PARALLEL LINES

For those in the know, there are a couple of memorable stories from the original ‘Star Trek’ series and the Jon Pertwee era of ‘Doctor Who’ in which Captain Kirk and the Doctor follow the same path by slipping sideways into parallel universes – ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’. What is now an over-familiar sci-fi trope still seems fresh and novel in these interesting twists on the respective formulas both programmes tended to rely on; the unnerving encounters with darker incarnations of regular cast members are one intriguing element – and the usual good guys are invariably evil when this freak occurrence takes place; just in case the viewer doesn’t twig quick enough, Spock is gifted with a sinister beard and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has an eye-patch and a scar. However, it is the world these characters inhabit that provides the most fascinating aspect of the adventures.

The Enterprise looks roughly the same, but in this dimension it is a warship belonging to a brutal intergalactic empire, whereas the version of Britain Pertwee’s Doctor finds himself in is a militaristic fascist republic. Both stories play upon the ‘what if?’ factor, pondering on possibilities had global events taken a different turn; and, of course, these events were still fresh at the time ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’ were produced (1967 and 1970), when the world was less than 30 years away from the collapse of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – warnings from recent history transplanted to an alternative present.

I only thought of these two classic examples of two classic series at their best because I keep noticing those movie posters you see pasted on the sides of double-decker buses. Normally I tend to roll my eyes when greeted by any sign of the latest multimillion-dollar dump Hollywood has decided to take on the world’s cinemagoers; but the current ones are catching my eye on account of them not being quite right. Whereas they usually change with such rapid regularity that one rarely sees the same poster on a bus for more than two weeks running, I recently realised the movies being promoted via public transport at the moment were either released way back in February – and have therefore already been forgotten and wouldn’t normally still be there – or give a release date in April/May that never actually happened due the lockdown.

It’s an extremely minor equivalent of suddenly slipping into a parallel universe, but seeing posters for movies still unseen that declare they were premiered at the nation’s picture houses on dates when they weren’t is a weird one, akin to the disorientating differences a character in a genuine parallel universe experiences. Well, it’s as close as I’ve come, anyway. That’s what happens when you queue outside supermarkets situated on a main road and aren’t distracted by a Smartphone screen. I can quite easily pass the minutes by simply pretending I am indeed in a parallel universe where buses don’t lie and those movies did indeed premiere as planned, showing now at a cinema near you; and then I contemplate the queue and the two-metre separation between each person in it and realise this universe is probably far stranger than a parallel one as it is.

Actually, the movies being plugged on those buses may end up representing an even greater financial disaster than they ordinarily would if they had been released and failed to break even at the box-office. Yes, many will be swallowed up by a costly black-hole courtesy of the pandemic, though lockdown aside, the fate that awaits the majority of the over-hyped bilge vomited out by Tinsel Town is generally down to the clueless halfwits behind them gambling everything on what the public will take to. It happens across all creative industries, of course – movies, TV, publishing, music; a hit suddenly appears from nowhere that the people running these industries didn’t predict and then there’s a rush to repeat it in order to capitalise on the success, a rush that swiftly tests the patience of the public with the new craze. There may be an entire army of experts employed by movie studios, TV companies, publishing houses and record labels who reckon they can both anticipate and manipulate what the public will or won’t buy, but the truth is that few ever accurately do. Even if I take my own humble example when it comes to this here blog, it’s near-impossible to guess what will provoke a response and what won’t.

Access to Winegum stats is a behind-the-scenes privilege of ‘Petunia’; they not only inform me in which countries on the planet I’m receiving the most views – India and Cambodia make regular surprise appearances alongside the more expected nations – but they also let me know which posts are pulling the punters in; and there are some vintage ones that keep appearing in the list with such regularity that I’m often baffled by their appeal. Yes, I’m well aware there are certain topics I might choose to write about that I pretty much know in advance will appeal to a particular Twitter audience because they happen to be a pet subject with a passionate crowd who Tweet a lot; equally, when Twitter isn’t especially interested, I may receive an above-average flurry of comments on the post itself without attracting a single retweet.

But for me, the subject matter is more or less secondary to whether or not I personally consider the post a well-written one that makes its intended point as perfectly as I can manage it. There have been times when I’ve put one out and I look at it again and reckon I was too tired when I wrote it or I rushed it when I should’ve taken a bit more time and improved the prose. And then I find it keeps surfacing in the list of most-viewed posts, perhaps two or three years after it was published; just because I might not rate or care for a post doesn’t mean I’m necessarily in the right; if somebody out there likes it, in a way that’s all that matters. Indeed, there are many posts I rate extremely highly and think read just as well today as when they were written; and yet nobody else took to those ones. It’s completely random sometimes.

There’s quite an early one about corporal punishment called ‘The Back of My Hand’ that simply won’t go away, and one I wrote about the trans issue – specifically in relation to children – called ‘Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’ has been achieving as many views over the past couple of months as anything new I’ve written. I’ll concede that I think the latter is perhaps as good a piece as anything I’ve written on that subject, but I still can’t quite understand why it continues to reel ‘em in. But that highlights my point, I suppose; you really can’t guess what’ll impact and what won’t. I’ve written books I (and others) thought would make my name and they never did – ‘Looking for Alison’ being the prime example.

I seemed on the cusp of recognition with that when I was interviewed for Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ show at the time of the book’s publication, and I recall after the interview I had a free cab-ride home laid on for me by the BBC. I exited said taxi without paying a penny and had a brief sense of what it must be like to be Alan Yentob. It’s easy and understandable to decry ‘how the other half live’ and, let’s face it, we all do it; but even the tiniest glimpse into that world makes one realise how easy it is to fall into its luxurious embrace. I know why there were cries of outrage over author Neil Gaiman travelling all the way from New Zealand to Scotland, but I equally know if I were in his position I’d have probably done the same. Why not, if you can afford it? Maybe there’s a parallel universe where we all can…

© The Editor

BACK TO THE FUTURE

star-trekYes, it’s anniversary time again, though the pop culture institution that notches-up half-a-century today didn’t reach British shores until after it had already been cancelled by the US TV network that had commissioned it three years earlier. The original ‘Star Trek’ debuted on BBC1 as a summer replacement for ‘Doctor Who’ in the week of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, whereas it disappeared from NBC just weeks before Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man. As the 60s gave way to the 70s and men were beginning to feel at home on the moon, ‘Star Trek’ looked very much of the moment during its first run in the UK. The series had been made on top-notch film and in colour, giving it a glossy cinematic sheen no home-grown show could compete with, but a quality that was ideal when the BBC was eager to promote the benefits of colour television.

‘Star Trek’ must have been one of the earliest spin-off merchandise generators, with the familiar faces of Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy and co gracing everything from breakfast cereal boxes to comics, annuals and all the assorted paraphernalia of a 70s childhood. The show’s catchphrases entered common parlance in record time, no telly impressionist was worth a toss if he couldn’t parody the programme, and any kid at school with vaguely pointy ears had an instant readymade nickname whether he liked it or not. First time round, it was always the possibility of an alien species that would guarantee my attention, whereas repeat runs later in the decade made me aware there was a little more depth to it than that. Only three seasons of that classic original series were produced, though it never seemed to be off screens for long, giving the impression it ran for much longer.

American television has a proud history of innovative and adult-themed series rooted in fantasy with sci-fi elements. ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ in the monochrome early 60s had been trailblazers, though ex-WWII fighter pilot Gene Roddenberry felt there was room to combine the intelligent writing of those with something that would also appeal to a wider audience, including children. Having become a full-time TV scriptwriter upon leaving the LAPD, Roddenberry had honed his craft by the time he conceived what he pitched as ‘Wagon Train in Space’. He interested Desilu, the company formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who commissioned a pilot. Titled ‘The Cage’, this pilot contained the majority of the factors that became familiar to viewers, though only Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock was a crew-member on this initial outing.

A few necessary changes were made and the introduction of Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain Kirk was pivotal when it came to a second pilot. He was joined by a cast that reflected Roddenberry’s optimistic view of future human beings on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man had gone before. At odds with the fashion for dystopian sci-fi in the 60s, the USSS Enterprise’s international crew implied the planet would be able to rise above contemporary troubles to present a united front when confronting aliens – though pity the poor anonymous crew-member who beamed down to a planet with the regulars. We all knew he was doomed the moment he set foot on it.

Spock was, of course, half-human and half-Vulcan, which made him the most intriguing character; Kirk was dependably square-jawed and expert at holding in his pot belly; McCoy could be cantankerous when tested by Spock’s Vulcan side; Scotty was gruff but good in a crisis; Chekov was Russian with a Beatle wig; Sulu was Japanese; and Uhuru was a black woman – even if she had no choice but to join the other female crew-members in wearing the compulsory uniform of mini-skirt and knee-high leather boots. The multi-national crew was quite an on-screen mix during the age of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam; but it worked. The banter between them created a chemistry that made you care about what happened to them, and the writing was generally of a high standard until it tailed off a bit near the end.

One particular episode, in which the crew find themselves travelling back in time to the 1930s, sees Captain Kirk fall for a character played by Joan Collins; in order not to change the course of history, Spock prevents him from saving her life in the road accident they know will kill her. In another, a fault with the transporter room mechanism as Kirk is beamed back up to the ship sees him transported to a parallel universe Enterprise wherein every regular crew member is considerably more sinister than their usual selves. Then there’s the one where Kirk is split into two halves – the good Kirk and the evil Kirk (the evil one wears eyeliner). ‘Star Trek’ was good at playing with the viewers’ heads.

In a way, ‘Star Trek’ belonged to that great generation of US TV fantasy series that encompassed everything from ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘The Man from UNCLE’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Bewitched’ – even ‘The Monkees’; but it was also apart from them. It featured US TV’s first interracial kiss, for one thing – between Kirk and Uhuru. But Kirk always got the girl, after all; and the girl when seen through Kirk’s eyes was usually shot in a soft-focus lens. None of this saved the show from the axe, however. By the end of the 60s, fantasy TV as a mainstream attraction appeared to have had its day, and cop shows gradually superseded in it in the 70s.

In America, the real cult of ‘Star Trek’ began more or less immediately after its 1969 cancellation when the show went into syndication and was rerun on a loop, playing to a new and enthusiastic audience on a nightly basis at the same time as British viewers were taking it to their hearts. This posthumous popularity led to an exceptionally good animated series in 1973 and finally culminated in the first ‘Star Trek’ movie in 1979. From then on, it has become a franchise both on TV and at the cinema; but I would argue none of the subsequent spin-offs and revivals have come near that original series, which remains in a league – or galaxy – of its own. Happy birthday, even if ye cannae take it.

© The Editor