Friday, May 15, 2009

Lost in Translation — Star Trek XI

I finally saw the new Star Trek movie tonight. While I take time to collect my thoughts on the new film as a whole let me comment on one little aspect of it - matters of translation.

Interestingly the credits mention a Romulan and Vulcan Language Supervisor (or Consultant or some such title). However after my first viewing of the film I have to say I didn't notice any Vulcan being spoken, and I only noticed what was presumably a little Romulan shouting when Kirk and Spock beam over to Nero's ship. Perhaps there were more such moments than I realized.

That being said, the basic issues of translation among alien races is acknowledged from the very beginning. From the moment Uhura is introduced to Kirk, it is clear that she is more than just a subspace-ham-radio operator. She is a linguistic expert - move over Hoshi Sato!

Unlike her counterpart in the original timeline, who couldn't seem to speak Klingon if her life depended on it, this Uhura is eavesdropping on and translating Klingon communications. This is really much more credible and a refreshing update for Uhura's character.

When asked if she knows Romulan she answers, 'All three dialects.' While we may wonder how an interstellar empire only has three dialects (variations of one language!), she may simply be referring to the three dialects known to the Federation or the three dialects of the language used in official Romulan channels.

At any rate, it is a nice detail that adds some texture to the Romulans linguistically. This, along with the shaved, tattooed subculture Nero and his fellow miners seem to be a part of, makes the Romulans seem like much less of a monoculture than normal. And it at least begins to acknowledge the reality that languages are not static, but morph and diverge over time.

One other linguistic tidbit is the computer's struggle to interpret Chekov's thick Russian accent. It makes me wonder if the Universal Translator speech recognition software has similar trouble understanding accents.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

CSI: Star Trek Redux

Drex Files tipped me off to a great CSI episode, "A Space Oddity." (Considering that blog's much wider readership you probably got the tip too. Old news. Old News . . .)

I've long been a fan of CSI and it's various incarnations, but recently have fallen out of the habit of watching it. But that clip motivated me to catch the episode onDemand. If you're a fan of CSI, Star Trek, or both it's an episode worth watching. Check out the full episode on FanCast here.

There's a nice summary and review over at CSI Files, with a nice explanation of the connections between this episode and Battlestar Galactica (a series I simply know nothing about personally). But there's no doubt that the fictional Astro Quest is primarily a Star Trek metaphor.

What pleasantly surprised me was that this was not just a parody of the general themes of Star Trek (along the lines of Galaxy Quest). The episode contains very specific references to specific scenes in specific episodes of Star Trek, most notably "The Gamesters of Triskelion" and "The Cage," but also more subtle riffs like a throw away line near the end of the episode with a distinctly "A Piece of the Action" flavor. (They viewed what book as the basis of their culture?) I also enjoyed Jon Wellner's portrayal of lab tech Henry Andrews as a Spock/Data-like character, which droopy inverted Vulcan lobes and that distinctive android head tic.

But beyond all the Trek trivia this episode is very timely on the eve of the release of the new Star Trek movie. I've steered clear of most spoilers, and would prefer to do so until I see the movie myself. Here on my blog I've hesitated to voice too strong of an opinion on the controversial film. I would very much like to reserve judgment until I see it myself. But "A Space Oddity" serves as a fitting metaphor for the crossroads the Star Trek franchise has reached.

In this episode we see an exaggerated view of both sides - the over the top (even insultingly stereotypical) portrayal of fiercely loyal fans who demand the purity of their mythology and the creator of Astro Quest Redux who has re-booted the show into an outrageously distorted version of the original.

Then we have the scarred soldier who explains to an initially dismissive Nick Stokes why Astro Quest appeals to him. This character is probably more representative of reality. There is something about these stories that has resonated in a meaningful way with people for decades. That understandably stirs feelings of loyalties to certain interpretations of this body of work.

How far can that interpretation be modified before it becomes disrespectful of the original? And at the same time, how rigid are we going to be in our interpretation?

Assuming it fills the basic appeal the stories have always had, is there room for something more in the Star Trek universe - or perhaps in the soon-to-be, multiverse? We will find out. Maybe not all at once, maybe not in reaction to one single movie. But we will find out.

As many debates over canon there have been, never has the face of Trek changed so significantly as it is about to. This really is Star Trek: Redux. Where does that leave fans of the past 40-some years? A friend of mine who is at best casually acquainted with Star Trek recently asked me if I was excited about the new Star Trek movie. He quickly added, "It seems like it's too cool for you."

It was a good natured comment, if slightly insulting, but his observation is telling. He recognizes that the trailers he has seen are a major departure from anything he knows as Trek. He sees it as potentially enjoyable summer entertainment (with - in his words - "cool monsters") but not "real" Trek.

Now I intend to see the movie and suspect I will enjoy it on some level. I guess the question is, on what level? I really hope it can have a respectable place in the Star Trek mythos. But I have to admit I'm nervous about it. What does it mean for the future of Star Trek?

The original series spawned several series and a number of motion pictures. But how often has a motion picture spawned a television series and succeeded? Can we really expect this movie to bring Star Trek in a straight line back to the small screen?

In the forward to one of the Strange New World anthologies it was argued that short stories are an excellent format for Star Trek because television shows are essentially short stories. Most of Star Trek's strongest moments are in these individual episodes - stories told in about 40 minutes. And yet these individual moments also carry an emotional weight because following the series over many episodes allows for an emotional investment in the characters that cannot be accomplished in just an hour or two.

On the other hand the format of motion pictures, while creating some very entertaining Trek adventures, hasn't always captured the kinds of moments that really make Trek work. (For example, "The City on the Edge of Forever" is not a summer blockbuster, but is one of the most celebrated moments of Star Trek history.) At the same time constant concerns of accessibility to the general public leads to awkward re-introductions to long established aspects of Trek lore or character background.

So my concern basically is this: Cosmetics and canon aside - and I have those concerns as well - is the future of Star Trek being consigned to a format that has never served the stories as effectively as the television format?

The best case scenario is that this film really will introduce a new generation / new demographic of people to the characters that are the touchstone for the whole mythos we as fans have come to love. If that can happen, and the re-imagining isn't too extreme, then maybe there can be a series of movies that starts to accumulate the emotional and intellectual momentum the characters and concepts of the Trek universe deserve.

In any event I think it will be a long time before Star Trek fans are completely comfortable with a multiplicity of Kirks (like the multiplicty of Superman and Batman incarnations for example). It just has never been done before, not in this universe.

If there are future series and books in what I will call the new Star Trek universe, or in other new Star Trek universes, and those persist for another 40 years, perhaps we will reach that point where the differences are of less consequence then the entertainment value of an enlarged family of stories to choose from.

If there was one thing that this episode of CSI made clear it is this: no matter how many iterations our favorite show(s) go through, no matter how much we might love each new generation of stories, there will always be something special about the originals, the classics. At least it will always be special to those of us who grew up on the originals (or re-runs of the originals - or pseudo originals like TNG). They will be the stories we return to, the DVD collections that friends gather around the same way the CSIs do at the end of the episode.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009



"Uhura is busy, I am monitoring . . ."

- McCoy and Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Busy, monitoring busy, space-time anomalies - suffice it to say I have had very little time to give attention to my blog lately. Fortunately others have had time to give it some attention. It is perhaps embarrassing to say that after more than four years I have only just now received my very first comment.

Thanks Chook for your suggestion on the problem of Unimatricies!