Sunday, August 31, 2014

Flight Simulator: Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. (Famicom Disk System)

Back when I started planning these video game posts it never would have crossed my mind that it would take until 1987 to properly get this phase of the project underway and that the first actual video game we'd be looking at wouldn't even be a Star Trek one. And yet, Kei and Yuri must be heard.

There were a handful of Star Trek titles released for early PCs and home consoles like the Apple II, TRS-80, VIC-20, Commodore 64, Atari 2600 and Vectrex in the early 1980s, but they were all on platforms I either didn't have at a formative age or are so arcane they're difficult to get ahold of these days. Considering the way the pagination for Volume 2 is turning out, I may try to take a look at a few of them to flesh that book out, but we're skipping them for the time being. The Star Trek video games I'm most familiar with date to the late-1980s and early 1990s and we'll talk about those when the time comes, but, as it turns out, Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. predates them all. In the meantime, a whole bunch has happened in the video game industry, namely that there is now in fact a video game industry that has been around long enough to not only crash thanks to market saturation and Atari's sloppy management, but come back bigger than ever before thanks to toy company from Japan called Nintendo.

The Famicom Disk System is a strange beast within the history of Nintendo. It was a Japanese-exclusive add-on for the Famicom (or Family Computer), which is what the NES (or Nintendo Entertainment System) was called in its home country. This naming discrepancy actually reveals a lot about how the history of the game industry in the United States differs from how it played out in Japan. See, by 1985 video games were seen as a dead fad thanks to the collapse of the monopolistic Atari that dragged the whole industry down with it in 1983. Because of this, Nintendo had to market the NES as essentially a children's toy to get it to sell its first Holiday season, in the process changing the way video games are thought of even to this day (before Nintendo's US success, video games were seen as social things for everybody, though primarily young, single, active adults). However, this was only true in the US, and in Japan, the console was marketed as what it straightforwardly was: A home computer designed for family entertainment.

(You can see this attitude play out even today: In the US, in spite of the industry's major inroads in recent years, video games still can't *quite* shake the stigma of being thought of as expensive playthings for lazy, socially maladjusted children, or adults with the mentality of socially maladjusted children. In Japan, the Nintendo 3DS is as ubiquitous as the iPhone.)

So, the Famicom Disk System is something that Nintendo would only ever have released in Japan at this time, along with the modem that also existed for the console at the time (yes, you could access something a lot like the Internet on your Famicom in 1983). Nobody would think the kids' Nintendo toy would need a floppy disk drive, but it makes perfect sense to have one for something called a “Family Computer”. Furthermore, the Disk System existed to correct some of the Famicom's inherent drawbacks: There was only so much performance you could squeeze out of the thing, and this severely limited what developers could do with the system even as early as 1985. The Disk System alleviated all of these problems, allowing for more vibrant and detailed graphics, crisper, more dynamic sound, the ability to save without battery backup and more general processing power. In fact, a lot of the games we think of as being iconic to the NES were actually designed with the Disk System in mind, including classics like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania.

(So much so that it took a *lot* of compression and optimization to shrink those games down so that they'd fit on NES cartridges, meaning the versions we got in the US were *severely* stripped down when compared to their Japanese counterparts. In particular, there's simply no comparison between the NES and FDS versions of Castlevania and Metroid: Aside from the better graphics and sound, the addition of an actual save feature makes them both entirely different experiences. If you ever get the chance to play the original FDS versions of these games, I strongly recommend it.)

So, a Dirty Pair video game for the Famicom Disk System sounds like exactly the sort of thing we would expect to see come out of the Japanese video game industry at this point in history. 1987 was in many ways the series' annus mirablis, with Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture getting a major theatrical release, the premier of the direct-to-OVA second TV series Original Dirty Pair (not to mention With Love from the Lovely Angels) and even the publication of Haruka Takachiho's third light novel, Dirty Pair's Rough and Tumble, where Kei and Yuri team up with Studio Nue's mascot team the Crushers to hunt down a renegade sexbot in the middle of a simmering revolution. And, given the United States' reticence at the time about anything anime that wasn't Macross, Robotech, Voltron, Speed Racer or a first-party Nintendo franchise (combined with the console's inherent regionalism), Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. is sort of the definition of an “Only In Japan” game.

And really, Dirty Pair is custom-tailored for the video game medium if you think about it. I have a theory that one of the unique virtues of video games as a form of artistic expression is their ability to convey ideas, themes, emotions and stories without relying on a conventional linear narrative. Part of this is because video games, probably more than any other kind of media, rely on an implicit and innate understanding of the dynamic interaction between the positionalities and agency of two or more parties (in particular, the players and the developers). The best video games, in my view, directly and overtly play to this, understanding (as oral storytellers do) that their stories will be retold slightly differently every time the game is played. The reason Dirty Pair is a natural fit for video games should be self-evident by this point: The biggest strength, and biggest failing, of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture was the vestigial nature of its plot when compared to the era-defining, paradigm-shifting power of its music video structure. A video game following in the wake of such a landmark work could take all of that to the next level without any of the drawbacks that come with being shackled to cinema. A post-Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture video game could be a true shamanic vision for the Nintendo age.

Title Screen

Unfortunately for all of us, it sucks.

I genuinely have no idea who this is supposed to be.
As you can probably guess from the title, Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. is loosely based on the events of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. And I mean *extremely* loosely: There's one screen of text at the beginning of the game that talks about Agerna, Vizorium (the movie's Spice analog) and Professor Wattsman, but it's all flavour text and none of them are ever addressed again anywhere else in the game. Interestingly enough, there's no mention of Uldas and Edia blaming each other for the Sandingas' attack on the research facilities (the girls know Wattsman is behind everything from the get-go) and I don't think Carson D. Carson is in the game at all, so the story is already better than the one in the movie (that should probably tell you something). Also, the girls get briefed on the mission by someone who I'm going to assume is Gooley A. Francess from the TV show, but the graphics are so crude I honestly can't tell if it's supposed to be him or the 3WA chief from Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia. Neither character was in the movie, in case you were curious.

There's an English translation of this game, if you can find it.
But that sort of fealty to the source material was never needed: After all, if video games are more comparable to oral storytelling in terms of narrative than anything else, one wouldn't expect the game's story to be beat-for-beat the same as the movie's, and in this case I'm thrilled that it isn't. And anyway, I was the one arguing for as thin and forgettable a linear narrative as possible. No, the reason Dirty Pair Project E.D.E.N. is a bad game isn't because it doesn't follow in lock-step with the movie, it's because of *everything else*. I mentioned the graphics earlier, and it really is impossible to make much of anything out. This is not me being prejudiced against the art style of older games, the visual aesthetic really would have looked subpar even in 1987: The backgrounds are all crudely defined and remind me of something from an old PC-8801 game, Kei and Yuri's overworld sprites barely resemble who they're supposed to represent and none of the enemies look like anything remotely describable, let alone the creatures from the movie. The sound effects are all monotonous and generic and, most inexcusably, there are, as far as I can tell, only three or four music tracks in the game, only one of which is the overworld theme (and it loops *constantly*) and all of which are mind-numbingly dull, droning and repetitive.

Kei's earring in World 1, Level 1.
Given that this is Dirty Pair and considering how the series is built around Kei and Yuri's relationship, you might expect some kind of co-op mode or at least the option to select one of the two Angels to play as. Since the girls compliment each other so well, a fun thing for the video game to do would be to give each one of them unique powers and abilities that need to be used in tandem to progress. Well, as it turns out Yuri is the only default player character: Kei only shows up when you grab her earring, conveniently located at the beginning of each level, thus summoning her to fly in on a kind of hovercar that Yuri can jump onto and use to traverse the rest of the level. She also gives you backup fire and one extra hit (oh yeah, I forgot to mention you die in one hit), but disappears if you take damage on the hovercar. Yes, in this game Kei, one half of the Lovely Angels and Dirty Pair's original narrator, is relegated to being a glorified power-up. I think that probably says it all.

I can only guess what these hearts are for.

When you're just playing as Yuri on foot, the game plays like a standard-issue sidescroller-shooter, and a particularly bad one at that. Yuri plods from one side of the level to the other traversing some of the most boring, unimaginative level design in video game history at a speed resembling that of a particularly brisk Sunday stroll in the park all the while attempting to dodge a relentless hail of indescribable objects that will surely one-shot her with a migraine-inducing strobing effect should they come anywhere near her vaguely-defined hitbox. You only get one weapon, but there's a power-up you can find that temporarily swaps out your default invisible gun with a terrible rate of fire that shoots lines and sounds like an error message with an invisible gun with a terrible rate of fire that shoots dots and sounds like an error message. There are other power-ups you can find, including a few that look like tiaras (OK...), what seems to be a bottle of poison (!) and even Nanmo (Nanmo isn't in Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture), but I have no idea what they're supposed to do or how to equip them.

(Interestingly, there is apparently a strategy guide for this game done as a manga with exclusive artwork. It's a cute idea and I'd love to read it and add it to my collection someday. I'm sure if I had that, or more to the point a translated version of it, all of this would make a *lot* more sense.)

Beware the Alpha Hoppers and evil cinnamon rolls.
When you've got Kei with you, the game is more like horizontal space shooter (think R-Type or Gradius). The game is marginally more playable here, as the hovercar moves at a decent pace and you get to shoot two sets of missiles at once (that look like lines and sound like error messages), which in my experience is just about the only way to survive the onslaught of enemies that show up in later levels. You still don't get any new weapons or upgrades though, and I don't even think you can use your power-ups in this mode. You just careen from one end of the map to the other, trying desperately not to crash into shit and mash the B button until your thumb falls off (oh yeah, that's another thing: You have to keep repeatedly tapping the button to fire. Given how much shooting you do in this game, this understandably gets tiring very quickly. A turbo controller is pretty much required for this game). You're supposed to get graded on your accuracy at the end of the game (which is a *great* idea for a bullet hell game like this, by the way...), but I've never gotten that far and honestly I care more about clearing the screen and staying alive then any letter grade the game might give me for playing by its arbitrary rules.

Yuri faces the camera in World 2, Level 1.
After the first four levels, the game changes again and becomes a kind of rudimentary action adventure game. Supposedly, the girls have reached Doctor Wattsman's lab, which is designed like a maze. This is where I started to have real problems with the game, because I honestly can't make heads or tails of the layout here and I freely admit I've never actually gotten passed these stages. You're Yuri on foot again, moving from screen to screen trying to find your way out. But every room looks the same (well, there's two or three different “types” of room and each instance is laid out slightly differently) and enemies just spawn out of thin air giving you next to no time to react, which is a real issue considering the control is as sluggish as it is. Without Kei backing you up (her earring doesn't appear in these levels), you're constantly outmanned and outgunned, which just compounds the panic that sets in when you inevitably get lost (there's no map) and find yourself going in circles. One cool thing about these levels is that the game actually made front and backsprites for the characters, and it tries to give you some illusion of depth as you walk into the background and foreground: Not a lot of sidescrollers do that, and in spite of the fact it's not wholly effective (imagine the NES port of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, but a lot slower, and you get the general idea of what this feels like), it remains pretty ambitious for the time.

These guys seriously just materialize with no warning out of *nothing*.
(There is, I should mention, a co-op mode where the second player takes control of Kei, and I suspect the maze levels are significantly easier if you're playing with two people. The whole game probably is. But, given how obscure and frustrating this game is, I don't fancy my chances of getting anyone else to play it with me to test that theory out.)

I know I've spent a lot of time critiquing the mechanics, which probably seems odd given my stance on video game writing elsewhere, but the thing about mechanics is that they're supposed to be intuitive and invisible, and the moment you actually notice them they become the only thing you think about throughout the entire experience. Video games have an almost transcendent ability to invoke within you a heightened state of consciousness, and always having to fret about movement speed pulls you right back down. The fact is, things like control, level design and combat are a constant problem in this game, and this is on top of the pre-existing issue that it's just resoundingly uninspiring to look at, listen to and play. And it's not like I'm being unfair to a dated relic from another time, I don't think I am. Not in 1987 when Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid and Mega Man all exist already, each of which was a groundbreaking, evocative and memorable trip all its own. Dirty Pair deserved to be treated like a classic on the Famicom, and Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. simply isn't.

That's really the fundamental problem with Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N.: It's utterly joyless and uninspiring. Even in its weakest moments, animated Dirty Pair always has a sense of wonder and fun about it. That's what saved the very movie this game was based on after all; it simply looked like absolutely nothing else and effortlessly, masterfully captured your imagination. That there's no trace of that magick to be found anywhere in the Famicom Disk System game is the most egregious and comprehensive betrayal of all. Though its moment in the sun seems to have passed, I can only hope that the video game medium will someday give Kei and Yuri the royal treatment they deserve. And not just video games-Dirty Pair warrants love and respect everywhere. Few science fiction works have done so much for us or have such heart.

Until then, I'll still have my dreams of starlight and cosmic highways.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

“...and You're Not James Bond Either”: Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture (Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N.)

Stories are retold across different times, places and culture. While the forme of their symbolic power may change and morph to adapt to each new context, the underlying power remains whenever they are invoked. Stories can split off from each other and be shaped by the forces of mythopoeia, and can become as different from each other as they are similar.

It's fitting that Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture be named after the first Star Trek movie as it's existence is every bit as much of an inexplicable puzzle as that of Gene Roddenberry's abortive magnum opus. The last Dirty Pair outing had been the OVA Affair of Nolandia two years ago, an open acknowledgment of the franchise's by this point niche audience and a direct attempt to court them. Affair of Nolandia, despite being unambiguously brilliant, was not (and still isn't) terribly well received by fans who had long since fallen in love with the first Dirty Pair series, with which it was explicitly and manifestly made to contrast with. The same month, that very show had been canceled with two episodes left to air for reasons that remain uncertain, but are widely believed to have something to do with poor ratings. One might speculate then that with the sort of property the animated Dirty Pair franchise seemed to be turning out to be, the next logical step would *not* be a lavish, big-budget feature film released to theatres.

Indeed, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture seems like the complete opposite of Affair of Nolandia in every conceivable way: While Affair of Nolandia was a conservatively-budgeted OVA aimed at a niche group of science fiction fans (even, *gasp* using limited animation!) that bent over backward to differentiate itself from the TV series, this is a glitzy, grand-scale motion picture extravaganza self-consciously trying to ape the look-and-feel of the TV show in order to attract the broadest possible audience while also constantly trying to one-up and build upon it and somehow still trying to function as a standalone work. It really does feel like Sunrise's MO was “whatever we did on Affair of Nolandia, do the complete and total opposite this time”. Where Affair of Nolandia felt organic, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is all bright lights and neon strobes. Where Affair of Nolandia was atmospheric, contemplative and intimate, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is sprawling, flashy and spectacular. Where Affair of Nolandia felt psychedelic and spiritual, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is a digital, computerized, high-tech sensory overload.

This has both positive and negative consequences. The first major plus is that, anticipating all this, the editing and cinematography here is beyond amazing and as a result Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is a movie that understands the power of imagery, mood and emotion like nothing else. This is, in all honesty, the most visually astounding and mesmerizing science fiction movie I have ever seen. The first twenty minutes alone are worth watching all by themselves: The film throws us Dirty Pair, Star Trek, Miami Vice, Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Bond, Cold War thrillers, MTV, late-80s house jazz influenced synthpop and every piece of Golden Age science fiction cover art you've ever seen crushed and blended together and served up as a hyper-concentrated tropical drink that's like a sledgehammer to your senses. It's the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster of visual media. Words really do not describe how unbelievably captivating and fresh this movie looks: While the first act is without question the most memorable, the art design and direction simply do not ever let up, taking the audience from mind-blowing vision to mind-blowing vision.

But this is telling, and I didn't mention MTV for no reason. What this movie does is try to take the “images and emotions” approach to visual media we last talked about in the context of Michael Mann and Miami Vice to the logical limit, and it's retroactively bleeding obvious this would be something Dirty Pair would try to do. The series has an understanding of spectacle that's completely unmatched, and it what it's touching on here is one potential way forward for the entire genre of science fiction. We know of course that sci-fi likes to let its worlds and its ideas speak for itself, and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture tries to *literally do that*, featuring a great deal of extended sequences, including all the action scenes and the climax, that are utterly silent save for music that exist only to establish a setting and mood. They are, in fact, feature length music videos, and the movie is brazenly confidant that it can rely entirely on visual symbolism and the breathtaking artistry of its editing and art design. It's a revelation, a triumph and a masterpiece: The plot, frankly, is such an afterthought it's practically vestigial by this point.

And then the other show has to drop.

The other thing that happens when you toss the plot out as an afterthought is that whenever the movie does something that's not part of one of its groundbreaking, genre-defining paradigm-shift music videos it grinds to an absolute halt. There's some interesting stuff surrounding Professor Wattsman for sure: He's a charmingly obvious mad scientist who is obsessed with beating evolution, thinking the Sadingas discovered a way to circumvent natural selection by placing themselves in some kind of species-wide biological stasis once they reached the apex of development so they would never go extinct. It's clearly a backwards conception of how evolution works and Wattsman is interested in both eugenics and stagnation alike: There's a reason the bottle of wine that's so important to him came from Charles de Gaulle and his campaign against Nazi Germany's occupation of France. And this is why he's opposed by Kei and Yuri who, of course, would not approve of any attempt to strongarm nature and split humankind off from it. But the problem is this all comes way too late to be compelling in any way and is really the only remotely interesting idea this movie has, the art design and editing aside.

Structurally, this film's narrative is a mess. The dialog and characterization is frankly awful: Haruka Takachiho had a major hand in this one, more so than he did in any of the other Dirty Pair anime works, because he wanted to make absolutely sure that it was what he considers “proper science fiction”. And, well, it shows. Takachiho is resoundingly terrible at exposition, feeling he has to force everything else to stop so he can infodump at length about his world-building concepts. While evident in the novels, this isn't as big of a deal in them because Kei (like me) is a very rambling narrator who likes to go off on lengthy tangents. But this is in no way appropriate for a film like this, and it feels like whenever somebody opens their mouth (most egregiously Wattsman and Carson) the whole film just digs its heels in and refuses to move for like fifteen minutes at a time (though there is one admittedly funny moment where Wattsman declares, right at the camera, that “this is a secret known only to myself!” before going on about his mutated alien spice dudes or whatever).

Another consequence of Takachiho's increased involvement is that Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture leans much harder on the series' spy-fi trappings than previous Dirty Pair animes did. Although the original novels were detective stories, they weren't straightforward spy fiction, and this is a distinction that seems to have been lost in the evolution of science fiction between 1979 and 1987. So, the director for this movie is obviously drawing more from 1960s spy thrillers than traditional Japanese Golden Age science fiction, and as a result we get a preponderance of outer space bachelor pads and martinis, credits sequences straight out of James Bond movies and the Angels themselves get filmed like Bond girls. Personally, I don't think this was a good idea: True, Dirty Pair has done genre pastiches before (including a few of James Bond), but this was the highest profile thing the franchise ever did, being a large majority of people's first and only exposure to Kei and Yuri, and what this does is mislead a segment of the audience as to what the series actually is. Dirty Pair is Dirty Pair, not Charlie's Angels In Space.

(The upside of all this is the aforementioned design: This really is a special movie in terms of art direction. Rick Sternbach seems to agree, this being the version of Dirty Pair he seemed the most taken by as a designer, as he kept a copy of the art book and model sheets as a source of inspiration and one of his most treasured possessions. I can understand: The concept art alone really is enough to turbocharge your imagination.)

But the worst part of this movie by far is Carson D. Carson, who is utterly detestable. A handsome rogue of a thief who steals Kei's heart, he's a completely insufferable combination of Sydney from “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette” and Huey from “Come Out, Come Out, Assassin”, somehow managing to distill all of their negative characteristics into one overwhelmingly reprehensible Frankenstein monster of intolerable masculinity. From the moment he shows up, he commandeers the whole damn movie, which would be one thing if it actually acknowledged this was a problem and tried to use it to make some metacommentary about narrative and how Dirty Pair works, which it naturally doesn't. He throws his weight around and infantilizes Kei and Yuri at every opportunity-The joint worst scenes for me are when he lectures the girls in the hovercar for not being “pros”, basically calling them children, and when he rubs Kei's feelings in her face and uses them as an excuse to call her weak. It's absolutely excruciating to watch.

Furthermore, this reduces Kei to full-on tsundere, and there is just about nothing I hate more in anime than tsundere characters, because every single story I've seen them in is about showing how childlike women fall apart in the presence of the romantic male lead. Kei actually gets demoted to love interest here (Yuri, in case you're curious, is basically comic relief), which is just about the most jaw-dropping conceptual failure I have ever seen in Dirty Pair. Not only does it totally misread both the Angels and their metatextual aspects (I mean for one thing, Kei is supposed to be chronically unlucky in love), it allows a man to come in and push them out of their own story and neither understands why this is a problem nor attempts to say anything about it. This isn't metacommentary, it's a Mary Sue thrown in to reassert the “proper” patriarchal order in Dirty Pair because Sunrise obviously saw the returns for Affair of Nolandia and suddenly got cold feet about the prospects for their female led action sci-fi series aimed at females. It's completely inexcusable, and frankly ruins the whole movie for me.

(Oh yeah, I suppose I could mention how Kei and Yuri spend the overwhelming majority of the movie *literally* running around in their underwear. I would complain about this, except it's clear it's meant to be completely ridiculous and gratuitous and *everyone else* loses their clothes at some point too, including both Carson and the wizened Doctor Wattsman.)

Another thing about this movie that's not as effective as we perhaps might have hoped is the soundtrack. I had pretty big expectations for this, as the soundtrack to Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is widely considered by many fans to be the absolute best in the series. Already, I'm going to come out and say that it isn't, even just judging from what I've heard so far. I mean it's not terrible: There are a couple bits that sound like pastiches and updates of James Bond themes, which makes sense, and the rest of its is serviceable, inoffensive late-1980s pop music. Which I found to be...Not bad, but largely forgettable. There's certainly nothing here on the level of “Ru-ru-ru-russian Roulette”, “Space Fantasy”, “Love Everlasting” or, looking ahead to the second series, “By Yourself” or “Aki kara no Summertime”. The one song here I did quite like is called “Matters to Me”: Yuri dances to it while she and Kei are flying their hovercar through the skies above Agerna, and it's probably my favourite sequence in the whole movie.

Part of the reason I gather the soundtrack is as beloved as it is comes from the fact composer Kenzou Shiguma considered his music to be a marquee draw of the movie. Seeing the plot for what it was, Shiguma decided he'd score a concept album about his conception of who Kei and Yuri are and treat the movie as a musical or, well, a feature-length music video. This is frankly an abjectly brilliant idea, and I would have loved to see it fully realised because it certainly isn't here. One problem is that as stunning as the experimental editing is in places, its effectiveness is uneven across the movie as a whole. There are numerous points where we'll have just finished watching a groundbreaking, revolutionary science fiction film done as a music video and suddenly, as if somebody pulled a giant power switch, the action will cut back to people trying to painfully obviously fill space and kill time by robotically expositing the plot. It feels like the film would have been a lot better and a lot more effective if it really was just one big music video.

The other problem is, well, Shiguma's interpretation of Kei and Yuri is pretty flimsy and unclear. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that if Kei and Yuri are supposed to be 19, then this means they exist at some kind of midpoint between young girl and adult woman. Supposedly, Shiguma's score is meant to explore and convey this, though I confess I didn't pick up any of that myself. There is a germ of a good idea here, in that this could have been used as a commentary on the tension between the childlike simplicity that pervades so much idealism and the seasoned cynicism that so often comes with adulthood. Or perhaps, as people like Hayao Miyazaki and Shigeru Miyamoto often stress, the importance of holding onto a childlike sense of wonder and hope even as you grow throughout life and begin to have more tempered adult experiences. Kei and Yuri could then be read as the harmonious synthesis of these two ways of being. But again, I have to confess, I didn't pick up on anything of that nature: From what I can discern of the lyrics, they're pretty much all bog-standard pop stuff or trying to hearken back to the vibe of decades-old spy-fi, and neither the instrumentation nor the arrangement appear to be doing anything particularly special. Though, I freely admit I could be missing something.

All of this adds up to the sad conclusion that I honestly can't recommend Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture terribly highly, certainly not over something like the allegedly “cheap” and “dark” Affair of Nolandia. I can see why this is the most popular and beloved incarnation of Dirty Pair...But that statement can have two different truth conditions. There really is a lot this movie pioneers and does incredibly, incredibly well: It's a sci-fi landmark for its opening act and concept art alone. And, if you want a big-budget blockbuster version of the first TV series, I can see why you would really like this (Carson aside, that doesn't work as well for me because the film defaults to characterizations of the girls derived from With Love from the Lovely Angels). This movie does seem to be an attempt to take everything from the TV show and do it bigger, better and more spectacular. Unfortunately, this is equally as true for the show's problems as it is for its virtues, and it paints a dangerously inaccurate picture of what Dirty Pair is about on a very grand scale. If it's a masterpiece, it's a badly, badly flawed one.

My advice, go watch the first twenty minutes pronto-They're life-changing. If you can, track down the art book as well. But, you can comfortably drop the whole film as soon as the girls land in the abandoned experimental research lab; while the cinematography remains at that same mind-blowing level throughout the whole movie, it's really not worth it after that. Symbols have power and meaning and it turns out Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is just like its namesake: A beautiful failure. At this point, Dirty Pair can do one of two things: Either double down on plot and linear narrative in an attempt to return to the postmodern science fiction of its early days, or drop them altogether and blast off into the realm of images, feelings, music and cosmic splendour, never to return.

Actually hang on a minute-Come to think of it, Dirty Pair would make a hell of a video game...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sensor Scan: Aliens

There are, as we have learned, two ways to do morally and ethically defensible action sci-fi in the 1980s. You can either take the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind route and depict the violence as something awe-inspiringly grotesque to be avoided at all costs, or you can go the Dirty Pair route and wear your artifice completely on your sleeve (or really, to be more accurate, strip down to nothing but an artifice bikini) and just go wild in your wholehearted embrace of camp performativity. Both paths share one thing in common, however: The spectacle, irreducible from all forms of action sci-fi, is translated somewhere else, such as the breathtakingly imaginative worlds both works show us or, in the case of Dirty Pair, fully acknowledging we want to see fun and colourful explosions and gleefully giving them to us with wild and knowing abandon.

Which brings us to Aliens. The first thing that we should square away is that the whole idea of doing a sequel to Alien in the first place is inherently a bizarre one-There's not a whole lot of room in that movie to build subsequent works out of, it's pretty self-contained. Furthermore, Alien is a bit of a one-trick pony: There's simply no way a sequel can be expected to deliver that same level of shock and impact or posses the same sort of novelty. So, given the fact that a sequel to Alien was, in fact, greenlit, this sort of forces whoever the incoming creative team will be to improvise quite heavily to avoid feeling entirely repetitive. And this, I think, touches on the largest complaint against Aliens from fans of the first movie: Aliens is, in fact, quite different from Alien in a number of significant respects, and arguably on a fundamental thematic level. But the thing about that line of reasoning is that not only is James Cameron not Ridley Scott or Dan O'Bannon and thus is sort of by default not going to be approaching this movie with the same positionality, his film furthermore *had* to stand apart from theirs one way or another if it was going to see any manner of success.

And, like it or not, Aliens was very, very successful.

The stock criticism of Aliens I seem to have noticed is something along the lines of that, while the first movie was an intelligent sexual horror film that also proved to be a unique and innovative take on 1950s pulp sci-fi and horror archetypes and cliches, this one takes all of that and swiftly shoves it out an airlock in favour of flashy action sequences, unreconstructed militarism, wisecracks and Bill Paxton. Bluntly, this isn't even remotely true. Aliens does in fact lack the same level of, for want of a better phrase, sexual maturity, of Alien and has one or two annoying gender issues of its own (and I will address all of them a little later on), but this absolutely does not mean it's a mindlessly unironic action movie. Aliens is not Rambo: First Blood Part II, and is every bit as clever and innovative when it comes to exploring film genres as its predecessor was.

As is always my go-to for this sort of thing, I'll turn once again to James Rolfe. I'd say he's forgotten more about horror movies then I'll ever know, except for the fact I don't think he ever actually *has* forgotten anything about horror movies. As James explains in his own review of this film, Aliens, like Alien before it, takes its inspiration from both 1930s haunted house movies and 1950s sci-fi B-movies. While it inherits the former from Alien and retains the conceit of a bunch of unaware travellers finding themselves in a corner of the universe they're not supposed to be, the B-movie this time is not It! The Terror from Beyond Space, but Them!, a 1954 movie about an ant colony becoming exposed to nuclear fallout in the deserts of New Mexico, causing them to, naturally, grow to giant size and terrorize the populace. It's from Them! that Aliens gets the majority of its action pedigree, and also many of its iconic setpieces: Both movies feature charismatic military agents who investigate the scene of a mysterious disaster and then fight off a swarm of monsters, a young girl who survived the previous attack in catatonic shock from what she experienced, and even a climactic showdown against a “queen” monster in a nursery where the heroes torch her eggs.

Here's where the haunted house trappings come into play again, because we can tell right from the get-go that the Colonial Marines are overzealous, ill-prepared and dangerously underestimating their enemy, and the suspense comes from watching them charge blindly into things and, inevitably, getting picked off by the Aliens. So, just like in the first movie, we can say this group of protagonists is once again not supposed to be in this part of the galaxy (the movie poster even says “there are some places in the universe you don't go alone”) and we can extrapolate the anti-capitalist message of the first movie to now include the military industrial complex. So, far from being a straightforward action movie, Aliens continues to wear its influences and its ethics on its sleeve and reveals itself as a provocative deconstruction of militaristic action sci-fi as filtered through an expansion to Alien while still remaining a *ton* of fun to watch. Aliens may not equate its critique of unscrupulous institutionalized authority with a critique of rape culture as clearly or as elegantly as the first movie did (though it does inherit and invoke some of this by default being a sequel to Alien and using the titular monsters), but in its place it has all the trappings of genre bending and Long 1980s postmodern cinematography to play with, the styles having been long established by this point.

Though dialing back on Alien's vitriolic polemic against rape culture is perhaps in a sense necessary to keep it feeling fresh, this does mean Aliens is somewhat less sexually progressive and bold than its predecessor, though it does try, it must be said. The biggest problem is Ripley herself, now a legacy character. Marked from the beginning as the main character, she suffers the same fate as every other female lead, action or otherwise, to come in her wake: Namely, the problem that Hollywood screenwriters tend to have no idea what to do with a female lead unless they rest on comfortably familiar stereotypes about femininity. What made the Ripley of Alien special is that she was a gender-swapped male character with none of her lines changed except pronouns. The Ripley from Aliens is a woman from the start, and that's where writers tend to fall back into their bad habits. So, Ripley has to act as a surrogate mother figure to Newt, and this goes on to define a lot of her motivation in the back half of the movie (and I'm not even touching the stuff that happens in the further sequels) and is given another female character to be contrasted with. And naturally, Ripley is portrayed as the more feminine and “correct” one, and thus the one who survives.

(Frustratingly, Cameron seems to have this problem a lot in his science fiction stuff: The whole point of his Terminator films is that Sarah Conner is only important because she gives birth to John Conner and has to be protected. That she gets a massive badass boost in Terminator 2 does little to draw attention away from this troubling truth about her role in the series' narrative.)

But wait, I'm not going to brush by Private Vasquez just like that. Because she's the real reason we need to talk about this movie. Ignoring for the moment the fact she dies, Vasquez is a bloody amazing character and a rightfully deserved milestone in cinematic history. Even more butch than the original Ripley, ripped and crew-cut Vasquez smack-talks her way through the whole film, is more fun to watch than even Bill Paxton (yeah, I said it), thus immediately shooting down any critique that she's less sympathetic than Ripley and gave audiences a female character the likes of which they had never seen before. As for me, I absolutely adore her: Vasquez is bang on in the territory of female characters I love seeing, especially in a movie like this, and is far and away my favourite part of Aliens. Between them, both Ripley and Vazquez have indisputably defined the way Hollywood (and video games for that matter-Some of you know where this is going) conceptualizes female action heroes since, both for better and for worse. However, though Vazquez has had a profound impact on generations of creators, there are only two we need concern ourselves with for the moment. And those would be Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana.

Energized to discover they'd be working on Paramount's hastily announced new Star Trek series, Fontana and Roddenberry set about acquainting themselves with how science fiction had changed in the decade or so since the Starship Enterprise last took flight. This entailed watching a whole bunch of sci-fi movies, one of which was Aliens. After they watched it together, Roddenberry pointed to Vasquez and told Fontana “I want a character just like her on the new Star Trek”. This young lady was the first properly original character created for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and both Roddenberry and Fontana spent a lot of time hashing out who she would be and what she would be like. The character brief they came up with was, frankly, astounding. She was going to be a hardened, working class survivor of a failed Federation colony torn apart by gang wars and, in keeping with Star Trek's history of diverse casting, she was going to be a Latina.

(In fact, Vasquez had such an impact on Roddenberry he wanted to straight-up offer Jenette Goldstein the part on the spot, before Fontana, probably wisely, pointed out that Goldstein is not actually Latina, but is in fact a small Jewish woman.)

We'll talk more about this character (or rather Tasha Yar, which is who she eventually morphed into) once the rest of Star Trek: The Next Generation crystallizes, but just stop and think about the magnitude of the ramifications somebody like this could have had for the Star Trek franchise. Here's a character, a working-class human woman of colour, mind you, whose entire life has been a testament to the Federation's most systemic and shameful failures and is now among the USS Enterprise's senior staff. Though interpersonal conflict was always going to be a no-no, just imagine the perspective she could have brought to the show and the ultimate exploration of its own ethics it eventually became. Someone who doesn't speak or act like a philosopher or a refined, eloquent Starfleet Academy graduate, yet who is still treated as an absolute equal and a vital, beloved member of the crew. To me, the storytelling possibilities here are endless, and the potential futures she represents are the most achingly, heart-rending examples of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential in the entire history of Star Trek.

I know Vasquez has also been criticized as an example of half-baked feminism, especially in recent years. It's either bad that she embodies so much of what is seen to be the masculine conception of badass, bad that she's butch and also sexualized or bad that the non-traditionally feminine woman is the one who has to eat it. But here's the thing: There's no wrong way to be a woman, and the sooner we all realise this the better off we'll all be. The fact remains Vasquez was a wake-up call to US filmgoers and an important reminder that different kinds of women exist. Maybe she's not everything we'd want to see today, but she's still a milestone and an important, inspiring character. That she remains one of the benchmarks for women in action movies to this day is a testament to how little progress we've made since Aliens, not how retrograde Aliens itself is.

Really both Vasquez and Ripley are indicative of what's good *and* bad about Aliens from a feminist perspective. The film is frustrating not because it's poor or reactionary, but because it's constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. You can see the legacy of this in the comparative safeness of the works the film has inspired, such as Vasquez's inability to make the jump to Star Trek: The Next Generation and how Samus Aran suffers, beat-for-beat the exact same fall from grace in the Metroid series Ripley does here. And, ultimately, because history has shown this is pretty much as far as the Alien franchise ever got: Whatever individual merits Alien³, Alien Resurrection, Prometheus or the Alien vs. Predator series (the comics, movies and cartoon show, not the video games) might have, I don't think anyone can seriously argue that, as cohesive works, any of them are remotely on the same level as Alien or Aliens. Just like the Contras and the Xenophobes that followed in its wake, these works took the superficial aspects of the first two movies out of context and emphasized them such that their original meaning was all but lost. In fact, the debacle the Alien series became is part of the reason H.R. Giger revisited motion picture science fiction sexual horror eight years later and worked hard to give us his definitive statement on it.

But the fact there even is an Alien series and that its iconography and motifs have permeated pop consciousness to the extent they have is unquestionably due to Aliens. As well-received as Alien might have been at the time, this was the film that made the Aliens and H.R. Giger pop culture staples, and, furthermore, that gave Alien a second life. Many people, especially people of a certain age, saw this movie first and then, high on how much they enjoyed it, eagerly sought out Alien. For that alone Aliens has had a positive impact on society and earned its place in science fiction history. It deserves to be treated accordingly.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“I was quite the swinger back in my day”: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The 1980s were a good time for someone with a developing interest in oceanography. In 1984, archaeologist Barry Clifford found the wreck of the Whydah, a pirate ship captained by Black Sam Bellamy during the Golden Age of Piracy, off the coast of Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, a stretch of coastline that's a notorious navigation hazard and the site of many wrecks. It's also a coastline that happens to be six hours away from me and a place I consider a second home. The discovery of the Whydah by Clifford and his team was the result of an extensive search up and down Cape Cod's Atlantic coast and marks the first, and to date only time, an authentic pirate shipwreck has been located by marine explorers. Clifford founded a museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts (just north of Wellfleet) dedicated to Bellamy and the Whydah that remains open to this day, and while he's a local hero in New England, neither him nor the story remains well known outside of the region.

In 1985, Robert Ballard and a team of oceanographers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod made world headlines by locating the much sought-after wreck of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic. Ballard's discovery captured the imagination of people all over the world (myself included), it remains possibly the most famous exploration and recovery mission in the history of oceanography, and the story of the Titanic would inspire director James Cameron to create one of the two highest-grossing movies of all time over a decade later. It's since been revealed Ballard's expedition was actually a front, and that throughout 1985 he had been secretly in the temporary employ of the United States Navy. The true purpose of his mission to clandestinely search for two missing US submarines, the USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, which had sunk in the same waters in the 1960s before they got to test the experimental nuclear reactors they had been outfitted with.

Also in 1985, a humpback whale nicknamed Humphrey attracted heavy media attention after he got “lost”, travelling through the Golden Gate to end up in San Francisco Bay. Marine biologists grew concerned when he further deviated from his normal migratory patterns by swimming up the freshwater Sacramento River before getting himself trapped at the other end of the Rio Vista Bridge, putting his life in danger. In order to get Humphrey to safety, humpback researcher Louis Herman and acoustical engineer Bernie Krause played recorded songs of whales feeding on high-power underwater speakers provided by the US Navy to get Humphrey to retrace his steps and return to the Pacific Ocean. My interest in whale songs and whale behaviour was fostered by the story of Humphrey (adapted into a wonderful book called Humphrey the Lost Whale) and other whales in the news at the time (including the sadly near-annual tradition of pilot whale beaching themselves on Cape Cod), helped cultivate my interest in the ocean and a living ecosystem and is but one facet of the link I share with it.

At first glance, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home looks for all the world like Star Trek finally deciding to say something about the environmentalist movement, about ten or twenty years too late. The now ex-Enterprise crew has to travel back in time to 1986 to retrieve a pair of humpback whales, the species having gone extinct in the 21st century and a probe from the outer reaches of the universe has come looking to talk to them and keeps turning up the frequency of its message to dangerous degrees because it can't understand why it can't get any kind of response. Spock's constant comments about the illogical shortsightedness of hunting a species to extinction and Gillian Taylor's fiery and impassioned dedication to her cause at least place this movie on the right side of the issue, though in truth The Voyage Home's environmentalism is pretty superficial. There's not a whole lot of actual marine science on display here, and most of the rationale behind saving the whales the characters discuss amounts to “it's mean not to”. This isn't bad in the slightest and I'm not about to drag Star Trek across the coals for delivering a positive message in a soft way in a world where the collected works of Margaret Armen exist, but this does mean we probably ought to re-examine what this movie actually is.

What it is, first off, is a Star Trek sandwich. Being Star Trek, the production history naturally resembles a patchwork quilt knitted by seventeen different seamsters, none of whom knew what anyone else was doing and one of whom lived on the Moon. The beginning and end of the movie, that is, the parts set in the Star Trek universe's “present” and deal overtly with tying up the film serial's threads, were written by Harve Bennett, while the bits in the middle, the action in 1980s San Francisco, was helmed by Nicholas Meyer, no less. That is, by the way, after the initial four or five drafts were rejected and Paramount went through a bunch of writers. What's notable about the Bennett-penned stuff is, actually, how incredibly dull it is: We spend what's got to be a half-hour watching Starfleet people look at screens, Spock playing Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! on his Vulcan Nintendo WiiU and everyone else recapping the plot of the last two movies. Special demerits have to go to the scenes in the Federation council chamber, which basically amounts to a bunch of dignitaries having a right old laugh at the silly Klingon ambassador thinking he has grievances to air at the Federation. It basically nails the coffin on any idea that Kruge from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was supposed to be a problematization of the Federation's authority and presumptuousness.

(This is not helped by Bennett writing Kirk and crew as the noblest of noble, heroically enduring suffering and sacrifice for the good of the universe. It almost feels like this isn't the work of an old Star Trek veteran, but a fan coming to the series with pre-existing notions of its gravity and importance.)

Speaking of The Search for Spock, this is also the moment where Robin Curtis' Saavik is finally unceremoniously dropped off a bridge, staying behind on Vulcan for reasons that go entirely unspecified. Well, actually that's not quite true-They do go specified in Bennett's original draft for this portion of the movie, which would have had Saavik stayed behind on Vulcan because she was pregnant after her escapade with Spock on the Genesis Planet in the last movie. I really don't think I need to elabourate on why this would have been such a catastrophically horrendous idea, so I'll just once again stress that Saavik was originally supposed to be Star Trek's new lead in Star Trek II, got demoted to a support role in Star Trek III and Spock was explicitly her teacher and at least several decades her senior. Thank goodness director Leonard Nimoy stepped in and had that scene cut. In the finished film, Saavik's exit is insulting, but at least it's not as unbelievably offensive and repugnant as it could have been I suppose.

No, it's without question the time travel story that's the real highlight here. Perhaps surprisingly, considering his work on Wrath of Khan could charitably be called “amateurish”, Nicholas Meyer's section of the film is a largely unqualified triumph. Maybe it helps him to be working with a far more skilled director and to be limited to writing contemporary dialog, but the parts of Voyage Home set in San Francisco are generally an absolute joy and rightfully considered among the best of Star Trek's film offerings. Given its emphasis on marine biology and conservation, you'd think that would elevate the movie for me and it does: I'd definitely call it my favourite of the Star Trek films we've revisited so far. And yet oceanography is not actually one of Voyage Home's central themes (indeed, it's so little of a theme that we get puzzling decisions like redressing the Monterey Bay Aquarium as the “San Francisco Cetacean Institute” when there actually is a Marine Mammal Center in Marin County). Instead, what this movie really is, conceptually, is an update of “Tomorrow is Yesterday”.

While the main impetus for the time travel is different (the original pitch amounted to “there's something the Federation needs that can only be found in the 1980s” and the story is about purposefully going back to the past to save the future instead of escaping it), the structure is broadly similar, as both “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and Voyage Home have the crew time displaced and interacting with contemporary Earth in a humorously awkward and stilted way. Voyage Home comes across as superior in this regard purely because it builds off of the groundwork laid in Search for Spock in putting all of the characters, not just Kirk and Spock, on the same level, and it does so in leaps and bounds. Not only does each and every character get a moment to shine, they each get their own subplot that's integral to the final resolution. Never before or since has this cast been depicted this way, and everyone rises to the challenge eagerly and formidably: Everyone remembers Chekov and Uhura stumbling around Alameda looking for the “Nuclear Wessels”, or Scotty and McCoy inventing transparent aluminum with a Gen. 1 Macintosh (I had that computer, by the way). In “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, by contrast, only Kirk gets to play around in 1967, with the rest of the bridge crew relegated to pushing buttons and watching viewscreens.

That's not to say the choice to make the MacGuffin humpback whales was completely arbitrary, though: Nimoy picked them because he felt whale songs would give the film an “air of mystery”, and the film does pick up on this. The probe is one of my favourite ideas in all of Star Trek: This big, mysterious thing that suddenly appears out of nowhere, returns just as quickly and remains a completely incomprehensible and unknowable enigma. Likewise, the scene of it travelling through the solar system making the Federation's science stations go all wonky is one of my favourite sequences in the franchise too. It's the first moment I can say Star Trek truly and indisputably (and successfully) hits cosmic wonder. There's also the tiniest flash of the mystical and Fortean here too: Some people might scoff at the idea of cetaceans being a highly advanced intelligence with ties to the extragalactic realm (though curiously nobody seems to mind when Douglas Adams does it), but there is at least one account I've read where eyewitnesses report seeing whales and dolphins going wild in the presence of a UFO hovering over the ocean. I remember being reminded of this account the first time I saw this film and thinking how clever it was Star Trek seemed to be acknowledging that. In hindsight it probably wasn't intentional, but it's a fun motif to graft onto the movie either way.

Though the conservation message is there, the real purpose in sending the former Enterprise crew back in time is to re-examine Star Trek's utopianism with the renewed scrutiny the perspective of the 1980s provides us. In his own terrific review of Voyage Home, Jack Graham points out how the movie tells the story of relics from the utopianism of the 1960s forced to wander through Reagan's Neoconservative United States. This ties back into the wave of nostalgia for Star Trek and other pop culture artefacts like it that must have been circulating at the time: Voyage Home is essentially about digging up Star Trek and throwing it up against the modern world to see if it's still worth hanging onto in 1986. So, how does Star Trek's flavour of idealism and vision for the future stack up in 1986?

Well, one consequence of Nicholas Meyer handling this portion of the movie is that some of his trademark top-down heavy-handedness does work its way into the film: The worst example is probably when Spock questions Kirk about profanity on the bus, and he responds by saying “That's simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you if you don't swear every other word”. The implication, of course, is that Star Trek's refined and elegant future would have no need for such vulgarities, being as they are the province of uneducated commoners. So that's pretty bourgeois and classist. Then there's the scene (also on the bus), with the punk and the boom box, which is about as bad and predictable as people have said it is. And Meyer, being Meyer, can't resist throwing in pointlessly showy name-drops to Shakespeare, Melville and D.H. Lawrence, because he wants to make it perfectly clear to us that he thinks he's more intellectual and well-read than we are.

(Speaking of Star Trek's futurism, and I don't think this has ever been commented on before, but I think The Voyage Home may be the very first time in the history of the franchise where it's stated the Original Series is supposed to take place in the 23rd Century, and that money no longer exists in that time. This makes sense not just given Meyer's perspective, but because this movie also marks Mike Okuda's Star Trek debut, and it's Okuda who created the official Star Trek Chronology for “The Neutral Zone”. On a related note, Spock's behaviour in this movie was totally the template for Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

So this isn't looking terribly good. Star Trek is coming back for its own nostalgia theme party and still seems to be clinging to its dangerously outmoded paternalistic upper class white attitudes. It still seems to think it can swoop down from On High and tell us all how to live our lives, even though the world is a vastly different place and it never even had the right to do that in the first place. But The Voyage Home's production tribulations actually bail Meyer out on this one, because the key character here is Gillian Taylor. Though her part was originally written for Eddie Murphy in what is admittedly one of the franchise's biggest missed opportunities, Catherine Hicks is absolutely phenomenal: She's defiant, commanding and sprightly and a more then effective comic performer. She immediately gels with the rest of the cast (especially William Shatner and James Doohan) and outright demands to be heard and taken seriously as an equal at every opportunity, both in and out of character. Hicks turns Taylor into a complete subversion of the girl-of-the-week role she's expected to play, making decisions out of her passion for whales and for the future-Not at all for Kirk, whom she mostly regards as a well-meaning, but washed up, guy who's past his prime.

This is why Taylor is the lynchpin to everything here. The biggest criticism leveled against her, and one Meyer himself raised, is that her decision to accompany the ex-Enterprise crew back to the future invalidates a valuable message about taking responsibility to foster material social progress in the present. In essence, an escape into a utopian dream (and indeed, given Star Trek's age and attitude, one that may well be outdated) with no commitment to work towards making it a reality. Meyer is, predictably, wrong. Remember, the whole point of Voyage Home was from the start that there's something we have in 1986 the utopian Star Trek future lacks and is in dire need of: Taylor doesn't represent an escape into fantasy or an embrace of retrograde ideals, she represents the utopian ideals of the 1980s and the reason she's so important is because she reminds Star Trek that it needs them. That Star Trek needs her. On a textual level, Taylor herself points out that nobody in the crew's time knows anything about humpback whales, and there's nobody more qualified than her to teach them. And remember, this whole mess started because there were no whales in the future for the probe to talk to and the Federation had no clue what to do. Gillian is going to work for a better future because she's going to work to make Star Trek better.

(Oh yes, Gillian absolutely belongs in the 23rd Century. Which is why I adore it when Chris Claremont brings her back for the Original Series graphic novel he wrote for DC in the 1990s. She doesn't have a huge role, but Claremont clearly writes her as the only person who can act as Kirk's true equal and foil: She's the new, improved, platonic Carol Marcus. I always felt Gillian should have gotten a position on the new Enterprise as a natural sciences officer and was beyond livid when neither Star Trek V or Star Trek VI acknowledged her existence. Especially because the heartwarming scene in San Francisco bay at the end of the movie unquestionably casts her as a member of the family.)

And that's why this is such a terrific time travel story. Star Trek's re-emergence in the 1980s has revealed it to be something of a dinosaur: It's very telling Kirk and Spock's cover story is that they're homeless and burned out Berkeley hippies from the 1960s (hell, they don't even have the Enterprise anymore). As Gillian says, they're “hard luck cases” and it's tough not to have a soft spot for them. In allowing Gillian to come back to the future with the crew, Star Trek is admitting that it's a bit faded and out of its time, but, more importantly, it's making us a promise that it knows this and is willing to learn and grow with the times. It's something Star Trek has always said, but it's vitally important that it says this again now when history has definitively moved beyond it and Star Trek has officially become retro. It's the exact message the franchise needed to convey at this point in time, and it's a true laugh riot to boot. It's no surprise that in spite of its quirks and imperfections The Voyage Home became the most popular and successful Star Trek movie ever. Gillian Taylor brought whales to Star Trek, and Will Riker will someday make an offhand comment about a “cetacean ops” on *his* USS Enterprise.

Speaking of...The Voyage Home did so unexpectedly well that Paramount thought the time was finally right to bring Star Trek back to television. But, given the actors' salaries coming off of four feature films made them prohibitively expensive for a television budget, they decided to start fresh with a new cast. And, to everyone's surprise, they announced Gene Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, Dave Gerrold and Bob Justman would be back in the production offices.

The Next Generation is finally about to be born.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Star Trekkin'

We're jumping ahead a few months by looking at The Firm's chart-topping tongue-in-cheek send-up “Star Trekkin'”, which was released in June of 1987. But we've already played with temporal mechanics recently in regards to With Love from the Lovely Angels, and anyway, I can't honestly comprehend looking at this song anywhere else but here: That it went out into a world where Star Trek: The Next Generation exists is frankly inconceivable to me, but I suppose it's yet another example of how intractable and immovable the Original Series is in pop culture.

I don't really need to analyse this song too much as “Star Trekkin'” is pretty self-explanatory. It's a cumulative song that runs through caricatures of the Original Series cast who rattle off parodic and increasingly scrambled variations of their iconic catchphrases. And there are some real doozys-My favourites are Uhura's acknowledgment of the sheer inherent ridiculousness of the Klingons (“There's Klingons on the starboard bow/Scrape them off, Jim!”) Kirk's wallop of “We come in peace! Shoot to kill!”, Scotty's “Ye cannae change the script, Jim, och, see ye Jimmy!” and of course the chipmunk'd chorus of “Star Trekkin' across the universe/On the starship Enterprise under Captain Kirk/Star Trekkin' across the universe/Boldly going forward, 'cause we can't find reverse”. It's pretty straightforwardly, and amazingly, an itemized list of everything that was ever cliche about the original Star Trek.

One thing that's neat about “Star Trekkin'”, aside from the obvious, is how it plays with its structure as a cumulative song. The way the crew keeps repeating their lines, both in their actual verses and when those verses are recreated in the next verse, it sounds like a VHS or cassette tape somebody keeps rewinding and playing over and over again. And, as the verses get stranger and more distorted as the song goes on, building to its epic chipmunk finale, it sounds like that same tape is getting, well, warped. And, when this is all paired up with the wonderfully bonkers music video featuring sock puppets, pizza starships and singing potatoes, “Star Trekkin'” becomes just about the perfect translation of Star Trek to the Long 1980s: At once playing off of the venerable twenty year nostalgia cycle (Star Trek, as an extent filmed media phenomenon, turned 20 in 1986) and into the post-MTV understanding of the power of symbolic imagery, “Star Trekkin'” distills its source material down to its most memorable setpieces and parrots them as a commentary on the ouroboros-like mentality that accompanies being a Star Trek fan.

But this is worth parsing out. You'll notice that, over twenty years on from “Star Trekkin'” itself (pushing thirty at the time of this writing), there's been nothing similar done for any of the subsequent incarnations of Star Trek that came in its wake. There are a number of factors perhaps involved in this outside of Star Trek itself: For one, so-called “old media” like pop music (or at least the pop climate that would allow something like “Star Trekkin'” to reach number 1 on the pop charts) swiftly died a quick and painless death in the 1990s, a decade that also saw (at least the West) slip into an embrace of complacency and apathy that, at least as far as I'm concerned we haven't come out of yet (if indeed it's even possible for us to anymore). But within the texts themselves, a cursory glance at Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and even Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise, reveals that none of them are anywhere remotely near as easy to riff on and condense down to soundbites as the Original Series is (I mean people try, especially people who make Internet memes, but that doesn't mean they're successful at it) . And that's because the Original Series is nothing but soundbites.

The thing is, when most people think of the original Star Trek, this is what comes to mind, and I'm not especially convinced that's a such a terrible thing. Even I, someone who spent the better portion of a year using the Original Series as the case study for an experiment in critical media studies, am now sitting here writing this struggling to come up with an enduring aesthetic legacy of the series itself, as opposed to that of the creators it influenced. Sure, it had good people involved with it who cared about it and I tried to emphasize that in my analysis to come up with redemptive readings when I could, but when I look back on Star Trek with even the comparatively little distance from it I have now, well, soundbites and setpeices are all I can come up with too. It's not like this was some great and profound work of literature that people have unfairly caricatured and misrepresented, thus ensuring that the only thing people remember are the superficialities; Star Trek was *born* caricatured. There's no way a satirist could have skewered Star Trek any more effectively than the way it skewers itself right out of the gate, intentionally or otherwise, in “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “The Man Trap”. And that was before Fred Freiberger, Arthur Singer and Margaret Armen took over.

And while much of that may have been due to Gene Roddenberry's heroic hackishness and boundless incompetence, a great deal of it is also on Star Trek fans, namely Star Trek fans of the mid-1980s. These fans are a bit different from the zine culture-driven Star Trek fandom of the 1970s (those sorts of people had long since moved on to other shows. Like, Miami Vice, for example): A case could be made the reaction to the film series, in particular its retrograde serialization, was responsible for a shift in the core of Trekkers' identity. Star Trek fandom as it exists at this point in time is of an unfortunately myopic sort: This is, after all, a subculture that will, with unyielding passion, continue to insist Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the greatest movie ever made to this day. Other people, that is, people who have a wider familiarity with media apart from Star Trek reruns and Robert A. Heinlein novels, remember the show for what it was instead of what people with tragically limited reference pools try to project onto it. And this song is really just as much for them as it is for anybody else.

This gets at what's starting to change for Star Trek in 1986. That “Star Trekkin'” made it all the way to number 1 on the pop charts is a pretty good indication that Star Trek is fondly remembered by people apart from the hardcore Trekker scene and that it's valued for ideas and iconography, if not always its actual media artefacts. In spite of what Trekkers think, Star Trek has always been popular and well-loved. It's an iconic, instantly-recognisable part of United States pop culture all over the world; it's hard to see how it could be anything other than this. But Star Trek as it exists in 1986 is popular in spite of, not because of, its textual quality. Yes, there are a handful of landmark television moments in the Original Series that can very easily be mobilized for material social progress, but it's extremely challenging to build a case that this is true for the show on the whole. But this doesn't mean Star Trek isn't fun. It's the definition of a cult classic; good, campy fun that people remember from a time that was, if not simpler or better, at least worth thinking back on once in awhile.

What Star Trek really needs now is to remind people why it's deserving of all those fond memories. That it's not only a lot of fun, but actually has something to stand for and something to offer. And it needs to prove its relevance without falling back into its old heavy-handed and po-faced bad habits, lest it disappear back into the dusts of collective memory once again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sensor Scan: Spenser: For Hire

Spenser: For Hire
While Miami Vice remained technically a crime drama about policework, it was much more a staunchly deconstructionist work that went out of its way to problematize its genre as much as it did the social structure it was going out into. Spenser: For Hire, uh, isn't.

Based on a series of “hard-broiled” detective stories by Robert B. Parker, Spenser: For Hire chronicles the exploits of the titular private investigator Spenser and the hired gun Hawk who, while they occasionally operate on opposite sides of the law, both live their lives by a firm code of ethics and principles and respect each other's decisions. This is pretty much the extent of the premise here, the rest of the series amounting to your basic “hard-broiled” tropes and cliches. In both the books and the TV show, Spenser narrates over everything in a dramatic monologue about tough choices and hard life on the street and absolutely everything you would expect a character in this kind of story to be talking about. Parker is pretty blatantly following in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler here, by which I mean blatantly trying to ape, to the point Spenser has been read as essentially a carbon copy of Chandler's famous Private Eye Phillip Marlowe. Those parts of Spenser that don't come from Marlowe come from Parker himself, with whom he shares a suspicious number of biographical details, both having served in the Korean War and hailing from Boston.

As a result, the Spenser series becomes this sort of rambling treatise on Parker's life philosophy as filtered through a response to Chandler, in particular how it pertains to what constitutes a virtuous and honourable man. It's a lot of manly speechifying about manly men doing manly things, and I confess I found myself growing pretty exasperated pretty quickly. I mean, it's not the worst thing ever: Spenser is educated, well-read, enjoys traditionally cultured things like ballet and poetry and traditionally feminine things like cooking (it's a passion of his, in fact). There's also a surprising amount of extremely positive and diverse portrayals of gay males in the series, considering this was the 1970s and 1980s, likely owing to the fact Parker's two sons were openly homosexual. But, Spenser rolls his eyes at feminism in the earliest books and even later on, with the debatable exception of his significant other Susan Silverman, women are background bit players. And oh yeah, Spenser is also a heavyweight boxer, a decorated war hero, can kick anyone's ass into next week, never, ever takes damage or breaks a sweat and *all* the girls want him, you guys.

Yes, Spenser would absolutely be decried as a Mary Sue if he was a woman, and this touches on the fundamental problem with this so-called “hard-broiled” noir stuff. The whole crux of Chandler's argument against the Agatha Christie school of dime-store mysteries were that they were unrealistic and inauthentic escapism, and he's right, but what is the tradition he himself spawned except escapism for a specific sort of romanticized male power fantasy? Yes, in terms of male action heroes you could do considerably worse than someone like Spenser, but he still dominates the spotlight to such an extent it overshadows everything else about the world, an that's never going to not be patriarchal. Hard-broiled detective stories are not realistic or representationalist in the least: Certainly they don't need to be and I'd even argue they probably shouldn't be (at least not in the context Chandler is using), but to decry Agatha Christie for writing women's fluff while declaring that the men's fluff you write is better and more realistic literature is a pretty low blow. Trying to build a comprehensive worldview out of Spenser: For Hire is no less damaging and ill-advised then trying to build one out of Death by Darjeeling.

As for the television series itself, it's here that the gulf between Miami Vice and other shows of the time really becomes apparent. Because even though Spenser: For Hire premiered only a year after Miami Vice, it already feels painfully creaky and outmoded. This would be the case even if it wasn't based on a by this point ten year old book series: The direction, cinematography and music all feel like a relic from a previous era. It's considerably less visually interesting than Miami Vice (and not just because the bits of it I watched were set in Boston in the wintertime) and it's actually rather difficult to believe this was the chronologically newer show. Almost everything feels flat, listless and lifeless, and this is not at all helped by Robert Urich's profoundly uninspiring portrayal of Spenser. Urich genuinely feels miscast, and in no way seems to embody the suave, manly character Parker wrote, which, admittedly, might not have been an altogether bad thing. This show is a picture-perfect demonstration of how passe traditional network television, and honestly detective fiction in general, was by 1985. It's not entirely surprising the series floundered around in the ratings flirting with cancellation for the rest of its run.

But comparisons with Miami Vice in which it comes up consistently lacking are not why we're looking at Spenser: For Hire here. No, the real reason we have to talk about this show is because Avery Brooks is in it. Brooks plays Hawk, the contract killer and bodyguard associate of Spenser's and is absolutely formidable in the role: He takes the original brief of Hawk as a fiercely principled man who can serve as Spenser's mirror twin despite coming from a vastly different background and possessing attitudes that Spenser might otherwise find repugnant and just runs with it, turning Hawk, who was originally a supporting character, into Spenser's unqualified equal and co-lead. One of my favourite scenes comes in an early episode where Hawk is in the employ of a corrupt gambling magnate Spenser has been hired to take down. The script has Spenser try to lecture Hawk about his life decisions and how he's too good to be on the “wrong side of the law”, and Hawk gets a firm rebuke where he calls out Spenser's position of privilege.

Urich, for his part, seems to try and give Spenser the moral high ground here, playing it as if Hawk is a kind of sympathetic antagonist, a sort of well-intentioned extremist. Brooks has absolutely none of this, completely shutting Urich down by emphasizing the presumptuousness of Spenser acting as if he has the right to tell Hawk how he should live his life, having never grown up black and never having to spend his life hunted, feared, demeaned and infantilized for his skin colour and heritage. It's a triumphant scene, one of many Brooks gives to cut against the solipsism the series tends to exhibit elsewhere. Indeed, Brooks is so good and so powerful that Hawk quickly became the series' breakout character, earning his own short-lived spinoff in 1989. In fact, he may have even have had an impact on Parker himself: Early Spenser books focused on the title character almost exclusively, but, after this show, Hawk became more and more of a central figure, to the point Hawk essentially became the main character of Parker's last few novels, relegating Spenser to the support role. As Brooks himself once put it:
"I never thought of myself as the sidekick...I've never been the side of anything. I just assumed that I was equal."
There are two reasons Avery Brooks is so effective here. The first is that he is an incredibly passionate and dedicated activist who genuinely believes in the power of art to effect social change and firmly committed to his cause. The second is that he's a classically trained thespian who actually has the skills and the range to back that up: Not just an actor, Brooks is also an educator and worked for a time as a professor of theatre arts at Oberlin College, and as a result has an incredibly deep-rooted understanding of how drama and narrative works. Brooks brings a gravity and Shakespearean bombast (and here that phrase actually means something) to his roles and is by default a powerful and captivating stage presence. He doesn't go halfway on things, so when given a brief like this he'll absolutely leap at the opportunity to make it as memorable and provocative as he can.

It's little wonder then that Avery Brooks landed the role of Benjamin Sisko so easily. Although, ironically enough, it's Star Trek that reveals how influential Hawk as a character really was: The whole reason Sisko isn't bald and doesn't have a goatee, which is Brooks' preferred look, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's earliest seasons is because the producers felt that style was iconic to Hawk and they wanted to avoid comparisons. In other words, Brooks was so well-loved as Hawk that Rick Berman and Michael Piller were afraid it would overshadow the fourth Star Trek series. And even when he did get to have his look back, that was around the time the production team began to write Sisko far more brooding, mysterious and dangerous...Almost like Hawk. Which is a shame, because Avery Brooks has an incredible, incredible acting range: Just compare Sisko's earliest scenes on Deep Space Nine (especially when he's interacting with Jennifer, Jake and Jadzia) with how Hawk behaves, and you'll see how manifestly different the two characters are.

But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's production tribulations are still comparatively far removed from where we are now. What's important for the moment is to highlight what an amazing actor and person Avery Brooks is, and how lucky we all are that he contributed his talents to help build a legacy of utopian fiction.