Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Immunity Syndrome" (January 19, 1968)

Stardate: 4307.1

On trajectory for Starbase 6 -- and shore leave -- the Enterprise and her exhausted crew are unexpectedly diverted by Starfleet to Sector 39J, where something terrible has happened to system Gamma 7A.  

That inhabited system contained two billion life forms.  All are now dead.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) psychically experiences the death of the starship Intrepid, a vessel manned entirely by Vulcans.

Upon investigation, the Enterprise encounters a zone of darkness in space. As the starship probes the void, the crew finds something at its heart: a “giant, single celled animal” made of protoplasm.  This amoeba-like creature, according to Spock, is more than 11,000 miles long, and is “invading our galaxy like a virus.”

Unfortunately, further study of the amoeba suggests that the organism mimics all functions of terrestrial life, meaning that it eats, breathes, and can reproduce.  It seems to eat energy, and life force too, and could be preparing to spawn more of its own, dangerous kind.  It is destructive, Spock concludes, to all known forms of life.

Kirk must make a difficult decision when he decides to send a shuttle to deposit an anti-matter magnetic bottle in the colossal space amoeba, which McCoy (De Forest Kelley) describes as “the greatest living laboratory” in the galaxy.  

Since it is a suicide mission, which of his friends -- Spock, or Bones -- should Kirk condemn to death?

“The Immunity Syndrome” is another “galaxy destroyer” episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) second season.  In stories of this formula, a force with destructive capacity beyond human understanding threatens to destroy whole swaths of the galaxy, until the Enterprise saves the day.

Already in Season Two, the Enterprise has vanquished destroyers such as Nomad (“The Changeling,”), the Planet Killer (“The Doomsday Machine”) and the Vampire Cloud (“Obsession.”)  This week, the 11,000 mile long space amoeba gets the same treatment.

“The Doomsday Machine” is the greatest episode of this particular narrative type, filled with dramatic character interaction, and heaps of tension and suspense.  It’s the best of the formula, and, actually, one of the very best episodes of Star Trek ever produced (which is saying something).

Episodes of this type tend to be painted on a large -- perhaps too large -- canvas.  Here for instance, two billion life-forms die, and yet by the end of the hour, Kirk is making eyes at a good looking yeoman and commenting about taking shore leave on a “lovely planet.”  

I’ll be brutally honest: killing 400 Vulcans on the Intrepid is “quite sufficient.”  There's no need to raise the stakes so high...to the billions.  

Especially since billions were just eradicated in “The Changeling.”

Just how many ravaging, super-galactic monsters are roaming the Alpha Quadrant in 2268, anyway? 

And would the space faring civilians of a society like the Federation feel safe traveling anywhere with such holocausts occurring simultaneously, in manned space?

In the Federation history books, this year must be remembered as particularly catastrophic.

Still, it’s clear, at least, that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) -- a film I love and admire -- takes some elements from this tale, namely the Enterprise’s (dangerous) journey into the interior of an alien life form. 

Also, much like the first Star Trek movie, most of the action in this episode takes place on the bridge of the Enterprise.  It doesn't possess much visual distinction, though I love the original effects of the Enterprise approaching the amoeba.

One more similarity: Both "The Immunity Syndrome" and the first feature film also resolve when Spock is involved in a probe -- whether aboard a shuttle, or in a thruster suit -- deeper into the giant, enemy entity.

After a season including the similar tales “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Changeling,” “The Immunity Syndrome” doesn’t feel, perhaps, like a good choice regarding its particular narrative. It’s too familiar, and too predictable, and ramping up the death count -- 2 billion! -- doesn’t make the story any more suspenseful or exciting.

In fact, the episode has, at points, an unpleasant aura.  Since the giant space amoeba is draining the life of the crew, everyone is exhausted, suffering, and at their worst. This quality isn’t especially appealing to watch for fifty minutes.

However, taking the opposite tack, I do appreciate that “The Immunity Syndrome” finally comes down to something very dramatic, and something that truly matters: the agonizing choices a starship commander must make.  

Kirk has an unenviable task in this episode. He must choose which of his officers should die.  It’s not just that both Spock and McCoy are his friends, and he would hate to lose either. It’s that he must choose and decide who can best accomplish the mission.  

Kirk does make the choice, without shirking or delaying it, and it’s the right one. But I wouldn’t want to stand in his shoes. If he chooses right, and the ship is saved, there is still every likelihood he loses; sacrificing a friend and vital crew-member.  Fortunately, Spock survives.

Kirk’s choice, and the competition between Spock and Bones to lead the dangerous mission are the best elements of “The Immunity Syndrome.”  When Spock is chosen, and Bones needles him, Spock asks to grant him (Vulcan) dignity in the situation. McCoy, however, is upset not to have been chosen and says he can’t grant what he doesn’t understand. 

It’s a powerful character moment for both Spock and McCoy.

This episode also offers a splendid comparison between Spock and Bones.

Spock seems to want to go on the suicide mission because he knows he can best endure the journey. It is a logical choice for him to go, as the ship will be saved, and the research will be completed.  

By contrast, Bones wants to go, it seems, because he is excited by the possibility of discovering something new, of increasing the Federation's bank of knowledge or research. 

"The Immunity Syndrome" provides an interesting window on how each of these fine officers thinks, and how each views their role.

So, “The Immunity Syndrome” possesses merit. It asks us to weigh a commander’s difficult choice, and then it shows the impact of that choice on the men most responsible for carrying out the commander’s orders. 

I also find the starship Intrepid, and its fate, to be a fascinating aspect of both Star Trek in-universe history, and Star Trek’s influence on later popular science fiction ventures. 

On the former front, we learn that Starfleet has manned an entire starship -- 400 + individuals -- with Vulcans.  I wonder why this is the case, and why Starfleet made the decision to man the ship in this fashion. It might have been interesting to learn that other starships are primarily Andorian, or Tellarite majority.

On the latter front, there is a scene early in “The Immunity Syndrome” when Spock, at his console, reacts with pain and dismay, to the faraway destruction of the starship Intrepid. He feels, psychically, the loss of life. 

In Star Wars (1977), Ben Kenobi experiences a very similar moment on the Millennium Falcon, when he feels Alderaan die, in near identical fashion. 

We know from George Lucas himself that he watched Star Trek reruns while writing Star Wars (hence technology commonalities such as tractor beams and cloaking devices in both universes), and one has to wonder if “The Immunity Syndrome” was rerun at one point during his creative process.

So the question is: do Vulcans tap into the Force?

Next week: “A Private Little War.”

The Films of 2016: Morgan

[Beware of Spoilers]

Morgan (2016) is the directorial debut of Luke Scott, Ridley Scott’s son. Genre maestro Ridley Scott is the film’s producer. These facts prove illuminating in terms of a deeper understanding of this particular science fiction/horror film.

Where other critics have made invidious comparisons between Morgan and Ex Machina (2015), or Morgan and Splice (2010), the films to discuss here are likely Blade Runner (1982) and Prometheus (2012).

In short, Morgan concerns mankind’s unease with his/her own creation: artificial people.  That’s a recurring Scott theme; one you can see through several of his genre master works (including Alien [1979]).

Whether we choose to term these unusual beings replicants, synthetics, or hybrids is largely immaterial. Nomenclature aside, they are children of humanity and yet, at the same time, not fully human. And even though they are “made” by man (specifically, corporations), man never quite trusts them, it seems.

In fact, as Blade Runner, Prometheus and Morgan make plain, man deeply and instinctively fears this brand of progeny. After completing the act of creation, it seems, mankind stands seems ready to commit an act of destruction, snuffing out that which he has given birth to.

In one way or another, Blade Runner, Prometheus and Morgan all revolve around mankind’s inability to accept his artificial child/creation as his own heir. In all three films, man has played God, but doesn’t seem to want to parent.

In all three films, parental figures also prove cold, emotionally unavailable, and largely self-absorbed, leaving the (artificial) child without the guidance he or she needs to mature adequately. In some circumstances, the children turn violent towards their parents because of this “void” in parenting.

Morgan is a fascinating and compelling genre film, but one made all the more so if the viewer weighs it as a crucial piece of a multi-decade Scott cinematic trilogy concerning mankind and artificial intelligence; an unofficial franchise dedicated to exploring the relationship between man and a being who, finally, could -- one day -- replace man.

Ex Machina was terrific (as was Splice, actually…) but it’s almost a shame that Ex Machina remains so close in the memory for so many. Some critics want to hark back to that particular film to put down Morgan as somehow being derivative or inferior. Instead, Morgan is merely the latest work of art by producer Scott to explore the parental dynamic as it applies not to biology, but an uncanny mixture of technology and biology.

These films ask us, explicitly: can we love that which looks like us, but is not, finally, a reflection of us, in terms of psychology?

Morgan reminds us that humanity cannot yet see an artificial child (or replicant one) as truly belonging to him; and thus truly possessing the same rights and privilege we reserve for ourselves and fellow organic creatures.

Instead, humanity views these beings as ones that we created, but which are less evolved, somehow, than we are.

If one gazes at Morgan is a prequel to Blade Runner and Prometheus, the film veritably opens up as a subject of analysis, with scenes that resonate beautifully across the “unofficial” Scott trilogy.

“Above all, preserve the asset.”

After a trademarked artificial/hybrid human – a teenage girl named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) -- attacks one of the scientists caring for her, Dr. Greiff (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), an investigation commences. 

A no-nonsense risk assessment specialist, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to Morgan’s remote, countryside facility on behalf of the corporation, SECT, to determine an appropriate course of action.
Lee’s mission may prove to be one of containment, shutting down Morgan’s experiment, or one of assassination, Dr. Greiff fears. Lee is noncommittal about her ultimate course of action, choosing to interview the scientists and staff about Morgan’s violent “temper tantrum.”

Another specialist, Dr. Shapiro (Paul Giamitti) also arrives at the installation to conduct a psychological evaluation of Morgan. He pushes her during that evaluation, causing a repeat of her violent outburst…

“There was joy in her heart before we shoved her back in that box.”

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) opens with a scene in which a law enforcement official administers a test, Voight-Kampff, to a replicant. It is, importantly, a psychological test. And it provokes a murderous response on the part of that replicant.

The central scene in Morgan deliberately reiterates this dynamic.

The arrogant, imperious Shapiro -- another establishment figure, like the blade runner -- tests the unstable artificial person, causing an explosive response by doing so. In both cases, the forces of authority trigger the key weakness of the child-like individual, a vulnerability based on psychology. 

The replicants and Morgan don’t “know themselves” and are unsure of “human” matters, like friendship, social connection, family, and parents.  In both cases, an attack on this psychological weak link results in the artificial person resorting to physical violence.

The scene in Morgan, however, plays like bullying. In Blade Runner, we are shocked by the replicant’s resort to violence. In Morgan, we are shocked that the artificial person holds back as long as she does.

Another connection to Blade Runner is revealed only in Morgan’s final sequence. Suffice it to say, Morgan gets the ending that Ridley Scott had hoped to give to the 1982 film, but was not able to, for reasons of commerce.

Specifically, the hunter or prosecutor of the artificial person is revealed to be an artificial person too. Once more, this revelation suggests two things: psychological instability on the part of this new race (and child of man), but also a second-class status for these people. They are assigned tasks no others would want, including the prosecution (and assassination) of their own kind. They have become murderous servants of man, killing their own brothers and sisters.

Morgan becomes even more intriguing after a second viewing, when one understands the film’s outcome, and watches how the second artificial person navigates matters such as sexual attraction. On retrospect, the responses are completely understandable, given a synthetic person’s lack of understanding of or familiarity with human nature, and human interaction.

As for Morgan herself, she has much in common with both Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Prometheus’s David (Michael Fassbender).

Like Batty, Morgan possesses a survival instinct, and the inability to control bouts of rage. 

Like David, she is both obsequious to her human “friends” and, simultaneously, able to betray them for an agenda if necessary.  Like David, Morgan also surrounds herself with human things: human music and art, in particular.  If David has a fondness for cinema, Morgan does for opera.

Blade Runner, Prometheus, and Morgan also feature three amoral corporations (Tyrell, Weyland Industries, and SECT), and three versions of “cold” parents.

In Blade Runner, Tyrell has given no consideration to his replicants, and the fact that they might wish to outlive their four year life-span. He is a father who has created life, but does not care about what happens to that life once it is out in the world.

Weyland, in Prometheus, is not much better a father figure. He treats David like the “lesser” child in his family, noting -- in public, no less -- that David possesses no soul. Also, he ignores David’s search for meaning in life, in favor of his own search for meaning. As the parent, Weyland puts his needs first, and expects David to put those needs at the top of his list as well.

And finally, we have the character that Morgan identifies as her mother, in Morgan: Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh). Dr. Cheng, in the past, has murdered her own “children” (synthetic beings) when they became dangerous. When Morgan becomes dangerous too, she falls back on the same behavior. She shows no emotion, no caring, when she orders Morgan to be executed.  In fact, Cheng rejects Morgan completely, especially after Morgan has the audacity to call her what she is: “Mother.”

The three films in this unofficial trilogy all contend with one core idea: the meaning of life. Is it any different for synthetic beings than it is for organic ones?

Roy Batty wants to outlive his termination date, so that the things he has seen -- the memories he has accumulated -- aren’t simply lost, like tears in rain.

David wants to understand why he was created. And if he can understand why the Engineers created mankind, he will be one step closer to his answer. 

And Morgan is learning to become herself, intriguingly, through her interfaces with nature, in the wild. She rebels in the first place because her outside time, in the woods, is taken away. She cannot feel the same freedom to explore herself in the installation, apparently. Her closest friend is Amy (Rose Leslie), her “eco therapist,” who introduces her to the larger world, beyond her cell.

All three characters -- Batty, David, and Morgan – are very acutely on a journey of self-discovery; of transcending their built-in limits. In all cases, they are actually impeded by their creators/parents, who don’t seem to believe they are unique, sentient life forms.  Instead, these adults would rather destroy them for making a mistake than help them learn from that mistake.

Batty and Morgan, at least, don’t get second chances. They step out of their “role” and are hunted and exterminated.

In some senses, the theme of Morgan is similar indeed to that which we saw in Splice. Basically, it goes like this: we are ultimately treated by our children in the same manner that we treat them.

I feel that this too is a lesson, overall of the unofficial Scott trilogy. It is clear that corporations like Tyrell, Weyland and SECT will create artificial life, and trademark it. As they do so, they will also attempt to abrogate the rights of those they have created, either with mandatory termination dates, or through behavior which renders them second class citizen, and subject, finally, to bigotry. In Morgan, Lee notes on at least two occasions that Morgan is not a “she” and but rather the property of the corporation, lacking human rights.

The “children” in these cases are all treated badly, and -- surprise, surprise -- treat their parents badly as a result.  They learn from their relationships with their parents how to be duplicitous, how to be violent, how to kill.

Morgan is a coming of age story for a synthetic person (or persons, in the final analysis). Morgan’s uncertainty and instability mirrors some of the uncertainty and instability that human adolescents feel as they take the final steps before “growing up.”  This is significant, because everything about Morgan -- from her attire (hoodie, especially) to her attitude -- is familiar. She is the rebellious child/teen, testing the limits of the world around her.

Technically, Morgan is an accomplished work. The film features fine performances, especially from Kate Mara, and is suspenseful, and exciting. You may figure out the final twist in the film before it is revealed, but it doesn’t take way from the action, or horror. Luke Scott does a great job using visual rhetoric, conveying through imagery the point of the narrative. He does much here with reflections, and Lee and Morgan balanced against one another in the frame, mirror-images.

But Morgan succeeds best, I would argue, when one places it in the context of its sister films, Blade Runner and Prometheus. 

All these films remind us to treat our (eventual) artificial children with a sense of responsibility but also humility.

As J.F. Sebastian would no doubt remind us, there’s much of us in them.

Movie Trailer: Morgan (2016)

Monday, January 16, 2017

My Work Office!

Longtime readers here at the blog know that every year at this time, I revamp my home office, and post pictures of my collection.  Last year, I made some huge changes.

To recap, here's the latest iteration of my office (at home).

But, since I became a full time instructor at a community college last fall, I also got my own office on campus to begin personalizing with crazy collections.  

Here are the results so far. This is a work in progress. But I wanted to share it with you as it develops.

Here's my office at school, where I hold office hours and advise students:

My wife loves that I'm shifting some items out of the house, and I am glad to have two locations to decorate.

 I'm just getting started! (I've got to get some Space:1999 in there).