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Monday, January 26, 2009


There is a group of people who remind me of the Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” is an episode of the third season of the 1960s Star Trek. It has the distinction of being the one episode of that season that I like without reservations or qualifications. From having both watched and studied Star Trek all my life, the further I go into the 1960s series, I find it increasingly difficult to watch. In fact, the back end of the second season is when I think it starts getting painful. The third season I mostly avoid altogether, except for “Is There in Truth...,” which I love. The reasons for this lie in the way network television--specifically NBC--treated Star Trek. It is well known that NBC wanted to cancel Trek almost from the time it first went on the air. Trek has the distinction of being not just one of the first series to be saved by a letter writing campaign from its devoted fans, but the only series I know of to have been saved by its fans twice. It took NBC three attempts to kill it! They got their way the third time by deliberately burying the show at 10 PM on Friday nights when its intelligent audience (in pre-VCR days) was mostly out doing other things. That finally gave them their excuse. But the signs of trouble start to occur halfway through the series, when the production budget is repeatedly, mercilessly slashed (why do you think they did all those episodes about planets resembling periods of Earth history?) and Gene Roddenberry and company face mounting interference from network executives and sponsors. The change of time slot to the last hour of Friday night was the last nail in the coffin. Gene stepped down from the grind of producing the show at that point, and the thing just kept deteriorating. So there is a significant part of the series that I just stay away from, and I’m someone who truly loves Trek. However, the third-season episode that I will watch whenever I find it is “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

This episode is the story of a woman and her Medusan. The Medusans are among the most exotic species of aliens ever to appear in Star Trek. Perhaps “appear” is not quite the right word, as we don’t actually get to see them. In fact, when Medusans travel aboard Federation vessels like the Enterprise, they are carried in special boxes. These beings are the most skilled subspace navigators in the known galaxy; they are invaluable aides in space travel. But they seem to be composed of energy as much as they are of matter, and their particular wavelength impinges on the nervous system of purely organic lifeforms in such a way that the sight of them renders us incurably, violently, fatally insane. So they travel in boxes for our protection and we can look at them only by wearing special visors that screen out the harmful wavelengths. When Kollos the Medusan visits the Enterprise, he is accompanied by a human telepath named Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur, also Dr. Pulaski in Star Trek: The Next Generation) whose mental powers afford her an intimacy with the Medusan that other organics can’t achieve.

Of course, the set-up is obvious. Once you understand the situation, you know someone is going to get an unprotected gander at our friend Kollos. The unfortunate looker turns out to be Spock. One thing that NBC was always pestering them to do was to get Spock, whose Vulcan culture is based on emotional repression in favor of logic, to show feelings. So, “This week, in a Very Special Episode of Star Trek, Spock goes insane!” Through twists of plot, Spock mind-melds with Kollos to get the Medusan’s help in bringing back the Enterprise from the edge of the galaxy, then returns to Kollos’s box to reverse the meld...but Spock/Kollos forgets to put on a visor! Spock gets an unprotected look at the Medusan, and there go his Vulcan marbles. This brings us to the Big Twist, the kicker of the episode: Miranda Jones is revealed to be Kollos’s perfect companion not just because she is telepathic--but because she is blind! Yes, she’s perfectly safe from the Medusan because she can’t see him or anything else; she passes for a sighted person by means of sensor webs woven into her gowns. Miranda, who is jealous of Spock/Kollos’s mind-meld, ironically is the only one who can save Spock when the sight of the Medusan drives him bonkers.

I’ve just done something above that in some quarters might get me into trouble. Namely, I’ve just told you the Big Twist of “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” without warning you that I was going to do it. I’ve just laid upon you what is known as a spoiler. In some circumstances I would be chided and chastised and subject to open resentment for such a thing. That is because of a widespread condition that I’ve come to call Spoiler Neurosis.

Odds are that you belong to one or more Listservs, so you know about this condition and you probably suffer from it yourself. Spoiler Neurosis is the inability to bear knowing any little detail in advance about any TV show/film/comic book/novel/story. It is characterized by powerful aversive reactions to any piece of information about anything that you haven’t seen/heard/read yet. Spoiler neurotics howl in mortal pain and dismay at any such exposure. If you’re going to talk about the latest episode of a favorite show or the latest issue of a favorite comic book on a Listserv, you must do so in careful and strategic generalities, or make careful omissions of character names, or issue a warning that you’re going to go into details and then leave anywhere from ten to twenty lines of blank space in your E-mail before you proceed. This is the functional equivalent of the anti-Medusan visor. Persons exposed to advance information about, say, this week’s episode of Lost that they haven’t played back on their recording are apt to react to it in the same way as if they had just gotten an unprotected look at Kollos. “OH DEAR GOD, SO-AND-SO JUST REVEALED THAT JACK SHEPHARD SHAVED OFF HIS BEARD AND DIDN’T LEAVE A SPOILER SPACE! NO! NO! AAAAAAAAHHHH...!”

I am one of the very vanishing few people that I know of who are immune to Spoiler Neurosis. Mind you, I don’t go looking for spoilers and I don’t avoid them, but if I find them they don’t bother me.

Just as an example, as far as Star Trek is concerned, I have gone into Trek movies already knowing the essential plot. I knew the whole plot of the Next Generation sixth-season finale, “Descent,” in advance. I knew the stories for the first episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager before I saw them. I knew the entire story of the conclusion of Voyager well before it went on the air. And it didn’t phase me one bit. In fact, I enjoyed them that much more for knowing what was coming up. Why? Because, already knowing that Data was going to be seduced into the evil of his brother, Lore; or that Kathryn Janeway would team up with her future self to get Voyager past the Borg and their Queen and back to Federation space, and how they were going to do it, didn’t ruin it for me in the slightest. It made me that much more curious to see how the things I had read about were actually done. How did they produce that scene that was described in the article? How did the stars perform that scene that the writer of that piece talked about? How were the special effects done? What did it look like? How was this idea executed? How close will what I see on the screen come to what I imagined when I read about it? Usually, what people call “spoilers” are for me not so much a hindrance as an enhancement to what I’m going to watch or read. But I find myself quite outnumbered on this issue by the Spoiler Neurotics who can’t stand to be briefed about anything.

This is why a lot of the time when I post to a Listserv about the latest week’s comics, for example, I speak only in the most general terms. I may talk about how well it was written or drawn. I may mention that there is a surprise at the end and nothing more, or I may bring up that something of particular interest happened on a particular page and not say what it was. If it’s a really important piece of business or an issue that I thought was especially good and really want to pick apart and analyze, then I will defer to the prevailing neurosis and leave a space before I talk about it in the way that I want to. Really, though, I think the whole business of people thinking that advance knowledge robs you of the pleasure of seeing how it was done, and carrying on as if they’d looked at Kollos if you don’t frame your remarks carefully or hit the Return button twenty times before you go on, gets really neurotic and tiresome. But sometimes it’s just one of those things you have to do in consideration of other people’s feelings.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’d never seen Citizen Kane, you really wouldn’t want to know beforehand that Rosebud is Kane’s sled from when he was a boy and is the symbol of his lost childhood and innocence. If you’d never seen Murder on the Orient Express, you wouldn’t want to know at the start that they all did it. There are any number of episodes of The Twilight Zone (“The After Hours,” in which she is one of the mannequins; “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which she’s gorgeous and everyone else is a gargoyle; “To Serve Man,” in which it’s a cookbook) where viewers deserve to get to the twist on their own. Viewers new to The Planet of the Apes shouldn’t be clued in beforehand that Charlton Heston is really on Earth. People who were for whatever reason just discovering Dallas shouldn’t be told that Kristin shot JR, and people who were for whatever reason just discovering Soap really ought to be allowed to find out for themselves that Chester, suffering from a brain tumor, killed Peter Campbell. And if you have somehow managed to avoid the Star Wars films, you don’t want to know going in (assuming that you’re starting with Episode 4) that Darth Vader is really Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, and that “the other” that Yoda mentions is Leia, who is really Luke’s fraternal-twin sister. (Though I went into Return of the Jedi already knowing about Leia because I skimmed the Marvel Comics adaptation, and I lived.) Sometimes Spoiler Neurosis is not so neurotic after all. But you’ll notice that I saved all of these remarks for the very last paragraph. I probably should have given a warning at the beginning.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Since the last time I posted about comics, my feelings about the medium that I have loved from boyhood have not gotten any better. In fact, in the last year, I have dropped or let go most of my buying of regularly published, monthly comics. I’m now down to two regular titles, Thor (I keep wanting to call it “The Mighty Thor” but for some reason they’ve dropped the “The Mighty” part, which annoys me) and Wonder Woman. This week I’ll be visiting my comic dealer for the first time since before Christmas to pick up one book that I’m sure of, The Amazing Spider-Man, and that’s only because it’s drawn by John Romita Jr. John Jr. returned to Spider-Man late last summer and will be drawing selected five-or-six-issue story arcs on his new tenure. Basically, when John Jr. is aboard, I’ll be there for him.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure how long I’m going to be staying with Thor. The reason is that since the series was revived, it has ceased to be a super-hero adventure book about the Thunder God and his epic battles against titanic evil and menacing super-villains. It’s played more like the Norse version of I, Claudius, filled with schemes and plots and familial disputes and angst. I don’t so much mind the angst; this is a Marvel comic book, after all. But I do like my comic book heroes to be heroic and have adventures and battles. Last year Marvel released the latest in the series of Marvel Masterworks hardcovers of classic Thor issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In the ten or so issues in that collection, Goldilocks took on Loki, faced Mangog in a four-part epic, learned the truth about his origins (Dr. Don Blake was an invention of Odin to teach Thor humility), repelled the attack of Galactus on Ego the Living Planet, and began to explore Galactus’s origins. The biggest battle in the current Thor series was the issue when he opened a can of whip-thy-buttocks on Iron Man for having him cloned as a living weapon of mass destruction in The Civil War. Thor hasn’t been doing it for me and I’m rapidly losing my patience with it. If it doesn’t start to become the book I want to read after the upcoming 600th issue, it’s out of here.
That fate has already befallen what has historically been my most important and at the very least my sentimental favorite comic book. For the latest of several times in my fan life, I have dropped The Fantastic Four, and I’m reaching the point of not caring whether I ever buy it again. To tell you the truth, I don’t really feel as if I’ve dropped the actual Fantastic Four. Marvel isn’t really doing that book any more; they’re doing a lot of comics with the Fantastic Four name on them, that don’t have the look or feel or aesthetic of the FF that I loved. I look at an FF issue today and the first thing I see is a cover that doesn’t have the traditional Fantastic Four logo and “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” banner at the top. FF covers these days look like supermarket tabloid covers with drawings of super-heroes on them. And while the current artist, Bryan Hitch, draws in a beautiful and pleasing style, he suffers from what appears to be the affliction of most comic book artists today: He doesn’t want to draw the FF in the uniform that Jack Kirby designed. The FF no longer sport their classic uniform or any variation of it (including the smart-looking but still recognizable update by Carlos Pacheco, which I loved); even the famous “4” insignia/symbol doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. You may find this a rather superficial and frivolous complaint, but there are certain designs that don’t need to be made over. A classic is something timeless and immune to style. Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man--they’ve all been made over, and they’ve always come back to their aesthetic roots. The Fantastic Four were taken back to their aesthetic roots, and then taken back out. I’m not going to support that any more. If I’m going to spend money on the FF, I want my FF. The right cover format, the right look of the characters--the FF that was part of what made me love comics. As Edgar Allen Poe might have put it, “Only that and nothing more.”As I said, this is not the first time I’ve stopped buying The FF. There was an earlier period when I dropped it, and in my own opinion I did so after hanging on for far longer than I should have done out of sheer loyalty to this book and these characters. During the tenure of writer Tom DeFalco and penciler Paul Ryan, things started out beautifully and then went into a shocking deterioration. At first I didn’t recognize the deterioration for what it was, because I assumed that they were just having a little fun with it and would quickly fix the things that were going off the mark and get the book back to where they had it. And I was wrong. I don’t want to go all the way into this (though it may come up in some future post), but my little joke with myself is that DeFalco and Ryan took on the assignment to do The Fantastic Four and got a little confused and thought they were doing The X-Men. It certainly seemed as if they were trying to do The X-Men, as the book grew filled with plots that went off in a dozen different directions at once; Sue Richards, the Invisible Woman, started to dress like a mutant slut and behave like an aggressive bitch; and everything seemed as if it were being done for an audience of adolescents with short attention spans. But I kept hanging on for the next issue, and the next, and the next, until even my deep love for these characters wasn’t enough to justify it any more, and I dropped it. I came back a short time later to see how they would fix the apparent murder/suicide of Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom that kept my favorite characters out of the book for almost two years (and we really don’t want to go into that right now), but that led to the shut-down and re-start of the series in a marketing gambit called “Heroes Reborn” that sent the FF and the rest of Marvel’s central cast to a parallel world to act out revisionist versions of their classic adventures. I looked at only a little of that.

When they brought the FF home, writer Scott Lobdell and artist Alan Davis restored the team to something like its classic look and style, and I was so happy to see it that I almost cried--but a few issues into that iteration of the series, Lobdell and Davis were replaced with writer Chris Claremont and artist Salvador Larocca (whose artwork I truly loathed back then), and I immediately saw the writing on the wall: “Uh-oh, another round of X-Men stories in the guise of FF stories.” And I dropped it again. I was gone for nearly three years this time. I returned for the issues plotted by artist Carlos Pacheco mainly because I missed my old friends, the Fantastic Four, so badly. I was rewarded with a restoration of the book’s classic style and even a new Baxter Building. I thought they had fixed it for good this time. And again, I was wrong.

The overall reasons for my disenchantment with comics are very complex and in many ways very personal. I could be sitting here composing blogs for the next week going into all of it, and probably giving you more information than you want or need. Odds are it’s a theme we may be returning to in future posts anyway. But in the last week, I’ve been seeing some posts elsewhere online that have touched on things that I’ve thought about the state of the art, and they’ve reminded me of something that I found in an interview with a prominent writer/artist that I went and dug up because it struck a deep personal chord with me. I want to present those things to you now.

The first one comes from artist/writer Bill Willingham from an editorial on the site Big Hollywood, which was quoted on Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources on January 10:

“Folks, we’re smack dab in the midst of the Age of Superhero Decadence. Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned. Full disclosure time. I’m at least partially to blame for this steady chipping away of the goodness of our comic book heroes. In my very first comic series Elementals, first published close to thirty years ago, I was eager to update old superhero tropes, making my characters more real, edgier, darker — less heroic and a good deal more vulgar than the (then) current standard. Elementals was one of the first of what was later dubbed the ‘grim and gritty’ movement in comic books. And to complicate my confession, I’m still proud of much of that early work. At least my crass and corrupted Elemental heroes still fought, albeit imperfectly, for the clear good, against the clear evil.”

To begin with, I love that expression “Superhero Decadence”. It feels like exactly the right thing to call a phenomenon that is a large part of what’s turned me off about comic books since the late 1980s and into the 1990s and beyond. I remember reading The Elementals when it was first published, but I recall very little of the storyline now. (The issues I bought are buried in my basement somewhere.) Mostly what I remember is that I thought the artwork was nice for something outside of Marvel and DC. As Willingham knows his work better than I do, I take his word for the Elementals being less “heroic” than they were “super,” but that is one of the things that have alienated me about comic books in the last couple of decades, and I find it refreshing that one of the people who presently occupy the arguable top of the profession identifies himself as part of the problem and is ready to step back and reconsider his own contribution to it.

“Superhero Decadence” gets a further clarification in this passage from Dirk Deppey in Journalista, the Comics Journal Weblog, from January 13:

“I would say that the current kerfuffle is little more than a reflection of a larger problem, which [is] the continuing effort to wedge an adult sensibility into a genre created for children. I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon ‘superhero decadence,’ and it occurs to me that I should define my terms a bit. By ‘decadence’ I don’t mean sexual deviance, but rather ‘jaded but unwilling to move on, with one’s tastes growing more ornate and polluted in the process.’ Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well. The results read like an adult crime drama featuring all the excess sex, violence and a zombie-like attempt at the sophistication of an HBO television series but with a cast composed entirely of professional wrestlers. Would you watch Glengarry Glen Ross if it starred Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper? (Okay, I would too; that would be funny. But you get my point.)”

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the characterization of super-hero comics as being “a genre created for children”. If I recall correctly, one of the pioneers of the form, The Spirit by Will Eisner, started out as a newspaper supplement that certainly reached an audience of more than just kids. And even so, by the 1960s you had Marvel Comics, which started with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and my beloved Fantastic Four, appealing to an audience not only of children, but their high-school and college-age siblings and in many cases their parents, aunts and uncles, and even grandparents. Granted, there has always been an appeal to children in comic books, but there is just as much of a history of adults writing and drawing to please themselves. In fact, I’m pretty sure Stan Lee has never intentionally written just for kids; Stan always wrote for Stan. So I’m not sure that I can get behind the idea of super-hero comics having created solely with children in mind. The Marvel Comics that I loved best were always for young (and sometimes older) adults who hadn’t lost the sense of wonder that they knew as kids.
But what really crystallizes my own thinking on the matter comes from writer-artist John Byrne. For several years in the 1980s, John Byrne, who had risen to stardom on The X-Men, did the best work with The Fantastic Four outside of the original stories of Lee and Kirby themselves. In Comics Interview magazine #71 (1989), there is an issue-long interview with Byrne, at one point of which he says some things that hit dead-on-target with me. (This is what I went and dug up). According to Byrne:

“One of the things that bothers me about a lot of the stuff . . . that’s in comics in general these days is that people have forgotten what super-heroes are. Super-heroes are not psychotics who put on costumes and go out and kill people. Super-heroes are people who are intrinsically better than thee and me. They are more moral, they are more noble, and they’re doing what they doing because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re crazy.

“ . . . these guys aren’t super-heroes. There’s an old term that we don’t use any more, costumed crimefighter, and most of the guys out there, all bred by Wolverine basically, are costumed crimefighters. They’ve taken Batman, for example, and changed him from a super-hero into a costumed crimefighter. You don’t have to have super-powers to be a super-hero, you just have to wear a funny suit and do good stuff, and they’re all turning into costumed crimefighters instead of being super-heroes. They’re not doing it because it’s the right thing to do any more.

“ . . . these guys do this because deep down they know it’s the right thing to do. They don’t do it because they’re crazy, they don’t do it because they’re like us, they do it because they’re better than us.”

What Byrne said in 1989 is something that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone else say in the entire industry. I don’t think anyone else ever would say something like that. But it’s true. And it has been a major part of the problem with comics since the 1980s. Byrne, like Willingham, identifies himself as part of the problem, because the popularization of the character of Wolverine began with Byrne’s own work in The X-Men.
The evolution in comics that began with the Fantastic Four has over the years gone to some extreme places. Perhaps the most fundamental argument for it is that evolution is not a one-time thing; it doesn’t start and then stop, it keeps going on. But where has it gone? Later this year we’re going to see one of the prime example of where it has gone, adapted for the movies. There is a growing buzz surrounding the upcoming release of the movie The Watchmen based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The Watchmen is the prime example of the trend of “deconstructionist” comics; that is, comics that challenge and even tear down the central operating assumptions of super-hero fiction. Don’t be surprised if in some near-future Quantum Blog we have a heart-to-heart talk about The Watchmen and everything that it represents. I’ll tell you one thing up front: I read the graphic novel, and I enjoyed the craft of storytelling and art that went into it (and appreciated the swipe of the plot of one the earliest episodes of The Outer Limits), but those characters were another matter entirely. Enough of that for now. But what I’ll share with you for the moment is some of what made me love comics in the first place.

In the comics that I loved, which began with The FF, super-heroes were assumed to be real people and the world in which they lived was assumed to be a real place, like our world except for the presence of people with superhuman powers. That being the case, anything that might happen to you might also happen to the super-heroes. Anything that pertained to you would also be true of them. Super-heroes--and the villains they battled--were prone to all the same problems, failings, and conflicts that you would be. They would know love, hatred, sex, greed, fear, vanity, sorrow, joy, humor, illness, mortality, affluence, poverty, compassion, distrust, intimacy, camaraderie, loneliness, confidence, doubt, suspicion, triumph, tragedy, and anything and everything else common to the human experience. Additionally, they would have powers that we didn’t possess, they would wear symbolic attire and call themselves by symbolic and metaphorical names, and they’d have adventures and experiences far surpassing our own. BUT--and this is the big thing--it was understood that good was still good even if it wasn’t perfect, and that evil was still evil even if it had identifiable motivations and might even arouse our sympathy and understanding. And when evil threatened, when danger loomed over the city or the world or the human race itself, super-heroes got the hell over themselves and got the hell on with the business of being heroes! And they did it for exactly the reasons and motives that John Byrne said above!

Look at it this way. Super-heroes have the same basic motivations as police officers and fire fighters. What the New York Fire Department does for the City of New York, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers and Superman do for the planet, sometimes even the universe. And there’s no need to deconstruct that. That’s just who they are. And that is all that I’ve ever needed them to be.

Monday, January 12, 2009


And...we’re back.

I took some time off from the Blogosphere last year. Since then, during the summer, I took my blogging in another direction by creating the Quantum Male Art Blog, I welcome you to surf on over there and see what I’ve been up to. But as of this week, I’ve decided it’s time to start up The Quantum Blog once again. (Well, that and the fact that it’s been hard to keep my digital mouth shut all this time.) And for my first post of the re-started Quantum Blog, I’d like to tell you an interesting story.
It was, I think, my last year in college when my friend Richard wanted to go to the New York State Museum and attend a retrospective on the photography of Flip Schulke (1930-2008), accompanied by a lecture by the photographer himself. If you’ve never heard of Flip Schulke, as I hadn’t, you’ll understand why this is a very timely post indeed. Flip Schulke is a photographer and photojournalist who documented both the Civil Rights Movement and the NASA Moon missions from the inside. Flip knew and traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself and shot photos of Dr. King and his family that no one who wasn’t on an intimate basis with him would ever have gotten. He became an actual friend of the King family. Not only that, he was a known pioneer in the field of underwater photography and went on expeditions with Captain Jacques Cousteau himself. Flip’s work also covered NASA’s endeavors at the very height of the space program in the 1960s, when America reached for the Moon. He photographed the astronauts and the space camp, and documented the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle projects. This is a guy who was “hands on” with history itself. As I write this, I’m just learning of his passing away last year. I had no idea. I met him only that one evening, but he left an impression. For a little while, I was in the company of someone who had done some important things.

For many years, I most closely associated Flip with what I considered the irony of the little bit of time that I spent talking with him. Richard and I were there to see his work and hear him talk of his experiences of knowing Dr. King and his family and being there for so much of what happened in those years, including the assassination. But when it came to his work with the space program, it came out that Flip and I had a common interest. We both enjoyed science fiction movies! At that exhibition of his work, I actually stood there with this man who had been at the right hand of our most revered civil rights leader, discussing the relative merits of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien! It made sense, actually, now that I think of it. Science fiction is not about “unreal” things, as many people seem to believe. It’s simply about taking reality and projecting it forward, or turning it around at a different angle and looking at it a different way. And many of the concerns of Flip’s work--the rights and dignity of all people regardless of their differences, the preservation of our natural environment, the understanding that humanity’s future must ultimately lie off Earth--are identical to or compatible with the concerns of science fiction. There could be nothing more natural than for this man to be a science fiction fan. Now, how many of you know another interesting thing: There is evidence that Martin Luther King Jr. himself was a Trekker!

It’s apparently true. There is a well-known story in Star Trek circles, told by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the 1960s series and the first six films. It seems that at one point, Nichelle wanted to leave Star Trek. She didn’t believe she was being well or adequately utilized on the show. She thought of her role as being too limited to sitting on the Bridge of the Enterprise keeping “hailing frequencies” open. (In fact, I’ve heard stories that Gene Roddenberry was able to keep Uhura on the show only by promising NBC that she would never take command of the ship! This may account for all those times when Mr. Sulu [George Takei] was left in the Captain’s seat in lieu of Kirk, Spock, or Scotty, when in fact Uhura was directly behind Scotty in the chain of command. Better a Japanese man than a black woman running a starship on TV in 1967!) What changed Nichelle’s mind about leaving was her encounter with Dr. King. It seems that Dr. King and his family watched Star Trek together (as did my family and I back then). When she told King that she was leaving the show, King told her she mustn’t do it. He argued that even though she may have mostly been an interplanetary switchboard operator, it was important for people to see a black person, man or woman, in a position of responsibility in a show about the future. Star Trek, said King, was sending a message to the world that blacks would be part of a common tomorrow for humanity, just by the mere presence of Uhura. No matter the size of her role, she was important and had to stay. Thus inspired, Nichelle Nichols stayed with Star Trek. And not only did she continue in the role of Uhura, but when the original series ended, she went to work for the actual space program. It was Nichelle Nichols who helped to recruit the first African-American astronauts into NASA. And as it happened, a little black girl who watched Star Trek grew up with Uhura as one of her inspirations to show her that she could do something of meaning and value with her life. That little girl became an award-winning comedienne and actress on stage, film, and television. We know her today as Whoopi Goldberg; she played Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Another little black girl also grew up watching Uhura and was similarly inspired, not in the performing arts, but in the sciences. She became a physicist and the first African-American female astronaut. Her name is Dr. Mae Jemison, and she guest-starred as a Transporter Chief in the Next Generation episode “Second Chances”. You see, Dr. King was right.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said something that I think is the perfect summation of everything that is Star Trek, though I’m sure he wasn’t actually talking about Trek when he said it. Dr. King once said he refused to accept that “the is-ness of man’s presents nature renders him morally incapable of reaching up for the ought-ness that forever confronts him”. What he meant is that the challenge of being human is the challenge of believing that there is something better than our present state of being, our present way of life, and of striving to attain it. It is the challenge of believing that we can change for the better. And I’ll tell you something true: In six TV series (counting the animated show) and ten films (soon to be eleven), this belief, and the actualization of it, is all that Star Trek has ever talked about. That’s what Star Trek is. It’s not really about spaceships and ray guns, and people in uniforms and crazy costumes, and odd-looking people and beings with strange protuberances on their foreheads. It’s about the belief that one day we are going to be better. One day we are not going to be prejudiced. One day we are not going to be greedy. One day we are not going to let poverty and inequality exist. One day we will stop fighting wars (against each other). We will cease to be superstitious, stupid, and ignorant. We will value our human faculties of reason and the human quality of compassion that is its necessary complement. We will use science for what it is meant for: to improve our minds and enhance the quality of our lives. The entire body of written and filmed works that we call Star Trek is about just what Martin Luther King Jr. said: the idea that there will come a time in the future when we will get over being what we are and become what we ought to be.

All this comes to me as I write this now and remember the night that I met a man who walked with history and recorded it, and a man who appreciated the idea that humanity has a future. And it’s an even more apt thing to remember on this of all months, when we’ve just put a man in the White House who embodies everything that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted for America and the world. I never met Flip Schulke again after that night at the New York State Museum, but I’m grateful for that little moment of time that I got to exchange words with a man whose work straddled past, present, and future. I’m only sorry I didn’t know until now that he had died. But knowing it now makes the memory that much more special.