January 24, 2011

Blast Off!

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Every year the three-day Light in Winter Festival of Arts braves Ithaca’s harsh January temperatures and brings with it a variety of performances, exhibitions and speakers. Focusing on science and the arts, many of the week’s events attempt to show a dialogue between the experimental world and its creative counterpart. One of the week’s most anticipated performances was Mad Science’s production of Star Trek Live!, a popular theatrical reproduction of the classic television series.

For every Star Trek fan worth his or her salt, last Sunday’s afternoon showing of Star Trek Live! was an event to mark on their calendars. Indeed, many Trekkies young and old braved the bone-chilling winter temperatures to attend this one-time performance of Mad Science Production’s interactive, special effects-laden stage show.

As the audience waited for the show to start, a science and Star Trek trivia quiz played on the on-stage video screens. The questions ranged from the trivial – which star is closest to the earth? No props for guessing the Sun – to relatively obscure, such as the name of the actor playing Captain Christopher Pike in the latest Star Trek movie – Bruce Greenwood, if you’re curious.

Just before the show, Marie Sirakos, executive director of Ithaca’s Light in Winter Festival of Arts and Sciences, of which Star Trek Live! was but one of many shows lined up for the weekend, came up to welcome the audience and to thank them for coming. She invited the people sitting at the balcony to come down to the stage floor in order to more fully enjoy the interactive experience afforded by the performance.

Star Trek Live! could be called something of a meld of science education and Star Trek fandom. Although  it was designed with a target audience of 7-15 year old children in mind, the show still managed to pack enough Star Trek references to please hardcore adult fans of the original series, though not in a way that would put off a Trek newbie such as myself. If you’ve watched the latest JJ Abrams offering in the Star Trek franchise, the plot is somewhat derivative. Using recycled CGI footage from that movie, the premise of the show depicts the movie’s Romulan antagonists time-travelling back to 21st century Earth to slow down the progress of human technological development. Commander Sean Christopher (played by Trevor Pease) is addressing the members of the 2011 class of the newly created Starfleet Academy – who, of course, constitute the audience members – when a time travelling Vulcan spaceship abruptly docks, disgorging diminutive Vulcan time traveler Voula (Theresa Noon). Voula then asks for 21st century scientific expertise to aid her in neutralizing the Romulan threat. Lame? Maybe, but plot cohesiveness isn’t really the point here. What matters is the fact that the entire show’s premise is used as a platform for some good old-fashioned science demonstrations. For example, Voula needs to access schematics from the internet to repair her damaged ship, but is skeptical of Earth’s technological achievement in communications technology, so Commander Christopher sets up a demonstration using a parabolic reflector – those dish-shaped antennas used in radar telescopes – to convince her. An audience member – sorry, Starfleet cadet – is called up on stage, and another audience member far away at the back of the theater whispers a secret message which is picked up by the parabolic reflector and repeated by the child on stage. Astoundingly, Voula accepts this simple scientific principle as evidence that Earth’s communications technology is good enough to help repair her ship. But plot, as said before, isn’t the thing at stake here.

This and other science demonstrations – such as using lasers to pop balloons to demonstrate the effects of cosmic radiation on tissue membranes – provide the backbone of the show and constitute the bulk of audience participation. In the end, with the help of one enterprising audience member, the threat is nullified by the use of a Star Trek MacGuffin – alien animals called Tribbles, which reproduce rapidly when introduced into the Romulan ship, eating all their essential components, crippling the Romulan efforts to retaliate. Of course, even this ending has a scientific rationale – the dangers of transplanting species into new ecosystems, in which they might wreak havoc on the delicate balance of the ecosystems if not kept in check.

The funniest part of the show, for me, came at the end, when the two performers came out on stage to answer any and all questions posed by audience members, and their ad-libbed, deadpan in-character responses to some of the stranger queries. Geeky requests— such as asking Voula to demonstrate a Romulan salute or to execute a Vulcan nerve pinch on Commander Christopher – were often hilarious and invited the most uproarious laughter the whole evening, mostly coming from Trekkies in the know of all the in-jokes that were being traded around. All in all, Star Trek Live! was a fairly enjoyable family experience for the kids and a nostalgia trip for Star Trek fans, and I must say it pandered to both demographics fairly competently.

Original Author: Colin Chan