Exploring Strange New Worlds

A little over two weeks ago, I was a panelist and vendor at El Paso Comic Con. I had a great time at the convention. Tamsin Silver and I hosted three writing panels. On two of the panels, we asked another attending author, Alan Morgan, to join us. The panels were the best-attended writing panels I’ve seen at El Paso Comic Con. We spoke about “Researching Your Fiction,” “Getting to Know the Characters in Your Head” and “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera.” The first two panels were focused very much on the process of writing. We discussed how research is important whether you’re writing historical fiction, space opera, or even fantasy set in a world of your own creation. At the very least you need to know how things work so you can describe them realistically. The character panel focused on how we can pull from people all around us to create characters. Alan brought a great perspective to both of these because he writes games as well as fiction. The final panel, “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera” essentially brought the themes of the other two panels together by considering how the process of creating all speculative genres share common elements.

It was appropriate to discuss space opera at the convention, since one of the featured guests was none other than William Shatner. My wife and I got to meet him briefly for a photo op. Unfortunately, these photo ops don’t give much opportunity to interact, but we did exchange pleasantries and I have heard Shatner speak on other occasions.

William Shatner, David Lee Summers, and Kumie Wise

Now I will confess, I did Photoshop this image slightly. Since everyone was unmasked for the photo, they placed us a few feet from Mr. Shatner. I simply closed up the gap to give the photo a more friendly feel. One thing that was fun about meeting Shatner when we did was that it came just before the debut of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds which features a character first portrayed by none other than William Shatner.

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed my reluctance to subscribe to streaming services. However, I’ve been looking forward to Strange New Worlds for a while and I decided I didn’t want to wait for the video release. Overall, I enjoyed the first episode and I look forward to seeing how it plays out. For those who haven’t seen it, this new Star Trek is set aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise roughly six years before Captain Kirk takes command. The Enterprise is commanded by Captain Christopher Pike played by Anson Mount. His First Officer is Una Chin-Riley played by Rebecca Romijn and his science officer is Mr. Spock, played by Ethan Peck.

Ethan Peck and David Lee Summers at WIYN

The episode opens when a starship approaches a planet to make first contact. We then cut to a scene in Montana where Captain Pike is on leave between missions while the Enterprise is undergoing refit. Admiral Robert April turns up and informs him that the first contact mission went awry. What’s more, that mission was being commanded by Una. So, the Enterprise must leave on its mission early to find out what happened. Robert April is a character we first met in the animated Star Trek series where he was introduced as the captain of the Enterprise before Pike. I won’t say much more at this point because I don’t want to risk spoilers. One of the things I did find interesting about the episode was that it posited the idea of the warp drive being weaponized. Tying this back into the discussion of the El Paso Comic Con panels, one thing that came up back in the 1990s when I was first researching engines and plausible methods of faster-than-light travel, was how often new power sources can be weaponized, which led to the dual concepts of Quinnium weapons and the Erdon-Quinn drive in The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see the results my research along with an array of colorful characters by reading the novel, which is available at: http://davidleesummers.com/pirates_of_sufiro.html

Another fun element of the new Star Trek series was getting to see more of Ethan Peck’s work. As I’ve mentioned before, he visited the WIYN telescope on my birthday in 2019 as we were commissioning the NEID Spectrograph, which actually looks for strange new worlds around other stars. I am glad to be part of a team that’s paving the way for a Star Trek-like future and I think it’s very cool that one of the actors in the series has actually seen some real exploration of strange new worlds.

Burning Dreams

While waiting for this Thursday’s premier of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I decided to spend some time with one of the novels featuring Captain Christopher Pike and the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the days before Captain James T. Kirk. Soon after I had watched the second season of Star Trek: Discovery season 2, which introduced Anson Mount as Captain Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One, and Ethan Peck as Spock, I dived in and read D.C. Fontana’s novel Vulcan’s Glory which is also set in this era along with reprints of Marvel Comics’ great series Star Trek: The Early Voyages. As you might imagine, Fontana’s novel focused on Spock and I picked her novel since she was so involved in Star Trek’s development and the development of Vulcan culture. I wasn’t disappointed and was treated to an enjoyable look at Spock’s early years aboard the Enterprise. For my recent read, I chose Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno which focused on Captain Pike.

Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno

Burning Dreams was released in 2006 as part of Star Trek’s 40th anniversary celebration and it’s a sweeping novel that covers much of Captain Pike’s life and career. In the two-part original series episode, “The Menagerie,” we learn Captain Pike was grievously wounded saving cadets during a training voyage. He becomes a quadriplegic who can no longer speak. Spock takes him to the planet Talos IV. The inhabitants there have phenomenal powers of illusion and can create an environment where Pike’s active mind can express itself. What’s more he has a companion, the survivor of an earlier crash named Vina, who was also seriously wounded and relies on illusion for a happier life than she would have in human society.

The novel opens in the 24th century. Several decades have passed since Captain Pike was left on Talos IV. Spock is an ambassador and he’s summoned to Talos IV. He remembers leaving the captain on the planet. We then shift to Pike’s point of view where he meets Vina again and begins telling his life story. We learn that Captain Pike’s family terraformed worlds for the Federation and we learn how he developed his love of horses. Once Pike is grown, we follow him on a transformative mission where he served as first officer under a hawkish Starfleet captain. Then we follow one of his adventures aboard the Enterprise. The novel tells us that Pike commanded the Enterprise for two separate five-year missions. The novel ends with Ambassador Spock reaching Talos IV, where he learns Captain Pike has died. Despite that sad, but expected news, we are treated to the kind hopeful ending the best Star Trek episodes excelled at.

Around the early 1980s, Gene Roddenberry and a few people in his inner circle went to some effort to define Star Trek’s “canon.” By that point, Paramount Studios had granted licenses to create tie-in media such as books and comics. Understandably, with an eye on the series’ future development, Roddenberry wanted to define the official continuity of the series and no one monitored the continuity of that tie-in media. That said, this process was taken to extremes. Whole series and movies were declared not part of the canon and I’ve seen fans get into intense arguments over what is and isn’t canonical Star Trek.

I’ve seen indications that the current Star Trek production team has a friendlier approach to the tie-in media and I’ve heard murmurings that they have tried to find ways to work in certain elements from the tie-in media that play well with the established continuity, but don’t over-constrain the current writing teams. Enough details about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds have appeared in the media to make it apparent that its story differs in some details from those presented by Margaret Wander Bonanno in her novel. Still, there are a few tantalizing hints that the series and novel may dovetail in some interesting ways.

In a world like Star Trek where they’ve established that multiple universes exist and they’ve even created new canonical universes through time travel stories, I find it hard to get too worked up about what is and isn’t part of the canon. I was glad to meet Margaret Wander Bonanno’s version of Captain Pike. It delighted me that she used aspects established in D.C. Fontana’s Vulcan’s Glory and the Marvel comic series. I would love it if elements from Burning Dreams appeared in the new TV series. If they don’t, I’m still glad to have spent some time with this novel’s version of Captain Pike. All I ask is that TV series tell a similarly compelling story.

Revisiting the Cage

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuts in just a few days. It will follow the crew of the Starship Enterprise under the the command of Captain Christopher Pike. Captain Pike, his first officer, Una, and his science officer, Mr. Spock appeared for several episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season. That noted, Discovery was not the first time we encountered the Enterprise in the days before before Captain Kirk. Strange New Worlds is a series inspired by Star Trek’s original pilot film from 1965 called “The Cage.”

Like many Star Trek fans of my generation, I first encountered “The Cage” cut into the original series’ only two-part episode, “The Menagerie.” In that story, we learn that Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Pike was grievously wounded in an accident saving cadets. Spock hijacks the Enterprise and takes his former captain to Talos IV. It turns out that a visit to Talos IV is the only death penalty offense in Federation law. Kirk and a commodore catch up to the Enterprise and put Spock on trial. In the trial, as part of his defense, Spock plays a recording of the Enterprise’s first visit to Talos IV, which also happens to be the original Star Trek pilot.

Screen shot from “The Cage” (CBS)

“The Cage” has a somewhat unique place in television history. Most of the time when a network turns down a pilot film, that’s the end of the story. In this case, the network liked the pilot just enough to commission a revised pilot. The sets were updated, new people were cast to fill critical rolls and the producers went for a more action-packed script. All of this became the original Star Trek series most people are familiar with.

I first became aware of “The Cage” during my pre-teen years. I knew Gene Roddenberry occasionally screened a personal print at conventions, but there were few opportunities for most fans to see the episode except as part of “The Menagerie” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite that challenge, I wanted to experience the original pilot. My solution was to use an audio tape recorder to record the parts of “The Cage” that had been cut into “The Menagerie.” With that, I had my own audio play of “The Cage.” A few years later, “The Cage” would be released on home video and it was finally aired on television for the first time in 1988.

Because I worked so hard to experience “The Cage,” it holds a special place in my heart. There’s a lot I really like about Star Trek’s first pilot. I like Captain Pike’s vulnerability. I like that his first officer was a woman. Spock is emotional here and I like how he contrasts with the somewhat colder captain and first officer. I love the bridge design, which feels a little more “real” and militaristic than the brightly colored version of the set we got in the series. That noted, some things about “The Cage” have not aged well. The navigator’s name may be José, but it’s a very white cast compared to the production version of the series. Although we have women as first officer and captain’s yeoman, they’re presented as exceptions to a rule that most officers are men.

In the episode, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a ship that crashed on Talos IV. The Enterprise arrives and finds survivors. However, the survivors turn out to be illusions and the whole thing is an elaborate plot to trap Captain Pike for a zoo-like exhibit. In the exhibit is a woman who seems interested in seducing the captain. The woman, Vina, turns out to be the crashed ship’s sole survivor. The Talosians have become so addicted to their power of illusion, they can no longer maintain their own machines. This last idea seems to have become even more relevant in the years since the story was filmed. The Talosians want Pike and Vina to start a colony of humans who can build a new civilization. When Pike seems less than thrilled about this idea, the Talosians arrange for Pike’s first officer and yeoman to beam down as additional choices for Pike to breed with, leading to a famous, unintentionally funny line where Spock, left standing on the transporter pad shouts, “the women!” I like to think there’s an alternate universe version of this scene Vina is given the choice, only the men beam down, and Number One shouts “the men!”

I like the actors who will be portraying Captain Pike and his crew in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I like that we’re seeing a more diverse cast. I was fortunate enough to meet Ethan Peck who plays Spock in this version when he visited the WIYN telescope in 2019, so I look forward to seeing his work. I anticipate there will be moments that will make me groan or prove unintentionally funny, but I also anticipate moments that will inspire me, which has always been Star Trek’s greatest gift to me as a writer and a scientist.

Captain Pike’s Discovery

By coincidence, actor Ethan Peck visited Kitt Peak National Observatory the week Star Trek: Discovery’s second season was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I enjoyed the first season enough, I had already planned to watch the second second when I could get it on disk. Meeting the actor who played Spock in the series provided even more motivation. When I finished my shift at the observatory, I stopped in Tucson and picked up a copy of the season on Blu-Ray. I finished watching the season earlier this week.

Season one ended on a cliffhanger. The Starship Discovery encountered a badly damaged Starship Enterprise. When the second season opens, Captain Christopher Pike beams over to the Discovery and announces that he’s been given temporary command so that he can investigate the appearance of seven mysterious red signals around the galaxy while the Enterprise continues to dock for repairs. We soon learn that Pike’s science officer, Mr. Spock, has committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Spock’s adopted sister, Michael Burnham, is the series protagonist and serves as Discovery’s science officer.

Soon after the season begins, Spock leaves the psychiatric hospital and goes on the run. He’s accused of killing his doctors and the Discovery goes after him. The ship is then stopped in its tracks by an ancient artificial intelligence at the end of its operational life. They end up downloading all of the AI’s data into their computers. At this point, Section 31, a covert operations division of Starfleet takes a strong interest both in the ancient data and in Spock. Saying much more about the plot will get into spoiler territory, but we do end up with a season of political intrigue and personal drama.

As a long-time Star Trek fan, the most satisfying aspect of this season was getting to know Captain Christopher Pike. Way back when there was only one Star Trek TV series, he appeared in one episode as the grievously wounded former captain of the Enterprise. During the episode called “The Menagerie,” Mr. Spock hijacks the ship to take his former captain to the mysterious world Talos IV. In the process we learn about the first time Pike visited Talos IV. During the episode we learn that Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is conflicted about command. He regrets ordering his crew into dangerous situations and considers a new career.

In the 2009, Star Trek film, we see Captain Pike again. This time he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. The movie portrays Pike as something of a cool father figure. Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery, bridges these two portrayals and shows us a captain who cares deeply about his crew and is willing to sacrifice himself for others. Ethan Peck does a great job of playing a young Lieutenant Spock dealing with inner demons. In the process, we get a good sense of why he was loyal enough to Captain Pike to risk a court martial to help his mentor in the original series. We also see how Spock and Burnham influenced each other growing up and we see a fun brother/sister dynamic between the two characters.

The second season of Discovery includes a lot of action, which I enjoyed and I was glad to get to know the series’ regular characters better. The season-long arc format continues to suit Star Trek. That said, aside from our encounter with the ancient AI, we don’t seem to “explore new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations” as much as we did in the original series or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. That said, the season’s end did set us up to go “where no one has gone before.” At the end of the season, we got a nice taste of Captain Pike’s Enterprise. I think it would be a lot of fun if we saw a spin-off series that gave us more of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock’s adventures before the more famous five-year mission.

Stars, Galaxies, and Fiber Optics

The first time I remember learning about fiber optics was in a behind-the-scenes article published in 1980 or so about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The article talked about how they got light to all the buttons on the bridge set and showed them illuminated with bundles of optical fiber. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts, I work with instruments that use optical fiber to carry light collected by each of the telescopes I work with to the instrumentation where its analyzed.

On the telescope side, those fibers are attached to an optical assembly that must be placed at just the right spot to catch focused light. If the star or galaxy is out of focus, not all the light goes down the optical fiber. We also have guider cameras that work to keep the object precisely aligned on the fiber so all the light gets to the spectrograph. It’s a lot of complex hardware to work right to precisely measure the the redshift of distant galaxies or look at a star and determine whether or not it has planets in orbit. This past week, we’ve been commissioning both the DESI spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter and the NEID spectrograph at the WIYN 3.5-meter. One of the most important milestones is to get light from the object you want to measure to the spectrograph and see if you get the flux you expect. Here’s the NEID team at WIYN looking at early test results.

Yes, light leaves a star dozens of light years away, enters our telescope, goes down the optical fiber and is photographed with the spectroscope, then all that data can be viewed and analyzed on a laptop computer. When I filmed the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt a couple of years ago, I was asked why we didn’t use a room full of fancy computers and monitors. We just had a couple of computers, one of which was a laptop. The reason is that I’ve seen a lot of control rooms where simple computers are the only ones present!

As you can imagine, it’s quite a relief to see all the work pay off in a spectrum that shows the flux level you expect. All of this is pretty exciting stuff and, as it turns out, my birthday fell during this past week’s tests. Seeing NEID as it nears readiness for scientific use is pretty exciting in its own right, but we had another surprise on the day of my birthday. Ethan Peck, who plays Spock on Star Trek Discovery, was on a road trip and decided to visit the observatory. A tour was arranged and he spent the beginning of the night at the WIYN telescope. For me, it was quite a thrill to have Spock, of all people, wish me a happy birthday! He brought a Polaroid camera with him and we snapped a photo of us standing by my control station. Here we are at WIYN. Ethan Peck is in the center (in white) and I’m to the left.

Meanwhile, across the mountain at the Mayall 4-meter, commissioning has continued on the DESI instrument. The instrument had its official “first light” a couple of weeks ago and a wonderful image was released that, I think, really illustrates the power of DESI.

Image credit: DESI Collaboration, Legacy Surveys; NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/NSF/AURA

Here you see an image of all 5000 DESI fibers superimposed on the sky. At the bottom of the fiber array is M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Below that is a view of the spectrum from just one of the 5000 fibers showing the light from that little piece of the galaxy. In it, you can see the lines labeled that denote the presence of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and even sulfur. Now remember that each fiber in that picture gives the same kind of data for the piece of sky its on. You can read the full press release about DESI’s first light at: https://nationalastro.org/news/desis-5000-eyes-open-as-kitt-peak-telescope-prepares-to-map-space-and-time/

All of the robotic positioners moving those fibers at the top of the Mayall telescope get hot and there’s a chiller system to keep them cool. This week, that chiller system will be automated, but last week, we had to monitor it by eye and it requires a person to turn the system on and off by hand. The person doing that remarked how spooky it is to be in the depths of the Mayall with all the lights out and remarked how she kept looking over her shoulder, wondering if someone was there. This is another aspect of my job that definitely helped to inspire The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and see the trailer I mentioned earlier at http://www.davidleesummers/Astronomers-Crypt.html.