Tag Archives: star trek

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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The Mote in God’s Eye

I’m sad to say that Science Fiction Spring has become a bit harder going than I’d hoped. Notwithstanding the interruption of something as big as Age of Ultron and something as fascinatingly pointless as a terrible trailer for a movie of an 80’s cartoon, my biggest hurdle was getting into a book which, after years of reading Honor Harrington and Warhammer 40,000 spinoff novels, I rapidly realized was one of their ancestors.

The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published 1974 is one of those sci-fi novels I’ve heard name-dropped about a quadrillion times and so I resolved that, since I was going on a science fiction literature kick this spring, it would be on the list.

At the outset, however, I was rapidly starting to feel like I’d already read it because a lot of later works clearly owe a lot to it.

In the far future, the Empire of Man is engaged in a struggle to reunite the worlds colonized by humankind – not unlike the Great Crusade of the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40K – led by its aristocratic military class – not unlike the Star Kingdom of Manticore in Honor Harrington – when the newly-reconquered New Caledonia system receives an unexpected visitor: a probe from a non-human civilization.

Surprised, fascinated and fearful in equal measure, the Empire marshalls an expedition to the the Mote, the homeworld of these strange beings. Meeting them, Captain the Lord Rod Blaine of the Imperial battlecruiser Douglas MacArthur and a mixed bag of military officers, statesmen and scientists begin the process of understanding these aliens, their nature, their intentions, and whether or not they pose a threat to the Empire.

What’s funny is that in addition to having the seed of subsequent franchises in it, Mote in God’s Eye also has a few winks toward past ones. A fallen and rebounding galactic empire smacks a little of Asimov’s Foundation, the engineer on MacArthur is a Scotsman (well, a New Caledonian, but never mind) a la Star Trek, and the great rebel enemy the Empire has recently defeated is the planet Sauron!

Part of the reason I found this story so hard to engage with at first is just that: it’s one of those stories that’s full of cliches because it helped invent or codify said cliches. My eyes occasionally slid off whole passages, taking in the gist only.

This isn’t helped by there being a slew of characters to keep track of, none of whom jump out as being the main character. In principle it’s Captain Blaine, but the story spreads the point of view between so many characters that he seems pushed to the background after a while.

Having said that, the dynamics of the story are actually pretty neat. This is very much an idea-focused story. The appearance or function of the warships isn’t dwelt on much, but Pournelle and Niven sought out physicist Dan Alderson to help them develop a scientifically acceptable interstellar drive system – known ever since as the Alderson Drive. During interplanetary cruises, the acceleration g-forces are accordingly brutal.

The aliens, the Moties, are fascinating, especially in the context of Star Trek, less than ten years over when this was written. One feature I’ve rarely if ever seen is that they’re physically asymmetrical! Their physiological strangness is artfully used to inform their psychology and their politics and history to create layers of mystery for the human characters to unravel.

It’s been brought to my attention that Mote in God’s Eye has a sequel, and the whole thing takes place within a larger fictional universe Pournelle created – the CoDominium, so called – and there are more developments promised between humanity and Moties. Given the tought slog I had with this book, I don’t think I’m in a hurry to read it. What is here, however, is quite intriguing. You can tell this was conceived and written in course of the Cold War. The Imperial Admiral riding herd on Captain Blaine is a more than a trifle paranoid about the Moties. The Empire’s government in general is all about assessing the potential threat of the Moties and nuking them into extinction isn’t off the table in case things go badly.

That said, the politics are portrayed pretty even-handedly, if a bit bleakly. Exterminating the Moties is written off more for PR reasons than moral ones. But trade with them is weighed against possible harm to their economy or the chance they might trade with seccessionist worlds. The Moties have a similar set of agendas and strategies to work through at their end. Realpolitik, in other words. It’s perhaps not particularly uplifting, but moderate and realistic, without pushing any political screed from the authors.

I can well understand why the Mote in God’s Eye is a classic, and I like exploring the pedigree of favourite stories of mine, so for all the difficulty I experienced getting into it, I found it enlightening and satisfying to read. Any sense of flatness to the story is partly it’s being from an old tradition of ideas over action or character, and because I’ve spent so much time admiring the foliage that sprang off this trunk.

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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Book


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Star Trek: Vanguard: Too Little, Too Late

It is difficult to overstate how much of a Trekkie I was as a kid. For kids these days, they start with Harry Potter and work their way through Percy Jackson and the others. For me, as soon as I was done with Redwall I made a beeline for Star Trek novels.

The Star Trek television series has spun off into a vast range of novels and comics, telling further adventures of the various crews, telling new stories in the same universe, and in a few cases performing crazy inter-fandom crossovers, including with Doctor Who and X-Men. Really, I couldn’t make this up…

Unlike the Star Wars Expanded Universe, however, Star Trek licensed materials aren’t integrated into one enormous canon – thank heavens – so one can read any of them and not have to worry overmuch about some key detail that was in some other book you know nothing about.

But I’d gone off them years ago. Indeed, as I’ve said before, the current state of Trek has often left me feeling that the whole franchise has had its day and should be laid to rest.

That said, my curiosity was piqued when this article regarding a particular recent Trek novel series happened by, in which the writer, David Mack, eloquently defended his inclusion of a lesbian relationship in the text.

Star Trek made its mark in large part from social commentary, especially in the Original Series. But as popular sensibilities progressed, Trek did an inconsistent job of keeping pace. By the time that LGBT rights arose as the next important social cause the franchise seemed to lose its nerve, and only a halfhearted handful of episodes addressed it, and there were no gay main characters in any series.

So I was intrigued to investigate this work that might have outdone the shows.

The first book in the series

Star Trek: Vanguard is a hexology taking place in the Taurus Reach – or the Gonmog Sector or the Shedai Sector depending on who you’re talking to – an unexplored region of space bordered by the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Tholian Assembly. The Federation and the Klingons are in a tense race to claim as many new planets as possible. The Tholians, meanwhile, are getting leery at both but also don’t seem to want to claim the region themselves. They fear something in the Taurus Reach, an ancient power from their earliest history, which explorations by the Klingons and the Federation threatens to unleash.

One of the things that originally put me off Star Trek novels was the matter of voice: I’ve read few that, to my taste, convincingly capture the mode of speech of the characters. A lot of the time, all of the characters ‘sound’ the same, and just dispense exposition to each other.

The Vanguard series takes place, mostly, on Starbase 47, or Vanguard Station, the space station that is Starfleet’s main post in the Taurus Reach. The crew of the Enterprise only appears briefly to ‘hand off’ the story to a new crop of characters, giving the authors freedom to invent new voices.

Vanguard is duly populated by a huge cast: Commodore Reyes, the conflicted and secretive commander, his girlfriend and local Starfleet legal eagle, the genially cantakerous Doctor Fisher and his colleague Dr. M’Benga (a one-off character in the Original Series) and the eccentric but sagely Federation ambassador, an alien named Jetanien. There’s also the cold but deeply conflicted Vulcan intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander T’Prynn, and the assets she runs in the Taurus Reach: Tim Pennington, the hapless journalist, crusty old smuggler Cervantes Quinn, and Lurqal, known to most as diplomatic attache Anna Sandesjo, a deep cover Klingon spy, who is T’Prynn’s double agent, and her lover. There’s also an Orion crimelord, the ambassadors of the Klingons and the Tholians, a Starfleet archaeologist in charge of chasing down the the mystery of the Reach, and the crews of the starships stationed at Vanguard, and the local Klingon and Tholian commanders who they tangle with out in space. Oh, and the Romulan ship which got a couple of chapters spent on it and then went away again…

The book format allows for a much greater variety of aliens than the shoestring budget of the Original Star Trek. Ambassador Jetanien is the most alien of the main characters, described as somewhat birdlike. While the lack of an EU canon means that every writer has a different way of doing this, the books do a respectable job of lending some nuance to the traditionally somewhat one-note races like the Klingons. They also seem to go out of their way to make the human crew as diverse as possible. The range of starships is also more diverse.

The fact that the action has as much to do with negotiation and investigation as with blowing stuff up is very Star Trek. At times it almost reads like procedural fiction. The story of peril on the frontiers of discovery is classic Trek, and the hidden danger somewhat Lovecraftian.

The character drama is what it’s mostly about. The overriding theme that jumps out at me is the impact of responsibility on one’s personal health and morals: it threatens to break some characters, like Reyes and T’Prynn, but elevates others, like Quinn and Pennington. Their suffering, their thought processes, all make the story go.

Regrettably, while it has much thematic and storytelling merit, it also suffers from a number of drawbacks. A lot of them are fairly normal Star Trek ones. The starship du jour in Trek is always the only one in the area. You’d think that Vanguard, given what a hot potato it is, would have more starships on hand. I think it wouldn’t have killed them to sit down and some up with some numbers to explain why Starfleet is always this stretched.

Given the fact that canon isn’t all that big a deal, I also found it faintly annoying that they felt the need (taking their cue, I believe, from a late episode of Enterprise) to spend any length of time contriving an in-Universe explanation for the change in appearance of the Klingons between the Original Series and the rest of the franchise. Don’t bother. We fans know it was just because of how little money the show had, and the limits in the technology. Just pick which look you want to use. It’s fine, we’ll go with it…

The other specifically Star Trek problem it has is being subject to many hands. The first and third books are written by David Mack, but the second was written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Mack’s writing style, while prone to purple prose at times (‘the sting of love’ and similar phrasing), is much clearer. I can barely remember anything about the middle book, Summon the Thunder, because the prose was so thick. Similarly, I sometimes had to cast odd looks at the editing. One remark is made about not being ‘oblivious of peril’ whereas I usually see it as ‘oblivious to peril.’ You also usually type a ship’s name in italics, as in starship Enterprise, but in these books they persist in writing it Starship Enterprise, as if that were the full name. You wouldn’t write Aircraft Carrier Lexington or Battleship Potemkin. Okay, bad example…

Having gotten halfway through the series though, most of all it seems too dense. There’s actually too many characters, and in a few cases some are introduced, given backgrounds and relationships and then have nothing done with them, as in the case of the Romulan crew who show up for a few chapters and then evaporate again. In a lot more cases, they needed to try harder to pick distinctive, punchy names so I don’t lose track of who’s who. Some of them are way more interesting than others for me, but whichever ones you favour, it’s difficult to get enough of those ones, and when some of them don’t seem to go anywhere, it stretches one’s patience. Say what you want about David Weber or Jim Butcher, they may bang on a bit but stuff can usually be counted on to happen.

As far as the character drama goes, my gripes with that might be partly my own fault. The publicity arising from including a same-sex couple led me to think it would be a main part of the story, and I probably got myself excited about it.

No, not like that! Still, it is hard not to get cynical about the fact that if a male sci-fi writer – and I do not except myself in this – is going to break with the herd and put in a same-sex relationship, he chooses a lesbian one. It might be thought safer, or maybe writing attraction to a woman, even in another woman character, is easier for a hetero male writer. Then again, arguably Star Trek’s greatest weakness was that it could never reconcile its mandate of social commentary with its fondness for cleavage.
Part of T’Prynn’s background is a condition, rooted in a sort of telepathic injury, that denies her the “release of Pon Farr,” the Vulcan mating cycle, and the resulting emotional turmoil (Vulcans are all cool and logical, of course, but it is something they have to work at) is part of what drives her shared passion with Lurqal. When it was first introduced in the TOS episode Amok Time, Pon Farr happened to male Vulcans, but that gradually got retconned in the name of sexy fanservice.

For what it’s worth though, it isn’t belaboured for titillation. The story cuts tastefully away when things are about to get steamy. There’s some pillow talk and commitment angst between T’Prynn and Lurqal, but the story isn’t littered with explicit love scenes.

But for my money, the relationship isn’t explored much either. We don’t learn how they met, or how their relationship evolved, or what it is exactly that they see in each other. Call me crazy, but I was hoping for an actual love story. I was particularly looking forward to a study in the interplay between love and logic in the Vulcan psyche. I freely admit that I would have been drawn to the sexy aspects, but even that would have been better for being portrayed respectfully between well-written and interesting characters.

The worst of it is, just as their personal and professional relationships reach a crisis, out of the blue, a SPOILER happens: Lurqal is killed off.

It was disappointing because the character development they’d had until then seemed suddenly for nought. But it also played into a dynamic that it disappointed me to see the writers succumb to: Tropers call it the ‘Bury Your Gays’ cliche. The way gay couples, for whatever reason, are seldom allowed happy endings, or indeed lives: Silhouette and her girlfriend in Watchmen, Tara and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrrell in Game of Thrones, or the lesbian couple in that one episode of House, where they had to sacrifice one newborn baby to save the other, and of course the hetero couple’s baby is the one that lives, the pattern is alarmingly consistent.

Like I once said about the ‘Women in Refrigerators‘ dynamic, it isn’t that this one instance is objectionable (although I think it is) so much as that the regularity with which it happens is…really quite creepy. You were doing so well there for a while, Mr. Mack.

I suspect that I won’t be seeking out the rest of the series. They have so much going on, but it all turns into white noise. If they’d streamlined the subplots, and maybe got one writer committed to the whole thing, it would have been much more accessible and engaging. In the end, it’s trying to be a political thriller, a military sci-fi, a buddy comedy and a star-crossed romance all at once and doesn’t do any of them justice. The dialogue is pretty decent, the mystery intriguing, the characters well-written, but they’re crowded in too tight, and the one thing that set the story apart in terms of pushing old boundaries ends up fizzling out.

Star Trek, it was nice to meet up for old time’s sake, but the fire’s just gone out…

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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in Book


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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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Star Trek II, III and IV: Holiday Retrospectives Part 6

I wasn’t kidding when I said that I’ve been a Trekkie for about as long as I’ve been able to walk. My parents are both fans, and I was born the year Star Trek: the Next Generation started. And like a lot of people in the 1980s I was very keen on the movies.

The Original Star Trek took a while to gather momentum into the phenomenon it is today, so it wasn’t until 1979 that Captain Kirk et al returned to prominence by way of movies. Altogether they appeared in six of them, but the ones that most people remember, and the ones that I grew up with, were the informal trilogy of II, III, and IV, entitled the Wrath of Khan, the Search for Spock, and the Voyage Home, respectively.

Everyone knows by now that Wrath of Khan was the movie that Into Darkness was ripping off. It was a stab at a comeback after Star Trek: the Motion Picture flopped – critically, and deservedly – and represented the arrival of Nicholas Meyer, a newcomer to Star Trek, as director and writer.


In Wrath of Khan, Kirk is an Admiral, and chafing at the administrative inactivity of the position when it’s in his nature to, as Dr. McCoy puts it, “be out there hopping galaxies.” It becomes that much more poignant when he arrives for an inspection tour on a training cruise for new officers, aboard the Enterprise, under Spock’s command.

At the same time, Chekhov, also late of the Enterprise, is on an expedition searching for a totally lifeless planet as part of a scientific project called Genesis. When he goes to the surface of one to check an ambiguous reading, Chekhov is horrified to realize that he’s wandered right into the clutches of Khan, the genetically engineered warlord, a fugitive by way of cryogenic preservation from war-torn 20th Century Earth, who once tried to seize the Enterprise, only to be defeated and marooned – events which formed the Original Series episode “Space Seed.”

He uses a local parasite to gain control of Chekhov, and then learns of Genesis and where he can find Kirk, to get power and revenge for his exile. It turns out that Genesis is a new system for terraforming dead planets instantly into garden worlds. The problem is that if used on a planet with life already present, it becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Kirk has to race to stop Khan gaining control of Genesis and destroying his ship and crew, taking horrible casualties in the process.

The movie deconstructs Kirk’s traditional devil-may-care style of leadership, showing the cost in character and lives it can carry. And the cost is high. As everybody probably also knows, this is the one where Spock dies. With the weight of decades of their friendship in popular culture, it was enough to make people weep in the theatres.

While the situation leading to Khan’s escape is a bit of a stretch (surely lifeless planets can’t be that hard to find), the thematic elements are highly complex and powerful. The writing is excellent, and the special effects the pinnacle of the days (which I sometimes miss) when model photography was the normal method. It brought back all the old cast, including Ricardo Montalban as Khan, and introduced Kirstie Alley to movie audiences as Spock’s protege, Lt. Savvik, who serves as a useful foil for the old crowd.

It’s important to remember that in those days, every Star Trek movie produced was made for its own sake. There was no assumption that sequels would be made. So it was probably a bit out of left field for the gang to be called up for another one: Star Trek III: the Search for Spock.


There’s a funny sort of superstition among Trekkies that odd-numbered Trek movies are never as good as even-numbered ones. And indeed, Star Trek III is a bit silly. I love it, but since this is the specific example of Trek that I started out with, most of it is sentimental.

As the grief-stricken Enterprise limps to Earth, the planet created by the Genesis Device which Khan detonated in a last-ditch attempt to kill Kirk has become a political hot potato for the Federation. Savvik (played by Robin Curtis now) has transferred to a science vessel to explore it.

While Kirk and crew sit idly, after learning the Enterprise is to be scrapped, they are concerned by the illness of Dr. McCoy, who seems to be have been driven round the bend by Spock’s demise. As Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek explains to Kirk, Spock mind-melded with McCoy before he died, leaving a ‘backup copy’ of himself in McCoy’s mind. Apparently, to free McCoy and lay Spock truly to rest, McCoy and Spock’s body must be brought to Vulcan. Trouble is: they buried Spock on the Genesis Planet, and no one but the science team is allowed there. So, for the sake of their friend, Kirk and his comrades steal the Enterprise and go to Genesis. But they’re in for a shock: the Genesis Effect has somehow resurrected Spock’s body, leaving him a gibbering shell, but with a chance to reunite his consciousness with a living body. It will be hard-fought, because the Klingons have gotten wind of the power of Genesis, and want the planet for themselves.

The whole premise has ‘contrived’ hovering over it. The conjuration of a means to bring Spock back was at least vaguely hinted at in Wrath of Khan; exactly why the Klingons need to go to Genesis is a bit unclear, as is why they needed Spock’s body even before they knew that Genesis would regenerate him. The end of Kirk’s long-lost-son arc from Wrath is kind of cheap. But as with Wrath, the saving grace of the movie is its thematic meaning. For all the hoops they had to jump through, the writers made Search a counterpoint to its predecessor. The phrase that bookends Wrath of Khan is Spock’s remark that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It summarizes the reasons of Spock’s sacrifice and Kirk’s acceptance of his own responsibilities as a leader. In Search for Spock, though, he counters with “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many,” the team’s responsibility to each member. If the basic message of Wrath was ‘one for all,’ then Search’s was ‘all for one.’ The basic moments of friendship, especially Spock’s return and McCoy’s remark to him that “it seems I’ve missed you,” are heartwarming and classic, not something you’d hear in this era of ‘bromance.’ The action sequences are tons of fun too. It also marked a few milestones, including the first extensive showcase of the Klingon language, the first of many appearances of the Klingon Bird of Prey (to this hour, I submit, the coolest spaceship ever imagined), the appearance of a fantastically hammy Klingon played by Christopher “1.21 Gigawatts” Lloyd, and Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut.

The funny thing about Star Trek III is that it was billed as “the last voyage of the starship Enterprise.” As I said, they didn’t assume they’d be making any more. Mind you, it was technically true: the Enterprise itself didn’t survive the movie.

Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home finds Kirk and crew still on Vulcan, having chosen to return, by way of the Klingon vessel they seized in Search for Spock, to Earth and face the music for their actions. Spock, still not fully recovered from his experience, rejoins them for this last voyage.


But Earth is abruptly cut off when an alien probe of enormous power arrives, sending out a thunderous but incomprehensible transmission that cripples every ship, station or planetary infrastructure around it, and starts vaporizing Earth’s oceans.

Kirk and his anxious crew are stymied, but Spock realizes that the probe might not be trying to talk to humans. He’s right: the transmission is actually in the song of humpback whales. Trouble is, they’re extinct in the 23rd Century. To talk the probe down, they’d need actual whales to understand what it’s saying. With no other option to hand, they decide to risk travelling in time to the 20th Century and get some.

So, yes, this is the one where they save the whales. A lot of people seem to regard that as the biggest joke Star Trek ever played on itself. I don’t understand why. Saving whales is good, isn’t it? And the time-travel technique they use was well-established in the Original Series. Plus, it was a fresh formula after the Enterprise vs. Bad Guy setup of the last two. Regardless, it is true that Star Trek IV is written as more of a comedy. This was customary all through the pre-reboot film canon; Star Trek movies cycle between dramatic and lighthearted every other movie or so.

They arrive in 1980s San Francisco, hide their stealthed Klingon ship in Golden Gate Park, and Kirk and Spock make the acquaintance of the marine biologist who is responsible for the only two humpbacks in captivity. Meanwhile Chekhov and Uhura have to try and jump-start their ship’s engine by breaking into a nuclear reactor (oddly enough the one aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise) and Scotty, Sulu and McCoy have to get into the good graces of a Plexiglas manufacturer in order to convert their ship into a flying aquarium. Wackiness ensues.

The degree of cultural disconnect between the 20th and 23rd Centuries is the root of a lot of the humour; the fact that our heores don’t use money (“I’ll give you one hundred dollars.” “Is that a lot?”) or Scotty trying to give voice commands to an early Apple MacIntosh (through the mouse, no less) or their tenuous grasp of the colloquial idiom (“Double dumb-ass on you!”). The one everyone (especially J.J. Abrams) remembers is Chekhov asking the way to the ‘nuclear wessels.’ Funny thing is, it isn’t his Russian accent that’s the joke: it’s that he’s a Russian in 1980s America asking the way to the United States nuclear navy.

I have an on-again off-again fondness for farce comedy, so I can see how some people might not have much patience with it. It’s interesting insofar as this movie has a lot more conversational dialogue, rather than the “Captain, sensors are picking up such-and-such” material Trek usually deals in. The coolness of humpback whales is sold quite well by the movie, and indeed, they had the co-discoverer of whale song on the crew: Roger Payne.

Except for a brush with a whaling ship, there’s no villain per se in the movie, but the end, as they struggle to get the whales free and clear to call the probe off is nevertheless very suspenseful. Spock’s ongoing recovery is both plot relevant and rather charming and funny (“Spock, where the hell’s the power you promised me?” “One damn minute, Admiral”). The camaraderie of the crew is strong as ever and it’s all wrapped up with a feel-good ending promising further adventures.

The three movies form a trilogy within the Star Trek film canon, based on Meyer’s and Bennett’s vision of it being very much Horatio Hornblower in space, and Leonard Nimoy’s long-standing acquaintance with the show, its characters and its themes. They were in many respects more grounded than the Original Series or the Motion Picture, and I find them the most aesthetically compelling Trek production prior to Deep Space Nine. James Horner’s soundtracks for II and III are absolutely fantastic (he’s a major reason why the ‘stealing the Enterprise sequence is so exhilarating), and the special effects represent Industrial Light and Magic in their prime. For a lot of people this was the high point of the Original Star Trek cast, if not Star Trek generally. And despite what everyone thinks of Star Trek, and William Shatner particularly, the acting is top game all round.

Happy New Year, and Live Long and Prosper

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Posted by on December 30, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Movie


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Day of the Doctor: A Day of Disservice

It probably speaks volumes about the 1960s, the number of intellectual properties having 50th anniversaries these days. James Bond just had one, Star Trek’s is a few years off. And speaking of Star Trek, we’ve just rung in 50 years of Trek’s counterpart from across the pond, Doctor Who, celebrated by way of the television special “Day of the Doctor.”


Mr. Hurt, always a pleasure to see you, but how did you get in here?

Since the 2005 reboot of the classic British sci-fi adventure series, the series has been operating under an overarching backstory: the Doctor is the sole survivor of his people, the Time Lords, having been forced to resort to drastic means to defeat their enemies in the Great Time War, the Daleks, defeating them (although heaven knows that hasn’t slowed them down any) but taking the Time Lords with them. The Doctor’s character arc across his last three (four?) incarnations has been driven in part by trying to come to terms with and atone for that act.

Now we flash back to that moment. When the Doctor is preparing the intelligent weapon of mass destruction to do the deed, he is invited by the weapon’s consciousness to encounter two of his future selves (the two most recent Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith) to help him learn the impact on himself of this action.

The other two Doctors are each engaged in their own adventures. Eleven and his companion Clara are studying a mysterious painting that depicts his lost homeworld of Gallifrey. Ten is romancing Queen Elizabeth I, who he suspects (partly correctly) of being an alien impostor.

The three Doctors are thrown together, and have to fight a plot by the Zygons, a long-ago enemy of the Doctor whose world was collateral damage in the Time War, to seize the Earth by invading it through time travel, and capture the 21st Century British government’s stash of dangerous alien salvage.

At the end of it, the three Doctors return to the moment of the end of the Time War, and come up with a new solution to preserve Gallifrey, albeit at the cost of making it vanish to places unknown, with the combined effort of all the Doctors, past, present and future, and letting the war-era Doctor rediscover who he is, was, and will be. The Doctor has a new quest to rediscover his homeworld, and new hope after long years of loneliness.

“Day of the Doctor” was played up as being a supreme, game-changing moment for the character, and for the show under the stewardship of Steven Moffat, formerly a principle writer for the show and also creator of Sherlock.

Now, full disclosure, I followed the series up til the first few episodes of Smith’s run, and much else that I’ve learned about the show on Moffat’s watch is second-hand from friends and critics, and what I can extrapolate from the Russell T. Davies’ era and episodes written by Moffat during that time. That said, “Day of the Doctor” regrettably seems to confirm a lot of the objections raised about the show under Moffat’s tenure.

If my plot summary above seems a bit vague and jumbled, it’s reflective of my own attempts to follow what’s going on. The great motto of modern Doctor Who is ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey,’ for the occasions when the mental acrobatics of keeping track of time travel begin to get hard to process. Actually, in fairness, the plot isn’t that intricate. It’s more a case of being unable to see the trees for the forest, you might say.

Modern Who was, naturally, brought about and fostered by fans. That in itself is no indictment, but it does carry an element of risk: that the creators’ adoration for their source material will override their good judgement with regards to storytelling. This is, after all, where the stereotypical low-grade image of fanfiction springs from.

And unfortunately this impulse, poorly-restrained, is evident here, and I’ve noticed in places during Tennant’s run, and increasingly through what I’ve seen of Smith: the characters don’t talk like people speaking to other people. They talk like all the dialogue – all of it – was written as potential material for trailers.

Ten at one point runs across what he thinks is an alien in disguise (it turns out to be a harmless bunny rabbit) and declares himself thusly:

“Whatever you’ve got planned, forget it. I’m The Doctor. I’m 904 years-old. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m The Oncoming Storm, the Bringer Of Darkness…”

I know this was meant as a comedic aside, but really, who talks like that? Certainly not the Doctor I know.

Over the course of episodes I’ve seen prior to this, the Doctor has become increasingly boastful about his own epicness, when other characters aren’t proselytizing it instead. John Hurt, as the inexplicable ‘War Doctor’ ends with speaking to his future selves as ‘great men,’ and as charming as they are, I feel like the writer’s opinion of them is a lot higher than their portrayal justifies. It may just be that an elder and venerable actor like John Hurt speaking with such breathtaken admiration to two actors decades younger than himself cannot ring true. While the crossover episodes have a tradition of comic banter between Doctors, I felt like too much time was spent with the three of them sniping at each other at the expense of stuff actually happening.

Don’t get me wrong, Tennant and Smith are great actors and excellent Doctors. Not for no reason did Tennant supplant Tom Baker as everybody’s default image of Doctor Who. But as my Dad observed, a lot of the show seems to be trading on the character’s history to make Tennant and Smith look like the thing the Doctor was always destined to be, which comes across as a bit pompous – something Smith’s first episode did as well, actually.

That said, I do like that the writers make an effort to honour the heritage of the series – contrast to J.J. Abrams’ rendition of Star Trek which spends most of its time making fun of its heritage. This would have been a lot more successful perhaps if the involvement of other Doctors besides Smith, Tennant and Hurt wasn’t so slapdash. Given the short featurette “Night of the Doctor” that preceded it, clearly Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor, who was the one in the Time War) was available. Eccleston (9th) wasn’t, and Tom Baker (4th) appears (which caused me no small amount of glee, since he’s my favourite), and 1-3 are all dead of course, but the others get thrown in somewhat offhandedly, I thought.

And of course the number of them has been causing no end of confusion. This is the thing that really gets on my nerves: Classic Doctor Who, much like the Original Star Trek, was basically a set of characters and a scenario on which you could hang any story that could be adapted to them. The new series has been trying to make it into the kind of multi-episode plot arcs that are expected of television shows today. Which is fine, in principle. Where it runs into trouble, though, is that to run a story like that, especially a sci-fi/fantasy one, you need a canon. Rules. Limits. Doctor Who in its original format had a couple of them, one of which, established as far back as 1980 (Baker’s second-to-last serial the “Keeper of Traken,” if you’re interested) is that Time Lords like the Doctor regenerate 12 times, adding up to 13 lives, and we’ve somehow had another one squeezed in with no acknowledgement of this tradition, and quite of a lot of waffling from the creators about where they’re going with this. But then again, they waffle about where they’re going with everything!

The new series also established that the Time War is ‘time-locked’ making it virtually impossible to time travel into it. And yet, one convenient gadget and some timey-wimey dialogue and poof, suddenly the rules evaporate…

John Hurt is one of my favourite actors, and performs marvelously here, but there’s no reason for him to be here in the first place. Paul McGann would have made more sense, and this way the canon is thrown into disorder for no particular reason, although one suspects it’s because too much money is being made by this series to bear the thought of letting it have an endpoint or closure of any kind. And as thrilled as I was to see Tom Baker again, how did he get there?

Furthermore, the sudden evaporation of the time lock and the conjuration of not one, but two Deus Ex Machina (Machinae? Machinas?) to get around the terrible choice that has, I repeat, informed the Doctor’s character for this entire series, is just careless messing around, not taking the storytelling seriously in the name of making the Doctor look cool.

It’s often joked about Steven Moffat that he keeps killing characters off and then bringing them back again. Now he’s done that with the whole of Gallifrey. How can a series maintain its dramatic tension, its thematic backbone, when a quick burst of technobabble and a convenient gadget put an end to hard choices, to consequences?

I had fun watching “Day of the Doctor:” I’m as attracted to the idea of the Doctor, as moved to hope and joy by that wheezy old lurching sound the TARDIS makes as any other fan. I squealed like a little girl when I heard Tom’s voice, and it was nifty to see the Zygons again. But the series has become the very worst of fanfiction: fawning over the character takes priority over a good or even coherent story, engaging characters, or strong themes.

The finale – the Doctor being given a new direction, a redemption, and an ultimate purpose – is a compelling one, but it’s brought about carelessly. The dialogue is the characters addressing the audience more than each other, the hazy clues and foreshadowing are more frustrating than interesting, and the storytelling is neglected in the interest of inducing as many shallow squees as possible.

A lot of this seems to be representative of the decay of the series at large. Unlike Star Trek, however, I wouldn’t argue that it has expended itself and should be wrapped up. The formula is a lot more open-ended than Trek’s, with endless possibilities. It’s just a pity that it seems to have limited its horizons to showing off and goofing around, under a curtain of constant hype.

Doctor Who has done much to deserve such a long history as it has enjoyed, and I hold out hope for its future.

Or past. This timey-wimey stuff is pretty hard to fathom.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Television


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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Trek

Since I put my cards on the table in my review of J.J. Abrams so-called Star Trek film Into Darkness, I feel that, as a fan, I should explain for those only broadly aware of Star Trek where I’m coming from and how we got here.


Star Trek is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that you can ask someone to draw the starship Enterprise and they probably can even if they can‘t remember ever seeing it. Along with Star Wars and Doctor Who, it is one of the benchmarks of popular science fiction and has a storied history behind it.

In the mid-1960s air force and LAPD veteran Gene Roddenberry presented Paramount with a new, idealistic vision of the future, reflecting both the sky’s-the-limit spirit of its time and the grand adventure of Flash Gordon or Horatio Hornblower.

And so was born Star Trek, which, while the first series had its intended ‘five year mission’ cut short by executives, proved a late bloomer in popularity and has since swelled into a franchise incorporating twelves films, five television shows, and a vast range of paperback novels, comics and video games.

The shows that form the core of it proceeded thusly:


Star Trek: aka Star Trek: the Original Series or TOS was the first, obviously. In the 23rd Century, the Enterprise is a starship of the United Federation of Planets, dedicated to exploring unknown worlds, making contact and forming good relations with alien civilizations. Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock and Doctor McCoy form the core of a diverse team who tackle the dangers and wonders of these discoveries. Often, they play the tense games of a Cold War against the militaristic Klingon Empire.


Star Trek: the Next Generation, or TNG skips ahead 70 years to a new crew on a successor Enterprise, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard to continue the mission of their predecessors, confronting personal conflicts and political puzzles, as well as new tensions with the sly Romulans and fascistic Cardassians, while far beyond the Federation, the implacable Borg Collective threatens sentient life as they know it.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or DS9 overlaps with TNG, taking us to a remote outpost, the space station Deep Space Nine, where world-weary widower Commander Ben Sisko leads the Federation efforts to help reconstruction and integration of the people of Bajor, lately freed from oppressive Cardassian occupation. Selected by the alien energy beings who are as gods to the Bajorans to be their emissary, Sisko pulls together dispirate elements of Bajor, the Federation and the station community to set an example for cooperation, even as a shadowy new power, the Dominion, creeps into their affairs and threatens to make Bajor the centre of a war that will engulf the galaxy.


Star Trek: Voyager features Captain Katherine Janeway of the starship Voyager and her ad hoc crew. Sent in pursuit of a group of anti-Federation colonists, both groups are swept up and carried to the Delta Quadrant, seventy years distance from home. Pooling their resources under Janeway’s leadership, both crews begin to integrate and begin the journey home. As they go, they make new friends, new enemies, fight the Borg on their own turf and challenge the limits of Starfleet ideals as they face these obstacles alone.


Star Trek: Enterprise is a prequel series. Captain Jonathan Archer leads the first crew to go on a mission of exploration. As they do so, they learn the basic principles which will someday drive the Federation, learn to fight and to be at peace as needed, and become the wild cards in a fair few interstellar conspiracies.

The great thing about Star Trek in most every form it took was that it embodied a progressive and positive vision of humanity and its future. This is most obvious in the Original Series, where, among other things you have a crew of senior officers including a Russian, an Asian and a black woman. This seems quaint now but at the time their mere presence was revolutionary. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, was so revolutionary that, when expressing an intent to leave the show, was talked out of doing so by none other than Martin Luther King! Her example inspired Whoopi Goldberg (who famously screamed to her entire household ‘come quick! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!’) to enter acting. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, likewise took inspiration from Uhura.

TOS and TNG both used analogies for current poltical issues like the Cold War, displaced peoples, cultural meddling and personal liberties. These dilemmas were almost never a case of shooting the bad guy. Wits, not weapons, were the choice tools for many situations. When fighting did take place, it was usually when no other choice was at hand (although it might explain why Trek battles often seemed dreadfully stilted). TOS episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battelfield,” “Errand of Mercy,” “Day of the Dove” and “Balance of Terror” are among my favourites and all cover different angles on this.

The sad thing about TOS, alas, is that all anybody remembers about it is stuff like this:

TOS was born in the midst of 60’s camp culture, and a lot of the ways it tells its stories arouse contempt today. A principle gripe I, my fellow WordPress blogger Lady Geek Girl, and others hold is that Abrams’ films seem to be building on the pop-culture stereotype of Star Trek, not on actual Star Trek.

Enjoy or ignore the camp as you please, but you can reliably find the point they were trying to make about peaceful coexistence, futility of conflict, or any of the other Star Trek morals. From a historical perspective, it’s now a fascinating look into the culture and ideas of the period it came from. Crucially, the friendship dynamic of Kirk, Spock and McCoy carried the series through deep analysis of what being human meant, a dynamic recreated time and again in later series.

TNG brought things up into the 80s-90s and continued the tradition of challenging and cautionary tales, interspersed with rollicking adventure and comic relief. The concept of the Prime Directive of non-interference was brought to the fore and used to create a moral dilemma that resonates with a globalizing world to this day. Whereas TOS lived in a black and white age and was determined to paint some grey on it, TNG explored various shades of grey in a post-Cold War period.

Up to this point, Star Trek was doing well but was in definite danger of stagnation. The series’ episodic structure limited character development and forced a certain shallowness on the setting (although this improved later in TNG). The writing had evolved a lot by the time TNG ended in 1994 but could still be a little pretentious and certain plot-convenience fallbacks like the holodecks were beginning to get a little too frequent. Still, it did introduce Q and the Borg as recurring villains, which drove some of the most memorable stories like “Best of Both Worlds,” and the performances of a well-balanced cast led by Patrick Stewart secured its widely-held status as the best Star Trek series.

Deep Space Nine represented a change toward a darker and more cynical spirit. It started out with a TNG leaning toward political intrigue, and put a twist on by keeping the show in one place and making an ongoing arc. By going out to the Federation’s frontiers, it started deconstructing a lot of the utopian vision of Star Trek, both showing that there must always be exceptions and compromises, and suggesting that the Federation has gotten a bit cocky about its own wonderfulness. DS9’s female characters also achieved new heights. TOS and TNG had tried at that, but a certain chauvinism still haunted them. The fact that Counsellor Troi was arguably TNG’s least-well written (and, for no apparent reason, least-dressed) main character reflects this. While TNG is often regarded as the best series, Deep Space Nine produced a number of Star Trek’s best-regarded episodes.

Its main failing was that its writers, keen to give their show the cutting-edge morals of its predecessors, started tackling religion seriously for the first time, but often muddled it a bit, due to either timidity or ignorance. Still, it had shown the best character development, the dialogue became more naturalistic and it brought in a Captain of colour to Star Trek’s roster.

Voyager had a lot of potential to challenge Federation ideals further, throwing a Starfleet crew and a group of rebels together in a near-hopeless situation. It was a series with a million good ideas but a return to episodic format and inconsistent writing kneecapped it almost immediately. When Voyager was good, it was very good, but it wasn’t good often enough. Characterization was either hopelessly static or all over the place. The introduction of the first female captain was undercut because the writers couldn’t get straight what kind of person she was. Her actress, Kate Mulgrew, has remarked that she often thought Janeway seemed to be mentally unstable. Several other actors in the series also voiced dissatisfaction with the writing. The aliens encountered got quite bland after a while, and the Borg, once the shadowy menace from beyond, devolved into a common and easily-evaded nuisance. The introduction of Seven of Nine, a liberated Borg, represented a new exploration of the human condition in the tradition of Spock and Data, but it kept getting snarled up in the agenda of showing off the actress’s cleavage.

I didn’t stick with Enterprise for long. After four previous series it seemed very by-the-numbers; the Captain had gone back to being an all-American white guy and a few quite interesting stories early-on were outnumbered by numerous frantic attempts to recapture the glory days, goofing around or playing to the cleavage-seekers. It got worse when the second season introduced a massive attack on Earth and our heroes rush off into the galaxy to seek the evildoers. This was a couple of years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, keeping in line with the popular spirit of the times. But Star Trek is supposed to examine and even subvert the popular spirit. After an attempt to reinvent itself, Enterprise quietly passed away.

In fairness to those who thought Trek a bit tacky, some signs of rot were showing early on. Being the work of many hands, Star Trek had trouble staying consistent. In world-building details like the exact logic of the Prime Directive, the cultural minutiae of the Vulcans or Klingons, and how exactly Federation society and Starfleet protocol work, the writers couldn’t seem to make up their minds. TNG started to show the first signs of pushing morals that the story writers didn’t think through properly, or else were ham-fistedly executed. Increasing reliance on techno babble and recycled plots like holodeck and transporter malfunctions began to look pretty absurd, and there‘s only so many times you can do aliens who look exactly like humans with weird foreheads. Oh and I might add, civilian clothing in Star Trek always looks bloody ridiculous. With Enterprise they even started ignoring their own canon and coming up with events that didn’t gel with the other series.

And sadly, after a while, the commentary at the heart of Star Trek started to fizzle. The marketing image of a sci-fi fan as a sexually repressed male meant that profound stories of the human condition occupied the same space as a lot of fan service, the plots and morals started to repeat themselves to the point of meaninglessness, and TNG, DS9 and Enterprise brushed up against LGBT issues but never seemed to work up the nerve to tackle them head-on.

I stand by what I said before, that the Star Trek reboot is futile if it doesn’t maintain the franchise’s original mission statement; let me amend by saying that I think rebooting Star Trek is futile anyway. It’s not because Star Trek isn’t worth it. It’s because Star Trek is over. It’s run its course. There’s no place left to boldly go. It did great and memorable things but eventually ran out of steam. Anything it couldn’t do (or didn’t do properly) has been left to others. A lot of the potential Voyager in particular had was achieved later by shows like Farscape and Firefly.

I love Star Trek. I miss the days when an optimistic vision of the future was the going thing. But it told its stories, it made its mark. Rather than trying to resurrect it incompletely, better to remember it for everything that made it a classic and bid it a respectful farewell.

“I have been, and ever shall be your friend. Live Long, and Prosper.”

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Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television


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