Tag Archive | "Harlan Ellison"

Juiced

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Muses

Had Juliet been a painter, a sculptor, or a musician, she may have cried not for Romeo from her moonlight perch but rather, “Muses, Muses, wherefore art thou, Muses?”  Such laments often rip from the souls of those of us dually cursed and blessed to have been born with genuine artistic streaks.

 

For purposes of this article, I need to clarify the term artist, which has been perverted by the money-grubbers, number crunchers, and attention seekers.   By artist, I do not mean those who churn out formula like so many cookies on an assembly line for the express purpose of fattening their bank accounts and those of their record labels or production companies.  By artist, I mean those of us who might otherwise inhabit rubber rooms if we were not able to express ourselves daily through creative outlets.  By artist, I mean people like Michelangelo, who dissected cadavers in the dead of night to understand how the human body was designed, so as to truly glorify it in works such The David.   I mean people like Bruce Springsteen, who pitched his breakout album Born to Run in the trash after more than a year’s work because he wasn’t pleased with it.  People like Meryl Streep who are equally comfortable — and compelling — portraying an uber fashionista in The Devil Wears Prada and a drab, austere nun in Doubt.

 

Let’s return now to Juliet on the balcony.  Just as Shakespeare’s heroine cried out for the lover she feared she’d lost, artistic souls are terrified when their creative juices refuse to flow.  In those dark hours, we feel abandoned, lost at sea with no lighthouse on the horizon.  Needing to find the parties responsible for our stopped-up juices, we blame the Muses, those sisters of ancient Greek mythology thought to inspire literature, music, and other art forms.

 

How interesting that we lay the blame at the Muses’ feet, for as U2’s lead singer and songsmith, Bono, wrote:

 

Every artist is a cannibal,

Every poet is a thief.

All kill their inspiration,

Then sing about their grief.

 

What Bono meant is that much art springs from within, from our own life experiences.  As B. B. King advised, “You can’t play the blues unless you’ve lived the blues.”  We create the things that we know, things that evoke profound feelings within us.  If we fall in love, suffer betrayal at the hands of lover, friend, or government, or survive intact after some cataclysmic event, we pen a song, a poem, a play about it; we paint it, we sculpt it, we dance it.  In expressing our deepest feelings and most personal experiences, our art becomes universal, echoing the sentiments of others on their own life journeys.

 

What, then, about budding artists, those who may have a very shallow well of experience upon which to draw?  Is it possible to manufacture experience?  It is, if one’s creativity is so strong it will not be denied or subverted into a non-creative channel.  Such is the case of Harlan Ellison, an award-winning author who once established a legal precedent by suing a foreign television company for the use of a title synonymous with of one of his short stories.  Crafting what he deems alternative fiction, Ellison is a prolific author of books, novellas, essays, and screenplays, including scripts for The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek series.  In order to gain some life experience and gather material for his first book and subsequent memoirs, Ellison went undercover in a New York street gang.  It was a life-altering experience in which he often did “the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons.”

 

Manufactured or au naturale, every true artist bleeds for his or her craft.  Every one of us nurtures our art like a child in the womb.  And when we unveil it to the world, we hold our breath like a parent watching a kid set off for the first time without his training wheels.  We pray fervently that it will not fall flat on its face.  We hope that because our art contains so much of ourselves, that those who view it, read it, or hear it will understand that what we have revealed are pieces of our souls.  And that is the difference between media whores and artists.

Where No Man Has Gone Before

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Star Trek

All it takes to skew my worldview is a brief perusal of the headlines in the media and on my browser’s home page.  Human nature is what it is and I have, to the best of my ability, steeled myself for each fresh new hell, each topsy-turvy ride on planet Earth.  But when my worldview of a future and better universe is turned on its head, I take issue with that.  As a kid glued religiously to her TV by Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series, this summer’s blockbuster movie sent me reeling out into deep space at Warp Nine.  I had actually liked the new film very much, despite its having taken great liberties with the future of the Star Trek universe as envisioned and brought to life more than forty years ago by Mr. Roddenberry.  Gazing down from his cloud in heaven, I believe he would no doubt love the fact that his brainchild has not only survived these many decades but has now gone the route of all great and intelligent science fiction: to the place in one’s imagination where there are no boundaries.  Few could have imagined that this brave new world, springing from such humble beginnings, would continue to capture the hearts, the minds, and the hard-earned dollars of so very many.

 

When Roddenberry first conceived Star Trek, he did so as a man of his generation.  Rife with racial strife and social upheaval, torn by the Vietnam War, and tainted with the blood of our nation’s most prominent social and political leaders (JFK, his brother Bobbie Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), the ’60’s did not present a rosy picture of humanity’s future. Gene, however, was an idealist as well as a genius.  He visualized a future where all beings were equal, regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs or species.  Scripting a pilot for what he referred to as a “Wagon Train to the Stars,” he was promptly turned down by the network.  The suits pontificated that no one would buy into such a universe and that the character of the ship’s First Mate, Mr. Spock, with his “Satanic appearance” would put noses out of joint all along the Bible Belt.  Gene went back to the drawing board and wrote a second pilot, defending the character of Spock and refusing to stand down.  Spock was needed, he argued, to keep the viewers aware that they were seeing well into the future — to understand that mankind had overcome its most base nature to reach for the stars, and to embrace Diversity in its many facets, including beings from other worlds.

 

The network bought it and thus was born not only a riveting series, but also a means of believing in a positive future in what often seemed a hopeless world.

 

Gene had solicited Jeffrey Hunter to play the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, but Hunter, who later died while the series was still filming, was under contract to play Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told.   Hunter had, in fact, starred in the original pilot, later cleverly repackaged as the meat of another, two-part episode, so as not to waste money or a good story.   Gene went instead with William Shatner, a broke, stage-trained actor who had been living on cottage cheese and fruit salad up in Canada and who said, once he’d signed on for the part of Kirk, that he never wanted to see cottage cheese and fruit salad for the rest of his life!

 

Roddenberry’s choice for Spock was inspired.  Although Leonard Nimoy had been cast as the villain in a number of Hollywood Westerns, Gene saw much greater depth to this fine actor.  DeForest Kelley, who was chosen for the role of the crusty ship’s Chief Medical Officer Doctor McCoy, was getting by with small, forgettable parts in Hollywood.   At the time of his signing, Gene dubbed Kelley “the finest actor in Hollywood today.”

 

These three men formed the Triumvirate of the Star Trek universe.  Each of them had a role to play as a major cog in Roddenberry’s great wheel.  Kirk was the rebel child; the odd kid you alternately wanted to kick and kiss in high school.  Wickedly good looking, highly intelligent as well as inventive and brash, Kirk embodied  — and in fact, struggled with — a split personality as the maverick and the soldier who toed the line.  Often, he disregarded the Prime Directive of Star Fleet (the future’s equivalent of our Navy).   Said Prime Directive demanded that no representative of the Fleet tamper with the natural evolution of native life on any alien planet.  Star Fleet’s mission, you see, was one of exploration and peace keeping.  Jimmy’s propensity for getting into hot water served as the crux of many stories; his attitude often rivaled that of Thoreau in the esteemed author’s Civil Disobedience: defiance with a conscience.

 

As the logical Vulcan First Mate, Mr. Spock was the voice of reason.  He tempered his best friend’s (Kirk’s) boldness with rationale born of innate common sense and balanced with a daunting intellect.   However, Spock suffered from one key flaw: he was one-half human.  His human and therefore emotional half kept surfacing at the most inopportune moments … inopportune for the rigidly controlled First Officer.  In Mr. Spock, Gene had personified the human condition, the continual internal struggle that drives and maddens us all.

 

As a surgeon who hailed from Atlanta, Georgia, Doctor Leonard McCoy had no intention of ever joining Star Fleet.  Fan fiction that surfaced after the original show was cancelled explained that McCoy had just wiped his hands clean of a messy divorce and with nothing left to lose, shipped out for the stars.  The self-titled “simple country doctor,” was anything but.   Pressed into service and flying by the seat of his pants (pure instinct), McCoy patched up creatures as alien as one whose entire chemistry was mineral-based, as well as a slew of other never-before-seen forms of life.  Where Spock was calm and controlled, McCoy was an emotional exhibitionist.   With bad boy/good boy Kirk positioning these two opposites as his most trusted advisors, Roddenberry set the stage for many thought-provoking conflicts and emotionally-wrenching episodes.  The two humans and one Vulcan personified the gift of friendship.  Their frequent debates, much of it quite serious, never damaged and often strengthened the bond between three beings slightly out of step with the rest of their universe.

 

Other core characters included Chief Engineer, genius Montgomery Scott (played by Jimmy Doohan), Mr. Sulu, tasked with navigation of the huge starship (played by George Takei), back-up Science Officer and Helmsman Mr. Pavel Chekov, representing detente between the U.S and Russia after the Cold War (as portrayed by Walter Koenig), Nurse Christine Chapel (played by Roddenberry’s wife, the lovely Majel Barrett), and the Chief Communications Officer, Uhura, whose name in her native Swahili meant “Freedom.”   Eighteen year old Nichelle Nichols played this beautiful and savvy lady.

 

As the actors were poised to sign on for a second season — or not — Nichelle found herself a guest at one of Harry Belafonte’s parties, which were also fundraisers for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cause.   Responding to a gentle tap on her shoulder, Nichelle found herself speechless, facing the great and wise Dr. King himself.   The brave man praised Nichelle for her portrayal of Uhura, but Nichelle allowed that she did not wish to reprise the role, bemoaning her character’s use as a glorified receptionist.  Dr. King replied that she had to keep the role, that she owed it to her people to keep the role.  He explained that most Caucasians had never before seen a black person represented in the arts as a person of integrity, intelligence, and elegance.  Nichelle took Dr. King’s words to heart and remained with the show through its final, third season with the network.  After the decommissioning of the Enterprise, so to speak, she was approached by NASA to serve as a spokesperson for that organization.  The world that Roddenberry had envisioned as one of equality for all had allowed life to imitate art!

 

The other great character that Gene sketched and fleshed out was the ship herself, The Enterprise.  Looking nothing like space ships of prior sci fi renderings, she was designed to support human life (as well as alien) on her long, five-year mission to the stars.   She was powered by dilithium, a substance whose shelf life did not rival that of Twinkies.  When the dilituhum crystals wore out, the ship and her complement were in deep you-know-what (thereby creating other, highly suspenseful stories as well as migraines for poor Mr. Scott).  The great, odd looking yet graceful and powerful vessel went toe-to-toe with all manner of enemies, most frequently, the belligerent Klingons and the Romulans, the latter of whom were an offshoot of the Vulcan race that had eschewed a life devoted to logic and evolution of the intellect.

 

Working on a shoestring budget even by 1960’s standards, Roddenberry crafted worlds aboard, above, and below the Enterprise.   He reasoned that since it was not feasible, time wise, to land the great ship on alien planets, there had to be a better way of getting the officers and crew onto a planet’s surface and thus allowing the meat of the timeframe to revolve around the story.  Thus was born the transporter, which scared the bejesus out of McCoy, who did not appreciate having his atoms scrambled and then reassembled like a human jigsaw puzzle.   The communicator, a very high tech walkie-talkie with a much greater range, became, decades later, the blueprint for our ubiquitous cell phones.  McCoy’s diagnostic instruments were, in fact, highly stylized salt and pepper shakers found in an artsy shop in LA.  And the computer that ran the ship’s systems, and sometimes ran them amok, was extremely interactive as well as humanized with the pleasant voice of a woman.  Like every good woman, Gene had given the computer a mind of her own.

 

Wisely, Roddenberry conscripted into his universe some of the great sci fi writers of the time, people who had written for the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone as well as published authors.  Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison numbered among this rarified group.  Ellison, who became one of my all-time favorite authors and human beings as I matured, was credited with creating the character embodying the one great love of philandering Jimmy Kirk’s life, the woman he could not have, a good hearted social worker and political activist who had to die in order to save the Earth from a future under Hitler’s oppression.

 

Yes, Star Trek had its share of green skinned, lizard-like, and Big Foot mimicking aliens.  It had its share of galactic shoot-’em-ups.  It also had stories with morals.  Racial inequality, greed and lust, the need to wage war, the opposite but no less pressing desire to make peace, the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a friend or an entire crew — all of these and more comprised the more intelligent and moving of the episodes, the ones whose lines I can still repeat verbatim after all of these years.

 

Bill Shatner has gone on to perhaps the greatest role of his life, that of Denny Crane on Boston Legal.   The humorous bent that Roddenberry played with as Captain Kirk has come full force in the role of legal partner, who in his own way is no less authoritative a figure as Kirk.  Leonard Nimoy has also acted in a number of films, including the Star Trek movies that made it to the big screen.  He has also narrated many documentaries; this is logical, as Mr. Spock would say, given his former character’s position as “the voice of reason.”  Sadly, DeForest Kelley left this Earth a victim of cancer, but his lovable, irascible character lives on in the old episodes as well as the later films and of course, our hearts.  After fathering his last child at the age of 78, Jimmy Doohan also passed on.  George Takei married his same-sex partner in a much publicized ceremony, and I have unfortunately lost track of that cute boy wonder, Walter Koenig.  Nichelle Nichols, as NASA’s spokesperson, continues to fulfill the dream foreseen and long prayed for by my hero, Dr. Martin Luther King.

 

The universe that Gene Roddenberry bravely created, vehemently defended, and brought to life on the small screen changed and enriched many lives, mine included.  It inspired me to reach for the stars in my own neck of the Milky Way.   It hammered home to me that nothing was impossible, including peace in one’s heart, one’s nation, and on one’s planet.  Most of all, Star Trek illuminated the realization that without deep, genuine friendship, life in this galaxy was one long, cold trek.

 

The writer wishes to acknowledge a most wonderful, comprehensive paperback, The Making of Star Trek, for much of the information presented here.  She is not certain if Mr. Roddenberry himself penned this book, as she had dog-earred it with two or three readings and lent it to many who also loved Star Trek.

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