The Blessing and Burden of Methuselah

09-Jan-08 4:17 PM by
Filed under Films, Star Trek; Comments Off on The Blessing and Burden of Methuselah

They say the mind is the first thing to go — yet it's a part of the organ we understand, and are able to replace, the least.

Now, Dr. Gordon Bell intends to bring Harry Potter's pensieve to life by developing a way to duplicate the memories of the human mind as easily as any other storage device. Via Slashdot, Fox News asks, "What if you could capture every waking moment of your entire life, store it on your computer and then recall digital snapshots of everything you've seen and heard with just a quick search?" A query meant to excite — or scare?

This is more a science and human interest story than a cinematic one, but consider how many films deal with cybernetic transplantation of humanity. Recreating the essence of man through artificial means is at the core of films such as Blade Runner and episodes of Star Trek like "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" in The Original Series and "Schizoid Man" in The Next Generation (in contrast to Bicentennial Man, which is about a robot becoming human). These fictions embody a very real fear of death and a desire to live on after the failure of the organic body.

But at what price immortality? Besides ethical and spiritual dilemmas, there are also legal and privacy issues inherent in such permanent records. Consider the low-tech solution currently employed by the inventor cited above: "Bell wears a SenseCam, developed by Microsoft Research, that takes pictures whenever it detects he may want a photograph. The camera's infrared sensor picks up on body heat and takes snapshots of anyone else in the room, adjusting itself as available light changes." How would you like to be in that room with Mr. Bell, knowing he was playing Big Brother?

There's a film that employs uses a similarly problematic technique for recording human experience: Robin Williams' The Final Cut. In this movie's world, parents have the option of having their unborn child implanted with an EyeTech Zoe chip. This chip piggybacks on its host's senses to create a visual and aural record of its carrier's experiences. This chip is extracted upon death; someone with the profession of "cutter" then uses this footage to create a 90-minute "Rememory", a montage of experiences by which the living can remember the deceased. A cutter is bound by only three rules: he cannot sell Zoe footage; he cannot mix footage from different Zoe implants for a rememory; and a cutter cannot himself have a Zoe implant.

I stumbled across this film two years ago, roughly at the same time I was given an open-ended assignment to "write something academic about something cinematic." At the time, I had also been reading plenty of Star Trek novels, and the intersection of the two media begged for comparison and contrast. I put two different implants — the Zoe chip and a Trill symbiont — under the microscope and came up with a 2,000-word paper entitled "Preservation of Memory as a Means of Immortality: A Science Fictional Approach".

Though the professors evaluated the essay favorably, neither were familiar with the background material. I've yet to find to find someone who is and can thus evaluate my work from that perspective. If you're a Trekkie who's seen The Final Cut and are interesting in reading the implications of each medium's method of providing permanent mental capacity, please drop me a note.

TNG at 20: The Voyage Continues

26-Sep-07 6:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Twenty years ago this autumn, I was a sophomore in college. I remember watching the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG) with friends. While most of us were fans of speculative fiction, we had little idea of how entertaining and influential TNG would become.

I had grown up on the writings of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, but I had watched the original 1960s Star Trek only in reruns. During freshman year, I had fought for the dorm lounge television with people who preferred The Late Show With David Letterman over some old show with people wearing colorful pajamas, odd makeup, or both. But we were a small but dedicated band, and we made it to the stars. Among the friends I met then was my future wife.

Over the course of many late nights and foosball games, I learned about the United Federation of Planets, its Starfleet, and the Prime Directive that forbade its explorers from interfering in the internal affairs or development of alien worlds. The so-called "Wagon Train to the stars" combined Westerns with ray guns, and mythology with scientific speculation.

By the time TNG began, I was indeed a Trekkie — or "Trekker," as some prefer — having learned the cant among the franchise's fans: phasers, warp speed, and the Vulcan nerve pinch and salute. Of the eventual six movies with the space opera's original cast, the best two — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and IV: The Voyage Home — had already been released. Thanks to magazines such as Starlog and various "technical manuals," I learned about transporters and Jeffries tubes (the access tunnels throughout starships, named after an original series art director). Around Thanksgiving of 1987, I would attend my first science fiction convention, one run by Creation Entertainment in New York.

It's also worth remembering the context into which this Enterprise was launched — that, despite the success of multimedia franchises such as Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, there was little genre entertainment on television at that time. As we look forward to 2007's premieres of Heroes, Lost, or Battlestar Galactica: Razor, among others, note that 20 years ago, there was only Stephen Spielberg's anthology Amazing Stories, horror drama Friday the 13th: the Series, and another Earth-based movie spin-off, Starman. Weak visual effects, even weaker writing, and a lack of interest among mainstream viewers and networks had doomed all but the U.K.'s Doctor Who to short lifespans or syndication.

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