Category Archives: Saturday Supplemental

Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Wars

Well, the time has come at last. I’ve said before that there is a trinity of franchises that set the style for popular science fiction today. First, in 1963, there was Doctor Who. In 1966 came Star Trek. And in 1977…


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Star Wars, now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was the brainchild of special effects wizard George Lucas. He made it as an homage to pulp sci-fi of his childhood, and it was a classic revisitation of the Hero’s Journey, arguably the oldest trope in existence.

Of the three great franchises I’ve done the history of, Star Wars is probably the one whose behind-the-scenes history I know the least. That said, I’ve gleaned a certain amount of lore from my parents, who remember seeing them when they first came out.

Star Wars’ saga of the Skywalker family’s quest to master the ways of the mystical Force that permeates the the galaxy and overthrow the evil Galactic Empire and its ruler Palpatine is a perfect illustration of the idea that there’s no such thing as an original story, only fresh versions of old ones. The Hero’s Journey is so basic, and yet in the cladding of Star Wars became one of the biggest deals in pop culture in the last half-century.

If you have infinite time to waste, you can check out the fascinating ‘History of Hollywood‘ series of articles on the TV Tropes wiki. From that, the Star Wars movies were one of the cutting-edge contributors to the concept of the blockbuster film, along with the work of Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg of the same period. It was a massive hit for all ages (per that wiki, family entertainment had been the exclusive preserve of Disney before then) that seemed to come completely out of nowhere.

Probably the most talked about innovation of the Star Wars movies is in the area of special effects. In space movies prior to this, you moved a model spaceship across a background in a way that made it very obvious that they were subject to Earth gravity and made of plywood – see the old Doctor Who series. Lucas was the first one to keep the model in place and move the camera, resulting in much smoother motion. This innovation was the launching pad for one of Lucas’ many companies, Industrial Light and Magic, still the name in special effects. Only Weta Workshop has, to my knowledge, approached it in prestige since.

Star Wars was and remains a visual feast, from the locations, to the ships, to the aliens, to the action. It runs on raw emotions of exhiliration, awe and suspense. For the more intellectual viewer, it was rife with callbacks to classics like Flash Gordon and echoes of things like samurai legends. Thematically, it’s so universal that people all over the world have gotten into it.

Actually, despite its standing in pop culture and in relation to Doctor Who or Star Trek, there’s an argument to be made that Star Wars isn’t actually science fiction, but like Saga, is fantasy that just happens to take place in outer space. Science fiction is sometimes defined as being about what might happen, but Star Wars is clearly in another galaxy far, far away. That said, the aesthetic, if not the concept, had a big impact on science fiction from that day forward.

The 1977 epic was followed up with the Empire Strikes Back, a significant change in tone that included one of the most famous twists in movie history and, unusually, a situation where the bad guys kind of win.

Return of the Jedi rounded out the trilogy with a resolution of the threads laid in the previous movie and massive all-round epic conclusion that would stand the test of time for twenty years.

It must be said that all of this took a lot out of Lucas, and he defied a lot of convention in doing it, becoming a free agent auteur in the process.

Star Wars was also a pioneer of another, arguably less awesome area: merchandising. Star Wars doesn’t just make money from ticket sales, or video and DVD sales. It spun itself out into a huge market of collectibles like models, toys, posters and so on.

In addition, Star Wars has (or had, at least) something unique in its time: the Expanded Universe. With an entire galaxy to play in, the franchise ballooned into spinoff books and comics, covering the events after Return of the Jedi, before A New Hope, and spaces between, and following the exploits of our heroes and even the most briefly-glimpsed side characters.

This is what set Star Wars apart, I think, from Trek fandom or Whovianism: more than the other two, being a Star Wars fan became a lifestyle unto itself. Star Trek licensed materials were never as cohesive or interconnected, and Star Trek merchandise, in my experience, is harder to find and a lot more downmarket. Doctor Who is moving more in the Star Wars direction since the 2005 reboot, but it has a lot of catching up to do. Besides which, Star Wars, similarly to Warhammer 40K which came after, is a universe so big you can just about live in it full-time, and it’s an ideal breeding ground for Ensemble Darkhorse-type characters like Boba Fett.

It was something only possible because Lucas, having broken away from the Hollywood establishment, had pretty much total oversight of the franchise. In contrast, Gene Roddenberry, for better and worse, was still answerable to a studio. Until the sale to Disney, you could depend on one guy signing off on every little thing.

Which, it must be said, did backfire in numerous ways. Personally, I could never see myself getting into the EU because what little I gleaned always came across as overstuffed. Whether that’s fair or not I don’t know, but what I do know is that after a while Lucas’ creative monopoly started to show its drawbacks.

The most obvious one, and the one even Lucas himself has been known to joke about, is that Star Wars dialogue is as campy as it comes. Everybody gave him hell for that, from Harrison Ford to Sir Alec Guinness, and it’s been a part of the franchise from the word go. Coupled with this is the way he gives characters names that either sound like the babblings of toddlers, or that are hit-you-over-the-head goofy sounding, like the obviously sinister pseudonyms used by Sith or (and this is the one that makes me want to throw something at the screen every time) the portly X-Wing pilot in Episode IV named ‘Porkins.’ The Force Awakens is, for some reason, continuing this tradition in the person of Supreme Leader Snoke.

Before I go on, I should make this clear as it is a point on which I might diverge from a lot of readers. I watch campy franchises like this in spite of their cheesiness, not because of it. I will never understand the logic of watching something to enjoy its flaws. For me, camp is sometimes an historical relic that is acceptable in that context, like the original Star Wars, or something I tolerate because the story is worthwhile anyway, as in the case of something like Tomorrowland. It’s why I never watch things like the Family Guy Star Wars parody (well, that and a general dislike for Seth MacFarlane) or, on the Trek front, Galaxy Quest, because the conversation is going to be them saying, “Hey! Star Wars did something stupid and cheesy!” And me replying, “Yes, I know. Now will you shut up, I’m trying to enjoy it over here!”

Which is why, like a lot of people, my favourite Star Wars movie was Empire Strikes Back, because Lucas merely took general charge of the production and left the dialogue and other fine details up to colleagues. Didn’t improve the Imperial Stormtrooper’s aim much though.

Star Wars was ambitious in having a saga across multiple movies – grabbing us early on by inexplicably calling his first movie “Episode IV” – but it’s clear that Lucas was playing things a little more seat-of-the-trousers than he might have wished us to believe. I particularly remember watching Empire Strikes Back with my Dad as a kid. In one scene Leia kisses Luke – mainly just to tick Han off – and my Dad remarked, “She’s gonna to feel funny about that later.” Leia also discusses in Return of the Jedi what little she remembers of her birth mother, but Padme dies in childbirth in Revenge of the Sith. And there are little early oddities like Vader shouting at Leia in Episode IV, whereas, ever after, his calm stoicism is one of his best assets as a villain.

Another thing Dad pointed out to me over the years is that oftentimes Lucas couldn’t seem to make up his mind who his target audience was. The violence and crises of the movies are pretty mature stuff – I remember being quite shocked as a child by how many of the good guys get shot down in Episode IV. And it was many years before I could get through Return of the Jedi because despite the cute kid-friendly Ewoks this movie also contained the Emperor himself – who I will remind you, looked like this:


Bit much for a seven-year-old to take, really.

Which brings me neatly to the Prequel Triology. I’m probably the oldest generation for whom this was a part of my growing up: the new trilogy of Episodes I, II, and III, beginning in 1999 with the Phantom Menace. This trilogy follows the rise of Anakin Skywalker through the Jedi ranks and his eventually succumbing to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader. And, at this point, you will be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of twelve willing to defend it.


Lucas was back in the driver’s seat for this one, as he had been for Return of the Jedi, and unfortunately, due in part, seemingly, to tribulations in his private life, his worst bad habits seemed to get the best of him.

Now, there are legions of articles, comment threads and videos discussing the shortcomings of the Prequel trilogy. In general, another of Star Wars’ dubious distinctions is being one of the first franchises to exhibit a voracious yet unpleasable fan community. If you can stand his interminable videos and obnoxious voice, then the YouTube critic Confused Matthew probably does as thorough a job as anyone of dissecting them.

Among the most common ones were the sloppy and vague background to the conflict – taxation of trade routes, etc. – making it seem arbitrary and hollow; making one’s Jedi potential based more on a blood test than on the content of your character; a plot that barrels ahead leaving hole after hole in its wake; a lot of prophecy and Chosen One talk in a franchise that has never used it; accusations of racist stereotyping; enemies that flip-flop between being funny and scary and failing at both; and of course the most ham-fisted love story ever seen on screen.

That’s not to say that they had no virtues: Episodes I and II in particular had great action, visuals, music and casting, and the fight at the end of Episode I was a masterpiece of choreography. But then Anakin took centre stage and it went downhill fast.

Anakin Skywalker is so arrogant and abrasive you’d think he’d already fallen to the Dark Side! His come-ons to Padme in Attack of the Clones were my younger self’s master class in how never to treat a woman, and he regarded the world through what I’ve since dubbed the ‘Anakin Skywalker Serial Killer Glare’ (see also Jace in City of Bones and the teen big brother in Jurassic World). Beyond that, Lucas’ dialogue got worse and worse, and the battle droids and Jar-Jar stood for Star Wars’ inability to keep a consistent tone.

What always gets me about the Prequel Trilogy is that it contains a terrific story about Anakin’s downfall, but that Lucas doesn’t appear to have noticed it. A lot of aspects of the story that exist as plot holes would have worked if strung together differently. I thought, during Attack of the Clones, Anakin was going to be given legitimate reasons to be disillusioned by the Jedi; the fact that the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ do nothing about slavery in Episode I, their callous attitude toward Anakin’s mother in Episode II, the inflexibility of their code, and the implication in Episode II that there were corrupt Jedi masters involved in instigating the Clone Wars, were, I assumed, setting up the Jedi Order as being in decline, and Anakin’s frustration turning him to a side that promised decisive action. The Seperatist movement could have been a group with legitimate grivances that got coopted by evil. Instead, we get this.

Part of the problem is that worldbuilding in Star Wars has always been a little slapdash: the sheer size and openness of the universe also results in it being quite vague. Sometimes this helps imply a larger world, like C-3PO’s brief line in Episode IV about the Spice Mines of Kessel. But sometimes it undermines the story: at no point does anyone explain in the Prequels what a Sith is or what they want revenge for. What the Seperatists want, their ‘demands’ as Count Dooku puts it, are never shown. The specific remit of the Jedi is never clarified. Most frustrating of all, as I said in my article on the Force Awakens, the Force is never given clear rules as to what you should be able to do with it, at what stage of your training, so that characters tend to find new powers and forget old ones when the plot requires it.

George Lucas’ talents lie squarely in high concept, special effects and production oversight. Despite everything above, though, I don’t mean that as damning with faint praise. Lucas is really, really good at those things. Despite what he makes his characters say sometimes, I’ll also credit that his casting is never less than spectacular. His first ‘Special Edition’ of the first trilogy also made the most of new developments – and more money – and for all the subsquent remasters have contained some questionable decisions, you have to respect Lucas for going outside the system and trying new things. Pity more people in Hollywood don’t try that.

Star Wars is flawed – badly flawed – in myriad little ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s a write-off. It still stirs real emotions in its fans, and taps into very basic elements of storytelling that speak to anyone and everyone. It didn’t become the massive phenomenon it is because of hipster-ironic snarking at its expense. The trappings are strikingly original, the action is exhilirating, and it will be a dark time for the Rebel Alliance indeed when composer John Williams is no longer around to write the stunning scores for these movies. When the hamminess does work, it really works, too – there’s just something about the phrase “you are in command now, Admiral Piett!” The Force Awakens is showing some signs of upping Star Wars’ game in the diversity department – in which it was already fairly strong – and shaking off a bit of the camp, while still retaining its Rule of Cool ethos. As enthralling as Star Trek, as timeless as the Lord of the Rings, and almost as quotable as the Princess Bride, it well deserves its place as one of the cornerstones of geek culture.

May the Force be with you.

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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in Movie, Saturday Supplemental


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Saturday Supplemental: On the Future of Star Trek

So it’s been announced that 2017 will see the arrival a new Star Trek series. And as a lifelong fan of Star Trek, and a supporter of its original message of an idealistic vision of humanity’s future, I’m dreading it.


Star Trek was great, but also had singificant flaws. I think ultimate root of my problem with J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation is that Star Trek has not only abandoned its mission statement, but seems to think that several of its flaws are actually selling points. Although geek culture has become mainstream in the new millennium, Star Trek fandom, so I believe, is still regarded as a bit of a joke in some quarters, including among some of the fans themselves. I’m therefore concerned that what could be a fanstastic new progressive sci-fi series will end up, like the movies, concerned more with retro self-parody.

The Mary Sue recently compiled an excellent list of things the new Star Trek is going to have to start doing in order to maintain its relevance in this era of television. io9 has produced a couple of them. Not wishing to accentuate the negative, I nonetheless want to point out some of the things that I believe were holding Star Trek back that, if it is to be great again, it needs to stop doing.

5. Don’t Keep Falling Back on Rubber Forehead Aliens.

By the TNG-era Star Trek shows, the standard method for making a character appear alien was to glue some rubber prosthetic to their foreheads. The Klingons were the vanguard of this technique, but it was the go-to method for most alien characters. Sometimes it was relatively subtle, like the nasal ridges that mark out Bajorans. Other aliens like the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Jem’Hadar have almost their entire heads covered with prosthetic.

On the face of it (har har) this was a reasonable way to do it. It’s relatively cheap, you can crank out a zillion of them at a time, and it still leaves the actors with some ability to emote.

There are a couple of big problems, though. For one thing, it isn’t very scientific that right-on-the-money humanoids would be this ubiquitous. For another thing, some of the designs are so arbitrary and token that they just look goofy – somebody even mentioned in-universe once that Cardassians all appear to have cutlery glued to their heads.

More troublingly, looking at a lot of episodes, you start to realize that how sympathetic and relatable the aliens are is sometimes in direct proportion to how much they resemble Anglo-Saxons! This is a really unfortunate habit for Trek of all franchises to have fallen into. The good news is that, if the creators are willing to really give Star Trek a place in modern media, as opposed to making it a parody of itself, there are lots of ways around this. CGI now allows a lot more possibilities for relatively small expense, not to mention less agony for the actors. And the idea that ‘relatable’ must mean ‘human-looking’ was firmly discredited by one of Trek’s later contemporaries: Farscape. Farscape’s aliens were in many cases Jim Henson puppets, and Pilot and Rygel were principle characters with legitimately emotional performances.

That’s not to say they should go back and un-rubber-forehead the Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans or anyone else, but if they want to build something new in Star Trek and not just circle the drain a few more times, this is a good way to go.

4. Chuck out the Holodeck and Transporter Malfunction Plots

Within the fandom this has to be one of the biggest jokes going. The Holodecks go catastrophicaly wrong so often that there ought to have been a massive recall on them at some point. Futurama had a dig at this once; it’s the only joke at Star Trek’s expense that’s ever made me laugh. Some of these episodes were legitimately good, like TNG’s “Emergence” or DS9’s “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” but there were too many of them for it not to seem absurd and tiresome after a while.

The transporters don’t go wrong as often but they still did it to excess. As before, some of them were alright. Again, nothing this basic and common to the universe should go awry this badly, this often and still be in use. I’d almost be willing to see them chuck out the transporters entirely, or do what Enterprise did and only use them in emergencies. The reason the transporters were introduced at all was because it was too expensive in the 60s to do a landing sequence effect every week, and today it’s easy as pie.

There’s a bigger issue here involving excessive amounts of plot-important but meaningless technobabble, not unlike Doctor Who, but in Star Trek’s case it’s usually just a bit irritating at worst, except particularly in regards to holodecks and transporters. Deal with that, and much else can likely be forgiven.

3. No More Bridge Bunnies

This isn’t neccessarily the biggest flaw in Trek but it is the one that most gets on my nerves. Gene Roddenberry was a great and progressive person, by most accounts a very nice chap, and ahead of his time in many ways. At the same time, however, he was a massive chauvinist. And it showed.

The ubiquitous miniskirts on the Original Series are the least of it at this point. Counsellor Troi, a commissioned Starfleet officer in TNG, spends most of the series bumming around the bridge in what looks like a stripper’s pyjama onesie. I can understand Troi wanting to be approachable despite her rank to, say, a nervous newbie on the Enterprise. She’s basically a non-denominational chaplain after all. But how anyone could concentrate on her advice is beyond me. DS9 mostly kept this habit mercifully in the background with Quark’s barmaids, which at least made some kind of sense. Voyager restrained itself for a while but then gave up and introduced Seven of Nine in her boobtastic unitard. Eye candy was apparently so desperately important that it overrode such trivial considerations as the oxygen supply to Jeri Ryan’s brain.

The absolute nadir was, naturally, Enterprise and T’Pol. T’Pol had no excuse. She was an officer, with scientific and tactical specialities, from a highly formal culture and yet arses around the ship in a freaking castuit. Vulcans don’t care about sex appeal and every other non-Starfleet Vulcan ever has worn robes. That’s not even touching on the contrived situations where she strips for no good reason.

And for me, this is one of the biggest obstacles to Star Trek being respected as a social commentary platform, or even just as a show: it’s a damned hypocrite! You can’t have an all-inclusive diverse vision of humanity’s future and then plaster it with male-gaze eye candy. It makes your message look clueless, or worse, like you don’t actually mean it.

So, if Star Trek is to be regarded in the wider world as anything but a sweaty male nerd’s delusion of intellectualism, you have two choices: either get rid of the eye candy or make it equal opportunity. Not saying I want the second one, but you can either play fair or not play at all. Them’s your options.

2. Don’t Throw the Word ‘Logic’ Around

From the word ‘go,’ Star Trek has been famous for juxtaposing a highly passionate or emotional character with a cool, highly rational one. Kirk and Spock, Riker and Data, Kira and Odo, Paris and Tuvok, B’Lenna and Seven of Nine, Archer and T’Pol, to name a few possible dichotomies you could make in the casts.

The thing of it is, that the scenarios that pit passion against logic are oftentimes horribly oversimplified, and tend to be delivered in favour of the passion-driven character and very condescendingly to the rational character. Data getting lectured about chess by Troi is one instance I’ve always remembered, since playing chess illogically is basically impossible. The poker metaphor used in other episodes, like “the Corbomite Maneuver” works rather better, and when Dr. McCoy tried to call Spock out, Spock could usually throw it right back at him.

The accumulating evidence leads me to conclude that a lot of writers don’t know what ‘logical’ actually means. Because in Star Trek, it far too often translates as simpleminded, naive, or even callous.

So the writers of a new series are going to really have to up their game in writing how a strictly non-emotional thinker would see the world, and make sure that each side of the coin actually represents a legitimate point of view.

You can also subvert it sometimes. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might want to take a page from Steven Moffat. The reason “Scandal in Belgravia” is my favourite episode of Sherlock despite its very dodgy gender politics is that in the end, the cold-emotionless-rational guy wins precisely because he’s the cold-emotionless-rational guy!

It also pays to consider that Vulcans and similar races oughtn’t be all the same. There can be more than one kind of logic or perspective, something which Star Trek’s been inconsistent at demonstrating with its ‘Planet of Hats’ monolithism.

1. Don’t be Cavalier about Worldbuilding

This is a tough one because it encompasses a lot of Star Trek’s myriad little flaws, but they are so many that it becomes the key issue Trek needs to deal with. Star Trek has always suffered from chronic ‘depending on the writer’ syndrome. In an age where consistent canon and long-running story arcs are the rule, this is a vice it can’t afford anymore.

Starfleet protocol is a big one. Assume for the moment that Starfleet has a military structure, whatever else it might be, and several questions arise. Why is Riker, as ship’s executive, allowed to flirt and even have flings with personnel under his supervision? You can’t even do that in non-military hierarchies. Why do the most senior personnel always go down to the dangerous planets first? Related to that, why does Starfleet only seem to have officers and precisely one enlisted specialist: Chief O’Brien? Why do officers never salute or stand to attention? How big is Starfleet? For that matter, what is Starfleet’s exact role? They talk up exploration but they do a lot more than that.

In general, it would be nice if they would let the protocol inform the story, rather than bending protocol to serve the story. Sisko’s standing in the fleet in DS9 doesn’t make sense except on the basis that he’s the hero and therefore must be in charge. If they’d promoted him to flag rank, or the Defiant had had to play a crucial but supporting role, that would have worked. Including more enlisted types, or to borrow a phrase from TNG, more regular “Lower Deck” characters would help this one a lot, too.

Some of the rules, like the Prime Directive, are never more than summarized, so they mean whatever the writer wants them to mean. Some rules are just plain forgotten about, leading to many examples of how Star Trek started chasing its own tail in later years. TNG did a number of episodes about the rights and status of artificial intelligence, some setting legal precedent in-universe, only for Voyager to tackle the exact same ones, as if nobody in the Federation had learned a damn thing the first go round.

The society behind Starfleet is seldom shown. We know that the Federation doesn’t use money, but what do they do instead? How does day-to-day life work? How much autonomy do Federation member worlds have? This is a big problem inasmuch as we never get a clear sense of what our heroes stand for except in general, idealistic terms. They’re pretty good terms, mind, but I think Star Trek would be made much more compelling if it became a comprehensive model of a future society. Politcally high risk – the writers might fear being denounced as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ – but potentially high rewards. We also have to consider the possibility that some of them just flat-out don’t work and have to be retconned, like the replicators that by rights should render all mining, agriculture and manufacturing obsolete.

I said earlier that other races in Trek occasionally threatened to get monolithic. On the flipside, though, sometimes they were quite inconsistent. For some reason, the Klingon attitude to suicide sticks out at me; in some episodes it’s acceptable, in others it’s absolutely taboo. This isn’t differing attitudes between Klingons, it’s the same Klingon saying different things.

Another issue is scope: Star Trek is the posterboy for the Trope that science fiction writers have no sense of scale. This was actually the one thing about Into Darkness that every Trekkie seemed to catch: given the travel time from Earth, you’d think the Klingon Empire started at Pluto. The TNG two-parter “Unification” had the Romulans trying to invade Vulcan even though Vulcan is nowhere near Romulus. It’d be like if the Nazis had tried to invade just Las Vegas but no other part of the USA along the way. If they had a stronger sense of astrography, as in Honor Harrington, then it would define the Trek universe much better and open up interesting options for strategy in the stories.

The biggest one for me personally is the battles. I’ve said before that combat should not be the focus of Star Trek storytelling. The trouble is that when it did come up, it was stilted as hell and inconsistent. TNG was especially bad for this. If the plot needed the Enterprise to win, they’d usually mop the floor with the other side in three shots. If the plot required our heroes to lose, they would promptly lose fifty IQ points and the ship would magically turn into glass and cardboard. The battle in Star Trek: Generations was particularly exasperating for this reason.

Never mind being accessible to the masses, this sort of thing frustrates the most loyal Trekkies, and it’s not something they can afford in the current age if it wants to stand tall beside today’s television epics.

Of course, you have to wonder, depending on how much reworking the Trek verse needs to avoid all this, and to do the things the Mary Sue or io9 called for, would it still be Star Trek? But then that leaves me back where I started. If Star Trek can’t function beyond these parameters, then it’s gone as far as it can go, and you might as well make a new, original series. Which would be best? I don’t know, but if Star Trek is going to become a province of the nothing-but-remakes culture we live in now, it had better make it worthwhile.

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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Saturday Supplemental, Television


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Saturday Supplemental: The Jem Trailer, or Why Am I Even Here?

I can’t quite believe I’m doing this: I’m not only about to complain about a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but I’m furthermore going so far beyond my logical range of interest as to be utter madness. But when the trailer for the live action adaptation of a cult 80’s cartoon is so bad that even William Shatner knows about it, it probably bears some examination. And besides which, the opportunity is golden for me to complain about the current state of creativity in mass media.

So this past week the trailer was released for the live-action movie Jem and the Holograms, based on the 80’s cartoon Jem by Christy Marx featuring Jerrica Benton, daughter of a record company executive who bequeaths her and her foster sisters an AI named Synergy who projects holograms, enabling Jerrica to turn into the glam rock star Jem and lead her band, the Holograms in setting off a cultural bomb against her late father’s underhanded partner and his fractious and criminally insane ‘bad-girl’ band the Misfits.

The cartoon is completely daft from first to last: Jerrica is a borderline Mary Sue – a record company owner and trustee of a private group home for girls, who also maintains the secret identity of a fashionista rock star. The secret identity produces a lot of drama with her boyfriend, the Holograms’ roadie Rio, who dallies with both Jem and Jerrica not knowing they’re the same person, and causing Jerrica angst as she tries to sort out his true feelings and maintain the secret identity. All this despite him being in the inner circle and kind of a creepy hypocrite about lying even as he thinks himself to be two-timing his girlfriend. It’s the kind of relationship drama that could only possibly work on somebody under the age of 8.

Still, its whacky premise and aesthetic and timing for the millennial generation gives it hefty nostalgia potential. But, naturally you must be wondering, how in the hell do I, a hominid of the male persuasion, know all of this?

Full disclosure, I’ve watched some of this show. And I don’t mean when I was a little kid. I mean about two years ago. I stumbled upon it partly by way of a fanvid I randomly happened upon, then I looked it up and discovered Outrage of the Zygons, a quite excellent fan webcomic crossover with Doctor Who, and then I went ahead and examined the source material, partly out of nostalgia for the crummy old animation style of the period and partly out of a quest to lose my Man Card as far behind the sofa as possible. Besides, it was more or less Christy Marx’s magnum opus, and since she also penned a number of episodes of my favourite shows – an award-winning episode of Beast Wars, in addition to episodes of Shadow Raiders, ReBoot, X-Men Evolution and even Babylon 5, I figured she deserved some further recognition on my part.

When I was a kid, my grandparents were the only ones in the family with satellite TV – back when having a satellite dish looked a like you had a Jodrell Bank franchise on your lawn – and I used to sneak next door to watch retro Cartoons at ungodly hours of the morning. Gotta hand it to them, they never seemed to mind.

From this experience I deduce that Jem is something of a missing link between three generations of cartoon.

It’s got early signs of the ‘socially responisble Aesop’ kid’s show of the 90s, exemplified by Captain Planet (and even cheesier, if you can imagine). It lives in the period of the ‘suprisingly good glorified toy commercial’ of the late 80s; it’s basically a girlie counterpart to GI Joe or Transformers. But it’s also among the last of an older subset of the mystery-solving-team genre a la Scooby Doo where the amateur detectives are also a rock band. I have no idea where this concept sprang from, but in the 70s and 80s there seemed to be scads of them: Josie and the Pussycats are the obvious one, but there’s also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw, a sci-fi variation taking place in an undersea civilization where the band’s frontman is a talking shark. No I don’t know why, shut up!

Anyway, like a lot of such properties it’s getting a bit of a reboot in film form, and the trailer almost instantly provoked universal objection from the whole freaking internet.

I was vaguely aware from the Facebooks of fangirl friends of mine who remember this show that a movie was in the offing, and red flags sprang up instantly when the creative team running the show were revealed to all be men. So, the cartoon that set itself up as being a deviation from the bunches of dudes in contemporary shows, that told stories from women’s perspectives, and you’re handing it off to a bunch of dudes? You don’t think a woman’s perspective and understanding of the characters, their dynamics and society’s pressures on them might have helped? A woman like, say, Christy Marx, who you didn’t even bother telling about this movie apparently?

Then when you actually get to the trailer itself, it bears zero resemblance to the source. Apparently in this Jerrica is a regular teen who gets discovered on YouTube, is picked up by a record label who basically turn her into Jem and make it impossible for her to be herself anymore, straining her bond with her family/bandmates and setting up the moral about the costs of fame. Jerrica Benton? More like Jerrica Bieber!

This moral played itself out about three trillion times in various teeny-bopper shows in the 90s – I seem to recall the show Kids Inc tackling it in particular. What’s striking is that it’s tonally the opposite of what I got from the cartoon. In this, Jerrica is a victim of the big monstrous machine forcing her to be Jem and ruining the really important stuff in her life. In the cartoon, being Jem is her idea, allowing her to rocket to the top of the charts at the head of her own record company. She’s in charge, and uses that power to prevent unethical business practices and do good in the world, while trying to balance that with her private life! She was basically a well-adjusted, girlie-glam-rock-Batman!

Adapting that aspect convincingly would indeed have been a challenge, if they’d actually tried, because the cartoon’s tagline of ‘glamour and glitter, fashion and fame’ would be met with cynical suspicion rather than awe in the age of the Britney Spears train wreck and corporate-engineered pop stars like Justin Bieber. But to then turn around and subvert that (kind of like what I suggested they should have done with idealism in Man of Steel) would have been a cool idea.
More bizarre still, the ‘hologram’ part of ‘Jem and the Holograms’ is absent. Back in the day it was a truly random bit of sci-fi – Synergy’s avatar always looks to me like one of the Bangles had a lovechild with Optimus Prime – but today it’s bordering on plausible! And yet they almost recoil from the idea of making this in any fantastical or even fun!

And I find this all very instructive because we’re living in an age where, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “What isn’t a sequel is a knockoff, what isn’t a knockoff is a reboot, what isn’t a reboot is a remastering.” As I wait for a reboot/sequel hybrid apiece from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, and another one from Star Trek, plus the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this trailer seems to foretell the absolute extreme of several of the problems this trend brings with it.

Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer once told me that, as a writer, it is better to be exceptional to a few people than adequate to a lot of people. And movies like this exemplify the opposite approach, as do things like the AAA video game industry (the gaming equivalent of Hollywood) regularly cranking out long series like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, part of that homogenization is also reinforcing certain tropes which end up going unchallenged. See this article on the exact gender politics of the period Jem came from, but it actually reminds me of the kerfuffle that’s been attending Marvel and Hasbro’s (also the originators of Jem) obstinate refusal to make toys for Black Widow. Despite the consumer outcry, they seem determined to keep women and girls in the marketing-safe, age-old boxes. It’s as if they’re actually defying their customer base, rather than just misunderstanding them.

Usually my big concern about reboots is that the creators will be fans whose love of the source material will get the better of their artistry. But this is closer to nostalgia reboots like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: a stereotypical twenty-something everyman protagonist, using tired old stereotypes of who the fans are to inform who they write it for, disrespecting any element of depth or daring that might have been present lest it be too niche in its appeal.

In the Jem and the Holograms trailer, we invert the setup of the cartoon, making Jem a victim and fame and success bad and to be avoided, rather than harnessed. What’s more is that she has no agency: her stage persona is forced on her, her success demanded against her will. In fact, the song that makes her famous appears to be uploaded to YouTube by her sister without her permission! The only agency she has is to ‘be herself,’ which seems to mean ‘be a quiet, unassuming hometown girl with no ambition or dreams of great artistic achievement.’ And also Black Widow has to want babies, boys don’t want girl toys, a Wonder Woman movie won’t sell, the action protagonist always has to be a youngish white American guy with brown hair and stubble, blah, blah, blah. Making everything the same is bad enough, but we’re making everything the same to a standard which is sexist, oversimplified and retrograde indeed.

I’m not one of the old-school fans of Jem, but like Captain Planet, I can see what it could have been in a different time with a different format, but the fanfiction community, combining familiarity with the material with the freedom not to have to worry about making money from it, is far better equipped to explore its potential than a committee-designed big-Hollywood production team who aren’t able to be daring, or unusual because there’s no will to test their assumptions about what people want anymore. They couldn’t even see their way to having what was clearly a pretty influential story by women, for girls, updated and retold by women! And that’s why the Jem trailer interests and infuriates me, because it summarizes what I feel is the looming threat of the big movie and video game industries: cultural stagnation, and even regression at times, not helped at all by the backlash against the slightest diversity in pop and geek culture that’s becoming so common these days.

It’s truly outrageous, is what it is.


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Saturday Supplemental: Soul Searching and Social Justice in Fiction

I originally wrote this post after entitled gun-wielding maniac Elliott Rodger went on a misogyny-fueled rampage, reinforced by this article, positing that privelige in geek culture – traditionally very male-dominated – allows violation and objectification of women to be normalized and even played for comedy.

It also creates the image of the singular protagonist – ourselves, for aren’t we all the heroes of our own stories – for whom certain things are expected to be achieved: primacy, victory, romance, the usual trappings.

I lost my nerve at the time, but it has regained some notability with Emma Watson’s stirring UN address, the leaking of racy celebrity photos by hackers and the attacks on women in gaming culture that have been making the headlines.

What struck me is that Elliott Rodger, the redditors who attack commentators like Anita Sarkeesian and other publicly outspoken women and others of their ilk have a narrative in common: they generally seem to see themselves as being on a mission of revenge against some enemy, the Lone Underdog Hero against the Big Bad whatever – politicians, authority, women, what have you. It needn’t even be a very specific thing. A sense of helplessness, or of not getting everything you expect is, for those priveliged by gender and race puts a gleam on the ‘wronged man out for payback’ narrative.

And here’s why that freaks me out: when I remarked in my review of 12 Years a Slave that it started me having revenge fantasies, I wasn’t kidding. Confronted in news and history with the horrific misdeeds humans inflict on one another, I often find the only catharsis is to indulge a daydream of confronting the evildoers in battle, or similar. I’ve ingested similar narratives to these guys.

I appreciate that this sounds like I’m playing the old moral-panic card that people are somehow driven to violence by the fiction of which they partake. Mental illness and cultures surrounding guns, masculinity and privelige are clearly the dominating factors. And violence in fiction is highly functional: it’s cathartic, a powerful metaphor, and, done artfully, both creates truly engaging stakes and is terribly exciting.

We in geek culture immerse ourselves in fiction wilfully, and when we climb out we should look around and see whether the stories are doing good service by the people to whom it speaks. Racial and gender diversity in popular fiction has made progress under critical gazes for many years. So I’m wondering likewise about the different shades of being a hero and heroic violence in fiction as a corollary of that.

I ask myself: what kinds of narratives do these people seem to reflect? For the nerdier streak, as the article above discusses, people like Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory or Eric from That 70’s Show spring to mind. But for the violence aspect, the archetype I tend to think of is what I call the Rambo – oddly since I’ve never watched a Rambo film in my life: isolated from others (as guys like this seem to be) but tough, violent and who always get the girl. This is the thing that the awkward, lonely nerd has oftentimes traditionally looked up to.

This is just about the oldest hero type out there. He comes in many shades (metaphorically, he’s almost always white): James Bond, Richard Sharpe, Scarface, Marcus Fenix, Master Chief, almost every superhero under the sun and lots of the characters played by people like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and wow I am dating myself hideously over here…

And aspects of this basic entitled-to-being-the-hero archetype run right through fiction of all media. A single hero with tons of guns, or at best, a small squad of macho men with tons of guns, is the aspect these have in common. And there are certainly worthy tales to be told in this construct – the better class of war movie, for exmaple.

And yet, don’t these reflect an entitlement to violence? Some of them, especially the soldiers, have the justification of some bigger cause. But somehow I’ve seldom found that persuasive. The Rambo, the Lone Ranger, or whatever, have the conflict reduced to themselves, given a kind of ‘it’s personal’ element. The bad guy has attacked them, or killed their buddy, or kidnapped ‘their’ woman, let’s say. And the only solution is guns and/or fisticuffs. Their treatment gives them a personal right to do violence to others, that takes primacy over any bigger picture.

And it is partly for that reason that I tend to be indifferent to stories like this. Some dude getting his own back, and getting the girl because that’s what’s supposed to happen just isn’t very fulfilling to me. It can be fun – Bond or Batman or (arguably) Captain Kirk all fall within this trend, and I’ve been playing Arkham City for the past few weeks.

Obviously, a personal stake is important to a compelling story. But it strikes me that the kind of stories I’m drawn to have a very specific way of doing that.

Take Mass Effect for example: yes, Commander Shepard’s got the Universe on her shoulders, and yes, her story and character are the centre of your attention. But around her is an ensemble of diverse characters for whom she has responsibility, and who have responsibility for each other. This makes the abstraction of the safety of the galaxy at large into perspective, and Shepard’s genuine emotional connection – romantic and friendship, female and male – mean that the stakes are more important than her personal investment.

Another example: Flashpoint, the Canadian cop show. While superficially the all-boys’-club tons-of-guns setup, the sense of genuine family amongst the characters, and the priority to save people, not just ‘get the bad guy,’ gives it a sense of cause and common purpose. It’s right there in the team’s motto: Connect, Respect, Protect.

And for a third example, the Lord of the Rings. It’s a weaker example than the above because interpersonal relationships aren’t the core theme. All the same, all races of Middle Earth join forces, and at every turn, Aragorn and Frodo in particular make their decisions based on the betterment of those around them – not abandoning Merry and Pippin, sparing Gollum, or the comradeship between Legolas and Gimli.

Ensemble casts, I believe, lend a sense of substance to any abstract duty a la ‘save the world.’ A diverse ensemble – by class, lifestyle, gender or race, (or, if nothing else, metaphors thereof) gives a sense of a microcosm, and good characterization and interpersonal bonds make for protagonists who have to earn their authority from those around them, because they have a responsibility to protect, lead, back up and care about them, whatever they look like or wherever they come from. Yahtzee Croshaw hit near the mark with his article marking the distinction between ‘manly’ and ‘macho’ characters.

Captain Picard, Malcolm Reynolds, John Crichton, Commander Vimes, Avatar Aang or Buffy Summers fit this model quite handily. Leaders, yes, willing to do what it takes, but for the sake of other people, not themselves or some abstraction like their country. Able to show gentleness or grief for the people around them, and to whom members of the opposite sex are people, not trophies. And when violence takes place, is clearly in self-defense or with clear context against someone whose threat is to one’s comrades, and to the safety of people in general, or when no choice is available.

See, prone as I am to revenge fantasies, they look more like this: groups of allies taking a stand against cruelty, bigotry and injustice and knocking it out of the park.

I’m not suggesting that this is a fantasy to be indulged in irresponsibly. You still have to keep the line drawn between them and real life. And I’m not suggesting that the works of fiction are responsible. Nor am I saying that fiction alone shapes my worldview. My parents, who instilled in me (with admittedly incomplete success, no fault of theirs) a dislike of violence, a sense of responsibility and ethics had something to do with it. What I am positing is this: our culture, in a thousand ways, sculpts our insecurities, the things that anger us and the impulses that offer an outlet for that anger. And fiction echoes those things back, and reinforces and perpetuates them. But it can also distort them and send us back the inverse. Star Trek did that when it created a multi racial band of brothers and sisters in the age of Civil Rights. That’s what the Bechdel Test and the criticism of whitewash casting are meant to change.

I would never expect fiction to kowtow to special interests or prejudices. That’s one of things that angers me. But we, as critical audiences, could call on fiction to take a stand against selfishness and entitlement, and send more positive echoes back at us. If the hero is to slay the monster with his mighty sword, let it be for good and positive reasons, and the hero be a woman, or a person of colour, and have comrades, friends and family at their sides.

“‘Cause I’ve got people with me. People who help each other, who do for each other and ain’t always looking for the advantage.”

-Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, “Firefly”

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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in Saturday Supplemental


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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.


From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television


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Saturday Supplemental: Marauder Shields

I occurs to me that in a number of my past articles, I’ve been using the term ‘fanfiction’ as a byword for ‘creatively bankrupt.’ Mostly I’m trading shamelessly on its popular image: Indulgence. Immature. Prurient. Of no interest to the serious-minded. As with comics, I used to write off the whole endeavour as contemptible and dirty.

And while, by gods, a lot of it is awful, then it probably isn’t a larger part than of normal fiction that’s tiresome rubbish. Joss Whedon, among others, encourages his fans to participate in this fashion, and legitimate authours like Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik partake of the practice themselves.

So I am reconciled to the phenomenon. They have the potential to be avenues of active participation by fans in their favourite stories. And one of those stories where participation is particularly enthusiastic is in the fandom of Mass Effect.

The ending of Mass Effect 3, as I and others have documented, was a source of deep creative difference between the developers of the game and its fans, a dispute pressed particularly hard given the amount of creative freedom the player has in the game’s story, and which the Extended Cut downloadable content only superficially addressed. Vast numbers of ‘Fix Fics’ offering alternative outcomes sprang up, but only one of them has achieved fame outside of fan fiction circles, to the point of being written up by gaming journalists and, now, being reviewed by me: the web comic Marauder Shields.


Koobismo’s own ‘cover’ for the comic

Authoured by DeviantArt contributor koobismo with the aid of several like-minded chums, Marauder Shields is a play on a popular meme that sprang from the Retake Mass Effect campaign.

The last enemy you gun down in Mass Effect 3 is a middleweight monster called a Marauder, and when you aim at it, as with any enemy in the game, the name “Marauder” appears onscreen, along with a bar showing its shield strength, thusly:


The joke, as thirty seconds on YouTube will show, is that Marauder Shields was in fact the name of a hero who died trying to save you from the sloppy and incomprehensible ending of the game.

Koobismo took the premise and ran with it. The first five ‘episodes’ of Marauder Shields are a comedic parody, representing the author venting his frustration, but from episode 6 onward (up to 53 at time of writing), the comic changed into a serious attempt to reinvent the ending of the trilogy.

Each episode consists of a dozen-or-so-frame strip, and has been telling the story of the decisive battle against the Reapers on Earth, which formed the final set piece of Mass Effect 3.

Commander Shepard, our hero, has been struck down and critically wounded on the cusp of accessing the super weapon devised from ancient plans to stop the Reapers. We see Shepard’s squad, the group who we came to know and love as Mass Effect fans, struggling to save their leader, and to hold the line against the Reapers. Acts of bravery and comradeship are shown on all fronts, while in the background, sinister plots-within-plots begin to hatch, suspicions arise about the exact origin of this ancient super weapon plan, and while friends struggle to reach the place where their leader fell, a single Marauder stands guard there, its behaviour increasingly unexpected.

Now, it must be said that if you haven’t played Mass Effect at least once, this won’t make enormous amounts of sense. The characters, their species, and their technology come pre-established; the situation they’re currently facing is already underway, indeed nearing its conclusion, so if you’re innocent of the background, it will take some pretty heavy deduction or an extended visit to the Mass Effect wiki to figure out what’s going on.

If you have played it, then you are in for a treat. The artist uses a combination of his own, quite luminous paintings built around stills from the game, for accuracy and expediency. The dialogue, while a little pedantic in places, matches the manner of the characters it’s given to. The events of the story thus far have captured the friendships, loves, sacrifice and courage of all the characters in the new alliance forged to fight this battle, to much the same standard as was set by the game’s own storytelling. Koobismo even creates separate versions of each strip featuring one of the two characters you have to choose between saving in Mass Effect 1. The author and his cadre have also created ‘audio book’ versions of several chapters, and the sound effects, music and lines are mixed very well, and the performers, amateurs that they are, do remarkably good impressions of several of the characters.

The downside of all this beautiful sound and fury is that, since the story really kicked off, we’ve gotten 48 chapters in and not an awful lot has happened, plotwise. We’ve gotten caught up on our heroes, several threads have been established, lots of suspense and hints have been dropped, but while the turning point is clearly at hand, this does feel like an unnecessarily long wait, while the many subplots being hinted at are growing so numerous that I’m starting to get less engaged and more confused. Many of the strips include flavour text to provide context or bonus information, modeled after the Codex in the game itself, which I almost invariably skip. The audio book segments are very impressive from a technical point of view, but some of the performers are better at imitating the characters than they are at actually acting. Depending on your range of reading, it can be a little strange to go from the Canadian/American production of Mass Effect itself into the comic; koobismo’s DeviantArt page says he lives in Poland, but certain stylistic hallmarks in his writing would ordinarily mark him as an Englishman.

Marauder Shields, apart from being a worthy endeavour by and on behalf of Mass Effect fans, is visually impressive, emotionally charged, intriguingly intricate and quite creative. It’s a charmingly grassroots approach to role-playing games and fairly plausible in the context of Mass Effect’s mythos (more than the original ending managed, in some cases), and a valiant undertaking by a group of talented amateurs. So far it’s been a little bit slow-building, and it’s going to have to pick up speed soon to maintain interest. But it shows every sign of doing that. It’s biggest challenge is going to be trying to find middle ground between giving the series a satisfying alternate ending and remaining open to the many different choices Mass Effect players can make getting to the end of the game in the first place.

So if you are a Mass Effect fan or enjoy a well-made fan project, check it out, on koobismo‘s page on DeviantArt or at the independent website, Hope is Alive! Hold the Line!

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Posted by on November 30, 2013 in Comic, Saturday Supplemental, Video Game


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Saturday Supplemental: Why I Won’t Watch Ender’s Game, and Neither Should You


I really haven’t been looking forward to this. I wanted these reviews to be apolitical. Basic rules and possibilities of storytelling are not dictated by yours, or the author’s, voting habits.

But now I’m kind of in a bind: because one of the main events of the season, one which I imagine lots of people have been looking forward to, is the release of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, the science fiction masterwork of Orson Scott Card.


In a future where humanity has twice been attacked and thwarted an implacable insectoid horde from beyond the stars, Ender Wiggin, a six-year-old boy, is taken from his family to begin the Spartan-esque training for a new generation of ultimate space warriors. He’s put through the school of military indoctrination I tend to think of as the ‘post-Vietnam-era’ style of training: a rigorous, not to say brutal regime which instills soldiers with aggression, domination and machismo and conspicuously omits anything so lily-livered as courage, esprit de corps or honour.

Ender, in his innocence, learns the ways of this school, and begins to realize that Battle School is being puppeteered by its instructor, Major Graff, specifically to groom him as the ideal commander for the next, and imminent, clash with the so-called ’buggers’ (commence snickering, I certainly did). He faces the challenges of the training and conflicts put in front of him as well as the struggle to fathom the plots of which he is the object, all the while hanging grimly onto his humanity, the one thing the school seems determined to strip away at the same time as it is his saving grace.

The story is a profound one of the contest between humanity’s struggle to survive and to still remain itself, of children and their true worth. The movie looks epic and visually stunning, with a cast including justly honoured actors Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley.

Unfortunately, I found all of that out after I learned that Orson Scott Card has distinguished himself in breathtaking statements of bigotry against the Gay and Lesbian community. While I am not a member of one of the initials in LGBTQI or however you choose to arrange them, enough of my friends are for this to make me angry even if I didn’t consider it blatantly unfair and unkind to de-legitimate and degrade my fellow human beings based on who they consensually fall in love with.

Okay, can o’ worms time over here. I’m not going to bother making a case for marriage equality because roughly twice the population of the planet Earth has beaten me there already. Let me lay down the law here on just a few salient matters:

In and of itself, the political leanings of a writer do not dictate the quality or worthiness of their work. Roald Dahl, author of such beloved childrens’ stories as the BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a candid anti-Semite. Even if, like me, you have objections to the Catholic Church’s stance on social justice, I would hardly think it rational to condemn or boycott J.R.R. Tolkien’s works simply because he was Catholic. To do so would be a manifestation of the same kind of silencing and bigotry I intend to rail against. Besides, it’d be bloody silly.

However, the problem we have with Mr. Scott Card is twofold: one, unlike Dahl or Tolkien, he’s still alive and carries no small weight among science fiction fan communities.

Two, while as far as I know Dahl merely shot his mouth off, Orson Scott Card used to sit on the American National Organization for Marriage, a principle bastion of the “gays are out to get you” lobby created to support California‘s Proposition 8. He stepped down this year, and one could be forgiven for thinking this was a political expedient timed to distance the much-anticipated movie from his politics.

Which brings me back to the first point: even if Dahl’s obnoxious views had been reflected by his membership in some anti-Jewish organization or other (it wasn’t as far as I am aware) the fact remains that he’s dead. Given Card’s frankly dehumanizing remarks about gay people and his known affiliations, buying his books or, now, buying a ticket to see the movie, I submit, very probably funnels funds through him to organizations dedicated to the oppression and contempt of our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Which is why, with a heavy heart, I have to join those who are boycotting the Ender’s Game movie. I’ve only ever been ticked off enough to boycott one other movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s atrocious adaptation of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and most everyone agrees it was rubbish even without the racism.

For what it’s worth, though, I didn’t even like Ender’s Game as a book that much anyway. The story is grim, that one expects, but what staggers me is that at no point does Ender get his desired triumph over the brutal and manipulative system he is subjected to. There’s no success for him in the long run, and not much in the way of relief on the way. The story’s like the last Hunger Games novel: constant decline into misery and darkness with no sense of hope. Ender figures out how to play the system and excel within it, when a system like this cries out for its own subversion. To balance the books (see what I did there?), let me say that the Hunger Games had it right because as terrible as the choice was, Katniss chooses in the first book to take control of the game away from her puppeteers. Ender never does. Gratifyingly, his humanity is the thing that keeps him together through all this, but there‘s no payoff for him or the reader. If I’d been where he was through the book, I’d have been about ready to switch sides – not to SPOIL but, in a way, he kind of does, if only in the epilogue.

To the book’s credit Ender’s puppet masters are counting on his human goodness, and are built up as the kind of heartless chessmasters that President Snow in the Hunger Games seemed to think he was. That said, I was never completely sold on the idea that this little kid was the answer to all Earth’s hopes. I mean, this program of training has been going on for some time, it seems. You’d think an adult would be better trained for longer by the time they needed him.

The given reason is that they needed a child’s flexible thinking, which is fair enough. Just one problem, and it’s one that amazes me more people don’t point out. Ender goes from six to eleven through the story, and his brother and sister are just on the cusp of their teens at the end. Generally none of his fellow characters except the officers are over fourteen. But neither Ender nor his siblings nor any of the others act, think, or talk like children. Some of that can be explained by the psychopathy that almost all of them have for some reason but even after that they don’t talk like kids and they have way deeper grasp of psychology than any kid. Heck, they talk like David Weber characters: pedantic, political and detached. Ender’s brother and sister basically take over the government via the Internet when they’re about twelve! It’s this more than anything else that blows the whole thing out of the water for me because these kids’ actual ages make them too young to believably deal with the kinds of situations they’re in, and just making them teens would have mostly solved the problem. Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth understood that and their books’ characters fundamentally make more sense as a result.

I may be being overly harsh on the book since I rushed through it and am more than a little irate about the conduct of the man behind the proverbial curtain. Also there are a number of sequels so presumably there’s more to this. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s dreary and unpleasant if well-constructed, if you’re into that.

For me, though, I feel similarly about reading a book by Orson Scott Card as I would watching a Roman Polanski movie. I hasten to affirm that Card has done nothing illegal but my disgust at his treatment of his fellow beings is such that I don’t feel I can in good conscience offer him any material support by buying into his intellectual properties. I get why lots of people don’t want to think about it; I’m facing the wearying possibility that, to stay consistent with my convictions I’ll have to start doing informal background checks on all the movies I watch. Whether or not I ever walk the walk as far as that, I feel obliged to use the information in my hands here and now.

So I invite my readership, if you’re still out there after this diatribe, to turn aside from the drama and explosions, and spend your admission fee in nobler places. I live in parts rural but if anybody else is in a major city, some alternative events where you can donate to pro-equality groups are on the books for November 1st.

There’s nothing to hate but hate itself.

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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in Book, Movie, Saturday Supplemental


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