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Thursday, 19 September 2019

SF&F Questions: Does human religion still exist at the time of Star Trek?

Star Trek is the most extensive live-action science fiction franchise of all time, spanning 762 episodes (as of July 2019) across seven distinct television series, along with thirteen theatrical movies and countless novels, video games and comics. The Star Trek timeline extends from the near future to more than a thousand years in our future.

In all of that time, Star Trek has somehow managed to sidestep the question of religion, specifically human religion. Alien religions are covered, sometimes in exacting depth, with multiple episodes focusing on the religious beliefs of races including the Bajorans and Klingons, and the ideological attitude and spirituality of the Vulcans. But the show tends to shirk away from answering questions such as whether humans still believe in God in the 23rd and 24th centuries.

Word of God
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, a committed atheist, secularist, optimist and humanist, was unequivocal on the matter: he believed that by the time of Star Trek (the 23rd and 24th centuries), human beings would have come to the realisation that religion was outdated superstition and would have embraced a philosophical and ideological point of view that rejected both religion and the pursuit of money as the motivating factors of the human race.

Of course, such a viewpoint was fairly radical for 1960s American television, and it seems that Roddenberry didn’t enforce this POV on his writers, who frequently adopted more traditional viewpoints, with characters affirming a belief in God at several points. Later Star Trek producers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore confirmed that Gene’s tenet on religion remained in full force on the 1990s Star Trek shows (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager). “On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.”

In addition, it appears that humanity has abandoned the use of the Anno Domini (After Christ) or Common Era calendar in favour of non-denominational Stardates instead. In fact, it took twenty-two years after the airing of the first episode of Star Trek for a current year to even be mentioned in this system (in The Next Generation’s The Neutral Zone, when the current year is identified as 2364 AD).

Evidence in The Original Series
In Balance of Terror it is revealed that the Enterprise has a non-denominational chapel on board where religious ceremonies can be held, including weddings and funerals. This suggests that human religious faith still exists and all beliefs are catered to on the ship.

However, in Who Mourns for Adonis? Kirk seemingly contradicts this by saying that polytheistic religious beliefs are considered outdated as “we find the one [god] quite sufficient.” This seems to suggest that Hinduism and any belief not centred around a single god (such as Buddhism) no longer exists. It also suggests that most humans still believe in a single god at this point in history.

In Space Seed, Lt. McGivers reports that Khan is of Indian descent and may be a Sikh, although when he wakes up, Khan does not identify himself with any religious belief. However, given that Khan originates from the late 20th Century, that doesn’t mean that the Sikh culture and faith is still extant in the 23rd Century.

In Bread and Circuses, Septimus asks the crew if they are “Children of the Sun,” to which McCoy replies, “If you’re speaking of worship of sorts, we represent many beliefs.”

In That Which Survives, navigator Lt. Rahda is shown wearing the bindi (a traditional Hindu symbol on her forehead), contradicting Who Mourns for Adonis?

Evidence in the movies
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a funeral is held for Spock after his death in the battle with Khan. The funeral is apparently non-religious, with no prayers offered, although Scotty does play the 1779 Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes. It should be noted that as a Vulcan (a half-Vulcan, but raised on the Vulcan homeworld as a full Vulcan), Spock would presumably not have requested any kind of human religious funeral anyway. Several characters also exclaim “My God!” at various points in the film, but Dr. McCoy also refers to the story of Genesis as “a myth.”

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, religious faith and fundamentalism is a key theme and it is even hinted that the hostile alien entity imprisoned at the centre of the galaxy may be the inspiration for numerous real-world religions (as Kirk memorably points out, “What does God want with a starship?”).

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Captain Sulu yells “My God!” upon seeing the shockwave from the Klingon moon Praxis approaching his ship, the Excelsior.

In Star Trek: Generations, Picard celebrates Christmas, although Christmas is of course considered a secular holiday by many.

Evidence in The Next Generation
In Who Watches the Watchers the crew of the Enterprise interfere with a preindustrial civilisation and inadvertently create a religion based around their activities, to Picard’s evident horror. He describes the age of religious belief as a primitive “setback.”

Several weddings take place in the series, most notably the marriage of Miles and Keiko O’Brien in Data’s Day, but these are non-denominational weddings. However, in the same episode Data notes that the Hindu Festival of Lights is currently ongoing and there will be celebrations of this on the Enterprise.

In Sub Rosa, Dr. Crusher’s grandmother is given a Catholic funeral.

Evidence in Deep Space Nine
In The Ship and The Sound of Her Voice, wakes take place. However, they are not overtly religious ceremonies.

In the episode Penumbra (taking place in AD 2375), Captain Kasidy Yates says that her mother would expect her to be married by a minister.

Evidence in Voyager
Commander Chakotay is of Native American descent and frequently mentions his spiritual beliefs.

Evidence in Enterprise
Taking place a hundred years before Kirk’s times, Enterprise features much more overt references to religion still existing. Dr. Phlox is a student of human religion and in Cold Front mentions taking mass in St. Peter’s Square and visiting a Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

Evidence in other materials
Various Star Trek books and comics make more overt references to religion still existing: A Small Matter of Faith focuses on the career of a Starfleet chaplain and Guises of the Mind features Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu believers in Starfleet. The video game Star Trek: 25th Anniversary features a group of religious separatists living on a breakaway colony, and Kirk can respond to their beliefs either respectfully or sardonically.

However, none of the Star Trek comics, video games or novels are canon, so these are not germane.

How could religion disappear in just 240 years?
Given that many of the world religions are thousands of years old, the idea that religion may disappear in just the next 240 years appears to be fanciful. Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore notes that he considers it to be impossible, but could not overrule Gene Roddenberry’s rule.

One possibility is related to the fictional World War III. In Star Trek’s timeline, WWIII erupts in 2026 and rages until 2053, although there are apparently lulls and ceasefires during the conflict. The war involved both conventional military activity and nuclear strikes, which eliminated many of the world’s major cities. One reason San Francisco becomes apparently the biggest and most important city in North America in the Star Trek timeline is that many of the other major cities of the continent were destroyed. The death toll from WWIII is about 600 million.

It is possible that this war was so devastating that entire religions were wiped out, or driven underground or to the point of extinction and that the post-WWIII rebuilding process, especially after First Contact with the Vulcans in 2063, was undertaken specifically with the idea of uniting humanity under a single humanist banner.

It is also possible that the discovery of intelligent alien life resulted in a massive philosophical shift on Earth which contributed to the decline of religion.

So, has human religion disappeared by the time of Star Trek?
Based on multiple data points, it appears that religion continues to endure even by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine: Dr. Crusher’s grandmother is a Catholic, Captain Yates and her mother appear to be Christians of unknown denomination and a Hindu religious festival is observed on board the Enterprise-D. There are also Hindus serving in Starfleet at the time of The Original Series.

As a result, we can conclude that although religious worship among humans is much less widespread in the late 24th Century compared to now, it remains extant and people do continue to follow the major world religions, albeit in much smaller numbers than at present.

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Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

A band of friends meet at the Inn of the Last Home in the town of Solace. Five years ago they went their separate ways, searching for evidence of the lost gods. Their findings were inconclusive, but their reunion is interrupted by the news of vast armies allied with dragons on the march and the arrival of strangers bearing a crystal staff...and the long-lost power of healing. The continent of Ansalon is riven by war and it falls on this band of heroes to save it from destruction.

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy is one of the most famous works of epic fantasy of the 1980s. Published in 1984 and 1985, the trilogy and its immediate sequel series (The Dragonlance Legends) have together sold almost 30 million copies, making them one of the biggest-selling series of that decade. Millions of fantasy readers started out in the genre by reading these novels.

The question arises, then, is it a good idea to revisit these works as an adult and risk ruining nostalgic teenage memories in the process?

The answer is mixed. The paradox at the heart of enjoying the Dragonlance Chronicles is what age group it's actually aimed at. The generally jovial tone (even when quite dark things are happening), the casual dialogue (this is a trilogy where medieval fantasy characters say "Yeah!" a lot) and the extremely breezy pace make this feel like a series aimed at children. I don't mean YA, I mean 7-10 year olds. The prose is simple and easy to read, and it feels very much like a work aimed in writing style at the same kind of audience as The Hobbit. There's moments of whimsical humour, stirring action and intriguing worldbuilding which do withstand comparison with Tolkien's work, despite the less-accomplished writing.

However, there are moments when the series abruptly goes much more adult. There are several sex scenes (albeit mostly of the "fade to black" kind) and female characters are threatened with sexual assault on a fairly regular basis. Tanis Half-elven also can't even meet a stranger on the road without carefully explaining how his mother was assaulted by a human man, leading to his conception and outcast status from both communities. The trilogy is also painfully 1980s in how it tries to have both strong female characters (Laurana, Tika, Kitiara, Goldmoon) and then gets them into situations of undress, or wearing revealing armour or clothes (Tika, at least, gets to make some wry observations on this that makes me suspect Margaret Weis was rolling her eyes as she wrote to market requirements). There's also a quite spectacular amount of violence, including characters being beheaded, turned to stone or set on fire on a fairly regular basis, and some psychological horror in the form of Berem, who is cursed to die and live again so often that he is going insane.

If you can overcome the tonal dissonance - the gap between the lightweight, juvenile writing and sometimes darker, more adult content - then it's possible to enjoy the Dragonlance Chronicles as a fast-paced, popcorn read. The trilogy does have another key feature (or bug) which is that it is an attempt to adapt no less than twelve Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules into a coherent story. Several times the narrative cuts away from our heroes embarking on another side-quest only to come back to them after that quest is completed, leading to the heroes thinking wistfully back on adventures that the reader never experienced (such as the journey to Ice Wall Castle, or Raistlin's completely out-of-nowhere return to the main story in the closing pages of the third book). This does make the story feel somewhat incomplete. It also means that the stories are extremely fast-paced: the Chronicles trilogy features a bigger story and more characters and events than The Lord of the Rings in about 50,000 fewer words. Some will enjoy the breakneck pace, others may lament the lack of character and plot development this results in.

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy (***) is fast-paced, fun and easy to read. It's also simplistic, juvenile in tone and has not aged fantastically well. Truth be told, there's much better options available for both adult and children fans of fantasy these days. But if you can overlook the issues, there is still some fun to be had in revisiting Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Flint, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tas, Kitiara, Sturm, Laurana, Gilthanas, Lord Soth and the rest of this memorable bunch of archetypes. The trilogy is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot to be rebooted, for some reason

The Battlestar Galactica reboot is getting a reboot, because that's how things work now.

NBC has tapped Sam Esmail, the creative genius behind Mr. Robot, to take charge of a third iteration of the Battlestar Galactica franchise. The series will spearhead NBC Universal's new streaming service, which has the decidedly underwhelming name of "Peacock."

Battlestar Galactica was created by Glen A. Larson and aired as a single season on ABC in 1978-79, followed by a half-season, mid-season replacement sequel series called Galactica 1980, which is best being never watched or remembered. The original Battlestar was quite popular, but the absolutely titanic budget for the series prevented it from continuing.

In 2003 the Sci-Fi Channel, as it was then called, rebooted the show with Ronald D. Moore as executive producer and showrunner. The rebooted Galactica was a darker, moodier affair, much-informed by 9/11 and the War on Terror. With its low-fi aesthetics (no lasers, cute kids or robot dogs) and gritty attitude, the show won a whole new legion of fans as well as widespread critical acclaim, including Hugo and Peabody awards and multiple Emmy Awards in technical categories. The New York Times declared it one of the twenty best shows of the 21st century so far - a peer of The Wire, The Americans and Breaking Bad - just a few months ago.

Battlestar Galactica 2.0 concluded in 2009 with a highly divisive finale - one arguably even more polarising than Game of Thrones' or Lost's - before following it up with an unsuccessful spin-off show, Caprica, and a one-off TV movie, Blood and Chrome, in 2013. This iteration of the franchise has continued to be developed in video games, such as the excellent Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock, and a well-received board game and new miniatures game.

News that a third version of the show is in development has already been met with scepticism. The original 1978 version of the show was promising but cheesy, so the idea of rebooting it was quite valid and Moore more than delivered on the promise inherent in the premise, even if he didn't quite stick the landing. The question arises what a third version of the same idea could deliver.

The one interesting thing about the idea is the creative talent involved. Previously, X-Men director Bryan Singer had been attached to a film reboot (for the second time, having previously worked on a TV version in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was superseded by Moore's), which would have been the wrong medium. Sam Esmail is also a genuinely provocative and talented writer and director, whose Mr. Robot (which concludes with its fourth season early next year) is one of the best shows currently airing. Esmail's take on BSG could be very interesting, although it remains to be seen what he could bring to the table that is genuinely different. Certainly Ronald D. Moore seems intrigued by the idea, and has given Esmail his blessing to develop a fresh take on the franchise.

Battlestar Galactica 3.0 remains in development, but if NBC pull the trigger it will likely be fast-tracked to debut next year.

UPDATE: Sam Esmail has taken to Twitter to confirm that the new show will not be a reboot of Moore's version of the show, but will instead "explore a new story in the mythology whilst remaining true to the spirit of Battlestar. What this means precisely remains to be seen, but it may be an indication that the new show could be set within the Moore continuity but in a previously unseen time frame, such as the original exodus from Kobol to the Twelve Colonies, or the settling of the Thirteenth Colony. More information as we get it.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Showtime passes on THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE prequel series

In a somewhat surprising move, Showtime has halted development of the Kingkiller Chronicle prequel TV series and returned the rights to Lionsgate Television.

The news comes as a surprise after a period in which a confident Showtime seemed eager to take the fight to old rivals HBO and newcomers Netflix and Amazon, all of them have big-budget fantasy shows in development, shooting or getting ready to air. With HBO prepping two Game of Thrones spin-offs and getting ready to air a Watchmen sequel show and a new version of His Dark Materials, Netflix preparing to launch The Witcher and Amazon beginning filming on both The Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings: The Second Age this month (albeit only preliminary shooting in the latter case), Showtime seemed well-placed with their new TV project.

However, reports suggest that Showtime may have over-committed to its ambitious, top-dollar TV version of the Halo video game franchise (which recently began shooting) and no longer have the financial bandwidth to commit to Kingkiller at the same time. Releasing the rights voluntarily, especially after the significant amount they paid for them at auction in 2017, suggests that the network may have been at fault in the issue. Lionsgate are now shopping the rights around, but are finding the market glutted with high-budget fantasy projects, with no room at the inns of Netflix, Amazon or HBO.

Lionsgate now seem to be targeting Apple TV, which is still on the lookout for high-profile projects to bolster its launch lineup (which includes a TV adaptation of Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga and a new project from Battlestar Galactica and Outlander showrunner Ronald D. Moore). Apple have not committed to the project so far.

The Kingkiller Chronicle TV series is set some decades before the books and explores the lives of two characters, widely believed to be Kvothe's parents, on the world of Temerant. Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, His Dark Materials) is set to executive produce, create music and possibly act, whilst John Rogers (Leverage, The Librarians, The Player) is writing and showrunning.

The original plan was for the TV series to launch alongside a big-budget, direct movie adaptation of the first novel in the series, The Name of the Wind. However, progress on getting the movie made stalled earlier this year after would-be director Sam Raimi passed on the project.

Some fans have speculated that studios may be sceptical of the project given that the source material remains incomplete, with the third book remaining incomplete after at least nine years of work. However, the prequel series is not dependent on source material and seems to be a work of passion for the in-demand Miranda, increasing the likelihood it will find a new home elsewhere.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

HBO to order second GAME OF THRONES pilot about the Dance of Dragons

According to an exclusive story from Entertainment Weekly, HBO are close to ordering a second Game of Thrones spin-off pilot. This second pilot would be based on the Dance of Dragons, the devastating civil war that almost wiped out the Targaryens and did kill most of their dragons about 170 years before the events of the main series.

Ryan Condal, who was recently developing Amazon's Conan the Barbarian TV series before they passed on it, is developing the pilot. According to some rumours, he may have taken over development of this project from Bryan Cogman, who was working on a Game of Thrones project before being poached by Amazon to work on their Lord of the Rings: The Second Age series. This remains unconfirmed.

HBO is currently assessing the completed pilot for the first spin-off, with the working title Bloodmoon, before deciding to move forwards with a series order. It is unclear if this second show means that the first is dead, or they will consider having two spin-off series on air at the same time.

HIS DARK MATERIALS TV series to debut on 2 November

His Dark Materials will premiere in the UK on BBC-1 on Saturday 2 November, this year. HBO will premiere the show in the United States the following evening, Sunday 3 November.

The first season of His Dark Materials will comprise eight episodes and will adapt the first book in the series, Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass in some territories). The second season, in pre-production at the moment, will adapt The Subtle Knife, with a to-be-confirmed third and final season to adapt The Amber Spyglass.

Meanwhile, the second volume in Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, a sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials, will be published on 3 October under the title The Secret Commonwealth.

First cast picture of the WHEEL OF TIME TV series released

Showrunner Rafe Judkins has shared the first cast picture from The Wheel of Time TV series, which is due to start shooting in the next week or two.

From left to right: Barney Harris (Mat), Madeleine Madden (Egwene), Zoe Robbins (Nynaeve), Marcus Rutherford (Perrin), Rosamund Pike (Moiraine), Josha Stradowski (Rand) and Daniel Henney (Lan).

The cast of the show are currently in Prague undergoing costume-fitting, read-throughs and rehearsals ahead of the start of principle shooting.

The Wheel of Time series is expected to shoot through spring 2020 for airing in late 2020 or early 2021 on Amazon Prime Video.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Alexander Skarsgård cast as Randall Flagg in Stephen King's THE STAND

CBS All Access has cast Alexander Skarsgård in the villainous role of Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand.

One of the most iconic villains in all of horror, the supernatural Flagg arises from the chaos of the apocalypse to unleash a time of evil, savagery and darkness upon the world. He is opposed by the virtuous Mother Abigail, who assembles a band of mild-mannered heroes to fight him. Flagg is defeated in The Stand but not destroyed, and goes on to appear in several of King's other novels, including The Eyes of the Dragon and, as the "the man in black," the seven-volume Dark Tower series, where he serves as the primary antagonist.

Flagg was previously played by Jamey Sheridan in the 1994 TV mini-series version of The Stand and by Matthew McConaughey in the unsuccessful 2017 movie version of The Dark Tower.

Skarsgård is best-known for playing the role of morally ambiguous vampire Eric Northman on HBO's True Blood. He has also starred in HBO's Generation Kill and Big Little Lies, for which he won an Emmy Award.

The new version of The Stand will adapt the book across 10 episodes. It also stars James Marsden as Stu Redman, Amber Heard as Nadine Cross, Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith, Henry Zaga as Nick Andros, Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail, Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood, Owen Teague as Harold Lauder, Brad William Henke as Tom Cullen and Daniel Sunjata as Cobb. It starts shooting imminently and will air in late 2020.

THE WATCH TV series casts Vimes and other castmembers, confirms it will only be a "loose" adaptation

BBC America's City Watch TV series, based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, has added several major new roles to its cast.

Richard Dormer, best-known to fantasy fans for playing the role of Lord Beric Dondarrion in HBO's Game of Thrones, has been cast as Sam Vimes, the commanding officer of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. One of Pratchett's most iconic characters, Vimes is the alcoholic, cynical commanding officer with a hint of a conscience who finds himself drawn back into real police work. The previously-announced Adam Hugill is playing Carrot and Jo Eaton-Kent (The Romanoffs, Don't Forget the Driver) is playing Constable Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarfish member of the Watch.

Maltese actress Marama Corlett (Guardians of the Galaxy, Blood Drive, The City and The City) is playing Angua, a werewolf member of the Watch. Lara Rossi (Crossing Lines, Iron Sky 2) has been cast as Lady Sybil Ramkin, whilst Sam Adewunmi (Luck Man, Doctor Who) has been cast as villain Carcer Dun.

The casting seems promising, although the formal BBC press release seems to drive a stake through the heart of those hoping for a faithful adaptation of the novels. It confirms a number of major changes to both the worldbuilding (crime has been formally "legalised" in Ankh-Morpork, apparently) and to characters, with Lady Sybil now apparently being a vigilante, which is presumably why they cast her considerably younger than in the novels.

It appears that this will be following in the footsteps of BBC America's Dirk Gently TV series in being more "inspired loosely by the books" then actually adapting them, which is a bold and possibly controversial choice (moreso with the considerably better-known and better-selling Discworld series).

The Watch starts shooting on location in South Africa on 30 September 2019 and will air in late 2020.