Friday, January 17, 2020

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Respect Star Trek: Voyager

When Star Trek: Voyager premiered in 1995, 16-year-old me was excited for a new Star Trek show. But I also remember being a little worried. During The Next Generation's final season it became obvious that the writers were out of ideas. And now, a scant eight months after TNG's series finale, the same people who worked on that show were launching a new one. Would Voyager's fresh mix of characters and Delta Quadrant setting be enough to make it fresh and interesting? Or would Rick Berman and the gang fall back into the same old lazy writing and overused plot devices that made TNG's seventh season such a slog?

It was the second one. After an exciting, lavishly-produced premiere, Voyager immediately settled into the same kinds of technobabble mystery plots and time paradoxes and Holodeck malfunction episodes that TNG had already done to death. All the elements that were supposed to make the show different--half the crew being Maquis rebels, having limited power and supplies--were pretty quickly abandoned or minimized. Meanwhile, the writers of Deep Space Nine had gone all-in on character development and story arcs. Voyager just seemed juvenile and lazy by comparison.

Sensing that their audience was getting restless, the Voyager producers planned a big change for Season Four. What would it be? More realistic storytelling? Better character development? Less reliance on technobabble to solve story problems? Of course not! Instead we got this:



When Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine joined the crew, I was a nerdy 19-year-old who really liked attractive women but couldn't seem to get a girlfriend. If there was anyone who for whom the sight of a pretty lady in a sprayed-on outfit could cover the show's multitude of sins, it would theoretically have been me. But it didn't work. In fact, I was angry that they thought a woman in a too-tight leotard would distract the audience from the show's obvious quality issues. Did they really think we were that stupid?

I have to give Voyager's producers credit for one thing: they did more than just cast a Laker Girl to wear the catsuit. Jeri Ryan is an amazing actor who landed one of the most difficult roles in Hollywood and handled it with aplomb. I mean, I've never taken any acting classes, but I'm pretty sure that "former Borg drone who was assimilated as a child" isn't a character type they teach you how to play. She's easily one of the best actors Star Trek has ever had; right up there with Patrick Stewart and Leonard Nimoy. I understand why Kate Mulgrew felt so threatened by her. It's not just because of her looks, it's because she was the best actor in the company.

But as good as Jeri Ryan was, the show itself was just lazy and bad. And from what I was reading on the prehistoric Internet, a lot of other people agreed with me. So I stopped watching. I honestly didn't understand how anyone could possibly like Voyager unless they were a little kid or an idiot or something.

Sometime around 1999 or 2000, I joined the TrekBBS (kids, ask your parents). I never visited the site's Voyager forum; I had nothing nice to say about the show, so why bother? But in the site's "lounge" areas where people socialized and played silly games, I encountered a lot of really smart and fun people. A lot of them were Voyager fans. So I suppressed my instinct to immediately say "You like that show? What are you, stupid?" (Remember, this was 20 years ago and I wasn't yet the same tolerant guy I am today) And I just listened to what they had to say.

And I finally got it.

Voyager was (and still is) a rarity on television: an action-adventure show where the women are the ones giving orders and figuring out solutions to problems. Nobody talks over Captain Janeway in a meeting, or implies that B'Elanna Torres isn't smart enough to solve engineering problems because she's not a man. And none of the women--not even Seven of Nine in that ridiculous sparkly catsuit with built-in high heels--were there solely to serve as eye candy.

For years Star Trek fans pointed to the occasional guest appearance by a female Captain or Admiral or the handful of times that Dr. Crusher got to do something interesting as proof of the franchise's commitment to gender equity. But Voyager finally gave women and girls characters that they could identify with in the same way that boys and men identified with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Picard, Sisko, Riker, Scotty, and the rest.

Yeah, Voyager isn't perfect. It was hamstrung by clueless UPN executives and arrogant writer-producers who regarded the Star Trek audience with contempt. (Brannon Braga. I'm talking about Brannon Braga.) But in the end, it did what the best Star Trek has always done: inspire people.

Friday, December 20, 2019

On the Mystery Box

Back in the 80s, George Lucas used to say in interviews that he originally conceived of the Star Wars saga as one complete story, but then he realized he had too much for just one movie so he split the story into multiple parts. Kids of my generation believed him.

Of course, as we got older and started delving into the various behind-the-scenes books and early script drafts we realized that Lucas and his collaborators were just making everything up as they went along, and the whole nine-episode master plan was just a myth. But we kept getting fooled by other storytellers who sold us the same bottle of snake oil.

In 2004 we believed J.J. Abrams and his cohorts had all of Lost's mysteries plotted out in advance. Later that same year, when Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica reboot told us that the Cylons had a plan, we thought that Moore and his writing staff knew what it was. So of course we were disappointed when it became clear that the writers of both shows had no idea how to resolve the mysteries they spent several TV seasons setting up, and had to scramble to tie everything together unconvincingly in their final episodes.

The truth is that it's a lot easier to set mysteries up than it is to pay them off. I'll show you what I mean:

"Oh Thad, where have you been?" Doreen said. "And where did you get that scar on your forehead?"

Thad remained outwardly impassive, even as the intensity of what had happened to him seethed just beneath the surface. "November 4th, 2006," he replied.

Doreen's eyes widened with shock, and she knew.

I have no idea what happened to Thad, or what the significance of November 4th, 2006 is, or what it is that Doreen suddenly realized. But to the reader, it looks like I've got it all figured out and I'm just stringing them along to build tension. But I've got to keep it going somehow, and the best way is to pile more mysteries on top of the already-existing ones like this:

At last, answers! Doreen thought as she opened the folder labeled MISSION REPORT: 11/04/2006. But her frustration only built as she leafed through pages of blacked-out text and the Agency's heavy red REDACTED stamp.

"You won't find the truth that way," Agent Ramsey said as he stepped out of the shadows behind her.

Doreen whirled to face him. "Then how do I find the truth, Phillip? Do you know?"

Ramsey shook his head. "Only one man alive knows what happened on that mission: Frank Cullen."

"The former Director?" Doreen gasped.

"His memory's not what it was," Ramsey warned. "But seeing you? It may bring back some things."

And then I just keep it going with a plot twist that adds yet another mystery:

"Director Cullen doesn't usually accept visitors," the nurse said as she led Doreen to the former spymaster's room at the retirement home. "But anybody connected to Thad Bronson--well, they're practically family."

The nurse opened the door, and Doreen realized to her horror that Frank Cullen wouldn't be giving her any answers that night--or ever again. The former Director's was slumped over in his chair, dead.

The nurse gasped. "Poor thing! Must've had a heart attack!"

But Doreen doubted that Director Cullen's had died of natural causes, inasmuch as his severed head lay halfway across the room.

She raced to the open window, and saw a black-clad figure run across the darkened lawn and get into a waiting car. She could only watch helplessly as the getaway car--and her answers--sped off into the night.

I can't stress strongly enough that I have no idea who any of these people are or what's going on. But a halfway-decent screenwriter could wring an entire movie or a season or two of television out of this basic outline. All you have to do is keep building the mystery. With each new twist in the narrative, the writer makes himself look more like a master storyteller who has the whole thing planned out in advance. Your viewers/readers will breathlessly speculate about how it'll all turn out, all the while believing that your final resolution will be even better than what they've imagined.

Of course the whole thing has to come to an end eventually. You'll tie everything together in a hurried climax, and then your viewers or readers will hate you because your ending could never measure up to the imaginary one that exists in their heads.

I mention all of this because in less than an hour I'll be settling into my seat for The Rise of Skywalker. I haven't read any spoilers, but I know that already a portion of the Internet is enraged because the ending isn't "perfect", whatever that means.

The thing about mystery box storytelling is that it's great until you inevitably have to open the box. All you can do is enjoy the ride.


Monday, August 19, 2019

The Dis-fluencer Identity Reveal

For future readers who stumble across this and wonder what the heck it is, it's a parody of this article that was the Most Important Thing Ever on Disney Twitter for about an hour and a half before 2019's D23 convention.

It all started in mid-2008. We were only weeks away from the global economic meltdown that would see millions turned out of their homes, leave lasting scars on an entire generation, and--most crucially--give this article a weighty and important context.

I'd known beloved Disney chairman and golf aficionado E. Cardon Walker for years. In fact, I was the one who gave him the idea to fake his death in 2005. He'd invited me to join him for lunch on the second floor of Epcot's Electric Umbrella restaurant. Naturally, someone of my great importance and intense physical attractiveness wouldn't normally be caught dead in the Electric Umbrella. But I think I realized what a great story it would make in eleven years time, so I assented.

Card and I were practically alone up there on the second floor, which was strange since my strong personal magnetism usually causes people to be uncontrollably drawn to me. In between bites of his barely-edible quick-service cheeseburger, Card was opining on the difficulties Disney faced in the changing global marketplace. "Lemme tell ya, kids these days, they ain't the same as they useta be," he said. "What with their Ataris and their fax machines. We gotta get 'em while they're young, really speak to 'em on their level with something they can relate to."

Card leaned forward slightly. "That's why I'm thinkin' board games. All different kinds of 'em. Y'know, Pete's Dragon, The Black Hole, Adlai Stevenson--characters that kids today are really into!"

Then my old friend Card changed the subject to something we'd discussed many times in the past--his aborted 1976 Presidential campaign. He'd been all ready to go with a great campaign slogan and everything. "Just tell me that 'I've Got A Hardon For E. Cardon' isn't the greatest thing you ever heard!" he said, stabbing his finger at me in a Harrison Ford-like manner. (Hollywood legend Harrison Ford is someone else who owes their career to me, but that's a story that's best left for when I make it up for another time.) But alas, just before he was set to announce, his candidacy was derailed by a fierce ARPAnet campaign led by a young upstart named Alvarez "Al" Lutz. After the turmoil of the Nixon-Ford years, Lutz believed that America's next Chief Executive should have, in his words, "really big teeth". And in 1976, no one's teeth were bigger than Jimmy Carter's. Seriously, the man was part beaver.

Sadly, Card and his human-sized chompers were no match for Al Lutz and his massive three-person audience. (The Internet revolution was still a couple decades away at this point.) So Card had to stay in his dead-end job as Chairman of the Walt Disney Corporation. He never forgave Al for that, and on that afternoon in 2005 he hatched a plan: "What if we co-opt Al Lutz's name for our own purposes?" he said.

It was a great idea, but unfortunately Bob Iger beat him to the punch back in 2001. So Card and I decided to create another kind of online Disney "influencer": one with no influence at all! Difficult? Yes. But as Thomas Edison once said, true genius is 51% inspiration, 65% perspiration, 37% whiskey, and 82% intellectual property theft.

Anyway, Card and I decided that I would create an Internet persona named "David Landon". He'd start small with a few message board posts, then start a blog. But--and this was the key to the whole plan--he would pretty much stop going to the Disney parks after 2010 or so, and his posts would mostly be bland and uninteresting. Also, he would be late to the whole social media party and would never establish a meaningful presence there, either.

As the years went by, our plan worked perfectly. As "David Landon" cleverly flew under the radar, Bob Iger's Disney gobbled up intellectual property like Cookie Monster gobbles up . . . whatever it is he eats. Doritos? Kale? I can never keep track of what these "millennials" are into.

After the company's acquisition of Marvel started to reap huge rewards with the ever-increasing popularity of the Marvel film series, I worried that "David Landon's" influence on Disney might be too overt. So when he was invited to appear on a popular Disney podcast, I did my best impression of a stuttering idiot. And it worked! The Disney behemoth continued to roll along, vacuuming up intellectual property the way a ShopVac sucks up evidence at a crime scene before the police arrive. And when Bob Iger completed his piece de resistance--the $9 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm--"David Landon" reacted with a bizarre stream-of-consciousness rant full of obscure references that might've made people wonder if he was suffering a stroke, assuming they read it. Which they didn't.

Once it was clear that Disney no longer needed me, "David Landon" left off writing about the company and mostly talked about Star Trek. And wouldn't you know it, that particular franchise is suddenly in the midst of a multimedia renaissance! Its future looks even brighter now that CBS and Viacom have re-merged. And through it all, "David Landon" looked for all intents and purposes like a bland nobody with no influence over anything! Exactly like Card Walker and I planned!

But now, it's time to pull back the veil and reveal what you intelligent and attractive readers have no doubt already figured out: my real identity is

Monday, August 12, 2019

Weird Star Trek: Requiem for Methuselah

Star Trek has endured for over five decades. Society has changed a lot during that time, so naturally  some once-beloved entries in the franchise are weird and creepy by modern standards. The Original Series has more of these types of episodes than the other shows, mostly because it's the oldest. Today we're going to talk about one such story from the much-maligned third and final season of the show: "Requiem for Methuselah".

It starts promisingly enough (for a third-season episode, anyway). We see the Enterprise orbiting a planet as the Captain's Log voiceover explains that a deadly space epidemic is sweeping through the ship and the only cure is a mineral called "ryetalyn". Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to get some and are immediately attacked by a killer robot.

Killer AIs with a single glowing red eye were a big thing in 1969
Just when it looks like our heroes are about to get deep-fried by this flying Mr. Coffee (aka BB-H8), its creator appears and calls off the attack.


His name is Flint. You'd think a guy who dresses like Liberace if he raided Lando Calrissian's closet would be pretty laid-back, but Flint is all business. He's not interested in hearing why Kirk and friends are on his planet, he just wants them gone. Or else.

McCoy begs Flint to let them have the ryetalyn and compares the space disease infecting his crewmates to bubonic plague. This causes Flint to soliloquize about the Plague sweeping through Constantinople in 1334, and abruptly he changes his mind. He even says the Enterprise crewmen can chill at his house while gathers the ryetalyn for them.

Flint's house turns out to be full of all kinds of curiosities, like unknown original works by Leonardo DaVinci and Johannes Brahms. Spock is fascinated, but Kirk can't be bothered. He's got a ship full of sick and dying crewpeople, after all. Then Flint introduces his ward, Rayna Kapec. (He explains that he took her in after her parents died in an accident).


Kirk is polite, but remains focused on his mission to get lifesaving medicine for his sick and dying crew.

Ha ha! Just kidding! What he really does is immediately forget about his crew and start flirting with the pretty lady. They play billiards for a while, and when Spock sits down at the piano to play an unknown Brahms waltz, Flint encourages Kirk and Rayna to dance. But as soon as Kirk makes googly eyes at her, Flint starts looking all jealous and broody. Is he just an overprotective father, or is something else going on?

While the Captain puts his romantic Kirk-Fu on Rayna and Spock plays the piano, McCoy is the only member of the landing party actually doing his job. He checks out a sample of ryetalyn that R2-Die-2 brought back, but it's got impurities that make it worthless. Flint promises to personally supervise the robot as it gathers more. While he's gone, Kirk calls up to the Enterprise and asks Scotty and Uhura to do some research on their hosts.

Later, Kirk finds Rayna in Flint's science lab. He allegedly went there to see if there was any way of removing the ryetalyn's impurities, but as soon as he sees Rayna he forgets all about helping his sick and dying crew. Again.

As for Rayna, she's standing in front of a locked door that Flint has told her never to enter. But rather than puzzle out that particular mystery, Kirk starts hitting her with lame pickup lines and tries to get her to ditch Flint and leave with him. But why? Does he want to marry her? Does he want her for a live-in girlfriend? Previous episodes have made a big deal about how Kirk has chosen to forego having a "normal" life with a wife and kids so he can be a starship Captain. This seems like a strange time for him to suddenly decide to settle down.

Meanwhile the sick and dying crew of the Enterprise is no doubt telling each other "Don't worry, Captain Kirk will get us the lifesaving medicine we need! He's probably digging it out of the rocks with his bare hands right now! He's definitely not trusting a strange killer robot to do it for him while he makes out with some lady he met thirty minutes ago!" But Kirk can't hear them over the sound of all the making out him and Rayna are doing while he trusts a strange killer robot to dig up the ryetalyn for him.

"Of course I don't have more important things to do, why do you ask?"
Characters suddenly falling madly in love with a person they just met was a pretty common 1960s TV trope, so I'm not going to criticize Kirk's infatuation too harshly. But his fixation on Rayna is also kind of creepy. As far as Kirk knows, Rayna has lived alone with Flint on this planet since she was a child. And while she's very well-educated academically, she's about as emotionally developed as a teenager. Why would a man in his late 30s find this attractive?

It's also pretty clear that Kirk is way more into Rayna than she is into him. She's obviously never been in a romance before and doesn't seem altogether comfortable. It really looks like she's going along with his advances because she doesn't quite know how to say no.

But Kirk's amorous activities have tripped the Virgin Alarm on Flint's flying Spaghetti Strainer of Death, and it appears to break up the make-out session.

Forget C-3PO, this is the robot that Spaceballs' Dot Matrix was based on
It ignores Rayna's commands to stop and almost kills Kirk before Spock shows up and vaporizes it with his phaser. Later, Flint apologizes (Accompanied by an identical replacement robot. "Too useful a device to be without," he explains) He says the robot misinterpreted Kirk's actions as an attack, but Kirk suspects that Flint sent it after him deliberately out of jealousy. McCoy and Spock believe that the continuous delays in obtaining and processing the ryetalyn have been manufactured by Flint to keep them there, but why?

Scotty calls with the information Kirk asked for earlier. It turns out there are no Federation records for Flint or Rayna. It's like they don't exist. And McCoy's tricorder readings on Flint indicate that he's 6,000 years old.

Scotty also has an update on the space plague. If they don't start ryetalyn injections in two hours, everyone on the Enterprise will die. Kirk lamely assures him that they'll get it soon, but he seems way more upset about the way Flint orders Rayna around. Spock urges him to focus on getting the medicine their crewmates need so they can not die. But Kirk really isn't listening.

Finally the ryetalyn is ready. Kirk sends Spock and McCoy to Flint's lab to pick it up, while he stays behind to plead with Rayna to leave the only life she's ever known to shack up with a strange dude she just met this afternoon. "Childhood must end," he tells her in the episode's creepiest line up to this point. So he admits that she's basically a child, but he's still totally hot for her? Previous episodes have shown Kirk in romances with strong, mature women like Dr. Janice Lester or Lt. Areel Shaw. Why's he now irresistibly drawn to a teenager who's obviously afraid to say no?

However messed up Kirk may be, though, he's nothing compared to Flint. McCoy's tricorder locates the ryetalyn in the lab, behind the locked door Rayna was forbidden to enter. It automatically opens for them. When they go inside they find the ryetalyn, and something else:


It's a cybernetics lab with earlier versions of Rayna, conveniently labeled for expository purposes. She's an android. Flint appears to explain what Spock has already figured out. He's immortal. The reason his house is full of unknown works by DaVinci, Brahms, and others is because he is all those people. He's been married hundreds of times to women who eventually got old and died, and he finally retired to this planet to retreat from humanity and build his perfect immortal mate. He used Kirk to awaken romantic feelings in Rayna, with the idea that once Kirk left she'd be all hot and bothered and Flint would be the only guy in town.

You read that right. Flint apparently spent years trying to groom his android-daughter into a romantic partner, and when that didn't work out his big plan was for Kirk to get Rayna's motor running and then take off, leaving Rayna so worked-up that she'd want to marry her dad. In addition to Brahms and DaVinci, was Flint also Woody Allen in a past life?

Is this Star Trek or Law and Order SVU? You know if Olivia Benson was here both Kirk and Flint would be in cuffs already.

But now that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy know the truth about him Flint decides that they and the Enterprise can't be allowed to leave. So he pulls out a remote control and presses a button that shrinks the Enterprise down to the size of a toy and puts the crew into suspended animation. He figures he'll set them free after a millennium or two. Kirk is not a fan of this idea.


Then Rayna walks in on them, and she's not happy either. She demands that Flint release the Enterprise. Realizing that his romantic prospects with his android daughter depend on it, Flint relents. But Kirk can't just take the lifesaving ryetalyn and go home. Him and Flint each plead with Rayna to stay with them, completely ignoring how increasingly distraught and agitated she's becoming. Finally their argument escalates to 1960s TV fisticuffs.


Spock tries to get them to stop. "Stay out of this!" Kirk snarls. "We're fighting over a woman!" Because who cares what the woman actually wants? Let's just punch each other until one of us is dead, and the victor automatically "wins" her!

You tell em, Captain
They finally stop fighting when Rayna shouts at them. She'll choose what to do with her life, thank you very much. "No one can order me!" she says.

Kirk is overjoyed. He gives a speech that's basically "Yay! Rayna is fully human! She can choose her own destiny now! By which I mean come be my live-in girlfriend on the Enterprise like I want her to!" Flint doesn't get it, either. "No man beats me!" he growls. Both Kirk and Flint claim to love Rayna, but it's obvious they don't respect her. She's not a person to them, just an attractive bauble to be possessed. (Flint even calls her "my property")

They're so busy competing with each other that neither notices what an increasingly hard time Rayna is having with all this emotional drama. She only became fully emotionally-aware a few minutes ago, after all, and immediately she was thrust into the middle of two guys fighting over what she should do with her free will. Only Spock, the "emotionless" Vulcan, seems to understand what's happening and again warns Kirk and Flint to stop. Of course they don't listen, and Rayna suddenly falls down dead.

Spock explains what happened: "There was not enough time for her to adjust to the awful power and contradictions of her newfound emotions." He says. "She could not bear to hurt either of you. The joys of love made her human, and the agonies of love destroyed her." It's funny how the Vulcan is the most emotionally-intelligent person in this episode.

One interesting bit of Star Trek trivia: what happens to Rayna is very similar to what happened on The Next Generation with Data's daughter Lal. She spontaneously developed emotions, experienced a traumatic event when an unreasonable Starfleet Admiral wanted to take her from her father to study her in a lab, then died when her brain went into cascade failure. I don't know if the writer of the TNG episode "The Offspring" did that intentionally, but it's a neat bit of continuity.

Later, back on the Enterprise, Spock visits Kirk in his quarters to report that the epidemic is over and the crew is saved. Kirk is depressed, his mind still on Rayna. "We put on a pretty poor show, didn't we?" he says.

 Wait, "We"? "WE"?

As I recall there were only three Enteprise crewmen on that planet, and two of them spent most of their time desperately trying to get the other one to stop making out with an android teenager long enough to get the medicine to save their shipmates from the Space Plague. So, if you're talking about the total number of Starfleet officers who made an ass of themselves on the planet, then that number would be exactly one, which doesn't qualify for the pronoun "we".

But Kirk falls asleep at his desk before Spock can argue the point with him. Then McCoy shows up to tell Spock that his tricorder readings indicate that Flint lost his immortality when he left Earth, and will die after living out the remainder of a normal lifespan.

As he looks at the sleeping Kirk, McCoy condescendingly tells Spock he feels sorry for him because he can't possibly understand how an emotion like love can affect a person. You know, even though Spock spent the whole episode demonstrating a higher emotional IQ than anyone else.

After McCoy leaves, Spock again demonstrates his emotional understanding by mind-melding with Kirk to ease his painful memories of Rayna.

So what did we learn today?

  1. If you're starship Captain whose crew is dying of space plague, and you have the choice of getting them some medicine or making out with a lady with the emotional maturity of a high school student, definitely get the medicine. That way your crew won't die, you won't get embarrassed when the lady turns out to be an android who's younger than some pairs of socks you own, and people won't make fun of you on the Internet for coming across like a creepy cradle-robber who doesn't respect women.
  2.  If you're a fabulously-rich immortal dude who wants to build an android wife, maybe make one that's more like the Tricia Helfer-model Cylon and less like V.I.C.K.I. from Small Wonder. And when she decides to assert her rights as a sentient being, don't lay such a massive guilt trip on her that she falls down dead.
  3. And finally, if you're a Vulcan first officer, and your Captain ignores your good advice so he can fistfight a civilian over which one of them gets to own an sentient being for romantic and/or sexual purposes, you should nerve-pinch them both and call Olivia Benson pronto.
Until next time, this has been Weird Star Trek.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Star Wars Universe Strip-Mining

As I write this there are two kinds of movies virtually guaranteed to make a billion trillion zillion dollars at the box office: Marvel Comics movies released by Disney, and Star Wars. But a funny thing is happening to Star Wars: the last movie (Solo) only made a billion trillion dollars as opposed to the expected billion trillion zillion. YouTube is full of people eager to look into a webcam and lecture at length about exactly why this is. Depending on who you listen to, the reasons are:
  1. Dumb stupid Disney and dumb stupid Kathleen Kennedy aren't doing what "The Fans" want. ("The Fans" being defined as the person in the YouTube video and the ten people who subscribe to their channel.)
  2. "Franchise fatigue" due to Disney releasing new Star Wars movies at a rapid clip, sometimes less than six months apart.
While I respect the right of the first group to like or dislike whatever they want, I wish they'd get over themselves and stop throwing Internet tantrums because a giant media conglomerate won't bow to their will. I somewhat agree with the second group, but "franchise fatigue" is not the whole story. As of this writing there are twice as many Marvel Studios films as there are Star Wars movies, and there's no signs that anyone is getting tired of them. So why does Star Wars seem to be losing steam? Here's my take:

It was never designed to be a continuing franchise.

You have to remember that when George Lucas started to develop Star Wars in the 1970s, he didn't set out to create a "cinematic universe" because movies didn't yet work that way. He was trying to make one movie. In the beginning he didn't have a firm idea for a story, so to jumpstart his creative process he made lists of characters and planets and their backstories to flesh out the setting for his swashbuckling space epic. He didn't do this with an eye toward setting up sequels; it was all part of the effort to make this one movie.

The seemingly-limitless backdrop of the Star Wars films is like a matte painting:


The Yellow Brick Road looks like it leads to a whole world of story possibilities, but it's just a device to make a Hollywood soundstage look like the land of Oz. The depth is imaginary, and if you really went skipping down that path you'd bonk into a wall.

One of the reasons the Marvel films work so well is that they're based on comic books, and comics are by their very nature a continuing narrative. But with Star Wars, the seeming depth of the universe is an illusion created to make George Lucas's original movie and its two sequels look like they were happening in a real place. So a person (or international media conglomerate) looking to tell new Star Wars stories can basically take one of two approaches:
  1. Make sequels to the original films, and expand the narrative by introducing new characters and situations.
  2. Make prequels set in the years between the first two trilogies, or between the original trilogy and the second trilogy--basically, any point in the Star Wars timeline where you can have X-Wings and TIE fighters and stormtroopers and AT-ATs and all the fun toys that Star Wars fans love.
We've been down both of these roads with the Expanded Universe. First, we got sequels to the original trilogy. In the beginning, it was fun to get new adventures with Luke, Leia, and Han, but as the narrative moved farther into the future and the cast of supporting characters ballooned the stories started to lose that Star Wars flavor.

The tales set during the Original Trilogy were bad for a different reason--they strip-mined even the tiniest elements from the films in a desperate attempt to come up with new stories. Remember Darth Vader's glove? You don't? Well, it turns out it's called a "Mandalorian crushgaunt" and it has it's own backstory that you can read all about on Wookieepedia. Or what about IG-88, the robot bounty hunter who appeared on screen for like 20 seconds of The Empire Strikes Back? The Expanded Universe gave him a insane story wherein he developed a huge crush on Darth Vader and uploaded his mind into the second Death Star. Basically any object, person, or creature, that you see in the Original Trilogy was given its own ridiculously detailed backstory that connected it to everything else in the Star Wars universe. The franchise was on the verge of collapsing into a black hole of self-referentialism.

I'd hoped that Disney's decision to wipe the Expanded Universe slate clean would signal a different direction, but it's pretty obvious now that there is no different direction to go in. You either take the franchise into the future and let it morph into something that isn't quite Star Wars anymore, or you endlessly cannibalize the past.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Franchise Immortality Conundrum

"Let the past die. Kill it if you have to."

In the early 1970s, a young George Lucas started to develop a vague idea he had for a swashbuckling space-opera movie inspired by the Flash Gordon film serials from his childhood. One of the first things he did was try to purchase the rights to make a straight-up Flash Gordon movie. He failed, but later concluded it was for the best:

"I realized that Flash Gordon is like anything you do that's established," Lucas said. "That is, you start out being faithful to the original material, but eventually it gets in the way of the creativity . . . I decided at that point to do something more original." That "something more original", of course, was Star Wars, which went on to become the prototypical modern-day entertainment franchise.

All of this was on my mind the other day when I thought about Seth MacFarlane's The Orville, which recently got renewed for a third season. That show, of course, was inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation, a lot like Star Wars was inspired by Flash Gordon. And here's a factoid that'll shock you: Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season is about as far in our past as those old Flash Gordon serials were for George Lucas in the early '70s. But The Orville inhabits a much more uncomfortable space, because the thing it's inspired by (Star Trek) never went away. There have been four TV spinoffs and nine movies since The Next Generation premiered. And four more TV spinoffs are in various stages of production as I write this.

For fans like me this is great. I love Star Trek, so I should be over the moon at the news that CBS is cranking up the Star Trek TV factory that's lain dormant since Rick Berman's reign over the franchise sputtered to an end in 2005. And I kind of am. I'm definitely excited about the Picard show that premieres later this year. But more and more I wonder if the the refusal of our comfortable old entertainment franchises to die naturally is choking out the creation of exciting new things.

The Flash Gordon serials of George Lucas's childhood inspired him to create something new. The science fiction writings of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury that Gene Roddenberry consumed as a kid were a factor in his creation of Star Trek. But what about a creative person today who was inspired by Star Wars or Star Trek or Marvel comics or Transformers during their childhood 25 to 30 years ago? The best-case scenario for them is to go to work in the massive corporate entertainment factories that churn out newly-repackaged versions of those things, because studios won't buy anything new. Because it doesn't sell. Because all people seem to want is the comfortable stuff they've seen before served up to them over and over and over again like identical McDonald's hamburgers.

I realize that complaining that the entertainment industry functions like a business is about as silly as acting surprised that my city's sewers contain lots of excrement and no Ninja Turtles. I suppose our only hope is that sometime before the inevitable collapse of our increasingly-unsustainable civilization, a lot of entertainment franchises will collapse under their own weight and create fertile soil for something new.

Anyway, Happy Friday.