Blogs > Cliopatria > Tricorder Readings Indicate That a Dangerous Cloud of Mind-Altering Anachronism May Soon Swallow Us, Captain

Sep 9, 2006 12:04 pm

Tricorder Readings Indicate That a Dangerous Cloud of Mind-Altering Anachronism May Soon Swallow Us, Captain

Some of the best commentary on American television around now is to be found at a blog called The House Next Door. To anyone interested in Deadwood, for example, let me strongly recommend scrolling down to the list of entries in the right-hand column. A couple of the blog's contributors are TV columnists for The Newark Star-Ledger, but they bring to their work far more attention to both visual form and social content than the job usually requires.

Consider the recent entry by Matt Zoller Seitz on the"facelift" now given to the original Star Trek episodes -- a set of digital tweaks that goes against the grain of what makes the show both a historical document and a continuing source of pleasure.

Star Trek aired between 1966 and 1969."It is, in every sense," Seitz notes,"a product of its era: the Johnson/Nixon years, when reel-to-reel tape players, punchcard computers and color TVs seemed state-of-the-art." And that is true for good and for ill:

I see no reason to oversell its virtues. It was dramatically crude and allegorically simplistic, and its then-daring social attitudes (which included endorsements of racial equality, interracial sex and global unity) often paled beside its Rat Pack-style vision of gender relations (Kirk bagged a different curvy space doll each week), and its earnest, unironic enactment of John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson style interventionism (the Federation's Prime Directive forbade trying to change the culture of other worlds, yet Kirk regularly violated it -- and in a couple of instances, he did it mainly to teach hippies what it meant to work for a living).

Actually, I would contend that those ideological seams -- the points where the contradictions are sewn together but also come undone -- are a very big part of what makes the show fascinating. I hadn't seen an episode in a very long time when I recently decided to TiVo it. Kirk's way with"a different curvy space babe each week" is not an afterthought: it's pretty basic to the fantasy. Which is, yes, patriarchal. But is it anywhere near so objectionable as this commercial?

Anyway, a newly remastered version of Trek will offer"more shading, depth and computer-generated believability" to"battle sequences, ship exteriors, galaxy shots and landscapes (which previously came courtesy of matte paintings)." So goes the corporate press release -- wait, I mean E! Online article. (I always get those things confused.)

But as Saitz points out, a considerable part of what makes the show enjoyable, now, is precisely the fact that its"futuristic" feel has aged. The appeal comes from"the texture of the work itself: the color scheme, the costume design and wardrobe material, the haircuts, the actors' tics, the optical effects. And as time goes on, the visual/aural/rhythmic aspects of the work exert their own fascination -- sometimes the only remaining fascination."

Well, that's certainly true of the often-wretched final season, which involved finding a planet every other week bearing some resemblance to a period of Earth's past. There were also some things involving space hippies. Let us change the subject.

It isn't just that certain elements --"the near-primary colored costumes, the warty styrofoam rocks and the brightly-hued two-dimensional skies" -- are now campy. Sure they are; big deal. They were in some respects the product both of budget limits and then-contemporary expectation:"The red/yellow/blue uniform scheme," as Saitz puts it,"made early color TVs seem well worth the expense."

Then he brings it all home, clinching how such elements are"beautiful not in spite of their simplicity but because of it":

Like dioramas or theatrical props, they represent the gist of something tangible, and leave viewers to imagine the rest. The ragged matte lines around the starships, planetary bodies and transported crewmembers aren't just evidence of a small budget. They're brush strokes -- proof that you're watching something created by human hands during the golden age of analog sci-fi, roughly 1952-1982. So you can see the nails and seams and paint daubs when you watch the show in High-Def; that's not a drawback, it's a bonus.

Then again, that I find this plausible is perhaps an index of my own long-ago geekdom, sublated now into higher forms. (I was never a real Trekkie; still, the distinction between a first- and a third-season episode is not something, say, my wife can appreciate.)

For another and rather different meditation on pop-culture texture and history, see the video for Everclear's song"AM Radio."

Fair warning to anyone who was in elementary school during the 1970s: Following this link may induce flashbacks and strange dreams.

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