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January, 2001
Millennial London
By George Takei

LOS ANGELES - The 20th century is now history and we begin a new century and a bright new millennium. What this millennial turn might portend is both tantalizing, and, at the same time, just a bit daunting. The last century gave us astronauts on the moon as well as the atomic bomb; the reading of the human genome and the Holocaust; the darkest of evils and some of the most magnificent advances to come from the human mind. If history is any guide, the years ahead will likely move us forward with even more dazzling new advances wrought from the genius of our minds, as we at the same time struggle to avert another plunge into some horrific new depravity. I am an optimist hopeful that wisdom would prevail over our darker aspects but mindful of the infinite range of the human animal. We have the capacity for nobility and depravity as well as vacillation. The United States now has a new President who lost the popular vote and was appointed by a partisan U.S. Supreme Court. We begin the millennium on an ambiguous but nevertheless hopeful note.

I finished the last month of the last year with my traditional shopping trek to London. I love London. I love its theaters. I love its museums. I love its people. I love its ever-changing, ever-unchanging appeal.

"Cats" is still playing in London as New York brought the final curtain down on the record-breaking run of its Broadway version. Of course, the eternal "The Mousetrap" is still playing. Theater in London is eternal. They do great American plays as masterfully as they do Shakespeare. I saw a moving production of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, "Long Days Journey Into Night," with a deeply affecting performance by Jessica Lange. I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical, "The Beautiful Game," a heartbreaking tale of the conflict in Northern Ireland that had some resonance of "West Side Story." My biggest theatrical disappointment was a much-lauded production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." After fighting a rainstorm to get to the theater, we were told that the performance was cancelled because of an illness in the cast. They had no understudy. Our disappointment continued into the night with the restaurant that we decided on in lieu of the play. Service was poor, the food mediocre and the bill preposterous. I guess some evenings just are not meant to be.

Cultural London is wonderfully transforming itself without physically altering the urban landscape. Some of the most exciting new cultural institutions are in adaptively reused buildings or restoration of great classic structures.

The stunning Tate Modern, the new museum on the south bank of the Thames, is in a former powerhouse. The monstrous industrial space has been masterfully reshaped into a series of wonderful galleries. However, great works of modern art somehow seem to get upstaged by windows in some of the galleries that offer spectacular views of St. Paul's Cathedral across the river. Even Andy Warhol couldn't compete with that splendid city vista. And I recommend the top floor restaurant for a champagne lunch with a fabulous view.

I hadn't been to The British Museum in more than a decade. I'd read that a wonderful new improvement had been made there. The Great Court of The British Museum had been carved out of the clutter of ancillary buildings built over the years around the old British Library in the courtyard of the museum. We rushed to view this new addition to the London cultural scene two days after Queen Elizabeth II had inaugurated the space. Touted as the largest covered public space in Europe, I found it a bright, spacious and elegant expansion of a London treasure. The terrace restaurant there hadn't opened yet, so I will have to return there again soon.

The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is legendary. In addition to its own storied history, George Bernard Shaw contributed to its fame by placing the opening scene of his play "Pygmalion" right in front of the Covent Garden Opera House, as does the play's musical version, "My Fair Lady." The opera house and the floral hall next to it had been under renovation for the past few years and had reopened in 1999 to great critical applause. The demand for tickets was so hot that I couldn't get in back then. This visit, I was determined and managed to get a pair of tickets for the ballet "Ondine." The performance was superb but the opera house itself was absolutely breathtaking. It was opera-going in the classic European tradition. Gilded tiers piled upon glittering tiers filled with elegantly dressed theatergoers. The new Covent Garden Opera House shone with a brilliance that only sensitive restoration combined with modern technology could produce. And the incorporation of the crystalline Floral Hall as an addition to the lobby with stylish new restaurants was great. Service efficient, food delightful, and prices varied.

The most controversial cultural addition to the London landscape was also its newest and most temporary -- the Millennium Dome. Looking like a giant desert tent or some extraterrestrial construction site on the Meridian Line at Greenwich, the Dome was a vast exposition hall with exhibits on the challenges and opportunities in the new millennium. Divided into 14 zones of diverse human activities such as work, play, learning, money and journey, it was much too much to experience in a day. We did the journey through a gigantic human body, walked through one million pounds in British sterling and went through the exhibit on future modes of travel. I should have been prepared for the inevitable -- floating luminously above us in the travel zone was a model of the Starship Enterprise. But, like Cinderella's coach, the Millennium Dome disappeared on December 31, 2000. A good number of British people felt that this attraction was much too much money spent for much too little. However, the Millennium Dome, with its subway line extension, the regeneration of the area and the Millennium Village, leaves a fine legacy of infrastructure for the future development of a formerly underused area. I thought it a good investment.

One millennium project that will remain on the London landscape is the giant Ferris wheel dubbed the Millennium Eye built on the south bank of the Thames across from Big Ben. On a clear, cold, blustery day, we headed out for a bird's eye view of London from the wheel. Alas, the day may have been bright and sunny but the strong wind made a ride on the delicately balanced attraction too chancy. They cancelled operation of the Ferris wheel. We now have another good reason to return to London.

The one inevitable joy on any of my travels is a gathering with Star Trek fans. Jackie Edwards, a former fan club president, had moved to Essex and had been urging me to visit that part of England. It was the driest part of England, she had told me. So, this being England, I had to travel through a driving rainstorm to reach Norwich in Norfolk. Hosted by Richard Stubbings, owner of a fantastical store called Kulture Shock, I spent a day as lively as it was wet with fans that have become good friends.

The millennium is off to a happy start. Let's all work to keep it that way.

 



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