Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Many moons ago, I watched a TV series called _Connections_. James Burke, the host, would trace out the link between something in the past and the present day. I think one depicted the linkage between medieval looms and computers. This was an intriguing idea, and occasionally I'd come up with a far-fetched connection of my own. One of my favorites is the linkage between Charles Darwin and _Star Trek_.

In 1831, a British warship was refitted for an exploratory mission. It's task was "to complete a survey of the South American coast and to carry out a chain of longitude measurements around the world." One of the crew was Charles Darwin, who had signed on as ship's naturalist. His task was "collecting, observing and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history." The ship's name was the HMS Beagle.

What Darwin saw on this exploratory expedition led him to write _The Origin of the Species_ in 1858 and thereby bring the issue of evolution, which had been lurking in the background, out in the open and initiate the debate that still rages in some places today. In 1859, Darwin then published an account of his almost four years on board the ship. The title was _The Voyage of the Beagle.

Some 90 years after Darwin published The Voyage of the Beagle, the SF writer, A. E. van Vogt published a novel titled The Voyage of the Space Beagle in 1950. The novel depicted the adventures of a space ship whose mission was to explore uncharted areas of space--those places where no humans had gone before. The book includes four encounters with alien species, with internal linking created by a basic cast of about ten characters with one or two crew members who hadn't appeared before in each of the four encounters. The encounters were all published separately in various SF magazines, prior to the book publication.

The novel begins with what is probably van Vogt's most famous short story, "The Black Destroyer," the first line of which has remained with me for many decades--"On and on Coeurl prowled." There have been some rumors floating about that Coeurl and the creature from the third episode were influential in the design of the Alien in the film series with Sigourney Weaver. Unfortunately I can't document this story.

In 1956, Jack Vance published To Live Forever, a novel set in a society that had conquered death. In the novel, one of the characters is described as the navigator of the galaxy-exploring "ship, Star Enterprise." It's just a coincidence, I suspect.

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry presented an SF series which depicted the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a ten year voyage of exploration--"to go where no man has gone before." Roddenberry has given credit for his idea to van Vogt's novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  Some have thought that he got the idea from another TV series, Wagon Train. However, Roddenberry explained that he used the Wagon Train concept when he tried to sell his idea to network executives. He feared that they wouldn't understand what he was talking about, so he used a more familiar concept, one that they could grasp--a western.

Darwin and Star Trek by way of van Vogt. Significant? Not really. But, it's a break from the day's headlines.


  1. I am a big fan of the old James Burke stuff. I believe that there were either 3 or 4 Connection series.

    Not only did Burke keep things very interesting, and was a captivating host, he really helped people think about things in a little different way.

    Rarely does anything ever happen all on it's own. :-)

  2. Scott,

    Netflix has three _Connections_ series available. I've got one set in my queue and plan to add the others when I get some room.

    I thought that Burke's humor and obvious enjoyment of what he was doing was a major part of the attraction the show had for me.