Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why Star Trek is Over

On September 23rd, the first episodes of a new Star Trek series, subtitled Discovery, were released via CBS’ All Access streaming service, placing the latest incarnation of the series that has often defined our vision of the future on the most advanced technology available. Of course, the pay-to-play nature of the streaming option has alienated some fans, who may have little interest in the other programming offered on the service. Then there is the series itself, a tortured product of post-911 American popular culture filtered through the producer’s ambitions to compete with high-status anti-heroic series such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. The result is a visually stunning series, deeply immersed in the lore of Star Trek, that fails miserably to be anything that Star Trek ever was. In many ways, it works as a TV series, especially when it isn’t trying too hard, but it lacks the optimistic and humanistic core that defined every other (genuine) incarnation of the series.

Some may argue that since this series is set in a time of war, optimism and humanism might just be natural causalities of the setting. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dragged us through several seasons of the Dominion war without compromising the heart of the series. The episode In the Pale Moonlight explored how war can lead a person to the compromise their principles. It worked because Avery Brooks’ character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, remained committed to those principles even as he was led to violate them. He was anguished by his choices, and the consequences of those choices. Captain Lorca on Discovery feels no anguish. He’s just a soulless bully bent on victory. Bullshit post-911 thinking tells us that we want soulless bullies standing between us and our enemies, but I’d rather have a man of principle like Captain Sisko. Ultimately, what the arrival of Discovery, and the series of big-budget reboot movies that have been released since 2009, reveals, is that it is no longer possible for America, as a culture, to produce the thing called Star Trek.


When Star Trek was created in the 1960’s, the United States of America was at the zenith of its military, economic and scientific power. Vietnam was becoming a quagmire, but only a few at that time realized that it was an unwinnable war. By the mid-50’s, Japan and Europe had recovered enough to begin competing economically with the US, but a vast portion of the world’s industrial and financial base remained in America. And the space race with the Soviet Union was definitely turning in America’s favor, as NASA worked to put men on the moon. This was also a time when American society started to move toward greater racial and gender equality. Yes, these social changes and the growing antiwar movement created turmoil, but in spite of that turmoil, and the continuing threats of the Cold War, it was a time of unparalleled optimism, an American optimism that formed the core of Star Trek.


Of course Star Trek, in its first incarnation, was cancelled the same year as the moon landing. Its optimism was not profitable enough to keep it going past three seasons on network television. It would live on in syndication, and briefly as a Saturday Morning cartoon, but as far as anyone knew, even the growing cadre of hardcore fans, Star Trek was finished. Then Star Wars happened, and even though the two properties had little more in common than the word Star in their titles, the potential profitability of a science fiction film series led Paramount Pictures to produce Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Of course, between 1969 and the December 1979 premiere of the movie, Americans had been forced to abandon Vietnam, had lived through Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, and Three-Mile-Island, and were still over a year away from the end of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. American optimism was limping around on crutches.




But Star Trek remained optimistic. Sure, The Motion Picture told us a cautionary tale about the emptiness of technology, its follow-up The Wrath of Khan warned us that the past can catch up with you (with fatal consequences), we got an environmental scolding via whale song in The Voyage Home, and saw the end of the Cold War paralleled in The Undiscovered Country, but for the most part, the future was still so bright that we had to wear shades. These movies, featuring the cast from the 1960s, remained grounded in the spirit of the original series. Their relative success, and the continued success of Star Trek in syndication, led to something else, a new Star Trek TV series.


Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was set 87 years after the original, and featured a new crew of diverse characters exploring the final frontier. There was a Klingon on the bridge, because just as we would overcome the enmity we had with the Russians to put Chekov on the bridge in the original series, so would we overcome whatever enmity we had with our interstellar adversaries. Optimism. The first two seasons of TNG alternated between atrocious and acceptable. As George Lucas would prove a decade later, the original creator of a pop culture phenomenon was often the least qualified to reinterpret it for new audiences. But as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s influence over the new series waned, it grew into something better, and eventually spawned 2 spinoff series and a dubious prequel.




The 90’s proved almost as good for American optimism as the 60’s. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the US as the only superpower on the world stage, and the American economy appeared healthy enough if you didn’t look too deeply at the foundations. Enough people were just prosperous enough for the public to feel somewhat hopeful for the future. As the philosophical conflict of the time shifted from competing economic ideologies (communism vs. capitalism) to competing religious/cultural ideologies (Islamic fundamentalism vs. Western technocracy), Star Trek adapted its storylines to respond, creating in Deep Space Nine (DS9) the franchise’s first serious look at faith (no, Star Trek V doesn’t count as serious). In addition to religion and the war story, DS9 would examine other deep and dark topics (including the Holocaust in an episode titled Duet), but it remained quintessentially Star Trek. As did the next spinoff, Voyager, which stranded its crew in another quadrant of the galaxy so they could meet new aliens that were essentially like the old aliens with different makeup. Voyager didn’t really cover any new ground, though they did make good use of one of TNG’s best antagonist species, the Borg. But by the end of that series, Star Trek was suffering from a severe case of franchise fatigue. Unfortunately, for its future, American optimism was about to be dealt a fatal blow.


On September 26, 2001, two weeks and one day after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, a TV series called Enterprise premiered on UPN. Lacking the title Star Trek, and indulging in the unfortunate prequelism that was all the rage at the time, Enterprise dropped a hammer through decades of Star Trek continuity to tell a story about an Enterprise crew from 100 years before the original series. Also premiering that fall was a series about a teenage Clark Kent called Smallville. That these more vulnerable versions of modern American myths, the pre-Starfleet starship crew and the adolescent Superman, should both appear within a few weeks of 911 is an interesting coincidence. Maybe the event defined a vulnerability that pop-culture was already in the process of exploring. The name of Enterprise’s first season villains, the Suliban, was only two letters away from the name of real-life villains, the al-Qaeda harboring Taliban, a conscious decision on the part of the show’s producers. They would double down on the war stories by creating the Xindi, a collection of alien races bent on destroying the Earth. Although Enterprise was the least Star Treky of all the Star Trek series, it still echoed the humanism and optimism of the original.


A last underwritten and overwrought movie with The Next Generation cast and a couple more seasons of Enterprise saw the end of professionally produced Star Trek. The nascent fan film industry would certainly seek to fill that void, but the results were mixed at best. Back when it had been a mere 79 episodes and four movies, I couldn’t imagine ever getting tired of the franchise. But after six more films, 178 episodes of TNG, 176 episodes of DS9, 172 episodes of Voyager and 98 episodes of Enterprise, I had finally had enough of the final frontier. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have watched more, only that if I never got the chance it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. Still, I was intrigued when it was announced that a new big budget film, featuring a recasting of the characters from the original series, was being planned. Star Trek had avoided the hornets’ nest of recasting for decades by re-characterizing, creating new characters rather than replacing beloved actors such as William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy. Instead of Kirk you got Picard, Sisko or Janeway. Instead of Spock you got Data, Odo or Tuvok. It had been a winning formula. But that was about to change.


Star Trek (2009) was the brainchild of a Star Wars fan named J.J. Abrams. Abrams is, at best, a hack with one trick up his sleeve, the vaunted mystery box, which he deployed most effectively at the start of the TV series Lost. We all know how that ended. For Star Trek, Abrams and his crew created one of those big blockbuster summer tentpole movies that had become a Hollywood standard in the 2000s. These films tend to be heavy on special effects, light on story, and usually feature an abundance of gratuitous property damage (such imagery usually evoking the events of 911). The first movie was made somewhat tolerable by the presence of Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as Spock, but the rest of the thing bore little resemblance to Star Trek.


The Hollywood obsession with the anti-hero would, in turn, make thugs out of Captain Kirk, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman. In the follow-up to the first of the Star Trek reboot films, the abysmal Into Darkness, NuKirk submits a false report to Starfleet to cover up a violation of the Prime Directive. While the original Captain Kirk was more than willing to break the rules (“he was never a Boy Scout”), he was a man of honor. He would not have lied about the violation, but rather would have defended his decision and faced the consequences. But America has no more use for men of honor and truth, however fictional they may have always been. The third film in the reboot series, Star Trek Beyond, was a slight improvement, and did capture some of the spirit of the original series, but mostly it was as much an explosion-riddled noise maker as the first two. 

Then, there was Discovery, the first new Star Trek TV series since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005. Originally the brain child of Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal), he departed as showrunner in 2016 to focus on Showtime’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. There is no certainty that Fuller’s presence would have made Discovery better. After all, the production team that took over was working from his storyline. What they’ve created looks a lot like Star Trek, superficially, but seems profoundly disconnected from the essence of that enterprise. The series dabbles in hope and optimism by having a few of the characters say and do the right things, but the underlying tone is dark and pessimistic. And maybe it was never possible for it to ever be anything else. Informed by the trauma of 911 and sixteen years of endless, misguided war, maybe it’s impossible for American popular culture to sincerely create anything in the spirit of optimism, in the spirit of Star Trek.

Then again, there is The Orville.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Complain of Thrones

Here there be Spoilers!

For the last few years, after the season finale of Game of Thrones has aired, I have usually written a post to this blog complaining about the quality of the most recent season (read Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!, When Good Television Goes Mediocre, and Why I’m Done With Game of Thrones (On Television Anyway)), and calling into question whether or not I will watch the next. This post will carry on with part of that tradition, as I am here to complain about some of the flaws of season seven, but I will not pretend that I have any intention to skip over season eight, the series’ last. In this far, I may as well go to the end.



It was never certain that I would watch season seven of Game of Thrones, not as it aired anyway, but I had already subscribed to Sling TV earlier in the year in order to watch Fargo and Better Call Saul, and figured I’d just extend my channel lineup for a couple of months to include HBO. That would also give me chance to check out WestWorld. And more important, it would allow me to again watch Game of Thrones on Sunday nights.

Season seven is probably the worst season of Game of Thrones. It is also, paradoxically, one of the most entertaining. The so-called Loot Train Attack was something of a cinematic masterpiece. But much of the rest of the season seems to have been about checking off boxes. Stark reunion 1. Check. Stark reunion 2. Check. Finish off Dorne story-line. Check. Finish off Tyrell story-line. Check. Stark meets Targaryen. Check. The fate of Littlefinger. Check. Let’s just get all of this shit out of the way so we can focus on the end. The more boxes they routinely checked off, the more muted the impact of each of these resolutions became. Not that it wasn’t satisfying to see Littlefinger get his throat cut, but the drama leading up to it was manipulative and trite, and his end was hardly worthy of his Machiavellian genius.

Other characters didn’t fare much better. Tyrion hasn’t been a fraction as interesting as he was when they were writing scripts from the source material, even if Peter Dinklage continues to put in a great performance. Daenerys alternated between channeling her father, Mad King Aerys, and swooning over Jon Snow, with only brief moments of queenly behavior. And Snow, nothing if not consistent, was as blandly honorable as ever. He also did a lot of stupid things without consequence, at least to himself. Between them, Jon and Daenerys proved very useful to the Night King, delivering the dragon he needed to destroy the Wall.

Of course, it is impossible to ignore the various flaws in the storytelling, Euron Greyjoy’s perfect ambush of Yara’s fleet, the chess game precision of Lannister armies abandoning Casterly Rock and arriving at Highgarden, the supersonic speeds of ravens and dragons and Gendry. The US military rarely delivers air power as absurdly quickly as Dany’s dragons appeared beyond the wall. And then there is the whole Wight Dragon problem. It seems the Night King set a trap, but how did he know Jon Snow would venture beyond the wall, or that Daenerys would mount a rescue mission? How many events did he manipulate to ensure that Dany and her dragons would be in Westeros in order for him to kill and turn one? Did he have any plan to get past the Wall in the event his spear missed its mark? I’m sure the dragon vs. dragon fights in season eight will be spectacular, but I have a feeling that the writers haven’t really thought this through as well as they should have.

I can’t say that I didn’t see this coming, the continued deterioration of what was once an excellent program. I wrote three whole posts about it after all. But I guess the quality of those early seasons keeps me coming back, even in the face of such overwhelming mediocrity. I want to know who will survive, who will die and if anyone in a place as fucked up as Westeros is ever going to get a happy ending.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Hey, HBO!

So, it was recently announced that HBO, and Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, would follow-up their spectacular run of medieval fantasy with an alternate history/reality series titled Confederate. No doubt inspired by Amazon’s successful The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel about an Axis victory in World War II, Confederate will take place in a reality where the Confederate States of America won the Civil War. And, oh yeah, institutionalized slavery still exists. Of course, depending on how it is executed such a series could be a nuanced and insightful exploration of race relations in America. But many have wondered whether or not it will just be an exercise in white supremacists wish fulfillment. The fact that two of the project’s producers are African American (Nichelle Tramble Spellman, Malcolm Spellman) has not convinced detractors that the show is a good idea, and the hashtag #NoConfederate recently trended on Twitter during an airing of Game of Thrones.

But maybe HBO should just drop the whole Confederate idea (the South wins the Civil War has been done before) for something more original and interesting, an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt. Robinson’s novel is also an alternate history, taking place in a world where the Black Death in 14th century Europe didn’t kill a mere third of the population but 99 percent, effectively removing European influence from history. The empires that rise and fall in Robinson’s world are Muslim and Chinese. Asians, Africans and the aboriginal peoples of the Americas and Australia still face colonialism, imperialism and war as they navigate a history that is different only in the details. There is even a 67-year World War, which alone would make for an interesting series. A much more interesting series than yet another rehash of the Civil War, and one that would avoid TV’s tendencies toward Eurocentrism.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review: Say Nothing by Brad Parks

Say Nothing, Brad Parks' first standalone novel outside of the Carter Ross mystery series, is a fast paced, compelling thriller that delivers an unexpected emotional impact. The novel starts with the kidnapping of the twin children of Federal Judge Scott Sampson, a crime orchestrated to force a particular verdict in a particular case. After Sampson performs as requested on a test case, his son is released, but his daughter remains in the hands of the kidnappers, leverage for a ruling on a case involving a pharmaceutical breakthrough. As Sampson and his wife Allison try to maintain a façade of normalcy, they start looking closely at the people around them. No one is above suspicion, not even each other.



Say Nothing is set in southeastern Virginia, in locations ranging from the Middle Peninsula to downtown Norfolk. Parks handles the setting effectively, but never really evokes a sense of the place. The novel isn’t afraid to stretch credibility, sometimes to the breaking point, and like many modern novelist, Parks likes to throw one or two more obstacles into the path of his protagonist than are strictly necessary for the story. He also interrupts a strong first-person narrative with short one-to-two page third-person chapters focusing on the kidnappers, which really don’t add anything substantive. We get all the terror we need from the scenario through the messages and ‘gifts’ sent by the kidnappers. In spite of these minor flaws, Say Nothing offers a well written narrative, compelling characters, and a satisfying resolution. B

Sunday, June 11, 2017

An Oft Neglected Blog

The last time that I posted anything to this blog, Barack Obama was still the president of the United States. That was only a few short months ago, although it seems like the longest few short months in the history of the republic. While I don’t think I can directly blame the current administration (or lack thereof) for my inactivity, watching your own civilization teeter toward self-immolation certainly doesn’t inspire great bouts of creativity. Or perhaps it should. Great art often comes from dark times. 

Blogging, of course, as a thing, has become somewhat passé. Facebook displaced much of the social functioning of blogs; and Microblogging through Twitter, and photo and video blogging through Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube meet most internet users online sharing needs. But there is something to be said for the length of expression allowed by blogging, the capacity to write more than a few words about any given topic. The key is having something to say, and to say it regularly enough to keep the blog’s readers interested.

Of course, I have never been that consistent a blogger. Some months I might make two or three posts. Other months, or block of months, I might post absolutely nothing at all. I don’t know that in the future I will do that much better, but however long the bouts of silence, I do plan to continue blogging here. Look for posts in July on villains in comic book movies, reviews of the latest seasons of Better Call Saul and Fargo, and maybe a new post on political institutions as portrayed in science fiction. Yeah, in July. Or August at the latest.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Of all the unsung heroes of America’s heroic efforts to win the space race in the 1960’s, few are as unsung as the African-American women who did the math that computers were not yet ready to do, calculating the trajectories and orbits of space capsules. With the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, and now the release of Theodore Melfi’s eponymous film, the extraordinary story of the vital role these women played in launching American astronauts into orbit and toward the moon has finally been told.



Hidden Figures focuses on three of these women, each of whom would go on to long and distinguished careers with NASA, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a math prodigy from an early age, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), an unrecognized supervisor who becomes a computer expert, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a young woman with the then unheard of ambition (for an African American woman) to become an engineer. Of course, in addition to actually doing the hard work required to get these jobs done, these women had to deal with the racism and sexism that was still a pervasive feature of American society in the 60’s. Johnson is the primary protagonist, and we follow as she is assigned to a work group that is trying to calculate the trajectory that will allow John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Working with a group of people who barely recognize her existence, she manages to create the math that allows Glenn to succeed.

Hidden Figures has a rather light tone, which works well in telling a story about the triumph of intellect and hard work over prejudice, and highlighting the absurdity of rules that segregated restrooms and coffeepots. The performances are in line with the tone, but uniformly excellent. The leads have great chemistry, and Kevin Coster, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali all excel in supporting roles. Although never heavy handed, Hidden Figures deals honestly with the American legacy of racism and oppression, and shows how talented and capable individuals overcame that legacy to achieve great things. A-

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Starship of State: Governing the Future: Introduction

Politics in Pop Culture Science Fiction

Death and taxes. According to the old saying there are few things as certain as death and taxes. The first represents the inevitably of mortality, that all living things die. The second represents the inevitability of government, that all societies larger than a few individuals require some kind of order. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, it may have amounted to no more than a certain fluid division of labor. Hunters hunt, gatherers gather, everyone contributes to the good of the tribe. As societies grew more complex, so did the institutions required to govern them, giving rise to tribal confederations, city-states, empires, nations and republics. These units of organization require citizens to contribute something to the common good, usually through taxes, to keep society functioning. If they fail, the result is a state of anarchy that may be more taxing than the taxes were.



In fiction, death is often the focus of the plot. Literary works often use the stress of death to wring emotion out of characters, and some story genres, such as thrillers and mysteries, often start with the death of a character or require the threat of death as the primary source of tension. Certainly, there are genres and subgenres of fiction that also deal with taxes, and the governments that collect them. The police detective in the mystery novel is paid by a municipal government to investigate crimes and enforce laws. The spy in the thriller can waste tons of tax revenues on fancy machinegun-armed sports cars. The stoplight in the romance novel that makes the heiress late for her yoga lesson was presumably bought with somebody’s tax dollars. You can’t build a Death Star if you don’t have the money, and the organizational skills, to do so. So even in fictions where these institutions do not play a vital role, plausibility suggests that they are a vital part of the underlying society that the characters live in.

In science fiction, writers and film producers have the luxury of reimagining these institutions. The fantastic settings allow them to have characters that live under governments totally different from those that exist in the real world, either currently or historically. Of course, some stories are more dependent on these details than others. The Empire was vital to George’s Lucas’ Star Wars saga, since it was the rebellion against the imperial government, and the struggle to destroy its Death Star, that propelled so much of the story. The Federation featured in Star Trek may be more in the background, but regulations such as the Prime Directive reveal things about the political foundations of that society. And though the platoon of marines we see in Aliens suggest the presence of a government institution, the influence wielded by Burke and his ilk suggest the true power may be vested in a corporate oligarchy. Each of these film/television series, and a dozen others that have been created in the last 50 years, have made predictions about how the future (or in Star Wars case a long time ago) would be governed.

To many people the subject of politics can be deadly dull. They are happy to ignore all of the invisible work done by governments to support their daily lives, or to complain about the taxes they have to pay to support that work, but they are in no way interested in the minutiae of political or government activity. For these people, the series of blog posts I’m planning on the politics of the future, exploring the governing systems described in pop culture science fiction may not be that interesting. Showing senatorial trade route debates in the prequel episodes of the Star Wars saga was not well received by fans or critics. But if the political aspects of science fiction world building interest you, I will be posting at least seven or eight of these essays on the politics and government of the fictional future, exploring everything from Star Wars’ Republic and Empire to the feudal system seen in Dune. How do these institutions work? How do they compare with real-world equivalent systems? What are creators and producers trying to say with their portrait of governance? These are some of the questions I will explore over the next few weeks.