Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Mattress Exchange Day

OK, today I'm just wanting to share a couple of memories. They're anecdotes, really; but you might find them entertaining.

Way back in the day -- 1982 -- I left US Air Force Basic Training to start radio tech school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
To my geek friends: Basic Training is NOT where you learn about line numbers and why you should never type GOTO (unless you should). That's BASIC training.

This is the place, roughly as it looked when I arrived (click to embiggen it):

Today it looks a great deal different. Hurricane Katrina washed much of the base away, including almost all of the buildings that housed the training squadrons. These are the weird-looking buildings that are in the triangular area at the bottom-left. They've been replaced with buildings that look depressingly normal.

I was initially assigned to the 3413th Student Squadron, affectionately known as "Animal House", as I was reminded today. We didn't earn the title, but we maintained it with vigor.

FYI, someone in training at Keesler was known as a "pinger", which is actually an acronym standing for "Person In Need of Graduation". As is usual for all places of continuing education, we took it upon ourselves to put those newly arrived students to the test.  Let's not call it "hazing", shall we? That always sounds so crass. I thought of them as fun gags.

One of the gags that had a long tradition was that of "Chief Master Rope". And now you need to know what a "Rope" is. In military tradition, aiguillettes are decorative colored braided cords worn on the shoulder, often by Third World dictators. In the US Air Force they're worn under the epaulet and unobtrusively tucked under the shoulder.



In other countries, and particularly the United Kingdom, they tend to be more prominent. To the left is picture of Prince Harry in splendid regalia at William's wedding. It's either that, or he fell off the dock and onto a trawler and, being in a hurry, just showed up still entangled in the rigging.



At Keesler these devices were worn by student leaders, who were known by the color of their "ropes".

  • A Green Rope was also known as a Bay Chief. Each was responsible for a dormitory "bay" in which were housed maybe two dozen Airmen. 
  • A Yellow Rope, aka "Floor Rope" was responsible for an entire floor, maybe six or eight bays. This was the best of the student leader positions. I know because I was one.
  • A Red Rope, aka "Suck-up" (but only behind his back) was responsible for all of the Yellow Ropes and reported to the Squadron Commander. 
  • A White Rope was a chapel guide.
  • A Black Rope was on the drill team.
  • Blue ropes weren't worn by students... those were instructors.

Augillette of a
"Chief Master Rope"
And now you know. The important ones for this story were the traffic light colors. "Chief Master Rope" (or CMR, a parody of Chief Master Sergeant), was a fictional grade used for the gag. Enterprising jokesters would un-braid one of each of the student leader cords and then braid them back together to form this emblem of super-rank. Then he'd show up in a dormitory bay unannounced and perform a mock "inspection". Of course, everyone would be in the know except for the new guy, who would be quaking in his boots. Of course, he'd be the one singled out. His belongings would be scattered, he'd be yelled at and belittled until at some point he'd be shown mercy. His buddies would come clean about the gag, and everybody would have a good laugh as they helped him put his stuff back in order. It was a protracted form of jumping out and shouting "Boo!"

Of course, The Powers That Be couldn't allow such a thing to continue, lest it be confused with hazing. So by the time I got there, new students were warned of "Chief Master Rope Inspections" during their in-processing, and were encouraged to report such behavior.

Naturally, only a dick would actually report it. Enterprising souls found ways to use these warnings to their benefit. One ingenious solution was "Mattress Exchange Day"...


--==//oOo\\==--


There were many ways to pull this one off, but we started with the old "Chief Master Rope" gag. Of course we knew our victim had been warned, and he was suitably unimpressed by the charade. We nevertheless pretended to be fearful and respectful of our fake boss, while our victim was convinced of how terribly lame it was. And truth be told, the CMR was as lame as we could possibly make him... all dressed up like a cross between General MacArthur and a bag of Skittles.

Then, just when our victim is convinced of the stupidity of it all, an older fellow barges in, preferably in his late twenties or thirties, with no signs of a recent trainee haircut, and with a mustache, wearing civilian clothes. Before he says a word, everyone in sight of him snaps to rigid attention. An almost inaudible "oh, shit" might escape someone's lips.

He never announces his name or his rank -- lying about that could get you discharged. The implication is clear, though, that this is an NCO at the very least or perhaps even an officer. Whoever he is, he's one Important Guy. He demands, "What the hell is going on here?"

And that's when the CMR sees him. SNAP! Attention! Oh, shit, the hat! Off comes the hat! Off come the mirrored glasses, revealing eyes that look as though they have witnessed the fury of God Himself. The corncob pipe clatters to the polished floor.

The victim is perplexed, but he knows that something just went horribly wrong and he's at attention, too, out of sheer reflex. He's straight out of Basic. It's what you do.

And now the "Chief Master Rope" is dressed down thoroughly, and might be made to do pushups or some other fun task, the purpose of which is to convince the victim that this is real.

"You jackasses want an inspection, you'll GET ONE!" bellows the IG, who then turns on his heels into the pinger's room and proceeds to tear it to shreds. Nothing is right about it. Nothing. The poor victim can't even see the mayhem, as he's standing at attention in the hall, facing away.

Once the sheets are torn from the bed, IG lets out a cry of astonished rage:
"You idiot! It's Mattress Exchange Day! Why the hell isn't your g**d*** mattress at the g**d*** CQ?  Get your ass down there!  Move it!  Move it!  Move it!
And of course, our completely cowed target would be halfway down the hall before the second "Move it!" with mattress in tow.

We had to stop the poor victim as he was dragging his bedding down the stairs. And we'd come clean about the gag and everybody would have a good laugh as they helped him put his stuff back in order.




Of course, if you really wanted to mess with the pinger again, you could always tell him that it was all a joke except Mattress Exchange Day.  That's next Tuesday.


--==//oOo\\==--


Shortly thereafter I changed shifts and moved to the 3411th. They never did Mattress Exchange Day. Boring.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why you shouldn't raise kids.


I saw this meme on Facebook. It was shared from an education website called Clever Classroom.

The promise I have with it is that its premise is skewed, and I think that if they paid closer attention to current events over the last fifty years or so it would be obvious. Unfortunately, our current crop of teachers were raised in the system that skews our children.

For the record, it's going in the opposite direction of that indicated.

In this society we have "children" who live at home well past their 30s.[1] We increasingly raise the drinking age. We encourage the abandonment of responsibility for our actions, replacing it with blame.[2] We have built a nanny state to take care of not just those who are in legitimate need; but adults who are capable of taking care of not only themselves, but each other and their own children. Speaking of which, we usurp their authority as parents and introduce thoughtless standards of State-imposed conformity upon them. And as we stifle dissenting thought and alternative approaches, we recite Newspeak mantras of individuality and creativity.

Development doesn't work the way of this meme... do you wait to get into the water until you can swim? Of course not. It's plainly ridiculous. You get into the water in order to learn. Do you wait until you know how to play a musical instrument before you place your fingers upon it? Of course not. Predictably, it is practice that leads to proficiency, and the lack of the first results in the lack of the second.

Psychologists now claim not only that adulthood begins at age 25, but that it is because they don't exercise the responsibilities of adulthood earlier. Who could have predicted that? Well... anybody, really. It's obvious.

I have mentioned this before in regard to the subject of death. Question: Why do we have pets? Answer: because they die. And those little deaths and losses prepare us for the vastly more traumatic experience of losing our parents and discovering that we are wholly self-reliant individuals. Sadly, there are now individuals raised under the theory of "let them develop naturally", who will never reach adulthood. What the "let them develop naturally" school of thought does not comprehend is that environment shapes a being's development, and that the role of a guiding, motivating parent is part of the natural environment in which we should expect a human being to be raised. It's our job as parents to place upon them responsibilities -- chores, homework, etc. --  so that they may exercise judgment and discipline and problem-solving and become competent to apply these skills more generally.

We have one task as parents, and that's to see that our progeny can carry on without us. And I'm sad to say that this meme isn't going to equip anyone to do that one task.

I don't want to raise competent and compassionate kids... in the end, if that's all I have, then the job is unfinished. There is a reason they call it "raised"... as in raised up from where they begin. Instead I want to raise them to be competent and compassionate adults at the proper moment of life.




[1] overwhelmingly, this is blamed on economic factors. This is less a lie than an inability to comprehend the actual factors. There is a surplus of jobs in America; that's why we have so many immigrants. Americans are erroneously taught by those who sell higher education that higher education will necessarily qualify them for executive positions, ignoring that education does not negate the principle of supply and demand, nor does it negate the superior value of experience. As a result they do nothing at all and fallaciously claim that there are "no jobs". What is at play here is the unwillingness of Americans to accept entry-level employment for themselves.

[2] see footnote [1] for an example where employers and "the economy" are blamed for the individual's refusal to get off his butt and get an entry-level job.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Flat Earthers Rise Again


Yes, this is a real thing, and I'm posting it here mainly to have it handy, as B.o.B.'s track appears to have gone missing from a number of the sites that linked to it.

Basically, the rapper's not a big fan of rational thought. He went on a bit of a rant on Twitter claiming the Earth is flat.  When corrected by astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson, B.o.B. released this forgettable diss track:



Media hound that he is, Tyson would not be undone. He posted a track of his own, composed and rapped by his own nephew:



I'm not even going to debunk Flat Earth here... it's too easy, and too many people do it. So for now, do your own homework.

Yeah... doesn't happen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: City on the Edge of Forever (x 2)



I've been a Star Trek fan since September 8th, 1966. And since the day it aired, "The City on the Edge of Forever" has been my favorite episode. You may remember it as "the one where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go back to the 1930s and have to allow Edith Keeler to die."

Sometime in the 1970s I became aware that the author, Harlan Ellison, was less than pleased with the re-writes that this episode was given prior to production. I think "hatchet job" might be a fair characterization of his attitude toward the screenplay as filmed. He called it a "fatally inept treatment". Since I've been a Harlan Ellison fan only slightly more recently less long than I've been a Star Trek fan, I've long taken Ellison at his word that his original screenplay was much, much better than the filmed version; and that the hatchet job was because it was just too awesome to be filmed on a television budget.

Since then, I've read the original screenplay... both as a screenplay and as IDW's graphic novel treatment. I dug it out again recently, and am moved to write down my thoughts.

SPOILER ALERT
EVERYTHING past this point is a spoiler, and I  mean that in every way.
Really. I'm about to ruin this for you.

I'm going to examine the differences between Ellison's work and the Star Trek episode, with a primary focus on the teleplay due to Ellison's hype. I'll be comparing the June 1966 teleplay (the one used as a basis for the IDW graphic novel) and the television episode as aired. Afterward I'll examine some particular points of contention and do my best to back up what I say here in the prologue.

But most of all, when I view this and evaluate it, I will treat it from the point of view of a television story editor in 1966. I cannot evaluate this as a novel, or a feature movie, or a two-hour episode; and I can't grant you carte blanche to make any lasting changes you want in this world. We have to be on the air in weeks to come. I have a budget to keep, I have a series vision to maintain, and I have characters with a history. I have to ask myself, is this a good Star Trek script?

And let's be clear about this, please... despite protestations about artistic vision, etc., this is basically a work made for hire (and I say that in a factual sense more than a legal one. When the original draft was returned to him, Ellison got back the rights to it as well). Every TV episode or movie is a team collaboration of author, directors, cinematographers, property masters, designers, special effects crews, etc.. You have to start there. As much as Ellison would fervently wish it otherwise, the author doesn't get the final say, because it's not an anthology. With the exception of guest appearances, these are not his characters. He's playing in somebody else's sandbox with their characters, their props, and their rules. In this context, it is flatly not enough to be an artist. You also have to be a craftsman who is willing to add to a body of work in a way that fits. It's not an edifice that's required from you, it's a brick.

If I were reviewing Gene Roddenberry's convention appearances, I would stand in Ellison's corner and cheer, but I'm not. I'm not reviewing who told what lies, or whose account is correct. I don't much care about a 50 year old pissing contest. If it's not in the script, I don't much care. I do care about production issues. Is it filmable? Is it affordable? I do care whether the hype is warranted. I'm contrasting two scripts. And before I write another word, I'll eliminate suspense:

Harlan Ellison is wrong.

Given the environment into which this had to be delivered... the world, the characters, the format, the vision... the filmed version is not only better, it's astonishingly better. And Ellison might have done well to keep quiet in the intervening decades and just enjoy the accolades heaped upon it. Ellison's original script might have been mighty fine science fiction, but it's not Star Trek.

Now, you may turn rosy flesh colors and expound on art and decry the creative straightjacket of the television serial format. But the fact is that this creative straightjacket defined the utopian vision that is Star Trek as loved by generations, and ensured that it wouldn't be tarnished by artists who would, in their creative zeal, diminish it with their attempts to explore Man's frailties in a forum intended to herald his transcendence. When the task is to present a vision of a bright and shining future, you don't get bonus points for flinging mud all over it and calling it "real"... not even if you don't like that vision. The problem is, Harlan Ellison forgot who owns the sandbox.

It's not only producers who can shit all over another writer's work.


--==//oOo\\==--


Here are links to where you can get the original teleplay for yourself.

The Teleplay 
and author's recollections

The Graphic Novel
a very close adaptation of the
teleplay, highly recommended
You can see the episode in its entirety on Hulu or on CBS.com

And now, summaries compared:

Harlan Ellison's Teleplay Star Trek Episode
Begins with an approach to a planet where the clocks are running backward. Begins with an turbulent approach to a planet from which emanate "ripples in Time"
A drug-dealing crewman (Beckwith) is seen assaulting one of his customers (LeBeque) who had threatened to expose him. Beckwith seals himself in a transporter room and escapes to the planet's surface. After administering a potent drug to Sulu, who was injured as a result of the turbulence, McCoy accidentally injects himself with the cordrazine, and in a mentally deranged state escapes to the planet's surface.
Kirk, Spock, and a landing party that includes Yeoman Rand and five security officers follow. They encounter a gleaming, shimmering "City on the Edge of Forever", watched over by nine-foot-tall Guardians of Forever; man-like, but motionless and resembling statues. They guard the Time Vortex. Kirk, Spock, and a landing party that includes Uhura and three security officers follow. They encounter the ruins of a once-great city, and among the ruins a toroidal construct that identifies itself as the Guardian of Forever. This single object is the source of all the time displacement and is built to encompass the Time Vortex.
As the Guardians demonstrate the Vortex to the landing party, Beckwith watches from a hiding place. Seeing a chance to escape, he dives into the Vortex and back in Time. As The Guardian demonstrates its function to the landing party, the deranged McCoy watches from a hiding place. He dives through the portal and back in Time.
The teleplay now has a long sequence of the landing party returning to the Enterprise, which is no longer the Enterprise but a renegade ship called the Condor (somewhat reminiscent of the Mirror Universe Enterprise). After an initial skirmish, Kirk and Spock beam back down to the surface, leaving Rand and the Redshirts to defend the Transporter Room. The Enterprise is no more.
After some discussion about how what is and is not possible and the mutability of Time, and with last minute words of advice from the Guardians in the form of cryptic clues ("Bring him back. He will seek that which must die and give it life. Stop him," and "Blue it will be. blue as the sky of Old Earth and clear as truth. And the sun will burn on it, and there is the key."), the Guardians send Kirk (armed with phaser rifle) and Spock into the past to a point sometime before Beckwith's arrival. Having no other choice, and having estimated McCoy's position in the past based on the fact that Spock was recording images as McCoy jumped through, Kirk and Spock depart to prevent McCoy from changing history. Before leaving, Kirk instructs the crew that should he not return, they should each try in turn. At least they'll be safe in the past.
Kirk and Spock materialize in a crowd and are set upon by a xenophobic mob. Spock "lays about with vigor, sending men sprawling". Kirk fires his phaser rifle at a lamp-post, disintegrating it. They run off into an alley and into a basement. Kirk then leaves to go steal some period clothing. Kirk and Spock materialize on a quiet street and attempt to keep a low profile. They immediately see the need for period clothing, but are caught in the act of theft by a policeman, resulting in the  famous "mechanical rice picker accident" story to explain Spock's ears. They escape into an alley and into a basement.
This is the basement of no place in particular. They're discovered by a janitor and offered jobs. He's not particularly curious. This is the basement of the 21st Street Mission. They're discovered by Edith Keeler and offered jobs. She's insightful and knows immediately that Kirk is lying to her. This impresses Kirk. He admits that they stole the clothes. This impresses Keeler. She hires them despite that in a demonstration of forgiveness.
The teleplay then depicts time spent as the two settle into jobs waiting for Beckwith to arrive. Along with this is a shot of the Transporter Room in the future being defended by Rand and the Redshirts (to lend a sense of "imperativeness" to the actions of the past). The Janitor has gotten Spock a job as a dishwasher, and we endure an altercation where Spock shakes down his racist boss for the proper pay.
On his way home, Spock passes by Edith Keeler on the street as she's addressing a crowd, telling them that sadness isn't real though hunger is. He notes her blue cloak and sunburst pin, and (prompted by narration, so you don't miss it) connects it to the Guardian's cryptic clues. The scene fades out as Spock connects the "key" of the clue to her name: "Keeler". He recalls that the rest of the Guardians' clues state that she must die. Spock then goes home, tells Kirk about it, and then takes Kirk back out to the street to point her out. They then follow her back to her apartment, and Kirk decides to rent an apartment in the same building. As a consequence of working and eating at the Mission, Kirk and Spock hear Keeler talk at length. She insists that the days ahead are worth living for because Man's finest achievements are yet to come, and accurately predicts atomic power, space travel, and a post-scarcity economy... basically, the future of the Star Trek universe. Spock is impressed by her vision. Kirk is very impressed.

Knowing that the duo have nowhere to stay, Keeler mentions that there is a vacant apartment in her building.
Kirk and Spock spend their nights stalking Keeler, peering through her window from an adjacent rooftop. Spock warns Kirk of emotional entanglements. Kirk works and develops an attachment to Keeler while Spock attempts to modify the tricorder to scan for the temporal focal point. In need of delicate tools, Spock "borrows" some. Keeler catches the pair at it and further demonstrates her intuition via questions she poses about their background.
Later, Kirk engineers a "chance meeting", as Spock looms ominously in the background. We see Kirk and Keeler date.
We are then treated to a limbo set dialog between Kirk and Spock that establishes that time has passed and that Kirk and Keeler have been dating. In this lengthy exchange we infer that Kirk loves Edith Keeler. With the aid of his tricorder, Spock determines that Edith Keeler is the temporal focal point, but is not sure how.
Kirk and Keeler date. As they walk past a sub-street-level music shop, Edith would like to hear a song that's being sung. As she starts down the stairs, she stumbles. Kirk reaches out, but holds back and fails to catch her. Keeler falls to the bottom of the stairs, but survives.  Kirk and Keeler date some more. Kirk relates that an alien poet in the future will value the words "Let me help" more than "I love you".
Beckwith appears on the street in full sight of Kirk and Spock. They chase him, and there's a quick tussle, but he gets away, Kirk runs to Keeler and ushers her to safety at home.  They confide their love for one another.

Meanwhile, McCoy, still deranged, appears at night on a nearly deserted street. He has an encounter and is knocked out. The next morning, dazed, he staggers into the Mission, unseen by Spock or Kirk.
There is an exchange in an alley between Kirk and Spock. Spock wonders if the Redshirts are still alive in the Transporter Chamber. He reminds Kirk that Keeler must die. Kirk grabs Spock's arm, revealing a phaser. Kirk realizes that Spock is prepared to use the phaser on him.

Later, Beckwith steals Spock's phaser and runs away.
Spock is able to definitively pinpoint it to Keeler's pacifism delaying the entry of the US into World War II. As a result, the Allies lost. Edith Keeler must die, or the future of Earth is doomed. 

Kirk confides that he loves Edith Keeler.
Kirk bribes a disabled war veteran (Trooper) for information about Beckwith. Keeler nurses McCoy back to health. She notes his anachronistic speech.
Kirk and Keeler have cake and conversation in her apartment. Spock arrives with news from Trooper regarding Beckwith's location. They go to an alley, have another altercation with Beckwith, and Trooper is disintegrated by Beckwith's phaser fire. Beckwith gets away again. Kirk saves Keeler as she stumbles down a stairway. Spock reminds him of the danger of doing so. 

Meanwhile, McCoy is much better, though still speaking anachronistically. Keeler notes that he doesn't know who Clark Gable is.
The next day, after a sermon, Keeler is crossing the street to join Kirk as a beer truck approaches. Beckwith comes out of a building and, not seeing Kirk, rushes to save Keeler. Kirk cannot bring himself to stop Beckwith. He is willing to sacrifice the future of Humanity for his love. Spock runs up and stops Beckwith. Keeler is hit by the truck, and the crew are returned to the future. On the way to a movie, Kirk doesn't know who Clark Gable is either. Keeler remarks that it's just what Dr. McCoy said. Excited, Kirk runs back across the street, where he, Spock, and McCoy are reunited. Keeler moves to join them, walking across the street into the path of the oncoming truck. McCoy rushes to save her, but Kirk holds him back. He sacrifices his love for the future of Humanity.
Back at the Time Vortex, Time has regained its shape. The crew wonder that this is so given the death of Trooper, but the Guardian declares, "He was negligible."

Beckwith escapes AGAIN and jumps into the Vortex AGAIN. This time, the Guardians declare that he has been locked in Time in the heart of an exploding sun. There is a special effect of Beckwith screaming and dying over and over again for all eternity.

Afterward, Spock invites Kirk to Vulcan to rest. The two of them discuss the importance to History of Trooper and Keeler. Kirk reminds us that he loved her, and Spock agrees that no woman had ever been loved so much, because no woman had ever been offered the universe for love.
Back in the future, Time has regained its shape. The Guardian declares, "Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your portal."

Uhura notes that the Enterprise is now in orbit.

Kirk stoically commands, "Let's get the hell out of here."

I've read other reviews that try to convince me of the superiority of Ellison's piece, but I can not agree. As I compare the two... and I encourage you to read them for yourself... I note that there's not a hint of the "fatally inept treatment" of which Ellison complains. To the contrary, the Star Trek script is tighter, more logical, more in keeping with the Star Trek universe, and more accurately portrays the main characters. It provides a stronger focal point, raises the stakes, and engages the audience more. The re-writes were done by Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, and Gene Roddenberry, and none of it was inept. Ellison's pissed because they weren't all his words. Big deal, they weren't his characters, either, and it wasn't his ship, nor his show.

It is Ellison's treatment... particularly his poor portrayal of Spock... that is lacking. It pains me to say this about a writer I admire -- a veritable giant in his field -- but it's true. And the fact that it's Harlan Ellison compels me to be blunt about  it. 

It's easy to look at this script with 20/20 hindsight. We have the benefit of all three seasons of the original series. But in Ellison's defense, he wrote it in 1966. This was a new show. He had been asked for his contribution early in production. On the other hand, by every credible account, he was late delivering the script, and had ample opportunity to know these characters, and that's even more reason to defer to the production staff (and the actors themselves) regarding such things as characterization. 

Given his difficulty in working with others and his desire for a free hand over property he didn't own, many of Ellison's protestations come off as too strenuous and largely fueled by ego and personal ire at being slighted. At least, that's the impression I get from his book. It's not entirely unwarranted... his anger was fueled by shabby treatment, and he did write a very impressive script. But again, not so appropriate when you consider it for Star Trek. And I think it's clear that he thought Star Trek would be a very different kind of show than it was. Read the book, and particularly his essay from 1975 for some moments of clarity on a subject to which he is too close.

Now let's look at some specific points:


Point: Yeoman Rand

Let's begin by giving kudos to Ellison for one of his most interesting characterizations, and that's Rand. He wrote her as a strong, competent, highly adaptable officer, not at all in the "get me some coffee" mold that we typically saw in the show. It's as if he gave her a field promotion to security chief. It's strange on the one hand that he decided to put all the grunt and technical work in the hands of someone whose very job description is that of an administrative clerk. Still, it would be better than adding Yet Another Character, and it makes a lot of sense if we imagine the position of yeoman to be filled by someone who is on a command career path and who needs the experience of working closely with a captain. Unfortunately, by the time this episode was produced, Rand had been written out of the series, a victim of budget cuts. Nevertheless, the same treatment could have worked for Uhura.


Point: 'Drug'-dealing crewmen.

Seriously?
Ellison seems unacquainted with the post-scarcity economy. I don't entirely buy it myself, but it's the conceit of the series, so the writers must acknowledge it. Beckwith is driven by dreams of avarice. He's a schlub who is in space for a paycheck. This is completely at odds with the in-universe reality that Starfleet crewmembers are there because they want to be. They are graduates of an academy. They are stringently selected. Even when they fail it's often because they aspire to be more than they are (as with Finney in the episode, "Court Martial"). Ellison's premise is out-of-character for the series. It's not that Star Trek never depicted drugs... note "Mudd's Women" and "Mudd's Passion", sanitized though they may be. And as to the discipline aboard a starship, witness Captain Merik's statement in "Bread and Circuses", where he extols a Starfleet crew as being a cut above. Many people get the vision wrong: it's not that the Federation doesn't have a seedy underside... it's that you won't find it aboard the Enterprise.

And yes, I know Ellison prefers the dystopian to the utopian. But if that's the excuse, then he simply wrote this for the wrong show. And yes, it was written early in the history of Star Trek, but if this storyline had gone forward it would have informed later episodes and we'd have had a very different show. I'm glad it was cut.


Point: Spock. 

Ellison's concept of Vulcans and their philosophy entirely missed the mark. I'll present some actual snippets for your perusal: 
Spock whirls on LeBeque. He is as coldly furious as an alien without emotion can get. Menace in his voice.
Uh-huh. Over a crewman who is, to all appearances, quite ill. Logic dictates that Spock would recognize the physical dysfunction and calmly dispatch the crewman to Sickbay without undue stress.
Is this the heritage that you Earthmen brag about? This sickness?
...and...
My race never had this. We went to space in peace. Earthmen came with all of this behind them. 
"My race..." Spock is half-human.  By the way, Kirk then states that the Vulcans achieved spaceflight two hundred years after humanity. Spock displays a rather blatant and undisguised disgust that is completely uncharacteristic; particularly since he's well-versed in history, as the script explicitly states. He'd have known about this. This is typical of the hit-and-miss treatment that Ellison gives Spock. Spock's emotionlessness is used as an excuse for an undercurrent of cruelty untempered by gentler emotions rather than being a result of a philosophy of peace. Meanwhile the fact of his averred lack of emotion is called into question by sudden bouts of disgust or anger. Emotionlessness shouldn't mean only the good ones are missing.

The two get into an argument, then...
Spock is about to say something that borders on violence. He starts, stops, resumes his mask of imperturbable alien calm.
Imperturbable. He uses that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

There's more of the same. When the Cook counts out Spock's wages (a dollar short),
"Spock's hand snakes out quickly, and he grabs the Cook's wrist in a grip that is obviously painful." 
No logic or reason. Violence as a first resort.

Later, Kirk says to Spock, "Since when did you become a telepath?" Facepalm. "Dagger of the Mind" had aired seventeen episodes prior.

I'm fairly certain that where the aired episode gets the Vulcan right, it's due to story editor D.C. Fontana, who provided a re-write and who wrote such classic episodes as "Amok Time", "Journey to Babel", and "The Enterprise Incident". The point here is that as much as Ellison would love to have the character say these things, they're wrong. They're not Spock. And to allow it onto the screen would ruin Spock, who by this time had an established character.


Point: Time Travel & False Urgency

Time travel shows are generally bonkers in the first place, but there are some related tropes that make very little sense (by which I mean none whatsoever). One of these is the idea of clocks running backward and people getting younger, all the while having brains that think along the normal arrow of Time. How's that even supposed to work? Why aren't the engines collecting energy instead of expending it? Why aren't photons flying into the light sources? We can't even conceive of such a thing, much less plausibly depict it.

Also, I generally dislike concurrency in the context of some deadline in the far future imposing some urgency on your actions in the past. This is time travel! You have all the time between "then" and "now" to get 'er done. Here we have a case of two travellers who are placed a week or more prior to the target event. Ellison's script includes inserts of scenes in the false future in which Rand and the Redshirts hold off the Renegade hordes in the Transporter Chamber. If we take this at face value, the crew will be stuck in that box without provisions for a week at least, and the Renegades won't have figured out some way to cut through the door. There are so many logical problems with this approach!

First, if you truly do have a time machine, you can simply send your heroes back and then immediately pluck them out from the following week.  Sure, you can give your fictional time machine any rules you like, but keep in mind that this one is already depicted as scanning the historical timeline much faster than real-time. It would be nice to stick with that. So to be consistent, negligible time need be spent awaiting their return. This is the method employed in the aired version, with the result that all of the air time can be spent on the actual problem in the past.

That brings us to a second point, which is that there is no logical urgency outside of the core problem. There's certainly none arising from any event in the future, including the destruction of the Redshirts and the ship they stand in. All will be reset when the timeline is healed. And that makes this entire line of narrative redundant. The ship, the fighting, the holding down of the fort. All of it. It needed to be cut from the shooting script, and it was.


Point: Keeler's "inspirational" speech

In Ellison's version:
"Shadow and reality, my friends. That's the secret of getting through those bad times. Know what is, and what only seems to be. Hunger is real, and so is cold. But sadness is not. And it is the sadness that will kill you, that will ruin you. We all go to bed a little hungry every night, but it is possible to find peace in sleep knowing you have lived another day, and hurt no one doing it." 
"Love is only the absence of hate."
We read that these are "words of profound truth." We're not shown that, nor are we told it by a character. It's declared by Ellison himself in the blocking instructions. D'oh. OK, so we can read that as instruction to Nimoy to be awed by this speech. However, his character Spock might take exception to a definition of "love" that can be achieved by a box of lug nuts.

The problem is, if you're going to be awed, it needs to be by something awe-inspiring. Ellison's version comes across as vague platitudes, or the sort of thing spouted to comedic effect by the Sphinx in Mystery Men. It's just something for her to say while Spock is noticing the clumsy visual clues that were handed to him. They are certainly not the kind of ideas that will change the course of history. While conversing with Kirk, Spock offers up a few guesses as to how she might change history, but there is no cause given more specific than her mere existence.

The episode needed something better. Here is the on-screen version of Keeler's speech:
"I'm not a do-gooder. If you're a bum; if you can't break off with the booze or whatever it is that makes you a bad risk, get out. Now, I don't pretend to tell you how to find happiness and love when every day is just a struggle to survive. But I do insist that you do survive. Because the days and the years ahead are worth living for. One day soon, Man is going to be able to harness incredible energies; maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future, and those are the days worth living for."
The filmed sermon is precise and targeted. It's not just a message of hope addressed to the bums. It is for the home audience. It concisely summarizes what Star Trek is all about. And in so presenting these and other ideas like them, Keeler goes from being vaguely pacifist to being a strong anti-war activist. Spock is able to identify the exact point at which History is affected.

Now, I know that Ellison hates this speech. He says so, and I'm quite sure he'd be greatly disappointed in me for claiming it's better. He claims that he's sure Roddenberry wrote it, and quotes someone as saying it's the kind of "dopey Utopian bullshit" that Gene loved.

Well yeah... that's why this sounds like Star Trek and Ellison's piece doesn't.

Ellison also feels that this ruins this gentle character. Well, maybe it does for him. But for the rest of us, it doesn't. For one thing, it makes sense to say it. This speech is ostensibly addressed to a street crowd in the Great Depression. Are they really going to be interested in some philosophical vaguaries about knowing what's "real" and "shadow" while you stay hungry, or would they respond to a message of hope for a better tomorrow where everyone is well-fed?  Also this version gives Keeler strength. If you can't lay off the booze, get out. Rand doesn't have to be the only strong woman in the cast, and it's more notable in Keeler given her environment. Finally, the change gives the character a precise reason for being the focal point of history... one to which the audience can immediately relate, and one that has consequences severe enough to provide that sense of urgency that Ellison was expecting from the flawed insert cuts.

Ellison's version was vague and narratively weak, so this was a good edit, even if you hate Roddenberry.


Point: Excess.

Ellison's script is chock full of unnecessary characters, starting with Beckwith. As a villain, he's crap. He's there to be the MacGuffin. There he is in the first act, being Evil. For the rest of the show he's just out there, running around. What's he doing? Nothing much. Just lurking, somewhere, out of sight, bein' all Evil 'n' stuff 'n' junk. We are occasionally reminded of his existence when he runs into a scene, dances around silently for a bit, and runs away again. His complete unimportance is highlighted by the fact that he could be and was done away with entirely and the main plot point... Keeler's effect on History and on Kirk... was unaffected. None of his action-packed appearances mattered in the slightest. This is the ultimate redshirt. Not only is he useless fodder, to be killed off in the episode, but we're glad when it happens. Or we would be, if we cared about him... which we don't.

Contrast this with using McCoy (a change Ellison credits to D.C. Fontana, who credits it to Gene Coon). We have a vested interest in getting McCoy back beyond the whole "saving the Universe" thing. And when we see him at the end, we're genuinely glad to have him back. McCoy ruins history in the course of saving lives. He's no villain at all. And you know what...? This whole episode needs no villain. A villain just gets in the way. There are things that are bigger than our petty ideas of good and bad. Sometimes the whole Universe conspires to ruin your life. It's not fair, but it can't be helped. We don't need to undermine the utopian vision to get to the tension and drama.

Been there, done that,
didn't work then either.
Now, Ellison doesn't like the fact that McCoy accidentally injects himself with cordrazine when the ship hits some pretty rough turbulence. That's actually a petty point, and Ellison doth protest too much. His own 2nd Revised Final Draft had McCoy messing around with a dangerous poisonous animal in Sickbay in pretty rough turbulence. Either way it's a stupid thing to do. The thing about the hypo is that the only reason it was out is because it's a tool that McCoy had just used to do what doctors do. He was done in by a speed bump, not incompetence. The shooting script did it without having to devise some way of depicting a convincing poisonous alien and getting it to bite an actor. (Ellison's script suggested Yet Another Dressed-up Dog.) Bottom line, the show's solution is really no dumber than Ellison's, and it was cheaper to shoot. At the end of the day you have to shoot something. And here's the dirty secret that no one has considered: you don't actually need any crisis to start the action. The mission of the Enterprise is to explore strange new worlds. Here's a strange new world. Any member of a landing party could have conceivably stumbled upon a time portal and simply walked or fallen through. Time goes haywire, and that's calamity enough to drive the action practically unchanged. McCoy goes mad mostly because we need a cliffhanger for the Teaser. It's a matter of format.

LeBeque? Unnecessary. He's introduced because he's about to be killed, and you can't do that to a regular. Lose Beckwith, and you can lose LeBeque.

The Orator? Unnecessary. Getting rid of him gave us a lighter moment with the cop; and in a heavy drama you need a light moment or two: mechanical rice pickers... stone knives and bearskins. There's a reason "comic relief" includes the word "relief".  Ellison's script is dark, dark, and more dark. Including conversations in the dark. With a giant helping of darkness at the end. It should come with free wrist-razors in every TV Guide. It would be great on The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Not Star Trek.

The Janitor? Unnecessary. Getting rid of him put Edith Keeler in the script sooner, with a more prominent role as the director of the Mission and the person who extended forgiveness to our protagonists.

Trooper? Unnecessary. The only real reason for doing the whole, "he was of no inconsequence" schtick is to prove that he is of consequence. Except this person demonstrably isn't. Neither are you or I, probably. No need to rub it in. Trooper might be one of Ellison's favorite characters (and he is a fine character, truth be told), but he could be better employed in another story. I mean that. This guy has a great story, but we've got under an hour to tell a completely different story with its own subtext, and that gives Trooper short shrift. At the end of the episode you have to feel sad for Edith and for Kirk and for Trooper, and of the three we're supposed to feel sad for Trooper because he doesn't matter. Or, more honestly... because he did, and doesn't anymore. He fought at Verdun. It's a fine tale when told with room to explore it, but here it's a distraction at best.

A boatload of nine-foot-tall Guardians? Unnecessary. Only one really talks. The others are window-dressing. When it comes to effects, bigger isn't always better. What's more impressive... a huge bulky bodybuilder, or a nine-year-old kid who kicks the bodybuilder's ass? Hint: it's the kid. Likewise, the stone Guardian doesn't impress us with its size, but with its capability. That said, this device could look like anything... I have no idea why it's a flat Flintstones tire.

Ellison shows us a big shiny city that's never visited. Really. No curiosity. We see it, but dammit, we're not going to go knock on a few doors to see if the everyday folks have anything at all in common with the Guardians. I have great difficulty in explaining the depth of this lack of curiosity. If it's a ruin, it suddenly makes a lot more sense why they're not wandering around taking in the sights. The astonishing part of this is that the revision was a complete accident. The set designer had mis-read "runes" as "ruins" and built accordingly. Nevertheless, I think it was a fortuitous change.

And while we're talking about the city, Kirk uses the title in a line of dialog. In awe, he labels it "Like a city on the edge of forever." This is just a little too much foreshadowing. The characters haven't met the Guardians yet, there is as yet no sign of the Time Vortex. And here's Kirk waxing poetic about eternity. Sappy.

Ellison shows us a re-dressed ship complete with an entirely new crew of Renegade Baddies with speaking parts. For what? To show how the future has changed? And in that future, why would that ship be there? Why would it respond to the beam-up request? And why, having responded, would they chastise Kirk for having come aboard? Didn't they just beam him up? If history diverged in the 1930s, why would the tech be so similar in detail that Rand could easily hack the transporter console? Why do all of this for one scene and a momentary cutaway shot? Why tell all your fans that they would just love the hell out of this if it were only filmed?

Personally, I'd say having no future is a lot worse than having an altered one. That's what Gene Coon contributed, and it was the right choice.

Ellison gives us a hugely expensive and complicated comeuppance for Beckwith... an eternity of pain. One lifetime in imprisonment probably would have satisfied our sense of justice. Beckwith's just the jerk we met for the first time in scene one. He has no history with us, and we don't hate him enough to flay him forever.

Now here's the thing... you can read the script, and it's all quite flowery and poetic, with beautiful language. Arguably, the best passages in it aren't even in the dialog... they're in the stage directions. Whether the words on that page ever get to the viewers' eyeballs is a crapshoot. You could do it in a heartbeat with CGI today (and it would be nice if some fans were allowed to do that, wouldn't it?), but I honestly don't think they add to the story. Let me pose this: imagine a story about a man and a woman, set in exotic locations, with supporting characters galore. They meet, they argue, they break up, they reconcile. Now take the same story and set it in a small town. Is it the same story? Suppose you streamline the supporting characters? The lines intended for a waiter, bartender, and cab driver are all rolled into dialog with a single close friend? How does the story fare?

Ellison's excesses are really nice to have if you can afford them. But they don't add to the story. Consider that though Janice Rand is in Ellison's script, she was no longer in the cast due to budget cuts. Now go back and look at the list of unnecessaries. Tally up the cost of them. Look at whether the effects described would be believable as delivered by 1960s tech. Ask what you would do if you were the showrunner.


Point: Kirk and Keeler


In the Ellison version, the fact that Keeler must die is given to them before they even go back in Time. Spock puts two and two together before Kirk even sees her. It's known to Kirk before he engineers his "chance" meeting. This makes Kirk an idiot for falling in love. Furthermore, he stands there, an indecisive lump, while Spock saves the future of mankind by stopping Beckwith. Kirk takes no active part in his sacrifice.

In the aired script, it's not revealed that Keeler must die until after Kirk falls in love. There's no foreshadowing to blunt the impact of this news for Kirk or for the audience. BAM!

The climactic scene in which Keeler dies is, in my opinion, the reason this episode won an Emmy. It was the point in Kirk's life when he believed the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the one. Kirk took an active part in his sacrifice. The world turns because he was willing to let his heart stop with hers.
McCoy: "You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?"
Spock: "He knows, Doctor. He knows."
Few words, big impact.

In Ellison's script, Kirk would have let the future die. You can whine that "he'd sacrifice everything for her," but that's exactly what makes it bad. It makes Kirk selfish... weak. He deliberately abdicates his role as a hero, and as a result he wouldn't be believable in that role in later episodes. Even if you hate Roddenberry and think he was a sleaze, a stopped clock is right twice a day. At least he understood that if you want to be a hero, then deny yourself.

Point: The Last Line

In Ellison's book, Peter David laments that the ending of the televised episode is, "Business as usual. 'Let’s get the hell out of here.' There’s none of the carryover that would have given the aired episode that extra depth."

Except it's not business as usual. What he ignores here is Shatner's delivery. I'll leave it to you to watch and tell me whether you honestly believe that Kirk's disgust and desire to get as far away from the source of his pain as quickly as possible constitutes "business as usual". Every time I see it I'm impressed at the depth of meaning conveyed in those seven short words.


--==//oOo\\==--


Obviously, all of this is opinion. Take it or leave it. But I haven't heard or read a cogent argument, and that includes from Harlan Ellison himself, that makes me prefer his inconsistent, out-of-character, unfocused script to that which was aired.

Other than removing the strong part given Rand, there are no changes to the shooting script that were not for the better. That's not to say that even Ellison's weakest works aren't mightily impressive. But I take it as fact that the Star Trek production team took one of Harlan Ellison's weakest works and made it worthy of an Emmy.


I BOUGHT my car, Jack.

As with most laws, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) has had disastrous unintended consequences. One of these is communicated in this recent Slate article:



It's not just tractors, it's all vehicles. Auto makers now claim that we don't actually own the cars we buy... we license them. This is a bit more disturbing than computer operating systems. Microsoft doesn't claim to own your Dell. But because the software is embedded and citing such concerns as safety (after all, think of the children), the automakers are claiming that nope... nobody gets access to the computer except licensed, authorized (aka paying) maintenance technicians.

Reacting to a desire for tinkering, Ford has developed what they hope to be a standard way of extending an automobile's capabilities with "vehicle-aware applications", the OpenXC open source platform:


While this is a step in the right direction, it is a simply method of loading more electronics onto your car without "bricking" your $20,000 automotive investment. It does not address the ECU (Engine Control Unit), which remains verboten. It does not allow true tinkering down to the metal. "No hot-rodding for you," snaps the Auto Nazi.

Sadly, we live in an environment where people see other people arbitrarily controlling the minutiae of strangers' lives, and they come away from that experience with both a desire to do it themselves, and the perverted expectation that this is normal behavior. This is perhaps to be expected in a world that confuses the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution with a hunting license, but the analogy is disturbingly close. More, and more... and in more and more products... we see ourselves locked out of ownership of the things we bought due to increased reliance on computer code in embedded processors. This includes products for which there is no rational need for a processor (toasters come to mind). The fact of the matter is, I don't want a car that drives itself, that connects to the Internet, that is a wi-fi hub, that can be hacked using a discoverable code such as the VIN or license number, that can be bricked or even unlocked remotely. I don't want it whether it done maliciously, or accidentally, or deliberately by the police.

I don't want it. I don't want it so much that I went to great lengths to buy an older model of the car I like so as to avoid these unnecessary "features".

This isn't a matter of some desire to tinker together a new instrument panel. It's a basic measure of my Freedom that makes me insist on clear legal ownership of those things that I clearly own by right of purchase. If I cannot exercise that right due to encumbered components, then I should have the right to remove them so as not to infringe on the copyrights held so dear to those who hold them.

Bottom line for car manufacturers: I know you think your copyrighted material is terribly valuable, but I don't want it. It's worse than worthless to me... it prevents me from buying a car that is so encumbered at all.

In automobiles, the need for computerization is there and is rational, as computer-controlled fuel injection has long replaced carburetion. As that is the case, then the rational response of the citizenry, were they to have actual control over the laws enacted for the Public Good, should be to insist that the hardware of the car be legally divorced from the software. The ECU should be subject to competition, as should the maintenance of vehicles. I should be able to replace the encumbered operating system with one of my choice.

Recognizing the problem, there's an opportunity for a cottage industry of Open Source engine control units, and people who recognize it. Hackaday reported on such a project in 2014. The rusEFI Wiki is a source for current information on this project.


However, such projects still potentially run foul of copyright and patent claims of automakers who insist that you don't own what you own. What is needed is a revision of those laws that continue to separate us from our rights as individuals in areas never envisioned.




P.S. Thanks to Caleb for this related topic:

The Ethical Dilemma of Self-Driving Cars
Who should your robot car kill? The ethical dilemma of self-driving cars:
Posted by TED-Ed on Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Saturday, January 23, 2016

National Review: When Abortion Stopped Making Sense


You think you have logical, rational, compassionate arguments in favor of murdering unborn children? You think that Pro-Life advocates are mired in sentimentality and religion?

Then click on the link. Read this. Every word of it. Go read, now.






Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Review of The Force Awakens

OK, it's been weeks, so the spoiler moratorium is over. If you still haven't seen The Force Awakens directed by J.J. Abrams, then don't read this. If you do and the movie's ruined for you, it's your own fault.

The Force Awakens
Pretty much the full cast is represented with the exception of Luke

I've seen it twice (once in 3D, and once not). The second time was to double-check things that I thought I saw the first time 'round, and to see if I missed anything seriously important.

VERDICT FIRST

It didn't suck. It was OK family entertainment.
Production-wise it was stellar.
Story-wise, it was amateurish, immature and poorly structured.
Basically, it was a Disney movie.

THE GOOD NEWS

What can I say? BB8 stole the show. He was there to be cute comic relief, and he was, to just the right degree. As a practical effect, this prop was seriously effective, even when you realize that there's basically one way to achieve it  (an omniwheel RC platform in a "hamsterball" with an internal magnetic boom to secure and move the "head"). Add in a few stunt doubles with waldoes and the illusion is perfect. And kudos to the production team for using practical effects wherever they could. It's difficult, especially in a film like this, but the results are worth it.

The CGI was (mostly) stellar. In particular, Maz Kanata was exquisitely rendered. She was totally believable, both visually and as a character. You never get the feeling that she's a digital puppet. Maz is easily my favorite new character.

There was perhaps a place or two elsewhere in the film where I felt that Newtonian physics were being violated and I visited the uncanny valley, but these were blessedly few. The use of 3D was very impressive, despite the fact that some distant backdrops appeared 'flat'.

The music was of the consistent quality that we've come to expect from John Williams. 'nuff said.

There's one new character that I could stand to see a lot more of: Poe Dameron. He's the archetypal "woodsman" of fairy tales... the heroic figure who does one thing and does it very well through training and profession, with no illusions of inadequacy within his field or competence outside of it. I like that he's got a story that occurs outside of the depicted events, and that J.J. Abrams didn't feel the need to bother us with those details.

Mark Hamill rocks the beard.
The marketing fake-out for this movie was, I must say, brilliant. Mark Hamill had not a word of dialog in this film. This alone justifies an official "reason" for him having been left off of all of the posters. However, that he did not appear fueled the reasonable supposition that he must have turned to the Dark Side, and would be playing Kylo Ren. It wasn't until they'd paid their shilling that the audience was left to wonder "wait, what?" We can now expect Luke Skywalker to be front and center in the next film as the new Jedi sage who will attend to Rey's training.

The politics of the film are unclear, and that's a Good Thing(tm). The politics of the storyteller's world should be known to the storyteller and should be revealed to the audience in the story itself. Without being slapped in the face with explanations, we can see that the Empire is gone, leaving a fractured galaxy. The New Republic has replaced it in part, with other areas giving rise to the First Order. Also without being told we can see that the Resistance operates within the territory of the First Order and is funded and supported by the New Republic. Politics done... storytime.


THE NOT-SO-GOOD NEWS

The film has been criticized as a 'rip-off' of A New Hope, and rightly so. The main points are incredibly close, much more so than are required for homage. I've heard defenses of it, but all are easily countered. (Q: "Did A New Hope begin with the massacre of a village by stormtroopers?" A: "Why yes, it did. Only the 'village' was called a 'rebel blockade runner'"). This is deliberate. They're drawing a parallel between the characters of Rey and Luke Skywalker. Actually, they're beating you over the head with it, so while the similarities aren't a major concern for me, the obviousness of it is. It's as if Abrams doesn't trust you to spot the parallel.

My bigger concern is that the main characters in this film pretty much sucked, in particular Rey. And yeah, yeah, you'll hate me for that, but here's why I think it:


REY

Much of what I have to say about Rey has already been said by Max Landis. I found this video as I was looking for a character photo, so I'm going to pass it on here. Max hits almost every point I was going to use, including that Rey is unarguably a "Mary Sue" (and do read up on what that is).

The main point (for me) is this: where Rey is concerned, there is no hero's journey. Everything happens just perfectly to put her in an elevated position, and she never ever has to learn anything along the way.

Her character was supposedly abandoned on a desert planet (Jakku... or in my mind, "Jakkooine") and left to scavenge for spaceship scrap for a living. Remember, she is pulling pieces off of dead and derelict wreckage and selling it to a scrap dealer for literally whatever he feels like paying her. There's no consistency in the value of her work, and this is explicitly highlighted in a scene. From her experience in pulling cold dead components from cold dead hulks we are to believe that she has somehow acquired ace piloting and combat skillz, as well as the technological savvy to fix literally anything on first sight, as well as the ability to understand both Astromech Droid and Wookie. The appearance of exceptional 'luck' can be attributed to the Force, but not all of this.

In A New Hope, Luke was a farmboy who was fairly well-off by Tatooine standards, with a T-16 Skyhopper and plenty of time to practice targeting womp rats. In The Phantom Menace, Watto ran a junkyard and repair shop. Young Anakin, though a slave, had the run of the place. He was encouraged to tinker and to race. He had access to working equipment, diagnostic tools, workshops. Even then, fans knew that his building of C3PO was pushing the boundary of credibility. In The Force Awakens, Rey lived in a wrecked AT-AT and fetched junk and stood at a window for her "portion". Rey hasn't the backstory to justify her abilities.

My problem with this is isn't just the unbelievability of it. It's that Rey sprang forth as a fully developed superbeing from the forehead of whatever god watches over the Star Wars universe. Any protestation on her part is pro forma.

There's one scene that fully highlights the problem. It's both a very cool idea, and a huge mistake. During that lightsaber fight, where she force-wrests Anakin's sabre from Kylo Ren (to the accompaniment of a swell of the Luke Skywalker theme music, nudge, nudge, wink, wink), there is a moment in the banter where Kylo Ren tells her that he can train her. At that point there's a pause where many in the audience were thinking, "well get on with it!" This was a call-back to the earlier interrogation scene where Ren and Rey probe each other's minds. What is happening in that lull is that she has realized that he can teach her to fight, and she is pulling the information directly from his mind. When she then mops up the floor with him, it's because she's using his own knowledge against him.

While that's very cool, it's the sort of thing you'd want to save for when your character has fully come into her own. In drama, every challenge and hurdle is a test of the character. There is no challenge to being handed a test and the answer sheet. There's no tension, no suspense, no nothing.

Exactly none of my criticism of Rey has to do with the actress, Daisy Ridley, who actually did a fine job with the dross she was handed.


FINN

I could easily like the character of Finn (John Boyega) more were he not largely relegated to breathing hard and sweating profusely. Seriously, that's my only real beef with him. In truth, he's a much better character than Rey. He's newly promoted to Stormtrooper, and on his very first outing he's tasked with slaughtering a village. Ouch. So he's got some serious soul-searching to do, and quick. Story-wise, I think he became a little too attached to Rey a little too quickly. The devotion should have been saved for a sequel... but that's not so much Finn's flaw as it is Rey's. She's a Mary Sue, so people have to love her.[1]

       Less of this                       and more of this, please

KYLO REN

This isn't so much a problem as observations I have about this character... I make no representation that this information is correct. Rather, it would be correct if I were writing the sequels in a way to make sense of what we see in The Force Awakens.

The mask just reminds us of how
un-badass he is without it.
Proclaimed "Master of the Knights of Ren", in reality Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo, played by Adam Driver) is revealed to be a master of nothing. He can't even master his own emotions. When Darth Vader force-choked a minion to death, it's because they were in his opinion too useless to continue consuming air on his ship. Kylo just has tantrums. We know that as Ben he was sent to Luke for training. We're told that Something Bad Happened, Ben wound up with the Knights of Ren, and Luke's training academy fell apart. Exactly how that happened is yet to be revealed, but I sincerely doubt that Ben was a driver of that revolt. Rather, it seems clear to me that Supreme Leader Snoke has been blowing smoke up Ben's butt... flattering him... inflating his ego. While Kylo Ren undeniably has raw strength and some talent, his training is so poor that he found taking out a former rookie stormtrooper nee garbageman to be a challenge. He was then defeated by a completely untrained junkyard rat.[2] Even his lightsabre sputters and flickers in a way that doesn't imply power so much as poor construction.

Snoke knows that Kylo isn't a leader... that's why the military authorities are in charge. Snoke explicitly states that Kylo's training is incomplete. So why does Snoke flatter the kid? Because Kylo Ren's value lies not in what he can do, but on who he is. Losing Ben to the Dark Side devastated Luke and effectively shut down the training of new Jedi. Ben does more damage by simply being a loser than he has ever done as a bad-ass villain. I think that this is a revelation that could be used to satisfyingly creative effect in sequels... for instance, by building up his false sense of competence to the point where Kylo thinks he can take on Luke; an attempt which could get him killed and further drive Luke into despair. But I also think that the chances are mighty slim that this is the direction they've chosen.


THE FINDING OF THE FALCON

Now wasn't this convenient?  There in  the Jakku junkyard was an all-too-familiar Corellian YT-1300 class freighter... filthy, but in practically perfect working order. Rey and Finn use it to escape the Imperial First Order troops, fly off with the First Order in hot pursuit. Then there's a big action scene so Mary Sue can do her stuff. Within moments of leaving the atmosphere, they're captured, not by by the guys who had orders to catch them, but by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Han and Chewie apparently have been searching for ages for their missing ship and just happened to be at this exact place at this exact moment. "We're home," proclaims Han. Yay! BUT -- oh my gosh! -- within moments of that, they're set upon by not one, but two rival gangs, each of which claims that Han has cheated them by taking out a loan with other, even though neither loan is yet due, and they actually catch him as he is carrying out the task he said he would accomplish. Han has actually shown exactly zero intent to defraud any of the people who tracked him down. That's OK, though... Han happens to be transporting some some big ravenous loan-shark-seeking mouths (Rathars). In accordance with Star Wars Evolutionary Theory ("survival of the most lucrative"), these creatures eat bad guys immediately and carry good guys around until they're rescued.

If any part of that sounded like a satisfying narrative to you, then you're probably less than 12 years old. The entire purpose of this sequence of events has nothing to do with storytelling. It is to show the audience some dangerous, toothy bug-eyed monsters in 3D. The gangs have no purpose other than to provide something for the monsters to eat. The freighter served no purpose other than to ferry the monsters to our heroes. The monsters themselves served no purpose. And oh, by the way, here are Han and Chewie.

However, the entire purpose of the scene should have been to introduce the characters of Han and Chewie. I maintain there are better ways to do it.

Consider this one: rather than being stuck in a junkyard, the Falcon is simply parked. The ship is stolen, just as in the movie, but Rey isn't getting out of this so easily. A hair-raising chase scene ensues in which Rey survives more by luck than skill. Near the end, a First Order fighter has her in its sights and she's about to be picked off when the fighter is destroyed by an intervening blast. The remaining fighters fall to this "guardian angel". Once clear of the atmosphere, the Falcon develops a fault and Rey is at a loss as to what's wrong. The "guardian angel" docks, and in step Han and Chewie, pretty much as before; only Han's not too pleased at having his ship stolen, and having to have stolen another himself to get it back. He was on Jakku conducting business, not on some side-quest. The 'fault' with the Falcon isn't a fault at all... it's the hyperspace equivalent of "you forgot to release the parking brake". This changes the dynamic between them a bit, gives Rey room for character growth, and doesn't undermine Han's character. He was a scoundrel, not a cheat; and he had his own character arc that The Force Awakens undoes. Later, Han can still offer Rey a job... but because he sees potential in her; not because she fixes everything better than the people who have lived and breathed in this ship for 40 years.

Oh, wait... there are no useless rival gangs and no toothy BEMs. What an improvement. Those squishy tentacled things would make crappy toys anyway. Which reminds me...

Ladies and Gentlemen, the producers would like me to remind you
that all of your old Millennium Falcon merchandise is obsolete.
Falcons with the new dish are available at your local retailer.


STARKILLER BASE

Literal overkill
This is the situation where the storytellers should have paid attention to the politics for themselves. The entire unified Empire took quite a bit of time and resources to build the Death Star and its successor. Vader himself was concerned that the schedule was slipping. So we're to believe that one faction of a fractured galaxy could afford to expend the resources and expertise build a superweapon out of an entire planet... that this superweapon could contain an entire star... that it can target and fire a beam across the interstellar reaches... that the beam itself could travel in hyperspace... and that you can get more than one shot out of it. Remember, we already saw it fire before it was preparing for another shot. Where did it get the second sun? If it was a binary system, why would they have built a two-shot weapon? If they could move it to reload, why not just do so to fire? Can you drain a star unless you already possesses more energy that the star contains? In which case, do you need the star? Am I overthinking this?

No.

The franchise simply fell into the trap of mo-bigger, mo-better. If they don't climb out of it, they'll soon be facing the heroes off against the Cosmic Galaxy-devouring Munch Monster. If they never blow up another big round thing again, it will be too soon.


WRAP-UP 

Carrie Fisher looked good and acted well. She looked like a general with thirty years of history behind her, which was perfect. The same goes for Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew. It wasn't Ford's best performance; but sadly, he didn't have much to work with other than his death scene. I was neither dismayed nor elated at Han Solo's death. Someone asked me why it would have taken so long for Han to have tried out Chewie's bowcaster, and the answer is obvious: it hadn't been caught on film before, and this was the last chance to show it before Han bought the farm.

I think the movie could get an Oscar for BB8, and maybe for some of the motion-capture CGI. I'm not convinced that anything else deserves a mention.

So that's it... basically this is a Disney movie with a simplistic Disney story and simplistic Disney characters. Kylo Ren has some potential, but mostly because he's so flawed. Finn has the most potential to become a well-rounded character. Rey is a missed opportunity. As we've increasingly come to expect with the Star Wars franchise, this is in very great part a 135-minute infomercial for new toys and merchandise.



[1] I mean this literally. Other characters are compelled to love a Mary Sue. Not only does Finn immediately love Rey, but Han does as well, to the point where he offers her a job their first flight out. He does this because her awesome awesomeness demands that he hire her, and so that her future presence on the Falcon has legitimacy. (Characters do not need to know about the plot to engage in actions that have no purpose other than to promote the Mary Sue.) Even Kylo Ren offers to take her on as an apprentice rather than simply destroy her. This has nothing to do with her having seen the map. He would do it in any event, compelled by her Mary Sueness.

Another example of the trope is Bella Swan from the Twilight series.

[2] And here you have the real danger of including a Mary Sue in your cast. Because the character is fundamentally wish fulfilment, the author is never as good as the character, and thus has no experience to draw upon to make the character believable. Incapable of making the Mary Sue look truly outstanding, the author does the next best thing and makes the rest of the cast look incompetent. Every other character suffers. In this film Kylo Ren got the brunt of it.