Thursday, January 30, 2014

Technobabble Kudzu

Let’s play a little game. Guess which TV show this scene is from:
CRIME LAB TECH: Well, I took the suspect's laptop and I hacked into the BIOS by pinging an IP address with bundles of irregularly sliced RAM.
TECH: And I found out where the bad guys are hiding! They're in that abandoned warehouse on the 34th street dock!
OFFICER: Good work. Let's get ready to roll!
Did you guess CSI? One of the NCISes? 24? Criminal Minds? Something from the Law and Order franchise? It could be any of those, couldn’t it? You can find this basic scene (complete with technical lingo written by someone who doesn’t understand computers) in at least one episode of any crime procedural that’s been on the air in the last decade or so.

Now let’s do another one. See if you can guess where this scene comes from:
CAPTAIN: Report!
ENSIGN GREENHORN: We’re trapped in an inverse quantum field distortion! If we don’t get out in five minutes it’ll reduce us to thermolytic particles!
CAPTAIN: Options?
LT. COMMANDER ENGINEER: We could modify the main deflector with an array of phase discriminators, then use them to generate a modulated anti-tachyon pulse that should create an ionic resonance in the event horizon.
CAPTAIN: Like a stockbroker popping a balloon in a winery?
ENGINEER: Exactly! With any luck, the dekyon field modulation should be enough to break us free.
CAPTAIN: Make it so.
Any guesses? Of course it’s one of the Star Treks. It could only be one of the Star Treks. And from that scene it’s pretty easy to see why most of the Star Trek shows are totally inaccessible to all but a tiny core of devoted fans.

You see, even though the crime procedural scene had plenty of nonsensical technobabble, there were still recognizable character types with an easily understandable problem that could plausibly exist in the real world. The Law Enforcement Officer was trying to catch some criminals, and the Lab Tech gave him some information to help with that. But what the heck is going on in the Star Trek scene? The character types and situation are familiar enough to sci-fi fans, but to the average viewer it's nigh-incomprehensible. And here's a fun tidbit from Television Writing 101: if your show makes no sense to 85% of the viewing public, you have a problem.

Strangely enough, Star Trek didn't start out this way. Originally it was a show on NBC in the late ‘60s, a time before cable TV and Netflix when there were only three TV channels. Every show was designed to appeal to a large audience, because otherwise it simply couldn’t stay on the air. With that in mind, the original Star Trek show “bible”—the guide for writers and directors that outlined the format of the show and gave details about the characters—had this to say about the use of sci-fi technical lingo:
Tell your story about people, not about science and gadgetry. Joe Friday doesn't stop to explain the mechanics of his .38 before he uses it; Kildare never did a monologue about the theory of anesthetics; Matt Dillon never identifies and discusses the breed of his horse before he rides off on it.
How much science fiction terminology do you want?The less you use, the better. We limit complex terminology as much as possible, use it only where necessary to maintain the flavor of the show and encourage believability. IMPORTANT: The writer must know what he means when he uses science or projected science terminology. A scattergun confusion of meaningless phrases only detracts from believability.
For the most part, the people who wrote for the Original Series followed these guidelines. And since that show launched a multibillion-dollar entertainment franchise that we’re still talking about today, they were obviously doing something right. So what happened? How did Star Trek’s spinoffs get taken over by technobabble? The first culprit is:

1. The Fans
From the very beginning, Gene Roddenberry and his production team set out to make serious science fiction, not a goofy kiddie show like Lost In Space. One of the ways they went about this was to make sure that Star Trek’s futuristic technology was depicted as believably and consistently as possible. Star Trek was the first televised science fiction to seriously attempt this, and as a result it attracted a lot of fans from technical, scientific, and engineering fields.

marinerv_oct67_controlNASA Mission Control technicians in 1967 wearing Spock ears. Source: Trekcore

A lot of these fans didn’t just see these technical details for what they were: necessary window-dressing to make the Star Trek universe feel like a real place. These details were, in themselves, the main reason they watched the show. I’m not saying they were enjoying Star Trek wrong; part of the show’s genius is that it can be enjoyed simultaneously by different people on different levels. But I believe that their passion for the technical details for Star Trek affected how the spinoffs were produced.

These more technically-minded fans peppered Gene Roddenberry (and sometimes even James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty) with technical questions about the Enterprise and how it worked, both in person and through letters. And they were quick to point out any mistakes and inconsistencies. So when work started on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1986, the production staff was keenly aware that their work was going to be endlessly scrutinized and freeze-framed, and any little mistake that might be made in the rush of television production would be instantly noticed. So if there was a throwaway line of dialogue referring to the main Hydroponics Lab on Deck 25, then that piece of information had to be preserved and added to some kind of a knowledge base so a future writer wouldn’t mess up and mention the main Hydroponics Lab being located on Deck 11.

To help the production staff keep up with all the technical information that had been established in previous episodes, Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda took it upon themselves to draft a series of memos which were eventually collected into a document called the Writers Technical Manual. (Early in TNG’s fifth season, the Manual was expanded and sold commercially by Pocket Books) It was full of information about how the warp drive, the transporters, and the holodecks “really” worked. Now, I’m not criticizing Sternbach and Okuda here. I think they’re awesome, and the fact that they haven’t been knighted by the Queen of England is one of the great injustices of our time. But a lot of that stuff they established in the Technical Manual just served to bog the show down.

For example, in the sixth-season episode “Second Chances” we meet a transporter-created duplicate of Will Riker. Something similar happened in the Original Series episode “The Enemy Within” and the technical explanation was basically “a guy beamed up with some weird alien dirt on his clothes and it made the transporter act all funny”. But on TNG we had to sit through a wordy, complex explanation involving annular confinement beams, pattern buffers, distortion fields, and phase differentials. Why? Because the transporter was no longer the “black box” it had been on the Original Series. The Technical Manual explained its inner workings in great detail, and therefore those details had to be present in the obligatory “where Riker’s duplicate came from” scene. Because the fans would notice (and complain) if they weren’t. Another problem was:

2. The Star Trek: The Next Generation Plot Formula
Every episodic TV series has a basic plot formula that it follows probably 85% of the time. Gene Roddenberry didn’t want his characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation constantly shooting or punching their way out of problems. They also weren’t allowed to have normal human personality flaws (only Worf could do that, because he was a Klingon). So how do you write for an alleged action-adventure show that doesn’t revolve around the characters getting into conflicts with villains or each other? Enter the Technobabble Mystery Plot.

The way the Technobabble Mystery Plot worked was, a Weird Thing would happen that threatened the ship or crew, and our characters would have to figure out why the Weird Thing was happening and how to escape from it or make it stop. Of course, the “Weird Thing Happening” plot device is a staple of science fiction, and was used to great effect on The Twilight Zone. But on that show, it was used to expose hidden flaws in the characters and examine the human condition. And the Weird Thing was almost never explained. You can't get away with that on Star Trek. Imagine this scene:

CAPTAIN PICARD: Give me analysis of this weird thing that's happening.
GEORDI: Beats me.
DATA: No idea.
PICARD: Aren't you at least going to try to figure it out?
DATA: Aren't we going to what now?

Since our Star Trek characters' whole reason for being out in space is to seek out and analyze strange stuff, that wouldn't exactly work. And so there was always a technobabble-filled scene where Data or Geordi figured out the scientific explanation for the Weird Thing and explained it to everyone else using a Space PowerPoint presentation. Then we got more technobabble as they devised a plan to resolve the problem caused by the Weird Thing, and even more technobabble (often shouted while the characters frantically tapped on control panels) as the plan was implemented.

The frequent use of this plot formula served to divorce Star Trek even more from reality and make it less relatable to casual fans. You see, when a writer came up with a Weird Thing that he/she wanted to happen, like the crew de-evolving into animals, getting turned into children, or frozen in time, the technical and science consultants had to come up with a “scientific” way of making that happen. Only there is no scientific way that most of that stuff could happen, so the consultants had to make up some technobabble that sounded scientific. This technobabble would then become part of the show’s official continuity. Over time, this led to “Star Trek science” becoming an almost totally separate thing from real science.

Fortunately, The Next Generation had an excellent writing staff, (starting in Season Three, anyway) one of the best ever assembled, and they were mostly able to keep the scripts fresh and accessible. Deep Space Nine avoided the technobabble trap as well as any 1990s Star Trek production could, thanks to showrunner Ira Steven Behr, the excellent writers, and the fact that the studio largely ignored it. The third spinoff, Voyager, was not so lucky. Partially because it inherited the some of the most technobabble-prone writers from TNG, like Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. But mainly because of:

3. Rick Berman
When Gene Roddenberry became too ill to oversee TNG, producer Rick Berman took over Executive Producer duties after winning a power struggle with Gene’s lawyer. Unlike Gene, Berman was not a creative person. His talents lay in getting TV shows produced on time and under budget. At first, this was okay. Starting with the third season of TNG, head writer Michael Piller was mostly responsible for the creative side of things, and in addition to being a major factor in TNG’s success he also co-created Deep Space Nine and Voyager. But then Piller left the franchise very early in Voyager’s run and Berman assumed the prime role in the creative direction of the show.

Unfortunately for Berman, Voyager was the flagship show for Paramount's new TV network: UPN. He was under incredible pressure to make the show a hit. And the only way he knew to do that was to stick to whatever had seemed to work in the past without understanding why it had worked. (Although to be fair, he did push back against UPN's suggestion that contempary boy bands should play in the mess hall on Enterprise) Thus, Voyager pretty much restricted itself to two things that had worked on The Next Generation: Technobabble Mystery Plots and the Borg. But I’m not saying it ran those things into the ground, I’m saying it ran them way down into the ground, broke through the crust, and went down into the mantle. It got to the point where if all the technobabble were subtracted from an average episode, it would shrink to a five-minute skit. Not all of this was all Rick Berman’s fault; for one thing, he did the very best he could with the creative abilities he had. Also, Star Trek is not easy to write for. It's hard enough to assemble one Star Trek writing staff, and Voyager was the second of two Trek series that were in production at the same time. Its writing staff was basically comprised of TNG second-and-third-stringers.

One of Star Trek's top writers, Ronald D. Moore (who went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica) worked on Voyager very briefly after Deep Space Nine went off the air, and he left in disgust after only two episodes. After the dust from his departure settled, he gave an interview in which he had this to say about the technobabble kudzu that had taken over Star Trek:
"How many space anomalies of the week can you really stomach? How many time paradoxes can you do? When I was studying [VOYAGER], getting ready to work on it, I was watching the episodes, and the technobabble was just enervating; it was just soul sapping. Vast chunks of scenes would go by, and I had no idea what was going on. I write this stuff; I live this stuff. I do know the difference between the shields and the deflectors, and the ODN conduits and plasma tubes. If I can’t tell what’s going on, I know the audience has no idea what’s going on. Everyone will say the same thing. From the top down, you bring up this point, and everybody will say, ‘I am the biggest opponent of techno-babble. I hate technobabble. I am the one who is always saying, less technobabble.’ They all say that. None of them do it. I’ve always felt that you never impress the audience. The audience doesn’t sit there and go, ‘[Wow], they know science. That is really cool. Look how they figured that out. Hey Edna! Come here. You want to see how Chakotay is going to figure this out. He’s onto this thing with the quantum tech particles; it’s really interesting. I don’t know how he is going to do it, but he is going to reroute something. Oh my God, he found the anti-protons!’ Who cares? Nobody watches STAR TREK for those scenes. The actors hate those scenes; the directors hate those scenes; and the writers hate those scenes. But it’s the easiest card to go to. It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away."-Source:
J.J. Abrams did a lot of things wrong when he rebooted Star Trek in 2009. But one thing he did absolutely right was reduce the technobabble. There’s almost none. Yes, the dire situations the characters get into are mostly contrived, illogical, and ripped off from earlier Star Treks. But, to Abrams’ and his team’s credit, the solution to their problem is never to push buttons while shouting technobabble, it’s always to do something active, kinetic, and pretty easily understandable. And as much as hardcore fans complain about how his movies get the technical details “wrong”, those movies have been the biggest-grossing ones in the series, which means that Star Trek won’t take a financial hit if it ignores them.

So as much as I complain about the ridiculous amounts of technobabble that filled most of the Rick-Berman produced Star Trek shows and movies, it did serve a purpose: it showed future stewards of Star Trek what not to do. Whatever happens with Star Trek in the future, I’m willing to bet that its days of substituting technobabble for good dramatic writing are in the past.

At least I hope they are.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Star Wars Canon Kerfuffle

Recently, news began to circulate that Disney had tasked Leland Chee and Pablo Hidalgo-the Lucasfilm employees who serve as the keepers of the Star Wars canon-to simplify and redefine that canon, meaning that a lot of the stuff in the licensed novels, comics, and video games would presumably cease to be part of the “official” Star Wars universe. Predictably, the Internet reacted to this as though it actually mattered. Well, guess what? It doesn’t.

I realize this may seem shocking. A sci-fi geek saying that the canon of a fictional universe doesn’t matter is a bit like a Supreme Court justice saying that the Constitution doesn’t need all those amendments. To illustrate where I’m coming from here, let’s take a look at the other most famous science fiction franchise: Star Trek.

After the release of the first Star Trek film in 1979, there was an explosion of officially licensed Star Trek novels, comics, roleplaying sourcebooks, and technical manuals. All of these things purported to define parts of the Star Trek universe that had never been seen on screen. But there was no official Star Trek Canon Policy from Paramount that explicitly said whether or not these things were a part of the “real” Star Trek universe. As long as the various licensed novels, comics, and other books didn’t try to make any wholesale changes to the Star Trek universe or directly contradict what had been seen on screen, they were free to do what they wanted. The result was a wonderful run of creativity. Novels like The Final Reflection, The Romulan Way, The Entropy Effect, and Strangers From The Sky really pushed the limits of what Star Trek could be and became bestsellers in the process.

Meanwhile, the people making the films mostly ignored the licensed material and did their own thing. Some of the pictures from the Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph showed up as display graphics on the Enterprise bridge set, but that was as far as it went. So what happened to Star Trek without an Official Canon Policy? Chaos? Panic in the streets? Dogs and cats living together? Nope. Star Trek fans happily read their novels, comics, and technical manuals while waiting for the next movie to come out, and if that movie contradicted something they’d read in a piece of licensed fiction, they just rolled with it. Meanwhile, Star Trek’s popularity continued to grow. In fact, it was so successful that Paramount decided to create a new spinoff TV show to premiere in the fall of 1987 and guess who they hired to produce it?

gene_roddenberryNo, it’s not John Lassetter’s dad

Right around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, Gene Roddenberry used his newfound authority over the franchise to impose Star Trek’s first-ever official canon policy. (Roddenberry was effectively fired by Paramount after the poor performance of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His return as showrunner for The Next Generation was the first time he’d had any control over Star Trek since 1979) Under Roddenberry’s decree, only live-action onscreen Star Trek productions could ever be considered “canon”. Everything else-the animated series, the novels, the various tech manuals and roleplaying sourcebooks-was not considered “real” Star Trek. Now, it’s one thing for the creator and executive producer of a TV show to impose guidelines on his writers. It’s part of his job, in fact. And Gene’s canon policy pretty much just codified what the guys who worked on the film series had been doing all along. But Roddenberry’s authority also extended to all licensed products, like novels and comic books, and here’s where it caused a problem.

You see, explosion of creativity in the Star Trek novels of the early-to-mid-1980s led to a deepening and enrichment of Star Trek lore. It also led to Gene Roddenberry getting questions at conventions about when various popular characters and elements from these novels might make it into onscreen productions. And this irked him. Ever since he started doing convention appearances in the 1970s, Roddenberry had been downplaying the contributions to the original Star Trek TV series by people like Gene Coon or D.C. Fontana and promoting the idea that he was the sole creator of Star Trek and all the good ideas came from him, and him alone. But it was harder for him to downplay the contributions of an author like Diane Duane when her name was on the books where those contributions appeared. And he really hated it when Duane was referred to as “creator of the Rihannsu”. In Gene Roddenberry’s mind, he was the One True God of Star Trek, and to call someone else the “creator” of some Star Trek-related thing was blasphemy.

My point here is that Roddenberry didn’t just impose an Official Star Trek Canon Policy to serve as a guideline for writers on his show. He did it to expunge from the Star Trek universe those elements that other people had created without his input. It was his way of hiking his leg and marking his territory, and it was ultimately counter-intuitive and bad for the franchise. Many of the best authors were driven away by the restrictive decrees that were enforced-often in the most dictatorial and counter-intuitive way imaginable- by Roddenberry’s manservant, Richard Arnold. (Do a Google search if you’re interested in the particulars) Sure, a few good books managed to make it through the canon minefield (Doctor’s Orders by Diane Duane, for example) but overall the quality of Star Trek novels took a sharp dive in the late 1980s and didn’t recover for about a decade.

Not only that, but the canon policy meant that this was a “real” part of Paramount Pictures’ most valuable tentpole franchise:


As was this:


But not these:

 Romulan Way


It would have been best if the studio had stayed away from trying to define and maintain an official Star Trek canon. The arrangement that prevailed throughout most of the 1980s, where the movie people did their own movie-specific thing, the novel people did their own book-specific thing, and the comics people did their own comics-specific thing, was perfectly fine.

And this is the same path I believe the folks in charge of Star Wars should take, as well. Rather than inserting themselves into silly debates about the “real” nature of a fictional universe, they should simply have smart, dedicated people in charge of the movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, and so on, and let them do the best work they can in their chosen medium. The fans will pick and choose what they like and what they don’t.

Isn’t that what entertainment is all about?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Shaving Mr. Banks

When I went to see Saving Mr. Banks on New Years Day, I didn’t know what to expect. Oh, I knew what the movie was about. But I didn’t know if I’d enjoy it. For one thing, the Internet Preemptive Movie Outrage Machine had been making angry noises about this film for months, even before it had finished principal photography. And since the Disney corporation routinely treats its founder like just another licensed character (one wonders if the vacuous social media drones who run the Disney Parks Blog even know that Walt Disney was a real person) the idea that the film would depict Walt as a saintly, one-dimensional figure was a very real concern.

mrbanksOkay, I Photoshopped Chris Hansen in there. But otherwise, this is an actual piece of marketing for the film.

Now, a lot of people have excoriated this movie because it pays fast and loose with the facts, especially as they relate to P.L. Travers. But didn’t we know that was going to happen? Haven’t we realized by now that “based on a true story” is Hollywood-speak for “95% dramatic embellishment”? Even if you didn’t know anything about P.L. Travers before seeing this movie, you can probably guess that the viewing of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins neither magically resolved her daddy issues (and that those daddy issues were the invention of a Hollywood screenwriter) nor restored her creative mojo. And if you were surprised that a movie distributed by the Disney corporation chose to softpedal the real P.L. Travers’ dislike for their Mary Poppins film, then I imagine you’re also shocked when a Michael Bay movie contains explosions.

For me the real surprise of this movie was its treatment of Walt Disney. A lot of people worried that Tom Hanks would just play him like, well, a mustachioed Tom Hanks. They really should have given the guy more credit. After all, actors who only play a thinly-disguised version of themselves don’t win multiple Best Actor Oscars. But the fact that Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks gives a good performance is not what’s surprising here. It’s that Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t give us the whitewashed portrayal of Walt Disney that many people feared. He’s a genial presence, sure, but he can also be a bit manipulative and even devious. I was genuinely surprised that a company as pathologically dishonest about almost everything relating to itself as Disney is would allow its founder to be portrayed that three-dimensionally.

Also, I loved the movie’s depiction of the Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland in the early 1960s. I don’t have any facts to back this up, but I believe that current CEO Bob Iger would like people to draw parallels between Walt and himself because both men acquired other people’s intellectual property for use by the Disney company. But for me, Saving Mr. Banks was a reminder of why the Walt Disney Company’s golden age has come and gone: the company has gotten too big, and there is no Walt. During Disney’s 1960s heyday, the company was small enough that it was possible for everything it did to reflect the creative vision of one person. Today’s Walt Disney Company is just too large for any one person to be intimately involved in everything it does. And even if that wasn’t the case, people like Walt come along only once in a generation. This generation’s Walt Disney, whoever he or she might be, is probably at the helm of their own company, not working at an ossified multinational behemoth like Disney or Microsoft.

In the end, Saving Mr. Banks reminded me that Disney became a beloved worldwide institution because of the guy it’s named after. In the absence of someone like that, any company-even one with competent management-would flounder creatively. The Walt Disney Company’s “golden age” of the 1950s and 60s was a unique time that will never come again. And even as brick-and-mortar products of that period, like Disneyland, are altered beyond recognition by clueless corporate decision-making, films like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and The Love Bug endure unchanged, giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a modern Renaissance as it recedes farther and farther into the past.