Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Star Trek: A Piece of the Action

Hey, it's time to talk about Star Trek again. Today, it is A Piece of the Action.
 If you loved Romans in Space, you'll love Gangsters in Space. Right? Check.
The trick with A Piece of the Action is to not think too critically about it, just put your feet up, relax and enjoy it. After all, this is lighthearted, humorous Trek, not something with a message or a scifi story to tell.
The Enterprise is sent to Sigma Iotia II to follow up on the mission of the Horizon, a space vessel that visited the planet 100 years ago. The visit from the Horizon was before there was a Non-Interference Directive, so Kirk and the gang are to check to see if there was any contamination to the local culture.
Yeah, there's contamination all right and it all stems from The Book, left behind by the Horizon - Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. By the time Kirk, Spock and McCoy arrive the gangsters have taken over. Their entire culture is based on this book.
The episode is a seemingly endless array of captures and escapes as Kirk and the gang deal with the various crime bosses.
It's all far too much to recount here, but when Kirk and Spock don their gangster outfits and step into their roles, that's all that matters.
"Captain, you are an excellent starship commander, but as a taxi driver you leave much to be desired." 
Spock steps into the gangster role surprisingly quickly, while back on the Enterprise Scotty is slow to catch on, and even when he does, he doesn't quite have it right: "You mind your place, mister, or you'll be wearing concrete galoshes."

The big problem for me, like in many Trek episodes, is that it's all too small. The crime bosses they are dealing with here represent the entire planet, but are all just a city block or two away from each other. Maybe there's only one city on all of Sigma Iotia II, or maybe I just overthink things.
Kirk gives this episode two thumbs up and you should too, if you like lighthearted Star Trek. If not, pass it by and stick to the more serious episodes.

Next up is By Any Other Name.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Star Trek: The Immunity Syndrome

Hey, it's time to talk about Star Trek. Today, it is The Immunity Syndrome.
The Immunity Syndrome is sort of middle of the road Trek, it's not one of my favorite episodes, but it has moments that are pretty good and others that are pretty bad. Read along and you'll see what I mean.
A decade before Obi-Wan Kenobi felt millions of voices suddenly cry out in terror that were then suddenly silenced, Mr. Spock felt the death of 400 Vulcans aboard the starship Intrepid.
For my money Leonard Nimoy's Spock was much more convincing. Nobody seems to remember this moment, yet the Obi-Wan moment is part of pop culture.

Even though everyone really needs some time off, the Enterprise is ordered to investigate the disappearance of the Intrepid and the fact that Gamma VIIA, a star system that had been home to billions of inhabitants,  now shows as "dead" on the scanners.
Spock is sent to Sickbay and while there, as he is prone to do, he has a verbal sparring match with McCoy, this time with a bit of social commentary thrown in:
Spock: "I've noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours."
McCoy: "Suffer the death of thy neighbor, eh, Spock? You wouldn't wish that on us, would you?" Spock: "It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody."

Spock also tells us that "I know not a person, not even the computers on board the Intrepid, knew what was killing them or would have understood it had they known." Wait, what? They wouldn't have understood what it was that killed them if they knew what it was that killed them? I don't get it.

Later he explains "Vulcan has not been conquered within its collective memory. The memory goes back so far that no Vulcan can conceive of a conqueror" and that when the Vulcans died they felt astonishment. Say, what? Vulcans are a smart people and they have had a somewhat violent history of their own, so I'm just not buying at all the idea that Vulcans cannot conceive of a conqueror or that they can't understand that they might possibly face defeat.
Anyway, as ship heads to their destination they encounter what at first looks like a dust cloud. Yeah, it's not a dust cloud.
They launch a probe to investigate the zone of darkness. It doesn't tell them much, but it does have an immediate negative effect on the crew. McCoy reports that half the crew fainted. It's okay though, as he's quick in shooting them all up with stimulants.
They head in to the big zone of darkness and Kirk wants to know what happened to the stars. Really. He's surprised that the stars have gone after they headed into the dark cloud that blotted out all the stars behind it.

Scotty reports that the ship is losing power. And now more people are now suffering ill effects, thankfully ol' Shoot-em Up McCoy keeps everyone going.

Spock reports, "We still have no specifics, but we seem to have entered a zone of energy which is incompatible with our living and mechanical processes. As we draw closer to the source, it grows stronger and we grow weaker." McCoy recommends survival and getting out of there.
Sensing that the crew might need a shot of confidence from the Captain, Kirk gets on the intercom with one of the worst messages ever: "Our mission is to investigate. We're sick, and we're getting sicker. We have no guarantees, but we have a good ship and the best crew in Starfleet. So do your jobs. Carry on. Kirk out." We're sick and we're getting sicker and we have no guarantees. Seriously? Sigh. Kirk, your crew deserves better from you.
To make things worse McCoy then calls in from Sickbay to deliver news that's both poorly written and poorly delivered: "Jim, according to the life indicators, the energy levels ... According to the life monitors, we're dying. We're all dying." Yeah, maybe they'd better hightail it out of there.
Except, they can't. Scotty explains that power levels are falling, "everything is acting backwards" and that they are "being pulled forward." With no stars or reference points visible I'm not sure just how they can tell that which way are moving at all.
At least until they encounter what's at the heart of the zone of darkness. Which happens to be a giant (11,000 miles across!) single-celled organism!
McCoy suggests that they send a shuttlecraft to learn more about the Giant Space Cell and he wants to make the trip. The trouble is Spock thinks that he himself is better qualified. Kirk knows that this is almost certainly a one way trip and finally decides that it must be Spock.
So off Spock goes, with what looks like a moray eel face looking on. I've always really liked the original effects done for this - face and all. No, really.
Spock's mission is successful, but the news isn't good. Chekov reports, "According to Spock's telemetry information, there are over forty chromosomes in the nucleus that are ready to come together, ready to reproduce."  McCoy explains, "Well, all I know is, that soon there'll be two, four, eight, and more. The entire anti-life matter that that thing puts out could someday encompass the entire galaxy."Anti-life matter? That's not cool at all, nor does it make much sense. 

Always the optimist Kirk says that "When it grows into millions, we'll be the virus invading its body." Millions? That's thinking positively. I like McCoy's response though, "Here we are, antibodies of our own galaxy, attacking an invading germ. It would be ironic indeed if that were our sole destiny, wouldn't it?" That sounds like a spinoff TV series to me. Star Trek: Antibodies.
Anyway, communications with Spock come an go, the ship is nearly out of power and everybody is just barely hanging on, when they remembered that in just the last episode they used an antimatter bomb to kill the evil vampire cloud that was menacing them. So why not try it here too? 
So they do. There's some serious shaking, but it totally works. They killed the Giant Space Cell and in doing so the explosion threw both the Enterprise and the shuttlecraft to safety. Who could ask for anything more?
It looks like Kirk will get his vacation after all. I wonder what he has in mind?

All-in-all, I really disliked McCoy's talk about the "life indicators" and "anti-life matter," but the McCoy-Spock interplay early on and then before and during Spock's shuttle trip is pretty good. It feels like, with another round of editing on the script this episode could have been top notch. The effects, as I mentioned, were really first rate for 1968, so I give the whole thing a thumbs up.

Next up, is a fan favorite - A Piece of the Action.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

More from Pluto & Last Night's Moon and Planets

The early returns from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto have been amazing.
Only a tiny percentage of the data has been returned so far (it will be many months before it's all in), but Pluto is being revealed to be a remarkable world. The images so far indicate a nearly total lack of impact craters, suggesting that Pluto is an active world. There currently is much speculation as to what forms that activity takes (geysers, ice volcanoes, other things), but there's no consensus of any kind yet.

More images are expected to be released on July 24th, so stay tuned for them.

There's a planetary show of another kind still going on out west in the evening skies. Venus and Jupiter are still relatively close together and tonight (Saturday, July 18th) the moon will be especially close to Venus.
Here's how the scene looked last night, with the thin crescent moon well below Venus and Jupiter. By tonight the moon will have moved close to Venus and should look very nice. If you've got clear skies be sure to go out and look for them tonight as it gets dark.
A closer look at last night's moon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Snows of Pluto?

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13.

This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) is complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.
Alan Stern, the P.I. of the New Horizons mission suggested that the smooth nearly featureless area is due to snow on the surface of Pluto. We'll now more after the closest images are returned. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Strange New Worlds

The latest pics of Pluto and Charon from New Horizons have just been released and, while the best is still yet to come, they show these worlds as never seen before.

Here's the official description given to the image of Pluto above:
Pluto’s bright, mysterious “heart” is rotating into view, ready for its close-up on close approach, in this image taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). It is the target of the highest-resolution images that will be taken during the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The intriguing “bulls- eye” feature at right is rotating out of view, and will not be seen in greater detail. 
And Charon:
Charon’s newly-discovered system of chasms, larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth, rotates out of view in New Horizons’ sharpest image yet of the Texas-sized moon. It’s trailed by a large equatorial impact crater that is ringed by bright rays of ejected material. In this latest image, the dark north polar region is displaying new and intriguing patterns. This image was taken on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers).
The best is yet to come with data collected during tomorrow's flyby. As I write this closest approach is in just 8 hours 45 minutes. The New Horizons spacecraft will spend the encounter performing science observations to the exclusion of all else. This means that there will be no science data or communications of any kind coming from the spacecraft until well after the encounter has ended.

This means that all the cool pics will not come until later. Because of the slow download times much of the data will be very slow in coming back, taking many months. Still, if all goes well there will be some wonderful imagery soon enough.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Closing in on Pluto and Charon

The New Horizons space probe is starting to reveal wonderful details on Pluto. Here's a shot taken on July 11th (yesterday):
There's some interesting terrain and brightness variations. Because of Pluto's rotation and the path that the spacecraft is flying, this is the last and best look that we'll get of this side of Pluto - the one that permanently faces its large moon Charon. This photo was taken from a distance of 2.4 million miles and it may be some decades before we get a closer look that these large dark areas.
Charon is also starting to come into focus. The image above (also taken yesterday) hints at features similar to what is seen on Pluto, but what they are remains to be seen.

The view of both worlds will continue to improve as the probe closes in.
For the latest on where New Horizons is in its flight path be sure to visit their Current Position page. When I grabbed this image New Horizons was just 2,299,185 km (1.4 million miles) from Pluto and closing in on the dwarf planet at 13.8 km/sec (8.6 miles/second).