The Ultimate Star Trek Reboot.

So it turns out that the University of Toronto is launching something called the Toronto Science Festival — a “three-day, public celebration of science–with keynote speakers, panel discussions, as well as a variety of performances, activities, film screenings, exhibitions and events” at the tail-end of September. This year’s theme (for indeed, the intention is to make it an annual event) is “Life in the Universe”. And apparently I’ll be contributing in a small way; I’m told I’m slotted into a panel discussion on the subject of First Contact as explored by Star Trek, following a “half-marathon” of episodes from various iterations of that franchise. Not sure exactly what episodes we’ll be looking at; I’ve seen a tentative list, but apparently it’s still open to discussion.

It has got me thinking, though.

Genre “reboots” have been all the rage for so long that by now even the backlash is suffering a backlash. The success of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot (well, except for that last part) was little short of miraculous given the derivative dreck it was based on. The success of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is decidedly mixed (whatever you may think of the storylines, there’s no denying the movies are box-office gold). The cinematic Spiderman reboot itself got rebooted while the derision over that third Raimi outing was still echoing in our ears. And the less said about that 2011 The Thing reboot, the better.

You may remember that I wrote — well, not exactly a “reboot”, but at least an alternative take on that whole Thing riff a few years back. And I was a major Star Trek fanatic, pretty much from sixties-era classic right up to grad school. I read every one of those atrocious little novelizations (Joe Haldeman wrote one of those, did you know that?). I got the Constitution-class blueprints and the concordance and the medical reference manual, the galactic maps and all the tech manuals. I reread Gerrold and Whitfield’s behind-the-scenes books endlessly. Alan Dean Foster’s fleshing-out of the animated series. I even got, I shit you not, the Star Trek Cooking Manual by Nurse Christine Chapel. I still have most of them around, somewhere.

I hung on with grim loyalty through the first two seasons of Next Gen, hoping that it might someday get good — and sighed in ecstatic relief when, finally, it did. I gave up on DS9 a few seasons in — before it found its feet and, according to many, turned into the best Star Trek iteration in recorded history. (I suppose I should go back and revisit that series some time).

Voyager is what killed it for me. I didn’t even last through a single season of that travesty. And, thus inoculated, I had little patience and no residual loyalty at all when Enterprise came down the pike. I had standards, is what I’m trying to say. I may have been a fan but I was by no means a mindless fan; even back in the sixties, still suffused with whatever glimmers of innocent wonder survived in my ten-year-old-brain after a decade of Baptist family dysfunction, I knew that “Plato’s Stepchildren” was absolute shit.

So when I tell you that all this Toronto Science Festival and Reboot and Thing fan-fic stuff got me thinking about what classic Trek episode I might choose to reboot if given the chance, the answer that occurred to me almost instantly may surprise you a bit.

Spock_wearing_neural_stimulator_2Spock’s Brain”.

No, really.

Bear with me here. Yes, I ‘m talking about an episode widely regarded as the worst hour of Star Trek — possibly the worst hour of television — in recorded history. But if the quality of the original had any relevance, Moore’s Galactica reboot would be utter shite and that 2011 Thing prequel would have cleaned up at the Oscars. If template and reboot did show any significant correlation it would probably be negative, insofar as the better the original is, the less reason there’d be to reboot it in the first place. So the issue here is not past legacy, but future potential— and man, here at the dawn of the Neurological Renaissance, “Spock’s Brain” is brimming with the stuff.

brain018-737291

An elegant minimalist interface. Call it iBCI.

Consider the premise: a humanoid brain interfaced with the control infrastructure of an underground city, performing many of the same functions it always has, but for a vastly different “body”. What happens to the sense of self when the cognitive circuitry remains intact, but the body it’s connected to changes utterly? Presumably the medulla oblongata doesn’t care whether it’s maintaining blood or water pressure, doesn’t care whether those pipes are metal or tissue. What about the neocortex? “Spock’s Brain Rebooted” could give the whole embodied-cognition paradigm the sweatiest workout it’s ever had in public. Not to mention the subtler issues raised by that magic salon hair-dryer that the Eymorgs used to boost intellect and expertise; remember the bit where McCoy went under the helmet himself, to learn how to stick Spock’s brain back into his body? Remember what happened when that expertise faded, halfway through the operation? Star Trek anticipated Neuromancer‘s “microsofts” by over a decade— but think about how much more it could have been. Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” is a classic example of the intimate dramatic potential to be wrung from the premise of lost enlightenment, of an enhanced intellect degrading by degrees. (Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside doesn’t do a half-bad job either, although its focus is on telepathy rather than sheer brainpower) “Spock’s Brain” could have stretched the mind and wrenched the heart, if only it had been done right.

tumblr_mhq6pcW1d31qmtfp8o2_1280

Eat your heart out, William Gibson.

For all the ground it broke back in its day — for all the impact it’s had on cultures both genre and pop — Star Trek was, and continues to be, about people who push buttons for a living. The switches may have migrated to iPads sometime between TOS and NG, the ship’s chronometer may have gone from analog to digital, but the essence of a ship piloted through control panels, commanded by the movement of fingers on surfaces, persists to this day. (Compare that with Delany’s Nova, written during the original Star Trek‘s tenure; people in that tale piloted starships in their sleep, via direct neural interface.) Poor ol’ Captain Pike ended up locked into a chair he could barely move with his brainwaves, his fully-functional mind unable to communicate beyond one beep yes two beeps no. We had better brain-interface tech than that back in the last century. We’re already using mind-reading machines to play games, for Chrissakes.

In a very weird, utterly accidental way that should imply no credit at all to screenwriter Gene Coon, “Spock’s Brain” might be the only vintage ep to retain any kind of technological relevance— because alone among all those 79 episodes it showed us a kind of command interface that isn’t already obsolete and isn’t about to be. It showed us the kind of mind-machine integration that remains science fiction, if only for a little while longer. And it provided a vessel — left tragically unfilled — through which one could have explored the profound and essential question not merely of what it means to be human, but what it means to be conscious and intelligent. It could have explored the impact of the corpus on the soul. It could have been better than trash.

Maybe next time.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday July 31 2013at 07:07 am , filed under ink on art, public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

33 Responses to “The Ultimate Star Trek Reboot.”

  1. As a die-hard Trek fan, I loved this post, and couldn’t agree more about Voyager.

    (Recently watched Enterprise, though, and despite the cheesy theme song and the busty Vulcan I was actually pleasantly surprised! Sure, the language translation scenes are cringe-worthy, but some episodes actually manage to capture the spirit and wonder of space exploration in a very authentic way, I think).

    You should definitely give DS9 a second chance – it gets better around the second half of the third season, I think, all the way up to the end of the sixth season – but don’t expect BSG standards.

    It would be interesting and very refreshing to see more “sci-fi themed” shows or movies actually take on sci-fi concepts and explore them thoroughly, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

  2. 1. Joe Haldeman wrote *two* of those things… PLANET OF JUDGEMENT & WORLD WITHOUT END. I had them both. Yes, and the Cooking Manual.

    2. Talking about man/machine interfaces & how that would affect a person… did you ever read the Martin Caidin novel in the Steve Austin sequence, CYBORG IV, where Austin had his prostheses removed and used as the interface ports to a combat space shuttle he was piloting? (I’m doing a reread & reconsideration of Austin as an ancestor for the transhuman underground for http://www.grinding.be soon, so it crossed my mind.)

  3. Adam,

    (Inserts standard, No, Watch BABYLON 5 Instead line here…)

    Also, there are a couple of good TV shows around that actually do something good with classic SF tropes – PERSON OF INTEREST puts a weakly godlike AI into the US surveillance system and ORPHAN BLACK is a fine show about cloning anchored by a remarkable set of performances by Tatiana Maslany as (so far) six different clones.

  4. Wow, Peter, that is certainly a lot to digest, however compactly delivered.

    I saw a fairly recent reboot (2000) on “Flowers for Algernon” — a story I personally find most poignant — which was quite close to the original. It managed to pull out all of the stops on a lot of the best emotional impact from the short story, especially the scene when Charlie Gordon stabilizes enough after the downfall to get back to attending classes. After all of these years, I still can find tears for that story, which I suppose is the hallmark of the best drama.

    I don’t know how one would convey this in film, but a reboot of “Spock’s Brain” could certainly use a bit more from the viewpoint of Spock himself, once he’s been integrated into the management system. You personally have certainly taken a fine stab at that with the POV of the “head cheese” in the Rifters trilogy. Spock, of course, has had some actual experience with Real Life and culture and such, which the head cheese hadn’t. One wonders if he’d sort of fade away from that in sensory deprivation under the new regime, so to speak, and one could also wonder if he would with his own sense of wonder and curiosity tend to just let his conscious mind go with the flow and subsume into the vastness of the systems of which he is now overlord. Or would he from his sense of duty cling to an attachment to his former life? -logically he might consider that unfortunately close to crass human emotion etc etc. IIRC that whole angle of “so what did Spock himself think about all of this” got maybe 30 seconds at the close of the original episode.

    Aside from that, one has to question the wisdom of that whole episode primarily because it’s so easy to presuppose that any society with the technology to cyborg a primate into running a global management system would also have the technology to do it far better with a cluster or distributed cluster of mainframes, or with ubiquitous computing and an “internet of everything”. But let’s suspend our disbelief, it’s fun to go explore the philosophical ramifications of the mind-machine interface especially as relates to interstellar kidnappings. ;)

    Let’s just hope that it doesn’t wind up like that recent atrocious adaptation of Laumer’s “A Plague of Demons”…

  5. So, are you going to do a screen play (just for our indulgence) or not? I for one would certainly read it (actually do a novelization of a non existent screen play). Might as well. You already expanded my views of the “Things” so lets do it for TOS.

    It would be so cool of you to actually fix this episode rather than “reboot” it. Take the exact plot and characters but do it “right”.

    Thanks for the interesting speculation. BTW, my sequence of watching Trek matched yours exactly (except for wathing TOS when it first came out). I was still pre sperm at that point.

  6. Star Trek Cooking Manual:

    Recipe #1: Extravagantly Fried Chomquats with Delaneisy Sauce.

    Step 1. Order dish from replicator

  7. “My God, Jim! It’s so simple a CHILD could do it!” One of my favorites.

  8. Excellent provocative piece. But please don’t do an adaptation – you’ll become pigeonholed as the dude who extends old stuff interestingly, which you did brilliantly with ‘The Things’ but you’re more than a one trick pony!

    Agreed on ‘Enterprise.’ Though I liked the cheesy theme song. And the large breasted Vulcan woman. So there.

  9. I really, emphatically never thought DS9 got good. It just gets more episodes with singing.

  10. Bwahahaha!!! You know why I’m laughing.

  11. Hey, the coolness of DS9 was the awesome Ferengi Show that could almost have been standalone! Rules of Acquisition & the Grand Nagus. Need I say more.

    Speaking of trolling out a ST flame war (heh), does anyone remember the weird reversal taken between STTNG and DS9 regarding Joined Trell? Someone can probably refresh my memory, but there was this story-arc towards the end of one season of STTNG when it seemed that they might not be getting renewed, something about a hidden government-within-the-government that had Picard getting information through back-channels to look into covert alien influence in Star Fleet… the episode (and evidently the story arc) conclude with some Star Fleet personnel being revealed as harboring some symbiont, telling them that the reason its kind were trying to subvert Star Fleet was because they wanted “peaceful co-existence”, and of course it gets phasered out accompanied by expressions of distaste and revulsion.

    End of story arc and end of season and nothing more at all about it, until DS9 comes along and now in the person off Jadzia Dax, symbionts are now our good old friends from way back in the day. Still trying to figure all of this out and all I come up with is some retcon originating with someone’s legal department. Maybe one of you folks has some notion of how to explain it?

    Sorry, now back to your regularly scheduled thread, no symbionts were harmed during the composition of this posting. ;)

  12. I have to admit that i was also a fan of the original series. I especially enjoyed the episode about the giant space tintinnid. But i will also admit to really enjoying the two reboot movies that have been made. The alternate timeline allows them to go in any direction they want. But there have been a shitload of humorous references to the original series (and the original movies) to make it fun. But just listening to the actor who plays McKoy is worth it.

  13. It’s funny that Lost in Space was actually getting far better ratings at the time (speaking of the worst hour of TV, here’s “The Trouble with Tribbles”‘s Cyrano Jones as the carrotman):

    http://www.danhausertrek.com/AnimatedSeries/TyboCarrot_Big.jpg

    I never really caught the TNG fever, at least not until the films. Comparing “Charlie X” and Warf’s son’s trouble in school was my favorite criticism. Stakes were lower and they made it “families in space” to appeal to the older crowd. I suppose it did get better though.

    Voyager did kill it for me too, and all I really recall of DS9 was the awesomely interwoven time travel crossover with the same TOS episode mentioned above. Plot holes, but references to Klingons changing appearance, etc. and fun kind of made up for it.

    And, as usual, Pete, delightfully unexpected insights. That bit where McCoy is forgetting is, despite the overall silliness of the episode as done, some of the best acting the show had I think. Ranks up there with his accident in “City on the Edge of Forever” and subsequent recovery.

    Of course I kind of thought that Blindsight was the ultimate ST reboot. Go4 was more interesting to me than Data, Szpindel as much as Spock. And how better to trump Kirk’s extracurricular activities than a captain who might actually EAT the crew? :)

  14. Excellent post, Pete. I didn’t know you were such a huge Trek fan, until “Voyager.” I’ve always been an appreciative but not fan-boy fan of the show, I suppose. My favorite series was always “Babylon 5,” for its harrowing inter-species political grind, galactic-scale warfare, flawed but sympathetic characters, and far-futuristic speculation. It never assumed things would be okay, an entropic mindset I relate to in a big way. Trek always showed a far more positive view of future humanity and the universe.

    Which, of course, is also great.

    And I too have major problems with JJ Abrams’ Trek movies. It’s like he’s not used to working in science fiction, thus jerry-rigged not terribly compelling stories together in silly ways for lowest common denominator entertainment. No scientific speculation whatsoever. No story-driven surprises or dramatic twists. And no great character moments. I didn’t think so, anyway. Glorious effects and set design, yes, I’ll give him that. But my biggest problem is: nothing about Kirk in the newer films says “Captain.” The actor in the role is trying really hard but has no natural leadership ability at all, in either movie.

    Anyway, I’ll have to watch “Spock’s Brain” and ogle the iBCI.

  15. Mr. Non-Entity:

    You racist. Not all symbiotes are the same! That’s like saying because one bumpy headed alien was a threat in one episode, then it’s weird that the Federation is friends with other bumpy-headed aliens!

    More seriously, the two species weren’t meant to be related, and that plot was just dropped I believe because of a change in management of the show, and the people who continued to run it just didn’t like it. I think other media sort of explained that, once the threat of the mind-controlling cockroaches was detected, the Federation quickly came out with a way of detecting them, and the problem was no more. In that case, it was probably less like a symbiosis and more like a domination.

    The Trill actually appeared prior to DS9, in a TNG episode (however, instead of normal-humans with spots, they were bumpy-headed, which I guess you could explain away as being a slightly rarer racial subtype), but there they were good guys.

    The above I suspect pretty well confirms my Star Trek geekiness more than any statement does, but yeah, in my case from my parents I inherited a little bit of love for the old Star Trek and movies before I even knew tastes, and then enjoyed TNG… luckily those first couple awkward years was before I was old enough to develop much taste, I just thought it was awesome. Stayed through DS9 and loved it (again, after a couple shakey years, and although I watched Voy and Enterprise, by that time it was mostly out of tradition rather than love.

    Honestly can’t stand the new movies. Well acted (mostly, I think Kirk was miscast), well put together from the standpoint of effects and big action pieces, but the story is just awful, relying on constant stupidity, and full of obvious science fail and plot holes up the wazoo. (I mean, Trek has more than its share of wacky science, but USUALLY they at least get basic science right and make up magic particles or radiation types that does whatever’s required).

    I would have actually preferred if they did a full-on reimagining, from the ground up, using only some of the same names and concepts, but in really new ways. Say, make the Vulcans eventually grow into the Borg, after, in their quest for logic, merging their minds with machines (and maybe start them off as having cybernet implants and enhancements). Then again, with the same people in charge, that would also probably have been awful.

  16. To put it short; the story was bad, but the idea, basic plot and concept has a lot of potential. But why would they need his cerebrum? Heartbeat, breathing (most of the time), temperature regulation and so on, is done on a subconscious level.

  17. This is a retelling of the story as a song, unfortunately it is difficult to hear the lyrics right here … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vPZanxnsKc

  18. I think my core criticism of the new Trek films (enjoyable though they were while I was planted in the theater seat) was that they looked backward. They were movies about Star Trek, rather than movies about intrepid heroes exploring the universe. Instead of dealing with the challenges of exploring the galaxy and overcoming the prejudices of the past, they’re wrapped up in political struggles and run of the mill action set pieces. Even their big bad was revived from a time capsule.

    It’s easy to romanticize TOS, but even in the embarrassingly bad episodes, Kirk was smart, had compassion, thought about his actions, etc. Beating Khan was more about destroying what he represented. I can’t believe they didn’t take the chance to play him up as a genocidal war criminal in the new movie–seems like a perfect way to ratchet up the melodrama.

    I actually thought the first half or so of Enterprise did a nice job of looking forward and reexamining the old tropes–but it kind of lost me when they got into the running storyline with a goofy alien empire, secret agents from the future, and so on.

  19. Aside: if you’re a fan I highly recommend the remastered DVD/BlueRay editions of TOS that came out recently. They rescanned the original film negatives and cleaned up the image and audio, so now the picture quality is better than the later series that were shot on video. And the SFX have been redone in CGI but in a subtle and non-obvious style, not shouting “CGI!!” in your face but rather looking like, say 2001 or original Star Wars.

  20. Playing devil’s advocate, I find the continued use of physical interfaces (buttons and levers) in science fiction to be very sensible. The autonomic parts of my brain that keep regulating my heart, lungs, etc are reliable and trustworthy precisely because I’m not in conscious control of them.

    When it comes to active tasks, I can use a computer mouse (trackball, keyboard, whatever) with great precision and I would argue that it is the combination of my mind, my muscles, and the mechanical design of these parts that makes everything work well together.

    By contrast, my conscious mind (or the various subsystems thereof) jerks around like a pack of dogs with a bone. I’ve been lucky enough to try an experimental system that used an eye tracking camera to move the mouse cursor and it was, literally, a headache after a while because the damn thing kept darting all over the place.

    (Which is not to say that those eye trackers are not immensely useful to someone with a disability.)

    When people are controlling things with immense power such as starship engines, would it really be a good idea to have them fluctuating with every random thought? “Bridge, the engines are overloading again because a really hot looking ensign walked past the duty engineer”

  21. I am with Hugh on this one. I can see something like those “Ship Who Sang” cyborgizations where the pilot is effectively part of the ship; the only time they use their motor neural interfaces is in the operation of the ship. They don’t have to switch modes. That being said, if an SF story has someone who logs on to their “desk” and goes immersive, dedicated to the task of ship operations and nothing else, I’m perfectly happy to let them climb out of the sensory tank and trot down to the bar for a few drinks and then off to play squash or poker. It is a rare person who can both multitask and then shift to the right degree of single-task, in my opinion. For example, most Really Good Guitarists don’t exactly move around a lot when they’re playing their best leads. Well, they might jerk and twitch a lot (video of Steve Vai playing lead on Zappa’s “Zombie Woof” is a great example of this), but other than that they seemingly can barely stand in one spot. I’d expect that if someone were trying to fly maneuvers in a huge starship they’d probably rather be seated at the console doing stuff with their hands, as opposed to maybe sitting in a chair in a nice quiet room being perfectly still except for what’s happening in their heads.

    I’d posit that we would perhaps have to seriously re-wire most people in order to get them to be better via neural interface than they are with their natural limbs and digits. So much of our evolution is based on monkeys doing fast 4D calculations and then effecting them mostly with gross muscle movement, brachiation etc.

    Anecdotally: I once worked with a very early CAD system made by a Big Name firm that’s still with us nearly 40 years later. It had a sort of mouse-like system where an induction coil in the “hockey puck” was driving a mesh sensor in a large flat pad. The hockey-puck had a dozen small keys on it though most people used only four of them. The whole apparatus could be used with great speed and accuracy in part because the pad was overlaid with a sheet of mylar which was sectioned off into related commands. For example, “draw rectangle” could be done about five ways, you could draw a circle by centerpoint-and-radius or between two points opposite on the circumference, etc etc. A person could get into the zone, so to speak, and hand flies over and picks a command, eyes back to the screen to see the cursor move on the design display, find your start point and click the data button, second point, click, if you’re done with the element you click reset and start another element or go pick up a different command to start to place a different element (or same type, different way). It takes far longer for you to read this than for a practiced operator to do it; I could place a design element such as a graphic of a variable resistor or multi-tap coil in about ten clicks in four seconds.

    Yet with all of this awesome high-speed point-and-clickery[1], I longed for vernier dials. Maybe a foot pedal to pick up an element off of the page to move it around to the right place (drag-and-drop not yet invented, or not supported by PDP/VAX and Tektronix). Some guys upstairs had a much k3w13r system where they did have verniers for 3D designs, pitch/yaw/roll, x/y/z linear movement and all of that.

    I can easily imagine piloting a starship with a setup much like my CAD input system, especially if you’re setting up orbital transfers and that sort of thing. But that’s all done with one hand and that “hockey puck”. Real Pilots would doubtless have moments where they’d prefer joystick-and-pedals or the cyclic-collective setup as in planes and helicopters. Maybe the guy/gal tickling the hypershunt motivator can be working in a sensory deprivation tank, but I suspect that either for the sanity of the crewpersons or the sensibilities of a film audience, old-school buttons knobs and levers will be with us for a long long time.

    @Peter D: thanks for the clarity, and I do now remember that first encounter with the Trell. Transporting a prisoner convicted of contacting a person close to a previous host, right? As for the cockroaches, I had suspected that they might have got a bit too close to Heinlein intellectual property rights and got quashed.

    Ref:
    1. In yet another corporate Great Leap Backwards, said company touted great savings for the customers combining with great advances in CPU compactness and speed when they moved off of the PDP/VAX computational and Tektronix storage-tube display hardware platforms and went to Commodore Amiga[2], which was in fact a faster machine, had much more storage, had drag-and-drop on a CRT raster monitor, etc etc. It also had a 2-button mouse and you had to get the commands off of a drop-down menu as on the original Macs. Good point, didn’t have to take eyes off of screen to pick up a command. Bad point, freakin’ menus and submenus took forever to load and had little discernible heirarchy or organizational paradigm.
    2. Yes. Really.

  22. Mr. Non-Entity:

    I think you may be confusing two episodes. In the episode that introduced the Trill, he was just an ambassador mediating a dispute between two other warring races, there was an accident, and he needed a new host, oh and Dr. Crusher was in love with him. Riker got the symbiote temporarily, and then it was transformed into a woman, and wanted to continue the relationship, but Dr. Crusher couldn’t handle that much change and broke it off.

    Later in DS9 there was an episode that tried to use Trills as a way to tiptoe around gay rights issues with Jadzia and an ex-spouse, a trill who broke a taboo about associating with someone from a past life. Normally you’re not supposed to try to resume relationships with family or spouses of previous hosts (presumably friends is okay as long as they’re not too close, since it’s happened on several occasions). In this case, both Jadzia and her ex were now in female bodies so they could have a gay kiss without committing to being a comment on human sexuality (since when they originally in love, they were the opposite sex), and them both being aliens (much like, in another ep, rather than have a gay relationship, they had Riker be attracted to a member of an androgynous race that was a ‘freak’ because she felt female.. so they could always say to anybody who was upset ‘but she is a girl!’… Star Trek was progressive in many areas, but kind of chickened out of this issue).

    I looked up a little of that just to be sure but I remembered far too much of it off the top of my head.

  23. @Peter D, who wrote in-part: I looked up a little of that just to be sure but I remembered far too much of it off the top of my head.

    I suspect that if a lot of folks had as much influence from their studies as they did from the Star Trek franchise, we’d all be getting about in flying cars that run on portable fusion energy “too cheap to meter”. ;)

    ST did push a lot of boundaries, especially as regarded variations on “normal” sexuality. IIRC there was a pretty well-done episode involving “middle sex”, in which a species was encountered which had three sexes, with the third sex being necessary to fully fertilize the union of a “standard two sexes”. This third sex was considered to be animalistic, needing to be kept captive and managed as if they were harmless but retarded yet very valuable; they were totally essential to the reproductive process but were a vanishingly small proportion of the general population. Crew discovers this middle-sex alien as a stowaway, plot evolves as the alien is in fact fairly smart and totally educable, Federation practice would promote enlightenment of the species or even rescue/amnesty for the middle-sex alien but they are in fact highly valuable even if only as essential chattel. Fun stuff and with quite a lot of knock-on considerations not fully explored but certainly fertile ground (so to speak) for greater elaboration. No grounds for anything other than platonic friendship with Crew, I suppose, as however unspecified plumbing might have differed, one presumes it was one of those no-fit situations.

    I pause to wonder how much they were influenced by such things as LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness”; seems they got a bit close to that though not quite, with the episode on the Metamorph, though I think they were trying more for a character study on Picard. Also, though the ST franchise was pushing boundaries on everything from TV’s first biracial kiss to counterculture separatism, I don’t think they ever really took on the “dark horse” sibling of LGBT issues, asexuality, other than that being more-or-less the Vulcan general state of mind outside of their periodic rut.

    Now that I’m totally off topic, let me close with a recommendation, a pretty good compendium of classic-SF stories on sexuality issues can be had with Strange Bedfellows, edited by Thomas N Scortia in the early-mid-1970s. You might well find this at a lot of libraries or at a decent used book store.

  24. Cat Vincent: 1. Joe Haldeman wrote *two* of those things… PLANET OF JUDGEMENT & WORLD WITHOUT END.

    Yes, of course! I knew that. How dumb of me to have forgotten. Uruha’s father came back as a zombie, or something, in WWE.

    2. Talking about man/machine interfaces & how that would affect a person… did you ever read the Martin Caidin novel in the Steve Austin sequence, CYBORG IV, where Austin had his prostheses removed and used as the interface ports to a combat space shuttle he was piloting?

    I don’t believe so. I think High Crystal was the last one I read in that series. (I went through a serious Caidin phase back when I was 12-13, though…)

    Cat Vincent: (Inserts standard, No, Watch BABYLON 5 Instead line here…)

    Yeah, but that show seriously sucked before it got good. Pretty much the whole first season, although that ep where the guy turns into a bug was especially excruciating…

    Also, there are a couple of good TV shows around that actually do something good with classic SF tropes – PERSON OF INTEREST puts a weakly godlike AI into the US surveillance system and ORPHAN BLACK is a fine show about cloning anchored by a remarkable set of performances by Tatiana Maslany as (so far) six different clones.

    Juts discovering Orphan Black now, and am quite impressed. Their science is actually pretty good, except for one surprising lapse where they hang a major plot point on clones having identical fingerprints (they tried to backpedal on that a few episodes later, but that had a whiff of damage control about it).

    io9 keeps talking about what an awesome exploration of AI Person of Interest turned out to be, but the early eps I caught were all bog-standard tough-moral-loner-with-geeky-sidekick-helps-the-helpless. Why can’t more good shows actually start off being good, instead of sprouting goodness halfway through like some kind of secondary sexual characteristic?

  25. Robert Werner: So, are you going to do a screen play (just for our indulgence) or not?

    Not. Unless someone pays me guild rates.

    Biff:
    To put it short; the story was bad, but the idea, basic plot and concept has a lot of potential. But why would they need his cerebrum? Heartbeat, breathing (most of the time), temperature regulation and so on, is done on a subconscious level.

    Maybe they needed him to run the global economy too. It might take a conscious, cognitive entity to screw up so many million mortgages and RRSPs.

    Hugh: Aside: if you’re a fan I highly recommend the remastered DVD/BlueRay editions of TOS that came out recently.

    In fact, those are the only ones we show Mesopone (who is going through a loving-everything-sixties phase).

    Hugh: Playing devil’s advocate, I find the continued use of physical interfaces (buttons and levers) in science fiction to be very sensible. The autonomic parts of my brain that keep regulating my heart, lungs, etc are reliable and trustworthy precisely because I’m not in conscious control of them.

    Decent point, but the fact that DARPA’s building neuroprosthetics that read threat signatures off the hindbrain and shunt them to the trigger figure suggests that we can already effectively utilise subconscious processes even with 21rst century tech. And in a heat-of-battle situation, do you really want to be taking all those endless half-seconds moving manual phaser and shielding controls while your enemy is reacting at the speed of thought?

    Mr Non-Entity: I can easily imagine piloting a starship with a setup much like my CAD input system, especially if you’re setting up orbital transfers and that sort of thing.

    According to the NextGen tech manuals, all those iPad-like control interfaces were customized for individual users; you came on duty, wiped the previous shift-officer’s preferences, and loaded up your own comfy-slippers set of controls. It never figured in any of the episodes, but it was a nice bit of pre-i-worldbuilding.

    Peter D: Star Trek was progressive in many areas, but kind of chickened out of this issue

    I think Roddenberry was basically homophobic. David Gerrold tells a story where he kept trying to get Roddenberry to sign on to an ep revolving around a couple of gay crewmembers — back in the sixties R’s respond was “Yeah, sounds great but of course the censors will never let us do it”, and then when NextGen came around it was “Great! Let’s do it!” And then he called up to his lieutenant and told him to squash the ep behind Gerrold’s back.

    Star Trek frequently struck me as naive at best (inadvertently misogynist at worst) in their portrayal of gender politics. Anyone remember Wesley getting sentenced to death for crushing a flower on the Planet of the Valley Girls? OTOH, when they put Roddenberry out to pasture they got somewhat better (I seem to recall liking “The Gift” quite a bit, although I don’t know how well it’s aged).

  26. According to the NextGen tech manuals, all those iPad-like control interfaces were customized for individual users; you came on duty, wiped the previous shift-officer’s preferences, and loaded up your own comfy-slippers set of controls. It never figured in any of the episodes, but it was a nice bit of pre-i-worldbuilding.

    If this every didn’t work it would be the most annoying thing in the world and if we are lucky the person who designed the feature would die in a space battle because an ensign was slowed by the extra cognitive overload due to messed up custom preferences.

    earlier today Carl was trying to help me and ended up scrolling through my command buffer instead of the text on the window because he was expecting linux gui behavior whereas I was in a tmux session and the way I scroll in that is ctl-a [

    Which is not the default tmux activation key, which is ctl-b.

    … Once Charles Stross had an ask-me-whatever post so I asked him to share his dotfiles, like .vimrc etc. and he said he doesn’t use any special .vimrc due to not wanting to get disoriented when logging in to work on remote servers — or I may be misremembering the exchange.

    It makes some sense, though if I am regularly logging in to a bunch of machines the first thing I do is set up all my dotfiles if I’m going to be staying around for a while.

  27. I heartily recommend going back through DS9. You get far more about all the other cultures in the Trek universe from in single episodes of that show than entire seasons of the others.

  28. Peter Watts wrote:

    Decent point, but the fact that DARPA’s building neuroprosthetics that read threat signatures off the hindbrain and shunt them to the trigger figure suggests that we can already effectively utilisesubconscious processes even with 21rst century tech. And in a heat-of-battle situation, do you really want to be taking all those endless half-seconds moving manual phaser and shielding controls while your enemy is reacting at the speed of thought?

    Can doesn’t always mean should, because our instinctive reactions are frequently wrong when dealing with complex technology. Here’s an article from March this year about a new sniper rifle that achieves phenomenal accuracy by disconnecting the trigger finger impulse from actually firing the gun. Instead the trigger is now like a menu command to the embedded fire control computer, which waits up to a second or so for the best moment to actually shoot.

    http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/03/bullseye-from-1000-yards-shooting-the-17000-linux-powered-rifle/

    Getting away from death tech, could musicians perform well without the physical interface? Even keeping the beat isn’t a purely mental thing, you also use the push-rebound time from your keys or sticks or pedals. Top musicians are obsessive about key pressure or string tension or air flows in their instruments.

    Last week there was a DJ mixing music in the university open area where I work. With turntables. He was a young guy, not a grey haired old timer, and the turntables were plugged into an iPad, so evidently a thoroughly modern musician. Yet he was still willing to pay quite a bit of money for an archaic physical controller.

    Could he just imagine the music he wanted and have the instruments read it from the brain impulses alone? I doubt it.

  29. Hugh wrote:

    Can doesn’t always mean should, because our instinctive reactions are frequently wrong when dealing with complex technology.

    I don’t see that as stopping it from happening, though. Friendly fire is a reality even with 16th century weaponry and we are talking about an industry that tends to like to shoot (and send an invoice) first, dodge questions later.

    But I’m with you on applying logic. Good partnerships typically require a person with know-how and one who can BS in order to sell the idea. It’s all too common for the first to become servant to the second resulting in bad product that still makes the stock price zing.

  30. Re: Orphan Black and fingerprints: It turns out that although identical twins do have different fingerprints, their prints are similar enough that they can confuse automated print recognition systems: http://biometrics.cse.msu.edu/Publications/Fingerprint/JainetalTwinFpTechReport00.pdf

    That paper says that a well configured automated system can distinguish them, but if twins aren’t taken into account when you set the parameters, there could be a high false acceptance rate.

  31. Hugh: Getting away from death tech, could musicians perform well without the physical interface?

    I’ll give you music; that’s, like, the textbook example of embodied cognition. Anything with a beat needs viscera involved, I think.

    Ben: Re: Orphan Black and fingerprints: It turns out that although identical twins do have different fingerprints, their prints are similar enough that they can confuse automated print recognition systems

    Huh. Then my opinion of OB has just edged up a bit further.. Maybe I should do a ‘crawl post on that show…

  32. @Peter Watts, who wrote in-part: Why can’t more good shows actually start off being good, instead of sprouting goodness halfway through like some kind of secondary sexual characteristic?

    There are several good explanations for that, but let’s look at a counter-example, something that starts off as really very good and then drops down to a sort of steady-state of generic good-but-boringness and then finishes with a hugely anticlimatic WTF. That of course would be Battlestar Galactica.

    In my humble opinion, that reboot went so well because, first, it was a reboot with an established fan base and a lot of people tuned in just to see how the reboot was handled. Once there, they fell right into a pretty high-budget production. Secondly, the cast included at least one Heavy Hitter — James Edward Olmos is a class act — and a whole lot of actors who might have been little known to the US audience but who were talented professionals from their own milieus. Third, and possibly most important in terms of your question, almost the entire back-story could be presented in the form of a guided tour of the backstage of an event celebrating the end of an era with the decommissioning of the Battlestar Galactica. Once the Greek chorus has sung the backstory, the battle rages in the first act. If you think about it, there’s almost no dramatic tension building up here, other than that the Secretary of Education has terminal cancer, Starbuck has terminal guilt over Apollo’s brother Zack who she wrongly graduated from flight school only to watch him killed, the XO is a drunk, Gaius Balthar is a womanizing twit in a high position, etc etc. But that’s really shallow character development and there’s almost no build-up to the main event which is the Cylons bombing the crap out of everything. A half hour in, and you’re in the thick of it… and as it turns out, that’s about as thick as it will ever get, in terms of space-war action.

    “Person of Interest” is another series which is handicapped by the format. While there’s clearly a lot of long story arc in there, the main format is pretty simple; it’s a buddy-cops/strange-bedfellows single episode crime-solver. The gimmick is The Machine; The Machine is not the story. Even the Wizard of Oz isn’t the story and the hard-hitting ex-spook isn’t the story; each episode is (and needs to be, for networks to move forward with production) any of 10,000 whodunnits randomly yanked out of immense stack of things that have barely made it past the slush-pile desk. Yet, given that this is what is The Story, given that this is what sells the advertisers, the authors can sneak in some artistic merit, but this takes time.

    It took almost the entire first season to get to the point where The Machine starts to be seen as less of a gimmick to a strange-bedfellows cop story and begins to be seen as a character in its own right, something that has instincts and presumably thoughts and agenda. Having snuck in that tidbit at the end of season 1, season two having been renewed, the writers got a bit more bold and since the audience was actually growing, the overseers decided to let it go forward. As time has passed and the audience is becoming a devoted fan base who respond to polls that they really like the AI and wacky-hackers threads, the producers and advertisers give the writers their head, so to speak. I’m seriously looking forward to this coming season. ;)

    Just to summarize, things start out tepid because the advertisers and producers are timid at first, but when emboldened by a welcoming reception, start throwing big money and more artistic license into the mix, and that’s when it gets spicy.

  33. @Mr Non-Entity:

    I think Eureka was like that as well. A really cool setup pitting the main character not realizing that his best friend (formerly one of the most helpful dudes in town) altered reality and secretly hated everyone’s guts (with a reason, not because he was “bad” like whatshisname on Heroes), was headed somewhere brilliant and possibly memorable where breaking the “nothing can change” rule (BG is really more miniseries, so they could break that easier). That subplot mostly disappeared in favor of show after show with “something’s broke in an either scary or funny way, make the sheriff fix it.” There were literally two episodes in a row that were almost identical, both of them weather problems caused by malfunctioning devices, one might have been deliberate sabotage, don’t recall, or both. Had high hopes for that show. Didn’t pay off.