Thursday, January 29, 2015

“A family doesn't need to be related”: The Bonding

This is one of those marquee episodes that gets breathless amounts of critical acclaim, always tops fan lists for best episodes and is always held up as being a decisive sea change for the show. And all that praise is absolutely deserved. Oh yeah, this one is absolutely brilliant. More than that, it's perfect. It's about as perfect a blueprint for how Star Trek: The Next Generation should work and a self-demonstrating example of that structure in action as exists. But why precisely “The Bonding” works as well as it does and its true impact and legacy not just on this show, but on every Star Trek series to come, is actually surprisingly deceptive.

“The Bonding” is the end result of the early intersection of two forces new to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's of course Michael Piller's debut as head writer, and it's also the inaugural offering from the first new bit of creative blood Piller brought onto the show: One Ronald D. Moore, future Dominion War architect and Battlestar Galactica brainchild who, suffice to say, is going to be something of a major figure from here on out. Although, as Moore quite aptly emphasizes, the success of both this story and his subsequent Hollywood career is due to quite a lot of luck: Moore was a die-hard Star Trek fan who practically worshiped the Original Series and, beyond excited about the prospects of Star Trek: The Next Generation, submitted an unsolicited spec script to the writer's office while working as a gas station attendant between jobs after his law career didn't pan out. Thing is, you kind of *don't do* that in Hollywood-Writers need agents and publicity teams; jobbing in Hollywood is not the sort of thing the average guy can just walk in off the street and decide to do some day.

Unless, that is, you happened to want to write for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.

Part of Moore's self-described good fortune comes from the second of two edicts Michael Piller made upon becoming head writer (the first being his staunch commitment to characterization and character development we talked a bit about in “Evolution”). Piller was at an absolute impasse with Star Trek: The Next Generation's complete, actual, literal lack of material and he knew no matter how talented the writing staff he could pull together, there was simply no physical way he could keep up with the punishingly unforgiving schedule of weekly television on his own. So, after running it by Rick Berman and getting his endorsement for the idea, Piller made a decision so elegantly simple no-one had thought to do it before: He decided to instate Hollywood's first, and to date only, open submissions policy. Thanks to Micheal Piller, Star Trek: The Next Generation became the only show on the block that anyone who was interested could submit a story to *sight unseen* with *no official representation or Hollywood backing*, a tradition that eventually carried over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The ramifications of this are nothing short of monumental. Although the open submissions policy tends to get hailed as an example of Piller recognising that Star Trek is most properly left in the hands of the fans (assuming only Trekkers would be seriously interested enough to write for it at a professional level), that's not strictly the case. Piller opened the gates to *everybody*, not just Trekkers: This was no exclusive club, that was actually the entire point. Piller's open submission policy is really an actually somewhat unheard of example of someone working within the confines of capitalistic media production acknowledging that Soda Pop Art is Western Modernity's version of oral storytelling. This is Star Trek for the first, and sadly probably only, time actually putting its money where its mouth is and wholeheartedly buying into its own rhetoric about being mythology for a modern world. As far as utopian progress in a corporate controlled cultural climate and intellectual discourse goes, at least in terms of capitalistic storytelling, this is quite frankly as good as it gets. This alone is enough to cement Michael Piller's status as probably one of the most important creative figures of the late 20th century: He peered into the future to give us a brief, distorted glimpse of what the future of Soda Pop Art *should* be. And it's now up to us to pick up where he left off and follow his lead.

Without the open submission policy, Ron Moore would never have landed a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation and “The Bonding” would have remained one more unsolicited script sitting ignored in the slush pile marked “Fanfiction: Do Not Read Under Any Circumstances”. And he quite probably wouldn't have had a writing career. But Micheal Piller read it, because he allowed himself to read it, saw how good it was and asked Moore to come out to Hollywood to make it a reality. Apart from the fact it's self-evidently genius, this is why “The Bonding” is typically seen as a classic, it's the first fruit of a popular partnership that will define so much of what Star Trek is going to look like for the next decade. Because of its success, Ron Moore was Piller's first hire for his new writing staff, thus allowing Moore to propel himself as one of Star Trek and science fiction's most important and formative creative figures of recent decades. And yet it's not quite as neat and tidy as we might think based on that particular narrative.

On paper, “The Bonding” reads like a surprisingly simple response to pulp storytelling cliches, most notably the death toll of a lot of genre serials, and in particular that of the Original Star Trek. This is a story about what life would really be like if pseudo-military scientists worked in hazardous environments under constant threat of death every day, and what would happen if they brought their children with them on their missions (no surprises here that Moore would eventually become such an outspoken critic of the idea of having families aboard the Enterprise). Given Moore is such a massive fan of the Original Series, it's entirely to be expected that his perspective would be strongly, if not predominantly, shaped by his reactions to it. Present here also, albeit in very, very prototypical form, is another trait of Moore's that will become a signature of his: A focus on telling “realistic” (read “dark”) stories in a science fiction setting. “The Bonding” is explicitly about how everyday people come to terms with death and loss, and there is vanishingly little in the way of speculative fiction thought experiments to be had here.

But that's not *all* “The Bonding” is. Although it deals with a very somber and weighty subject matter, this remains at its heart an exceptionally utopian bit of storytelling. It's not just a story about how people accept death as part of life, it's also a story about showing us how we can do that positively, healthily and constructively. The whole conflict, such as it is, involves Jeremy having to choose between accepting what happened to his mother and moving on with his life, or retreating into a life of perpetual denial, as the Kloinonians would offer him. Which is why Deanna Troi, wearing her psychologist hat again, is in such sparkling form and why she becomes such a central character: She's the one who facilitates the entire crew, not just Jeremy, being able to talk about the emotions this loss has them grappling with. And when they do, they don't deny their feelings, but articulate them as part of a healing process. There's the textual plot about Worf trying to accept responsibility for Marla's death and his sense of kinship with Jeremy as they're both orphans who lost parents in battle, and the obvious parallels between Jeremy's backstory and Wesley's. It may be Deanna's finest hour in this role. But for me the crowning moment is when Data and Riker talk about familiarity and Will delivers what for me is one of his best lines in the series:
"But should not the feelings run just as deep, regardless of who has died?" 
"Maybe they should, Data. Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody."
Will even brings up Tasha's death two years prior as a point of comparison. Frankly, “The Bonding” is every ounce the story “Skin of Evil” should have been, though it's something of a kick in the gut that the death of one-off Marla Aster is handled with more respect and gravity than that of Tasha Yar.

There are all sorts of other wonderful character bits all throughout as well: This is tremendous outing for Worf, possibly his best since “Heart of Glory”, Bev and Wesley get their best scene together yet and even Wesley himself isn't entirely unlikeable. Furthermore, it's becoming increasingly difficult not to ship Deanna and Captain Picard given how much the show has been throwing them together lately and playing up the idea she's his closest confidant: The scene where Picard halts the turbolift and opens up to Deanna in the ready room are particularly egregious, particularly due to how Patrick Stewart and Marina Sirtis play off of one another. On the other hand, you could also see “The Bonding” as laying the groundwork for Troi's later relationship with Worf, given how much she supports him throughout this episode, especially in forcing him to come out of his shell to talk to her, a dynamic which Sirtis and Michael Dorn are *very* good at.

In short, what “The Bonding” does is reaffirm Star Trek: The Next Generation's guiding ideal. This is a picture-perfect example of what children's television for adults looks like. If someone asks you what such a seemingly paradoxical and contradictory concept like that looks like, just say “this”. Show them this. Because nowhere is that more pronounced or its virtues more clear than when Captain Picard tells a grieving Jeremy Aster “on the starship Enterprise, no one is alone”. That's what it is, that's what it looks like, and that's why we need it. It's only a shame that Geordi doesn't have more prominent of a role, but the other characters more than make up for it in this case.

And yet all of this said...I haven't read the original draft of “The Bonding”, but it's a matter of public record it went through a lengthy and extensive amount of revisions before going into production. And there's no denying the finished product is a total masterpiece. So...I'm honestly not sure how much of what makes “The Bonding” as wonderful as it is I actually want to credit to Moore. I have a very strong suspicion a great deal of it, particularly the more overt utopianism, likely comes far more from Michael Piller, and yes, even Gene Roddenberry, both of whom had a lot of advice to give a young Moore. To be blunt, “The Bonding” has a nuance and elegance about it I'm not entirely confident Moore was capable of delivering, certainly not at this point in his career. The initial spark may have been his, but it was Gene Roddenberry who reminded him of where he needed to be shooting for, and it was Michael Piller who got him there. This is not a knock at Moore's skills in the slightest: History is littered with example of good writers who were allowed to be great by the people around him. I even seem to remember a young, fresh-faced Star Trek fan back in 1967 pitching a weird story to the Original Series about an invasive species of alien fuzzballs and Gene Coon immediately taking him under his wing.

It may also be worth taking a brief moment to talk about Marvin Rush again, if for no other reason than the fact I've been trying to emphasize how Star Trek: The Next Generation draws so much of of its strengths through its aesthetics, images and energy and I've been a bit lax in talking about that. “The Bonding” sees Rush continuing the look he's polishing for the show and is most evident in the lighting, which uses a lot of shadow to draw attention to contrasts. The scenes that stick out to me are, again, when Picard is talking to Troi in the ready room and when Troi is talking to Worf on the holodeck. Worf's scenes in particular are shot in a very dramatic and alien, yet reverential manner. Curiously, the actual blocking, at least as it pertains to the actors positions with respect to one another, remains exceedingly theatrical and classical.

What this all leaves us with then, I think, is an awareness that “The Bonding” was not the work of one man. Quite a lot had to be in place for it to turn out the way it did, and we should rejoice and be forever thankful for that because it's landed us one of the true all-time classics of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek on the whole. But let us remember as well that these circumstances will not be true forever, and you can't artificially capture lightning in a bottle. So let's make a point to enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

“Off the Verandah”: Who Watches The Watchers

Oh look. Vasquez Rocks.
There should be an entire genre of Star Trek story called “Star Trek Does Not Understand How Anthropology Works.”

So the obvious problem with “Who Watches The Watchers” firstoff is that it's a Prime Directive story, which means it sucks. It also has a kidnapping subplot, which means it sucks even more and I also hate it for that. But what really arouses my ire is that for the first time Star Trek explicitly connects the Prime Directive with anthropological fieldwork No, no, no, no. You know that one person who's so specialized in a certain field they get irrationally upset when bits of pop culture misrepresent that field through innocent ignorance? Yeah, I'm pretty much that person when it comes to anthropological methods. I'm sure everyone has their own justifications for getting incensed over stuff like this: Because we've dedicated a lot of our lives to working with and studying it, we think things like particle physics or paleontology or thermodynamics or ballistics or whatever is The Most Important Thing In The World and that when TV shows get it wrong it will surely send society onto a path of utter ruination.

But here's the thing. Pop culture is a shared language and is the first exposure roughly 99% of everyone is going to have with certain concepts, fields and ideas, and getting them wrong can in specific cases be actually misleading to the point of being irresponsible. And Star Trek has been as guilty on this front as anything else, being at times egregiously sketchy on things like history, legal jurisprudence, developmental biology and yes, cultural anthropology. There's a certain political and social responsibility associated with these things that you can't just cast aside and ignore in favour of squeezing more melodrama out of your script, especially if it's particularly shitty melodrama. And call me biased all you want, I am casting cultural anthropology in that group because cultural anthropology is fundamentally about how people communicate with and understand each other. If you don't know how to do that, or teach people how to do it poorly, you are provably being a toxic and counterproductive force in the world.

Cultural anthropology is first and foremost a framework for empathy. It's an academic structure that facilitates talking to people and getting to know them and the way they think better. There's a reason one of the field's most sacred tenets is called “participant observation”: Anthropologists think the best way to learn about people is to live with them, talk to them and do what they do. There is a necessary sharing and exchange of of positionalities that happens when we do this, and both the insider and outsider perspectives are equally valued. This is how thinking and living anthropologically can help make the world a better place, because when positionalities meet people are exposed to truths and ideas they might not have been otherwise. So, in the case of, for example, international development, it's generally accepted by anthropologists that the people who know what's best for improving the quality of life of local populations are the people who themselves live in them, the insiders in the situation. But outside contacts like anthropologists can serve as necessary and useful middlemen who can relay those needs beyond the immediate local era while also mode-shifting between the situated knowledge-spaces of indigenous knowledge and global Western discourse because they themselves have become of two worlds (this is, of course, provided people are willing to listen to them in the first place).

In “Who Watches The Watchers” though, we have Federation anthropologists staked out in a big fuck-off holodeck duck blind spying on the Mintakans from afar, much as a classical Great White Colonial Explorer might do, or indeed a sport hunter going after his next trophy mark. This is almost the first thing they teach you not to do in your Intro to Cultural Anthropology 101 class, as the entire field of modern cultural anthropology was formed in direct opposition to this very way of thinking and doing fieldwork. Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of our field, railed against this in the *1920s*, calling it “anthropology from the veranda”, in reference to pampered white aristocrats who would build elabourate mansions on hills overlooking native populations whom they would watch with binoculars, because not only is it obviously patronizing and racist as fuck, you also miss absolutely all of the goings-on in the day-to-day life of the people you're supposed to be getting to know, which is always the most important part of the story.

From there, the episode dovetails into a standard-issue Prime Directive faffabout, which is anthropologically stupid for its own reasons. I've already talked this up a great deal in the Original Series book and I'm not going to repeat myself every time Star Trek does, but the basic problem I have with the Prime Directive is that it is an entirely unnatural way of thinking. Simply by interacting with other people, you're “interfering in their development” to some extent because your mere presence means their lives are not playing out the way they would if you hadn't been there. Anthropologists have had to deal with this for decades, because we know it's impossible to get a truly “objective” or “unbiased” account of the daily lives of our contacts because we've had the gall to go and crash-land *right into* their daily routine, and anyone's life is going to be disrupted somewhat if you have a stranger in khakis trying to interview you and ask you silly questions. But that's life, and the only way to avoid that is to shut yourself off from everybody and shun human contact for the rest of your material existence.

The one good thing is that this time it's the Federation at large screwing up with the Enterprise crew forced into the position of doing damage control, which is a twist on this hackneyed trope that we haven't seen before and does play nicely into the strides Star Trek: The Next Generation has been making at separating the Enterprise and her crew from the institution they're supposedly subordinate to. However, the episode then handily decides to rub salt in my wounds by having the loveable sci-fi primitives go and kidnap the ship's *female* *anthropologist* to sacrifice her to their Cargo Cult of Captain Picard, because that's what all wacky savages are wont to do in fiction. Incidentally, Ira Steven Behr, who's about to join the writing staff, says that this was a good episode but that it was let down because Captain Picard didn't stay around for the next half a decade to face the consequences of his decisions. He also says the fact that the Enterprise always leaves is Star Trek: The Next Generation's fatal flaw, which is a statement that's rather unfortunately telling about the blossoming cultural norms of this creative climate.

As unfathomably offensive as this all is, it's tempting to lay the blame on the outgoing Michael Wagner, whose brief and unhappy tenure with Star Trek: The Next Generation comes to an end here. If “The Survivors” tried to recreate the virtues of the Original Series and was at least watchable, “Who Watches The Watchers” can't help but drag up its vices. And it's, well, not. But with Wagner gone and Michael Piller finally stepping up to bat, won't that usher in a brand new Golden Age for the show? Some might say that. But it's truthfully not a simple as we might like to wish it was-Yes, Michael Piller finally takes the big chair after this, but his mere presence does not magically make everything better or mean the day-to-day operations of the show are going to be any less insane for the next year or so: Piller isn't going to be able to prevent “Yesterday's Enterprise” going through the rewrite process on Christmas Eve or the season ending on a cliffhanger due to contract renegotiations running long.

What Piller taking over will mean most immediately is a specific policy change that will streamline the process of getting scripts. What this will *not* guarantee, however, is a net increase in the quality of those scripts-The problem, perhaps appropriately, remains with people who don't understand Star Trek: The Next Generation. People who can't grasp the strengths that come with its unique stature amongst primetime television drama, or perhaps more to the point the people who think those strengths are actually the weaknesses it can't help but inherit from its ancient and creaking pedigree. It's a stereotype that Star Trek and Star Trek fans both have a dangerous predilection towards insularity and navel-gazing, but, like a lot of such things, it doesn't come without historical precedent. There is an inkling to become so absorbed in the bubbles of our individual positionalities that we neglect the universe outside of them. Perhaps we should let “Who Watches The Watchers” stand as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let those impulses consume and define us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

“The needs of the one”: The Survivors

Our textbooks always generalize history and make it all seem much cleaner than it really is: A torrid cycle of life reduced down to big, monolithic, yet easy to digest bits and pieces. Here's where this Age ends. Here's where this Age begins.

Even though “Evolution” is the big watershed debut of Michael Piller, it's nowhere remotely near the case that everything after it can be safely called part of the “Michael Piller Era” or that we're now comfortably in the period of Star Trek where everything is Right and Good and Doesn't Need To Be Talked About Anymore. For one thing, Piller isn't even on staff yet: Michael Wagner is technically still head writer and co-executive producer, him having managed to get two other stories after “The Ensigns of Command” and “Evolution” into production before fleeing the scene-This one and the next one (as well as banging out an *extremely* early rough draft of “Booby Trap”). Essentially, even though we're now in the period that's frequently cited as the Big Star Trek Golden Age...None of Piller's trademark innovations are actually visible yet, at least not as standard operating procedure, and won't be for another month at a conservative estimate (there's another episode coming up in a couple of weeks that's similarly held up as a transformative milestone, but, as we'll see, there was no reason at the time to see it as anything other than a complete fluke).

So what we get with “The Survivors”, and for the next two weeks or so more generally, is a curious dead end: This is as close to a glimpse at the abortive “Michael Wagner Era”, or as much as such a thing can be said to exist, that we can get. If we're going to try to tease out any sort of influence, if any, Wagner might have had on the unfolding text of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the most opportune moment to talk about it with him not only still technically on the payroll, but writing the script for “The Survivors” as well. This episode is also interesting for me personally, as it's one I actually have no recollection of: “The Survivors” is among a handful of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes that I at once never saw when it originally aired, but also somehow managed to miss whenever it was rerun during any of my numerous revisits of the show. So finally seeing this on Blu-ray was an education for me in a number of respects, as it both filled a gap in my personal history of Star Trek and also gives me insight into how Michael Wagner and his team might have conceptualized Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Unfortunately, that seems to be “A very TOS-like sci-fi mystery superficially updated for modern sensibilities”. It's a bit uncanny how well this ticks the necessary boxes: The Enterprise shows up somewhere where something weird is happening, the away team beams down to discover a baffling mystery with locals who are being suspiciously obtuse and evasive, more stuff happens including, but not limited to, at least *one* major space battle and ship-shaking scene, some telepathic chicanery, the captain bluffing his way to victory on an assumption while leaving his co-workers in the dark, something deeply shocking and unpleasant happening to one of the female crewmembers, and it all ends with a trademark Hyper Evolved Being of Pure Consciousness engaging the captain in a philosophical debate about a weighty moral dilemma that's entirely removed from anything that there was the slightest chance of being construed as applicable to actual terrestrial morals and ethics. And, of course, the whole conflict hinges on something as eye-rollingly bombastic and cheesy as “The Love Of A Woman”. It's not purely for dramatic effect that Captain Picard tells Kevin Uxbridge “We are not qualified to be your judges. We have no laws to fit your crime”.

(Even the denouement, where the Enterprise mopily warps away from Delta Rana IV with Picard recording a somber Captian's Log entry ruminating on pop philosophy could have come straight out of something like “Requiem for Methuselah”. In fact, the whole thing kinda feels like a Jerome Bixby script.)

What's immediately interesting this time, as opposed to all the previous times people have thought Star Trek: The Next Generation is just Star Trek with better acting, better special effects and nicer set design, is the specific version of the Original Series Wagner seems to focus on. When the first season team got lazy and did this, they quite explicitly emphasized the version of the Original Series that was Roddenberry's Fables: That is, the crew drops into some idiosyncratically quirky and backwards planetary society to teach them the Proper Way To Do Things, typically by way of a big Moral Lesson delivered with the subtlety of the average blunt instrument. Wagner, meanwhile, seems to have hit upon a paradoxically more idealistic version of the Original Series, that is, the Original Series the way it was under Gene Coon. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say “the way it was trying to be”: “The Survivors” is no less held back by its ageing body and structure and is thus ultimately no less retrograde, but it does hide this remarkably well, with Star Trek: The Next Generation's ultra-modern production elevating the source material considerably and laudably.

“The Survivors” then is sort of what the Original Series would look like if all of its broad-strokes, sweeping grabs for greatness actually gelled with a production that was halfway coherent. As turbulent and crazy as things might be behind the scenes in 1989, it's *nothing* compared to the cloak-and-dagger backstage politics of the TOS era. Every problem Star Trek: The Next Generation has at this point comes purely from the outside; people who don't get this show don't tend to last long (just look at, well, Michael Wagner), while Star Trek, at least as a material bit of media, was constantly let down by creative infighting and micromanagement. While the Original Series was insufferably po-faced thematically, it was at least po-faced with an earnestness and ambition that you have to respect at least a little, and had it actually come together a bit more frequently and maybe not been so appallingly morally repugnant with such alarming regularity, it might have managed to become a little endearing, if slightly pretentious, as a result and might just have had a legacy that extends beyond its pure aesthetic superficialities. In short, it probably would have looked a lot like “The Survivors”, so in that regard Michael Wagner really has hit on the ideological core of Star Trek: The Next least as it was originally conceived. The major problem is, of course, that this is no longer what this show is and it hasn't been this for years.

That ultra-modern production really musn't be discounted, by the way. As standard-issue as the plot feels at times, “The Survivors” is a very visually interesting piece of work and is one of the first instances where we get to see how Marvin Rush has changed the look of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Firstly, this is a far brighter show than before: Rush's predecessor, Edward R. Brown, used a lot of darkness and shadow, especially very early on in the first season (most notably in “Lonely Among Us”, which for me simply defines the look of the series' early years). Rush, however, uses a lot of very bright lighting, especially in the interior shots of the Enterprise corridors. So much so, in fact, that he tends to be (wrongly) accused of giving the show a “bland”, “washed out” look: This is mostly due to the steady decay over the years of the original transfer from the VHS tapes all this was composited on back in the day, which makes everything look fuzzy and beige. Thankfully the Blu-ray restoration finally shows us what Rush was really going for, which turns out to be a very high-contrast look that emphasizes areas of strong light mingling with areas of murky shadow, thus giving the show a more cinematic lighting scheme and a much more vibrant sense of colour: Things like the maroon command division uniforms, Deanna Troi's new teal sun dress, the carpeting in Picard's ready room and all the little details on the LCARS displays look really, really stunning now. “The Survivors” is a particularly good showcase for this, considering a not-unsubstantial bit of it takes place during a perfectly beautiful summer location shoot at a Malibu beach house.

Rush's touch is seen elsewhere too, I think, especially during the sequence with Data and the music box, Picard and Riker's conversation in the ready room and Troi's psychic torture scenes: In each instance, the camera slowly pans around the characters, dynamically going into and out of focus at key moments to emphasize specific expressions or important symbolic elements of the shot. In the past, especially last year, the show would have simply run with a bog standard two or three static camera setup and shot everything like a typical TV play (in fact, you can see this as recently as “The Ensigns of Command”). It's not that the new approach is on the whole any more cinematic, if anything the 4:3 resolution Star Trek: The Next Generation forces itself into is going to preclude this by default, but it *is* a bit more visually creative and expressive. The director here is Les Landau, an old veteran of the show by this point, but I think I'm going to attribute a lot of this to Rush, as Landau's previous efforts, which I've liked, I hasten to add (he did “The Arsenal of Freedom”, among other things) haven't quite stuck in my mind the way this one has.

(Getting back to Troi's scenes briefly, as uncomfortable as they can be they're also early example, it must be stated, of the creative team deciding to experiment with new things to do with Troi's character so Marina Sirtis can show off her acting range. This subplot, for example, was quite obviously done so Sirits could go into a full-on Ophelia spiel. It's also sort of sweet that Captain Picard is the one who wants to know if she's alright and who she confides in: There's that Captain Picard “Warmth” again and it's played as a nice extension of the special relationship they're at least supposed to have.)

Incremental change is the name of the story tonight, I think. “The Survivors” is a surprisingly fascinating story to talk about and in some ways really is a bit of a watershed. But again, a lot of this is only clear through retrospect: We now know which changes and innovations here took, and which ones didn't. And it's a bit telling I've been able to go this long without actually talking a whole lot about Michael Wagner or his story in any significant detail. Almost all I could come up with to talk about are things that are going to prove important going forward, rather than what makes this story and this story in particular unique. So I guess in that regard I'm no different from anyone else who's tried to write grand, sweeping historical narratives of shows like this.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

“Adapt to serve nature or become extinct”: Evolution

Natural selection is not teleological. A species does not evolve from an inferior state to a superior one, it changes in response to new environmental circumstances. There are no “higher” forms of life, and to claim otherwise is tantamount to race (and species) essentialism. Species adapt to harmonize better with nature, not to surpass and dominate it.

It's with its third season, fans always claim, that Star Trek: The Next Generation finally got good and started to become the show we know and love. Older accounts would breathlessly emphasize how the show was apparently on the verge of cancellation because of how terrible the first two years were, and it was only “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1” that saved it and guaranteed it would go on to have a prosperous future. Nowadays, especially with mainline fandom's re-evaluation of the Dominion War arc and the success of Battlestar Galactica, it's become trendy to say that not only was Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season the beginning of “the good part”, it was unambiguously the best year of the entire series *by far* because it was the only time both Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr (the former being responsible for the reimagined BSG while both helmed the Dominion War) were on staff together. The true story of this fan-favourite run of stories is a bit more complicated then either of those accounts would lead you to believe, however, and there's one very important person whose positionality always seems to get swept up in the torrent of the Master Narrative and overlooked.

Star Trek does not have the patriarchal neo-auteur construction of the “showrunner” that's so common in modern parlance about TV shows: Cult of Gene Roddenberry notwithstanding, there's no one person who it can be even pretended holds ultimate sway over any individual era's look, feel or quality. Although Roddenberry is always keeping watch, always hovering around making sure his specific (though small) set of requirements are being met, his job is and always has been basically that of a sort of quality control analyst-He's not, strictly speaking, an auteur or a creator. But it can be said Star Trek has had, over the years, people whom we might call primary creative figures-A creator or group of creators whose voice was strong and compelling enough that it shaped or facilitated a great deal of the tone of any given period.

To overgeneralize for the sake of argument, during the first two seasons of the Original Series, this was obviously Gene Coon, along with D.C. Fontana and Bob Justman, with John Meredyth Lucas taking over Coon's role for the tail end of the second season. For the final year of OG Trek we had the somewhat infamous duo of Fred Freiberger and Arthur Singer butting heads with Justman, with Fontana coming back to hold the majority of the Animated Series together by herself. The movies, meanwhile, were a confused bundle of fisticuffs with Roddenberry, Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and Paramount corporate all vying for the creative control. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season could have been comparatively more stable thanks to Maurice Hurley and D.C. Fontana restoring a manner of professionalism to things, but Roddenberry's stubbornness drove a wedge between him and the new staff, causing a rift between him and writers like Tracy Tormé, a situation not helped by Hurley's (and, to an extent, Rick Berman's) unwavering loyalty to Roddenberry. And to be blunt, much of this was on the writers, many of whom quite frankly did not know how to write utopian fiction in general, let alone Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that's a problem that is *never* going away. Berman and Hurley were mainly concerned with keeping things above water during the second season, but they certainly had creative aspirations too, even bringing in clearly talented people like Melinda Snodgrass, Rob Bowman and Durinda Rice Wood. They very well might have succeeded were it not for the writer's strike.

But now in September, 1989 all of those people, with the exception of Roddenberry and Berman, are long gone, and even Roddenberry is starting to seriously distance himself from the franchise due to his declining health. And from now all the way until June, 1994, that primary creative figure is unquestionably Michael Piller.

Piller was a veteran of numerous Hollywood odd jobs, working as a writer, producer, network executive and censor at various points during his career, including a noteworthy (from our perspective) stint writing and producing teleplays for Miami Vice. A phone conversation with his friend Maurice Hurley brought Piller to the Star Trek: The Next Generation writer's room in 1989, which he wound up inheriting after everyone else stormed off in frustration. He stayed there for seven years. Piller came in as “head writer”, basically a catch-all term for “guy who vets scripts and makes sure the show has some semblance of aesthetic coherence and also won't make the studio accountants cry”. Though Piller would eventually become executive producer himself, Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman kept their titles and positions, and he would have an immediate and lasting impact on Berman in particular: The two bonded instantly over their shared passion for baseball, setting the stage for a friendship and a partnership that would last for seven years. Piller was one of those people for whom baseball is almost a spiritual philosophy for life, and nobody who worked with him have memories of him anywhere outside the writer's room or a baseball field.

In “Evolution”, Paul Stubbs is also a major baseball fan. Much like Piller himself did, Stubbs understands his positionality through baseball metaphors and terminology. And yet in doing so he maroons himself in the past, consciously cutting himself off from the march of history. Baseball no longer exists in the 24th century, and in defining his life by it, he is making a deliberate statement that he does not care for the company of his peers and wants no part in the beat of current society. As he tells Wesley here:

“Nobody will say anything at all, Wesley. We will not even be mentioned. I could live with failure. Well, maybe not. But never even to try. To miss your one chance at bat. Do you know baseball?” 
“Yes, my father taught it to me when I was young.” 
“Once, centuries ago, it was the beloved national pastime of the Americas, Wesley. Abandoned by a society that prized fast food and faster games. Lost to impatience. But I have seen the great players make the great plays.” 
“Do you recreate them on a holodeck?” 
“No. In [my mind]. With the knowledge of statistics, runs, hits and errors, times at bat, box scores. Men like us do not need holodecks, Wesley. I have played seasons in my mind. It was my reward to myself for patience. Knowing my turn would come. Call your shot. Point to a star. One great blast and the crowd rises. A brand new era in astrophysics. Postponed one hundred and ninety six years on account of rain.”
Of his friend and colleague, Ira Behr reminisces that he could never understand why the very first thing he did on Star Trek: The Next Generation was to declare that baseball, that which he loved more than anything else, no longer existed in the show's utopia.

If there's one thing that changes for Star Trek: The Next Generation between its second season and its third, it's Michael Piller. He was a steadfast, caring, passionately dedicated working creator possessed with a near-boundless sense of imagination and spirited whimsy. And yet even though he is quite arguably Star Trek's most criminally unsung hero and presided over the single most popular and successful period of the franchise's history, it's no less disingenuous to claim Micheal Piller was the one who singlehandedly pulled Star Trek: The Next Generation out of a slump to become a critical and commercial success. For one thing, Piller was manifestly not inheriting a failing show: A difficult one, certainly, and absolutely one that had driven away lesser creative teams, but the claim that Star Trek: The Next Generation was struggling in the ratings or was somehow irredeemably awful in its first two years is simply wrong. Although syndicated ratings were not measured the same way as those of network shows, if you were to combine the two categories, you'd discover that at no point during its seven year run from 1987 to 1994 was Star Trek: The Next Generation *ever* not somewhere among the top twenty most watched shows on television, and sometimes it even topped that list. To claim otherwise is just Trekkers trying to cling desperately to the comfortable illusion of insular cliquishness in the face of historical record.

As for the quality argument...Well, I hope I've managed to make a compelling case for all of you so far for the merits of the show's early years. At least the first season.

And yet things have most definitely changed. Most obviously, at least from the perspective of us as audience members, the opening credits. The theme song has been entirely re-arranged and re-orchestrated, and Mike Okuda and Dan Curry have created an entirely new intro sequence to go along with it. And it's one of the most breathtakingly, indescribably beautiful moments in television history. I don't believe that anything else put to film, before or sense, captures a feeling of vastness and cosmic wonder the way this two minute sequence of pure resplendence does. Each individual planet, star, comet and nebula latches firm onto the imagination, perfectly complimenting the haunting synthesizer remix that elevates Alexander Courage's “Space...The Final Frontier” piece so far above its origins it essentially transcends itself; musical ego-death. The entire sequence is also a triumph for practical effects: I was stunned, and charmed, to discover Mike Okuda made the nascent solar system structure at the beginning by unwinding a ball of coloured yarn and wrapping it around an overexposed light bulb!

It's a masterful, singular statement of purpose that, as good as it's been so far, Star Trek: The Next Generation has lacked up until this point. Which makes it as fine an introduction to Michael Piller's tenure as any,'s not *quite* the set of visions that have remained with me all these years. Not yet. The little sting the theme closes with as the Enterprise goes to warp that was introduced in the last season and is used again in this one has always rang dissonant with me, if only because I'm not used to it. And, well, honestly, the cast of characters still isn't where I want it.

Speaking of...

One of Michael Piller's biggest innovations as head writer is nailing down a concrete set of guidelines to help new and beginning writers write for Star Trek effectively. Piller would always give notes to his writers that reminded them to, among other things, make sure that their plots in some way or another involved the interiority or positionality of one or more of the main characters. So you could, for example, do some kind of space opera or techno thriller but, *at the same time*, your script would *also* have to be a “Picard Story” or a “Troi Story” or a “Worf Story” and so on. By this lexicon, while it shares the “what measure is a non-human?” plot of “Home Soil” and anticipates the A-story of “Cost of Living”, “Evolution” is also a “Wesley Story”. Piller said that when he looked at the story his friend Michael Wagner gave him to help flesh out, he realised that Wesley and Doctor Stubbs were actually the same person, just at different stages of life. That Wesley, in fact, has not had a healthy childhood and that, were he to continue living his life they way he's been living it, is going to end up as obsessed, empty and sociopathic as Stubbs. This leads into one of the first of many examples of Piller's immaculately passionate and soulful dialog exchanges when Deanna tries to talk to the mad doctor:

“Your self portrait is so practiced, so polished.” 
“Yes. Isn't it though?” 
“It's stretched so tight the tension fills this room. And if you finally fail, I fear it will snap..” 
“A good try counselor...But sometimes, when you reach beneath a man's self portrait-as you so eloquently put it-deep down inside what you nothing at all..”
Now critically, this kind of narrative symmetry is not something Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't know how to do before (look at, just off the top of my head, “Heart of Glory”, “We'll Always Have Paris” or “The Measure of a Man” for example), but Piller's years of experience mean he brings with him an elegance, effortlessness, and an achingly poetic voice that's most prevalent in his dialog and his sense of tone (Guinan in particular just sings under Piller's pen which, in hindsight, of course she would). Being able to pull this sort of thing off regularly and reliably is a sign of talent and professionalism both, and while Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't ever really lacked it, Michael Piller is going to make sure that it never will because he's such an absolute master of it.

And yet I also immediately have to wonder what the upper limits to this approach are going to be. Piller's strong focus on character interiority and positionality has the potential to make Star Trek: The Next Generation a far richer and more vibrant series, but one also has to remember how easy it is to get lost in this kind of storytelling such that broader themes and ideas are left behind in favour of deeper and deeper voyeuristic probing into the psyche of characters to the point it becomes little more than pointlessly masturbatory navel-gazing. The challenge from here on out is going to be learning how to balance this newfound emphasis on characterization with the show's pre-existing commitment to idealism: How does getting to understand our characters better tie into the show's larger and grander utopian vision? Simply letting them angst and angst about generic and vaguely defined “conflict”, as so many writers would have them do, is plainly going to be unacceptable. What Star Trek: The Next Generation must do now is show how our characters, through the application of their positionalities and relationships to the situation at hand, demonstrate examples of utopian conflict resolution. So the guiding message really hasn't changed all that awfully much, it's just maybe a bit clearer and more explicit now then it used to be.

But ultimately it also has to be said that “Evolution” is a prime case of almost-classic status. Some fans might hold it up as a genuine classic, but I wouldn't agree. It almost gets there, but a few things notably hold it back. Although it's historically important as Michael Piller's debut, the rushed circumstances he was working under mean it's not the most complete nor the most effective showcase of his talents that exists. That alone wouldn't be enough to raise serious concerns for the story, but what really holds “Evolution” back from classic status us, unfortunately (and yet again) its source material: It's a “Wesley Story”. It may be a *good* “Wesley Story” and probably the first sensible thing done with his character since his creation...But it's still a “Wesley Story” and Wesley Crusher still simply does not work. Piller does a heroic job with the show's most problematic character by showing how his touted child prodigy status is actually dangerously unhealthy for him, but Wesley's presence still ends up warping the whole narrative around him, forcing it to become terribly patriarchal; this is, after all, at its heart still a story about the manpain of men who let themselves get buried in their work and neglect the women in their lives. And that *really* leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Here, essentially, is where it finally becomes clear that Wesley's days are now functionally numbered. Even Michael Piller can't make him work.

Though there may be no higher species or life-forms, there perhaps are higher states of being. But such things can only be attained through recognising, understanding, and indeed treasuring, that which binds us to the cosmic oversoul of nature, not presuming we are separate from and superior to it. These are forms we can reach through travel, reflection and meditation, being a kind of generative spiritual evolution through communal sublimation somewhat, though not necessarily completely, distinct from the physical species-wide evolution of natural selection. Humans of course cannot free themselves from natural selection entirely, because to do so would be to cut ourselves off from nature. Perhaps this is something Star Trek: The Next Generation is now trying to tell us it understands, and this is why Nanmo, to date the most openly transhuman character in Dirty Pair, shows up on the Enterprise herself, and as an egg, no less. The one person who did quite literally die and come back in a new form gets reborn once again, as a literal “Next Generation” that allows the Enterprise to ruminate on the Tantric aspect of divine motherhood as it diegetically observes a star that dies and is reborn every 196 years.

I may give birth to myself, just as I may give birth to another.

Rick Sternbach's official concept art of "The Egg".

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“The world we want to transform has already been worked on by history”: The Ensigns of Command

It's become accepted fandom opinion that Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season was when the show first “got good”; the beginning of the series' golden age, if not the show's single best year by far, *period*. This is, obviously, far more complicated than testimony this glib would imply it is. For one thing, I maintain that Star Trek: The Next Generation's early years were not entirely without merit, especially the first season. And while things most assuredly change this year and there are a number of reasons for this we'll discuss in turn as we go along, the third season's import and legacy comes mostly when taken together in restrospect. In the moment, the show's production was no more or less chaotic and turbulent than it had always been.

Nowhere is the gap between the fan-esposued master narrative for what the supposedly near-”legendary Season 3 was and what it actually felt like for those who were in the trenches working on it more apparent than in the season opener “The Ensigns of Command”. Though aired after the story that actually went out as the year's first episode, “Evolution”, “The Ensigns of Command” was actually put into production first, and it feels for all the world like an uncertain time of transition. Onscreen we get a number of fairly noticeable changes: There's a new intro sequence, new costume designer Bob Blackwell, (hired at the recommendation of the departing Durinda Rice Wood, who herself replaced William Ware Theiss) was finally able to redesign the Starfleet uniforms by ditching the unfortunate spandex jumpsuits for cloth two-piece ensembles with pipped collars that are both far more fetching and far less destructive to the actors' spinal columns and new director of photography Marvin Rush begins to reconceptualize the show's lighting to great effect...Though he was actually only on hand for part of this episode, with key bits of it needing to be helmed by Thomas F. Denove.

But behind the scenes, it starts to feel depressingly a bit more like business as usual. Head writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley has long sense departed, him basically having checked out during the final third of the second season, and with Hurley goes the last tangible link to the creative team that was around when Star Trek: The Next Generation was originally conceived. Hurley left absolutely nothing behind that was in the remotest sense usable, and the only remaining actual writers on staff were Richard Manning, Hans Beimler and Melinda Snodgrass, the latter of whom had only been with the show (and writing for TV in general) for about half a season. With Gene Roddenberry starting to walk away from the show for health reason, the only person in a position of leadership left was Rick Berman, who was faced with the unenviable task of stringing together a functioning television production with roughly the same amount of resources and sense of preparedness as me. Whichever poor sap took Maurice Hurley's place would be essentially responsible for the lion's share of the creative work and would have on the order of weeks to get Star Trek: The Next Generation-quality material on actual television.

The poor sap in question was one Michael Wagner, an Emmy-nominated writer and story editor largely known for his work on Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s. Upon getting his new office, Wagner promptly discovered a paltry handful of scripts all in various stages of unworkability and a behind-the-scenes culture he was entirely unprepared for and had no idea how to interact with. Lacking a story of necessary weight for the season premier (which, among other things, needed to reintroduce Gates McFadden and Beverly Crusher, whom Rick Berman diplomatically invited back the moment Hurley was out the door. By astonishing coincidence, Diana Muldaur just happened to decide to quietly resign around about the same time), Wagner called up a friend of his to help flesh his idea out. In the meantime, he put the story that was closest to completion into production ahead of the premier. This one: “The Ensigns of Command” by Melinda Snodgrass.

This being a Snodgrass script, there's an odd familiarity about it that one might not expect from the first episode of the supposedly milestone, era-shifting Third Season. Apart from the way it looks, there's nothing specific about it that couldn't have been done before now, and in fact Snodgrass plainly returns to a lot of themes here she'd already enjoyed exploring in her second season submissions: Legal jurisprudence, colonists' rights and Data. By her own admission, “The Ensigns of Command” is pretty blatantly about how Snodgrass figured Data would react when confronted with a situation where, as she so memorably colourfully puts it “...logic isn't enough, to show that in order to command you have to have charisma. You have to learn how to wave your dick and hope your dick is bigger than the other guy's”. There are some other little bits that are reminiscent of last year too-In particular, while I'm sure she'd watched episodes with Gates McFadden in it, Snodgrass clearly hadn't written for Doctor Crusher before, and many of her scenes here one can imagine working very well for Diana Muldaur's Doctor Pulaski. Although that said, “The Ensigns of Command” is very possibly the first time somebody *other* than Gates McFadden decided to do something actually interesting with Doctor Crusher, paving the way for some great joint Crusher/Data stories down the road.

This was an episode I always rather liked, being fond of both Data's relationship with Ar'drian and the exasperated remaining Enterprise bridge crew trying to deal with the unreasonably immovable Sheliak. Upon rewatching it this time though, I unfortunately have to say this is probably the weakest of Snodgrass' efforts I've looked at so far, even counting the questionable and awkward Irish stuff in “Up The Long Ladder” (which wasn't her fault anyway) and the egregiously nonsensical legalese of “The Measure of a Man” (which I'm in an extreme minority on). The Enterprise crew are plainly in the wrong here, or rather Snodgrass seems to be telling the wrong story. There's no defensible ethical or narrative reason why we ought to be opposed to Gosheven here: The colonists may be unable to fight back against the programatically lawful Sheliak, but they shouldn't have to. Tau Cygna V is unquestionably their planet as they're its aboriginal settlers: I don't give a damn about what treaties say in this kind of situation and neither should the Enterprise crew: Treaties like this are precisely what have cheated indigenous people out of their homes and turned them into victims of coerced relocation and genocide throughout history, and this episode, thanks in large part to Snodgrass privileging Data's personal story above everything else, quite frankly puts them on the wrong side of both history and basic ethics and turns them into corporate-state lackeys.

(That aside for a moment, it's also appalling that the creative team decided to dub over Gosheven's actor, who went uncredited by request, because he sounded "too John Wayne". It's incredibly noticeable, offensive and horrible to listen to.)

As big a critic of the Federation and what it stands for as I am, I'm strongly opposed to a lot of the actual diegetic criticism of Starfleet and Federation ethics from here onward. So much of it, especially once you get to the Dominion War era, will actually go so far as to tacitly equate the moral positions of the Enterprise crew, and Star Trek: The Next Generation itself, with that of the Federation party line. This strikes me as spectacularly wrongheaded given any number of episodes we've seen so far, in particular “Too Short a Season” and literally everything having to do with the Borg, but the reason this line of criticism exists is *specifically because* of episodes like “The Ensigns of Command” because Star Trek has a very particular cumulative approach to character development that really starts to show itself here.

Way back in the “Journey to Babel” essay I called this essentially “character development by fanwank”, in which character's positionalities are defined by building off of throwaway lines in previous stories regardless of whether this was ideologically a good idea or not, as opposed to thinking critically and internalizing, as an actor might do, about how a specific character views the world and how they might respond to a certain situation. Snodgrass actually doesn't do this here, but the existence of reactionary and ethically reprehensible stuff in stories *like* this enables *future* creative teams to build a case against Star Trek: The Next Generation that actually *will* manage to misrepresent it and shift public opinion on the series in a negative direction, at least for a time. This is going to be a continuous problem for this show, and it's this season where it starts to get particularly bad and noticeable as we start to give more weight to how characters *textually* acted then we do the ways they probably *should* have been acting.

(It's also kind of interesting and weird, if you think about it, that the story has a female character call out the “irrational” and “illogical” behaviour of humans, but it's still ridiculously problematic because this lands the series back into the jaw-droppingly banal and anti-humanist “logic versus emotions” debates the Original Series traded so heavily in.)

I mean apart from this there's a lot to enjoy here: This is a solid episode for the regulars, though Geordi and O'Brien are frustratingly wasted, and the bridge scenes in particular are *extremely* good: I always get a kick out of Picard and Troi debating the Sheliak in the climax, and Riker's bemused reaction when Picard starts to troll them. It just makes me wish the crew were acting in a more proactive and ethically sound manner. This is also the story where it becomes painfully obvious what Deanna Troi's job *should* be: Ship's anthropologist. The scenes where she and Captain Picard discuss language, communication and cultural differences are all absolute gold-There hasn't really been anything like this since “The Big Goodbye”, and there's vanishingly little of it going forward either. Naturally *this* isn't what the creative team decides to run with in regards to Troi's character.

Picard himself is in great showing too: All that much-touted “warmth” that supposedly doesn't enter into Patrick Stewart's performance until “Family” is perfectly and blatantly on display here, especially in his scenes with Data. The Sheliak Corporate itself is an inspired and memorable bit of design from Rick Sternbach, and their “We will eradicate the human infestation!” is one of the most impossibly badass lines in the show's history. But none of this really makes up for the fact that the episode’s basic moral underpinning is as half-cooked and worrisome as it is. Given that “The Ensigns of Command” seems so confused and chaotic, it's perhaps no surprise that incoming head writer and executive producer Michael Wagner...walked off the set in the middle of production.

Right now, and once again, Star Trek: The Next Generation is a ship without a captain.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Myriad Universes: Star Trek: The Next Generation FASA Role-Playing Game

Here's another one of those things that crop up every now and again that, while I'm sort of obligated to cover them, I'm a bit out of my depth and don't really have any business talking about them.

I never played tabletop RPGs growing up. To this day, I have still never touched a tabletop RPG. Actually, I'm not even entirely certain *how* you play tabletop RPGs, though I have a basic, functional understanding of what they are and what they do, mostly through tracing the lineage of video game RPGs and because my work and interests mean I tend to rub elbows with Nerd Culture with some amount of frequency. But the fact remains that this is still something wholly and entirely outside of the wheelhouse of my personal experience. I'll freely admit I don't “get” these and never have.

From what I can gather, the primary draw of these types of things is that they're a form of generative storytelling set in a shared and recognisable universe, and that I *definitely* understand. I think I've always been some kind of natural-born performer, and when I was a kid one of the things my friends and I liked to do was pretend that we were our favourite characters and act out our own imaginary stories in the backyard. We would play it as almost a sort of writer's jam session, coming up with a basic prompt and then just sort of freewheeling it from there: Somebody would randomly shout out some big plot twist, and we would all have to immediately deliver a reaction based on what we understood of our character and how we thought he or she would react-Thinking back on it, it was basically a crude version of improv theatre, considering we were basically actors ad-libbing the entire play. I would guess more or less every kid did some version of this when they were young, though I don't know how many of them privileged the freeform improvisation aspects of the game to the extent we did.

But it's this very experience that makes it difficult for me to completely *get* tabletop RPGs. To me, they just look too complicated: You've got a weighty tome (sometimes several) with all kinds of tables, charts and statistics that's supposed mathematically define every single little bit of worldbuilding, which strikes me as running contrary to the generative anarchism of the experience. My regular issues about reducing culture, personality and human behaviour down to numbers aside, it's forcing what to me seems like an unnecessary structural middleman onto the instinctual compulsion of writing stories. Although, I suppose I *can* see how basing your actions and plot twists around die rolls or playing cards or whatever might be preferable to hinging everything on the whims of your friends, who might suddenly decide to sink the ship or call in a massive Borg invasion fleet or something.

Another thing I never really understood about these games is that, from my admittedly paltry and limited experience with them, they seem to emphasize the world-building minutiae more than the characters: The books I've skimmed all talk about building characters from the ground up around pre-existing narrative roles, skillsets and character classes, and while that makes sense for something like Dungeons and Dragons I can't see it working at all with a property like Star Trek. If I'm playing a Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, I'm gonna want to play as Tasha Yar or Geordi La Forge or Commander Riker or somebody, not come up with some faceless Starfleet ensign character who's just transferred onto a generic starship out patrolling the Beta Quadrant somewhere. While a certain type of fan probably *wishes* that it was, Star Trek isn't like D&D, which really is at its heart just a constructed world with some guidelines about how it works and who lives there. Star Trek has iconic and beloved characters that people relate to, look up to and project on to, and you can't suddenly pretend they don't exist.

If I were to speculate, I'd guess the reason for the popularity of tabletop RPGs based around existing franchises is because they seem particularly Nerd Culture friendly. They're a form of transformative writing that doesn't have the cooties-related stigma of proper, actual fanfiction and provides a structure for imaginative play that, while I never felt was particularly needed, a different kind of person might: I'm extremely outgoing, extroverted and gregarious and always have been (not to mention I'm also someone who loves being outdoors and in nature), and I'm sure some people probably feel more comfortable acting out their stories inside around a table with their closest confidants instead of running around screaming in the backyard. It even provides a lot of opportunities for people to fret about canon and continuity and things like that (my friends and I, meanwhile, blew up entire planets and starfleets with somewhat alarming regularity).

Star Trek in particular seems well-suited to this approach given the long-standing fantasy Trekkers have of actually transporting themselves wholecloth into its world that dates back to at least the 1970s fanfiction scene. Indeed, it was was so ubiquitous even then that Paula Stone could parody it in an age when the Original Series and Animated Series were the only filmed Star Trek that existed. Unlike Trekkers, I personally tend to prefer living vicariously through my pop culture idols and role models: There's probably something that reveals about my lifelong fascination with performance and artifice that's linked to specific aspects of my personality and perspective, but that isn't strictly relevant to the topic at hand today. The flip side to that is though that I want to provide a rejoinder to those of a Nerdier predilection than I that, contrary to a commonly accepted maxim, non-Nerds *do* enjoy generative storytelling and playing with pop culture constructed worlds, we just do it slightly differently and far more casually.

All of which is to say this RPG based on Star Trek: The Next Generation is never something I would have seen or played with. Although from what I can tell, it's not just Star Trek: The Next Generation, but rather a kind of expansion for a larger Star Trek RPG by FASA that dates back to 1983. There were a number of these books, all based on various alien species, gameplay scenarios, and the different movies. They also apparently played pretty fast and loose with Star Trek's Almighty Canon, bringing in stuff from the spin-off novels, reference books and even fanfiction and wildly extrapolating things like cultural norms and starship design from the actually pretty minimal material provided in the filmed stories. Notably, the Klingons and the Romulans are entirely different from the way Trekkers today would have conceived them: The Klingons have a strong cultural fixation on attaining and maintaining power, are defined by imperialistic expansion and feel they have a sort of divine right mandate to conquer and subjugate the galaxy, while the Romulans are guided by a desire to attain enlightenment and “reach the stars” through aesthetics and emotion.

This sort of imaginative, speculative approach to Star Trek's world also means the FASA RPG is probably the last manifestation of a phenomenon that's been a part of the franchise since the wilderness years: A case can be very strongly made that during the 1970s, when the only filmed material you could watch was the Animated Series and syndicated reruns of the Original Series, Star Trek really did belong to its fans pretty much exclusively. The only “world-building” per se was whatever particularly inspired writers could extrapolate from the scant material there was, and things like tie-in novels, fan-produced reference books and fanfiction really were Star Trek's “canon”, because they were all officially licensed by Paramount (because Paramount licensed basically any Star Trek product random people would pitch them back then since the series was so niche at that point anyway) and nobody was expressly contradicting them. But by the 1980s that had changed, as Star Trek opened the decade becoming big business at the box office and than, unexpectedly, becoming a runaway smash hit on television.

These two books based on Star Trek: The Next Generation, an “Officer's Manual” and a “First Year Sourcebook” covering the first season of the show (puzzlingly released in September on the heels of Star Trek: The Next Generation's *third* season) are among the last Star Trek works produced by FASA, and there's a very good reason for that. With Star Trek's unprecedented renaissance, Paramount suddenly tightened their belt in regard to merchandise licensing, and stuff like this was an early and swift casualty. It's not hard to see why: The fact it flagrantly contradicted so much of what Star Trek: The Next Generation was beginning to establish might not have been such a big deal had that not been precisely the kind of thing that sets Star Trek fans off...and had Star Trek fans not been the primary demographic Paramount was now targeting, however misguided and ultimately ruinous that would eventually prove to be.

And furthermore, among the many, admittedly interesting, discrepancies between FASA's Star Trek and the Star Trek Paramount was trying to sell people was a shockingly staunch fixation on militaristic themes that simply does not sit at *all* well with a modern reader: FASA goes into elabourate detail about things like the “Starfleet Marines” and published any number of expansions all centred around grandiose starship combat and military campaigns. Paramount, understandably, felt this was entirely antithetical to utopian message of Star Trek, especially given just months before this book came out Captain Picard was emphasizing how “Starfleet is not a military organisation”, and promptly revoked FASA's license. I mean regardless of how true that statement actually is, you can see why Paramount did what it did because the underlying message is clear-Star Trek should not be focusing on the military and imperialistic aspirations.

And yet...There another side to this that reveals some far more unpleasant undertones to the concept of Star Trek as a media phenomenon. FASA's version of Star Trek may not jive with what the series' virtues now supposedly were but, just like the earlier Star Fleet Battles, it's not a reading of the franchise that's at all unfounded. All of that ugly militarism is right there in the Original Series and the movies, and even though Star Trek is now valued for other things, that doesn't mean, and will never mean, that this isn't part of its roots. Also, while Paramount may passionately evoke Star Trek's utopianism and how much hope it brings to so many people in their justification for actions like this, but the truth of the matter is that this is just a nice way of saying stuff like FASA is no longer “on message”. This is, after all, the era where we all begin to care about things like “brand integrity” and “brand uniformity” and say things like “on message”. They may have allegedly noble reasons for it and it may not be quite as bad as, say, the erasure of fanfiction, but the act itself is still one that perpetuates and reinforces corporate monopoly of mythology and the tyranny of intellectual property. For that, Paramount deserves just as much condemnation as FASA, if not more.

And that seems to reveal the inherent drawbacks of tabletop RPGs as much as anything: To me, they seem to be a corporate-approved way of writing stories in shared constructed worlds. Just as narrator's toolkits and sourcebooks impose a canon structure upon the act of writing that prevents the truly transformative power of real fanfiction, tabletop RPGs are themselves the product of a capitalism-controlled, and therefore ultimately reactionary, form of storytelling. This is generative storytelling assimilated by the Borg. This is a generative storytelling that poses no threat to hegemony because it not only has its stamp of approval, it actually relies on it to exist. And a storytelling so compromised lacks its soul.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sensor Scan: Batman

Yeah, yeah, I know-Another retrospective on the 1989 Batman movie. As if the world needs another of the bloody things. It *is* a major cultural signifier of the summer, though, and is furthermore at least partially responsible for the malaise of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: We can't exactly ignore it, so just bear with me and I'll try to make it worth your while.

As I've said elsewhere, US superhero comics are not my medium of choice. I have no emotional attachment to them and are blissfully unaware of the comings and goings of DC and Marvel beyond the bare minimum of what is absolutely required so as not to be persecuted by Nerd Culture. So frankly, I couldn't give a neutrino's emission about how Batman stacks up as a comic book movie: Comics and comic culture are entirely peripheral to what this movie is and what it did. This was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon with viral marketing and everything and remains a cultural touchstone for generations of filmgoers regardless of the frequency of their patronage of comic shops because, difficult as it seems for some to comprehend, statistically everybody knows who friggin' Batman is. Indeed, superheroes and Star Trek both are among those bits of pop storytelling that are so ubiquitous and recognised they become universally acknowledged as representatives of the modern Western tradition around the world in spite of Nerds' incessant attempts to pretend they're marginal and niche.

I did see this movie, though. Although I certainly knew who Batman was and picked up just through the osmosis of living in society that that he was a major part of our culture, because I didn't read any superhero comics I wasn't familiar with any actual Batman stories. I even distinctly remember my grandmother buying me a Kenner Batman figure based on Michael Keaton's portrayal in this film (Batman was no more or less toyetic a thing than Star Wars, let's all remember): She gave it to me when she met my mother and I at a McDonalds for lunch one day. It was probably the first bit of superhero merchandise I ever owned, although I think the memory of getting that toy predates even my memory of watching the movie itself. Indeed, many years later the film became a bit of a shared experience for us as we bonded over a rerun of it on one of the HD movie channels she gets as part of her cable package.

Speaking of, this movie might have been my first exposure to Batman as an actual media artefact rather than bit of folkloric pop culture: I can't distinctly recall whether I saw this movie, the Super Friends or the New Scooby-Doo Movies episodes with Batman and Robin first. I'm leaning towards this though, if for no other reason than Michael Keaton's all black body armour with the bright yellow bat insignia on his chest remains the definitive Batman look for me to this day. Last summer as of this writing I was even pleasantly surprised to see the actual bat suit used in the movie on display at a weapons and armour exhibit at an art museum in Massachusetts I visited: I won't pretend it wasn't a little fulfilling to see it in person.

So it's not like this movie was somehow “proving” how big populist entertainment based on superheroes could be successful and comparatively intelligent: Not in a world where the Christopher Reeve Superman movies were over a decade old and there were fond memories of the Wonder Woman and (yes) 1960s Batman TV shows. And say what you will about Hanna Barbera's Super Friends, bear in mind a lot of the people going to see this movie probably grew up on it. It's not so much, I don't think, that audiences weren't prepared for a “dark, mature” version of Batman such that the unparalleled genius of Tim Burton blew their minds: Burton is a creator who, among other things, probably gets a bit too much credit as an auteur for his work here and who is furthermore nowhere near as “dark”, “surreal” and “mysterious” a visionary as he is frequently lauded as being. Burton was far from the first person to remember that German Expressionism was a thing that existed and that you could blend it with big populist things to convey some interesting stuff it'd be hard to do at that scale and within those structural constraints otherwise: The old Universal Horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s basically did the same thing, after all. Hell, even *actual German Expressionist* works were capable of it-Remember Metropolis?

(Actually, Metropolis is interesting to bring up here, considering Giorgio Moroder released his own special cut of the film with a modern soundtrack in 1984 that remains probably the definitive version of the movie for a lot of people these days. Moroder's Metropolis is likely an archetypical 1980s movie because it essentially, and brilliantly, turns the movie into a feature-length music video. Moroder's Metropolis is not quite as stunningly abstract as something like Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture and relies far more on the celebrity of its musical collaborators, but it most certainly fits its era. I know film buffs hate it, but so long as the original version of the movie is still around, which it thankfully now is, I see no reason why we can't accept transformative works based on it. There's even, funnily enough, an anime movie reimagining of Metropolis that also draws influence from an old Osamu Tezuka manga of the same name.)

Tim Burton's major innovation is that he remembered you could take that approach and apply it to things that hold appeal for multiple demographics, including children, not that anyone wants to admit Tim Burton is predominantly a purveyor of children's literature, of course (although he's not the first person to do even that, as Joe Ruby and Ken Spears did the same thing with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! way back in 1969). And if you actually sit down to piece out what Batman actually is, it reveals its heritage pretty clearly: It's got a fairly straightforward pulp structure with enough twists and turns to keep it compelling and enough dark, antiheroic brooding to appeal to both modern sensibilities and to resonate with comic fans who grew up during the Bronze Age. And, just like Moroder's Metropolis, Miami Vice and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture, it tries to convey itself as much through striking visuals and music, in particular pop music, as it does anything else, though it does make the perhaps regrettable choice to go with Prince as its primary troubadour when the film's regular score was more than enough to keep us hooked. In essence, this is precisely the sort of Batman movie you would expect to see in 1989.

But it's not the structure itself that's the most noteworthy thing about Batman so much as it is the fact it applies this structure to a pre-existing massively popular pop culture franchise. And here the point of comparison isn't something like Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture, the existence of which is nothing if not a fluke given I highly doubt Dirty Pair is as ubiquitous in Japan as Batman is in the West (or Japan, for that matter). And anyway, no matter how good he may be at aesthetic design, Tim Burton cannot hope to compete with an animator the likes of Kōji Morimoto. No, the real comparison really is with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: Simply by virtue of the fact Star Trek: The Next Generation exists, even though it may not quite yet be the massive runaway smash hit it will become (though it's getting there) means that Star Trek is unquestionably one of the hottest properties of 1989, and the legacy of the Original Series has long since cemented the franchise's pop culture legacy. William Shatner or no, Star Trek V *should* have been playing on Batman's level simply by coming out the same summer: We've reached the point where the visual aesthetic of the Long 1980s has become so commonplace and accepted that you can make Batman movies with it, and there is absolutely no reason why you couldn't make Star Trek movies with it as well.

Except there is one, of course: The Star Trek creative team circa 1989 is incestuously insular and hopelessly behind the times. The world has lept into the Long 1980s with rapturous wonderment and Star Trek is pulling against itself trying to make the transition. The Star Trek that bears the future is being hamstrung and neglected while the zombified shadow of its predecessor claws desperately for relevance. There's no better testament to Batman's success as a work of transcendental aesthetic power and Star Trek V's failure at the first gate then the fact the NES game based on Batman is considered a classic while Star Trek V: The Final Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

As is the way of all things, for Star Trek to adapt and survive in this new world, it must evolve.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Flight Simulator: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (NES)

I must be some kind of glutton for punishment.

By 1989 there were a diverse selection of Star Trek games available for various consoles and home computers, including the first title based on Star Trek: The Next Generation; an MS-DOS adventure game called The Transinium Challenge where you play Commander Riker in charge of a team investigating terrorist attacks in the Aquila system. It was one of the first games to showcase the format that would go on to characterize many of the Star Trek games I remember, such as plotting a course in stellar cartography and leading an away team comprised of party members of your choosing, each of whom has their own unique skillsets. The Transinium Challenge was also interesting because of its emphasis on diplomacy and puzzle-solving instead of space tactics, and its original extraterrestrial culture, which draws heavy influence from Celtic mythology and folklore.

But no, I had to pick a game for the NES based on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

To be fair, it's not strictly a red flag when you get a game based on a mediocre, unsuccessful movie. Sometimes passionate and tenacious video games based on licenses can rise above and beyond their source material to become well-loved and effective in their own right in spite of their roots: Gremlins 2: The New Batch for the NES and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay for the XBOX are both considered classics, while the movies they were based on...aren't. Simply being Star Trek V: The Final Frontier does not doom this game from the outset. If anything, Star Trek V should work *better* as a video game freed from the constraints of the linear narrative structure of the Hollywood blockbuster. What is somewhat concerning, however, is the fact this game was never actually released and is only available as a reproduction cart or through particularly creative means. Also, that it was designed by Bandai Games. That name may not ring a bell for a lot of you, but it had me both completely astonished and incredibly apprehensive, because this is the exact same team responsible for that godawful Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. game for the Famicom Disk System.

And yet even so, this was *still* easier to find and get actually running than an old DOS game would have been. I've reached the age where actually having my video games *work* out-of-the-box is a requirement for me to invest my time, so this was kind of a deciding factor for me. So, having something of a baseline set of expectations for what I was in for, I braced myself for the worst and fired up Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to see what this crew came up when given a far less coherent film to adapt.

Well, it's pretty. Parts of it.
Well, the good thing is that the overall production values are much higher this time. The graphics and sound, while nothing really to write home about, are actually somewhat appealing and have a measure of artistry about them that Project E.D.E.N. utterly lacked. I would complain about this and get confused as to why a Japanese developer has clearly put more effort into a game based on a Western property than a comparatively major local one (or, for that matter, why an NES game looks and sounds better than an FDS one), but honestly I'm just happy the thing isn't entirely repulsive to look at and listen to: There's some decent 8-bit renditions of the music from the movie (including *that* piece), and the sprite art is relatively detailed and colourful for the time. Although I say that referring primarily to the backgrounds-While the renditions of Kirk and co. we seen in the cutscenes are detailed enough, they only bothered to design one overworld sprite. This means that, whether you're playing Sulu in the early levels or Kirk in the later ones...Your character looks identical either way.

(And no, it doesn't remotely resemble either Kirk *or* Sulu. Why on Earth would you think that it would?)  

Just like last time, there are two primary gameplay modes: The first is your standard sidescroller-shooter type action, which is serviceable if a bit boring, because now we don't even have any platforming obstacles or hovercar powerups to break up the monotony of walking to the right blasting things. Which is literally what you do, as the levels are all completely flat and utterly devoid of visual interest save for the backgrounds (well, I guess Nimbus III *is* a desert planet, after all). As befitting the movie this game is based on, the first level consists of taking Sulu to retake the Paradise cantina from enemy forces that look suspiciously like Jawas. One does sort of expect to see Luke Sywalker floating by in the background on a landspeeder. Your health and Phaser energy both have their own meters, and the higher your phaser energy the more powerful your shots become and the longer the range you get with them. And you're going to need every bar of that, because the enemies, even on the first level, take forever to take down and, just like in Project E.D.E.N., they spawn out of nothingness right in front of you giving you no time to react, so you'll never hit them before they hit you.

Get used to seeing this screen a lot.

You do get powerups, but they make no logical or aesthetic sense: Starfleet emblems restore health while hyposprays (?!) give you more phaser energy. Then there's something that looks like a rock, and I have no idea what that's supposed to be or do. Regardless of what the powerups look like, there never seem to be enough of them to keep you going for too long, and poor Sulu always winds up crumpling into a heap at the feet of some Jawa dude who keeps jumping up and down like an evil jackrabbit. The game does have infinite continues (again, like Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N.), which I would normally applaud, but the flip side of that is that you technically have *no excuse* not to keep going until you master its arcane rules. Save, perhaps, your sense of good taste and the value you place on your time and energy.

The Enterprise warp effect is pretty nicely realised.
The first and last levels are sidescrolling action, while the second and third take the form of yet another rudimentary Star Trek space tactics-type deal (and yes, there are only four levels). There's not a whole lot to say about these, except they're a damn sight more functional and interesting than manoeuvring Yuri through a thrown-together bargain basement maze was. You're taking the Enterprise-A through an asteroid field to reach Sha Ka Ree all the while trying to dodge a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. There's a radar and a little ship's operations sub-screen where you can monitor things like your shields, power and damage reports. Basic stuff you'd expect to see in a Star Trek game (and done considerably better in other Star Trek games), but it's nice to have anyway. Since this is NES, obviously there's no fancy joystick controls, it's just point and go with the control pad and interact with the A and B buttons. Which I actually like a lot: I tend to prefer elegance and simplicity in my control schemes as opposed to complexity for the sake of complexity, so sue me.
I quite like the sprite art for the interior scenes. It's pretty good for the time and place.

These kind of games are always hard to review because, since they're unfinished prototypes, they're not necessarily indicative of what the final product could have been. But I'll be honest. I wouldn't have held hugely high hopes for this one simply looking at its pedigree. It improves some things from Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N., yes, albeit just barely. but let's actually think about that for a minute: Project E.D.E.N. was designed for the Famicom Disk System, which is a technically superior console. What does it honestly say about the job this team did on that game that anything on the NES could be seen as an improvement? I, for one, am pretty incensed that Bandai slagged off Dirty Pair (especially ironic given that Bandai Games' parent company now *owns* Sunrise) and did a better job on *Star Trek V* of all things, even if in practice all it amounts to is half-assing it a little bit less. And then there's the fact that Project E.D.E.N. didn't actually have much more content than this game does in the first place: In other words, Bandai Games is telling us a *full retail game* on an *advanced console peripheral* is worth roughly about as much as an unfinished prototype you can find distributed on the Internet for free if you look hard enough.

(And yes, I know ROMs exist of Project E.D.E.N. too and its something like thirty years later, but that's not the point and you know what I mean. One was considered good enough to sell for $50 or however much and one wasn't, and they're essentially the same damn thing.)

But on the other hand, this may well be the definitive Star Trek V: The Final Frontier game simply because of that: Just like the movie it's based on, this game is a half-assed rush-job with with tragically unfulfilled potential cobbled together to keep tapping the lucrative Star Trek brand with no regard to how much it insults the audience's intelligence in the process and how badly that reflects on the creators.

Prophets, that's depressing. I need to go do something fun now.