JOHN OSTRANDER: OLD STAR TREK TECH

Star Trek-Communicator

by John Ostrander

I’m a Star Trek fan. Not a rabid fan, but a fan. I‘ve at least sampled all the shows and some I liked better than others. I’ve seen all the films and some I really liked; the first Trek film – not so much. I even enjoyed the two most recent films although I have a nephew who may disown me for saying so.

I’m not a big tech sort of guy…but I do have a major tech gripe with the series. The original communicators very much influenced the design of cel phones – mine still flips open, thank you very much, and I don’t know how many times I’ve asked Scotty to beam me out of some situations. Unfortunately, all the communicators are good for is audio. No video. Star Trek is set in our future. My antiquated Trekfone can take pictures. We have cel phones that can take movies. ST communicators cannot.

You would think that having video capability would be valuable for away teams stepping foot on new planets and meeting new civilizations. Their space ships have sensors that can pick up life forms on planets below or peer long distances into space and throw up the image on the bridge’s screen but they can’t do video from the planet surface to the ship orbiting overhead. Here today we can get video to and from the International Space Station. Our probes can throw back images from distant planets.

I understand why that had to happen that way in the Original Series. The show didn’t have the CGI or the budget to make it work. Why not update the tech in the later series? Why not in the movies, especially the most recent ones?

They have teleporters, for cryin’ out loud. Figuring out how to get video from planet surface to an orbiting ship is harder than disassembling someone’s atoms, beaming them somewhere and re-assembling them? Seriously?

Are they keeping to the audio-only rule because that’s the way it’s always been? They’ve already alienated the hardcore Trek fans with the re-boot; are the fans going to get more cheesed off because now the communicators can send pictures? Are they afraid all the ST characters are going to start doing selfies? Although I could see Kirk doing an Anthony Weiner with his.

Why does this bug me? Because, in my book, it’s a failure of imagination.

I remember a great scene in Galaxy Quest (one of the best non-ST Star Trek films ever made). IMDB does the pocket synopsis this way: “The alumni cast of a cult space TV show have to play their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help.” Their fake TV ship has been lovingly created by a race of aliens who believe the TV episodes (which have found their way into outer space) to be a “historical record.”

In one scene, Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver have to get to the manual off switch for the self destruct button and are confronted with a corridor of large pistons slamming together from side to side and up and down at an alarming speed. Weaver’s character balks; there’s no reason for those chompers to be there. Allen says it’s because it was in an episode. Weaver screams, “That scene was badly written!” She snarls that those writers should have been shot; this always makes me giggle.

That’s my point. The aliens put the banging pistons in the corridor not because they make any sense but because they were there before. Same problem with the communicators for me: they don’t make any sense.

The early communicators were way ahead of their time and that’s part of what Star Trek tech has always done – inspired us and given us a sense of wonder, of possibilities. That stimulates the imagination. Communicators shouldn’t be able to do less than our cel phones; they should be able to do more.

The stories should also be more than re-makes of past stories. Tell us new ones. Take us boldly to where we’ve never been before.

JOHN OSTRANDER: CHOICE, CHARACTER, AND FREEDOM

fitzgeraldoncharacterization.tvwriter.com

by John Ostrander

Which would you trust more – what a person says or what a person does? Almost anyone with life experience would say they’d trust what a person does more. Mind you, although we know better we often go with what a person says: con men, politicians and advertisers (that may be redundant) count on that.

It’s what we do with story – character is built upon choices, good or bad, which the individual makes. That’s why the writer puts them in difficult and even life-threatening situations. My late wife Kim used to ask me how I might react in a given situation. My response invariably was, “I don’t know. Ask me when I get there.” I know how I’d like to think I would act but the reality is, until faced with the given situation, I don’t really know. Nobody does.

I don’t believe it when someone says “I could never kill someone.” I think Gandhi was capable of killing given certain circumstances. Thelikelihood of him killing might be small, but he was human and any human is capable of the act. It’s part of our common humanity; a dark side of it, I grant you, but still part of it.

It’s not only big choices that we make that proclaim who we are (or who a character is); it’s the small ones as well. The artist in a graphic narrative, for example, must decide what a given character might wear. What we choose to wear projects how we want to present ourselves.

“Hold on there, Horsestrangler,” some of you might be saying. “I don’t care what I wear. I just throw something – possibly clean – on and go.” (Guys are more likely to say this than gals who, as usual, know better.) My response is doing so is a choice of its own and makes it own statement; it says “I don’t think that sort of thing is important. It’s shallow and trivial and doesn’t represent who I am.”

Except it does. It rejects certain values and/or it says you want to look like everyone else and blend in. Do you dress for a job interview the same way you dress for hanging with your homies? If so, good luck getting the job. If you’re going on a date with someone for the first time, how do you dress? How do you present yourself? If you had to go to a funeral, what would you choose to wear?

Different characters in comics will dress differently. Peter Parker shouldn’t dress like Tony Stark. Clark Kent shouldn’t dress like Bruce Wayne. I remember that in an early episode of The Sopranos, the producers dressed Tony in shorts and flip-flops for a backyard party to suggest more strongly the underlying suburban setting. Advisers to the show said that Tony would never dress like that – and he never did again.

Why do people wear clothing emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo or the name of their favorite sports team and turn themselves into walking billboards for that product? Because it suggests a certain tribal affiliation the same way that inner city gangs wear certain colors. It proclaims us and marks us as part of a greater, possibly stronger, whole. At least, we may think it does.

That’s a choice that people make and it’s something that writer and artists working in the graphic medium have to keep in mind. There are hundreds, thousands, of ways of communicating to the reader who this character is, what the setting is, what’s at stake and what’s going on.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yep. Sure are. There are situations when you have no choice to make. You can’t choose which shoes to wear when you can’t afford any shoes. Choice exists only if there is more than one thing from which to choose. Otherwise, you have to take what is given.

There is no freedom where there is no freedom of choice.