Thursday, September 28, 2017

Star Trek: Dystopia

It's really not my intent to turn this into a Star Trek blog, but we just happen to have hit the motherload in the last couple of weeks. Following the previous release of The Orville, on Saturday, the folks at Atomic Network released Renegades: The Requiem after a long wait; and Star Trek: Discovery was released the following night. So I have at least one more review after this one.

This one's for Star Trek: Discovery, and I'm kind of feeling as though I should wait until the next couple of episodes have aired, because I don't think any of us have really seen the show at all even though the first two episodes have aired. On second thought, damn the torpedoes: full speed ahead.

But first, a word from our spoilers.
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 should go 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. And in all seriousness, if you just LOVE this show, you're going to HATE this review for all the reasons you've already imagined, so you might as well just skip it.

I'll give you my summary first.  ST:D is fine science fiction. I like it. I don't think it's especially good Star Trek.  And again, at this I have to limit this statement to the pilot, for reasons that should be very clear.

Able to spot tracks in the sand through thick cloud cover.
ST:D is fine science fiction. It's cinematic, it's grandiose, it's gritty, it's dark. It's pretty much what we all expected it was going to be in terms of production values. It's also the heir to the official Star Trek kingdom, so it gets to use all of the accompanying trappings.

But while it's what we expected, it's not really what we were promised. We were told that the show would respect canon, and it doesn't; not really. We were told that it takes place in the Prime Universe, and it doesn't; not really. And yet I watched with hopes that the creators were far more clever than they let on, and managed to cleverly maintain canon. They weren't, and didn't. This is clearly a reboot, straddling the line between the "Prime" (original) timeline and the "Kelvin" (J.J. Abrams reboot) timeline.

What I'm about to write might cause you to question my statement that I like it as science fiction; but I assure you, I do, and I'll tell you why. In the meantime, let's cast those doubts.

In this pilot, they kill almost everybody. They kill the captain. They kill the admiral. They kill the bad guy. They kill an entire fleet. That last one's not entirely true... they left the fleet in ruins to be "heralds of Klingon superiority". You basically get two speaking characters who survive into the series: a congenital coward and a mutineer. The writers spend two hours asking you to become emotionally involved with characters, all of which make a series of bad choices, and then kill them off. That's not a big issue if this were a feature film. In a film you can do that sort of thing. Boom! Finality. No problem. And judged that way, this is just fine. But it's not a feature film. It's a pilot of a television series. And judged that way, it's a lot of wasted time. This is time that could have been used to establish much more than one main character and a sidekick. I almost wish they had released this first bit as a feature film, in theaters, so that it is surely distinct from the rest of the series. As for the Discovery, we have yet to establish the ship, its crew, its captain, etc.; except in previews. All of that stuff is habitat. Ecosystem. The show isn't about them. It's about one person. And that one person is a Mary Sue.

More Vulcan than a Vulcan
The definition of what is or is not a Mary Sue may be arguable, but the character of Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) hits all the sweet spots. For that matter, she's Mary Sue and Tragic Hero rolled into one. That's a real trick, because they're not terribly compatible, and they fight for dominance. She has a tragic backstory, which gives her something to overcome. Orphaned as a very young girl in the last Klingon attack before their withdrawal, Burnham is rescued by Vulcan ambassador Sarek (father of Spock, who is never mentioned), who immediately implants her with a portion of his own katra (akin to a soul) -- something he never shared with his own son. He then makes her his ward instead of turning her over to Human caretakers as logic would dictate. Mary Sues are irresistibly attractive (not necessarily in a sexual way), and this is an early indication of her Mary Sue-ness. Burnham thus becomes the first Human to graduate the Vulcan Training Center and the Vulcan Science Academy. In flashback we see her dropped off aboard the starship Shenzhou to be met by Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). In this encounter Burnham displays a demeanor more Vulcan that Sarek's own. After a few vague disparaging remarks about the ship she's asked by Captain Georgiou if the ship is not up to Burnham's standards. Burnham states, "I have no standards when it comes to this ship. It has always been my intention to join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group". We know she's very smart because Georgiou tells us so.

Despite having arrived as a civilian, Burnham receives a commission off-camera at some point in the seven years of her residency aboard ship, and rises to First Officer. Unfortunately, during that time she does not manage to shake the air of snobbish disdain for her fellow creatures that one usually encounters in poorly home-schooled children with limited social interaction and no friends. In one scene she literally shoulders the Science Officer away from his station because she knows she can do a better job. And that's a hallmark of her character: no matter what your job is, she knows she can do a better job, even if that job is being the captain.

To the people who are as in love with this character as the writers would like them to be, here's a reminder: the very first calculation she makes in episode one is wrong. Her decisions go downhill from there.

Our crew's first mystery is an unknown artifact within an asteroid field. Since the ship's sensors cannot get clear readings, Burnham bravely volunteers to do a fly-by in a thruster suit despite dangerously high levels of radiation from the nearby binary stars. The captain agrees to a reconnaissance of short duration and issues unambiguous orders to do a fly-by only. About eight minutes into this task, Burnham disobeys orders by setting foot on the artifact, which promptly disgorges a Klingon warrior of great bulk, which Burnham promptly kills (by accident, of course). This sets into motion a sequence of events that quickly leads the Federation into open warfare.

In short order we're treated to Burnham being able to get a clear connection to Ambassador Sarek on a private channel though communications are disrupted; Burnham demanding that the Federation fire first; Burnham being openly insubordinate to her captain; Burnham physically assaulting her captain; Burnham issuing orders countermanding those of the captain; and Burnham getting her ass locked in the brig for mutiny.

Now, all of this might have you shaking your head, saying that this couldn't possibly be a Mary Sue... Mary Sues aren't that stupid. But Tragic Heroes are. Besides, Burnham does all of this because she's actually smarter than everyone. And only she can save them all. You the audience can see that of course she must be right! If only they would just listen to her! But they lock up the mutineer instead. And this is her second tragic backstory. Because the show that we're watching -- this two-hour movie disguised as two episodes -- is not even part of the series. It's a prequel: it's backstory for the series, which starts in episode three with the arrival of the Discovery. But we're not done.

Star Chamber, Federation style
While in the brig, she displays her unique specialness by conducting an eloquent telepathic conversation with Sarek over a distance of many light-years. Although she is imprisoned, and although a Klingon weapon blast has left her surrounded by airless void, Burnham manages to 'logic' the ship's computer into assisting her escape by appealing to its "ethical protocols". Even computers love Mary Sues. And upon rejoining her curiously unsurprised captain on the bridge, the two of them hatch a plan to capture the Klingon Bad Guy. Of course, it goes horribly awry, culminating in the death of the captain and the martyrdom of the Klingon Bad Guy. The episode ends with Burnham facing a horribly clichÄ—d shadowy tribunal, complete with darkened faceless judges and her standing in a lone pool of light. In her final plea she shamelessly bullshits the judges by telling them that since she was a child she dreamed of furthering the noble purpose of Starfleet, etc. etc., although we know she aspired to the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. She is then sentenced to life in prison.


In short (too late!) this is just about the worst character you can possibly write. But I still say it's bloody good science fiction as a movie, because it ends by subverting the Mary Sue trope and having her fail miserably at everything of import that she attempts. With her final speech, the audience is rewarded with the knowledge that she is reaping the just consequences of her own hubris and actions.

Oh, if only they had left it there! The sweet justice of it! And if only they had done it on purpose! But this is not a movie, it's a television series, and it comes with previews of things to come. We know that she has a whole new arc coming with this tragic backstory, and Mary Sue will not let the Tragic Hero win. She will be shuttled onto the Discovery, where she will be set free, as she is Far Too Smart and Far Too Important to serve the life sentence that was decreed by the legal system. We are handed the unsolicited hope that she will Mary Sue her way to eventual exoneration. As if we needed that.

Trek, it ain't. I could pick all kinds of nits, all day long. In watching the show, they come rapid-fire, at a rate of about one per minute, from the tech to the iconography to previously unevidenced alien superpowers to a blatant disdain for basic real-world physics; so I'm not even going to bother here. I might make a list for my own enjoyment later. But something that won't be on the list is what the Klingons look like. They look different here. They've looked different before. Big woop.


Watching this, it became clear to me why CBS came down so hard on Axanar. Like ST:D, Axanar portrays the events of a Federation/Klingon war, and in the same specific time period. Whereas ST:D breaks canon in major respects (attempting as it does to please all people by verbally claiming both Kelvin and Prime canonization while actually rebooting the whole franchise), Axanar is clearly respectful of Prime canon. And frankly, it looks to me as though Axanar has the better take on this particular period of Federation history, irrespective of timeline. Axanar is a clear threat and competitor to ST:D. Sadly for CBS, I'd rather see Axanar. Seriously, I'd rather see CBS just distribute Axanar and confiscate the damned profits than watch the thing they themselves created.

Of course, I'm not one of the fans that they give a shit about. I watched Star Trek for the first time on September 8th, 1966. I've been a faithful fan until now. But now I'm faced with a new lead actor who flatly doesn't care about longtime fans. Insulting the people who pay your rent for you is hardly a way to break the ice.

I'm also unconcerned with the smattering of trolls who have made sexist and/or racist comments about the show. If they're doing so, they're probably not long-time Star Trek fans, as the people who are well-versed in IDIC have spent their lives aspiring to the 23rd century inclusiveness envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. To those of us who grew up on Star Trek, these complaints are non-issues, as the society of the United Federation of Planets would have long since discarded such outmoded notions. You could put an aboriginal Tellarite in charge and it would be fine with me. In point of fact, there is nothing in this script that even hints at the sex or race (other than Human) of the lead character, Michael Burnham. You could have cast anyone in the part without changing a word other than perhaps a pronoun. It's as asexual and aracial a part as can be written. Unfortunately, it's also a badly written character. I wish that last part weren't true. But I've watched both parts twice now, and it was more tedious the second time through. Meanwhile, I can watch Prelude to Axanar, or even The Orville, multiple times and still smile. It's pretty sad when a comedy parody out-Treks "the real thing".

Images copyright CBS/Paramount/whoever's asserting the copyright this week. Used without permission in accordance with Fair Use for the purpose of editorial comment.

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. That is, they are egg-laying individuals who identify as males, which calls into question whether it's the critics who are confused as to whether gender identity is addressed in this show. 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.