Thursday, May 29, 2014

Advent of the Angels: The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair

It seems at first glance obvious that I should cover anime and manga at this point in the project. After all, isn't the breakout of Japanese media in the United States a major part of the 1980s entertainment landscape and a defining event in the history of Nerd Culture? Well...not exactly.

Firstly, according to the observations and inferences I've personally made studying Nerd Culture, the foundational moment as it pertains to anime and manga didn't happen in the early 1980s and wasn't even due to the rising popularity of people like Hayao Miyazaki: Instead, it can be traced to the 1990s and Neon Genesis Evangelion (which was already a unique and transformative piece of anime in Japan) if you were a part of proto-Nerd Culture, or shonen (boy's action entertainment) stuff like Dragon Ball Z if you were everybody else (though some bleedover did occur).

And secondly, the Dirty Pair franchise, of which The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair (actually, a compilation of the first two Dirty Pair stories serialized in science fiction magazines) is the inaugural work, is at once neither anime nor manga and both them and many other things all at the same time. Dirty Pair concerns the continuing adventures of two scantily clad female secret agents named Kei and Yuri who solve cases in the 22nd Century after mankind has become a sprawling alliance of a thousand star systems as part of a tag-team partnership aided by their giant hyper-evolved sentient pet cat alien and chief engineer Mughi, but who also have the dreadful misfortune of leaving trail of utter devastation in their wake. It is also a massively important part of this project because it leaves an indelible mark on the history of science fiction from this point on.

At this point, you presumably have (at the very least) two questions. “What even is this? This sounds insane” and “Why in the name of the Prophets are you covering this on a *Star Trek* blog?” spring immediately to mind. To the second question, the truth of the matter is, believe it or not, Dirty Pair is the secret history of Star Trek in the Long 1980s: The two franchises are so intertwined and interconnected during this period and reference each other so breathtakingly frequently that it's actually impossible to talk about one *without* also talking about the other.

This is famously due in part to two particular members of the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team who were profoundly inspired by Dirty Pair. Namely, Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda, who are *massive* anime fans, ran an anime CompuServe group and who would show imported Japanese films on VHS to the rest of the Next Generation creative team whenever a shoot dragged on into the wee hours of the morning, which it frequently did. But Dirty Pair itself has very strong ties to Star Trek as well, to the point it's been called the Japanese version of Star Trek: The anime based on the book series makes regular, screaming obvious shout-outs to the Original Series and the first Dirty Pair movie is *actually called* Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: We'll be examining how both of these franchises shaped and influenced one another a great deal as we go along.

As to the first question...Well, allow me to explain. Because Dirty Pair is one of the greatest science fiction series of all time, and I mean that absolutely sincerely.

The story of Dirty Pair begins, perhaps unsurprisingly, with its creator, Haruka Takachiho. In the mid-1970s, Takachiho was a young science fiction writer who had just started his own imprint called Studio Nue. Takachiho's work comprises a shared constructed universe and technically begins with his Crusher Joe series, which debuted in 1973: Crusher Joe, like the later Dirty Pair, is a series of what's known as “light novels”: Roughly analogous to what Westerners would call “young adult fiction”, light novels are illustrated books of about 40 to 50,000 words primarily aimed at people about 14 to 21 years old. But for our purposes, the key date comes five years later when Nue was an established publisher and Takachiho took a visiting colleague of his, A. Bertram Chandler, to go see a wrestling match with fellow Nue staffers Keiko Otoguro and Yuri Tanaka. As it so happened, the foursome went to an All-Japan Women's Pro Wrestling match, and performing that night were the famous and beloved Beauty Pair. The four got to joking, and Chandler eventually told Takachiho “Those two up there may be the Beauty Pair, but the two with you ought to be called the Dirty Pair”.

This one night out inspired Takachiho to create a spinoff of his Crusher Joe series with two female leads instead of a team of male ones, and named his new heroines Kei and Yuri after his co-workers. Though, as they will not hesitate to remind you, their official tag-team designation is “The Lovely Angels” they have the pejorative nickname of “The Dirty Pair” because of their cruel and undeserved reputation for causing chaos wherever they go (in truth, they're the most effective and talented agents in their operation, but things completely out of their control always seem to have a knack for going wrong in the most horrifying and spectacular ways imaginable). Also, Kei and Yuri work for the World Welfare Works Association, also known as the WWWA or 3WA (and anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention for the past few entries will immediately grasp the significance of this), an organisation tasked with solving any kind of problem that could pose a threat to the continued well-being and material social progress of the human species.

So, if it's not obvious by now, the fist notable thing about Kei and Yuri is that they are in fact implicitly coded as professional wrestlers, and this has a lot of really interesting contextual ramifications. First of all, this means by definition they are theatrical performers both diegteically and extradiegetically, and this is really obvious when you look at how Kei and Yuri are characterized across all their appearances. Let's start with Yuri, because she's the easiest to get a handle on: Yuri is deliberately based on the Yamato Nadeshiko, a concept in both Japanese theatre and in regular society which describes the archetype of the traditional, aristocratic, ideal Japanese lady (as determined by patriarchal Neo-Confucian 19th Century norms). A true Yamato Nadeshiko would be an elegant, graceful, humble and certainly upper class lady who genteelly obeys and dedicates herself to her family (her father, brother or husband, of course). She would also be characterized by her domesticity, wisdom and a serene and immovable inner strength that allows her to effect change without drawing attention to herself.

But remember Yuri is a performer, and this isn't who she really is. Yuri's not *actually* a Yamato Nadeshiko, but is in fact playing the role of one (it's her wrestling gimmick, if you will), and crucially she plays it a bit wrong: It's clear she's trying and definitely looks the part with her Lilly-white skin, delicate frame ( least when compared to Kei) and long, dark hair, but she gets flustered and loses her temper far too easily (making her amusingly prone to snapping and breaking out in a ranting tirade of insults) and, as is revealed in the second story of this book, actually comes from a very rural and working class background. Not to mention the fact she works for the 3WA flying about space in a starship, dispatching hordes of mooks with laser beams, martial arts moves, remote controlled killer playing cards and heat rays and just generally doing things that are the precise opposite of what a Yamato Nadeshiko is supposed to do.

Which brings us to Kei, who is no less interesting but altogether more complex and subtle in the way she displays this. Kei and Yuri are frequently, and inaccurately, described as having a “Tomboy and Girly-Girl” relationship (I use the term “frequently” very loosely here because Dirty Pair is criminally obscure these days, but when Kei and Yuri do get talked about they're talked about this way). This is a misreading of the series I feel because firstly Yuri is far more nuanced a character then the label “Girly-Girl” would lead you to believe she is, and Kei isn't quite a stereotypical tomboy either. She's definitely more masculine then Yuri, though: She's too tall, too broad, too muscular, her hair is too short and and her skin colour is too dark for her to fit conventional standards of beauty. She's also has a knack for mechanics and engineering, though she pretends she doesn't, is more superficially outgoing and hot-blooded and is usually the first to take action in any given situation.

Kei then is based on a different archetype of Japanese theatre: The rural working woman who is loud, uncultured, unsophisticated and unladylike. But, just as with Yuri, Kei is a performer too and she gets just as many opportunities to act stereotypically emotional, vulnerable and “girly” as Yuri does...and *also* just as many opportunities to kick astronomical amounts of ass. And, in contrast to what her role might have you assume, while she doesn't talk about her past much Kei does imply that she may have had a more urban and cosmopolitan upbringing than Yuri did, although this tends to manifest in her having more “street smarts” than her partner instead of being more educated or refined (though Kei may also be lying or embellishing here for reasons I'll touch on a little later). Ultimately though, *both* Kei and Yuri are working class characters because Dirty Pair is technically about them jobbing for the 3WA who, thanks to their reputation, are frequently less than friendly to their star agents.

Which actually makes a great deal of sense, because professional wrestling is in truth a very working class occupation from the perspective of the performers: Unless they're one of the big-name celebrity wrestlers, it's unlikely the average performer is going to be taking home a huge paycheck, especially not after the medical bills for the frequently very real injuries kick in since at least the WWE has no health insurance. Smaller promotions can't afford to shell out a lot of money on a regular basis, and many performers today, even those who work for the big-name promotions, end up having a day job on top of moonlighting as wrestlers. All in all, Kei and Yuri are extremely lucky to work for a promotion that's able to front any expense and to live in a future where invisible molecular nano-skins exist that shield them from any injury. So, even if they are constantly shafted by their bosses, they're at least more or less taken care of in the long run.

Another consequence of being so rooted in the logic of professional wrestling is that Dirty Pair is allowed to be action sci-fi entirely unproblematically, and can then go on to blend this with spy-fi, Golden Age sci-fi and detective stories. This isn't actually as gigantic a leap as it sounds like it is: Though it spanned the same period of time, Japanese Golden Age science fiction is not the same thing as Golden Age Hard SF in the United States. Although Haruka Takachiho is on record saying the purest, most authentic science fiction is the sort penned by Isaac Asimov, I find this statement rather confusing because that actually doesn't fit with either the history of science fiction in Japan or Takachiho's own positionality as expressed elsewhere, and is certainly not what Dirty Pair is. Although Japan had serialized science fiction magazines just like the US did and Dirty Pair in fact debuted in one, the tone and general themes of these magazines were very different; far more interested in examining contemporary society and its issues through the lens of a speculative science fiction world then imagining some idyllic fetishized technoscientific futurist paradise, as US writers were wont to do.

There were of course cautionary tales about unchecked technoscience akin to Frankenstein (or, a more contemporary example from this period might be the works of Michael Crichton, though think more Golden Age musings about ideas and concepts and less 1990s techno thriller), but much of the science fiction of this period simply used the fantastical setting as a way of exploring the present by highlighting and emphasizing specific motifs. And, like me, Takachiho himself has a background in the social sciences and humanities rather than hard science and engineering, which alone makes him sort of unique in the field of science fiction writers. Japanese sci-fi is also distinguished from Western sci-fi in that the magazines that serialized it were frequently geared just as much to detective stories: In fact, the distinction at first was not “sci-fi” or “detective story”, but “regular” (pertaining to the solving of a mystery or riddle) and “irregular” (everything else). So, that Dirty Pair is a series of mysteries in a futuristic outer space setting with the added twist of working by pro wrestling logic, from which it gains its action overtones, isn't all that strange, especially given wrestling's popularity at the time.

This also means that, thanks to its focus on examining cultural issues in a high-tech society with an emphasis on the underclasses and the trappings of detective fiction, Dirty Pair is actually some of the first cyberpunk, predating most of the earliest Western examples of the genre. And, after all, William Gibson once famously said of Tokyo “Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk”. But one thing that differentiates Dirty Pair from Western cyberpunk is the way in which it utilises its detective story heritage: Western cyberpunk is very often indebted to film noir and is thus focused on the perspective of the lone, hard-broiled private eye: A romantic male antihero who wanders through the neon canyons of his city, perpetually fixated on the seedy underbelly of the world. Dirty Pair is basically the opposite of that, starring two upbeat and friendly, though seasoned, female heroes and featuring a great deal of colourful explosions, ludicrously overblown action setpieces and comedic misadventures. Even the deduction aspect is thinner here, with most of the mysteries hinging on plot twists nobody could be expected to see coming. But that's not the point of Dirty Pair: Its true strength lies in the ideas it deals with, the implications of its world-building and the heart and soul of its two protagonists.

But though performativity and its unique setting are both major aspects of Dirty Pair's impact and legacy, there's one other consequence of the series' mash-up of professional wrestling and science fiction, and as far as I'm concerned it's the most important of all. Remember, Dirty Pair was coming out in a world where professional wrestling was more popular than it had ever been before, and arguably would ever be again, especially in Japan, where women's wrestling was overwhelmingly dominant. And remember how Kei and Yuri are ultimately based on the Beauty Pair, beloved pop culture icons and role models to teenage girls across the country. Combine that with the fact Dirty Pair began life as a series of light novels, and we immediately have to conclude that Dirty Pair should be seen as an explicitly feminist work of science fiction specifically targeted to young women. This may well be the lynchpin of this series for me, as I can't think of another science fiction work this progressive, this inclusive and this intelligent (and Dirty Pair is very, very intelligent) whose primary demographic is explicitly young women.

(Even the girls' uniforms are telling: Illustrator Yoshikazu Yasuhiko overtly modeled them on both the outfits worn by female wrestlers of the time and the Mod fashion of the 1960s: Kei and Yuri are at once a callback to the utopian and futurist youth cultures of decades past and unquestionably youth icons for the 1980s as well. They embody the solution to the problem of what both youth culture and science fiction were supposed to do with the neoconservative revolution of the Long 1980s: Science fiction heroes for The Next Generation.)

If we dig deeper below the contextual associations that float around the series and into the books themselves, this becomes even more evident because Dirty Pair very clearly comes out of feminist sci-fi fandom on a structural level. For one thing, the books are all told in the first person: Kei is actually our narrator, and she is deliberately an unreliable one to boot. She goes off on tangential bits of exposition, jumps back and forth between topics with no regard to linear narrative as if her mind is constantly changing gears on the fly and frequently interjects her own opinions on all sorts of things: This makes it really interesting when she describes things like the 3WA, which she declares isn't an independent police force or private military contractor even though that's precisely what it acts like, and United Galactica, which she assures us is nothing like the inherently flawed Earth-centric Federation that existed beforehand, even though in practice it's not entirely clear how it's any better. One gets the sense at times Kei is trying to justify and legitimize the existence of monolithic and confusing institutionalized systems she's wound up working within for herself as much as for us.

Also interesting is how Kei describes herself in comparison to Yuri, who, given the structure of the series, we naturally don't get an unfiltered look at. To us, Kei spends a lot of time putting Yuri down: She berates her abilities and perceived aloofness, though even so she frequently seems to subconsciously let slip how she truly feels about Yuri, which is obviously a profound sense of love and loyalty. In describing their time at university where they first met, Kei talks about how she and Yuri instantly felt a deep sense of connection with each other, and swiftly decided that they were going to spend the rest of their lives together no matter what, and were concerned about how to make that work in the outside world before the 3WA scouted them both. Kei's seemingly conflicted opinions about her partner can very easily be explained once you realise that she's self-consciously telling a story and also actively flirting. With you, personally.

Kei obviously loves her partner dearly, is extremely protective of her and knows that there's nobody else in the universe who will ever be as close to her as Yuri is (this is in fact reiterated on a textual level: Kei and Yuri share a psychic link that gives them fleeting flashes of clairvoyance when they touch each other. They are *diegetic* soulmates), but she doesn't want you to know that. She'll spend two whole pages describing both her and Yuri's physical appearance in *extremely* detailed and lascivious terms, even stopping mid-sentence to gawk at Yuri, and then a few chapters later, apropos of nothing, will suddenly go out of her way to criticize her readers for assuming she and Yuri might be lesbians.

Kei knows she's not conventionally attractive while Yuri very much is, so when she tells her story she'll take opportunities to paint herself in a positive light and her partner in a more negative one to make herself appealing to her audience. On top of that, even though the Lovely Angels are basically the people the term “sexually ambiguous best friends” was invented to describe, Kei also knows this isn't going to win her any admirers among men or society at large, so she downplays that as well  because she knows you're reading and has a pretty good idea of what you might want to see (It might be worth recalling here the unfortunate bias that still exists in Japanese society against non-heterosexual identities, which is a major topic in the news as of this writing and would have been even more pronounced in 1980. And again, stressing the fact that Kei would not be considered attractive by conventional standards of beauty). But still, she loves Yuri too much and doesn't have the heart to out-and-out vilify her, so she's only committed to this halfheartedly at best.

What this all means is, delightfully, Dirty Pair actually takes the tropes, motifs and structure of one kind of traditional sci-fi fanfiction and kicks it into the territory of Long 1980s medium aware postmodernism, and this is what cements the series' connection to feminist fandom. Kei being an unreliable narrator overtly trying to pick up her readers is a total riff on the concept of the Mary Sue excused by the fact that Kei *is* in fact an unreliable narrator, and an utterly sympathetic one at that. Furthermore, since she's relating all of this in a very meandering, conversationalist way this means Kei is actually an oral storyteller as well, with all that goes along with playing that role. Kei and Yuri's relationship also at once plays off of, inverts and elevates the idea of slash fiction: They both reject the Male/Female, Dominant/Submissive heteronormative power structure by being nuanced and multifaceted characters who each have a mixture of traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits. And, though they're not textually a romantic couple, by virtue of their psychic link, their deep friendship and the simple fact they are the two protagonists means that in a very real sense they are closer to each other than to anyone else and the centre of the narrative universe.

Indeed, I don't even think it's a problem that Kei seems to think her audience is exclusively male while Dirty Pair is obviously intended for women: Given the way the Master Narrative of science fiction fandom plays out, it's unsurprising that Kei might assume other women wouldn't be interested in hearing her and Yuri's stories. The books' female readers would be expected to immediately recognise this and relate to Kei and Yuri as a result. There's also an obvious bisexual and bisexual erasure theme to Kei's erratic behaviour here that might be worth paying attention to: Aside from Kei likely positing a male audience and trying to cater to that, it's perhaps notable that in the stories themselves the Angels have men-of-the-week just like the original Star Trek had girls-of-the-week. Hell, maybe Kei *does* see women in her audience and is just trying to keep her options open, albeit clumsily, if understandably. I could go further along these lines and start talking about reconceptualizing what sexuality is and what it describes, but this piece is getting out of hand as it is.

Is it worth actually talking about the plot of The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair at this point? Well, I suppose I'd better, even though plotting is, as of right now, the absolute least interesting thing about Dirty Pair. Not that the plots are bad, they're all jaunty and well-told space adventure stories with a lot of twists that make them stand distinctly apart from the expected norm, it's just that there's so much else about this franchise that's worth studying before the plots themselves, though they do get more intricate and symbolic as the series goes along. As I mentioned in the introduction, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair is actually a paperback collection of the first two Dirty Pair stories, the titular “The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair”, Kei and Yuri's debut story, and its immediate sequel “The Case of the Backwoods Murder”.

In the first story, the Angels are called in to investigate an explosion at a processing plant on the planet Dangle that occurred under mysterious circumstances. They eventually discover it's the work of saboteurs working for a shadowy cartel known as Lucifer who feel that they and they alone posses the right to decide humanity's future and would impose an authoritarian rule over United Galactica by rigging an election on Dangle, the economic and industrial heart of the federation. In the second, the girls are on the case of a murdered John Doe on the remote planet Lamier when Yuri runs into two childhood friends of hers, which makes life extremely complicated for Kei. At the same time, there is a rash of terrorist attacks across United Galactica using a stolen doomsday device colloquially known as the space smasher, a truly terrifying weapon of mass destruction that doesn't just destroy its target, it distorts the space-time continuum around it such that it is literally erased from the timestream meaning it never even existed to begin with.

Worth commenting on briefly here is the nomenclature of both the Angels and some of the other people and places described in the book. This becomes a much more pronounced theme as the series goes on, but it's noticeable in this first book as well. There is, for example, a lot of intentional meaning in Kei and Yuri's names and biographical details: Exact birthdates are given for both Angels, down to the month, day and year, and these dates are incredibly significant, because they provide a valuable shorthand for reading the characters' personalities. Kei and Yuri are actually provably built around both Western and Chinese astrological signs (a not uncommon occurrence in Japanese fiction) and are in fact imbued with a great deal of magickal symbolism right from the start. Even their names, though in part inherited from Haruka Takachiho's real-life friends and colleagues, still say something about who they are and the roles they play.

(This would taken another entire essay to explain, so it's a good thing the absolutely wonderful Teatime in Elenore City fansite did that for me already. Anyone remotely interested in learning more about this series would do well to exhaustively peruse that site-It was unbelievably helpful to me in researching this project. Maybe I'll write something myself about Dirty Pair and astrology someday.)

For our immediate purposes though, the name worth paying attention to isn't “Kei” or “Yuri”, but “Lovely Angels”. It would be tempting, yet irresponsible, especially given the fact the girls square off in this book against an organisation named “Lucifer” (who are clearly the Angels' rival heel faction, in case you didn't pick up on that), to project a Pop Christian reading onto Dirty Pair. This isn't what's going on for a number of very good reasons, one of which is this series hails from Japan, a country where Christianity comprises about 2% of the population (in fact, that one of the victims in the first story happens to *be* Christian is shown to be something unusual, flagging it as a clue to the perpetrator's identity). Pop Christianity simply cannot manifest in a climate like that. But what of the name “Lovely Angels” then? Are we not to read Kei and Yuri as humanity's guardian angels come down to protect us and shepherd us into a new age of utopia?

No, we're not.

Remember how angels were described in the Old Testament and you start to get a better idea of what's going on with Dirty Pair: There, angels were blindingly radiant, indescribable, unknowable beings with multiple wings and faces or “wheels within wheels” with eyes all along their outer rims who spoke with the divine voice that could level the landscape. There's a reason that the angel in that Bible verse Linus from Peanuts likes to quote says “fear not”. Angels may speak righteousness, but they're not something you want to run into personally. And now it maybe starts to become clear why our Lovely Angels seem to be dogged by utter devastation at every turn, which is obvious even here: The first story begins with a giant passenger airship crashing into a major metropolis, destroying the city and killing everyone and ends with a space station crashing into a planet and wiping out an entire continent (a clever, if gruesome, nod to Skylab's forced re-entry in 1979). Oh, and the second story ends with an entire planet being erased from existence (yeah, spoiler alert: The space smasher case is connected to the murder mystery the girls are investigating).

But, as Kei and Yuri are always quick to remind you, all of this appalling, inconceivable destruction is never, ever their fault. And it's not-The galaxy will always blame them, but one of the most important things about a Dirty Pair story, at least a successful one, is that the Angels must always remain utterly faultless victims of circumstance. They should never walk away with any blood on their hands. And they do always solve the case, its just they tend to reshape reality each time they do. Kei supposes that the 3WA works to benefit the human race and bring about positive change, and that she and Yuri are called in to cases for esoteric, almost cosmic reasons, like they're given cases only they can deal with. She's right about the second part: While it's never entirely clear that the 3WA is an unambiguously good thing and a force for material social progress (especially once the anime begins), Kei and Yuri definitely are. It's as if the universe itself is guiding Kei and Yuri to the situations that specifically require their intervention.

Kei and Yuri are thus symbolically taking on the role of angels, on a literal level because that's their wrestling tag-team name and thus the “roles” they're playing, and a mystical and metatextual one as well: Because they play the part of angels, they are angels. The image of an angel becomes an angel, if you will. But the god these angels serve is not one of the Abrahamic religions, but a more esoteric and cosmic presence, and the divine intervention Kei and Yuri bring about can be seen as the cosmic harmony that resonates within everyone and anything reasserting itself to ensure positive change happens on a cosmic scale, even if that means the odd star system-sized human settlement has to get atomized in the process. Sometimes the only way to effect change is to watch the world burn and start anew in the desolated ashlands. This, on top of everything else they represent, make Kei and Yuri extremely powerful anarchic and revolutionary figures: They'll drag the galaxy kicking and screaming into a better future if they have to.

This message is also not entirely surprising coming from a Japanese context: Many students of Japanese culture have pointed out how, even when compared to the West, Japan has a tendency to be very socially conservative, something that was likely incredibly frustrating for a generation of radical Japanese youths in the Long 1980s. Considering as well the reoccurring themes in Japanese genre fiction about the revenge of the natural order (such as exist in, famously, the original Godzilla movie) as well as the concern over emergent technology that characterized the Golden Age science fiction we discussed above, and a story about divine agents of change acting on behalf of the good of the entire cosmos and explicitly coded as futuristic heroes of youth culture who will make the universe a better place whether humans like it or not really makes a great deal of sense. This is not just material social progress, it's material progress on a cosmic scale.

(Lastly, one other level to read the Lovely Angels' tragic misfortune on is that the girls are the protagonists of the story, and this story happens to be action sci-fi. This means it requires a lot of conflict, and ideally a body count and a suitable amount of explosions. So, on a narrative level, of course disaster is going to follow the girls everywhere, because there wouldn't be an action sci-fi story without it. For what its worth, they feel absolutely awful about it and are very, very sorry.)

So, after all of that, what have we learned? We've learned what the true story of Star Trek in the Long 1980s comes from, seen the origins of cyberpunk and witnessed how utopian science fiction about voyaging starships can survive into the future. We've seen how Kei and Yuri are the logical end result of decades of generative, bottom up female science fiction fandom. Dirty Pair takes action sci-fi, professional wrestling, cosmic mysticism and the spirit of the disenfranchised youth and shoots the whole lot full of 1980s postmodernism to create something singularly, uniquely and transcendentally brilliant. The greatest work of action sci-fi of all time? Quite possibly. But one thing is certain: The bar has been set, and we've barely even scratched the surface. This is what Vaka Rangi looks like in the 1980s, so hold on to your seats. It's gonna be one hell of a wild ride.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sensor Scan: Cosmos

There are, in the history of television, extremely few moments like this one, where the heart and soul of an entire generation is swept up in the rapture of a shared experience that becomes the defining memory of an era.

Cosmos, which opens declaring itself to be standing “On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”, is on its own a watershed. This is the series that not only made PBS, but codified the documentary as at least I remember it and changed the face of not only the popularization of science, but of science itself. It really is astonishing to look back and see how so much of the discourse we now associate with science can be linked directly to Carl Sagan's ethos and positionality. Because this is what makes Cosmos so special and why it remains relevant and valid over thirty years later when the world it came into and spoke to now belongs to some long-distant and half-forgotten mnemolic time-spacescape: And even though his perspective has been frequently misunderstood and his name invoked in vain by the many, many people to come in his wake, the fundamental and provocative radicalism of his voice still resonates, and is what allows Cosmos to remain so powerful.

Carl Sagan is a fascinatingly marginal figure, and in retrospect it's sort of odd that he was the one to break out in the way he did. Famously too speculative, imaginative and spiritual for the scientific establishment, yet too grounded in hard science for UFOlogists and true believers, Sagan occupies a curious, and unenviable, no-man's land in scientific discourse. But yet in many ways it's this nomadic isolationism that helped him reach such a staggeringly huge audience: Sagan wrote and spoke with the voice of a poet and a mystic, yet fiercely committed to the scientific method, he was in many ways the only personality positioned to take science education in this direction. He's of course far from the first to fuse science and mysticism: John Muir did it, and J. Allen Hynek, Jacques Vallée and Steven Spielberg accomplished it masterfully quite recently with things like Passport to Magonia and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Going all the way back, what were the ancient navigators if not science mystics?

But Carl Sagan was the first to take this approach and apply it to science education, at least on such a grand scale. Carl Sagan wasn't just a science popularizer or even the greatest science popularizer-He was the science popularizer, all stop. Nobody who has tried to follow in his footsteps has come remotely close to emulating what Carl Sagan did. In some ways Robert Burnham, Jr. is Sagan's anticipation in this regard, but, let's face it, try as he might (and he did, mightily) Burnham's Celestial Handbook was never going to be embraced outside of an extremely small subset of amateur astronomers. No, what Sagan understood was the power of television as not just a forum for teaching and learning, but as a medium where communal images could be experienced together. Riding both the Fortean wave of the 1970s and the mainstream concern over technoscience dating back to the immediate postwar era, and posessing the further good fortune of landing right at the time the landscape of television was metamorphosing, Cosmos became a deft blend of media trends both old and new.

But Cosmos is not merely a triumph of timing and good luck: Yes, it is in many ways perfectly suited to its moment, but this is a show with a truly staggering scope and powerful message to deliver. Even once you get passed the achingly heartfelt poetry of Sagan's introduction and thesis statement and into the meat of the series itself, which is where the cracks in Cosmos' central premise start to become apparent, its breathless love of and commitment to this message and the ideas it deals with is enough to sustain is thirteen episode run all on its own. Cosmos confidently declares that it tells the story of “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”. This is not just a show about teaching astronomy, or physics or stroking NASA's ego (though it does do all of those things), nor is it even a history of scientific experimentation and knowledge (though it tries, commendably, even if it seems to have bitten off a bit more than it can chew in this regard). This is a show that's trying to tell us that we are one with the rest of the universe, and that understanding this is the key to unlocking enlightenment and discovering our role within it.

It's this simple statement that I think is what I take away from Cosmos most of all. When Sagan describes life as “a way for the Cosmos to know itself”, it sends chills down my spine because it's so true and so elegantly phrased. This is the sort of thing I remember the most about this series: I can't say that Cosmos was particularly life-changing for me, in that it completely changed the way I looked at things and permanently shifted my worldview. No, Cosmos works on a much subtler level for me: It gave a voice to ideas, concepts and images that I had always kept in the back of my mind and articulated them in ways in never could. I think all good art does something like this, and while I don't quite consider Cosmos my model for nature documentaries, I do think it works stunningly well as a work of art and an expression of Carl Sagan's positionality. Despite its foibles and flaws (which the show does, unfortunately, have its share of), Cosmos hits at a solitary kernel of truth that transcends even the show's own status as a landmark in science popularization to convey something not quite “human” (or at least not entirely) but, well...cosmic.

What strikes me as the most interesting about Cosmos as a material television programme is its structure: It's obviously divided into different chapters, with the first serving as a kind of abstract (much like an academic paper or, appropriately enough, a clock). The thing about this is, I've always felt the show starts to lose focus after a few episodes and than doesn't actually manage to reclaim it until very near the end, and this, to me, has the uncomfortable consequence that only the first episode, “On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” is actually required watching: It summarises everything the show is trying to say succinctly without going off on tangents and makes its point so successfully and memorably that in my opinion it frankly overshadows the whole rest of the series. And actually, to be really blunt, you really only need to see the first half hour. And, of that, the opening seven minutes are seven of the most utterly perfect and indescribably moving and powerful minutes ever put to film.

(Seriously, don't take my word for it, stop reading this and go watch them right now if you haven't. You can skip Ann Druyan's opening narration that accompanies every version of Cosmos released since 2000-We'll talk about her later.)

It's after this initial seven-and-thirty minutes that, sadly, “On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” goes a bit off for me. Which is fitting, given that this episode is such an effective microcosm for Cosmos itself. After making one of the most profound and beautiful statements in the history of television, Carl Sagan then proceeds to spend the remainder of his runtime trying to recount the Epic Narrative of Science, and his Western bias is painfully noticeable. There's a great deal of time spent lionizing the Classical era, in particular the ancient Egyptians and the Hellenistic Greeks, namely Alexander the Great and the Great Library at Alexandria (and the requisite Orientalist shot that modern Alexandria “shows little trace of its former greatness"), which then dovetails into a frustratingly textbook account of the teleological March of History. Sagan tells of the burning of the library, symbolizing the loss of knowledge and the regression of the Dark Ages, which isn’t even historically accurate, and a glorification of the European Renaissance for rediscovering said lost knowledge, which is even less historically accurate. And naturally, it all leads to the wonderful future promised by NASA where we'll all take our next steps out into the stars. And this is as far as Sagan ever gets, either in this episode or in the rest of the series.

Astronomy as we know it is, of course, an extremely Western field and has a worrying track record of erasing the contributions of nonwestern peoples (in particular the pre-Christian Europeans, Native Americans, aboriginal Australians and the Polynesians), but Cosmos' Eurocentrism really stings because it's in every other respect so universal and makes incredible strides elsewhere: Sagan's repeated use of the phrase “great men and women” is a godsend in and of itself, and his segue out of his Journey of the Imagination segment to the montage of human faces of all cultures and creeds is a lovely bit of inclusivity. But, his frustrating inability to move beyond the Great Man Theory and a teleological attitude about history does real harm to the potential impact of Cosmos as a TV series. It's hurtful not just because of its obvious hegemony, but because it's a tragic and needless squandering of potential: Cosmos was absolutely capable of painting a more diverse and accurate picture of the history of humanity's interaction with the natural world, and that it not only manifestly doesn't do this, but indeed props up the dangerous pre-existing Master Narrative about the march of Great Western Science is not only a wasted opportunity, but one that saddens me because it overlooks so much that I find fascinating about science, history and culture.

(Furthermore, just on another personal note, Sagan's constant slighting of astrology rankles me: He's right that in its modern form it's a pseudoscience, but stopping there ignores the shared history of astronomy and astrology and astrology's own unique cultural weight that's worthy of study for it's own reasons.)

And yet we should be careful not to let ourselves fall into the same trap Carl Sagan does by equating all of Cosmos simply to him. While he was the presenter and the obvious breakout aspect of the series, he was only one of three co-writers, along with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, the former of whom is a producer and the latter of whom is an astrophysicist himself. It would be a mistake to overlook their contributions, especially given Sagan's own admission that one of the the major impetuses for him to do Cosmos was his growing impatience with hard science. Druyan, it must be said, for her part was extremely good at overseeing Cosmos the pop culture phenomenon: Aside from the show itself, there was a companion book written by Sagan, a series of soundtrack releases and even an “Official Cosmos Store” overseen by the “Cosmos Company” that sold things like the “Cosmosphere”, a small disc that emulated what the sky looks like on any day of the year at Midnight or Noon if you happened to live around 45 degrees latitude, which I suppose is only to be expected. And yes, I do own both Sagan's book and the Cosmosphere myself.

But for my purposes the two people who contributed the most valuable and memorable things to Cosmos aside from Sagan himself are not his co-writers. One is Vangelis, whose album Heaven and Hell provides the soundtrack for most of the show, including the absolutely iconic and breathtakingly poignant theme song. Vangelis' work is a revelation, effortlessly fusing classical music, 1980s electronica, prog rock, jazz and pop into a unique ambient soundscape that is not only a perfect articulation of Cosmos' underlying message and heart, but also anticipates in many ways where Dennis McCarthy will eventually go with his scores to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Speaking of Star Trek, the second person is a young, fresh-faced VFX artist by the name of Rick Sternbach, who did some of his earliest TV design work as a storyboard artist and set designer on Cosmos as the show's Assistant Art Director, for which he won an Emmy Award in 1981. During this time, Sternbach also did some work for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Cosmos was filmed between 1977 and 1980), but he's eventually going to become best known for his work as one of the chief technical advisers and design artists on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager.

Sternbach is, quite simply, one of the most important creative figures of the coming era, and, given how he and Mike Okuda are responsible for a great deal of the look and feel of Star Trek from now until 2001, it's absolutely crucial to get a handle on their perspectives. Though Sternbach and Okuda didn't design the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D or its sets themselves (credit must go to Andy Probert there), they were responsible for helping realise them into a physical form and, as it pertains to Cosmos itself, it's already clear there's a lineage from the elegant, organic curves of Carl Sagan's Ship of the Imagination and the “worlds of ice and stars of diamond” adrift in the “cosmic dark” to which it travels to the new Enterprise and the images and dreams to which it too will soon voyage.

And yet even so, it feels difficult, and in some ways wrong, to try and reduce Carl Sagan's positionality fully out of Cosmos. One thing I've always loved about this series is how blatantly and upfront Sagan is about his perspective and opinions-He's not at all making any pretenses to objectivity here. Like any good teacher, Sagan can deliver and convey information, but he's more interested in making his audience think and freely offers his own take and musings on the material he's covering, with the implication we're meant to do the same. And it's the very fact that Cosmos is in truth so bound up with Sagan's personal positionality that allows us to attribute the majority of the praise, and the blame, for what the show ultimately does to him.

Much of Sagan's professional scientific output consisted of calculations concerning the viability of human space travel and hypotheses about xenobiology, which have become central to endeavours like SETI. This would explain, for example, Sagan's attitude about extraterrestrial life, which was radical for the time in establishment science, but perhaps not entirely satisfying for others. Sagan did seem to believe firmly that humanity's destiny lay in space travel, and though Cosmos does explicitly shift discourse about nature and science to an extent, it is hard to shake the feeling Sagan's fixation on this hampers the show a bit: For Sagan then, the “cosmic ocean” was perhaps not quite as the Polynesians would have seen it, as a symbol of the necessary and harmonious interconnectedness of all parts of the universe, but as literally that: An expansionist and naval metaphor for boldly going out and charting new places to be heroically discovered. And this, unfortunately, makes a good deal of Cosmos feel a bit dated and naive thirty years later.

It's also telling that Sagan chose to name his show Cosmos, that is, the opposite of Chaos (in other words, Order-he even explicitly says this in the first episode) and went with Heaven and Hell as his soundtrack, an album very much in keeping with a Dante-esque Pop Christian conception of the titular worlds. William Blake, for one, would not approve, that's for sure. Revealing as well is Sagan's frequent allusions to clock-making and “the machinery of nature”, an extremely Western conception of nature that relies upon technoscience and technofetishism alike (it's the "God the watchmaker" argument with the God bits filed off). And yet even so, there is an undeniable raw and anarchic mysticism to Cosmos that I'm not sure Sagan himself ever truly came to understand: There is, after all, a reason that in spite of everything Sagan remains beloved by the Forteans, and the visible sense of wonder he displays when he takes his ship through the “cosmic waves” and talks about how “we are made of star stuff” says it all for me. Sagan himself even mentions “the music of cosmic harmonies”.

Carl Sagan was, above all else, a technoscientist who eventually realised where the end result of his scientific inquiry would ultimately take him. And his entire oeuvre, beginning with Cosmos, is simply his way of working through these ideas and attempting to articulate what he discovered about himself and the cosmic whole-After all, the show is subtitled “A Personal Voyage” for a reason. That his work itself is as tentative and uncertain as he describes our “first steps into the cosmic ocean” to be is at the very least appropriate and unsurprising. Human art is by definition flawed and imperfect, but even so it works when it connects and resonating with people. Cosmos has managed to do just that, and the elegant truth it stumbled upon and embraced as its message earns it a place among the most meaningful statements human artists can teach.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Advent of the Angels: Japanese Professional Wrestling in the 1980s

Rikidōzan, seen as the pioneer of Japanese wrestling.

Professional wrestling has existed in Japan at least since the late 1880s when sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda travelled to the United States and competed alongside the Greco-Roman and catch wrestlers of the day. However, the sport didn't become firmly established in the country until 1951 when the great Rikidōzan became a breakout celebrity and national icon. Rikidōzan was an emigrant from Korea who came to Japan to train as a sumo wrestler, but eventually quit and picked up professional wrestling instead.

Rikidōzan quickly established himself as a hero to the Japanese when he consistently defeated a string of opponents from the United States (who helped hum out by always playing heel), giving Japan someone to root for and cheer on in the aftermath of World War II and the invasive Western sanctions and presence that came in its wake. In fact, it was Rikidōzan who gave us the ubiquitous “karate chop” which, despite its name, has nothing to do with actual karate and is in fact a wrestling move descended from the sumo practice of harite and is more properly called a knifehand strike. With Rikidōzan's rise to celebrity status, professional wrestling became a staple of Japanese culture and social life.

Rikidōzan's legacy is felt elsewhere in Japanese professional wrestling as well, namely in its unique blend of different fighting styles. Though pro wrestling remains by and large choreographed in Japan just as it does in other regions, there's less of an emphasis on the scripted drama aspect and it's portrayed as far more of an actual competitive sport than it is in, say, the United States. What story there is has less to do with the grudges and angles that define wrestling outside of Japan, and more to do with each individual wrestler's fighting spirit, honour and strength of will. Furthermore, the additions of holds and techniques from other combat sports mean the Japanese professional wrestling is far more of a contact-oriented experience, and resembles in some ways what we might think of today as mixed martial arts, with which pro wrestling outfits in Japan have a very close relationship with to this day.

So, much like in the United States, Japanese wrestlers, especially of this period, were celebrity entertainers. However, because of the fierce loyalty and local fervor that characterizes wrestling in Japan, as well as the fact this kind of professional wrestling is viewed far more as a kind of sport, there's a sense of communal eventfulness that accompanies wrestling in Japan that wrestling in the United States lacks. While Vince McMahon was busy turning the WWF into a national brand and a form of mass consumerist entertainment, Japanese wrestling fans continued to view their local performers as a source of cultural pride and would attend matches to socialize. This all culminated in the early part of the 1980s, when Japan experienced its own kind of pro wrestling boom, albeit one that was manifestly different than the one Vince McMahon ushered in.

One of the major aspects that differentiates the pro wrestling scene in Japan from the one in the West, at least during this period, is the overt focus on the women's division. In the United States, especially among the Big National promotions that sprung up in the wake of the WWF, women's wrestling tends to be depicted as a novelty diversionary attraction and a subset of the men's division. In Japan, however, women's professional wrestling is treated as its own unique sport on equal standing with men's wrestling (much as is the case with mixed martial arts) and has its own distinct promotions. One of the most storied women's wrestling promotions was All-Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling, also known as AJW. AJW formed in 1968 out of the pre-existing All-Japan Women's Pro Wrestling Club after a whirlwind rise in interest in the sport in the wake of a popular tour circuit in November 1954, but it's defining moment didn't come until 1970.
The Beauty Pair were beloved Japanese cultural heroes.

In the fall of that year, AJW picked up the World Women's Wrestling Association World Tag Team Championship title. This title is actually one of a number of distinct World Women's Wrestling Association titles, collectively known by the acronym WWWA, or simply 3WA. These include the World Martial Arts Championship, the World All-Pacific Title, or “White Belt”, and the World Championship itself (the “Red Belt”), which is further divided into heavyweight, lightweight and super lightweight divisions. But of all the different 3WA titles, none is more storied in the history of Japanese women's wrestling than the Tag Team Championship, and it was this tournament that really cemented the fortunes of AJW, catapulting the promotion to the forefront of popular consciousness.

The turning point came when the 1976 3WA tag team title was won by Jackie Satou and Maki Ueda, better known as the Beauty Pair. Satou and Ueda became breakout pop culture icons almost immediately and were seen by an entire generation of Japanese teenage girls as powerful and admirable role models, inspiring hundreds of young women to take up wrestling and audition for AJW in 1976 alone. The Pair even recorded their own novelty pop single, which reached as far as the top ten on the Japanese pop charts (a tradition which has continued for subsequent women's tag team partnerships). During their reign as title-holders, they would use their single to announce their entrance to the ring, where they were frequently met by throngs of loyal fans who would shower them with confetti. Before the Beauty Pair, the 3WA title would swap hands between Japanese and western wrestlers every year. After the Beauty Pair, only three non-Japanese wrestlers would ever be declared 3WA champions again.

The Beauty Pair even released a Top 10 single.

The wild popularity of the Beauty Pair singlehandedly changed the fortunes of women's professional wrestling in Japan, and throughout the 1980s it actually eclipsed the popularity of men's wrestling. The Crush Gals, a tag team partnership between Lioness Asuka and Chigusa Nagayo, became even more popular than the Beauty Pair and hold the record as the most successful women's tag team of all time. Their feud with heel faction Gokuaku Domei was the most-watched and most-talked about angle of the decade in women's or men's wrestling. The singles division was no less successful, featuring likewise beloved fixtures Bull Nakano, Devil Masami, Jaguar Yokota and Dump Matsumoto. Finally, in 1986, the AJW at last ceased to be ubiquitous with women's professional wrestling in Japan when rival promotion Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling was started by former AJW performer Nancy Kumi and Jackie Satou herself.
Lioness Asuka, one half of the legendary Crush Gals.

With the incredible success of women's professional wrestling in the 1980s and its status as a beloved cultural institution, it would only make sense that it would be a major signifier of the cultural landscape in Japan at this time. And it would further make sense that this would inform and inspire at least some of the era's creative figures. Which finally brings us to the topic at hand...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Advent of the Angels: The Golden Age of Professional Wrestling in the United States

I've never been a pro wrestling aficionado. There are certain things about my life and positionality that don't match up with accepted cultural narratives, and professional wrestling is one of them. Along with Star Wars, superhero comics, G.I. Joe and Transformers, pro wrestling's so-called Golden Age was one of the biggest shared cultural signifiers of the mid-period Long 1980s fondly remembered by anyone old enough to have lived through them, yet notably absent from my own lived experiences of the era.

I didn't choose those topics at pure random: Those subjects are things I've noticed over the past decade or so trotted out as some of the most beloved and iconic pop culture memories and reference points from this period. I do think there's a secondary story here though in that nostalgia for these particular things, above all others, is a recent innovation brought upon by the reification of a specific kind of retro discourse from a specific subset of a specific generation, namely Nerd Culture. But though its roots can arguably be traced back here, the rise and subsequent normalization of Nerd Culture and the Nerd Culture Agenda is not the real story of the Long 1980s, at least from my perspective, so we're not going to be addressing that here. In terms of pro wrestling in particular, however, there's a thread that leads directly into topics we're going to be talking about imminently, so the Golden Age of Professional Wrestling is relevant to us in the here and now.

Vince McMahon, who transformed the face of pro wrestling.
The story of professional wrestling in the 1980s begins, predictably, with television. With the advent of cable and pay-per-view and a desire to find ways to take advantage of the new medium, it would make sense one of the first places the new media climate would turn to would be wrestling, an old standby of ready-made TV spectacle. The rise of the so-called Golden Age is in many ways a sequence of events extremely suited to the 1980s: Just as the medium of television was beginning to shift, the wrestling business was in the process of being rapidly consolidated by two wildly successful and powerful promoters with lofty ambitions: Vince McMahon and Ted Turner. It's McMahon who is, of course, the most storied and influential figure here. Before taking over the World Wrestling Federation, also known as the WWF, from his father, the company, like all wrestling promotions in the United States, was a regional outfit strictly limited to the Northeast. McMahon was the first promoter to syndicate wresting matches on national television, with which he heavily promoted his recent acquisition of three rising superstar performers: Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura.

McMahon's expansion incensed his colleagues and competitors, who viewed it as a betrayal of the basic fundamental structure of the wrestling community and an overt attempt to muscle in on their territory. It didn't help when McMahon used the proceeds of his pay-per-view events, advertising and video sales to recruit talent from rival promoters, essentially using the streamlined privatization of the WWF to attack other promotions.When McMahon bought out Georgia Championship Wrestling, a subsidiary of the NWA (at the time the largest and most influential cartel in professional wrestling) and attempted to take over their time slot on the local affiliate of TBS, his goals became explicitly clear: To essentially assimilate any possible competition in the WWF. However, as is well known in the wrestling community, McMahon's ambitions are frequently just as often kept in check by stunningly bad business decisions, and this was one of them. McMahon ended up forced to sell the time slot to promoter Jim Crockett, Jr., who immediately set about buying up NWA affiliates of his own.

Crockett's promotion swiftly positioned itself as the WWF's primary corporate rival, and he gained clout with television networks with his wildly popular Starrcade pay-per-view event. McMahon responded by blacklisting any outlet that broadcast Starrcade. While Crockett wielded considerable power, television executives felt it wasn't worth the risk in alienating the extremely lucrative WWF, so by the end of the decade he was forced to sell his entire promotion network to Ted Turner, who dubbed it World Championship Wrestling, or WCW. After Turner appointed Eric Bischoff as WCW's vice president, the WWF's most storied rival in the wrestling business was born. Meanwhile, by 1984 the WWF had introduced its own headlining pay-per-view event when the inaugural WrestleMania was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City where Hulk Hogan faced off against Mr. T in what is likely one of the most iconic, memorable and influential matches in the history of professional wrestling.

Hulk Hogan and Mr. T headlined WrestleMania I.

It's clear a large part of the massive impact the Golden Age of Pro Wrestling had was in the blatant corporatization the field underwent during this period. Vince McMahon's actions are obvious, of course, as he tried to take the role of wrestling promoter and transform it into something more akin to that of a CEO. But it's also important to remember the performers themselves were pop culture icons as well: Everybody knew Rowdy Roddy Piper and, of course, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, the latter of whom were just as famous for their public appearances, acting careers and sprawling merchandise campaigns (Hulk Hogan's “PastaMania” and the Mr. T line of child's backyard water toys are two of the more memorably risible examples of this I can think of off the top of my head) as they were for their actual wrestling. Wrestlers were no longer simply entertainers, they were proper national celebrities, and furthermore, they were entertainers who were seen to have a significant audience of children, typically boys.

(This, by the way, is likely the revelation that allows us to understand why professional wrestling, in particular the professional wrestling of *this* period, has become so beloved by contemporary Nerd Culture, but this is a subject for another day.)

"PastaMania" was one way Hulk Hogan grew his brand during this period.

But this also informs why the Golden Age was the period where the supposedly-sacrosanct wrestling concept of kayfabe (the famous anagram of “be fake” that describes the philosophy that professional wrestling should always strive to disguise the fact it's choreographed carnie entertainment and not a legitimate sport) began to wane a bit. While no wrestler or promoter would dare break character even during this period, there was the beginning of a sense that there existed a tacit sly acknowledgment that if the audience *wasn't* in on it, they likely should be. Frankly, no-one was going to assume someone like the NWA's Ric Flair, who, upon becoming world champion, would regularly strut around in the ring in sequined designer suits and frilly boas, was doing anything other than putting on an overly flamboyant act, his obvious athletic prowess notwithstanding. The omnipresence of people like Hulk Hogan and Mr. T outside the ring would subconsciously inform the fact that these personalities were versatile actors playing a myriad of different roles (or rather a myriad of variations on one particular one). There was, in other words, a sense of artifice in the spectacle built into the production at every level, which is as much loyal to wrestling's performative roots as it is very, very 1980s.

The Golden Age of Professional Wrestling held many repercussions for a lot of different areas aside from the ones we've mentioned. The most relevant to us, naturally, is the story of how the 1980s wrestling boom spread to Japan and how it manifested there...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Advent of the Angels: An Introduction to the History of Professional Wrestling

In order to properly talk about this show, we of course need some historical context.

The history of professional wrestling of the kind we most commonly recognise can be traced back to at least the 1830s in France. There is, of course, a difference between the competitive sport of wrestling and “pro wrestling”, and this is where the distinction really began to be made: Circus sideshows would feature strongmen acts who could also wrestle (acts with positively delightful names like Edward the Steel Eater and Gustave d'Avignon the Bone-Wrecker), and would challenge members of the audience to try and take them to the mat. After a decade or so, these acts became popular enough to headline circus troupes of their own, with the first such all-wrestling troupe appearing in 1848 presented by Jean Exbroyat. It was Exbroyat's troupe that first introduced the rule that holds were only valid if executed above the waist, eventually evolving into that most famous of combat sport phrases “no rough stuff; no striking below the belt”. In Europe, this style became known by the famous moniker “Greco-Roman Wrestling”.
Georg Hackenschmidt, early crossover performer.

But it was in the early 20th century where professional wrestling truly began to crystallize into its most famous form. And, as is the case for much entertainment in the United States and United Kingdom, it has a strong connection to Vaudeville, Burlesque and Music Hall culture. Looking for new twists on the strongmen acts in their variety shows, presenters would offer challenges to the audience to last a specified amount of time grappling with the performers, much as had been done in France in the 1830s. When Greco-Roman wrestler Georg Hackenschmidt travelled to the UK and teamed up with a local promoter to take on a series of publicized bouts against British wrestlers, he brought with him the Greco-Roman institutions of titles and championship tournaments. But the big change came when a variant of Greco-Roman wrestling showed up in the US and the UK that allowed more and more varied kinds of grips and holds, including leg holds. This style, known as catch-as-catch-can, eventually further subdivided into the choreographed spectacle wrestling is known for today.

It was in the United States where this became the most obvious and pronounced. Starting in the 1860s, wrestlers would travel with the largest circuses as part of athletic showcases promoted by carnies. Sometimes they would challenge the audience, but most of the time they competed in staged exhibitions with other wrestlers from other promoters, where they would dress in elabourate costumery and adopt fictional monikers and backgrounds. Some of these performers transcended the carnival to become proper stars in their own right, like Farmer Burns, a famous wrestler and trainer known for competing in over 6,000 matches and coaching other wrestling luminaries like Frank Gotch, who gained fame and notoriety for defeating Georg Hackenschmidt, making him one of the first world champions.

Although professional wrestling waned throughout the 1910s and 1920s (curiously due to complaints about how fake it was), this period did see three major figures in the Gold Dust Trio: A joint promotion created by the wrestlers Ed Lewis, Billy Sandrow and Toots Mondt. The Gold Dust Trio introduced many new twists to the field that helped revitalize wrestling and would become mainstays, such as long-form storytelling (an innovation that was possible thanks to signing certain performers for years at a time instead of booking them on an individual basis), time limits, pretending to distract the referee to drum up drama and, most relevant to our purposes, tag-team matches.

Ed "Strangler" Lewis and his signature headlock.

The takeaway point here is, of course, that professional wrestling has always been drenched in theatricality and performativity. That is, ultimately, what it's always been, contrary to belief of some that there was some Golden Age in the long distant past where it was actually legit. Its origins are literally variety acts and circus sideshow attractions: It's been spectacle entertainment for as long as it's existed. Which also means that professional wrestling's union with television is, in retrospect, a self-evident and inevitable thing: Television has long walked a thin line between spectacle and theatre and, especially in the era we're now entering, can sometimes be seen trying to squeeze as much spectacle as possible out of a shoestring budget. And television *loved* professional wrestling as soon as it picked it up in the 1950s because it was a bunch of colourful stereotypes behaving in bite-sized, easy to digest tropish ways and was reassuringly cheap to produce.

This also ties into how professional wrestling becomes so foundational to the pop culture climate we're entering (or actually to be more precise the one that evolves from the climate we're entering), because, at least in the United States, it can very easily be seen as soap operas for men. Although the alleged point of pro wrestling is an athletic showcase, the real draw, especially after decades of evolution and refinement, is the overall spectacle that comes from not just the actual wrestling, but the exaggerated, caricatured personalities and emotions that accompany the feuds and story arcs. Following professional wrestling for any period of time requires keeping track of a complex, convoluted network of stories (which in turn requires a massive time investment of the sort that attracts a very loyal and very niche audience), and characters can drop in and out of the narrative at any time, and can also flip from good to evil at the drop of a hat.

Because really soap operas and professional wrestling are both their own kind of spectacle. Wrestling is much more of a visual spectacle of course, because men tend to only get seriously involved in things if there's a lot of action and violence involved. But soap operas, or at least the kind of writing that they eventually inspire, are emotional spectacles: The draw there isn't the violence and competition, but the inner mental state of the characters. Voyeurism is still very much the name of the game, the only thing that's different is what you're voyeuristcally lusting over. But, we've got decades yet before the soap opera style of spectacle starts to become the dominant one: The 1980s are the age of professional wrestling, this bears tremendous ramifications in a lot of different directions, and the best way to start talking about this is to take a look at the era's most famous manifestation of it (to a Western audience, of course)...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

“...through death and life together”: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Let's be perfectly honest here. This movie exists for only one reason, and it's obviously well aware of this itself as well.

So, right away we have a situation that's manifestly different than last time. To the point where Star Trek III: The Search for Spock isn't really even a film it's possible to critique: It's quite clearly not trying to be anything other than what it self-evidently is: Episode two of what's become an unfolding serial. I'll return to this theme a bit later, but first of all, there's a curious observation I'd like to make here: If Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a B-movie that didn't want to admit it was a B-movie, this film, by contrast and inversely, is a B-movie that doesn't actively try to punch above its weight class, but somehow succeeds in doing so anyway. Yes, against all odds, I'd have to say this is the best Star Trek movie we've looked at to date.

Part of this is that, unlike the previous two efforts, this movie actually feels like Star Trek. From Kirk's opening Captain's Log recap of the events of the last film's climax and aftermath, there's a heart to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock utterly absent in either of its predecessors. Kirk isn't just blatantly stating emotions and themes like he's reading from the SparkNotes version of the script, he actually seems like he's experiencing those emotions and attempting to deal with them. Kirk, and everyone else in this movie, feels like an actual character this time instead of a mouthpiece spouting Big Important Themes. It helps that the dialogue is considerably more naturalistic this time around, but I think what really salvages the show here are the actors themselves, who seem visibly energized in a way I don't really think I've ever seen this cast behave before. Sure, they've conveyed loyalty, friendship and camaraderie and all those Important Star Trek Buzzwords in the past, but this is the first time they seem to openly embody and embrace them (or at least the first time since Star Trek: The New Voyages) and this gets written back into their performances: There's a genuine, heartfelt sense that they finally understand why what they're doing is so important.

Which is only fitting considering this movie is ultimately about the fact Star Trek is a beloved thing important to many people. The reaction to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan supposedly was what convinced Leonard Nimoy to come out of retirement again, and request the directorial gig on this film to boot (Nimoy, by the way, is a thoroughly capable director, makes an utterly more visually interesting film than young Nicholas Meyer did and paves the way for future Star Trek actors to make the switch to behind-the-camera work too). This translates to a genuine sense of fun in front of the camera, with each of the principle characters getting plenty of moments to be funny or do something cool (Uhura's scene in the transporter room is an absolute moment of triumph: Seriously, you want to just cheer for Nichelle Nichols). For the first time in twenty years (or at the very least least since “Beyond the Farthest Star”) this cast actually feels like a true ensemble and the Enterprise crew finally feels like the family and community Star Trek always wanted us to think it was: Quite fitting for the themes this movie is working with elsewhere.

It also helps a lot that this movie actually looks like a movie: The special effects are all very good and both they and the general cinematography feel suitably cinematic in scope. The new designs are fantastic: Spacedock is a truly breathtaking thing to behold (though I actually prefer it when Star Trek: The Next Generation lifts the footage of it for use as Starbase 74 in “11001001” four years later) and the Klingon Bird-of-Prey is a really slick-looking ship that's shot to look menacing and cool. There is far, far less obvious CSO hackery than there was in the previous efforts and though it reuses just as many sets as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan did (most of the Spacedock interiors are redresses of Enterprise sets, as are, obviously, the bridges of the Excelsior and the Grissom) it's not so blatantly phoned in this time and that, combined with the new sets that actually were built, allow Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to do a very good job conveying the feeling of a large, expansive Star Trek universe without resorting to demanding a hideously overblown budget.

However, that said, and granting that I really actually did enjoy watching this movie, there's a lot of things about it I found annoying. Saavik is an obvious causality (so is David, literally so, but he's part and parcel of the same problem). Yes, it's a shame Kirstie Alley couldn't come back (there are conflicting stories as to why: Either she was afraid of being typecast or her agent demanded more money than Paramount could afford to pay, without Alley's knowledge) but Robin Curtis makes a perfectly serviceable Vulcan and she goes on to become one of Star Trek's most admirably workmanlike go-to guest actors. Though in a way I'm glad Alley didn't come back, because this movie is the beginning of a systematic process to take Saavik, once clearly marked as the new leading lady of Star Trek, and shunt her to the margins of the Original Series story. She doesn't have much more of a role here than to get stranded on the Genesis planet, kidnapped by Klingons and to take care of Baby Spock.

(And, it should be noted, take part in what has got to be the least erotic sex scene in the entire history of cinema. The ramifications of this will prove absolutely dire, but we'll deal with that when we revisit the Original Series story in a couple years.)

The sad reality is that making an entire movie about “getting the band back together” does nothing but contribute further to the ossification of the Original Series status quo as “the way things are supposed to be”. As good as the original cast is here, the guest cast is positively shafted, with two major exceptions: The first is James B. Sikking as Captain Styles of the Excelsior, who does a delightfully tongue-in-cheek sketch comedy version of a military commander, strutting up and down his bridge with a baton and just generally looking stuffy and pompous. Seriously, were this movie a Monty Python sketch you could totally imagine John Cleese or Graham Chapman playing him. The other is, of course, Christopher Lloyd as Lord Commander Kruge, who is amazing. OK, so for people who haven't seen this movie...Imagine Doc Brown from Back to the Future as a Klingon warlord...And that's exactly how Lloyd plays Kruge here. But what makes his turn really genius is that Lloyd is a good enough actor that he can switch between campy, overblown manic gurning and deathly serious emotional gravity.

Which is precisely what the character of Kruge needs, because there's a secret story to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock that both hints at a much greater film this could have been and is further evidence of the increasingly narrow channels at least this version of Star Trek is being forced into. See, if you strip away all the maniacal, B-movie scheming, explosions and fisticuffs, the fact is that Kruge is actually *right* here: He doesn't want to use the Genesis device to conquer new worlds for the Klingon Empire, he wants to steal it so the Federation doesn't have it anymore, rightly recognising it as the Doomsday device it really is. Think about it: This is a bomb that can level entire planets...and then reshape them any way the Federation wants. It's the ultimate wet dream of the Federation's darkest, most imperialistic unspoken desires. Kruge immediately, and correctly, recognises this as evidence the Federation has become the most dangerous threat in the galaxy and takes it upon himself to put a stop to it for the safety and sovereignty of the other non-aligned cultures. With a few minor dialogue edits, Kruge could have been an utterly sympathetic tragic hero, and, to his credit, Lloyd almost gets there all by himself just working with the material he's given.

And this is exactly what Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was supposed to be about. Kruge was originally going to be a Romulan character on par with the commander from “Balance of Terror” (hence why he has a Bird-of-Prey) and he and Kirk were going to have an actually serious, intelligent and mature debate about the ethics of the Federation developing this kind of weapon. And remember, this is also the story where the crew basically commits high treason, stealing the Enterprise and violating every single regulation to save Spock's life, finally placing friendship and morality above their careers and Federation interest. No wonder this is pegged as “The Final Voyage of the Starship Enterprise”: Not only is the ship itself destroyed (in what is admittedly a rather hollow and transparently obvious attempt to drum up drama in a similar way to Spock's death in the last movie), but this film finally marks the point where Star Trek rejects its own ethics to try and become something different. Sarek is right: Kirk and crew have saved Spock, but at the cost of the Enterprise, their careers and David's life. It's possible this movie too could have served as the ultimate capstone to the Original Series story had it wanted to.

(There is also, of course, the inherent Pop Christianity implicit in stating Spock has an "immortal soul", which is worth a brief mention. So I'll mention it. This makes a curious contrast with the Hollywood faux-Eastern trappings the Vulcans exhibit elsewhere in this movie.) 

But of course, as is maddeningly so often the case with Star Trek, that's not quite the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock actually is. It comes very close, and the actors put in a Herculean effort here (especially the main cast and Christopher Lloyd), but this still ultimately remains a fun space action B-movie about how wonderful Star Trek is, and not just Star Trek, but a very *specific* kind of Star Trek. The Original Series was never going to end here any more than it was going to end with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: As the end credits state, “And The Adventure Continues”. Star Trek is back (and not just Star Trek, but Star Trek) and is blasting off to a new set of adventures that will be just like the old ones (or rather, how you remember the old ones to be) except now they're on the big screen. You can almost imagine seeing a bunch of text scrolling onscreen after the ending saying things like “How will Admiral Kirk and his friends escape Vulcan? Tune in next time for more exciting adventures in Outer Space!”.

Along those lines, it's interesting to note that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock marks the point where Star Trek swings so far back to its Pulp sci-fi roots it actually manages to resurrect the film serial style of storytelling, which is oddly fitting coming in the wake of Indiana Jones and Star Wars. As much as Star Trek fans may not like to admit it, this franchise really was playing catch-up and follow-the-leader for pretty much the entire decade between 1977 and 1987. But this just further reaffirms my belief that the Original Series is becoming more and more of an intellectual dead end: At this point, it seems to exist primarily as comfort food for a specific subset of Trekkers who both adamantly refuse to move on and who are for whatever reason unwilling to take the series into their own hands, despite repeated pleas to do precisely that.

(Speaking of reification and ossification, this also, of course, marks the point where that begins to happen to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even though this film ultimately undoes everything that movie tried to do, it still holds it in a kind of reverence: The reused soundtrack, the stock footage of the climax that opens this movie and the constant invocation of it as arc words speak quite clearly to that. Flatly, Star Trek had finally done something massively popular, and now the franchise was never going to let anyone forget that ever again.)

There's a lot to love about Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Truly, there is. But, yet again, it's a bunch of good ideas and successful parts taken individually that never quite add up to a great whole, and it still continuously manages to fall short of its potential. And honestly, I'm kind of tired of constantly having to say that.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Myriad Universes: The Wormhole Connection

I don't even need to come up with a Pop Christian reading. Just look at it.
It's important not to understate the importance of the launch of DC's first Star Trek comic line. For the entirety of its existence up to this point (and not counting the handful of US and UK newspaper comic strips that cropped up in the 1970s), Star Trek had been represented in sequential art form by Gold Key, a company basically run by about four people and with the somewhat dubious reputation of putting out all the licensed tie-in stuff simply to cash in on the brands of the day, regardless of quality (though they did have the rights to distribute Carl Bark's Duck stories in the US and gave Mark Evanier one of his first writing gigs on their Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! book, which has to count for something). And while there were some genuine gems in the Gold Key series, there is something of a sense that this was a book that existed pretty much because it had to and oftentimes felt like just another product in the Star Trek brand.

This is not to say DC's book is any less of a product or a tie-in, it absolutely is, but the climate is a little bit different in 1984 than it was in 1967. While Gold Key was attempting to promote a show that first wasn't exactly setting the Nielson ratings ablaze, and then technically didn't even exist as it puttered around in syndicated reruns for the next ten years. DC is coasting off of a successful movie and a wildly successful movie and launches right when a third movie is about to premier (a fact which is not without its problems, as I'll talk about later). With Star Trek big business at the box office now, Paramount began to clamp down on their tie-in line and invoked a much stricter sense of quality control over what went out under the Star Trek name, and that shows here, for better and for worse.

The first thing that's noticeable about this line is that it overtly follows the events of the last movie. Previous Star Trek comic stories have been standalone affairs that simply evoked the structure of the TV series without directly referencing onscreen events (a few nods in the Gold Key stories Doug Drexler worked on aside). This story, however, is explicitly designed to fit in with established canon, which is interesting as Star Trek doesn't actually have an established canon yet, considering Gene Roddenberry and Richard Arnold wouldn't give their famous interview until the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is likely due in part to the book's editor and head writer, Mike W. Barr, who is a veteran comics writer and first generation Star Trek fan, and this issue marks some of his earliest Trek comic work. This introduces a new sort of status quo for Star Trek comics: From here on out, as long as new Star Trek is being filmed, the comics will forever be playing catch-up and trying to slot themselves into the gaps between “canon” stories, with mixed levels of success.

“The Wormhole Connection” is not Barr's strongest work. The story is painfully forgettable: It picks up right after Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with Kirk getting the Enterprise back from Starfleet command to help him move on with his life, which is kind of odd as he'd already been given it in the movie itself. Then there's some Klingons who show up and blow up a Federation starship unprovoked with an experimental weapon that has something to do with wormholes (hence the name) for some reasons and some rather nasty diegetic sexism from one of the relatives of the exploded ship to another, blaming her for its destruction. Kirk has some scenes where he's horrible to Saavik because she's not Spock and McCoy proceeds to chew him out for this, which seem a bit out of character for everyone involved, really.

Although the whole deal is mediocre at best, my biggest problem is how, even after all major shifts the last movie instated (or halfheartedly tried to instate as the case may be), the generic Star Trek formula still seems to be able to manage to reassert itself: Admiral Kirk really shouldn't be the central character anymore, especially when the story jettisons Carol and David Marcus off-panel on the second page. Even Star Trek Phase II recognised this and put Decker in the lead more than sporadically. This story really ought to be doing the same for Saavik. It's like there's some primal resistance to doing a story set in the Original Series timeframe that shakes up the beloved and established structure laid down in 1966, even in a series *specifically designed* to do just that. Such is the cultural weight the Original Series exerts over all of Star Trek.

But the biggest problem with “The Wormhole Connection” doesn't come from Barr or DC, it comes from its parent franchise. And it's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which somewhat regrettably premiered within weeks of this issue. With that, Paramount doesn't exactly shoot DC's new comic line in the foot as much as it does detonate a nuclear warhead inside its sneaker insole. DC doesn't even get a chance to fail at creating a new Star Trek with Saavik in the captain's chair before the studio itself slams the reset button harder and faster than Khan blew up his ship. The forces of the universe itself will conspire to prevent the Original Series crew from ever changing. And this really is a turning point in the history of Star Trek, because it's at this point it's abundantly clear that the Original Series story is forever going to remain a static thing. That doesn't mean there won't be new episodes written, the fans will see to that no matter what because the Original Series is something the people who are the most passionate about it will never, ever let go.

But from an intellectual and analytical standpoint, we really are officially done here. There's nothing more for us to gain and learn hanging around Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Because those characters and that setting can never transcend the boundaries and limitations Gene Roddenberry fashioned for them, if Star Trek ever wants to grow, it's going to have to leave them behind, and sooner rather than later. As for the first volume of DC's Star Trek comics...Well, while “The Wormhole Connection” isn't that hot, there are in fact things to recommend here: Barr continues to get better, as do the comics themselves, and in a time not to far from this one they'll soon prove themselves worthy to stand alone the “canon” filmed stuff as equals. And honestly, if you're looking for stories set in the universe Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan briefly hinted at offering you, this series is about as close as you're gonna get unless you write it yourself (though there is likely fanfiction of it somewhere if you look hard enough: I haven't, because I personally couldn't care less about this phase of Star Trek history, but you might).

But now, there's one last rite to perform before we can finally move on. Before the universe's proper Order can be restored and we can leave it behind. Let's go get Spock. It'll be a Valentine for the fans.