Wednesday, February 14, 2007

24 vs. Star Trek

by William S. Kowinski

We watched the whole first season of "24." We were fascinated by the "ticking clock" device, the fact that each episode was supposed to represent a full day. We were sucked in by the stories--which of Jack Bauer's colleagues was the traitor, who will get the ear of the presidential candidate (the good guys, the bad guys), what will happen to his daughter, his wife? There were some credibility problems but its forward momentum and the characters kept us tuned in.

Then it was renewed as a series, though it seemed fantastic that another credible plot could be constructed using that all-in-one-day, ticking clock format. So we tuned in again for the first show of that second season, and they had what looked like a story that might work. Keifer Sutherland, so impressive before, was as intense as ever. But early in that show, he tortured a possible witness, and then killed him in cold blood. And that's when I stopped watching, and I haven't seen a full episode since.

But I have seen enough, and heard enough about the show, to know that if anything "24" has escalated the elements of that episode that turned me off--a level and kind of violence that simply isn't credible, and is otherwise excessive and gratuitious, its only function being to compensate with cheap thrills for the lack of inventiveness in the storytelling.

This past week or so, these aspects of "24" have become quite controversial. I saw Keifer Sutherland on the Charlie Rose show, saying that politically he's a liberal, that the torture in the show is a device, that in reality such "ticking clock" scenarios hardly ever happen (where the good guys have to extract information about an imminent attack) and that getting such information through torture almost never happens (as Sutherland said, people being tortured will tell you whatever you want to hear.) Yet he remains the star of the show--it's won him awards, and as he acknowledged, it rescued a very shaky career. But it's all just a show, he said.

But evidence is emerging that it doesn't stop there. Since 9/11, shows like "24" have increasingly shown graphic and violent torture. And these scenes are literally being reenacted by real interrogators, torturing real people, in some cases replicating what they just saw on "24."

Although "24" is the most frequent and violent purveyor of TV dramatized torture, it isn't alone. Another show that human rights groups name is "Lost," produced by J.J. Abrams, who happens to be the producer in charge of the next Star Trek feature film--in effect, in charge of the Star Trek future.

But isn't this torture and violence part of the gritty reality of the post-9/11 world of terrorism? And isn't it a legitimate tool of drama anyway? In examining these and related questions, we might also discover why the world needs Star Trek and especially the Star Trek vision, now more than ever.

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