Remastered Star Trek – The Original Series (TOS): A treasure worth waiting for!

I haven’t been blogging much during April. One reason is that I’ve been travelling across space — and time.

I was in London for 10 days, and with its lovely Spring weather, I had every reason to be offline. I’ve also been spending a good deal of time back in 1966-67, and having a great deal of fun doing so. (The 1960s had a charm of their own that’s never been repeated…)

Let me explain. I’ve been watching the digitally remastered original Star Trek episodes, which had their first broadcast in that now far-away year — the same year I was born. And what an exhilerating experience to go back to these superbly crafted stories: they offer me both timeless mental stimulation and a sentimental journey to my own childhood/boyhood.

I’d heard of the digitally remastered DVDs’ release a couple of years ago, and was delighted when I found the last copy of Season 2 in a DVD store in Amsterdam in late March. The remastered episodes look and sound crisp, thanks to digitally restored imagery and audio. But the more daring work involved updating the shows’ visual effects with CGI to bring them more in line with the look and quality of later Trek efforts. That’s proving to be a real treasure – well worth waiting for…

As the promotional blurb reads on Amazon.com: “Star Trek, the NBC series that premiered on 6 September 1966, has become a touchstone of international popular culture. It struggled through three seasons that included cancellation and last-minute revival, and turned its creator, Gene Roddenberry, into the progenitor of an intergalactic phenomenon. Eventually expanding to encompass five separate TV series, an ongoing slate of feature films, and a fan base larger than the population of many third-world countries, the Star Trek universe began not with a Big Bang but with a cautious experiment in network TV programming. Even before its premiere episode (“The Man Trap”) was aired, Star Trek had struggled to attain warp-drive velocity, barely making it into the fall ’66 NBC lineup.”

To boldly go where no man has gone before...

As I’ve said before, I’m as old as Star Trek: we were born a few months apart in 1966 (I’m older by seven months). But because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were both well into our teens.

I have vivid memories of that delightful first encounter, which changed the course of my life forever. In mid or late 1982, Sri Lanka’s newly launched national TV channel Rupavahini started airing a space adventure series called Star Trek. Although I was already familiar with Star Wars movies (of which two had been made by then), I’d not heard about Star Trek until the publicity accompanying the local broadcast.

Star Trek (the original series, now abbreviated as TOS) aired on my local TV – we had just two channels back then – on Wednesdays from 7 to 8 pm, which was prime time just before the evening news at 8. I remember the series ran for at least a year, during which time around 50 episodes were broadcast. I managed to watch most of them.

That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Our household didn’t yet have a television set, so I had to go across to my aunt’s house next door to watch Star Trek. My school teacher parents took a long time to warm up to the new medium – we didn’t acquire a TV set until early 1983, almost four years after TV was introduced to Sri Lanka in April 1979. And because they placed such emphasis on studies, I was allowed only an hour of television per week. I have absolutely no regrets that while it lasted, I devoted my entire weekly TV quota for Star Trek.

So every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took my young mind roaming around the universe, providing me a welcome escape from the dull and monotonous routine of my teenhood. Even today, hundreds of movies and many thousands of TV hours later, I can just close my eyes and instantly replay in my mind the evocative theme narration and music of Star Trek TOS:

I sat awestruck by the adventures of Captain James T Kirk (played by William Shatner), First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), chief engineer Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Communications Officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and others. The stories appealed to me as much for insights into the infinite possibilities (and combinations) of life, technology and power at a cosmic scale, as for the glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.

See May 2009 blog post: Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

The series was already 15 years old, and it was showing signs of age. It had the faded Technicolor look and feel of films and TV programmes made in the 1960s and 1970s. The sets were basic and special effects appeared simple — computer-generated images (CGI) was not yet invented. On such technical merits, Star Trek TOS appears elementary when compared to the original Star Wars movie that would roll out just a decade later, in 1977. (A decade is a very long time in the entertainment industry.)

But what the series lacked in looks, the show more than made up in its brilliant story lines and rich imagination. Inadequacies in production values didn’t really matter to me — or to millions of other ‘Trekkies‘ scattered across the planet. The storylines were entertaining and mind-stretching, frequently carrying concepts distilled from the finest in science fiction literature (in fact, some of the genre’s accomplished writers were involved in writing stories for the series, e.g. Robert Bloch, Normal Spinrad, Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon). The characters were strong, diverse and played by actors who soon developed global fan clubs of their own.

And now, I can relive those journeys again — this time at my leisure, packing as many, or as few, into my private screening schedule. No broadcaster or parent holds me captive any more.

Here’s how the digitally remastered version of the same series opens (aficionados, please spot the differences):

And here are a couple of comparisons between the old and remastered versions that fans have done and released on YouTube:

Of course, remastering a series held in such awe and regard by millions of fans worldwide was a calculated risk.

As Wired noted in a December 2008 story: When Star Trek designer Mike Okuda began remastering the original Star Trek episodes for a series of DVD releases, there was a chance that the show’s more devoted fans would want him beamed to a Klingon prison planet for altering the 1960s classic. To guard against this, Okuda insisted that the new effects would have to be closely based on the originals to retain the visual spirit of the ’60s series.

Wired, December 2008: Star Trek Tweaker Talks Perils of Remastering Original Series

We’re grateful to Mike Okuda and everyone else on the remastering team for giving us the best of both worlds.

Star Trek designer Mike Okuda

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London: The skies are alive again with…planes and vapour trails!

With the British air space being reopened last night for flying after six days, the skies over London roared back to life today, 21 April 2010. It was the first full day of flight operations since the airborne ash from Eyjaffjalljokull (a glacial volcano in Iceland) triggered the first ever shut down of air space over Britain – and later several other countries in western Europe.

Stranded with tens of thousands of other air travellers in London, I’ve been watching the situation unfold and following the debate between airlines, British Met Office and the aviation regulator (which ordered the shut down on safety grounds on April 16).

London (and much of Britain) rolled out near-perfect Spring weather in the past few days — clear blue skies and warm, sunny days. But one thing was conspicuously missing: no aeroplanes flying overhead, and no vapour trails drawing temporary lines in the sky.

Vapour trails mark the return of flights to London skies, 21 April 2010

Contrails (“condensation trails”) or vapour trails are artificial ‘clouds’ made by condensed water from the exhaust of aircraft engines. As the hot exhaust gases cool in the surrounding air, they sometimes (but not always) produce a ‘cloud’ of microscopic water droplets.

Today, the planes and their vapour trails were back in abundance. It looked almost as if the trails were the airline industry’s way of sticking their tongue out at the aviation regulator, who is now under immense public and media pressure over its conduct in this incident.

The Evening Standard today ran its front page photo of Andrew Haines, head of the British Civil Aviation Authority whose decision is estimated to have caused losses totalling over one billion Pounds to travel industry and others dependent on air travel services. Their headline: “The man who shut the skies: Aviation chief accused of flights ban blunder”

That debate will rage on for many days to come. Meanwhile, I’m hoping I can fly back home, belatedly yet soon. While waiting to hear that news, I walked around Central London today clicking images of life on the ground and vapour trails across the lovely blue skies. Here are a few — taken in Leicester Square, Convent Garden, Paddington and Hyde Park.

Vapour trails over Hyde Park London, 21 April 2010

London skies over Paddington, 21 April 2010

London skies over Convent Garden, 21 April 2010

Remembering Saneeya Hussain of Absurdistan, five years on…

Saneeya Hussain (1954 - 2005)

Exactly five years ago today, journalist and activist Saneeya Hussain left us. Hers was a needless death that left a deep impression in numerous friends she had around the world. We still remember.

We remember Saneeya as a journalist who took a special interest in environment and human rights issues. All her working life, she campaigned tirelessly for a cleaner, safer and more equitable society for everyone, everywhere.

We remember Saneeya as one who supported pluralism – not just in her own country Pakistan, but everywhere. She hated autocrats and military dictators. She spoke out and wrote against unfair domination and agenda setting by a handful of (usually graying) men. She had the courage to suggest re-naming her country as Absurdistan!

We remember Saneeya as a fun-loving, easy-going if slightly absent-minded friend. She wasn’t the most organised person, but was diligent and relentless on causes and issues that she passionately believed in.

Saneeya’s worldwide network of friends have keep her flame alive, and this blog post is as much a tribute to them as it is for Saneeya. Officially, the Saneeya Hussain Trustcontinues her vision and mission.

In fact, the chairperson of the trust (and Saneeya’s mother) Najma Hussain just wrote us a group email, saying: “Let’s share happy memories of Saneeya and celebrate her life.”

She asked: “If you have any anecdotes to share with us please write back. We will love to hear from you.” Saneeya Hussain Trust can be contacted here.

Read my blog post written on Saneeya’s second death anniversary, 20 April 2007, for more of my own memories

Our mutual friend Beena Sarwar has made a 14-minute documentary called Celebrating Saneeya. Here’s the shorter version available on YouTube:

Celebrating Saneeya (August 2005; 14 mins; language: English; Filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, with archives and footage from Brazil, South Africa and Nepal)

Synopsis: Saneeya, with her joyful laugh, lightness of spirit, striking height and long hair, embodied “feminism” and “women’s rights” in the most un-dogmatic way. Living life on her own terms, she countered the trends that militate against women’s individual freedoms in Pakistan. During the repressive years of military dictator General Ziaul Haq she worked as a journalist and was active in the women’s movement that defied the military rule. She also pioneered environmental journalism in Pakistan. Later, while working with the World Commission on Dams in South Africa she met a Brazilian geographer eleven years her junior. Their love story transcended age, culture, religion and nationalities.

In 2004, a severe allergic reaction stopped Saneeya’s breathing and her breathing stopped during a traffic jam in Sao Paulo, preventing her from reaching the hospital in time and sending her into a coma. This documentary is a celebration of her life and all that she stood for, through interviews with her husband, family and friends, and archive material. Sticker on Saneeya’s fridge: “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first”.

Read more about Saneeya Hussain on the trust website

Prisoners of Volcano Eyjaffjalljokull: ‘Tectonic Terror’ grounds much of Europe

Eyjaffjalljokull erupting away in Iceland

Call it the cough heard around the world.

And boy, what a cough – and with what consequences!

A week ago, most of us had never heard of Eyjaffjalljokull (a glacial volcano in Iceland) — and we’re still struggling to pronounce its name even as it keeps tens of millions of people completely grounded and held ‘hostage’ with its incessant and powerful coughing.

My daughter Dhara and I are currently ‘trapped’ in London: a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland shut down all flights in and over the British Isles on Thursday 15 April 2010. The siege has continued on to the fifth day now, disrupting travel plans of so many people, and causing massive losses to the travel industry. With over 150,000 Britons stranded abroad unable to fly back, the UK is now going into emergency mode to deal with the crisis.

It’s annoying to have an unknown – and unpronounceable! – natural factor crop up and change our carefully laid plans. But things could have been much worse. As I tweeted earlier, as natural disasters go, volcanic ash has been highly disruptive but with no casualties except economic (at least so far).

Life goes on in London: Regent's Park, 17 April 2010

Life in London goes on with no visible signs of concern. Dhara and I walked around absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of London, and people were going about with life – and welcoming Spring. Joggers in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, babies being strolled around, and weekend revelers at Camden Town and Trafalgar Square.

We mixed into all these crowds – it’s Dhara’s first time, so she’s wondering what the fuss is all about! (If you’ve traveled with an energetic teenager, you know what I’m coping with.) Yes, we are being ‘held hostage’, but by an ever-so-gentle force that’s invisible to the naked eye: as if in compensation, London has rolled out sunny blue skies (long may they last!). On balance, I’d rather be caught in this kind of situation than in a devastating earthquake or tsunami…

The British media are covering the unfolding situation in great detail, but I haven’t yet seen an estimate of the number of visitors to the UK forced to stay on as there is no current escape from these islands, at least by air. But that number must be significant – and each one has his or her story to tell, some more desperate than others.

Take, for example, my friend Nadia El-Awady, who was in London for the same annual board meeting of SciDev.Net (and now grounded with the rest of the Board!). She has four young children waiting for her at home, in Cairo. She’s been blogging and tweeting about her plight, which in many ways mirrors my own.

Nadia is being adventurous (or just taking her chances). She is planning to take train or ferry or any other means to France, and then catch a train to southern Europe whose airspace is not yet affected by volcanic ash. Her determination is admirable – she just won’t allow this remote volcano to keep her hostage (she call it Eyja: “Do not expect me to ever know its full name. What kind of parent names their son Eyjafjallajoekull?”).

Dhara at Trafalgar Square, 18 April 2010

Meanwhile, Dhara and I will hold out for a couple of days more to see if the skies will clear up and the aviation regulators will ease up. As time passes and the flight suspension begins to bite hard, more and more aviation industry professionals are questioning the complete no-fly ban. Some are calling it a regulatory over-reaction.

Richard North, co-author of Scared To Death – From BSE To Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us The Earth, had an excellent piece in The Mail on Sunday this weekend. He wrote: “What we are witnessing here is not a natural law, enshrined since time immemorial but a policy drawn up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and then interpreted and enforced by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS). And that interpretation requires some scrutiny.”

He adds: “The blanket ban under clear blue skies and glorious sunshine is making some wonder whether this ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulation is appropriate to a situation that the regulations did not foresee…In the final analysis, despite the scares, no one has actually been killed in a volcano incident – something which cannot be said for the much more hazardous drive to the airport.”

Meanwhile, the journal Science has unearthed (no pun intended) from its archives an article published in November 2004 about an enormous volcanic eruption from Iceland’s past — and what it means for the country’s future. It looks at researchers studying one of the largest and least appreciated eruptions in recorded history: volcano Laki that killed 10,000 Icelanders in 1783, and according to recent studies, its billowing plumes led to extreme weather and extensive illness that may have claimed thousands more lives in Britain and on the European continent.

An image made available by NEODAAS/University of Dundee which shows the volcanic ash plume from Iceland, top left, to northern France as pictured by Nasa\'s Terra Satellite on 17 April 2010. Photo courtesy NEODAAS/University of Dundee/AP

It’s not exactly a comforting thought to read how much worse a volcanic eruption could be. The piece was written by science writer Richard Stone (currently their Asia News Editor, and my fellow panelist at the science journalists conference last Summer in London). Interestingly, the headline I gave to that blog post was: Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose.

Well, easier said than done! It’s challenging for us journalists to keep a level head and report or comment on a mega-disaster for our media. But it’s even harder being caught up and personally affected by forces of Nature (and according Richard North, regulatory over-reaction). I’ve had my house flooded out, and was close enough to ground zero of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. On both occasions, the impact was brutal and immediate.

Eyja’s persistent coughing is different. It’s a distributed, slowly unfolding phenomenon with zero casualties so far, yet affecting millions. At one level, local residents can continue life’s routines with no threat of basic amenities of life being shattered. We travelers can grumble and remain nervous when we can get home, but at the streets of London are nothing like what the doomsday scenario shows in The Children of Men, placed in a near-future London of 2027.

But as Eyja’s strangely gentle yet firm siege continues – succeeding in closing down Britain’s air space in a way that Hitler and Bin Laden couldn’t – we are reminded of who is really in charge.

When Avatar (creator) meets Amazon (tribes)…

James Cameron in the Amazon - Photo by André Vieira for The New York Times

This encounter was bound to happen: Hollywood movie director James Cameron, creator of the blockbuster movie Avatar, meets a group of indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon.

But this wasn’t part of a movie plot or promotional stunt: Cameron took time off to make his first ever visit to the Amazon because of a real world environmental cause.

He was visiting Volta Grande Do Xingu last week to discuss the Belo Monte dam being planned by the Brazilian government. According to The New York times: “It would be the third largest in the world, and environmentalists say it would flood hundreds of square miles of the Amazon and dry up a 60-mile stretch of the Xingu River, devastating the indigenous communities that live along it. For years the project was on the shelf, but the government now plans to hold an April 20 auction to award contracts for its construction.”

Map courtesy The New York Times

The dam is a “quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in ‘Avatar’ — the collision of a technological civilization’s vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there,” the newspaper quotes Cameron as saying.

Cameron had derived inspiration from decades long struggles to save the Amazon, but he didn’t know of this specific project until recently. Apparently he first became aware of the issue in February 2010, when he was presented with a letter from advocacy organizations and Native American groups saying they wanted Mr. Cameron to highlight “the real Pandoras in the world”.

Read the full story in The New York Times, 10 April 2010: Tribes of Amazon Find an Ally Out of ‘Avatar’

As I noted in my first comments on Avatar in January 2010: “It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…”

A few days later, I followed up with another post I titled Avatar unfolds in the Amazon – a comparison with an investigative documentary, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, made by Joe Berlinger, which chronicles the epic battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon – an environmental tragedy that experts call “the Rainforest Chernobyl.”

And now, within weeks, the Avatar-maker and Amazon-savers have joined hands!

Watch this space…

See also October 2009 blog post: Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

Sri Lanka General Election 2010: Voting for the ‘Undiscovered Country’?

Keeping an eye on his beloved island...?

To melancholic Hamlet, death was an undiscovered country. In Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, the Prince of Denmark hesitates in his consideration of suicide not because of an absolute Christian belief in divine retribution, but because he is afraid of an afterlife of which he cannot be sure.

For the more cheerful among us, the Future is the great Undiscovered Country. It’s a notion that has been used widely by science fiction writers, and in 1991, it was popularised by Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is the sixth feature film in the Star Trek science fiction franchise.

In the movie, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon – talking peace with the Earth Federation – gives a toast to “the undiscovered country — the future”. Spock recognizes the line from Hamlet, and Gorkon tells Spock that one has never read Shakespeare properly until reading the text in “the original Klingon”…

All this forms the backdrop (well, sort of!) to my latest op ed essay, just published by Groundviews citizen journalism website. Titled Voting for the ‘Undiscovered Country’?, and timed for Sri Lanka’s general election 2010, it takes a look at the most important common element discussed and debated during the election campaigns by all parties: Sri Lanka’s future prosperity.

As I note: “Our endlessly bickering political parties rarely agree on anything, so it’s refreshing to see a broad consensus on what this election is fundamentally about: future prosperity.

“That’s no coincidence. This is the first time we elect our law makers since the long drawn and brutal civil war ended in May 2009. We have been looking back — or nervously looking around — for much of the past three decades. It’s about time we finally looked forward.”

I go on to say: “How we wish Sir Arthur C Clarke was still with us at this crucial juncture in our history! For half a century up to his death in March 2008, the author, explorer and visionary was Sri Lanka’s amiable ‘tour guide’ to that ‘Undiscovered Country’ called the Future.

“Whoever wins this week’s election, shaping a better future will need clarity of purpose, hard work and persistence. Those looking for long term vision can start with the substantial volume of essays, interviews and speeches that Clarke has left behind…”

The rest of the essay is a concise exploration of Sir Arthur Clarke’s advice offered to his adopted homeland over several decades, and covering different areas of public policy and public interest such as education, technology, environmental conservation and managing human diversity.

Read the full essay on Groundviews, and join the online discussion.

Note: This essay is partly based on the Arthur C Clarke memorial address I gave at the British Council Colombo on 17 March 2010.

Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008/09 – And the winner is…

Winners of the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008-2009 were announced this week. The award was established ‘to recognise excellence in audio-visual creations on rice-related issues in Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown and consumed’.

The co-organisers, Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) and Public Media Agency (PMA) of Malaysia, invited innovative film-makers from the Asia Pacific region to submit short creative television, video or cinematic films on rice. I was part of the regional panel of judges.

The film winning the first prize is titled SRI – Challenging Traditions, Transforming Lives (10 mins, 2008). It is directed by Gautam Chintamani in Haryana, India.

I found it a well-focused, positive story compellingly told, with an unhurried script — just enough information, not bombarding the viewer with facts and figures. It’s about a new, more efficient way of growing rice called System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

But this is far from a boring instructional film. It focuses on lives of farmers on and off the field (e.g. SRI’s benefits to women farmers – such as less labour and time intensive). The visual experience is completed by the excellent camera work, sound track and seamless editing – altogether a highly professional production that is also a persuasive advocacy film.

Here’s the official synopsis for the film, taken from Vatavaran 2009 film festival website:
A revolutionary method, System of Rice Intensification (SRI) requires almost no standing water for paddy to grow and is fast transforming the rice cultivation. Developed by a French priest Henri De Launi in the 1980’s in Madagascar, SRI not only uses almost half of the water required but drastically reduces the physical labor associated with rice farming besides increasing the yield by almost one and a half times. For a country like India rice is more than just a mere crop.

There are myths attached to its cultivation. While SRI offers an alternate and a very sustainable method of growing rice it also battles hard with the age-old traditional approach of growing rice. The perils of global warming, the drying up of perennial rivers and the excessive use of fertilizers pose numerous threats to rice cultivation; making life very hard for the humble farmer. SRI offers a workable solution to all problems related to traditional rice cultivation.

SRI- Challenging Tradition, Transforming Lives looks at how SRI is helping the modern farmer cultivate India’s traditional crop without the burden that it had become. In addition the film highlights the transformation in the lives of millions of women who toil the hardest in Indian farmers thanks to SRI reducing the need for manual labor. To its critics the System of Rice Intensification might not be the greatest thing but the fact that SRI significantly reduces the demand for water for rice cultivation makes it worthwhile in the current scenario of the world.

Starting out in 2001-02, Gautam Chintamani worked in the capacity of Associate Producer on India’s first daily news spoof show Khabarein Khabardar. There on he did freelance writing for numerous shows for MTV, Sony and Zee amongst others. He has written and directed an 18 min short film, Alterations. In addition to writing for television Gautam Chintamani regualraly writes for the print and electronic media. He has extensively written for Man’s World, Hard News, Media Trans-Asia and MidDay, rediff.com and Buzz in Town. Gautam also worked in the capacity of Associate Director and Executive Producer of the Hindi feature film, Amavas. Of his television work the law drama, Siddhanth (Star One) was nominated for an Emmy in the International Drama section. Gautam’s episode dealing with an HIV positive college student who fights for her basic right to education was selected as a case study for a Writers workshop conducted by Hero’s Group in Hyderabad & Chennai.