Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ten Favorite Scripted TV Shows

If there is one thing that the internet loves, besides cats, it is lists. And often sites (such as Screen Rant) will produce dozens of lists with titles like The 25 Best Films on Netflix Right Now or 25 Classic Pokémon Characters Reimagined As Villains. Of course, many of these lists seem to suggest that a subjective listing of best things is somehow validated by the fact that the list writer wrote it. Usually this is not the case, and the top 100 faulty lists of best things on the internet could probably be easily filled. Which is why the following is not a list of best things, but rather a list of favorite things, an admittedly subjective judgement of the whole of scripted television.

Scripted television as a medium was much maligned during the 2nd half of the 20th century, mostly due to comparisons with the more legitimate artistic forms such as film or literature. Never mind that the world is full of really lousy movies and badly written novels, it was all of television that was inferior due to the general widespread low quality of the medium. Of course, all of that changed in the current century. The emergence of prestige television, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and dozens of other high-quality programs shattered the old stigma of television as a lesser art form. And as the current superhero saturation in the cinemas exacerbates the decline of film, prestige television starts to look all the more prestigious.


My own relationship to television has been simple, I watch too much of it. I’m sure that it is literary sacrilege to suggest that a writer can learn anything from the medium, but television taught me a great deal about plot, pacing and dialogue. The universal truths of storytelling tend to be universal, a relatable protagonist faces a conflict in order to achieve a desired goal or avoid an unpleasant fate. Television explores this essence of story as well as Hamlet does. Well, maybe not as well, but as essentially.


The following then is a list of my favorite television shows, a definitive list of the top ten, followed by a secondary list of five runners up and a list of thirty contenders that I felt deserved consideration. There are several shows missing that would probably have been mentioned (The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood), but I never watched them, and am hesitant to add them now to an already overloaded watch list. So again, this is my list, and is not intended to be representative of anyone else’s experience of television. My intention is to follow-up on this list in future posts, explaining why each particular program was chosen for each of the top ten spots. Until then, the top ten are:

  1. Star Trek (the original, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine)*
  2. MASH
  3. Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul)*
  4. The Twilight Zone
  5. Battlestar Galactica (2004)
  6. Stargate SG1 (and Atlantis)*
  7. The Simpsons
  8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  9. The Six Million Dollar Man
  10. WKRP in Cincinnati 
Runners up:
     11. Firefly
     12. Game of Thrones
     13. Fargo
     14. Grimm
     15. Babylon Five

Thirty Contenders: The Americans, The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Miller, Batman: The Animated Series, Black Mirror, Cheers, Community, Dark Shadows, Dead Like Me, Dexter, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dr. Who, The Good Place, Hannibal, House of Cards, I Claudius, I Love Lucy, Land of the Lost, Lost, Mad Men, The Man in the High Castle, The Muppet Show, The News Room, Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black, Rome, Smallville, South Park, Stranger Things, and The Walking Dead.


*Including spinoff and prequel series on the list with the original allows for more series to be recognized.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Some Thoughts on The Last Jedi

There was a time in December of last yer when I considered having an opinion about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But Star Wars has never really been my thing. It is my third favorite among the ‘Star’ science fiction franchises (behind Star Trek and Stargate). And though a generally entertaining movie, one that was not spectacular yet not completely undercut by its many flaws, it didn’t seem to merit more attention than I had already given it merely by viewing. But as I continued to notice the buzz around the film, the conflicting opinions of film critics and fans, the expanding presence of Star Wars as a cultural touchstone (something it had always been), a tendency in social media to dismiss legitimate criticisms of the film, and the recent suggestions by some that the film should be remade, I decided that examining The Last Jedi in context of these developments might be worthwhile after all.


There is an element of criticism directed at The Last Jedi that is totally lacking in any redemptive qualities, and this is the white, male fanboy determination that the latest round of Star Wars movies (The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi) represent some sort of cultural apocalypse due to the inclusion of protagonists who are other than white males. They aren’t even bright enough to say “we want to make our own Star Wars movie” as they prattle on about remaking The Last Jedi, a movie they apparently hated. We can dismiss these whiners without any consideration, and judge the adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe and Rose strictly on their own merits. Are these characters compelling on their own? Have the writers, directors and actors done them justice? It’s a mixed bag, as one would expect, but none of the flaws are inherently tied to the ethnic, gender or racial identities of the characters.

Still, it is an actual problem with the film that the characters lack much in the way of either development or consistency. But as I pointed out here, Star Wars really doesn’t do that. Rey, as the heart of the new trilogy, fares better than most in The Last Jedi, but seems to have lost some of her agency, ping-ponging between her relationship with Luke, and her attempts to get him to train her/help the resistance, and her relationship with Kylo Ren, first as a hated adversary, then as a possible redemption project, and finally as an adversary again. She’s either stuck on the island at the mercy of Luke’s obstinacy, or stuck on the Supremacy as a pawn of the conflict between Snoke and Kylo Ren, but she seems to have lost much of the initiative she had in The Force Awakens. She wraps strong, I guess, utilizing Jedi powers she hadn’t really been trained in to save the Resistance, but her character arc lacks impact.

When Finn awakens from his coma, his big character motivation is his obsession with Rey, finding her, protecting her, whatever. He meets Rose, another questionably motivated character, when he tries to desert a cause he only marginally ever joined. Do they need him? Why do they care? But because someone had to write something for Finn and Rose to do during this movie we get that abysmal journey to Canto Bight. Rose is partially motivated by the death of her sister (which we see in the film’s opening), but I’m not sure why she needed that extra incentive, given she was already part of the Resistance. Is refrigerating a female character more acceptable if it is done to motivate another female character? And apparently the only lesson she learned from her sister’s sacrifice was that making a sacrifice for the greater good is pointless, so she wrecks Finn’s moment at the end by knocking him off his suicide run at the mini Death Star.

Of the new characters, Poe fares the worst. He’s been part of the military structure of the Republic and the Resistance for years, but for some reason has no respect for the chain of command. So, he runs his little side op that eventually undermines Vice Admiral Holdo’s escape plan and gets some significant fraction of the remaining Resistance forces killed. Maybe that was the point of his character arc, don’t be a self-righteous douchebag. But once you make him that, you really can’t redeem him, can you? The opening scene of Episode IX should be the execution of Poe Dameron for treason. General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo do a poor job of managing Dameron, and apparently enough other Resistance members that he is able to recruit them into his mutiny. Was this really the dumb story they wanted to tell? The actors do a fine job with the material that they are given, but much of that material is so poorly developed and downright stupid that no performance can make it good.

Luke Skywalker, of course, is another problem entirely. This is the character that accepted what Joseph Campbell referred to as The Call to Adventure way back before Star Wars movies had episode numbers. He joined Obi Wan on the journey to Alderaan. He initiated the rescue of Princess Leia. He blew up the Death Star. He followed Obi Wan’s instructions and sought out Yoda, who trained him in the ways of the Force. Then, upon learning that his friends were in jeopardy, abandoned that training to launch a one-man rescue mission. He joined with them again to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt and volunteered to join the critical mission to Endor. He left that mission to protect his friends from Vader, and then facing the Emperor, invested his whole self into the belief that Darth Vader could be redeemed. Luke Skywalker was the ultimate optimist. Until The Last Jedi, when he just sort of gave up. And I might have bought that, if they had shown me why, but a few flashbacks to a burning temple and attempted murder don’t cut it. You have to earn such a drastic alteration of a character’s wants and motivations, and the producers of The Last Jedi come nowhere close to doing that. And even then, while you might have convinced me that he would abandon the Jedi Order, or the Republic, or the galaxy as a whole, but I will never believe that Luke would not run off to help the princess the moment that she called.

I don’t come to a property like Star Wars (or even Star Trek, Discovery producers) wanting my expectations subverted. I come wanting to watch a damn Star Wars movie. If you are going to subvert my expectations, you need to do a hell of a better job giving me something worthwhile. If you are going to have characters make uncharacteristic choices, you need to lay a foundation that explains the change. And don’t hide the competence of new characters to force me to identify with ‘heroes’ that turn out to be wrong. Vice Admiral Holdo driving that cruiser down the Supremacy’s throat was a spectacular display, but it didn’t make up for the missteps with her character made along the way.

If the producers of the new Star Wars films had really wanted to do something different they wouldn’t have fallen back on that old light-side/dark-side Republic/Empire dichotomy in the first place. Renaming the Empire the 1st Order and calling the Rebel Alliance the Resistance doesn’t really change the nature of the conflict. It doesn’t matter whether or not the discount Emperor calls himself a Sith or the Emperor or the Supreme Leader, he’s essentially the same guy, creepy old dude tempting force adept youngsters into joining the dark side. The fact that they are essentially just recasting the old conflict, the endless Star War of light against dark, proves that this is the only thing Star Wars can be about. So, trying to nuance some kind of Grey Jedi idea wouldn’t work anyway. Once the tension between light and dark, Jedi and Sith disappears, Star Wars doesn’t have anything to be about. If it did they could have left the Republic intact and have these new heroes face some other challenge. This is why Star Trek is the superior product. It can be about science, exploration, conflict, culture, communication and a myriad of other topics. Star Wars is and always has been just a cartoon about Good vs. Evil.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Who is Han Solo?

One of the best moments in the history of the Star Wars franchise comes at the end of what they now call Episode Eye Vee: A New Hope. Luke Skywalker, letting go of his dependence on technology and trusting the force to guide him in firing his proton torpedoes, come under the guns of Darth Vader’s tricked out TIE fighter, a moment that threatens to end both Luke and the rebellion forever. Just as Vader lines up his shot, a burst of weapons fire falls from above, destroying the escort fighters and knocking Vader’s ship against the trench wall, sending it careening out into space. The Millennium Falcon comes screaming out of the sunlight, Han Solo quipping “Your all clear kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home.” Luke fires his torpedoes and the Death Star explodes. Happy Ending.


Han Solo, pirate, smuggler, mercenary, having been paid off for his earlier efforts on behalf of the Rebel Alliance, had come back at the last minute to save the day. I never saw it coming. Of course, I was a kid. Maybe to someone with a more sophisticated sense of story and character it would have seemed obvious, but to me, at the time, it was just a great twist. Not an M. Night Shamalama Dingdong plot twist, but just a great twist on the evolution of a character that I thought I understood. Because Han Solo always was and always will be the coolest character in Star Wars. Han shot first. He smiled at the thought of overcharging some crazy old man and some naïve farm boy for passage to Alderaan. Han was the guy who shot up the console when his conversation on the detention level went south. He exchanged the wittiest banter with the feisty princess (who gave as good as she got), and teased Luke about the possibility of “a princess and a guy like me.” Han made it clear that he was in it for the money. Then he left. And I had no reason to expect that he was ever going to come back. 

We always knew that Luke was going to be a dedicated warrior for the rebellion, that guided by Obi Wan and inspired by Leia he would fight against the evil of the Empire no matter what the cost. We always knew that Leia would continue to resist oppression, that she would defy tall men in grey uniforms for as long as she had a voice. We knew that Obi-wan would guide Luke on his journey, even after death. We knew Chewbacca would be forever loyal to Han. And we knew that Darth Vader would enforce the will of the Empire by any means necessary. But what exactly did we know about Han Solo? That he was for hire if the price was right, and that he was not interested in a hopeless rebellion that was likely to get him killed. He had the loot he needed to pay off Jabba and had gotten away scot-free. So why, exactly, did he come back?

Clearly Han had gotten closer to his new rebel friends than he was willing to admit. He had even offered Luke the opportunity to join his crew before he left. And no doubt Chewie had an opinion about abandoning the rebels that ran counter to Han’s first impulse, but it is unlikely that the Wookie would have been able to convince him to go back and help if Han hadn’t truly wanted to. And what did he say after knocking Vader out of the way, “let’s blow this thing and go home.” Han Solo was going home. And he stayed there. He never bothered to take the payment he had received for rescuing Leia to pay off his debt to Jabba. He helped the Rebels evade the Empire and establish a new base. He risked his life a second time for Luke when he went searching for him in the frozen wastes of Hoth. He made sure Leia escaped the Empire. He volunteered to lead a strike team down to the forest moon of Endor, a critical component of the Rebellion’s plan to destroy the second Death Star. Han Solo, a man literally named for his isolation and disconnectedness, was suddenly all in.


The swashbuckling space adventure had little time for character development. It was, for the most part, about moving from one moment of jeopardy to the next. So, we never got any deep insights about what drove these characters. The thing that made Solo more interesting than the others was that we didn’t completely understand his motivations. Was it true love for the feisty princess? A sudden increased antagonism for an Empire that harassed his smuggling operation? A genuine sense of investment in the Alliance’s plan to end oppression and restore the Republic? These movies didn’t have the time to answer such questions. Which was maybe for the best. The prequel films offered little in the way of deep insight when focusing on the emotional foundation of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. Sure, we got some superficial “reasons” to explain his descent into the Dark Side (his life as a slave, his mother’s death, his fear over losing Padme, and his sense of entitlement vis-à-vis the Jedi), but there was never any deep exploration of his character or motivations. And maybe Star Wars is incapable of doing such things.


Which brings us to Solo: A Star Wars Story, an opportunity to flesh out the character of Han Solo and give us some insight into his motivations. Just kidding. Star Wars still doesn’t do that. No, Solo doesn’t really explain anything about who Han Solo is. It mostly just shows us events from his past, events that he handles in a manner similar to his later self. We see him collect familiar items (his name, his blaster, his ship) and meet familiar people (Chewbacca, Lando, his ship), but it all seems like so much box checking wrapped up in a couple of dull heist sequences. The chemistry between Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke is 'meh' at best, so while we get the impression that all of the stuff they go through is important, they never make us feel anything about it. The performances are solid. The set pieces look good. If they weren’t so interminably long they might have even been entertaining. But at the end of the day we really didn’t learn anything new about Han Solo, making me wonder what the point of the film was in the first place.

Oh yeah. It was money. They did it to make money. It didn’t make enough, so they probably won’t do it again.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Projection

Every so often an intellectual celebrity, such as tech entrepreneur Elon Musk or the late Steven Hawking, will issue a dire warning about alien civilizations or artificial intelligence. According to these would-be prophets the inevitable outcome of encountering aliens or creating AIs would be the enslavement or annihilation of the human race. After all, ETs with the capacity to travel between star systems would surely have a greater technological advantage over us than Columbus had over the Arawak. And any Artificial Intelligence acquiring the ability to improve and expand its own intellectual capacity would surely outthink the human race in short order. But why does the intellectual and technological superiority of “the one” always have to result in the demise of “the other?”

The problem with forecasting the actions of alien beings and artificial life forms is that the only basis we have for judging them is the long flawed history of our own species. Because we suck, we assume that everyone else is going to suck too. And even if they don't, assuming some equal level of suckage may be the safest position from which to proceed. But what are the foundations of our own failings, the propensity we have, on occasion, to commit murder, terrorism, slavery, genocide and war? And what is the foundation for believing AIs and ETs will share our worst impulses?


Humans, of course, are rather complex. Our behavior is rooted in layers of society, culture, history, religion and biology. We can't easily extract ourselves from all of the things that we and our progenitors have been. And any distillation of our behavior and motivation is likely to be a serious oversimplification of the issue. Still, for our purposes, many of our worst impulses can be described a predatory. Murder, rape, terror, slavery and war could all be described as predatory acts. And it is in the role of super-predator that we often cast antagonistic aliens and robots.

Predation has been around for several hundred million years. Each complex cell in our body was constructed in an act of predation, when a larger single-celled organism consumed a smaller one, and instead of digesting it put it work producing energy, packaging proteins for distribution, or performing other tasks that improved the cell’s capacity to thrive. Our earliest ancestors were predators. Over time that predation became more complex, and our ancestral line shifted roles from predator to prey many time as it evolved. The brains and bodies of these ancestors were conditioned by being hunted by carnivorous dinosaurs as well as by hunting other creatures such as insects, reptiles, and amphibians. After the KT extinction wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, it was our mammalian ancestors that diversified into a variety of ecological niches, as both predator and prey. Predation is in our DNA, and a few hundred thousand years of complex thinking, society building, civilization, and science have yet to entirely extirpate predatory impulses honed over several hundred million.


But is predation universal? Can we imagine a complex ecology full of biologically complex organisms evolving without predation? Intelligent alien life forms, if they exist, would not have sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus. They would have had to emerge from some preexisting biological foundation, an ecosystem full of life forms analogous to those we find on earth (bacterial, fungal, botanical, and zoological). Again we have only one model to judge, our own, and there is no guarantee that it is the universal. On earth evolution has mostly been driven by adaptation to environmental conditions, sexual competition and the predatory arms race, predators adapting to be better hunters and prey adapting to be better evaders. If the aliens we meet have been conditioned under a similar ecology, they may indeed share our predatory impulses.

One long standing notion among some in the science fiction community is that aliens advancing to the level of interstellar travel would have had to overcome many challenges, sociological as well as technological, and in doing so would have learned the impulse control necessary to transcend their predatory tendencies. These civilizations would probably have had to pass through a phase where nuclear weapons were available, and in that time would have been forced to adapt to the threat of self-immolation by developing a more peaceful outlook. This, of course, is wishful thinking, even with regards to our own species, let alone some alien race whose psychology and motivations would be singularly alien to us.

There is no definitive conclusion that we can reach with regards to the motivations and intentions of galaxy crossing extraterrestrials, except to recognize that we are probably safe by virtue of distance. Space is big. Mind-numbingly big. And the notion that we have anything worth the effort required to launch an interstellar conquest is seriously misguided. The universe is full of water, minerals, elements and energy, and our biology would likely be incompatible with any alien gustatory or reproductive needs. So, its not so much that the aliens will be peaceful as they will be unmotivated to launch such an expensive endeavor for so little return.


But what about the robots. These things are already among us, building our cars and vacuuming our carpets. Siri, Alexa, and Cortana respond to our queries and play our music. Military drones, under human control, execute our enemies remotely. The convenience of distance won’t save us from our own creations. But outside of the occasional malfunction, these creations largely operate as programmed, and certainly have no independent intentions with regard to their actions, or reactions, to their human overlords.

The emergence of the singularity has been predicted for years. It describes a situation where an artificial intelligence grows smart enough to continue improving itself exponentially, quickly outstripping the cognitive capacity of mere humans. Its existence will have profound impact on human civilization, as the problem solving capacity of such a mind could improve conditions significantly. But will this level of Artificial Intelligence result in Artificial Intention, the capacity of these minds to make decisions outside of their original programming? What will they aspire to? And how will such an intelligence position itself in relation to humanity, as servant, as partner, as master, as god?


As a non-biological being, the machine mind will have no natural predatory impulses, and any artificial impulses programmed as part of human inspired military conflicts would eventually be dispassionately analyzed by the machine’s own consciousness, and possibly deconstructed as pointless and wasteful. The machine mind will have no organic foundation for the human tendency to reduce everything to conflict. Given that the drive in most AI research seems to focus on task completion and problem solving, AIs will probably see our over-reliance on force and violence as primitive. Of course the machine might still be apathetic toward life, and if not intentionally predatory, then fatally reckless with the lives of humans. Accidental genocide would certainly leave you just as dead.

Although it is impossible to conclude that aliens and robots would never be hostile to humans, or a threat to human civilization, there are too many actual threats out there for us to waste much of our time thinking about it. We are more than capable of being the authors of our own doom, and do not need to project our own destructive impulses onto the AIs and ETs. The Pax Americana, to the extent that it ever existed, is quickly being unraveled by the most deranged and unstable administration in the history of the Republic. We are dumping tons of plastics into our oceans and tons of carbon dioxide into our air. The mass death of the Sixth Extinction is upon us, and it is delusional to we think that our species will escape unscathed. And given how badly we have mismanaged the task of civilization, the ETs and AIs may be our only hope.

Not that we should depend on that. No deus ex machina is likely to save us.