Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

Science/Fantasy Monday: Warp Drive May Be Just Around the Corner

USS Titan going at warp speed, from startrek-ships.com

Faster-than-light travel.  Imagine it.  To go anywhere in the galaxy, maybe the universe, in no time at all.  Think Star Trek and warp drive.  It wouldn’t be instantaneous, but it would be incredibly, mind-numbingly fast.

A little over three weeks ago, on 22 Sept 2011, a group of CERN scientists working with the “Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus” (OPERA) announced that they believed they had succeeded in making neutrinos (an electrically neutral elementary subatomic particle with extremely tiny but not-quite-zero mass, that is able to pass through ordinary mass almost unaffected) travel faster than the speed of light — a barrier speed of 186,282 miles per hour, which, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, cannot be surpassed.  Here is the first article I caught wind of about the announcement, from The Telegraph: “Speed of light ‘broken’ at CERN, scientists claim.”

And, here is the actual paper written by the OPERA scientists on the experiment: “Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam.”

Of course, nothing like this can ever be taken at face value.  There are a million things that could lead to a misreading, miscalculation, or flat-out falsehood (the number of scientists who have made fraudulent claims in the last few years has been staggering).  Immediately, an whole army’s worth of scientists were called in to check, re-check, and triple-check all the experimental parameters, equipment, and results — a process that is still ongoing.

lateral view of OPERA, from http://operaweb.lngs.infn.it/

Still, almost immediately an slew of scientists had climbed out of the woodwork to offer their explanations for why this discovery could not possibly be real.  On 26 Sept 2011, Scientific American released an article in which they had asked for reactions from a number of fairly-well-regarded scientists, most of whom voiced varying levels of doubt and skepticism: “Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts.”  Some of these scientists said they were withholding judgement until further tests and checks could be performed.  But some were embarrassed that the scientists involved had made any announcement at all — as far as some are concerned, it is simply impossible.  Period.

To that end, Wired Online released an article on 14 Oct 2011, discussing a number of the more down-to-earth and boring explanations scientists have come up with to explain away the apparently faster-than-light travel of these neutrinos: “Physicists Offer Mundane Explanations for Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos.”

In the October issue of ScienceNews, and on the ScienceNews website, an article written by Devin Powell offers a brief and balanced summary of the event and the current reactions, discussing what was done to prepare for the original experiment and some of what is being done to try to recreate the experiment: “Neutrinos Seen to Fly Faster than the Speed of Light.”  A few of the quotes in this article show the interesting struggle between exciting optimism and strong skepticism.  Theoretical scientists Matthew Mewes and Lee Smolin are voice some of the thoughts all scientists (and some of us laypersons).  Mewes: “This may mean that there’s much more going on in particle physics than we thought possible.  We could be seeing signs of exotic theories like string theories.”  Smolin: “This is a serious experiment, and these are serious people.  But at this point nobody sober would be willing to say that this is right.”

Obviously, even if the results prove to be correct — and of course, there’s nothing at this point saying that they WILL, but let’s assume for a moment that they are — somehow getting a few neutrinos to travel faster than the speed of light is a LONG way off from faster-than-light travel for humans.  But still… just think of the implications!  Think of the possibilities!  It’s difficult not to get at least a little excited.  Gene Roddenberry’s vision has been proven true before.  You never know, warp drive might be just around the corner (relatively speaking…).

So, what do you think of this news?  A mistake?  A hoax?  Or the real deal?

Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 3

Science/Fantasy Monday: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 3

Here we are at last!  The end of my three-Mondays-long countdown of my personal Top 10 SciFi TV Shows.  For those of you who missed the first two parts, or just need a refresher, you can find them here:

“Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Part 1”

“Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Part 2”

Back?  Good.  Now, let’s get down to business.  I’m sure that most, if not all, of you can probably guess what shows are coming.  The big question now is what order did I put them in?  Which show got #1 and which got pushed down to #2?

Well, wonder no longer!  We have a tie for First Place!  And it goes to Star Trek and Doctor Who!  (Who’s shocked?  Raise your hand.  No one?  Didn’t think so.)

#1: Star Trek (whole universe) and Doctor Who (original and revival)

I love them both.  They are both amazing and brilliant.  They were both so foundational to science fiction television, and scifi of any medium.  I simply could not find any way to say definitively that either was better than the other, so a tie seemed the best solution.

Star Trek:

Star Trek: Original Series

Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry and first aired in 1966 and ran for three seasons before it was canceled due to low ratings.  It wasn’t until it went into syndication that Star Trek: the Original Series (TOS) truly gained the immense popularity that made it the icon it is today.  It was followed by a short-lived Animated Series, and six movies: Star Trek the Motion Picture, The Wrath of Kahn, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, and The Undiscovered Country.

Star Trek: Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) started in 1987 and last seven seasons, during which time it became, I believe, the most popular of all the series.  Even many of those who grew up with TOS are usually willing to admit that TNG is better.  There is a decent-sized group of people who would argue that the third series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) is actually the best incarnation of the show.  My brother, a few of my friends would count themselves among that group.  I’m sort-of, kind-of there too, though I’m a little more on the fence.  For a more detailed discussion of my reasoning behind that argument please see: “The Age Old Question: Which Star Trek is Better?”

Still, TNG was an absolutely fantastic show.  And even if I like some parts of DS9 better, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starfleet Enterprise NCC-1701-D will always ALWAYS be MY Captain.  He is one of my favorite characters ever.  Data, the android who wants to be human is definitely near the top of my favorite list also (and TNG’s answer to Spock who is also one of my favorite characters).

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

As for DS9… it was much darker than either of the two series that came before it, which is also cited as a mark against it, but which I really enjoyed.  And it had a large overarching plot that really tied the show together and gave it an amount of tension and suspense that TNG only managed on a few occasions (though it was AWESOME when TNG pulled it off, most especially in “Best of Both Worlds,” Pt 1 and 2).  But again, you can get more of rant about DS9 on my previous post, linked above.

During this time, there were four more movies, focusing on the TNG crew: Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and NemesisStar Trek: Generations was emotionally-taxing because we all had to watch Kirk die not once, but twice.  But the best of the bunch has to be Star Trek: First Contact, which featured fantastic special effects, the creepy arch-nemesis of the TNG crew The Borg, a cool plot, and Picard at his absolutely most awesome.

Star Trek: Voyager

After DS9, we had Voyager. This was the first Star Trek show to feature a female captain (there have been plenty of woman captains within the universe of Star Trek, of course).  Voyager has been argued about for a number of reasons.  It is very popular with some fans, and hated by others.  It was, admittedly, a little hit-or-miss sometimes, but the first four seasons, at the very least, were consistently good.  Most of the characters were well-written and complex.  But I think many people didn’t like the heavy focus on romance in a number of episodes, especially in the second half of the series.  This is a complaint I understand, and I would admit that some of the relationship stuff definitely got tiring.  But overall, the show was intelligent, well-acted, exciting, and fun.  And Captain Kathryn Janeway was an absolutely KICK-ASS female character.

Star Trek: Enterprise

Last on the list is Star Trek: Enterprise.  I watched most of the first season, and I have seen a few other episodes here or there.  But this series just could not match up to the Star Trek tradition.  The producers/writers tried to change too much, make it more “theirs” instead of Roddenberry’s, and it just didn’t work (though Capt Archer, played by Scott Bakula, was a pretty good character).

What I think makes Star Trek so important, despite its flaws, the occasional hit-or-miss series, the cheesiness, etc… is that it is able to critique society (like much of scifi) and show us ourselves in all our nastiness, but it is ultimately built on a fundamental hope and optimism.  Star Trek: The Original Series featured the first interracial kiss aired on television.  It attempted to show the world that tolerance and peace and prosperity were possible, despite all the problems we face.  And that optimism seems even more important now than it did in the 60s.

I will add, briefly, that the newest movie was very good.  I approached with trepidation, but it seriously impressed me, and I’m looking forward to the next one.  There are also rumors of a new Star Trek series, which would be AWESOME, because it’s just a tragedy that it’s been so long since we had a new Star Trek adventure to enjoy every week.

Doctor Who:

The First Doctor: William Hartnell

Doctor Who premiered in 1963 and run for 26 consecutive seasons until 1989, making it the longest running science fiction television show of all time and one of the longest running tv shows of any genre (even before its revival).  In 1996 a television movie was released in the hopes of reviving the show for an American audience. This failed.  But in 2005, the show was finally revived by BBC and has now run for 6 more seasons.  This revival is not a reboot, but an actual continuation of the same universe and timeline, which means that seasons 6 of the revival can also be called season 32 of Doctor Who.  And the show is still going strong.

Anyone who knows me (and people who have been following this blog for awhile), knows that I am obsessed with Doctor Who.  I could go on about the show for hours if you let me (I don’t suggest you let me if you plan to do anything else for the next few days).  Thankfully, I have already written three blogs about various aspects of Doctor Who. So, rather than ramble for quite as long as I did for Star Trek above (which I haven’t written about as much before), I will now start by referring you to those previous blog posts:

“The Doctor Is In: A Brief History of Doctor Who, Pt 1”

“The Doctor Is In: A Brief History of Doctor Who, Pt 2”

“They’re Never Really Gone: The Top 3 Doctor Who Villains”

These three posts should give you good handle on some of the major elements of Doctor Who.

DALEKS!

It always fascinates me that Doctor Who was originally intended as more a history lesson for children disguised as action-adventure television.  But very very quickly the historical episodes (which are still a ton of fun) gave way to the flashier, more dramatic, more iconic Doctor Who-ish space/alien episodes.  Doctor Who is still the most popular television show in England, and whoever is playing the Doctor at the time, is consistently one of the most popular actors of the time.  Every single person in England knows who the Doctor is, what Dalek is, understands the significance of celery and a really long striped scarf, and realizes that the Master is never really dead.  Now, thanks to the revival’s growing popularity in America (which, I think, was actually spurred on by Torchwood: Children of Earth, surprisingly), almost everyone in America is beginning to know these things too.

Doctor Who is smart, crazy, exciting, hilarious, dramatic, intense, and occasionally depressing, all wrapped up into one insane hour-long program.

10th Doctor with companions: Rose, Martha, Donna, and Sarah-Jane

It has featured some fascinating characters as the Doctor’s companions, such as his granddaughter Susan Foreman, The Brigadier, Sarah-Jane Smith, Ace, Rose Tyler, Jack Harkness, Donna Noble, and most recently Amelia Pond and her husband Rory Williams (who is awesome, by the way).  While the Doctor does sometimes travel with a variety of aliens and even robots (such as the robot dog K-9), he has always had a special affinity for human companions (despite the fact that he often looked down on humans as the First Doctor).  And these human companions are US.  They are our entrance into his world, they are our emissaries into the insane, exciting, dark universe of the Doctor.

John Sims as the Master

What I think makes this show so amazing and enduring is that it can take the strangest characters, the strangest places and plots, and make them emotionally important.  We care about alien races destroying each other.  We care about the Companions who die, or get left behind.  We are terrified (and exhilaratingly fascinated by) the Daleks and the Cybermen and the Master.  But really, it’s all about the Doctor.  He is a genius, a pacifist and warrior at the same time, compassionate and, at times, ruthless, always off for an adventure, with a entourage of humans and aliens and robots, and yet ultimately alone.  He is an alien, of course, and in so many ways he is completely non-human.  And yet, he is very human.  And that’s what makes him so amazing.

To end, here is a quote about the Doctor from episode 9 of Season 3 of the revival, “Family of Blood.”  It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s awesome anyway: “He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

All Eleven Doctors

That concludes my Top 10 SciFi Television Shows list!  Please let me know what you think!  I love to hear from you! See you on Wednesday! (and I’ve got to stop using so many damn exclamation points!)

The Age Old Question: Which Star Trek is Better?

WARNING: If you don’t know anything about Star Trek, you’re about to get really lost.  And I’m about to reveal quite a lot of my geek cred.  I beg forgiveness, and I’ll try to return to more inclusive topics later.

So yeah, Star Trek.

I started watching Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) at the age of 4 or 5, thanks to my mother.  I was raised watching both shows, and loved every second of it.  I was 8 yrs old when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) started, and I watched that incarnation of the show even more devotedly than my mother did.  By the time Star Trek: Voyager had started my mother and I had finally gotten my younger brother to watch the show, so Voyager-watching became a family event.

I’ll admit up front that I’ve only see about 1/3 of Star Trek: Enterprise some episodes were decent, and Archer was a good character, but overall, I just couldn’t get into it.  However, while I was leery of the new movie, I was pleasantly surprised by how absolutely fantastic it is.

I guess what I’m getting at, is I’ve got plenty of opinions of Star Trek.  I’m not as bad as some full-blown Trekkies.  I’ve never tried to learn Klingon, and I’ve never even been a convention (mostly because there’s never been one anywhere near me and I’m broke, but still…).  But I still know the show very well and could talk about it for hours.  I knew that if I was going to talk about tv shows at all, I HAD to talk about Star Trek.  Question is: which series, what aspect, what topic?  Etc.

So I’ve decided to enter into an age-old argument in Star Trek: TOS vs. TNG vs. DS9.

cast of The Original Series

Let me begin by saying: while I love TOS for nostalgic reasons, when it comes right down to it, it really wasn’t all that well-made.  Even for the 60’s it’s cheesy and clumsy, relying on many Shakespearian stage actors for side-characters who did not translate well to television, and using some really ridiculous plot devices.  TNG had the benefit of more experience, a larger group of good actors, and more time to develop the writing style and universe (though even the first couple seasons of TNG were pretty clumsy and cheesy at times).

The writing as a whole was far better in TNG than it was in TOS.  But TNG really came into its own with season 3 finale: “Best of Both Worlds.”  While the big-bad of the series, The Borg, had been introduced in a season 1 episode, it wasn’t into “Best of Both Worlds” that they really become the major problem they are for the rest of the series (and all the way through 1 of the movies and quite a bit of Voyager).  They are a fleshed-out, powerful enemy with grand schemes and unblinking determination.  While most the show retained its stand-alone, new-adventure-every-week episodes, the Borg became an overarching plot-line through the series.  And it was one of the best things the show ever did.

Cast of The Next Generation

However, the biggest difference between TOS and TNG is the character development.  For instance, Capt. Jean-luc Picard is, quite frankly, a much better-written character than Kirk (my mother would smack me if she was reading this).  Kirk was a womanizer and a hot-head and a loyal friend; obviously, I’m simplifying here, but the writing never develops the character as much as it should.  Jean-luc Picard is serious, controlled, logical, loyal, diplomatic… but he also had a wild youth, he’s uncomfortable around children but secretly wants them, he likes mystery novels and he knows how to samba, he’s not the Don Juan type, but often gets the woman despite himself. I could go on…

And Picard is not the only character so finely developed.  They all are.  All of the main cast characters (and even a few who started out as small side characters) are thoroughly developed, with detailed histories, nuanced personalities, and complex interactions with other characters.

My biggest complaint with TNG is that the writers had a tendency to start plot arcs that they would then forget about.  The biggest example of this is a plot that was begun in the first season: alien parasites had taken control of several high-ranking members of Starfleet, Picard and Riker managed to kill them, but not before one had time to send a signal into space, presumably as a beacon to lead someone/thing to Earth.  This plot was never resolves, and was apparently forgotten.  I absolutely hate it when writers introduce some plot element in a series (tv show or book series) and then never resolve it.  Drives me NUTS.

That being said, the episodes “The Inner Light” and “Chain of Command” Pts 1 and 2 are honest-to-God masterpieces, which EVERYONE should see at least once.

So, how about Star Trek: DS9?  Many Trek fans didn’t like DS9 because it took place on a space station rather than a ship and was quite a bit darker and therefore very different from TOS and TNG.  I understand that “different” causes problems (it’s part of why I had trouble watching Enterprise, though I think the writing was sub-par on that show as well).  However, once you get past the jolt of something so different, you quickly realize that DS9 had all the same things that made TNG so amazing.  Plus, possibly, a tiny bit more.

Cast of Deep Space 9

DS9, like TNG, had a host of amazing, complex, nuanced characters who really made the show what it was.  With a different cast of characters (and a less talented group of actors to portray them) it would have been a much different show.  Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko, was the first black commanding officer to be portrayed in the Star Trek shows, and he was a fantastic character cool and controlled in ways similar to Picard, but more light-hearted, joking, and with a son, making him very much his own person.  Security Chief Odo was, obviously, DS9’s answer to the very popular TNG character Data, but as the show developed Odo became a more complex and interesting character than the original writing would have suggested.  You also had the very angry ex-rebel Bajoran Kira Nerys and one of my personal favorites: the secretly genetically-engineered genius Doctor Julian Bashir, as just a few of the complicated, often conflicted characters that inhabited the space station.  And Garak!  An ex-spy turned tailor with conflicted loyalties and outwardly cheerful personality.  One of the best characters in Star Trek: period.

This focus on character and some very well-written individual episodes put DS9 right on par with TNG.  However, DS9 quickly moved away from completely episodic stand-alone episodes and moved toward large over-arching plots that developed from episode to episode as the war with the shape-shifting Dominion and their brutal warriors the Jem’Hadar begins in season 3. Like any tv show, there are still stand-alone episodes mixed in with the episodes that move the main plot along, but unlike TNG whose over-arching plots lasted only a few episodes here or there, The Dominion War plot line lasted from the beginning of Season 3 up through the ending of the series in season 7.  This took serious attention to detail, continuity, character development, tension and tone.  This focus on one large plot (with many complex sub-plots intertwined) and its darker themes about war, revenge, racism, imperialism, etc, made this series intense and brilliant.

This is not to say that DS9 didn’t have some bad episodes, because it did.  The worst one EVER is “Trials and Tribble-ations” in which Sisko and a few others go back in time to Kirk’s Enterprise to help find a bomb that is disguised as a tribble.  (And if you don’t know what a tribble is: tribble wikipedia page).  Yeah…

For just a couple of really fantastic episodes: “In the Pale Moonlight” and “Hard Time,” which are both pretty dark but extremely human and intense.  Also, the series finale “What You Leave Behind” Pt 1 and 2 ‘cause seriously, one thing the Star Trek writers do extremely well are finales.

I’m going to put my life on the line here, and say I do think DS9 was a slightly better-written show.  But at the same time, there is a fun light-hearted optimism to TNG that many believe more accurately reflects creator Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy in life, and which DS9 often lacks.  So, really it just depends on what mood you’re in: fun and optimistic or dark and intense.  I honestly love them all.  (And you’ll notice, I didn’t even get into Voyager.  It’s brilliant, and that would have just made this too messy.)

Okay, I could go on about this for a very long time, as you might be able to tell by now.  But I’ve gone long enough as it is, so I’ll call it quits here.  If you’re not a Star Trek fan, I hope some of the other shows I talk about later will be more to your liking.

If you are a Star Trek fan, what do you think of my assessment?  Which incarnation is your favorite (if you can choose)? What are your favorite episodes?  Favorite characters?  Let’s get some Trekkie talk up in here, people! Come on!