Friday, January 11, 2019

The Discovery-Orville Transposition

From the beginning, Star Trek: Discovery alienated a small but very loud segment of the Star Trek fanbase: middle-aged men who obsess over "canon" with a near-religious fervor. Now, I'm not knocking anyone for disliking a TV show; if Discovery's not your thing that's perfectly okay and there are definitely fans of previous Treks who have decided to sit Discovery out. But there's a lunatic fringe that's angry at Disco for even existing, and you can usually find them online proclaiming that Seth MacFarlane's The Orville is the real Star Trek that "the fans" want.

The Orville is a good-enough show. It's so reminiscent of Next Generation-era Trek that I'm surprised CBS hasn't sued. But it's a Seth MacFarlane production, so of course there's plenty of toilet humor and modern pop culture references. Nevertheless, the "Orville-is-the-real-Trek" crowd seem happy to overlook that, presumably because it gives them their fix of episodic space exploration by a happy family of characters. (I'm sure their preference for The Orville over Discovery has nothing to do with the fact that the series lead is a white male.) And like I said, I'm not here to knock anyone's honest preferences.

But I do despise double standards. And it occurs to me that some of the same people who extol The Orville as the spiritual successor to Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek are happy to overlook the ways that show falls short of the Trek ideal, even as they continue to hate-watch Discovery just to pick it to pieces. So let's have a little thought experiment: imagine an alternate universe where it's September 2017, and sci-fi fans are eagerly anticipating the premiere of two new TV shows: Star Trek: Orville on CBS All Access, and Discovery on Fox.

Now, a halfway decent blog written by a person with the Photoshop skills of your average ring-tailed lemur would spice up this article with some cleverly doctored promo posters from this alternate reality. But this blog is not halfway decent, so I've got nothing.

Anyway, Star Trek: Orville is the result of CBS's decision to give Seth MacFarlane the keys to the Star Trek franchise. The USS Orville is a Federation starship in the late 24th century, after the events of the TNG-era shows and movies. In the usual Star Trek vein, it sticks to mostly-episodic tales of space exploration told in the familiar A-plot/B-plot format. But in an effort to give this new Trek a lighter, more relatable tone it features all the toilet humor and pop-culture references you expect from a Seth MacFarlane production.

Meanwhile, Fox is going in a darker, more serious direction with Discovery, the lavishly-produced brainchild of producer Bryan Fuller. It's rumored that Fuller originally pitched the idea to CBS as a Star Trek revival but they passed, opting instead to go with Seth MacFarlane's proposal that had more in common with the Star Trek shows that had come before. Discovery is the redemption tale of Commander Michael Burnham, stripped of rank after her mutiny against Captain Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou plunges the Planetary Union into interstellar war against the alien Krill.

In this scenario, isn't it easy to imagine longtime Star Trek fans angrily complaining that Orville is just a tired retread of stuff we've seen before, and that Seth MacFarlane's lowbrow humor and anachronistic pop culture references are an insult to Gene Roddenberry's vision? Isn't it easy to imagine them gravitating to Discovery instead, with its lavish production values and more serious tone, proclaiming it to be the "real" Star Trek? Might they overlook its imperfections due to creator Bryan Fuller's Star Trek pedigree and their dissatisfaction with the Seth MacFarlane-helmed "official" Trek?

We'll never know, of course. But it's fascinating to contemplate.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Kindness Commando

Not too long ago everyone was talking about the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, one of the first TV shows my parents allowed me to watch.

When I was a kid in the 1980s, most of the shows aimed at my age group were half-hour cartoons/toy commercials with names like Sgt. Dirk Fistpunch and the Justice Kommandos. These shows were all the same, and they went something like this:
SGT. DIRK FISTPUNCH: Oh no! General Destructo and the Slime Squad are trying get kids to drop out of school!
CORPORAL GUNMUSCLE: Hey, General Destructo! Don't you know that school helps kids learn new things?
PRIVATE SWORDTHRUST: Yeah! School is cool!
GENERAL DESTRUCTO: I don't care! My Slime Squad will trick kids everywhere into dropping out of school, and then the world will be MINE! Ha ha ha!
SGT. DIRK FISTPUNCH: All right, General Destructo! You asked for it! Justice Kommandos attack!
[The Justice Kommandos attack the Slime Squad with guns, swords, and missile launchers, but since this is a kids' show nobody gets killed or suffers gruesome injuries.]

Shows like this taught the following moral lessons:
  1. The world was divided into easily-identifiable Good and Evil factions.
  2. Violence was a fun and consequence-free way to solve any problem.
  3. The action figures, vehicles, and accessories for Sgt. Dirk Fistpunch®, General Destructo®, and the rest of the Justice Kommandos™ and Slime Squad™ were all Sold Separately, and we needed to Collect Them All unless we wanted to be total losers.
  4. Maybe something about not dropping out of school? Who cares? Whatever the problem is, the Justice Kommandos always fix it with violence!
These shows may have pretended to be educational but everyone knew they only existed to sell toys by appealing to little boys' power fantasies. And even though my parents--ever wary of the impact of televised violence on impressionable young minds--didn't allow me to watch them, they still influenced me because my friends at school all watched them, and the toys were advertised during the shows I did watch. My friends and I quickly came to view Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as slow and boring, stupid baby stuff. For older kids like us, there was more grown-up fare like Sgt. Dirk Fistpunch and the Justice Commandos. 

But fast-forward thirty years or so, and a funny thing has happened. Whenever the latest terrorist attack or mass shooting or natural disaster happens and our social media feeds overflow with outrage and grief, someone always makes a post like this:

Yes, during those times it's not G.I. Joe or the Transformers that give us comfort. It's Mr. Rogers. It turns out that the "lessons" we picked up from those cartoons in our childhood don't translate so well to real life. But Mr. Rogers grows more profound and relevant with each passing year. I'll conclude this article by including a couple of my favorite lessons of his.


In Defense of Wesley Crusher

It's the moment that gave birth to Star Trek fandom's first hate group, and it happened about halfway through The Next Generation's two-hour premiere. Old-school Trekkers were already grumpy by this point. They never wanted this strange New-Agey reinvention, they wanted more of the Star Trek they were familiar with, featuring the original characters they knew and loved. And now, to add insult to injury, this happened:

Yes, it's the scene where 15-year-old boy genius and ugly sweater aficionado Wesley Crusher sits down in the command chair and instantly understands how everything works, much to the annoyance of Captain Picard and the future founders of alt.ensign.wesley.die.die.die. Over the years a lot of people have complained about this high school sophomore knowing as much about the Enterprise's advanced technology as the highly-trained 24th century astronauts who work there, but remember that this aired in 1987.  And speaking as someone who was nine years old in 1987, it rings absolutely true. Let me explain.

The night the crew of the Enterprise-D first leapt onto our TVs in all their spandex-clad glory, personal computers had been on the market for about ten years. But Bill Gates' vision of a computer on every desktop was still a long way from reality. Plenty of adults never encountered one in their daily lives, and mostly saw them as hideously complex devices that only highly-trained geniuses could understand. But a lot of us kids were using them in school, where our spongelike child brains could easily intuit how to use them. Right around the time TNG premiered, our family visited some friends who had a brand-new Apple IIc in their living room. With their permission, I plopped myself down in front of it and started writing a simple BASIC program from scratch. Meanwhile, my mom hovered nervously nearby worrying that any minute now I would press the wrong button, causing our friend's expensive new computer to explode in a shower of smoke and sparks like in movie Desk Set, and her and my dad would have to refinance our house to replace it. (She needn't have worried. The only computer on the market in 1987 to have self-destruct button was the short-lived Tandy Explodo 5000.)

My point is that in those early days of the PC revolution, the list of people who were proficient at using these machines that were about to change the world broke down like this:
  1. Highly-trained professionals, mostly with advanced degrees.
  2. Elementary school children whose only other skill was the ability to blow chocolate milk out of their nose.
To non-computer-literate adults, the ability to sit down at a computer and actually make it do things was a near-magical superpower. Most of us kids couldn't do anything useful with this power; at the height of my programming ability I think I could make various colored lines appear on the screen. But all my parents could do was make the computer say "SYNTAX ERROR", so my useless line-drawing ability made me look like a NASA engineer.

Wesley Crusher's instant understanding of the new Enterprise's advanced computer systems makes a lot of sense in that context. It's a big reason why nine-year-old me identified with him right away. Heck, it never occurred to me that I should hate him until I got online in the mid-90s and learned that all the "cool" Star Trek fans did.

There's no dispute that the character was not well-written during the show's first season, but neither were any of the other characters. Season one of TNG was a garbage fire behind the scenes. I think a big reason for the backlash against Wesley was that a lot of his most fervent detractors saw a little too much of themselves in him. They were also geeky, awkward kids who related to machines more easily than people. But instead of the character that was most like them being a suave and heroic ladies' man, he was a frequently-annoying teenager. He failed to make them feel powerful, and they hated him for it. (A lot of these fans, now middle-aged, hate The Last Jedi's portrayal of their hero Luke Skywalker for similar reasons.)

So yeah, season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation did a lot of silly, unrealistic things. But showing us a teenager who was good at technology wasn't one of them.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Why Star Trek Should Ditch the Transporter

If someone at CBS came up to me and said "Dave, we want you to reboot Star Trek for us, but you're only allowed to make one major change," the first thing I would do is laugh nervously and try to get this person some help for their untreated mental illness. But if the offer was legit, and I really had the power to reboot Star Trek and make one major change to it, here's what the change would be:

No more transporters.

Have I lost my mind? Don't I know the transporter is an integral part of Star Trek? In a way, it's what the show is all about: we visit a new planet every week, our characters beam down to it, and stuff happens. How can you have Star Trek if no one beams down? If they have to take a shuttle, it's just The Orville without any jokes.

Teleporters aren't unique to Star Trek. They appeared in early 20th century pulp sci-fi along with ray guns and faster-than-light travel. But to those audiences, which included a young Gene Roddenberry, teleporters would've seemed like a logical extension of the same technology that gave us radio and eventually television. Even by the 1960s, teleportation was one of those things that seemed fantastical but not overly ridiculous, like the computer in a modern-day cop show that can magically enhance grainy surveillance cam footage to read the license plate of a speeding car at night.

But Gene didn't give his television starship a teleporter just because he thought it was cool. It was purely a budgetary decision; he'd promised network executives that his show would visit strange new worlds on a TV budget, and a sparkle/dissolve effect was way more affordable than weekly shuttle landings. It was only after the show had been on the air for a while that the story problems created by the transporter became obvious. You see, when the transporter works the way it's supposed to, nobody is ever in danger. Our landing party could be surrounded by vicious Klingons ready to jam painstiks up their personal orifices, and the transporter can snatch them out of there in the blink of an eye. They can jump off a cliff and escape unscathed as long as the transporter chief hits "Energize" before they hit the ground. Heck, the spaceship they're on can even explode, and as long as the transporter is energized around the same instant the explosion happens not one hair on Mr. Chekov's Davy Jones wig will be singed.

So what's a writer to do to create some jeopardy? You know the answer: he or she has to come up with some bullcrap to explain why the transporter can't come to the rescue. It's a bad idea, when creating a fictional universe, to give your characters a tool so powerful that you keep having to break it to make your stories interesting.

During the Next Generation era, the transporter became even more all-powerful. Not only could it snatch people out of danger, it could even undo serious physical transformations that resulted from catching a weird space disease or traveling at Warp 10 or whatever. On TNG and Voyager, we saw characters transformed into old people, children, and giant salamanders. In each case, the solution was to plug a sample of their unaltered DNA into the transporter, thereby turning it into a magic reset button that could turn the characters back into their old selves right before the last commercial break.

Gene Roddenberry's original Writers and Director's guide contained this important directive to differentiate Star Trek from its goofier, more kid-focused predecessors like Lost In Space:
STAR TREK is never fantasy; whatever happens, no matter how unusual or bizarre, must have some basis in either fact or theory.
The transporter does not pass that test. It's essentially magic. The fact that its operation has been surrounded with all kinds of made-up, sciency-sounding technobabble doesn't change that. The transporter is a device created to solve a budgetary problem that existed in 1966, and still existed in 1996, but does not exist now. Gene Roddenberry and his team didn't set out to create a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise that could withstand decades of scrutiny. They just wanted to make a show that would have a good run on network TV.

If Star Trek is going to survive another few decades, I think it needs a hard reboot. The people in charge need to step back and examine each piece of the Star Trek mythos to see what holds up in the 21st century and what doesn't. Star Trek never has been and shouldn't be hard sci-fi, but I believe it does need to be science fiction and not science fantasy. The transporter is a fantastical "magic wand"  created to solve a real-world production issue that no longer exists. It robs stories of the danger and mystery of space exploration that helps make them interesting, and I think it's outlived its usefulness.

It needs to go.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Star Trek: Discovery Halftime Summation Part 2: Everything Else

Star Trek: Discovery is the fifth new Star Trek show since The Next Generation in 1987. We longtime fans therefore have a pretty good idea of how these things are supposed to go. The two-hour premiere introduces all the characters and sets up the new show's status quo. And then the subsequent episodes give each character some time in the spotlight while exploring different themes in a very episodic way. There's the episode where Wesley Crusher learns about drug abuse, the one where Major Kira confronts a Cardassian war criminal, and the one where Scott Bakula farts around and does nothing of consequence because Rick Berman and friends were totally out of gas by the time they did Enterprise.

Discovery does none of that. Well, almost none of it. The two-hour premiere actually starts out a lot like the other Star Treks. We meet Michael Burnham, Captain Georgiou, and the crew of the USS Shenzhou as they set off on a mission to investigate a Federation communications buoy that's gone silent. Now, since this is a modern TV show we expect a few more "extreme" moments that earlier Treks would never have attempted. So it's not altogether shocking when the personable young Ensign who mans the Navigator's station on the bridge gets blown into space during a battle with the Klingons. And while Burnham's attempted mutiny at the end of the first hour is a major turning point, things take a predictable turn when, with ten minutes left in Part Two, she comes up with an idea to capture the Klingon leader and avert a full-scale war. We've seen this kind of thing before on Star Trek, so we think we know what comes next: the plan will succeed, the only consequence of Burnham's attempted mutiny will be a stern talking-to from the Captain, and the Shenzhou will warp off into the end credits.

But instead, everything goes sideways. The plan fails in the worst way. Captain Georgiou gets killed. The crew abandons the lifeless hulk of the Shenzhou, and Burnham gets sentenced to life imprisonment for her mutiny. Roll credits.

If you went into Discovery totally blind, it's a huge gut punch. But nobody went into Discovery totally blind, did they? Even if you studiously avoided Internet spoilers, the pre-release publicity (which is usually spoiler-free) was full of photos like this:

Notice how only one of these characters is in the premiere
And it was hard to escape the promotional artwork that proudly showed off a ship that definitely wasn't the Shenzhou.

Thanks to the pre-release publicity, the fate of Captain Georgiou and the Shenzhou was only surprising to people who would also be surprised to learn that Guy Fieri dyes his hair. So we sat through the show's first two hours knowing they were only a prequel and the real show wouldn't start for another week. This really frustrated some folks.

And then when the show got started in earnest with episode three, it completely turned its back on the "normal" Star Trek storytelling format. Discovery isn't broken up into tasty episodic chunks that allow you to watch just one episode to get your Star Trek fix. It's an ongoing serialized tale, more like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones than anything else. And unlike previous Star Treks, where our main characters were always what they appeared to be and even major revelations about them (like the secret of Odo's origin or Bashir being genetically engineered) didn't change who they were as people, there is some strange, dark stuff going on with our Discovery crew. Captain Lorca is shady, manipulative, and seems to have some kind of secret agenda. He may even be from a parallel universe. And the likable Lt. Ash Tyler is almost certainly some kind of Klingon sleeper agent. Overall, the Discovery crew is not the happy family of characters that every other Star Trek has given us. And that's a dealbreaker for some people.

There's a small-but-vocal group of fans who proclaim that Seth McFarlane's The Orville is the "real" Star Trek. After all, it has a likable family of characters on an open-ended mission to explore the galaxy one episode at a time. It's done stories on on gender identity, social media, and facing your fears. More than one episode has commented on religion in very Roddenberrian way.  Now, I'm not going to bash one show and praise another.  The Internet likes to reduce everything to an either/or proposition. Either Discovery is the Real Star Trek and The Orville is a bland copy, or The Orville is the True Heir to Roddenberry's Vision and Discovery is raping his memory. It seems almost heretical to say you enjoy both shows for different reasons.

When the box-office failure of Nemesis and the cancellation of Enterprise ended Rick Berman's tenure atop the Star Trek franchise, most of the fans were glad to see him go. We all thought it was time for a different creative team to take over and do something new with Star Trek, rather than just recycle the same old stuff over and over. Well, that's what the folks behind Discovery are doing. Whether you like the show or not, you've got to admit that there's never been a Star Trek like it.

While some older fans are upset that Discovery is gleefully slaying their sacred Star Trek cows, a lot of younger fans are really into it. They even got the show renewed for a second season. (Yes, The Orville got picked up for a second season as well, which just proves that there's merit in both shows' approaches.) The whole reason Star Trek survived its cancellation in 1969 was because of the enthusiasm of its mostly-young fanbase. Now it's time for a new generation of Star Trek fans to have "their" Star Trek, the way us older fans had the Original Series or TNG.

Let's not begrudge them that.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Star Trek: Discovery Halftime Summation Part I: CBS All Access

Since Star Trek: Discovery premiered back in September, lots of people have been recapping and analyzing each episode as it comes out. (I highly recommend the recaps Andi from the Women at Warp podcast has been doing--you can find them here) I really admire people who can turn out thoughtful and funny material on a weekly schedule. I wish I was one of them, but I'm not. So rather than analyze every single episode, I thought I'd use the midseason break to look back at the show so far and discuss a few different aspects of it.

When I was a kid, some of my favorite toys were Lego sets like this one:

It can be fun to follow the instructions and build the thing pictured on the front of the box, but maybe the best thing about Legos is putting the pieces together in new and interesting ways. Now, imagine you had a friend who yelled at you whenever you used the pieces of your Lego set to build anything other than the picture on the box. That's what a noisy minority of Star Trek fans are like.

In 1987 they were furious at Gene Roddenberry for rebooting the franchise with a new cast and a different tone. They didn't want a new series with 1980s sensibilities; they wanted a continuation of the Original Series with the old familiar cast. And in 2017 they're furious with the producers of Star Trek: Discovery for rebooting the franchise with a new cast and a different tone. They don't want a new series tailored to 21st century audiences, they want a continuation of the Next Generation-era Star Trek that Rick Berman produced until it became so boring and repetitive that everybody stopped watching it.

Right now somebody's saying "But I never stopped watching it!" Yeah, and a few people bought M.C. Hammer albums after 1991, too. Just not enough to matter. Having your preferences ignored by a huge multimedia conglomerate might hurt your feelings, but there it is.

Many of these angry fans have focused their ire on CBS's decision to put Discovery on the CBS All Access streaming platform. I've read many of their arguments on the subject, and they all boil down to this:

Perhaps you think I'm being unfair. So I've prepared a Q&A based on actual statements I've seen online since the day we learned that Discovery would be exclusive to CBS All Access.
Q: Star Trek has never been behind a paywall before. It's not fair. 
A: From 1979 - 1986 the only new Star Trek productions were movies. Movie theaters charge admission. There was a literal wall between you and Star Trek that you had to pay money to get past.
Q: No, you idiot! I mean televised Star Trek has never been behind a paywall before! 
A: That's because the last Star Trek show went off the air in 2005. Streaming services weren't a thing then. 
Q: Premium cable channels were, but Paramount didn't put Enterprise on Showtime. 
A: That's because their business plan at the time was to use Star Trek to prop up UPN. (I didn't say it was a good plan.) 
Q: But fans in Europe get to watch Discovery on Netflix! And in Canada it's airing on a cable channel! 
A: How very perceptive of you to notice that things are different in other countries.
Q: But CBS is extorting the fans by charging them to watch Star Trek! 
A: Charging a market-comparable price for a product people want isn't extortion. It's capitalism. 
Q: It's a matter of principle! I'm philosophically opposed to paying for Star Trek!
A: What's that I see on your Facebook wall? It's a picture of your huge collection of Star Trek merchandise worth thousands of dollars! If you're willing to drop $5,000 on a replica phaser rifle, is a $5.99 subscription really the hill you want to die on?
I could go on, but you get the idea. The people who are still mad about CBS All Access are the same folks who believe that the right to free Star Trek was why George Washington fought Nazi T-Rexes in the Civil War. Streaming services are a big deal now. CBS saw how Netflix, Hulu, and HBO used original programming to lure subscribers, and they wanted a piece of that. The promise of new Star Trek was the best way to get it. As my high school economics teacher used to say, nobody is in business because they love you.

I believe All Access is the best place for Discovery. Network TV is very much a quantity-over-quality business. We'd get a longer season if the show was on broadcast TV (26 episodes instead of 15) but given the more hectic schedule and tighter budget, not all of those episodes would be good. And there's no way the show would be as lavishly-produced. The last genre show to air on CBS was the first season of Supergirl, and by the seventh episode they were pulling out the old "superhero loses their powers" trope to save money. And because CBS is mainly the network that senior citizens watch NCIS on, Supergirl's ratings weren't high enough to justify its cost and it got moved to the CW.

Now take a show like Star Trek that has more special effects than a superhero show, and everything you see on screen has to be built from scratch. It wouldn't have done any better in the ratings than Supergirl, and it wouldn't work on the CW because too much of the cast is over 30. So it would've been deemed an expensive failure by the CBS suits, cancelled, and we'd go another decade or so with no new Star Trek.  But on All Access, it can be the most popular show on the platform. And we can get 15 really good episodes per season produced at near-feature-film quality.

Ah, but what about those episodes? Are they really good? I'll start to tackle that question in my next post.