Space Ramblings

Monthly Archives: January 2014

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Did Post-Colonial Guilt Ruin Star Trek?

Anthwara

I’m quoting Samira Ahmed who writes

“Captain Kirk was always encountering worlds where computers had gone mad and gained control and needed to be re-set to liberate a superstitious population. (Top tip: This can be reliably done by getting Mr Spock to ask the Master computer to calculate to the last possible digit the value of Pi.)

But look what happened to Star Trek. Fed, I think, by a post-colonial guilt for the treatment of Native Americans, in the 90s it fell increasingly in thrall to superstition. A Native American first officer in Star Trek Voyager has visions which get taken seriously. And let’s not mention the Bajorans of Deep Space Nine – a tribe ruled by “prophets” who live in a wormhole. For Copson it’s a strange development: “30 years ago we had science fiction that was rational and progressive. But more recently it’s irrational, mystical aliens with ancient wisdom.”

I’m not sure that post-colonial guilt was that big of an influence on TNG writers but I could be wrong. Journey’s End was a clumsy episode about Native American post-colonial guilt and it was written by Ron Moore.

It also set up the whole DMZ and Maquis thing and created Chakotay’s backstory.

Journey’s End was written by Ron Moore and it wasn’t responsible for Deep Space Nine, but Ron Moore was responsible for a lot of what happened on DS9 and you can spot the underlying attitude in Ron Moore’s hostility to Starfleet and the Federation.

Ron Moore’s quote about Journey’s End is revealing

I felt that there was a built-in contradiction in a character that we’d said was like Mozart in his appreciation of higher mathematics and physics, yet was just on the same career path as any Starfleet cadet. I didn’t get it – if Wes is truly special and gifted, what the hell is he doing at the Helm? It seemed like he was only going to the Academy to live up to the memory of his father and the expectations of Picard, not because it was his best destiny. “Journey’s End” also seemed like an opportunity to see someone walk away from Starfleet with their head held high and just say “It’s cool, but not for me.” I was tired of everyone in the 24th century saying, “All I want to do is wear the uniform and serve on a starship.” Hey, it’s cool, but it’s not for everyone.

Deep Space Nine became that “Starfleet isn’t for everyone” series. Some people want to encounter aliens. Others want to worship them as Prophets.

Some people want rational and progressive Science Fiction that explores the universe. Others want a story about a Chosen One who is picked by aliens to fight evil.

Deep Space Nine didn’t happen in a vacuum. Babylon 5 came first and it won over a lot of Science Fiction fans. Star Wars with its mysticism did better than Star Trek.

Star Trek was an older product. Its ideas were clean and uncluttered. It looked forward to a future where we could all meet on common ground. Deep Space Nine rejected that future, but TNG was already rejecting it in places. DS9 allowed TNG writers to toss aside the Roddenberry structure and make their argument against everything that Star Trek stood for.

Even when Voyager and Enterprise tried to put the pieces back together again, the writers and producers didn’t understand how to speak that language. There are online fan series that do a good job of connecting to those TOS assumptions and Manny Cotto had his moments on Enterprise, but most producers and writers didn’t get it anymore. And younger audiences also wanted something else.

The most popular space SF television show of recent years was Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica which was like DS9 without any of the restraint or last shreds of plot logic. It was all foretold and predestined and inconsistent and dark and never had to make any sense because making sense was one of those old rational and progressive things that Star Trek used to do.

Chosen ones, dark sides and mysteries that can never be solved told across story arcs dominate genre series on television today. If Star Trek comes back to television right now, I don’t think that will change.

Futurama’s End

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Meanwhile, Futurama’s series finale (second series finale) is a charming goodbye to what used to make the series great not just because it once again draws on a big idea gimmick or links it to an emotional experience for Fry and Leela, though that combination has made for great episodes before, it’s also because Meanwhile gets the small stuff right.

Stuff like going back to the moon and meeting a mascot who lives out Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon, the St. Koch Cathedral, Bender barfing up nuts and bolts on a theme park ride or the use of a gimmick, a time button, in a dozen small clever ways from a moment that lasts forever to footprints on the ocean.

These were the kinds of things that Futurama used to do well and then it stopped doing them. It buried itself in repetitive lines, Hermes, Bender, Zoydberg and the Professor delivering their catchphrases in episodes with B stories almost as lame as their A stories. It brought in gimmicks, but wrapped them around weak stories. Like the Simpsons, it stopped caring about its characters and its stories and was satisfied bringing out Nixon’s head to deliver a Spiro Agnew joke that its aging writers still thought was as funny as it had been in the seventies.

Futurama used to do the New York stuff well. It used to fill episodes with tiny little details and milk laughs from its creative technobabble. It used to have great character moments instead of zombie catchphrases.

Meanwhile isn’t the first good episode this season, but it’s the best of them. It’s also Futurama going out on a high note that it doesn’t really deserve. Not coming after “Stench and Stenchibility”, “Leela and the Genestalk”, “T: The Terrestrial” or “2-D Blacktop”.

This season also had Assie Come Home and Game of Tones, but those would have been okay episodes in the old Futurama. Season 7 Part 2 wasn’t as awful as Season 7 Part 1 which was mostly unwatchable. There was nothing as bad as The Six Million Dollar Mon, Fun on a Bun or Naturama here. But there wasn’t all that much good either.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama began running on fumes years ago. Unlike the Simpsons, it wasn’t popular or profitable enough to keep doing it. It also couldn’t break out of its rhythm, introduce new characters or revitalize the formula.

Meanwhile is a nice goodbye to what the series used to be, but it’s better off canceled, just like it was the first time around.

The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, its original series finale, was a funny and clever sendoff. It also came after a season whose first half included A Taste of Freedom, Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV and Crimes of the Hot. Were Jurassic Bark, The Sting and The Why of Fry a fair trade?

I thought so back then.  But the trade off between Futurama’s bad episodes and its great episodes stopped working years ago. And it became harder to put up with episodes that weren’t just bad, but lazy, cynical and refried.

If Meanwhile were the standard, or at least if Assie Come Here had been, Futurama wouldn’t be network shopping now. Instead Meanwhile is a nice exit.

Let’s leave it at that.

Existence by David Brin book review

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Every now and then, David Brin pops out with an overstuffed novel full of characters and ideas set in a near-distant future. Existence is built on the same template as Earth, but the Kiln novel tag is appropriate since it feels unfinished.

Existence reads like a first draft of a promising novel. There are a lot of brilliant ideas, but the novel is unfinished in ways that become obvious once the final third jumps years into the future, becomes truly interesting and collapses in a tangle of plot elements.

Its basic premise of an intelligent alien chain letter powered by the manipulative agendas of the consciousness of countless species propagating themselves like a virus is brilliant and ought to have made for a much better novel than this one, but Brin pads that out with a lot of unnecessary human characters and plots and then abruptly fast forwards it to the future discarding a lot of the excess elements. And then he does it again.

Applying the insane logic of internet wars and social collapse on an interstellar scale with spammers and botnets stretching across stars and civilizations, trolls and hackers passing themselves along through copies that are sent among the stars, is a great idea. And someone ought to do something with it.

There are echoes of Vernon Vinge’s brilliant Rainbow’s End and Fred Pohl’s Gateway series in Existence, but Brin’s future is less grounded and less ambitious, a splintered society whose celebrity journalists and their online information posses are plausible and dry, as are the battles between different factions whose motives and even agendas are poorly sketched in.

A lot of Existence’s plot involves a best-selling luddite novelist working for a cause whose renunciation agenda is never properly clarified. The same thing happens again when we reach outer space to encounter different alien robot factions fighting each other only to once again be left without an explanation for what the factions stand for and what the agenda of the alien probe narrator is.

A big chunk of Existence’s plot threads involve a rich playboy who survives a water landing with the help of dolphins and then never figures in the rest of the story except as a possible call forward to Brin’s Uplift stuff.

Things like these make Existence feel unfinished. The novel wavers between a handful of brilliant ideas that aren’t expanded and a lot of dry material that goes nowhere.

If Brin had the sense to embrace his ideas and build a novel around them instead of relying on the same tired old formula of trying to use a handful of diverse characters to sketch out a future world, Existence could have been a bold and brilliant novel.

Instead it’s a pile of literary rubble with some very interest things glittering in the ruins.

Kick Ass 2 Movie Review

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Kick Ass did a good job of building a movie around seven issues of a comic book. It did it by fixing some of the holes and expanding the characters.

Kick Ass 2 tries to do the same thing, but it has one big problem. Chloe Moretz has grown up. Its solution is to stick in a Mean Girls plot that is completely out of place.

Every other second superhero movie follows the pattern of having the hero contemplate hanging up the cape. But there’s usually more at stake than date night.

The high school scenes in Kick Ass told us why someone might want to be a superhero. The high school scenes in Kick Ass 2 don’t tell us anything and belong in a completely different movie.

That’s not the only problem with Kick Ass 2. Moving the showdown from Times Square to a warehouse doesn’t do the ending any favors. Neither does cutting out the dark ending of the comic and trading it for an action movie shark finish and a neat escape.

Kick Ass 2 might have worked if it had stuck to that darker ending where the superheroes are arrested, Kick Ass is a wanted man after killing his nemesis and Hit Girl is on the way to prison. Instead there’s an uplifting moral about how everyone has a hero inside them.

The things that Kick Ass 2 does well are the same things that Kick Ass did well. It develops the villains and makes them a lot more interesting and entertaining than Millar managed to do. And Jim Carrey steals every scene he’s in as Captain Stars and Stripes, even if he’s unrecognizable and decided to take his name out of the credits.

What it fails at is developing the heroes. If Kick Ass 2 had done as much for the development of the heroes as it did in developing Chris and his relationship with his father’s bodyguard and the attention it lavished on Mother Russia, it would be a good movie.

But no such luck.

The heroes get scaled down to dumber costumes. And Insect Man is traded for a guy who is there for comic effect. Hit Girl’s big conflict is wanting to date and be a cheerleader.

Evil has a solid trajectory. Good doesn’t.

Kick Ass 2 thinks the villains are a lot more entertaining than the heroes. But a movie where the villains are solidly developed and the heroine is off doing Mean Girls doesn’t work. The movie straddles this disconnect by not going too dark. The Captain’s dog lives. Katie doesn’t get raped. Kids don’t get shot. And that takes the energy Kick Ass had off the table.

Kick Ass went places you didn’t expect. With Kick Ass 2 you know who’s going to get eaten by the shark long before it happens.

Kick Ass 2’s big mistake is that it gets too comfortable being a comedy that it doesn’t think too much about the superhero stuff. It goes for easy laughs by building up the villains and lowering the stakes. It forgets that there already was a superhero comedy and this isn’t it.

Kick Ass backed out of the some of the comic’s darker moments, but it was smarter about what it replaced them with. Kick Ass 2 has nothing to replace them with.

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