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Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Nothing Human (Review)

Nothing Human is very much an example of Star Trek: Voyager doing archetypal Star Trek, those abstract morality plays with elaborate prosthetics that offer commentary on contemporary conundrums.

Nothing Human is essentially a story about scientific ethics, about the question of what to do with information that was gathered through amoral means. Is knowledge tainted by the mechanisms through which it was acquired? Is the use of that research an endorsement of the means through which it was conducted? At the very least, does employing such information erode the user’s moral high ground? Does the use of such data make them a hypocrite, demonstrating a willingness to reap the benefits of such monstrous work, but without getting their hands dirty?

Something inhuman.

These are tough questions, with obvious applications in the modern world. These are the sorts of abstract ethical queries that are well-suited to a Star Trek episode, and there is something very endearing in the way that Nothing Human often comes down to two characters debating scientific ethics in a room together. To be fair, Nothing Human is a little too cluttered and clumsy to be as effective as it might otherwise be, its conclusions a little too neat, its developments just a little bit too tidy.

However, Nothing Human is a great example of the way in which Voyager tried to offer a version of Star Trek reflecting the popular perception of it. Nothing Human is a little clumsy in places, but it is an episode that is very much in line with what casual viewers expect from Star Trek in the abstract.

A Cardie-carrying monster.

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Non-Review Review: Interstellar

Interestingly, Christopher Nolan seems to have generated a reputation as a rather detached director. Common wisdom around Nolan’s films suggest that the film-maker is perhaps too cold and clinical in his approach to the material; that his films lack warmth or humour. This reputation is probably a result of the director’s fascination with non-linear storytelling. After all, The Dark Knight is his only straight-arrow-from-beginning-to-end film.

Probably also due to the narrative contortions and distortions of films like Memento or The Prestige, Nolan is generally presented as a film-maker who constructs visual puzzle-boxes. His films are frequently treated as riddles to be solved. Consider the discussion of narrative “plot holes” in The Dark Knight Rises that fixates on how Bruce Wayne got around back to Gotham, or the discussion on the mechanics of the final shot of Inception. This approaches to his work tend to divorce the viewer from his films.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Interstellar will likely be Nolan’s most polarising film to date, replacing The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises. The film offers an extended two-and-a-half hour rebuttal to accusations that Nolan is detached or distant. Much has been made about the attention to detail on Interstellar. The physics on the movie were so exact and precise that physicist Kip Thorne actually made theoretical advances while working on the film.

However, at the same time, one character posits love as a force more powerful than gravity or time. Interstellar might be precise and meticulous, but it is not a film that lacks for an emotional core; it is not a movie that lacks for warmth. Interstellar feels like a conscious attempt to cast off the image of a cynical and cold film-maker.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Jetrel (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Jetrel is an interesting episode for a number of reasons. It’s another example of how the first season of Star Trek: Voyager seems anchored in the aftermath of the Second World War. The episode exists primarily as a meditation on guilt over the use of atomic weapon, with the Metreon Cascade attack on Rinax standing in for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Negaska in 1945. Jetrel aired three months shy of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, and amid a national period of reflection about the morality of Harry S. Truman’s actions.

Whatever the context of Jetrel in 1995, it serves as another example of how Voyager seems like a relic from a bygone age, a snapshot of atomic age science-fiction. Cathexis was the show doing Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Faces was an old-fashioned monster movie. Jetrel wasn’t even the first time that the first season had traded in atomic imagery. The aftermath of the polaric detonation in Time and Again was very clearly designed to evoke the aftermath of an atomic blast.

The devil in the pale moonlight...

The devil in the pale moonlight…

Even without all this baggage, Jetrel still feels like a mess of an episode. The heart of the story finds a member of the ensemble confronting a former war criminal while dealing with issues of war guilt and responsibility – a structure that evokes Duet the penultimate episode of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. While that episode worked brilliantly, there’s a sense that Jetrel is burdened a little bit trying to offer a two-hander about guilt while tackling the issue of the atomic bomb.

The problem is compounded by a somewhat messy final act that eschews all the episode’s heavy character-based drama in favour of a contrived techno-babble climax that involves a lot of characters spouting nonsense while playing with light-emitting diodes. Jetrel begins as the strongest and boldest episode of the show’s first season, but ends as one of the prime examples of Voyager‘s preference for techno-babble over character work.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

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