Monday, September 28, 2009

Where Everyone Else Has Gone Before

Saturday, Trillium and I went to see Star Trek at the dollar theater. In some respects, this was a first for me. I had seen all of the other Star Trek movies within the first or second showing of the films on the first day of their release. I am a Trekkie! So what! The fact that I did not see the movie during the first week (as did my two sons) did not particularly distress me. I thought "Good for them; good for me!"

In preparation for Saturday's jaunt, I had watched all of the Original Series (all 79 episodes)and first six of the Star Trek movies. What a waste of time! The opening scene of the movie saw to that. The dingbat Romulans and Spock obviated any advantage that I might have otherwise gained in the enjoyment of the movie. The whole Star Trek universe had its reset button pushed and everything, just about everything worth knowing about Star Trek trivia, was dumped into the trash can. Was I upset? Not at all. Now the boys at Paramount can do anything they want, assuming that anyone would be interested in a newly created worldview of the 23rd century. Most Trekkies like to argue about the sharpness of the blade of Kodos the Executioner and how many tribbles can dance on the head of a pin. All that is mercifully behind us now.

My hesitancy to going to the theater in the first place was borne out shortly after the previews began. The sound was loud, disruptive, and the dialogue was almost impossible to distinguish from any other sound effect going on. When I buy the DVD, I will sit down in the family room and suit myself as to the auditory intensity. I walked out of the theater somewhat more stunned than entertained.

Having said all of the foregoing, did I like the story? Not bad! The new actors have not yet become endearing, probably because they could all be my grandchildren. The fellow that played Doctor McCoy, Karl Urban, worked, however, even though they had him saying some really cheesy lines that only DeForest Kelley should have spoken. His personality worked, as did his mild southern accent. I was intensely amused by the series of events that supposedly gave him the nick-name "Bones".

Zachary Quinto's Spock was okay. A little too emotional, I suppose, but that was an integral part of the story. It took a long time for Leonard Nimoy to settle into the part that made him a SciFi icon. Nimoy really didn't have him down until the first movie. The charm in this piece, though probably the most disturbing, was the love interest between Spock and Uhura. That was really inexplicable, but worked nonetheless. It was certainly better than the unnerving romance between Scotty and Uhura that took place on Bill Shatner's watch in the fifth movie.

Chekov and Sulu were hard to picture, but the accents worked, sort of. Sulu's hand-to-hand combat joke worked, not once but twice. Who knew the Romulans were packing blades? Scotty was funny, but not in the James Doohan way. That was a breath of fresh air. Bruce Greenwood's Christopher Pike was the stable focus of the movie; great casting, good acting. Spock's parents didn't work for me, probably because I liked Mark Leonard so much as the quintessential Vulcan.

The Kirk persona must have been deeply troubled by his father's death at the hands of the Romulans. I had great difficulty trying to equate the two Kirk's. And I thought that the depiction of the reprogramming of the Kobayashi Maru scenario was sophomoric and not nearly as clever as it should have been. The Kirk of TOS would have been far more subtle and devious. As a treatise on a young man crawling back from a series of social and academic blunders, I thought that the story worked, but it was not James Tiberias Kirk.

Casting Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura was a stroke of pure genius and was completely in keeping with the casting of female actresses throughout the Original Series. She had Nichelle Nichols' edge as well and her persona would have persuaded any red-blooded American boy in the 23rd century to study linguistics.

Will the boys at Paramount come up with another movie? Could be, but I hope that the characters settle down a little.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I have been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith for a good many years. Like many readers, I was introduced to his prose through “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, but I have since consumed much of his other publications as well. The Botswana series is consistently delightful. The characters are endearing, filled with genuine sentiments, simple in an exalted way. I thought that the other series would bring as much pleasure as the first. In some respects that has been true.

The protagonist of “The Sunday Philosophy Club”, Isabel Dolhousie, is not nearly as charming as Precious Ramotswe, not nearly as innocent, nor is she filled with the same sort of joi d’vivre. She is, however, a moral philosopher and therefore the narrative of each novel is filled with an exploration of moral dilemmas, usually on an extremely personal level. I am afraid that some of Isabel’s moral choices disturb me, but I suppose that was McCall Smith’s intent. The application of moral values is far more difficult a process than the mere discussion of them. A discussion frequently becomes heated; the application frequently is humbling.

The “44 Scotland Street” series is considerably less-high flown than “The Sunday Philosophy Club”. The female protagonist is considerably younger than those in the first two series, a young woman still pursuing her education at the University of Edinburgh. The delight in this series revolves around the eccentricities of the other characters in the story. The twenty-year-old Pat MccGregor seems to be the only normal person in her world. Everyone else is wonderfully odd. I suspect that every personality quirk that Smith has ever encountered in his life is finding voice in this series. None of the characters are depraved, but all of them have some sort of bizarre trait or weakness that speaks to some aspect of the human condition. The reader never feels sorry for any of them, but rejoices in having come to know them.

The fourth series, “The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom” is comprised of three volumes: “Portuguese Irregular Verbs”, “The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs”, and “At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances”. The titles reveal something of the spirit of the books. Of all of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith, I found these to be the most appealing to me. In the first place, the protagonist, Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, is a linguist whose moderate claim to fame has been his 1200 page work on Iberian philology. He has not received the accolades that he thought that he deserved for his masterpiece and therefore engages in somewhat paranoid thought and activity. Inasmuch as my own particular claim to fame also involved a 1200 page masterpiece, a three volume work on J.R.R. Tolkien’s creative linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld’s circumstances resonate within me. Igelfeld is clearly demented and borders on insanity, yet he has his moments of insight. I rather suspect that the protagonist’s personality is a concatenation of every academic that Alexander McCall Smith every met, including, no doubt, much of his own personal experience as a university faculty member. The three books are a monument to the frustration and dangers of living in the “ivory towers” of academe.

All of this came to mind this past week as I watched the opening episodes of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” that has been airing on HBO during the year. The BBC had brought the series to life, with Jill Scott portraying Precious Ramotswe. I had not realized how invested I had become in the world that Alexander McCall Smith created in his series set in Botswana. The BBC did the only reasonable thing by filming the entire series in southern Africa. Smith’s vivid description of the land and the people prepared me for the production. I have to confess that I had not been watching the first episode fifteen minutes before three little tears had appeared at the corners of my eyes. In many respects I felt at home. Part of the feeling came from several years of reading the books, remembering the undeniable love that Precious had for her homeland, a pure and natural patriotism that did not involve politics. It was her connection with the land and all living things upon it that delighted her. The other sensations for me had to do with two separate occasions in my own life when I lived in areas that were visually similar.

As a little boy, I spent my summers in Imperial Valley with my grandparents. My Grandfather Gaskill was a rural mail carrier in Calipatria, California. Throughout the 1950s I spent hours with him driving about the surrounding farms on dusty roads delivering mail in his old right-hand drive Studebaker. Some of the living conditions of the Mexican farm laborers were not much better than those just outside of Gaborone, Botswana. Notwithstanding their visual poverty, the men were universally friendly to my grandfather, delighting in the mail that he brought to them from their families far away. The spirit of that time and place was duplicated in the filming of Smith’s stories. I suddenly found that I had come to love Botswana as I loved my own grandfather. It was a surprising connection.

Many years later, I spent two years or so among the people of southern Mexico, living with them, teaching them. At that time, the country was deeply divided between the very wealthy and the extremely poor. A middle class was beginning to appear in those days, but the vast majority of the people were living in conditions not much different from those portrayed of Botswana. Notwithstanding the great deprivation in material goods, the Mexican people were loving and kind, full of hope and pure desire, not unlike that which the BBC managed to capture on film in their series. The Mexican people were deeply patriotic for much of the same reasons given for Precious Ramotswe’s patriotism. They loved the land and all things that dwelt upon it. I came to feel the same way.

I will watch the rest of the first season during the weeks to come. I am hopeful that my mind and my heart will continue to be as engaged as they were in the beginning. It is a precious thing to be enabled, to find commonality with places and people a half a world away. Great writers bring people together.