Monday, December 7, 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture 30 years on

Today, December 7, 2009, is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. has a nice appreciative essay.

In tribute, I offer this sneak peek at a scene from Watch, the second volume of my WWW trilogy, coming in April 2010 from Ace (US), Penguin (Canada), and Gollancz (UK); in this scene, Caitlin, her father, and Webmind watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture. If you haven't read Wake, the first book yet, note that this contains some spoilers for that book.
"Another movie?" suggested her dad.

"Sure," said Caitlin.

Perhaps another one about AI, Webmind sent to her post-retinal implant.

"Webmind wants to see something else about artificial intelligence," Caitlin said.

They stood by the thin cabinets containing his DVD collection. Her father's mouth curved downward; a frown. "Most of them are negative portrayals," he said. "Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Matrix, The Terminator, 2001. I'll definitely show you 2001 at some point, only because it was so influential in the history of artificial intelligence -- a whole generation of people went into that field because of it. But it's almost all visuals, without much dialog; we should wait until you can process imagery better before having you try to make sense out of that, and ..."

The frown flipped; a smile. "... and they don't call it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture for nothing," he said. "Let's watch it instead. It's got a lot of talking heads -- but it's also one of the most ambitious and interesting films ever made about AI."

And so they settled on the couch to give the Star Trek movie a look. This was, her father explained, the "Director's Edition," which he said was much improved over the tedious cut first shown in theaters when he was twelve.

Caitlin had read that the average length of a shot in a movie was three seconds, which was the amount of time it took to see all the important details; after that, apparently, the eye got bored. This film had shots that went on far longer than that -- but the three-second figure was based on people who'd had vision their whole lives. It took Caitlin much more time to extract meaning from a normal scene, and even longer when seeing things she'd never touched in real life -- such as starship control consoles, tricorders, and so on. For her, the film seemed to zip by at ... well, at warp speed.

Even though Webmind was listening in, her dad turned on the closed-captioning again so Caitlin could practice her reading.

The film did indeed make some interesting points about artificial intelligence, Caitlin thought, including that consciousness was an emergent property of complexity. The AI in the film, like Webmind, had "gained consciousness itself" without anyone having planned for it to do so.

Fascinating, Webmind sent to her eye. The parallels are not lost on me, and ...

And Webmind went on and on, and suddenly Caitlin had sympathy for her dad not liking people talking during movies.

Very interesting, Webmind observed when the film suggested that after a certain threshold was reached, an AI couldn't continue to evolve without adding "a human quality," which Admiral Kirk had identified as "our capacity to leap beyond logic." But what does that mean, precisely?

Caitlin had to keep the dates in mind: although the film was set in the twenty-third century, it had been made in 1979, long before Deep Blue had defeated grand master Garry Kasparov at chess. But Kirk was right: even though Deep Blue, by calculating many moves ahead in the game, ultimately did prove to be better at that one narrow activity than was Kasparov, the computer didn't even know it was playing chess. Kasparov's intuitive grasp of the board, the pieces, and the goal was indeed leaping beyond logic, and it was a greater feat than any mechanical number crunching.

But it was the subplot about Spock, the half-human half-Vulcan character, that really aroused Caitlin's attention -- and apparently Webmind's, too, because he actually shut up during it.

To her astonishment, her dad had paused the DVD to say the most important scene in the whole film was not in the original theatrical release, but had been restored in this director's cut. It took place, as almost the whole movie did, on the bridge of the Enterprise. Kirk asked Spock's opinion of something. Spock's back was to him, and he made no reply, so Kirk got up and gently swung Spock's chair around, and -- it was so subtle, Caitlin at first didn't recognize what was happening, but after a few seconds the image popped into clarity for her, and there was no mistaking it: the cool, aloof, emotionless, almost robotic Spock, who in this movie had been even grimmer than Caitlin remembered him from listening to the TV shows with her father over the years, was crying.

And, although they were facing almost certain destruction at the hands of V'Ger, a vast artificial intelligence, Kirk knew his friend well enough to say, in reference to the tears, "Not for us?"

Spock replied, with infinite sadness. "No, Captain, not for us. For V'Ger. I weep for V'Ger as I would for a brother. As I was when I came aboard, so is V'Ger now." When Spock had come aboard, he'd been trying to purge all remaining emotion -- the legacy of his human mother -- to become, like V'Ger, like Deep Blue, a creature of pure logic, the Vulcan ideal. Two heritages, two paths. A choice to be made.

And, by the end of the film, he'd made his choice, embracing his human, emotional half, so that in the final scene, when Scotty announced to him, in that wonderful accent of his, that, "We can have you back on Vulcan in four days, Mr. Spock," Spock had replied, "Unnecessary, Engineer. My business on Vulcan is concluded."

"What did you think?" Caitlin asked into the air as the ending credits played overtop of the stirring music.

Characters flashed across her vision: I'm a doctor, not a film critic. She laughed, and Webmind went on. It was interesting when Spock said, "Each of us, at some time in our lives, turns to someone -- a father, a brother, a god -- and asks, 'Why am I here? What was I meant to be?'" Most uncharacteristically, Webmind paused, then added: He was right. We all must find our place in the world.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Star Trek opening-credits mashups

I'm a huge fan of the dying art of TV opening credits; my hero growing up was Jack Cole (who did The Six Million Dollar Man, The Night Stalker, The Incredible Hulk, The Bionic Woman, Planet of the Apes, Ironside, The Rockford Files, Ellery Queen, and others).

Here are some cool mashups for various Star Trek series, creating new title sequences set to the theme music of other shows:

First Set

Second Set

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Friday, November 27, 2009 exclusive all-metal Enterprise

As anyone who has been to my home knows, I'm a reasonably serious collector of Star Trek replicas (I have a Master Replica's 33-inch Enterprise, for instance). I'm very impressed by the all-metal Enterprise included with the limited-edition (not .ca) exclusive three-disk Blu-ray set of the 2009 Star Trek movie.

The ship itself has a brushed-metal finish, and the stand (which is not removable) has a shiny finish; it makes for an attractive pairing. The model is not hyper-detailed, which is a plus, I think, at this size: no windows on the hull, for instance. The model measures 8.5" or 21.6 cm.

This is smaller than the Franklin Mint pewter starships of years gone by, but is a very impressive piece.

I was one of those who hated the new Enterprise design when I first saw stills of if, but it's growing on me, and this clean reproduction (not too much detailing but all the detailing that is there is correct) does a very nice job of showing off the design. I'm glad I bought it

(Oh, and it goes without saying, but the movie itself rocks, and the Blu-ray transfer is flawless.)

-- Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning SF author; co-editor with David Gerrold of Boarding the Enterprise
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Warning: if you're a complete Star Trek geek like me ...

... reading this discussion thread will eat hours of your time. It's a fascinating, hyper-detailed look at every prop that ever appeared more than once in classic Star Trek. Tons of great pictures and screen captures.
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Monday, October 19, 2009

First-season Star Trek episodes in production order

FlashForward -- the TV series based on my novel of the same name -- is a serial drama: it's meant to be watched in sequence, and the episodes are being filmed in the order in which they will air.

But the original Star Trek (and, indeed, most nighttime television for decades) was an episodic drama, with little changing between episodes, and, in theory, the episodes could be watched or aired in any order. In fact, for classic Trek the original broadcast order bore little resemblance to the sequence in which the shows were produced.

But now that I'm working my way through the series again on Blu-ray (where it looks amazing), I've decided to watch the episodes in the order they were produced, so that I can trace the development of ideas. For the record, this is the production order for the first (1966-67) season:
  1. The Cage (unaired pilot)
  2. Where No Man Has Gone Before
  3. The Corbomite Maneuver
  4. Mudd's Women
  5. The Enemy Within
  6. The Man Trap
  7. The Naked Time
  8. Charlie X
  9. Balance of Terror
  10. What Are Little Girls Made Of?
  11. Dagger of the Mind
  12. Miri
  13. The Conscience of the King
  14. The Galileo Seven
  15. Court Martial
  16. The Menagerie (Parts I and II)
  17. Shore Leave
  18. The Squire of Gothos
  19. Arena
  20. The Alternative Factor
  21. Tomorrow is Yesterday
  22. The Return of the Archons
  23. A Taste of Armageddon
  24. Space Seed
  25. This Side of Paradise
  26. The Devil in the Dark
  27. Errand of Mercy
  28. City on the Edge of Forever
  29. Operation: Annihilate!

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Star Trek History is back online

Star Trek History is an amazing site, now new and improved, with all sorts of things I'd never seen before from behind-the-scenes of Star Trek: The Original Series.
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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Star Trek: The Original Series Blu-ray review

Splurged on a nice new Blu-ray DVD player yesterday (Sony BDP-S560, recommended by my video-guru friend H. Don Wilkat); also, got the lovely boxed set of the Planet of the Apes films on Blu-ray; quick check shows the first film looks stunning.

Next purchase: the remastered original Star Trek episodes on Blu-ray. The Canadian website DVDBeaver has a wonderful detailed review of the first season on Blu-ray, with amazing screen captures showing the improvement in quality over standard DVD. See here
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beauty shot of the new Enterprise

Hi-res versions of the dramatic shot of the U.S.S. Enterprise rising up from Saturn's moon Titan from the 2009 Star Trek movie are here (thanks to for the link!).
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Star Trek Viewmaster

Click picture for larger version

Over at, someone asked, about the Star Trek Viewmaster reels from the 1960s: "Always wondered why there was not a real shot of the Enterprise and the Exeter in the set ... instead of a shot of two of the model kits in space. Anyone know?"

Yes, indeed. I do. :)

Only the Exeter in the background was the AMT model kit; the Enterprise in the foreground was the 33" ("the three-footer") model of the ship created for the TV series; the Viewmaster shot of it (above) is gorgeous.

And the reason it was done that way is simple: to get the Viewmaster 3D effect, they had to shoot with special stereo cameras. That was back when Sawyers (no relation) or GAF actually sent their own camerapeople onto the sets of TV shows they were making Viewmaster reels for (which is why it was "The Omega Glory" -- not because it was the best episode, but because it was the one that happened to be filming the week the Viewmaster cameraman was in the studio).

The shots of the Enterprise and Exeter used in the actual episode weren't new miniature footage, but rather recombinations of existing footage, and so there was no way to get the 3D effect from the existing opticals; Viewmaster redid the shot from scratch, and it actually is quite gorgeous. Think of it as the very first example of Star Trek Remastered. ;)

Later, Viewmaster reels were done on the cheap; the Star Trek: The Motion Picture set is an example. They'd use stills from the movie -- two or three split-screened, so that the stills were at different focal depths, but weren't themselves three-dimensional.

Googling around, I find that the blog My Star Trek Scrapbook has a great page devoted to the Classic Trek Viewmaster set.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Trekkie word of the day: Supererogation

In the 2009 Star Trek film, young Spock is being quizzed by computers, and we hear him answer a question but do not hear the question he was answering.

His answer was, "When an act is morally praiseworthy but not morally obligatory."

And, in fact, there is a term in ethics for such acts: Supererogation (super-er-o-gay-shun), from the Latin meaning to pay out over and above. So the question must have been, "What is supererogation?" or words to that effect.

Now you know. :)
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Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek credits not newbie friendly

Despite all the attempts to make the new Star Trek movie as friendly as possible for people unfamiliar with the franchise to follow, the ending credits actually assume a lot of Star Trek knowledge if you want to figure out who played whom.

Winona Ryder is credited as playing "Amanda Grayson," a name never heard in the film (and a last name that's a real piece of trivia, only uttered a single time, in the animated Star Trek). Ben Cross is credited with playing "Sarek," a name never heard in the film. Jennifer Morrison is credited with playing "Winona Kirk," a character whose first name is never heard in the film (but comes from the Star Trek novels). Simon Pegg is credited as playing "Scotty," a nickname heard only obliquely in the film. And Karl Urban is credited as playing "Bones," a nickname only heard in passing near the end of the film.

Easier-to-follow credits would have called the characters "Spock's Mother," "Spock's Father," "Kirk's Mother," "Scott" (or "Montgomery Scott," since the full name is spoken by the older Spock in the film), and "McCoy" (or "Leonard McCoy," since the character does introduce himself by his full name).

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The best spaceship captains are Canadians

As I've long said, the best spaceship captains are Canadians: Leslie Nielsen (J.J. Adams, Forbidden Planet), William Shatner (James T. Kirk, ST:TOS), Lorne Greene (Adama, the original Battlestar Galactica), and Douglas Rain (HAL 9000, effectively in charge of Discovery in 2001) -- not to mention Keith Lansing in my novel Starplex. ;)

Now we can add to that list Bruce Greenwood, who plays Captain Christopher Pike in the 2009 movie version of Star Trek. He was born in Noranda, Quebec, in 1956, and studied philosophy and economics at the University of British Columbia.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Major Trek spoilers -- but what witty banter!

Right after the press screening for J.J. Abrams's new Star Trek movie last Saturday, Space: The Imagaintion Station producer Mark Askwith and I went out to lunch at Milestones with the great crew from Hardcore Nerdity, and we recorded our thoughts about the movie, which opens North America-wide in two days, on Friday, May 8. DON'T listen to the podcast until after you've seen the film -- our comments contain major spoilers.

But I will say this: every one of us is a major fan of the original series, and we all totally loved this new film.

You can hear our thoughts here.

Left to right: Adrienne Kress, Robert J. Sawyer, Mark Askwith, Jonathan Llyr, Lesley Livingston, and Joe O'Brien. Background: NCC-1701 no bloody A, B ... um, well, actually it is the A ...:)

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

And if you don't believe me about the new Star Trek film ...

... see what my buddy (and Space: The Imagination personality) Jonathan Llyr has to say about it, over at Hardcore Nerdity.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Star Trek movie rocks!

Just got out of a press screening of the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie. It totally, totally rocked, and succeeds 100% at its dual goals both of appealing to hardcore Trek fans and also being totally enjoyable and accessible to those who have never seen any Trek before. This thing is going to have legs; it'll be one of the huge summer blockbusters of 2009.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Our best look yet at the Enterprise from the upcoming movie

... is in the above image of Playmates' toy version coming in May (click the picture for a larger version). More info at, including close-ups of the toy phaser, communicator, and tricorder, also coming in May.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Star Trek: The Original Series coming to Blu-Ray in May

Well, I've been saying for a while that I wouldn't buy a Blu-ray disc player until the remastered original Star Trek was available in that format.

To coincide with the release of the new J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movie, Season One of The Original Series is coming to Blu-ray in May 2009. Reports are that the set will contain both the original versions of the episodes and the new remastered versions (with CGI special effects).

Since the five original Planet of the Apes films are already on Blu-ray, I'm going to have to make the plunge come the spring.

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