Treknobabble #62: Space: The Great Leap Forward


Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

This Treknobabble continues to talk about a few recent Star Trek news topics that probably don’t deserve to have a whole Treknobabble devoted to them. So I’ll be covering the resemblance of the new movie’s plot to Star Wars a la The Hero’s Journey, racial casting, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) logo, what’s happening with NASA, and the advance previews of the new movie.

Some weeks ago, there was a YouTube video where someone took a recent trailer for the new Star Trek movie and replaced the Star Trek video with video clips from the Star Wars movies while keeping the audio from the trailer. (ie., a mashup, in current day parlance.) And the trailer still made sense! This probably shouldn’t be a big surprise because J.J. Abrams is a big fan of Star Wars. Essentially, this means that J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is basically a tale of the beginning of a hero’s journey aka monomyth as popularized by Joseph Campbell.

For those of you who didn’t pay any attention to Joseph Campbell’s explanation of how Star Wars fits the hero’s journey pattern, let me give you a brief rundown of how it works and how the YouTube video shows how the pattern applies to the new Star Trek movie. The hero is called to adventure. Luke Skywalker is called upon by Obi-Wan Kenobi. James Kirk is called upon by Christopher Pike. The hero refuses the call and something bad happens to change his mind. Luke’s uncle and aunt are killed. I don’t know what incident will cause James Kirk to enlist in Starfleet. The hero encounters a protector who is often elderly and who gives the hero advice and a special weapon. Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke a light-saber, or Yoda teaches Luke how to use The Force. The old Spock will have a conversation with the new Spock who will somehow enable Kirk to get command of the Enterprise. The hero crosses a first threshold, leaving his familiar world. Luke enters into the alien cantina. Kirk becomes a cadet in Starfleet. The hero encounters a road of trials. Luke sets off for Dagobah, encounters Wampa on ice planet, loses a hand at Bespin, etc. From the trailers, it appears that Kirk will have some alien world hardships including an ice planet. Beyond the trailer, there will probably be some atonement with the father. When Luke defeats Darth Vader, his father (as if I had to tell you), he dispels The Dark Side of his nature. I imagine Kirk will come to terms with the heroic death of his father by the end of the movie.

I’ve always wondered why there aren’t any Asian people in that galaxy far, far away. Not really, but I needed a clever way to transition to my next topic that has actually not been in the news lately, but I’m wondering if it will be at some point again. When the casting of John Cho was first announced, there was some speculation about why a Korean was being hired to play the part of a Japanese person. I remember when Memoirs of a Geisha was released; there were some organizations that protested the hiring of two Chinese actresses in the leading roles. From the producers’ standpoint, I can see why those actresses were hired. It seems they hired the most prominent Asian actresses “that looked like they were Japanese to non-Asians”. (Although it might be politically incorrect for me to say, I sometimes have difficulty identifying between Chinese and Japanese people, and I’m Chinese-Canadian. I mean I was born in Canada with Chinese parents, so I’m Chinese-Canadian as opposed to Canadian-Chinese, right? And if I went to China and had a kid, then my kid would be Canadian-Chinese?)

When John Cho was asked about his ethnicity, he responded that he had actually talked to George Takei about this. George gave his blessing saying that Gene Roddenberry intended Sulu to be a Pan-Asian. That is, he was supposed to represent all of Asian culture! John Cho also made the distinction that George / Sulu is a Japanese-American without a Japanese accent. He said he would have felt uncomfortable if he had to imitate a Japanese accent. Frankly, all this sounds like a rationalization for his accepting the part.

I’m wondering if the same organizations that protested Memoirs of a Geisha will also protest Star Trek. Or will they ignore Star Trek because it’s not important? Or is the fact that Sulu in the Original Series was Japanese not important to Star Trek? Frankly, I don’t care about John Cho being cast, but you have to admit that the notion of Asians being interchangeable is disconcerting.

Speaking of Asians, the Chinese Aerospace Program has a logo that is reminiscent of logos that are familiar to Trekkies. I should acknowledge that I came across this interesting piece of trivia from two web-sites, Jacob’s Weblog Vicissitudinal [sic] Thoughts on the World and The Bad Guy. I don’t know who the first to notice was. There have been suggestions of Star Trek’s popularity in the People’s Republic of China and their space program, but I have found no evidence to corroborate this. The China Post regularly has articles that mention Star Trek. Does anyone reading this know anyone in the Chinese space program? I wonder if CNSA has a public-relations web-site I can contact.

I investigated a bit further to see where Star Trek came up with its logos. The delta arrowhead patch with the star center for command was designed by William Ware Theiss, the costume designer for the Original Series. It was the emblem for the U.S.S. Enterprise. In later Star Trek series, the delta arrowhead became a design element for the entire Starfleet. I think the unofficial reason was that the successes of the U.S.S. Enterprise five-year missions made Starfleet adopt the symbol.

I think an arrow pointing up signifies toward the heavens and is a common design element of space logos, but I don’t know when it first appeared for actual space programs. Out of curiosity, I wondered what the Russian space logo was, and wouldn’t you know, the Russian Space Agency in 1992 adopted a logo with an arrowhead!

The laurel leaves are a common logo embellishment signifying peace and accomplishment, and I highly suspect that the United Federation of Planets (UFP) logo use of laurel leaves was co-opted from the United Nations logo. The original UFP logo was designed by Franz Joseph who wrote a technical manual for the original Star Trek. Instead of laurel leaves which he thought were Earth-centric, he used profiles of humanoid faces although this is somewhat Earth-centric as well. The face profiles were replaced with laurel leaves by later Star Trek design departments.

I would think that if there were Trekkies at the CNSA, they would have to keep a rather low profile. I don’t think the Chinese government would appreciate its agency getting its inspiration from an American television program.

From talking about the CNSA, I want to segue to talking about America’s own NASA which has been relatively silent in the news. I must admit that I have lost track with what has been happening in the real world concerning space exploration. I didn’t even realize that the space shuttle program would actually be phased out by next year. I had heard grumblings that the program wasn’t very cost-efficient which was ironically a major goal. The International Space Station has crews working there and is scheduled to be completed next year. We’re supposed to be back on the moon by 2020 and establish a permanent presence there. So not much has been going on. I jest. On a side note, I saw some drawings of the new, proposed Altair lunar lander. The Lunar Module from 1969 looks more “futuristic.”

The NASA web-site provides a convenient, free news subscription service that will enable you to get e-mails with the major headlines from any particular area within NASA’s purview. Note that if a headline may apply to more than one area, then you may get duplicate e-mails. Apparently, NASA can put a man on the moon, but they can’t write subscription software to prevent duplicate e-mails from being sent out.

Before I sign off for this edition of Treknobabble, I wanted to address all the uniformly positive reaction to the advanced previews for the new Star Trek movie. I would have expected to read at least one dissenting opinion. People have offered a few negative comments only because they feel obliged to present a non-biased view. Assuming the movie is as good as people have said, there’s usually one “jerk” who goes out of his way to say the opposite, right? But I haven’t run into that person’s review, yet.

Am I jealous that an uber-Trekkie like me, as Sean has proclaimed, hasn’t been given a chance to catch an early screening? No. I’m still thinking that I should avoid seeing the movie when it comes out. (I’m a Batman fanatic and I still haven’t seen The Dark Knight.) I want to be a martyr, but I can’t think of a belief, cause, or principle to stand behind. My opinion doesn’t matter, because I’m thinking I’ll enjoy the film regardless of its merits. Maybe I should stay awake for the 24 hours before its midnight screening, and see whether the movie can keep me awake. Do I need to mention again that I slept through most of the midnight showing of Star Trek: Nemesis? Or was it even a midnight showing? When May 8th rolls around, maybe I’ll pretend I saw the movie and write a review from my imagination. To put things in perspective, I think I’ll try to find a negative review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I think the Trekkie Manifesto prevents us from saying anything bad about Star Trek.

  • Mason

    I don’t think Star Trek is beyond criticism. If people who saw it thought it was bad they would say so. If the internet has taught us anything, that’s it. The audience that has seen the advanced screenings were just like you, Reed: they were already fanatics who enjoyed the film regardless of its merits. As for “I’m a Batman fanatic and I still haven’t seen The Dark Knight,” well, that sentence is an oxymoron. You may like Batman, but if you were a fanatic, you would have seen it by now. Are you waiting for it to be on broadcast television?

    And didn’t you argue in a Cantankerous episode that a great actor should be able to play any race, and that preventing them from doing so is discriminatory? What about Patrick Stewart, an English actor playing a Frenchman? Were the French very offended then? Are the Scots offended that English actor Simon Pegg is playing Scotty? How about the latina actress playing the fiery half-klingon engineer on Voyager? Arguing about race and ethnicity in casting is kind of anti-Roddenberry in my opinion. The human characters in Star Trek never talk about skin color (unless they’re doing some sort of time-travel episode to the 20th Century). Some talk about their heritage, but it never created any conflict from what I can remember. In the Star Trek timeline, humanity gave up all of its inter-conflict when it learned that it wasn’t alone in the universe. Of course there were hundreds of other species out there to butt heads with. There’s nothing like finding a new group that has stranger differences to let us humans know that we are all the same.

  • Thx for your well thought out reply, Mason.

    There is so much Batman stuff out there that even a Batman fanatic would have a hard time keeping up with it all. But I can understand what you mean not understanding how a Batman fanatic would not see “The Dark Knight.” My explanation is that I’m cheap and I also have a lot of patience. I will buy the movie when it goes in the 2 for $5 bin. Actually, “Batman Begins” never did end up in that bin, but my brother happened to get a copy of that movie so that I was able to watch it.

    I don’t have a problem with any actor playing Sulu. My minor quibble is that someone thinks any actor that looks Japanese would be appropriate. And it’s actually not my quibble. I’m just wondering if the people who complained about the “Memoirs of a Geisha” casting will make a big deal out of this Sulu casting situation.

    BTW, with regards to casting David Carradine as the lead in the Kung Fu series of the 70s, I think they made the right choice in choosing Carradine over Bruce Lee.