Friday, January 16, 2009

The Glowing End of Two Ships of the Line

Left: "The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up" (painted by J. M. W. Turner, 1838)

I've wondered if someone had this glowing painting in mind when creating the final end of the Enterprise, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (bottom three photos at left).

I doubt this painting holds emotional charge for many Americans (I only know it from a certain Englishman I knew once, who'd even written a poem on it);
but recently Britons voted it their most popular painting in a BBC poll.
It depicts a sailing warship that had played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, led by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson aboard HMS Victory.
Long unfit, and now in the age of steam, the Temeraire is being towed up the Thames to be sold for scrap--the end of an era.

I googled a few combinations and didn't come up with anything. (There's plenty out there on literary reference in Star Trek, but I haven't yet found anything on art historical references.)

Anyway, given the acknowledged connection between Captain Kirk and Horatio Hornblower, a fictional character at the Battle of Trafalgar (and who shares a first name and more with Nelson), whether it was consciously in someone's mind or not, it fits.

British naval history is another black hole in my education, and likely to remain that way (along with all military history everywhere);
but it's funny where your loves lead you, eh?
I found myself reading with real interest about Nelson's tactics at Trafalgar.

I won't go into it--can't, in fact--but I was excited to read that Nelson won the battle partly by changing the expected geometry of the battle:
instead of lining his ships up, he placed them in perpendicular formation.

This reminds me of Kirk in The Wrath of Khan (TWOK). Remember, he defeats Khan in a space battle because he better understands the geometry of space:
Khan is thinking in 20th century spatial terms (movement on a 2 dimensional plane), so Kirk sinks the Enterprise in space (both ships are flying blind in a nebula), lets Khan's ship go past overhead, and then rises up behind.
(You know I love it when something invites us to stand on our heads and take another look.)

Nicholas Meyer, who directed TWOK, has said he didn't relate to Star Trek until he thought of it as Hornblower in space, so he may have made the connection with real military history. (Nimoy directed Search for Spock.)

Whatever anyone had in mind, these two ships that didn't stay in straight lines both go down beautifully.

[Kirk in Art History 101 (his classical stance) here.]
[Kirk as a steampunk captain here.]
[Kirk as Master and Commander here.]


Annika - yes, that one! said...

Funny that you should go into this now! Both Mortmere and I dived into the Hornblower books and miniseries last year, I think she has finished all the books while I'm slower and have only read two and a half of them. If you haven't seen the TV series, with Ioan Gruffud as Hornblower, I warmly recommend it!

When I started reading the Hornblower books I expected them to be more reminiscent of Star Trek than they are, more heroic and optimistic. They actually feel honest - life in the Royal Navy is portrayed as cruel and war as nightmarish, not in the least glorious.
I can see how Kirk as a character was inspired by Hornblower's gift of thinking outside the box, to use a tired expression, and to act quickly, but Kirk's swaggering pride and love of what he's doing is very different from Hornblower's attitude. Hornblower is more like Christopher Pike in that respect, ever doubtful of his ability, always self-critical and self-accusing. He spends his life between Scylla and Charybdis - I'm trying to think of a good way of wording it, but my classics training is lost in the mists of the past...:P (Sorry, I'm also writing before breakfast.)

I'd never seen Turner's painting before, but it's very beautiful, and I love it when you point out Star Trek parallels in art history. The Kirk in Art History entry pointed out something I've noticed (the stance) but had never been able to pinpoint.

fresca said...

Hi, Annika:
Thanks for writing!
The timing isn't altogether accidental:
I got thinking along these naval lines because of the same steampunk manips that Mortmere linked to (maybe we both found them through, and then her own Kirk, R.N.

But I have to confess that I am always writing about things I know very little about: I have read only one Hornblower book when I was twelve, and that's the extent of it.
Though actually, things you did when you were twelve set the stage for what comes after, so I shouldn't dismiss that so lightly. I should read one again and see if, indeed, Hornblower set my standards for captains!

I haven't seen the TV series either. I'll put it on my Netflix queue.

I'm glad you enjoy the art history references--whether they're intended or not, I like connecting the dots.
Someone asked me if I thought Shatner thought out his body language for Kirk, and I said I thought not.

Then I heard him confirm that in an old interview (you may have seen it on youTube too): he said he did not have time to plan his acting carefully, since Star Trek filming was so rushed--he said he just went out there and acted as he would if he really were that character--with that confidence, lack of fear of rejection, etc.

Manfred Allseasons said...

Its true, this painting is iconic on this side of the wasn't steam that saw off the Temeraire, she was long obsolete for war,and had been a prison ship and a training ship for many years...

Kirk is no Hornblower...Kirk is virtually the double for a real life Royal Navy Captain, the astonishing Sir Thomas Cochrane, the Sea Wolf!!

fresca said...

Thanks for clarifying, Manfred--I'll change that bit about steam.
A prison ship... doesn't that sound ghastly (to be on)?

And thanks for the tip about Cochrane. Cool!
He was Scottish--and Kirk's name is Scottish, so maybe they're related?
In fact, my mother's ancestors were Sutherlands, so I figure I can claim relationship too!

I am very glad I have already confessed my ignorance of British naval history, so no one will be shocked to learn that I've never heard of the Sea Wolf.

I read up on him briefly and thought this tidbit from Wikipedia was a great example of a Kirk-like move of the sort I was writing about:

"Chased by an enemy frigate, and knowing it would follow him in the night by the glimmer of light from his ship ("brig sloop," whatever that is) HMS Speedy, Cochrane placed a candle on a barrel and let it float away.
The enemy frigate followed the candle and Speedy escaped."

fresca said...

P.S. Now I want to get a pet and name it Speedy. Perfect for a terrier!