Why Star Trek Worked — And Lord of the Rings Didn’t

THE ONLY THING THAT BUGGED me about the new Star Trek movie — and that only for the first 20 minutes — was that it didn’t look “retro” enough; as though Mr. Abrams’ idea of “early Star Trek” was taken from the first films rather than the original series.

That disappointment was much more fleeting than the one which still accompanies another mythical relandscaping, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Sure, he got a lot right — including the balrog issue — but like many fen I loudly objected to Jackson’s character-monkeying (e.g., the emasculation of Aragorn) and addition of narrative-twisting scenes neither in the book nor appropriate to it. Not because I’m a purist (even though I am); adapting a Beloved Work from text to image, or from older image to newer image, almost always requires sacrifices, edits, and rewrites. And if you’re lucky or good enough to be in such a position you’ll soon split the fan base along love-hate lines depending on whose vision you ruined.

But even though Abrams’ Star Trek employs a couple of revisionist touches in look (2000s sweaty for 1960s antiseptic) and continuity (the planet Vulcan turns out to have been destroyed by time-travelling Romulans before Kirk and Spock can go mano-a-lirpa in “Amok Time”), he didn’t mess with the characters. Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty — they’re played by the next generation (puntended) of actors, but their essential Kirkness, Spockness, et al is intact.

And that contains a lesson for religiospiritual seekers of modern mind and purist bent. I can’t speak for members of other traditional religions who try to balance ancientry with innovation, but Jewish communal organizations have recently been floating a number of well-intentioned “repackaging” initiatives designed to make the old attractive to the new. As Jewish tradition is all about reinterpretation, we have something of a 3,000-year head start on the process. Yet many of these initiatives seem to assume that Judaism can’t speak for itself — that it has to be changed in order to suit 21st Century palates. But at what point, then, does it cease to “be” Judaism?

E. g.: Aragorn a la Jackson. By Tolkien, Aragorn knows exactly who he is: the last son of a line of noble kings trying to restore a united realm and win the hand of his love. By Jackson, he’s just another afraid-of-his-destiny Kevin Costnerism. That may play well in our no-heroes-without-ironic-flaws era. But it’s also inauthentic and dishonest, robbing both character and work of integrity and intended meaning.

An authentic Spock doesn’t need to be played by Leonard Nimoy, or even to have pointed ears — but he does need to struggle with his twin-world identities, just as many Jews do whether they live in the United States, Russia or Iran. Likewise, an authentic adaptation of anything must maintain the source’s integrity — instead of changing it beyond recognition by those who know and love it.

Bad Form?

AS ONE STILL NEW TO the Serious Blogging Experience, I don’t know whether or not it’s tacky for one to link to nice things said about one by others on their blogs. If it is, skip to the previous post. If not, then you may enjoy Gina Cuclis‘ account of the last Sonoma City Council meeting I attended. Gina’s known me since the halcyon days of 1995 at (at KSRO in Santa Rosa), and we were amazed to re-meet when she served on the Sonoma Planning Commission (which I used to write about for the Sonoma Index-Tribune). She cares a good deal about Sonoma, and acts on that care; I’m glad she’s still part of the scene.

Bookshelf: Larry Niven

ONE NICE THING ABOUT BEING laid up is the chance to reacquaint myself with some old childhood friends; e.g., Larry Niven and his Known Space series.

For those who don’t know, Known Space is a 60-light-year-diameter bubble and a thousand to a billion-plus years of human history. It’s also a pile of novels and short stories written in a breezy 1970s-Southern-California style depicting a leisure-filled vision of cheap space travel, engaging aliens and lifespans in the centuries.

I started reading Larry Niven when I was eight years old. Then, I didn’t understand much beyond the cool spaceships and moving sidewalks. Now, I can appreciate his familiar descriptives (“The beach was a perfect beer-party beach.” “Ever notice how all spaceships are starting to look the same?”), ledes (“It was noon of a hot blue day.” “Then, the planet had no name”) and occasional asides to the reader (“Harry Kane used a word your publisher will probably cut”). I also like how fannish his stories are, filled with references to everything from filk to fanspeak.

But these days I find I’m enjoying his immortals. Cheap longevity, in Niven’s universe, makes philosophers of us all (except for those it makes bored and master-criminally ambitious), and the dialog between those of double- and triple-digit age captures the instant impetuousness of the former and thoughtful wisdom of the latter. At 47, I’m beginning to understand why it takes so long to acquire wisdom (or something that looks like it) — it can take years of repeated exposure to varied but thematic circumstance before a human being begins not to take the Universe personally. Even then, it’s a crapshoot whether or not he’ll learn what else it can teach; until then, it’s difficult to learn anything at all.

But Niven shows us that learning is easy — as well as fun, and occasionally profitable. Here’s to Known Space and the brave souls which it inspires!

Dinner: Inadvertent Hobbitry

AS HOBBITS AND THOSE WHO love them know, nothing makes a meal like a heap o’ mushrooms. Around here, that usually means skilleted with garlic, onions, tomatoes and a big sausage and lovingly ladled atop fettucine or capellini. But last night, I forwent both garlic and pasta for a little something I call the Inadvertent Hobbit (serves 2):

– Two big Italian turkey sausages (sweet, unless you like spicy)
– Four slices turkey bacon, diced
– Vidalia onion, roughly chopped
– 12 crimini mushrooms, quartered
– Olive oil
– Sherry
– Pinch of rosemary, thyme, basil, salt

Brown sausage on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add enough olive oil to brown the bacon and turn the onions translucent, then do that too. Add herbs to taste (I use a smaller pinch of rosemary than of basil and thyme). Deglaze with sherry and add mushrooms. Revel in the homey aroma, then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes. Line two rustic-looking dishes with the non-sausage ingredients and put the sausage on top. Contemplate life’s simple pleasures, and enjoy.

Between Unravelings

After further conversation, it seems my employer has rescinded my termination — which is good news for a May 19 diagnostic. As the company’s health insurance is now guarded by a fierce COBRA, however, the financial effect is the same, and my suggestion that I be re-fired in order to qualify Ann & I for the 65% discount having met with indignation only one of us is now insured.

But the California towhees are in full urgent voice, and through across-the-creek windows the skyclutching oak is shafted with slantwise gold spilling cloudlike through the cypress behind.

Today, at least, is good.

Leaving room for silence

Of all the apparent opposites which Judaism wrestles to reconcile — free will v. predestination, universalism v. particularism, applesauce v. sour cream — one of the most paradoxically fertile is words v. the Wordless.

Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbi and commentator, wisely stayed out of this fray — he was more comfortable describing God in terms of what God wasn’t than in telling people what God was. Maimonides wasn’t the only one who felt this way; in fact, much of our liturgy describes the indescribability of God at great and poetic length.

Take, for example, the following words of the Chatzi Kaddish, which our ancestors loved so much they used it to mark the transition between different parts of every prayer service (translation from the new Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah): “Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise and comfort.”

Even more to the point is Nishmat: “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy in countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse, and were our eyes to shine like sun and moon; if our hands were spread out like heaven’s eagles and our feet swift like young deer, we could never thank You adequately, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, to bless Your name for a ten-thousandth of the many myriads of times You granted favors to our ancestors and to us.”

If that’s the case, then why bother? If God can’t be talked about, why do we keep talking?

One answer, from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is, “A little is also good.” Since nobody can really appreciate God on a Godly scale, that means a level praying field for everybody. But just as each thing helps us understand its apparent opposite, perhaps our seemingly ceaseless God-talk is also one half of a whole picture: and why our most central prayer, repeated twice daily, begins: “Shema … Listen.”

Slow Motion Slide, with Incredulity

SO LAST WEDNESDAY IS 4/8/9. I go to pick up my medication. The pharmacist tells me I have no insurance. The insurance company tells me my employer terminated it 3/31/9. My employer answered the phone two days later to say that 3/31/9 was also when I was terminated.

It would have been nice not to learn it from the pharmacist.