Television Archive

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On Kilgrave and the Monster Inside All of Us

I’m currently seven episodes into Marvel’s Jessica Jones. At this point, I think Jessica Jones stands alone within the MCU as being something that is both profoundly meta and effortlessly didactic. Rather than getting into all of that, I want to talk about Kilgrave. More specifically, I want to talk about Kilgrave’s powers.

At first blush, Kilgrave’s power to compel anyone to do anything seems almost subdued. Within the pages of the Marvel universe and the MCU, there are beings blessed/cursed with much more grandiose abilities. Likewise, mind control is far from an original ability. Professor Xavier, for one, could reduce anyone on the planet to a meat puppet. Of course, Charles Xavier would never use his mutant gifts on something as crass as cheating at poker. Xavier is a paragon beyond the reach of mere mortals.

In contrast, I’ve seen Kilgrave use his powers to make money, skip the bill at restaurants, kill people, torture people, rape people and general shape the world around him. The thing that makes him, in my estimation, a stand-out villain within the MCU, a place where so many antagonists are little more than the opposite of the person headlining the movie/series, is the fact that Kilgrave’s powers would probably turn anyone into Kilgrave.

Think about yourself for a moment, dear reader. Are you a good person? Do you generally adhere to some sort of moral or personal code in your daily life? Now consider where that code comes from. Do your behaviors stem from a moral core that provides an immutable right way to live your life? Alternatively, are you good because you recognize, on either a conscious or unconscious level, that civil society depends on a social contract where individual needs are subordinate to a collective good?

In other words, what percentage of your interaction with society is governed by your fear of punishment? Now suppose something (e.g. Kilgrave powers) stripped away your obligation to said social contract. What if you were free to revert to a state of nature, a place of absolute freedom, while everyone else was still bound to a social contract? Would such freedom change you?

For all the good we think we have inside of us, Kilgrave’s ability to compel anyone to do anything, filtered through a personal lens, forces us to consider where our good natures come from. How could any person (other than Batman) resist using his powers? How many compromises could a person make to their self-identified good nature while using his abilities? When would a person cross the Rubicon between man and monster? When would the monster begin seeing themselves as a god?

Would you, gentle reader, Kilgrave a misogynist into a feminist? Given the chance, would you tell Donald Trump to go home and retire from public and private life? Would you use the power to talk yourself into a dream job? I’d probably do all three. And even after running headlong into Jessica Jones’ central ethos – that any act of coercion is a violation – I could probably come up with some way to rationalize my actions. And with each rationalization, I, a generally good person, take another step to becoming Kilgrave.

Kilgrave can then be seen as a meaningful example of what might happen to a normal person if they were given god-like powers. Arguably, none of the Avengers meet my definition of being normal. The unique circumstances that make them who they are (e.g. war hero, billionaire, royalty) prepare them for the responsibility that comes with being empowered beyond mere mortals. Also, Jessica Jones and Matt Murdoch may have powers, but they are hardly the equals of the Avengers in raw ability, and their early childhood is likewise a product of a heroic archetype. When I say normal, I mean someone born outside of the confines of Mr. Campbell’s monomyth.

Kilgrave powers speak to the common person because they can be applied in such utterly banal ways. Jessica Jones hints at this in the way Kilgrave uses his abilities to always get what he wants to eat. Imagine what would become of a person if they won every argument about where to go for supper, what to say on the office Christmas card, and who should take out the garbage? If a person never had to compromise, how long would it take before things like compassion and empathy atrophied? How long could a person be eternally right before the people who would dare to contradict them became tiresome pests? In such a mental place, tolerance and understanding become acts of largess rather than fundamental patterns of behavior.

On the opposite side of the coin, how long could a person use their Kilgrave powers before they created an existential void for themselves? Think here of Homer Simpson when he became the Chosen One. Would absolute power over others lead to isolation and alienation? While there’s a chance this distance from other people might make a person with Kilgrave powers cling to their humanity, it might also encourage them to use their abilities in the pursuit of new ways to fill the void.

Notwithstanding the old Wargames maxim that the only way to win is not to play, I don’t see how a person could use Kilgrave’s powers without progressively surrendering the behavioral constructions that make coexisting with other people possible. Courtesy, manners, and etiquette go out the window when a person can act like the most boorish of French monarchs absent any real consequence.

As superhero antagonists go, Kilgrave is something far removed from the likes of Doctor Doom, Whiplash, Loki, or Ronan the Accuser. Unlike most of the MCU’s rogues’ gallery, Kilgrave is not a foil for the protagonist. Rather, he is a foil for the audience. He exists to remind us of what we would become if we woke up with his powers. He is why we can never be Batman. It doesn’t matter who Kilgrave was before his powers, because we, as humans, are not uncompromising enough to wield them without becoming monsters. Only the truly saintly among us can look in the mirror and not see a Kilgrave waiting for his day in the sun.


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The Rape of David Aceveda

Our world is an ugly place, and rape is a terrible part of our gruesome world. Perhaps, someday, people will move beyond this particular page in humanity’s book of horrors. Until then, fiction facilitates a place for collective reflection on this social ill, even if people disagree on the value of said exercise. As I do see value in talking about fictional depictions of rape, let’s talk about The Shield.

Early in the series’ third season, Benito Martinez’s character, Captain David Aceveda, was raped. Aceveda was jumped at a crime scene, lost control of his gun, and was told to suck his rapists’ cock or else he’d catch a bullet to the head. Since the scene was not depicted in a way that cared about making the audience feel comfortable, I chose my language in the previous sentence quite intentionally.

I was in my mid-twenties when I saw this particular episode. It would be an understatement to say the scene shocked the hell out of me. What I didn’t fully appreciate – at the time there wasn’t the same sort of ongoing discussion around rape in popular culture that exists today – is how brilliantly the series managed the fallout of Aceveda’s rape.

Though a person could argue that The Shield used rape to show the “grit” of life in south central Los Angeles, this assault was no mere one-off for the sake of set dressing. The lasting effects of the rape inform Aceveda’s actions and relationships for at least two seasons. In fact, it would be easy to make a case for this single act as Aceveda’s defining moment in the series. So even though the writing and camera work embraced the brutality of the act, both were mindful to show how deeply the series hurt one of its leading characters.

After failing to manage his post-rape life on his own, Aceveda’s pleas for help are met with victim blaming. He confides in two people about his rape, his (male) cousin and his wife. Both of them have the same reaction, “How could you let this happen?” In their eyes, Aceveda didn’t do enough to prevent the rape from happening. Despite having a gun to his head, he should have somehow found the wherewithal to resist…a bullet. Both interchanges come to a head with Aceveda’s near tearful admission that he “let” it happen because he wanted to live.

I have never been raped. The balance of probabilities suggest I will never be raped. I do, however, know fear. I also suspect most other people who haven’t been raped still know something about being afraid. The razor sharp narrative follow-up to Aceveda’s rape capitalizes on the commonality of fear. It uses this most primal emotion as its inroad to understanding how a rape stays with a person. The salient issue in reflecting on Aceveda’s situation is less about the moment of being raped, and more about living with the fear after the fact. Say nothing for the memories of how fear made Aceveda choose between death or personal violation.

This character arc is also a clear condemnation of society’s insistence on pinning blame for a rape on the victim. Even though David Aceveda walks the line between scheming shit-weasel and stock asshole, as a character, human decency demands the audience feel some level of sympathy for him in the wake of his assault. When other characters rebuke Aceveda for his weakness, The Shield demonstrates the monstrous banality of victim shaming. The audience demands justice and compassion for Aceveda, despite his faults. Collectively, we sharpen our fangs for those who would tell him that his desire to do anything to survive made him a lesser quality of person.

David Aceveda’s rape, “gritty” as it may have been, was very much in dialogue with the series. In turn, the series was in dialogue with stereotypes of masculinity, male power, and the inability of men to be anything less than ALPHA PLUS PLUS in police work – maybe even in society at large. Rape narratives with the nuance and complexity of this example are few and far between. However, those that do exist demonstrate how this type of upsetting story can, ultimately, become something to make an audience more understanding of the seemingly perpetual influence rape has over a victim’s life.

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A Thought on Japan’s Projection of Military Power in Anime

The other day I was watching Arpeggio of Blue Steel, a naval-themed anime series that leans a little too close to the tropes of school girl slice-of-life for my tastes. Between rolling my eyes at the bouncing avatars of sentient World War Two-era Japanese warships while they flounce about and lust after the rakish human protagonist – all the while wondering who the target audience might be for something so banal – I noticed something interesting. Amid an alien/sexy Cylon invasion set in the middle of the 21st century, Japan’s military power is represented by the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.

The JSDF is an interesting military institution. It emerged as a direct result of Japan’s surrender to America at the end of the Second World War. Like the name implies, the JSDF exists, at least on paper, as a localized military force. Japan, even to this day, is not permitted to project military power in an offensive capacity. Though the theory of this prohibition versus its realpolitik is somewhat more complicated.

The tl;dr version is as follows: If one compares the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army, from the Meiji restoration to the end of World War Two, to the JSDF, the latter presents as something of a neutered organization. Moreover, the JSDF’s very DNA is encoded with the geopolitics of a conquering nation. One would think science fiction might present an ideal place for Japanese artists to imagine beyond the JSDF. Yet contemporary Japan’s military present, something born on the deck of the USS Missouri, is oddly persistent within anime stories set in the near-future.

Arpreggio of Blue Steel, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Akira are each set in the middle of the twenty-first century. Despite the domestic and foreign upheavals depicted in each of these series, none of them imagine a Japanese military beyond the JSDF. Additionally, each series makes a point of depicting the tremendous power available to the JSDF, yet it still bears the moniker of a “self-defense” force.

In a series where Japan is called upon to project military power, it is almost always done under the auspices of a world government. For example, Japan saved us from the Zentradi in Macross, but only as a part of the UN SPACY. Likewise, Japan destroyed/saved (spoilers) the planet Gamilas in Space Battleship Yamato/Space Battleship Yamato 2199 as part of the Earth Defence Force/United Nations Cosmo Navy, respectively.

So, what’s the point of all this? Simply that I do not recall seeing a single anime series or movie where near-future Japan projects military power as something that isn’t a product of American geopolitical endeavours. Ether Japan flexes its military muscle in the form of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces – a product of Japan’s surrender to America – or it is working as part of the United Nations or some comparable united Earth government – likewise the offspring Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view for the post-war world.

My question to you, dear readers, is can you think of an example where Japan, as a nation, projects military power absent the JSDF or the blanket authorization of a world government?


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On the Importance of Escapism

A foreword for readers: this piece is going to be a little more personal than my usual fare. In fact, I think the words below might border on the realm of cheap therapy. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a fuck.

You have been warned.

Ernest Hemmingway once said happiness is a rare trait among intelligent people. I don’t think my intelligence, per se, has made me an unhappy person. Intelligence, particularly in my childhood, has served to isolate me from a great many people, but people are monsters so no loss there. Intelligence does let me see the world in a slightly different, and often saddening, way. Most relevant to this piece, intelligence gives me an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

This desire to learn has generally served me well. It helps me in almost every aspect of my life, up to and including my professional life. On that note and through either the grace of the gods or the chaos of the universe, I have a job with a work environment very reminiscent of my university days. University was a profoundly happy time for me – possibly the happiest were it not for the fact I was paying to be there. Now, however, I get paid do research, write things, and give presentations. Not a bad deal.

The physical location of the job, however, tends to weigh upon my soul. When I began my job, it was located in downtown St. Catharines. Like most downtown cores, downtown St. Catharines is an odd mix of affluence and poverty. For every salaryman or government bureaucrat dropping $20 on an over-priced farmer’s market lunch, there’s a homeless person digging through rubbish bins. Walking to the one and only deli worth eating at in St. Catharines required passing by a methadone clinic. A person can find brew pubs within spitting distance of pawn shops and “cash for gold” operations.

Last year our office moved from the downtown core to a much more poverty stricken neighbourhood. I’m now within walking distance – not that I ever walk anywhere from my office now – of short-term lending operations, an abandoned bingo hall, and the lowest of low-rent, government-supported housing.

Oh, and I forgot to mention my job involves researching local labour market statistics. This means when people talk about the problems in the local economy, I probably know more than they do about it. I can tell you how many people are working in retail sales and tourism and hospitality in the Niagara region. I can tell you how many people are making less than $14/hour – the figure generally batted about as the living wage. I can tell you what rental prices are like for apartments in Niagara, and then show you the shortfall between median annual wage and cost of living in Niagara – apparent quality of life in the region be damned.

Every day I live with the numbers. Every day I see the face of urban poverty. Every day I have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Because if I don’t laugh, if I don’t find a way to wrap all the things I’m powerless to change in sarcasm and snark, then I might start really feeling the emotional weight of my knowledge.

Adam, you’re being a little melodramatic.

No, I’m being honest, something we’re only supposed to be within a specific set of circumstances. We’re supposed to blame people for their lot in life. Nothing happens without a reason. The language of bootstraps and self-reliance offers those of us not on the shit-end of the stick a convenient set of psychological and rhetorical tools for distancing ourselves from the privilege of birth and the vicissitudes of fate.

So when a person approaches me as I’m walking from my car to my office and says, “I’m handicap, can I have money for a coffee and a donut?” Am I supposed to have the dark heart to tell them that it’s their fault they are cold and hungry? Should I disregard what stands before me and embrace cynicism to the extent I write the person off as a fraud or a drunk or both? I’ll usually say, “I’m sorry,” and keep walking. Because I am sorry, despite the fact they can’t eat my apologies.

Once I’m at my desk I’ll make a joke about Niagara turning into Detroit and dig into the day’s emails and projects. Doing so is my only armour. What was Edward Blake’s line in Watchmen…once you realize what joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense.

This is the world we live in, Adam, nothing you can do about it, no point complaining about it.

Probably true. And at the end of the day, I’m the guy going home to a loving fiancée, an aloof cat, a nice apartment, all the “privilege” of being a white, het, cis, educated, male, and all the other things that set the difficulty for my life on the easiest level.

Then shut up about your life already, Adam, and get back to reviewing things. People come here to know what games and books they should spend their disposable income on, not to hear you pontificate about your bullshit, you self-pitying jackhole.

Fine. I will. Here’s the point of this temporary foray into feeling human feelings: in so much as our world produces a lot of shitty cultural artefacts, some of them serve the important purpose of giving us a temporary escape from the oppressive weight of willful knowledge and experience.

In so much as I like to bust on Star Trek for over-arching delivered with the efficacy of an undergraduate’s research paper – i.e. what’s said on in writing often falls well short of the intended message – Star Trek can give us a brief cognitive escape and hope for something conceptually, if not functionally, better.

I might be able to walk a Mk. III Jaeger through the plot holes of Pacific Rim, but for those two hours I’m presented with the possibility of humanity getting its collective shit together to do something bigger than any of us can imagine.

A jaunt through The Temple of Elemental Evil or Baldur’s Gate affords 30-60 hours of soul-warming heroics – or cathartic evil, depending on what a person needs.

Escapism is nothing new. Modern, city-dwelling civilizations go hand-in-hand with alienation and ennui. Though the form and medium of these escapes has changed from the early phantasmagoria shows of the 19th century, to the pulp adventures of Buck Rogers, to cock-cannons of Saints Row, these escapes are a pressure valve for those of us who see but are powerless to change. To dismiss them as frivolities in the face of grander works is akin to telling a person they  don’t deserve any safe haven from the creeping sands of the desert of the Real.

This isn’t to say every piece of shit is escapism, mind you, but such is an essay for a different day.

I know return you to your tonally appropriate Page of Reviews content.


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Deconstructing Star Trek’s Ban on Genetic Engineering

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The other day I was watching the Deep Space Nine episode where we discover Dr. Julian Bashir’s true nature as a genetically enhanced human being. The episode includes a rather lengthy discussion on the history and apparent existential that threat genetic engineering presents to humanity and the Federation. This discourse can be summarized in two points:

Point 1: Genetic engineering is only permissible in the event of a “medical emergency.”

Point 2: Genetically “enhanced” people are forbidden from service in Starfleet.

Why should a genetically enhanced person be refused entry into Starfleet when species who enjoy genetic advantages over we lowly Terrans can freely join the service? Vulcans are smarter, stronger, and longer-lived than humans. Betazoids can exercise their ability to read minds without any sort of institutional control (e.g. Babylon 5’s Psi-Corps). Andorians possess a super-human resistance to harsh environments. All of these races can serve in a meritocratic institution where their natural gifts might make them more competitive for promotion than a baseline human – absent some sort of sliding scale to said meritocracy.

Since comparing a Vulcan to a human is an apples to oranges comparison, why not let humans tweak a few things here and there? Because the Eugenics Wars.

In canon, the Eugenics Wars occurred on Earth between 1993 and 1996. During this time a cabal of genetically augmented tyrants rose to power and conquered much of the world. Memory Alpha – my go-to research hub for Star Trek trivia states the death toll from the Eugenics Wars was between 30-35 million people i.e. less than World War 2 and far fewer than Star Trek’s World War 3. The latter accounted for the deaths of 600 million people across three decades. Bearing in mind the “post-atomic horror” of World War 3 lasted into the early 22nd century in some parts of the world, I can see why Earth’s Federation signatories would want a ban on genetic engineering in 2161.

The invocation of the Eugenics Wars in 2373, however, seems a bit of a stretch. In modern terms, a Starfleet Admiral lecturing Julian Bashir about the dangers of the Eugenics Wars and invoking the name of Khan Noonien Singh, would be akin to President Reagan using the Thirty Years War and Gustavus Adolphus to shape his foreign policy in Central Europe.

It doesn’t make sense. I suspect there has to be something more to the prohibition against genetic engineering in the 24th century than a hangover from the 1990s. Bad as the Eugenics Wars were, they an order of magnitude less severe than World War 3.

A potential x-factor dawned on me yesterday afternoon – due in part to a two-day long Facebook discussion on this very subject. So kudos and thanks to everybody on that front, you know who you are.

Replicators and fusion reactors would make Earth in the 24th century a largely post-scarcity economy. However, an abundance of food, fuel, and material resources doesn’t mean things don’t need doing on Earth. Notwithstanding enslaved holograms in the late 2370s, there’s nothing in Star Trek to suggest human labour has been replaced by machines. There are no drones or droids in the vein of Star Wars to do the dirty or dangerous work. This leads me to believe that human labour is still of value to Earth, if not the entire Federation.

I submit the reason Earth maintains its ban on genetic engineering is to avoid destroying its potential low-skill workforce.  Somebody has to shovel shit into industrial replicators – so to speak. And if Earth embodies the Marxist idea of “from each according to his ability,” for the betterment of the species and planet, then society would break down if someone with an IQ of 180 had to maintain and repair a city block’s worth of solid waste reclamation systems.

As ideas go, I’ll concede this idea might be a little to bound up to a Huxleyan worldview. I’m not suggesting Earth and the Federation would go out of their way to breed Deltas to fill the ranks of manual labour jobs with blissful idiots. However, it’s clear that the Federation could make a mechanical workforce if they desired one. The absence of an extensive use of robotics – setting aside budgetary issues in the various TV shows – leads me to believe their exclusion is a matter of the command economy.

So there we have it. If we take Earth’s ban on genetic engineering at face value, we must admit a near 400-year-old historical event is shaping the Earth’s and the Federation’s domestic policy. While my theory about the role of below-median people in the command economy might not be right, it’s certainly a more plausible explanation for the ban on genetic engineering than the looming fear of history. At the end of the day, if you use science to uplift all the stupid, lazy, and shiftless people on Earth, who will be left to do the planet’s  mundane jobs?


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Captain Sisko: War Criminal

Let’s take it for granted that if you are reading my blog, you know my thoughts about the United Federation of Planets as dystopian nightmare state. Today I will build on this argument with an example from Deep Space Nine.

DS9 gave us the Federation at war, and war can often bring about the worst in even the most benevolent of governments. My example, however, isn’t about the Dominion War, a war so brutal it struck at the very ethos of Federation culture. Today, I’m interested in speaking for the Maquis. Let us turn to Captain Sisko, himself, for some context.

On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window at Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise. But the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there, in the Demilitarized Zone, all problems have not been solved yet. There are no saints, just people; angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with the Federation approval or not.

In canon, the aforementioned demilitarized zone was the by-product of a treaty that ended nearly twenty years of border skirmishes between the United Federation of Planets and the Cardassian Union. The apocrypha of this treaty is too long to detail. Sufficed to say, the Federation cut a deal with the Cardassians that saw Federation border worlds ceded to the Cardassian Union. The Federation colonists, however, refused to abandon their homes and soon found themselves forced to live under the brutal regime of the Cardassian military. In response to Cardassian hostility and a Federation policy of non-interference in the DMZ, disaffected colonists and former Starfleet officers formed the Maquis. The Maquis became the self-defence force/armed militia of the DMZ colonies.

The clip below represents the final days of the Maquis’ resistance. Starfleet dispatched Captain Sisko to end the Maquis threat after Michael Eddington, formerly of Starfleet security, poisoned the atmosphere of two Cardassian DMZ colonies.

 

Let’s review. Captain Sisko, a decorated Starfleet officer, used weapons of mass destruction against a civilian target to send a message to the Maquis. Nevermind that the Maquis struck first. Nevermind that the Maquis attacked the Federation. A legitimate and right-thinking government does not suspend the rules of war because they are dealing with an enemy engaging in asynchronous warfare.

Therefore, I submit, Captain Sisko’s response constitutes a war crime.

As evidence of this, I would turn to the Geneva Conventions, specifically the protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.

Article 51 – Protection of the civilian population

1.The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.

Sisko, by his own admission, attacked a civilian planet to punish the Maquis for their aggression against a Starfleet ship and two Cardassian colonies.

2. The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.

Sisko bombed the civilian population as leverage against the Maquis. He then threatened to attack another civilian target unless Michael Eddington surrendered to Starfleet.

3. Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Section, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

Not all DMZ colonists are members of the Maquis, just as not all people who live in Afghanistan are members of the Taliban.

4. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:

(a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;

Check.

(b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or

Check.

(c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

Check.

I could go on, but I think my point is clear. If the Federation is a benign and socially progressive organization, as we are lead to believe, then surely it is not unrealistic to expect their rules for warfare to be in-line with those established during the 20th century.

Were this the case, one might have expected an actual objection to Sisko’s order from Lt. Commander Worf or Lt. Commander Dax. I won’t hold Major Kira to the same standards as she’s a member of the Bajorian Militia. The fact that Worf and Dax, senior Starfleet officers on the Defiant after Sisko, execute the order without a formal protest tells me one of two things:

1)     Starfleet’s rules for protecting civilian lives during a war are less progressive than the Geneva Conventions; in which case I submit that Federation is as monstrous a regime as any modern nation who rejects said conventions e.g. North Korea.

2)     The Federation and Starfleet’s rules for protecting civilian lives during a war are comparable to our own; in which case Sisko and his crew chose to disregard the regulations. Therefore, the senior staff, save Kira, are war criminals, and the rest of the bridge crew, right down to Cadet Nog, are complicit in their guilt.

The prosecution rests.


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Award Season – Part 1 – Prix-Aurora Awards Best Fan Publication

A quick note on programming. Today’s post was supposed to be a review of the first book in Marie Bilodeau’s serialized novel, Nigh. A trip to the hospital (not serious, all is well) and a burst water main (again, not serious, all is well) got in the way of me doing any writing yesterday and has left me running on no sleep for about 36 hours. In this state, I wouldn’t trust myself to review Dr. Seuss, let alone a writer whose chops put me in mind of George R.R. Martin or Andrzej Sapkowski. Hey, what do you know? I bounced back.

Rather than pressing my luck, I’m going to devote today’s post to some preliminary chatter on award season. It’s a sure sign of the new year when one starts to notice writers talking about which of their works are eligible for award nomination. Last year, I was mildly disappointed when the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Prix-Aurora Awards cancelled its category for “Best Fan Publication” due to lack of nominations. I’d be a lying prat if I said some part of this disappointment wasn’t wholly selfish. It’s not like I campaigned, mind you, but there’s always some very small, very vain, part of me that holds out hope. The greater loss to not seeing a Best Fan Publication award is some very fine writers missed a chance to be recognized for their efforts. Want an example?

Check out Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Why? Because Derek Newman-Stille is a hell of a writer. His reviews are outstanding, and his essays are the sort of thing that offer a blueprint for improving this little community of ours. Read his work, be a better person. End of line.

There should be more than enough quality fan writers to prevent us from seeing a second shutout year. I would also implore CSFFA members not to presume that the designation of “fan” constitutes a lower-tier of creative endeavour. The distinction between “professional” and “fan” is rooted in if a person is paid for their work. In terms of quality, I believe the high level of professionalism that goes into most fan work speaks for itself.

And if for some reason you, gentle reader, wanted to toss the Page of Reviews in the ring for Best Fan Publication – if only to ensure there’s an actual competition this year – I wouldn’t kick up a stink.

For your consideration, here are three of my favourite pieces from 2014.

Marginalization and Stephen King’s Rage – April 23, 2014

The Unanswered Question of Land Claims in Homeworld - July 4, 2014

Babylon 5: The Last Best Hope for Empathy – August 11, 2014

There. That’s as shameless and award-grubby as I get. Can I go to bed now?


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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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Babylon 5: Subtlety, Psychosis, and the Battle of the Line

When news broke that Babylon 5 might be making a comeback in the form of a feature length movie, I wrote a piece that started out as one thing but turned into something else.

You can read the long version here. The short version is that I was always quick to snark about Michael O’Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Then I did a little research and discovered that while O’Hare was working on Babylon 5, he was suffering through some considerable mental illness. This revelation gave me pause. I started watching the series again. If nothing else, I felt I owed the series and the late O’Hare that much for all the times I called his performances cardboard.

While the series still has its warts in the first season – and beyond – I now find myself noticing some of the more subtle ways the show approaches mental health issues. For the purposes of this ever-so-brief discussion, the common point of reference is the Battle of the Line.

For those who don’t know, The Battle of the Line is a seminal point in Babylon 5’s internal history. It represents humanity’s doomed effort to defend the Earth against a wholesale slaughter from the Minbari. 20,000 people volunteered to stall the Minbari advance, allowing civilian ships time to escape to neutral territory, and only 200 survived the encounter. Those who did manage to endure the Battle of the Line only did so because the Minbari surrendered to Earth for reasons that are a little too complicated to detail right now. Here’s some video.

 

And the other half…

 

No character in Babylon 5’s dramatis personae is as affected from the Battle of the Line as Commander Sinclair. After surviving the entirety of the Earth-Minbari War, Sinclair volunteered to hold the line against the Minbari fleet. Like all the other the other pilots on the line, Sinclair was ready to die for the cause. Unlike those pilots, Sinclair managed to find some agency over that demise. After watching his entire squadron die, Sinclair set his ship to ram the Minbari flag ship as a final act of defiance. Little did Sinclair know, he had a destiny. The fates, and the Minbari, conspired to spare Sinclair from his kamikaze run.

In the past, I don’t think I ever noticed, or maybe I just wasn’t quite well read enough to appreciate the subtle ways the writing carried forward that ultimate denial in Sinclair’s character. In some ways it reminds me of a scene in James Clavell’s Sho-Gun. Blackthorne refuses to be responsible for an entire village being destroyed if he’s not able to learn Japanese in six months. Rather than live with the burden, he announces he will commit Seppuku. Though his suicide is prevented, Blackthorne comes away from the event a changed man. He could see the end of his life, and just like Sinclair, that end was taken away from him. While I have no personal experience to draw upon that is comparable, I can imagine it might be difficult to find a purpose in life when you have to live with the knowledge that everything about who you were came to a single point, which was then taken away from you.

In Sinclair’s case, the series regularly offered up commentary on how he was trying to find a new purpose for himself. Despite continuing his career in Earth’s military and then building the Rangers, a shadow army comprised of Humans and Minbari, Sinclar literally has to be reborn as Human-Minbari hybrid before he can take back the agency that he lost on the Battle of the Line.

Perhaps some of O’Hare’s seemingly subdued acting amid a cast of over-the-top character players is due to the fact that he saw something in Sinclair that necessitated a level aloofness. Sinclar had a liminal moment stripped from him. Granted, that’s not as dramatic as watching Garibaldi actively manage his alcoholism, but it’s certainly a way to see that there may have been some hidden depth to O’Hare’s acting.

It also lays the foundation for what would become an ongoing dialogue with mental illness in Babylon 5, but I’ll save that post for another day.