My father was a sci-fi fan of the old school. The man had the entire original Star Trek series on VHS, commercial free, and an Enterprise technical manual. So in his honor, a little late for Father’s Day, we go back in time to look to the future as we dive into the wormhole of classic sci-fi.
As the spike in sales of neckties and golf-themed tchotchkes tells us, last Sunday was Father’s Day, and no, it’s not the day that sees the most collect calls all year. For one thing, it’s not 1987; who still makes collect calls? Where do you even find a payphone? My own father, who’s gone on before, was a sci-fi fan of the old school, bred to the bone. My mother would buy him grocery bags of pulp paperbacks as gifts. The man had the entire original Star Trek series on VHS, commercial free, and an Enterprise technical manual. [nerd!] So in his honor, today’s episode goes back in time to look to the future as we dive into the wormhole of classic sci-fi. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.
First off, and this is often a point of contention, we need to establish what we’re talking about when we say “sci-fi.” We’re not going to haul out the Merriam-Webster for this. There is some wiggle room and a fair amount of contention here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a list of top however-many sci-fi whatevers only to kvetch out-loud, “That’s barely even fantasy, let alone sci-fi” or “Just because it’s set in the future doesn’t make it sci-fi. Philistines.” Whether a work draws on existing science and technology to extrapolate what we might see in future generations, what is known as ‘hard sci-fi,’ or the author goes ‘laser guns, pew pew,” [sfx] a key requirement for science fiction is that it be speculative. If it’s worth its salt, its focus will be how we as humans will interact with and react to this proposed environment, its trappings and its other occupants. Even though there’s a lot of overlap in the fan bases and, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” we’re going to eschew the sword & sorcery genre of fantasy and even science-fantasy for right now. Likewise, we probably won’t get into more recent sub-genres like cyberpunk and slip-stream today. We’ve also going to skip over some of the better-known authors because they’re, well, better-known. But that’s okay, because we have a LOT of talk about.
Sci-fi has many fathers, but only one mother, the woman credited with creating the fledgling genre, Mary Shelley. Born to a renowned feminist writer and philosopher in 1797, Mary was sixteen when she fell in love with the poet Percy Shelley and the two ran away together to become a power couple of the literary Romantic movement. Onel summer at friend Lord Byron’s villa in Switzerland, the three of them spent long nights debating everything from art to politics to galvanism, also known as raising bodies from the dead using electricity. On one eerie night, Byron challenged everyone to write a ghost story. Mary crafted a tale of in which the fantastic could happen within the realm of the possible. The book contains very little science, but it masterfully explores the social and moral repercussions of what might happen if certain scientific advances were possible. If you’ve only seen movies, you’ve been robbed of some of the best aspects of the story. It also bears noting, she was nineteen at the time. I would definitely not want anyone reading what I wrote at nineteen.
Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818 with a preface by Percy Shelley, causing many to assume he was the author, since writing books wasn’t a proper undertaking for a woman. Following bestseller status and a successful stage adaptation, Mary set the record straight with the second edition in 1822, finally taking credit for her masterpiece. Sadly, that was also the year she lost Percy in a shipwreck, leaving her a 24 year old widow. In a strange twist that you would, hopefully, only see among Romantics, Mary had to fight with Byron over which of them got to keep Percy’s preserved heart, giving him Percy’s skull as a sort of consolation prize.
It would be nearly fifty years before the next big name in science fiction, Jules Verne, published Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864. He was the first writer to really make sci-fi his style, rather than merely dabbling in it. Verne established what we call hard sci-fi, studiously researching existing technology to forecast how it might grow. He considered not only how to propel rocket, but how a human body would withstand the g-force. Verne even figured out that the best place to launch a lunar mission would be the coast of Florida. He also used his writing as commentary on topics like Imperialism and European social order. It is from his works that we get the archetype of the courageous explorer going off into the unknown, rather than dealing with things he can’t accept in his own world. Around the World in 80 Days gave us the steam-punk aesthetic (bit of a white elephant there) and a first glimpse at a world that was being shrunk by technology with increasing rapidity, as people became able to communicate and travel over long distances faster than ever before.
The other name usually said in the same breath is H. G. Wells. Though critics viewed Verne as fluff and nonsense, opinion had begun to shift by the time Wells published The Time Machine in 1895. He would actually receive four nominations for the Nobel prize in Literature. Where Vern wove his commentary into his stories, Wells was more open and blunt about it. For example, the eponymous Invisible Man can’t survive without society, even with his godlike power. Wells not only looked ahead to where technology and the human condition might go, but took those evolutions to their extremes. You see this in in Time Machine where mankind has split into weak, beautiful upper-class and beastial laborers, with the rich being scared of poor. The alien invaders destroying the Earth in the War of the Worlds are defeated by microbes. This is actually a concern in real-life space travel. NASA has an entire department dedicated to sterilizing equipment to ensure we don’t contaminate the final frontier. He used science to make fantastical seem possible so it could used as a lens to study the human condition. As if all that wasn’t enough, he wrote the first rule system for tabletop gaming in the book Little Wars, despite being pacifist, so he deserves specific thanks for the D&D and Shadowrun set.
The speed of invention and advances in late 19th and early 20th century made anything seem possible. It was also the last stand of The Occult. It’s where the end of the Romantic movement met pushback against rationalism, with a dash of well-to-do people looking for safe, transgressive entertainment, and a sprinkling of people out to make a buck. For more on the Spiritualism movement, check out our very first episode about hoaxes and false panics. The Occult began to take on aspects of science and science in turn began to explore the Occult. Even scientific greats like Edison looked for the factual basis of fantastical claims like astral projection and communicating with the dead. The Occult also provided a stop-gap solution for authors who couldn’t quite suss out the science of a situation. Need to converse with oddly-shaped slime-based beings from another planet? Telepathy will handle that. The crossover separated itself from hard sci-fi by planting its feet firmly on the platform that there are things we will encounter that science simply cannot explain, at a time when it seemed like science would be able to explain everything any day now. It became one of the hallmarks of pulp sci-fi and would be treated and regarded as if it were legitimate and not a handy deus ex machina. It also appeared in better-quality work, like that of Robert Chambers.
Robert Chambers was arguably the first sci-fi horror writer. Though he was a prolific author, publishing over 80 books, only a few are still read, the best-known being The King in Yellow. His book Search for the Unknown introduced cryptids, fantastical but plausible creatures, into the genre. You can almost draw a direct line between his work and X-Files. While not the first to use it, Chambers arguably was the best in using the ‘invented manuscript.’ The King in Yellow contains a play that is reputed to be cursed. Act 1 lures readers in, but anyone who reads Act 2 will go insane.
Chambers directly influences many better-known names in sci-fi writing. For those of you waiting with bated breath for H.P. Lovecraft’s turn, you’re going to walk away from this a tad miffed. Without getting into the unanswerable question of ‘can you separate the art from the artist?” the man was racist as all hell and he’s not getting airtime on my show. Go back and read his stuff again, especially a 1912 poem that has the n-word right in the title. No subtlety or subtext there. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Cthulhu.
Going back to invented manuscript, another author to use it to great effect was William Hodgson. His classic, House on the Borderland, is a haunted house story wherein the house sits on a rift between dimensions. It is credited for introducing cosmic horror into sci-fi. Cosmic horror is the concept that there are things out there somewhere so terrible that we lack the capacity to even imagine them. Hodgsons works also spin the convention that science-fiction must be actually plausible, establishing that you need only construct a world that the reader believes could be possible. In The Night Land, he firmly establishes the Dying Earth genre, previously only touched on by books like The Time Machine. Dying Earth is similar to Post-apocalyptia, except that Dying Earth hinges on entropy rather than catastrophe.
Author Richard Jefferies gave us arguably the first post-apocalyptic novel with After London. He established what are now tropes, the defining characteristics by which we declare something to be post-apocalyptic – feudal societies dominated by the strong, bands of savages, the details of the apocalypse being lost of misunderstood, the hero wandering the hellscape to provide us with exposition, and on and on. Jefferies was otherwise a nature writer by trade, which is probably why he also gave us the essential idea of finding the beauty in the wasteland.
For some great dissertations of character creation and world-building, check out the Trope Talks playlist on the Overly Sarcastic Production YouTube channel, then check out all their other playlists. Tell Red that Moxie sent you.
Another novel that creates themes and ideas we still see to this day is Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 Star Maker. He created many sprawling worlds through his works, and even in this one book created multiple worlds and multiple ways that life could exist that is different from our own. He also gave us concepts like collective consciousness, the universe as a single sentient entity and the Dyson sphere. Having nothing to do with high-end vacuum cleaners, Stapledon’s Dyson sphere is a megastructure that completely encompasses a star and captures its power output. This was one of Stapledon’s solutions for how a spacefaring civilization would meet its energy requirements. It is name for a theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who wrote a paper exploring the idea in 1960, but that Dyson publicly credits Stapledon for the idea. It was also one of the first, if not the first, story to feature the multiverse, the idea that every choice a new world in which each option was selected. All of this in a single novel.
One topic that comes up time and again in sci-fi is the robot uprising. We even joke about it offhandedly when our Roomba does something clever or our smart speaker has a snappy comeback to something we said. Thought science fiction began in earnest in the [1880’s?], the word “robot” didn’t exist until 1921. It first appeared in a play by Karel Capek, Rossum’s Universal Robots and was taken from an old Czech word for ‘forced labor.’ In it, humans create automatons to do our menial work. Some people argue that robots are sentient and should have rights, but that opposition is quickly quelled. People begin to make new and better robots, in hope they can take on more advanced tasks, but these more-advanced robots lead the others in a revolt and, as Bender says, kill all humans. The play concludes with the last remaining person handing the world over to the robots, thus ending the days of man upon this earth. Whether it’s HAL or the T-1000, you can track all robot uprising stories back to Rossum’s Universal Robots, though no later writer seems to have used that acquiescence in their story. Bonus fact: the HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey was chosen because each letter is one letter off from IBM.
Sci-fi really hit its stride with magazines and pulp novels. More cost-effective paper manufacturing, combined with a dominantly literate populus and a glut of people who could write but not find work doing it created a fertile situation in the early twentieth century. It was an immigrant from Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsback, who first thought to make a magazine dedicated to science fiction, and now we all know something about Luxembourg. Gernsback had begun with magazines about radio technology, electronics and engineering, which sometimes included a little fiction to keep things interesting. He created the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926 to try to make science fiction a vehicle for introducing people to science fact. Amazing Stories also became a way for writers to actually make a little money with sci-fi. Gernsback wasn’t the best businessman ever and many of his authors went elsewhere when they weren’t getting paid properly. He also wanted the focus to be too much on dry science education rather than entertaining stories, but at the same time wasn’t apparently too concerned with that science being accurate. He would end up declaring bankruptcy, but not before he’d established his legacy. He inspired scored of publishers to start scifi magazines. The cover art he made for Amazing Stories cemented in our minds what a rocket ship or ray gun was “supposed” to look like, as well as what fonts and lettering look science fiction-y. To this day, the Hugo Awards are given to the best sci-fi and fantasy works each year.
In 1929, Amazing Stories also saw a character from its pages licensed for comic books, which helped to move sci-fi to a new medium, one more attractive to younger readers, many of whom would go on to be sci-fi authors in their own right. Buck Rogers, and his competing analog Flash Gordon, had the excitement of pulp sci-fi, without worrying too much about that bothersome science stuff. They were adventure stories, as much as pirates or Tarzan, just set in space. They further spread and solidified the sci-fi look that Gernsback had begun. These rounded, flanged, often impractical art deco aesthetics would spread to movies and TV shows.
The spread of sci-fi to comics also made detractors more convinced that it was, as an institution, for children. Editor of Astounding Stories magazine, John Campbell, sought to change that. In the words of Isaac Asimov (one of those better-knowns we’re not covering today), “By his own example […], he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold. […] He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny-dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday- supplement science. […] Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies.” After the closure of Amazing Stories, his Astounding Stories became market leader and gave him great power, since he decided what stories were published. He only wanted stories that used science, but weren’t about science. Campbell saves sci-fi by forcing it to evolve. The genre had evolved, but he himself didn’t. He alienated his writers by adhering religiously to the established style, became too interested in pseudo-science, and threw his lot in fully with Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Campbell was painfully racist, too, but his time as editor launched the Golden Age of science fiction, so he eeked his way in.
Campbell did have one unique moment in his career. A story he was working on with one of his authors about possible nuclear weapons brought the FBI to his door. Apparently, their guesses were landing too close to the mark. He was able to not only convince them that any well-read person would be able to put together the information he had, but to allow him to keep publishing the story, as pulling it mid-serial would raise suspicions. He further trumped the agents by casually asserting that he knew the nuclear project was taking place in Los Alamos, because Astounding Stories had seen a jump in subscriptions being moved there.
The Golden Age reached into the 1950’s when a new medium became available — television. It was the BBC that gave the world both the first and the most-enduring science fiction TV shows. The Quatermass Experiment consisted of six half-hour parts, broadcast live in 1953, as was the way of things then. It told a story of the first manned rocket launch, carried out by Professor Quatermass’ British Experimental Rocket Group. Radio contact with the three astronauts is lost. When the ship crashes back to earth, only one astronaut is aboard. Taken to the hospital, he slowly transforms into a horrendous amalgam of man and plant. The Quatermass Experiment had a number of sequel installments in the 50’s, though they didn’t get around to concluding the story until 1979. It was also remade in 2005.
If you asked the average person to name a British sci-fi show, five’ll get you ten they’re going to say Dr. Who. The first ever episode of Doctor Who, called An Unearthly Child, first appeared on BBC TV on 23 November 1963. The show quickly captured the imagination of an entire audience, with as many as 12 million fans tuning in. The words “TARDIS” and “Dalek” became so familiar to British audiences that they were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Doctor Who was originally intended to be an educational TV. The doctor would go back in time to teach history and the segments in space were to teach science. Viewers favored the segments with aliens, so the historical stories were phased out at the end of the 60’s. I could regale you with the full history of the show, but this isn’t Your Brain on History, this is Your Brain on Facts, so let’s bounce around some interesting facts. Besides, the show’s been on for 55 years. If you don’t know what it’s about by now, I can’t help you.
The regeneration effect, used for when one Doctor changes into the next one, was created at the end of the first season by accident. Faulty equipment allowed the image of first doctor William Hartnell to be so overexposed that it allowed second doctor Patrick Troughton could be put in his place before the effect faded. The distinctive TARDIS sound effect was originally created by simply rubbing the bass strings of a piano with a key. Verity Lambert became the youngest drama Producer at the BBC in 1963 when she accepted the role to work on Doctor Who. She was also the first woman to gain such a role in television. Doctor Who, and any TV show or movie feature time travel, is banned in China, because the government authorities don’t want to promote anything that could be seen as re-writing history.
The original pilot episode, which was thought to be lost forever, was rediscovered in 1978 in a mislabelled film can. Losing episodes was almost a theme for Dr. Who. A huge chunk of the first six years of the show’s run is missing. There are no episodes the 1960s on their original master tapes. As of this recording, 97 episodes remain missing. Why? The BBC threw the tapes away or reused them.
The scenario behind that decision requires some backstory. In the 1950s the performers union argued against the taping of shows, as opposed to the live shows that were standard. Their stance was that the show could be rebroadcast without having to pay the actors to come in again. When recorded shows became more common, the union demanded contracts stipulating how many times any given taped performance could be rebroadcast. When the BBC started broadcasting in color in ‘66 and ‘67, they didn’t see the point in keeping tapes of black and white shows. Further, tapes were very expensive and it made better financial sense to reuse a tape that cost the equivalent of $3,000 a piece rather than replace it. There was also no home video market, so people didn’t consume shows after the initial viewing. The BBC does have a Film Library, which archives everything the BBC puts to film, but because the original Doctor Who episodes were on tape first, then transferred to film, the Library felt their copies were redundant and didn’t keep them. As a result, the Film Library only had 47 of the first 253 episodes, 18% of them, when the masters were erased.
All hope is not lost. Copies turn up now and again. In 2013, tapes containing nine missing episodes were found at a TV relay station in Nigeria. The recovered material includes four episodes of six-parter The Web of Fear, a “quintessential” Doctor Who story in which the Time Lord battles robot Yetis spreading a poisonous fungus on the London Underground. What? …. No, that’s what it says. Well, it was the 60’s. Episode three is still missing. BBC Worldwide made the episodes available on iTunes and DVD. Speaking of iTunes, have you had a second to leave a review? They don’t have to be long to be meaningful. Last week, we got a five star review from pod-addict24, who said, “I love Moxie’s voice and candid style, laying out the facts over soothing music. My new favorite way to unwind before bed. Thanks!” Thank *you*, pod-addict24. And I am blushing myself silly to think about how many people take me to bed with them.
Now for the reason we’re all here today. 6 sequel series, 14 movies, hundreds of books, and more than 125 video games, all from a show that only ran for three years. It’s time for the reason we’re here today, Star Trek the original series. On Sept 8, 66 Gene Roddenberry’s galaxy-spanning, stereotype-busting, issue-tackline saga debuted on NBC and helped transform sci-fi television forever. While it wasn’t a massive hit at the time, its fans loves it enough to christen themselves with not one name, but two. Or, it could be said, they called themselves Trekkers, but other people called them Trekkies. The word Trekkies soon came to stand for overly-invested sci-fi fans with more concerns for warp technology than personal hygiene, who imagine what it’s like to live on alien worlds, but not what it’s like to move out of their parents’ house.
Actress Majel Barrett, who would marry Gene Roddenberry in 1969, appeared in every Star Trek series until her death in 2008. She actually began as the first officer in the unaired pilot, but pre-women’s lib test audiences didn’t like a female character acting as strong as the male characters. She found her eventual place as Nurse Chapel in 22 episodes. She appeared both on camera and as the voice of the ship’s computer on The Next Generation and subsequent series, even in the JJ Abrams reboot movie.
As I mentioned at the end of the episode The Role of a Lifetime, Leonard Nimoy borrowed the Vulcan salute hand gesture from his childhood experiences in synagogue. The hand gesture represents the Hebrew letter Shin, which represents the word Shaddai, a name for God. The Vulcan neck pinch was also a Nimoy contribution. The script had called for him to knock someone out with the butt of his phaser, but he found that too wild west trope, so he invented the nerve pinch. And remember, kids, there is no Vulcan death grip.
Nichelle Nichols was a singer on stage well before she was an actress and she had been offered a role on Broadway, for which she was fully ready to leave the show. She was convinced to stay not by Roddenberry, but by Dr. Martin Luther King. Nichols related that he said, “‘Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become an symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.’ That got me thinking about how it would look for fans of color around the country if they saw me leave. I saw that this was bigger than just me.”
The green Orion slave girl is arguably the most iconic one-off image from the show and the star of one of my favorite anecdotes. I’m going to get a cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot, and let my buddy Shaun from Stories of Yore and Yours take over for a minute.
The “green girl” was the creation of Fred Phillips who also made Spock’s Vulcan look for the original Star Trek television series. Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry recalled in The Making of Star Trek (1968) how Phillips grew increasingly frustrated as three consecutive makeup screen tests, in which Roddenberry’s future wife Majel Barrett had been painted green, came back negative. “Now, Fred Phillips is an exceptionally fine makeup artist and recognized as a top pro in the business. He did a thorough job with the makeup and was quite satisfied with the results. Imagine everyone’s surprise, upon viewing the developed film the next day, to find the actress’ face just as normally pink skinned as ever! There was no trace of green.” Gene’s orders to Fred Phillips: “Paint her greener!” The following day the test film again showed her as pink skinned as ever. Even Fred was dumbfounded. Recalling the incident, he says, “We did this three days in a row. We had her so green you couldn’t believe it and she kept coming back pink! Finally we figured out what was happening. The technician over at the film lab would receive the film every day and run it through the development solution. As the image formed on the film, he kept saying to himself, ‘My God, this woman is green!’ And so he kept correcting the film developing process in order to turn her back to normal skin color again!”
Have you ever tried to figure out how the stardate system works? If you pay careful attention to the episodes, it quickly becomes apparent they don’t make a lick of sense. They’re certainly not in order. That was actually fine, since the network had a pesky habit of airing episodes out of order. Roddenberry came up with a feasible explanation to soothe the fans, “I came up with the statement that ‘this time system adjusts for shifts in relative time which occur due to the vessel’s speed and space warp capability. It has little relationship to Earth’s time as we know it. One hour aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise at different times may equal as little as three Earth hours. The star dates specified in the log entry must be computed against the speed of the vessel, the space warp, and its position within our galaxy, in order to give a meaningful reading,'” he told The Making Of Star Trek author Stephen E. Whitfield. “Therefore stardate would be one thing at one point in the galaxy and something else again at another point in the galaxy. I’m not quite sure what I meant by that explanation, but a lot of people have indicated it makes sense. If so, I’ve been lucky again, and I’d just as soon forget the whole thing before I’m asked any further questions about it.”
Thanks, Shaun. If you enjoyed those snippets, pop over to Stories of Yore and Yours for weekly story fix. You may even hear another familiar voice pop up.
While Gene Roddenberry strived to push against social restraints as much as he possible, the women on the show were still relegated to appearance-first. All female crew members wore mini-dresses and their close-ups were shot with a soft focus, to keep things all feminine. Mini dresses came up again later, but as a force *for* gender equality. When The Next Generation started, everyone was wearing mini-dresses, male and female alike. It is literally, officially known as the skant uniform. The only distinction seemed to be rank. The highest officers wore frankly unflattering black pants with theirs. I don’t see why; we get to see enough of Sir Patrick Stewart’s legs a few times in the show. Check the show notes for a link to a treasure trove of screenshots of the skant uniform. To date, though, no one has given me a sufficient explanation for Counsel Troy’s cat suits.
Star Trek is also credited with giving the world slash fanfiction. For those fortunate enough not to know what that is, fanfiction is when you write stories using characters that already exist and slash is when you pair up two characters of the same gender, in this case Kirk and Spock. I blame the episode Amok Time.
And that’s where we run out ideas, at least for today. Needless to say, we’ve only turned the first few pages on the of sci-fi. I actually stopped writing and cut whole sections because this started running long. We didn’t get anywhere near discussing New Wave, Space Opera, or Afrofuturism. I almost forgot to tell you my dad’s joke. What’s the difference between a Trekker and a Trekkie? A Trekker wonders what sex is like in zero-g; a Trekkie wonders what sex is like. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.
Music by Kevin MacLeod and sound effects from freesound.org.
Welcome to the bibliography of tomorrow!:
*** http://www.syfy.com/syfywire/star-trek-next-generation-skant-uniforms ***