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Science Fiction Saturday #1


Welcome to Sci-Fi Saturday, a new column that is devoted to all things science fiction: film, television, comics, novels, video games, and local Metro Detroit events. If there is a topic you'd like to see covered in an upcoming column, email us at kinoclub313wsu@gmail.com!

As a grad student working on science fiction, it is painful for me to admit this, but... I've never seen a full episode of any of the many iterations of Star Trek. My familiarity with the show mainly comes from memes, the documentary Trekkies, the many references made to it by Futurama, and the JJ Abrams reboot films (which I actually really enjoyed despite having limited knowledge of the source material). So, I've committed to watching through the series in chronological order and writing mini reviews/responses on this weekly blog (as a form of accountability, and to share my thoughts).

This week I watched the original pilot for the series, titled "The Cage" (streaming on Netflix). Shout out to my partner for letting me know that Hulu's Star Trek starts with what was technically the *second* pilot episode, which is what officially aired by NBC to kick off the series. Unlike Pilot #2 (titled "The Man Trap") and the rest of the original series, "The Cage" follows Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) rather than Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Some very brief googling shows that the second pilot tested better, so Roddenberry and the rest of the TOS crew went with Kirk over Pike for the rest of the series (although it sounds like Pike comes back at some point, too - hope I'm not spoiling a fifty year old show for anyone).

This particular episode centers around Pike and the Enterprise crew responding to a distress signal that turns out to be an illusion - a trap designed by a highly intelligent and telepathic alien species. These aliens have the power to create intense illusions, and try to convince Pike to stay on their planet, mate with another human female they have imprisoned, and raise a race of humans that will eventually be used as slave labor. Through a series of complicated twists and turns, the aliens realize that humans love freedom so much that they would rather kill themselves than be imprisoned. This causes them to decide that the human species is too volatile to be useful to them, so they let Pike and the rest of the Enterprise crew go.

I appreciate that Pike manages to keep it in his pants throughout the episode, despite the aliens tempting him with not just one potential female companion, but three. Despite the velour costume, Pike is no Zapp Brannigan, even though the aliens basically beg him to be a total perv. What can you expect from aliens with heads that look like enormous throbbing asses, I guess? I also appreciate that even though the women are pitted against one another, they don't really fight over Pike, but work with him to outsmart the aliens. It's a bit ironic, but probably accurate, that in the end what saves Pike and the crew isn't outsmarting the aliens, but basically disappointing them by being super self-involved and melodramatic. Point: humans.

So far, Star Trek: The Original Series is about what I expected: cheesy special effects, aliens in goofy costumes, legitimate philosophical questions about the nature of free will and desire, and sexy green alien ladies doing the bellydance. 10/10, would trek again.

[Where I collect the most interesting and science fiction-y headlines from the past week]

  • Evidence mounts that mysterious illness of ambassadors in Cuba and China may have been the result of a targeted sonic attack, although scientists still haven't discovered the source

  • Google develops a new AI that can watch videos and pick out and caption specific voices within a crowd

  • Scientists grow mini Neanderthal brains in petri dishes using genome-editing CRISPR technology

  • Ph.D students at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory develop a system that may be able to "write" entire gene sequences in less than a day

I've seen the 2011 sci-fi film Attack the Block once before in a film class but jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen as part of the Detroit Film Theater's Sci-Fi Summer screenings. Watching the film now, it seems like a foregone conclusion that John Boyega was going to become a massive star, and no big surprise that Jodie Whittaker has been chosen as the new Doctor for the BBC's Doctor Who. The premise of Attack the Block is pretty simple: group of teenagers, led by Moses (Boyega), mugs a young woman walking home from work (Whittaker); as the mugging occurs, a bright light flashes in the sky and something crashes into a nearby car – as other meteors hit around the neighborhood it becomes clear that an alien invasion is at hand. Moses is able to easily take out the first alien, so the gang gears up and heads out to protect the "block" - their South London apartment complex. When they realize that the rest of the aliens are much larger, stronger, and scarier than expected, the kids retreat to Ron's weed room ("It's a big room. Full of weed. And it's Ron's.") – the safest place on the block. When Moses realizes that the aliens are tracking him because he's covered with the pheromones from the first alien he encountered, he has to make a tough call – save himself or save the block? Made on a shoestring budget with mostly unknown actors, Attack the Block is – on a formal level – brilliantly lit, shot, and edited. There are two scenes in particular that use fireworks as the primary form of lighting, which works to both obscure some of the low-budget alien effects but also to build tension between what is shown and what is obscured by the sporadic and random bursts of light. The social commentary in the film – about racism, poverty, police interference in the block, and so on – is woven into the story naturally, so it never feels overtly didactic. Boyega is quiet and tough but accesses an emotional depth that lends a character with minimal backstory and minimal dialogue real gravitas. In a genre rife with kids-versus-aliens films, Attack the Block feels rich, nuanced, and real. Unfortunately, Attack the Block isn't screening again at the DFT this summer, but it is available to rent on Youtube, Amazon Prime, and Vudu.

[Where I share upcoming and ongoing SF-centric events in the Metro Detroit area]

Saturday, June 23rd:

Sunday, June 24th:

Tuesday, June 26th:

Thursday, June 28th:

Friday, June 29th:

Saturday, June 30th:

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