Myriad Sounds of our Pale Blue Dot

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At home poorly with a chest infection recently, I decided to gorge on duvet and movies. This included Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, a bunch of late-era Star Trek flicks that I’d somehow missed the first time round, but figured must be better than the screaming electric crapfrest that is JJ Abrams’ The Wrath of Khan reboot – the clumsy passing of the torch from Kirk to Picard in Generations and the Cronenbourg-gone-PG Borg-porn of First Contact (both even more miserable than Into Darkness).

I also dug out a film that puzzled me thoroughly as a child. Because the most WTF moment in the whole 50-odd-year canon of Star Trek history isn’t the Enterprise theme tune, it isn’t the Tribbles or Khan “never forgetting” Chekov’s face, it is the moment when the Enterprise docked with popular culture again after 10 years in exile – Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Released in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is barely even a Star Trek film. Kirk, Spock, and Bones are all present, sure, but they’re largely background to a weird cross-species love affair between the Enterprise’s new captain, Willard Decker, and a baldy alien navigator called Ilia. The baddies aren’t Klingons or Romulans, but a giant space cloud emanating “consciousness”. Large tranches of the film are completely silent.

Jerry Goldsmith – Ilia’s Theme

Both Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury were invited to submit treatments for Star Trek’s comeback, but were ultimately rejected (Ellison’s involved the Enterprise travelling to prehistoric Earth and encountering a Silurian-like pre-humanoid lizard race).

The Motion Picture was panned by critics, and Leonard Nimoy only agreed to return as Spock for a sequel on the condition that his character was killed off, so that he wouldn’t be cajoled into further reunions (something he had to backpedal frantically on following the massive fan reaction to The Wrath of Khan – essentially the Empire Strikes Back of the Trek cosmology).

In a bizarrely extended sequence (for a mainstream sci fi property), Spock floats wordlessly in a spacesuit through the innards the space cloud. It’s a visual feast. Dashes of abstract colour and alien technology gleams around him and reflect across his visor. It’s up there with Proteus’ insemination scene in Demon Seed as one of the trippiest, most psychedelic wig-outs in sci fi.

It is, in fact, quite a lot like the ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Which is essentially what The Motion Picture is – Gene Roddenberry’s attempt at creating a more mature, sophisticated, and yes, artistic, Star Trek for a now-grown-up fanbase, by emulating surface aspects of Kubrick’s space poem. Not quite able to go the whole hog with the abstraction, though, The Motion Picture injects one killing twist into its resolution. After travelling miles through the infrastructure of the cloud/spaceship, Kirk and Spock finally come face to face with V’Ger, the intelligence at the heart of the entity. It is one of the Voyager probes. The 1970s-launched probe had drifted so far out of the solar system by the time of the 23rd Century that it had encountered other intelligences and achieved its own cosmic sentience.

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That might be even better than the ending to 2001!

Coincidentally, on the same day I was in bed, coughing up phlegm and soaking up all this sci fi spirituality, the BBC screened an excellent documentary on the project that launched Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977 (and who are both still out there, now free of our solar system but still bleeping back their thoughts on the phenomena they’re seeing to giant satellite dish ears back home). Also, Stravinsky’s howling primordial goo of modern avant-garde, The Rite of Spring, celebrated its 100th birthday.

Igor Stravinsky – Sacrificial Dance

This excerpt from The Rite was one of the 28 pieces of music representing the cultures of Earth that Carl Sagan selected for the Voyager golden record. The disc, which was affixed to the spacecraft, along with glyphs describing how to unlock the contents, also included greetings from Earth in a variety of languages, field recordings of the myriad sounds of our pale blue dot, an hour-long recording of the brainwaves of a woman in love, and 116 encoded images depicting our planet and the various species that live there.

If the holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent the 20th Century’s nadir, then the glorious humanism of Sagan’s project represent’s a kind of zenith for our determinism to be better. As Sagan himself put it, there were two audiences for the golden record, one was whatever extraterrestrial life may or may not be out there, the other, more important audience, was the inhabitants of Earth. Although it is right to debate the relevancy of any exploratory space programme when the colossal funds from such projects could be diverted into helping those in need on our own planet, the Voyager project – and the golden record in particular – was a triumphant piece of symbolism emphasising the human race’s similarities over our differences, and reminding us of our responsibilities as caretakers for our own piece of astral rock.

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It was only natural that Sagan’s humanism would chime with Roddenberry’s own sci fi optimism. In fact, Sagan’s son, Nick, would become a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager.

Even listened to today, the contents of the golden record are a beautiful aural snapshot of the different approaches to organised sound that human traditions would independently arrive at. Here are some of our favourites:

Men’s House Song (traditional from Papa New Guinea)

Kinds of Flowers (traditional Javan court gamelan)

Kuang P’ing-hu – Flowing Streams

Blind Willie Johnson – Dark Was The Night

Tchenhoukoumen (traditional Senegalese percussion)

Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven – Melancholy Blues

Repeating the same project today, a nebula-bound iPod containing a history of the evolution of music on Earth might sound a bit like this: This Is What The Music On Our World Sounds Like

Meanwhile, when the Voyagers set sail for the cosmos in 1977, if ETs had bothered to cock an antenna towards our planet, this is the cacophany they may have heard screaming out into space from our radio transmitters:

XXJFG – Voyager Context