Fandom of the Opera

Remembering the birthday of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith (2 May 1890 – 31 August 1965)
and commemorating Star Wars Day (May the 4th).

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

I miss space opera.

I recall my younger days, travelling into town and visiting Space Age Books. As I stepped through those bookshop doors, the everyday sounds of traffic and mundane life were left outside and I was free to explore other worlds and other times. I felt as if I had traversed a cosmic portal and left behind my mundane existence as a schoolboy to become, for all too brief a period, an adventurer and researcher at Hogwarts or in a modern-day Library of Alexandria.

I miss the days of looking upward, of being inspired by Moonwalkers who held much of the planet breathless in shared excitement. I miss Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who encouraged us to consider the stellar void as testimony to both our cosmic beginnings and our future as a species. I recall my imaginary explorations as a crewmember aboard the Skylark, the Spacemaster, or the USS Enterprise; or as a citizen of Trantor or Arrakis. I admire the modern equivalents of these vistas, but somehow (to me at least) these newcomers lack the grandeur of the old masters – or maybe that is simply my nostalgia instinct kicking in and giving special deference to my halcyon days as an avid and excitable teenage SF reader.

It has been reported that 60% of post-war baby-boomer children in the UK were avid readers of Dan Dare comics during the 1950s (Holland, 2008, 6). They later matured by watching Thunderbirds and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Armstrong’s one small step on the Moon. It may have been inevitable for me to join this same cohort, as I was born between the launch of Ham the Chimp and Yuri Gagarin.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As someone who was first exposed to SF via television programs such as Space Patrol, Lost in Space and Space: 1999, and the pulp SF novels of Captain WE Johns, I recognise that the science in these stories was often embarrassingly inadequate, but they nevertheless portrayed something marvellous – the grandeur of the universe and the sense of wonder which can be inculcated by our viewing of cosmic vistas.

Nowadays, the demands and realities of mundane existence have largely replaced my youthful dreams and visions – I have not gafiated so much as fafiated. And yet, when I pause and look up into the night-time sky, there is a primal call which echoes in my soul. Despite my attempts to ignore this compulsion, I still miss space opera, that traditionally maligned sub-genre of science fiction which encompasses both the grandeur of Apollo and the ordinariness of pulp culture.

Defining the Undefinable

NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In its purest form, SF holds the potential to not only anticipate a variety of possible futures, but to actually contribute to such outcomes (Bonfiglioli, 2010, 40; Kreuiter, 2009, 26-28). This holds true both sociologically and technologically, as demonstrated by the public silence that largely greeted NASA’s 1996 announcement of possible Martian microbial fossils inside Meteorite ALH84001. No politician mocked the concept of little green men; no religious leader proclaimed the divinely-ordained anthropocentric nature of creation. Life on Earth continued as before – evidence that SF had prepared our species to accept news of possible ET life.

I observe a similar lack of controversy in the discovery of thousands of extrasolar worlds circling nearby stars. Once again, our cultures and cosmological understandings have been prepared in advance for exciting discoveries. This shows that SF has an incredible, literally world-changing power, in no small part due to its implicit optimism. SF has even helped students to understand and learn scientific concepts (Laprise and Windrich, 2010) and has inspired many people to enter scientific careers or to create technological inventions (Jones, 2005; Easton & Dial, 2010).

‘Flight 16’ – Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

Science fiction inculcates an open mindset in which its practitioners might explore all sorts of possibilities: diversity and learning to appreciate the metaphoric alien in our midst, wondrous scientific discoveries, future utopias and dystopias available to humans, new human identities and futuristic societies, vast cosmic vistas that transcend space and time and humanity. I have previously noted how Carl Sagan has invoked the sense of wonder that can be found in the cosmic vistas of science. Science fiction pioneer and monster afficionado Forrest Ackerman was one person who embraced and popularised many science fantasy elements, but he personally disavowed any belief in religion or the supernatural, and embraced hard science. As an atheist and secular humanist, he looked ahead with hope to the future awaiting possible construction by humankind:

“My hope for humanity – and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in this direction – is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence… I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an accepted citizen of Utopia.” – Forrest J. Ackerman

Bridging the Gap

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

CP Snow suggested that we need to bridge the gap between the ‘two cultures’, ie. the chasm that exists between science and arts (Snow, 1959). I would suggest that science fiction may be one way to popularise science and critical thinking in ways that are artistic, creative and innovative. This may help to steer our culture away from fake news, Trumpism and Brexit, conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience.

Science fiction has a potential to transcend its own limitations and expand further into the paeans of literature. It can do this by borrowing extensively from other literature for its theme, character and setting (Casimir, 2002) or by utilising mythical archetypes that allow Luke Skywalker to be Odysseus. SF can give expression to feminist and other progressive ideas. Among its many fans, science fiction attracts those who are marginalised by mundane society and we should listen to such voices:

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.
Octavia Butler.

We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.
Dr Bronwyn Lovell.

We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try to destroy us. Black and queer writers have long imagined worlds beyond this one.
Shayla Lawz.

Science fiction can therefore be an antidote to bigotry and intolerance, and an educational tool for promoting diversity and difference. How can someone hate their fellow humans after they learn to appreciate the ‘alien’ within SF literature?

The Fandom Menace:

In SF, we meet people who are forever changed by the advances in science which have affected both their world and their very humanity. It is when we stretch these boundaries, not only of science, but of our concepts of what it means to be human, that we achieve the level of classical literature.

August 1930 Amazing Stories. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

It is thus we see a connection between Jules Verne’s The First Men in the Moon and Plato’s stories of Atlantis; we understand that Star Trek is a modern-day reworking of Jason and the Argonauts or Gulliver’s Travels; we can view Asimov’s Robot stories as 20th century modellings of medieval morality plays. We understand that tales of astronauts exploring strange new worlds are re-visitations of Robinson Crusoe or The Odyssey. We appreciate the Superman stories as secular retellings of Biblical folklore; and that Sarah Connor’s space opera adventures reboot female archetypes Athena or Minerva.

All such mythologies examine the timeless themes of what it means to be human in a wider, breathtaking cosmos.

Perhaps most of all, science fiction gives us a mirror within which we can glimpse who we are, and who we might become. In creating the possible worlds of science fiction, we are also creating ourselves:

“The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water …” ― Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

References:

Catriona Bonfiglioli, 2010. ‘Science ↔ Society’, in Chemistry in Australia, RACI, Volume 77 Number 9, October.

John Casimir, 2002. ‘Clone Wars’, in The Age, 16 May, B3.

Thomas A. Easton & Judith K. Dial (eds), 2010. Visions of Tomorrow: Science Fiction Predictions That Came True, Skyhorse Publishing Inc, Canada.

Steve Holland, 2008. ‘Introduction’, in Steve Holland (ed.), Rick Random: Space Detective, London: Prion/IPC Publishing Group.

Julian Jones (writer and director), 2005. How William Shatner Changed the World, Handel Productions Inc.

Allan Kreuiter, 2009. ‘The Science of Science Fiction’, in Australasian Science, Volume 30, Issue 10, Nov/Dec.

Shari Laprise & Chuck Winrich, 2010. ‘The Impact of Science Fiction Films on Student Interest in Science’, Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 45 – 49.

C.P. Snow, 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

We Are All Spock

For First Contact Day, 5 April 2063

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

“[Actor Leonard Nimoy] wrote autobiographical tomes variously titled, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock; perhaps his next book should have been titled, We Are All Spock.” – (Allshorn, 2015, 12)

NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The original Star Trek series was created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, who presented a utopian vision wherein science and society had evolved to create a future without war, injustice or other human foibles. Spock was one of his most noble, popular and inspirational creations.

Star Trek was a television series with ambitions that were larger than the television screen: “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables – morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background.” (Gerrold, 1973, 48)

Spock was a true scientist and humanitarian. He explored the galaxy (and nature) with an open-minded sense of awe and wonder, frequently expressing his admiration for “fascinating” new discoveries. He also explored the structures and strictures of pure logic – and, in his case, concluded that the discipline was too constricting within a wider social context. His approach to life therefore incorporated a healthy respect for logic balanced with ethics and humanitarianism, reflecting his own inner struggle to balance his humanity with other aspects of his personality. Spock was capable of ignoring emotive considerations when there was a need for cold, hard logic; but he was also capable of great loyalty and self-sacrificial dedication to his science, his captain and his crew. His words to James Kirk echo his sentiment to millions of fans: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock for nearly fifty years, spoke of his character’s widespread appeal:

“Here is an ET of superior intelligence and abilities. Capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure, and emotional needs. Dealing (supposedly) only with the facts in each case and the logical conclusions. The period in which Spock arrived was one of polarization over major political and social issues. The war in Viet Nam, the drug culture, the black revolution, assassinations, etc. Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans could turn for solutions to thorny problems.” (Nimoy, 1975, 93 & 94)

In this era of science denialism, Trumpism, Brexit and conspiracy theories, perhaps we need Spock more than ever. We should all aspire to be more like Spock. It’s only logical.

Science is Golden

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the series, Spock (representing science and logic) provided life-saving scientific data so that he and McCoy (a character representing raw emotion) could help Kirk (the decision-maker) to weigh up options and determine the most logical and ethical response to each of life’s challenges. Jeremy Nicholas affirms that ‘Kirk is caught between Apollonian Spock (rational, logical, ordered, controlled) and Dionysian McCoy (emotional, instinctive, passionate). In every episode Kirk faces a decision whereby he gets conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile.’ Stephen Fry also examines this duality within Star Trek.

The conflict between Spock and McCoy might also be seen as an exploration of the gap between what CP Snow calls, ‘the two cultures‘ i.e. science and the humanities/arts – a gap that I argue is bridged by science fiction such as Star Trek.

The impact of the Spock character upon popular culture cannot be underestimated. It is acknowledged that Star Trek inspired many people – including women – into a career in science, innovation or technology. Nimoy recalled in 1995:

“On a recent visit to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who warmly shared with me their gratitude towards Star Trek and Spock. It always amazes and touches me to discover how deeply the series affected so many people’s lives – people who chose careers in science, astronomy, space exploration, all because of one television show called Star Trek.” (Nimoy, 1995, 332)

May this cultural influence – like the fictional Spock character itself – live long and prosper.

Outer and Inner Space

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

This duality between logic and emotion, between science and humanity, was internal as well as external. The Spock character struggled – as might we all at times – to balance his emotions with rationality and logic. This was encapsulated in one of his famous sayings: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’, which revealed his internal fight between seeking significance for the individual ego versus a willingness to subvert ego in order to serve the wider community – a common human struggle. Spock’s internal conflict was declared as resolved by creator Gene Roddenberry in 1968:

Spock’s stoic temperament, his refusal to say anything or do anything not based solely on logic, is… a reflection of his Vulcan heritage. Complete adherence to logic is the primary motivating factor in the Vulcan mental process. Of necessity, complete suppression of emotions is required, lest logic be influenced in any way.” (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968, 225).

However, it has been suggested that Spock’s stoicism was actually problematic:

“All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.”

Therefore, we must be careful to consider the logic/emotion binary with an appropriate amount of nuance and depth; and be mindful that ‘Star Trek’s logic illustrates weaknesses in pop psychology’s models of emotions, intuition, logic, and morality.’ Blogger Hannah G gives a good reinterpretation of Spock’s internal logic/emotion binary:

“It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account.”

In pondering the inner confict within each of us, Spock was able to exercise intellect while also extending respect and empathy, as demonstrated in this conversation about Kirk, which took place between Spock and his Vulcan protégé Saavik:
Saavik: He’s so – human.
Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.

The Alien Within

As something of an alien and outsider – as we all are – Spock not only celebrated diversity, but he epitomised the nobility and dignity that we all seek as we explore our own place within the cosmos and seek to make a difference. His culture contained the IDIC emblem – a mix of shapes combined to create a divergent symbol for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Spock is an ‘Everyman’ figure for us all: he served as a metaphoric combination of alien and human. Spock gained pop culture significance in the 1960s and beyond because of this ‘Everyman’ status. He was literally an alien hidden in plain sight, particularly for adolescents/adults seeking role models:

“The teenager coping with the fiercely complex problems of adolescence often feels very much alone… Spock easily resolves this dilemma. He has superior insight. He can quickly understand the nature of the problem. He has studied the human race. He is a pure authority on the problem… He is future. He can be compassionate in his judgment and dispassionate in his help. To the young female, there is no sexual threat. Spock is asexual.” (Nimoy, 1975, 97 & 98)

I have previously written that ‘many fans upheld Spock an an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness’ (Allshorn, 2020, 90); I have similarly paid tribute within my 2015 eulogy to actor Leonard Nimoy:

“Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair.” (Allshorn, 2015, 13; also cited in Allshorn, 2020, 91)

Or, as James Kirk said more concisely: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

Modern Mythology

We all seek heroes. That is part of our human condition – to explore, emulate and aspire towards our role models, heroes and leaders. Across literature, heroic archetypes are often reboots of time-honoured templates. In this instance, Spock might be seen as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, or Odysseus. His captain, James Kirk, might be King Arthur, Jason (of Argonaut fame) or Robin Hood. Superman might be seen as a secular revisitation of religious figures.William Indick examines the Lord Raglan Hero Pattern and other cultural heroic archetypes, and examines how modern secular heroes are reworkings of old tropes:

“While science has replaced divinity and the superhero has replaced the demi-god in the expression of the hero myth, the basic archetypal structure of the hero pattern has not changed – and probably will never change, as the hero character serves the same function today as he did thousands of years ago. Heroes are simply ourselves projected outwardly. Their stories are our stories…” – Indick, 2002, 20).

To this end, we might examine how Spock shares characteristics of ancient heroic templates according to the Raglan mythotype:

(I have added my modern secular reworkings of how Spock conforms to archetypal characteristics).

Mother is a royal virgin (secular reworking: Amanda, Spock’s mother, was a homely school teacher; his step mother was a Vulcan princess)
Father is a king (Sarek was an ambassador)
Unusual conception (first Vulcan-human hybrid)
Hero reputed to be son of god (child of human mother and male from celestial domain)
Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather (Spock ‘rejected’ by Sarek as being ‘too human/emotional’ during infancy? Rejected by Sarek for many years after joining Starfleet)
Hero spirited away as a child (taught how to suppress emotions and hide his inner feelings from the outside world)
Reared by foster parents in a far country (adopted by ‘Enterprise’ family?)
No details of childhood (except for losing Sehlat as child)
Returns or goes to future kingdom (travels into space)
Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast (is victorious on many alien adventures)
Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) (is betrothed to T’Pring)
Becomes king (becomes science officer, Starfleet captain, and ambassador)
For a time he reigns uneventfully (successful career in Starfleet)
He prescribes laws (he enjoys command as Starfleet officer and science officer)
Later loses favor with gods or his subjects (falls out with father over career choice, tension with some Vulcans who reject his emotional facets, killed by adversary Khan Noonien Singh)
Meets with mysterious death (‘Kobayashi Maru’ and Genesis resurrection following Khan space battle)
Often at the top of a hill (Enterprise engine room/Mount Selaya)
His children, if any, do not succeed him (His apprentices, Saavik and Valeris, do not succeed him as he had hoped)
His body is not buried (put in coffin/torpedo on Genesis planet/resurrected on Vulcan)
Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs (Katra travels from McCoy to others then back to Spock)

According to my interpretation, Spock has more archetypical attributes of a mythical hero than does King Arthur, Jesus or Moses. As Spock might say: ‘Fascinating.’

What does this tell us about humanity? It is said that, ‘One of the chief purposes of literature is a means of exploring what it is to be human.’ In pondering the fictional Spock, we can examine ourselves.

“We Are All Spock” – Karin Blair (Blair, 1979, 160).

Image by mdherren from Pixabay

Author’s Note: I have not included any examination of the Spock character from the reboot movies and timeline. These other versions have insufficient background and character detail at this time to enable any informed assessment. They also appear to lack the archetypal nobility of Spock Xtmprosqzntwlfdb as presented in the original Star Trek series and movies.

References:

Allshorn, Geoff, 2015. ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931—2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12—13.
– – – – – – – – -, 2020. “Life, but not as We Know It: Star Trek, fan culture, slash fiction and the queering of Starfleet Command”, Bent Street 4.1, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 89 – 100.

Blair, Karin, 1979. Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.

Gerrold, David, 1973. The World of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

Indick, William, 2004. Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero. Media Psychology, 9.

Nimoy, Leonard, 1975. I Am Not Spock, Millbrae: Celestial Arts.
– – – – – – – – -, 1995. I Am Spock, Sydney: Random House.

Whitfield, Stephen and Roddenberry, Gene, 1968. The Making of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy Birthday to Us All

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead. ” – Kurt Vonnegut

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Based on a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria,
and recorded at Future Salon in Melbourne in 2013.

As I celebrate a significant birthday, I pause and reflect upon my life as an amalgam of past, present and future. Like the multiple birthdays we find in the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, life itself is full of births and rebirths and reboots. Every day we experience new opportunities and observe new directions in our personal and collective journeys towards the future. Like a modern Vitruvian Man, we can stand in a landscape vista and spread our arms wide with joy and wonderment at glimpsing myriad variations on the theme of life and cosmology.

In my case, I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year – perhaps not surprisingly – but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.

A fortnight before my birth, Humanists Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.

More than that, 1961 might ultimately be seen by future historians and anthropologists as ushering in a new era of human evolution. The epoch of human spaceflight might prove to be as significant as the change brought about by the arrival of the Holocene era some 10,000 years ago (?), in which humanity was learning to transition from hunter to herder, from nomad to settler. In 1961, maybe we began our next human journey as cosmic nomads hunting for new places to settle.

Such transition is visible in both mega and mundane forms: the human animal evolves both collectively and individually. As a species, we appear to have undergone a philosophical and intellectual growth spurt about two millennia ago – known as the Axial Age. When individual humans go through a similar period of intellectual transformation, we call it puberty. Like all children going through that transition in my own life, I came to a realisation that our personal dreams do not match external reality, and that for all our wishes that we might live in the best of all possible worlds, there are many indications that reality falls far short of that ideal. After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood – in particular, its treatment of LGBTQIA+ people, culturally and racially diverse communities, women, refugees and others living in deprivation, and the natural world around us – I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming, and in my case I began a life journey as an atheist – full of yearning to express my optimism through activism.

“ Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

“ And that’s a pretty big hope. ” – Greta Christina.

Along those same lines, possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.

The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that although we are all a product of our time and culture, we can evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution.

But it also exposes the need for a reality check.

An Australian Christmas tree in its natural setting, Bonnie Doon, Victoria. (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

We Are The World

When Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned the title, ‘We are the World‘ in 1985, they probably had no idea how correct they were. Despite our speciesism and our propensity for believing ourselves to be ‘spiritual’ and somehow superior to our material world, we need to recognise our place alongside the flora, fauna and geology of our biosphere. Professor Robert M Hazen presents us with a view of the cosmos that is both awe-inspiring and as humbling:

For the past four billion years, life and minerals have coevolved in astonishing ways… the epic, intertwined sweep of life and rocks, with such dramatic innovations as the rise of algae that produce oxygen by photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells with nuclei, the near extinction of life during episodes of extreme cold, the emergence of multicellular animals and plants, the gradual transformation of the land to an emerald planet, and ultimately to the modern world that is being shaped in part by human activities. (Hazen, 2013, 3).

Despite tending to think of ourselves as constituting some higher plane of existence, we need to recognise our place among the rocks and critters and furnishings of our world. That connection includes sharing life and life rights with the flora and fauna that inhabit our biosphere – not only humans. Author Andrew Boyd conflates this commonality with compassion:“When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others.”

Instead of perceiving ourselves as being the owners and sole occupants of our cosmic drawing room, we should – in the words of the old song – consider ourselves part of the furniture. This reassignment of perspective not only assigns us equality with our constituent atoms and with all organic life that comprises our biological cousins, it ennobles us as part of the cosmos. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Amidst this dualism – within which we are both murky stardust and lofty ambition – humanity still enjoys a significant place within our cosmic biosphere. Our history as a species is replete with religions and philosophies that encapsulate our quest for significance, whereas the answer is actually to be found within our common humanity and our common organic sentience with other living things across biosphere Earth (the very existence and suffering of which provides strong evidence against a deity).

The Human Adventure

Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or disembodied life in metaphysical heaven – “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there” in the material heavens, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might somehow, eventually and in a most ironic way, ultimately fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently discount: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or downloaded into some virtual hell. Instead of facing an afterlife in which we sit on a cloud and play a harp, perhaps we will one day sit in the cloud and synthesise orchestral symphonies of cybernetic synaethesia?

Possibly echoes of such a future can already be heard. In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of augmentation technology today. I am one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.

Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (in the 2010s), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise the human condition. When my parents were young, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic concoctions in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.

Image by DrSJS from Pixabay

Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.

Neanderthal by Petr Kratochvil (CCO Public Domain).

In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we likely cannot anticipate? Will technology lead us to devolve into tech-reliant simpletons or evolve into a tech-empowered singleton? What will it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly (and somewhat arrogantly) regard neanderthals or denisovans?

Future Shock

Old Telephone by Greg Ptashny
(CCO Public Domain).

I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke (Clarke, 1984, 4), in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace all sentient life, and cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?

Daniel Dennett records possibly the ‘first robot homicide’ as taking place in 1981, when a Japanese workman in an automated factory failed to shut down a robotic arm and was crushed to death (Dennett, 1997, 351). Similarly, a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was killed by an experimental self-driving car in 2018, some 121 years after another pedestrian in London became the first pedestrian to be killed by a horseless carriage. Such incidents foreshadow the fear of future sentient AI wreaking death and calamity upon humanity, if/when they should develop capabilities beyond that of automated and mindless computers aping human error. Even this week, I note concerns being expressed about robots that date back to the original invention of the term ‘robot’ and mirror the fictional experience in the Robocop franchise. Such fears actually mirror our own human frailties and imperfections – particularly the current problem with AI development in that it largely excludes the participation of women and other traditionally excluded cohorts: ‘There is mounting evidence that without the input of women, the technology has been left vulnerable to an alarming number of biases.’ Similarly, we see the evolution of technology as corresponding to the rise of empowerment for Africans and Latinos and Indigenous cultures.

I believe that whatever happens in the future, exciting times lie ahead – and I am not alone in this view. Humanist Alisdair Gurling writes about the rise of Artificial Intelligence as ‘adaptive digital prosthetics’ to assist us in our own evolution. This, he proclaims, could lead to ‘a second renaissance – the intelligence renaissance. The impacts could be profound, irreversible, and far-reaching’ (Gurling, 2020, 10). By extension, if we aimed to fulfill the dreams of science fiction author Isaac Asimov by creating robots who are ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’ (Asimov, 1973, 11), wouldn’t we in fact also be guiding ourselves towards betterment? I say bring it on.

I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.

Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” – Edward Said

However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Humanism in Australia, some years ago I undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that in past times, maybe local Humanism relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I understand that much of traditional Humanism focussed heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represented a ‘qwerty’ mindset that was at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change. Today, I hope to see Australian Humanism focus more on Greta Thunberg and diversity, global justice and sentientism; instead of debating the minutiae of dusty theology and perpetuating forms of affluent white culture and privilege. To capture its truly universal human flavour, Australian Humanism needs to incorporate what US scholar Anthony B Pinn cites from Martin Luther King as somebodyness, or a refusal to be ashamed of being black (Pinn, 2015, 70) – which I take by extension as claiming pride in every form of difference and diversity, particularly those who are oppressed or marginalised.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

A colleague once asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as working interactively to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world. I can hardly wait to see what is birthed next.

DeGrasse Tyson 2014 Christmas Day tweet

Which of course, brings us back to birthdays, which is where we began. Happy birthday to the 20 million people who likely share my birthday, and more than that, happy birthday to the world and the chance for renewal and a fresh start every day. What future is being born today? That surely depends upon us, and whether or not we are willing to anticipate the future that we want (or do not want) and take steps accordingly. It is up to us – AI notwithstanding, we will get no help from elsewhere.

Personal Birthday Request: Don’t just read or think – do!
Please help change the world for hundreds of people
by supporting this cause with which I am connected:

Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees
Thanks for your humanity and compassion.

An earlier version of this article, based upon the original talk, was published in the Australian Humanist and Victorian Humanist magazines in 2013.

References:

Isaac Asimov, 1973. I, Robot, London: Granada (Panther) Books.

Arthur C Clarke, 1984. 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto: Del Rey (Ballantine) Books.

Daniel C Dennett, 1997. ‘When HAL Kills, Who’s to Blame? Computer Ethics’, in David G Stork (ed.), HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 351 – 366.

Alisdair Gurling, 2020. ‘The Intelligence Renaissance: The Coming Era of the Artificial Muse’, in Australian Humanist #140, Humanists Australia, Summer, 8 – 10.

Robert M Hazen, 2013. The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, The Great Courses: Course Guidebook, Virginia: The Teaching Company.

Anthony B Pinn, 2015. Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury.

Jake Sturmer, 2013. Science literacy on the decline among young adults, ABC AM radio, 17 July.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Child To Man

Originally published in Solar Spectrum #2, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2002.

Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

When I look back on younger days
(When things were black and white),
The Enterprise epitomised
My transport of delight.
A life of young simplcity
(A heart both bold and brave),
And fantasy epitomised
The promises life gave.

Roll back the years on memories!
(Role models in my past…)
From Kirk and Straker to Armstrong
Their influences last.
A youth who searched for adulthood
(A literary goal),
From self esteem to romance –
Such adventures filled my soul!

Come back to present time with me
(Come fly the sky in dreams!)
I thank the past for giving me
The vision that life seems.
And as I soar to reach the skies
(And into the unknown),
I thank others who shared their dreams
So I could seek my own.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Thank You For Being A Friend

‘For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.’ – Unread public tribute to lost astronauts.

Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee (NASA Photo)

On 27 January 1967, the US space program came crashing back to Earth. In a disastrous launch pad fire, during a test run for an Apollo 1 space mission, three astronauts were killed. The cause would later be attributed by astronaut Frank Borman, at least in part, to ‘failure of imagination‘ in that contingencies were not fully anticipated. It was improvements in subsequent spacecraft design and operations that undoubtedly contributed to the successful Apollo Moon landings two-and-a-half years later.

Further tragedies would happen for the US space program effectively during the anniversary week, on 28 January 1986 (with the loss of the Challenger space shuttle and its crew in flight) and on 1 February 2003 (with the loss of the Columbia space shuttle). These tragedies – borne from engineering, management, and political failures of imagination – led to some ‘hard-won lessons‘ that we could possibly learn from today in a variety of life lessons.

One person whom Astronaut Remembrance Week touched personally was Kate Doolan, a lifelong space enthusiast and a close friend – a woman of eclectic interests. After catching the space bug while viewing the Apollo Moon missions on TV as a child, she spent her life studying and writing about space, meeting many astronauts and becoming an expert on the topic.

Kate was a close friend for about thirty years, and in recent years she called me her ‘BFF’. Many people will have different memories of Kate, including those who will recall her as being loud, assertive, forthright in her opinions, and somewhat abrasive with her language. She liked to present herself as being what we both jokingly called, ‘big and butch’. Her exuberance meant that life with Kate as a friend was never dull. But as a close friend, I came to realise that some of this facade, her bluster, her boisterousness, was, at least in part, a self-defence mechanism. Kate may have, on occasions, roared like the dinosaurs she loved, but her heart resembled the koalas and kittens that she loved. Kate hid a sensitive and tender side: her idealism, her childlike sense of awe at the universe, and her almost childlike vulnerabilities. Kate was a complex character.

Geoff and Kate at Equal Love Rally, Melbourne, 28 November 2009 (Personal Photograph).

I met Kate in 1989 through the Space Association of Australia. Everyone who knew Kate knows that space was her deepest passion and interest. She held herself to the highest standards of professionalism when researching, writing or presenting space material. Kate got to meet astronauts, go to special movie screenings, attend space conferences and diplomatic functions, speak on the radio, and write articles for newspapers and magazines. Kate gave talks on space to anyone who would listen. This included a local ‘Star Trek’ club. Kate was like an evangelist for the space program. Whenever I was preparing a space project for my secondary school students, Kate always provided relevant research materials for the kids, and supplied sufficient quantities of space stickers or lithographs to ensure that every student received a small, inspirational memento. On more than one occasion, upon learning that one of my students had a special admiration for an astronaut, she secured a signed photograph for that student from that astronaut. Her knowledge of space trivia was breathtaking. She knew what was Neil Armstrong’s favourite music, or when was John Glenn’s birthday, or which astronauts had been honoured by having puppets named after them in the TV series, ‘Thunderbirds‘.

Kate is probably most famous for co-authoring the book ‘Fallen Astronauts‘, along with Colin Burgess and Bert Vis. She had hoped it would lead to further opportunities to write books, such as her frequently expressed desire to write a biography on astronaut Ed White – an ambition which sadly, never came to pass. On occasion, she expressed to me her frustration at not having qualifications in journalism, or a PhD in aerospace engineering, as she felt that such credentials may have helped to open doors for her writing. Once, she even complained that her one book was insufficient. I told her that in a thousand years’ time, after most of the 20th century was long forgotten, her book will serve as a primary source for historians studying the early space program. I truly believe she has left that as a legacy for the world.

Kate had other interests outside space that are not so well-known. She loved her cats, Costner and Benedict. Regarding her love of dinosaurs, I have fond memories of the many times we went to see ‘Jurassic Park’ at the movies, with the scary scenes always resulting in her repeatedly screaming, jumping out of her chair, swearing aloud and then apologising to everyone around her – and she loved it. She also loved to suggest that we go out and buy some Kentucky fried dinosaur. She loved Abba, cricket with beer, US politics and military history, the movie ‘Dances with Wolves’, actress Emma Thompson, the TV series, ‘South Park’, and giving her ‘Muttley’ laugh. She was word perfect on many of the bawdy jokes in the TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’. She dabbled in casual jobs, including working at a book shop in Prahran, where she shared her extensive military and space knowledge in conversations with her customers.

Kate prepares to attend the Rainbow Sash protest on 31 May 1998 (Personal Photograph).

In the 1990s, Kate joined the Melbourne chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and was a volunteer and committee member with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. She also joined the Rainbow Sash, an LGBTI group that protested against specific forms of religious homophobia. Among her other LGBTI activism, she marched in Melbourne’s annual Pride March, and attended Marriage Equality rallies. Such involvements waned in recent years due to her declining health.

Kate joined me in attending the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in 2012, even while expressing misgivings about what she called her lingering Catholic guilt. Such inner conflict was typical of Kate. She could be happy, sad, funny, bawdy, outraged and reconciliatory – all on the same day – and yet she also knew when to be the consummate professional, especially when being a public space advocate. I am thankful for her complex friendship. Among the many things it taught me was how to be a more understanding person. I admired her because her life journey embodied the Latin motto, ‘per ardua ad astra’ – through hardship to the stars. Kate learnt from some of life’s hard-won lessons and triumphed in her own way. We could all learn from her very human example.

In the last few years, Kate largely withdrew from face-to-face social contact. Instead, she sought – and found – a supportive network of friends online. I was pleased to learn that when she went overseas, to attend Spacefest, and to visit military monuments and museums, she was offered friendship, support and hospitality by what she called her ‘extended family’ from the Space Hipsters, Space History, and Fallen Astronauts groups on Facebook, and from other kind, welcoming people whom she had met online via social networks. At the time, her real-life friends wondered why she had socially withdrawn into a world of virtual friends. More recently, after a year of pandemic and Zoom teleconferences, I now realise that she was ahead of the rest of us.

In the last few years of her life, Kate became quite enamoured with crocodiles. I never actually asked her why. I assumed that she may have seen some physical resemblance between crocodiles and dinosaurs. But upon reflection, I think her fondness for crocodiles held a deeper meaning. I wonder if she may have fancied herself as a female version of Crocodile Dundee – hence her twitter name, @crocodilekatie. Like Crocodile Dundee, Kate probably imagined herself to be a lovable Aussie larrikin who could out-drink and out-swear the best of them. Like Crocodile Dundee, she could wrestle what she saw as her life difficulties – her metaphoric crocodiles – and emerge victorious. And like Crocodile Dundee, she had a habit of, shall we say, being ‘somewhat creative with the truth’ in order to spin a good yarn. And she loved to be the centre of a good yarn.

Kate wrote in detail about the Apollo 1 astronauts, and in a touch of ironic cosmic timing of which she would have tacitly approved, she also tragically passed away during Astronaut Remembrance Week on 28 January 2019.

“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
Sarah Williams.

As my parting tribute here, I write something to Kate instead of about her. In doing so, I quote from her favourite TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’: Kate, thank you for being a friend.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Looking Ahead With Optimism

As we bid goodbye to a year of COVID-19 and world upheaval,
let’s remember that the human adventure is just beginning.

“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!” – The Tempest

Diane Marchant with Star Trek actor Walter Koenig (‘Chekov’) at a convention in Melbourne, 29 Sept 1986. Photo courtesy of Irene Grynbaum.

A lot of populist art and literature is dystopian in nature, possibly none more so than the genre of science fiction and fantasy. As we look ahead, it seems a natural human inclination to anticipate the worst. But not always.

As a young SF fan, I was lucky: I discovered the utopian visions of the original Star Trek TV series.

Star Trek was born in the 1960s, during the era of the Vietnam War, the hippie counter-culture, and civil rights. The series aspired to reflect progressive ideas and to ‘boldly go’ where TV had seldom ventured. It portrayed noble people who were living in a utopian future that had arisen from the ashes of a conflict-ravaged 21st century. Such ambitious ideals are sorely needed today.

Star Trek introduced me to an extended family of fans who shared this optimism for the future, including two women who I was proud to call friends: Diane Marchant (above) and Theresa De Gabriele (left). Their lives as fans was one of service to others and living as an example of lofty aspirations. Tessie and Diane demonstrated everything noble and optimistic that I believe may lie ahead in humanity’s future, if we have the courage to make it so. They are both loved and missed.

Diane (1939 – 2006) was a long-time fan who personally knew Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek), and in many ways she became the mother figure of Star Trek fandom in Australia. She helped to found an international fan organisation called the Star Trek Welcommittee, and for many years was its overseas and/or Australian representative. In the days before the Internet, mobile phones or social media, she connected fans to support/friendship networks and local clubs, including my own fledgling effort at the time. Her informal Friday night home gatherings became a tradition for many fans. Diane dabbled in fan fiction (published in paper fanzines, not online), sometimes using the pen name of Kert Rats (or ‘Star Trek‘ backwards), and she helped to make fanfic history (see below). Today would have been her birthday. Happy birthday, my friend. May your ideals live long and prosper.

Tessie (1947 – 2020) was also a mother figure within local fandom; offering caring advice and support to any fan who needed it, and happy to befriend everybody. She was known for her hospitality to taxi others safely to and from fan activities in her combi van. She edited fanzines and newsletters, helped to organise and run conventions, and assisted in hosting tourism activities for international science fiction notables when they visited Melbourne. Tessie had strong opinions on various topics, but she always listened respectfully to the opinions of others – I miss her impassioned late-night phone calls to discuss how the latest TV science fiction program may have treated an issue of social justice. Tessie was a no-nonsense social justice warrior: always rolling up her sleeves to help others; initiating ‘Book Day’ wherein we could swap used books while also raising money for charity; I even know a fan whom she rescued from an abusive family situation.

Diane and Tessie were both raised in a particular religious faith, but they offered unconditional friendship and support to everyone, without fear or favour. They both remained single, but loved their families deeply, and broadened that perspective to include their extended fan families. They not only believed in the Star Trek philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC), but they actually lived it, celebrating diversity and difference. Tessie once wrote admiringly of, “IDIC in action” (see the Fanzine of the Captain’s Log, Austrek, 1990, p. 32) and her earliest cosplay character (to my recollection) was Gem, a Star Trek character who was so empathic that she took on the burdens of others. Diane wrote what has been identified as the first published ‘slash’ fan fiction story – one which endorsed same-sex relationships – while Tessie befriended some of the first openly-LGBT people that I ever met. Such was their loyalty to the principles of a TV series that had been created by a humanist and which reflected the spirit of the era, a time when other science fiction programs such as Thunderbirds and Doctor Who also promoted our common humanity, and our human capabilities for responsible activism to make a difference in the world around us.

For the 25th anniversary of Star Trek in 1991, Diane wrote about the inspirational influence of the original series, ideas which I have no doubt were shared by Tessie and many of our fannish friends:

“Here many of us beheld ourselves, our dreams, our ideals… Tenets we hold dear and by which we fashioned our lives… Life is valuable, there’s a lot more to everything than just mundanity… humane ideals will win through, mankind will survive… ever growing, ever striving for peace, harmony, equality, tolerance and revelation, and that even with success in all these areas, will still go on to greater and more magnificent challenges.” – Captain’s Log #170, Austrek, September 1991, p. 9

Such optimism was a reflection of the original Star Trek concept:

“‘Star Trek’ speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow – it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans.
” – Gene Roddenberry

To have shared Tessie’s and Diane’s joyous, pragmatic optimism – and to have been their friend – is both an honour and a privilege.

The world has changed over the last fifty years, and during that time, Star Trek has remained a topical context for a variety of morality tales that reflect each era, from civil rights and the Cold War to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the arrival of a post-911 world, and the 2020 world of trauma and darkness. I do not know how Tessie and Diane would have responded to the current shift away from utopian idealism within the Star Trek franchise, but I suspect they would have acknowledged its metaphor while remaining loyal to Star Trek‘s original philosophies such as ‘Let Me Help’ and IDIC. Theirs are the heights, the principles, and the nobility to which we must all aspire as we rebuild a post-COVID world.

Tessie and Diane could not have anticipated 2020 as a year of COVID, but they would have believed that something better had the potential to rise from its ashes. While many of us look ahead to what we hope will be a Happy New Year and Happy New Decade – and better times for our world – Diane and Tessie would simply smile and say that this is to expected… and that we should not only make it so but make it soon.

To boldly go.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Television: Dreams or Destiny?

TWELVE TV SCIENCE FICTION EPISODES WORTH WATCHING
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

Apollo 11 lunar footprint (NASA photo)

Science fiction on television is a combination of fabulist, prophet and harbinger, all coming together to tell of the human condition in the face of unknown futures. What can we learn about who we are or who we may become? The following special episodes testify to their times and cultures, and are presented here in chronological order, according to their original transmission dates. Watch them and enjoy!

1. The Sky Is Falling (from ‘Lost In Space’ *original series*)
Teleplay by Barney Slater and Herman Groves, CBS, 1966.

Although it is remembered largely for its embarrassingly campy episodes, this series occasionally presented a great story. One example is The Sky Is Falling, which contrasts discrimination and fear versus friendship and interdependence, and evokes To Kill A Mockingbird through its use of children’s perspectives. From its opening words – in which Dr Smith bewails the sparsity of rescue from their barren planet, and then reacts with fear and intolerance when possible rescue actually does arrive – the episode explores the rise of xenophobia borne from difference, ignorance and poor inter-cultural communication; elements which, tragically, could be taken from today’s news headlines.

2. View of a Dead Planet (from ‘Moonbase 3’)
Written by Arden Winch, BBC, 1973.

Moonbase 3 was short-lived series that deserved a much longer run due to its ‘hard science’ depiction of lunar colonisation in the near future. This episode explores the frightening scenario of watching a suspected planetary extinction event on Earth, as viewed from a cosmic (lunar) perspective. The Moonbase staff must come to terms with their increasingly helpless horror, and try to balance both personal and national politics even while larger events appear to be unfolding in the sky above them. Viewers experience a compelling perspective of humanity’s fragility and cosmic insignificance in a Universe that has suddenly become breathtakingly claustrophobic and lonely. The story’s only weakness is its heavy reliance upon exposition from a stereotypically eccentric scientist.

3. The Legacy (from ‘Planet of the Apes’)
Written by Robert Hamner, CBS, 1974.

This series contains poignant allegory about the rise and fall of empires, and the horrifying fragility of civilisation. The Legacy asks viewers to ponder the value of scientific knowledge, and the profound impact upon our world should such knowledge be lost. Watching scenes of the physical destruction of computers – technology which has become ubiquitous in our modern daily lives – was difficult to watch even when first telecast in 1974. Other episodes explore the potential loss of medicine, science, and civilised society. All this while watching Roddy McDowall wearing an ape mask.

4. Voyager’s Return (from ‘Space: 1999’)
Screenplay by Johnny Byrne, ITC Entertainment, 1975.

The first season of this series is possibly most fondly remembered because of its interstellar vistas which portrayed the universe in stunning grandeur; however its scripts displayed erratic science and faltering character development, and an over-reliance upon a supernatural deux ex machina to untangle some stories from their own convolutions. Voyager’s Return rises above such problems, telling a tale in which scientist Ernst Queller and the staff of Moonbase Alpha are forced – individually and collectively – to face the ethics of their technology. This is a refreshing mix of humanity and hubris.

5. Man Out of Time (from ‘Logan’s Run’)
Written by Noah Ward, CBS, 1977.

Following on from the moral challenge posed within the Space:1999 episode mentioned immediately above, this episode from another series also explores humanist/scientific ethics. In this case, Logan, Jessica and Rem meet scientist David Eakins, who has time-travelled from the past and into their post-apocalyptic world. His heavy countenance represents the burden of a man who – having learnt of future events – intends to travel back to his own time and avert nuclear war, even though this may possibly cause his new friends to disappear from an altered timeline. With this ethical dilemma, Eakins becomes an ‘Everyman’ figure who must determine how to balance his considerations for those around him against the greater needs of humanity. Such ethical questions are vital at every level of science and society. If every episode of this short-lived series been this good, Logan’s Run would likely have been in production for many years.

6. Starscape (from ‘Starman’)
Written by James Henerson & James Hirsch, ABC, 1987.

A sequel to the original Starman film, this series – featuring the return of its title character to mentor his half-human teenaged son – was short-lived. Its downfall was the formulaic nature of its scripts: father and son as fugitives who face a weekly adventure and avoid capture before moving onto their next adventure. The penultimate two-part episode, Starscape, effectively ended the series on a poignant if ironic note of sorrow, loss and unfulfilled expectations. Starman follows the flawed human template: his compassion is revealed to be jointly his potential salvation and downfall. These characters are – like us all – aliens in a hostile world, seeking identity, belonging and meaning. Despite such melancholy, the episode Starscape hints at the optimism to be found by those who look up… at a starscape.

7. Three to Tango (from ‘Alien Nation’)
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Fox, 1989.

The arrival of millions of Tenctonese (alien) refugees allows for the creation of a new minority group to serve as an allegorical underclass, in a series that often explored racism, sexism, anti-refugee bigotry, gender roles, and homophobia. In this episode, one Tenctonese friend of the main characters turns out to be a Binnaum, effectively a third gender required for Tenctonese reproduction. He is invited to assist the main characters in conceiving a child. Thus the episode explores polyamory, bisexuality, intersexuality, non-binary gender roles, and the subversion of heterosexism. (This was the episode which had my teenage students – I was a school teacher at the time – arrive at school the next day, excited and eager to talk about ‘how aliens have babies’). Naturally, the Fox Network had to cancel the series shortly thereafter.

8. Darmok (from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’)
Teleplay by Joe Menonsky, Story by Philip LaZebnik & Joe Menonsky, 1991.

A series which strove to shape its own unique self-identity as a sequel to the classic Star Trek series from the 1960s (which will likely receive its own separate blog article soon), this late 1980s-early 1990s incarnation struggled to balance futuristic aspirations with disappointingly reactionary conservatism. Within this cultural fruit salad, there were some stand-out episodes, and Darmok is one of the finer stories. Superficially reminiscent of Arena (an episode of the original Star Trek series, with similarities to the Frederic Brown story of the same name), Darmok instead explores cultural difference and perceptions of individual and collective self-identity. Metaphor and allegory abound, and the Epic of Gilgamesh was probably introduced to fifty million viewers, as was the life-changing mantra: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

9. Running for Honour (from ‘Quantum Leap’)
Written by Bobby Duncan, NBC, 1992.

A cross between the earlier Time Tunnel (1960s) and the later Sliders (1990s), Quantum Leap features a scientist jumping from one time period to another within the bodies of individuals who are already living inside those particular time periods. The series tackled racial and gender issues, suicidal ideation, injustice, and changing social attitudes. Running for Honour delivers a story of a closeted gay man living in the homophobic 1960s. Possibly the most controversial episode of the series, it was also reportedly the episode to gain the highest viewer numbers. Somewhat quaint by today’s social mores, it was arguably a brave exploration of homophobia in both the 1960s (when it was set) and the 1990s (when it was created). Forget Star Trek, this episode really did boldly go where no American mainstream science fiction TV series had gone before.

10. The Original Wives’ Club (from ‘From the Earth to the Moon’)
Written by Karen Janszen and Tom Hanks and Erik Bork, HBO, 1998.

Viewers seeking uplifting TV should watch this real-life science-fictionalised biographical series and revel in its inspiration. What makes this particular episode significant is that it examines a rarely explored topic in media SF: the effect of science, technology and culture upon the lives of the women who have traditionally been denied public recognition. From enduring trite 1960s fashion shows and female gender stereotyping, through to facing the astonishing solitary devastation of widowhood, these women are shown to have courage and resilience equal to that of their Apollo-era astronaut husbands; however only the men get the glory. In the intervening decades, movies like Contact and Hidden Figures also provide strong ‘inspired by real life’ female role models.

11. Vincent and the Doctor (from ‘Doctor Who’)
Written by Richard Curtis, BBC, 2010.

Vincent and the Doctor is a worthy representation of TV SF at its best: science fictional technology (time travel) being used to explore a very human experience within a clever tapestry of real-life art. The Doctor and his companion confront a variation of the traditional time travel ‘grandfather’ paradox, and experience possibly the most emotional of any Doctor Who story in its fifty-plus year franchise. The use of the monster-of the-week format, to metaphorically explore the darkness of a lonely human soul, is a brilliant inversion of the series’ own sometimes-shallow monster formula. All the characters display frailties and a desire to learn from their experiences; the tragedy is that they each fail in their own way. The only desirable addition might have been for the Doctor to comment wistfully on more recently-evolved responses to mental illness; kudos nevertheless for daring to confront a challenging social problem.

12. Pride (from ‘Outland’)
Written by John Richards, ABC TV, 2012.

While more famous deep space franchises pointedly ignored the existence of LGBT people – or at best, reluctantly acknowledged their implicit existence through the use of problematic allegories – the six-episode TV series Outland was out and proud. It focussed on a club of LGBT science fiction fans and, in a strange case of art imitating life, it was produced in Melbourne, which was the one place in Australia that did (at that time) actually have an LGBT SF club (started by myself and friends in 1999). The final episode, Pride, resolves a number of story threads and delivers a satisfying climax at a fictional Pride March. “Beta, go!”

What do you think?
Have I left out any particularly significant episodes from other series? Please let me know! I am keen to possibly write a follow-up article to this one; a study that is not so predisposed towards US culture.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn