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.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Vaka Rangi: One Year Anniversary

Like any good student of synchromysticism, I'm well aware of the importance of dates, in particular anniversaries. Especially when they're mine.

It was, in a sense, inevitable that I would one day have to do a lengthy project about Star Trek. No large-scale media franchise, or indeed possibly no work of fiction, has consistently meant as much to me or been as much of a source of inspiration (and frustration) over the course of my life as Star Trek. I would have had to address my personal history and issues with Star Trek in some fashion at some point, and that was before my Internet writer colleagues pushed me to work them out through a large-scale serialized blog project.

So, first and foremost, Vaka Rangi has always been more about me than it has been about Star Trek. You may have noticed. Sorry about that. But, as someone trained to notice, analyse and compare positionalities, and also simply knowing it would be pointless to do *yet another* “Let's watch every episode of Star Trek in order and write about it” thing, I also figured my perspective might allow me to say some things that might not get said in mainline cult sci-fi discourse. But this also means this is a particularly personal project for me, as it's my reaction to Star Trek that informs not just the kind of critical perspective I offer, but that kind of person I am. I never wanted this to be a straightforward critical history, even a subversive one, and the project was never going to let me make it into one.

Growing up cut off from the kind of pop culture discourse that seems to have morphed into Nerd Culture, I guess I assumed the things I saw in Star Trek were what everyone liked about Star Trek, but it very quickly became evident that I was wrong, and any evidence I found to the contrary seems to have been deliberate misrepresentations in marketing buzzspeak. As a result, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to structure this project to get this across, and I eventually settled on the idea of comparing Star Trek's idealism (at least the way I saw it) to the philosophy of the ancient Polynesian navigators for various reasons. Obviously, as a cultural anthropologist I've read about and studied them a lot, as Polynesia is one of anthropology's favourite classic case studies and Hawai'i in particular has a very deep and spiritual connection to the night sky. But it's also a region I feel connected to myself in a very deep and personal way I can't exactly articulate (there are a few places around the world that are like this for me, but Polynesia was the first one I consciously noticed my connection to). More specifically, I genuinely do see and try to find a kinship in the way the navigators conceived of growing, learning, travelling and the concept of a global community and what I think Star Trek really ought to stand for. This project is for them as much as it is for me and you, if not actually more so.

The result is a reading, and really, a comprehensive reconceptualization, of Star Trek very much informed by the invisible, heretical, voiceless side of fandom, indigenous spirituality and comparative mythology, philosophies that are in many ways mine as well. This also means people like Gene Roddenberry and Nicholas Meyer are a constant analytical headache for me and I worry every single day about making a mistake and lapsing into cultural appropriation.

2013 seemed like the year that, if I was ever going to do something like this, would be the year to finally do it, with mainstream interest in Star Trek looming for the first time in years with the release of Star Trek Into Darkness. Not being entirely blinkered, I recognised an opportunity when I saw it and timed the launch of Vaka Rangi to coincide with the film's release. Of course the movie itself wound up bombing (or bombing as much as any hyper-blockbuster of that stature is allowed to these days), but this blog is still around a year later and still apparently manages to draw an audience, which I guess is a good thing. I remember being overwhelmed at the start of this project thinking “Oh My God: If I actually *am* still around a year from now, how far will I actually have managed to get?”. As it turns out, as I wrap up the final essay for Volume 2 as I write this, I'm about as far as I thought I was going to be, if not a little farther.

So, exactly one year after I set off on this journey, I wanted to take the time to reflect on what this project is and what it means to me and to thank everyone who decided to join me along the way. I'm especially grateful to the people who have gone out of their way to tell me how important this project has been to them: I never stop being moved to hear something I've written has resonated with somebody else, especially when I'm writing something as overtly personal and reflexive as Vaka Rangi has turned out to be.

You might also be interested in hearing a bit about where this project goes next. It's no secret that we're on the cusp of beginning the Star Trek: The Next Generation era and, all I can say to that is if you've been upset by how personal I've gotten so far...It's about to get a lot more personal, so, be forewarned. While I don't actively dislike the Original Series (except the parts that are misogynistic and reactionary, natch), it's not a show or a set of characters I have any particular affinity for, which I know is yet another thing that makes me a bit of an oddball in Trekker circles and why parts of the past year have felt more clinical than introspective. This next period, however, is something I actively and unapologetically love, or rather, I love the setting, characters, ideas and the memories and images it's left me with, and I'm really hoping to be able to convey this in the posts going forward. This also means that while I'm not going to stop being critical, I am going to loosely shift from the perspective of the offense to that of the defense, at least for a while. I mean yes, “Code of Honor” is every bit as bad as you think it is.

Aside from seeing a *lot* more of me cropping up in the blog, I'm also going to be changing the structure around a bit. Flatly, we're entering a period of Star Trek history that's incredibly long and incredibly monolithic: With three series of seven, 30-episode seasons *each*, plus one with four, there's an incredible glut of material to get through the likes of which I've never had to deal with before, and it also happens to coincide, at least partially, with an era of Star Trek history I know almost instinctively. This means there will be several occasions where, instead of doing one post per episode, I'll take three or four stories centred around what I find to be a unifying theme and look at them all together. I won't do this all the time, but I think it will help clarify the points I'm trying to make and further emphasize my positionality, the way I was exposed to these works and how I read them. And also, you know, believe it or not, I don't actually want to be doing this for the rest of my life.

Also, since I mentioned volumes earlier, I thought it might be fun to actually post a (highly truncated) version of my outline here. It's sort of an open secret that the ultimate goal for this project is a multivolume book set, and I've been planning and structuring this project with that in mind from the beginning. I'm not going to tell you *everything* I'm going to cover, of course, that would spoil the surprise, and I've got a *lot* of surprises planned. But, this should help anyone who might be trying to mentally work out the different categories and divisions I split Star Trek into and the different underlining themes and motifs I see in each era (and indeed, what the eras I see actually *are*):

Volume 1: Star Trek, Star Trek: The Animated Series and Raumpatrouille Orion (contains the posts from Foundation to “The Counter-Clock Incident”, plus bonus exclusive coverage of the entirety of Raumpatrouille Orion, among others).

Volume 2: Star Trek Phase II, The Lost Years and Star Trek in Pictures (contains the posts from Star Trek: Year Four, Issue Number 1 to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, plus bonus exclusive coverage of Star Trek Continues, among others). Also includes the movies Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Volume 3: To Be Announced, To Be Announced and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Seasons 1-3. Also includes the movies Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Covers the period roughly from Spring 1980 to Summer 1990.

Volume 4: To Be Announced, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Seasons 4-7 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Seasons 1 and 2). Also includes the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Covers the period roughly from Summer 1990 to Summer 1994.

Volume 5: Star Trek Voyager and the Dominion War (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Seasons 3-7). Also includes the movies Star Trek Generations, Star Trek First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection. Covers the period roughly from Winter 1994 to Summer 2001.

Volume 6: Enterprise and other material to be determined, though likely including the movies Star Trek Nemesis, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

“Khan, nothing more?”: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I don't like it.

Yeah, I said it. As far as I'm concerned, the consensus-best Star Trek EVER is a bunch of *ridiculously* overrated tat. But honestly, you must have expected this by now. Was there really ever any suspense over how I was going to read this? Surely, there was no way I was ever going to taken in by Star Trek going whole hog into Horatio Hornblower naval pomp and circumstance? Not after everything I've yelled and screamed about here for the past year. I think it's a mistake, I think it gets Star Trek's philosophy utterly wrong, I honestly don't think its a particularly captivating movie in its own right and I can't in good conscience recommend it. So there. You can all close the book or the browser tab or whatever, as I'm sure my yay or nay on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is what you've been waiting breathlessly all this time to find out about.

Anyone still here? Good. Then we can continue.

The first, most obvious problem I have with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is in fact bringing Khan back in the first place. “Space Seed” was an utterly abhorrent episode that posited Star Trek's utopian future would be built on the back of Philosopher Kings and enlightened despots who benevolently oppress us while they squabble over turf by manipulating catastrophic gang wars and indulging in extravagant, overblown dick measuring contests. It also made the passionate claim that women gain their inner strength through submissiveness and subservience and that rape culture is the natural hierarchy of humanity. And Khan himself was a spectacularly racist amalgamation of generically “exotic” nonwhite, nonwestern motifs the script bewilderingly seems to think will add to his “charm”. Charm, incidentally, is the one thing Khan wasn't hurting for simply because the show hired Ricardo Montalbán to play him, who was an amazing stage presence and the one likable thing in that whole dreadful hour.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does at least manage to be better than “Space Seed” as it drops pretty much all of the symbolism and themes Khan was originally written with in mind, bringing him back simply to exert gravity as a powerful antagonist, which is a role he's perfectly suited for. No, Khan does work here, which is more than can be said for any of his other appearances in Star Trek, but the problem this movie has is that, by virtue of being so obviously a sequel (something I'll talk more about later on) and because it was so phenomenally well received, this retroactively makes “Space Seed” seem like it was actually a good idea to any generation of Trekker who grew up with this movie, and in doing so renders both stories completely untouchable. And *that* has done provable harm to Star Trek's legacy, because any version of Star Trek that takes “Space Seed” as the definitive display of its philosophy is a Star Trek that's inherently wrongheaded and toxic.

I'm not going to talk about the plot or anything like that: Everyone knows it by heart, even the plot holes, of which there are about a billion. No, the chronology doesn't make any sense. No, it's never explained why the most seasoned crew in the fleet is running cadet training simulations when the last time we saw them they were gearing up for a new five-year mission (though the expanded universe helps out a lot here: You're frankly spoiled for choice when it comes to stories set between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). No, Chekov shouldn't know who Khan is. And no, Khan's behaviour in regards to both Kirk and Marla McGivers doesn't make an ounce of sense. The thing is though, none of this actually matters because it's very clear this movie is meant to be a retcon in everything but name.

In spite of the fact it did make money, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was considered a critical failure, and Gene Roddenberry (rightfully) got the blame for it and was kicked upstairs basically permanently, to be replaced with a guy famous for getting paid to write Sherlock Holmes fanfic. Bringing in Nicholas Meyer is the biggest creative shift the franchise has experienced since Gene Coon came on as executive producer, and it would make sense this film would want to distance itself from its predecessor any way it could. You can see this everywhere in Wrath of Khan, from the tone and obvious naval epic influence to its loose attitude to continuity: This is a movie that's more interested in Star Trek as a cultural object than it is in any kind of established Star Trek universe. Even the aging and death themes tie into this, with Wrath of Khan feeling very much like an attempt to pass the torch to a possible new kind of Star Trek (Saavik is the key character here, as she's obviously the protagonist and obviously The New Spock).

What Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan really wants is to be a new big screen debut for the franchise, to the point it even (likely unintentionally) recycles beat-for-beat a lot of the key scenes from “In Thy Image” that were left out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, such as McCoy trying to coax Kirk to get back in the captain's chair, and then an emergency forcing him to. Seriously, fuse Decker with Chapel and then replace them with Saavik and Admiral Nogura with Spock (and strip out absolutely all of Alan Dean Foster's utopian themes) and you've got essentially the same setup. One way to read this movie then is an alternate version of where Star Trek Phase II would have tried to go had it been made, which is basically the only thing that could possibly excuse the fact that practically the whole first half of the damn movie is stock footage from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

(And yet that said, Wrath of Khan is *also*, bewilderingly and paradoxically, the most continuity-heavy Star Trek has been yet: It requires the audience to know, for example, who Khan is and how Vulcans work. There is very little exposition of any kind here. As much as it's trying to reboot the series, it also remains firmly committed to the idea of an established canon and pleasing longtime Trekkers, and that's going to prove to be catastrophic to its overall effectiveness.)

But that's not the major issue here. On the Memory Alpha wiki, there is a *lengthy* section in the article for this movie called “Analysis”, dedicated to exploring Wrath of Khan's apparently extremely heady and complex themes such as “Age”, “Vengeance” and “Death”. This is the only Star Trek work that is given such an in-depth treatment, so obviously Trekkers, at least the Trekkers who edit Memory Alpha, think this movie is more intelligent and sophisticated than any other Star Trek, a prospect that I find gravely concerning, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the most childishly obtuse and obvious this franchise has been since Gene Roddenberry was running it in 1966.

This movie reads like a high school English essay with the characters blatantly reciting the CliffNotes of the movie's Major Themes. It has absolutely all of the overblown and silly Big Important Speeches people accuse The Dark Knight of having, and is no more subtle when it comes to blocking and visual symbolism. I was particularly impressed with the cut in the cargo container, made as dramatically and noticeable as possible, to Khan's literature collection, which contains such obscure rarities like King Lear, Paradise Lost and Moby-Dick, helpfully reminding us precisely what he's supposed to symbolize and how we're supposed to read him just in case any of the audience had fallen asleep or happened to actually be Vulcans.

Roderick Long will want me to mention that, since this movie is basically “Star Trek Does Moby-Dick (Again)”, there's a useful redemptive reading of that book courtesy of Trotskyist and post-colonialist writer C.L.R. James we can apply that basically sees Starbuck and Ahab as representing two sides of capitalism, with the former symbolizing prudence and the latter symbolizing obsessive totalitarianism. James has a famous quote here, stating that

“For generations people believed that the men opposed to rights of ownership, production for the market, domination of money, etc. were socialists, communists, radicals of some sort united by the fact that they all thought in terms of the reorganization of society by the workers, the great majority of the oppressed, the exploited, the disinherited...Nobody, not a single soul, thought that in the managers, the superintendents, the executives, the administrators would arise such loathing and bitterness against the society of free enterprise, the market and democracy, that they would try to reorganize it to suit themselves, and, if need be, destroy civilization in the process.”

This is what James sees Ahab as: Someone who, while a product of the capitalistic system, embodies its worst excesses and resents the way it prevents him from attaining absolute control. And furthermore, someone whose extremist sense of individuality alienates him from his peers and causes him to see them as machine parts instead of human beings. And it is possible to apply at least part of that reading to what happens to Khan here, as his blind hatred for Kirk and desire for vengeance drives away his loyal crew (as symbolized by that one random guy who says a few lines and then dies pointlessly) and is ultimately his downfall.

The thing is, doing that is, to be very charitable, putting far more thought into the motif then the people writing this movie did, who very obviously did *not* intend to write a polemic against capitalism but rather wanted to reference Moby-Dick because it's a Big Important Western Literary Thing that makes them look highbrow and intellectual. It would certainly redeem a lot about Khan as a character to have him fill the role James feels Ahab plays in the original, but I simply don't see any evidence this story in particular is anything other than a hollow recitation of Moby-Dick done simply because Moby-Dick was a naval epic and Star Trek is the Space Navy again now. Add to that the use of “Amazing Grace” at Spock's funeral (unfortunately, Meyer and his team did not have the benefit of time travel and were thus unaware that Spock was fond of that poem, as we learned in “Come What May”), Kirk constantly flashing A Tale of Two Cities as if it's cash and he's a high roller at a dance club, not to mention *Genesis* itself, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan becomes a truly insufferable paean to Great White Western Culture as filtered through the lens of a New York State Regents Exam.

The other thing about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that is looks astonishingly cheap. I don't just mean it looks like it had a smaller budget than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which it did and is understandable because that movie's budget was obscene and ridiculous and it still looked like crap when it wasn't doing things with V'Ger. I mean this movie doesn't actually even look like a proper Hollywood blockbuster, which is...puzzling, to put it mildly, considering this was Paramount's marquee release in 1982 and meant to compete with The Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner. There's simply no excuse for the overabundance of stock footage here: I don't care if your budget was slashed, you make a movie of this scale and get Industrial Light and Magic to do the effects and you can't get a single new shot of the Enterprise model until three quarters of the way in? Especially when you've somehow managed to make the drydock scenes look *even worse* than they did in Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

(And really, I don't mean “admirably and promisingly amateurish” or “pleasingly theatrical”, I mean “cheap”. All of the interior starship scenes are shot on what are visibly the exact same sets with no effort made to distinguish them, which is distracting and sad, and that William Shatner and Ricardo Montalbán never actually get to act off one another because Khan only appears in what are obviously pre-recorded segments is absolutely ridiculous and basically the antithesis of theatre.)

It's not that I expect or want Star Trek to look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do expect it to actually *try* with whatever resources it has. You don't have to have a ludicrous budget to look imaginative and inspiring: Doctor Who can do it. Raumpatrouille Orion is a bloody masterclass at it. Once we get further into the 1980s, I'll start talking about a show that absolutely revolutionized doing world-class science fiction on an Ed Wood budget. Even the Original Series *itself* wasn't terrible at this: It didn't start to look cash-starved until invisible one-way exploding spaceships started showing up and we began to do episodes about empty Enterprise stage sets. This though, looks and feels like every bit of the drab, grey and uninspired military affair it is.

The big problem is that this is simply not good enough for a marquee Hollywood blockbuster, which by its very nature needs to have an element of spectacle about it. But this brings us to an interesting revelation: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan isn't actually a marquee Hollywood blockbuster in spirit, even if in practice it was supposed to be: It's a B-movie. Granted, just about nobody involved is treating it as anything *other* than a B-movie (just look at the acting, especially in the big emotional moments, in particular William Shatner and DeForest Kelley), but the fact is that's what this is. And this is interesting, because it *also* wants to be a deathly serious war epic and a story about aging. And this genre and that narrative structure have never really overlapped before. But while it has the trappings of a B-movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan lacks the art house enthusiasm of something like Eraserhead, the niche appeal of a horror movie or the the campy escapist fun of any of the cult classics. It is, somewhat tragically, a B-movie that doesn't realise it's a B-movie.

Yeah, OK, I'll briefly talk about Spock's death.

I mean, there's not a whole lot to say about it, aside from the acknowledged clever double feint of having him die in the simulation early on to cover up for the fact the initial draft of the story leaked. Leonard Nimoy wanted to retire from Star Trek again, which is something of a hobby of his, and wouldn't do the movie unless Spock was killed off. So he was. It was, understandably, a big emotional moment for fandom and one of the most memorable images from the franchise's history. No need to go over that again. A few things that stick out to me about this scene that I don't think are commented on a lot: One, everything leading up to the actual death scene is completely laughable and ridiculous: Spock just gets up, as if he got a cue from off camera and then heads down to the irradiated engineering deck as if to say “Welp. Guess it's time to die now”, where he proceeds to just wreck all of the shit in sight with no particular method or purpose while DeForest Kelley and James Doohan try their absolute hardest to give the single most hilarious, overblown and impossible-to-take-seriously tragic monologue in history.

The other thing about this scene though, is that it's an absolute perfect microcosm for this movie's ambition...and its shortcomings. Because killing off Spock happens to be incredibly symbolic, considering he is the most iconic aspect of the Original Series story and arguably the character who symbolizes it the best, both diegetically and extradiegetically. Those comparisons I made to “In Thy Image” above? Those musings about how this could have laid the groundwork for a new Star Trek? That was precisely the point. Not only was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan meant to be the “new” Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was also meant to be the *last* Star Trek Motion Picture. Those aging motifs may have the relative subtlety of your average blunderbuss, but Meyer put them in for a reason: This is very clearly and explicitly an attempt to end Star Trek as a mass market Soda Pop Art franchise. In many ways we're back in the territory of Star Trek: The New Voyages: The new status quo is established with Saavik, The New Spock (and really, The New Kirk as well), ready to take charge of a new generation of Star Trek, which is to be left in the capable hands of the fans to take wherever they want her to go.


How many times has Star Trek tried to kill itself off by now? Like, five or six, by my count already? How do you think that was going to take? There's no way Paramount was going to let its primary cash cow disappear, and so we get a stonking great sequel hook where Spock's casket lands on the Genesis planet and every single bloody character makes unbelievably unsubtle comments about “new life”. Yeah, no, contrary to popular belief it's not the next movie that zombifies the Star Trek film franchise, it's this one. Even *without* knowing the next movie is called Star Trek III: The Search for Spock its impossible *not* to assume a sequel is going to be imminent looking at the last shots of this movie. It's as obvious as anything else this movie does, and Harve Bennett, who wrote the initial draft of the script, is on record saying Paramount immediately contracted him to write Star Trek III before this film was even released. The studio simply couldn't leave it alone, so Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ends up feeling utterly pointless on top of everything else that's unsatisfying about it.

Is this a better movie than Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Well, I suppose so, simply by virtue of it having things like actual scripted dialogue instead of making the actors recite flight training manuals and pacing that resembles something human beings might film rather than primeval stone-giants. And, much of the acting is well done and suitable for the setting: Special props must go to Kirstie Alley and Bibi Besch, both of whom give absolute first-rate performances and the latter of whom perfectly embodies what James T. Kirk's wife would be-Someone every bit as commanding and driven as he is. But, when the smoke clears and Khan gets his final Epic Villain Monologue, the fact Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a B-movie that doesn't want to admit it's a B-movie and that Trekkers actually think this is an erudite and sophisticated cinematic masterpiece say it all for me. This movie is every bit as self-absorbed and pretentiously middlebrow as its predecessor, it just doesn't *look* like it anymore.

In many ways, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan really is the definitive Star Trek movie: It's a solidly executed translation of the blunt, ham-fisted moralizing and blatant militarism that characterized the early Original Series to film. Perhaps that's why this movie is as beloved as it is. And why I can't stand it.