E.S.P. and Black Boxes

This past weekend, I showed my 7-year-old daughter her first episode of Star Trek. It was the second episode of the original season which I found after recently discovering that all of the early Star Trek shows are available on youtube because a French musician friend told me he likes to become emotional and cry in front of them whenever he has free time and a good enough wi-fi connection. I turned on the episode as I often do in order to have something fun and a bit distracting in the background while doing some drawing or painting. My daughter came in and immediately wanted to know what was on the computer and sat down. As I scribbled a large image of a human brain on some big format paper someone was throwing out from a defunct architectural studio in Paris, I got to periodically look up and watch her watching the show.

I had already seen that episode a day, or maybe a week earlier. I can’t remember now the exact chronology, even though it was only a short time ago. My ability and patience in separating out continuity lines seems to grow less and less impressive with each passing day and I suspect this mental trend of becoming slowly incapable of certain types of memory to be directly related to the rapidity of my internet connection. Anyway, I found on my first viewing of this particular show, that I’d become quickly transfixed and the magnetic pull of the episode seemed to double in intensity for my 7-year-old daughter.

I never really liked Star Trek as a kid. It was just o.k., and like so many television shows I watched when I was young, it was almost just something to be endured and gotten through. In that sense, a long church service, a bottle of banana-chemical-kid-medicine, an episode of Charles In Charge, Star Trek, and even certain unpleasant high-school psychedelic experiences were almost all on equal footing. But now, the ability to look back directly into the charming roots of this long-running, species-spawning series, that recently, like so many other types of fantasy genre-fare classics, have been blown up, face-lifted and spread-eagled into every marketable form of nostalgic bombast possible- was somehow revelatory to see the simple but infectious fun of these early shows shining back at me through the decades.

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The episode is called WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE and before becoming an unforgettable tag-line for the show itself, it had been the script-name of the series’ second pilot, after the first had been rejected by the studio. The story seems to go that Lucille Ball, (of all carbon-based life-forms!), who owned the studios where these first Enterprise sets were erected, liked Gene Rodenberry and thought his little space-cowboy project deserved a second chance. WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE is that second chance and the first episode that features Captain Kirk in command of the Enterprise. In the earlier pilot, Captain Christopher Pike was played by the wooden Jeffery Hunter, and while the other elements of that first pilot are almost identical to the rest of the series that would follow, there is a noticeable vacuum of desperately needed, crooning swagger. This second pilot, in an attempt to recalibrate the matter, sees William Shatner sashay forth. It appears that Shatner just emerged, fully formed and naturally oil-coiffed from a floating, shag-lined, outer-space jazz-bubble-slash-dinner-theatre, where he’d already been comfortably doing this Captain gig for a few light years at least. And nothing changes in his delivery from this, his first episode till his last appearance in a Star Trek movie. Nothing.

Episode #2 is about the Enterprise retrieving a lost recorder from another space-ship (a predecessor, or I guess more accurately, a descendant of today’s “black-boxes” that record what happens during accidents and urgent situations on commercial airliners) that had gone missing 200 years earlier.

The black-box they find at the beginning of the show reveals that all hell broke loose on this other ship after an encounter with a glowing, magnetic space-field. This aforementioned field somehow gave the missing crew a frantic need to order computer searches in an attempt to find out everything known about E.S.P. ability. Then, the ship blew itself up. For a few moments it’s as if Kirk and Spock and the others are trying to find a suicidally missing ship, and all they have to go on is an ancient and geeky google history.

But soon enough after unlocking the black-box, the Enterprise encounters the field itself (while crossing over into a new galaxy no less) and two of the show’s guest-star members are affected by cosmic rays while passing through this mysterious barrier and suddenly gifted with omnipotent E.S.P. related powers. The rays also damage the ship’s ability to move about in a timely fashion, effectively stranding them way the fuck out, for eternity.

The first time watching the episode, I was struck by the talent, or at least the magnetism of the two affected crew members, especially once they became all powerful, which necessitated the wearing of what look like aluminum-foil contact lenses. I remember always hearing and reading in old interviews with film actors that early contact lenses were extremely painful to wear. Lou Ferrigno, who played the original Incredible Hulk was always complaining about them making him almost blind. As a kid when I went to the public library with my Mother, I would usually make a b-line for the film section, where I would sit far away from the real books that took effort to read and instead pour over mouldering collections of classic Hollywood monster magazines.  Every single account by someone in a monster movie who had to wear contact lenses complained about them bitterly, usually describing them as maddeningly painful and at best, nearly blinding.

So when looking at the two Enterprise crew members with their silver eyes and unusually captivating modes of delivery, I had to wonder if it was the pain that was assisting their performances.

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Sally Kellerman as Dr. Elizabeth Denher, the space-age psychologist who offers that “professional women often over-compensate in matters of authority”.

The one time I ever produced a music video for someone other than myself was for a young, rather inexperienced, but visually talented French director who was supposed to make a video for a Danish pop-star wannabe who sang some kind of techno-blended nonsense about the right formula to have when going out clubbing. On the day of the shoot, after an over lengthy set-up in a system of beautiful but freezing, old Parisian underground meat-lockers, the first shot was ready. The singer was called in to lie on the nearly icy concrete floor, very early on a Saturday morning after have flown in on a budget flight late the night before. She was already skeletally thin and after a few moments of finishing various touch-ups the young French director said with a very French accent that we should turn off the little space heaters we had blowing on her ( I was holding one of them over her just out of shot) because she looked better when she was cold and uncomfortable.

She laughed with very little humor and I thought “wow, we’re in for a great day here” as I switched off the heater and wondered how long her barely flesh-covered bones could hold out before I would have to take her to the hospital for hypothermia. After what seemed like a very long time, our fearless sadist-in-chief finished his cigarette and said we could shoot. By that point , the girls lips were turning blue, but she managed to sing along to the playback until a light blew out and we had to move on the the next shot. We moved her shuddering, pixie-like body to another cold room with more space heaters where she tried to light a cigarette but kept dropping it from her trembling fingers.

I very quickly was deciding that the young director was a complete asshole as he routinely disappeared just when his judgement was needed to go off and smoke cigarettes and laugh with his seedy-looking buddies. As the day wore on, and the scenes got bigger, more and more extras kept showing up until the area was full of break dancers, rockabilly kids and various youngsters tricked into spending a few glamorous moments in front of our cameras. It got to the point when there were too many people, lights, smoke-machines to keep things really organized and a free-wheeling pseudo party ensued. The multiple cameras just went at it wildly, trying not to catch each other too much in the cross-fire and we hoped to get lucky in the editing room.

By that point, the young director had completely lost his nerve- he had never dealt with that many people before and he was in a cold sweat himself, unable to make a single communicable decision. The young first AD was by that point fed up with the young director and decided to devote his remaining time on set to impressing various young actresses with whom he thought he might sleep later on. The entire affair was a complete fiasco, we all hated the result (though the singer and her label were happy) and strangely enough, the resulting video became an overnight sensation with the Danish Internet watching public. It did well, very quickly for such a small project and we all chuckled, shrugged and moved on with our lives.

But looking back now through my new Star Trek contact lenses, I’m forced to recall the indisputable difference in quality between the takes when the singer was comfortable and when she was shivering into advanced stages of hypothermia. When she was freezing, she looked like she was fighting through something, and something powerful. Some kind of force. The veins on her neck we bulging as she sang along with the playback. Her eyes radiated a kind of darkness and intensity that was completely missing from the takes when she was actually warm. Her nipples were trying to madly shoot out of her shirt and scout ahead for warmth and shelter while her eyes seemed to glow with an icy fire that spoke of anger at the director for putting her through such torture, but also mixed with pleasure at somehow knowing she’d been pushed out on the real ledge that divides an artist worthy of attention from her audience. That ledge is often not a very comfy place to be, even if all you’re doing is pushing bad Danish dance music. The young director was right- she was much better, much more magnetic and sexually attractive when she was so cold she nearly had a seizure. Or at least that’s how it appeared to the camera, which in the world of  shallow music videos, is all that matters.

So I wonder, when looking at WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE’s guest-stars Gary Lockwood and Sarah Kellerman, if the agony in their eye-balls is somehow helping their performances on the space-ship. I find them incredibly convincing as humans turned omnipotent super-beings and they bring to the table a sizable amount of believable pathos and tragic weight.

The question of pain aiding in performance is I think an interesting one, when considering the personal pain one goes through as an unrecognized artist, who, in order to exist, must fight for entry and space in the large and powerful channels of the open, media-driven sea. I think the early Star Trek episodes are a great showcase for the nearly inhuman levels of ambition that glow from the bedrock of night-time L.A., powering its bewitching electrical grid which a rubber-puppet E.T. once looked out over in a mechanical approximation of shock and awe.

Sally Kellerman as Major "Hot-Lips" Houlihan later on in her career in Robert Altman's M.A.S.H.

Sally Kellerman as Major “Hot-Lips” Houlihan later on in her career in Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H.

Never in any galaxy, known or henceforth to be discovered, has there been a territory filled with sentient beings who are yearning to attain a certain surface-level of god-like stature (or at least to be intimately touched by those who possess it), like their are in the film-crazy town of Los Angeles. And somehow, a significant residue of this very silver-screen deity-dust has rubbed off on the color-saturated negative of the early Star Trek shows. You can tell, particularly in regards to the guest stars, that they hail from a rotating pool of working, currently unknown, but truly promising, and combustibly hopeful actors. Each one struggling to make their mark, to split their own “atomic moment” between the pages of the scene and open a black-hole in the space-time-soup of the unknowable television galaxy. And by virtue of their rampant, unrepentant dreaming, combined with the undeniable physical appeal that brought them to L.A. in the first place, they manage to ignite the air in their modest, yet imaginative surroundings (in this case, a wooden walled space-ship) and in the end succeed in opening a magical portal.

A doorway between the audience’s own experience at home (where they are mired in all too mundane and realistic surroundings) and that astonishing moment of the actor’s own real life, when they find themselves finally lost in a game of heightened pretend: posing, just so, speaking with a perfected and purring cadence, beneath hot lights, behind blinding contacts lenses and in front of a whirring black box that seems to move about silently, like some ever-watchful predatory being from beyond. This black box has a vacuum inside that preserves all their beauty, all their longing in a celluloided, technicolor stasis to be broadcast later, across the ages for anyone who cares to take the time to open their eyes and see it.

My daughter had many questions during and after watching the show. She seemed to like Spock the best, just like I did as a kid. I was surprised because she was actually scared by some of it and covered her eyes even though she also laughed and pointed out several times how fake it all seemed. When it was finished, she looked up at the big picture I had drawn of the the brain and its various cartoonish dendrites and neurons that I’d scribbled with different magic markers while not watching the show, preferring instead to concentrate on her and the paper.

She looked at it quietly for a long moment, then smiled and laughed, shaking her head. “It’s too weird for me,” she said. Then she hopped off the chair, skipped back into her room where she was greeted by a floor strewn with toys which were waiting to play.

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