What’s good about Enterprise

After finishing the first season of Enterprise, I can see clearly why it’s universally regarded as the weakest series. Half the characters are totally forgettable, the time travel plot is stupid beyond belief, and the theme song is simply intolerable. Now to be fair, the reason that the Next Generation characters were so much stronger is almost certainly due to exceptionally good casting rather than to the skill of the writers — I have no doubt that Ensign Mayweather would be unforgettable if played by a young LaVar Burton, for instance — and even in TNG it took them forever to figure out what to do with everyone (in fact, the actresses who played Tasha Yar and Beverly Crusher both complained of this and were written out after the first season, and Worf is little more than decorative until midway through the series).

What stands out to me about the series as its genuine contribution is the interplay between Vulcan and human society. We’ve learned a lot about Vulcan culture and of course the interaction between the rational Spock and the impulsive Kirk is the most loved feature of the franchise as a whole. But by that point, Vulcans and humans were already equal partners in the Federation. Showing the Vulcan reaction to humans when they are still clearly the inferior and subordinate society is something unparalleled in the rest of the franchise — and it’s genuinely interesting simply in itself, apart from its role in filling in the gaps in the Star Trek mythos (something that cannot be said of the greater detail about the Borg in Voyager, for instance).

I still think it would have been more interesting to have a season or two on earth before launching the first mission, because ironically, we know far more about Klingon, Ferengi, and Borg society than we do about the actual lifestyle of the average human in the Star Trek era. The one exception is the introduction of so-called “Boomer” culture, referring to the humans who lived for years on space freighters, which became family businesses. (Sadly, though, the one representative of that culture on the crew is played by a total non-entity, so I doubt it will get much exploration.) In general, though, I’m much more fascinated by the guy in future Oklahoma who found a Klingon in his silo than by yet another mission of exploration. I’m given to believe that they finally start exploring the average human’s reaction to all this alien business at the end of season 4 — but by that point it was too late.

What a Star Trek prequel should have been

We had to confront it eventually, and tonight The Girlfriend and I started Enterprise. I’m already fairly familiar with the general parameters of the show due to my fascination with reading Memory Alpha, and it seems clear to me that the show was not just a creative failure, but a conceptual failure. The problem is that it starts off with the first mission of Starfleet. By that time, all the really interesting events have already happened. How did humanity transition from a security state characterized by vast inequality to a planet with no war and no poverty? Why would humanity submit to the guidance of the Vulcans, who apparently did not use force in their dealings with Earth? Basically, the Star Trek franchise tells us about the dystopian pre-First Contact Earth in several iterations (the Eugenics Wars that produced Khan, the military tribunal in the pilot of TNG, the lockdown society that prompted the Bell Riots in DS9, etc.), and they show us First Contact itself — and then they skip ahead to the point where everything important has already been decided.

It’s difficult to imagine what a show about the transition would have looked like. Perhaps it would have been a bit like The Wire‘s experiment with the ad hoc legalization of drugs in “Hamsterdam” — but instead of being shut down, it would have been allowed to evolve and spread, until we could envision an entire society in which the War on Drugs was over.

Leaving the Evangelical Borg Collective: Seven of Nine and Me

The Girlfriend and I continue to obey some obscure drive to watch all of Star Trek, and currently we’re in the sixth season of Voyager. One of the most controversial characters in that series was Seven of Nine, a liberated Borg drone who was added to the cast in the fourth season and dominated the storyline for most of the fourth and fifth seasons. (Shorter version: some people think it’s a shame she displaced established characters and believe that her physical appearance was an attempt to pander to the adolescent audience; on the other hand, though, she’s a great character performed by a great actress and, my God, it’s a Borg crew member and the Borg are cool.) I’ve noticed that I have a seemingly disproportionate investment in this ancient controversy — I will defend Seven of Nine to the death as a major improvement to the show. I’m starting to realize that part of the reason is that I identify closely with her struggle to define herself in relation to her Borg past and her uncertain future. She was assimilated at such a young age that she hadn’t yet developed an identity of her own and will never not be Borg (the implants are required for her survival now, and she still retains the vast knowledge she gained as a member of the Borg Collective), but she can also never go back.

The revelation came when the Voyager crew met a trader who offered to sell Seven some components that belonged to her old Borg unit — I turned to The Girlfriend and said, “If it was me, they’d be offering DC Talk albums from my old youth group.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Devil: Made for TV?

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in supernatural themes, in novels, movies, and television. Vampires and zombies have been particularly successful, but few mythological creatures have been left totally unexplored. That’s why the absence of the devil from our entertainment landscape is so striking. There are lingering rumors of some kind of Exorcist remake, but that doesn’t really have much hope of being a long-lasting TV franchise. Thankfully, I’m here to help.

Basically, someone needs to make a show where the devil and his legions of demons have decided, like the vampires of True Blood, to make themselves known to the general public. Their primary ambition in “mainstreaming” would be to institutionalize the act of selling one’s soul, and they could also run a sideline of short-term demon possessions for various purposes, perhaps to be able to get away with a crime — this could be run by “rogue” demons. The main characters would be a demonic middle manager and his minions, and through various plot contrivances we could get a peak at higher levels in the satanic hierarchy. Subplots would include following the lives of people who’d sold their souls, plus watching short-term possessions play out. The rogue demons offering possessions could be pursued by a kind of demon police. Surely there are thirteen decent episodes in this premise.

This show would be the logical outgrowth of the sociopath trend and could potentially be the step too far that killed it — asking us to identify and sympathize with figures who are destroying human souls by means of debt.

Being a Woman in a Man’s Science Fiction Universe

Lately The Girlfriend and I have been watching Star Trek: Voyager, the first Trek series to feature a woman captain. The transition is different from the shift to a black captain in Deep Space Nine — whereas Sisko’s blackness (like Geordi LaForge’s before him) was glaringly never made a theme, at least until very late in the series, Janeway’s gender seems to be creating all kinds of neurotic symptoms as the series desperately tries to repress the flagrant sexism of the Star Trek franchise. In the first season, for instance, there were at least ten episodes that turned on whether the ship could widen a narrow opening sufficiently to penetrate it. If it happened once, I’d say that I’m reading too much into it — but it was used so obsessively that it’s impossible to ignore.

It’s gotten more subtle as the series has progressed, but the repressed sexism is still operational. This is most notable in the infamous episode Tuvix, where a bizarre transporter accident leads to the combination of two characters (Tuvok and Neelix, hence the name) into a single entity. This new character has his own personality and consciousness, and when they finally develop a way to separate Tuvok and Neelix back out, he strongly resists as he doesn’t want to die. Reportedly there are many fans who believe that Janeway is essentially a murderer for forcing Tuvix to undergo the procedure.

Now this moral dilemma at first appeared to be so convoluted that even an analytic philosopher could never have come up with it. Yet as I cast about for potential analogies, a significant one presented itself: namely, abortion. The most immediate analogy is to the possibility of an abortion to save the life of the mother (Tuvix at one point says he thinks of Tuvok and Neelix as his parents). Yet one could also say that there are echoes of more “optional” abortions where a mother’s life will be significantly disrupted by a child — because although Tuvok and Neelix are “dead” in the sense of no longer controlling their own lives, they are still in some sense “alive” because Tuvok shares their memories and their emotional responses to certain friends, etc. Indeed, it’s as though the issue of two people being permanently and irrevocably “stuck” with each other (as with a mother and child) and the issue of the sentience of the fetus are separated out, but in such a way as to exacerbate both issues. After all, Tuvix is much more clearly a full-fledged human(oid) being than a fetus is!

The fact that Janeway makes the final decision is also an interesting displacement. Neither Tuvok nor Neelix have any agency in the situation, but it is a woman who decides to terminate the “pregnancy” for the sake of the “parents.” She is at once the “abortion doctor” (since the ship’s doctor refuses to perform the procedure and she does it herself) and the woman making the decision.

I’m sure we could analyze this further, and I definitely don’t want to get into a discussion of abortion as such — but isn’t it strange that this convoluted, abortion-like scenario only comes up with a woman captain? And isn’t it interesting that some fans still regard Janeway as a murderer while giving a pass to, for instance, the war crimes committed by Sisko on Deep Space Nine?

Tired of TV write-ups

Far be it from me to criticize people for analyzing television. I’ve written two books on the topic and plan to write a third. Yet there’s something about internet television criticism that exhausts me, above all the episode-by-episode “write-ups.” (Let’s leave aside the pure “recap” posts that simply summarize the episode — those are just sad.)

Now I participated in such a project for season four of Mad Men, and if the offer of a paying write-up position had come up at certain crucial moments, I would surely have served as a professional writer-upper. Indeed, TV write-ups are seemingly the only steady internet writing job available for culture workers, and I don’t begrudge anyone that. Nevertheless, I find something questionable about the whole enterprise.

The Breaking Bad finale is a good example here. Almost everyone seems to agree that Breaking Bad is a finely-wrought piece of art that has built up a compelling story over a period of several years. It is a complex work that has prompted widely divergent reactions — in fact, it deserves to be debated and discussed for years to come. And the most appropriate reaction is for us all to rush to pass judgment on the ending.

The fact that the judgment has generally been positive in this case is a small blessing, at least. More trying was the write-up culture around season six of Mad Men. Read the rest of this entry »

Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9?

The Borg are probably the most enduring contribution of Next Generation-era Star Trek to the public consciousness, but after finishing Deep Space 9, I think the Dominion deserves further consideration. While the Borg were a simplistic version of “full communism,” the Dominion is much more philosophically robust — in fact, it’s basically a more extreme vision of Plato’s Republic.

The Dominion is ruled over by the Founders, a race of shape-shifters that is not bound by mere physical forms and is able to commune purely in thought through the “Great Link.” While they regard themselves as superior to the “solids,” they nonetheless feel compelled to rule over them — and here the reason that may be implicit in Plato is explicitly stated: they must control the “solids” or else face persecution and even destruction.

They control the subject populations by making use of two classes of genetically engineered functionaries. Read the rest of this entry »

Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition

Yesterday on Twitter I made one of those jokes that is bound to become a reality at some point: I proposed developing a “Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition” sequence similar to a “Great Books” curriculum. There are a lot of questions about how one would organize it, how many classes would be included, etc., but lately I’ve been watching a lot of old sitcoms, and so mentally I’m going through how one would structure a sitcom course. Let’s assume from the outset that you have one 13-week semester to give a decent overview of the sitcom, and let’s limit it to the American sitcom just to make it more manageable (we can do British shows as an elective or something). Some shows seem non-negotiable — I Love Lucy, Dick van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld — and there are difficult cases (e.g., do you put The Simpsons in among the sitcoms or somewhere else, perhaps in an animation course?).

Assuming one week per major show or else one week for a particular subgenre or theme, how could one structure this? What kind of readings might be assigned alongside the shows themselves? How many episodes would you assign, and on what basis?

Is Game of Thrones “pure ideology”? (Spoiler alert: Yes)

Voyou recently pinpointed one of the peculiarities of Game of Thrones:

Part of the problem here is the audience judging the characters by contemporary liberal-democratic norms, but the more serious problem is that, although, as fans like to remind us, the show is set in a pre-modern world of violence, hierarchy and pervasive gender inequality, all the characters have the mores of contemporary bourgeois liberals. Apparently it’s easier to imagine the pre-history of modern social structures than to imagine the non-existence of modern liberal norms. This could perhaps be explained by the show being a bit stupid, but maybe this is a kind of ideology critique I haven’t yet quite grasped. Ideology, after all, is a pervasive set of practical beliefs which misrecognise underlying social structures, but usually we would think that this misrecognition is at some level itself explicable in terms of social structures. In Game of Thrones, though, there is an all-encompasing set of beliefs which is at no point compatible with the lived experience of the people who hold these beliefs: it is, that is to say, pure ideology.

I agree with this analysis, and for me it opens out onto the broader question of where the “fantasy” in the fantasy genre lies. It’s always struck me as strange that the genre known as “fantasy” is always some kind of medieval setting — yes, there’s magic, etc., but how does the rigid patriarchal structure, the militarism, the treatment of all women as property, etc., fit into this “fantasy”? Perhaps the fantasy genre gives us our fantasy of a tradition or more “natural” order of things, when men were men and so forth, while allowing us to disavow it insofar as all the characters always see right through it (in the style of a Zizekian cynical subject). In this regard, it’s interesting that the family that has suffered most in the show is the Starks, who basically do appear to believe in the “official” ideology, and that Joffrey is so hatable precisely because he immediately buys into that ideology as well — he embodies Lacan’s insane king who believes that he really is king.

I don’t know if the show counts as ideology critique, but it’s an interesting variation on the sociopath fantasy — we have dozens of characters who hold themselves at a distance from social forces in order to instrumentalize them, but instead of this being in conflict with good liberal values, good liberal values are precisely what enables the sociopathic pattern.

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Read the rest of this entry »

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