Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Back from Space:2011 at Hampden-Sydney College

Well, we just pulled up to the old Muir homestead here in North Carolina, after a long weekend in Virginia and a morning on the highway.

But yesterday, I spent a delightful day at the gorgeous Hampden-Sydney College campus, meeting with faculty and students, guest-teaching a few classes, and then presenting my afternoon lecture, Space: 2011 - American Culture and the Final Frontier.

I started the day by sitting in on an Honors Seminar about Star Trek, and discussing my status as a kind of "lapsed Trekker." 

We spoke about Star Trek as a possible "faith," and I described the context in which I discovered Star Trek as a kid, back in the 1970s.     The teachers in this seminar were absolutely amazing, and I only wish I had been able to attend a seminar like this as an undergraduate twenty years ago. 

And yes, I'm that old.

Following the Trek seminar, I attended a film studies course, and was thrilled to discuss with the students the four Alien films, and the various decades in which they first appeared.  This was another really terrific class, headed by an extraordinary teacher with deep knowledge about film and film history.  I'm only sorry I couldn't be present to listen in on the upcoming lecture on No Country for Old Men.
Then, I headed into a general Astronomy class in the Gilmer Building and discussed with the students the scientific errors featured in some famous science fiction movies and television programs, and debated the line between scientific accuracy and imagination/artistic license. 

In this talk, I opened with the Han Solo "parsec" line from Star Wars, and then introduced Isaac Asimov's three criteria for errors in science fiction productions (from his editorial, "Is Space:1999 More Fi Than Sci?"): errors of dramatic necessity, errors out of commercial consideration, and errors out of ignorance.  We talked about Space: 1999, Star Trek, Battle LA, and much more.  Again, I enjoyed getting to spend time with this particular professor, who is a brilliant guy and a great gentleman to boot.

At about noon, I sat in on a two-hour lunch with another dedicated and stimulating group of students and professors.  We talked everything from philosophy in science fiction and Robert Heinlein to Land of the Lost, to the role of women in Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Then, come the end of the day, at 4:30 pm, I presented my public lecture about American culture and outer space TV series.  I opened with a quote from Solaris (1972) about humans not really wishing to see something alien in space, but instead  hoping to countenance "mirrors." 

In other words, films and television shows are mirrors on our times, our fears, our hopes and our potential. 

Then we went decade-by-decade, discussing the historical and cultural contexts of Star Trek, Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, V, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica (remake) and V (remake). 

There was some great back and forth in the discussion, with audience members asking terrific questions about the artistry of video games, the different nature of American versus British sci-fi TV, and even a query about how "on the nose" recent productions like BSG and V seemed in comparison to the more allegorical, subtler shows of yesteryear.

To cap off the day, Kathryn, Joel and I were treated to a wonderful dinner with two amazing professors who I am very proud to call friends, where the discussion ranged from Star Trek and Space:1999 to Red Dwarf, The Starlost and even Buck Rogers.

So I enjoyed my day at Hampden-Sydney College tremendously, and was highly impressed by the caliber and intensity of the students (some of whom were tackling a philosophy paper related to identity and the Farscape episode "Eat Me"), as well as the kindness, generosity and expertise of the teaching faculty.

All in all, it was a pretty spectacular day, and one I won't soon forget.


  1. Anonymous8:53 PM

    As Spock would put it; sounds like you had quite a 'fascinating' time at the college. Discussions with students and professors probably brought out different responses. Surely, many 19 year olds have never seen Space:1999 or the original Star Trek. It's hard to imagine any professor having anything positive to say about the old Buck Rogers series.

    A discussion of scifi shows in an astronmy class is a great idea. It also brings back some memories for me. Back in the 80's, the "SciFi Club" in my high school invited one of the physics teachers to discuss the science in scifi movies. Needless to say, 'Star Wars' and 'Space:1999' came in for some heavy critcism.

  2. Sensational news. Great to hear John!

  3. Sounds like a great time was had by all. So cool! Thanks, John.

  4. I would absolutely have loved to have been there. What a great experience. I always thought you'd enjoy teaching a college class (or two) each term.

  5. Hi everybody,

    Thank you all for commenting on my summation of the Space:2011 experience at Hampden-Sydney College.

    Anonymous: You are right about the fact that most of the 18 year olds I encountered -- while very kind and enthusiastic -- had not heard of Space:1999, nor seen it! You're also right that the professor didn't have too many kind things to say about Buck Rogers: we joked about the premise, American Exceptionalism in the 25th Century (only Buck is a product of the culture, in the show, that destroyed the world, so it doesn't make a lot of sense that 25th century people would judge him so positively...).

    SFF and Le0pard13: Thank you for your kind words, my friends. I wish you both could have been there!

    Peter: Thank you so much for that, and ditto the last comment to SFF and L13. And yes I would love to teach on a regular basis. It's a lot of fun, and I enjoy it very much.


  6. I just happened to stumble upon your blog recently. At the time I was a senior at HSC and I was present at your guest-teaching on the Alien films. I really enjoyed your talk on Sci-Fi films through the generations. It is quiet a pleasure for me to have happened upon your blog. Thanks again!

  7. Hi Ed:

    I'm so glad you found my blog, and thank you for following it! I appreciate that tremendously.

    I had a great day at your fine alma mater, and look back on it fondly already. I'm glad you got a kick out of my talks on Alien and space programming through the decades.

    All my best,