Curious Recommendation: Designing the Final Frontier

Someday I want to write about my history with Star Trek. For me the franchise is not so much about a fictional universe or a narrative experience, but an example of how media, particularly television, get created, designed, developed, and produced. For now I’ll just mention this fascinating book I happened to pick up while on vacation. It was one of those old pre-Amazon experiences of just wandering into a bookstore and by chance seeing something on the shelf that caught my attention.

The authors of the book have gone through the episodes of the original Star Trek and attempted to identify the various bits of furniture and decor that were used to create the sets throughout the show — from the couches on alien planets to the classic chairs of the Enterprise’s bridge. It’s a great example of how the design crew of the show had to do what they could to create “strange new worlds” with limited time and budget. It’s also a good survey of Midcentury Modern aesthetics and of the artists and craftsmen who developed the style. An amusing point the books makes is these Midcentury Modern designs would have seemed old-fashioned to European tastes, even while being “futuristic” to American viewers of the time.

I’ve read a lot about the development, writing, casting, and even fashion of Star Trek, but this book presents yet another aspect of the show. I feel like going back and giving the original series another viewing just paying attention to the furniture!

The Return of Ultraman: Episodes 5-8

Some quick thoughts from watching through this Ultraman TV series from 1971.

05. Two Giant Monsters Attack Tokyo
06. Showdown! Monster vs MAT

The Return of Ultraman continues to be a contrast between trying very hard to follow in the footsteps of the original Ultraman series, while simultaneously being very different in important ways. There is a lot of intra-team strife, where there used to be almost none. And these aren’t just flare-ups of anger, but real insults and accusations about teammates’ motivations and honor. The bickering and hostility between characters continues to remind me of Silver Age Marvel Comics.

The friction goes up the chain-of-command as well, with the Monster Attack Team having doubts about the higher-ups in Terrestrial Defense, who, it seems, can order them about and even threaten to disband them at a single officer’s whim. Things have changed from the days of the smoothly operating SSSP, with its convivial international cooperation and coordination with local authorities.

Other small details make the stories stand out: original Ultraman often played up the danger of the Color Timer running out: “Ultraman will never rise again!” Ultraseven had no timer, just a warning light for when his solar power was running out, and even that was rarely mentioned. Now in the first six episodes of Return, Ultraman Jack’s timer has run out twice — with the result only being that he fades away, with Go returning to human form. Not a great situation, but hardly a fatal disaster. Go just needs a day or so to recharge.

I was surprised to hear a couple direct references to WW II bombings, and even images of the destruction of Hiroshima. Those events rarely get invoked in this series — though interesting they were in context of weapons to be used against Japan by itself.

It also seems sometimes that episodes have disconnects between what characters say they are going to do and what actually happens. The MAP’s stated plan at the conclusion of this two-part story is to shoot the two monsters with anesthetizing rounds. What they actually do is shoot out Twintail’s eyes (which are conveniently close to the ground) with bazooka-mounted Jeeps. Thus blinded, it gets killed by the other monster Gudrun, who in turn is blasted by Ultraman. Maybe the anesthesia weakens them..? It never really gets mentioned.

07. Operation Monster Rainbow
08. Monster Time Bomb

As the series gets into its grove, we are seeing episodes that are fundamentally procedural: a monster shows up and we watch MAT investigate, figure out the best way to deal with the problem, and then get the job done (with Ultraman’s help). Questions such as where do these monsters come from, or is it justified that they be summarily exterminated never, so far at least, come close to being brought up. Destroy all monsters in the law of the land. The Monster Attack Team though continues to struggle with issues of trust, competency, and communication. Go, for example, mentions how the monster Ghostron might be reacting primarily to sounds. When asked why he thinks so, Go just says he has a feeling. In fact, he has a list of evidence and logical deductions that support his theory — but he seems too insecure to share it with his teammates, who, it must be said, do have the habit of doubting him.

In Ultraseven, when Dan first shows up, a mysterious figure with no background or explanation about who he is, his great skills convince the others to welcome him into the team. Go, on the other hand, when thrust into MAT, completely disrupts the team dynamic. Despite his being demonstrably good at everything, his presence so far seems to cause more problems that it solves (ignoring the fact that Ultraman has now started showing up to wrap up every mission). It’ll be interesting to see if the show makes an actual character arc out of this, with personal issues being resolved and MAT pulling together into truly acting as a trusting, cooperative team.