Sunday, September 24, 2017

About "The Orville"

If you haven't heard, The Orville is Seth MacFarlane's alternative to "Star Trek".
Spoiler Alert: In my discussion here, I'm going to discuss details. This means spoilers. If you think such things "ruin the surprise", then you somewhere else. Don't read this. I'm also going to not only discuss the show itself, but also what other people have been saying about it, so if your sensibilities are fragile, don't read this. This is not a safe space. Seriously, go away. Or don't.

If you haven't seen the show already, I suggest you do, as my critique assumes that you have. Here's a link.

Let's start off by noting the elephant in the room... this show has got the critics scratching their heads. It has only a 20% rating from professional critics on RottenTomatoes, yet has an 88% approval rating from the actual viewers. That is to say, only 12% of the viewers agree with the critics. That's not a tiny discrepancy, and it's not explained as a matter of mere taste.

The number one officially admitted reason for such a poor critical showing is that the critics claim not to know "what the show wants to be". Is it a comedy? Is it action/adventure? Is it sci-fi? These same critics have no identity crisis at all when it comes to movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming (92%) and Guardians of the Galaxy (91%). I'm not claiming that "The Orville" is up to the level of these heavily funded blockbuster feature films. I'm simply pointing out that the critics have no problem identifying a lighthearted sci-fi action/adventure when they want to. I would go so far as to say, after due consideration, that this particular critique is a manufactured mask for more political and commercial concerns that the critics share among themselves.

As the product of a genre, The Orville has much in common with Galaxy Quest as well as the films I mentioned. On television, however, it's practically sui generis. And it's something for which television viewers have obviously been clamoring, as evidenced by that astonishing gulf between what the critics tell the viewers to think of it and what the viewers report of their own experience.

MacFarlane himself has never kept it a secret that what he wanted to do was produce Trek. And in particular, he wanted to ditch the dark and gritty, yet increasingly bland pablum that Trek had become, and go back to the utopian future that it depicted when Gene Roddenberry was at the helm.

The best of sci-fi is produced when ordinary people are placed in extraordinary circumstances. In this series, MacFarlane has taken the classic Star Trek format, given it a Next Generation look and feel, and populated it with people who would not be out of place in 2017. The wisecracks and social commentary, when they come, are grounded in the present, just as they were grounded in the 1960s in the original series.

That said, we've had three episodes to peruse so far. Let's take a look. The episode descriptions are taken from Wikipedia:

S01E01 - "Old Wounds"25th-century space pilot Ed Mercer divorces his wife Kelly Grayson after he catches her cheating on him. A year later, he accepts a position as Captain of the U.S.S. Orville and finds to his dismay that his ex-wife Kelly will serve as his First Officer. During the Orville's first mission, the hostile alien Krill Captain (Joel Swetow) attempt to steal a device that can accelerate time, which has both beneficial and dangerous applications. Mercer and Grayson rig the device to destroy itself and the Krill vessel.
This is a straight-up action/adventure, the main purpose of which is to introduce the cast and set the stage for the series. It's what a pilot does. As with most pilots, it's practically assured that this will be the weakest of the episodes; as the crew's personalities and interpersonal relationships will be fleshed out during the course of the series. The awkwardness of Ed and Kelly's own relationship is played for laughs, although we do learn that despite the sniping, Ed has the maturity to recognize that he's not always right and that Kelly brings a wisdom to her position that makes him a better captain. In the end, professionalism overcomes bitterness and he asks her to stay on. We also learn that despite her infidelity, Kelly's feelings for Ed still smolder, and her regret for her actions is sincere. In all, that's a solidly good start for our two leads.

The bridge crew banters. But it's exactly the kind of banter that happens in my office today; and it's exactly the kind of banter that happened at my duty station in the Air Force. I totally buy into the rapport between Gordon and John (the helmsman and navigator).

Some of the jokes fall flat. Sometimes it's the joke and sometimes it's just the timing. Examples: Ed should never have introduced Kelly as "my ex-wife" to the research facility director. That was just unprofessional, and didn't ring true. The bit about Gordon wanting to wear shorts on the bridge... well, that would definitely work better if it weren't delivered in the middle of a crisis. First rule of workplace comedy is "mission first". Once you're out of crisis, then make the silly demand.

S01E02 - "Command Performance"The technologically advanced Calivon imprison Ed and Kelly in a replica of their former home as a zoo exhibit. Alara is left in command of the Orville as Bortus has laid an egg and must incubate it. Alara is unsure of herself, but gains confidence with the help of Claire's mentorship. Ed and Kelly wonder if they could have made their relationship work, but finally conclude that they were never compatible for a long-term romantic relationship, despite their strong camaraderie. Admiral Tucker orders Alara to return to Earth instead of approaching the powerful Calivon; Alara violates these orders and rescues Ed, Kelly, and an alien child by trading an archive of Earth's reality television for them. Ed presents Alara with a medal of honor and believes he and Kelly can prevent her from being punished for insubordination. A female offspring hatches from Bortus's egg, stunning him and Klyden as all Moclans are male.
Just as the pilot established the series leads, this episode establishes the secondary characters. Of these, Penny Johnson Jerald as Dr. Claire Finn shines. She completely owns the "experienced older officer" role she said she wanted to fill back in Episode 1.

What was refreshing to me here was that there was no administrative incompetence in evidence. Admiral Tucker issues the right order. Alara's decision to follow orders was the right decision. Her subsequent decision to disobey those same orders was likewise the right decision. And Dr. Finn points out what everyone who's ever been in a position of command already knows: there are no wrong decisions. You issue the best commands possible given the information at your disposal, accounting for the risks you can identify; and you must then be willing to accept the consequences of those choices. This one episode was a crash course in command, and it was a damned good one.

Alara's decision to disobey flag orders gives us a classic "feel good moment", while avoiding a good bit of cliche by way of her delivery. "They can bite me," is a refreshing change from the Trek standby of having Spock/Data/whoever say "To hell with the orders".  And I completely buy the Chief Engineer. Older guy, tons of experience, who occasionally has to be reminded that it's not really his ship. Hell, sometimes I am that guy.

The final solution to the problem doubled as the Big Joke and tripled as biting social commentary. Alara quips, "They wanted an Earth zoo. I gave them one," referring to the vast archive of 21st century reality TV she donated to the Calivons. And man is it a zoo. So after the first episode of goofy action, we move to a bit of softball social commentary. This one is easy... "ha, ha... look, rich housewives arguing!" But make no mistake... you're being led into deeper waters.

At first it appears that Bortus' egg is merely deus ex machina to get him out of the way and put young Alara in charge. This turns into the central plot point of the third episode.

S01E03 - "About a Girl". Bortus and Klyden intend to have their child surgically "corrected" to be male, which is standard practice for Moclans when a female is born. Claire and Ed object to performing a sex change on a healthy infant, so Bortus and Klyden plan to have the procedure performed on a Moclan vessel. Gordon and John change Bortus's mind by showing him Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but Klyden still wants to proceed, revealing that he was born female. The case is arbitrated on the Moclan planet, Moclus, where Kelly represents Bortus; she casts doubt on the idea of male superiority by demonstrating that Alara is physically strong and Gordon is stupid. Ed locates a female Moclan of advanced years, Heveena, who testifies that she lived a happy and fulfilling life in seclusion, and reveals that under the pseudonym "Gondus Elden" she has become the Moclans' most respected writer. But Klyden and the tribunal are unconvinced, and the baby undergoes the surgery. Despite their disagreement, Bortus and Klyden are committed to each other and to giving their son, Topa, a good life.
Now we've gone from an introduction to our leads to a focus on the supporting cast. This third episode throws a spotlight on our remaining main character, the Moclan, Bortus. For this one, there's possibly more to discuss about reactions to the episode than to the episode itself. I think the episode is very straightforward social commentary. What makes it better than people think it is, is that close examination leaves you wondering what point the show is making. And that in itself is the point.

I have heard it said that MacFarlane confuses the basic concepts of gender identity in this episode. He does no such thing. To the characters involved -- the Moclans -- there literally is no distinction between gender and sex. They are, to a man, homosexual males. The child is not simply being given a sex change: it is also having its gender identity decided for it as well. This is driven home by the revelation that Klyden was born female, but identifies strictly as male. Both "gender" and "sex" equally and interchangeably apply, without having to stop and sjw-splain the difference between gender and sex to people who have neither time nor patience for that in a one-hour episode of entertainment. It's precisely because there are people who would insist on hijacking the storytelling for the five episodes or so it would take to "explore the modern realities of life" that we have here a fictional species specifically designed to curtail those sort of red herrings. It's a simplification; but it not only needs to be done; it's straight out of the Star Trek Writers/Directors Guide, just as I mentioned in my last post. MacFarlane is completely on point.

I've also heard it said that this script is somehow "homophobic". At no point in the episode is that in evidence. The Moclans are homosexual. And at no time is it indicated that this is a bad thing. Bortus and Klyden love each other. They have a healthy marriage. They also have important disagreements, and do not appear to be stereotyped in any way that isn't reflected in the actual daily lives of the married gay men I know. What the Union crew argue against is not that... it's enforced conformity. Their position is clearly that you should choose your own path to happiness, whatever that might be. Again, this is a literal page out of Roddenberry's book, and although I closed my last post with this quote, I'll quote it again:
The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in lifeforms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mold where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences -- take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind here on this planet -- then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that's almost certainly out there.
-- Gene Roddenberry
This is a decidedly progressive outlook, and I'm using "progressive" in a positive rather than merely dogmatic sense. The crew of The Orville cry out against conformity, and in this particular instance, they lose... as one tends to do when one is opposed by an overwhelming majority. Their only response can be to make the best of it, and they go about doing just that. You should be uncomfortable with this episode. You're not intended to like the outcome for the child no matter who you are. And you have to look for the pearl... when Bortus says at the end, "we must give him a good life, whoever he becomes," you know he means it. He would have readily said it of his daughter.

It's easy to overlook, in all the noise about gender identity, that the show is making a statement about women's rights and capabilities as well. I'm not talking about using Alana to demonstrate physical strength... that's ham-fisted and easily refuted. The better case is not made by Heveena, either. Having the one woman they could find (on a hunch!) being the equivalent of Shakespeare is far too convenient. I know they've got limited time, but still.... The better case would have been made by pointing out the fact that Kelly acted as legal counsel on this all-male world and nobody made so much as a peep about her intellectual qualifications; as well as by the fact that among Moclans, gender differences are slight enough that transgendered males don't even know they're transgendered. (That's not so farfetched either. It never crossed my mind that circumcision made me physically different until I was almost out of high school. I just never bothered to compare my junk to other guys'.)  

The voices that I've heard object to this episode can't really effectively make cast labels without undermining their own real world position. And those who support conformity in this episode find themselves rooting for the gays. There are two extremes of negative reactions, and yet there is a trap for both. Fiction is not necessarily advocacy, and folks would do well to recognize that simple reality. Social commentary in science fiction is there to invite you to think... it is not there to tell you what to think. The fact that we have in this episode a commentary that makes diametrically opposed people do synchronized double-takes delights me no end.

The comedic moments are still there, suitably dialed back for the subject matter. The bit about using Ruldolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to instruct Bortus in diversity and acceptance was inspired.

Other Stuff:

Production values and special effects: I've got no complaints at all. It's a TV show, so it's going to have a limited budget. With that budget they've managed to construct spacious, futuristic sets and deliver competent CGI as well as model work! (Nobody shoots with models any more. The fact that they took the time is just astonishing). People have complained about the CGI... those people need to suck it up. Hell, Rogue One couldn't deliver a convincing CG Carrie Fisher with a megabudget. I'm still not a fan of the swoopy engines, but the forward 2/3 of The Orville looks amazing.

Costumes and makeup: DAY-um! Full body appliances for Bortus, a healthy sampling of other races among the crew... this thing has shots in it that are keeping the makeup artists on their toes. And they are up to the challenge. Likewise with the costumes. The uniforms look livable. They look convincing as uniforms. They're practical. They have pockets. The same with the civilian clothing. This stuff looks like clothing that people would actually choose to wear of their own volition.

Technology: The Union lacks Transporters, and I, for one, couldn't be happier. The only reason for them in the first place was to compensate for a lack of budget in the original Star Trek. A little back-lit glitter in a fish tank, a fade, and bam! You're on the planet, without expensive model-work. There's no need for that here, so good riddance. The one thing I wish they did have, since shuttles are so important, is dedicated shuttle pilots. This would take the place of the Transporter Chief, and would also be in charge of shuttle maintenance. They don't have it, but it would have been nice.

The replicators are still there, which I'm ambivalent about, but at least it could be argued an extension of the 3D printers we currently have. So far they're keeping the technobabble to a minimum, and I like that, too. The phrase "particle of the week" originated with ST:TNG, and not as a compliment. Treknobabble should be used both sparsely and consistently. Using what you have is far more clever than producing unobtainium ex nihilo.

I wish I knew what Yaphit's job on the ship is.


I said I would give this series a few episodes to find its feet... after all, Star Trek: The Next Generation sucked giant eggs for the first season. But three episodes in, I not only observe that The Orville is finding its feet very quickly; I see a pattern of progression that shows me it's going in the right direction.

I like it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Redeeming "Turnabout Intruder"

After my last post (Explaining Klingons) my brain went a little wild in looking at the ways that perfectly innocent story points can be used to build a case against the political views of the creator/showrunners/writers/fans/etc. For instance, in overlooking the obvious multicultural explanation that I propose, one could argue that Star Trek falls into the trap of racial stereotyping. Klingons are "warriors"... of course we know that there must be Klingon farmers and cobblers and dressmakers and actors... but we never see them.

Factually, they do racially stereotype. And factually, it was deliberate. I have in my hot little hands a copy of the Star Trek Writers/Directors Guide, third revision, April 17, 1967 ("the Guide"). One of the "seven rules" listed is this:
VI. Don't try to tell a story about whole civilizations. We've never yet been able to get a usable story from a writer who began... "I see the strange civilization which..."
This is a reasonable, rational rule. The original Star Trek is about character-driven stories. Many of these stories are parables... reflections of the society in which the writers lived. Star Trek stereotypes because they had neither the time nor the inclination to delve into all the ifs-ands-buts of a society, the full exploration of which would prevent the stories from being told. So Vulcans are ALL logical; Klingons are ALL warriors; Orions are ALL pirates, and our crew is ALL Human (even the one who isn't is half-human, so I'm calling "no exceptions"). They're not there to be fully fleshed. They're there to represent aspects of Humanity.

Of itself, is this racist? No, it's expedient. In fact, I would argue -- just as I do with the Klingons -- that you can't assume that all members of a society are of one type just because all you see of them is that one type. Aboard the ship, Star Trek is careful to treat all Human races equally. Some characters (Scotty, Chekov) are still social stereotypes, but they're all equal.

And let's be clear... you cannot make a statement about something without depicting it. So actual racism is depicted -- often -- in Star Trek. It's often directed against Mister Spock, but also among the various alien races. To critics I would say, "Get over it."

The Guide is perhaps the best encapsulation of everything that makes a story "Star Trek". And the most harped on characteristic is "believability". Not really of the tech, because hell... they don't know... it's the future. Damned near anything can happen, including giant cells floating in outer space. So long as it sounds reasonable and sticks to what's previously established you can't allow yourself to worry too much about such things. No, it's about the believability of the actions of the characters. Within this fantastic framework, do they act within their established motivations, etc.? Also, the Guide specifically forbids any visitation of political issues dealing with Earth or the highest eschelons of Star Fleet command.

But there are exceptions, and when they're employed, they're considered among the worst episodes. "The Omega Glory" and "Miri" both feature planets that are "twins" of Earth. In "The Omega Glory", it's a social reflection, and in "Miri" it's the whole damned planet, continents and all. For the latter, I chalk it up to an art director just not understanding that a completely Earth-like planet doesn't have to be Earth. It's certainly not central to the plot.

But the most infamous case is in part a running gag throughout the series. It's dictated in the Guide, runs the length of the series, and culminates in the final episode. And I'm pretty sure that very few people other than Gene Roddenberry himself knew that it was a running gag.

It's sexism.

First... history.  And this part is well-known. When the first pilot ("The Cage") was delivered, Roddenberry cast his future wife, Majel Barrett, as "Number One", the coldly logical second-in-command of the Enterprise. When the studio rejected that pilot and commissioned a second one, they made a few demands. They wanted to "get rid of the guy with the ears" (as Roddenberry told it). They also wanted to axe Number One, because they claimed that their test audiences didn't like a woman as executive officer. For decades, Roddenberry told the joke that he kept the alien and married the woman because the other way 'round wouldn't be legal. He also transferred Number One's coldly logical nature to Mister Spock.

In the years that followed, many fans and critics completely forgot this story when examining the rest of the series. For instance, there's the fact that the captain's yeoman is always a pretty female. This is by decree. In fact, the Guide describes the character as follows:
YEOMAN --- Played by a succession of young actresses, always lovely. One such character has been well established in the first year, "YEOMAN JANICE RAND", played by the lovely Grace Lee Whitney. Whether Yeoman Rand or a new character provided by the writer, this female Yeoman serves Kirk as his combination Executive Secretary-Valet-Military Aide. As such, she is always capable, a highly professional career girl. As with all female Crewman aboard, during duty hours she is treated co-equal with males of the same rank, and the same level of efficient performance is expected. The Yeoman often carries a small over-the-shoulder case, a TRICORDER, about the size of a small handbag, which is also an electronic recorder-camera-sensor combination, immediately available to the Captain should he be away from his Command Console.
Sandra Smith, the only actor other
than Bill Shatner to have played
James T. Kirk in Star Trek: TOS 
In the real-world Navy, a yeoman is simply a clerk. Most of them are men. But in Star Fleet, this is women's work, at least superficially. Note that in other respects these women were to be treated co-equally. What isn't women's work -- ever (in the original series) -- is the Captaincy. And this is stated explicitly in the very last episode of the series, "The Turnabout Intruder".

Now, this has been retconned over and over, but this episode was deliberate, and it was conceived and outlined by Gene Roddenberry. By now you probably know that I don't like retcons because they suck. They're poor explanations that say, "it didn't happen". It's better to explain why it did happen. And to do that, we have to start with an understanding of what Star Trek was for. It was first and foremost a platform for storytelling. Fantastic elements were readily employed whenever they served a storytelling need. It's one of the strengths of science fiction:

"I was working in a medium, television, which is heavily censored, and in contemporary shows I found I couldn't talk about sex, religion, politics and all or 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. And indeed that's what we did."
-- Gene Roddenberry

Some fans explain away Janice Lester's claims as follows (represented by this actual quote from a forum):
Best to just chalk this up to:
a) Janice Lester was somewhat bat-shit crazy, and
2) Gene Roddenberry was a sexist piece of crap sometimes.
I don't think either one was entirely true. In the book Inside Star Trek, Herb Solow and Bob Justman aver that the network was fine with the female Number One: it was Roddenberry casting his mistress that they were opposed to. But I don't think Roddenberry saw it that way. If that account were accurate, he could have just recast the part. His story from the first moment was that the studio responded to the character in a sexist manner. It's what he told Majel Barrett at the time. Whether it was entirely accurate doesn't change his perception. And he had a particular way of dealing with criticism. He would give the critics exactly what they asked for, and make them regret it.

Remember, when the show received criticism about the lack of a Russian in this "international" crew, Roddenberry's response was to cast not just a Russian, but a Russian. Thus, Chekov's overly thick accent (no Russian I've ever met spoke like that) and the "ewerything was inwented in Russia" running gag. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see where perceived sexism of the studio would result in him continually putting women "in their place" as well as penning an episode that is a parable critical not of society at large, but of the studio itself.

In this story, the studio is "Starfleet Command". And no, their world of starship captains didn't allow women. Janice Lester was bitter (and crazy, but not batshit crazy). Just like Roddenberry. And Roddenberry had to sneak this bit of social commentary under their noses, the same as he did with the Cold War ("Errand of Mercy"), blind nationalism ("The Omega Glory"), unintended consequences ("Patterns of Force"), proxy wars in the Far East ("A Private Little War"), racism ("Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"), the concept of a humane war waged with sanctioned rules ("A Taste of Armageddon"), etc.. In doing so he parodied their fears of a female in command. And yes, it was ridiculous, just as those other episodes were. That was the point. Unfortunately, it was missed.

So if you're looking for the worst episode of the series, you'll find a lot more below it ("And the Children Shall Lead", "Spock's Brain"...).

The final joke of the series is that Gene Roddenberry, who wanted to cast a woman as second-in-command of the Starship Enterprise, ended the series by putting one in the captain's chair, if only by subterfuge.

If all this doesn't convince you, let's look at an interview that Roddenberry did in 1995. When asked about the benefits of Star Trek, and the context of social commentary, Roddenberry listed mixed races and gender equality as two major messages. Specifically he said, "In the first Star Trek series, we treated such things as mixed races aboard the spaceship, and whether women could be in charge of anything and so on. And we shocked the audience by saying yes to those questions."

If you're one of those who still thinks otherwise, put your Vulcan hat on. Consider the illogicality of the proposal that Star Trek was forward-thinking in all ways except gender; or that the creators had a complete change of heart on that single subject after the first pilot. Consider the overwhelming probability, in the face of an great deal of evidence, that up until this very moment you have simply missed the message. It sailed right over your head. And if you want to push the point, ask yourself why. Why is it so important to you to cast Roddenberry as a "misogynistic hack" as did The National Review? What emotional attachment are you trying to preserve? Cast that aside and look again, dispassionately.

Was Gene Roddenberry perfect? HELL no. He was often an insufferable dick, by most accounts. While I do think he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, his biggest flaw was that his ideals surpassed his ability. But he wasn't a sexist and he wasn't a racist, though it takes very little "research" to "prove" otherwise if you're not inclined to look past the superficial "evidence" to see what he was actually doing.

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in lifeforms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mold where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences -- take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind here on this planet -- then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that's almost certainly out there.
-- Gene Roddenberry

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Explaining Klingons

I love Star Trek. I've been watching since the very first episode appeared (and to a young'un like myself, the "Salt Vampire" was pretty damned scary). But let's be clear... it's fantasy, not science fiction, and when they try to do "science" the writers suddenly become so stupid it sometimes makes me want to slap someone.

Let's take cross-breeds as an example. There was an album (Inside Star Trek (1976)) where Gene Roddenberry explains Spock's birth. It wasn't a natural birth. His parents were of completely different species. So Spock was the deliberate result of a concerted effort to create a cross-breed child. Spock was the product of extensive gene splicing. Such things are hard. But in later series, cross-breeds were a dime a dozen. Sneeze and you'll impregnate someone. Stick your hand in a bucket of rock salt with an alien girl and you may just get pregnant yourself. Yes, In Enterprise they paid lip-service to the difficulty of having a half-Human, half-Vulcan offspring, but that's after they ruined it with ham-fisted storytelling.

And then there are the Klingons. Over the years, we've seen that Klingons have very different physiologies. And the new series, Discovery, gives them yet another face. Up to now, rather than go with the definitive indisputable explanation, the writers, producers and apologists for the show have punted and given idiot answers like the "augment virus". This is their poor attempt to explain how a single race changes their morphology from show to show. The better answer is much easier, and quite obvious. I'll give you the historical analog first.

When the Roman Empire conquered nation after nation, the inhabitants of those nations became Romans. It did not matter what they were; they became Romans. To a Roman, being Roman wasn't a matter of race or ethnicity: it was a matter of culture and law. The Western capital of the Roman Empire was Constantinople, and it was populated by Romans, born of the Roman Empire but with deep roots in that locality. And to this day, the people of Romania are Romans. It's in the very name.

It's the same with the Klingons. Klingons are not inhabitants of a single planet. They conquered planet after planet, and they didn't just subjugate them... they assimilated them. Just as the Borg are Borg no matter whether they were assimilated or born into the collective, a Klingon is Klingon no matter his genetics. And that is the definitive answer to all of those physiological differences.

The Klingon Empire conquers a world body and soul. To be Klingon is a statement of culture. So when Worf is pressed for an explanation of the original series Klingons on Space Station K7, instead of that weak-assed, "We do not speak of it," his answer should have been, "They are Klingons. You're not of one race... what makes you think we should be?", and all those attempts at retconning the differences are simply misguided, half-thought-out mistakes by writers with too little respect for the "science" of science fiction.

And that's all the explanation you will ever need.

Klingons. Different races, one Empire.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Prospects and Purpose of Manned Space Travel

The Huffington Post has published this bit by Dr. Sten Odenwald:

In it, he points out the practical difficulties that make interstellar travel as it is popularly imagined quite impossible.

Dr. Odenwald seems to have done the same math I did.

I shared Dr. Odenwald's article with a number of writers, and I've also been paying a bit of attention to other discussion threads responding to the article. A common response is that we will overcome these difficulties, just you wait. And that the prime motivation for this is either Economics (which apparently fuels all Human endeavor) or Survival (because we're going to screw this place up, and will have to move on).

The problem with the first proposition is that Physics is unimpressed by Economics. And in this area of physics we seem to be dealing with unobtainium.

In sci-fi, it's common to "invent" elements with properties that are needed for the story. Our ability to imagine them lends no plausibility to their eventual discovery. We have a rather complete picture of the Periodic Table, and the only room for new elements is at the extreme high energy end where elements are unstable and short-lived.

ALL proposed methods of FTL (including the Alcubierre drive) involve exotic forms of matter that either purely theoretical or unobtainable. This isn't something that's solvable by Economics.

Nor do I believe that it's necessary to look to economics as the motivation for all of human achievement. We achieve because we can. It's only after we've achieved that we look for sustainable ways to exploit that we have discovered. Capitalism did not fuel the discovery of the poles, nor the climbing of Everest, nor the Apollo moon landings. Furthermore, it was socialists, not capitalists, who launched the first orbiting satellite (Sputnik), the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first woman into space (Valentina Tereshkova).

Those that believe that Capitalism is the beginning and the end of Human endeavor point to things that are the result, but not the motivation, for achievement. For instance, Mylar, Teflon, and computing were all advanced by the space program. It does not follow that we went to the Moon because we wanted fresher Pop-Tarts, non-stick pans, and iPads. I'm vehemently capitalistic myself.  But what I'm trying to put across here is that there are some things that transcend politics or economics.


The problem with the second proposal is that it is ludicrous. By that I mean it's laugh-out-loud ridiculous. There is not even a potential scenario in which even Mars could look more inviting than Earth. If push came to shove, post-apocalyptic Earthers could use the same kind of habitats that they'd need to use on Mars and save 100% of the travel. Should the Earth become a polluted cesspool, it would still be in the center of the "Goldilocks Zone" (the habitable zone around our star). It would still contain easily accessible water and oxygen. It would still have the absolute perfect gravity for human inhabitants. And we would still already be here. If we ever found a planet orbiting another star that's as inviting as the shittiest Earth we can imagine, we would become euphoric over our good fortune and start babbling about terraforming. Meanwhile, people who claim to "fucking love science" overlook the fact that if that world can be terraformed, then this one can be cleaned.

As a correspondent rightly pointed out, until we can successfully maintain self-sustaining, self-contained habitable units on the most inhospitable parts of this planet, then we are not competent to inhabit other worlds. As of this date, we have been horrifically bad at accomplishing this necessary feat.

In point of fact, we would of necessity have to take much better care of any world or spacecraft we wish to inhabit than we will have of Earth if it ever gets to that point. Of course, the Earth is always being screwed up by somebody else, so the elitist underlying message is that off-world colonization is for the smart people who had to leave all the dummies behind to die. As spaceships go, Earth is a pretty good one, large enough to maintain itself relatively easily. The only actual proposals thus far that hold the slightest candle to Earth itself are huge Rama-style "flying terrariums" with robust self-contained ecosystems, miles in diameter. The larger such a thing is, the more you can rely on microfauna and algae, etc. to make it self-sustaining. Something like this is a legitimate engineering problem which would not be practical in the near future. Such a vessel would be a world unto itself, and doesn't lend itself to Space Opera dreams of fast interstellar travel. And within this solar system, it's simply unnecessary.

Artist's conception of the interior of "Rama"
from Wikimedia

It's my opinion that any plausible motivation for interplanetary travel must be because we can, not because we must.


While I agree with the vast majority of what Dr. Odenwald's has written, his assessment of manned missions inside the solar system is somewhat bleaker than mine. Here's the part where my political head starts shaking...
"Meanwhile, if you want any kind of space exploration that matters within the next century or beyond, it will be robotic, virtual, and involve billions of people, not just a few very lucky travelers — so what’s wrong with that?"
Here Dr. Odenwald reveals a political outlook that I don't share. His solutions are impersonal, illusory, and seek equality of outcome. In promoting them, he blocks truly great achievements for the mediocre participation of the many. And let's not forget that any virtual presence that a robot could provide is equally obtainable from human explorers. And what's more, only humans can relate the feeling of exotic environments.

William G.T. Shedd might have replied, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

Replica of the Pinta in Charleston Harbor
photo by F. Everett Leigh

We put men and women on mountaintops, on the poles, in the depths, in orbit, and on other worlds not because they are the "few very lucky travelers"; but because it is a real, grounded achievement, and because they go as representatives of Humanity. As such, the achievement of one is the achievement of all. As Neil Armstrong famously said on the surface of the Moon, "One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind."

A human achievement demonstrates Humanity's ability to overcome. A robot does not. And that's what's wrong with that.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Star Trek and God

Esquire reports on an upcoming Entertainment Weekly story in which we're informed of the following exchange on the set of Star Trek: Discovery:
The director halts the action and Lorca, played by British actor Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame, steps off the stage. The episode's writer, Kirsten Beyer, approaches to give a correction on his "for God's sakes" ad lib. 
"Wait, I can't say 'God'?" Isaacs asks, amused. "I thought I could say 'God' or 'damn' but not 'goddamn.'  
Beyer explains that Star Trek is creator Gene Roddenberry's vision of a science-driven 23rd-century future where religion basically no longer exists. 
"How about 'for f—'s sake'?" he shoots back. "Can I say that?" 
"You can say that before you can say 'God,' " she dryly replies.
The director Kirsten Beyer is factually full of shit. Let's look at some examples of Roddenberry's vision from when he was alive and writing it:
"We are gathered here today with you, Angela Martine, and you, Robert Tomlinson, in the sight of your fellows, in accordance with our laws and our many beliefs ..." -- Kirk, Balance of Terror
That could be beliefs about anything, right?
"If you're speaking of worships of sorts, we represent many beliefs." - McCoy, Bread and Circuses
Still kind of fuzzy...  but in the same episode...
"You've got it wrong, all of you. It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the Son of God." - Uhura, Bread and Circuses 
Oh, SNAP! Not only is it THE God we're talking about here, it's Christ. And not in a bad way, either. This isn't some alien God-impostor that is to be struck down. In fact, Uhura waxes eloquently about the fact that the Roman broadcasters tried to make fun of the religion and could not. This episode was written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, the two men who created "Roddenberry's vision".
"Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God." M-5 Computer, The Ultimate Computer
Aw jeez, they just keep comin', man! Star Trek finding a basis for morality in religion? Yet it did. And morality is what saved the day. Not phasers. Not photon torpedoes. Not Spock. Not science. Not force. BTW, this is a recurring theme in Star Trek. There are inumerable times when Spock's logic fails. An entire episode ("The Galileo Seven") was devoted to this. Spock offers the utility of logic and reason. But Kirk is in charge because he has Heart. So what does Kirk say of God..?
"Mankind has no need for gods. We find the One quite adequate." - Kirk, Who Mourns for Adonais?
Who is the "we" that Kirk is talking about here? He didn't say "they".
"What does God need with a starship?" - Kirk, Star Trek V
Many, many times, the Enterprise crew encounters alien "gods", from Adonais, to Trelaine, to Vaal, to Landru, etc. But you should note that at no point does the Enterprise crew (no bloody "A", no bloody "B"...) ever take issue with worship or the concept of God. They do take down numerous pretenders to the title. Playing God is a problem for the crew. But meeting God seems a perfectly reasonable possibility to them until they discover that it's one more pretender.

And what does Gene Roddenberry's vision for Star Trek say of those who would have religious beliefs that differed from their own? Well, Kirk said it early in "Balance of Terror", but if that were just too blatant and terrestrial, it was couched in metaphorical terms as a Vulcan philosophy:
IDIC - "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."
All of these examples are ten years or more AFTER the Discovery timeframe.

I'm cautious about the new series, because now more than ever, they're advertising to the world that they don't know jack shit about Star Trek.


To be sure, many people don't know jack shit about Star Trek, and many of them have been writing for the show. The dumbest, most head-scratching and abysmally obvious inconsistencies have resulted, such as the Federation doesn't use money. Except the many times when it does (from credits to gold-pressed latinum to replicator rations). Or that the Federation is vegan... except the numerous times when they're demonstrably not. But I've written about these things before. A friend of mine once asserted the veganism of the Federation until I pointed out the counterexamples. Then she got mad. At me. Because in today's imperfect world, facts are fucking inconvenient, and those that bear them are evil.

In the Sixties, Roddenberry created an episodic TV show, there to tell stories. Canon wasn't really a big deal, and fit in the show's "bible" (writer's guide). But the "utopia" of Star Trek as originally envisioned was a celebration of individuality and exceptionalism where you could believe what you want and do as you will as long as it didn't infringe on the rights of others. That is the very heart and soul of the Prime Directive.

UPDATE: Some folks miss the point here. The point is this... no matter how "advanced" Roddenberry thought people would be by TNG (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Star Trek: Discovery is set 10 years PRIOR to Kirk's era. The appropriate standards to employ, then, are those used for TOS (the original series) (more exactly, this side of TOS). And those are well documented. This is why all of my examples are from the original series. And by those standards, the director is objectively full of shit.

UPDATE 2: some people are missing the point on another important aspect. My intent here is not to show that the Star Trek universe is religious. My intent is to show that the Star Trek universe is tolerant, and by "tolerant" I mean that all viewpoints, including those of religion, are given respect. Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations -- IDIC. Those who believe that Star Trek is or should be purely secular certainly do not understand the spirit of Star Trek.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cricket Doodle!

[CLICK HERE] to play!

Today's Google Doodle is pretty great. It's in celebration of the ICC 2017 Women's Cricket World Cup. It's also a mini-game where you control crickets playing cricket!

The doodle inspired me to explain the rules of cricket to my son, who is now convinced that this is why we invented baseball.

I've seen many variations of the following explanation. This is my version:

The Rules of Cricket
(as related by an American)

There are eleven players on a team.
The twelfth player doesn't play, unless a player who plays doesn't play. Even then he doesn't really play. He can't bowl, bat, wicket-keep, or captain the team. Basically, the twelfth player is a fifth wheel.
There are two innings.
In each inning, one team is out and the other team is in.
The team that is out consists of a bowler, a wicket-keeper, and a bunch of blokes who look lost.
The team that is in plays two batsmen at a time: the striker, and the tosser who's waiting around to be the striker.
The bowler (who is out) tries to get the batsmen (who are in) out.
When the bowler bowls, he pitches the ball. That is, his hand goes over, not under.
Even though the bowler pitches, his pitch isn't a pitch. The ground is a pitch. So he pitches at the pitch.
That's too confusing even for a Brit, so screw it... he bowls.

When the bowler has bowled six balls, it's an over.
The game is not over when the over is over. When the over is over, the bowler's not the bowler. Another bowler bowls another over.
There is no limit to the number of overs before the game is over. Until it's over it's overs over and over.

There are many ways to get the batsman out.
He can be bowled out.
He can be run out.
He can be caught out.
He can be stumped out.
He can accidentally out himself. It happens... they're British.
He can be LBW. This means the bowler hit him with the ball. In baseball, you'd take a base. In cricket you get the hell out.
There are other ways to be out, but nobody cares.

The batsman holds a paddle, not a bat. But "paddleball" was taken.
The batsman tries to keep the bowler from breaking a wicked wicket, and bat the ball out.
If the ball goes full out, that's 6 runs, and nobody runs.
If the ball is in before it's out, that's 4 runs, no matter how much they run.
If the ball is in and stays in, then the players run if they want to.
If the players don't want to run, they stop running.

When a batsman is out, he goes out. Another player who's in comes in until they're out.
When 10 players are out, they're all out, even the one who's not out, and the one who's not playing.
When they're all out, they go out, except the one who's not playing unless he's playing.
When everyone has gone out, that's the ending of the innings, but not the last of the innings.
Then they do it again until all the players who went in go out.
When all the players who were in are out and the players who were out go in and come out again, then the game is over. No more overs.

*shrug*... Nobody says cricket is easy to comprehend... that's why it's called a "TEST"!

You have to watch quite a few games to learn the ins and outs. But it does seem to me that in the 1600s or thereabouts, some Englishman invented Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First" routine, and all of his mates shouted, "Oy! I'll play that!"


Now that the joke's over, I've found this on YouTube. It's probably the clearest and most concise explanation of the rules I've seen.  (a more complete explanation is on Wikipedia)

In the video you'll see some clips where the teams are wearing team colors, and others where the teams are wearing all white. If they're wearing white, it's probably a "test match", which is what I describe above. But there are shorter matches involving a limited number of 'overs', and in these the players commonly wear colors.


And finally, here's a reminder that all of Google's old doodles are available at, including the playable Google Pacman!

[CLICK HERE] to play!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Star Trek: Save What From Heaven

I loves me some Star Trek... and lately (as in the last several years), I've been a bigger fan of the fan productions than the official CBS/Paramount productions. I'm also a fan of the IDW Star Trek comics.

But something new has just been completed, and it's incredibly good. For Star Trek's 50th anniversary, Mark R. Largent and Mark McCrary have just dusted off and finished a comic book that they originally started in 1991. I must say, it is aces.

The artwork: great. McCrary's pencils perfectly capture the character of the characters, if you get my drift.

The script: great. Not only is this a fitting final voyage for James T. Kirk, it closes the loop on the entire Star Trek original era. I don't want to say too much, but for Kirk, his 63-year Star Fleet career is one voyage. I couldn't have hoped for better, and it's a damned sight more satisfying than dying under a rock while Picard looks on. I don't care what the shirts at CBS/Paramount say... for me, this is canon. (If you happen to be from CBS or Paramount, I buy your stuff and see your movies anyway. These guys are keeping me interested, so please smile and tell them "well done!")

I've made a .cbr comic book file out of it, which I'm willing to surreptitiously share, but only to people who've gotten on Largent and McCrary's Facebook page and given them some love*.

Seriously, folks, check this out. (link to the album)

* To be honest, a CBR file isn't that hard to make yourself. Put all the pages in a directory and name them alphabetically. Then use RAR to compress the directory and rename the file extension .CBR. That's it. To make a CBZ file, use Zip instead of RAR and rename the extension to .CBZ. Then you can read it with your favorite comic book reader or many ebook readers.