William Shatner in Space

Earlier this week, William Shatner took a ride into space aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder of Amazon. The rocket launched from outside Van Horn, Texas, a town about two and a half hours to the southeast of my home in New Mexico. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I thought it was great that Shatner, who brought the role of Captain Kirk to life, had the opportunity to go into space for real. What’s more, at 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. I’ve long thought, I hope to be doing as well as William Shatner when I’m 90!

Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, and Chris Boshuizen in Space. Image courtesy Blue Origin

As a kid, when I first became aware of Star Trek, the last Apollo missions were still flying. I remember thinking that Star Trek was just another document of a real mission into space. My parents soon explained to me that it was all just make-believe, but in a way that excited me just as much. That made me pay attention to the opening credits and notice those writers who made up Star Trek’s vision of exploring space. In the end Star Trek’s captivating writing helped to launch my careers in both astronomy and writing. So, it should come as no surprise that I watched Shatner’s journey from the moment he entered the rocket until he landed again in west Texas near the launch site.

Some have criticized Jeff Bezos for investing his personal wealth in space flight rather than causes to help the planet. He’s argued that developing space flight is one way to help the planet. I think he has a point. Developing space technology has a long track record of creating other technologies that help us on the Earth. I also believe there’s no reason we can’t work on solutions to problems on Earth while developing space technology. We have no shortage of people. Among the challenges are training and directing them to places where they can do the most good.

This all noted, I don’t feel I can let Bezos completely off the hook. According to Yahoo Finance, Bezos’s income is somewhere in the ballpark of 110 billion dollars per year and he invests 1 billion of that in Blue Origin. To put his income in perspective, you only have to multiply minimum wage by a single digit to get to my income. You have to multiply minimum wage by six digits to get to Bezos’s income. Over a million people could be employed at better-than-minimum wage with his income alone.

There are plenty of reports that suggest working conditions for front-line workers at Amazon are not great. As an author I do business with Amazon. In the last year and a half, I’ve received several packages in poor condition. They look as though they were rushed out the door without care and some books have arrived in unsellable condition. This makes sense if workers are being rushed to get things out the door without concern for quality of service. I’ve also had to call Amazon at times to resolve issues. Most of the time, their representatives are very helpful, but I’ve had at least two instances where I asked them something that clearly went “off script.” They promised to call me back and simply didn’t. Again this smacks of putting perceived efficiency ahead of customer service.

Given what’s reported of Jeff Bezos’s salary and what that must imply for Amazon’s total profits, there must be room for Amazon to improve salaries, make conditions better for front-line workers, and improve service. Star Trek suggested that humans would be ready for space exploration when we learned to appreciate our own diversity and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity. Sometimes making the planet better starts with how corporate executives and upper management treat and pay the people who are making them the money that allow them to invest in cool things like space exploration and who make it possible for someone like William Shatner to visit the final frontier.

The Magnificent Five

As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts, I’ve been listening to the Gerry Anderson Podcast, which distributes new episodes to various podcast platforms on Mondays. Recently, they introduced an audio book and novel by co-host Richard James called Five Star Five: John Lovell and the Zargon Threat. The audio book is available from Big Finish Productions and I downloaded it so the family could listen while taking my youngest child back to college a couple of weeks ago. Five Star Five was the name of a movie project Gerry Anderson was developing after Space: 1999 and I’ve often heard it called his answer to Star Wars. A script had been completed, studio space had been secured, and work on pre-production began when the project was abruptly halted because one of the major investors pulled out of the project. Unfortunately, the project was never finished.

That’s where Richard James comes in. He took the script and turned it into a novel this year, so the rest of us could finally learn more about Five Star Five. The premise is that the evil Zargon Empire plans to take over the peaceful planet Kestra. On Kestra, Colonel Zana seeks a champion to help save them from the threat. So far, this does sound a bit like Star Wars. The person she hopes to recruit is John Lovell, a freelance freighter pilot who reminded me a little of Han Solo, right down to his hirsute co-pilot Clarence. As it turns out, Clarence is a talking chimpanzee. At first I thought the character would put me off, but it turned out elements of the character hearkened back to both Planet of the Apes and Rocket Racoon from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Once Lovell is maneuvered into helping the Kestrans, the story becomes less Star Wars and more The Magnificent Seven as Lovell goes out to recruit a team to help him defeat the Zargon invaders. His team includes a powerful, but sensitive robot, a mystic, and a kid who communicates telepathically with his robot dog.

Unlike other Big Finish productions I’ve listened to, this one is an audio book with Robbie Stevens serving as the sole narrator. Music and sound effects are provided by Benji Clifford. Stevens’ narration is so well done and his voices for the characters so well thought out, I almost felt like I was listening to a full-cast audio drama. I do highly recommend the audio edition. The total runtime of the audio is 5 hours and 19 minutes, so it does feel more in-depth than a movie, but the action never slows down.

John Lovell and the Zargon Threat also felt very much like a first adventure in a series. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gerry Anderson would have produced more movies in the series if the first had proven a success. I suspect the movie Gerry Anderson would have produced circa 1979 would have have rivaled both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises in effects quality. What’s more, I thought this was a more engaging take on the idea of “The Magnificent Seven in Space” than 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars. It would be fun if the folks at Anderson Entertainment decided to give us more Five Star Five adventures.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Given my love of both Star Trek and animation, I knew I would get around to watching the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks eventually. I admit, I didn’t quite rush to the show for two reasons. First off, back when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes from the point of view of junior officers, I felt they’d botched certain elements of it. Also, the animation style put me off. Still, I’m glad I took a chance and saw what the series had to offer. I was pleased to find yet another incarnation of the Star Trek universe to enjoy.

Set aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks focuses on four ensigns: Becket Mariner, an irreverent character who has climbed up to higher rank, only to be demoted again; Brad Boimler, a by-the-book character who sees himself as a future captain; Davana T’endi, an Orion medical technician; and Eugene Cordero, an engineer adjusting to a cybernetic implant. The ship itself is on a mission of providing engineering support to worlds just entering the Federation. The series features many references to classic Star Trek episodes and, perhaps not surprisingly, has many wonderful tributes to the original animated series. On the whole, the source of the humor comes from poking fun at places fans themselves have poked fun at the different series. More than once, the series reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.

Back in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were two episodes told from the perspective of junior officers. The first was called “Tapestry” where the powerful alien Q shows Picard what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into a fight which resulted in him needing an artificial heart. We learn Picard never took the chances he needed to be promoted and remained a junior officer. The next episode was “Lower Decks” about four junior officers up for promotion. Both episodes were good overall, but my problem was that the senior officers seemed too aloof and frankly snobbish around the junior officers. The dynamic felt more like Hollywood producers around interns from the back office than members of a team working together to explore the galaxy. Over my time in astronomy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous well-known scientists in leadership positions, including Nobel Prize winners, and while some have been challenging to work with, most have been team players who recognized that everyone in the room was there because they had something to contribute no matter their level of seniority or what accolades they’d received. When I turn on a Star Trek episode, I want to see a team I’d want to be on as much or more than the one I’m on in real life. The Lower Decks animated series succeeded at this, possibly helped by the comedy premise. All of the characters are flawed, which puts them on much more equal footing as people, even when some of those people have more experience. What’s more, I felt as though the characters were having fun, which made me want to join them for the fun of exploration.

In graduate school, I was a fan of Matt Groenig’s comic strip, Life in Hell. I watched Groenig go on to develop The Simpsons and Futurama. I then watched other creators use a similar style in shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty. In effect, Groenig’s style became the “adult animated comedy” style and we see it again in Lower Decks. I don’t dislike the style, but I found myself wondering if it would work for Star Trek. As it turns out, the style was adjusted to give it just a little more realism. While I was frustrated to see another American animation show forced to look a certain way because of its intended audience, I did find the actual look appealing and I soon warmed to the characters, in part because of solid voice acting and good scripts.

On a personal level, I loved the California-class ships named after the state’s cities. Growing up in California, I recognized all the ship names they’ve mentioned so far. I would love to see my old stomping grounds of San Bernardino or Barstow get a starship in a later season. The former seems like it would provide an opportunity to pay tribute to original series writer Jerome Bixby, who lived there. It might be fun to see it appear in an episode about the mirror universe that he created. Of course, Bixby’s stories were an early influence on my own writing, which you can learn more about by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Main Mission

A week and a half ago, I shared the model of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge that I built. It seems I’ve been in the mood to build science fictional command centers lately, because I also recently completed a model of Main Mission from Space: 1999. This was, in part, inspired by my enjoyment of Big Finish Productions’ audio version of the series, which in turn led me to re-watch the first season of the 1970’s television series.

As for the model itself, I discovered it when looking up videos that might help with some points of assembly on the Enterprise bridge model. Some videos that turned up in the suggested play list discussed the Space: 1999 Moonbase Alpha kit, which includes the show’s first season command center, Main Mission. As it turns out, I remember seeing an early version of the Moonbase Alpha kit from when I was a child. I also remember asking my parents to buy it for me. At the time, they turned me down. It was probably for the best. That was during the height of my slap kits together as fast as I could, without really caring about the quality of my work! I discovered MPC had released an update of the Moonbase Alpha kit in the not-too-distant past and they aren’t hard to find for decent prices on eBay, so I bought one.

MPC Moonbase Alpha Model Kit

As of this writing, I haven’t actually built the Moonbase itself. I may share that at a later time, but I have tackled the miniature of main mission. Like the Enterprise bridge, it’s not a perfectly accurate replica. Two problems stand out at first glance. First, there’s a spiral staircase in Main Mission. In the show, it was a simple staircase with landings. Second, Commander Koenig’s office is too short. In the show, he had a lower level with a conference table and several chairs. It was actually a rather spacious workspace. The biggest challenge of this model is that it’s rather small, so painting details and adding decals took some care and patience. Still, I managed it. Here’s a look in from the top.

Main Mission from above.

I rather like the details in the decals they included. The big screen is a very accurate version of what was shown on television. The globe in Commander Koenig’s office was another selling point for me. It was such a memorable prop, I was delighted they included it in the model, even if painting it was a challenge. The continents don’t really match up with anything on a real globe, but they do give the impression of the continents as they looked in the show.

Main Mission from the side

The second view shows a more oblique angle, so you can see the computer banks on the lower level. Again, these were good decals. It also made me realize how similar the main mission and command center sets were in Space: 1999 and the earlier series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, UFO. As with my Enterprise bridge model, one of the most fun elements was painting and placing the people. I tried to imagine something of a story in progress. I have Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell speaking in the commander’s office. Dr. Victor Bergman is running in to tell them something. We have Paul Morrow, Alan Carter, and Sandra Benes sitting at consoles. One challenge was whether to depict the televised Main Mission, or as I imagine it might be in the audio. On television, the computer officer is David Kano. We see a person that could be him standing by the computer. In the audio, David became a woman named Dashka Kano. I have a woman that could be her standing near one of the Main Mission doors.

Main Mission and the Enterprise Bridge

This final image serves two purposes. It shows the Main Mission model with its roof panels in place and it also shows the model compared to the Enterprise bridge model. As you can see, the Main Mission model is a much smaller scale. One of the reasons I decided to get this model is that the Enterprise bridge model was pretty plain on the outside, so sitting on the table, it’s not very attractive unless you look inside. The Main Mission model makes a nice compliment on the shelf.

At some point in the not-too-distant future I hope to build the actual Moonbase part of the kit, but for now, it’s time to get back to writing.

The Enterprise Bridge

In 1975, soon after the animated Star Trek series aired, the company AMT released a model kit of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge. I remember building that kit, but it was eventually lost to time. I know my patience and painting skills wouldn’t have done it justice. I also remember that two things disappointed me about that kit. First, it wasn’t the complete bridge. A few stations were around the outside were removed. Arguably, this made it easier to display on a shelf in such a way that you could look inside, but I was enough of a completest to want the whole thing. The other problem was that the original kit didn’t include Spock’s scope. This is that gray viewer Spock looked in to gain vital plot information. My understanding from newer websites is that it is, in fact, some kind of external viewing scope, probably with some sensor display overlays. The kit also didn’t include the library computer module on Spock’s station.

The kit was re-released for Star Trek’s 25th anniversary in 1991. The new version had more accurate decals. Both versions had figures of Kirk, Sulu, and Spock, but the new kit featured a re-sculpt. This version still didn’t include Spock’s scope or library computer. The kit returned in 2013. This time, they included all the consoles and Spock’s scope along with much better decals. This version still was missing Scotty’s scope on the engineering station. Yes, Scotty had one of those mysterious viewers, too! It was also missing the library computer module.

Late last year, after watching the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, which featured the return of the classic Enterprise I thought it would be fun to build the Enterprise bridge again and I looked for the kits. I soon learned the 2013 kit was hard to find and expensive when you could find it. The 1991 kit seemed the easiest to obtain. After watching a couple of weeks, a tempting eBay listing appeared. Someone offered two of the 1991 kits for less money than one kit alone. The only catch was that the seller didn’t guarantee the kits were complete. I decided to take the seller up on the offer. I figured I should be able to cobble together a complete bridge from two incomplete kits. It turned out, the kits were all but complete. I’ve only found one piece missing. I decided to turn the two bridges into the complete bridge.

An important part of this process was making better replicas of the science and engineering stations. I obtained some polystyrene plastic strips and sheeting from a model supply company and built my own scope and library computer module on Spock’s station. In the photo below, you can see the upgrades right after I applied a coat of gray paint. The station on the left is the version without the upgrade. I also built a scope on the engineering station.

Another feature of the old bridge model was that it had so few people and they weren’t great likenesses. I did like this 1991 kit’s people a little better, but the bridge never really felt complete. It turns out, there’s a 3D printing company called Shapeways that sells additional crewmembers for the Enterprise bridge. My wife and daughters bought me a set of crewmen to add to my bridge for Christmas. Here they are before painting.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of turning two of the 1991 bridge models into one complete bridge model is that there are two small stations on either side of the main viewer in the front that aren’t duplicates, but mirror images of each other. I considered taking one of the full size stations and cutting it, but I would have had to modify the detailing around the viewer over the station itself. I was saved by a change made for the animated series. In the animated series, they replaced the small port-side station with a second elevator door. Now, all of the plans for the bridge from the animated series, show a narrower entry into the front turbolift than the rear one, so I thought I might have to modify the second turbolift door. It turned out, the only things I had to modify were the floor panels and and the wall panel to the port side of the main viewer. Here are the two doors in my completed model.

Completed Enterprise bridge with two turbolift doors. Note, the engineering station has a scope!

I thought it was great fun to see that the Enterprise bridge actually could have two full-sized doors. It always seemed a poor design that there should be only one exit from the bridge. I will note, some blueprints of the Enterprise indicate the door next to the communication station attaches to a tube you can see on the outside of the bridge on the complete model of the ship. Personally, I don’t think an elevator shaft on a ship like the Enterprise would be that exposed, so I could be believe there’s space around the outside of the bridge to allow two turbolift cars. The next photo rotates the view, so you can see the finished science station in place.

Enterprise bridge model from port side stern.

Of the figures in the bridge, Kirk and Sulu are the two that came with the kit. All the other figures are the Shapeways figures. The AMT kit did come with a Spock, but I liked the Shapeways version with the iconic pose of Spock looking into the scope. A fun part of adding the people to this kit was telling a story with the characters’ placements. It looks like Kirk and Sulu are in conversation while Scotty is conducting some repairs. Meanwhile Spock and Lieutenant Jones are consulting on a scientific problem. McCoy is listening in to both conversations.

One last view of the Enterprise bridge

One final feature to point out, I added a floor to this bridge. The original kit leaves that spot around the helm/navigation station and Kirk’s chair open. A small piece of sheet plastic allowed me to give the bridge a more finished look.

This was a fun project. It took a little longer than my usual model build because of the modifications, but in the end, I’m pleased with how it turned out.

How I Botched the Acetylcholine Test

I am a textbook introvert. As many sites on the internet will tell you, this is nothing unusual. All it really means is that much as I find interactions with people necessary and even rewarding, I can also find them draining. This would seem to be true of anywhere from 30-50% of the population. An upshot of being an introvert is the holidays can be especially draining with parties and gatherings. You would think I wouldn’t have found this year as draining given that gatherings have been discouraged. In fact, I didn’t go to any in-person events. While I did go to several online gatherings, as I noted in High Tech New Year’s Eve post, those were all pretty comfortable affairs with people I know well.

As a writer, I’m interested in what motivates people. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated to learn how much our brain chemistry affects who we are. I’ve found several articles that suggest that the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine play a strong role in who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Simply put, introverts seem to thrive more on acetylcholine which makes us feel good when we turn inward. We feel gratified by long periods of time focused on a single task. Extroverts thrive more on dopamine, which can get released when you have positive interactions with others, such as a phone call that pushes your career forward or a strong romantic engagement.

A beautiful, quiet moment – the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as seen from outside the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope.

Now, I’m an astronomer, not a neurochemist, so I can’t vouch for how accurate this is. For that matter, I’ve come across some articles that suggest that dopamine and acetylcholine are far more intertwined in the brain than my simple description above would suggest. Still, it does mesh with my experience of really enjoying quiet tasks where I work by myself for long periods of time. It probably goes a long way to explaining why I like to write. So, I suspect there is some truth to something about my personality liking acetylcholine.

So, how did I botch the test? First off, I should explain that this post’s title is a reference to the classic Star Trek episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” In the episode, Mr. Spock has to fly a shuttlecraft into a giant space amoeba to save the Enterprise. While he’s there, he’s supposed to conduct some tests. Of course, he saves the day and everyone is happy, but Dr. McCoy points out that Spock didn’t do everything right. He tells Spock, “You botched the acetylcholine test!”

To this day, I’m not sure how Spock botched the test. I “botched the test” at a more personal level. At the moment, my work days at Kitt Peak National Observatory start around 4pm with a Zoom Meeting with various project collaborators. This meeting usually only lasts a few minutes, but then resumes again around 5:30pm with those collaborators who are observing. The Zoom meeting then lasts all the way until sunrise. Now, I’m not talking or interacting with the collaborators the whole night, but they are often interacting with each other and I do have to pay attention to plans for the night. I have no problem with this, but it can keep me from engaging in long, deep periods of concentration.

Also, I had planned a nice quiet period between Christmas and the New Year. I wasn’t scheduled to be at the observatory and I arranged a break from a collaborative creative project I’ve been involved in. As it turns out, I got a call on Christmas Eve from one of my editors, telling me notes on a story would be arriving that night. In short, the week turned into an intensive, albeit productive and gratifying, session whipping a story into shape for publication. I’ll tell you about that story in Saturday’s post. Once that was done, I had the nice New Year’s Eve that I talked about, then went back to work for more long observing nights with their accompanying Zoom sessions. Needless to say, I reached the first break of the new year feeling pretty wiped out.

I was suffering what some people know as an “introvert hangover.” For me, this takes the form of almost every interaction, no matter how benign, getting on my nerves. I try not to get to this point, but it does happen sometimes. Fortunately, we’re a family of introverts and we do our best to take care of each other when this happens. Also, I’ve been able to have some quiet time at the end of this most recent break from the observatory and I’m starting to feel myself again.

I hope your new year is off to a good start and you’re doing your best to stay healthy and well.

Learning from Loss

In 1976, when I was in elementary school, my teacher taught us about elections by having some of the students “run for office.” Of course, we weren’t running for any real political office, but the idea was to make campaign posters, have a debate, and let the class vote on who won. I ran for senator and thought I would be a shoe-in. Of the two people running, I was the one known to be the “smart kid.” I remember making some great posters with great slogans. In the end, I lost that election and I was devastated.

One of my friends came up and presented a hard truth to me. This friend did like me, but couldn’t vote for me because the other kid talked a lot more in the debate. I pointed out that the other kid made promises they couldn’t keep. My friend noted they actually said they would do something while it wasn’t clear I would do anything. Looking back, I realize that part of why I failed on that occasion was my own introverted personality. I wasn’t comfortable speaking to groups, so I didn’t say everything that was on my mind. More to the point, I learned to cope with the loss and move on. I didn’t get bitter. I didn’t say the other kid cheated. I knew I’d lost fair and square and I learned what I would need to do should I ever choose to run for a real elected position.

Losing is a powerful, albeit painful teacher. Whether one loses an election, a sporting event, or a competition of any sort, you can learn from the experience and do better. In fact, it’s such a great teacher that I’m hesitant to trust anyone who tries to tell me they never lost and that they succeed at absolutely everything they ever attempted. What’s more, the older they get without losing, the more I worry because I know the first real loss they face will be all the more difficult.

In the 1990s, I started reading through A. Bertram Chandler’s space opera series about John Grimes. Growing up as a Star Trek fan, I really enjoyed these books. John Grimes was a character much like Captain Kirk. As I read, I came to the novel The Big Black Mark, which is a novel about Grimes screwing up big time. He actually gets booted out of the service and has to find a new career. At that point, Grimes suddenly became a much more interesting character to me than Captain Kirk and it was precisely because he lost and had to learn from his mistakes and become better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a Star Trek fan, but I find Grimes’s journey a bit more interesting.

I took this to heart when I wrote my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. The Pirates of Sufiro is about Ellison Firebrandt coping with losing his life of being a successful pirate. In the next book, Children of the Old Stars, his grandson makes a blunder when attempting to communicate with an alien race invading the galaxy and must start his quest all over again outside the military. I wrote these books when I was young and I hadn’t experienced as many losses as I have at this point in my life. One reason I’m revising them for new editions is that I’m better able to tap into the emotions that go with loss and moving on in new ways.

In the end, losing an election or a competition doesn’t make you a “loser.” It’s how you cope with the loss that demonstrates your true nature. I hope you’ll join Ellison Firebrandt and John Mark Ellis on their journey’s of loss and redemption. You can learn more about the Space Pirates’ Legacy series by visiting: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#pirate_legacy

Revisiting Das Boot

I grew up knowing I had ancestors who came from Germany. What’s more, my uncle married a German woman. I wanted to be a scientist and I knew about a number of German scientists such as Kepler, Einstein, and Heisenberg just to name a few. So when it came to pick a language from my limited high school offerings, I chose German. My high school only offered two years of the language, so when I exhausted those, I was encouraged to take classes at Cal State San Bernardino. During this time, one of the most famous German films was released: Das Boot. The professor of my college German class offered us extra credit if we went to see the movie in German. Several of us went as a group. As with many at the time, I found the movie amazing, stunning, and sad at the end.

My aunt was excited that I had gone to watch a feature-length German film. She contacted one of her relatives in Germany and had them buy a hardcover copy of the original novel and send it to the US. She gave it to me as a Christmas present. It’s still one of my treasured possessions. I’m sorry to say I have not taken the time to wade through and read the whole thing, but I was delighted when I recently picked it up and discovered my German is still good enough to follow the gist of the story.

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” This can be tricky for science fiction writers. That said, we should pull from our experience to make what we imagine as believable as possible. One of the reasons Das Boot was fascinating to me was how real it made serving in a cramped, enclosed ship. Much as I loved the Star Trek-like future of grand, beautiful starships, I couldn’t help but think the reality of military space ships would look more like the U-96 in Das Boot than Captain Picard’s spacious Enterprise. When I started writing the stories that would become the foundation of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, I made space vessels cramped and claustrophobic with crews who got on each others’ nerves.

Back in the days when I first saw the movie Das Boot, I’d heard rumors of a longer version than the one we saw in the United States. It turns out this was a 5-hour cut broadcast over five nights on British television in 1984. This cut (more or less) was eventually released in the United States as “The Original Uncut Version” shown above. I bought it a few years ago, then promptly moved to a new house where it disappeared under a stack of other videos. I finally found it again and watched the five-hour cut.

I have to say, I was impressed. The longer cut didn’t drag at all. What it gave us were more character moments. The 1980s American theatrical release focused on the captain, the chief engineer, and the war correspondent. The longer release gives us a chance to know the first officer, the third officer, the navigator and the radio operator much better. The crew began to feel even more like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one at times.

I’ve come to realize that space travel would be unsustainable if spaceships were as small and crowded as a World War II-era U-boat, but still, thinking about how they ate, the jobs they were assigned to, the “human” touches that made the sub a little more livable than sterile are all things that help me think about how to design space vessels in my writing. If you want to see how I’ve brought that into play, a good place to start is book one of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. You can learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Firebrandts-Legacy.html

Star Trek: Picard

For staying at home during a pandemic, I feel like I’ve been extremely busy the last six weeks. Some of this has been from documentation work that I’ve discussed here. Some has been because rights to three of my novels revert to me at the end of this month and I’m working to get new editions ready to go when the reversion takes effect. This past Friday, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association invited to me to speak to them via Zoom about Kitt Peak’s DESI project. The upshot is that I haven’t had as much extra time to read or watch TV as I might even under normal circumstances. Despite that, I decided to take advantage of a CBS All Access offer of a free month to watch a series I’ve been looking forward to, Star Trek: Picard.

The series takes place twenty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. Admiral Picard, played admirably by Patrick Stewart, has retired to his home and vineyards in France. Meanwhile, in Seattle, black-suited agents storm the home of a young woman named Dahj and kill her boyfriend. She reveals extraordinary strength and gets away. Somehow she knows Picard is the one who can help her. Picard then figures out that she was a biological synthetic lifeform created from cells taken from Commander Data’s positronic network. In short, she’s a daughter of Commander Data, who sacrificed himself in Nemesis to save Picard.

Right away in the first episode, those black-suited agents are back and this time, they succeed in killing Dahj. However, Picard has learned that Dahj would have been one of a pair of identical twin synthetic lifeforms. From here, we go across space into Romulan territory and find out that Dahj’s twin sister, Soji, is helping to study a captured Borg ship while engaging in a romance with a Romulan named Narek, who I soon realized was played by Penny Dreadful’s Doctor Frankenstein, Harry Treadaway.

Admiral Picard now goes on a quest to find Dahj’s sister. When Starfleet refuses to help, he engages the help of Raffi Musiker, his first officer after Commander Riker left. They hire the ship, La Sirena, commanded by a former Starfleet officer, Chris Rios. They follow the clues that lead them to the Borg cube and then beyond to the planet where Soji and Dahj were created. Overall, I enjoyed the series. It was an engaging quest story with some nice moments for Star Trek: The Next Generation era characters such as Picard, Riker, Troi, and Seven of Nine.

My main complaint with the series had to do with the ending, and I’ll try to describe it in as spoiler-free a way as possible. When they get to the planet where Dahj and Soji were created, a beacon is built to summon a destructive force. We are then treated to some scenes of a hole opening in the sky and metallic tentacles flailing about. It’s a moment that feels all too much like the ending of modern superhero fare. It’s become tired there and it really had no place in a Star Trek episode. What’s more, Star Trek’s best scary moments have never involved big bad explicit threats, but threats like the Borg or the bug-like invaders in the Next Generation episode, “Conspiracy.” These are the things that feel like they could walk in and dismantle Starfleet and the Federation with ease if our heroes aren’t very careful.

I’m glad to have seen the series and I would recommend it to fellow Star Trek fans. Besides the nostalgia factor, I was also pleased to see the series embrace elements of Star Trek canon that haven’t felt terribly popular with fans such as the Romulan supernova from the 2009 Star Trek movie and the events of Star Trek: Nemesis itself. I will admit these are not among the highlights of the franchise, but I’ve long found it baffling how willing Star Trek fans are to cherry-pick their favorite bits of canon and try to imagine the rest didn’t happen.

I’m still a little on the fence about CBS All Access itself. I’m delighted they made a free month available to people during this difficult time. Still, episodes themselves were plagued by the occasional stutter that would be more upsetting if I had paid for it. While that could be my internet, I was also a little frustrated that the service wouldn’t let me watch the end credits of episodes without getting ready to play the next episode right away. Star Trek features some good music and I like the opportunity to hear it and I like being able to see who was in the guest cast of an episode without necessarily having to look it up later.

Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.