Star Trek: Discovery—The latest incarnation of the popular science fiction series

By Tom Hall
18 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery, the seventh series in the long-running Star Trek television and movie franchise, premiered September 24 on CBS.

Set in the far future, in the mid-23rd century, shortly before the events of the original series released in 1966, Discovery follows the exploits of Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a female Starfleet officer serving aboard first the USS Shenzhou and later the USS Discovery in the midst of a war between the United Federation of Planets and the nefarious Klingon Empire.

When we first meet commander Burnham she is on a humanitarian mission with her mentor, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), the captain of the Shenzhou. Burnham’s promising career, however, is nearly ruined in the course of an encounter between the Shenzhou and the Klingons, with whom Starfleet has had no significant contact for generations.

The Klingons turn out to be a group of religious fanatics dedicated to uniting their long-fragmented empire through a religious war against the Federation. Meanwhile, Burnham, who was raised on planet Vulcan by the diplomat Sarek (James Frain), becomes convinced after consulting her stepfather that the only way to gain the Klingons’ respect and avoid an all-out war is to fire unprovoked on the Klingon vessel. Burnham attempts unsuccessfully to take control of the ship and fire on the Klingons herself and is arrested as a mutineer.

Doug Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery

Several months later, with the Federation embroiled in an all-out war with the Klingons, Burnham is on board a prison transport that breaks down and gets rescued by Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) of the USS Discovery, which is conducting top-secret military research. Burnham is dragooned into working on the project, whose ultimate aim is kept hidden from her.

She eventually deduces that Lorca is developing a banned biological weapon to use against the Klingons. However, when Lorca explains its purposes, including significant civilian applications, Burnham overcomes her initial hesitations and joins the crew of Discovery. The rest of the series deals with her trials and tribulations while fighting the Klingons.

The writing, acting and directing on Star Trek: Discovery is, to put it bluntly, poor. None of the actions the characters take that set into motion the key events of the series make much sense. Why would the Klingons, for instance, who have been supposedly consumed by infighting for decades, decide suddenly to band together against the Federation after a five-minute conversation with a cult leader? How exactly is firing on the Klingons supposed to keep the peace, and why would Burnham or anyone else find this to be plausible?

The dialogue is stilted and clichéd. “I forgot who said statues are crystallized spirituality,” Burnham says to no one in particular after encountering decorative sculptures on the Klingon vessel. An anonymous crewman wanders into Shenzhou’s brig during the climactic battle and asks Burnham, unprompted, “Why are we fighting? We’re explorers.”

The tone of the show is relentlessly grim, from the darkly lit corridors on the various spaceships and the goblin-like Klingons who grunt their lines (delivered in “Klingon” and interpreted for the viewer by subtitles), to the gratuitous violence and furrowed brows and grimaces on everyone’s faces intended to demonstrate the seriousness of the proceedings. The unnaturally cheerful cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who would be irritating under ordinary circumstances, provides some welcome and desperately needed levity.

Star Trek: Discovery

The show’s premise amounts to a pro-war science fiction parable that parrots all the lies with which Washington has sought to justify numerous imperialist crimes over the past quarter century. The Klingons, a warrior society modeled by the writers of previous shows on feudal Japan, and who had gained a certain psychological complexity in their depiction by the premiere of Deep Space 9 in 1993, are here reduced to sub-human religious fanatics, portrayed in a similar fashion to Islamic terrorists in numerous Hollywood blockbusters.

Burnham’s actions in the first two episodes in particular are effectively an explicit endorsement of the doctrine of pre-emptive war, i.e., there is no use negotiating with our enemies, because violence is the only language they understand.

Since first premiering in 1966, Star Trek has become something of a mass phenomenon, with tens of millions of fans throughout the world. Appearances by the former stars of the various Star Trek shows at annual conventions continue to attract significant audiences.

The principal reason for this enduring popularity has been the franchise’s optimistic view of the future and its willingness to grapple with serious human problems. By the 23rd century, in the show’s future history, all of the basic problems of contemporary society, including war, poverty and racial and national divisions, have long since been overcome. The international cooperation among the crew members of the Enterprise suggested that the wars and conflicts of the 20th century, far from representing the essential rottenness of humanity, as has become almost an article of faith in certain artistic circles, would eventually be discarded in the further social and technological development of human civilization.

Originally produced in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek also became the first TV show to cast a black woman, Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, in a leading role. Martin Luther King, according to Nichols, was a fan of the show and urged her to continue on the show when she was thinking about quitting.

Star Trek could always be wildly uneven, even campy, but at its best, the show was capable of fairly pointed social commentary, or of exploring difficult ethical or philosophical questions. The conceit of a number of episodes was that 20th century problems, because they were grappled with by culturally more developed 23rd and 24th century humans, could be dealt with at a higher and more clarified level than could be expected in the present.

None of this finds expression thus far in Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, at times that outlook seems more or less consciously repudiated as naive by the goings-on in the show. At one point, a Starfleet admiral declares his commitment to peace only moments before he is incinerated by the Klingons. “Starfleet doesn’t fire first,” Georgiou reminds Burnham, to which the latter replies, “We have to!”

Star Trek: Discovery

In a panel discussion at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, co-creator Alex Kurtzman explained that the “defining factor of [ Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry’s vision is the optimistic view of the future. He envisioned a world where all species, all races came together to not only make our world better, but to make every world better.”

Kurtzman went on, “That being said … we live in very troubled times. … Star Trek has always been a mirror to the time it reflected and right now … the question is how do you preserve and protect what Starfleet is [“national security”!] in the weight of a challenge like war and the things that have to be done in war is a very interesting and dramatic problem. And it feels like a very topical one given the world where we live now.”

Star Trek: Discovery seems to have struck a chord among certain layers. They are particularly enthusiastic that the show’s bloody goings-on center around a black woman in a position of authority. It’s “beautiful,” Daily Beast reviewer Ira Madison III writes, “watching two women of color, black and Asian, navigate a realm that traditionally hasn’t included them.”

On one level, given the history of the Star Trek franchise, and indeed the science fiction genre in general, this is simply absurd. On another level, however, this expresses the essential social outlook of identity politics—an indifference to larger social issues, and support for war, together with a ferocious conflict over the spoils.

WSWS

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The legacy of the Cassini spacecraft

By Don Barrett
16 September 2017

The Cassini spacecraft has been one of the most productive, versatile and inspiring astronomical platforms ever made. Launched on October 15, 1997, this spacecraft, simply by its own exploits, stands as a triumph for a generation of scientists across the globe, and testament to humanity’s vast capacity for exploration far beyond Earth. Friday morning, after nearly 20 years of operation, including 13 years in the system of Saturn, its rings, and its icy moons, Cassini’s journey ended.

Sunlight illuminates the hexagon-shaped jet stream around Saturn’s north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Cassini’s demise was as meticulously prepared as its life. As part of the planning for the spacecraft’s final mission extension in 2010, its controllers debated what to do when Cassini finally ran out of fuel. Two propellant systems were available to perform maneuvers at Saturn, but the bulk of the steering was accomplished by gently nudging the spacecraft towards various moons. Using minuscule adjustments in position, Cassini used a succession of gravity assists to change its orbit, allowing it to conserve its fuel and last more than three times its initial mission specifications.

But even with careful management, the fuel reserves would eventually be exhausted. Rather than leave an uncontrollable spacecraft in orbit and potentially contaminate one of the nearby moons biologically, it was decided that Cassini would end its mission by performing a risky series of 22 dives into Saturn’s rings, taking the spacecraft closer to the planet than it had ever been. On its final orbit, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, taking one last series of atmospheric measurements before becoming a part of the planet it had studied since 2004.

The spacecraft’s first major achievement upon reaching Saturn was the successful landingof the Huygens probe onto Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, the only soft landing ever conducted beyond the inner Solar System. The data provided by Huygens provided humanity’s first glimpse into a world shrouded by a dense nitrogen, methane and hydrogen atmosphere.

Near-Infrared Cassini image of Titan, showing hydrocarbon seas. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Titan was also studied extensively in 127 targeted encounters by Cassini, its infrared cameras and radar capable of piercing the thick clouds encircling the moon. The portrait that emerged was incredibly rich: Titan was revealed as the only body in the solar system supporting surface liquid, with active streams, rivers, and lakes punctuating the landscape, some of which have changed over the duration of the mission.

Cassini also discovered geyser-like plumes jetting from the moon Enceladus. Its dust analyzer found these plumes produced salt crystals with an “ocean-like” composition, suggesting a water origin. The last close flyby, in 2015, was targeted to pass directly through a plume, the risky maneuver that found molecular hydrogen, further evidence of a subsurface ocean with hydrothermal vents potentially capable of supporting life.

Enhanced Cassini image of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The moon Iapetus, known for centuries to have a bright side and a dark side, was imaged in great detail by Cassini. Images showed even the smallest craters puncturing the dark hemisphere, revealing underlying bright ice. Together with Earth-based observations, a consistent picture emerged of Iapetus accumulating spots of dark debris on its leading hemisphere billions of years ago, leading to a feedback mechanism where this darker area warmed and sublimated underlying ice, which accumulated in the now brilliant areas elsewhere on the moon.

Saturn’s rings, previously studied by the Pioneer and Voyager flybys, proved to have dynamics even richer than expected when imaged constantly over many years. Cassini discovered complex waves rippling through the ring systems and found new shepherding moons responsible for them. The “gap” in Saturn’s rings named after Cassini’s namesake was found to be littered with mile-sized boulders. A concentration of material in Saturn’s A ring, which may birth a new moon, was discovered in 2014, and final images of this region were recorded in Cassini’s last days.

Cassini images large moonlets stacked up at the edge of the B ring, casting shadows on the smooth interior of the ring. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Cassini even performed myriad experiments on its way to Saturn. It carried out studies of Venus, Earth, the Moon, asteroid 2685 Masursky and Jupiter. When Earth and Cassini were on opposite sides of the Sun, radio waves sent between mission control and the spacecraft were used to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity by measuring the effect of the Sun’s gravity. Cassini’s measurements agreed with general relativity to one part in 51,000.

Even with the vast amounts of data collected by Cassini, many questions remain unanswered about Saturn and many new ones were raised by Cassini itself. The elementary length of a “day” at Saturn, based on rotation of its core, remains inexact. And the age and exact mass of the rings remains undetermined.

The technical challenges posed by an extended mission to Saturn needed 15 years of pre-launch planning and the combined resources of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, 17 countries and thousands of scientific personnel to solve. Scientists at NASA who have spent their entire working lives on the mission—the initial work began in 1982—were visibly emotional on the final day of what one called “the perfect spacecraft.”

Cassini required mastery of technologies built over many decades to produce electrical power from radioactively-heated thermionic generators, to operate autonomously because of the two-hour delays in round-trip radio communications, to allow recovery, far beyond the reach of direct human intervention, from unexpected spacecraft anomalies, all the while serving as a stable platform from which its suite of complex scientific instruments could be pointed and the data collected relayed back to Earth.

Cassini images salt-water geysers at the limb of Enceladus, emerging from cracks in the ice atop a subsurface ocean that may contain life. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The Huygens lander represented a different set of challenges, not only to survive its high-speed deceleration to a soft landing on Titan, but to do so supported primarily by measurements made by Cassini itself, which had the additional duty of storing and relaying Huygens’ weak signal to Earth.

Despite Cassini’s success, no other major missions to the outer Solar System are being planned, nor are simpler missions to Saturn under active development. Only one other mission with comparable budget, the Mars rover Curiosity, has been launched in the last two decades. Cassini represents the last echoes of an epoch in which flagship-class missions of exploration beyond Mars were funded and launched.

And yet the technology available to enable such missions has vastly improved since Cassini was constructed. Moreover, the spacecraft has shown us just how much there is still to be learned in our stellar neighborhood. Mission concepts for exploration of the ice and potentially even the oceans lying under the surfaces of Saturn’s Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa exist. They await an epoch in which the scientific aspirations of humankind can be fully given the material resources required to realize them.

WSWS

Golden State sets the standard for resistance to Trump agenda

California’s big pushback:

Attorney General Xavier Becerra and progressive legislators are fighting back against the Trump agenda

California's big pushback: Golden State sets the standard for resistance to Trump agenda
Donald Trump; Xavier Becerra (Credit: AP/Alex Brandon/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

After Donald Trump’s shocking meltdown on Tuesday afternoon, it’s even clearer that progressives need effective strategies to blunt the effect of having a conspiracy-theory-driven, racist authoritarian in the Oval Office, backed by a congressional majority that is still too afraid to offer meaningful checks on his worst behavior. The good news is that some of the nation’s biggest cities and states remain controlled by Democrats. Activists and politicians in those states are looking for meaningful ways to throw wrenches in the Trump agenda.

At the top of that list is California, which not only has the largest population of any state but is controlled by progressive Democrats (relatively speaking) who seem ready and eager to fight Trump, especially on the issues of climate change and immigration. (New York is the next biggest state controlled by Democrats, but intra-party warfare has crippled the ability of progressives to get much done.)

California fired a significant shot across the bow at Trump on Monday, when state Attorney General Xavier Becerra declared that the state would sue the Trump administration over threats to withdraw law enforcement grants if the local and state police refuse to cooperate with federal efforts to deport immigrants. The lawsuit will be joined with an earlier one filed by the city of San Francisco.

“It’s a low blow to our men and women who wear the badge, for the federal government to threaten their crime-fighting resources in order to force them to do the work of the federal government when it comes to immigration enforcement,” Becerra said during a press conference announcing the suit. California received $28 million in law enforcement grants from the federal government this year, money it could lose if the police prioritize actual crime-fighting over federal demands that they focus their resources on deporting people.

“The government’s plan for deporting millions of people in this country is to coerce local law enforcement to be their force-multipliers,” explained Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California.

Pasquarella noted that most deportations currently occur because of an encounter with local law enforcement. By resisting pressure to step up efforts to persecute undocumented immigrants, she said, California can make it safe for people to “access basic services that are vital to our state and communities without fear of deportation, like schools and hospitals and libraries and health clinics.”

Some Democrats in the state are trying to take this idea even further, backing SB 54, titled the California Values Act. According to The Los Angeles Times, the bill would prohibit “state and local law enforcement agencies, including school police and security departments, from using resources to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect or arrest people for immigration enforcement purposes.”

While SB 54 is still being worked over in the legislature, California has already made progress in resisting the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal Obama-era actions to fight climate change. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill extending a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions until 2030. The bill passed by a two-thirds majority in both the State Assembly and Senate.

Many environmentalist groups have come out against the bill, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough. Still, compared to the federal government’s evident retreat, it’s progress in the right direction. California has the largest state economy in the country, and demonstrating that climate action does not have to undermine economic growth could go a long way towards convincing other states to take similar action. This, in turn, could help the country meet the goals set by the Paris Accords, defying Trump’s efforts to pull the United States out of the historic climate change agreement.

This strategy to resist right-wing policies and protect California residents predates Trump, to be clear. While much of the country was experiencing an unprecedented rollback of reproductive rights — with numerous red states passing alarming new abortion restrictions while anti-choice activists fought insurance coverage of contraception in the courts — California moved to make birth control and abortion easier and safer to get.

In 2013, responding to research showing that abortions provided by nurse practitioners and midwives are safe, Brown signed a law giving those groups authority to offer abortion services. Brown has also signed off on three provisions to make it easier for women to get birth control: Letting pharmacists dispense it without a doctor’s prescription, requiring that health care plans cover contraception without a co-pay, and allowing women to get a full year’s worth of birth-control pills at a time.

These policies were already in place before Trump’s election, but they are all the more necessary now that the president is backing conservative efforts to make contraception more expensive and harder to get. It has also helped create a model for progressive cities and states to resist reactionary policies pushed by the federal government, which is already inspiring Democrats in other states. Chicago, for instance, is also suing the federal government over the threat to sanctuary cities.

There’s a deep philosophical irony here, because for decades now conservatives have claimed they wanted to reduce the power of the federal government and hand more decision-making authority to the states. That was always a disingenuous pose, of course. This conservative “principle” was largely invented to justify state resistance to Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation legalizing abortion, desegregating schools and protecting voting rights.

Still, it’s nice to see states like California calling the Republican bluff and showing that their supposed devotion to “small government” dries up the second states and cities move to protect human rights, instead of to attack them. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has always held himself out to be a small-government conservative, for instance. But his reaction to state and local officials who claim the power to set law enforcement priorities for themselves has been to accuse those officials of being law-breakers. This hypocrisy is already obvious, and it may soon be exposed in court.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

The discovery of a system with seven “Earth-like” exoplanets

24 February 2017

The detection of a nearby solar system of potentially Earth-like exoplanets orbiting the star Trappist-1 has evoked widespread public interest and enthusiasm. Millions of people have read reports, watched videos and posted on social media about the seven worlds that might have liquid water on their surfaces.

The Trappist-1 system is comprised of seven planets that orbit a nearby ultracool dwarf star (so-called for its comparatively low temperature). Six of the planets have been confirmed to have an Earth-like size, mass and density. None of them have any hydrogen in their atmospheres, further confirmation that these are all terrestrial, rocky worlds like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Moreover, due to the gravitational interactions between all seven planets and Trappist-1 itself, every world in the system may have liquid water.

Of particular interest is the fact that the planets are very close. They are Earth’s next-door neighbors, relative to the vastness of the universe. Trappist-1 is only 39 light years away—that is, it takes light, traveling at about 300,000 kilometers per second, 39 years to travel the distance. In comparison, the Milky Way galaxy of which our sun is a part has a diameter of 100,000 light years, and it is about 2.5 million light years to its larger companion, the Andromeda galaxy, one of trillions of galaxies in the Universe.

An artist’s rendering of the seven worlds of the Trappist-1 system, shown to scale in both size and distance, as might be seen from Earth with a future telescope. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Spitzer Space Telescope, Robert Hurt (Spitzer, Caltech)

The planets are so close that, in the not-too-distant future, it should be possible to make far more detailed analyses and even direct observations of exoplanets.

The discovery of these worlds is the most remarkable of a wave of new scientific findings since the first “exoplanet”—a planet outside of our solar system—was discovered around a Sun-like star in the mid-1990s. At the time, while exoplanets had been predicted for nearly four centuries, none had been conclusively detected, let alone directly observed.

Advances in measuring techniques and the use of instruments placed in the orbit around Earth, free of the distortions of the atmosphere, made it possible to detect very slight dips in the brightness of stars. When those dips were observed with regularity, they could be attributed to the motion of planets across the line of sight between the star and the observers.

When the first detection occurred, it opened a whole new realm of astronomy. The gravitational effects of these unseen planets could also be studied, providing evidence of their mass, density and other physical characteristics. Today, not only have scientists detected more than 3,400 exoplanets, the knowledge built up over the past 20 years makes it possible to visualize what these worlds might look like, either from space or from the surface. And with the launching of the James Webb Space Telescope next year, it should be possible to make far more detailed analysis and even direct observation of exoplanets.

Like most significant astronomical advances, the planets’ discovery was an international endeavor. The detection of exoplanets around Trappist-1 began in May 2016, when a team of astronomers used the Chile-based Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), remotely operated from Belgium and Switzerland, to first observe the star. They discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting it, with the outermost one likely within the star’s habitable zone.

This encouraged further observations, which were conducted by a series of ground-based telescopes located in Chile, Hawaii, Morocco, Spain and South Africa. The Spitzer Space Telescope was also commissioned to use its higher precision and greater ability to see in the infrared to study the system. When it was discovered that the system had not three, but seven planets, the Hubble Space Telescope was employed to do an initial survey of the planetary atmospheres for hydrogen. Astronomers across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, South America and Southeast Asia coordinated their efforts to make sense of the data.

The discovery of a planetary system around Trappist-1 is not merely a piece of luck. It is the confirmation of a scientific hypothesis, first advanced in 1997, that, due to the physics of stellar formation, stars with about a tenth of the mass of the Sun are more likely to have terrestrial-sized planets. Trappist-1 is one of many candidates to be studied using this hypothesis, and the first for which the idea has been borne out.

This scientific breakthrough is the culmination of several centuries of advances in astronomy and physics: the understanding of how solar systems are formed; the analysis of visible light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation; and mathematical methods of analysis used to discover the subtle signals in the data from stellar observations.

Trappist-1 is a demonstration of the power of human cognition, science and reason. It is a powerful rebuke to the incessant contemporary glorification of irrationalism, whether through the cultivation of backwardness and religious prejudice or the promotion of postmodernism and its rejection of objective truth, and a mighty vindication of the materialist understanding of the world, that there are objective laws of nature and that humans can comprehend them.

Among millions of people inspired by such discoveries, there is an instinctive understanding that the methods employed to find the Trappist-1 planets and make other scientific and technical advances should be used to solve social and economic problems, to provide sufficient health care, education, shelter and food for all humanity. How can our society discover seven potentially Earth-like worlds more than 350 trillion kilometers away, yet proceed, through environmental recklessness and nuclear-armed militarism, to destroy the planet on which we live?

The exoplanet discovery was based on collaboration towards a common goal whose driving force was the pursuit of knowledge, not the amassing of insane amounts of personal wealth. This sort of thinking is totally alien to the world’s ruling elite, which flaunts its backwardness, vulgarity, ignorance and parasitism, personified in the figure of Donald Trump.

This discovery highlights another contradiction of modern society. The organization and planning required to produce these results is a testament to humanity’s ability to rationally and scientifically coordinate resources on an international scale. The scientists on the project also had to reject the constant mantra of national chauvinism, espoused by the ruling elites throughout the world. While science probes the seemingly infinite distances of galactic space, humanity remains trapped at home within the prison house of the nation-state system, with barbed-wire fences, wars, invasions, bombings and mass flights of refugees.

The squandering of trillions of dollars, yuan, yen, roubles and euros to enrich a parasitic capitalist elite and to wage war around the globe is one reason why scientific announcements of this order are so rare. Immense resources, material and human, are wasted, which should be devoted to the improvement of the human condition and the conquest of knowledge of the material world.

The creation of a society in which the development of knowledge can be freed from the constraints of capitalism requires the application of science and reason to the evolution of society and to politics. In opposition to postmodernism and its many variants, which insist that there is no objective truth, Marxism is rooted in an analysis of the laws of socioeconomic development.

Driven inexorably by its internal contradictions, capitalism is leading mankind toward the abyss of world war and dictatorship. These same contradictions, however, also produce the basis for the overthrow of capitalism: the international working class. The objective process must be made conscious, and the growing opposition of millions of workers and youth around the world must be transformed into a political movement that has as its aim the establishment of an internationally coordinated, rationally directed system of economic planning based on equality and the satisfaction of human need: socialism.

Bryan Dyne

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/24/pers-f24.html

Carrie Fisher and the Star Wars phenomenon

By David Walsh
29 December 2016

The death of actress Carrie Fisher on Tuesday at the relatively young age of 60, several days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight from London to Los Angeles, has evoked expressions of grief from her many fans. The sadness over Fisher’s passing is compounded by the sudden death, just one day later, of her 84-year-old mother, the well-known actress Debbie Reynolds.

Carrie FIsher

Carrie Fisher achieved success not only as an actress but also as a writer and humorist. She was an appealing figure and personality. The daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Fisher grew up in the entertainment business. When she was born in Beverly Hills in 1956, her mother was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Reynolds also had a successful recording career.

Carrie Fisher bore the numerous scars of this upbringing and this milieu, characterized by intense insecurity, instability and self-involvement. It is easy to scoff at the difficulties of someone who grows up in this affluent world, but the list of children of film, television and music stars who have done themselves in, one way or another, is tragically long. Fisher did not suffer that fate, but she certainly suffered. Her struggles with drugs and emotional problems are well-known.

At the age of 19, Fisher landed a leading role in the first Star Wars film (directed by George Lucas), as Princess Leia. She played the same role in two other films in the first series, and showed up again in one of the many sequels, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in 2015. She also appeared in several dozen other films, mostly in smaller parts.

Fisher also wrote several books, the best known of which is Postcards from the Edge (1987), a thinly and comically disguised portrait of her mother and herself. The novel was made into a mediocre film (1990) directed by Mike Nichols, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Reportedly, Fisher made a living in the 1990s as a “script doctor,” repairing or improving other people’s screenplays.

More recently, she adapted her memoir, Wishful Drinking (2008), into a one-woman show, which had some success in theaters in 2009-10. It was made into a television documentary and released by HBO in September 2011.

Fisher specialized, in her writings, in bringing out the surreal aspects of life as the child of “celebrities,” and then as a celebrity herself. There is a certain self-mocking and self-deprecating charm to her work. She could capture the desperation and absurdity of the pursuit of stardom, of those hoping “to get out of the anonymous frying pan and into the Hollywood fire”—and enumerate its tremendous psychic costs.

Fisher became an amused, skeptical observer of Hollywood, but not its mortal enemy. In another, more radicalized era perhaps, her insight and anger might have carried her much further to the left. As it was, in the stagnant 1980s and 90s, she didn’t travel terribly far. One has the sense that the overall social and artistic conditions never permitted Fisher to look with sufficiently objective and critical eyes at the milieu in which she grew up. She always remained tied to it by numerous strings.

In this age of celebrity worship, it comes as no surprise that the media coverage of Fisher’s death is out of all proportion to her actual achievements. No disrespect is intended here. But an honest evaluation of her career and talent could not avoid the conclusion that Fisher was not a major figure in the history of American cinema. Nevertheless, substantial portions of the national news have been devoted to her passing. In death, we discover, that she is an “icon,” a “legend,” and so forth. One suspects that Fisher herself would have laughed at this sort of media blather.

A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, enthused (in “Carrie Fisher, a Princess, a Rebel and a Brave Comic Voice”) that Fisher “entered popular culture as a princess in peril and endures as something much more complicated and interesting. Many things, really: a rebel commander; a witty internal critic of the celebrity machine; a teller of comic tales, true and embellished; an inspiring and cautionary avatar of excess and resilience; an emblem of the honesty we crave (and so rarely receive) from beloved purveyors of make-believe.” This is over the top, unnecessarily and substantially so.

The claims for Fisher are only partly inspired by her career, less than the individual writers and eulogizers may think. Much of the over-praise and flattery has to do with the Star Wars franchise itself and its enduring impact. The various commentators are pumping up this “legend” of a franchise as a means of elevating and legitimizing the last several decades of American filmmaking, without question the weakest decades in its history.

Whatever the intentions of George Lucas and others, and they may have been relatively innocent and light-hearted to begin with, there is no question but that Star Wars helped mark the transition in cinema terms to a period of banalization and decay.

The Oxford History of World Cinema explains: “The Hollywood film industry entered a new age in June 1975, with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Two years later, George Lucas’s Star Wars spectacularly confirmed that a single film could earn its studio hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, and convert a poor year into a triumph. The place of movies within the Hollywood production system changed: increasingly the focus was on high-cost, potentially highly lucrative ‘special attractions.’”

Walter Metz, in the Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture, argues that “ Star Wars fundamentally changed Hollywood filmmaking at the aesthetic and narrative level but, in terms of the industry, merely returned the business toward the production of big-budget, mass audience blockbusters.”

Critic Robin Wood, discussing the “Lucas-Spielberg Syndrome,” notes that what was “worrying” about the phenomenon was the “enormous importance our society has conferred upon the [Star Wars] films.” The old serials made in the 1940s, which Star Wars was supposedly inspired by, had a “minor and marginal” role in the culture, Wood pointed out, and thus “they posed no threat to the co-existence of challenging, disturbing or genuinely distinguished Hollywood movies, which they often accompanied in their lowly capacity. Today it is becoming difficult for films that are not like Star Wars … to get made.”

This process is far more advanced today. Of course, the filmmakers were not responsible for the growing social indifference and turn to the right by substantial sections of the middle class. They merely reflected and carried forward the process. But there is no reason to mythologize Fisher’s Princess Leia, much less the Star Wars series as a whole.

 

Farewell, Carrie Fisher

…a woman whose words were a force for good in the universe

Princess Leia made her a symbol, but Fisher’s writing and unapologetic wit made her real in a way no film could

Farewell, Carrie Fisher, a woman whose words were a force for good in the universe
Carrie Fisher(Credit: Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez)

Carrie Fisher is my icon. Literally. My Twitter account features graphic artist Leka’s rendering of Princess Leia with a David Bowie lightning bolt across her face, arms crossed and fixed heat gaze staring out at the world above the words “Rebel Rebel.”  To me, it represented a handy cross between two of my great loves, the Star Man and “Star Wars,” and more specifically, its princess who ruined me for all Disney princesses by teaching me that true rulers master their own destiny by saving themselves.

But it’s also meant to be a shout of creative defiance in a world increasingly set on squelching artistic rebellion, an idea linked more to the actress herself than to the character for which she’s beloved. The Imperial Senator from Alderaan may have exposed the world to Carrie Fisher, but her extraordinary writing, represented in novels such as “Surrender the Pink” and “Postcards from the Edge,” and memoirs, including “Wishful Drinking” and her latest, “The Princess Diarist,” revealed a saber-sharp wit and fearless sense of humor no one but the woman herself could accurately script.

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true,” she famously wrote, “and that would be unacceptable.”

Although Fisher starred in a number of films — her debut was 1975’s “Shampoo,” and she also appeared in “The Blues Brothers,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “When Harry Met Sally” — and went on to ply her writing talents as a script doctor, Fisher is most closely associated with the image of Leia Organa in 1977’s “Star Wars.” She was 19 when she took on the role of a woman we met as a princess. Nearly four decades later, she was still playing Leia, only now as a general of the rebellion in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Where Leia Organa provided the visible pattern for girls who didn’t buy into the idea of waiting for a man’s rescue and validation, Fisher herself inspired writers to be unafraid of digging into the parts of us that ache, to give words and laughter to the universal truths that pain and circumstance can reveal. Writing her way through her life’s darker scenes, including periods marked by heartbreak, addiction and mental illness, made Fisher exist in a fundamentally raw and genuine way that no onscreen role could capture.

“If you have a life like mine, then these experiences eventually accumulate until you become known as ‘a survivor.’ This is a term that I loathe,” she wrote in 2008’s “Wishful Drinking,” which she transformed into a one-woman show and an HBO documentary.

“But the thing is,” she added, “that when you are a survivor, which fine, I reluctantly agree that I am — and who over 40 isn’t? — when you are a survivor, in order to be a really good one, you have to keep getting in trouble to show off your gift.”

The news of Fisher’s death at the age of 60 has shaken people on a number fronts as we take stock of the deep chomps this horrible, Satanic sociopath of a year has taken out of our lives. The loss of Fisher feels as profoundly personal as it does universal, an ugly bookend to a year marked by gigantic lights snuffing out, beginning with the death of David Bowie last January.

Bowie’s passing marked the close of a meticulously chronicled story that had countless chapters, parts and guises, one whose resonance would be felt and honored long after its creator’s departure. The artist knew he was in the last stages of succumbing to cancer, though. He carefully planned his farewell statement to the world in the form of “Blackstar,” his final album.

Fisher’s death represents the fragility of expectation.  The actress and author was known for her brash outspokenness, emphasizing the healing power humor and cleverness have over personal tragedy. And she departed suddenly, at the end of what should have been an ordinary flight home from London, where, according to Variety, she had been filming episodes of the Amazon/Channel 4 comedy “Catastrophe.”

Last week, while sailing through the clouds, she suffered a massive heart attack and spent several days on life support before dying on Tuesday morning.

From all appearances, including her final televised visit to “The Graham Norton Show” recorded while she was in Britain, Fisher seemed well and ready to get in a lot more trouble. Her appearances in upcoming “Star Wars” chapters Episode VIII and Episode IX were a given; her demise reminds us not to take anything for granted,

Until this terrible week, she even had a starring role on our short list of 2016’s joys, providing salve for a flaming sphincter of a 365-day span by confirming the fantasy so many nerd girls and boys had hoped for over the years. “Did they?” we wondered, and she let us know that yes, they did.

The actors who played Princess Leia and Han Solo (that would be Harrison Ford, for those of us living under a rock) enjoyed a torrid affair in 1976. Ford was married at the time, but bygones! The story created such delight at a time when so many of us wanted to celebrate something, anything, that very few “tsk-tsked” the revelation. Thank you for that, Carrie.

Fisher’s acceptance of Leia’s pop culture resiliency and that role’s impact on her life and career decades after her work in “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” was not merely an act of submission. In embracing Leia, Fisher also acknowledged her and her character’s role as a figure of feminist empowerment, an impact that shapes the “Star Wars” universe even now.

Had Fisher not given such an indelible performance as Leia (even before and after that awful “Return of the Jedi” gold bikini so popular on the convention cosplay circuit) we would not have gotten Daisy Ridley’s Rey as the inheritor to the Jedi line. Nor would we have Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as the central hero of this season’s box office smash “Rogue One.”

The other side of that coin is that Leia’s enduring popularity forced to Fisher to turn into all the skids she encountered along the way. Between her parentage, her famously tumultuous marriage with Paul Simon, her  battles with substance abuse and her challenges living with bipolar disorder, Fisher’s life was well-chronicled by tabloids.

One might argue that she would have had to contend with paparazzi and prying even if she had never been associated with “Star Wars.” Fisher was born into a specific part that ensured her years would not be marked by privacy and quiet; she was the daughter of actress and performer Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, who died in 2010. Fisher described the duo in “Wishful Drinking” as “the Brad Pitt and the Jennifer Aniston of the last ‘50s, only slightly moreso — because they actually managed to procreate.”

“You’re not allowed to grow up with parents who are famous and then get into one of the biggest movies of all time and run around with famous people — it’s resented after a while,” Fisher observed in a 1983 Rolling Stone interview. “And I would always try to emphasize something really wrong with me, so that people wouldn’t be put off. There are a lot of epiphanies before you get to the satori, you know. And once it was proposed to me that it was all right to be like I am, I finally quit apologizing for it.”

For what? the interviewer, Carol Caldwell, asked. “For being something different. For being strong. Strength is a style. But this happens in acting a lot. If you pretend something over and over, sometimes it comes true.”

Fisher is survived by her brother, Todd Fisher, her mother and her daughter, actress Billie Lourd. Her legacy of strength, her incredible intellect, her emphasis on laughing in the face of despair and her rebelliousness survive her as well. All of that blends into our portrait of her as a heroine, both in a world that devastated by her departure, and the one that exists only in our imagination.