Star Trek Archive

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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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Whitewashing: The New Normal in Genre Movies

Scarlett Johansson is quickly becoming the avatar of everything that pisses me off about Hollywood.  First, she was the voice of the incipit manic-pixie-dream-Cylon in the (sigh) Oscar award-winning Her. Now she’s landed the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in an upcoming, live-action adaptation of Masamuni Shirow’s anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell.

Nothing personal, ScarJo, but you have about as much business playing a Japanese cyborg as I would playing Detective John Shaft. Imagine the outrage at the idea of a white man playing Shaft. Now ponder why so much of Hollywood’s white washing is at the expense of Asian peoples.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; this is why we can’t have nice things.

Did we learn nothing from M. Night Shyamalan casting a bunch of white kids for a live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender? I guess not since the majority of film critics gave a pass to All You Need is Kill Edge of Tomorrow Live Die Repeat, despite Hollywood turning the originally Japanese protagonist, Keiji Kiriya, into a white guy called William Cage played by (double sigh) Tom Cruise. Nor should we stop talking about the fact that J.J. Abrams gave us an Englishman second only to Winston Churchill in Englishness for the role of Khan Noonien Singh. The 1960s were more progressive in casting a Mexican to play Khan.

It is on that note I think we must acknowledge that we’ve reached peak-incredulity when it comes to Hollywood’s shitty casting decisions. After all, Sir Ridley Scott has very clearly illustrated the face of the shape of things to come in his explanation of why he cast an Englishman to play Moses and an Australian to play Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

Well excuse us, Cecil B. DeMille. Does this mean we get to throw pies at Ridley Scott the next time he dares to talk about the “art” of filmmaking?

If an auteur of Scott’s caliber is content to offer up a rationalization that, in terms of cultural sensitivity, is a stone’s throw away from the “durka-durka-jihad-jihad” scene in Team America: World Police, then what hope should audiences hold for Rupert Sanders to cast an Asian Major Kusanagi? I’m sure the director of Snow White and the Huntsman is in a place where he can tell the studios to fuck off and cast whoever he likes in his movie. I can’t imagine a single scenario where doing so doesn’t get him kicked off the project and replaced by some other up-and-comer who cares more about working than he does whitewashing and cultural appropriation.

If this is the mentality within the industry, a mindset likely fueled by focus groups filled with people who don’t know any better or are too slack-jawed to care, then it doesn’t take an oracle to forecast the situation getting worse before it gets better. Katara, Kusanagi, and Khan are only the beginning of the tidal wave of whitewashing. Last year’s box office returns demonstrated Hollywood is almost exclusively interested in investing in known properties, and there’s a world of much loved anime, and non-English stories in general, waiting for their turn at a big-screen, live-action adaptation.

Macross starring Daniel Radcliffe as Hiraku Ichijyo, Nathan Fillion as Roy Fokker, Natale Portman as Misa Hayase and Liam Neeson as Admiral Gloval

Evangelion starring Jack Gleeson as Shinji Ikari, Benedict Cumberbatch as Gendo Ikari, and Kristen Stewart as Misato Katsuragi

If I thought it would make any difference, I would point out for the benefit of any Hollywood types that ever stumble across these words that I am, in fact, a 33-year-old, white, male and I’m perfectly content to see Asian people in leading roles on both the big and small screen. Alas, I’m sure said Hollywood types would quickly rebut that I, and likely you, gentle reader, are not within their target demographic; we are not “the North American Market”.

Recall the words of Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black: a person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals. People make up the North American Market, and said market demands endless seasons of The Bachelor, Honey Boo Boo, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and watching a man be eaten by a snake. The North American Market is terrible, and until it does better or demands better – either option is fine with me – there’s no reason to believe the whitewashing won’t continue along its current trajectory.


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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.


0

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.


0

Fighting Words – Episode 5 – Epic Fails of Starfleet

That’s right, it’s the fifth episode of Fighting Words, the fastest podcast on the internet. (NB: I have no idea if this is the fastest podcast on the internet. All I can say for sure is this isn’t even the first podcast to call itself Fighting Words, but never you mind that other podcast. You’re here to listen to me talk about the minutia of science fiction.)

In this week’s edition, I have a few choice words for Starfleet’s ship designers. This also raises the question, is there any better use for the internet than to facilitate a forum for a man in his thirties to talk about Star Trek as if it was more than a television and film franchise?

I think not.

In other news, I managed to get wordpress working together nicely with iTunes. Now you can subscribe to Fighting Words and get a new episode downloaded to your iDevice each and every week. Except for the next two weeks because I’m going on vacation as of Friday. So starting September 10th you’ll get a new episode of Fighting Words delivered to your device every week.

Here’s the audio.

Music Credits

“Pump Sting” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


10

Babylon 5: The Last Best Hope for Empathy

Sometimes I set out to write one thing, but in the course of putting pen to paper I end up with an entirely different post. This is just such an occasion.

Not long after news spread about a potential film reboot of 90s sci-fi classic Babylon 5, I found myself apologizing to a friend for the series’ first season. It is a truth universally acknowledged among B5 devotees that the series doesn’t find its legs until the second season.

Now suppose we were having this conversation last week, and you asked me, “Adam, what’s the worst part about the first season of Babylon 5?” Last week, I would have answered, without hesitation, that the worst part of the show is Michael O’Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (pictured above).

I think the best zinger I ever got off about O’Hare’s performance as Commander Sinclair was that I’d call it cardboard were that not an insult to a useful packing material.

Sufficed to say, my first thoughts when I heard of a potential B5 remake were along the lines of, “Dear god, can we please keep Michael O’Hare away from this.” No cameos. No special guest appearances. Let’s not bring back the guy who makes me preface Babylon 5 conversations with, “don’t worry, Sinclair is only in it for the first season.”

One Google search later and I discovered that Michael O’Hare died last year.  To quote Admiral Kirk, dumbass on me.

After another search I came upon Michael O’Hare’s Wikipedia page. There, I read the following:

As Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski describes it, during the filming of the first season of Babylon 5, O’Hare began having paranoid delusions. Halfway through filming, his hallucinations worsened. It became increasingly difficult for O’Hare to continue work, his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic and he was often at odds with his colleagues. O’Hare sought treatment for his mental illness, but feared that, as the main character of Babylon 5, taking an extended medical leave of absence would destroy the show just as it was getting off the ground.

Straczynski offered to suspend the show for several months to accommodate O’Hare’s treatment for his mental health; however O’Hare refused to put so many other people’s jobs at risk. Straczynski agreed to keep his condition secret to protect O’Hare’s career. O’Hare agreed to complete the first season but would be written out of the second season so that he could seek treatment. He reappeared in a cameo appearance early in season two and returned in season three for the double episode “War Without End”, which closed his character’s story arc. He made no further appearances on Babylon 5.

Naturally I met this news with some level of skepticism. As I told my undergrads for many years, Wikipedia is not a valid source; dig deeper. After a bit more searching I found the following interview with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski.

 

Double dumbass on me.

In my own defense, I’m not wrong about O’Hare’s performance. Nor am I wrong about the writing being hit and miss in the first season of Babylon 5. As a critic, I stand behind everything I have ever said on Babylon 5’s first season, good or bad. As a human being who attempts to cultivate empathy as a virtue, I feel a measure of regret for my words.

It might be hard to believe, but I have dipped my toe in the waters of acting. While it was always a lot of work, I never found it particularly hard. Pay attention for your cues, hit your mark, never let the audience see that you’ve mangled a line (live theatre), don’t do weird things with your hands. Because of that experience, I tend to be unsympathetic toward poor performances from actors in television and film. Michael O’Hare’s work in B5 was no exception.

Knowledge of what O’Hare was enduring during his B5 tenure can’t change his performance, but it does change the way I look at it. Now I can see his work in the first season of Babylon 5 as the labour of a man who refused to let people lose their jobs because his mental illness was getting the better of him. I see the half-baked writing in some episodes as the product of J. Michael Straczynski working to help O’Hare keep it together in addition to writing and producing his show.

Babylon 5 stood apart from Star Trek: TNG and Deep Space 9 because in many ways it is a much more honest version of a post-Cold War future. Humanity goes into space and we take all our baggage with us. The series explores mental illness, alcoholism, racism, labour equity, and has a more vibrant political culture than all of the Treks combined. I’d like to think that some of the off-stage personal struggles in the first season informed the character arcs in the remainder of the series, particularly with Garibaldi’s drinking and the former Earthforce officer who reinvents himself as King Arthur to hide from the guilt of his actions during the disastrous first contact between the Minbari Federation and the Earth Alliance. Even if those plot points exist independent of any real-life drama, the revelation of the latter has forced me to reconsider how I look at the first season of Babylon 5.

I don’t know if/how a critical methodology for parsing media should include personal demons as extenuating circumstances. Personally, I think I need to re-watch the first season of Babylon 5 to work my way through this question. I need to filter Michael O’Hare’s work through an empathetic and critical lens. This is not to excuse the work when it is poor, but to try and understand the person who had to hide a mental illness for fear of the consequences it would have on his career and the career of those around him.


0

First Impressions of Star Trek Continues

I fear for the potential hit my nerd credibility is going to take in admitting I only recently watched the first episode of Star Trek Continues. Of course, I knew the project was out there, peppering the internet with cast photos, sound bites, and vignette videos. I knew that Mythbusters’ Grant Imahara was on-deck to reprise George Takei’s role of Lt. Hikaru Sulu. Only when the second episode, Lolani, hit the internet over the weekend did I come to realize that this fan-made effort to pick up where Star Trek: TOS left off in 1969 is actually happening.

The first thing to catch my attention was the premiere episode’s runtime – 52 minutes. Most web series do 50 to 60 minutes as a season. This isn’t simply Star Trek reborn to suit the web, it’s Star Trek as it used to be. That means the STC crew are producing the equitant of a feature length film from a $100,000 Kickstarter and no shortage of sweat equity. Wow.

The bumper to the first episode, Pilgrim of Eternity, sees Captain Kirk, now played Vic Mignogna – who is also the series’ EP and director – staring down the barrel of a single action revolver as Scotty (Chris Doohan i.e.  James Doohan’s son) explains the ins and outs of his newly installed holo-suite. What is truly remarkable is Kirk’s exit into the Enterprise’s corridors. He emerges not into a vague rendering of what the Enterprise should look like, but into the Enterprise as it looked in the 1960s – or that one episode of Deep Space 9.

Everything about the sets, costumes, props, and special effects perfectly captures the aesthetic and tone of the original series. Even the lighting and camera angles seem ripped from Roddenberry’s playbook. I can’t begin to fathom how much effort went into creating a pitch-perfect recreation of Star Trek while layering in just enough of a modern post-production flourish as not to break retro-future charm.

My wonder only grew as the pre-credit bumper led to Apollo (still played by Michael Forest of Who Mourns for Adonais) materializing on the bridge of the Enterprise. Forest’s screen presence is utterly befitting the god of poetry and theatre. As it’s clear that some of the cast are attempting to negotiate the fine line between making the characters their own and paying respect to the actors who inhabited them previously, Forest is, to quote General Chang, “As constant as the northern star.”

The story, itself, is very genuine in its attempt to capture Star Trek’s ongoing nature as a morality play. Apollo, having been aged by an artificial realm meant to house the Olympians after humanity rejected them, is near death and wants nothing more than to live out his remaining days as a mortal among mortals. Kirk, however, is reticent to settle him for fear that life among humans will awaken his megalomania. Though the script is a little uneven in places, the episode is wholly charming as Apollo attempts to prove himself to the senior staff, particularly a mistrusting Scotty. There’s even a delightful moment when Apollo questions Kirk on the inherent moral cowardice of the Prime Directive.

I dare say it is in that moment Mignogna sells me on his portrayal of Kirk. Certainly he’s drawing some inspiration from Shatner – how could he not – but there’s a quiet subtlety in his Kirk. He seems more confident in his command, less brash, and more prone to thoughtfulness rather than sheer bravado. It makes sense considering the emotional and personal turmoil that Kirk endured during the first three years of the five year mission. Then again, I’ve only seen one episode, and I know the second features an Orion slave girl, so perhaps Kirk’s swagger might come out there.

Star Trek Continues gives every indication of being a worthy successor to the original series. It elegantly resurrects the USS Enterprise (No, bloody A, B,C, or D) with all the polish and detail of a network television production. There’s a genuine sense of idealism in the narrative, a trope that has long sense fallen out of vogue within post 9/11 science fiction. The cast’s conviction in selling this tone brings the entire experience together. Kudos to cast and crew.

Check it out here or head over to the Star Trek Continues webpage.


2

On Star Trek TNG and Pulling the Trigger

I’m going to come clean on this one; the new job has been kicking my ass. Today I channeled my inner Jack Ryan before giving a presentation to a room of people situated well above my pay grade, and the majority of whom were, I suspect, much smarter than yours truly. On the up side, I didn’t get laughed out of the lecture hall, and the boss was happy with my work. Advantage: Shaftoe.

The bad news is that a few extra hours in the office cut into this week’s “to review” list. I hope you’ll find it within your heart to forgive me for doing the best I can with the material at hand.

To wit: every morning before going to work I watch the first half of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This morning I logged about twenty-seven minutes of Legacy. Legacy sees a shuttle brimming with red shirts crashing on Turkana IV, home world of the late Lt. Tasha Yar.

For those who don’t recall, Turkana IV is one of TNG’s few and fleeting attempts to add a dark underbelly to the Federation’s socialist utopia. More specifically, Turkana IV is presented as a failed nation. The world was a member of the Federation before seceding for undisclosed reasons. Canon then records the planet’s descent into a lawless hellscape. Apparently, the Federation Council was content to wash its hands of the entire situation. PS: who wants to guess how many terrible fanfics have been written about Turkana IV?

A Season One episode of TNG, captured in the above picture, gives us a flashback to Tasha’s life on Turkana. Therein, the audience is introduced to the concept of a “rape gang,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Cut to a young Lt. Yar hiding in a tunnel, cradling a mangy cat. She sets the cat free just as a hooting bunch of men with flashlights come around the corner. What follows goes without saying or showing. The scene, though almost a throwaway, is creepy as fuck with its implications that Tasha is about to get violated seven ways from Romulus.

Upon arriving at Turkana in Season Four, Picard dispatches the obligatory away team. True to Trek form, the Captain doesn’t send in twenty-five heavily armed security officers. Instead, he beams in Riker, Data, Worf, and Doctor Crusher. Worf, being the only sensible one in the bunch, reminds everybody that Turkana IV is a god forsaken shit hole. He further questions the wisdom of sending the good Doctor in the first wave, what with all the rape gangs. A “Shut up, Worf” moment ensues and off goes the episode on a wild series of loosely connected tangents.

Based upon what I saw, and what I remember, Legacy is far from a stand out episode of Trek. In my estimation, TNG was at its worst when exploring Data’s non-existent feelings. What stuck with me was the episode’s blink-and-miss-it return to the idea of rape gangs.

At first, I thought that the series missed an opportunity to pull the trigger on a much more emotionally resonant story. Legacy presents a version of Turkana IV that is a tea party compared to what Lt. Yar described. Why not show the audience what a failed future state actually looks like? Why not prove Worf correct, for once, and force Picard to send in the (space) marines?

In a post Battlestar Galactica world it’s easy to be cynical about Star Trek: TNG not pulling the trigger on rape gangs, implied as they may be. Nor should we forget that Season Six of TNG saw David Warner gracing the series for a torture porn/1984 episode. Five years after that, DS9′s The Siege of AR-558 would see  Starfleet security officers make necklaces of ketracel-white tubes plucked from dead Jem’Hadar. So I’ll put it to you, dear reader, did TNG push the envelope with its talk of rape gangs and failed nations in Legacy? Or did it run screaming from the edge of dark sci-fi and back into the comforting tropes of android-human empathy, only later poking its nose back into darker territory?