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 the 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 had 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, and our friend's expensive new computer would explode in a shower of  sparks like in the movie Desk Set. (She needn't have worried. The only computer on the market in 1987 to have a 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 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 figure, 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.