Monday, December 31, 2012

Analysis of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

This novel is not the first in the series. The character first appeared in print as a captain in the novel Beat to Quarters, evidence that prequeling well-established heroes is not a recent Hollywood invention. Unlike Hollywood fare, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is a successful and believable depiction of what the first years of the celebrated captain’s career should read like. (More on the comparisons to Kirk later).

We meet him coming aboard his first vessel, the Justinian. He is barely seventeen, small framed, weak and seasick, with the indignity of having to wear an overlarge uniform. Unlike the other sun-beaten sailors, he is pale. Forester isn’t two pages into the novel before describing his hero is the least heroic way possible: “Set in the white face were a pair of dark eyes which by contrast looked like holes cut in a sheet of paper.” His feet are so unsteady on the deck that he frequently trips, at one point sliding down a ladder “like an eel over a rock.”

He is described as suffering seasickness for the first half of the novel. Towards the end of the book he is not much bigger. At age nineteen, he has to borrow a fellow midshipman’s clean stockings for a state dinner, and he has to pad out his thin calves with wood shunts and plaster so the stockings don’t sag. He loses two ships he is put in command of, the captured French vessel Marie Gallant and the small sloop Le Reve. (Although he captured or helped to capture as many ships as he lost.) He is no nervous during is promotion review for lieutenant that he freezes up, and would have been rejected if the review was not interrupted by Spanish attack. His missteps and deadly mistakes often lead him to a fit of weeping, or the necessity of staving off such a fit for dignity’s sake.

So why is this a fitting beginning for the legendary future captain and admiral? Because Forester is explicit about young Hornblower’s strengths. First, we learn that Hornblower studied hard in school. He often refers to Norie’s Eptiome of Navigation and other tomes that he had undoubtedly poured over in the naval academy. The second thing we learn (in the very first chapter) is that this weak, knock-need boy has courage. He instigates and follows through with a duel (by luck of a misfire, both shooters are unharmed). This episode shows that Hornblower has no qualms about putting his life on the line. And he does so in each of the subsequent nine chapters. One great example is in Chapter Four. The Indefatigable is trying to sneak upon and capture a French ship. Hornblower’s only job in the boarding party is to drop the mainsail so that the ship can be sailed out of the bay. To do this he has to climb up the mast 100 feet and drop the sail. He is afraid to do this job, and during the mission briefing he wants to protest that he is not the man for the job. Tellingly, he stays quiet. During the boarding, when he reaches the top of the mast he finds that the French had removed planks and cables so he is required to run along a single cable for the length of the sail, a feat that, “in a circus at home would be receive with ‘oh’s and ‘ahs’ of appreciation.” Suffice to say, he completes the task and the ship is successfully taken. It is a moment where he learns what he is capable of.

Chief among young Hornblower’s strengths is that he learns from his mistakes. As he realizes that the Marie Gallant is sinking he immediately understands how his pride over his first command blinded him to critical dangers that were beneath his feet the whole time he was aboard her. The personal shame he feels that the ship “had been entrusted to him to bring into port, and he had failed” is what brings on one of his weeping fits. The absolute necessity of completing his charged duties with success becomes a mark of his character. He is always making mental and actual notes for future reference. He is an active learner. (As a sailor, I can say that a boat has a way of forcing this mindset upon you. You know that certain conditions on the water and in the equipment will occur, and something invariably goes wrong. Experience and learning from it are the only means of survival.)

Note this comparison with Lieutenant Soames, who, along with Hornblower, commanded a jolly boat in the battle with the Spanish galleys in Chapter Seven:

Soames had been a grey-haired officer of vast experience. He had sailed the seven seas, he had fought in a score of actions. But, faced with a new situation, he had not had the quickness of thought to keep his boat from the under the ram of the galley. Soames was dead, and Acting-Lieutenant Hornblower would take his place.

Hornblower not only avoided being rammed by the galley, he boarded and captured it. This was above and beyond what duty required. But he was so morally offended by the stench of the 200 slaves rowing the galley that he was overcome by “fighting madness, sheer insanity” against the Spanish. Forester tells us that “Hornblower had never realized the black depths of lunacy into which he could sink,” but that “only good fortune had allowed him to live through it. That was something worth remembering.” We can imagine the young acting-lieutenant thinking about future engagements when he should trust this all-consuming rage and act on it, and when he should not.

A corollary to all this introspection and learning is self-doubt. Hornblower constantly doubts himself and his decisions, but this is ultimately a virtue. By asking hard questions of himself he keeps arrogance in check, and can apply the answers he comes up with to future problems.

So Hornblower is knowledgeable and brave, and quick enough (in body and mind) to apply these qualities to take the necessary action. But there is one last quality that Forester shows again and again. Hornblower is deeply committed to the Code of Honor and Duty of the British Navy. One of his first acts is to challenge a superior officer to a duel because that Lieutenant had “touched [his] personal honor.” When he discovers crewman gambling, he orders them to never do it again and threatens floggings. The most striking example comes at the very end of the novel. He has been a Spanish prisoner for two years. A ship grounds on a reef near the prison. Hornblower devises a plan to rescue the Spanish sailors trapped on the reef. He is allowed to take a small boat manned with Spanish fishermen. They rescue the sailors but must go out to sea to seek refuge from the reef. They are picked up by a British ship. Not only does Hornblower argue with the British captain to free the fisherman, he requests to be sent back into captivity. Under the rules of war, because he was on parole when he went on the rescue mission, he is honor bound not to try to escape. So he goes back to the Spanish, who then free him for his service. Hornblower knows that without honor, and self-sacrifice in the name of honor, a navy cannot function. Tellingly, the voice in Hornblower’s head that tells him not to reveal to the captain that he was on parole during the rescue, is referred to as the Devil.

By the end of this book, you can see the young man’s entire valiant career spread out before him. And you want to watch it unfold through all the coming adventures.

Now, Roddenberry has said many times that James T. Kirk is Horatio Hornblower in space. There are many similarities (and differences) between these two characters, and their chosen homes—the sea and the stars—which I will explore in future posts. But I don’t want to leave this analysis of Hornblower’s prequel without mentioning Kirk’s prequel.

Shatner’s Kirk enlists in the Academy at 17 (the same age Hornblower becomes a midshipman on his first vessel). Four years later he is on his first starship as an ensign. He is given his first command at age 31. So his career from ensign to captain took 10 years, which I believe is a Starfleet record. Some Original Series episodes filled in details of this early career, and there are themes that align with Honrblower, such as Kirk’s guilt over a moment of indecision that led to the deaths of 200 Farragut crewmembers including the captain.

Many fans have always wanted to see these details fleshed out on screen, which is why the Star Trek ’09 film left so many of us disappointed. In the altered timeline of the film, Kirk enlists in the Academy at age 22 (presumably after spending his young adulthood carousing at bars). But once focused on a life goal, he makes for a good student and he is scheduled to graduate after three years. It is important to note that Kirk never actually graduates. His hearing for cheating on the Kobayashi Maru program is interrupted by the attack on Vulcan. When he returns to the Academy after Nero’s threat is neutralized, Starfleet makes him a captain. He is 25. He is given command of a Ship of the Line, after three years of schooling and mere days of active duty.

Now a Hollywood blockbuster is not a novel, and we cannot expect a novelist’s attention to narrative in the depiction Chris Pine’s young Kirk. But there are costs to sacrificing believable narrative to the perceived wisdom of how the story of a summer blockbuster should be paced. Star Trek—as any story—requires that the audience accept the rules and parameters of its story world in order for us to care about its characters and be held in suspense by its action. As soon as the audience grumbles, “That would never happen,” they are pulled out of the story and aren’t likely to reenter it with the full heart of a fan. It is not only that Pine’s Kirk is mortally wounded by the writers' decision, but so is the entire backdrop of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Universe—Starfleet. How are we to take Starfleet’s decisions, and its other captains, seriously in future stories?

In all previous Trek, the rank of its officers has always been depicted as a matter of importance, governed by strict rules and tests of competence. Much like rank is treated in the Royal British Navy. Which would you rather have? A captain made out of a crass young man after one test of his character and skills. Or this, from acting-lieutenant Hornblower’s musings on the eve of his examination for lieutenant:

If he should pass… Hornblower would be a lieutenant with two months’ seniority already. But if he should fail! That would mean he had been found unfit for lieutenant’s rank. He would revert to midshipman, the two month’s seniority would be lost, and it would be six months at least before he could try again. Eight months’ seniority was a matter of enormous importance. It would affect all his subsequent career.

I have great respect for those film makers, like Nick Myer, who actually read the Star Trek Ur-texts before they set about refashioning the Star Trek story world. If only we would get more of them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Star Trek Ur-texts

I am beginning a review of what I am calling Star Trek Ur-texts. An Ur-text, for those non-English majors out there, is a text that is a source that had an explicit and major influence over a later work, a direct antecedent, a kind of literary father. You mostly hear about them with Renaissance plays, especially Shakespeare. The Hamlet and Macbeth stories existed in earlier versions, which Shakespeare took, refashioned for the stage and stuffed with the lines that high schoolers now have to memorize.

The classic 79 Star Trek episodes are the most literary inspired of all the Trek series. Naturally, because the writers were creating something never before seen on TV of film. So they had to reach into fiction to find character and story-telling models. The later series just copied each other instead of fresh material, and the genetic drift resulted in some retarded children. (Interestingly, the most unique later Trek, DS9, was heavily modeled on classic Hollywood movies--and not just westerns--that were favored by the various producers).  

In this analysis, I will try to base my label of Ur-text on accounts that the series writers actually viewed them as important sources. The writers were steeped in Sci-fi from the 30s, 40s and 50s, but not every Amazing Stories piece has imprinted its DNA into Star Trek. But some of them may have, and I will eventually try to find them.

The one text that we know is a definitive Star Trek Ur-text is the Horatio Hornblower novels. I will begin with these.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Nolan Universe?

My friend from TrekWeb posted some news/rumors about the Justice League movie:

Warner Bros., not content to let us wait for the return of the Dark Knight in his own rebooted franchise, or the even more anticipated (if that’s possible) Justice League movie, are moving forward with plans to continue Nolan’s universe ASAP.
We already know that Christopher Nolan is working with Zack Snyder and the creators of the upcoming Superman movie as a producer, but now it seems like Warner Bros. want more than just his guiding hand on their Man of Steel. They and DC are looking to bring at least 2 of his Dark Knight universe characters into theirJustice League/Man of Steel continuity. 

First, it is clear the Nolan has created a distinct Universe. It is more vivid and comprehensive than even Tim Burton's dreamscape, and one that will not be so easily dispensed with by future hack directors who wish to take over the franchise. No, Nolan's visual and storytelling aesthetic will challenge, bedevil, confound--and hopefully improve--all the comic book filmmakers that come after him. Prime evidence of this will be the almost assured success of the up-comming Man of Steal, compared to the failure of Super Man Returns to achieve cultural relevance. While Nolan is not directing, he is credited with the re-boot concept. No one knows exactly what this concept is, but we know it will be of a piece with his Batman trilogy. In an interview with Details, the new Superman actor Henry Cavill said that the movie is "positively Christopher Nolan-esque." His main evidence is that the character has been updated. He described previous versions of the character as "a bit chocolate box" (got to love the Brits) but this his version will be "reflective of life today."

That has always been Nolan's interest. His Batman movies can be viewed as post 9/11 morality plays. The Dark Knight Rises reflects on the nature of democracy and the alternating roles of citizenry and the mob (which I will explore in a future post). He wants us to see ourselves in his movies, instead of presenting purely escapist fantasies. In order to achieve this goal, he needs to cover everything we see happen on screen with a patina of realism. This necessity infuses every aspect of the film, from set design, costume, makeup, but especially story and script. 

So, about this so-called Justice League. When Batman Begins came out, Nolan or one of his lieutenants said they made a conscious decision that the world of this Batman would not have other super heroes in it. It was because of this structured realism that I assumed back then we would not see a Robin paired up with Bale's Batman. (It is instructive that even though we now have a Robin character, we still aren't likely to see this paring up on screen--even if Levitt does reprise the character in a future spinoff).     

Pairing up two or more super heroes, even Nolan-esque ones, ala The Avengers, will result in a movie that is escapist fantasy and not the hyper-real story world that Nolan has crafted. Even if Nolan moves on to original projects and leaves Batman to others (hacks or not), they will find it nearly impossible to maintain Nolan's vision and aesthetic while cramming in Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc. It may be a fun movie. It may even be a good movie. But it won't reside in Nolan's Universe. It will necessarily be a comic-booky universe. 

Besides, Nolan's Universe has always been within Gotham City Limits. That is the end of the line. It is part of his realism. He wants you, dear viewer, to think Gotham as a city in your America. It is a place from which, for two and a half hours, you look out and reflect on your actual country and the real world. If a character leaves Gotham, taking you on a visit to a fictional Washington DC or Los Angeles or Metropolis, then you can no longer have the perspective to reflect on the real America. Nolan doesn't want you to leave Gotham, and he will blow up the bridges to keep you there.  


Sandy Reflections

The Sandy recovery & reflection period started one month ago. Four weeks ago today our power came back on, and like the flip of a switch, we changed from spooked, cagey, flinty survivors to 'what's on Bravo?'

The big take-away for me is how the storm is viewed in the context of global climate change, or as some prefer Global Weirding. It is shocking to me that climate change has been so frequently connected to discussions about this storm, when it wasn't so long ago when to do so was taboo and politically dangerous. So many New York Times stories have been written about basically proclaiming New York City doesn't have a chance in a the coming warmer world. Last week's Sunday Review literally prepared New Yorkers for the day when they will have to move their city to Rochester. Bloomberg's surprise endorsement of Obama the week of the storm was directly linked to climate change. And his rebuffing of plans to protect the city with sea walls stems from his long held view that we need to stop the climate from changing by changing our behaviors (he needs to devote his time out of office to figuring out how we have to change our economy to facilitate that goal). Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo supports the idea of building protections. Both men attribute storms like Sandy to climate change.

Even Obama makes the connection. He prefaces his statement by saying that "no single weather event can be attributed to climate change", but he goes on to talk about the importance of increasing our efforts to reduce human impact on climate change. This would have been impossible for a politician to say a few years ago.

[In a 4th season 2002 episode of The West Wing, there was a story line about a flash flood in Alaska that killed some people. The liberal writers had one of the liberal characters claim this was "the first death attributed to global warming." And in the episode this caused a backlash and mini-scandal. As usual it was the writer's way of representing politicians as they should be, not as they are.]

I remember the feeling the climate change acceptance shift as it was happening, between the 2004 and 2008 elections. We rapidly switched from the Dick Cheny "the American way of life is not negotiable" attitude to where we couldn't talk about these things except in the most left of liberal circles, to the broad understanding of the public that the American way of life is going to change whether we negotiate or not. It was a shocking, palpable shift in the public perception, and one that was already underway well before Obama and the democratic senate passed their cap and trade bill. Whether it will ever become law may depend on a few more years of droughts, fires and storms, and how much the American people really want to change their economy.
In eight years living here (and all the previous years of my life) I never had to prepare for a hurricane--until Irene last year and Sandy this year. There is an emotional acceptance among people that this may well happen every year from now on. And if it does happen in September or October of 2013, the modifier "new" will be lopped off of the oft-quoted expression, and we will just have "normal."