Dispatches > The Buzz

Back to the future

Star Trek's "country doctor" dies, old-time radio, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "The death of discipline?," June 26, 1999

Into the final frontier
He's dead, Jim. Jackson DeForest Kelley, a Hollywood character actor who entered sci-fi history as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on Star Trek, passed away at age 79. By today's standards, his greatest feat was in his personal life, not his acting career: Mr. Kelley was married for nearly 50 years to his wife Carolyn. From the 1940s through the 1960s he performed in movies like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Raintree County before he was beamed aboard the Enterprise. Dr. McCoy's crusty crankiness evoked both the cheesiness and addictiveness of the original Star Trek series. He was always around to play his part in the emotion vs. reason battle with Spock and announce the deaths of walk-on crew members. Mr. Kelley's character gave the show some of its unintentional goofiness, saying things like "I'm just a country doctor," "I'm a doctor, not a mechanic," and "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer" at appropriate moments. The Enterprise crew was the interstellar equivalent of a UN peacekeeping force: always meddling in obscure, exotic places where they didn't really belong. They arrived on some faraway planet, corrected some injustice, irreversibly changed the local culture, took some "acceptable" casualties, pitched some woo, mumbled some platitudes, beamed up, and sped off. Star Trek in the 1960s gained a crazed, manic fan base, in part, because the show posed big questions about life and the universe years before screens were filled with sci-fi think-dramas like The Matrix and Babylon 5. Star Trek also resembled a now-extinct genre: the Western where the hero rides into town and puts away the bad guy. Mr. Kelley started his career in Westerns and made the easy transition from horses to spaceships. The main difference between him and many stars is that he was a real-life good guy. Before TV, there was radio
The Lone Ranger, Fred Allen, and Jack Benny are quietly creeping back into pop-culture circulation after years as a cherished memory to aging devotees. Old-time radio has piggybacked onto the audiobooks trend, and restored recordings from 50 years ago are now available in chain bookstores, record shops, and even warehouse clubs. Once forgotten shows like the old Superman serial and Orson Welles's production of Les Miserables are now easily available. Entertainment writer Gerald Nachman was Raised on Radio, and he has written a book distilling 30 years of broadcasts into 500 pages (Pantheon). He says the old shows aren't taken seriously today, and the entire medium is often seen as "a frivolous, faintly embarrassing craze somewhere between pinball machines and marathon dances." Without wallowing in nostalgia or hagiography, Mr. Nachman tells of Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and many less remembered names, and describes the time when programs were owned and produced by sponsors, not Hollywood studios. Thus there were Lux Radio Theatre, Kraft Music Hall, The Jell-O Program, and many similar names. Nothing could be allowed to hurt the product or its sponsors, so everything was slashed with the double-edged sword of inoffensiveness: Content almost always clean, but worldviews usually one-dimensional. (The Christian message was relegated to the religious-broadcasting niche that is alive and well today.) The old tapes display corniness and melodrama, yet as Mr. Nachman says, "Nothing that today's hard-breathing Hollywood wizards can concoct is able to impress those of us for whom the pinnacle of virtual reality was reached half a century ago with the Shadow." Old-time radio offers not only a chance to hear references to Roosevelt and Truman, but a feast for the imagination unavailable anywhere else. Machines as human; humans as machines
Will computers think? Really think, as humans do? Alan Turing thought it was a sure bet-that eventually one could converse with a robot and not know the difference between it and a real person. Philosopher Paul Strathern gives a snapshot view of this unusual man in Turing and The Computer (Anchor Books), part of his series of quickie technology books called The Big Idea. A brilliant mathematician, Turing came to the aid of the British during World War II, developing the crypto-buster that cracked the German "Enigma" codes. This led him on a train of thought that still lurks in every discussion of artificial intelligence: What if a machine could reproduce the calculations of the human mind? If a computer could crack human thought processes, it could act as if it were a human with free will. Think Commander Data from Star Trek. Turing started working with an early computer at Manchester University called MADAM and taught it to play chess and write love letters, but he thought computers could do something more. In an attempt to duck out of religious and philosophical questions about determinism and free will, he cooked up what is today called the Turing Test: "There was one way to tell whether a machine was intelligent or not: Place it behind a screen and let a human being interrogate it," Strathern explains. If it can act like a human and imitate our behavior, it can be considered intelligent. Turing didn't see a big difference between man and machine. "Why should I be regarded differently from a computer?" he once asked. Mr. Strathern shows what happened when Turing applied his mechanistic mindset into his real life: He had no use for religion and was a flamboyant homosexual who was tried for indecency before poisoning himself in 1954.

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