Beneath the stones, the beach; beneath the beach, Cthulhu

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Elizabeth Sandifer
    May 21, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    There's an odd symbolic level on which Star Trek and Doctor Who really differ here. For ages the assumption was that Doctor Who was the knockoff British version of Star Trek – their goofy cult sci-fi show that could never compare to the gleaming money machine of our great cult sci-fi show.

    In practice, of course, it looks like the reverse these days – Trek underperforms at the box office in the second outing and has its visionary revival artist conspicuously break up with it in favor of Star Wars, meanwhile Doctor Who has every appearance of becoming a perennial blockbuster that revives itself indefinitely. This is not the position anyone would have expected the franchises to be in a decade ago, and 2003 wasn't even a very good year for Trek in popular terms.

    But you can see it in the opening images. Whatever might be said of An Unearthly Child and the Problem of Susan, it is fundamentally a series about running – about going onwards. Whereas Roddenberry's Single Vision and Newton's Sleep provide a literal Cage that Star Trek can never quite escape from.

    The difference between emboitment and imprisonment, if you will.


  2. Josh Marsfelder
    May 21, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

    As someone who grew up on Star Trek and who is consciously working through its ramifications as a shared myth this is tough to read, but valid (although I may take issue with calling J.J. Abrams a visionary revival artist). Star Trek has always been trapped in a sense, held back by one thing or another. I think there is a way forward, and in fact I'm making a passionate case the franchise eventually finds it tomorrow, even if it does ultimately turn out there's a heavy price to pay for discovering that.

    There is a sense the only way for Star Trek to really escape its cage is to burn the jail down and turn itself into something else…


  3. Iain Coleman
    May 24, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    "the assumption was that Doctor Who was the knockoff British version of Star Trek"

    That is such a weird and alien assumption to me, and not only because the chronology of it makes no sense. I just don't see Who and Trek as being in any way the same kind of show. I'm reminded of Lawrence Miles' rants about the concept of "Cult TV" – that any show with a special effect is assumed to be the same sort of thing as any other show with a special effect.

    On reflection, I can see how the comparison might make sense in a US context, where Doctor Who is a minor TV show watched by the typical cult-TV audience of young adults with above-average educational attainment. But in the UK, Doctor Who just doesn't inhabit that space, and was never designed to. It belongs with Basil Brush and The Generation Game – or, in the revived series, with Pointless and Strictly Come Dancing. Its nearest dramatic relative these days is Call the Midwife, not Battlestar Galactica.

    None of this is news to you, of course, Phil, but even so I often feel a strange disconnect between Doctor Who as it is perceived by US viewers and Doctor Who as it is experienced by the British Saturday tea-time audience, as if the Americans are repurposing Doctor Who as something that it was never quite intended to be.


  4. Elizabeth Sandifer
    May 24, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    I mean, I certainly agree with you, Iain – it's utter nonsense. And it is an American repurposing if it, albeit one that did eventually jump over to have some influence in the 80s and 90s. I agree that there's an odd repurposing. And one of the things I'm quite looking forward to covering on my blog is when the new series does break out in the US (largely in the Smith era, as the erstwhile Sci-Fi channel never really figured out what to do with it) and the way in which it does and doesn't translate.


  5. tantalus1970
    May 31, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

    "There's a unique kind of camaraderie amongst and bond between US Air Force pilots"

    I'd question this; I think you'll find similar bonds between other countries' fighter pilots, for a start.


  6. Josh Marsfelder
    June 1, 2013 @ 5:49 am

    Well, there is a camaraderie amongst soldiers and pilots in general, for sure. But I'd say the US Air Force has a particular culture about it. Which is of course a given: Any distinct group of people will.


  7. Josh
    June 2, 2013 @ 5:11 am

    First off, great analysis, and I'll be checking back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to continue this journey with you!

    On the specific topic of Roddenberry's inspirations, I also think Forbidden Planet provided a blueprint for the general format. I do believe the crew in that film were on a similar "patrol boat" type mission, which fits with your point that Trek, at this point, is not "out there" to explore strange new worlds.

    Also, thank you for pointing out that Roddenberry did not set out to create an ideal utopian universe with Trek. That's something that was, I think, largely a fan construction which he embraced in the 70s in that "I must find where my people are going so I can lead them" type way. It was with this new vision of himself as some kind of visionary thinker that contributed a lot to the development of TNG, which was a conscious attempt to create an ideal utopian universe, and had succeeded in some ways and failed it others. But we'll hold on that until we get there!


  8. Josh Marsfelder
    June 2, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    Glad to have you!

    Yes, I agree Forbidden Planet was probably some kind of inspiration: At the very least he was familiar with it-A great many science fiction writers of a certain generation would have been.

    I think the scenario you've described is pretty much what happened: People latched on the the more utopian aspects of TOS and remembered it to be far more progressive than it actually was. Roddenberry then went and made sure to play up that angle and write it back into what, at the time, was going to be Star Trek Phase II (although I mean also it's not out of the question he actually believed in this vision too: People can change over the years). That said I think there are some aspects of TOS that lend themselves to this kind of reading, but they're scant and largely do not spring from Roddenberry himself.


  9. tantalus1970
    June 5, 2013 @ 6:46 am

    I see your point; but I think it would be more accurate to say it has a unique camaraderie, rather than a unique kind of camaraderie.


  10. eumenidis
    August 7, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    Roddenberry may have got the ideas for the original form of Trek from directly from pulps such as "Astounding" as well as/in addition to Forbidden Planet; military space adventures seem to have been an established subgenre by the '30s, & I've long thought his SF series showed very heavy influence from the work of A. E. van Vogt.


  11. GarrettCRW
    April 20, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    It must be noted that part of Roddenberry's motivations for the Jonathan Swift in space bit was because of his previous show, The Lieutenant, which was an overtly military show. The thing is, he wanted to do an episode directly tackling race, and since the show filmed at Camp Pendleton, the US military had a few things to say (mainly that racism was not the way things worked in the armed forces), and pulled their support in response. NBC refused to air the episode, but Roddenberry went to the NAACP, which caused trouble and led to NBC cancelling the show after one year, and was why Star Trek was made at Desilu and not MGM (the studio behind The Lieutenant).


  12. Josh Marsfelder
    April 20, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    I could see that. From what I understand, Roddenberry was certainly not averse to recycling ideas, and he did have a few good ones.

    Strange tying to reconcile that with Solow and Justman's claims about NBC's at least tacit commitment to diverse casting. Though I suppose diverse casting and directly addressing racism are two different things. I guess you take that, combine it with Star Trek's unique setting, and that explains a lot about why it was able to do what it did.


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