Showing posts with label Star Trek. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Star Trek. Show all posts

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Case Western-Red Cross program to consider international law, teachings of 'Star Trek'

Star Trek's Gates McFadden greets a soldier at a USO event
in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996.
(Defense Department public domain image VIRIN 960303-A-6435A-009.)
A long time ago, at a law school far, far away (admitted metaphor malaprop), I wrote a symposium research piece on Star Trek's Prime Directive, as relative to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to dethrone the Taliban after September 11.

I concluded back in those halcyon days that the most valuable lesson of the Prime Directive is that its violation is inevitable.  The rule of non-interference in pre-warp cultures in the 23rd century speaks importantly to the virtues of cultural relativism.  But there come times when a moral society must choose between its sacred writ to respect independent social evolution and its commitment to the natural rights of sentient life.

I don't know what the chaos in Afghanistan today says about my conclusion then.  Maybe I was right, that we were justified in invading Afghanistan with our higher calling (bellum justum), but we royally screwed up the implementation (snafu ineptus).  Maybe balancing western rights and regional relativism was always fated to fail, an impossible integration of irreconcilable norms.  Maybe I was wrong, and we should have built a wall around Afghanistan, as some then advocated only partly apocryphally, and waited for an interstellar society to emerge.

A wise Ferengi once said, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."  It's 2021.  Afghanistan is in chaos.  The Taliban are in charge.  And a next, next generation of the Star Trek franchise is trying to help us make sense of our world.

On September 8, Case Western Reserve University Law School and the American Red Cross will feature Case Co-Dean Michael P. Scharf to discuss, in present context, his 1994 law review article, The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and Star Trek the Next Generation.  Here is the event description:

On May 4, 2020 (“Star Wars Day”), the American Red Cross hosted a widely attended webinar on “Learning the Law through Film: Star Wars and International Humanitarian Law.” Inspired by the huge success of this event, the Red Cross decided to celebrate Star Trek Day on Wednesday, Sept. 8, by asking the Case Western Reserve University School of Law Co-Dean Michael Scharf to host a multi-visual online presentation of his  law review article “The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and Star Trek the Next Generation.”

With four new Star Trek series currently streaming, and a new film in production, the franchise is as popular as ever. On the 55th anniversary of the broadcast of the first Star Trek episode, you are invited to join an exciting hour-long trek through international law to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before!

In this lunch-hour presentation, Co-Dean Scharf will discuss current controversial issues in international law by comparing them to the interstellar law encountered by Captain Picard and the intrepid crew of the Enterprise in seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The presentation covers everything from the law governing the use of force to human rights law, the law of the sea to international environmental law, and treaty interpretation to international arbitration.

The event will include an introduction by Christian Jorgensen, legal advisor of the American Red Cross’s national headquarters, and an interactive Q&A via chat.

Naturally, I cited Scharf in my 2003 article.  And we both cited the imaginative and exemplary work of Nova Southeastern Professors Paul Joseph and Sharon Carton.  This vein of research and pedagogy rendered me fortunate to meet Joseph before he passed away much too early, in 2003, and also to meet Professor Christine Corcos, a treasured colleague, collaborator, and expert in teaching law with popular culture.

Incidentally, "Star Trek Day" on September 8 marks, as the CWRU event description says, the first franchise broadcast in 1966.  But the more important date of consequence in the lore of the Prime Directive is April 5, First Contact Day.

While we're on the subject, check out this paean to Trek from WNYC's Brooke Gladstone. This is a reprise of a 2006 piece, honoring Gene Roddenbery's birthday, August 19, 1921, a century ago.

Monday, February 1, 2021

See America in black and white

13th Amendment
With the imprimatur of federal law, today is National Freedom Day, celebrating the day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the joint congressional resolution proposing the 13th Amendment in 1865.  Congress passed the proposal the preceding day, and it was ratified on December 6, 1865.  Today also is the first day of African-American History Month.

With my comparative law class recently, I had the occasion to visit a classic treatment of race in Star Trek's original series.  We were studying "the perspective problem" in comparative research, which refers to the way a legal system (any social system) can look one way when studied by someone within it, and a different way when studied by an outside observer.

There's a scene in the 1969 episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (s3e15) that's been talked about for half a century even by social commentators outside science fiction and entertainment communities.  The theme of the episode is almost cliché insofar as it typifies the tendency of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and 1960s showrunner Gene L. Coon to employ heavy-handed metaphor to effect social comment.  Still, the story is effective.

Gorshin with Lou Rawls in 1977
(Orange County Archives CC BY 2.0)
What cliché might have diminished was restored and then some by ferocious performances in Frank Gorshin (Bele) and Lou Antonio (Lokai).  Gorshin, who continued acting right up until his death in 2005, was already a well known villain to TV audiences in the 1960s, as Adam West Batman's Riddler.  Antonio had recently played chain-gang prisoner Koko in Cool Hand Luke (1967).  He followed up Star Trek with a four-decades-long career in TV directing that ranged from The Partridge Family and Rockford Files to legal classics Picket Fences, Boston Legal, and The Guardian, not to mention one West Wing.

The first scene below sets the stage; you only need about the first two minutes.  I'm sorry that CBS has labeled it inappropriate for children, so you have to open a new window to watch it.  I rather disagree; I recommend the clip especially for children, especially now, part of an essential diet of dialog about race and America.

The second scene below delivers the pièce de résistance.  I won't spoil it, in case it's new to you.

For social context, this Star Trek episode aired in January 1969.  Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only nine months earlier.  While this episode aired, student protestors were occupying buildings at Brandeis University; they renamed them "Malcolm X University" and demanded the creation of an African-American studies departmentStonewall, the moon landing, and Woodstock followed in the celebrated summer of '69.


Happy National Freedom Day.

Monday, January 25, 2021

'For the first time, we're seen as we should be seen,' Martin Luther King Jr. told Star Trek's 'Uhura'

Prepping the spring semester when classes start the day after an involuntary furlough is prone to put a particular professor perpetually a week behind.  So forgive me for belatedly marking Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which fell this year on Monday, January 18. Or we can say this is a more timely commemoration of yesterday's World Day for African and Afrodescendant Culture.

Of all the things one could relate about the legendary Dr. King, Nichelle Nichols (IMDb, PBS), Star Trek's original Lt. Uhura, has the very best story.

That's from the 2011 documentary, Trek Nation (IMDb, Amazon).  She told the story also to the Television Academy Foundation in 2019.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Shop Shatner and don't ask too many questions

William Shatner, 2016 (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)
I'm a pretty big William Shatner fan.  James T. Kirk was my favorite TV captain in the 1970s.  TJ Hooker was my favorite TV cop in the 1980s.  And Denny Crane might have been one of my favorite TV lawyers in the 20aughts, except that Alan Shore already was, and you can't have two from the same show.

The occasional troubling this or that surfaced about Shatner's personal life.  There were stories about how nobody liked him.  But I persevered.  A lot of people don't like me, either.  And I'm perfectly delightful.

It's especially disconcerting, then, to have come across the bizarre bazaar called "the William Shatner Store."  An odd array of items is on offer, from Shatner's science fiction books, naturally, to a Star Trek The Original Series Mood Rock Light, reduced to half off at $40, to "Mr. Shatner's Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame Award," only $1,899.00.  

Items are nicely cross-referenced by various variables, including show, so I eagerly looked up Boston Legal.  There are only four items there, all props from the show, wall-hanging-like awards and certificates, such as "Judge Leslie Bishop Judicial Performance Review Certificate": framed and now marked down from $169.95 to a tantalizing $99.95.

I couldn't abolish from my mind the image of Denny Crane relieving a Hollywood law-office set of its miscellaneous detritus on the last day of filming, much like my kindergarten teacher let us take home the leftover Play-Doh at the end of the school year.

It would make me more comfortable to think that Shatner has no involvement in the management of the Shatner Store.  Maybe it's run by his grandkids, to make a buck, a contemporary Hollywood equivalent of a lemonade stand.  Or maybe it's a distressed plea, in the manner of a GoFundMe page, to raise money for the eldercare of an aging legend.  

Alas, those scenarios seem not to be the case.  The odd Sky headline that led me to the Shatner Store evidenced hands-on management by none other than the main man.

You would think we would learn to separate our favorite fictional characters from the people who play them.

My first-ever favorite TV lawyer, and maybe still my overall no. 1, was Samuel T. Cogley, who represented James T. Kirk and was played by the prolific Elisha Cook Jr. (1903-1995).  If you know anything about him that I would not want to know, please keep it to yourself.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Time travel would warp tort law, attorney imagines

Austin Beast AB (Pixabay)
Tired of earthbound law constrained by the arrow of time?  Attorney, comedian, and comic book fan Adam J. Adler writes an enjoyable column on law for the aptly named Escapist online magazine.  Recently he tackled the implications of time travel in tort law.  Back in August, he considered transporter accident liability.


Time travel in a Groundhog Day-like scenario, Adler observes, would change the moral expectations of the objective reasonable person as he or she acquires additional knowledge about cause and effect through multiple iterations of the timeline.  In the end, Adler offers a theory on why we haven't yet met time travelers.  Check it out, and remember to suspend your disbelief and enjoy.

The article is Adam J. Adler, Time Travel Torts: How Law Gets Dicey When Dealing with Groundhog Day, The Escapist, Oct. 4, 2020.  

And speaking of time travel, Star Trek: Discovery season 3 premiered last night.  Here's the season trailer, if you can stand the excitement!


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Can ‘Star Trek’ put the U back in –topia?



This weekend will see the premiere of the newest entrant in the Star Trek franchise, CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery (trailer).  Notwithstanding CBS’s dubious bid to build a new model for content delivery in CBS All Access—creative initiatives crushed by commercial imperatives is a tradition in Star Trek history—Discovery marks a worthwhile moment to take stock of where we are now as a global village, 51 years after the premiere of Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking Star Trek, now “The Original Series.

Roddenberry’s vision was a utopian one.  It seems almost cliché now to recount the novel “enterprise” of a multi-national crew spreading humanist idealism throughout the galaxy.  Despite its military trappings, Star Fleet was tasked with exploration of the final frontier on behalf of a United Federation of Planets (UFP).  Star Trek represented all the good parts of cultural imperialism and mitigated all the bad with deep, moral self-reflection.

Martin-Green
(CC 2.0 Gage Skidmore 2016 via flickr)

It looks like Discovery will resonate in the Roddenberry tradition.  The series, which might vary perspective and setting across seasonal sub-arcs, opens with a strong black female lead in Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead’s Sasha) and a female captain of color in Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger’s Yu).  Discovery takes place after humankind’s first forays into deep space, which were depicted a decade ago by Star Trek: Enterprise, but still before the adventures of James T. Kirk and crew in the 1960s Original Series and the current movie-reboot series.  The nascent UFP is in a cold war with the Klingon Empire.  This fictional era and the name of the starring ship, U.S.S. Discovery, suggest fealty to Roddenberry’s vision of a “wagon train to the stars.” 

But can that vision get traction in today’s world?

However much our multi-platform electronic environment has served up an embarrassing surfeit of science fiction, we remain awash in dystopian imaginings.  Disclaimer one, yes, I realize that dystopian fiction is not new; even 1984 dates to 1949.  Disclaimer two, let me be no hypocrite; I have devoured it all, from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale, having just finished the latter’s s1 yesterday.  (Nick is going to save her, right? right?!)  Yet many a commentator has observed the peculiar resonance of dystopian fiction today, in a world in which hunger and poverty persist, the wealth gap widens, and our standard of living and expectation of leisure seem after all not to have skyrocketed in consonance with technological ingenuity.

There was a time after the Berlin Wall fell, in the 1990s amid perestroika and glasnost, that it seemed like we might be on an upward trajectory.  The turn of the century brought with it a cautious optimism.  Maybe the era of world war and nuclear nightmare could be put to bed, and humankind would rise from those ashes and turn at last to the business of life on, and beyond, earth.

Then 9-11 happened.  The world went back to war, and we’re still in it.  Our American streets fill with protests fueled by racial division.  An unprecedented humanitarian crisis tears at the seams of European socio-economic union.  The septuagenarian United Nations—real-world analog of the thinly veiled UFP—seems impotent to stop a threatened nuclear detonation in the atmosphere.  And oh yeah, the ice caps: they’re melting.

Inevitable dystopia seems the apt model to envision our future on earth.  Wherefore art thou, Discovery, into our world of social and political fracture?  Can we even recognize ourselves in utopian science fiction?

It bears remembering that the world to which Roddenberry first introduced Star Trek was itself no utopia.  The Original Series tendered commentary that might seem trite now—e.g., TV’s first interracial kiss between Kirk (Shatner) and bridge officer Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), the “black on the ‘right’ side” racism of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the futile primitive conflict of A Private Little War.  But that commentary was sophisticated and controversial in its time.  Star Trek’s very proffer of earthbound east and west in common pursuit of human survival and space exploration was a calculated critique of Jim Crow, the space race, Vietnam, and the Cold War.  Star Trek’s utopian vision was launched amid the civil rights fire that forged our second national reconstruction.

So maybe now is exactly the time for Star Trek.  Maybe we need utopia now more than ever, precisely because it is so unfamiliar.

As Star Trek turned 50 in 2016, Sir Thomas More’s enigmatic Utopia turned 500.  More’s Utopia was a social critique, not a social blueprint.  Critique always has been the raison d’être of science fiction.  There is no utility in only imagining the future.  The endgame is to hold up that parallel world next to your own, to see how the two compare.

For Star Trek, the final frontier is not space.  The final frontier—the discovery—always has been us.