Monday, September 1, 2014

Star Trek: The Apple

It is time for another episode of Star Trek, today it is
While there are things I like about The Apple it certainly has more than a couple of flaws. It bears more than a strong resemblance to the season one episode Return of the Archons (a society controlled by a machine) with elements of Shore Leave (mysterious force threatening the Enterprise), This Side of Paradise (flowers that shoot stuff), and Who Morns for Adonias (phasering a structure at the end to save the day) thrown in too. Hey, they can't all be original, can they?
The Apple was written by author Max Ehrlich (with heavy re-writes by Gene L. Coon). Ehrlich was no stranger to TV or science fiction. He penned The Big Eye, a cheesy 1949 novel set a Palomar Observatory, which seems to borrow heavily from the 1933 novel When Worlds Collide, which was made into the 1951 movie of the same name.
The episode begins with the landing party, heavily stocked with Red Shirts, beaming down to Gamma Trianguli VI. Kirk explains that the previous ship in the area reported strange sensor readings and it is their mission to check them out and to make contact with the natives - basically their orders are to violate the Prime Directive, which apparently is more of a guideline than a rule.

They've beamed down a mere 17 kilometers (!), that's 10.5 miles, from the village they're going to contact, so they'd better get hiking.

I really like the planet set's orange sky that was created for Gamma Trianguli VI. Awesome stuff.
It's not a good day to be a Red Shirt, or Spock for that matter. The first Red Shirt to bite the dust, Hendorf, is killed by a flower even before the opening credits roll.
What, me worry?
Kirk calls up to report the death of a crewman and Scotty tells him that they are "losing potency in our antimatter pods" and the doesn't think it's serious, but they're looking into it.
Meanwhile Spock discovers that the rocks on the planet are explosive and he becomes the target of one of those pesky, killer flowers. McCoy can't seem to help him, so Kirk decides that the landing party, except for the two Red Shirts that have already started the long hike to the village, should beam up.
Except it doesn't work & the shuttle craft must be on the blink. It's okay though, as after the commercial break Spock is just fine.
Very suddenly a big storm rolls in and, wouldn't you know it, Red Shirt Number Two (Kaplan), gets hit by lightning and disintegrates.
 
Shortly afterwards, Red Shirt Number Three (Mallory), who was excitedly returning after having found the village, trips over one of those explosive rocks that Spock found while he was away, and is killed.

Marc Cushman's wonderful book These Are the Voyages TOS Season Two reports that this explosion sent the actor to the emergency room. As you can see in the shot above at right, he was directly on top of the charge. The earlier explosion, where Spock tossed the rock, was also a problem, giving the cast damage to their hearing.
We soon meet Akuta, the eyes and ears of Vaal their 'god'. When asked about Vaal, Akuta says, "He causes the rains to fall and the sun to shine. All good comes from Vaal." Spock's readings indicate that the real workings of Vaal lie deep beneath the planet's surface.
Meanwhile, things are not good on the Enterprise - they've been hit with a tractor beam and will be pulled out of the sky and burn up in 16 hours. To add insult to injury, Kirk tells Scotty that if he can't get the warp drive working he's fired. 
The people of Vaal are very friendly and welcoming. When Kirk asks about children in the village, Akuta is confused. Kirk further explains and Akuta realizes what he means, "Replacements. None are necessary. They are forbidden by Vaal." When asked about love and intimacy he gives a similar response, "The holding, the touching. Vaal has forbidden this." Prompting McCoy to say, "Well, there goes paradise."
Soon it is time for the people to feed Vaal, with baskets of fruit. There must be a Mr. Fusion in there somewhere.
For most of the episode Checkov has been trying to get close to Yeoman Landon, at one point prompting Kirk to say, "I know you find each other fascinating, but we're not here to conduct a field experiment in human biology." They finally get some alone time for kissing and are observed by two of the People of Vaal (that's David Soul on the right, who was later famous for playing "Hutch" in TV's Starsky & Hutch.), who decide to try it out for themselves. That's not something that Vaal is happy with. Akuta gets instructions from Vaal on how to kill the newcomers. 
The next morning Kirk and Spock decide to pay another visit to Vaal who zaps Spock with a bolt of lightning. Being a main character and all, he does not disintegrate the way Red Shirt Number Two did. 
Soon the villagers make their attack and are easily defeated, but not before Red Shirt Number Four is killed, certainly a more honorable death than being done in by a flower or tripping over a rock. The villagers are rounded up and locked in a hut.
Time has run out for the Enterprise. They try one big push with impulse power, but it's no use. The ship is going to burn up with everyone on board, so Kirk tells Scotty he's fired. Good move, Kirk. This likely will save Starfleet paying out some cash in survivor benefits to Scotty's nearest relatives. Maybe with the money saved they can build a new starship.
But wait, Vaal is hungry and must be fed. The landing party keeps the villagers locked in the hut and Kirk orders Scotty (who being the awesome guy he is obeys on his own time) to fire phasers at Vaal. Even though Vaal is protected by a force field, which the phasers never penetrate, and even though the real heart of Vaal is deep under ground, the phasers still manage to kill Vaal, saving the Enterprise and leaving the people totally on their own. I guess Vaal was really hungry and starved to death.
Akuta wonders how they will survive but Kirk tells them that they will figure it out and everyone, except the guy in the back on the right, seems happy to move on.
We get our happy ending and the chance to make fun of Spock by comparing him to Satan, even though it was Kirk who cast out the People of Vaal from paradise. Along the way there was discussion as to if their society was functioning or not and how this all played out with the Prime Directive but as we all know, when Kirk's ship is on the line all the rules go out the window.

The Apple is a fun episode if you check your logical brain and just go with it but doesn't hold up to well to any level of scrutiny.

There was almost no new music written for this episode. Several minutes of percussion were written and recorded for the episode but were never used. They are available on the La-La Land Records complete release of Star Trek TOS music, but nothing to write home about. Instead, why not check out the song for the episode written by the band Five Year Mission. It's pretty wonderful.

Next up, Mirror, Mirror.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August Moon

The Moon has returned to the evening skies. Here's how it looked tonight.

I am finally starting to post pics to Instagram, so if you are into that, come on over and have a look

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Visit to Meteor Crater

Last Sunday I visited Meteor Crater for the first time in just over a decade. The crater (once called Coon Mountain Butte), also known as Barringer Crater, is the first confirmed asteroid impact crater on Earth.

For a long time many thought that the site was a volcanic feature. Likely the presence of the San Francisco volcanic field (on the horizon in the photo below), northwest of the crater, clouded the judgement of the early geologists, but the clues as to its origin are everywhere. 
There's no volcanic rock within or immediately around the crater. The prevailing rock formation on the surface in the surrounding countryside is the reddish brown siltstone of the Moenkopi formation. You can see it in the photo above, especially framed by the road in the upper right. All of the whitish rocks in the foreground in this photo are part of the crater's ejecta--deeper rocks that were thrown out on top of the red rocks during the formation of the crater.
Within the crater's inner walls are steeply tilted sedimentary layers (above) of whitish limestone and sandstone that were once horizontal. The impact explosion that created the crater shattered and tilted these layers upward.
The countryside surrounding the crater was once littered with Iron-Nickel meteorites (they've mostly been collected now), remnants of the asteroid that formed the crater. The single largest piece recovered is known as the Holsinger Meteorite (above). It weighs 1,406 pounds.

There's a nice museum that's well worth looking at. I was especially happy to see so much devoted to Eugene Shoemaker, the man who proved that the crater was created by an asteroid impact. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend David Levy's biography of him, Shoemaker by Levy and if you want to read about the crater I suggest tracking down the classic book by H.H. Nininger Arizona's Meteorite Crater.

 Here is one of the panoramas I shot of the crater:

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Are Your Clouds at Night Bright or Dark?

My day job is working for the International Dark-Sky Association, where it is our mission to fight light pollution. I didn't need it, but I had a pretty vivid reminder of what we are fighting for on my recent vacation in Hawai'i.

My wife and I rented a place in the Puna District of the Big Island, right on the ocean, where there is very little artificial light. The first night there I hadn't yet adjusted to the time change and woke up hours before sunrise. When I realized that I wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep, I grabbed my binoculars and stepped in the dark to the beach-facing balcony. There the glittering majesty of the night sky was an awesome thing to behold. Ocean waves crashed below but my attention was on the sky. The stars of late fall and early winter filled the sky, all the way down to the horizon.
Venus rises, with Orion at right
It has been quite some time since I experienced skies so dark. When Venus finally poked up above the distant clouds its light quite noticeably brightened the deck.
In the evening skies the summer Milky Way (above) was brilliant with its bright 'clouds' of stars and dark lanes of dust instantly visible - no dark adaptation was needed.

Occasionally clouds drifted past and I was reminded of a paper published two years ago, Red is the new black, how the color of urban sky glow varies with cloud cover (pdf). The paper points how how in cities with sky glow clouds actually magnify the problem, but in times before the advent of artificial light skies actually got darker when it was cloudy. There are a lot of implications from this (read the paper), but let me illustrate the phenomenon.
Sagittarius and Scorpius with dark clouds in silhouette
Compare the view (above) that I took last month in Hawai'i with dark clouds silhouetted against the star-filled sky, with this shot (below) that I took last night from my home near Tucson, Arizona.
Sagittarius in cloudy, light polluted skies
The difference is shocking. The two photos were taken on moonless nights, just about 1 month apart with the same camera and settings looking at the same part of the sky.

Even though there are relatively strict outdoor lighting ordinances in Tucson/Pima County, the skies here are awash with light pollution and sky glow. Sadly, many communities have little or no controls of outdoor lighting and there skies there are even worse. The clouds in the photo above are white, almost as if illuminated by moonlight. The likely culprit illuminating the clouds with white light is a sports complex to my south. Clouds in other directions had a more orange hue, as in the photo below:
Cygnus in light polluted, party cloudy skies
The photos show that there is much work to be done in controlling light pollution, even in communities where the effort is underway. Learn more about the problem and what you can do about it at darksky.org.

Star Trek: The Changeling

It's time for another episode of Star Trek:
The story begins with the crew of the Enterprise discovering that all life in the Malurian system has been killed and, before the opening credits roll, they come under attack.
Spock reports that the weapon that hit them was as powerful as "ninety of our photon torpedoes" and that their shields will hold for another three hits -- a fourth will knock out their shields. That's just plain ridiculous. Even more ridiculous, Kirk orders that they fire a photon torpedo at the attacker and is astonished to hear that it has absorbed the torpedo's energy. Wait, didn't their own shields just do the same thing, but for a weapon 90 times stronger?
They get hit several more times and with his back up against the wall, knowing that his weapons are useless and another hit from the alien will destroy the Enterprise, Kirk finally tries what he should have done right away -- talking to the attacker, a small intelligent alien machine known as Nomad.
Conversation disarms the situation and they beam Nomad aboard, where it promptly asks about their point of origin. Figuring that Nomad would not have any reference points, they agree to show it a diagram of our solar system.
Kirk explains to Nomad that in the 23rd Century Pluto is still a planet.
Nomad figures out that they are from Earth and refers to Kirk as "the creator." We also learn that Nomad's "function is to probe for biological infestations, to destroy that which is not perfect," which explains what happened in the Malurian system.
Kirk and the gang need to figure things out, without Nomad hanging around, so they leave him with an engineering tech (Lieutenant Singh) and have a pow wow. Spock uses the library computer to Google Nomad and we learn a few things. There was a probe called Nomad. It was created by Jackson Roykirk (above),  launched from Earth but it was lost, "presumed destroyed by a meteor collision" and that the Nomad with them now really doesn't look all that much like the original probe (below).
What the heck is a "Coupler Prediction Scanner"?
As they have their meeting Nomad hears Uhura singing over the intercom and goes to the bridge to learn what that's all about. 
Nomad scans and essentially erases Uhura's mind. Oh, and he kills Scotty too. Meanwhile, Kirk, Spock and McCoy seem pretty bored talking about Nomad in the Briefing Room.
They are called to the Bridge where Nomad having killed him now, thankfully, offers to repair the "unit Scott." Nomad can't repair Uhura, but still manages to put in a slam against women (something that happens a lot in TOS), calling them "a mass of conflicting impulses."
Uhrua gets re-educated by Nurse Chapel ("She'll be back on the job within a week.") and Spock mind melds with Nomad. He learns Nomad's back story and its current mission--sterilize imperfections--which proves to be so interesting that Kirk and Spock need to talk about it while Nomad stays under the watchful care of two Red Shirts. What could go wrong?
Oh, yeah. That.

Nomad then tries to improve the efficiency of the Enterprise, pushing their speed past warp 10 (yet, strangely, no one devolves into salamanders) before Kirk calls it off. As he does so, Kirk confesses that he, himself, is a biological unit. Not a good move. Nomad says, "There is much to be considered before I return to launch point. I must re-evaluate." Yeah, Nomad wants to head home where it will find Earth infested with imperfect biological units. That's a problem. Stalling for time, Kirk again tells Nomad to wait with two Red Shirts.
It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I'm looking at you James T. Kirk.
Still, Kirk manages to save the day by pointing out that Nomad has made errors, is imperfect and must carry out its prime function. They beam it into space where it explodes and the day is saved (except for the four Red Shirts).

All-in-all, The Changeling is a fun episode as long as one doesn't look too closely. Yes, it is another in the series of Kirk vs. Computer episodes, but the many of the basic plot points were evidently good enough to be lifted for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (but that's another story).

There was no new music written for this episode. So, instead, you should totally check out this song by the band Five Year Mission:

Next up, The Apple.