Monday, 28 October 2013

TOS - 2.24 - The Ultimate Computer

star trek - the ultimate computer
I don't care what you say. I want my blue shirt back
even if it has been stretched to 2 sizes larger.
And wash it before you return it to me !
Yes, George Takei was back in this episode after a rather long absence of what I speculated in my review of episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" that because he was acting in The Green Berets (1968).

In the 1980s when IBM introduced its 1st line of PCs or microcomputers for offices, I remember the anxiety people had regarding the digital revolution (I had no such issues because I was studying electrical engineering with a major in computer software engineering. Today's generation would have little anxiety about technology because they are born into it). Every week, TV showing how the smart technology could play chess, help a washing machine do its job better, making coffee, automate this and that in the workplace. Understandably, we all thought we maybe made redundant sooner or later, losing our jobs to the microchips. They're powerful and everywhere, and outsmarting us in many ways.

Cyberpunk movies like The Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) reflected the anxiety of the coming of the Information Age with their terrifying vision of a futurist dystopia. Especially The Terminator, where the central message is abundantly clear - we're doomed, and the smart machines are going to enslave us. This is far worse a fate than being made redundant. We're made extinct. But this is cinematic allegory reflecting reality. Having said that, as far as being enslaved by smart machines, there's an element of truth. Probably more so in the future.

Let's rewind to 1.5 decades before the onset of this digital revolution (or should I say fast forward 3 centuries into the future?), our intrepid Captain Kirk faces the same worry in this epsiode. In other words, he's worrying that he's going to be made redundant by M-5, the super smart computer, one that is far more intelligent than the existing computer installed on the Enterprise.

The crew of more than 400 is now dwindled down to a skeleton crew of 20 of only the most senior officers onboard. Captain Kirk is visibly perturbed by the idea that he's becoming a captain Dunsail, a term describes a midshipmen at Starfleet Academy in a part serving no useful purpose ("Dunsail", I guess is abbreviated from "Done Sailing").

There you go, 1.5 decades before the digital revolution, before the word 'computer' even entered the general population, Start Trek TOS is already portending, addressing this issue. It's light years - ok 1.5 decades - ahead. Future is hard to predict, but this episode nails it.

I mentioned in my review of episode 1.23 "A Taste of Armageddon" (almost exactly 1 season ago)that it's a predecessor of Wargames (1983), except that it's more about the dehumanisation element of smart technology in war than the computer that powers such futuristic dystopia. This episode, on the other hand, is more about computer who powers the wargames. However, this episode addresses both the computer revolution and wargames. There's very little question that this episode is a predecessor of Wargames (1983).

And not a pure coincidence, Wargames (1983) is released between The Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984). This is quite self-evident that the jitters of the digital revolution were fully felt and reflected in the cinema in the early 1980s.

Speaking of IBM that introduced their PCs into the workplace in the 1980s, we have to mention HAL-9000. Not that HAL is also a computer, and that IMB is a forerunner in artificial intelligence, and that IBM is also an acronym like HAL with one letter shift. M-5 the super smart computer in this episode is also a villain like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

HAL-900 and M-5, 2001: A Space Odyssey and this episode, one released in April 1968, and the other aired March 1968. Are they all merely coincident? My feeling to the answer is 'no'. If you read all my previous reviews on Star Trek TOS, I accounted for nearly all episodes where the ideas come from. No, this isn't in any way diminishing TOS writers. In fact, I have much respect for them. They maybe inspired by others, but they never just copied. According to TS Eliot, "Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal." And TOS writer stole aplenty!

But if this episode aired before 2001: A Space Odyssey, how could they be accused of stealing? Well, Stanley Kubrick didn't get the idea for his space epic from this epsiode. His sci-fi epic is an film adaptation of Arthur C. Clark's novel.

So it's that mean this episode has no relationship with 2001: A Space Odyssey at all? I think it's likely that Star Trek team heard about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and decide to ride on its success. Recent example of this approach was applied to episode 2.17 "A Piece of the Action" that it was made conveniently within months of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" was an answer to The Green Berets (1968).

With an excess of over 20 episodes to be produced a year, it's quite difficult to ask the TOS writers team to come up with totally original materials in such a timeframe with such pressure. Having said, as I pointed out above, they didn't just carbon copy. They stole. Star Trek TOS could hardly get their ratings off the ground. Trekkie today might find this surprising, or even shocking. They needed to apply every tricks in the book to make it work. Sometimes by riding on the success of others if needed be.

Sci-fi flicks weren't too popular, especially serious sci-fi, which there were few and far and between before Steve Spielberg made his Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977). He started the whole sci-fi shebang. It's not that Spielberg is a great director, which he's undoubtedly is one, but it's also because of the timing. When Stanly Kubrick made his 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same year as this episode and nearly a decade earlier, it wasn't very well received. Of course, one can argue that Close Encounter is much more entertaining than Space Odyssey. More entertaining, I agree, but a lesser masterpiece of cinema.

Space Odyssey was far too ahead of its time, and so was Star Trek TOS. Before them, there were really only few sci-fi flicks that match them in their thoughtfulness and to be taken seriously over a span of few decades, Metropolis (1927), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the War of the Worlds (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956), The Time Machine (1960), and Planet of the Apes (1968).

I didn't mention Lost in Space (1965 - 1968) because it's really more like Brady Bunch in futuristic setting. Well, if you look at the IMDB, it classifies it as Adventure, Comedy, Family. It focuses on family issues above all else.

The audience of the 1960s hadn't quite ready for sci-fi. They had no problem handling the Brady Bunch, however. There were only some 6 respectable sci-fi films I mentioned above that were made in the span of 5 decades! Today, it's quite far outcry when there're more sci-fis being made than, say, romantic comedies. Far more. Yep, sci-fi has come of age. After all, we're living in the Age of Internet, and Digital Revolution with smart phones and apps used by villagers in India and China. We've arrived in the future, and the sci-fi genre piggybacks on this thrilling ride.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

TOS - 2.22 - By Any Other Name

Star Trek - By Any Other Name
Tell me Captain, what's your choice? Money or
the box. Before you consider the choice, let me
remind you that each of this box is your crew member.
To ressurect them, just add water.
The theme of this episode is very similar to episode 2.20 "Return to Tomorrow" in reinforcing the main thrust of Season 2, which is praising the human race that despite of, or in fact because of our flaws that's what make us special and interesting, and so desirable to aliens across the galaxy.

In episode 2.20 "Return to Tomorrow", the ETs are so much more advance than human in their mental capacity that they can make the Enterprise do anything they demand. And in this case, the aliens are much advanced than human technologically, and again that they can make the Enterprise do anything they demand.

In the review of episode 2.20 "Return to Tomorrow", I asked the question why don't these superior beings put their minds into human body instead of androids. And I thought they may use that idea in another episode. Well, we didn't have to wait very long. In this episode, the alien simply make full use of human bodies right from the beginning because they need it to make full use of the Enterprise.

While the aliens are turning all human crew into chalks of cuboctahedrons, the human are in terms turning all Kelvan crew into humans. (The "cubes" look quite nice, I don't mind having my ash turned into one of these after my body is cremated. Why not? It's probably cheaper and easier than turning our ash into diamonds as some people have already done).

Well, they're already human physically, but the 4 remaining Enterprise crew try to turn them into more complete human by making them more human emotionally. So each in their own way goes on to work on their alien. Captain Kirk, in his usual charming way with the lady, goes on to perform on the alien female with the "pressing of the lips", or in some human quarters "sucking of faces", or "swapping of spits". It's "kissing" by any other name. Well, that's not what the title of this episode refers to. But it isn't too far off.

At the end, the aliens learn to live with these rather curious and strange human emotions. Well, we are learning to live with these rather curious and strange human emotions, too. Isn't this the central message of the episode? Curious and strange emotions are wonderful. That's the stuff that makes us human, unique, infuriating, frustrating, colourful, and worth living for.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

TOS - 2.21 - Patterns of Force

Star Trek - Patterns of Force
Spock:   Should I address you as captain or major, sir?
Kirk:     Either way, I out rank you. Just call me sir.
Spock:   Can I call you Jim sir ?                                    
Kirk:     You know the deal. Only when my life is in   
serious danger.                                   
This episode is a cross between episode 2.17 "A Piece of the Action" and 2.19 "A Private Little War".

While I mentioned a few times before that Star Trek TOS has changed tack in Season 2 to stay away from the serious contemporary issues around the mid 20th century, but these 3 episodes show that it couldn't leave it behind for too long. At least, it's weaning away from it gradually. These topics are too important and relevant to simply drop it completely.

This episode is similar to 2.17 "A Piece of the Action" in that an alien society is modelled on a particular human society at a particular period, in this case the Nazi Germany in WW2. While in "A Piece of the Action", it's about cargo cults. That is, the alien society run their society according to a book left behind by the crew of the Horizon.

Only in this episode, the alien adopted the Nazi Germany model because John Gil the brilliant historian thinks that the Nazi provides the model for most efficiently run state. In short, he turns himself from being a cultural observer into an interventionist.

This brings us to the similarity between this and episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" in that it deals with the civil wars in alien world, and the human intervention that conflicts with the Prime Directive. And in number of incidences, the American involvement in a particular country ended up in the installation of a puppet government, which isn't necessary backed by the Uncle Sam. This episode is showing that scenario.

As I mentioned in 2.19 "A Private Little War" that the writer was obviously taking a clear pro-Vietnam War and anti-Communist political stance. And I pointed out how similar is episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" and The Green Berets (1968) in terms of its political position on the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

This episode seems to send a cautionary tale about the interference policy. It's entirely possible that Star Trek doesn't want to be seen as interventionist. After all, Star Trek TOS has been making strong emphasis on the Prime Directive. Episode 2.19 "A Private Little War" seems to overturn that. This episode at least tries to remedy the perception that if it doesn't take a non-interventionist stance, at least it doesn't take an interventionist position either.

With the warlike Eskosians inhabitants playing the Nazi German, their peaceful neighbouring planet Zeon, whom are victims of the Ekosian ethnic cleansing policy, is of course allusion to the Jews. After all, the name Zeon is hardly a subtle veiled name for Zion, which could be referred to the people of Israel. This is further enforced by the planet's preoccupation of "The Final Solution", a Nazi euphemism for the genocide of the Jewish people.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

2nd Casting Call

This is the 2nd audition for project 2. It seems not long ago that I had my 1st audition. Wait, it wasn't that long ago. It was only January this year. While it's been only barely 9 months - less than a pregnancy period - much has changed with my role in Reel Frenz.

In the 1st casting call, I sat in front of the camera (next to Rahul, our fellow member) for an acting role in the 1st project. In this audition, I sat behind the camera (next to Michael our casting director) as writer/director. Let's say I was much more nervous then not just because I was performing in front of the camera, but also because that was the 1st day I met Marrie and the rest of the group members. At that time, I had no idea who Marrie was, except that she's the founder of the Reel Frenz Group. The butterflies in my stomach couldn't be that I was starstruck (not that I would ever be starstruck), it simply caused by a combination of "stage fright", the thrill of embarking on a exhilarating journey, and meeting a group of new friends.

Today, sitting behind the camera in the role of director, I understand the jitters the auditionees face (with the exception of Rahul. He seems to be as cool as a cucumber in front of all cameras). I tried to put them at ease, but I don't know how well I fared in that department. While it was informal - as this is only an amateur gig - but it still could be quite nervous for the auditionee if one is serious about getting the part. The fear of not putting in our best (thus leading to rejection) could be quite crushing. One could be easily bogged down by this while one is in the moment.

After we'd done our audition, we had a meeting with the production team to finalise the cast selection. Not getting enough group members to fill the roles is a headache. Having too many more auditionees than there are roles to fill is a nice problem to solve.

film audition, Rahul
Rahul, male lead for Heart Flutters

We have chosen Rahul as the male lead for my script Heart Flutters. While we actually auditioned together in the 1st project, I didn't recognise his talent. But then, apart from the nerves, I was also too preoccupied with my own performance to notice other people's performance. And his performance in the 1st project didn't require the dramatic range that he's able to deliver. So his talents remained undiscovered. There're only 2 male auditionees come forth, and since Philip insists on the role of the Heart Surgeon. So we've left with Rahul. Not that he isn't a good candidate, anyway.

After much deliberation over several competent candidates, we picked Shilpa for the female lead. Unlike the male roles, many more aspiring female actors turn up for the audition. And so deciding the female lead involved the inputs from the production team. The final decision rests with Marrie our executive producer, Michael and myself. Being the director, I guess I've the most decisive vote.

There're several similarities shared by Rahul and Shilpa: they're both Indians who arrived in Singapore recently, have no acting background whatsoever, and are absolute naturals. All these similarities are just coincidental. Our decisions are based purely on their artistic merits.

We had more than 12 auditionees in all. Of the 4 from acting schools, 2 can't act at all despite their training and industry experiences, and the other 2 are quite good. Of these 4, only 1 was cast. All the others being cast have no acting background whatsoever, and their talents far exceed the 2 from acting school by miles and on par with the 2 better ones from arts schools.

I guess this shows me more than anything else that I came across before that some talents are born and couldn't be made. At least, training could only go so far. This audition makes a very strong case.

And another thing, this is perhaps the best reason for having an amateur group like ours. There're all these talents out there who will live out their whole lives without the opportunities to showcase what they've got. We provide the stage for that to happen. Of course, that isn't only restricted to acting.

Return to My Movie Making Main Page

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

TOS - 2.19 - A Private Little War

Star Trek - A Private Little War
Keep your paws off me, you dirty ape !
You win ! Me Tarzan giving up !
You can have Jane ! Just don't hit me no more !
The title reminds one of such incidence as Bay of Pigs in Cuba, or other military ops in Africa brought to you by the 3 secretive letters of CIA.

This private little war refers to the proxy wars in the Cold War. Yeah, we're back to the most favourite topic of TOS Season 1, the Cold War. The only such episode in this TOS Season 2. In this case, the story was inspired by the Vietnam War. But it's very well just about the Korean War.

The Cold War is cold because there's no direct military confrontations between the 2 superpowers of USA and Soviet Union. But proxy wars like the Korean War and the Vietnam War were fought instead. MAD principle of nuclear arsenals prevents the 2 superpowers from going to war with each other directly. The war between the 2 superpowers would start WW3 and ends the civilisation as we know it.

The key phrase in this episode is "Balance of Power". This is the name of the game of geopolitics (or astropolitics to be exact in this case). If one side of the military power is overwhelmingly stronger than the other, the weaker side will get taken over. The Balance of Power ensures that either side will blink.

The arm and space race during the Cold War was also another 2 facets of this game of Balance of Power.

This Balance of Power can be applied to the superpowers themselves as well as the proxy states where the proxy wars are fought. When the Communist Soviet supplied AK-47 to North Vietnam, USA supplied M16 to South Vietnam, Balance of Power is restored, according to the U.S. government.

Balance of Power is also the reason why President Nixon wanted to woo/court China that resulting in the Normalisation of US-China relationship in 1978. By becoming friendly with China, USA would put Soviet in the weaker position in the strategic game of the Balance of Power. During the Cold War, this game is being playing out endlessly.

So it's obvious that the Federation represents USA and the Klingon represents the Soviet in this, and just about all other TOS episodes so far. And so when the Klingons supplied 'fire-sticks' to one tribe, USA (sorry I mean the Enterprise, I'm very confused) has to supply flintlocks to the other tribe to defend themselves.

Like George Orwell's Animal Farm, which is an allegory of the Russian Revolution, where the Old Major represents Karl Marx, the pigs are Bolsheviks (calling them pigs, real subtle), Napoleon represents Vladimir Lenin, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, the Human represents bourgeois class and landowner, Boxer the workhorse represents the Russian farmers, Animalism represents Socialism, etc.

Many of George Orwell's works in fact the definitive literature in the West of the Cold War era. It's still considered a very important work today, voted as one of the best English language novels in the 20th century. In Cold War Era, it's the book for the West as far as political literature goes.

Because his works have such paramount influence in Cold War as a - for the lack of a better word - propaganda tools for the West, no decent Star Trek TOS writer who's going to do the Soviets in without learning from the Master of Allegory of the Cold War.

You could say the whole Star Trek TOS, at least Season 1, was inspired by the allegories of George Orwell. And indeed, most of the episodes in Season 1 are allegories about the Cold War, not too dissimilar to Animal Farm. Except instead of English speaking animals, we have English speaking aliens.

As I pointed out several times in previous reviews, they changed tack in Season 2. This episode revisits that topic in Season 2. The only one in Season 2. Of course, the whole Star Trek enterprise (no pun intended) is an allegory of human history. The journey into the future is in fact the journey into our past. TOS started Season 1 with the contemporary issue, and in Season 2, it journeys deeper and deeper into our past to get materials for the episodes.

The story of this episode is an allegory of the Vietnam War, or as the North Vietnamese called it, the War of Independence. So each of the character represents a real-world counterpart (like the definitive Animal Farm).

The Federation - USA (the Administration)
The Klingons - Soviet Union
Hill People - South Vietnamese people (especially villagers in the countryside)
Enemy Villager - VC (Vietcong)
Mona - North Vietnamese government
Captain Kirk - U.S. President (LBJ)
McCoy - the angry American people (especially the Vietnam anti-war protesters)
Fire-sticks - AK47 rifles
Flintlocks - M16 rifles
Prime Directive - None interference foreign policy

And ah yes, the ever debated Prime Directive is also given its full due in this episode. Once again, the Federation - represented by Captain Kirk - has to step in and break the Number 1 Rule (aka the Prime Directive). As he says, he has no choice. Of course, this is this TOS writer's way of making clear his position that Uncle Sam has no choice but to interfere in the internal politics of other countries. In this case, to restore the Balance of Power in Vietnam. Other times, for other reasons as shown in other episodes. In any case, this TOS writer sent a pretty clear message about his approval of the political stance on the American involvement in Vietnam.

It's war like the Vietnam War that urged the American people to think about their interference in other countries' affairs. This dilemma is translated into the Prime Directive. Uncle Sam had fought so many wars in so many countries in the 20th century that this Prime Directive has been come into question again and again. The struggle of the Prime Directive by the Enterprise crew reflects the wrestling of American Foreign Policy towards other countries.

The 2 alien villagers or tribes who represent north and south Vietnamese are in fact based on American Indian. They dress and talk in the way as the native Americans being portayed in cowboys-and-Indians movies (although this episode is more like Indians-and-aliens, and funny enough, the American Indians are the aliens, and the aliens are the human! Confuse?). They also live in tepees. Of course, no depiction of native American culture is complete without the medicine woman or witch-doctor, who cures people of their illness with magic and potion. Although the term 'witch' would describe her role better. She seduces men with aphrodisiac herb to 'cast a spell' on them. She's also deceitful and treacherous. As I said, a witch (or if you fan of Santana, "Black Magic Woman").

While the villagers are based on the native American, they're however deliberately make them looked as different as possible by having Caucasian blondes playing them. After all, they don't want the audience to confuse that they're American Indians. Having said that, there're blond American Indians living in USA (and blond Australian Aborigines with blue eyes). But I don't think that's what the Trek writer or casting directors had in mind. Confuse?

Mona, the actress who played the witch-doctor, however is also a Caucasian female, whom was tanned to look like native American. The explanation is simply this. Whenever Hollywood wanted to show somebody innocent and pure, they used blond Caucasians. If they wanted to show evil people, they used brunette with dark skin. At least, that's the deal in Hollywood before, oh say, the 1980s. Probably is still true today, but to a lesser extent, and more subtle. After all, the word "dark" often associates with sinister. By applying to skin, it becomes a racial issue.

At the end, Kirk has to order 100 flintlocks to get the Balance of Power that's needed for the 2 warring tribes. And then he says he wants "100 serpents for the Garden of Eden". Coincidental or otherwise, this is an allusion to episode 2.5 "The Apple" where the Biblical serpents symbolise interference from outside world. Not coincidentally, Prime Directive is also a hotly debated topic in episode 2.5.

This episode was made in 1968 at the height of American involvement in Vietnam. The Green Berets (1968) was also released later in the same year as this episode, which is hardly surprising given the political climate at the time.

If you watch this youtube clip, particular between 03:00 and 3:50. When the green beret was told by the journalist that this is a war between the North and South Vietnam, the green beret shows a range of weapons supplied to the North Vietnamese by the various communist countries. That pretty much sums up the core message of this TOS episode.

We simply can't let the Communists (ahem, I mean the Klingons) spreading their Empire throughout the galaxy. Oh, by the way, Georget Takei also played in The Green Berets. Of course, there weren't that many Asian actors at the time in Hollywood (or now). Every known Asian faces would be called in for service, so to speak. This explains his absence on the Enterprise set on quite a number of consecutive episodes in Season 2 around the time when The Green Berets was being made, including this episode (kinda ironic, don't you think?).
Funny enough, the well known Chicago film critic Roger Ebert described The Green Berets (1968)as "cowboys and Indians" movie. Did he watch this episode of Star Trek TOS earlier in the year? I wonder... Usually, a story of TOS episode is inspired by a recent popular movie. As this episode is aired before the The Green Berets, it's tempting to conclude that the TOS writer didn't get the idea from The Green Berets. I'm not saying it is, or it isn't. I'm just saying you can't jump to conclusion simply because this episode was screened before The Green Berets. This is because The Green Berets may have started earlier, just finished later. This is to be expected as The Green Berets is a big budget feature length movie.
This is one of those serious episode that's characteristic in TOS Season 1. And so no light hearted ending where the bunch of senior officers of the spaceship Enterprise would laugh it off until the credit rolls. No such comic relief here. Just some sobering thoughts for captain Kirk (and the American audience) to ponder on. Should you or shouldn't you get involved in the Vietnam War? Cast your vote now...