The STD that will Never go Viral

Yes, this is our ship: The USS Pizza Cutter.

The really short version of this review is simple: the more I look at Star Trek Discovery, the more I like The Orville.

Star Trek Discovery set the bar so low, Inhumans looked awesome in comparison, even though the pilot was weak.

Let’s go into why STD isn’t catching.

You have to first accept that this is before the era of Captain Kirk … yet the ship has better technology, including holographic interfaces. And someone took the criticism of lens flares seriously: this ship is so damn dark, how does anyone see anything.  The special effects are gorgeous. They are beautiful. You can see every penny of their $10 million an episode on the screen in high-res CGI.

Pity that not a single penny went into the acting or writing.

In the beginning of the episode, we meet Captain Michelle Yeoh–who I think just showed up and read lines– and “Michael,” a woman Starfleet officer who was orphaned by a Klingon attack on a space outpost, then adopted by Spock’s father, Sarek. Michael appears to be out main character, and being raised on Vulcan, she has obviously been taught to purge most of her her emotions … leaving only “smug” or “insane” as her only remaining default positions.

Yeoh and Michael are called out to repair a probe. They get some odd sensor readings, and decide, “You know, our sensors can’t read a thing. Whatever is out there may have screwed without probe. Instead of calling in backup, let’s send in a person in a space suit.” They send Michael … a Xenoanthropologist. Because anthropologists just do that, don’t they? Once Michael is inside a deadly radioactive field and has eyes on the cloaked space station, she decides, “I have to go over there and poke it, lingering in this deadly radioactivity.” Because that’s exactly how radioactivity works… and that’s how anthropology works — I see something new, therefore, I must poke it.

Michael lands on the space station, encounters a Klingon, and promptly kills him.  There is no “I come in peace.” There is no warning. She pretty much hits her jet pack, and runs him through on his own sword.

When Michael returns, she leaves med bay to storm the bridge, demanding that it’s the Klingons, therefore we must attack them now. Because that’s how first contact protocols work (In this timeline, no one has talked to a Klingon in 100 years. Vulcans just shoot first, and never ask questions. Yes, really.)

In order to get the Klingons to decloak, Michael says “Target them!!!”  Upon further study, the massive space station is really … a glorified tomb, covered in coffins.  And she had them target it. Because all anthropologists want to blow up culture.

I’m on the side of the Klingons. Especially as Michael drops “smug” and goes to “hysterical” with a side of “Pathological hatred of Klingons to the point of dementia.”

There was just so much stupid here. Michael is the usual “I’m the main character, therefore I’m always right” syndrome that you need tons of charisma to pull off without being a prick (Patrick Jayne from The Mentalist pulled it off. House didn’t). But she doesn’t have it. Michael has no emotion …. except for smug. Smug is the default position. And she never stops talking. She blathers on endlessly whether we want her to or not. And it may have been less painful if the dialogue didn’t all sound like a stilted first draft of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. And I may be insulting Flash Gordon.

Space Orc, Commander Smirk, Saru, and Captain “I’m just here for a paycheck”

And Michelle Yeoh took the script so seriously she sounded like she was trying not to laugh during the script reading. I concur with Yeoh’s judgement, but it undercuts what should be serious moments.

No, seriously, first rule of acting should be pretend you’re invested. Second rule is “At least pretend you’re getting paid.” Seriously, when your visuals are mind-bogglingly gorgeous, and the actor looks at it like she’s bored, the illusion is massively undermined.

There was one character here who bothered acting …. Saru, the one who said “Hi, on my planet, I’m prey. I’m telling you, time to RUN.”

Then there are the Klingons. The long-winded, preachy, Klingons who only speak in Klingon, even in private, so we are subjected to long winded, translated conversations. They are less Klingons as they are space orcs, and this is an insult to the makeup in Lord of the Rings. The Klingons here are obviously rubber suits, screwing up a history of good makeup. Really, Christopher Lloyd and Michael Dorn are laughing, saying “I hated my makeup, but God, it must suck to be those guys.”

I gave up at the 40 minute mark. So, all of this is this is, of course, before I got to the stuff that was designed to offend me. I’m told there are gay, bisexual and other sexes all over the place, that the Klingons were supposed to be Trump supporters, that they use cussing but can’t say “God” on the show.  Heck, I didn’t even get far enough into the episode to see “Michael” assault her captain, take over the ship in a mutiny specifically so she could commit an act of war on the Klingons… which happened.

But they never got a chance to appeal to my politics. They never got a chance to offend me. They never got a chance to make me angry. Because they never got me to care. Because this isn’t Star Trek. This is just a bad parody.

This is one STD that will never go viral.

Why all the hate for Star Trek: Discovery?

As one of the people who really isn’t a fan of Star Trek: Discovery I thought I might articulate why I dislike the show so much. It has come up in a number of different forums so it seems like it is worth saying.

So lets start with something positive. I think Discovery looks gorgeous, the effects are top notch, the costuming and the makeup is likewise very well done. Everything just looks beautiful. I get why people may not like the Klingons and the changes that were made, but in terms of makeup and costuming for them, it really is well done. I cannot fault them for going the distance on making it look gorgeous.

The problem is that they took this and then wasted it on bad writing and poor direction. I would really like to know which person thought long stilted sections of subtitled Klingon was a good idea. Every scene in the show with long sections of subtitled Klingon just drives me up the wall. Why they didn’t just subtitle first couple of lines and then do the usual “Klingon English” they have always done (Normal English with “Qapla!” and the like thrown in every so often) is a mystery to me. The Klingon scenes would be much more enjoyable if they had done this and they wouldn’t drag like they do.

The other major complaint I have is with the writing. The show is slow, and I like old school B&W Twilight zone and Outer Limits, so my tolerance for slow is fairly high, but this show is paced like treacle. On top of that, the characters are inconsistent and badly so. There are two examples from the two part pilot that illustrate the problem.
In the pilot Captain Georgiou, and First Officer Burnham come to blows over how to deal with the Klingons and this sets off a series of events that hilight just how awful the writing is. At first Burnham has credible evidence that attacking the Klingons is the right course of action, a punch in the nose to demonstrate Starfleet is not a push over. Georgiou reacts with horror at the suggestion of shooting first, going so far as to say that Starfleet would never do that. Even though there is good evidence to suggest that the Klingons will treat this as an act of weakness and start hostilities as a result. She puts her principles and commitment to nonaggression above the safety of her crew. This is a principle she thinks it is worth sacrificing her life to uphold. Whether you agree with the choice or not, the Captain has been setup as a character who values her honour and integrity above even her own life.

Next we have First Officer Burnham who tries to stage a mutiny in an effort to stop the Captain making a tragic mistake. She is literally trying to prevent a war and is willing to risk everything, her career, her life and her friendship with the Captain to do it. She likewise has been setup as a character who is willing to sacrifice everything she holds dear in an effort to prevent a preventable war.

I can respect both characters commitment to doing what they believe is right even to the point of sacrificing everything they hold dear. Then the writers have these two characters engage in wildly out of character behaviour. The Capitan, the women who would risk her like and the lives of her crew to uphold a principle of non-aggression engages in something that when done on earth is regarded as a particularly dishonourable and heinous war crime. She booby-traps a dead Klingon to gain a tactical advantage. First Officer Burnham likewise says it is absolutely imperative they not kill the Klingon leader but capture him, or else they will turn him into a martyr and make the war worse. Then Burnham, after stressing the need not to harm him, goes and deliberately switches her phaser to kill and shoots him.

I can believe a character would not fire first on principle and I can believe a character would bobby trap the dead as an action of desperation when their back is to the wall in an effort to survive. I can believe a character would throw away everything dear to her in an effort to prevent a war and save lives, and I can believe a character would kill an enemy who murdered her friend even knowing it would start a war. But in both cases, I cannot believe the same character would do such wildly different things in each case though. If Captain Georgiou was willing to risk everybody’s lives in an effort to do the honourable thing and not fire first, she wouldn’t do one of the most dishonourable things, desecrating war dead. If First Officer Burnham would throw away everything to prevent a war, she would not then throw that away in a moment of anger.

At this point in the conversation I’m usually told, “Well just don’t watch it then” but it isn’t that simple. I grew up on Star Trek The Next Generation, I’ve watched all 28 Seasons of live action Star Trek plus all 13 movies and enjoyed it all (Mostly, nothing is perfect but overall the experience was positive). I’ve also watched a lot of the fan made continuing material and have found that to often be excellent. So I really wanted Star Trek Discovery to be good. I keep watching it hoping they will turn it around and in the end I will look back and go “Wow … this is the best series of Star Trek ever!” even just, “Hey that was fun, I would watch it again.” I keep wanting the writing to justify the effects budget.

But more than that, I don’t want it to descend into a morass of heavy-handed social justice nonsense like Marvel comics have. Marvel has degenerated into pushing the fashionable nonsense of the week and this is done at the expense of story telling. Star Trek has often been preachy in the past, and rarely in a direction I liked, but I still enjoyed the show because good storytelling can over come that. I dont want it to become tainted with such nonsense because it will ruin all of it. All of it will become infected as a result and that will be tragic. The legacy of Star Trek will be damaged and it will all become less enjoyable because you know where it ended and how it was ruined.

So I keep watching hoping I will be proved wrong, that my fears will not be realised, because the day I turn it off and say “i’m done with this, its garbage” will be the day Star Trek as a whole will be dimished for me and all of it will be made less enjoyable knowing how it ended. I really wanted it to be amazing and hope it will turn around and that disappointment is what drives the hate for what has been produced, because it should have been amazing.

We can expect a new Star Trek in 2017!

Welp, Startrek.com just dropped this bomb today: there’s a new Star Trek series set to air for January 2017. No details, except that it’s new characters and that it’s not tied to the next film, Star Trek Beyond, which is due to premiere this summer.

….And that’s all we know. But, a  guy can toss out his dreams, right?

My wishlist items:

  • Characters without that Federation “nicey-nice” feel. I’m all about good guys being good, but outside of the TOS, most of Trek’s characters don’t feel real. They feel like people who really aren’t nice pretending to be nice, like that one friend’s mom who really didn’t want that many teenage boys in her house.
  • An overarcing story. Star Trek‘s best performances come when it’s working with some sort of continuity. Consider the TOS films, where even the relative stinkers are pretty great. (It’s weird how they skipped straight from Star Trek IV to Star Trek VI, though. Where was number five?) Consider Deep Space Nine, which managed to take Star Trek on TV in a direction where characters actions actually mattered.
  • I want something that’s not set in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, or 24th centuries. Move on! One of the hallmarks of classic Star Trek was its boldness, and I think one of the ways this show might best succeed is to tread new territory. Star Trek so familiar to us at this point that I’m pretty sure nothing in the current time periods we’re familiar with is going to even really feel like science fiction. Plus, the 24th century is pretty thoroughly steeped in a late 80s/early 90s aesthetic, and I’m pretty sure appropriate shininess is going to require the show either be set post- Voyager or in the nu-Trek universe.

Alright, folks. Time to weigh in. What do you want to see from the new Star Trek?

Star Trek is NOT Space Opera.

I’m not typically inclined to get terribly pedantic like this, but I’ve gotta say it, guys. Despite what I hear people saying constantly, Star Trek is not a space opera. I don’t like to get all fanrage-y, usually, but the line must be drawn here! This far and no farther!

Star Trek is not a space opera! Well, maybe sometimes.

Jean-Luc. You broke your little ships.

Yes. I realize the irony here.

“But Josh,” you say, “You’re normally so calm and cool. You usually just roll with people’s crazy assumptions, knowing that reality will sort them out eventually!” And it’s true. That’s usually my MO. If I were pressed, I’d say this probably isn’t worth breaking all my little ships. If I were pressed, I’d say genres are fluid and subgenres are even more fluid. But I’ve been running into this idea lately that soft scifi– which Star Trek most definitely is, despite its fondness for sciencing its problems into resolution– is automatically space opera. It is not.

Exhibit A: Logan’s Run.

Why hello there, Jenny Agutter.

Why hello there, Jenny Agutter.

I love me some Logan’s Run. It freaked me out terribly as a little kid, and I’ve grown to have a soft spot for things like that as I’ve grown older. If you’ve not seen it, it’s, at the risk of sounding hipster, dystopian before dystopian was cool. (Actually, probably not. There were a lot of dystopian works coming from the 70s.) In Logan’s Run, people live carefree, libertine lives in the City of Domes until they turn thirty, at which point they are sent to a public event called Carousel to be “renewed,” at which point they are theoretically reborn as babies. Some people don’t believe this, and become Runners, people bent on escaping the City of Domes for the legendary city of Sanctuary, where you are allowed to be come old. Logan is a Sandman, someone who hunts down Runners, and is ordered by the City of Dome’s master computer to become a Runner and locate Sanctuary. Hijinks ensue.

The film is a lot of things– a little cheesy, a little melodramatic, and a lot of fun– but what is is not is hard SF. It has ray-guns, antigravity, and killer robots. Does that make it space opera?  Perish the thought. I don’t know if you even see the sky at night in this film, much less travel to other stars. What it is is a literal YA dystopia. (I’m sorry, I had to.)

Exhibit B: the Alien franchise.

Queen Xenomorph

Why, uh, hello there, Xenomorph queen.

The Alien films, both fantastic and terrible, are another example of soft scifi that’s not space opera. We’ve got killer aliens, space marines, travel to other stars, and in a movie I’d rather forget, genetic engineering and clones. Surely the stuff of space opera! Well, not entirely. That sort of thing is certainly not foreign to space opera, but the tone of Alien certainly isn’t space opera, it’s horror. (Elements of psychological horror, body horror, and arguably just a tinge of slasher.) The first film has an almost Lovecraftian air about it– human beings caught in something old, ancient, and uncaringly malevolent. The second exchanges horror for action, but we’re still in a dark place. Even if the horror is mitigated by pulse rifles and APCs, we’re not quite into space opera territory.

So what the devil is Space Opera?

It’s pretty gauche to cite Wikipedia, but you know what? No one’s grading me. So here’s how wiki defines space opera: “Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, and often romance (heroic literature). It usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology.”  Space Opera gets its roots from EE “Doc” Smith, who wrote the amazingly fun Lensmen novels and the Skylark novels, which I need to finish one day. Space opera’s pretty frequently– but not always– about square jawed heroes facing off against villainous forces. It’s frequently soft, but not always. (The wonderful and goofy anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is ultimately a space opera, but so is John C. Wright’s fairly hard Count to the Eschaton series.) Sometimes the heroes are military– there’s a pretty heavy overlap with military SF in space opera– and sometimes they’re space pirates or something similar. (I’d probably call Brian Niemeier’s Nethereal a space opera.)

Macross Plus

I swear, the focus isn’t really on the hardware…

It’s usually, on some level, a war story, but the focus isn’t really on the military hardware or weaponry. Even in space operas where the hardware is a big draw– I love you, Macross!– it usually differentiates itself from military SF in tone and verbiage. If there are more than four capital letter acronyms in a sentence on a regular basis, you’re either reading Tom Clancy or military SF. Macross/Robotech (and even Star Wars) does, on some level, draw some of its cool from the weapons and spaceships, but the concern is more “Gosh, wow!” sense of wonder than it is hardware porn.

To be honest, though, of all the subgenres, military SF and space opera are probably the two hardest to differentiate between. It’s really a gut-level feeling thing, and I’d guess that both sides of the military SF/space opera equation probably know instantly which camp a work falls into.

So what about Star Trek?

The thing about Star Trek is that, despite a recurring cast (including whatever ship a particular series centers around) Star Trek is essentially an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine broke from the mold, and Voyager and Enterprise attempted to, but, by and large, very little changes from episode to episode in Star Trek.

Tholian Web

One wonders how Tholians do this if the ship won’t sit still.

You can watch TOS in any order you like and your experience will be largely the same. (Unless you start with something terrible like “Spock’s Brain” and never finish, I guess. For the love of Kirk, please start with “The Doomsday Machine” or “The Tholian Web.”) Within a given season of The Next Generation, or Voyager, you can largely do the same. My experience with Enterprise is more limited, but at least during the first season or so, you can jump around in a similar manner. In the interest of self-disclosure, I’m not terribly fond of shows that don’t have an over-arcing story, but I understand that’s how shows were made until recently. I’m old enough to remember how different Babylon 5 was when it aired for having an ongoing story that would take years to finish. But what this means for the various Star Trek  shows is that they are, at times, a very different show tonally or thematically from episode to episode. There are some comedic episodes– and man, I’d love to see Harry Mudd in nu-Trek– and there are some very dark episodes. “Conspiracy,” in particular, traumatized me more than anything except for maybe the The Blob when I was little. (And I mean the 1950’s The Blob.) There are episodes that are little more than courtroom dramas, and then there, are, yes, moments of true, high-falutin’ space opera. “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” The Wrath of Khan, and DS9’s overarcing story all qualify.

So what does all this mean?

Nothing, really, I just wanted to get it off my chest. FTL, rayguns, and aliens don’t make something a space opera. So Nyaaa. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and you are madly in love with space opera, a clearer picture of what is and isn’t will help you find more space operas to experience. My favorites are the Macross universe, Babylon 5, Hyperion, and the Lensmen books. Got some favorites of your own? Chime in! think I’m an idiot? Chime in! I can take it.

Is Khan a Villain?

The morality of the film Star Trek: Into Darkness has provoked some conversation recently. I would like to add to that conversation by analyzing one character in that film: Khan, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Khan

As with other Hollywood films that seek to construct an intriguing antagonist, but then lack the courage to follow through, there is no need to construe Khan’s motives as evil. He is an unpleasant person, but being nice or accommodating is not the same as being moral. Whilst Khan’s actions are violent and ill-judged, and the character may be poorly and inconsistently written, the audience can identify a moral logic to everything he does… if they want to.

Anthony Marchetta, my esteemed colleague, recently wrote the following about Khan.

The movie is smart in portraying the similarities between Kirk and Khan. The difference, however, is obvious. Khan is attempting to use subterfuge to start an intergalactic war, and has been responsible for terrorist acts in several U.S. cities. Kirk is… much, much better than that.

I do not believe this is a fair comparison. The duality of protagonist and antagonist has its limits, and does not apply well to this film because there are three competing forces in this story: Kirk (and his crew), Khan (and the people he protects), and the Head of Starfleet, Admiral Alexander Marcus (and those in Starfleet who follow his orders).

marcus_alexander

Kirk reacts to events instead of having any objectives of his own. In that sense, Kirk is innocent; he has no machinations. But this does not lead to an easy comparison between Kirk and Khan, who vigorously pursues his objectives. We might as well contrast Khan to a baby in their crib. Clearly Khan is not as innocent as a newborn child, but few of us have that luxury, if we try to deal with real circumstances. Kirk reacts to Khan, but Khan is also responding to his own antagonist, Marcus. Marcus has coerced Khan. It was Marcus that revived Khan, then gave him a false identity and work to do. Khan knows Marcus is intending to start a war, and for a time he believes that Marcus has killed Khan’s people. We should assess Khan’s choices in this context.

Who is trying to start an intergalactic war? Marcus, not Khan. Khan was woken from stasis by Marcus, in secret, and forced to design weapons that Marcus intends to use after provoking conflict with the Klingons. In contrast, Khan’s primary goal is to save the remainder of his colleagues, who remain in stasis, and will be killed by Marcus if he does not comply. It is also possible that Khan wishes to stop Marcus’ war.

It was Marcus that instructed Kirk to violate the law and fire torpedoes upon the Klingon homeworld, supposedly to kill Khan. In reality, Marcus is also taking the opportunity to provoke the Klingons, having already sabotaged the Enterprise so Kirk will be unable to flee. If Khan is the super-intelligent person he is supposed to be, in what sense can he be in favor of this plan? He is not the type to commit suicide for the sake of Marcus’ war.

During the course of the film, Khan sometimes tries to kill Marcus, and Marcus tries to kill Khan. So the goals of Marcus and Khan should not be conflated. If Khan and Marcus had the same goals, Khan would have no need to fear reprisals against his people.

Khan seemingly believed his comrades had already been killed, until Kirk tries to apprehend him. Khan learns they are still alive when Kirk reveals the exact number of torpedoes in his arsenal (which, bizarrely, is the exact number of torpedoes needed to hide every one of Khan’s comrades). Having already saved his persecutors from a troop of ferocious Klingon soldiers, Khan surrenders to Kirk. He does not even strike back when subjected to a punishment beating.

I would question whether Khan is guilty of terrorist acts. Terror implies frightening people in order to force a change of policy. Khan is not trying to frighten anyone. There is no suggestion that he is trying to communicate a political goal or manifesto of any sort. He blows up a Starfleet facility in London, killing 42 in total, because it is a secret military base masquerading as a public library. Was this act motivated by revenge against Starfleet as a whole, is it part of a plan to gain revenge against his specific persecutor by creating the opportunity to kill Marcus, or is it a way of derailing Marcus’ plan to start war? We do not know. All three motives are believable. The character of Khan is not so well explored that we can rule out the possibility that he also wants to stop a war that would kill many more than 42.

Following this bombing, Starfleet’s leaders convene a meeting. Khan uses this opportunity to try to kill Marcus and his colleagues. Again, this violent act lacks the clear and public purpose that would allow us to categorize it as terrorism. Again, perhaps Khan is motivated by revenge, but he may also be preempting war, by striking against the leaders of a military organization intent on starting war. We cannot say for certain what Khan knows of the disposition of Marcus’ colleagues. Maybe they are naive and innocent, unaware of Marcus’ plans. Maybe Khan makes a false assumption, or is willing to treat them as collateral damage. But probably some, or most, were Marcus’ willing accomplices. After all, the Head of Starfleet cannot construct new weapons and warships single-handedly. Some of his peers must have known and supported the ‘top secret’ plans of Marcus. Khan might be called a terrorist by his Starfleet enemies, but he does not fit the normal understanding of a terrorist. He is better described as a guerrilla, a rebel, or an insurrectionist.

Engaging in violence against a military force intent on war cannot be automatically equated with terrorism. There are nuances which allow such actions to be interpreted as justified war, as contrasted with terrorism, even when the violence is preemptive. In that sense, Khan engages in war, but it is not clear if his purpose is sinful or virtuous. Perhaps Khan likes killing people; he is a very angry character. But given how little we know of Khan’s motives, his actions might also reflect a genuine desire for peace, though it comes from a man who is prepared to use violent means to get the best overall outcome. In that sense, Khan’s violence is consistent with Spock’s maxim: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

Khan’s character is nicely balanced during the first half of the film, but becomes increasingly simplistic towards the end. Even so, we can question the depiction of Khan as an essentially malevolent character. They key is to distinguish what we know, as the audience, with what Khan knows.

After Kirk has captured Khan, Marcus arrives and states he will destroy the Enterprise and its entire crew. The Enterprise is fired upon and disabled by Marcus’ warship, killing many. Kirk’s only hope is to engage Khan’s help and conduct a daring raid upon the ship of their common enemy. To gain Khan’s allegiance, Kirk also ‘guarantees’ Khan’s safety. Khan ably assists Kirk, even saving Kirk during the perilous transit between the ships. Does Khan need to save Kirk? Of course not. Khan killed a legion of Klingons single-handedly. He does not need Kirk’s help. An intelligent man would have calculated that Kirk is more likely to be an untrustworthy liability. So it proves when Kirk orders Scott to stun Khan, after they have taken control of Marcus’ ship.

Waking from the premeditated and unnecessary violence committed against him, Khan is furious. He overpowers the people who hurt him, and kills Marcus with his bare hands. A better man may have restrained his anger, but that does not make Khan evil. He has been repeatedly provoked and lied to by Starfleet officers. Kirk and his colleagues do not trust Khan, but what opportunity have they given him to show he is trustworthy? Now Khan does not trust Kirk, and that is understandable. He beams Kirk and his friends back to the Enterprise, with the intention of killing everybody on that ship. Khan is no moral luminary, and this violence is clearly excessive. But it is also conducted in the heat of the moment, against the soldiers of a military organization that lied and lied again. This shows Khan’s character is flawed, but not simplistically evil. After all, we are repeatedly told that Khan and his peers have been condemned to death. And yet, they are not dead. They could run away, without destroying the Enterprise. But Khan knows the law, and pride, will require Starfleet to hunt them down. If Khan destroys the Enterprise and its crew now, there is good reason to believe that nobody else knows that Khan and his augment friends are still alive. They will finally have a chance to escape their persecutors.

Spock, a man who supposedly cannot lie, deceives Khan about returning his augment peers in the torpedoes where they have been stored. These torpedoes are then detonated, wrecking Khan’s ship and causing it crash to Earth. Khan responds by furiously instructing the ship to crash into Starfleet headquarters. Again, given the context, can this be considered the response of an evil man, or just of an angry man who has been repeatedly wronged? As far as Khan knows, the people he has done so much to save have just been callously executed by yet another Starfleet officer. Khan’s response is excessive, but intelligible, without the need to posit evil intent.

I have tried to construe Khan as a character who has his own moral logic, even though it is not one I share. This moral logic is different to Kirk’s, or mine, but not straightforwardly opposed to either. It is circumstances, not character, that lead Kirk and Khan to be enemies. Is this moral absolutism, or moral relativism? I would argue it is both, at the same time, thanks to the miracles that can only be performed from the god-like position of the storyteller. Kirk is always right – even when he is wrong. Kirk was wrong to obey Marcus’ orders. He was wrong to hit an unarmed man who had surrendered. And it can be argued Kirk was wrong to use violence against Khan a second time, after Khan had saved Kirk and they had subdued their common enemy, Marcus. Hence, a kind of moral absolutism surrounds Kirk. He is right, even when he is wrong, because we are supposed to forgive his emotions and ignorance. However, this absolutism is invested in a specific, mistake-prone and lucky individual, not a moral system. Because Kirk is a moral absolute, his enemies must be moral absolutes too. However, no leeway is granted for their anger, or for the gaps in their knowledge.

kirk-confronts-khan

This kind of absolutism, centered on an imperfect individual, is the worst kind of relativism in disguise. Anybody can make a mistake. Unlike Spock, a real person knows that no amount of logic can substitute for a lack of pertinent knowledge. We might think we are doing the morally right thing, and then learn more information that leads us to conclude we should behave differently. But in this Star Trek film, no matter how ignorant Kirk is, he is always luckily moral. This suggests Kirk has little moral compass, and is nothing more than a puppet for a godlike figure who works through him – which may be an actual god, or just a contemptuous storyteller. The ‘facts’ always fortuitously realign to suit Kirk’s intuitive perceptions. That seems to me equivalent to the worst kind of moral relativism, where each individual can insist they have always made consistent moral decisions because they can choose to believe whatever happens to justify their actions.

Khan is a moral force. He is destructive, and willful, but he acts with a purpose in mind. Khan did far more to stop war than Kirk did. If Khan had not rebelled against Marcus, then Kirk and others may have loyally followed Marcus into war. In contrast to Khan, Kirk rarely understands what will be the consequences of his actions. I submit that this makes Kirk a poor hero, and Khan far less than a villain.

Defending the Abrams Star Trek Films

This is taken from a comment I made on John C. Wright’s blog. The quotes are from this article (which, despite my criticisms, is worth reading).

I don’t think the author of the article is being fair to either of the new Trek movies.

He says this:

By the time Khan reappears under Abrams’s direction, the fixed moral stars by which the franchise once steered have been almost entirely obscured. No longer the thoughtful, bold captain, the young Kirk (Chris Pine) is now all rashness and violence, taking and breaking everything around him. He confesses that he has no idea what he is doing. But these are not vices he outgrows. Instead, the other characters come to recognize these traits as proof of his entitlement to command. When, in Abrams’s first film, Kirk’s recklessness briefly costs him his ship, his reign is restored by the intercession of an older version of Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, who journeys across the dimensions to counsel Kirk that it is still his “destiny” to lead. “[T]his is the one rule you cannot break,” Nimoy intones, without further explanation. Kirk proceeds to retake control of the Enterprise in brutal fashion. Abrams thus grounds Kirk’s authority not on practical wisdom or merit, which he expressly disclaims, but on a version of the swaggering pretension to inherent superiority that “Space Seed” had repudiated. The new Enterprise is governed more by what The Federalist calls “accident and force” than by “reflection and choice.”

This is such an unfair interpretation of events I can’t imagine the writer doesn’t realize it. He is stretching to make his point.

The reason Kirk uses force to retake the ship is not because force is better than wisdom or merit, but because Nimoy’s Spock had pointed out that Kirk is a better leader than Spock. The reason we do not need to be told why it is Kirk’s destiny to lead is because we already KNOW Kirk. He’s Captain freakin’ Kirk, one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Federation. Of course he’s a great leader. We’ve seen it ourselves. Nimoy’s Spock is not going off of a vague feeling of “destiny” here, but personal experience. It’s entirely rational.

So Kirk uses force to retake the ship because it’s an emergency and that’s the fastest way for him to take over. It’s not meant to be a substitute for real leadership ability.

Cause and effect have been flipped. Kirk isn’t given the right to lead by Nimoy’s Spock, designating him as superior, but is instead recognized as the best possible leader by Spock, and thus told that because he will be the best, he should lead.

Kirk is only accepted by the crew by default. He only becomes respected after coming up with a daring plan to rescue Pike and volunteering himself for the most dangerous part of the job. The plan is cowboy, of course, but it is not reckless. Rather, it is the only possible way any of them could come up with to save Pike, and indirectly the Federation. He is actually awarded the ship only after his plan succeeds and Pike is rescued.

What’s telling is that this analysis belies its own point: Kirk’s recklessness DOES cost him the ship, and he’s only recognized as the rightful Captain (as awarded by Pike himself) after coming up with a plan to rescue Pike, working on the plan with people he formerly considered enemies, and finally, when he has Nero on the ropes, he does not blast away with abandon but offers Nero asylum in exchange for his surrender.

The film acknowledges the similarities between the two, and even enlists the audience’s sympathy for Khan’s terrorism—but it never answers this question, except in terms of personal loyalty and betrayal. In an effort at ratio ex machina, Nimoy is once again brought in as Spock, to tell the crew that Khan is “dangerous”—but even he gives the audience no reason to consider Khan a villain. Ultimately, Khan is presented as evil not because he wars against equality and freedom, but because he isn’t one of us, while Kirk is—and because he loses, while Kirk wins.

This analysis is downright farcial.

The movie is smart in portraying the similarities between Kirk and Khan. The difference, however, is obvious. Khan is attempting to use subterfuge to start an intergalactic war, and has been responsible for terrorist acts in several U.S. cities. Kirk is…much, much better than that.

What they are calling vague “superiority” is in fact “meritocracy”, and the obvious answer to the question of who we should have sympathy for is “The guy NOT attempting to start a war, who in fact restrained from giving in to his hot-headed impulses due to the advice of his crew, and who hasn’t engaged in mass terrorist attacks the world over”.

I have no opinion on his analysis of the TNG series, and even most of TOS (having only seen a handful of episodes and one movie), but I am very much unimpressed with his analyses of the two Abrams films. The writer is either unobservant or dishonest (or both), because the movies simply are not presented the way he thinks they are, and I submit that it is, in fact, obvious that this is the case.

You can make the argument that the movies are badly written. You can make the argument that Kirk’s characterization is inconsistent with his characterization from the original series and movies. But you absolutely cannot make the argument that the Abrams movies are nihilistic. It requires an interpretation of the movies so obviously twisted that the only way to believe it is if you’ve already come up with your conclusions before you attempt to establish your premises. It’s just not true.

(By the way – I think the Abrams films are fun and entertaining, but I have no quarrel with those who argue that objectively the writing is quite poor.)

George Takei’s Racism Is Good for Science Fiction

George Takei, the actor who played the original Sulu in Star Trek, has some enviable qualities. Takei is likable, he has a gift for social media, and he possesses a wonderfully deep voice. However, he is not the smartest person in the world. This was recently confirmed, when Takei used an obviously racist slur to lambast a senior judge. Takei followed-up by arguing it was not racist to refer to the judge as a ‘clown in blackface’. A wiser man would have hastily admitted his faults, and apologized. Takei has now apologized, though the apology is so indirect and self-regarding that it only makes Takei seem even more conceited. But we should thank Takei for his flaws. Takei’s fame depends on his role in science fiction culture. Some treat science fiction like the path to enlightenment pursued by a misty-eyed seer, able to diagnose the illnesses of the present and chart the course to a utopian future. Takei has reminded us that SF culture also includes its fair share of stupid buggers.

Takei’s comical brouhaha began when he was asked, on a news channel, what he thought of the judgement of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court determined that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right following a 5-4 vote of the judges, but Thomas was in the dissenting minority. Perhaps we should stop and reflect at this point. Takei, a man who is famous because he pushed pretend buttons on a 1960’s television show, was asked to review the legal opinion of one of the top judges in the USA, as given in a tricky case of historical significance. Maybe the USA’s legal system is imperfect, but I struggle to understand how a more utopian future will be realized by asking aging actors for their opinion on everything. Undaunted, Takei held forth. In particular, Takei objected to Thomas’ legal opinion on the grounds of too much ‘blackface’.

In a way, Takei was right about one thing, because Thomas does have a black face, or rather a dark brown face which people in some societies describe as ‘black’, as compared to paler skins. Thomas is the only Supreme Court judge who is black. But the intelligent amongst us know that judges should be chosen because of their skill at reaching a judgement, not because of their color. So, by any normal understanding of racism, Takei was being racist.

Realizing that he had committed a terrible faux pas, which would alienate him from many right-thinking, word-policing fans, Takei needed to excuse himself. He did this by pointing out that ‘blackface’ describes how actors applied make-up in order to play characters with different racial characteristics to their own. By that logic, highlighting how a black judge has a black face is not racist, because only a white judge could put on a real blackface.

I find Takei’s logic to be desperately contrived. It is certainly not of a calibre I would want from somebody who reviews the decisions of top judges. Instead of just leaving his insult with the assertion that Thomas is black – an accurate if irrelevant statement – Takei reinvented it as a much more racist slur than we first imagined. Thomas is black. But Takei tells us he meant to compare Thomas to a white man who is pretending to be black. It was one thing to needlessly refer to Thomas’ race, but it is something else to imply Thomas is a traitor to his race. And hence, we progressively learn that Takei’s deep voice is not evidence of deep thought.

There is no point bashing Takei. He is not smart enough to be worth it. He said something stupid and offensive in the heat of the moment. Then he slowly and carefully considered how to backtrack without losing face, and so wrote something even more stupid and offensive. When William Shatner came to Takei’s defence, I think he was being sincere.

My guess is that Takei is not a racist, in a malign or systematic way. His racism was of the easy, casual, everyday variety. Thomas wrote an opinion that came to a conclusion that Takei did not like, so instead of addressing Thomas’ argument, Takei started talking about the color of Thomas’ skin. Many people are prone to such irregular leaps in their thinking. They feel a logical argument has reached the wrong conclusion, but being unable to express what was wrong with the argument, they attack the individual instead. That was what Takei did. We should thank him for doing this, because it shows that policing thought will never succeed, because some people are not thoughtful enough to be worth policing.

Takei’s argument was especially misjudged because Thomas’ argument had a certain beauty to it. These are the words that Thomas wrote, and which prompted Takei’s diva meltdown.

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

You do not have to agree with Thomas’ conclusion to see that he presents an elegant and attractive argument. If a slave suffered the worst indignities, but still felt they were dignified in themselves, or that they were dignified in the eyes of God, then who should argue the slave was wrong to think that way?

Takei vehemently rejected Thomas’ point of view. As a result, he reveals the narrowness of his own thinking.

To deny a group the rights and privileges of others is to strip them of human dignity…

Takei’s thinking is narrow because it has not occurred to him that some believe human beings have immortal souls. It is not necessary to agree that humans have souls, to understand what a difference this would make to a person’s outlook. A slave has no less spirituality than any other person, and the role of the spiritual in your life will profoundly influence your understanding of a concept like dignity.

Thomas’ argument follows tracks laid down by ancient thinkers. This is not surprising: those same thinkers also influenced the original writers of the US constitution. Socrates believed we have souls, and that the soul could not be harmed by the actions of others. The only way an individual can damage a soul is by doing harm to themselves. Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, concludes that the suffering caused by his own unjust imprisonment is of no importance, because the gifts of fortune are unreliable. Temporal assets, like health, wealth, or power, can be taken away, so soul and the intellect must be the route to true happiness. In the Bible, the character of Job comes to a similar understanding. After he is beset by disasters, Job better appreciates God’s design:

My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.

On the other hand, if you think that humans are purely physical beings, then it is easier to sympathize with Takei’s point of view. If humans do not have a soul, then there is nothing more important than their day-to-day treatment and comfort. If dignity has no spiritual aspect, it can only be understood in terms of the material and the legal.

Some may point out that Takei is a Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist, but I am forced to wonder if Takei’s understanding of Buddhism is as malformed as his views on race, and his grasp of law. Buddhists are conscious of the role of suffering in this world, and how personal enlightenment is the only escape from that suffering. Whilst Thomas was clearly following a Christian tradition, his view of the inviolability of human dignity is easier to reconcile with Buddhism than Takei’s argument that dignity depends on law.

Whether right, wrong, or confused, Takei is entitled to his opinions. As nobody has scientifically proven the existence of souls, Takei’s position has some merit. Maybe there is nothing more important than governments, and laws, and how they work in practice. But Takei was wrong to describe Thomas as a ‘clown’. A more thoughtful person would have understood that their difference of opinion is founded on a genuine and sincere disagreement about the nature of this universe. It is conceited to deride others for their spiritual beliefs. And Takei made a fool of himself by questioning Thomas’ competence as a judge.

Why am I analyzing this minor episode in such depth? Because there are so many parallels to debates that consume science fiction ‘fandom’. Small, petty, and unimaginative people like George Takei can sincerely believe they are as wise as Solomon. Idiots can be popular and successful. They can gather many followers. Chanting the tropes that define them, a community’s repeated confirmation of its own bias will lead its weaker members to conclude they are much wiser than they really are. Four legs good, two legs bad. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. With great power comes great responsibility. Pop fiction can deliver the same lines as great philosophy, but that does not make Stan Lee the equal of Voltaire. At the same time, audiences can behave like a mirror. When they perceive depth in others, they may only be witnessing their own superficiality.

There will always be some who mindlessly repeat slogans and mottos, whilst castigating, alienating, and demonizing anyone with a different outlook. Science fiction is not immune to this disease. When warriors like Takei start calling people names, they will insist this is forgivable, natural, and even desirable. That was why Takei felt entitled to lose his temper and racially abuse an intelligent and successful African-American, then deploy indignation and misdirection to retain an ill-deserved sense of moral superiority.

George Takei is convinced he is morally good. Takei’s belief in himself allowed him to do something morally wrong, and then to excuse his behavior afterwards. He is not the only person to suffer this combination of failings.

Because science fiction deals with the future, and alternative possibilities, it will encourage some people to believe they are smarter than they really are. They think that by consuming science fiction, they have a better understanding of the world than others. They are mistaken. Science fiction is a form of entertainment. It is not a division of science or philosophy. The best science fiction may complement science and philosophy, but the relationship is not infallible. It is easy to remember how Clarke contributed to the development of artificial satellites. It is even easier to forget that Asimov thought positronics would be commonplace long before medicine learned the secret of artificial insemination. And yet, the world has witnessed many more test tube babies than walking, talking robots.

Even good science fiction will often have a wayward understanding of how the universe works, or of the nature of human beings. The worst science fiction will fall much shorter. And because tastes vary, some will prefer the worst to the best. Fans with poor taste are still fans, but we should be wary of their pomposity. They should always be discouraged from believing they define taste, no matter how many of them believe it. Defining taste is a way to control people by bullying them, little different to arguing that the color of a judge’s skin should influence his decisions.

I hope that George Takei’s embarrassment will remind others to be more humble, and more respectful of genuine differences of opinion, and taste. Better still, it may discourage some of the lazy knee-jerk name-calling which dominate the outpourings of people who, like George Takei, consider themselves to be social justice activists. It is easy to use words like ‘racist’ to unfairly smear others. Takei’s racist outburst, which deserves to be described that way, begs the question of how honestly and consistently such pejorative epithets are used.

I have hope… but I am not wildly optimistic. As Bertrand Russell pointed out:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

The community of science fiction fans probably has the same proportion of fools and fanatics as the general population. We might fear that science fiction attracts even more than its fair share; fools and fanatics like stories that confirm their point of view, especially if the real world stubbornly refuses to yield to their fantasies. The answer is not to respond to fanaticism with equal and opposing extremism. Such tactics only encourage the true fanatics. It is better to wait for them to embarrass themselves. We can then politely identify the failings of the fanatics, whilst expressing our faith in the even-handed skepticism of the majority of the audience.