Making Mine Marvel


marvuntold

Reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013) I am learning all sorts of things. Or rather, some things I am learning and some things I am relearning, as Marvel’s publications are woven into my life as intimately as are Star Trek and Star Wars: other franchises of the fantastic whose fecundity — the sheer volume of media they’ve spawned over the years — mean that at any given stage of my development they have been present in some form. Our biographies overlap; even when I wasn’t actively reading or watching them, they served at least as a backdrop. I would rather forget that The Phantom Menace or Enterprise happened, but I know precisely where I was in my life when they did.

Star Wars, of course, dates back to 1977, which means my first eleven years were unmarked by George Lucas’s galvanic territorialization of the pop-culture imaginary. Trek, on the other hand, went on the air in 1966, the same year I was born. Save for a three-month gap between my birthday in June and the series premiere in September, Kirk, Spock and the universe(s) they inhabit have been as fundamental and eternal as my own parents. Marvel predates both of them, coming into existence in 1961 as the descendent of Timely and Atlas. This makes it about as old as James Bond (at least in his movie incarnation) and slightly older than Doctor Who, arriving via TARDIS, er, TV in 1963.

My chronological preamble is in part an attempt to explain why so much of Howe’s book feels familiar even as it keeps surprising me by crystallizing things about Marvel I kind of already knew, because Marvel itself — avatarizalized in editor/writer Stan Lee — was such an omnipresent engine of discourse, a flow of interested language not just through dialogue bubbles and panel captions but the nondiegetic artists’ credits and editorial inserts (“See Tales of Suspense #53! — Ed.”) as well as paratextual spaces like the Bullpen Bulletins and Stan’s Soapbox. Marvel in the 1960s, its first decade of stardom, was very, very good not just at putting out comic books but at inventing itself as a place and even a kind of person — a corporate character — spending time with whom was always the unspoken emotional framework supporting my issue-by-issue excursions into the subworlds of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Dr. Strange.

Credit Howe, then, with taking all of Marvel’s familiar faces, fictional and otherwise, and casting each in its own subtly new light: Stan Lee as a liberal, workaholic jack-in-the-box in his 40s rather than the wrinkled avuncular cameo-fixture of recent Marvel movies; Jack Kirby as a father of four, turning out pages at breakneck speed at home in his basement studio with a black-and-white TV for company; Steve Ditko as — and this genuinely took me by surprise — a follower of Ayn Rand who increasingly infused his signature title, The Amazing Spider-Man, with Objectivist philosophy.

It’s also interesting to see Marvel’s transmedial tendencies already present in embryo as Lee, Kirby, and Ditko shared their superhero assets across books: Howe writes, “Everything was absorbed into the snowballing Marvel Universe, which expanded to become the most intricate fictional narrative in the history of the world: thousands upon thousands of interlocking characters and episodes. For generations of readers, Marvel was the great mythology of the modern world.” (Loc 125 — reading it on my Kindle app). Of course, as with any mythology of sufficient popular mass, it becomes impossible to read history as anything but a teleologically overdetermined origin story, so perhaps Howe overstates the case. Still, it’s hard to resist the lure of reading marketing decisions as prescient acts of worldbuilding: “It was canny cross-promotion, sure, but more important, it had narrative effects that would become a Marvel Comics touchstone: the idea that these characters shared a world, that the actions of each had repercussions on the others, and that each comic was merely a thread of one Marvel-wide mega-story.” (Loc 769)

I like too the way Untold Story paints comic-book fandom in the 1960s as a movement of adults, or at least teenagers and college students, rather than the children so often caricatured as typical comic readers; Howe notes July 27, 1964 as the date of “the first comic convention” at which “a group of fans rented out a meeting hall near Union Square and invited writers, artists, and collectors (and one dealer) of old comic books to meet.” (Loc 876) The company’s self-created fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society or M.M.M.S., was in Howe’s words

an immediate smash; chapters opened at Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge. … The mania wasn’t confined to the mail, either — teenage fans started calling the office, wanting to have long telephone conversations with Fabulous Flo Steinberg, the pretty young lady who’d answered their mail so kindly and whose lovely picture they’d seen in the comics. Before long, they were showing up in the dimly lit hallways of 625 Madison, wanting to meet Stan and Jack and Steve and Flo and the others. (Loc 920)

A forcefully engaged and exploratory fandom, then, already making its media pilgrimages to the hallowed sites of production, which Lee had so skillfully established in the fannish imaginary as coextensive with, or at least intersecting, the fictional overlay of Manhattan through which Spider-Man swung and the Fantastic Four piloted their Fantasticar. In this way the book’s first several chapters offhandedly map the genesis of contemporary, serialized, franchised worldbuilding and the emergent modern fandoms that were both those worlds’ matrix and their ideal sustaining receivers.

Howe is attentive to these resonances without overstating them: Lee, Kirby and others are allowed to be superheroes (flawed and bickering in true Marvel fashion) while still retaining their earthbound reality. And through his book, so far, I am reexperiencing my own past in heightened, colorful terms, remembering how the media to which I was exposed when young mutated me, gamma-radiation-like, into the man I am now.

Sharing — or stealing? — Trek

In a neat coincidence, yesterday’s New York Times featured two articles that intersect around the concerns of internet piracy and intellectual property rights on the one hand, and struggles between fan creators and “official” owners of a transmedia franchise on the other. On the Opinions page, Rutgers professor Stuart P. Green’s essay “When Stealing Isn’t Stealing” examines the Justice Department’s case against the file-sharing site Megaupload and the larger definitions of property and theft on which the government’s case is based. Green traces the evolution of a legal philosophy in which goods are understood in singular terms as something you can own or have taken away from you; as he puts it, “for Caveman Bob to ‘steal’ from Caveman Joe meant that Bob had taken something of value from Joe — say, his favorite club — and that Joe, crucially, no longer had it. Everyone recognized, at least intuitively, that theft constituted what can loosely be defined as a zero-sum game: what Bob gained, Joe lost.”

It’s flattering to have my neanderthal namesake mentioned as the earliest of criminals, and not entirely inappropriate, as I myself, a child of the personal-computer revolution, grew up with a much more elastic and (self-)forgiving model of appropriation, one based on the easy and theoretically limitless sharing of data. As Green observes, Caveman Bob’s descendants operate on radically different terrain. “If Cyber Bob illegally downloads Digital Joe’s song from the Internet, it’s crucial to recognize that, in most cases, Joe hasn’t lost anything.” This is because modern media are intangible things, like electricity, so that “What Bob took, Joe, in some sense, still had.”

Green’s point about the intuitive moral frameworks in which we evaluate the fairness of a law (and, by implication, decide whether or not it should apply to us) accurately captures my generation’s feeling, back in the days of vinyl LPs and audiocassettes, that it was no big deal to make a mix tape and share it with friends. For that geeky subset of us who then flocked to the first personal computers — TRS-80s, Apple IIs, Commodore 64s and the like — it was easy to extend that empathic force field to excuse the rampant copying and swapping of five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks at local gatherings of the AAPC (Ann Arbor Pirate’s Club). And while many of us undoubtedly grew up into the sort of upstanding citizens who pay for every byte they consume, I remain to this day in thrall to that first exciting rush of infinite availability promised by the computer and explosively realized by the Web. While I’m aware that pirating content does take money out of its creators’ pockets (a point Green is careful to acknowledge), that knowledge, itself watered down by the scalar conceit of micropayments, doesn’t cause me to lose sleep over pirating content the way that, say, shoplifting or even running a stop sign would. The law is a personal as well as a public thing.

The other story in yesterday’s Times, though, activates the debate over shared versus protected content on an unexpected (and similarly public/personal) front: Star Trek. Thomas Vinciguerra’s Arts story “A ‘Trek’ Script is Grounded in Cyberspace” describes the injunction brought by CBS/Paramount to stop the production of an episode of Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II, an awkwardly-named but loonily inspired fan collective that has, since 2003, produced seven hours of content that extend the 1966-1969 show. Set not just in the universe of the original series but its specific televisual utopos, the New Voyages reproduce the sets, sound effects, music, and costumes of 60s Trek in an ongoing act of mimesis that has less to do with transformative use than with simulation: the Enterprise bridge in particular is indistinguishable from the set designed by Matt Jeffries, in part because it is based on those designs and subsequent detailing by Franz Joseph and other fan blueprinters.

I’ve watched four of the seven New Voyages, and their uncanny charm has grown with each viewing. For newcomers, the biggest distraction is the recasting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and other regulars by different performers whose unapologetic roughness as actors is more than outweighed by their enthusiasm and attention to broad details of gesture: it’s like watching very, very good cosplayers. And now that the official franchise has itself been successfully rebooted, the sole remaining indexical connection to production history embodied by Shatner et al has been sundered. Everybody into the pool, er, transporter room!

I suspect it is the latter point — the sudden opening of a frontier that had seemed so final, encouraging every fan with a camera and an internet connection to partake in their own version of what Roddenberry pitched as a “wagon train to the stars” — that led CBS to put the kibosh on the New Voyages production of Norman Spinrad’s “He Walked Among Us,” a script written in the wake of Spinrad’s great Trek tale “The Doomsday Machine” but never filmed due to internal disputes between Roddenberry and Gene Coon about how best to rewrite it. (The whole story, along with other unrealized Trek scripts, makes for fascinating reading at Memory Alpha.) Although Spinrad was enthusiastic about the New Voyages undertaking and even planned to direct the episode, CBS, according to the Times story, decided to exert its right to hold onto the material, perhaps to publish it or mount it as some sort of online content themselves.

All of which brings us back to the question of Caveman Bob, Caveman Joe, and their cyber/digital counterparts. Corporate policing of fan production is nothing new, although Trek‘s owners have always encouraged a more permeable membrane between official and unofficial contributors than does, say, Lucasfilm. But the seriousness of purpose evidenced by the New Voyages, along with the fan base it has itself amassed, have elevated it from the half-light of the fannish imaginary — a playspace simultaneously authorized and ignored by the powers that be, like the kid-distraction zones at a McDonalds — to something more formidable, if not in its profit potential, then in its ability to deliver a Trek experience more authentic than any new corporate “monetization.” By operationalizing Spinrad’s hitherto forgotten teleplay, New Voyages reminds us of the immense generative possibilities that reside within Trek‘s forty-five years of mitochondrial DNA, waiting to be realized by anyone with the requisite resources and passion. And that’s genuinely threatening to a corporation who formerly relied on economies of scale to ensure that only they could produce new Trek at anything like the level of mass appeal.

But in proceeding as if this were the case, Green might suggest, CBS adheres to an obsolete logic of property and theft, one that insists on the uniqueness and unreproducibility of any given instantiation of Trek. They have not yet embraced the idea that, in the boundless ramifications of a healthy transmedia franchise, there is only ever “moreness”; versions do not cancel each other out, but drive new debates about canonicity and comparisons of value, fueling the discursive games that constitute the texture of an engaged and appreciative fandom. The New Voyages take nothing away from official Trek, because subtraction is an impossibility in the viral marketplace of new media. The sooner CBS realizes this, the better.

Hungry for recognition

As usual, I can’t say to what degree the fast-moving currents of vituperation and one-up-manship on the /tv/ board of 4chan summarize the opinions shared by wider communities of fantastic-media fandom. The most one can safely conclude is that this anonymous posting culture, which despite its lack of identifiers screams straight-white-maleness, at least speaks from the heart; and amid the jeering homophobia, misogyny, racism, and antisemitism that function as a kind of chainmail for the ego, the collective seems to feel genuinely offended by the huge box office of The Hunger Games‘ opening weekend.

The gist of the complaints is that the new movie franchise and the books on which it is based borrow freely but without acknowledgement from other cherished fan texts such as Battle Royale and some of Stephen King’s early novels. I ran down this exact list in my post from last week on the icky and ironic parallels between the media makeover the main character, Katniss, receives in the story and the real-life glamorizing of the movie’s star, Jennifer Lawrence — but seeing the same litany of influences played out on 4chan in a more accusatory tone reveals a striking woundedness on the part of fans (and I think I’m talking primarily about fanboys) who feel betrayed by the explosive popularity of a story they believe they have encountered many times before. Particular ire is directed toward the trilogy’s author, Suzanne Collins, who is seen as not simply derivative but dishonest in sourcing her creation to recent developments in U.S. military adventurism and reality-television programming, rather than to Japanese pop culture and pulp dystopian fantasy of the late 1970s.

I suspect that the emotional stakes here are those of ownership as a byproduct of fannish familiarity and knowledge; /tv/’s readership feels sidelined by the mainstream success of material in which they were formerly the sole experts. It’s an interesting exercise in cult guardianship and the ethics of a citational economy in which Collins’s apparent refusal to give credit where credit is due flies in the face of fan practices predicated on the competitive display of intertextual knowledge. It’s another kind of hunger game, this appetite for the mantle of mastery, fought in the vertical arena of replies to replies on a website. Collins’s fiction and its cinematic adaptation commit the unpardonable crime of neglecting that arena outright, making up their own rules, and thinking outside the box, just as Katniss does to win her victory — and 4chan’s media fans find themselves in the angry position of Panem’s repressive government, fighting an insurrection that threatens to undo the grounds of its authority.

Prometheus’s fan dance

This summer will see the release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a project weighted by considerable expectations given its connection to the thirty-year-old Alien franchise. The particulars of that connection have been kept vague by producers — witness the tortuous finessing of the film’s Wikipedia page:

Conceived as a prequel to Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror film Alien, rewrites of Spaihts’ script by [Damon] Lindelof developed a separate story that precedes the events of Alien, but which is not directly connected to the films in the Alien franchise. According to Scott, though the film shares “strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak,” and takes place in the same universe, Prometheus will explore its own mythology and ideas.

This kind of strategic ambiguity is a hallmark of the viral marketplace, which replaces the saturation bombing of traditional advertising with the planting of clues and fomenting of mysteries. It’s a fan dance in two senses, scattering meaningful fragments before an audience whose passionate interest and desire to interact are a given. Its logic is that of nonlinear equations and unpredictably large outcomes from small causes, harnessing the butterfly effect to build buzz.

Any lingering doubt about the franchise pedigree of Prometheus, however, should be put to rest by this piece of viral marketing, a simulated TED talk from the year 2023.

The link here is, of course, the identity of the speaker: Peter Weyland is one of the founders of Weyland-Yutani, the evil corporation behind most of the important events in the Alien-Predator universe. “The Company,” as it’s referred to in the 1979 film that launched the franchise, is in part a developer and supplier of armaments, and across the films, comics, and novels of the series, the Company pursues the bioweapon represented by the toothy xenomorph with an implacable willingness to sacrifice human lives: capitalism reconfigured as carnivorous, all-consuming force.

The real-world origins of Weyland-Yutani are quite specific: the name and logo were invented by illustrator Ron Cobb as part of the preproduction and concept art for Alien. Cobb designed many of the symbols and insignia that decorate the uniforms and props of the Nostromo, small but distinctive details that lend the movie’s lived-in future a unity of invented brands. One icon in particular, a set of wings modeled on an Egyptian “sun disk,” was associated with Weyland-Yutani, a name that Cobb threw together as a combination of in-joke and future history:

Science fiction films offer golden opportunities to throw in little scraps of information that suggest enormous changes in the world. There’s a certain potency in those kinds of remarks. Weylan Yutani for instance is almost a joke, but not quite. I wanted to imply that poor old England is back on its feet and has united with the Japanese, who have taken over the building of spaceships the same way they have now with cars and supertankers. In coming up with a strange company name I thought of British Leyland and Toyota, but we couldn’t use “Leyland-Toyota” in the film. Changing one letter gave me “Weylan,” and “Yutani” was a Japanese neighbor of mine.

A version of this logo and the current version of the company name (which adds a “d” to “Weylan”) ends the simulated TED talk, demonstrating another chaos dynamic that shapes the fortunes of fantastic-media franchises: minute details of production design can blossom, with the passage of the years, into giant nodes of continuity. These nodes unify not just the separate installments of a series of films, but their transmedia and paratextual extensions: the fantasy TED talk “belongs” to the Alien universe thanks to its shared use of Cobb’s design assets. Instances like this make a convincing case that 1970s production design in science fiction film laid the groundwork for the extensive transmedia fantasy worlds of today.

As for Peter Weyland’s talk, which was directed by Ridley Scott’s son and scripted by Damon Lindelof (co-creator of another complex serial narrative, LOST), the bridging of science fiction and science fact here manifests as a collusion between brands, one fictional and one “real” — but how real is TED, anyway? I mean this not as a slam, but as acknowledgment that TED often operates in what Phil Rosen has termed “the rhetoric of the forecast,” speculating about futures that lie just around the corner. In this way, perhaps the 2023 TED talk is an example of what Jean Baudrillard called a “deterrence machine,” using its own explicit fictiveness to reinforce the sense of reality around TED, much like Disneyland in relation to Los Angeles:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.

One wonders what Baudrillard would have made of the contemporary transmediascape, with its vast and dispersed fictional worlds superintending a swarm of texts and products, the nostalgic archives of its past, the hyped adumbrations of its present. Certainly our entertainment industries are becoming ever more sophisticated in the rigor and reach of their fantasy construction: a fan dance with the future, and a process in which observant audiences eagerly assist.

No Stopping the Terminator’s Serial Return

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I’m enjoying Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles in the same three-quarters, semi-committed way I enjoyed Star Trek Voyager (the other show I’m catching up on via iPod during the writer’s strike): it ain’t Shakespeare, but it’ll do. The FOX network’s new program reinvents the venerable Terminator franchise by serializing it, retrofitting the premise into yet another of television’s narrative deli slicers. Now, instead of giant cinematic slabs of Termination every decade or so (The Terminator in 1984; Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991; Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003), we get wafer-thin weekly slices, peeled from the block of a setup almost mathematically pristine in its triangulation of force and counterforce: Sarah Connor, mother of a future leader of a rebellion against sentient, world-ending AI; John Connor, her teenaged son who will eventually grow into that man; and an endless procession of Terminators, silvery machine skeletons cloaked in human flesh, whose variations on the theme of lethally-unstoppable-yet-childishly-innocent are as simultaneously charming, pathetic, and horrifying as Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster.

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The fact that these cyborgs are sent back in time to our present day to menace the Connors a priori is what lends the story its relentless urgency — it’s an almost perfect chase structure — as well as allowing it to encompass nearly any conceivable narrative permutation. Science fiction’s most productive conceit (at least in terms of storytelling), time travel and its even zanier offshoot, parallel universes, grant drama a toolkit of feints, substitutions, and surprises otherwise acceptable only in avant-garde experimentation (the cryptic as art) and tales of pure subjectivity (it was all a dream). When characters are bopping back and forth along the timespace continuum, in other words, it’s possible to stretch continuity to the breaking point, risking the storyworld’s implosion into absurdity, only to save it at the last minute by revealing each seeming reversal of cause and effect to be part of a larger logic of temporal shenanigans.

Hence the concept of the narrative reset button — a staple of Star Trek‘s many dips into the time-travel well — and the freedom of the Chronicles to recast its leads in a trendy, demographic-friendly makeover. Lena Headey takes over the role of Sarah from the movies’ Linda Hamilton; John, played in T2 by Edward Furlong and T3 by Nick Stahl, here is played by Thomas Dekker, Claire’s nerdy videographer friend in the first season of Heroes. It kind of all makes sense if you squint, turn your head sideways, and tell yourself that maybe this is all some parallel reality splintered off from the one James Cameron created (as indeed it is, industrially). More galvanizing is the recasting of the key Terminator — a “good” one, we presume, though its origin and nature are one of the series’ close-kept secrets — as a beautiful young woman, approximately John’s age.

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As Cameron (get it?), Summer Glau plays the Terminator with a sort of detached glaze; think Zooey Deschanel with the power to bend steel and survive an eight-story fall. Though her ability to convincingly mimic human social behavior fluctuates alarmingly, the character is great, and her presence at one node of the Connor triangle remaps gender and sexual relationships in a way that is both jarring and absolutely plausible. In T2 the “good” Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) had the square, inert reliability of John Wayne’s taxidermied corpse, and the absence of romantic chemistry between him and Hamilton’s Sarah seemed natural. (If he was a Dad-figure, it was a 50′s sitcom Dad — patriarchal but neutered.) Things are very different between Cameron and John, at least in subtext, and for that matter between Cameron and Sarah. If only because it seems such a ripe matrix for fannish invention, Chronicles marks the first time in a while I’ve been curious to seek out some slash.

As far as plotting goes, the new series seems primed to run for a while, if it can find its audience. The time-travel motif has already enabled our three protagonists to fast-forward from 1999 to 2007, introducing a fun fish-out-of-water counterpoint to the predictable (but very satisfying) setpieces of superpowerful beings throwing each other through walls, firing automatic weapons into each other, and getting mowed down by SUVs. I’m sure if things get dull, or when Sweeps loom, we’ll be treated to glimpses of the future (when the human-Skynet war is at its visual-FX-budget-busting peak) or the distant past (anyone for a Civil-War-era Terminator hunt?).

Overall I’m pleased with how gracefully this franchise has found a fresh point of generation for new content — how felicitously the premise has fitted itself to the domain of serial TV, with its unique grammar of cliffhangers, season-arcs, and long-simmering mysteries of origins, destinations, and desires. If they last, the Chronicles promise to be far more rewarding than the projected live-action Star Wars series (an experience I expect to be like having my soul strip-mined in between commercial interludes). Notwithstanding the cosmic expense of the second and third feature films, there’s always been something visceral and pleasingly cheap about the Terminator fantasy, remnant of its shoestring-budget 1984 origins; Terminator‘s simplified structure of feeling seems appropriate to the spiritual dimensions of televised SF. Like those robots that keep coming back to dog our steps, the franchise has found an ideal way to to insinuate itself into the timeline of our weekly viewing.

Always Under Construction

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The teaser for J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot, previously playing only to privileged viewers of Cloverfield, is now available for global consumption and scrutiny on Paramount’s official movie site. My own attention — and imagination — are captured less by the teaser’s aural invocations of real and virtual history (oratory by John F. Kennedy and Leonard Nimoy, the opening strains of Alexander Courage’s Trek score, even a weird snippet of the transporter sound effect) and more by the big eyeball-kick of a reveal that arrives at the end: the Enterprise itself, “under construction” (screen grab above).

Those two words close out the teaser and also adorn the website, clearly inviting us to indulge in the metaphorical collapse of film and starship. In Trek‘s calculus of the imaginary, this is nothing new; from the franchise’s 1966 “launch” onward, a happy equation — perhaps homology is the better term — has existed between the various televisual and filmic incarnations of Trek and the spacefaring vessel that is its primary characters’ means of exploration. The Enterprise, in other words, has always served as something akin to the gun-gripping hand at the bottom of the screen in a first-person shooter: an interface between our world and fictive future history, a graphic conceit easing us over the screen border that separates living room from starship bridge. (It’s not an original insight on my part to point out that Kirk and crew seek out strange new worlds while essentially sitting on comfy recliners and watching a big-screen TV.) Befitting their status as new textual “technologies,” each installment of the franchise has redesigned the Enterprise slightly, even given us new ships in which to take our weekly voyages: the Voyager, the Defiant, and all those goofy runabouts on Deep Space Nine.

In recent weeks I’ve grown weary of contemplating the ingenious, demonic ways in which Abrams builds interest in his projects, using feints and dead-ends to set us buzzing with anticipation and antagonism toward experiences that lie buried in our future (what the Cloverfield monster looks like, what’s really going on on Lost, and so forth). Every dissection of the Abrams effect, it now seems to me, just adds to the Abrams effect; the name of the game in a transmedia age is the viral replication of text, cultivation of mind-share expertly timed to the release calendar. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether our chatter is in the service of bunking or debunking. It’s all, in the eyes of the media industries, good.

So I think I’ll sidestep the argumentative bait offered by the teaser image, namely the degree to which Abrams’s Enterprise is faithful — or not — to the Enterprise(s) of history. Suffice to say that the ship hasn’t been reinvented to the egregious extent of the Jupiter II’s makeover in the 1998 film version of Lost in Space (a sin against science fiction for which Akiva Goldsman has partly compensated with the impressive I Am Legend). From the head-on view we’re given, the new Enterprise maintains the classic saucer-and-twin-nacelles configuration of Walter “Matt” Jefferies’s 60s design, which is good enough for me.

What I will point out is how insistently the “under construction” trope has recurred in Star Trek‘s big picture — its diegesis, metatext, or whatever we’re calling the giant mass of still and moving images, documents and data, that constitute its 42-year-old corpus. Scenes where the ship is in drydock abound in the movies and more recent TV series. 1979′s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first viable expansion of the franchise and proof of its ability to endlessly regenerate itself, contains an extended sequence in which Kirk and Scotty circle the under-construction Enterprise-A.

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This rhapsodic interlude, derided by many critics and even some fans as evidence of ST:TMP‘s visual-effects metastasis — the elephantine marriage of budgetary excess and narcissistic self-indulgence — seems, over the years, to have undergone a kind of greening, emerging as the film’s kernel of authentic Trek, the powerfully beating heart (throbbing dilithium crystal?) of what is otherwise a rather gray and inert film.

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And this image, from the 2005 Ships of the Line calendar, even more succinctly pinpoints the lovely lure of a starship under construction. “Christopher Pike, Commanding” and the class of favored images it exemplifies are like Star Trek‘s primal scenes. Often generated by nonprofessionals using 3D rendering programs, they are what inspired me to write a dissertation chapter about Star Trek‘s “hardware fandom” — those who spend their time buying blueprints of Constitution-class starships, doodling D7 Klingon cruisers and Romulan Birds of Prey, building model kits of the Galileo-7 shuttlecraft, and taping together cardboard-tube and cereal-box mockups of phasers, communicators, and tricorders.

All of those objects were imperfect, and none quite measured up to the onscreen ideal. But it was their very imperfections — their under-constructedness — that marked them as ours, as real and full of possibility. Better the dream of what might come to be then the grim result of its arrival. When it comes right down to it, the Enterprise is always being built, always under construction. I don’t mind waiting another year with the partial version that Abrams has given us.