A conversation with science fiction author, media scholar, and musician Paul Levinson about the history and legacy of the Star Trek franchise, including his thoughts on the latest entry to the canon, Strange New Worlds. We discuss the philosophy and techn
Paul Levinson online:
Video chat with Cora Buhlert and Joel McKinnon on AppleTV Foundation, Season 1
Video chat with Paul and Joel on Apple TV's Severance
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[intro theme with voiceover:
Paul Levinson: “I'm going to make a prediction right here and we'll see whether this is true or not so I hope this conversation is listened to 100 years from now and here's my prediction. That as time goes on Christopher Pike is going to be the most important captain in all of the Star Treks.” ]
Welcome back to what I hope will be the last episode of Seldon Crisis before we get back into the final story episodes of the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. Casting is finally complete and it’s only a few more weeks until our first episode of the final chapter, Search by the Foundation. During my search for the last piece, our new voice of Arkady, I’ve had more than the usual bout of life’s distractions, some good and some less pleasant. Among the best distractions is a new TV series – the latest entry in the storied Star Trek franchise entitled Strange New Worlds. It’s a prequel to the original series and features a couple of characters beloved to fans of the show in the half-Vulcan half-Human science officer Spock and the communications officer Lieutenant Ohura, here just a cadet fresh out of StarFleet. I’ve watched a little more than half of the first season and am enjoying it quite a lot. It’s also spurred me to go back and rewatch some of the classic episodes of the original series. Being immersed in the Star Trek universe again has made me think about some of the similarities and differences with Asimov’s version of the distant human future described in Foundation.
I thought this would be a great time to welcome a new guest on the podcast, but one I’ve come to know well from his reviews and commentaries on Apple TV’s version of Foundation and the new Star Trek series and many other TV shows. Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC and a musician. His science fiction novels include The Silk Code (winner of the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999), The Consciousness Plague, The Pixel Eye, Borrowed Tides, The Plot to Save Socrates, Unburning Alexandria, and Chronica.. His award-nominated novelette, “The Chronology Protection Case,” was made into a short film and is on Amazon Prime Video. His nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge, Digital McLuhan, Realspace, Cellphone, McLuhan in an Age of Social Media, and Fake News in Real Context have been translated into 15 languages. He appears on CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, and NPR. His 1972 album, Twice Upon A Rhyme, was re-issued in Japan and Korea in 2008, and in the U. K. in 2010. His first new album since 1972, Welcome Up: Songs of Space and Time, was released on Old Bear Records and Light in the Attic Records in 2020.
Welcome, Paul, to Seldon Crisis! Anything you’d like to add to that impressive bio?
Paul: Well, it was such a great and impressive rendition of that bio that you just delivered that I hate to even add anything but on the other hand I can never resist an invitation like that. So I will mention that I wrote and published a few months ago a short story called It’s Real Life and it's one of my 2 favorite science fiction gambits time travel is probably still my favorite but alternate histories have become a close favorite both as a writer and a a viewer and a reader for that matter. Anyway, this is an alternate history about the Beatles and it's gotten such a good response that I'm now expanding it into a novel. And I think I'm up to the fourth chapter and I'm having a really great time writing it so this was a good time to do an interview because as a writer I'm always happiest when I'm actually writing something and it's going well which is not always the case.
Joel: Yeah I loved the short story version of that. So I'm really looking forward to an extended treatment. Sounds really fun. Paul: It is. Thanks.
Joel: So this is a podcast about Asimov as you know and Foundation primarily. So let's start there. We don't have to just talk about Asimov. I was thinking this episode could be about Star Trek. It's in the title and whatever else that takes us to to. So let's start with Asimov. I understand you had some kind of personal relationship at least in writing - I'm not sure if you ever said you met him? How did you come to intersect with Asimov?
Paul: Well let's go back to the 1950s when I was just a little kid but I began reading science fiction literally when I was 7 or 8 years old in the 1950s and everywhere I turned I came into Asimov's worlds which as most people know for the most part consisted of two at that time separate universes, one was his Foundation series and the other were his robot stories and also in the 1950s he had two robot novels and I just loved all of them and I remember by the late 1950s I had also read Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity which to this very day I think is the best time travel novel ever written. In fact I just had occasion to write up for another site what my favorite time travel novels are and The End of Eternity is still number one. So I always loved Aismov's work and I always tell people that it's true when I really love something I want to have all of it. And if that means we're talking about a writer who's still alive I always want to meet and get to know the writer and this has happened to me several times in my life with excellent consequences. For example I got to know Marshall Mcluhan the media theorist and we eventually did some work together. I met Carl Popper the Austrian-British philosopher after I included a section on him in my doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s, so I always knew I wanted to meet Asimov and apropos of the late 1970s, I was invited by a magazine – I think its name was Media and Methods, to write an essay on some science fictional theme and I decided to talk about how predicting the future was a central theme in those days and I still think this is the case. The two greatest science fiction series and that would be the Foundation series but the other would be the Dune series. And so I wrote an essay about that it was published I sent it to Isaac Asimov and you know people can see this if they just search on “Paul Levinson Isaac Asimov postcard” the word postcard in there I received one of I didn't know at the time of Asimov’s famous postcards in which in this little postcard, he said Dear Professor Levinson – I was already a young professor then – thanks so much for your essay. I didn't quite have that in mind when I wrote the Foundation trilogy. I wasn't quite as clever as you are or something like that and of course I was thrilled you know beyond belief to get that back then and we had several other important interactions back in the 1980s. My wife and I founded an online educational operation called Connected Education and I was in email touch back then but in postcard and telephone touch with Asimov and he knew about that and he actually wrote a very good article about it – what we were doing and about online education. I never really had a long in-person conversation with Asimov, the closest I got was in the late 1980s at an American Association, the Advancement of Science Conference that was taking place in New York I was delivering a paper and I did deliver a paper and that by the way was a real trip at the end of my delivery this bald guy comes up to me with a beaming face. He was Jonas Saulk , the guy who invented the Polio vaccine. Yeah I mean that was thrilling too. But I knew where Asimov was he had you know also delivered a paper. He was with his wife Janet and I went up to him as they were walking out. Janet was very protective of him so we just exchanged a few words and then you know to everyone's chagrin he died even suffering from aids he had picked it up in a blood transfusion in the 1980s.
Joel: Um, yeah I I imagine he was easily recognizable. Yeah, nobody looked like Asimov. I still regret now that Asimov was my favorite when I was...
Paul: Um, oh a hundred percent hundred percent.
Joel: … a teenager you know is my introduction to science fiction pretty much and not just science fiction I read a lot of his nonfiction because I always found it to be just a great way to come up to speed on any topic. He was just so clear in how he would explain things. It's only later looking back I'm thinking I had chances to see him talk. You know if I just like looked up his calendar or something I probably could have gone to one of his famous talks that I've heard so much about. You know that was his element. He loved to talk. And now it's too late.
Paul: Yeah, well one of the things with Asimov a lot of people don't know is he had a fear of flying. I guess a kind of agoraphobia so he didn't like to travel much and so pretty much it was New York and Boston where he gave most of his talks.
Joel: Well in hindsight living in Western Pennsylvania that wouldn't have been a big problem to make it to New York to see a place where he was talking.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely as I'd say one day I was driving home on the west side drive. You would like this I noticed a car in front of me has a license plate and all that's on the license plate is BOVA and a couple of days later I read Ben Bover wrote a comp, saying Oh I had a great time I had dinner with Isaac Asimov and his wife in Manhattan. So yeah, there was something about Asimov he had a way of cropping up and popping up in all kinds of unexpected places.
Joel: Yeah, cool I wanted to give you a little anecdote of how I re-ran into you because I remember we had a very brief exchange on on Twitter like a few years ago I think um, another mutual follow or something had something to do with it and then ah, a couple years ago when I was just starting this podcast or just before it I read this I checked out from the library a book on Robert Sheckley with one of his novels in it and I remembered one of them Mindswap was one of my favorites is when I was growing up I just loved that story so much. It's just absolutely hilarious from start to finish and that was one of the novels in it. But the other four were incredible too and I have even more appreciation for Sheckley after reading those. But on the back of the book. There was a blurb from a Paul Levinson raving about this book. So um I thought that name sounds familiar and sure enough I looked you up on Twitter and I realized that I had had a couple of interactions with you and that's what restarted our interaction on Twitter. So that was kind of interesting. I was just wondering what you think of Sheckley if you can expand on that little blurb at all.
Paul: Um, yeah, sure. Well first of all I love stories like that. This is one of the wonderful things about social media. It brings you back in touch with old friends that you haven't seen in 20, 30 years and it creates new relationships and it's really wonderful. You and I have talked already in various ways including on Twitter about about the importance of humor in science fiction and how for example, The Orville I think does it much better unsurprisingly than Star Trek. Certainly. The new Star Trek Strange New Worlds and even better than the original Star Trek. Although I think The Trouble with Tribbles is obviously a comedic masterpiece but that's what attracted me to Sheckley. Ah, but I'll tell you my single…
Joel: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: … favorite it just you know all of his work is wonderful and by the way I did meet him in person several times. Sheckley was he he never won the science fiction writers of America grand master award but he did win in effect the second award in that venue and it's called the Author Emeritus award and that happened when I was president of the science fiction writers of America and we were having our annual convention out in California and I had a wonderful dinner with Robert Sheckley but the single funniest thing and to this day when I think about it makes me laugh I don't know if you ever heard of Michael Resnick he also wrote a series of novels. But I think he really achieved his best work as an anthologist that is an editor who put together some really brand anthologies. I guess was in yeah, like this might have been the late 1980s early nineteen ninety s he had a an anthology called Alternate Presidents which I regretted that I I hadn't really started writing science fiction, otherwise I certainly would have contributed something. Anyway Robert Sheckley had an an essay in there and it it was about how Michael Dukakis is elected president in 1988. Of course he lost to George H W Bush in our reality and one of the things he hears I listen there'll be spoilers here so I will you tell me? do you want me to tell you the ending of this story or…?
Joel: Oh boy, that's a really tough one because I'd love to read it. Maybe you could just hint at it?
Paul: Yeah, all right I won't I did yeah well you know so basically Michael Dukakis after he becomes president. That's not giving anything away that's in the title of the story here's this ah rumor and wants to investigate it that in fact, interstellar visitors have been here for a long time other presidents have known about them and he and so Dukakis insists that he gets a secret service detail and they go find where these interstellar visitors are and it turns out they're in Washington. I won't tell you anything more but the idea of that is so funny.
Joel: Okay, it piques my interest. Is it online somewhere?
Paul: It might be. Look the truth is you would probably get the paperback of Alternate Presidents for like ¢50 somewhere you know on Amazon so but it might be online and you know.
Joel: Yeah I think the story I most remember from that Sheckley collection was Imagination Incorporated – the first one and I just loved that so much but they were all great. So anyway we should probably move on to the topic at hand which you started talking about a little bit, Star Trek. I wanted to know like what's your favorite version? I'm kind of guessing It was the original series but I shouldn't presume. I'm just kind of curious. What you think of all the different renditions of it? Have they ever matched up to that? What do you think of the whole canon?
Paul: Well it's a close contest between the original series and Star Trek: the Next Generation. And so let me just talk a little bit about Star Trek the Next Generation. It was a much more... Let's put it this way… savvy, mature series. You know one of the things about the original series is you could almost see somebody shaking the set. You know, lying down the floor shaking this other set when the Enterprise was hit by something, I mean everything was that flimsy. But I think when all is said and done even Star Trek the Next Generation I don't think was as good and brilliant as the original series and that's for a variety of reasons. First of all, they were individual shows. I already mentioned The Trouble with Tribbles that to this day is easily the funniest Star Trek episode, and one of the things that annoys me about the latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds – although I love a lot of it is their attempts at humor are clumsy and obvious in comparison to The Trouble with Tribbles and of course David Gerald who later went on to write The Martian Child and he is a great author of novels.
Joel: Ah, he was the writer of that - of The Trouble with Tribbles?
Paul: That's right and he was much younger the.n and you know so it's not surprising I mean it's just a hilarious episode. And then I always talk about City on the Edge of Forever. I remember you know as I mentioned earlier in this conversation time travel is my favorite genre and I remember seeing that episode when it was first on in the 1960s and again, although The Next Generation had some excellent time travel episodes as well. Yes, The Inner Light in effect is a kind of time travel story but still City on the Edge of Forever for me is the pinnacle of a science fiction time travel hour long – or in the case actually of commercial network television 46 minutes or 44 minutes long series. So that's one reason another reason is, also after all is said and done and this is one of the reasons I love a lot of Strange New Worlds my favorite character in all the Star Treks is not Kirk. It's not Picard. It's not Pike. It's Spock.
Paul: I thought he was absolutely mind blowing in the original series and one of the things I like best about Strange New Worlds is Ethan Peck is doing a great job as the younger Spock and you know Data was and still is maybe might even still be ah, kicking around somewhere a brilliant character but again as good as Data was I don't think Data is as powerful and intricate and fascinating a character as R Daneel Olivaw and you know who of course shows up in Foundation. But even before Foundation, I like in general Asimov's robots a little better than Data. But there's no one else who compares to Spock this combination of an alien species. But he's half human. And so for that reason there was no single character in TNG that equaled Spock in TOS and then finally you know to give credit where credit is due, Star Trek: The Original Series is what got it all going and and by the way it wasn't easy back then as I'm sure you know. I wrote an essay about this – it's in a collection of essays about Star Trek co-edited by the same David Gerald and Robert Sawyer a friend of mine a Canadian writer. And one of the points I made in that essay was how the original series beat the network system because as as you and every Star Trek fan knows it was canceled at the 3 years on NBC and and that would have been the end of it. Ah, you know there were a few exceptions like I love Lucy which came back in syndication and even Jackie Gleason show from the 1950s. Nobody thought that would happen with Star Trek in the first place but it did and it nurtured the Star Trek fan base to such a level that that's what led Gene Roddenberry to want to do and to be able to do The Next Generation and that in turn set in motion everything that we now know about Star Trek including with Paramount Plus is doing. So you know Star Trek totally aside from its science fiction Star Trek the original series is revolutionary in the history of television. You know you can talk about the various eras of television. There's the network era. There is the cable era that starts with the Sopranos in the late 1990s now. Of course we're into the streaming era. Even though we still have network and cable more and more people see things streaming Star Trek the original series revolutionized. The network era of television and in a way set the groundwork for everything that came after in television.
Joel: Yeah, yeah, um, there's another thing about the original series that that sticks out to me and this I was just reading the Wikipedia on it this morning. Um, the multiracial multicultural cast and how. They got a lot of pushback for that on that that yeah, what are you doing? What are you talking about putting you know all these different. Yeah, but a black woman on ah on a on a show come on and a russian guy and yeah, an asian guy. Yeah.
Joel: And I think that's a lot had a lot to do with its success in just standing out as something different and something really progressive and you know woke up a lot of new ways of looking at, you know, what comedy could do and drama could do on television.
I mean look you know a lot of people forget CBS in around the same time as you had Ohura on Star Trek and at least a romantic energy between her and Kirk. CBS dared to have Harry Belifante on the same screen with Julie Andrews shown a number and you know x number of racist southern stations refused to air the show. Whatever that show was with some kind of musical show. So you know I used to say when I talked about that we've come a long way and not to open up a can of worms, this is a completely different topic. But it's relevant. Yeah, we've come a long way but those racist tendencies are still with us and they rear their ugly head all the time. So Star Trek deserves credit for trying to buck that back in the 1960s.
Joel: Sure, sso let's talk for a moment about technology. Yeah, actually what I wanted to talk about it with comparing Star Trek and Foundation or comparing it with Asimov's vision of the future. What's in common and what's different and what strikes me ah, is you know, just it's ah it's ah, a relatively optimistic view of humanity in the future succeeding and spreading through the galaxy that they have in common. Um. But they're very different in that Asimov didn't like the idea of aliens because he thought that aliens would be so much more powerful. If they existed that they'd just wipe us out and that that's really foundational to Star Trek is having all these alien species who are pretty much very on this on the generally the same level as humanity that that seems rather unrealistic.
Paul: Yeah, well you know I agree with that. Let’s get back, though, to the beginning of your question. What's my favorite Star Trek technology? I've been giving us some thought. I think it's the transporter and beaming and teleportation has not received enough attention in science fiction. Alfred Bester had it in a few of his novels in the 1950s it's a very exciting concept and unlike time travel which in fact, one of the reasons why I love it. I think it's impossible. Because if you travel to the past of the so-called grandfather paradox and you accidentally kill your grandfather. How did you exist in the first place that doesn't need to be so brutal. You don't have to even kill your grandfather just prevent it from meeting your grandmother. And it doesn't have to be so sexist if you prevent your grandmother from reading a grandfather accidentally or deliberately how did you come to exist so there are ways out of that paradox every time you travel to the past you trigger a new alternate reality. That's even more incredible than time travel itself. So I love time travel. But I don't think it's possible. There is no paradox involved in beaming and to me that's a really exciting thing so that would be my favorite. Technology, the holodeck in The Next Generation and subsequent Star Treks. That's you know, maybe a second and I guess the first and the obvious point then this gets back to what you're talking about the faster than light travel. Of the starships and that's obviously something that both Star Trek and Asimov have very very much in common.
Joel: Well, it's kind of an absolute essential to having a human presence spread throughout the galaxy right?
Paul: It's absolutely essential and you know sometimes these scientific purists say no, it's impossible. Einstein said it was impossible no Einstein didn't say it was impossible actually Einstein just said it would be incredibly difficult. And it would warp all kinds of things if it happened but Einstein never once said faster than light travel is impossible. So, and even if he had that's just a theory. We've never traveled fast enough to see whether or not that's impossible or not so I think it's a reasonable proposition that at some point we will develop faster than live travel and that yeah is what as you just said correctly, you can't have human beings jumping from one sector of the galaxy or universe to another in any kind of way that makes sense in a narrative unless you have faster than light travel. So I think that's an important, you know, similarity. I do think there's an optimistic similarity, between Asimov and the Star Trek universe as although probably Star Trek is more optimistic than Asimov I mean over the long run if you look at The Mule, you know wins, and it is in power for a while so you know translate the mule into an Adolf Hitler or a Donald Trump although that's giving Donald Trump too much power I don't think he's as good as the Mule but you know Vladimir Putin whoever.
Joel: I'd rather elect the Mule I think.
Paul: Yeah I would vote for the Mule because he at least was sane. But yeah, but so um I think that ah there were some negative things in Asimov's universe that we don't find in Star Trek and I think ultimately it's very unfortunate that Asimov just ignored the possibility of aliens you know I mean it's okay and you know when I first read the Foundation trilogy as a kid I didn't think that hey why aren't aliens here. But you know once the issue is raised. It's hard to ignore that absence in the Foundation. Um, and you know getting into and I know you wanted to talk about this as well. The Apple series. It's it feels to me like there's almost a hint of alien species there right? I mean some of the people on those planets I can't quite tell if there are humans who evolved in a different direction or if they're somehow some kind of alien.
Joel: I think it's probably likely they're going to bring in aliens at some point and then then the purists on the internet are going to go ballistic again.
Paul: Yeah it’s so much fun when they go ballistic.
Joel: I was going to say one other thing though about the differences is that. Ah, if you focus just on humanity. Um, one thing that really so strikes me about Foundation being 20,000 years in the future is humans are almost exactly the same. You know they not just that they smoke cigars and yeah and all that but they haven't really progressed to in the same ways that they like if you look at the the universe of The Next Generation. And that the optimistic utopian feeling about humanity is like having put aside all this dependency on currency and and you know, um that you know that there's no poverty anymore because these humanistic ideals have progressed to such a ah level that. It's a fundamentally different society than we have now whereas in. Yeah, the society of Trantor. Ah the beginning of the Foundation has all the same flaws as it does you know at the time he was writing you know, very very similar kind of and that always struck me as like. Humans haven't really progressed we we still don't even live longer than seventy or eighty years but um I guess that was the true on Star Trek too that there weren't really 200 year old people or anything. Yeah.
Paul: Right? right? exactly. But I mean I think that's a good point. It's an interesting point. You know on that lifespan basically as far as anyone can tell you know throughout history. There were people who lived a pretty long time like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who you know pretty much both died like I think on the same day or in the same week in the eighteen twenty s that yeah, that's right? and although there's some people who think that one of them I think much of whether it was Adams.
Joel: Same Fourth of July I think.
Paul: Jefferson had actually died a day or 2 earlier and some doctor somehow managed to keep his heart beating until July Fourth that sounds like ah somehow an episode of Star Trek right there but you know so I think in all fairness you know to to both Asimov and Star Trek on that point.
Joel: It does.
Paul: In our whole history of humanity. Yeah, you have people living into their nineties and sometimes even to a hundred or a little more that's been the case throughout history. What's changed are the number of people who live that long so you know I don't think we can fault Star Trek that much on that or or Asimov but the other thing about Asimov which I do think is correct and I think you're raising a very very important point I always had the feeling with Asimov. But this was one of the things that make his work so interesting to me is what he does is he takes human beings as he knows them as you know as he sees them as he Asimov is living in the world and then he projects them into some future situation and we see what happens. And you know that I think is a reasonable way of doing a science fiction scenario. It is true that yeah if you pay more attention and you put into the story ways in which our mores, what we even physically look like might have changed. It does add more verisimilitude to it. Maybe it makes it more believable but I wouldn't fault Asimov for not doing that because again I think I probably mentioned to you sometimes someplace maybe in the conversation we had with Cora Buhler about the first season of Foundation on Apple Tv plus I've read the trilogy three times at, you know, three different ages. So forget what I thought when I was a kid because who knows you know what kind of perspective I had that but the last time I read them was with son Simon when he was about twelve years old and obviously I was no longer a kid. I felt the same way about the series then and he loved the series too and he was twelve years old in the mid 1990s so yeah I think that's a good point. But for whatever reason it never really detracted in the slightest from my love of the Foundation stories.
Joel: Well I think he understood that he he needed to make it relatable to the audience. Well I mean sometimes a lot a lot of people can't get into extreme like cyberpunk kind of stuff and and really far off Concepts of Humanity. In the future because they they can't relate to it and yeah, that's another reason why Star Trek is so successful. It's got ordinary human beings just in an unusual circumstance and people.
Paul: Yeah let me just say jump in here if you think about it. Ah, both a you know written and I think it was on Netflix or Amazon prime I can't remember Altered Carbon. You know, a very good series. You know about the future. In which they in that series the human beings there have undergone enormous change both physically and what their attitudes are and if anything that made it hard for me to get into the stories because it took me while to make sense. I didn't even know what I was seeing, not because they looked so different but just their reactions to things weren't making sense and it's all explained but one of the joys of Asimov is it. It seems like you know you and I could be in one of those Foundation stories. And you know we would fit in quite naturally I think.
Joel: Yeah, and when I think about Asimov where he was coming from in in his writing he was such a fan of history and knew so much about history and you know the history of the Roman Empire and yeah, all sorts of things Shakespeare and all that. Ah so he he understood humans really well. And yeah, know he he just decide as hey if I stick these humans in the far future I can write really entertaining stories and I don't even have to think of new ideas. They've always all happened in the past? yeah. But us put them in new circumstances and just take it from there and it did very well. So yeah, ah, let's talk about um the legacy of Star Trek. Um, how do you think it's going to affect science fiction and society and is it or how has it affected us with where do you think we're going with it.
Paul: None of my other great areas of work is in our reality doing everything I can to support our species getting off this planet. And in fact, I co-edited a book called Touching the Face of the Cosmos on the intersection of space travel and religion because I think that there's an aspect of our movement into space that's missing and that's the spiritual aspect. Not that we have to become all religious to go out into space but but religion at its best has like a magical sense of you know where we are in the universe and you know, almost like a wondrous luster obviously religion has been perverted and also used for. Some bad ends in human history and even currently, but the good part of religion speaks to that and I think science fiction and something like Star Trek. Speaks to that and that's what's been missing to some extent from our space program. So I like many other advocates of let's get our species out into space and after we walked on the moon we're still just diddling around here and. You know, ah you know space stations international space stations you know no one would have ever said in none when we first got to the moon that we are you know now going to be. Here we are in 2022 and we're still nowhere near Mars. I know there were plans to get there. But For All Mankind, the alternate history story. That's also on Apple Tv plus they're going to get to Mars much more quickly than we are in our reality. So I think that what Star Trek has done is it's kept that magic alive. It's kept it burning far more than Foundation or Star Wars or any of these other shows. I think that anyone who grew up in the 1960s and loved Star Trek, anyone who came to love it later on would know instantly that you know what we need to do is get our real space program.
Paul: More in line with what they have in Star Trek and obviously it's not that easy and obviously we don't have faster than light travel. So you know that part of Star Trek is just way way behind, but the fact of the matter is we are. You know in a situation where maybe we'll get to Mars in the next couple of years and I'll change what I'm saying. But right now we're languishing right now the space program in terms of how far we've gotten out into space is still stalled and one of the things that's kept that hope alive. Is Star Trek and all the various series that have spun off of the original Star Trek series back in the 1960s let me say that I I think we have to give Paramount Plus credit. Or CBS it's the same company for you know, starting all of these various Star Trek new series and I have to say so far. Strange New Worlds is my favorite. Ah. My least favorite was the one one that they did and you know and which is still going on and I would say Picard is somewhere in the middle. So. It's not that every single Star Trek series is wonderful. Ah, but by starting up these new series I think there's also some kind of cartoon series Below Decks orsomething. Yeah that's right?
Joel: Lower decks and prodigy. Yeah, if you read the Wikipedia on Star Trek that it's just amazing how how much Star Trek there is now and how much has there has been.
Paul: So that's a healthy thing. That's great and that keeps this burning.
Joel: What you were just saying that brought up a couple of thoughts with me and and I think about the arguments against going into space and and going to other planets. You know that Mars is ah um. Is a deadly place. Why would anybody want to go there. It's kind of like duh. You know we know that? Ah yeah, and but you know that's not the real point. Um my my thinking is that these. Arguments and many of them come from really intelligent people. A lot of scientists and everything make these points as well and they they just seem really lacking in imagination. Um, and when you think of the the future in an an imaginative way. You can see lots of ways that it can you know. It can change humanity's future for the better and in all sorts of ways and Star Trek is one of the best examples of of showing those those kind of changes because it it and it it fosters that sense of imagination and I'm I'm hoping that this barrage of new Star Trek and you know the reach of it really you know extends its tendrils into people's minds and they they think of like new ways of thinking about the future and not just in you know, ah there just ah like a dead end where you know why would we want to go to Mars. – it's an ugly hideous place sort that where you get killed? Yeah um that great science fiction demonstrates the possibilities of what how you can change a place how you we can be changed to adapt to a place that's very different. And I think there's just so many positive things that can come out of that kind of spark to the human imagination.
Paul: Absolutely let me tell you about my PhD mentor at New York University Neil Postman he was basically a critic of technology. He didn't like computers. He didn't like space travel. I don't know exactly what he liked as far as technology was concerned. He was a brilliant teacher. However, and in fact, he's the best teacher I ever had just in terms of the love and the passion that he brought to his delivery. Ah and the subjects he taught about.
Paul: But I won't forget one day I was talking to him about space travel and he looks at me in this way that he did and he was shaking his head and he says to me and this is like my best impersonation of him. He said to me Paul don't don't you understand? There's no air up there. If we go out into space. We'll die. I said I do understand but you know don't you understand if you know if we went up in an airplane There's not much air up there either the plane. Actually you know. Distributes air into the cabin. That's why passengers are okay even though they might be at a very high altitude and you know this is an example of either you get it or you don't for people like you?
Joel: Yeah, and like there if you look on if you Google like arguments against flight from the from the nineteenth from around the turn of the century into the 1900 like just a few years before Wright Brothers or even there's some that happened after the Wright Brothers proved flight was possible. That said, absolutely no way that you will ever be able to fly. You know this is nonsense. Why is anybody even thinking about this, you know if man was meant to fly that would would have been born with wings.
That kind of thing and it's it's just ah, very ah, enduring part of human Psychology I Guess his inability to to think in completely new and imaginative ways.
Paul: Yeah, it's worse than that I mean you know one of the things I often like citing to these technophobes is people somehow who were thought to be experts on this said getting on a train. Was something that would be fatal to us. So this goes literally back to the 1830s and 40s when they were just laying down just train tracks well before you know the transcontinental railroad these were like just train tracks from like London to Brighton England and you know some ah you know people who were impressed with their own knowledge of humanity said human beings weren't meant to travel forty miles an hour on a train. This is you know that people's hearts will collapse or some kind of nonsense and yeah, this happens over and over and over again and. You know to get back to Star Trek, Star Trek speaks to people who ever since they were kids thought that view that is that we can't do this because you know somehow it's not natural. People who from the day they began thinking about this thought that was nonsense and um, that's what's so good about Star Trek and you know I'll tell you a story about my mother who I'm at 100% clear. What her view was about space travel. But this is relevant in terms of science fiction. Um, when I first told my mother I'm working on a science fiction novel and I gave her part of it to read she she got back to me and said well hey this is very very enjoyable but when are you going to write about something serious? So then I gave her like a copy of my doctoral dissertation. She read that also and said all right. This is good but when are you going to write something that a person can understand? So yeah, she didn't like figure I wrote ah but ah. But but her comment about science fiction is actually relevant to what we're talking about because she you know really thought that science fiction was like just some kind of crazy nonsense and you know okay, it's escapist. It's fun. But. Let's talk about the real world whereas you and I we think science fiction is just a natural a description of a natural human projection into the future and when we see something like Star Trek. It makes us feel good and let's not forget to talk about The Orville because I think they are doing a great job also of getting us into the future.
Joel: Yeah, yeah, I'm a huge fan of The Orville and I never expected to be as I was never a fan of Seth Mcfarlane before I started watching The Orville I thought it was all just like I never actually watched Family Guy to be honest, but I saw a little clips and things and I expected it to be just a complete nonsense and yeah, parody kind of thing and it became really serious and heavy and like great dramatic storytelling on on a very similar level and sometimes exceeding what Star Trek does. And I've been really impressed with this season so far.
Paul: Um, I think this season is fabulous. They've they've they've done very well going from Fox to Hulu they have more time they can use somewhat salty language which is fun and with a few exceptions. The stories have been top notch and in many ways I think The Orville captures the ambience of the original series and to some extent The Next Generation I mean the the standard. Description of The Orville is that it's a takeoff of The Next Generation. You have someone there who looks like Worf, you have ah that robot you know everything is a slight exaggeration of the ah you know the characters that we saw in Star Trek The Next Generation. And that's true enough but to me the ambience of the stories capture a lot of what the original series did and so I would put The Orville right up there in the Star Trek genre. And or in the Star Trek corpus of works to use that fancy word.
Joel: yeah yeah I I agree and I know we have a different opinion of one episode, the one with the um, The Mortality Paradox it was called um you called it hodgepodge I called it like ah I called it. Kafka-esqu. I just love um that the what ideas it stimulated in me and especially that ending because it really makes you think about human evolution far beyond the level they're at at the point you know and. They they seem like primitives to this you know, exotic being that's been around for 50000 years and yeah, she says to to them. Evolution is blind and drunk and yeah, no, no offense I hope looking.
Paul: Ah, ah no I wouldn't be offended if somebody called me blind.
Joel: Ah, yeah, ah, but yeah, the um and then the very end with the little conversation. Ah, you know after everything is resolved ah where ah, ah, Seth's character Ed Mercer the captain is asked. Why would you want to live forever and he says I just want to see what happens and that struck me so so hard I I thought that was brilliant. Mainly because that's been my answer that I've always given my wife asks that question sometimes and that's that's the that's the simplest and most direct answer to the question. I'm curious I hate to miss what's going to happen you know and that's one of the reasons we. Read science fiction and want to see all these shows and we just love that people are making them is. It's the best so alternative to living forever. You get to see what's happening or possibilities of what could happen in the future, right?
Paul: Absolutely. And first of all, that was my favorite part of the show when Ed Mercer says he wants to see what's going to happen. That's his reason for wanting to live forever because like you I agree with that completely. But I'll tell you why I gave that show a by and large negative review in general and this goes well beyond The Orville or Star Trek, it pertains to any narrative I think that a story should be exciting and provocative and weaving you into it throughout I don't particularly like stories where you have to put up with what I would say is a whole lot of fluff. Ah. And then eventually there's a wonderful payoff and so when I was saying you know that the episode of the season of The Orville was a hodgepodge up until the ending I thought it was because there was no explanation as to what was happening and it was just seen. Have to see you know this character has this horrible experience. You know there's a bully in the in the high school who and the bully turns out to be literally a monster. You know there's a plane that's going to crash because there's no pilot, etc, etc. But there was no thread that was tying that together until the very end and for me having to sit for almost an hour before that tying together came is is not good writing I think it's not good writing in print it when you have to read it and it's not good writing in. Science fiction that you see on on television but still go ahead. Ah, okay.
Joel: Okay, can I just can I just give you my my interpretation of that that to me I read it differently and got drawn into it because I saw it as a mystery and I saw it as ah from the person. Perspective of the characters like a a sense a growing sense of ah of terror we what the hell is happening. It's just seemed completely non no way to explain it and. It. It just seemed like it was getting worse and worse and that for each one they were coming close to death one after another and there there was just no logical explanation for what was happening but from the perspective of being one of them I could imagine. This sense of like this almost like a horror situation right? That they they're getting farther and farther away from the idea of making it back to the ship because they're just more and more disconnected from it and things just they seem to be completely in the grasp of something that they can't understand and then that more I love the moment where the steps appear in the big door and Mercer looks at it and says you know screw this. Basically we're not taking the bait anymore and that. That was a nice turning point to me is like okay now they're going to find their way out of this and sure enough they did.
Paul: Um, okay, fair enough you know I can see you say by the way I just have to say one of the things I love about The Orville and obviously they're strong suit in addition to usually having great stories is their ah humor. I think it's great that they have these characters in the future with the same sense of humor and the same cultural references as we have right here and this again is you know Asimov versus the Star Trek series.
Ah, Star Trek makes a point of not doing that whereas The Orville they assume that people in Ed Mercer's time you know who the Moody Blues were or whatever the group is and I think that's a reasonable assumption.
Joel: Um, yeah, there was a great one in this last one did you watch the fourth one yet? Yeah ah when he he looked at Teleya and says Uptown Girl.
Paul: Yes I did I. Um, to Teleya ItThink that's exactly right right now of because there's no way I mean look I Uptown Girl is a great song I would say wherever how I'm that is into the future.
Joel: Right? Yeah yeah.
Paul: There's no way that it was going to make that you know reference but but on the other hand who knows you know.
Joel: Yeah, and it makes it like relatable. We can understand the the vibe he's he's going for there because we know the song. He's not creating this series for people in the 25th century. He's creating it for us. So. Yeah, we're entertained by that and I don't have a problem with it.
Paul: No, not at all and by the way that that Teleya story was a really beautiful heart rending story. You know one of the things you know I would have as a writer and a viewer I would have preferred to see his daughter. But M’Benga's daughter actually be physically cured and have a complete life but ah, the ending was very gratifying and if you think about it and I made this point my review. It's a call back to the menagerie right? because that's how Pike winds up living a life after he's horribly disfigured. You know that that is he's on a planet where he mentally can live a life so that's and ah one of the things that I think The Orville is really superb at is very subtly sometimes making. References to previous things that were in Star Trek and that works very well.
Joel: Yeah, yeah I have to watch that again because I am I'm I'm now on like a rewatch of selected episodes of of the original series just watched City on the Edge of Forever. Just so wonderful Paul: Here.
Joel: Ah, the what's the the the Corbamite Maneuver. Um, and what's the other one with the um, the giant cone shaped thing that attacks the ship and the planet killing thing.
Paul: Yeah, yeah.
Joel: Forgot what it's called oh well. Ah.
Paul: It it led it led to the cone heads on Saturday night live in the in the in the eighty s that's what that's what they had did. Um.
Joel: The the one where Kirk Beams off the ah the Constellation just in time and and he's.
Paul: I know what you're talking about I can't remember the name of it though. By the way I got to say though because it whether is I can't remember that I'm on City on the Edge of Forever. Ah, you know the guardian a very important role. One of the reasons why don't I'm not thrilled with Discovery.
Joel: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: I don't know if you remember this have you seen Discovery. That's you know the other all right.
Joel: I just watched the first episode and one of the main reasons I'm hesitant to get into it as my son has been panning it since for as long as it's been out and I'm a kind of torn because I want to know it and like explore it. But I've been kind of led to believe I'm not going to enjoy it.
Paul: Um I won't give anything away here but I'll just say this. Ah so there's the guardian and City on the Edge of Forever in one of the Discovery episodes. The you know some of the people from that crew. Go back to where the guardian is and the guy who is playing the guardian is not that I have anything against him but he is the same actor who played the police lieutenant in CSI. And if you anyone who's watched CSI for that guy to be the guardian is totally ridiculous I really has he's like the complete opposite of gravitas. Whatever that would be so I don't know who made that casting decision, but that's not really fair I mean I'm sure other people don't feel that way. But anyway I won't say anything more about Discovery but um, see if you agree I mean I agree with us fine. That's what I said of of the new Paramount Plus Star Treks that I've been watching. Um. Again, you know I've I've watched one seasons of Picard I like Picard a lot better than anything in Discovery.
Joel: I watched the first tw episodes and I wasn't crazy about it. So I might give that one more of a shot.
Paul: Give it a shot. It's not as good as Strange New Worlds at its best but because I mean I think you know back to Strange New Worlds I think Pike is a great character.
And I have to say you remember I said earlier in our conversation that I like Spock better than Kirk I mean this I'll probably be banned from like any Star Trek you know board. But I think I actually like Pike better than Kirk in some ways.
Joel: I don't I think there's a lot of people that are growing to like Pike at an awful lot and I'm one of them. I Really like his style. What's your favorite Strange New Worlds episode so far?
Paul: Um I guess I can't remember which number it is. I I love the fact you know and and this again gets into altered history where you know. What your future is in Pike's case its ah, it's a horrible thing that's going to happen to him ten years from now and he's struggling with that and there was one episode in particular it might have been the one episode I'm not sure the fourth episode were they they're up to seven episodes. I can't remember the number. Ah, but I love that episode in which Pike is aware of it and oh yeah, I think I know the episode. I'll tell you a little bit more about that where Pike may be in love with this woman on this planet.
Joel: Oh yeah, yeah, no, that was a great episode now for sure.
Paul: They had an affair earlier. Okay and not to get too much away. She yeah that but you know she basically says to him at one point without to get too much away. You know why don't you just stay here with me. We can change the future. And Pike is not willing to do that. But you can see he's tempted and I mean ah, that's right, exactly. But I mean if you think about it I just a little bit more on Pike.
Joel: Yeah, that's before he finds out how horrible things are.
Paul: Pike was the one star ship captain right? He was in the pilot for the original series. He came back in The Menagerie. I'm going to make a prediction right here and we'll see whether this is true or not so I hope this conversation is listened to 100 years from now and here's my prediction – that as time goes on Christopher Pike is going to be the most important captain in all of the Star Treks. Yeah yeah, okay.
Joel: Wow, that is a bold prediction. Yeah I'm not sure I'd go that far. Kirk's a legend whether he deserves it or not. He's a legend. Yeah I'll tell you what my favorite is my favorite is to the second one with where they have these the comet one where this comet's going to wipe out this planet and there they need to go in and divert it and then these ah the shepherds appear this giant spaceship that's going to blow them away if they touch the comet.
Joel: And that kind of creates the classic dilemma of humanist dilemma do we go along with um, you know what? These aliens are saying and honor their sacred traditions and let millions of people die or do we get involved somehow and I thought they found such a brilliant middle ground in Pike did you know Pike and Spock figured out what they needed to do and Ohura figured out and I loved the way she figured things out using music to decode the message from the that was on the comet ah in some ways it was really it resonates with my rock Opera I wrote years ago. Um, ah because it's It's also a story of mythology and. How? Ah? um, a yeah, a planet and and and its atmosphere have this romance together and they create a story and that later people find this story and have to interact with um I could go on and on about that. But ah.
Paul: No no I think that's great. Let me just I'll just throw in here I love that episode too and the the music as a language also resonates with my very first novel The Silk Code in which. The neanderthals who may or may not have actually had bones and they poked holes into them and they play them as flutes that there's a language in that as Well. They can't speak yet. But but they communicate through that music. So I thought that yeah that was handled very well.
Joel: That's very good. Yeah, love that? Yeah now I Want to read your story. What's it called? Paul: Yeah, it's called The Silk Code and it was my first novel published in 1999 and it won the Locus Award for best first science fiction novel of 1999 so to some critics it's a very discursive novel. Ah basically it starts off in the present then it goes back to the distant past then it comes back to the present. So you know a lot. Not a lot of people. Some people found that a little bit too disconcerting for them. But that's how I felt like writing it's so too bad.
Joel: Yeah, well it piques my interest so we're getting pretty far into this and I wanted to get into one more question and that's about Apple Tv Foundation we had a wonderful talk with Cora Bulert on this. Um.
Paul: Um, sure.
Joel: A while back and I'll definitely put a link to that in the show notes. Um, but I'm wondering if you've had additional thoughts about that show and if you have any predictions for what might be coming up in the next season.
Paul: Yeah, look I have to say and I really hate to say this because you know how much I love Foundation. But you know how it is you have a reaction to something when you first experience it and then you you know. Go months maybe even years and you think about it again and sometimes you think it's even better than you thought sometimes you feel exactly the same about it sometimes the glow has worn off. And you don't even feel as good about it as you did then and I have to say in contrast to Asimov’s novels which is you know we've discussed. They've stayed with me all my life every time I think about it I love them every time I think about. What to me is like the epitome of a great story where there and this might be a spoiler you know for people who haven't read any the Foundation. But I assume most people have that that scene on the first foundation where they're sitting watching the Hari Selden Hologram and and Hari is telling them the wrong thing as the Mule’s ships pierced their atmosphere that was just so brilliant and even when I think about today I almost get like chills that's like one of the most thrilling things I ever read in fiction anyway.
Honestly, look I very much enjoyed the first season I'm certainly going to see the second season but there was something lacking in the first season and it was a big something lacking and I'm not even sure what that was, but. You know I I didn't like the way you know what? R Daneel Olivaw had become I didn't like the way she was portrayed I didn't like you know Hari Seldon being killed then. You know? And even though that was explained later on and I think as I did say at the time I thought nonetheless that that first series was an excellent piece of science fiction. But I thought that. Because of something that almost nothing to do with the original Asimov trilogy. Yeah, the clonal triumph. It was brilliant and so you know that's honestly how I feel and I feel bad that I feel that way and.
Joel: Right? The Empire parts right.
Joel: I understand what you're saying I I kind of have part I I don't think I'm quite as far in the it towards like the disappointment side I'm I'm on the edge and I'm like thinking they've got to rescue it in season two. And they did so many I think they did some things really well and especially I found the last one or two episodes really engaging. Ah but I I want to see more of the magic that you felt in Foundation and Empire. Um, going into that era how they handle the Mule is going to be really telling I think um because it it I'm I'm afraid it's going to be like horribly disappointing because I just love that story so much you know and. The the Mule is a character I love so much and I can't imagine being pleased with how they do it. But I'm going to try not to be too bound in my memories of how Asimov brilliantly portrayed it and like take it on its own as its own as as as a separate thing. Yeah, just ah, a Tv a science fiction story effectively unrelated in some ways I wish it was completely unrelated. Yeah kind of I wish it was almost like The Orville is to Star Trek and without any canon to to worry about.
Paul: Um, yeah.
Joel: Ah, because I think they'd do better if they had a whole new story to tell and and not be like yeah, having all these characters dubiously named after characters they don't resemble in the books at all, you know.
Paul: Yeah I look I mean it's a you know it's a sad but also fascinating thing I don't particularly usually have sympathy with you know people who don't like this or that movie or television series because it doesn't follow to the letter. You know what they read in the in the book because you know that's not what translating something from one medium to another is about it has to be somewhat different even in terms of what characters look like but.
Joel: I think one part part of it is that what we love in Foundation is not the details as much as the big ideas and the sweep of it and you know the big themes like yeah, the great man of history. Yeah, versus psychohistory and and things like that which seems to be largely missing in trying to craft this like you know edge of your seat thriller kind of story? Yeah yeah, that works on Tv these days. Um, it's and I agree completely that it would be a disaster to try and and duplicate it. You know all the details and make it it would make it like a documentary or or worse.
Paul: Yeah, look I mean look the fact is I mean I don't even think that Psychohistory was well presented. Yeah, you know what? What exactly did Hari predict that came true in that first season? So I mean you know you can struggle and say well he said this and that.
Joel: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: But I mean so again, this is like too strong maybe but they inhibited Hari Seldon's character. Um, you know they said the right things about him but we didn't see him doing those right things so you know.
Joel: Um, yeah, what's interesting to me is that the people I've talked to I have talked to people who really loved it and they're generally people who didn't read the books.
So it's it's working and that's that's the goal of the director of it. The showrunner is to bring in a new audience that hasn't read the books and ah, it's working for a lot of those people. Apparently you know they're seeing it as a really entertaining show. It's not for us apparently, but I try to to be two people. You know I try to to separate the me that loves the original books and those ideas in those books and the fan of Asimov from just ah like try to be ah, an ordinary person who hasn't read the books when I watched the show.
Paul: Well, you know we talked about this in the conversation we had with Cora, you know my first love syndrome theory and I think it's true. You know people what they're first exposed to but I think that the problems with Foundation. Of course it's hard. You know how this can't be proven.
Paul: I think this goes beyond the first love syndrome. Um, yeah, you know so and I'm not surprised. However, that people who didn't read the Asimov novels ah can love the Foundation series because none of all again, the clonal triumvirate is brilliant. And there are a lot of good aspects to that story. But ah my reason I and I suspect your reason is not just that the television series doesn't live up to Asimov and and his work. It's that. It doesn't deal in any significant way with some of the essential things that made the original trilogy. So wonderful and so is there a chance that they can in the second season. Sure. But frankly I would be amazed.
If we're having this conversation next year we both say hey you know what David Goyer who really came through with the Mule I could I would bet money that we're not going to feel that way.
Joel: Yeah, yeah, no I feel 99% sure I'm not going to like what he does with the Mule. I hope I'm surprised but I'm not expecting to be.
Paul: Yeah, that's so yeah, me too.
Joel: We've been going on for an hour or so a little more maybe so I should let you go and really appreciate you coming on I'm going to put notes in the show notes to the two things that I've done with you previously on your website.
Joel: Ah, the one on the on doc talking about Severance and the earlier one with with Cora and me.
Paul: I'll do the same I'll do the same for you on my as I'll put this this episode. We're now recording I'll put urls to that on the various places where you and I have talked before.
Joel: Excellent, okay, well it's been really fun Paul and glad I got to know you.
Paul: Take care my pleasure that Joel what are these days when covid is over and who knows where else is going on. We'll have the pleasure of meeting in person but I take care.
Joel: You got it all right bye.
Well, that was a lot of fun. I’ll have links to Paul’s website in the shownotes, where you can find frequent reviews of Star Trek Strange New Worlds episodes along with his takes on The Orville, and lots of other TV shows and movies. I’ll also link to the two video appearances I made with Paul; the first a talk with him and Cora Buhlert, a science fiction writer herself and recipient of multiple awards, and the second a conversation about another sci-fi show recently debuting on AppleTV called Severance, which I heartily recommend.
I hope to introduce the new episode on the conclusion of Second Foundation very soon. Keep an eye on your podcast feed and join me again, here on Seldon Crisis.