

Animation also allowed the introduction of characters who would have been challenging to produce with contemporary makeup capablities.  The absence of Chekov in the animated series also left the navigator's chair open for Lieutenant Arex, a member of a tripedal species called either Edosians or Triexians depending on whom you ask.  Arex is seen in "Beyond the Farthest Star," though not voiced.  In later episodes, James Doohan was his voice.  Arex would have a life beyond the animated series, appearing in both novels and comic books.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, please add your link to the list below.  In the meantime, please visit Maurice and any others who are participating.  Next week: "Yesteryear."


Sunday, March 1, 2015

On the Road: Pastéis de Nata

Our new February break tradition is a short family vacation in Montreal.  The city is just a couple hours from our house in northwest Vermont, yet it is an entirely different world: urban, multi-lingual, cosmopolitan, etc.  A couple days is enough to provide an escape from our much quieter country life, and also to remind us why we chose it.  A few highlights from this year's trip:

The city of Montreal doesn't have a zoo, exactly.  Instead, it has the Biodome.  The animal exhibits are divided into four replicated ecosystems:  Tropical Forest, Laurentian Forest, The Saint Lawrence Marine Eco-system and a polar area divided into both Arctic and Antarctic.  Within each zone, the animals wander more or less freely.  Climates are carefully controlled so the tropics are warm and humid whereas the Laurentian zone is set for brisk autumn.  There are a few larger mammals and reptiles.  We saw caimans and a capybara in the tropical zone.  Most of the animals in the Lauentian forest were asleep, including a Canadian lynx, whom we had seen on a previous visit.

Most of the animals on offer are birds.  The tropical ones are the most colorful, including turquoise tanagers and scarlet ibises (surely on the short list of the world's most beautiful animals).  There are puffins in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic.  The latter, of course, were our main reason for coming.  As mentioned in previous posts, our daughter is penguin-crazy.  The Biodome has four penguin species in all, including the regal king penguins.  The display is not as engaging as the the one at the New England Aquarium in Boston.  There is plexiglass between birds and humans.  On the one hand, it allows one to be physically closer to the birds and surely helps with climate control.  But there's something nice about being in the same room with the penguins, hearing them, smelling them, almost feeling they could splash you if they felt like it.  Even so, we were glad to see them.

My main objective for the trip was the Pâtisserie Notre-Dame du Rosaire, a bakery that specializes in Portuguese treats.  As discussed here, I am currently exploring breakfast traditions around the world.  The Portuguese are into pastries and when I looked up the recipe for the favorite choice - pastéis de nata - I instantly realized it was beyond my own current baking capabilities.  While I might learn to make them eventually, best first to try one to see if they're worth it.
The bakery was different from what I expected - better.  The website suggests a sleek, modern operation with the usual French varieties with a few Portuguese offerings.  But the reality is a more quaint shop in a traditional ethnic neighborhood known as Little Portugal.  The natas consist of an egg custard in a tart shell.  The pâtisserie had the traditional, sugar custard (top left corner) but also other options including maple (a Canadian variation?) and chocolate.  Verdict: they're delicious and well worth learning to make myself someday.

Our best meal of the trip was our dinner at Saka-Ba!, a ramen restaurant in the Mont-Royal neighborhood.  I yearn for the traditional noodle shops I knew in Japan and, not surprisingly, have never been able to find quite their equal in North America (though there is a place near the Time-Life building in New York that comes close).  The reviews for Saka-Ba! were good so we had high hopes.  The food was excellent.  My kimchi ramen was outstanding, and so spicy I couldn't even finish it.  In my book, that's a very good thing!  The ladies both went with more traditional choices and were thoroughly satisfied.  The atmosphere was less pleasing - more singles bar than homey Japanese izakaya.  Come to think of it, the atmosphere of the bakery was really what I wanted for the ramen shop, too.  Oh well, you can't have it all.  The noodles were plenty good enough to make up for the noise.

Overall, it was a most enjoyable visit.  We stayed closer to downtown this year at the Hotel Quartier de Spectacles, right on Rue St. Catherine and just around the corner from the nearest subway station.  We didn't have quite as nice a room this year but breakfast was better (though not included gratis).  As ever, it's nice to be back home but I look forward to future Montreal adventures.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2015 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, March 27th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:


Friday, February 27, 2015

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: February 2015

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Aya
Writer: Marguerite Abouet
Artist: Clément Oubrerie
via Amazon
Aya is the first in a series of graphic novels about the writer's experiences growing up in Ivory Coast in the 1970s.  The '70s were a time of relative stability and optimism in West Africa, after independence but before the destructive horrors of civil war.  So, Aya doesn't dwell on the topics we've come to expect from African literature like war, famine and disease.  Instead, it offers a slice of life from a part of the world most of the rest of us know nothing about.

The titular character is a teenage girl, a bit older than the author herself would have been at the time.  She is sweet, responsible and ambitious but her friends just want to go out dancing with boys.  The main story of this first edition centers on one friend, Adjoua, who finds herself pregnant.  But who is the father?  In fact, the basic plot isn't specific to Africa at all - could just as easily take place in an American or European city.

Since the age of twelve, the author has lived in France, where the book was first published.  The illustrator is her husband, Clément Oubrerie.  The series - six volumes in all, four translated to English so far - has been very successful in France, even spawning an animated film.  I'm definitely interested in reading more.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post March's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is March 27th.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What Is Star Trek?

via Memory Alpha
Over the past two years, I have watched every single episode of Star Trek's original series, most of them for the first time in my life.  I began my journey with a question: how did this show, one that struggled to stay on the air, manage to become one of the dominant forces in worldwide science fiction?  Star Trek was even lucky to be syndicated, having only completed three seasons in an era when most shows weren't considered without at least four.  But those three seasons eventually begat another 27 over five spinoff series plus twelve feature films, the most recent pulling in $467 million at the box office.  A 13th movie is already in the works for release in 2016, the 50th anniversary year of the franchise.  Take that, Bonanza!

How did this happen?  What is it about this one science fiction program that inspired such a legacy?  To be sure, the quality of stories was strong in the beginning, the characters appealing.  World building was excellent, though that could be said for any number of other shows on TV in the late 1960s.  High tech sci-fi was fun but not exactly unprecedented.  No, there was something more to it.  Over time, as I got to know the characters better and understand the relationships between them, I believe I figured it out.  Or at least I found what makes Trek work for me, which seems as good a place to start as any.

Trekkies traditionally fall into two camps: those who prefer the original series (TOS) and those who prefer The Next Generation (TNG) and its successors.  I went into this adventure with a strong TNG bias.  I knew the later show better and preferred, among other things, its stronger character development, long one of the main arguments from the TNG wing.  Most of TOS focuses on three characters: James Kirk, Captain; Spock, First Officer, and Leonard McCoy, Chief Medical Officer.  Back stories on even those three are scant in comparison to the rich personal histories granted TNG's Enterprise crew.  79 episodes later, I still feel the argument falls in TNG's favor.  But the argument misses the point.

The original Star Trek is ultimately driven not by the individual characteristics of the three leading men but by the dynamics of the relationship between them.  Any casual fan could tell you that Spock is the constant, reliable voice of Logic.  It doesn't take long, then, to recognize the temperamental McCoy as an advocate for Emotion.  In weighing the input of his two advisers, Kirk must exercise Judgment.  Sometimes, he decides in favor of Spock, other times McCoy, but usually somewhere in between.  The consideration is the important thing as the three lead their faithful crew in exploring the unknown.

But to what end?  This id-ego-superego arrangement was all very clever but not enough to explain small children wearing Vulcan ears at ComicCon nearly half a century later.  A quick glance around the Enterprise bridge set offers other clues.  Over the captain's right shoulder sits Lt. Uhura, Chief Communications Officer, an African character played by an African American woman.  In the foreground are Lt. Sulu, Helmsman, and Ensign Chekov, Navigator.  Sulu is played by a Japanese American who had spent part of his childhood in internment camps.  Chekov is portrayed as Russian.  Those choices were not accidental.

Star Trek, like any creative expression, was a product of its own time and place.  Casting an African American woman in a position of authority for the first time in American television history was no subtle gesture during the ongoing Civil Rights Movement of the mid-to-late '60s.  Nor was creating a sympathetic Asian character at a time when the nation had been at war in East Asia for much of the previous quarter century.  Nor was establishing a likeable Russian character during the darkest depths of the Cold War.  And let's not forget, there was that guy with the pointy ears, too.  In 1966, many Americans were marching, others burning draft cards, others forming a new counterculture - all in protest of government policies.  Gene Roddenberry, a former military pilot and policeman who had seen plenty of the world's evils first hand, didn't do any of those things.  Instead, he created a television show.

Roddenberry sold Star Trek as "a Wagon Train to the stars."  But his vision for the project obviously ran a lot deeper.  The strongest forces in American science fiction to that point had been Flash Gordon and B-movie horrors.  In both idioms, the approach to alien life forms was get them before they get us.  Along with the bright colors, the cool gadgets and all the other bells and whistles, Star Trek brought a new approach to confronting "the other."  Those folks working together on the bridge of the Enterprise were a sign of a more enlightened time in Earth's history.  Having learned to get along better with one another, humanity was worthy of engaging with alien species.  Encounters with unfamiliar beings would not be driven by conquest, exploitation or conversion.  We would learn from the new, not destroy it.

The early converts were few but devoted.  For the broader populace, the idea required simmering.  Two decades later, when new stories found their way to television, the names had changed but the basic philosophy remained.  In the end, it hardly matters if one prefers Kirk or Picard.  Star Trek is no one character or even cast of characters.  Trek is an approach to the unknown, weighing Logical and Emotional considerations with thoughtful Judgment.  Trek is hope for a better world.  That's why we still care 50 years later.

*****

It's time to hand out the hardware...

Favorite Episode: "Journey to Babel"

Sarek and Amanda, Spock's parents, are aboard the Enterprise en route to a diplomatic conference.  Sarek suffers a "cardiovascular malfunction."  Only a transfusion of Spock's blood can save him and the son readily submits to an experimental procedure to save the life of the father.  Duty to the Enterprise, however, interferes with the treatment and Spock must choose between his loyalties to family and Starfleet.  Sarek and Spock both know logic dictates that the mission should come first but Amanda, Spock's human mother, disagrees.  She confronts her son in private.  When Spock stands his ground, she slaps him and storms out of the room.  We never see Spock's face after the slap.  He moves towards the closed door and rests a hand on it.  That simple gesture tells us everything we need to know about Spock.  No contest: Trek's finest moment.


Least Favorite Episode: "The Way to Eden"

The Enterprise picks up a band of hippy types in search of their own utopia.  They sing truly awful songs.  There are probably weaker stories in Star Trek but none made me cringe quite like those songs.


Favorite Character, First Tier: Spock
via Memory Alpha
You can talk Kirk vs. Picard all you want.  There's only one Spock.  As much as I've grown to appreciate both Kirk and McCoy, the half-Vulcan first officer is the iconic face of the franchise.  I don't always agree with him.  I don't even always like him.  But picking either of the others as my favorite would feel disingenuous.  Many of the best stories in Star Trek revolve around his self-identity struggles.  All due credit to Leonard Nimoy, easily one of the greatest casting choices in the history of television.

Favorite Character, Second Tier: Uhura
via Memory Beta
Lt. Nyota Uhura was a revolution all her own.   Nichelle Nichols was one of the first African-American actors to be cast on American television in anything other than a servant role.  None other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan of Star Trek, thanks in no small part to Uhura.  Nichols met King after the first season and confessed that she was thinking of leaving the show to resume her stage career.  Citing her cultural significance, he convinced her to stay.

Uhura is more than just a political statement.  Of Trek's second tier of characters, she is the most nuanced.  On the bridge, she projects a confident, yet gentle demeanor.  In the officer's lounge, she sings to her crew mates.  Nichols herself has admitted that her favorite stories are the ones in which she wears civilian clothes and projects a more sensual femininity.


Favorite Guest Star: Mark Lenard
via Memory Alpha
Lenard appears in two of my favorite episodes as two entirely different characters.  In the first season's "Balance of Terror," he is the unnamed Romulan Commander.  In "Journey to Babel," he is Sarek, Spock's Vulcan father.  In the first story, he achieves a remarkable combination of bone-chilling and heart-wrenching in his final communication with Kirk as his own ship crumbles around him.  In the second, he provides an unforgettable prototype for the stoic Vulcan male.


10 Must-See Episodes

If ever a friend or loved one should ask me for a quick tour of Star Trek's originals, I would offer the following collection, in order of original air date:

"The Corbomite Maneuver" - The first, clear glimpse of Star Trek's moral compass.

"Balance of Terror" - Our introduction to the Romulans, this was my favorite first season episode.  The exchanges between Kirk and the Romulan Commander are exquisite.

"Space Seed" - We meet Khan, one of Star Trek's most important recurring characters.  Again, the highlight is the verbal sparring between Kirk and a powerful nemesis.

"Errand of Mercy" - Our introduction to the Klingons.  The Federation and the Klingon Empire vie for control of the planet, Organia.  The natives are peaceful and seemingly helpless.  In a wonderful turn, the Organians turn out to be quite powerful indeed and send both of the other parties away with a good scolding.  Our heroes aren't morally irreproachable after all.

"City on the Edge of Forever" - The most revered episode of the original run, I can't say it's my favorite.  It's a time travel narrative and Star Trek doesn't usually do well with those, in my opinion.  But the overall quality is undeniable and I would not be a good guide if I did not include it in my tour.

"Amok Time" - We get to visit the planet Vulcan.  Enough said.

"Mirror, Mirror" - Through a transporter malfunction, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura find themselves in a parallel universe where the Enterprise functions within entirely different moral parameters.  The cultural meme of evil twins with goatees derives directly from this episode.

"The Journey to Babel" - My favorite of the whole bunch.  See above.

"The Trouble with Tribbles" - A much mocked episode by the uninitiated, the tribbles tale is actually quite clever, a highly effective demonstration of narrative misdirection.  It was nominated for three Emmys and a Hugo.

"The Enterprise Incident" - One third season episode made it on the list after all.  Kirk and Spock infiltrate a Romulan ship in order to steal its cloaking device.  We learn a lot about the Romulans in this story, mostly through the ship's commander, one of Star Trek's best female characters.

*****

The fun continues next week.  Beginning Wednesday, March 4th, fellow blogger Maurice Mitchell and I will be exploring Star Trek: The Animated Series one episode at a time.  You're welcome to join us!  Details are here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Victims of a Map

Title: Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry
Authors: Adonis, Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim
via Amazon
Poetry is an ancient and revered art form in the Arab world.  Verse consistently outsells prose many times over.   Adonis, Darwish and al-Qasim are three of the most prominent modern practitioners.  Darwish and al-Qasim, both now deceased, were Palestinian.  Adonis is Syrian.  The lives, careers and poetry of all three were shaped profoundly by the political turmoil of the region, thus this collection's wonderful title: Victims of a Map.  The book contains 45 poems in all, 15 from each writer.  Each is printed in both Arabic and English, some for the first time in either language.

I don't know if I'm a poetry person.  I enjoy it.  I admire it.  But I don't know if I'll ever be one to happily curl up with a book of verse for hours on end.  I've tried: Byron, Shakespeare, Frost, haiku, etc.  It's lovely a little bit at a time, like a literary snack.  But as an entree?  I just don't think it's me.

The work here is enjoyable, and certainly quick.  Few of the poems are long.  "How I Became an Article" by al-Qasim is only two lines:

They killed me once
Then wore my face many times

The longest piece is Adonis's "The Desert (The Diary of Beirut Under Siege, 1982)" with 35 stanzas.

The imagery of the poems is beautiful and disturbing.  I'm sure I'm missing a great deal without being able to experience the text in the original language but so it goes.  Of the three, I enjoyed al-Qasim's style the best: short, economic and potent.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

My Oscar Predictions

87th Oscars.jpg
"87th Oscars" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Happy Oscar Night to all!  The following are my predictions for the award winners, everything but the shorts.  Please note, these are the movies I think will win, not the ones I believe should.  I haven't seen enough of them to be a worthy judge of that.  Over the course of the evening, I will shade the ones I get right in red and the ones I get wrong in blue, with the actual winners indicated.  Here we go:

BEST PICTURE: Boyhood
Winner: Birdman

BEST DIRECTING: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Winner: Alejandro Iñárritu, Birdman

BEST ACTOR: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Birdman

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: The Theory of Everything
Winner: The Imitation Game

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Winner: Big Hero 6

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Leviathan
Winner: Ida

BEST DOCUMENTARY - FEATURE: Citizenfour

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "Glory," Selma

BEST SOUND EDITING: Birdman
Winner: American Sniper

BEST SOUND MIXING: Whiplash

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Birdman

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST FILM EDITING: Whiplash

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Interstellar