Monday, July 24, 2017

My Discovery Dilemma

From the moment Star Trek: Discovery was announced, a small (but very loud) group of fundamentalist Star Trek fans have making angry noises about it, mainly because they fear it'll disrupt their cherished Star Trek "canon". For these people, it doesn't matter if a Star Trek production tells a fun and interesting story with compelling characters unless it strictly adheres to all the picky details of the Star Trek universe that have been established over 50 years of TV episodes and movies. Typically, I've been somewhat dismissive of these people.

But I have to say I agree with one point that some of them are making: that Star Trek is supposed to be about optimistic space exploration, but the only show on the fall schedule that seems to be doing that is Seth McFarlane's The Orville. Judging from the new trailer and cast interviews from ComicCon, Discovery seems mainly to be about war with the Klingons. So why can't Star Trek be about space exploration again? There's actually a good reason.

The Star Trek universe is too crowded.

Maybe you're saying: "Wait a minute, Dave. The Milky Way galaxy is astonishingly big! There's no way it could ever be 'too crowded'!" And you're right. The real Milky Way is almost incomprehensibly huge, with billions upon billions of stars separated by staggeringly vast distances. But Star Trek isn't set in the real Milky Way galaxy. Star Trek's version of our galaxy is surrounded by an "energy barrier" the color of Pepto-Bismol, and in the center there's not a supermassive black hole, but a planet housing the giant disembodied head of George Murdock cosplaying as the Cowardly Lion:

Star Trek's galaxy is also about as densely-populated as Mumbai. At some point during The Next Generation era they decided that the Federation and most of the familiar Star Trek alien races and empires were in the "Alpha Quadrant" of the galaxy .(Yes, I know that technically the Klingon and Romulan empires are supposed to be in the Beta Quadrant, but judging by nothing but the dialogue we hear on the shows, they're in the Alpha Quadrant with everyone else) Deep Space Nine's wormhole went to the "Gamma Quadrant", which is mostly taken up by the two-millennia-old Dominion, and when Voyager was thrown into the "Delta Quadrant" they met up with Kazon and Vidiians and Hirogen but mostly the Borg, who have been around for untold centuries and are sure to have conquered/wiped out most of that quadrant. It's hard to do any real exploring in Star Trek prequel series like Enterprise or Discovery, because they're just going places we've already seen in other shows. And if you try to do a sequel series about the adventures of the Enterprise-H in the 25th century, then fans will just complain if you don't spend a whole bunch of time checking up on the current goings-on of the Klingons and the Borg and the Cardassians, and you can't go into "unexplored" space without brushing up against the outer fringes of the Borg or Dominion empires.

And anyway, what would be the point? In one episode of Voyager, we meet up with a 29th century version of Starfleet that's flying around in timeships. Timeships! So what's the point of any of this when we know that half a millennium after Captain Picard, Starfleet and the Federation still exist and can apparently move back and forth through time as easily as you and I can walk to the fridge to get a Coke? Is it any wonder that fans of a TV show about a group of space explorers in the future are more excited about The Orville? It's set in a wide-open, unexplored galaxy that isn't bogged down by five decades of continuity and questionable writing.

If you want a really good sense of what Star Trek used to be once upon a time, check out the first 8 or 10 episodes of The Original Series. The "rules" of the Star Trek universe hadn't been set in stone yet. There's no mention of Starfleet or the Federation, no Klingons, and not even a glimpse of Earth. Our people are way out on the edge of a very lonely frontier. The planets we visit are mostly desolate, windswept places, home only to small groups of miners, scientists, or archaeologists sifting through the ruins of a long-dead civilization. There's no zipping back and forth to Earth like future productions would do; we're too far out in space for that. The Star Trek universe is new and pregnant with possibility.

So, how do we return to that? I can only think of one way: give Star Trek the Battlestar Galactica treatment--a hard reboot. Make a clean break with the past, and reimagine Trek from top to bottom. Yes, the hardcore fundamentalist fans will throw a gigantic baby tantrum, but there honestly aren't enough of them to matter.

I'm not saying Discovery is a total loss here, or that it's going to be bad. I haven't seen it yet. But at some pont, it'll end. The J.J. Abrams film series will end, too, (or maybe it already has), and eventually Star Trek will lay fallow for a few years. When it comes back, I hope the people in charge have the guts to start clean.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Change Repulsion

Here's a fun thing to do:
  1. Find someone who's a fan of something that's been around for a long time: a superhero or a film franchise or popular theme park.
  2. "Innocently" suggest making a small change to a long-standing element of the thing, something that would make it more appealing to mass audiences.
  3. Sit back and watch the fireworks.
Fans hate it when the corporate overlords of a thing they like change it to better appeal to the average person who is not currently a fan of the thing. For example, Superman fans threw a fit in 2011 when DC rebooted the character in the comics and gave him a new costume without the red trunks. (Which were inspired by old-timey circus strongmen) They changed a lot of other stuff about the character, too, but the absent red trunks were the thing disaffected fans complained most bitterly about.

Right now a very vocal segment of Star Trek fandom is throwing daily Internet tantrums because the new show Star Trek: Discovery, which is supposed to be set 10 years before the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, looks like a show produced in 2017 and not 1967. These people are threatening to throw earth-shattering Internet tantrums and boycott Discovery (a move that could cost CBS tens of dollars) unless it seamlessly integrates itself with a 50-year-old low-budget TV show that had this in it:

On another corner of the Internet, some Disney theme park fans are losing their minds over plans to make changes to another 50-year-old thing, Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride, not the movies). The Disneyland original, as well as the ones patterned after it in Florida and Paris, contains a scene where the pirates, in the midst of sacking a Caribbean village, are auctioning off its women as brides. This has long been considered one of the ride's more memorable scenes, mainly because of the prominently-featured buxom redheaded female Animatronic and the chorus of drunken pirates shouting "We wants the readhead!"

So, what could the Disney Imagineers be replacing this scene with that would cause such an uproar among fans? Maybe a set of Guardians of the Galaxy Animatronics having a dance party to the music of the 1980s? Or perhaps a scene from the Star Wars Holiday Special with Chewbacca's family celebrating Life Day while Bea Arthur serenades them? Let's take a look at the concept art and see what kind of thematically-inappropriate commercialized garbage the evil Disney corporate pencil-pushers are inflicting on their loyal fans:

Yeah. Instead of auctioning off human beings, now the pirates are auctioning off stuff. Heck, they even kept the famous redhead so the fanboys who enjoyed staring at her animatronic bosoms will still be able to do that instead of going out into the real word and learning to develop mature human relationships. The new scene fits in so well with the rest of the ride that the 99.9% of Disney theme park visitors won't even notice that anything's changed. Obviously, this is a completely harmless alteration that removes an icky scene of implied sexual slavery while preserving Pirates of the Caribbean's overall character and feel.

So naturally, an Internet petition against the change has gotten more than 25,000 signatures. Whether these represent 25,000 individual people or much fewer people with a lot of spare time, I don't know.

I've seen lots of arguments on social media for and against this change, but in the end the folks who are against it are pretty much the same as the fundamentalist fans who got angry when Superman stopped wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants. They don't like change. It makes them feel bad when the corporate owners of a thing they love make changes to it to appeal to an audience who's not them. It hurts their feelings because they're forced to confront the unpleasant truth that, however long and deep their love is for an object of their fannish devotion, it really belongs to a huge impersonal corporation and not to them. It can be painful, even make a person feel betrayed.

I'm not unsympathetic. In fact, let me share something: my favorite thing in all of Disney World is the part of the Jungle Cruise when you're inside the abandoned temple. The sounds of the park outside fade away, and you're surrounded by this little pocket of Original Disney World that's remained untouched for over 45 years. In those few moments I can imagine that it's 30-plus years ago, and outside the world I lived in as a kid is still there, and no one I love has died, and all the other mental and emotional wounds big and small that you accumulate over a lifetime haven't happened yet. I haven't been to the Magic Kingdom in years and have no plans to go back, but it's kind of nice to know that little piece of a simpler, happier past is still there. One day, it won't be. Disney will plunk some garish, out-of-place thing in there to promote whatever new thing they want people to buy and I'll have lost a lifeline back to fondly-remembered people and times.

So yeah, I know what it's like when a faceless corporation takes away something that tethers you back to a time you wish you hadn't had to leave. But when that thing is a depiction of human trafficking, of implied sexual slavery, then you've got to let it go. Because the alternative is to defend those things, to say they're not that bad. And is that who you want to be? When you look in the mirror, do you want to see someone who would make excuses for trivializing one of the most horrific things that humans do to one another?

Maybe that's not how you see it. Fine. We'll agree to disagree. But I'm too old to get worked up into a spittle-emitting rage over entertainment anymore. And if we all decided to be that way, social media might be a slightly calmer place.