Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Season-Long City on the Edge

As I write this we're less than 24 hours away from Star Trek: Discovery's season four premiere in the United States. Discovery was the first Star Trek show to completely break away from the episodic format. Rather than tell 13 different stories every season, Discovery (and its sibling, Picard) tells one story broken up into 13 pieces.

Last month, this very insightful observation about the Discovery-Picard storytelling method appeared in my Twitter timeline:

In the replies, someone else pointed out that Dr. McCoy once shot himself up with space heroin and erased time and they fixed that mess in 45 minutes. That got me thinking about how "The City on the Edge of Forever" would work if if were a modern Star Trek show. I imagine it might go something like this:

Episode 1 "Waves in the Sea of Time, Part 1": Weird things happen when Federation colonies are hit by "time waves". The Enterprise is sent to find their source. McCoy and Spock notice that Kirk seems upset about something.

Episode 2 "Waves in the Sea of Time, Part 2": Time waves cause more weird things to happen. Spock comes up with an algorithm to compute their exact source. "This is the power of math!" We learn that Kirk is hurting because got a "Dear James" letter from his girlfriend. End on Spock's algorithm pinpointing the source of the waves.

Episode 3 "There Be Squalls Ahead"Enterprise en route to the source of the time waves. McCoy finds out about Kirk's breakup. He shares that he's feeling dissatisfied with life in space. Wishes for a simpler existence on Earth. Time waves cause tech problems for Scotty. Episode ends with ship in danger.

Episode 4 "Typhoon" : Much action and peril as time waves threaten to tear the ship apart. Different ways to modify the shields to protect the ship are tried, but nothing works. Just in the nick of time, Scotty discovers the solution and implements it. We drop out of warp at the source of the waves: a mysterious, remote planet.

Episode 5 "Unsafe Harbor": Investigation of the planet begins. Time waves continue to buffet the ship. McCoy is being run ragged caring for all the injured. Just as the worst appears to be over, he's called to the Bridge to help a wounded Sulu. Accidentally shoots himself up with cordrazine.

Episode 6 "The Darkness That Runs Through the Soul of Man": A dangerous hide-and-seek as the characters chase a cordrazine-overdosed McCoy through the ship. We cut between their perspective and his terrifying hallucinations. McCoy knocks out the transporter chief and escapes to the planet as the episode ends.

Episode 7 "What World Lies Beyond That Stormy Sea": Notice that we're halfway through the season and the story is only just now getting started. Kirk leads a landing party to the planet to retrieve McCoy. We find the Guardian, learn what it is, and then McCoy jumps through and changes history. What took five minutes in 1967 takes 45 here.

Episode 8 "Into Time's River": Kirk and Spock hatch their plan to go through the Guardian, get McCoy, and fix history. The encounter with and flight from the police officer is much longer and more action-packed here. Episode ends just as Edith Keeler discovers them in the basement of her mission.

Episode 9 "The Light in the Heart, The Dark in the Night": Kirk and Spock acclimate to life in 1930s NYC. Fish-out-of-water moments, some dangerous and some humorous. Edith Keeler speechifies about the future, and Kirk starts to get all googly-eyed. Elsewhere in the city, McCoy appears. In his paranoid state, he kills the homeless man he encounters. Episode ends with him fleeing into the night.

Episode 10 "Stone Knives and Bearskins and Murder": Spock gets the idea to build a memory circuit. Kirk and Edith begin their romance. Meanwhile McCoy, still suffering from the effects of the cordazine, kills a couple guys who try to mug him. Kirk and Spock read about the killings in the paper and wonder.

Episode 11 "Spocky Mnemonic": Spock makes progress on his memory circuit. Kirk confides in Edith about his recent failed romance and gets dangerously close to telling her who he and Spock really are. The cops close in on McCoy.

Episode 12 "The Heart Wants What the Future Cannot Possess": Spock conducts several tests of his memory circuit as the Kirk-Edith romance continues. Spock realizes that Edith must die for history to be set right. Cops hunting for the hobo killer find an unconscious drunk in a bloodstained Starfleet uniform. Nearby, McCoy is in the drunk's clothes, shivering as he comes down from the cordrazine. Spock tells Kirk that Edith must die just as McCoy stumbles into the mission.

Episode 13 "Return to Tomorrow's Past Future": Edith nurses McCoy back to health. It's clear he has only vague memories of his actions under the cordrazine's influence. A few near misses as Kirk and Spock almost cross paths with him. Meanwhile, a police detective has realized who's really responsible for the murders and traced McCoy's steps to the mission. McCoy flees just as Kirk and Edith are leaving on their date. He sees Edith about to get hit by the truck and gives up his chance to escape to save her. Kirk stops him, and Spock steps out of the shadows and nerve-pinches the cop before he can arrest McCoy. The Guardian pulls them back to the 23rd century. McCoy is obviously troubled by what happened and will need much help to recover. (Naturally this will all happen offscreen and he'll be 100% fine by next season's premiere.) Kirk is sad about the end of yet another romance, but he finishes out the season with a Grey's Anatomy voiceover about how sometimes we look to the past to find our future, and in that future we find the stars, and in the stars we find hope, and in that hope we find ourselves.

And that's how you stretch a 45-minute story into 13 episodes. The trick is to add a lot of additional activity but no actual depth, lots of noise but no substance. You can have big emotional moments, but they should be like the explosions in Michael Bay movies: loud, spectacular, and impressively done from a technical perspective, but with no lasting effects on the characters. 

Hooray for 21st century television.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Weird Star Trek: The Paradise Syndrome (Or: What Does God Need With a Hairpiece?)

"The Paradise Syndrome" may be the most racist episode of Star Trek. There are more popular choices like "Code of Honor" or "The Omega Glory", but in those cases the racist stereotypes were depicted as imaginary alien cultures.

Not so with "The Paradise Syndrome". Its embarrassing Native American stereotypes are depicted as actual Native Americans transplanted to another planet by benevolent (but not too bright) aliens. (There's not one Native American actor in the bunch, but we'll get into that.) Even worse, it's clear that writer Margaret Armen had no idea she was being racist. This is clearly meant to be a sympathetic portrayal, which somehow makes it worse.

It begins with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down to an idyllic Earthlike planet that’s threatened by an approaching asteroid. The planet has two items of interest, the first being a Native American village on the banks of the same lake where Andy and Opie Taylor used to go fishing. . .

How do the natives not notice three brightly-shirted guys standing in plain sight?
From his vantage point on the other side of the lake, Spock identifies them as Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware. Which is kind of weird because the Navajo came from the American southwest, the Mohican and Delaware were native to the northeast, and none of them lived in tipis. I have no idea how Spock could make that determination, except that he read it from the script.  The other item of interest is this nifty obelisk:

It's made of an alien metal that Spock's tricorder can't penetrate, and it's covered with unfamiliar symbols. The technology needed to construct the obelisk would equal or surpass the Federation's, so Spock doesn't think the natives built it. There's not much time to investigate, though; the Enterprise needs to warp out of orbit within thirty minutes to deflect the asteroid. Any longer, and it'll be impossible for the power of the Enterprise to deflect the asteroid enough to keep it from hitting the planet. (They could have taken care of the asteroid first and THEN investigated the planet, but then the episode wouldn't happen)

After observing the village from afar and wistfully yearning for the Native Americans’ simple lifestyle, Kirk announces that it’s time to go. But first, he wants another look at the obelisk. Spock and McCoy stay behind as he struts up there alone. He walks up the obelisk’s steps, takes out his communicator to call the ship, and is taken by surprise as a trap door opens beneath his feet. Kirk falls into the obelisk down a flight of stairs and comes to rest in front of a control panel. He grabs hold of it to pull himself up and accidentally activates some kind of alien Brain Zapper, which treats us to a classic William Shatner Acting Moment:

Fast forward an unspecified amount of time as Spock, now at the obelisk standing on the very trap door that Kirk fell into, voiceovers that numerous search parties and sensor scans have failed to locate the Captain. Well, since he said that he was going to check out the obelisk, and the obelisk clearly has some kind of trap door built into it, and you said earlier that you can’t scan inside the obelisk, and you couldn’t find him anywhere else, maybe, I don’t know, he’s inside the obelisk. However, since the story needs Kirk to get stranded on the planet, our hyper-intelligent Vulcan Science Officer is prevented from making that particular connection. Spock tells McCoy they’re going back to the ship, and when the doctor protests, Spock reminds him of the urgency of getting to the asteroid in time to deflect it away from the planet. Otherwise, he warns “everyone on this planet will die, including the Captain.” Again, maybe they could've come to spy on the Native Americans after they took care of the asteroid. Spock and McCoy beam up.

Meanwhile, the Brain Zapper has left Kirk with a serious case of amnesia, which is communicated to the audience by Shatner stumbling around the underground chamber and voiceovering "What . . . place . . . isthis? Who . . . amI? Try . . . toremember." He staggers up the stairs he fell down earlier and the trap door opens automatically for him. Kirk walks up into the sunlight, and we're treated to the sight of our first two Native American characters:

The one on the left is Miramanee, the "tribal priestess". She's played by the very white actress Sabrina Scharf in brownface. The one on the right is credited only as "Indian Woman", and is played by another white actress, Naomi Pollack. The producers must've liked how she looked in brownface, because later in the season they cast her as the Indian (South Asian, not Native American) Lt. Rahda. Back in the 60s, actually casting Native American or Indian actors to portray characters of those ethnicities was the farthest thing from the mind of your average Hollywood casting director.

In the first of many moments that make you wonder if William Shatner wrote this episode, the ladies bow down worshipfully the second they catch sight of the amnesiac Kirk:

Or maybe they're covering their faces because they've never seen a bad toupee before
After a brief interlude on the Enterprise where Scotty complains that the engines can't stand Spock's demand for maximum warp speed, we cut back to the planet. It seems that the tribespeople have decided that Kirk coming up out of the obelisk (which they call "the temple") means he's a god, and the tribal council is interviewing him for the job of Lord and Savior.

The Medicine Chief, an argumentative guy named Salish, is skeptical. He insists that the newcomer in the weird pajamas should prove he's a god.

"What does God need with a hairpiece?"
The Tribal Elder explains that a God's main job is to "rouse the temple spirit" when "the sky darkens". He asks Kirk point-blank if he can do this, but Kirk gives a rambling non-answer that makes it clear he has no idea what they're talking about. But everyone forgets about Kirk’s unsuitability for the position of God when he uses a 1960s version of CPR to revive a kid who drowned in the lake. They’re so impressed that they declare him God right then and there and give him Salish’s Medicine Chief gig. One of the perks of being Medicine Chief, it turns out, is that you get to marry tribal priestess Miramanee.

Naturally, Salish is not too happy about losing his job and his fiancĂ©e to a bushy-sideburned amnesiac who's less of a deity than the most unimpressive member of the X-Men. And yet the episode clearly depicts Salish as the villain, which makes no sense. I mean, amnesia or no, Kirk has to know that he’s not a god. And yet he pointedly allows everyone to think he is, and even goes so far as to allow the tribe to make him solely responsible for their welfare.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise's efforts to deflect the asteroid aren't going well. After the deflector beam fails to push it far enough off course, Spock orders phaser fire to destroy it. That fails, too, burning out the warp engines in the process. He has no choice to have the ship retreat in front of the asteroid at impulse power for the months-long journey back to the planet.

Back on the planet of bad stereotypes, Kirk (who's now going by the name "Kirok") is running around in full Native American cosplay and setting a wedding date with Miramanee. She wants to get married the very next day. "The sooner our happiness begins, the longer it will last," she says. In case you haven't noticed by now, Miramanee doesn't really have a personality, unless "Stereotypical Native American maiden who talks in Hallmark greeting card sayings" is a personality. Kind of like Commander Riker's holographic girlfriend Minuet, she doesn't seem to have any wants or needs of her own, she just exists to please Kirk. What did she do before he showed up? 

On the Enterprise, Spock is in his quarters studying the pictures he took of the symbols on the obelisk while McCoy chews him out because his plan to destroy the asteroid didn't work. Naturally, McCoy doesn't have any better ideas (he's a doctor, not an asteroid removal expert) he just wants to complain that Spock's decisions are stupid and bad because he's a Vulcan. Rather than report the doctor to Starfleet HR for his blatant racism, Spock just ignores him.

At the obelisk, the Tribal Elder applies some paint to Kirk Kirok’s face, then tells him to wait while he walks the “holy path to the earth lodge” where the wedding will take place. This gives Kirk time to hug himself while he voiceovers about how happy he is. There are some iconic images that just cry out to be made into demotivational posters, and this is one of them:


After his little self-love session, Kirok heads off to the wedding venue only to be accosted by Salish, leading to a fight scene between two stunt doubles.

What's that in Salish's hand, a butter knife? Is he there to stab Kirk or make him peanut butter sandwich?
Of course, Kirk defeats Salish with his patented William Shatner Flying Kick. Salish managed to slightly wound him during the fight, and is elated to see that Kirk bleeds, which is a thing that god's aren't supposed to do. He promises not to rest until he exposes Kirk as a fraud, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing.

And then we have a wedding. I’m no expert on Native American customs, but I’m pretty sure that none of their marriage rituals involved the groom wearing a robe made from Muppet pelts.

Two months later, Miramanee and a shirtless Kirok are playfully chasing each other through the woods when Miramanee drops the bomb that she’s pregnant with a little Captain Kirok, and with that her fate is sealed. No reason to get attached to Mrs. Kirok, dear viewers, because if the Rules of 1960s Television are harsh on the love interests of main characters, they’re even harsher on the unborn children of such unions. Miramanee and Kirok Jr. are as good as dead.

The seeds of their destruction come from Medicine Chief Kirok’s inability to do the one thing that a Medicine Chief/God is supposed to be able to do. It seems that, while the alien race called the Preservers did a noble thing by rescuing this group of Native Americans from genocide at the hands of white settlers, the planet they plunked them down on is especially prone to asteroid impacts. So, the Preservers “solved” this problem by building the obelisk, whose function is to fire a sort of anti-asteroid phaser beam. However, the thing has a combination lock, and in their wisdom the Preservers only told one member of the tribe (the original Medicine Chief) how to get in and operate it, and the “secret” has been passed down from father to son ever since. Currently, the tribe is in a pickle because Salish’s father died before he could pass the secret on to his son, and now nobody knows it.

What’s the logic in putting these people on a planet where their survival depends solely on the obelisk thingy, and then telling only one guy how to work it? Come to think of it, why does this asteroid deflector even need to have a human operator? If the Preservers were super-advanced enough to build the thing, couldn’t they give it an autopilot?

Also, since they never got around to inventing the telescope, and since the Preservers never bothered to explain to them about asteroids and space and stuff, the only way the tribe knows that an asteroid impact is imminent is when the sky gets dark, the ground quakes, and they start having weather problems. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m pretty sure that if a giant asteroid is so close to your planet that it’s blocked out the sun and you’re having seismic and weather disturbances, then it’s probably already in the atmosphere, and powerful asteroid deflector or no, you don’t have time to do anything but bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. And what if the asteroid is approaching from the other side of the planet?

Back in their hut, Kirk is explaining to Miramanee his plans to build a system of canals from the lake to irrigate the fields the tribes use for farming, and this is probably the part of the episode that infuriates me the most. Because most Native American tribes weren't hunter-gatherers; they farmed. In fact, until the Europeans introduced livestock to the Navajo, farming was pretty much their only source of food. 

The Mississippian people were good enough at farming to build a huge city in present-day Illinois that supported 40,000 people at its peak in the 12th century CE--more people than London during that same period. So are you seriously telling me that the natives on this planet never thought of digging canals until an amnesiac space captain showed them how? Not only that, but Kirk has also "invented" the idea of making oil lamps out of hollowed-out gourds and stockpiling food to preserve it for lean times. I'm pretty sure that actual Native American cultures figured this stuff out millennia before the Europeans arrived.

Well, sure enough the approaching asteroid causes the weather to get windy, and Salish and the tribal chief insist that Kirk go the obelisk and carry out his one and only job duty. Naturally, Kirk doesn’t know how to get inside the obelisk, and Salish, seeing the chance to get rid of his rival once and for all, incites the tribe to stone Kirk and Miramanee with rocks made of styrofoam. Honestly, you can understand why they're upset. Kirk has been passing himself off as a god and allowing the tribe to wait on him hand and foot, and when the time comes for him to hold up his part of the bargain the only thing he can do is pound the obelisk with his fists and yell "I am Kirok!"

The tribe is scared off when Spock and McCoy beam down, and after Spock restores Kirk’s memory with some kind of Vulcan mind thing, they go inside the obelisk and save the planet by activating the Asteroid Repeller.

How do they get into the obelisk, you ask? Well, it turns out that the symbols on the obelisk are musical notes that spell out the combination to open the door (again, why has the tribe been living in close proximity to this thing for the last four or five hundred years and never been inspired to come up with a written language?) And by sheer coincidence, when Kirk took out his communicator and said "Kirk to Enterprise" it matched the exact set of tones needed to open the door.

So, let's recap. According to "The Paradise Syndrome", James T. Kirk is so awesome that:

  1. Native Americans take one look at him and automatically assume that he’s a god.
  2. Beautiful tribal priestesses want nothing more than to spend their life doing whatever he wants.
  3. The very sound of his name can unlock the secrets of alien technology.

Are we sure William Shatner didn't write this episode?

Oh, one other thing: exactly why does the asteroid deflector even have a brain-zapping ray? It’s like building a toaster oven that also shoots poison darts if you push the wrong button! Yeah, Spock calls it a "memory beam" and attributes Kirk's amnesia to it being activated out of sequence, but why does the thing need a "memory beam"? To implant the instructions for operating the deflector directly into the Medicine Chief's brain? Spock activates it by pushing a single button; it's not that complicated. 

Of course, Miramanee's styrofoam-inflicted injuries are too severe for McCoy and his 23rd century medicine to heal, and she’s going to die. She passes away in in Kirk’s arms, sincerely believing that he was a god after all.

According to this episode, people dying of severe internal injuries look like they're relaxing at the beach

So what happens to the tribe? Does Kirk explain who he really is and where he came from? Does he arrange for everyone to learn how operate the asteroid deflector so the entire tribe's safety isn't dependent on one person? Does he apologize to them for impersonating a deity? None of this is addressed. The moment Miramanee breathes her last, we cut to the Enterprise leaving orbit and the episode is over.

So that’s “The Paradise Syndrome”. For years it was considered one of the better episodes of Star Trek's final season, partially because it was the only one shot on location and one of the few with its own musical score. But now that everyone realizes how racist it is, it's just an embarrassment. Look, I know that doing research was a lot harder in 1968, but did Margaret Armen even try to learn anything about any Native American peoples before writing her script? I guess that in those days, simply not depicting them as savage killers qualified as non-racist. Also, her story has plot holes big enough to fly a C-130 through, and our illustrious Captain Kirk doesn’t exactly behave like a role model.

So what did we learn today?

  1. If you're on a mission to save a planet from a giant asteroid, you should definitely deal with the asteroid first.
  2. There's no excuse for impersonating a god, even if you're suffering from alien-brain-zapping-ray-induced amnesia.
  3. If you're an alien super-race that rescues primitive cultures, maybe put them on a planet that isn't prone to frequent asteroid impacts. And if you just can't help it, at least teach more than one person how to operate the Asteroid-B-Gone.
  4. Finally, if you're a white person who wants to write a story about Native Americans, do some amount of research. Otherwise, you might go down in history as being responsible for the most racist entry in a historically inclusive franchise.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Genie Genie On The Wall, Do I Really Care At All?

I haven't set foot on Disney property since 2011. That's 10 years ago for those of you playing along at home. So I'm definitely not qualified to talk in detail about the new Disney Genie FastPass Monetizer or whatever it's called. I've never worked in the theme park industry, so I'm sure my opinions on how they should be run are thoroughly uninformed. What I'm trying to say is that you should probably stop reading now and click over to a website where more nuanced and informed discourse is happening, such as Twitter.

Way back in 2013 when dinosaurs walked the earth and Abraham Washington was President, I wrote a little piece about how I didn't like the then-new Fastpass+ system that was about to launch. I said it was overcomplicated and it ruined relaxing vacations by forcing people to over-plan. And like a lot of other folks were doing at the time, I predicted that the company would use it to create a paid FastPass system to squeeze even more money out of customers who were already paying through the nose and several other bodily orifices for a Disney vacation. From what I understand, that prediction never quite came true.

Until now.

The new Disney Genie service replaces the cumbersome app-based Fastpass+ service with what looks to be another cumbersome app-based service:

I'm sure the folks who think the PeopleMover can take them to Harry Potter Land will have no trouble figuring this out

But I'm not here to discuss the merits and drawbacks of this thing. I'm more interested in the reason people will pay for FastPasses in the first place: the desire to skip long lines. It seems to me that long attraction lines are a much bigger problem than they used to be. Oh, they were always an annoyance during the busy seasons (in the early 90s, Dave Barry once joked that the line for Space Mountain was so long there were Cro-Magnon families at the front) but there were definite off-season periods when locals or savvy travelers could enjoy the parks without a lot of waiting. That's definitely not the case anymore. Even back in 2009-2010 when I had an annual pass and went to the parks several times a month, there was obviously no "off-season". They were either Times Square-busy or Times-Square-at-New-Years-Eve busy. So, more visitors obviously means longer attraction lines. What do you do about it?

Middle-aged dorks like me would tell you that the "solution" is to build lots more high-capacity Omnimover attractions to swallow all those crowds. Except that the crowds are not made up of middle-aged dorks like me; they're made up of younger people who expect something more than a jumped-up 1964 World's Fair attraction. If you send them gliding through the history of human transportation at speed of a lawn tractor they'll be scrolling through Instagram before they get to the invention of the wheel.

Today's audiences demand super-immersive, complex "experiences" like Rise of the Resistance. The problem is, rides like that have a lower capacity than Spaceship Earth or Pirates of the Caribbean. And their greater complexity means that they're much harder to keep running 12-15 hours a day, 7 days a week. They tend to break down more easily (especially Rise of the Resistance).

This operational reality has led to a lot of self-righteous harrumphing on Twitter. "Disney attractions shouldn't have these problems!" people proclaim, as if the difficulties all stem from Disney parks management being clueless and greedy and stupid. But maybe, just maybe, it isn't that simple. Maybe it's just the best that can be done. Maybe it just isn't possible to build a super-immersive, super-thrilling, Holodeck-that's-not-really-a-Holodeck-type ride that has the capacity of an EPCOT Center Omnimover and can go for 12-15 hours a day. Not yet, anyway.

All this is to say that there probably isn't any way to "fix" the problem of insufficient attraction capacity to the degree where a paid FastPass system would seem pointless. This is how things are now. Weirdos like me might like it better if Disney World magically reverted to the way it was in 1987, but there are not enough of us to matter.

Of course, there are always other places to take your vacation.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Assassination of the Indiana Pacers by the Coward David Stern

The other day I watched the Malice at the Palace documentary on Netflix, and it helped to crystallize a lot of thoughts I'd been having about the sports league I've enjoyed since I was 11 years old, and my opinions toward its much-lauded former commissioner, David Stern. What follows are those thoughts and opinions:

When David Stern took over as NBA commissioner in 1984, the league was in trouble. TV ratings were so low that the NBA Finals was broadcast on tape delay. Widespread substance abuse problems eroded the quality of play and caused a PR nightmare. And even as prominent voices were arguing that the civil rights movement of the ‘60s had “solved” racism, the media was still racist enough that sports commentators could argue (out loud!) that the NBA was unpopular because it had "too many" Black players in it. When TV news polled sports fans at stadiums and bars, they felt perfectly comfortable looking right into the camera and saying that Larry Bird was their favorite player because he was white.

Even as the league’s fortunes improved thanks to a new crop of all-time great players, better marketing, and a strict drug policy, the racism was still there, waiting to burst into view. It happened during the 1994 FIBA World Championships, when a team including Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Kemp, and Larry Johnson easily won the gold medal but was criticized in the media for being loud and boisterous in the process. It was okay for them to win, but the white-dominated media cringed at the sight of them expressing pride in their abilities. The team was condemned for “loud” and “thuggish” behavior. The subtext was clear: Black athletes were expected to compete with the greatest intensity, but they were only allowed to express emotion in a narrow, restrained range that white people deemed non-threatening.

The racism bubbled up again during the 1999 lockout, which the media blamed entirely on “spoiled” and “overpaid” Black players, the clear inference being that these guys didn’t really “deserve” the millions they made. Nobody ever wondered if the billionaire franchise owners who wrote those checks deserved their wealth. Through it all, that 1980s memory of an NBA teetering on the edge of an abyss was never far from David Stern’s mind. He was terrified of alienating any white fans, no matter how racist they were. So rather than push back even a little against racist media narratives, Stern always took the cowardly way out. Every single time.

After the so-called “Malice at the Palace” in 2004, where an arena full of predominately white fans in Detroit rioted and attacked the Indiana Pacers, the media quickly turned on the Pacers players. Yes, Ron Artest went into the stands. Stephen Jackson followed to support his teammate. Jermaine O’Neal threw a punch at a fan who came down onto the court. But the riot (I refuse to call it a “brawl”) was instigated by a fan throwing a beer at Artest. And footage from that night shows the predominately white mob relentlessly pelting the Indiana players with drinks, cups, bottles and food as they desperately tried to leave the court. One person even threw a chair. Criminal investigations largely cleared the players of any wrongdoing.

Of course, the footage of white people behaving badly wasn’t what was repeated ad infinitum on ESPN and cable news channels in the days and weeks afterward. All we saw was Artest and Jackson climbing into the stands, O’Neal throwing a punch. Again and again, divorced from any context. In an era before everyone had an Internet-connected video camera in their pocket, those carefully-curated images were the only ones most people saw. 

Talking heads in the news media, almost all of them white, quickly demonized the players as “thugs”. They used the riot (again, a riot in which the vast majority of the participants were white) as an excuse to self-righteously rail against NBA players' large salaries, rap music, and basically any expression of Black culture that white people didn’t like. The NBA suddenly had an “image problem”. Once again, David Stern felt the abyss opening up beneath him. And again he panicked. 

Forty-eight hours after the riot, without taking any time to sift through the facts and make an informed decision, Stern announced heavy suspensions for Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jermaine O’Neal. He made a point of saying that the decision was entirely unilateral. A year later, he imposed a dress code for all players, dictating what they could wear when they arrived and departed from games, during interviews, and when sitting on the bench if they were injured. It was explicitly designed to keep Black players from dressing in a way that reflected their culture, and instead force them into a look that racist white people would find acceptable. David Stern had stared directly into the face of racism, and bent over backwards to appease it.

Did the NBA ever have an “image problem”? Of course not. It had an “no Michael Jordan” problem. Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1998. To be sure, he left behind some great young players, but none of them could carry the league the way he had. It wasn't until LeBron James arrived that NBA had its next great megastar. Two seasons after the Detroit fan riot, LeBron reached the Finals for the first time. And just like that, the NBA's "image problem" disappeared.

Today, NBA leadership has finally realized that it doesn't need to live in fear of racist white fans anymore. When openly racist LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was finally caught on tape in 2014 saying the kind of bigoted nonsense he'd been saying for decades with no consequences, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned him for life and forced him to sell the team. (David Stern, on the other hand, had a history of looking the other way and even helping Sterling to retain his ownership of the team in 1982 when the NBA tried to force him to sell.)

And even though the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to finish the 2019-2020 season in a Central Florida "bubble" playing games in empty gyms with no fans, a situation which threatened the league's normally-strong TV ratings, Adam Silver didn't try to stop the players from moving forward with a plan to display custom messages on their jerseys in response to the murder of George Floyd (although they were required to pick from a list of pre-approved slogans). There was backlash in certain areas of the media landscape, but the league ignored it.

I'm not saying that today's NBA is perfect. You could definitely argue that Adam Silver is bending over backwards to appease China's repressive government to retain access to that country's 1.3 billion potential customers, kind of like David Stern once did with racist white fans. But at least the NBA is finally in a place where it realizes it doesn't need customers who think the majority of its players aren't real human beings.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Vulcan Coiffure Conundrum

 As incredible as it seems, there were other things going on in 1960s pop culture besides Star Trek. For example, these guys:

The Beatles were kind of a big deal in the '60s, in much the same way that dinosaurs are a big deal in Jurassic Park. Since Star Trek was a product of that decade, it was inevitable that someone in the cast would have a Beatle-esque hairstyle.

You see, Gene Roddenberry or whoever made the decision about what Spock's hair should look like wasn't thinking "This is the official haircut of the planet Vulcan." Leonard Nimoy had straight hair, and this was a contemporary style that looked good on him.

Fast-forward to 1977. The studio was gearing up to revive Star Trek as the cornerstone of their Paramount-branded TV network that was supposed to launch in 1978. Leonard Nimoy refused to sign on, so a new, younger Vulcan character named Xon was created and actor David Gartreaux was cast in the role. In the surviving footage of the screen tests for Xon, the character has a very 1970s look:

Of course, Xon didn't get to join the rest of the cast in their jump to the big screen. Robert Wise was insistent that you couldn't have a Star Trek movie without Mr. Spock, so Leonard Nimoy was brought back after all. And although the rest of the Star Trek cast had appropriate 1970s hairdos to go with their disco pajama costumes, Nimoy was still sporting the same look he had in the '60s. It's a little strange when you think about it. They didn't put Grace Lee Whitney in her 1960s beehive, after all. And despite also rocking a Monkees-esque 'do on the TV series, Walter Koenig appeared in the movie with a more appropriately-1970s Brick Tamland look.

But Spock wasn't the only Vulcan in the movie. In a scene at Starfleet Headquarters near the beginning of the story we meet the refitted Enterprise's original Science Officer, ill-fated Commander Sonak:

And it's here where the franchise starts down the path of the "All Vulcan Men Look Like Spock" cliche. You could argue that Sonak's assignment to the Enterprise sprang from Kirk's irrational desire for everything to be just like it was on his first 5-year mission, and having him look kind of like Spock was intended to be a subtle visual cue to Kirk's mental state.

We didn't see a lot of Vulcans in the other Original Series movies, but we did catch a glimpse of one at the very beginning of The Next Generation's premiere episode. Given that Gene Roddenberry was eager for the show to stand on its own, you'd think that he'd take the opportunity to give the first Vulcan we ever see a slightly different look. Instead, we get Spock Junior.

Aside from Suzie Plakson's Dr. Selar in the second season, we didn't see another new Vulcan character until the third-season episode "Sarek". Sure enough, he was also rocking the Spock look:

Which is kind of funny, inasmuch as the writers had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed to even mention the name "Spock" in the episode. The Star Trek universe had received a complete visual overhaul since the days of the Original Series, so why was it still clinging to this one very dated piece of the 1960s?

Even worse were the Romulans. It was bad enough that the costume designer decided that their singular fashion motif would be "cartoonishly big shoulderpads". But (no doubt to save money and time on makeup) every Romulan we ever saw on the TNG-era shows--male or female, military or civilian, young or old--had the exact same Moe-from-the-Three-Stooges hairstyle:

And the few times we saw Vulcans on Deep Space Nine the makeup people just slapped a leftover Romulan wig on them:

Of course, 1990s Star Trek was made on very tight schedules with TV budgets. And since Executive Producer Rick Berman was aggressively uncreative, he was very strict about never stepping outside established franchise tropes. But after Berman's time with the franchise was over the studio tapped big-name creator J.J. Abrams to reimagine Star Trek as a big-budget blockbuster movie.

Suddenly, nothing was sacred. Matt Jeffries' classic USS Enterprise design was sleekified and amped-up. The interiors were redesigned to look like a futuristic Apple Store (except for the Engineering section, which now looked like the inside of a brewery). And for the first time in decades, our favorite starship's command crew wouldn't be played by a group of aging TV actors. Much like David Gartreaux thirty years earlier, the actor cast as the Vulcan science officer had a good head of hair:

Since the rest of the cast wasn't being forced to adopt the 1960s hairstyles of their TV counterparts, there's no reason to think that J.J. Abrams and his team would saddle Quinto with an embarrassing bowl cut, right? Right?

Of course they did! Because how would the audience know it's Spock without his 1960s hairstyle? I mean, we somehow recognized Anton Yelchin as Chekov even though he wasn't wearing a Monkees wig but Spock just HAD to look like Moe from the Three Stooges or we wouldn't know who it was! It's almost as bad as that scene in Star Trek: Nemesis when Picard is looking at a picture of himself as a young cadet and it's Tom Hardy with a shaved head. You can almost hear the clueless executive saying "He has to be bald in the picture or the audience won't know it's Picard, because Picard is the bald Captain."

Fast forward to the present day. Star Trek has again been reimagined (this time with the J.J. Abrams-adjacent Alex Kurtzman at the helm) and once again has angered a lot of old-school fans with its frequent disregard for some of the long-standing Star Trek tropes. They even recast Ethan Peck--another young actor with Hollywood-quality hair--as Spock.

But did they resist the temptation to put a ridiculous Moe wig on him this time? Did the new powers-that-be finally bow to the logic that Vulcan society just might be a more follically-diverse place than North Korea? Maybe, just maybe, did they let this guy keep his perfect hair, put a pair of pointed ears on him, and call it a day?

Are we even surprised?

You said it, Doctor.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Extremely Strange Story of Snow White

While Disneyland was closed for the pandemic, they made some changes to the Snow White ride that apparently some people are outraged about. I don't know what the complaints are about and honestly I don't care enough to find out. But it DID get me thinking about how deeply weird the story of Snow White is.

I've only seen the Disney animated classic one time, during my junior year of high school in 1995. (I had a two-hour Electronics class, and Disney let Snow White out of the Vault that year so the teacher brought it in and played it in lieu of us doing any work one day. We spent most of the movie trying to convince our classmate who had recently immigrated from India that there was actually an eighth dwarf named Horny, but you never see him because he's in the bathroom the whole time. This was not the only time we watched stuff unrelated to our Electronics curriculum in that class; we also occasionally watched the OJ Simpson trial. Another fun fact related to that class: I don't remember what the teacher's name was, but I remember that we called him Al because he kind of looked like Al Borland from Home Improvement. This annoyed the crap out of him, so naturally we did it all the time.)

My point is that  I may be a bit fuzzy on the details of the movie. But as I recall the driving force of the plot is this evil queen who's worried that her stepdaughter is prettier than her. Oh, and the ultimate judge of female beauty is apparently this magic mirror that the queen has hanging on a random wall of her castle. The way it works is, every day instead of taking care of important queen business, the queen goes up to this mirror and says "Hey, I'm still the hottest lady in the world, right?" and the mirror always replies "You know it, girl." Until one day when it says "Actually, your stepdaughter's looking pretty good these days." 

The stepdaughter's name is Snow White, which strikes me as kind of odd. Is "Snow White" her whole first name, and nobody ever uses her last name because she's a royal? Or is her last name actually "White" and her parents were attention-hungry celebrities and they named her "Snow"? I don't think the movie ever addresses it.

But back to the magic mirror for a second. I have some questions about it being the sole arbiter of female beauty. For years the woman in whose house the mirror is hanging has been asking it who the prettiest lady is and it's been like "It's you! The person standing in front of me who owns the wall I'm suspended on!" And then when it finally says that the prettiest lady is someone other than the Queen, the person it names is the only other lady who lives in that castle? A lady, I should mention, who has an old-person hairstyle and a nose so unnaturally small it makes post-surgery Michael Jackson look like Jamie Farr? Really? The mirror never says something like "Now don't get mad, but there's this woman in Brazil named Carmelita who's really got it going on." I don't buy it!

So anyway, the Queen is all upset over losing the title of "Most Attractive Woman as Decided By a Talking Mirror", and then to make things worse some random prince happens to see Snow White and immediately falls in love with her strange noseless face and unnaturally-squeaky singing voice, which makes the Queen even more jealous for some reason. Why? He's young enough to be her son! You'd think she'd prefer the company of a guy closer to her age who has more in common with her and knows what the heck he's doing. But anyway, this is the last straw and the Queen decides that Snow White must die. So how does she do it? Poison her food? Maybe hire a hit man? No! Instead she calls up the royal huntsman and tells him to take Snow White out into the woods, cut out her heart, and bring it back to her in a box. But since the huntsman's job doesn't involve murdering human beings he can't go through with it. He tells Snow White to run away, and she ends up moving in with the Seven Dwarfs.

But the magic mirror rats Snow White out, so the Queen goes to plan B. First, this beauty-obsessed supreme monarch drinks a magic potion that turns her into Emperor Palpatine's hemorrhoid. Then she dips an apple in an evil potion that makes it poison. Only the poison isn't deadly; it just puts the victim in a coma that can be broken by true love's first kiss. And her plan is to find Snow White somewhere in this huge forest and trick her into eating the apple. Even if this plan works, and the Queen drinks another magic potion to restore her original appearance, she will have accomplished nothing because Snow White won't be dead! She'll be like "OK, magic mirror, who's the hottest lady now, huh?" and the mirror will reply. "Snow White, who's now in a coma for some reason." It makes no sense!

And yet, somehow the Queen's plan works. She finds the Dwarf's cottage. Because Snow White is extremely gullible, she believes it when the Queen tells her that the poison apple is actually a magical wish-granting apple. And like any vacuous rich kid, Snow White is naturally selfish, so she immediately takes the apple instead of considering that the horribly deformed person that the woodland creatures flee from in terror because she looks (and probably smells) like something that crawled out of Nosferatu's butthole probably needs a magical wish granted a lot more than Snow herself does.

So Snow White takes a bite of the apple and collapses. The Queen's ridiculous plan worked. Only not really, because the Dwarves and the woodland animals chase her off a cliff and she dies. And then that prince who met Snow White exactly once comes along and is really attracted to her comatose state. (His last name must be Cosby.) So he kisses her, she marries him instead of pressing charges, and they live happily ever after. Later, Snow White becomes a panelist on the medieval version of The View along with Cinderella and Princess Aurora, but because there was no TV back then nobody ever sees it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Case Against Star Trek Movies

NOTE: The dollar amounts in this article are approximate and inflation-adjusted.

It's pretty well-known that the only reason we even have Star Trek movies is because of Star Wars. Paramount Pictures tried to make a low-budget Star Trek film a couple of times in the mid-1970s before giving up, concluding that there was no Star Trek story "big enough" for the cinema. But when George Lucas's crazy little space movie made literally ALL the money, Paramount had a sudden change of heart about the property they owned with the word "Star" in the name. Well, the fact that they desperately needed a way to recoup all the money they sank into preproduction on a new Star Trek show for their stillborn TV network probably had something to do with it, too.

A funny thing about Star Trek in those days was that nobody knew how big it could actually be. Star Wars ended up making $1.3 billion in its initial release. It was safe to assume that almost every Star Trek fan bought a ticket for Star Wars; was that movie's enormous box-office take a clue to how well a Star Trek movie might do? It seemed at least possible.

But it turned out not to be. Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended up making less than half what Star Wars did: about $441 million. Star Trek clearly had value, but it was no Star Wars. Paramount eventually decided to go ahead with additional films, but they refused to give them proper motion-picture budgets. Despite that, the Star Trek movie series did respectably well for a while:


BUDGET (in millions)

BOX OFFICE (in millions)

1979-The Motion Picture



1982-The Wrath of Khan



1984-The Search for Spock



1986-The Voyage Home



By 1986, the studio executives were feeling so good about Star Trek that they decided to expand the franchise with a brand-new TV show. The premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation kicked off an incredible run of new televised Star Trek that didn't end until 2005. And from 1993 to 1999 there were two Star Trek series airing concurrently! But what about the movies? Let's take a look at the earnings for the films that came out during that period:


BUDGET (in millions)

BOX OFFICE (in millions)

1988-The Final Frontier



1992-The Undiscovered Country






1996-First Contact









As you can see, as soon as there was new Star Trek on TV the movies took a steep dive at the box office. Pre-1987, the lowest-earning film was The Search for Spock. The only spinoff-era movie to earn more was First Contact, but thanks to its larger budget it was actually less profitable. So why did this happen?

Obviously, a big part of those early films' success was that they were the only new Star Trek being made. All the storytelling for the Star Trek universe was being done in two-hour chunks released two to three years apart, so each movie was a big event. But after 1987 we were getting a new story every week! Why go to the theater to get new Star Trek when it was already being served up to you at home?

And because the movies were still fairly low-budget, and the TV shows were able to use assets from them to make themselves look more expensive, there didn't seem to be much of a difference between movie Star Trek and TV Star Trek:

Basically, Star Trek cannibalized itself. Even a really good movie like The Undiscovered Country, which was billed as the final appearance of the original cast and boasted a topical story about peace with the Klingons just couldn't get audiences into theaters the way the earlier films had.

And when the Next Generation films rolled around the problem got worse. Deep Space Nine and Voyager were both on the air during the period that most of the TNG movies were released. So there were lots of ways to get your Star Trek fix without leaving home. Even worse, the Next Generation-era movies were made by the same people who worked on the TV shows, so they often seemed more like double-length episodes than actual movies. In the end, the audiences that gave The Next Generation its huge TV ratings mostly didn't bother to come see them on the big screen. (In fact, Brent Spiner once joked that the main difference with the movies was that fewer people saw them.)

Finally and perhaps worst of all, the Star Trek audience had started to fragment. Back in the early 80s "Star Trek" was just one thing: the adventures of the original cast aboard the USS Enterprise. But the different TV spinoffs tended to attract different (and progressively smaller) audiences. Not all fans of the original Star Trek liked The Next Generation. Not everyone who enjoyed The Next Generation liked Deep Space Nine. Many Deep Space Nine fans didn't care for Voyager, not all Voyager fans watched The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, and almost nobody liked Enterprise. And as passionate as the DS9 and Voyager fans were, there simply weren't enough of them to warrant a jump to the big screen.

In 2002 cinematic adventures of the Next Generation crew sputtered to a disappointing end with the embarrassing failure of Nemesis. (That movie failed to even win the box office in its first week of release, losing out to the Jennifer Lopez romcom Maid in Manhattan before getting absolutely destroyed the second week by the latest Harry Potter installment.) Rick Berman worked with a new writer to develop a script for a prequel set between Enterprise and the Original Series, but the studio was never serious about the project and nobody was surprised when they shelved it. Over on TV, Enterprise limped to a lackluster finish in 2005. The series finale was one of the most hated episodes in franchise history, and showed just how little longtime producer Rick Berman understood the Star Trek fanbase. There was a tiny "Save Enterprise" campaign, but to most fans the show's cancellation came almost as a relief. 

In 2009 the Star Trek movies were rebooted by a big-name director and were finally given a proper movie budget for the first time in 30 years. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek was a bigger hit than any Star Trek movie had ever been, but it benefited from coming out a time just before the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the return of Star Wars. Also--and this is key--the Abrams films were the only new Star Trek being made. There was no Star Trek on TV to steal the spotlight.

By the time Star Trek Beyond was released in 2016 Star Trek had to compete for attention with the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, not to mention a resurgent Star Wars franchise. It was a losing battle. The lesson of Star Trek: The Motion Picture had to be learned by a new generation of executives: Star Trek just isn't a major-league movie franchise.

By the time Star Trek Beyond hit theaters, plans were already underway to bring Star Trek back to TV in an entirely new way: as the cornerstone of a CBS-branded Internet streaming service. (A strategy that Disney is mimicking now with new MCU and Star Wars television offerings). Streaming Star Trek has a little something for everyone: Discovery appeals to the younger fans brought in by the splashy J.J. Abrams films, Picard and Lower Decks are aiming for the older Star Trek audience nostalgic for the 1990s, Strange New Worlds seems to be aimed at an audience that wants fun Star Trek adventures that aren't so heavily serialized, and the upcoming Prodigy is aimed solely at kids who may have never seen Star Trek before. And of course, the people who find their greatest contentment when they're screaming at their YouTube audience about how much they hate everything are finding plenty to dislike. So everybody's happy.

After I started working on this article, the news broke that Discovery writer Kalinda Vazquez is working on a new Star Trek movie script for J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions. Will it actually get made? Or will it join Quentin Tarantino's and Noah Hawley's projects in the dustbin of cancelled/indefinitely delayed Star Trek movies? Who knows?

But I just can't see how a Star Trek movie, no matter how good it is, could possibly compete with a Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, DC, or even Transformers in a standard theatrical release. Maybe it'll be released directly to Paramount+ as some kind of special Star Trek event during a gap between seasons of the new shows. 

Star Trek is back on TV now, and that's probably where it should stay.