Monday, March 29, 2021

Discovering Discovery


 The first season of Star Trek: Discovery I’ve watched all the way through was its most recent: its third season. Although I didn’t exactly binge-watch, I did wait until all the episodes were available to begin.  I read capsule descriptions before watching an episode but little of the media and none of the social media chatter.  Because I hadn’t seen previous seasons, I’m sure I missed character and plot developments, but basically I had no trouble following the arc of this season or the individual stories.

 The season begins with the Federation starship Discovery science officer Michael Burnham arriving alone from Discovery’s pre-Kirk era to the year 3188, which is approximately 800 years after the 24th century era of The Next Generation (including the Picard series) and therefore farther in the future than any previous Star Trek story has yet been set.

  The problem of imagining and showing technology of a future that far ahead is partly ameliorated by what Burnham discovers: that more than a century before, a sudden and inexplicable accident (called “the burn”) destroyed most of the dilithium that fueled warp drive, along with the starships using it, everywhere in the universe.  The implication is that in the resulting disconnection and chaos, technological advancement mostly stopped. Reference is made to the 23rd century as a kind of golden age of technology.  By now, the continuity of technology in Star Trek is such a complete muddle that this incongruity barely registers.  It’s become part of the suspension of disbelief necessary to watch the new shows.  But the “burn” and subsequent falling apart of the Federation is the major driver of this season’s stories.

 Burnham (played by Sonequa Chaunte’ Martin-Green) meets Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala), a “courier” with his own spaceship.  They “meet cute” (as the old movie cliche goes) and go off together, he to rescue threatened species and she to search for Discovery, which was to follow her.  The starship arrives in the second episode, and Burnham finds it in the third.  By the fifth episode, Discovery has located the remnants of the Federation, rejoins it, gets an upgrade (with “programmable matter,” the chief innovation in technobabble.)  Discovery becomes especially valuable to the Federation because it employs a “spore drive” that can take it anywhere instantaneously without dilithium.  And the story goes on from there.

 Thanks to the quality of acting and characterization, I pretty quickly bought into this Discovery crew, and of course that’s essential, not only to the arc of the season but to the individual and often character-driven episodes.

 Discovery visits Earth, the planet formerly known as Vulcan, and the Trill home world, all of them no longer members of the Federation.  All these worlds are tense and troubled. With the season’s third episode, “Forget Me Not,” which takes Discovery to the Trill home world, I was surprised to find it at times both dazzling and moving. That’s become an unfamiliar feeling.  Moments in the Abrams movies and Picard were stirring or nostalgic, but not this kind of emotional lift I remember from movies and episodes of the Roddenberry/Berman era. 

 While one of the baddies of the season was fairly creepy, the villains seemed pretty rote.  At least they weren’t as operatically evil as the Romulans in Picard.  The Georgiou character was intriguing, and her subplot was mildly interesting, but pretty obviously a setup for a spinoff.  This sequence however included the absolute worst episode of the season for me, “Terra Firma” part 2. 

 From what I knew about the series, its greatest weakness seemed to be its dependence on the mirror universe, and all the pitfalls of that concept were on parade in this episode.  The unfamiliar worlds of science fiction cause a particular set of problems in maintaining the credibility necessary for drama.  It’s a very delicate balance.  The cartoonish nature and characterizations of the evil twins in the mirror universe can easily push it over into caricature and unbelievability.  Despite some insights, that happened here. 

 Sure, we all have a dark side, and here in the US we’ve seen what society going over to the dark side looks like. But there are other ways to make these points. The mirror universe in Star Trek worked exactly once, in the original series, because it was a high concept and sui generis.  Ever since, it’s principally been an excuse for the actors to overact, and the writers to relax their necessary discipline and indulge themselves. 

 But this episode makes it even worse with an extended sequence of what must be called torture porn.  Perhaps an audience used to zombie carnage as entertainment doesn’t see it this way. But for me it doesn’t belong in Star Trek. It seems however that these new shows are determined to indulge themselves.  The notorious instance of graphic violence in Picard is why I now always read the capsule descriptions of these episodes before watching.  I want to know what I should skip, or (as I did in this episode) fast-forward through.

 The final set of episodes concerning the dilithium planet and the showdown at Federation headquarters end the season on a high point, though some of the plot points don’t bear close examination.  These episodes had some intriguing science fiction ideas, a climax of feeling, and both enacted and stated the season’s theme: the value and necessity of connection. 

 I did run across a comment suggesting that the story reflects the isolation and disconnection of a Covid 19 plagued world.  I didn’t see that.  I did see a metaphor for the current hard divisions in politics and society, the seemingly unbridgeable gaps between factions (and what is in at least one case an armed camp.)  Viewed this way, the theme of connection is a powerful one, in the Star Trek tradition.  (And in this context, the insistence on justice in the final episode is also to the point.)

 The theme works in tandem with Discovery’s most conspicuous representation of an aspect of Star Trek’s soul: championing diversity by enacting it.  The point I want to make above all others here is this: as an old fart who was watching when Captain Kirk first appeared on the television screen, I love that there are so many strong women characters in this series.  I don’t mean this just as a matter of principle, but as dramatically successful.  And when I say strong I mean full and varied characters, not simply assertive fighters.  This series foregrounds them, and I was completely engaged.

 Similarly, Discovery may not have had much Star Trek competition in the portrayal of non-awkward non-heterosexual relationships, but this season it portrays them and the characters involved so naturally that anyone can identify with them.  Just as importantly, these characters contribute and they are connected with everyone else on the crew.  Though the writers struck gold in using the previously established Trill as at least metaphorically non-binary etc., more than anything, the actors involved made this work. The characteristic they played most effectively I thought was dignity.  That fit especially well with the understated nobility of the Discovery crew.

 At the same time, this season of
Discovery gave us an ongoing man/woman heterosexual relationship with some heat.  That’s pretty rare in the Star Trek past.  But Sonequa Chaunte’ Martin-Green and David Ajala have such chemistry that the romantic comedy banter was giddy, with a subtext of passion.  Ajala creates a compelling character, with a quiet masculinity, a watchful confidence and ready but not showy strength. Both actors have charisma to burn, which only adds to what is among the most successfully portrayed romances in Star Trek.

 Doug Jones as Saru was convincing. He is one of the more conspicuous characters to depict the difference that the Starfleet or Federation ethos makes in a person’s sense of self and sense of purpose—something that’s deep in the knowledge of old-time fans.  Oded Fehr’s credibility as the head of Starfleet was crucial to the season.  But it’s the charisma and abilities of Sonequa Chaunte’ Martin-Green that thread through this season to bring it home.

Friday, March 26, 2021

90

 
Happy 90th birthday to William Shatner (March 22), and remembering Leonard Nimoy on the 90th anniversary of his birth (March 26.)

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Gulliver's Star Trek

Captain Gulliver?

Marking Herb Solow’s death last year, I was among those who recalled his suggestion of the Captain’s Logs as one of his contributions to Star Trek. The idea came to him in discussions with Gene Roddenberry about a book they both admired, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. But that was not this book’s only influence. Gulliver’s Travels is an important ancestor not only of Star Trek but of science fiction in general. 

 Apart from Roddenberry, the key participants in developing Star Trek from a concept to a television series were probably executive Solow, producer Robert Justman and writer Sam Peeples. In the early pages of Star Trek: The Real Story, the book Solow authored with Justman, Solow recounts how enthusiastic he and Gene Roddenberry were about Swift’s classic in one of those early discussions. It got to the point, he wrote, that they were ready to rename the entire series Gulliver’s Travels, and instead of Captain Pike or Kirk, the starship would be led by Captain Gulliver.

 A few days later they thought better of it and returned to the original title. Solow wrote that, having studied Swift’s 18th century book in college, he had more easily suspended disbelief in the fantastic story because the narrator was recounting travels he’d had in the past, in the matter-of-fact manner of a report. Swift was commandeering for his own purposes a well-known narrative form, the traveler’s tale, or the tale of exploration that flourished from the 15th century well into the 19th. Solow theorized that the Captain’s Log voiceovers, placing the voyages in the past, would make them more credible.

 Unfortunately that’s not what the Captain’s Logs actually do in the series or its descendants. They are updates in the midst of a mission such as questions a Captain is trying to answer, actions they intend to take, or simply summaries of events that have taken place off-camera (during the commercials perhaps)—but the mission being described is not in the past. 
 

Still, Gulliver’s Travels was a major influence on Star Trek, and on Gene Roddenberry. He talked about one important aspect in an interview. “I thought with science fiction I might do what Jonathan Swift did when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels,” Roddenberry said. “He lived in a time when you could lose your head for making religious and political comments. I was working in a medium, television, which was heavily censored, and in contemporary shows I found I couldn’t talk about sex, politics, religion and the other things I wanted to talk about. It seemed to me that if I had things happen to little polka-dotted people on a far-off planet, I might get past the network censors, as Swift did in his day.” 

 Indeed, Swift saw his work as a veiled critique of his times. So in his account of Gulliver’s first voyage, Lilliput stood in relation to the neighboring kingdom of Blefuscu as 18th century England did to France, and a number of characters were based on statesmen and military leaders of the time.

 But had these parallels to now long forgotten people and events been the dominant aspect of Gulliver’s Travels, by now it would be an obscure literary footnote.  Other features of Swift’s tale kept it alive through the centuries, and in the process, deeply influenced even the science fiction and fantasy of our time, including Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

 Most modern science fiction can be traced directly back to one author in the last decade of the 19th century: H.G. Wells. In his book Alternate Worlds science fiction writer and teacher James Gunn lists fourteen classic themes of science fiction. Wells is the first author to employ eight of them, and the second or third writer to use four more—which is all the themes except two. Scholar Frank McConnell comments, “The omission of Wells from those two is debatable.” Science fiction scholar Darko Suvin is even more specific: “...All subsequent SF can be said to have sprung from Wells’ The Time Machine.
 

In a preface to a collection of his science fiction novels, Wells noted: "My early, profound and lifelong admiration for Swift, appears again and again in this collection...” And while he also cited its influence in his “predisposition to make the stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussions," what else he learned from Swift—including ways to use a connection to even earlier sources—is evident in the range of his science fiction. 



 At this point it might be useful to briefly review what Gulliver’s Travels contains. Most people are first exposed to it as children, but almost entirely to the story of Gulliver’s first voyage, to Lilliput, where he is an immense giant in comparison to the tiny size of the Lilliputians. In fact, a Google image search for Gulliver’s Travels yields illustrations mostly of this episode. The illustration I use here is from the My Book House series, and the very book where I first saw the story. At least the words I read were Swift’s—most children today see film or cartoon versions that use the premise but not Swift’s writing.

 However, Lilliput represents only the first of four voyages in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver’s second voyage is to Brobdingnag, a nation of giants in which Gulliver is about the size that Lilliputians were to him. 

 

The third voyage took him first to Laputa, an island floating in the sky, with a population of intense thinkers whose tortured musings on science, mathematics and music led them to contempt for anything practical, like a well-built house. Also, due to their astronomical observations, they were excessively fearful of catastrophes in the far future.

 Laputa ruled over the continent below, called Balnibarbi, where Gulliver went next. There he found a society that had amplified and misinterpreted a few shreds of science from Laputa, and devoted their society to utopian projects of impossible complexity to be realized in an ever-receding future, while neglecting the work and the efficiency available to them in the present.

 Making his way home, Gulliver visited Glubbdubdrib, described as in North America west of California. It is an island of magicians, where the Governor had the power to call into being any historical personages that Gulliver desired to meet. Then among the Luggnuggians he learns the disadvantages of living too long.
 

On these voyages, Gulliver had signed on as a ship’s doctor, but for his fourth voyage he began as the captain of a merchant ship. But when several of his crew died of a sickness, he was forced to hire unscrupulous replacements who soon engineered a mutiny and left him on an unknown shore. There he was captured by the Yahoos, primitive humans, then rescued by the Houyhnhmns, a race of intelligent horses.

 This brief outline itself suggests any number of science fiction stories, including Star Trek episodes. They also suggest science fiction’s roots in folklore, and the basic stance, the secret ingredient, that makes science fiction work in its role of illuminating our present. 

 Centuries after the society Swift was criticizing and satirizing has disappeared, Gulliver’s Travels retains its charm, its magic, and even its relevance. A major reason why is its connection to more ancient folk and mythological stories, and to figures that may intrigue and delight us, but may also have deeper relationships to archetypes of human experience.


 For example, Swift’s best-known invention, the Lilliputians, were preceded by the “little people” in various mythologies of Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as Tom Thumb, the first fairy tale to be published in English.

 There are giants and satyrs in Greek mythology, and magicians capable of conjuring up ghosts in many folk traditions. The very idea of a voyage to unknown lands where strange beings and strange societies exist—I’m trying hard not to say strange new worlds—is the theme of many fairy tales and folk tales.

 Like Swift, H.G. Wells populated his science fiction with new versions of old wonders. This was a key insight by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin in his perceptive essay on Wells. (Zamyatin was the author of the pioneer dystopian novel We, as well as a book editor who published Wells in Russia). “The motifs of the Wellsian urban fairy tales are essentially the same as those encountered in all other fairy tales: the invisible cap, the flying carpet, the bursting grass, the self-setting tablecloth, dragons, giants, gnomes, mermaids, and man-eating monsters,” he observed.

 But the essential lesson is suggested by that bit of misdirection that both Wells and Roddenberry mentioned—by setting the tale in some strange time and place—some Out There—its relevance to this time and place can either be inferred or ignored. It can even be denied. It’s just a story.

 But that has more general and more profound applications. For another place and time provides a perspective, a place to step back and look with fresh eyes. That idea can then be expanded in all kinds of ways, as Swift did, and as science fiction does. It’s about perspective, about a place to stand and look. 

In science fiction, it’s about looking at humanity from an alien’s point of view, or looking at an alien society and seeing more clearly the hopeful or uncomfortable aspects of one’s own world. Or, as often happens in 23rd and 24th century Star Trek, clarifying the insights and principles humanity has come to embrace.

 Strange new worlds provide a perspective—a way to view humanity and its societies as from the outside, or in contrast to very different beings and societies. This ability to stand outside the contemporary world, even a little, is essential to science fiction, and two of its primary modes: the dystopian and the utopian tale.

 Swift did this partly by inference and allegory, but also directly as when Gulliver discussed his own society with the leaders of the various places he visited—first with great pride, but then with increasing doubt and dread. In science fiction this can be accomplished by time travel, as when the 23rd century Enterprise crew visits the San Francisco of the 1970s in Star Trek: The Voyage Home. Similar scenes can be found in many science fiction tales over the years. 

 Wells learned the lesson of contrasts, which intrigue us and provide new perspective. Just as Gulliver learned about his own pretensions when he found himself humbled by giants, Wells’ stories work out how perspectives change when someone is the only person who can see in a country of the blind, or who has taken a drug that speeds up his perceptions so that he effectively becomes invisible (an idea that recurs in Star Trek.)

 Science fiction has often followed these patterns. Sometimes Gulliver’s Travels influenced science fiction directly. Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, particularly the Buster Crabbe movie serials, made Flash a kind of Gulliver, as well as pretty much copying the island floating in the sky. And there is at least a glimmer of Spock in the fourth book, where the intelligent horses are models of restraint who, when hearing Gulliver describe his human society, consider it totally illogical. 

 There’s even a little 18th century preview of Star Trek technobabble that opens the second book, where Swift goes into detailed and nonsensical nautical jargon (“We reeft the Foresail and set him, we hawled aft the Foresheet.. belayed the Foredown-hall...and hawled off the Lanniard of the Wipstaff...”), which he copied out of a mariner’s magazine. 

 The lessons of contrast may link Swift to Star Trek in a more specific way. In one of the critical analyses included in the Norton Critical Edition of Gulliver’s Travels, Samuel Holt Monk wrote about the idea of “man’s middle state” that was prominent in the 18th century. Swift’s friend, the poet Alexander Pope expressed it this way: “Placed on the isthmus of a middle state/A being darkly wise, and rudely great.” Roughly speaking, humans were below God and the angels, and above the animals, but human nature contained elements of both higher and lower beings.

 In its 23rd century way, Star Trek explored humanity’s middle state as the Enterprise confronted beings vastly more powerful and intelligent, and civilizations much more primitive. By changing proportions the way Swift did in Lilliput and Brobdingnag, features of human society and attitudes are revealed more clearly.

The Organians in Errand of Mercy

 Sometimes the more powerful beings are revealed as arrogant and failing in feeling, especially compassion. One such original series episode even included the Greek god Apollo to emphasize human growth from a more primitive and passive time. Occasionally, the higher civilization reveals the follies of human (and Klingon) preoccupations, as in the classic episode “Errand of Mercy.” Often the more powerful beings test humanity through the Enterprise crew. 

 On other voyages, the Enterprise encounters societies that suggest humanity in earlier stages of cultural evolution, or even societies almost equal in development that lack a key insight that 23rd century humans have adopted. These encounters often lead to the Enterprise crew recognizing the strengths and weaknesses, but above all the reality, of their middle state: their combination of physical passions, emotional connections, mental intelligence and spiritual yearnings and commitments—the constituents taken together and harmonized, say contemporary writers, of the human soul. 
 

Sometimes their ability to imagine or conceptualize alternatives proves important; other times their emotions (especially when the more powerful beings are machines.) Seeing himself split in two revealed to Kirk the need to accommodate all sides of his nature.

 This interplay of qualities is mirrored in the crew itself, especially the so-called triumvirate of the original series: the cerebral and ethical Spock, the emotional McCoy, the passionate Kirk, who understands his need as Captain to preserve the balance of these qualities. The Captain is the hero of the middle state.  
The Traveler in TNG

The middle state also implies diversity: the diversity of humans on the bridge, the diversity of humans and aliens working together. This also is an example for “higher” beings and “lower” civilizations that tend to be one-sided. (The emphasis changes somewhat in the Next Generation and later, where some “higher” or just vastly different beings are viewed with humility and respect, and lesser beings are honored as all life forms are.)

 For just as Star Trek stories about the Federation v. Klingons or Romulans are in some sense allegories for encounters between human societies, other Trek stories or aspects of stories find models in folk tales and teaching stories about animals and magical creatures, although often filtered by earlier science fiction or television plots.  All of them function as a place to view some aspect of humanity from the outside as well as subjectively.

 But the potential for using such figures to tell stories about the human condition was demonstrated by Jonathan Swift. And by going along on Gulliver’s travels, storytellers from H.G. Wells to Gene Roddenberry and beyond defined and demonstrated what science fiction could uniquely do.  So maybe it was Gulliver's Star Trek after all.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

R.I.P. in 2020


In 2020, Star Trek lost the last of its founders in Herb Solow. Along with Robert Justman and Sam Peeples principally, he helped Gene Roddenberry develop Star Trek as a television series. He shared Gene’s enthusiasm for Gulliver’s Travels, noticing that it gained credibility by being a report made afterwards. This suggested the device of the Captain’s Log. As a new Desilu executive, Solow guided the series into its two pilots and then into production. With Justman, he later co-authored Inside Star Trek, which besides engaging in the score-settling that occurred after Roddenberry’s death, adds to the panoply of information about Star Trek’s origins and first years.






 2020 also saw the death of probably the last major figure of the pulp science fiction magazine era in writer, editor and anthologist Ben Bova. A six-time Hugo Award winning and prolific author, Bova also edited Analog, following the iconic John W. Campbell in 1971. He was an editor of the glossy future-oriented magazine Omni in the late 70s and early 80s. He’d been a technical writer on the first U.S. satellite launching rocket program for the Navy, Project Vanguard, and later became scientific advisor for a number of television shows and movies.  



Maurice Roeves

 Among Star Trek actors who passed in 2020, probably the most prominent is Ben Cross, who played Sarek in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. Cross achieved initial fame with his signature role in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. The accomplished UK actor Maurice Roeves played the Romulan commander in the TNG episode “The Chase,” as well as appearing in a classic era Doctor Who story. He appeared in feature films through 6 decades, beginning with the role I best remember: Stephen Dedalus in the 1967 production of James Joyce’s Ulysses

 Among the original series actors who died in 2020 were Robert Leroy Samson, Marj Dusay, Dyanne Thorne, Erik Holland and Harry Basch. 

 
Pamela Kosh

TNG actors include Kevin Conway (who also starred in the TV version of Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven), David Lander, Michael Keenan (who also appeared in DS9 and Voyager), Anthony Jones, Edward Penn and Cheryl Marie Wheeler Duncan, William Thomas, Jr. and Pamela Kosh (who memorably played Mrs. Carmichael in “Time’s Arrow part 2.”) TNG also lost writer Lan O’Kun (co-writer of the story for “Haven.”)





Galyn Gorg

 Deep Space Nine lost actors Galyn Gorg (Korena Sisko), James Otis, William Dennis Hunt, and director of photography Douglas Knapp. 

 Among those Voyager lost were veteran actor Richard Herd (who played Owen Paris), Garret Sato, Mel Winkler and Ryan MacDonald.

Tommy Lister, Jr., John Mahan and Geno Silva appeared in Enterprise. 








Claudette Nevins

 George Sasaki appear in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Claudette Nevins in Star Trek: Insurrection. Stunt player Noby Arden worked on Star Trek: Nemesis









Honor Blackman

 The most prominent actor to appear in a classic Doctor Who story to die in 2020 was likely the famed movie and television actress Honor Blackman. 

 
Ed Cameron

The oldest veteran of Doctor Who so far died in 2020: the distinguished British actor Earl Cameron was 102. Among those that Doctor Who lost were David Collins, Nicholas Parsons and writer Pip Baker.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On Picard: Pretty Much My Last Word


I've finally gone back to see the last four episodes of Star Trek: Picard's first season, including a re-view of the first four episodes and the last one.  I will on no account ever watch the fifth episode again, and the sixth seemed dominated by my least favorite elements, so I skipped it.  Though I didn't intend to write any more about this series, I was persuaded to do so.

I remain impressed by the quality of the acting, and for the most part of the writing and direction.  Patrick Stewart and (in multiple roles) Brent Spiner were classic, and Jeri Ryan brought an effective new personality to Seven of Nine (importing flavors of the character she played on the Bosch series.)  The new actors had to contend with the fragmentation of the story-telling and the fitful writing, especially if Patrick Stewart's experience in not knowing that Picard would die in the final episode generally meant the actors didn't know the full arc of their characters when they started.

 Those that ended up as the new crew also ended up as appealing and differentiated characters, particularly Michelle Hurd as Raffi, though it's not clear to me how they all got there.  The series narrative approach strikes me as more novelistic, and takes some getting used to.  Maybe viewers younger than me get it faster.  Or there were just too many new characters and not enough time.

Though the moral questions confronting individual characters are worthy and dramatic, I don't think that, even at best, the story advances the Star Trek saga very much.  Star Trek VI is perhaps the most specific of many examples that cover much the same territory about fears of the Other, and Generations made the case for mortality as defining what's human (although this series takes it further, to a point that seems dubious to me--but that's a broader philosophical question.) Questions that arise from artificial life forms were dramatized in both the Next Generation and Voyager series.  And to me other such questions were dealt with more artfully in the Spielberg/Kubrick feature film, A.I.

The episode with the Rikers was a high point, less fan service than a concise and convincing portrait of this aging couple, and their tragedy that resulted from the Federation's synthetics ban.  At the same time, their daughter (played beautifully by Lulu Wilson) represented youthful hope.

There were elements of the finale that didn't pass the smell test for me, such as Soji's sudden total identification with the synths, to the point of pleading with Picard to see things from "our" point of view, as they were about to wipe out intelligent biological life, when she had consciously been a non-human synth for about five minutes.   Her villainous doppelganger, like the Romulan sister and brother, was cartoonishly evil.  (But then so is Donald Trump, so maybe that was the point.) The synths we saw on their planet were generally as lively as manikins, and seemed about as smart.

The finale itself seemed rushed, while earlier episodes seemed overly elaborated, even granted the character moments.  But this gets into a broader point of where this series falls in television history, and in Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was born into a world of television in which cable channels were starting to be influential with original programming, but which was still dominated by the three broadcast networks.

 The original series Star Trek got its second and bigger life through syndication (often on small UHF stations with weaker signals that themselves got new and bigger life when they were included on cable systems.) The Next Generation was produced to go directly to syndication, and its success (including a prime time Emmy nomination for Best Dramatic Series) helped change television.

Now television fiction has gone through cable to streaming services, which have developed their own forms and preferences.  The 8 to 12 episode series, sometimes released all at once, has become something of a standard.  Dramatic shows are less often a series of separate stories in a common story universe and continuous time-line, than a single season-long story told in fragments.  The model in many ways for fiction in a fictional and fantastic world became Game of Thrones, with fiction in a purportedly realistic world modeled after, for example,  House of Cards.

 To maintain interest and create buzz, character and plot developments are often sensational and extreme.  There might be a kind of winking quality to this, a "meta" fiction vibe that exploits the most simplistic techniques for effect while simultaneously inviting the audience to laugh ironically at it all--and tweet about it as they watch.

I might isolate two elements of this new television world as they apply to Picard. The first element is the new relationship of fans to the storytelling, represented by the new term, "fan service."

The new dramas depend on buzz that is maintained on social media and through websites, more or less the equivalent of continuous fan magazines. "Tentpole" movies are marketed in a similar way, with creators interacting with fans.  While Gene Roddenberry encouraged and even organized fan expression and interaction during Star Trek's network run and afterwards, he drew a stern line at fans being able to dictate or directly influence story and storytelling. He turned back any such demands with no room for doubt.

To its credit, Star Trek: Picard does little of this.  Perhaps the story gets contorted a bit to include favorite characters, but mostly they add a lot to story and the characters. The continuing chemistry among the Next Generation actors is both well-served and inspiring.  However, bringing back beloved characters just to kill them off (elegantly and not really for major characters, cruelly and distastefully for minor characters) might even be seen as some kind of revenge on the concept of fan service.

The second element is the language and depiction of violence. The broadcast networks controlled and still control these, while cable and especially streaming services are largely free of restrictions. In the past at least, the broadcast networks were partly responding to features of the laws governing signals over the "public airwaves" versus the cable and Internet, which are treated as unregulated private property.  They also had commercial sponsors sensitive to public upset.

In the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry chafed under the restrictions of network drama, including active network censorship.  But his greatest concern was commercial censorship--in the example he often gave (apocryphal or not), characters in a western were not permitted to "ford" a river if the sponsor was Chevrolet.  His approach to language however was to avoid slang and expressions of the time that could become dated, and were not credible in the mouths of characters in the 23rd or 24th century.

Similarly, given GR's vision for the Federation and Starfleet,  the use of 20th or 21st century profanity is not credible, at least in most instances that appear in Picard.  The head of Starfleet has exactly two scenes in the series, with maybe three lines each time--and yet she drops the F-Bomb both times.  While I laughed, I was also taken out of the scene, and the whole sequence became a joke.  I could not take her seriously as head of Starfleet.  As a background speaker starts to say in Star Trek VI, just because you can do a thing, doesn't mean you must.

That goes more than double for the graphic violence, particularly in episode 5.  Perhaps the slasher aesthetic, the Game of Thrones syndrome, softens this for contemporary audiences, but to me it seems at best a lapse of taste, and exactly the opposite experience I expect from Star Trek.  As I've written previously, children who assumed this was the Star Trek they knew could have actually been traumatized by this violence.  I pretty much was myself, also because I didn't expect it in a Star Trek production.  (A similar situation to the violence that opened the fifth episode recurs in the finale, but it is handled much differently.  Was that so hard?)

This kind of violence and language has a particular ramification.  One result of both network standards and GR's vision of the future Federation was that Star Trek was a show that children could watch, as well as adults.  This was true even when Next Generation was not as directly controlled, since it was produced independently.


This became a cherished characteristic of Star Trek: not only that children could watch it--and then watch it again as adolescents and adults, seeing new things within it each time--but that families could watch it together.  Star Trek became something which parents introduced to their children, and they in turn introduced to their children.

But today's television environment is intentionally fractured, and programs are specialized.  This has become the trend within the "tentpole" "franchises," or storytelling universes, like Star Wars and Star Trek. Even when Star Trek had three new series running at the same time, the audience--a general audience-- was broadly speaking the same for all of them. Today's Star Trek television shows are fairly rigidly divided into the action-adventure of Discovery, the adult drama of Picard, and now the comedy of Lower Decks.  Picard is now and forever an adults-only space.  And that's more than a pity.

I would suggest a further implication of all this that seems to me expressed by the Picard series, especially when combined with some internal Star Trek history.

Two things changed the Star Trek universe: the Dominion war in Deep Space Nine, and 9/11.  It has never changed back, nor gone forward.

In an effort to darken the Star Trek universe and introduce more (or easier) dramatic conflict, writers chafing under GR's vision for Starfleet and the Federation went back to old war movies for their continuing story of the Dominion War.  Like those war movies, these stories weren't realistic, but pushed adrenaline buttons with hatred, intrigue and revenge.  Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coons and other writers and participants who had actually been in World War II and Korea, who knew the reality that no drama could fully express, had a far different vision for the stories they wanted to tell. They told the stories that made Star Trek different, and that gave this storytelling universe its character.

The alien terrorist attack on Earth in Enterprise
Then just as the new series Star Trek Enterprise was about to take Star Trek back to the wonder of discovery and exploration, two passenger airliners hijacked by terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, another crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth was brought down into a Pennsylvania field by a revolt of passengers.  This was the day forever known as 9-11, and Enterprise immediately changed its emphasis to fictionalize such a situation.

It was not a temporary adjustment.  Even after Enterprise stopped production, Star Trek novels continued to obsess over terrorism, covert operatives and--reflecting the new U.S. policy--torture.  One Next Generation novel actually had Picard's Enterprise (and Counselor Troi!) torturing prisoners for information--an explicit rejection of one of the series' most famous episodes.

The J.J. Abrams films continued the mood, with an increasingly militarized Starfleet, complete with Nazi-style uniforms.  All of this tended to reshape GR's Star Trek universe until new Star Trek had little in common with it but the names and technologies.

In terms of the soul of Star Trek, this comes back to the essential point: the Star Trek future was at its best a model, a beacon of hope, a thought experiment that said, what if society consciously institutionalized the best human qualities, while guarding against its worst?  What if we actually learned from centuries of bloody mistakes, so it was in some sense not all in vain?  What would that look like?

What it did look like was unlike anything else on television or at the movies.  But now the Star Trek universe seems to me all but identical with other mostly dystopic portrayals of the future, especially the cycles of war and chaos in the Star Wars universe.   It is true that the moral questions in Picard are vastly more sophisticated--but those decisions confront individuals, the basis of most drama.  It's valid and worthy drama. But the universe is mostly wrong.

In this story universe, the Federation is so panicked that it turns away from anything synthetic after a single horrible outcome, with a fanatical rigor such that even medicine is affected. It abandons the Romulans, insuring that they will again be enemies, having learned nothing from the Treaty of Versailles after World War I (or, in the opposite way, from the Marshall Plan after World War II.)

Starfleet is so stupid that its head of security is a Romulan general, a spy and the fanatical head of a Romulan cult within its secret police. As presented in this series, it's cartoonish.  That she passes herself off as Vulcan is interesting, but undeveloped.

 It may seem also a reflection of contemporary reality, when the most transparently buffoonish people run governments. Or when everyone is so easily manipulated, even as the synthetics are convinced by a ploy (colluding in the killing of one to instantly motivate the others to kill every biological intelligence in the universe) that wouldn't pass muster in a Horatio Hornblower novel about warfare in the early 19th century.

But grant historical precedent to the ease of this deception. That history doesn't have to repeat itself was precisely the message--or the model-- in many if not most Star Trek episodes of the GR era.

Yes, Star Trek always reflected issues of the contemporary moment. But it confronted those issues within the 23rd or 24th century context of the Federation and Starfleet. How do they handle what we can't handle?  Instead, this Federation and Starfleet only tell us that humanity hasn't learned anything.  Not much of a future to aspire to.

In the finale of Star Trek: Picard's first season, Starfleet rides to the rescue anyway, and our new Picard crew warps off to new adventures, each of them changed, apparently in a changed universe.  Maybe the future is better.

Monday, May 04, 2020

On Picard: Not the Last Word

Not that anyone is waiting for my follow-up, but I did leave my response to the first season of Star Trek: Picard at its midpoint.  The reason I haven't posted is that I haven't seen the following episodes, and by now it's clear to me that it will probably be awhile before I do.

That's because of where I saw it going in that fifth episode combined with everything I've read about the rest of the story.  Though it's clearly unfair to judge a series by the opinions of others, everything I know about the story makes me very receptive to the sentiments expressed, for example, in Stephen Kelly's piece in the Guardian titled "Star Trek Picard is the dark reboot that boldly goes where nobody wanted it to."  

Kelly puts his finger on an overriding issue, which I wonder if post-Roddenberry era Star Trek creators really understand: "Yet the idea that the grittiness of shows such as Picard makes it mature and relevant, while the ethos of yesteryear Star Trek is now naive or too old-fashioned to survive, feels misjudged. The hope, optimism and sincerity of the original 60s series was in itself a radical act: a way of portraying the future as it should be (a multiracial cast in a time of civil rights struggle; peace and cooperation in a time of nuclear terror), rather than merely wallowing in things as they were."

The objection isn't to the depiction of darkness, or of troubled characters.  It is partly on the dominance of darkness, partly on how it is depicted, and partly on what seems to be missing, some of which is fundamental to Star Trek.  But I might test my doubts by seeing these episodes if I was drawn to the story.  While I recognize Michael Chabon's particular interest in the golem (a theme in his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and its fictional descendants,  I don't share that enthusiasm.  New Trek's obsession with "synthetics"--perhaps the least credible creations in the Star Trek universe, apart perhaps from Romulans with Roman names--leaves me completely cold, and frustrated.  There are so many more important and relevant--even crucial-- themes to explore.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  All I wanted to say here is that what I've read about the story has left me profoundly disconsolate.  Maybe someday I'll end up appreciating this series.  But right now I'm not yet ready to risk disappointment even in parts of this series I was looking forward to, notably the episode with the Rikers.  In the grips of coronavirus lockdown, things are just too weird now to invite more disillusion.

However, I do intend to resume posting here with essays on Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis, and explorations of the soul of the Next Generation, the series.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Star Trek's End? (With Update)

Just as I can't un-see what I saw in the fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard, I wonder if the damage it has done to the Star Trek universe can ever be undone.

The episode opens with the most graphic violence in the Star Trek saga, by far.  It was the worst moment I have experienced in watching television for a half century.

But that wasn't all.  There was further shock-inducing violence.  There were fine moments and performances.  Michelle Hurd played an affecting scene as Raffi. Jeri Ryan played Seven of Nine with a new wit and panache, more like a character I saw her play since her Star Trek days, on the Bosch series.  She presented an ethical dilemma, and her scenes with Picard were excellent.  Though she engaged in violence that was less graphic, it was still shocking. It's not just that she vaporized her antagonist, but that she casually killed a number of others in the process.

And then the final act of wanton violence, in the twist, when the character that seemed to embody the audience's innocence--a kind of Wesley character--turns out not only to be a deceptive double agent but commits the cruel murder of a former lover, and watches him suffer and die, as we do.  And that was pretty much the end of it for me.

People die in science fiction, but the manner of death as well as the reason for their deaths are important.  This is but one aspect of this episode that seems to attack the very nature of Star Trek as a television and movie saga.  The other is the now unremitting bleakness of the future it portrays, the apparent moral corruption of Starfleet and the effective collapse of the Federation.

I was in the first audience for Star Trek in the 1960s.  The times had elements of hope and adventure, but they were also very bleak, and we felt the assault and despair, every single day.  We were just a few years from the day in 1962 when I went to school feeling that I might not come home, on the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the possibility of thermonuclear fire and fallout were also part of everyday life, and had been since early childhood, including the Duck and Cover drills of first grade.

It was a time not only of political strife but of political violence. I was in school when my hero, President Kennedy, was shot and killed, and I saw the gunning down of his alleged assassin on live television.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy--my hope for the immediate future--were killed within weeks of each other in 1968.  In between several other leaders were shot and most were killed.  In addition, there was racial violence, and several times there were entire areas of American cities that burned.

Above all there was the despair of the Vietnam War.  Leaders were lying, and my contemporaries were dying.  Taken by force of law into the armed forces, their lives were never to be the same.  More of us suffered trauma, disability and death than any generation since.

The point of this summary is to suggest that these times we are experiencing right now are not the only bleak times, though I won't try to make comparisons.  The 60s was when Star Trek began--and while it told stories involving then-current moral and political issues, it depicted a better future.

It did so during the political, economic and moral traumas of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  And there was plenty of despair to go around in those decades as well.

Star Trek was a beacon of hope to so many because it modeled that better future--not just the technology but the behavior, the culture of Starfleet and the Federation. As such it was also a guide for how people could live their own lives in the present.  There is plenty to document all of this.  Despite the bleak times, Star Trek showed how things could be better--and people could be better.

This is essentially, more than any other one aspect, the soul of Star Trek.  Crucially, it was also part of the experience of watching Star Trek.  One of many unique qualities of the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek (from the original series through Enterprise, and the first ten movies) was that it entertained and inspired viewers of all ages, from children to their grandparents.  Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular were rare instances of shows that several generations of a family could watch, together.  

I can't comment on Star Trek: Discovery because I've seen very little of it.  But clearly this is no longer the case with Star Trek: Picard.  If I lost sleep over what I saw, I assume that even children of today could be damaged by seeing it.  I don't see a family watching this together.

I could let Discovery go by, and be watched by contemporary audiences used to this kind of television (the manipulation and contrivances, shock for effect, etc. that I've seen in the few episodes I watched of other popular sagas.)  Eventually I made peace with the Abrams movies, and what I didn't like about them.  For they were all the products of creators unrelated to the GR Star Trek.  They were of little relevance to me, but they didn't disturb the prior Star Trek TV and movies, which also remained the bedrock for many if not most Star Trek fans.

But I cautiously and somewhat skeptically looked forward to watching Star Trek: Picard, because of confidence in some of the people involved, especially those who carried with them the knowledge of that earlier Star Trek era.  Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes were of course a big part of it.

I was heartened as well as challenged by the first four episodes.  So I let myself look forward to Thursdays and a new episode of Picard. That ended with episode five.  A day after seeing it, I still feel that the nature of that violence, and the entire tenor of this episode, undermines the Star Trek universe.  It makes it hard even to see Star Trek's past in the same way.  If this is the future that follows all that we saw, what was the point?  The future is bleaker than ever.  Humanity has failed.  This may reflect what many of us feel about things at this historical moment, but except for individual commitments, it is no model.

Maybe that's the point.  But I repeat: Star Trek did not chiefly reflect the bleakness of the 1960s.  It modeled a possible future that gave some focus to the present, and some escape to a better world.  Many people watched it like they watched The West Wing during the Bush years, and some people--including me--watched Madame Secretary during these horrific years.

Of course there is dramatic justification for everything in episode five.  But for me Star Trek: Picard has become more 2020 television than Star Trek, and I will treat it as such.  I have no idea what the big secret is at the heart of this story, and I now no longer care enough to watch each episode as it becomes available. It's not worth it. My trust in this series and the people creating it is on hold.

More to the point, I will no longer innocently watch these upcoming episodes.  I will read the plot summaries after they air.  If I'm sufficiently interested, I'll watch them after the series concludes.

I gather from the day-after reviews and comments I've read online that this is a minority if not unique view.  People seem more upset that the same actor wasn't used for a couple of the returning characters than the violence of their demise.  So I'm also not confident that even spoilers will alert me to similar scenes in future episodes.  But for me this crossed a line that may not be able to be uncrossed, whatever happens in the rest of the series.  And it colors all of Star Trek with darkness, perhaps fatally.

Update: On his Instagram, Showrunner Michael Chabon responded to similar critiques of this episode, notably on its violence. His response was reproduced by various sites including Trek Movie here.

In my post here, I perhaps overdramatized the effect of this episode on Star Trek as a whole, and perhaps lacked patience in seeing how Starfleet and the Federation come out in this story, which is the first and only story so far to be set in its time period after the last TNG movie, apart from the setup in Abrams' first movie.

But otherwise I stand by this post, especially my interpretation of Star Trek's history and soul.  I continue to feel strongly that the specific violence that opened this episode is a lasting scar on Star Trek storytelling, as well as a bewildering failure of taste.  I am aware of Chabon's skill as a fiction writer.  I've followed his career since his first novel, and a little before that--as I taught briefly in the same University of Pittsburgh writing program in which he was a student, though I believe my time was a few years after his. I found his at times convoluted response on this episode to be reasonable but somewhat troubling in terms of Star Trek. In any case I have read summaries of the sixth episode but have not watched it.  I don't plan to change that procedure before the series ends.