TV Reviews Archive

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First Impressions: Killjoys

Yeah, I know. I’m reviewing summer television as if it was something someone put an ounce of actual, honest, thought into writing. Here’s the thing, boys and girls, I’m in a weird headspace of hating pretty much everything I write lately. The situation is not improved by the fact that I was approached by, and rejected, yet another writing gig where they liked my work but couldn’t afford to pay me. I’m left feeling wholly mediocre as a writer and contemplating if all of my “success” isn’t a pile of self-delusion. Until such time as I can write myself out of wondering what the point of me is as a writer, I’m going to let the world lob some softballs across my plate.

Now who wants to see me sock a few dingers?

 

If I could summarize Killjoys’ first hour in two words, I would use the words below average. The episode’s first act had some great momentum, but it quickly fell flat on its face. Part of this stumble is due to the writing’s refusal to trust the audience to figure out the in medias res cold opening. With the initial gusto of bounty hunters bringing space criminals to justice – not exactly a brain buster in terms of concept – giving way to back peddling and exposition, the episode got stuck in the mud of explaining things I already figured out. Killjoys doesn’t help its cause by offering some stunningly bad expository dialogue. For example, the ominous company that runs the “quad system” is actually called, “The Company”.

Or how about when the bad guy said, “That ship cost me 90,000 joy.”

Are you butt-fucking-kidding me?

Visually, the series looks quintessentially Canadian i.e. cheap. I haven’t seen this many green screen shots since Attack of the Clones. Likewise, the CG is on par with what one might expect from the early 2000s. When we are finally treated to some physical props and sets, the frame is usually jumbled with literal garbage. I’m not sure what sort of aesthetic the series is playing at beyond, the future looks like wherever we could get permits to film.

Add to this, Killjoys suffers from some truly terrible camera work. It’s as if the cinematographer and director, fresh out of their first year of film school, set out to capture the style of House of Cards. Alas, their attempts to be artful with the camera are weird and alienating. The style makes me acutely aware of the fact I’m watching a show that insists on trying too hard. Heaping insult upon injury, Killjoys embraces a love of J.J. Abrams’ go to move: lens flare. So much lens flare. Haven’t we moved past the age of lens flare being a cool? I thought Star Trek Into Darkness represented peak lens flare.

The really sad part about writing this review is it puts me in a place to take a steaming dump on a series featuring a “strong female characterTM” who also appears to be a person of colour. For bonus points, series lead Hannah John-Kamen is playing a character who isn’t a sex object.

Televised science fiction is notoriously bad at putting women in command roles. I salute Killjoys for being progressive, but good casting doesn’t mean I’m going to give poor writing and lousy technical values a pass. So help me I’ve seen dozens of web series with a better eye for production than Killjoys.

After one hour, the only thing the series seems to do well is convincing me it is set in an interesting world. There’s is a lot going on in the background of Killjoys, but the pilot episode hasn’t filled me with confidence in its ability to make the most of that world. Moreover, I doubt Killjoys has the chops to do well in the areas where it is wholly derivative of other works. Said works include Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, Space Rangers, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Midnight Run, The Chronicles of Riddick, Freelancer, Wing Commander: Privateer, Hyper Police, and Battletech.

Out of the gate, Killjoys is a below average affair. It presents as the Jim Belushi of science fiction. It is common, run-of-the-mill, and rather uninspired. Though it is clearly taking its queues from the likes of Firefly, Killjoys doesn’t seem to be doing much more than the likes of Starhunter, yet another crappy Canadian science fiction show about space bounty hunters. Does nothing else happen in space?


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That scene from Sunday’s Game of Thrones

Because there aren’t enough people talking about Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, I am going to offer up my two cents on the subject.

There’s no shortage of people crying foul on Game of Thrones for what amounts to a rape scene between Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) witnessed by Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). At this time I want to make clear that I’m not here to talk about trigger warnings, rape culture, sexpositioning, or anything else of the sort.

For the record, I see the entire spectrum of human joy and misery as fair game for art. Full stop. Anything less than a universal approach to art amounts to censorship. This doesn’t mean everything should be respected as good art. To wit, I submit Game of Thrones wasted an incredibly powerful scene on the back of lazy writing and poor narrative choices.

Consider these three points:

Point 1: We already know Ramsay Bolton is a shitstick. Between the writing and Iwan Rheon’s pitch-perfect portrayal of a monstrous human being, the point is sold. He hunts people for sport. He feeds his ex-lovers to dogs. He revels in flaying people alive and cutting off extremities e.g. Theon Greyjoy’s cock. Does having him take Sansa in a forceful way add anything new to his character? I think not. It only piles on what we already know while spending a very expensive coin for what I see as little return on investment.

Point 2: If the scene is meant to be a preamble to “How Sansa got her Groove Back” it is a lazy and short-sighted maneuver on the part of the writers. The on-screen moment that drove Theon Greyjoy to tears is unlikely to be a one-off – unless the next episode opens on Sansa cutting Ramsay’s throat. In which case, I’ve completely misread things and much of this post is wrong.

Given Ramsay’s appetites, Sansa will have to endure the indignity of his company many times. How will Sansa go about reclaiming the initiative after being repeatedly violated by Ramsay Bolton? Are we to presume it won’t damage her physically and mentally? I don’t know anything about being a rape survivor, but I suspect “getting over it” in the name of revenge is a little far-fetched, unless one happens to be Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

Point 3: If the rape scene is meant to be a preamble to “How Theon got his Groove Back” then it’s the worst sort of pedestrian trash. It effectively sends a raven message that the writers are willing to sacrifice Sansa’s agency to give Theon, a literally emasculated character, a path to reclaiming his manly virtue. He would become the archetypal prince saving the princess from her evil husband. I could not imagine a more listless narrative course.

The offending scene, and all its subtext, as I see it, leaves the writers with one of two outcomes for moving forward with Sansa’s arc. On the one hand, Sansa could collapse into her own mind. This figuratively kills the powerful woman we’ve seen to date in this season, and sets up Theon as a redemptive figure. Alternatively, Sansa could channel some Kill Bill energy. Try as I might, I don’t think I will be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept this outcome without some serious and traumatic follow-up for Sansa. To do less would be to devalue the powerful scene between these three characters as little more than an exercise in raising the stakes and reminding the audience of Ramsay Bolton’s nature as a shitstick.

I’ll concede this scene may have needed to happen the way it happened for reasons that will become clearer in the future. At the same time, I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. I’m more than capable of imagining alternatives to “and then he raped her” writing. In the short term, and in light of some relatively weak writing in season three and four, I’m disinclined from believing the writers are building up to something I can’t see coming. That being the case, I don’t think anything coming down the pipe is so brilliant it needed to be built on the back of a rape scene – notwithstanding Sansa killing Ramsay in his sleep on their wedding night as a reflex to his actions.

To reiterate, I don’t think this episode makes Game of Thrones “bad” for hosting a rape scene. I am not offended by what happened on screen. As a critic, I do question what I see as a poor use of a powerful moment to utterly predictable ends.


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TV Review: Community Season 6, Episodes 1-8

You know what’s funny (read: sad)? I spent an hour dicking around on the internet between writing this paragraph and opening Word to craft this review. How have I reached undergraduate levels of time wasting? Simply put, I don’t know that I have a lot of good things to say about the first two-thirds of Community’s sixth season.

Every Tuesday morning I wake up with the giddy anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. And every Tuesday night I find myself wondering why I the episode didn’t make me laugh. It would be unfair to invoke gas leak comparisons, at least for right now. I do, however, think the series is trending in that odious direction.

Everything seemed fine with the premiere episode. Even absent Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Chevy Chase, and John Oliver, Ladders felt like classic Community. The episode was screwball, a little meta, and there were no shortage of one-off gags predicated on a mixture of timing and shtick. On the off-chance people were coming to season six without watching the first five seasons, Paget Brewster’s Frankie acted as good straight man to the insanity of Greendale Community College. It wasn’t the best thing ever, but it felt like a nice homecoming.

From that point on, something has consistently felt off about the little series that refused to go quietly into the night. At first, I thought it was me being overly sensitive. Then Britta pooped her pants.

It was the shart heard around the internet.

I understand there’s an inherent challenge to keeping characters fresh (no pun intended) on a long-running series. Since Community revels in shoving the head of pop culture up its own ass, it’s probably harder to write than the average episode of Two and a Half Men. At the same time, I don’t think I’m raising the bar too high to say I expect better than to bear witness to a character soiling herself. Let’s come at this from another angle, does anybody recall Hawkeye shitting himself during the eleven years of the Korean War?

AND JESUS WEPT, yelled Academy Award winner Jim Rash as he portrayed a VR addicted Craig Pelton. Does anybody else remember when the Dean’s tendency to fixate led to a homage of Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness? Now, to borrow a line from Frankie, he’s simply an idiot.

The shit list goes on…

Abed un-ironically yelled “Bazinga” before popping out of a pile of Frisbees.

Honda revisited the Subway gag by turning an entire episode of Community into a commercial.

Chang did a pretty spot-on impression of Pat Morita but reduced the most historically and emotionally resonant scene of The Karate Kid to a farce.

Annie shows up to pout and show cleavage.

I was inclined to let much of this laziness slide until I noticed something utterly damning in Intro to Recycled Cinema. See if you can spot the problem in this picture.

Doctor Who? DOCTOR WHO? DOCTOR WHO!

What in the name of Lucifer’s beard is Doctor Who doing in Community? There’s no such thing as Doctor Who in Community. There’s Inspector Spacetime. You know this. I know this. Hell, I had Travis Richey aka Inspector Spacetime on the podcast a couple years ago. We talked for an hour and a half. And I swear to Gozer I will drive to LA and give Dan Harmon such a telling off if it turns out this season was set in one of the other realities.

The common thread between episodes is no longer a love of pop culture commentary or a series of comically depressing voyages into human dysfunction. Now we’re dealing with sight gags that end up getting explained and conflicts that don’t even deserve a Winger speech. When all else fails, Chang acts like a head case. Whatever pop culture references do manage to make their way into the writing don’t have any purpose.

Remember when Danny Pudy’s Abed was playing space invaders and Paul F. Tompkins walked up to him and said he should slow down or else the Rylans would recruit him to fight the Ko’Dan armada? In about 20 seconds of dialogue the audience goes from Asteroids to The Last Starfighter to Farscape. While some people might write off the mile a minute references as inherently lazy, they do serve a purpose. Both Starfighter and Farscape are about characters who don’t fit in where they are. Alex Rogan and John Crichton have to confront becoming someone else to fit in at the place they really want to be. These twenty seconds of pop culture references serve to reinforce the overarching theme of Mixology Certification: alienation.

I know a few people are reading this and thinking I’ve gone way too deep down the rabbit hole. Should a person have to get this critical to be able to enjoy a TV show? Generally, no. However, this example speaks to the quality of the writing in older seasons of Community. Though deep readings weren’t necessary, they could be done. Granted, people might think me a weirdo for devoting my time to such an exercise, but those looks don’t invalidate my analysis. That is to say, I might be crazy, but I’m not wrong.

Now ask yourself what the current season is doing to facilitate voyages down the rabbit hole? I submit, very little. Try as I might, I can’t even find the rabbit hole in most episodes. So either the metaphors have become so dense even I can’t figure them out – possible, but not likely – or the writing is as remarkably dull and uninspired as it seems.

Perhaps being on the internet has denied Dan Harmon a much needed machine to rage against. Absent the time constraints of network television, he can preside over a thirty-minute episode with impunity. My suspicion is the ability to say everything has come at the cost of showing what’s clever. For a series like Community, the additional creative freedom of the internet might be at odds with the je ne c’est quoi that makes Greeendale tick.

Tl;dr, this is shaping up to be the second-to-worst season of Community.


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TV Review: The Last Man on Earth

The Last Man on Earth has all the trappings of a show I should love.

  • Wanton property destruction? Check.
  • An Omega Man scenario that involves a lot of porn? Check.
  • Will Forte? Check.
  • Phil Lord and Christopher Miller aka the guys behind the Lego Movie and Clone High? Check.

The problem with The Last Man on Earth, and I’ll admit it’s a problem that took me two or three episodes to really notice, is it’s not really funny. I got wrapped up in all the lighting things on fire, smashing things with bowling balls, and physical one-off gags. These things are gimmicks, and out of the gate I confused gimmickry with comedy.

Beyond the slapstick, I soon reconciled myself with conceptual distance between Will Forte’s Phil Miller and Will Forte’s Abe Lincoln from Clone High. Though they sound the same, Abe was at least redeemable. Phil Miller is simply a terrible human being – a terrible human being who used up all the good “last man on Earth” shtick in the series’ first episode. As I mused on the seeming impossibility of managing a half-season of the Will Forte one man show, Kristen Schaal’s character, Carol, entered the fray.

For the duration of the second episode, the awkward but awesome Schaal charm seemed to work. This is to say it worked until I realized every joke in the second episode was at Carol’s expense.

Carol is pedantic, fussy, and wants to get married on the first date (because women and getting married, right?). She’s anti-Phil’s porn collection (because woman and porn, right?) and pro-repopulating the Earth because…god. One might think the latter could lead to some genuine comedy. Instead, I was treated to a sex scene slightly less awkward than imagining my parents screwing. From said teeth chatteringly bad moment  onward, almost all of the show’s jokes are built around one of two incredibly lazy archetypes: Phil is an oafish asshole, or Carol is really weird and not fun (because women and fun, right?). Really, series creator, Will Forte, that’s the best you’ve got in your arsenal?

Maybe when I was nineteen I would have thought a litany of jokes about the crazy girl being crazy was comic genius. Now, not so much. Now I look at Will Forte’s creation and wonder if it’s Forte, the Fox Network, his writers, or some combination of the above who never managed to move past a late-teenage worldview.

Suffering through episode after episode of The Last Man on Earth has me feeling singularly sorry for Carol having to spend the apocalypse married to the likes of Phil. Moreover, if my pathos is engaged all the time, how exactly am I supposed to shift into wanting to laugh about the end of the world?

When the series isn’t revelling in Phil being utterly awful to Carol, it’s guilty of being painfully obvious. From the arrival of January Jones’ character, Melissa Shart – GET IT, SHE’S ANOTHER WOMAN CHARACTER AND HER LAST NAME IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU POO AND FART – to the coitus interrputus of Todd (Mel Rodriguez), the show is utterly predictable. The jokes are so lazy and the writing so textbook that it’s almost impossible not to see what’s coming down the pipe. I’m certain a potato might be caught off guard by the series’ writing. Alas, most sentient creatures should be able to see through the gambits and charades.

My prediction: Phil ends up alienating everybody in the last enclave of society and leaves Tuscon in the series finale. Then, the first three episodes of the second season will be The Search For the Last Man on Earth. You see, it turns out Phil did a bunch of things off-camera that made their lives better. Only in his absence will the group realize how much they need Phil. Thus, his awful ways will be validated, and the show will return to the status quo.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, I still wanted to believe in The Last Man on Earth. I found myself desperately searching for some evidence of self-awareness in the series. Perhaps it’s being meta. Maybe it’s a commentary on actual gender issues. Could it be Phil’s monstrously selfish behavior is the product of spending two years living on his own, searching for any signs of life in the world and finding only silence? I wanted to give The Last Man on Earth the benefit of the doubt, but each time I did it ended up farting in my face and calling it a joke. I can only take so much wind absent substance – even on a hate watch.

The bottom line is there’s no soul to The Last Man on Earth. Will Forte has created a truly reprehensible character for himself. Kristen Schaal’s talents are utterly wasted on a show that jumped the shark after its first episode. Though set in the not-too-distant-future, the series feels about as fresh as a 1950s “take my wife, please” joke. Of all the things The Last Man on Earth could have been, who knew it would end up as such a crass, unfunny, and mean-spirited exercise in juvenile wanking.

Ah, there’s the meta moment. Phil loves porn and Will Forte has created the ultimate expression in conceptual masturbation. I knew I could shove this show’s head up its own ass. Shaftoe for the win!


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TV Review: Daredevil, Act 1

Courtesy of Netflix and Marvel Television Studios, Matt Murdoch aka Daredevil is the newest entry into the realm of superheroes making the leap from paper to the small screen. Frankly, I could not be happier with this turn of events.

It’s an odd feeling for me. I’m often the first in line to complain about superhero stories taking over everything while offering nothing but cerebral indigestion. Yet the first three episodes of Daredevil, which for the sake of this review I’ll consider to be the series’ first act, gives me something that Agents of SHIELD couldn’t do with an entire season: a reason to give a damn.

Superheroes, despite outward appearances, resonate with their audiences because they are a criticism of the status quo. For example, Steve Rogers is a reminder that America is getting further away from the progressive politics of Roosevelt and closer to the bad-old-days of Herbert Hoover. An audience identifies with Cap because he believes in something greater than the institutions of the current day. This is why I found Agents of SHIELD to be such an alienating concept.

I want a hero story to break my cynicism. It needs to make me believe in some sort of lofty ideal. Gods help us all when our idealism has to look to SHIELD aka the Team America: World Police for nourishment. By comparison, the blind lawyer of Hell’s Kitchen is a spot-on criticism of everything that’s wrong with America while also offering idealism amid the pragmatism of his vigilantism. That’s a lot of ‘isms.

Where the likes of Tony Stark might try to help people in a conceptual sense, all the while living in the lap of luxury, Netflix’s Matt Murdoch wants to help actual people. As “the man in black” – not yet donning the mantle of Daredevil, he fights for the poor and dispossessed people of Hell’s Kitchen. These are the folks who would otherwise be victims of organized crime and the looming gentrification (a side-effect the private sector rebuilding New York in the wake of the Chitauri invasion of The Avengers) of the traditionally working-class Midtown West.

Likewise, Nelson and Murdoch, attorneys at law, mobilize in about twenty minutes the kind of empathy that Michael Clayton took two hours to produce. Amid a culture where the divide between those who benefit from the system and those crushed under its weight is ever-present, the idea of inner-city lawyers fighting the good fight has become even more resonant since Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Bill Everett created the man without fear in 1964. Everything about the introduction to Charlie Cox’s Daredevil pulls at an audience’s desire to see a champion for real people.

In terms of Daredevil’s visual style, the series is a considerable departure from the clean-cut, everything-is-awesome look of the movies. Even when Captain America was in hiding during The Winter Soldier, the film presented a character besotted with all the best assets of society and a high-tech paramilitary organization. In comparison, Daredevil’s costume is, so far, a black shirt, jeans, and a mask. Even armed with his enhanced senses and righteous indignation, Matt Murdoch manages to take as many beatings as he dishes out. Indeed, the second episode begins with “The Man in Black” being tossed, half-dead, into a dumpster.

In some ways the series feels more high-stakes than the rest of the MCU. It’s not like anybody thought Loki might beat the Avengers. The bad guy is not going to win in a summer blockbuster movie. In the case of Daredevil, Wilson Fisk could conceivably triumph despite Matt Murdoch’s best efforts. Murdoch isn’t simply a crime fighter or a symbol for the good people of Gotham, he’s part of a dialogue on the rights of the individual versus the rights of a nation where corporations are people. Beating Wilson Fisk is about bringing down said system. Likewise, Karen Page, played by True Blood alumna Deborah Ann Woll, will only find justice for the crimes that brought her into the offices of Nelson and Murdoch through the idealism of the fifth estate as a watchdog for society. These are not battles easily won.

More so than anything else I’ve seen in the MCU, Daredevil is grounding its story in an all too familiar reality, and underwriting its world with some resonant symbolism and thoughtful ideas. There is a sense of consequence to the slow burn of Daredevil that is absent from most super hero adaptations. Finally, Daredevil is proof that a dark story is not mutually exclusive of an idealistic hero.

Stray thoughts:

  • I don’t normally care about opening title sequences, but this one is amazing.
  • A few people have talked Daredevil going to the well of “women being rescued” a little too often. For now, I’m giving it a pass on that front. These scenes are not about gender-specific helplessness so much as a reflection of the people who are commonly the victims of human trafficking and organized crime.
  • Foggy Nelson’s mother clearly didn’t like him that much to name him Foggy.
  • Only in a comic book universe could a murder charge go to trial and be resolved inside of a week.


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First Impressions of Ascension

In deference to my policy of giving a television series three episodes before putting pen to paper on a review, I won’t go so far as to say if I think SyFy’s Ascension is either good or bad. Bearing in mind this is a six-episode mini-series, I’ll probably watch the whole thing before daring to offer a review. However, I feel no reason to hold back on expressing all the ways Ascension’s premiere episode felt like a terrible first date.

It’s not you, Ascension. It’s me, I don’t like you. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bother seeing you again, but my good friend Battlestar Galactica is telling me I should get to know you a little better.

Sexy sex is sexy, except for when it isn’t sexy.

There’s nothing more un-sexy than the implied nudity and simulated sex of prime time television. Though I left the room a few times to refill my drink, I recall three scenes of grunting and dry humping. As I don’t watch soap operas, I leave it to the internet to tell me if Ascension’s sex to non-sex ratio is in the neighborhood of daytime television.

Sexy sex tells us things about the story.

I suppose Ascension puts half the speaking cast in bed together as a juvenile attempt to show the series’ edge – like a fifteen-year-old who speaks like they are fresh off the set of The Departed. For my part, and in light of exposition telling me the ship’s complement is 600 people, I’m left to ponder if Ascension is crewed by swingers. We should also make note of Tricia Helfer’s character – I can’t be bothered to learn names at this point – running an executive escort service under the guise of ship’s stewardesses. The concept worked so very well in Pan Am, and that’s why the show is still on today, right?

Since Ascension’s narrative motif is modeled after America absent civil rights and second wave feminism, objectification of the female body is presented as standard fare – up to and including a two-girl one-guy threesome. Make no mistake, there’s no subversive commentary during this scene. The series is wanking walking on the knife’s edge of good taste, culminating in a faux-naked Tricia Helfer lifelessly faking an orgasm astride a man old enough to be her father. The whole proceeding lands somewhere between sad and hilarious.

In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Derp.

Here’s the thing about setting a show in space; the more a series bites its thumb at science, the harder I have to work to keep my suspension of disbelief from shattering. With my brain in gear, I’m much more likely to catch the little things a series does wrong. You may call it pedantry, I call it a series failing to keep me in the moment.

We’re told the good ship Ascension was built using 1960s technology, modeled after the Orion engine – a system where controlled nuclear explosions would propel a ship forward. Ascension, however, is built and organized like a skyscraper. The command deck is the penthouse suite, and each floor below it houses some instrumentality of the ships function. Does anybody see where I’m going with this?

There is no way to have gravity on Ascension given the way the ship is built.

Conventional wisdom says rotate the ship along its long axis to make simulated gravity. The crew would then live in a series of concentric rings inside the ship a la Babylon 5. The only other alternative for creating gravity on Ascension would be to have the ship’s engines burning at a constant 1G of thrust for half the journey to Proxima Centuri. The second half of the trip would have Ascensions burning its engines in the opposite direction. Even if nuclear explosions could generate a consistent 1G of thrust – they can’t because NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS - the amount of fissionable material necessary to executive a maneuver like that boggles the mind.

Irrelevant of if details like this matter to an individual viewer, they speak to the depth and complexity invested in the series’ writing. If the creators and writers are content to fly free and loose with the laws of physics, I have no reason to believe they will do any better crafting the murder-mystery that seems to be the only driving force in the show.

Never mention Fallout

To call Ascension unoriginal is to engage in a crime of understatement. Everything, and I mean everything, this show does stems from a better work of science fiction. Therein, a considerable source of inspiration is the video game Fallout.

Fallout posits an alternate timeline where the atomic age brought about a technological evolution through fusion power. It also fixated American culture on the 1950s. Ascension is doing the exact same thing albeit with the 60s. Unlike Fallout, Ascension isn’t giving us any sense of a unique culture emanating from the familiar touch stone. Is it so hard to believe that a closed community would develop and evolve along a new trajectory? Am I to believe the ship’s harem stewardesses, for example, would be content with their lot after half a century of listless banging and putting on pretty clothes? Nonsense.

Humans, even humans removed from Earth, are creatures of story and flux. The ship’s crew would build its own rites, rituals, traditions, and culture. Ascension’s library should be filled to bursting not with the tripe of 20th century pulp fiction, but with two generations of stories, art, and music. The idea that they are somehow stuck in the 60s is as laughable as amusing as the Brendan Fraser movie with the bunker.

Meanwhile on Earth

A dad gives his son a stern talking to about telling someone to “die in a fire” via text message.

“Every message you send contributes to the greater world,” says Father Knows Best.

I wonder, when does a member of GI Joe come out of nowhere to warn me against the dangers of using the stove when my parents aren’t around?

We who are about to watch terrible television, salute you

Rarely does a single hour of television offend my sensibilities so fully and completely. Perhaps Ascension will get better. Certainly, it would have to make an effort to be worse.


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The United Federation of Planets: A City of Pigs, Part 2

Welcome back. In the first part of this series I looked at the absence of contemporary art and culture in Star Trek TOS and TNG. Today, we’ll finish with a review of DS9, Voyager, and (sigh) Enterprise.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Some of you might be thinking that Deep Space Nine proves me wrong about a lack of contemporary culture in Star Trek.

Jake Sisko, for the win, right?

Wrong.

Ask yourself this, what does Jake ever publish? In The Visitor we learn that Jake – playing a Salinger-type recluse – published two books then quit writing because of his obsession with his ghost dad. I submit that since that timeline didn’t happen, those books were never written, and thus don’t count. Instead, our relationship with Jake as a writer is through his work with the Federation News Service.

Say those last three words out loud. Now replace “Federation” with “(Harper) Government of Canada” and see how it sounds. Did you throw up a little in your mouth?

At some point between Voyager’s trip to the 1990s – absent any mention of the Eugenics War – and 2373, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Times of London, the Toronto Star, The Economist, The Atlantic, and every other thoughtful media outlet either disappeared or became irrelevant compared to the broadcast power of the Federation News Service.

Setting that aside for a moment, DS9’s other contributions to Star Trek’s internal culture include the following.

  • Vic Fontane’s 1940s Vegas lounge.
  • O’Brien and Bashir jerking off to military history holosuite programs that include, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Alamo, and the Battle of Thermopylae.
  • Bashir jerking off in the holosuite to an off-brand James Bond.
  • A fixation on darts and baseball – which in and of itself is regarded as a retrograde throwback, possibly due to the fact that there’s no television, radio, or beer in the 24th century.
  • Getting drunk (courtesy of Klingon alcohol), singing, and gambling.

Even on the raggedy edge of Federation space, on a space station that is open to pretty much all the races of the Alpha Quadrant as a port of call, humans show no sign of having a contemporary culture that extends beyond nostalgia for Earth’s past.

There’s also a strikingly prudish and anti-sex attitude emanating from anybody in Starfleet with respect to Quark’s repertoire of holosuite erotica. Quark is seen as a degenerate for offering programs that cater to the notion that there’s a partition between sex for reproduction and sex for recreation. And before somebody tells me that DS9 is a product of its time, considering how attitudes toward sex changed between the 1960s and 1990s. By that measure we might expect that the 2370s to look something like Logan’s Run. DS9 is something of a two-for; it continues the tradition of eschewing an actual contemporary culture for worshipping the 20th century, and as a bonus it casts a very puritanical light over humanity in the 24th century.

Star Trek Voyager

As much as it pains me to say this, sometimes Voyager isn’t the worst Star Trek of them all. Mind you, there is some very terrible story-telling within Voyager’s repertoire. Threshold’s attempt to tell a story about what happens when you travel at warp 10 (spoilers, you have sex with the captain and mutate into a lizard monster) was particularly odious.

One of the series high water marks, in my humble estimation, was Voyager’s season seven episode, Author, Author. While the episode was principally about exploring something non-human (The Doctor) through a human lens, it also gave a rare insight into some contemporary culture in Star Trek: The Doctor’s Photons be Free holonovel.

The holonovel is the Doctor’s attempt to try and shed a light on the fact that sentient holograms are a source of slave labour in the Federation. The Doctor’s work presents art in Star Trek as we see it now: a mechanism for presenting commentary on the contemporary world.

What do we see from the rest of the crew in terms of art?

  • Tom Paris playing Flash Gordon Buck Rogers Captain Proton
  • Tom Paris drinking beer and watching black and white television from the 1930s
  • Captain Janeway’s 19th century bodice ripper
  • A different bodice ripping seaside village in 19th century Ireland
  • Seven of Nine having sex with virtual Chakotay

No one would expect a ship 70,000 light years from home to have access to contemporary culture, but the crew’s choice of filler material is rather telling.

Star Trek Enterprise

Now we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Enterprise is the Ralph Wiggum of Star Trek. Even as it wallowed in the cast away plot lines of its betters, the series managed to hold fast to the idea of contemporary 22nd century culture as a nod to the 20th century.

The ship’s weekly movie night was a reasonably clever way of bringing the crew together in off-duty hours. It was also an opportunity to provide viewers with some subtle insights into the world of the near-future. Alas, movie night subjected the crew to mid-20th century black and white movies – and one reference to movie night as The Great Escape. Only in the fourth season episode Home do we get a glimmer of contemporary culture with a throwaway line of dialogue mentioning a theatrical release of “another World War Three epic.”

Perhaps the big one happened between the 2150s and the 2260s, taking all of Hollywood and the very idea of film as a narrative device with it.

Enterprise was a cultural wasteland. Non-technical reading for the crew seems limited to Vulcan philosophy. Music continues its trend of being rooted in the 19th and 20th century. The sport de jour is water polo, for some stupid reason. Despite having tablet computers galore, the crew of the NX-01 can’t seem to find a copy of Candy Crush for love or money.

What’s the Point of It All?

Why have I put more than two thousand words to paper exploring the fake culture of a made up civilization? In part because it’s important to take a critical eye to the things we like.

Though Star Trek’s writers’ probably never intended to create a world bereft of its own culture, they none the less did so. The Federation’s fixation on its past is comparable to any oppressive state that wants to focus on its past rather than its terrible present, for fear of sowing dissent among the masses. In turn, this presents a vision of the future that an audience might internalize, consciously or otherwise, as ideal. They might come to see 100% state employment and the end of private property in a post-monetary society as a positive thing. They might not see the value of an independent press as a way of keeping the powers that be in check. They might think that art is limited to history, portraiture, and decorative geegaws when it should be used as mechanism for empowerment, especially among people whose voices are marginalized.

Star Trek presented the future not as a work-in-progress, but as an ideal. Captain Sisko once referred to Earth as paradise. It’s clear, however, that the Federation is far from paradise. There is still discrimination against holographic life, which began showing the capacity for true sentience in TNG with the Moriarty program. Organized crime from the Orion Syndicate reaches into the Federation. Starfleet created its own enemy in the Maquis through a treaty with the Cardassians – a treaty used eminent domain to expropriate land from Federation citizens. There’s every reason to believe that the Federation should be rich with counter-cultural, or at least socially critical art. Yet we never see it.

When placed under a microscope, the Federation is a vision of the future that is at best shallow and simplistic and at worst overtly oppressive. That’s why I wrote this piece. Because as contemporary myths go, we can do better.


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The United Federation of Planets: A City of Pigs, Part 1

Some months ago I had a liminal moment as a Star Trek fan. As my co-worker and I were bullshitting about Star Trek, he asked me to define the United Federation of Planets as a political entity. I responded as any good Trek fan would: the Federation is a federal state of semi-autonomous worlds, all of whom agree to abide by the Federation Charter in terms of local domestic policy and adhere to the Federation Council in terms of collective foreign policy. It is a benign, egalitarian, and socially responsible state. My co-worker smiled as I walked into his trap. As an alternative interpretation, he suggested that the Federation is a jack booted dictatorship akin to North Korea.

The reasons supporting this theory include:

  • No private property.
  • No private enterprise.
  • 100% employment via the state.
  • State regulated housing.
  • State controlled access to food and water.
  • A deep culture of surveillance aboard Starfleet vessels despite civilian populations therein.
  • No civilian oversight over Starfleet.
  • No free exchange of political discourse.
  • No mention of elections within the Federation.
  • Starfleet as both standing military and civil police.
  • No observable contemporary popular or artistic culture.

For this post, I want to focus on the last point in the list. The utter lack of a vibrant and contemporary culture in Star Trek suggests there is something odd and repressive about the Federation. At the very least, it evokes images of what Glaucon called a “City of Pigs,” in Plato’s Republic. The City of Pigs being a place that is peaceful, cooperative, and well ordered, but utterly subject to the utility of its self-sufficiency.

To my research and recollection, Star Trek in all its incarnations, has given us maybe two examples of a contemporary popular/artistic culture. Let us take each series in turn and highlight the good, the bad, and the possibly authoritarian.

NB: Spare me any comments about references to the 20th century being designed to make the series more accessible to the audience. I’m not painfully oblivious that way. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how that genuflect to access creates a cultural void that is indicative of the Federation as an artistically repressed state.

Star Trek: The Original Series

The Original Series didn’t spend much time dealing with the Enterprise’s crew as people with interests beyond their work. Likewise, we didn’t get much in the way of specifics about the Federation as a place. Whenever the Federation was discussed, it was almost always in comparison to the Soviet-inspired Klingon Empire. TOS was about exploring the future through the lens of the frontier. When it did give us a glimpse into the off-duty hours of the crew, what we saw was wholly rooted in past.

  • The season one episode The Conscience of the King demonstrates the seeming height of entertainment as a troupe of players staging a show of Hamlet.
  • Off duty, the crew occupy themselves with Chess, card games played with conventional decks, or judo.
  • Books are often mentioned as a constituent part of the library computer, but nobody is ever seen to be reading for pleasure, unless it is with preternatural speed as to identify said character as an Other.
  • Physical books are rarely seen. One of these rare examples of books on camera is the office of Samuel T. Cogley, who himself is perceived as a radical throwback for refusing to get with the times and embrace e-publishing. It should be noted that Cogley’s books were legal in nature.

TOS shows us almost nothing of the twenty-third century that isn’t rooted in the twentieth century. Again, I know that’s due to the series being an allegory for the Cold War and a vision of an optimistic future built around collaboration and cooperation. That said, a truly open societies is in part defined by a thriving artistic community that engages with the issues of the day. TOS’ contemporary culture, as depicted on screen, is bereft of that artistic discourse.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Perhaps in spite of Gene Roddenberry, TNG set more stories inside the Federation, which itself became a more tangible thing. The Federation was no longer a future analogue of the Western powers of the 20th century; it was a beacon for liberalism and democracy in the wake of normalized relations between America Earth and the Russian Federation Klingon Empire. It was a high water mark for civilization. Yet at no point is it presented as a society that puts any premium on artistic expression or maintaining a contemporary culture. Despite presenting life within the Federation as idyllic, its culture, as seen through the Enterprise, continues to be defined by centuries old Earth history.

  • The most popular holodeck programs are period detective stories e.g. Sherlock Holmes and Dixon Hill.
  • Less popular holodeck programs feature the works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
  • Holodeck programs featuring aliens – not withstanding Worf’s workout program – are non-existent.
  • Musical concerts aboard the Enterprise focus exclusively on Classical music with the odd nod toward Riker’s fixation on early 20th century Jazz or Picard’s ancient flute music.
  • Television, radio, and film are abolished and replaced with nothing.
  • There is no evidence of a free press. All news comes through official Starfleet channels

Moreover, art in TNG is either abstract chotchkies – e.g.  the glass thing that Data’s girlfriend got him in In Theory – rooted in history – e.g. Worf’s painting of the Battle of Garosh (sp?) in Parallels or Picard’s Kurlan naiskos (The Chase) – or decorative portraiture (as seen above).

The Western world moved away from the notion of art as something propped up by a monolithic view of history and/or religion in the 19th century. The hand and voice of the artist became the focus of art in the 20th century. Yet this trend seems utterly absent in the 24th century. Data’s paintings are always missing a dialogue beyond showing his attempt to be human through art.

There isn’t even evidence of holodeck programs that explore the history of the Federation through a subversive or revisionist lens. Surely someone had an opinion on the Third World War that wasn’t in-line with the official history books. The holodeck seems like the perfect mechanism for dissenting from the main stream, or offering a commentary on life as it is. Alas, these things are never seen in TNG. In fact, the series goes so far as to frame the near-history of Earth and the Federation as something to be wholly eschewed. We wouldn’t even know about the post-atomic horror of World War Three were it not for Q taking the Enterprise crew out of the 24th century and placing them into the 21st for humanity’s trial.

Now, gentle reader, rather than imposing upon attention spans with a post that would likely run in the neighbourhood of 2,000 words, I’m going to offer up a rare “to be continued.” We will pick this up again on Thursday with a look at DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise.


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Guest Post: K.W. Ramsey on Batman Beyond Failing its Female Characters

I’ve been under the weather for the last few weeks due to a gall bladder that needed to be ripped out of me (long story). Sadly, my body’s recovery sapped a lot of energy, leaving me very little to focus on writing and other mentally strenuous activities.

The solution? Watch TV. What better time to get caught up on various series I never quite got to see the first time they came out, such as Batman Beyond, the successor to my all-time favourite Batman cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series.

It took a few days, but I watched every single episode, even the Justice League one that acted as a de facto finale. What did I discover? Batman Beyond was terrible to its female characters.

None of them, not even the villains, have any agency. If you’re a female in Batman Beyond, then your motivations are paper thin at best.

Let’s look at Batman’s allies first. His girlfriend, Dayna, is just that, his girlfriend. She is never more than arm candy or an obstacle, a penalty for Terry, the new Batman, when his two lives conflict. There is not one single episode in the entire series, which went on for over two seasons, focused on providing her a deeper background.

The other prominent female on the good side is Max, who learns Terry’s identity as Batman and helps him with his double life. At times, it seemed the writers wanted to turn her into the new Robin, but were too afraid to pull the trigger. Although she was fleshed out in an episode on addictive VR, the potential of having a female Robin, who was also a person of colour, was completely missed.

The villains don’t get off much better; a prime example of this is Inque aka Clayface-light. She’s possessed of similar powers and similar weaknesses as Clayface, but she is absent the tragic backstory that made Clayface such a compelling character in Batman: The Animated Series. Inque’s background is summed up as a young woman who needed cash after giving up her newborn baby, an almost standard female villain story.

Batman Beyond didn’t simply fail its female characters, it missed plenty of good storytelling opportunities, and it’s obvious that it didn’t inherit the writing room from its predecessor, at least not the good parts. One can only hope we get a new incarnation of Batman Beyond that finally does a little justice to the women around Terry.


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Doctor Who: Dark Water – Some Words

I don’t even. I just don’t even.

I could say that Dark Water is wholly derivative of Army of Ghosts, trading Daleks for the Master, who somehow managed to escape the Time War. It even sets up a second battle of Canary Wharf.

Oh, and I really don’t give a shit about spoilers. There were two incredibly obvious ways Missy could have played out, and a regenerated Master, divorced as it is from common fucking sense, was one of them. It’s been 48 hours, and that’s the statute of limitations I feel I need to observe in this case.

I could say that Moffat has one archetype for writing female characters, and they almost always have a vaguely-dominatrix vibe to them.

I could say that “shut up” has become the laziest dialogue gimmick I’ve seen outside of a 3 camera sitcom.

I could say that Clara is a terrible character, who lacks any sense of wonder or terror for the universe at large. Despite everything she has seen and done with the Doctor, Clara treats travelling through time and space with the casual interest one might devote to a seasonal part-time job.

I could say all of these things, but what’s the point?

I feel like trying to deal with this show in a critical way is all but impossible. Conversations about the shortcomings of Doctor Who take on the tone of arguing about religion. No matter how much a person wants to talk about narrative structure, pacing, directing, or character development i.e. the things which make a given work of fiction measurably strong or weak, there’s an assumption that Doctor Who is somehow beyond those trifles. The discourse seems to begin and end at the quality of the call backs to the pre-reboot series, or an episode’s nods to other such ephemera, therein.

There’s always an excuse as to why a critical discourse can’t or shouldn’t be applied to Doctor Who. I’ve read there is a master plan which might take episodes, a season, or multiple seasons to reveal itself; thus shitty episodes are only as shitty as the handwaving which may or may not occur later. I’m literally being told to “have faith” in something that is as air tight as sponge. This year has seen countless attempts to foist a subtext on to something that is vapid and insipid. The worst offender is the presumption that Kill the Moon is a story about abortion. Every honest attempt to approach these shortcomings seems to be met with straw men or an ad hominums (how many TV shows have you written?) waiting to de-rail what is ultimately a very tangible and very important point: Doctor Who is capable of doing better.

I am not a Russell T. Davies fan boy; he had his good episodes and bad episodes.

I am not bereft of imagination or a sense of joy.

I do believe that something can be fun, and light, and not a massive insult to the audience’s intelligence.

I think that Doctor Who can do better.

All that said, I don’t even know if there’s a point to writing about this series, anymore. One of the first rules of criticism is to not write about something that you are predisposed to dislike. I dare say this season has dragged my expectations about the series down to an all-time low. I’ll watch next week’s finale, and I’ll likely keep watching the series after that, but unless somebody wants to pay me, I really don’t see the point of devoting airtime to Doctor Who.

In the immortal, but slightly adapted, words of Dr. Zoidberg, I say to Steven Moffat, “Your writing is bad and you should feel bad.”