Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Virtues of Star Trek

Jason and Ed over at The House Next Door discuss the Star Trek phenomenon. Both self-admittedly come at it from a non-fan perspective and analyze all the original cast movies, and their conclusions are distinctly negative. In essence, they boil down to the following:
  • The appeal of the films is inseparable from nostalgia
  • The films don't distinguish themselves as art or in their technique
  • The films often include laughable situations (indeed, this is true)
I largely agree with these points, though I do think that judging the whole phenomenon by the original cast films isn't the best idea. The Motion Picture is really abysmal, The Final Frontier is really bad (though it is a legitimate so-bad-it's-good movie) and the rest are good. The complaint about The Search For Spock as being just a retcon is entirely fair, but dismissing it for that reason seems silly--the question is how well the film works overall, and I'd say that it actually works, though it is a little cheesy. And Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country are all awesome.

In any event, I think that when analyzing something along the lines of Star Trek, one can easily attribute the success of The Original Series to 1960s optimism about the future and romanticism about the space race. But what to make of the enduring popularity of the series? Clearly, the appeal cuts a little deeper if it's survived for such a long time. After all, there's not enough nostalgia for a new Space:1999 movie, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica was a complete departure from its predecessor series, which really was most of the things that Ed and Jason impute to Star Trek.

My sense of things is that what appeals about the series is a certain sort of optimism about the future and its characters that few shows and films (and especially few sci-fi shows and films) actually possess. I think that accounts for a lot of its enduring success, especially in the 1990s, when Star Trek was a huge business. It is true that it no doubt helped to basically have a monopoly on televised science fiction during the 90s, and that a recognizable commercial brand was able to do things that wouldn't otherwise have been done at that point in time. Sure, part of the reason it succeeded was that it was there and it filled a niche, and that's why Star Trek: The Next Generation was as popular as it was, but that show not only gave us some plainly good heroes to root for, but often the bad guys weren't really all that bad, just misunderstood. Even the Borg, ultimately, were vulnerable (though doing that was something of a mistake, in my estimation).

I tend to think that The Next Generation is sort of a model of successful television. Truthfully, a lot of it is banal or even bad, but it often presented interesting stories and mysteries, and did a good job of balancing the humanism and idealism with the demands of a weekly show. While the show often featured incomprehensible technobabble it managed to present compelling and interesting mysteries, and though plot-driven it often did feel character-propelled. It more or less stayed true to the original series' ideas while moving more into a mainstream direction (in a good way), and the show even managed to be occasionally moving. Episodes like "The Inner Light" and the show's finale brought a hefty dose of earned emotional resonance.

I think that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was definitely the franchise's high point. It did push the winning formula quite a bit: it was on a station instead of a ship, characters wouldn't always act out of the noblest, disinterested motives, and the show often fixated on the messy internal politics of a fairly small region of space rather than seeking out new life forms and new civilizations. A lot of fans then (and still now) dismiss it as boring, but this is usually a sign that the person in question watched a few early episodes and said forget it. There is no defending the early seasons of the show, though the first 2-3 seasons of all the Trek spinoffs are generally bad, no doubt having to do with the security of being able to spend a lot of time on exposition before actually having characters do something. Truth is, though, that during its last four seasons the show was consistently excellent. This happened to coincide with the arrival of TNG's Worf on the show, who added the show's missing element. The later seasons of DS9 brought a cold war that turned hot, characters having to make difficult moral decisions and sacrifices, and more than a few tough deaths. But it wasn't boring and the storytelling was fast, intense, and surprising. DS9 pushed the limits of Roddenberry's vision but didn't exceed them--in fact, the characters' actions validated the humanistic approach that the shows and films had always took, even if it sometimes took people a while to come around. And it dealt with the religion and poltics of Bajor in an often penetrating and insightful way. This is still pretty rare to see on television.

Now, admittedly, with Voyager there began to show signs of decay. The show displayed quite a bit of complacency and a lack of imagination. The new races we met weren't as cool as the old ones, plotlines felt familiar, plot devices like time travel were overused. There were certainly watchable Voyager episodes--even some good ones--but the show rarely went for broke and decided to play it safe, figuring that the Star Trek name would be enough to keep it afloat. This proved to be rather wrongheaded. I can't really speak to Enterprise, of which I've seen few episodes, though I suspect it failed because of the same familiar storylines and a lack of guiding vision. These things were also evident in some of the Next Generation-era movies: Generations was a logic-ignoring baton-changer that wasn't quite as epic or compelling as it needed to be. Insurrection didn't fare much better, and it more resembled The Voyage Home, only the humor was unintentional. And the less said about Nemesis, the better, though at least its heart was in the right place.

All in all, what has characterized Star Trek over the past few years has been a lack of real ambition to move the series forward--such as both TNG and DS9 had, in different ways--and a lack of understanding as to why people tune in to watch these shows in the first place. Optimism is appealing, but well-constructed stories are essential. With another Star Trek film coming out it will be interesting to see how J.J. Abrams decides to deal with these deficiencies. I predict that the film will be a success (nostalgia + lots of action will go a long way), and if it is successful enough we might well see another show: the Era of Obama seems well suited to Star Trek's message of gentle humanism and optimism. I will follow Star Trek's example and remain, for the moment, optimistic about the possibilities.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reflections on Television Shows I've Watched, At Season's End

  1. Kings -- Kings is effectively dead. Not only is it not getting a second season, but its timeslot got changed before being suspended 'till the Summer in favor of Law & Order repeats, which seems a little redundant. I must confess that I'm generally positively inclined toward the show, though I think that it doesn't quite hit its potential. There are things to like: both the King and David are solid and developed characters, both of whom are called by destiny and constantly troubled by finding a balance between piety and worldliness. Both actors do a solid job in these roles, and Ian McShane predictably owns the show as the King. The show is a modern retelling of the Biblical story of David and King Saul, and it is pretty impressive for a network show: there are moments of visual and verbal poetry, compelling visions of courtly life that mesh naturally with modern tabloid culture. The show's basic problem is that hardly any characters aside from King Silas and David are three-dimensional. The crown prince is a sulking, vindictive bisexual whose motivations, aside from a will to power, aren't entirely clear. He's so unpredictable that he's actually rather predictable. I don't need a character to be kind and likeable to be compelling, but I do need the sense that there's more than meets the eye, that this is a real person. There are flashes of that at times but only that. The character of the princess, Melissa, is more appealing but also underdeveloped. The Queen--whom I immediately recognized from various Star Trek incarnations as Susanna Thompson, one of the Borg Queens--fares much better. It is hinted that she is well aware of her husband's infidelity, and it makes one wonder whether she condones it or is trying to use Silas for her own purposes. I like this sort of dynamic. The rest of the actors--Silas's brother in law, David's family--make little impression, with the exception of the recurring characters of two palace guards, who usually add some levity, and recurring star Bryan Cox, who is predictably awesome as a deposed king.

    Honestly, it's a generally entertaining show and a clever one at times. On a story level, in terms of production values, as an allegory and a retelling and in terms of acting it's solid to spectacular. But a lot of the characters simply fall flat. It is regrettable that it hasn't broken out, because it is intriguing, though perhaps mostly to classicists.

  2. Terminator--The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sarah Connor follows in the tradition of many female-centric shows--recently Buffy and Dollhouse--whose protagonists are less interesting than the supporting characters. On TSCC, the robots are the most fascinating characters, especially Summer Glau's protective android Cameron, Garret Dillahunt's evil Cromartie and subsequently as the childlike John Henry, and former Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson as an ambiguous, shapeshifting Terminator. But the presence of so many robots cannot help but make one wonder about whether the series has begun to groan under its own weight. Even watching this show requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief--in fact, with each installment, the Terminator franchise becomes more ridiculous. It kinda made sense with the first film, which insisted that Skynet had a limited time travel ability, but the more terminators that go back, the less limited it seems. After three movies (with a fourth dropping soon) and now a television series, one wonders why Skynet doesn't just send a second Arnold to kill Sarah Connor when she was a kid. Or to kill her grandfather. Who knows. Why is Skynet so linear?

    So, there's the obvious flaw in the logic. But Sarah Connor shouldn't necessarily be punished for this situation--in fact, it often displays more creativity and energy than the franchise has seen since the original film. There are basically three types of TSCC episodes: the first is like the episode in which Toby from The West Wing (Richard Schiff, of course), is interrogated by our heroes. The show does a good job of looking at the possibilities of time travel, and the notion that one of the characters came back from an alternate future is rather novel and intresting. The second type of Sarah Connor episode is more like the episode in which John Connor tries to escape a terminator by fleeing to Mexico, which is all told by overlapping flashbacks (a la Boomtown). Not original, but quite well-executed and with a number of grace notes. And the third type is basically a placeholder--one in which we get some nominal plot advancement to keep us watching, while spending a lot of not terribly revelatory time with the characters holed out in their apartment. The show actually has a fairly even distribution of episodes across all three categories, but the fundamental problem with the show is that it lacks ambition. Well, not exactly--it has some ambition, and its story arcs for this season were generally pretty interesting and distinctive. But the creative team seems to be quite content with the intermittent pacing when they could easily have added a whole bunch more story to this season. The show stands out rather often, but it could be a lot better, and I don't see that desire to make it as good as possible. That frustrates me a little.

    So, what do I like about this show? I was rather enamored of the early season episode where Cameron was malfunctioning and, in an attempt to avoid being killed by John, tried to manipulate him by saying, "I love you." Genius stuff. I wound up liking the gruff and intense performances of Brian Austin Green as Uncle Derek and Stephanie Jacobsen as Jessie, both future visitors with differing motives. I even liked, after a fashion, Thomas Dekker's performance as John Connor, whose character really does grow over the season into the man he needs to be. The future submarine episodes were great. The show, especially during the tail end of this season, often churned out some really great stuff. And the series finale escalated the franchise's stakes even further: in the original movie, John Connor sent his own father, Kyle Reese, back in time in order to save her from the terminator and, incidentally, to conceive himself. In the second film, we learn that the terminator sent back by Skynet winds up being the basis for Skynet to be built. In this show, Connor finds out after he jumps to the future that he hasn't become a huge resistance figure, and that it's presumably up to him to become that hero without the benefit of going through judgment day, etc. It's a pretty cool twist that once again subverts expectations about causality and the linearality of time, and while I don't think it rises to the level of philosophy it is thoughtful and interesting. I do hope the show gets another season.

  3. Dollhouse--It started out shaky, but Dollhouse has become a really compelling series. It doesn't really hurt that ostensible star Eliza Dushku isn't really that great an actress, because there are plenty of other great characters on the periphery. The show is basically about a subterranean lair known as the Dollhouse, which features customizable, programmable human beings to be used in whatever fashion they're needed. I've just watched the episode in which the escaped "active", Alpha, is revealed. I kind of saw the twist coming, but the truth is that it still worked really well for me. It's a very plot-driven show, but the plotting is very good, and the possibilities of what an active can do are well explored. As it turns out, sex is not the only thing that a programmable person is useful for--we've seen, among others, actives being used as a vehicle for reincarnation, as a mole hunter, and, touchingly, as a dead wife for Patton Oswalt, who might well be the only wholly sympathetic character ever to appear on the show.

    I do think the show suffers from the lack of any real heroes, at least in terms of its commercial prospects. People generally like to know who the good guys and bad guys are, even if they're not purely good or purely bad. Dollhouse doesn't play that. Even the ostensible hero, an FBI Agent played by Battlestar's Tahmoh Penikett, is hardly a likeable and heroic figure. Actually, Penikett is probably the show's weak link--he's a fine actor (and was one of relatively few reasons to keep watching BSG after the long decline began) but his character desperately needs dimension. Why the obsession with the Dollhouse? Is it a singleminded pursuit of justice? Is he in love with Echo? Is he just nuts? These things have been alternately suggested.

    I must admit that this show really isn't like anything on television. None of the characters are even remotely morally pure, some are sympathetic but all are corrupt. Just like the show's conceit of the Dollhouse, which is a real gray area that ponders about the extent to which someone can be a willing slave. It's a very daring and frequently excellent show, but I think that most people watch shows that have likeable and identifiable characters in them largely out of a sense of egocentrism. I do not--The Rules of Attraction is one of my favorite movies--but I don't sense that most people are the same. I do think that Dollhouse is an incredibly good show, and I sure hope it comes back.

  4. Battlestar Galactica--Last and almost certainly least amongst the dramas. BSG was a show I once enjoyed a great deal, until it got too serious and started to believe that it was a serious show with Something. To. Say. Ugh. I will admit that the finale more or less worked as an ending for the show--the big stuff was tied up (albeit mostly preposterously), the retconning of the show as an anti-tech statement was complete, Caprica was ready to go, and the 1/4 or so of the original audience that kept watching got their sendoff. I honestly wish I'd stopped after the New Caprica arc ended. Alas.

    Look, I don't require shows to be philosophical treatises, but if you're going to bring on the big themes, at least show that you have the goods. Honestly, if the show's explorations of religion had gone beyond, "Religion is important to people and affects what they do", I'd give the show credit. Honestly, though, the religious stuff never ascended above what was previously done on Babylon 5 or Ron Moore's own Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If the show ever had as penetrating an episode on religion as DS9's "In The Hands Of The Prophets", I'd have been impressed. But no, the show mistook seriousness for insight. Honestly, in almost every respect Deep Space Nine was a much beter show, and certainly a more entertaining and human show. I'm guessing that DS9 will age better than BSG.