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.

Franz Joseph and Star Trek’s Blueprint Culture

As part of a larger project I’m preparing on “blueprint culture” — fan subcultures devoted to drawing, drafting, charting, mapping, and playing the worlds of science-fiction media — here is a brief history, excerpted from my book manuscript on special effects and transmedia, of Franz Joseph and the Starfleet Technical Manual he created in 1975.

One man in particular would dominate Star Trek’s design-oriented fandom in the 1970s. Though not a fan himself, Franz Joseph Schnaubelt was the first to awaken a broad base of fans to the pleasures of charting and extending Star Trek’s diegetic backdrop. By the same token, Schnaubelt brought to the attention of the show’s license holders the enormous profit potential of Trek manufacturing: first through supplementary materials expanding on the Trek universe, then through relaunching Trek as a storytelling franchise.

Schnaubelt, who in his professional life went by the name Franz Joseph, was born in Chicago in 1914. A designer and draftsman, Joseph began working at the aeronautical and military research firm General Dynamics in 1941, drawing up plans of seaplanes and fighter planes. “For being a man who was vehemently opposed to war,” Joseph’s daughter Karen Dick writes, he “certainly worked on some of the most formidable war machinery of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.”[i] Laid off in 1969, Joseph entered an early retirement that ended when his attention turned to Trek – not as entertainment, but as intellectual exercise. During the original series’ run, Joseph and Karen had watched the show together, but her passion outstripped his (he considered Star Trek only slightly superior to Lost in Space). In April 1973, Karen took her father to the inaugural meeting of the San Diego branch of the Star Trek Association for Revival (S.T.A.R.).[ii] The fans gathered there brought with them homemade models of Trek equipment such as communicators and phasers. According to Joseph, the ersatz props “were made out of cardboard, balsa wood, tape, wiring, glue, and paint and, for college kids … the workmanship was pretty bad any way you looked at it.”[iii] A former Cub Scout director, Joseph told the amateur craftsmen he thought “they could do better.”[iv] When they asked for assistance, Joseph agreed to bring his own professional training to bear.

Working from more than 800 film clips Karen had amassed, Joseph began to draft blueprints of the props, basing his work on a principle of architectural draftsmanship in which schematic drawings are projected into 3D views. Joseph reversed this, moving “from picture to plan” rather than from plan to picture.[v] In this sense, he inverted the process by which Matt Jefferies, a decade earlier, designed Trek’s sets and spacecraft: Jefferies would prepare both top-down plans and elevations – 3D views, some in color – showing how the finished object would look from camera viewpoint. According to Joseph,

I could take a picture of an enemy airplane and, as long as there was something on the airplane, or in the picture, that permitted me to determine the scale or make a fairly good judgment of the scale, then I would simply reverse the procedure and draw the plans of the airplane in that picture. This is what I was doing with the Star Trek slides. I drew the plans of the communicator, and then plans of the hand phaser and the pistol phaser.[vi]

When Karen’s friends saw the drawings, Joseph said, they “went wild over them. They wanted a lot more. They wanted everything. They made a whole list of stuff they wanted to see and I decided, well, I would do it if there was an interest in it.”[vii] When Joseph examined the lists, he realized that the fans were asking for “a ‘technical’ manual,” and set to work drawing up a comprehensive mechanical anatomy of Trek’s diegetic contents (Figure 3).[viii] From Lincoln Enterprises, the memorabilia vendor run by Roddenberry and Majel Barrett, Karen obtained a set of Matt Jefferies’s drawings of the Enterprise, the Galileo shuttlecraft, and the shuttledeck. “From those sketches and those in Whitfield’s book [The Making of Star Trek],” Joseph “laid the drawing out, scaled and sized it, and made a drawing of the Enterprise.”[ix] He then departed for the first time from canon, extrapolating a new type of Starfleet vessel – a massive warship called the Dreadnaught, which rearranged elements of the Enterprise configuration. Joseph topped off this initial set of drawings with a pattern for the standard Starfleet uniform, again demonstrating the seamless slippage among visual effects and more concrete elements such as sets, costumes, and props.

In the course of preparing the technical manual, Joseph decided it would be necessary to map the Enterprise’s internal layout. This was because the fan community

wanted bridge stations and other things concerned with the interior of the Enterprise, which did not exist except in a book or in somebody’s mind as a throwaway line. So it became rather obvious that I would have to lay out the Enterprise far enough to get to those areas – to see whether I could make drawings. This is how the Enterprise blueprints came about – in the middle of making the technical manual – they were primarily an afterthought.[x]

In “lofting” the ship, however, he discovered several errors in scale and perspective, most stemming from the change from 203 to 430 personnel (and a corresponding change in length from 180 to 947 feet) made by Roddenberry and Jefferies during preproduction on the original series. He also noticed that the bridge was 36 degrees out of alignment with the rest of the saucer – throughout the series, Captain Kirk had been facing slightly to the left of the ship’s angle of travel, a mistake that had to do with the producers’ need to create dramatic visual compositions by placing the “turbolift” elevator so it was not directly behind the captain’s chair. Drafting the technical manual and ship blueprints was, then, largely a matter of reconciling the “imaginary” object of the Enterprise miniature with the “real” object of sets such as the bridge, sickbay, and engineering, explaining in graphic form how exterior and interior aspects of the Enterprise fit together into a coherent whole. In this sense, Joseph’s work might be described as operationalizing the Kuleshov effect, tying down and standardizing relationships created through editing. The technical materials upon which design-oriented fandom thrives – blueprints, models, hand-crafted props – thus serve an essentially conservative function, knitting together loose seams of an imperfectly-manufactured diegetic reality, as opposed to the exploding/perverting of officially preferred meanings that occurs in fan fiction (particularly slash).

Nevertheless, his technical productions did ultimately bring him into conflict with Trek’s legal authors. Interviews with Joseph demonstrate the care he took not to step on the toes of Trek’s copyright holders; from the start, he corresponded with Roddenberry and Paramount executives, sending them samples of his work. At the same time, Joseph’s encounters with the fan community convinced him there was substantial interest in his technical drawings, a site of imaginative investment as well as potential profit. By May 14, 1973 – only a month after the S.T.A.R. meeting that inspired the project – Joseph, having completed a dozen drawings, contacted Roddenberry and received a go-ahead. Roddenberry hinted that Lincoln Enterprises would market the drawings once Joseph completed them. For a brief time, Roddenberry even employed Joseph as technical consultant and designer on a new science-fiction series he was then developing, Planet Earth.

But months later, with a major Trek convention approaching, Joseph had still not received official permission to sell his work. Bypassing Roddenberry, he made a one-time deal with Paramount to sell the “General Plans” (the Enterprise blueprints) at the upcoming convention. Equicon 1974 took place in Los Angeles from April 12-14. Of the 500 copies of the General Plans Joseph had prepared, 410 sold immediately; 450 requests for additional copies were taken on postcards. Paramount, which received Joseph’s royalty check shortly thereafter, sensed it was on to something, and began negotiating for a mass-market release of both the General Plans and the still-growing Technical Manual. The results exceeded all expectations. The blueprints went on sale across the nation on May 24, 1975, selling out within two hours. By May 28, 50,000 additional copies had sold, prompting Ballantine to print 100,000 more. In July the New York Times marveled,

It lives! There’s one publication that’s been selling so furiously in book stores during recent weeks that it would be included on the list [of bestsellers] above except for one fact. It’s not a book. “Star Trek Blueprints” is a set of 12 reproductions by Franz Joseph Schnaubelt showing “every foot of every level of the fabulous starship Enterprise.” Since mid-May Ballantine Books has sold 150,000 sets, enclosed in a plastic and leatherette portfolio, at $5. This week it goes back to press for 100,000 more.[xi]

The blueprints continued to sell strongly throughout the summer, reaching 10th on the paperback bestseller list and receiving a fourth printing in October. Meanwhile, interest in Franz Joseph’s other creation, the Technical Manual, was growing: at a time when a typical first printing of a Trek-related publications might run 20,000, Ballantine Books planned an initial run of 450,000. Both the General Plans and the Technical Manual ended up as bestsellers.

Although he found the widest audience, Joseph was by no means the first or only producer of design-oriented Trek material. In addition to the substantial body of such work that went on unremarked in bedrooms and basement workshops, many fans printed blueprints and manuals and sold them at conventions and through mail order. Geoffrey Mandel’s Starfleet Handbook, for example, came out in September 1974 and featured “schematics of the phaser, communicator, tricorder, and shuttlecraft.”[xii] Nevertheless, Franz Joseph’s creations inspired numerous others throughout the mid- and late 1970s to map the fantasy world of Trek in exacting detail through blueprints of the bridge, K-7 Space Station, and Klingon and Romulan cruisers. The success of the General Plans and Technical Manual led to a string of similar publications at the mass-market level, and constituted an access point for fans wishing to join the ranks of professionals: The Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, published in 1977, featured the work of Geoffrey Mandel and Doug Drexler (who would later go on to create Christopher Pike, Commanding and other imagery for the “Ships of the Line” calendars). The popularity of Joseph’s technical materials arguably influenced the development of the “Star Trek Poster Magazine,” whose first issue came out in September 1976, and the Trek “Fotonovel” series, both of which showcased Trek’s spectacular visuals through color reproductions of film frames.[xiii] This trend would eventually lead to a series of official Trek publications such as Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise, as well as technical manuals for spinoff series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.[xiv] With the growth of the personal-computer industry, software products such as the Interactive Guide to the Enterprise and Starship Creator joined the lineup.

Franz Joseph himself, however, did not go on to do more Trek projects. In part this was due to a series of illnesses affecting both him and his wife; but the larger obstacle seems to have been caused by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount themselves, who, during Trek’s pop-culture renaissance, were hard at work on relaunching the Star Trek franchise. In the early 1970s, Roddenberry assured Joseph that development of the General Plans and Technical Manual could continue unimpeded because Trek was, to all intents and purposes, a dead property. “Before I started seriously on the Manual,” Joseph said, “I had talked to Gene, Paramount, NBC, and Ballantine Books, and they all assured me that the Star Trek TV series was dead, it would not go back into production.”[xv] But the show had left a uniquely profitable corpse in the form of “the seventy-nine jewels,” as industry insiders called the original series, which continued to earn revenue through constant rebroadcast. The syndicated series was profitable in a secondary, subcultural sense, as Joseph himself acknowledged: “the reruns were maintaining continued fan interest, and gaining new fans every year. So I felt it was all right if I made the manual. It was something the original series never had, Gene wanted me to go ahead and finish it, and Ballantine was interested in publishing it.”[xvi]

[i] Greg Tyler, “Karen Dick” (June-July 1999 interview), <>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[ii] Paul Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph” (June 1984), <>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think” (October 1976 interview with Franz Joseph Schnaubelt), <>, accessed 17 June 2005.

[viii] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think.”

[xi] “Paper Back Talk,” New York Times (13 July 1975), 210.

[xii] Joan Marie Verba, Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967-1987, 2nd Ed. (Minnesota: FTL Publications, 2003), 17.

[xiii] Lynn Simross, “Fotonovel: The Movie-Picture Book,” Los Angeles Times (18 September 1978), OC_B1.

[xiv] Shane Johnson, Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989); Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991); Herman Zimmerman, Rick Sternbach, and Michael Okuda, The Deep Space Nine Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

[xv] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[xvi] Ibid.

Redshirts, blueshirts

Really enjoying Ina Rae Hark’s BFI TV Classics book on Star Trek. To write it, she watched 700 hours of cumulative Trek, and it shows in her comprehensive and confident discussion of the original series alongside the many spinoffs it spawned. Hark writes as an aca-fan, and her desire to analyze Trek as Trek results in passage after passage of original insights that balance critical readings with a respect for the show’s internal logic:

One choice made by the producers was to divide the specialities represented into three broad categorizations, denoted by the colors of their tunics. The captain, helmsman and navigator wore gold. It denoted command officers, those who directed the course of the ship and deployed its assets, such as phasers, photon torpedoes and tractor beams. Blue was the color of the science specialists, including the medical staff. Although Spock served as both the ship’s science officer and its first officer, his primary allegiance to enquiry and research was indicated by the face that his tunic was blue and not gold. If the blues gathered and analyzed data for the golds to base command decisions upon, everything that allowed the ship to do what it was commanded to do fell to the hands-on crew in red, who kept the engines and ship’s systems humming, enabled communications, performed secretarial duties and provided security. (These duties would be grouped under the rubric of ‘operations’ in TNG and the colors for command and operations would be reversed in the twenty-fourth century spinoffs.) (11)

Her dissection of the tropes that spanned the original series’ seventy-nine episodes, such as the insistent carnality of its vision of embodied subjectivity and corresponding distrust of the purified, decorporealized superintellect — a binary we currently apprehend through narratives of the singularity and transhuman consciousness — blows dust off an old franchise, leaving me eager to rewatch episodes. I’m halfway through her section on The Next Generation and enjoying myself.


The fund drives that biannually interrupt the flow of intelligent goodness from my local NPR station like to trumpet the power of “driveway moments” — stories so called because when they come on the radio, you stay in your car, unable to tear yourself away until they’re finished. The term has always interested me because it so bluntly merges the experience of listening with the act of driving: treating the radio as synecdoche for the car, or maybe the other way around (I can never keep my metonymies straight).

Anyway, I had my own driveway moment tonight, when All Things Considered broadcast a story on the vidding movement. Of course, fans have been remixing and editing cult TV content into new, idiosyncratically pleasurable/perverse configurations for decades, and the fact that mainstream media are only now picking up on these wonderful grassroots creations and the subcultural communities through which they circulate is sad proof of a dictum I learned from my long-ago undergraduate journalism professor: by the time a cultural phenomenon ends up on the cover of Newsweek, it’s already six months out of date.

Credit to ATC, though, for doing the story, and for avoiding the trap of talking about vidding as though it were, in fact, something new. I did tense up when the reporter Neda Ulaby used male pronouns to refer to one CSI vidder — “the vidder wants to say something about the dangers faced by cops on the show, and he’s saying it by cutting existing scenes together” — thinking it surely incorrect, since the vidding community is dominantly female. Oh, great, I thought: yet another rewriting of history in which a pointedly masculine narrative of innovation and authorship retroactively simplifies a longer and more complex tradition developed by women. (Yes, I do occasionally think in long sentences like that.)

But then the piece brought in Francesca Coppa, and everything was OK again. Coppa, an associate professor of English and the director of film studies at Muhlenberg College, is herself a vidder as well as an accomplished scholar of fandom; I had the pleasure of hearing her work at MIT’s Media in Transition conference in 2007. With her input, the NPR story manages to compress a smart and fairly accurate picture of vidding and fandom into a little under six minutes — an impressive feat.

The funny thing is that the little flash of anxiety and defensiveness I felt when it seemed like NPR would “get it wrong” was like a guilty echo of the way I’ve “gotten it wrong” over the years. My own work on Star Trek fandom focuses on a variety of fan creativity based on strict allegience to canon, in particular the designed objects and invented technologies that constitute the series’ setting and chronology. I call it, variously, hardware fandom or blueprint culture, and I’ve always conceptualized it as a specifically male mode of fandom. It’s the kind of fan I once was — hell, still am — and in my initial exuberance to explore the subject years ago, I remember thinking and writing as though feminine modes of fandom were mere stepping stones toward, really a pale adjunct to, some more substantive, engaged, and commercially complicit fandom practiced by men. I’ve learned better since, largely through interactions with female friends and colleagues in dialogues like the gender-in-fandom debates staged by Henry Jenkins in summer 2007.

For fear of caricaturing my own and others’ positions, I’ll spare you further mea culpas. Suffice to say that my thinking on fandom has evolved (let’s hope it continues to do so!). I am learning to prize voices like Coppa’s for prompting me to revisit and reassess my own too-easy understandings of fan practices as something I can map and intepret based solely on my own experience: valid enough as individual evidence, I suppose, but curdling into something more insidious when generalized — a male subject’s unthinking colonization of territory already capably inhabited.

The End of the World (As We Know It)

Sometimes the metaphor is so perfect it seems the gods of discourse and simulation must have conspired to produce it. The video clip now spreading across the internet — in the Huffington Post‘s words, “like wildfire” — not only visualizes the earth’s destruction by asteroid, but the global proliferation of the clip itself, a CG cartoon leaping from one link to another in a contagious collective imagining of apocalypse:

The video has apparently been in existence at least since 2005, when (according to my quick-and-dirty sleuthing) it aired as a segment on the Discovery Channel series Miracle Planet. Only recently — perhaps after being contextually unmoored by the swapping of its narration for a Pink Floyd soundtrack — has it “gone viral,” scorching the graphical territories that have grown around our planet like a second skin since the dual foundings in the 1960s of the internet (nee ARPAnet) and the computer-graphics movement whose granddaddy was Ivan Sutherland. The reasons for the asteroid clip’s sudden popularity are, I suspect, both too mundane and profound ever to explain to anyone’s satisfaction: on one level, it’s about the idle clicking of links and impulsive forwarding of attachments that has become the unconscious microlabor of millions who believe ourselves to be playing as we work (when, in fact, we are working as we play); on another level, it’s about 9/11, The Dark Knight, and conflict in the Middle East. Tipping points, for all their blunt undeniability, remain enigmatic things at heart. Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) spilled water off the back of his hand to illustrate nonlinearity and strange attractors; I submit to you “Chocolate Rain,” Twilight, and now a video, running time just under five minutes, that renders in lush but elegant terms the immolation of our homeworld.

I’m not about to get all moralistic on you and suggest there’s something unhealthy about this spectacle, or the way we’re passing it eagerly from platform to platform like a digital hot potato. It is, in a word, supercool, especially when the continents start peeling up like the waxy bacon grease to which I applied my spatula after an indulgent Christmas breakfast last week. In its languid, extended takes it recalls the Spider-Man sequence that Dan North and I recently kicked around, and in its scalar play — a square inch or two of screen display windowing outward onto the collision of planetary bodies — it’s like a peepshow of the gods, the perverse cosmos literally getting its rocks off, caressing earth and stone together like Ben Wa balls. The clip is mercifully blind to the suffering of life on the ground (or for that matter in the air and sea); its only intimations of pain are displaced, oddly, onto architecture, with Big Ben and the Parthenon in flames.

What the clip brings to mind most powerfully, though, is a similar exercise in worldshaping now more than 25 years old: the Project Genesis sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982). That brilliant, franchise-saving movie revolved around an experimental device called Genesis, a high-tech MacGuffin that motivated the piratical faceoff between Admiral James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh (is my geek showing?) as well as some beautiful matte paintings, a cloud-tank nebula, and a thrilling countdown sequence scored by James Horner before his compositions became simulacra of themselves.

But all of the Genesis device’s visual and auditory puzzle-pieces would not have cohered as potently in my imagination if not for the way it is introduced early in the film, by a short CG sequence showing the effect that Genesis would have on a lifeless planet:

Several things tie the Genesis sequence to the asteroid-strike video: formally, each begins by tracking inward on a celestial body and ends with a pullback to show the world turning serenely in space; the midsection consists of a sweeping orbital arc, dipping down to the level of mountains, forests, and oceans before lifting back into the stratosphere. Most importantly, each details the utter transformation of a planet, albeit in opposite directions: Genesis brings, in the words of Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), “life from lifelessness,” while the Discovery Channel’s asteroid inverts the dream of creation, showing its necessary, extinguishing counterpole. The difference between them reflects, perhaps, a shift in how we imagine the possibilities of technology through science fiction: Star Trek‘s utopian vision has given way to the more shadowed and conspiratorial nihilism of Battlestar Galactica (a series that begins in the fires of nuclear armageddon).

But there is also a story here of computer graphics and how they have, for all their evolution, stayed much the same in their aesthetics and predilections. The Genesis sequence was a groundbreaking piece of work from the nascent CGI department at Industrial Light and Magic — a proof-of-concept exercise in ray tracing and fractal modeling by artists and equipment that would soon spin off into Pixar. ILM founder George Lucas, obsessed with extending his authorial control through the development of digital production tools like SoundDroid and EditDroid (forerunner of Avid and nonlinear editing systems), let the future juggernaut slip through his fingers, only later realizing the degree to which CGI would revolutionize filmmaking by merging the elastic, constructive capabilities of animation with the textured realism of live-action. In Pixar’s most recent work — the acclaimed Wall-E, whose glories I’ve been revisiting on my Blu-Ray player — one can see the same hunger to take worlds apart in favor of building new ones, an awareness of how closely, in the world of visual-effects engineering, creation and destruction intertwine. Like other films that have captured my attention on the blog this year — I Am Legend, Planet of the ApesWall-E serves up apocalypse as spectacle, a tradition that continues (proudly, perversely) with the asteroid video.

Happy new year to all, and best wishes for 2009!

Convention in a Bubble

A quick followup to my post from two weeks ago (a seeming eternity) on my gleeful, gluttonous anticipation of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions as high-def smorgasbords for my optic nerve. I watched and listened dutifully, and now — literally, the morning after — I feel stuffed, sated, a little sick. But that’s part of the point: pain follows pleasure, hangover follows bender. Soon enough, I’ll be hungry for more: who’s with me for the debates?

Anyway, grazing through the morning’s leftovers in the form of news sites and blogs, I was startled by the beauty of this interactive feature from the New York Times, a 360-degree panorama of the RNC’s wrapup. It’s been fourteen years since Quicktime technology pervily cross-pollinated Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s central chronotope, the U.S.S. Enterprise 1701-D, in a wondrous piece of reference software called the Interactive Technical Manual. I remember being glued to the 640X480 display of my Macintosh whatever-it-was (the Quadra? the LC?), exploring the innards of the Enterprise from stem to stern through little Quicktime VR windows within which, by clicking and dragging, you could turn in a full circle, look up and down, zoom in and out. Now a more potent and less pixilated descendent of that trick has been used to capture and preserve for contemplation a bubble of spacetime from St. Paul, Minnesota, at the orgiastic instant of the balloons’ release which signaled the conclusion of the Republicans’ gathering.

Quite apart from the political aftertaste (and let’s just say that this week was like the sour medicine I had to swallow after the Democrats’ spoonful of sugar), there’s something sublime about clicking around inside the englobed map. Hard to pinpoint the precise location of my delight: is it that confetti suspended in midair, like ammo casings in The Matrix‘s bullet-time shots? The delegates’ faces, receding into the distance until they become as abstractedly innocent as a galactic starfield or a sprinkle-encrusted doughnut? Or is it the fact of navigation itself, the weirdly pleasurable contradiction between my fixed immobility at the center of this reconstructed universe and the fluid way I crane my virtual neck to peer up, down, and all around? Optical cryptids such as this confound the classical Barthesian punctum. So like and yet unlike the photographic, cinematographic, and ludic regimes that are its parents (parents probably as startled and dismayed by their own fecundity as the rapidly multiplying Palin clan), the image-machine of the Flash bubble has already anticipated the swooping search paths of my fascinated gaze and embedded them algorithmically within itself.

If I did have to choose the place I most love looking, it would be at the faces captured nearest the “camera” (here in virtualizing quotes because the bubble actually comprises several stitched-together images, undercutting any simple notion of a singular device and instant of capture). Peering down at them from what seems just a few feet away, the reporters seem poignant — again, innocent — as they stare toward center stage with an intensity that matches my own, yet remain oblivious to the panoptic monster hanging over their heads, unaware that they have been frozen in time. How this differs from the metaphysics of older photography, I can’t say; I just know that it does. Perhaps it’s the ontology of the bubble itself, at once genesis and apocalypse: an expanding shock wave, the sudden blistered outpouring of plasma that launched the universe, a grenade going off. The faces of those closest to “me” (for what am I in this system? time-traveler? avatar? ghost? god?) are reminiscent of those stopped watches recovered from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, infinitely recording the split-second at which one reality ended while another, harsher and hotter, exploded into existence.

It remains to be seen what will come of this particular Flashpoint. For the moment — a moment which will last forever — you can explore the bubble to your heart’s content.

Gearing up for Santa Barbara

I leave in a few days for the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara. I’d be excited just because of the location (the conference concludes with a beach party, for gosh sakes) or the nature of the professional gathering itself, since I had a wonderful time at Console-ing Passions in New Orleans in 2004. But most of all I’m thrilled to be taking part in a workshop discussion that grew out of the gender-and-fandom debates hosted by Henry Jenkins last summer. My colleagues Julie Levin Russo (Brown University), Louisa Stein (San Diego State University), Sam Ford (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Suzanne Scott (University of Southern California) all participated in those male-female pairups, and we formulated the CP workshop as a space not just to present our own research, but engage in a dialogue about where that massive, months-long conversation has left us as fan scholars who confront issues of gender, power, privilege, and creativity

The workshop, which takes place Friday morning, is entitled Gendered Fan Labor in New Media and Old. Each of us will speak briefly about a current research interest or project, based on a text or media artifact that raises questions about creative media fandom in both its historical and contemporary dimensions and which focuses on gendered labor as an axis intersecting multiple concerns: taxonomies of fan practice, shifting economic relations between consumers and producers, questions of legitimacy and legality, the impact of new technologies, and the increasing visibility in popular, industrial, and academic discourses of heretofore marginal(ized) fan communities. Second, we hope to perform a kind of post-mortem on the summer’s debates: highlighting certain recurring themes, tendencies, and absences that structured the discourse, unpacking problematic areas, and reflecting both on what went well or badly in the past, and where we might productively go in the future. Here are the others’ projects, full versions of which are viewable on LiveJournal’s fandebate (thanks to Kristina Busse):

  • Julie Levin Russo, “The L Word: Labors of Love”
  • Sam Ford, “Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps”
  • Suzanne Scott, “From Filking to Wrocking: The Rock Star/Groupie Dialectic in Harry Potter Wizard Rock”
  • Louisa Stein, “Vidding as Cultural Narrative”

My own project, “Boys, Blueprints, and Boundaries: Star Trek‘s Hardware Fandom,” examines a subset of Trek fandom that devotes itself to the literal mapping of Trek‘s canonical universe and recreating in material form its diegesis through activities such as the drafting of episode guides and concordances, the manufacture of costumes, props, and model kits, and the making of technical manuals and blueprints. The first paragraph is quoted below; you can also read the full (short) paper at LiveJournal. Comments on the project welcomed and appreciated!

The recent legal dispute between J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, and Steven Vander Ark, a Michigan librarian who has compiled an internet guide to the Harry Potter “universe,” raises many interesting questions about copyright, authorial power, and what might be called a double standard of contemporary media production in which potentially infringing online publication is tolerated, even welcomed, by copyright holders, while the equivalent publication in print form is energetically resisted. But viewed through the lenses of fandom and gender, the Rowling / Vander Ark case illuminates another and much older conundrum, consisting of a linked pair of problematic binaries. On one hand, there is the contrast between fan-produced materials which creatively transform an original work (like fanfic, slash, vidding, filksongs, and artwork) and those which “merely” document, map, or archive the original work (like concordances, episode guides, blueprints, and technical manuals). On the other hand, there is the apparent gender split between the traditionally female fans who produce work considered to be transformative, and male fans whose productivity tends instead toward the technical and archival. The relationship between male fans and what I will call “blueprint culture” is the subject of this short paper, in which I consider gendered fan labor as it is manifested in fantasy and history; ways of rethinking this labor as creative and transformative; and current trends that reflect the growing impact of blueprint culture in both industrial and academic domains.

Always Under Construction


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.


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.


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.

The One True Enterprise

Thanks to an incredibly generous gift certificate from some friends, my wife and I spent last weekend at a ritzy hotel in Washington, DC – where the 100-degree temperatures made us quite happy to stay inside, work out in the fitness center, order room service, and watch TV.

But the one time we had to venture outside was to visit the National Air and Space Museum, my favorite spot in Washington and, perhaps, the greatest place in the known universe. Ever since I first visited DC, at nine or ten years old, I have loved the NASM: the satellites suspended from the ceiling, the Imax theater, the giant Robert McCall mural, the silver packets of freeze-dried ice cream, and of course the full-size Skylab sitting on its end like a small cylindrical skyscraper, a constant line of people threading through its begadgeted, submarinelike innards.

I’ve been to the museum several times, so it was a shock to come face-to-face with one of its most famous artifacts, and realize that – somehow – I’d forgotten it was there. It used to hang gloriously over the entrance to some special exhibit (Spaceflight in Science Fiction, maybe?), which has now been replaced by a room devoted to the role of computers in aeronautical design and engineering. As for the marvelous object, it has moved to the lower floor of the gift shop, where it sits toward the back in its own plexiglass box, big enough to hold a Hummer…

Enterprise at NASM - side view

This is the original miniature of the U.S.S. Enterprise, used for optical effects shots in the first series of Star Trek (1966-1969). It’s been part of the Smithsonian collection since 1974, and has undergone several modifications in that time, including a new “mosaic” paint job to simulate square hull plating. (This concept, introduced with the starship’s redesign for Star Trek: The Motion Picture [Robert Wise, 1979], has since become standard for Trek’s vessels, reflected in the numerous sequels and series that constitute the franchise.)

After gazing reverently at the Enterprise for a while, I dragged my wife over to see it. I explained to her – feeling somewhat like a goofball – that this was not just a replica or facsimile, but the actual shooting model that went before the cameras of the Howard Anderson effects company, to which Desilu Studios farmed out its optical work. (Actually, the miniature made the rounds of several FX houses, including Film Effects of Hollywood, the Westheimer Company, and Van Der Veer Photo Effects – Trek demanding a particularly high number of expensive and time-consuming optical effects.) Eleven feet long and weighing 200 pounds, the miniature is made of poplar wood, vacuformed plastic, and sheet metal. It was one of three Enterprises used in shooting (the others included a small balsa-wood version that appeared in the “swish” flybys of the title sequence, and a three-foot version used to show the ship in the far distance). It was designed by Walter “Matt” Jefferies in consultation with series creator Gene Roddenberry, and build by Richard C. Datin, Jr.

Enterprise lofted

Enterprise in studio

The miniature undeniably has a sad aspect to it now. Consigned to what is essentially the museum basement, it sits by a shelf of books about Star Trek and Star Wars like an aging carny hawking its wares. Once lit from within by a complex electrical system of lights and relays, it is now shadowed and gloomy, its sepulchral air made more poignant by the racks of day-glow flags, posters, and coffee mugs that surround it. (In this, the back corner of the gift shop, the air-and-space motif gives way to a randomly-themed grab bag of DC memorabilia: Washington Monument t-shirts, Abraham Lincoln yo-yos.)

Yet despite or perhaps because of the diorama of motley neglect in which I encountered it, the Enterprise miniature possesses an historical solidity, a gravity classifying it as the best kind of museum exhibit: one that belongs simultaneously to past and present, functioning as a material bridge between one moment in time and another. For as I circled the plexiglass case, snapping pictures with my digital camera, I realized that the real magic was not in seeing the Enterprise with my own eyes. It was, instead, in the act of capturing its image — of being physically present at one node of a visual apparatus, framing the model in my viewfinder and recording the light rays reflecting off its surface. In doing so, I fleetingly occupied the position of the original camera operators at Howard Anderson and Van Der Veer in Hollywood in the late 1960s, whose daily job it was to line up and shoot this structure of wood and plastic.

Enterprise at NASM

Enterprise TV capture



Enterprise at NASM


Enterprise TV capture

This, I suggest, is the real experience of the Enterprise. As a viewer growing up, watching the show on TV, I saw the starship only in its final composited form – as an “actual” vessel in space – experiencing a play-along immediacy that is the basic perceptual displacement necessary to the operation of television, movies, and videogames (we can only believe what we are seeing if we disbelieve in the fact of its having-been-made). Photographing the model at the National Air and Space Museum on Saturday, I experienced a flash of disbelief’s opposite, what I can only call mediacy, bringing layers of technology and labor – of historical material practice – back into the picture. It was like going to work and going to church at the same time, like punching a timeclock that is also a reliquary holding the bones of a saint. It was great; I’ll never forget it.

Bob at the NASM