Monday, November 13, 2017

On Binge Watching Star Trek and the 100rh Anniversary of Red October

[Note: this post is taking much longer to write than I thought it would. By the time I publish it, "this week" might really be "last month"!]

This week marks the 100th Anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution (Russian: Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир) ("October, Ten Days That Shook the World");
I've watched Eisenstein's movie several times, going back to one of my history of film classes in college in the mid/late '60s. It was a hell of a movie and a hell of a time.

Rather than publicly commemorate the anniversary -- I've seen scant mention of it in the mainstream -- two of our broadcast teebee stations (we don't have cable or satellite in our house) are running episodes of Star Trek, one episode from each of the series (TOS, TNG, DS9, Voy, Disc Ent) back to back every night starting at 6pm. We've seen many of them.

Back in the day, I was quite a fan of the original series. When the other series came along, though,  I rarely saw any episodes as I was generally working until late into the night. I saw very little television back in those days (and thus never felt the need or desire to hook up to cable.)

Turns out that we know or knew many of those who appeared on screen and worked behind the scenes, especially in TNG, DS9 and Voy. It's like Old Home Week watching some of these episodes.

Must feel somewhat similar to those who have been commemorating the October Revolution wherever they are doing so around the world. The commemoration isn't just watching the movie made in 1927 to commemorate the 10th Anniversary. Outside the US and the rest of the Anglosphere, there has been a widespread re-evaluation of the revolution and its makers and a renewed appreciation for its accomplishments -- despite its many errors.

I know from my own interviews of Soviet "refugees" -- well, eye of the beholder and all that -- that nostalgia for the Old Days and the Soviet Union was strong among the over 60 crowd; still is. Not so much among the young, but still, there is more appreciation than most Americans would know.

Star Trek was considered revolutionary in its own way, and it was as Utopian as the visionaries who led the Soviet experiment and wrote so glowingly about it almost up to the moment of its collapse.

There's been a lot of hoo-hah over Hillary's self-serving book "What Happened," but at this point -- a year on from the election -- I don't much care about what she thinks "happened," and the focus Dems have put on the Russian interference angle borders on absurd. It's obviously obscuring something else, something more important, but what? Red baiting is something I've never abided, not since my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Beamas, was rounded up as a "suspected Communist sympathizer" during one of the periodic Red Scares and Panics that swept the land back in the Idyllic '50s.

Whether he was or not didn't matter to me and his classroom's other students; he was a good teacher. One whose work stood far above that of most elementary school teachers, even at my "advanced" and "experimental" school at the foot of what were then known as the San Jose Hills in the San Gabriel Valley. (I think they're now known as the South Hills -- because they are south of the San Gabriel Mountains? I don't know. Been away a long time!)

The Utopianism in Star Trek was always being countered of course by some alien force or other. Some of those forces were obvious parallels to people and interests that have long bedeviled visionaries and Utopians for just about ever. Situations paralleled many aspects of American history, too. While not all the episodes were very good -- some were atrocious -- many had a lesson and a message for watchers, one that could bore deep: "You can have and make a better world."

Yet all these years on, is that what we've done?

Space exploration has mostly vanished from our consciousness. Little of it is being done any more, and what is being done is almost too esoteric for common understanding and consumption. We attend most of the space focused Science Cafés put on by New Mexico PBS simply because we're interested,but we notice that most attendees are, like us, retired in our 60s and 70s. "Space, the Final Frontier" was a Big Thing to us, and it still is. Not so much for today's young people I guess.

The disappointment at the ambiguous Viking findings on Mars in 1976 and 1977 I think had a good deal to do with it. The ambiguity of those findings (that suggested biology on the surface of Mars and yet simultaneously prohibited it) may have been deliberately (and politically) engineered at the time, a very stressful time for the US government, thanks to the lingering aftereffects of the Vietnam War and the implosion of the Nixon Regime. "Return to Normalcy" was the theme. Announcement of the finding of life on Mars might throw a spanner in the works. I don't know that's how the thinking went, but Gil Levin, one of the life science experimenters with the Viking science team thought so -- and has said so sometimes quite forcefully. In his view, life was found on Mars in 1976 -- most probably -- and yet the scientific community at the time (on the Viking mission and throughout the planetary science field) almost universally denied it. Most of the field still does.

And so, ever since, there's been a lack of public interest in the continuation of Mars exploration and by extension the continued exploration of the Final Frontier itself, as well as a lack of much ability to envision a Better Future brought to us via discoveries in Space.

Instead we get "products" -- Teslas and IPhones and endlessly replaceable junk and cutesy devices that are actually ideas in Star Trek and other space adventure operas, or they are useful tools of the Future but communicators and electric cars and such are not "must haves" in the Future that Once Was, they are simply there. One uses them for the purposes they were intended. It would be an inconvenience not to have them, and yet, on some worlds we know they don't work or don't exist and the space travelers have to make do without them. Somehow they manage.

In our world, though, they become coveted objects of desire. Almost like high end jewelry. In other words, they're products from which their makers expect to acquire a handsome profit by selling them to an exclusive (or would-be exclusive) clientèle. They are not considered necessities for the masses, probably because they aren't, but also in order to maintain strict class divisions between them that has and them that ain't.

Which brings us back to the whole idea of the Russian Revolution when time was. Why did they do it? Well, like all revolutions there were many reasons "why," and it depended on who you asked and what their position in life was.

The stark class divisions of Imperial Russia of course were part of the reasons "why." But they weren't the whole thing. Not by a long shot.

Somewhere among my National Geographic collection, I have a 1917 issue that includes a profile of Kerensky and a long article about the Provisional Government that took over after the Tsar was deposed. The primary interest of the foreign powers observing the collapse of Imperial Russia was that whatever government replaced the rotten Tsarist one, it would maintain Russian troops on the front lines against Imperial Germany.

For his part, Kerensky on behalf of the Provisional Government assured the foreign powers that most certainly Russian troops would continue fighting Imperial Germany on behalf of the Allies. Most certainly!

The troops in question were, of course, the Russian peasantry and lower orders of the urban population, and they were being slaughtered in their multitudes (as were the troops of other countries) in pursuit of who knows what. The bloodbath of WWI was one of the principle tragedies of the 20th Century, but not the only one.

At any rate the Provisional Government's continued participation in the War, together with its violent repression of the Bolshevik/Soviet opposition led directly to the October Revolution which overthrew the Provisional Government and brought the Bolsheviks to power.

Lenin's idea was to dispense with the status quo once and for all and create something new, not so much from the ruins of the past as from the energy of the present.

Kerensky would have preserved the status quo, only without the Tsar and the rotten Romanovs. And even then, some of the Romanovs wormed their way toward acceptability by the Provisional Governmnt.

Who knows. After the end of the War, some version of the rotten Romanov empire might have been restored.

Lenin saw the opportunity to dispense with all of it and begin anew. And that's what happened, but not without immense struggle -- invasion, civil war, famine, etc. etc. --  following the October Revolution. The energy for the struggle came from the belief that "You can have a better future."

That's the principal energy behind much of the Star Trek enterprise, at least as long as Gene Roddenberry was in charge of it.

"You can have a better future."

Star Trek proposed space as the Final Frontier where anything was possible, and for the most part, those possibilities were better than the present -- or rather, better than what was left behind.

Star Trek almost always takes place on a ship in space traveling from place to place with a diverse crew of characters. Very little time is spent anywhere but on the ship, whether one of the Enterprises, the Voyager or the Discovery.

That's the totality of the crew's "real world environment." Every pause at some planet or other disturbs their "real world" and is often threatening to life and limb, but somehow most of the crew survive to travel on (Red Shirts sometimes not...)

The point is the journey.

As we've seen over the years, the Star Trek journey becomes darker and darker, less and less Utopian and more and more dangerous, violent and ambiguous. The outcome wasn't assured. The future wasn't bright. Instead, as their journey continued, though it included many time dilations and much back and forth journeying, the starships, their commanders and crews encountered more and more difficult challenges and situations, more and more of them impossible to resolve.

The journey became less about seeking out strange new worlds and civilizations and more about survival in a hostile and rebellious outer darkness. The Federation wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and its various opponents had cause for opposition, rebellion, and war.

What started out as part of a Utopian vision of peace, harmony, and unity for those who wished to become part of or ally with the Federation became a veritable nightmare for many of those strange new worlds encountered by the various Federation starships. "Peace, harmony and unity" with the Federation was really about submission, exploitation, and cultural genocide.

Meanwhile, the journey of the Soviet Union after so much struggle to survive and prosper under extremely hostile conditions seemed to just peter out. The commisars were bought off or gave up. What started out as a Utopian re-vision of what was possible became a tired and sclerotic quasi-empire facing rebellion everywhere from the outside in. There seemed to be no will to continue, and the Soviet enterprise collapsed.

The vulnerability of the Soviet experiment was, I think, a surprise to the many interests trying to subvert it and bring it down. Nothing had worked until the "Color Revolutions" -- but what was going on with them was never entirely understood. All I can say right now is that things were not what they appeared to be.

As the Star Trek saga continued, the Federation, too, appeared to be surprisingly vulnerable, its vulnerability exposing its rigidity and fragility.

Does that have something to say about our own Neo-LibCon, Neo-Imperialist juggernaut?


We'll see, won't we?

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