Discovery

At long last, the first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been released on DVD, BluRay, and iTunes. As a result, I was finally able to watch the season. That said, I should note that nothing actually prevented me from subscribing to CBS All-Access to watch the show there before it came out on home media. In fact, a few weeks ago, I gave in and subscribed for the trial period just to check it out. What I learned was that even when I viewed CBS All-Access from the highest speed internet I had available, I still experienced pauses and video glitches that detracted from the viewing experience. Also, as I suspected, I didn’t find enough available on CBS All-Access to feel compelled to stick with the service. I decided I’m content to wait a year for the series to appear on home media.

As for the series itself, I enjoyed it … mostly. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up as a Star Trek fan. I would run home from school and anxiously turn on the TV to catch episodes of the original series. Star Trek was, in many ways, the series that’s responsible for the start of my writing career. This new incarnation of Star Trek is set about a decade before the original series and the first season tells the story of the Federation’s war with the Klingon Empire. The story is told from the point of view of Michael Burnham, who starts out as first officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou. In an attempt to stave off war, she commits an act of mutiny and ultimately ends up being recruited by Captain Lorca of the Starship Discovery to help in the war effort. It turns out that the Discovery has a special new type of drive that utilizes a biophysical network to transport it almost instantaneously from one place to another. Over the course of the series, we get to see plenty of Klingon politics, the return of original series villain Harry Mudd, and a return to the Mirror Universe where humans have formed a tyrannical empire.

I liked how the series used the Klingons to explore issues of cultural assimilation and appropriation. In the original series, Harry Mudd was something of a comic foil for Captain Kirk. In the new series Rain Wilson managed to give Mudd a decidedly dark and sinister twist. I thought the deeper exploration of the mirror universe was pretty cool. I enjoyed all the actors and was especially pleased to see the navigator and helmsman of Discovery both played by women. I felt the season-long story arc suited Star Trek. I also really liked the almost “lower decks” approach to the show where we see the action through the eyes of people who are not the most senior officers. What’s more, this series improved on Star Trek: The Next Generation where for all their high-minded talk of equality, the senior officers often took an almost elitist approach to their juniors.

My main problem with the series is the so-called spore drive. While I don’t have an intrinsic problem with the idea of a biophysical network that spans the universe and perhaps even bridges universes, I wasn’t so keen on the idea that it would provide an almost magical way of letting you move instantly between two quite distant points. Also, while I liked the season-long story arc, I felt it wrapped up just a little too neatly in the final episode and the solution relied on the Klingon homeworld being constructed in a way that seems inconsistent with our understanding of planetary geology.

Those issues noted, I liked it enough that I’ll almost certainly be back for season two … when it comes out on home media.

As I mentioned earlier, Star Trek was responsible for the start of my writing career. My first, albeit unpublished, novel was set between the end of the original series and the first movie. When I learned that it was unlikely that I could publish that novel because I was a young, untested writer, I created the starship Legacy and Captain Ellison Firebrandt. Because Firebrandt is a privateer, he ended up being quite a bit different than Captain Kirk. Monday is the official release day for my latest book set in this universe, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The ebook is available right now for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. I can’t quite control the release date for the print edition to the same degree as the ebook, but I expect it to be available by Monday. The Amazon link should indicate when it’s live.

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Star Trek: Phase II

A few days ago, I came across a listing on the Eaglemoss website for a replica of the Starship Enterprise based on the design that would have been used in the television series Star Trek: Phase II.  This series has fascinated me since I first heard about it right around the time I first heard about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In fact, the first poster for the movie I had seen featured the Phase II Enterprise. I decided I needed one for my collection.

I remember picking up a magazine sometime in 1978 announcing the forthcoming movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a young Star Trek fan, this was exciting news indeed. The article also mentioned a planned television series called Star Trek II was on hold.  Apparently the sets and models for Star Trek II would be upgraded and used for the new movie. The article, as I recall, expressed some hope that if the movie proved a success, Paramount would move ahead with the series. This was like a dream come true. A new Star Trek movie and series.

As time went on, I heard less and less about the new series. I didn’t really get the story about what happened until I read Susan Sackett’s The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture a year or so after the movie came out. Even then, that book only contained tantalizing hints. Essentially, it revealed that soon after the cancellation of the original series, Gene Roddenberry had been approached to develop some new version of the series. The first culmination was the animated series. After that, a movie was developed but the script was ultimately rejected. Finally a TV series—Star Trek II or Star Trek: Phase II—was given the green light for development. It reached the point that they had signed most of the original cast and they were about to begin shooting when suddenly Star Wars came out and Paramount decided to turn the pilot script into a movie.

Susan Sackett gave a little more detail than this broad outline in her book, but not much. I finally located a book that gave much more detail about how the series started and the circumstances that caused it to go from being a series to a move. This book was Star Trek: Phase II, The Lost Series by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who at the time they wrote the book were respected novelists who had done a couple of Star Trek novels, but would go on to be producers of Star Trek: Enterprise.

The book is really quite the treasure trove, and not just for the Star Trek fan curious about the Star Trek series that never happened. If you’re interested in developing stories for the screen, this book includes Alan Dean Foster’s treatment for the pilot episode, “In Thy Image” along with Harold Livingston’s complete first draft script. These would ultimately be modified to become Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, there’s also the complete screenplay for an episode called “The Child” which ultimately was rewritten as a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t have the best reputation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie. Of course, it becomes clear from the Reeves-Stevens’ book that much of the problem stems from the fact that it is the pilot episode of a TV series. It’s not supposed to leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s supposed to introduce you to characters and settings who will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat in future episodes. Susan Sackett’s book made clear that it was a pilot episode further watered down to be palatable to network executives and take as few chances as possible. That said, while I think Harold Livingston’s first draft script has better elements than the movie, the ending of the movie is much stronger than the one he first wrote.

Unfortunately, Star Trek: Phase II The Lost Series is now out of print. I had to buy a used copy. If you’re at all interested in Star Trek or writing for the screen, I highly recommend it for its candid look behind the scenes of the screenwriting process. I’m finding it very helpful in a project I’m working on, but can’t talk about yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more soon about that project, but in the meantime, this is a good excuse to once again share the short film whose screenplay I wrote. Enjoy!

If you like this clip, you can read the full story in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N5EH8QP/

El Paso Comic Con 2018

Next weekend, I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. The event is being held from Friday, April 13 through Sunday, April 15 at the El Paso Convention Center. Special guests for the weekend include Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis who played Riker, Data and Troi, respectively in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There will be cosplay, vendors, and panels all weekend long. You can get more information about the event at: http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Through much of the event, you will be able to find me at booth A30 in the vendor hall. I will have all my books available for sale and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Also, on Sunday, April 15 at 11am, I’ll join authors C.M. Bratton, Ken Hudnall, Ray Ramos and R.H. Webster for a special Q&A session in the Juarez Panel Room. Be sure to bring all your questions for us!

At the event, I’ll be unveiling the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea, which tells the story of a voyage through the solar system aboard a solar sail space craft. In the novel, the crew hope to solve the mystery of particles that apparently travel through time, found in great quantity around Saturn’s moon, Titan. Along the way, the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus find clues to suggest that we are not alone in the universe after all.

Much of the plot is imaginary, but my goal was to transport readers to Mars, Jupiter and Titan as we know them to be. I also transported them using a technology that’s being developed. As it turns out, the Planetary Society is getting ready to launch their LightSail 2 spacecraft aboard an upcoming SpaceX flight. LightSail 2 has now been integrated into the NanoSat in preparation for launch. You can learn more about the process at the latest edition of The Planetary Post featuring Robert Picardo (from Star Trek: Voyager) and several special guest stars.

Refitting the Mayall: Teardown

I was in 8th grade when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out. One of the things that fascinated me in that movie was the refit of the Starship Enterprise. I was captivated by how the ship looked at once much the same and yet completely different. It looked sleeker and more powerful and familiar space on the ship such as the bridge, sickbay, and the transporter room had all been updated. I’m getting to experience something much like the Enterprise refit in real life. In this case, I’m involved in refitting the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Like the Starship Enterprise, the Mayall has a forty-five year history of discovery. Originally built to use photographic plates, the telescope has played an important role in such discoveries as establishing the role of dark matter in the Universe from measurements of galaxy rotation, and determining the scale and structure of the Universe. Over the years, new instrumentation has been added to the telescope including advanced digital cameras and spectrographs.

The purpose of the refit is to install a new instrument called DESI, which stands for Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. 5000 optical fibers will be installed at the telescope’s prime focus (the top end of the telescope) and run to cameras in another room. The goal is to observe tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a three-dimensional map spanning the nearby universe to 10 billion light years.

In order to achieve this goal, the entire top end of the telescope has to be replaced and much of the control software and electronics are being redone so that it’s truly state of the art. To achieve this goal, we literally have to gut the telescope and install new components from the inside out. During my most recent shifts at the telescope, I’ve been involved in just that. In the photo to the right, you can see that the bottom of the telescope is missing and replaced with scaffolding. That’s because the large 4-meter mirror is out for recoating. Also, all the optics are missing from the secondary mirror assembly at the top of the telescope. Ultimately, that will be removed completely and replaced with a new secondary ring. The men in the photo are removing a counterweight assembly used to precisely balance the telescope when instruments are added and removed. Electrical panels are open on the side of the telescope where control cabling going back to the photographic days will be removed and replaced with new control cabling. Modern electronics mean the telescope will have about 10% of the cables as it did when originally built!

The refit has also allowed me a rare opportunity to see parts of the telescope I’ve never been to before, even after operating it for some thirteen years. Earlier this week I got to help the electronics technicians work on some cabling in the “horseshoe.” That’s the big, blue horseshoe-shaped mount you see in the photos above. We actually ended up working down in the broad, blue, oval-shaped tube you see in the photo just above. I dubbed it the sinking submarine, because it’s a cramped space and we were standing at a 32-degree angle relative to the ground!

It’s going to be exciting to watch the telescope take shape again after the teardown process. New parts will be arriving in the coming months. A large crane will be deployed outside the 4-meter to lift out the old secondary ring and bring in the new one. The plan is to be back on sky to test components of the new instrument later this year. Once those tests are completed, other components will be finished, revised if needed and then installed. At that point, the Mayall’s new five-year mission to map the universe will begin.


Enterprise Cut-Away Model

Last Christmas, my family presented me with a wonderful cut-away model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the classic Star Trek series. This is actually something I wanted long before the model actually existed. I was a fan of the original Star Trek from a very young age. The very first model I ever helped my dad build was a model of the Enterprise from the show. The one in the photo below is the new one, but it looks very much like that original I helped with.

I remember when the Universal Studio Tours started up in Southern California and my aunt and uncle went. When they came back, I asked them how it was. My aunt told me all about how they learned how movies and TV shows were made. I asked her if they had a model that showed the inside of the Starship Enterprise, because at that young age, I equated the imagined reality of the show with how the show was made. In order to placate me, my aunt assured me that such a model must exist. I was disappointed when I went to Universal Studios with my parents a few weeks later to discover such a model did not exist after all.

Flash forward some forty years and I saw just such a model in a Hastings store in Albuquerque. After doing some research, I specifically requested a version of the model produced during 1996, during the show’s thirtieth anniversary. My understanding was that the mount was more steady and the pieces fit together better than the later edition of the model. My wife found the one she gave me on eBay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to dive right into building the model. I had a novel to finish this year, plus I worked on the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt. However, once both of those projects were complete, I finally built the model and was pleased with how it came out. In the photos of the exterior, you’ll see some seams, but those are simply the places where the model comes apart to reveal the interior.

When I was a child, I confused the idea of what the fictional ship would look like with the sets a TV show would be filmed on. However, as I became a professional writer, I found detailed visualizing and understanding of how a fictional ship works is very handy for selling it as a real machine in my writing. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding the deck layouts of the ships in my Space Pirates’ Legacy universe and how the solar sail Aristarchus works in my novel The Solar Sea. Given that perspective, it was fun to return to one of my first science fiction loves to see how the creators of Star Trek envisioned the interior of the Enterprise.

The photo above shows the completed interior. One thing that was disappointing in the 30th Anniversary edition of the model was that it included a very limited decal set. It did not include the interior decals for the secondary hull decks you see above and many of the exterior decals were the wrong size for the model scale. I discovered that Round-2, the company that owns AMT who produced the model, had improved the decal set. What’s more, they sell decal sets for their models. So, I simply bought the decal set for the later model and used those instead of the decals that came with the model.

This year, I came full circle on the idea of visualizing spaces for a novel and learning how to realize them for film. While writing The Astronomer’s Crypt I kept a chart of my fictional 5-meter telescope at Carson Peak Observatory. While similar to the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak where I work, there were key differences and those differences made it easy to get confused. When we filmed the book trailer, I had hopes we could use the control room at the 4-meter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission, so we dressed an office space to look like a control room, which really isn’t that much of a stretch. We had to put together shooting locations that weren’t adjacent to one another and make it look like they were. If you haven’t seen the results, you can check out the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ.

Star Trek Revisited

This past week, I started a rewatch of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my youngest daughter. The fact that this rewatch coincides with the show’s thirtieth anniversary and this weekend’s premier of Star Trek: Discovery is mostly coincidental. I suspect the part that isn’t coincidence has to do with all the ads I’ve been seeing for Star Trek: Discovery. They’ve certainly put Star Trek on my mind.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted, I was in my senior year at University. I remembered being glued to the television on Saturday afternoon when each new episode aired on syndicated television. Back in those days, I was so much a fan of the original series that I could quote lines verbatim. I typically could identify the episode within the first minute. In the early days, I didn’t feel The Next Generation was quite as good as the best episodes of the original series, but it was never as bad as the worst episodes, either. Most importantly, it felt like Star Trek.

It would probably come as a surprise to friends who knew me in those days that Star Trek: The Next Generation was the last Star Trek series I watched in its entirety. I have seen and enjoyed episodes of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, but as I began my astronomy and writing careers, television became less of a priority in my life and I just didn’t make time to follow those series.

One of the things I really like in Star Trek: The Next Generation is the way characters will do everything they can to find a mutually agreeable solution before resorting to violence. In many ways, this approach helped to shape Ramon and Fatemeh in my steampunk novels. Of course, Star Trek gave a lot of lip service to the “prime directive”—the policy of not interfering with cultures more primitive than them. In many ways, my alien traveler character Legion explores the bad, and even some good, that might happen from violating such a directive. Legion sparks off global conflict, but he also opens people’s minds, allowing them to see the benefits of technology and to see other peoples’ perspectives.

One aspect of Star Trek: The Next Generation that particularly struck me this time around was the idea of a “post-atomic horror” in the middle of the twenty-first century. When I first watched the series in the post-Reagan years of the 1980s, that seemed extremely pessimistic. As the years went by, I had reason to hope that the idea would disappear just as much as the original series’ Eugenics Wars of the 1990s did. It’s been very disheartening to see the specter of nuclear conflict raise its ugly head again in the last few months. I sincerely hope that world leaders can find a path to negotiate rather than let this science fictional prediction come to pass.

Before I wrap things up, I’ll turn briefly to Star Trek: Discovery. To be honest, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to watch, at least initially. A lot of what I’ve seen looks good and it looks like a show I would enjoy. I’m particularly encouraged to see that Michelle Yeoh, one of my favorite actresses, is part of the series. The big question for me is whether I want to sign up for CBS All Access to watch. The cost itself isn’t a big problem. More to the point for me is how little I watch television these days. For me, I’d be signing into the network to watch just one show. I may wait for a few episodes to come available, then try the “one-week free” option and then see how I like the show.

Before I go, I did want to share a couple of nice appearances this week at The Curious Adventures of Messrs Smith and Skarry Blog. I was interviewed about multicultural steampunk: https://smithandskarry.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/soup-of-the-day-with-steampunk-author-david-lee-summers/

Also, my novel The Brazen Shark received a very nice review, which you can read at: https://smithandskarry.wordpress.com/2017/09/22/morning-cuppa-the-brazen-shark-steampunk-fiction/

I’ll leave you with the Vulcan wish, “Live Long and Prosper” and its reply, “Peace and Long Life.”

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Perhaps one of the things I miss most from years gone by is the ability to tune in to network television on Saturday morning and find a wide variety of animated cartoon programming. Much of this is due to television networks in the period of 1992 to 2002 deciding they didn’t make enough money to continue supporting animated programming. Also, around 2001 my wife and I decided that neither cable nor satellite TV were necessary items for our budget and we could see all the TV we wanted with other media such as DVDs. Of course, our decision was all part of the national trend that helped to kill animation in the first place. Not many people eschewed broadcast TV altogether as we did that early, but the number of choices available made it harder for networks to justify the expense of animation when certain cable networks specialized in it.

I grew up watching cartoons in the 1970s. I fondly remember many teams of crime-solving kids from shows such as Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats. The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour provided some great comedy, much of it originally produced much before my time. I was already a Star Trek fan and loved the animated adaptation that aired in the mid 70s. There were even some cool live action experiments during that time such as Land of the Lost about a family trapped in a land of dinosaurs and the superhero-themed Shazam/Isis Hour.

I never really fell out of love with cartoons, but the 1990s ended up being another high point for me. That was in the early days of my astronomy career and cartoons became an escape from my working life. They were also a welcome treat when my first daughter was young. What I particularly remember from that period were some exceptional superhero shows such as Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. There were also some great animated superhero parodies such as Earthworm Jim, The Tick and Freakazoid.

Of course, for all the gems, there were many forgettable shows as well. Still, what I find amazing living in the times we do is how many of these shows that I thought I would never see again are readily available on video or with the touch of a button on the internet. For a guy like me who occasionally wants a dose of nostalgia, these are great times. That said, the real joy of those Saturday mornings was the fun of discovery and I think that’s what I really miss is having that easy means of discovering new favorites.

Giving people a way to discover new authors was much of the reason I edited Hadrosaur Tales followed by Tales of the Talisman. Publishing those magazines also helped me appreciate the economic reality that caused the networks to take Saturday morning cartoons off the air. Like TV shows gone by, you can still get most of the back issues of both magazines. There are some great stories there by authors such as Neal Asher, Nicole Givens Kurtz, David Boop, and Janni Lee Simner and many more. You can find the back issues of each at:

As it turns out, I can do better than just give you nostalgia, Hadrosaur Productions has published two anthologies of stories set around planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission. Be sure to check out: