Friday, May 08, 2009

A Smattering of Thoughts Inspired by the New "Star Trek" Movie

Long-ish post title I know, but accurate. I've been excited about the new movie ever since Nat-Wu confessed to selling his soul to the devil to get into a sneak preview a couple of weeks ago. His conclusion? "Star Trek = Awesome" was the subject line of the email he sent me about it (he also ranked it above "Wrath of Khan" which at first I thought must surely be heresy, but I've heard that opinion repeated elsewhere now.) Today I find myself gleefully reading all sorts of Star Trek related articles, which must surely be a sign Trekkie-like inclinations (my mom is in fact a Trekkie, so I come by it honestly at least.) Review of the new movie are almost universally positive (see Manohla Dargis as an example) but of course it wouldn't be Star Trek if it wasn't inspiring people to write on more weighty subjects. Like torture for instance, as Juliet Lapaods compares a scene in the new movie in which a character is interrogated to an earlier torture scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation:

There is a remarkable depiction of torture in Star Trek: The Next Generation, one that is both more sophisticated than the Capt. Pike scenario and more pertinent to current affairs than the ticking-time-bomb set pieces of 24. In an episode from the series' sixth season, Capt. Picard embarks on a mission to destroy a biological weapon and is taken prisoner by a hostile alien race, the Cardassians. Believing that Picard is privy to strategic military secrets, the Cardassians inject him with a truth serum. When this technique fails to produce information, the Cardassians string up their captive in a stress position, strip him naked, and subject him to extreme physical torment—zapping him with a pain-administering device. For good measure, the lead Cardassian interrogator also devises a test meant to inflict mental anguish: He points four bright lights at Picard and asks him, repeatedly, to say that there are five. (A clear homage to the four-vs.-five-fingers sequence in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.)


The extended torture sessions take a toll not just on Picard but on his interrogator as well. The more time the Cardassian spends with Picard, the more he becomes fixated on breaking his prisoner. And so the supposed goal of torture—information—is sidelined, while the means by which the goal will theoretically be achieved—mental submission—becomes an end in itself. As Picard puts it, "Torture has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. One wonders it is still practiced."

The episode acknowledges, however, that even the most determined prisoner is no match for acute suffering. In a last-ditch attempt to break Picard, the Cardassian interrogator offers him a choice: Either state that there are five lights and enjoy a life of comfort, or insist that there are four and prepare for more torture. Before Picard can answer, two Cardassian guards enter and reveal that the Enterprise has brokered the captain's release. "There are four lights!" Picard shouts, in what seems like a triumph. Later, though, he admits to a fellow officer that he was on the brink of succumbing: "I would have told him anything. Anything at all. But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights." The interrogator has, in fact, won the battle of wills, though he'll never have the satisfaction of knowing it. But what, exactly, has he won? In the end, Picard was willing to tell his captor anything at all and was so distraught that he was willing to believe a transparent falsehood. It follows that any further information would have been hopelessly compromised.

I had forgotten all about this episode until Adam emailed me this article this morning. Nevertheless, it's a powerful testimony not only to the futility, but also to the evil of torture. Picard serves as a stand-in for anyone who has ever been fruitlessly destroyed by torture so they would be finally forced to reveal the information their captor so eagerly desires, regardless of its truth or utility. Even Picard, the magnificent, noble and heroic captain of the starship Enterprise, is finally broken in the end. The horror that this scene provokes, at the pointless destruction of the human will and spirit, resonates powerfully today.

I also enjoyed this article by another Slate writer, Arika Okrent, on the complexity of the Klingon language:

Most languages created for fictional worlds involve simple vocabulary substitutions, such as moodge for man in A Clockwork Orange, or meaningless streams of noise, like the high-pitched jabbering of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Klingon is something altogether different. There is a logic behind it; a linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it as he would an exotic indigenous tongue. This is not surprising, considering that Klingon was created by Marc Okrand, a linguist whose dissertation was a grammar of a now-extinct Native American language.

Okrand was originally hired by the producer of Star Trek II to write dialogue in Vulcan for a scene, between Leonard Nimoy and Kirstie Alley, that had been filmed in English. His task was to create lines that could be dubbed over the actors' mouth movements in a believable way. Two years later, when the production team of Star Trek III wanted some scenes in Klingon, they called on Okrand again. This time he was not constrained by pre-existing mouth movements—the actors would be filmed speaking Klingon—but there were two other conditions that he had to take into account. The first was the existence of those few words of Klingon spoken in the first Star Trek movie (written by James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty). Second, he knew the language was supposed to be tough-sounding, befitting a warrior race. Klingons are rough, crude, loyal, violent, and honorable—a sort of Viking-Spartan-samurai motorcycle gang. They eat live worms, sleep on hard surfaces, and desire nothing more than to die in battle. So Okrand filled the language with back-of-the-throat sounds and made up a rich war vocabulary but left out social pleasantries like "Hello." (The closest translation for hello in Klingon is nuqneH —"What do you want?").

Knowing that fans would be watching closely, Okrand worked out a full grammar. He cribbed from natural languages, borrowing sounds and sentence-building rules, switching sources whenever Klingon started operating too much like any one language in particular. He ended up with something that sounds like an ungodly combination of Hindi, Arabic, Tlingit, and Yiddish and works like a mix of Japanese, Turkish, and Mohawk. The linguistic features of Klingon are not especially unusual (at least to a linguist) when considered independently, but put together, they make for one hell of an alien language.

The result of all this work? A difficult, complex, but entirely authentic language. So it may only be nerds who bother to actually learn Klingon, but they are particularly smart and devoted nerds.

One more point, this a mini-rant prompted by a line from another Slate writer, Dana Stevens, and her review of the movie. Her review is positive, but this sticks out:

Star Trek's vision of the future, as guided by creator Gene Roddenberry, was also a relic of its time, the age of NASA and the Cold War and Kruschev pounding his shoe on a podium at the United States. The show's faith in diplomacy and technology as tools for not just global but universal peace might seem touchingly dated in our post-9/11 age of stateless jihad, loose nukes, and omnipresent danger.

First of all, this "faith in diplomacy and technology" is hallmark of the entire Star Trek franchise, not merely the initial late 60's series. It wouldn't be Star Trek without a semi-utopian belief in the power of technology to mitigate human suffering, or the power of diplomacy to resolve conflicts (a premise upon which the entire Federation seems based at times.) Second, am I the only one who detects a whiff of condescension directed towards those who lived through the Cold War? I was born in the early 70's so by no means did I live through the worst of the Cold War, but even I remember the menace of the ubiquitous nuclear threat that remained over our heads during the 1980s. Compared to that, the possibility that terrorists might kill even dozens or hundreds more Americans beyond the damage they inflicted on 9/11, seems a minor threat. If you asked Americans living in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s whether they'd prefer to live with the threat of utter annihilation and nuclear winter, or the threat posed by bands of backwards and technologically deficient terrorists, which do you think they would choose?

Anyway, there are your thoughts on the thoughts of others about the new movie. I plan on seeing the new movie soon, and then you'll get your money's worth with a real review.

1 comment:

adam said...

Great articles and reviews. Having seen it last night, I can concur that "Star Trek = Awesome."