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May 22, 2005

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  Star Wars, Star Trek: So Long and Thanks for all the Fish

Science fiction is often about predicting the future.  Science Fiction writers try to imagine what is to come, based on what has already been.  Which is why it strikes me as ironic that the two biggest SF franchises of the Twentieth Century are both coming to an end not only in the same year but in the same month -- and no one seems all that choked up about it.  I would never have predicted that such a world was possible.  No one would have.  Not Arthur C. Clarke -- not no one. They are going, not with a bang but with a simper.

And, yes, I meant to write "simper".  Look it up, if you have to. (Uh-oh.  Hide the children.  Nasty Blair is sharpening his knives again.)

Really, don't you think it's a little weird?  I mean, let's look at Star Wars first.

I can still remember the first time I saw that first Star Wars movie, (known to many as A New Hope, but to we faithful few the one true "Star Wars").  I was a pre-teen laid up in Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital.  Strangely my brother was in the hospital at the same time.  Our mom decided to take us for a "jaunt", hoping to cheer us up.  It was hot.  Caesar's Ghost, was it hot.  In fact, it was a record breaking heat wave and we sought shelter in that multiplex theatre more to keep our lungs from melting than for the flick on the marquee.  Something called "Star Wars".  Hm.  Strange name.  A war movie, presumably.  I hate war movies.

But there was this poster next to the popcorn counter.  A real wild looking thing.  A lot of images all mixed together, it was tough to figure out what was going on.  It looked like a couple of robots, one humanoid, the other like a garbage can.  (Maybe it was a garbage can.)  A swarm of planes with X-shaped wings.  A guy with a glowing sword standing over an alluring woman with a real funky do.  And hovering ominously over it all, this dark helmet thing with a cheese grater for a mouth.

Needless to say, I had been out of touch for a while and knew absolutely nothing about the film that was taking the world by stormtrooper.  My brother (and co-editor) "Drooling" D.K. tells me he recalls the nurses asking him if he had seen Star Wars yet, but, beyond that, he was just as ignorant as I was.

We took our seats in the (blessedly cool) theatre.  The lights went dark.  Then, those mysterious words:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

The thing I remember most vividly was the SOUND.  I don't know what George Lucas did to get that quality, but I had never heard anything like it.  Everything seemed so loud, so sharp, so tangible, so... did I mention loud?  The Tie-Fighters didn't make roaring engine noises.  They literally screamed.  (In hindsight, I think Lucas got the idea for the screaming Tie-Fighters from the original Flash Gordon serials, where the spaceships made similar hideous noises -- in between drooling sparks.  Yeah, drooling.  You had to be there.)  It had the effect of making me cringe every time a Tie-Fighter went shrieking past.

In fact, there were a lot of things in that movie that made me cringe.  The segmented laser beams being another example.  I was used to stately Star Trek, where you fired one beam from one "phaser" and either it hit the target or it didn't (and where it either knocked you harmlessly unconscious or -- just kind of made you fade away).  But we weren't in Kansas anymore.  Oh no, even in the opening scene of Star Wars, the air was filled with a flurry of those little laser segments, each one a sizzling zoinging bolt of death. (Look up "zoinging" if you don't believe me, then.)  And every time one of those glowing segments hit someone? -- it BURNED through his armour like the proverbial hot knife through butter.  To a kid, that was real icky.  How would it feel, I wondered, to be burned to death by a little sizzling laser beam?  How would it feel?  Kew-El!

I could go on and on, so I will.  Obviously I really enjoyed that first Star Wars movie.  Then, when The Empire Strikes Back came out, I enjoyed that as well.  In fact, I used to say I liked it even more than the first film.  I'm not sure if that's true any more, but I probably like them both pretty equally.  Not so Return of the Jedi.  (Uh-oh.  Children.  Hide. Knives.)  There was the first hint that all was not right with the Force. 

Return of the Jedi still made mega ka-ching -- as how could it not, being the culmination to a trilogy? -- but it felt..."off".  It wasn't as funny as the earlier two.  There seemed less plot and the characters just seemed to be going through the motions.  It had considerably more special effects, but I felt even that was a mistake.  Beyond a certain point, piling on more spaceships just made the whole thing confusing.

Still I enjoyed it even if it was a disappointment.

Then, alas, we entered the Dark Ages.  From the beginning, Lucas had promised to make another three movies to complete the Star Wars saga, but, I confess, I thought he was full of it.  As time passed, and gradually the movies dimmed in the memory (home video notwithstanding), it seemed that Star Wars had had its day.  I can remember a few years ago, before the Star Wars revival, being startled to discover that my seven-year-old niece had never heard of Chewbacca.  It was a shock, I assure you, but I accepted it -- the world moves on.  It's her planet now. 

Ah, but there I was wrong, you see.  It isn't her planet.  It's George's planet.  And we are but playthings put here for his amusement.

Bit by bit, things began to change as we entered "The Star Wars Revival".  I can even remember when I first sensed the renewed stirring in the Force as if a beast rousing after a long slumber.  I was at university when I came upon a poster advertising a kegger for the Arts students.  Very casually it referred to Mos Eisley cantina, as if it just assumed that everyone knew what Mos Eisley was.  I barely knew what it was!

Well, you all know the rest.  First Lucas released his Star Wars Special Edition to theatres, adding modern CGI effects and even back-dating the introduction of Jabba the Hutt.  According to George, this was but a dry run for the main event -- vis. the completion of his saga with three spanking new "prequels" detailing the story of how Darth Vader went from being Anakin Skywalker, bestest bud to Ben Kenobi, to becoming Lord Vader, uber-baddie with James Earl Jones' impeccable diction and the helmet (and breathing problem) of the Ice Warrior Izlyr from Doctor Who: The Curse of Peladon.  Or maybe that's just me.


Then there was The Phantom Menace.  Then Attack of the Clones.  And now, at long last, the Star Wars saga reaches its end (or its beginning -- I'm getting a headache) with the third instalment chronologically speaking, Revenge of the Sith.  And that's it.  George is done.  There are to be no more Star Wars movies.  It's over.  Finis.  Kaput.  Last one out turn off the lights.

So why isn't there more of a fuss?  This saga has been twenty eight years in the telling.  That's a long time.  Longer than my last dental appointment.  For many of us, it's most of our lifetime.  Wouldn't you think we'd be more upset to think it's over?

Chew on that.  Meanwhile, let's look at Star Trek.

I was too young to have seen Star Trek when it originally aired in the sixties, but I caught it in syndication and, as long as I can remember, it was a part of my pop cultural zeitgeist.  But here's the strange thing.  All through the late seventies and early eighties, I heard talk about a slightly laughable group of Star Trek devotees mockingly called "Trekkies".  Like everyone else, I knew about the Star Trek conventions, about fans getting their ears Spockified, that sort of thing.  And all that time, even as I watched Star Trek whenever it was on, and even though I thought it was probably the best TV series I had ever seen, and even though I bought my brother Star Trek model kits and trivia books every birthday and every Christmas -- in spite of all that, it never once occurred to me to call myself a Trekkie.  Trekkies were other people.  Strange people.  Not me.

I can't remember when I made the switch, but I know it was a sort of epiphany.  I just suddenly thought, Blair, if you like Star Trek so all fire much, doesn't that, ipso facto, make you a Trekkie?  And, presto chango, a Trekkie I became.

And then came Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Uh-oh.)

I watched that fecking series for seven fecking years, every fecking week sitting down with my brother to see what new monstrosity Brannon Braga and his fecking friends had cooked up.  And every week, as the credits rolled on yet another tale of the newest Starship Enterprise, my brother and I would sit in silent reflection for a space, each lost in his own personal ruminations.  Then, almost together, we would blurt out: "The problem with The Next Generation is...."

I just could not get into it.  It was so unbearably SLOW!  Ideas which the original series would have gotten across with a couple of carefully chosen lines of dialogue (sometimes with a mere arch of an eyebrow), TNG felt the need to belabour endlessly, nattering on and on.  And that wasn't an accident.  It was supposed to be talky, donchaknow, because it was more cerebral than the original series -- or so the critics liked to claim.  Even some of the characters, like Deanna Troi and Whoopi Goldberg's bartender, whatever her name was, were defined as only existing to be talked to.  Kirk didn't need a "counselor" to act as a sounding board.  He had something better.  He had people who liked him. 

Still, whatever I may have thought of it, The Next Generation did extremely well.  And, more importantly, it did the seemingly impossible.  It made Star Trek respectable. 

It seems so long ago, but I can remember, a few years before TNG, when I was writing a Star Trek novel (which, alas, was never submitted for publication).  This was early days, when few of us owned home computers, and even fewer computer printers.  To print up my manuscript, I took it to the university's computer department.  During one such visit, as I went to pick up my manuscript and pay the fee, the student behind the counter asked if I had written the thing myself.  I told him yes.  Whereupon he complimented my novel -- or at least what little he had read of itt -- and explained that he was a big Star Trek fan and told me there would be no fee since "We Trekkies have to stick together." 

That probably doesn't sound like a very unusual story, does it?  Which is precisely my point.  It seems hard to believe now, but there really was a time when it was unusual to run into someone who knew what Star Trek was, let alone someone who was a fan of the show!  I can remember doing a class presentation on Star Trek when one student held up her hand and quite seriously asked: "What's a Klingon?"  That year must have marked the dividing line, because I was the only student to do a presentation on Star Trek.  Yet, only one year later, about half the students in my class did Star Trek presentations.  That was how quickly things changed.

Anyway, back to my initial point.  Since those first episodes in 1966, Star Trek has remained a going concern in one form or another.  Countless movies and four new series have kept it before the public eye.  An entire TV Network, UPN, was founded solely on the bedrock of Star Trek: Voyager.  But now, with the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise, for the first time in more than four decades, there are no plans for the franchise.  No movies, no TV series, nuttin'. 

The same goes for Star Wars.

So, returning to my initial question: what gives?  Why isn't there more of a fuss?  I can think of two possible reasons.  One possibility is that no one really believes it.  After all, the James Bond folk are always threatening to end that franchise, but they always relent.  And what about Britain's Doctor Who?  That was over and done with several years ago.  Everyone said so.  But, after a suitable hiatus, here it is, back as good as new (in Britain and here in Canada.  I don't think the new episodes are showing Stateside yet).  Star Wars itself survived a long dormancy, only to rise again.  And Star TrekStar Trek just needs some fresh blood.  Someone will take the reins.  Someone always does.  Right?

Maybe that's what fans are thinking.  Maybe.  But maybe there's another reason for the curious lack of tears.  Speaking from myself, I haven't really enjoyed any of the new Star Trek series.  Sure, I know most fans would disagree with me about TNG, but I think, with each succeeding series, there has been less and less interest.  That's why Enterprise is being cancelled, isn't it?  Low ratings?  I can't help but wonder if the lack of tears is because, for too many of us, Star Trek ended a long time ago.  It has just taken this long for us to admit it.

And, sadly, the same goes for Star Wars.  Oh, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were decent enough flicks, don't get me wrong.  But when I initially heard George was reviving the franchise, I expected something more...personal.  There are just too few connections between the new films and the films of my youth.  They don't feel like part of the same saga.  Where is Luke and Han and Leia?  And Ben?  That isn't the Ben Kenobi I remember.  That's Ewan McGregor.  You can't fool me.

There are many problems with the new Star Wars movies, but amazingly, I think it was Mark Hamill who put his finger on the main flaw.  I say, "amazingly" because usually film people think only of their own contributions.  Ask a make-up artist what was the most important aspect to Phantom Menace, chances are he'll say the latex "appliances".  So when Hamill was asked what he thought of The Phantom Menace, I expected him to say, "A Luke Skywalker character.  That was what they were missing."  But he didn't.  Instead, he said: "There was no voice of skepticism...Since everyone was so serious in [the original films], we had Han Solo who would say, 'Whatever.  I'm in it for the money, pal.'"  Who'd've thunk it?  You tell 'em, Mark.

So, is this really the end of Star Wars and Star Trek?  It's hard to imagine a world where children have never heard of Spock or Captain Kirk.  Darth Vader or Obi-wan Kenobi.  Klingons or Jedi Knights.  But I began by saying that science fiction is often about predicting the future based on the past, what is to come based on what has been.  There was a time when Pulp magazines were as popular as TV is today.  And of those magazines, no character was better known than The Shadow.  Whether on the radio or in print, The Shadow was the Star Wars and the Star Trek of its day.  Every kid knew "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"  Every adult too.

Back in 1994, while I was standing in line waiting to buy a ticket to see The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin, a woman ahead of me was there with her child.  She squinted searchingly up at the ticket prices above the kiosk, then leaned forward and asked suspiciously, "The Shadow?  What's that about?"  The ticket seller thought a moment, then replied, "It's sort of like Batman, I think."  Apparently satisfied, the mother bought her tickets and went on in.

Who would have believed they could forget The Shadow?

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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