After complaining in some of my recent posts about the lack of anything new to look forward to in the world of Star Trek, I have come to find out that the Science Channel will be airing a new documentary entitled Trek Nation on November 30th. In addition, filming on the second J.J. Abrams Star Trek motion picture begins on January 15th. Admittedly I am looking forward to the former much more than the latter but it’s all good. Meanwhile, as I wait patiently for the 30th to arrive, I have been thinking back on my own particular journey through the realm of sci-fi fandom and realized that it started with Trek but didn’t end there. The 60’s classic Star Trek TV series was merely a jumping off point from which I delved into a number of other fascinating movies, television shows, and books.
As anyone with similar interests knows, the relationships among all these various works within the genre can be somewhat circuitous, leading a fan right back to where he started in the most glorious and unexpected of ways. So it was with me, with Star Trek and the collection of other enjoyable stories that I am going to touch on here. Seeing them or, in some cases, reading them, was interesting in and of itself, but also in the respect that they allowed me to gain new perspectives. I found that getting away from my favorite Trek episodes for a while and checking out a new sci-fi movie or story allowed me to return to the Star Trek universe with a greater appreciation – picking up on nuances I’d perhaps missed earlier. In other words, everything reinforces everything else in some way.
So, to any readers of this blog who may be interested in sci-fi vehicles other than Star Trek, today’s entry begins a multi-part overview of some of the earliest additions to my list of favorite sci-fi stories. If my memory is intact enough, I will endeavor to organize them in the order in which I discovered them. As far as I know, they are all readily available now to anyone wishing to check them out. Gotta’ love 21st Century, instantly gratifying, streaming, downloadable, on-demand media availability! Anyway, here we go with Part 1:
Silent Running – Theatrical Motion Picture – 1972
Like the best Star Trek episodes, this film is a morality tale. Set in “the first year of a new century” (the 21st I suppose), the film establishes that all trees and plant life on Earth are gone, except for a small collection forests being cultivated under giant domes aboard ships in deep space. The crews of these enormous vessels have apparently worked on the forestation project for a very long time with a view toward reintroducing the greenery to our abused planet. They have their doubts that the project will come to fruition, though, and, one way or the other, they are anxious to get home. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a botanist charged with caring for the forests on one of the ships – The Valley Forge. When the project is abandoned, the crews of all the ships are ordered to jettison and detonate the forest domes and return to Earth. Lowell is devastated and cannot accept that the forests must be destroyed. Driven by his (laudable) desire to save at least one forest, he takes drastic actions that ultimately determine the outcome of the story.
The film was directed by Douglas Trumbull who had previously worked on the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which didn’t make today’s entry in the list primarily because I didn’t see it until 10 years after it came out). Although the emphasis on saving our ecology that was prevalent in the 70’s is very thinly veiled in this movie, it nonetheless manages to entertain – with a convincing performance by Dern, believable effects, and a moving (if somewhat dated) soundtrack featuring songs performed by Joan Baez. Notable also are the “drones”, small utility robots played by amputee actors in very believable costumes, forerunners of George Lucas’s “droid” concept from Star Wars.
Westworld – Theatrical Motion Picture – 1973
This film afforded me my first exposure to the work of Michael Crichton, who both wrote the story and directed the movie. It’s basic theme is one that Crichton had dealt with before and would return to again in some of his later tales – namely, the dangerous consequences that can occur when we assume we can control technologies or elements of nature that we don’t entirely understand.
Sometime in the not too distant future, vacationers can visit a resort where, for $1000 a day, they are able to interact with completely realistic android robots in three specific historical settings: Roman World, Medieval World, and Western World. In these adult amusement parks, nothing is off limits. There are deadly sword battles, gunfights, good old fashioned brothels, and more. Visitors to these resort-worlds can live out their every fantasy, no matter how violent or perverse. The story centers around a pair of businessmen, played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin. They’ve chosen to unwind in Western World, where they engage in barroom brawls with outlaws, shootouts with a gunslinger (expertly portrayed by Yul Brynner), and romps with 1880’s style prostitutes – all of whom are lifelike robots. The movie also depicts a number of secondary characters who have similar adventures in the other two themed resort-worlds.
When the robots and the systems that control them begin experiencing inexplicable malfunctions, the engineers in charge have to decide how best to proceed. Although they initially consider closing the resort to address their concerns, it is ultimately decided to wait and allow the current guests to stay out their planned visits. That’s when all hell breaks loose! This is a compelling movie for sure. I especially like how the line “Nothing can go wrong” prefaces all the action. If you enjoyed the Trek TOS episodes, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “I Mudd”, or “Requiem for Methuselah”, you’ll probably like this film.
Next time around, I’ll touch on a collection of short stories and a novel, both of which were adapted for the big screen.