Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Winking, Blinking, and Nod

One of the hallmarks of the bridge on the original Enterprise was the view screen with a strip of blinking lights underneath it. I don’t know if anyone really knows what those lights were supposed to do, or even if they have a specific name—they just pulsed in perfect time, like some kind of Starfleet metronome. This design/technology was carried forward on ships for a century or more, all the way up to the Enterprise-E.

More recently we saw evidence that this design even predates Kirk’s era. In the series Enterprise, the NX-01 has it’s own strip of blinking lights below the main view screen. But we have to look back even farther to approach the origin of these blinkies.

The next time you watch First Contact, look at the overhead console in Zefram Chocrane’s warp ship. Although he doesn’t have a view screen as such, his cockpit was outfitted with a small strip of these blinking lights.

So, from Cochrane’s day forward the ubiquitous blinking view screen lights have been as strongly embedded in starship design as the twin nacelle warp drive. This suggests two theories: either they perform some specific, vital function common to ships across the centuries, or they have been retained as an homage to Chocrane and his historic flight. (Which is ironic because in artistic terms it's probably the other way around - his lights were likely an homage to all the "future" ships we've known all along.)

On the other hand, like the NSEA Protector’s digital conveyor in Galaxy Quest, they may just be Christmas lights, boldly blinking where no one has blinked before . . .

Friday, December 16, 2005

Musings about “Nemesis”—Part 2 of 2
(The Voyager Episode, Not the Movie)

As discussed in part one, the Voyager episode “Nemesis” features a unique glimpse of an alien language. But the main theme of the episode is about hatred and prejudice and how these feelings can be evoked in any of us.

Unbeknownst to Chakotay, the Vori have subjected him to an elaborate system of conditioning and propaganda to teach him to hate their “nemesis”, the beast-like Kradin. Yet, to oversimplify the outcome of the episode, the Kradin turn out to be the “good guys” who help Voyager rescue Chakotay and, the Vori turn out to be the “bad guys”—guilty of the very atrocities they have been accusing the Kradin of.

Of course, the truth of the situation is still open for debate. The Kradin may not be completely pure and innocent. Likewise, the Vori may not be guilty of every crime the Kradin accuse them of. But the episode is not about coming away with an objective analysis of the Vori-Kradin conflict.

It is about the processes that teaches us to prejudge and hate a group of people. It is about the power of propaganda to accomplish this end. It is about how what we know to be true about a group of people may not be based on verifiable facts at all. And it is about what Chakotay so poignantly expresses at the end of the episode, “I wish it was as easy to stop hating as it was to start.” “Nemesis” makes this point perhaps more strongly than any other episode of Star Trek.

Admittedly the folly and shortsightedness of prejudice is not a new theme in the Star Trek universe. The problem was addressed by the very format of TOS. The bridge crew was a shocking display of diversity for the time. (Although, as pointed out on Bernd Schneider’s site Ex Astris Scientia, Star Trek has not necessarily lived up to its own ideals of diversity.)

The first on-screen, interracial kiss was between Kirk and Uhura in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Admittedly, the kiss was forced by powerful, alien beings as far as the plot is concerned, but that was part of Gene Roddenberry’s approach—using the format of science fiction to slip in ideas that the television audience would normally not be exposed to.

The episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” features a planet with two races, both with faces that are half white and half black. One race has white on the right and black on the left. The other has black on the right and white on the left. It is a striking, if less than subtle demonstration of how foolish prejudice is. The characters prejudice seem ridiculous to us because we can’t see why the differences between them should even matter. Likewise, an interstellar observer would probably have a hard time seeing why the superficial differences between humans should matter to us as much as they often do.

As a result of such stories and the historical and cultural context of the series itself, Star Trek has a heritage of sensitivity to the issue of racial prejudice. Logically, it has drawn a fan base that finds the unity and open-mindedness it espouses appealing. As Star Trek matured, however, the writers allowed the heroes of the Star Trek universe to be more human (even if some were aliens), and subject to feelings of prejudice and hatred.

In the third season of TNG, we are directly exposed to Worf’s hatred for Romulans. In the episode “The Enemy,” Worf is willing to let a Romulan die rather than provide him with a blood transfusion. Beyond the historic rift between the two races, Worf has a personal stake in the matter because his parents were killed in a Romulan attack. Interestingly we see him confront this issue again in “Birthright” (parts one and two), where he encounters a colony of Klingons and Romulans living together. He even falls in a love with a Klingon woman before learning she is part Romulan. This arc is picked up again in the feature film Nemesis. During the final battle, Worf says to Riker, “The Romulans have fought honorably today.” (Or words to that effect.) It is a brief line with profound implications for those who know the back story of this proud warrior and his hatred for Romulans.

Of course, we can still distance ourselves somewhat from Worf’s feelings in this regard, excusing them as part of Klingon nature. However, the very next season of TNG, season four, showed that even twenty-fourth century humans are not immune to prejudice and hatred.

The episode “The Wounded” masterfully shows O’Brien expressing his disbelief that some people still harbor prejudice toward the Cardassians while being unaware that he himself is showing those very feelings of hatred and animosity. This thread would be picked up in his role on DS9 – in particular in the episode “Cardassians” when a Cardassian orphan directly asks O’Brien about how he feels about his people.

In December of 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country dealt with the thorny process of trying to unite the Klingon Empire with the Federation. Kirk’s personal hatred for Klingons is dealt with in the process. Spock appeals to Kirk to help the Klingons: “Jim, they are dying.” Kirk’s shocking response is, “Let them die.” Later in the film he begins to see how his dealing with Klingons in the past and the death of his son at their hands has effected him saying, “It never even occurred to me to take Gorkon at his word.”

We could list other examples of main characters of the Star Trek universe that have had to confront their own prejudices, but in all such cases we, as the audience, have been able to sit back at a comfortable distance, perhaps feeling sympathy for them, but ultimately shaking our heads at how foolish or destructive such attitudes are. It is this barrier that “Nemesis” tears down.

When watching this episode we don’t look on knowingly at Chakotay’s dilemma, we join him in hating the Kradin. The fact that the Kradin are given hideous, beast-like makeup while the Vori seem human, safe, and familiar, naturally convinces us that the horrible things we are being told about them must be true. The Kradin truly are beasts and deserve what’s coming to them. When we see Captain Janeway working closely with the Kradin partway through the episode, we shudder, thinking she has been deceived into trusting these loathsome people as allies.

Some might protest that this is manipulative on the part of the writers. They deliberately exploited our view of ugly aliens as enemies and human-like aliens as good guys. They deliberately withheld information from us to lead us to a false conclusion. We trusted them to tell us the whole truth and they tricked us. That’s not fair!

But that’s also the whole point.

Propaganda is manipulative. It exploits our tendency to be suspicious of what is different or unfamiliar. It deliberately conceals information to lead us to false conclusions. And it can easily come from sources that we trust. This episode demonstrates that even an “enlightened” fan of the Star Trek universe—where all men (and women and aliens and androids and holograms) are created equal—can be taught to hate.

Star Trek fans can watch O’Brien deal with Cardassians and intellectually acknowledge that prejudice can be harbored in our hearts unrecognized, but “Nemesis” make it personal by evoking those feelings within us. The fact that prejudice can be instilled in us without our even being aware of it is what makes it such an insidious problem. Making this point so forcefully on a personal level is what makes “Nemesis” one of the most powerful efforts to address the topic in Star Trek lore.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Musings about “Nemesis”—Part 1 of 2
(The Voyager Episode, Not the Movie)

The fourth season episode of Voyager, “Nemesis”, begins with a routine shuttle-crash opening. But thereafter it introduces some innovative—albeit somewhat manipulative—storytelling.

First, consider the matter of language. The Star Trek universe depends upon the existence of the universal translator. For the most part it has to function flawlessly and invisibly so as not to bog down the drama of a given episode.

On a few occasions, however, we are given some hint that communication between alien cultures is not as effortless as it usually seems—that languages are not just different sets of vocabulary but different ways of thinking. “Nemesis” is one of those episodes.

This episode features a human-like race called the Vori that take in Chakotay after he crash lands in their war zone. The writers succeed in making the Vori immediately comprehensible in English, but with just enough variation in the way they express themselves to convey the idea of a different language and thought pattern. For example, the Vori say glimpses when we would say eyes. They say footfalls when we might use some unit of measure, and so on.

When translating from Vori to English, a translator (human or computer) would have to decide whether to translate these terms based on what they literally mean, or based on how an English speaking person would convey the same concept.

To give a real world example, consider the Spanish term for peacock, pavo real. Literally real means royal (in this context), and pavo means turkey. A literal translation of pavo real would be “turkey royal”, or as we would more likely say in English, “royal turkey”. The literal translation preserves the flavor of the Spanish expression and opens up a new way of viewing the peacock—royal perhaps, but a turkey nonetheless. On the other hand the translation “peacock” is generally more clear to an English-speaking audience, especially if there is not sufficient context or explanation for them to identify the expression “royal turkey” with the bird they know as a peacock.

A translator (again human or computer) must weigh whether a literal, word-for-word translation will convey or obscure the original thought. In some instances a literal translation is too confusing, but in others, as with certain Vori phrases in this episode, literal translations successfully convey the thought, while still preserving the flavor of the original expression.

It is refreshing to see that in coping with the complex choices of translating, the universal translator does not always generate a perfectly clear, sanitized translation. In the process, these expressions give us insight into the way the Vori think.

Calling eyes “glimpses,” for example, suggests that the Vori attach more importance to what something does than to what it is. So the verb glimpse is adapted to serve as a descriptive noun. In the context of a sentence, the literal translation “glimpses” conveys the idea of eyes while still preserving the thinking pattern of the Vori.

The same can be said of translating the unit of measure, “footfalls”. Generally a unit of measure would be left untranslated. (For example the Klingon unit “kellikams,” used by Commander Kruge and crew in The Search For Spock.) This make sense, because, unless the two cultures had interacted and had identical measurement systems, there would be no equivalent word for a specific unit of measure. Converting units of measure is primarily a mathematical process, not a linguistic one. But in some instances the unit might itself be a descriptive word, or composed of root words you can translate.

Like the word glimpses, footfalls is rooted, not in the idea of what something is but in the idea of what something does. In this case it refers to what a walking person does—his foot falls, moves with each step, and covers a certain distance in the process. It doesn’t matter precisely what that distance is in our system of measurement, the term is descriptive enough to convey the Vori way of thinking and at same time give an approximate sense of distance. (Clearly footfalls are closer to yards or meters than to miles or kilometers.)

The Vori language is a well-crafted detail of this episode. It hints at the differences between alien languages strongly enough to be intriguing, but not so strongly as to be intrusive. But just as Chakotay learns the Vori language, he also learns to hate their enemy, the Kradins. The way “Nemesis” treats this idea of prejudice and hatred will be discussed in part two.

Update: For more comments on issues of translation in Star Trek, read the ongoing series of articles "Lost in Translation."