Star Trek: The Long Road Home

In January of 1995 the fourth installment of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek franchise started out on what could have been the franchise’s greatest installment. The idea was ripe with promise but, by the end of its run, Star Trek: Voyager would prove great ideas don’t always translate to great shows. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Voyager for what it was. But it could have been more and some of us will always wonder at what could have been.

Voyager started by throwing a lot of the playbook out the window. The starship Voyager wasn’t just a ship on a mission of exploration, it was a ship lost in space. A series of events left it on the opposite end of the galaxy from Earth, with an eighty year trip home in front of it. Captain Janeway would have none of the prestige of the Federation’s name to back her or the threat of Starfleet reprisals to deter danger. No one in that sector of space knew what a human was, much less whether their government was worthy of respect. Gone also was any attempt at relevance to the current political situation – it didn’t even exist in slight nods like we saw in DS9 with the Maquis or the Cardassian occupation. The idea was to bring back the hard driving captain, a la Kirk, and the danger of the unknown and surprising.

With DS9 on route to the Dominion War and a bruising, exploration free future Voyager was something the franchise badly needed. It sought to keep Rodenberry’s dream alive while presenting us with new and exciting vistas and cultures for the franchise to explore. It succeeded only in part.

The first two or three seasons of Voyager present us with a section of the galaxy that looks an awful lot like home. There are analogs to the Klingon in the Kazon and the Ferengi in the Talaxians – and that’s just in the first episode. We even see analogs to the ancient Iconians later on in the series. If the hope was to take us to a new and fresh section of the galaxy it sure started off feeling a bit old and stale. But there were new cultures and cool new ships and new planets and new problems and Voyager tackled them all with vim and gusto in spite of its rocky start. That part was fine.

What was less fine was the attempt to shoe horn in some nonsensical interpersonal squabbling in the form of the Maquis. You see, Voyager was not the only ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant. The Caretaker, a very powerful alien who brought them to the Quadrant, had pulled in many different ships and one of them belonged to the terrorist group Voyager had been chasing. The idea was to combine these two groups and let personal conflict erupt. This was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, the Maquis were all Federation colonists or former Starfleet officers estranged from their government by a peace deal with the Cardassians. They had very few philosophical or moral differences from Starfleet – the conflict arose almost entirely from differences to political circumstances that, once both groups were a galaxy away from home, no longer existed. As a result there were only a few avenues for good story conflicts to explore without venturing into the realm of the truly ridiculous. Once they were all mined out the idea was dropped and Voyager functioned as a Starfleet ship for the rest of the series. The idea of two crews with shared goals but fundamental differences in morals or methods that made working together hard would be explored again, but much better, in the episodes “Equinix I & II”.

But the biggest misstep in Voyager was the Caretaker itself. Not it’s inclusion, but discarding it so quickly. The Star Trek universe has a number of mostly forgotten civilizations that travelled huge swaths of its galaxy long before humanity took to the stars. The Preservers and Iconians both controlled large chunks of the galaxy, according to the lore. But no take on the franchise has ever explored them in depth. It would have been nice to see the Caretaker tied to one of these civilizations – or perhaps even a new one – that Voyager could have encountered on a recurring basis as it made its way home. The Voyager crew as travelling interstellar archeologists would have been fun. As it was, Voyager only encountered one other Caretaker in a fairly forgettable episode. While Enterprise would play with the idea of a powerful civilization scattering artifacts throughout a section of space in its third season even the Sphere Builders wouldn’t receive that much in the way of development. It was a missed opportunity that could have really made Voyager distinct, possibly even a standout in the latter half of the franchise’s life. Alas, it was not to be. The Caretaker served as a MacGuffin to get the crew away from the Federation and was promptly killed off and ceased to be of much relevance.

Voyager did expand on the lore by adding three new antagonistic species that were interesting and fun. The Hirojen are basically the Predators for the Star Trek universe and seeing how Janeway dealt with them was pretty interesting. The Malon introduced interstellar junk haulers to the clean and tidy Rodenberry future and added a very unique spin to a number of situations that could have been very generic. And Species 8472, also known as the Undine in later spinoffs, added a new juggernaut race to the galaxy for humanity to worry about.

The showrunners also decided to bring back two big NextGen antagonists in a totally new way. The Borg returned in a big way, acting as a recurring obstacle from season 4 onwards. Everyone knew this was coming, Picard met the Borg in the Delta Quadrant after all, but the necessity of dealing with the Borg on a semi-regular basis and the fact that the series couldn’t ever let Voyager get caught stole some force from the menace of the implacable Borg. Add in the fact that the writers applied the (aptly named) Worf Effect to them in order to build up Species 8472 and the fact that we tend not to fear things we understand (rightly or not) and the Borg overall lost some of their sense of danger as the show went on.

Q also made a return, this time dealing with the internal politics of his race and the problems that come with phenomenal cosmic power. While the change to the way the Borg were portrayed probably had to come if they were to continue being an antagonist in Star Trek, the shift in Q was not necessary, needed or even very good. Once he was no longer the face of the impersonal weight of the universe bearing down on humanity he ceased to be a useful antagonist and just became a cosmic powered nuisance. It was an interesting line of thought but ultimately the story itself went nowhere.

In short, it seems as if the showrunners behind Voyager weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go. The show has no strong theme, and thus no quintessential venue. It feels much like actual exploration, in fact. We saw many things, and they were interesting. But they didn’t always connect.

After Next Generation and Deep Space Nine it may have been inevitable that the cast on Voyager wasn’t quite as strong as we were used to. They were all fine actors and had many good scripts to work with but nothing we ever saw from them equals the incredible talents of a Spiner or Stewart or the longform character development of Nog or Odo. Never the less, Kate Mulgrew as Janeway, Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine and Robert Picardo – probably the best actor in the series – as the EMH did get to show a broad range of acting talent that was greatly appreciated.

It helped that these three characters were the most interesting on the ship as well. Star Trek has a history of putting characters who struggle with humanity in the show to help push certain kinds of stories along. Seven serves that role from her appearance at the end of season four until the show’s conclusion. It’s interesting to see Star Trek, a franchise normally very vested in multiculturalism and leaving things as they are, push so hard into the realm of cultural deprogramming and reindoctrination. And make no mistake – that’s what Voyager’s treatment of Seven amounts to. In the process the show makes a sound argument for why such actions might sometimes be necessary, high minded ideals not withstanding.

The Emergency Medical Hologram, a holographic emergency stopgap that the crew activates when their living doctor is killed, is another interesting take on the “what is humanity?” shtick scifi in general and Star Trek specifically loves so much. He struggles with the very narrow scope his original programming gave him and getting the crew to think of him as a person, rather than a convenient tool. Unlike many of the characters chasing humanity in the franchise’s history, the Doctor does not have a flat, emotionless disposition. Rather, he’s abrasive and overconfident, saddled with his creator’s personality – not something particularly conductive to his job. He also struggles early on with being confined to specific parts of the ship, another kind of handicap the show has never explored before.

Last but not least comes the captain herself. I’ve always found it interesting that, even among fans who don’t consider Deep Space Nine the best incarnation of the franchise, Benjamin Sisko is considered the most human Star Trek captain. This is not at all intuitive. Both Kirk and Picard are larger than life figures, to be sure, and little time is spent with their flaws. Sure, Sisko had a hobby in his baseball obsession and a son, then later a steady girlfriend and a wife. And those were very appealing parts of his character. He also made morally questionable choices. But he tended to get away with his lapses of character without consequence, or even much in the way of guilt, which hardly qualifies as believably human in my book. Then there’s the whole religious icon thing and the Sisko as the everyman captain starts to fall apart. Especially as there’s two other contenders for the title.

Captain Archer of the NX-01 Enterprise was a much more humble man, with prejudices and moral failings. He has a hobby and deals with a fair amount of romance, although never a long term relationship. But, as you may guess given the subject of this post, I don’t give the title to him.

You see, as a captain Kathryn Janeway is a bit of a trainwreck.

Other than Kirk, no captain shows quite the same level of disdain for Starfleet regulations as Janeway. For the good captain, survival frequently came first. She wasn’t afraid to meddle in local affairs or skirt the Prime Directive to get the crew closer to home. She was also remarkably vengeful for a 24th century starship commander, occasionally persecuting vendettas against certain aliens – or even Starfleet commanders – to a degree that worried her crew. She came from a scientific background, rather than a pure command career, and her priorities were often towards the immediate care and safety of her crew rather than long term principles. But most of all, Janeway’s moral decisions are in constant doubt. While most captains made one or two difficult calls they tended to get left behind very quickly.

Janeway’s most questionable moral decision was the one that permanently stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant to begin with. She could have gone home, you see, but that would have required leaving the Caretaker’s technology in the hands of very brutal and amoral people. Staying in the Delta Quadrant was the only way to ensure the Caretaker’s array was destroyed without any part of it falling into the wrong hands. The very harsh consequences of that decision dog her every step of the seven year journey home. That kind of heavy weight is something truly human, and it makes Janeway interesting and complex – even if I wouldn’t exactly want her to command my starship.

Like the other two shows of its era, Voyager ran for seven seasons and produced its fair share of good episodes. It also had some of the weakest episodes of the franchise, particularly in the first season or two. But even so, the good outweighed the bad. Episodes to watch include “Message in a Bottle”, “Future’s End” Parts 1 and 2, “Relativity”, “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”, “The Year of Hell”, “Living Witness” and “Deadlock”.

“Blink of an Eye” is a masterpiece of high concept scifi like the franchise hadn’t seen for a while. It features Voyager getting caught in orbit around a planet with a different subjective time than the rest of the universe. A year passes on the planet for every minute that the crew lives in orbit. They watch civilizations rise and fall from above and, in turn, those below look up and wonder what the light in the sky means and what the people there might want with them. The concept was so good that it would get reused again in the first season of The Orville.

On the other hand, “Life Line” tells a very personal story about the Emergency Medical Hologram visiting his creator, legendary hologram engineer Louis Zimmerman. The clash of two such very similar, overinflated personalities is a tour de force, fun and witty but still emotional enough to resonate. It features the return of Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi, veterans of The Next Generation as well used guest stars. It also features a masterpiece of acting by Robert Picardo, who plays opposite himself in most of the important scenes. Star Trek acting doesn’t get better than this unless Spiner and Stewert are on the screen.

“Timeless” and “Endgame” Parts 1 and 2 both feature the same basic premise. Members of the Voyager crew get back to Earth but try and bend time so that the dead left behind can make it home too. “Timeless” features Garrett Wang’s best performance as Ensign Kim in the series and deals in the kind of classic, high concept scifi that made Star Trek great. “Endgame” is the series finale and, in spite of the similar premise, has several key differences. For starters, this time the gambit works and Voayger gets home. Also, it features Janeway as the viewpoint character rather than Kim, and it goes to great pains to wrap up most of the loose plot threads the show left behind, making it a slightly messier – but still satisfying – tale. In a nice bit of self reference, future Harry has a ship commanded by Geordi LaForge show up to stop his time travel attempt in “Timeless” then, in “Endgame”, another future Harry shows up as Janeway starts her Both stories are worth watching for Trek fans, but “Timeless” will probably suit the general scifi viewer not interested in watching the whole series better.

The Borg always had a limited lifespan, as mentioned before, and I think the showrunners had realized that. As I said two weeks ago, the decline of the Borg really started with “I, Borg” back in NextGen but they still had some legs left in them. “Scorpion” Parts 1 and 2 sent them fully into decline with a bang, introducing a new race that even the Borg couldn’t handle and adding Seven of Nine to Voyager’s crew. This is a pretty light episode in terms of scifi but it’s solid space opera with good production values for TV of its era, and the decision making in the episode is both tense and fun to watch, even if you guess what’s coming before it happens. Seven would become a good window into the new Borg status quo, allowing us to discover all the cracks and weaknesses the Borg always had as she did, and coming to understand how an unstoppable force can actually be a stampeding herd one step ahead of disaster.

“Equinox” Parts 1 and 2 is the epitome of what many people wanted Voyager to be – two crews, each with supposedly shared values, but one turned sour by years of merciless peril. When the Equinox and Voyager meet it seems like a bright spot in a long string of trials – for both crews. But the revelation that the Equinox was under constant attack because the crew had decided to deal in genocide in a desperate bid to get home… that was a horror in itself. The punishing conflict that results is tense and marvelously acted. “Equinox” is Voyager at its best – but unlike many it’s not what I feel the entire show should have been. Still, a very clever scifi plot and a great piece of drama as well.

Voyager went off the air in 2001 with the good ship and its crew home at last. It was the last offering of the franchise’s heyday, a great concept that wasn’t everything anyone wanted from it but still acquitted itself well, packing new ships, races and spacial phenomenon into Star Trek lore with reckless abandon. It probably has the smallest enthusiastic fanbase of any entry in the franchise, at least before Discovery, but ideas introduced in it were staples of the expanded lore during the long, twelve year drought between the end of Enterprise and the beginning of Discovery. The Delta quadrant would be better realized as a location than the Gamma quadrant, and the seeds of technological innovation Voyager brought back with her would spin off into several novels. However, even with all that potential, the decisions made at the beginning of the next installment of the franchise showed how Star Trek was beginning to creak under its own weight…

Advertisements

Star Trek: Visions In Conflict

In 1992, for the first time ever, there were two iterations of the Star Trek franchise airing at once. As Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the zenith of its popularity and story-telling prowess a new, very different kind of Star Trek was taking shape. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stands as the last take on the franchise to have any input from Gene Rodenberry and the first iteration to eschew the name Enterprise. In many ways, the show was a complete departure from form, replacing a starship with a space station and tightly written and powerful stories with sprawling and engaging sagas. Far more thought was put into the grand narrative of the series than any Star Trek show before or since. Unfortunately, in many ways the smaller details that made the greatest Star Trek episodes so great faded just a bit.

It’s unclear whether it was a deliberate choice from moment one, just something that happened over time, or a direct result of Rodenberry’s vision departing from the show but the world of DS9 has little of the direct parallels to current political tensions. It’s possible that this is because, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the only global superpower, the showrunners felt there were few noteworthy parallels worth telling stories about. The 1990s were a pretty slow time on the geopolitical scale, although there were social patterns and smaller regional conflicts that could have served as jumping off points as well. Or perhaps – and I find this most likely – the writers just wanted to go off and explore their own ideas more than what already existed.

That suspicion is reinforced by the fundamentally different tenor of DS9. Most takes on the Star Trek formula are somewhat introverted. They focus on one ship in one situation at a time, with very few characters outside of the main cast to keep track of. DS9 is fundamentally extroverted, focusing on a crossroads where many people come and go regularly, full of recurring side characters and unfolding situations that must be tracked carefully over many hours worth of content. If the original Trek centered around the bridge as a metaphor for humanity in the driver’s seat, and the follow-up put them in the courtroom to weigh their actions, then this iteration sought to place them in the town square and see how they would live when the rubber met the road. It’s no accident that the most used set on the show was not the station’s operations center but the station’s Promenade, the business center for the residents.

No other show was as much about the people who came into contact with Starfleet as was Deep Space Nine. This is part of what has won it such a large and loyal following. There are four whole series worth of Star Trek dedicated to the basic premise of a crew in space solving the problems of space. People who want stories about a city in space have only one Trek series that caters to them. It’s not my cup of tea, or at least I prefer the other blends more, but I don’t begrudge this blend its fans. It certainly earned them.

Characterwise DS9 is an interesting mix. It boasts the strongest cast across the board of any series in the franchise. Spiner and Stewart were standouts in NextGen but are almost the baseline for cast performance on DS9. Of course two actors, the formidable and excellent Michael Dorn and the personable and fun Colm Meaney, joined the DS9 cast from NextGen. But beyond these two Rene Aubejonois, Armin Shimerman (an occasional guest star on NextGen), Andrew Robinson and Marc Alaimo deliver stunning performances of deeply nuanced characters. Notably, none of those characters wear Starfleet uniforms. The rest of the cast was very good, but these men cast very, very long shadows.

Deep Space Nine also wins the coveted “Most Attractive Women in the Franchise” award, but that is neither here nor there.

From it’s very first episode the character writing for DS9 was very, very strong. Unlike most other Star Trek series it struggle to find a place for its characters in only two cases – Dr. Bashir and Dax. This strong writing shows from the pilot episode – another best in franchise award that DS9 walks away with – and continues to the very end. And it’s in this series that we also get the most meaningful character development for the core cast. The character arcs of the cast are pretty varied and could probably support multiple essays on their own so we’ll treat them very lightly in the next paragraph or two and then touch more heavily on the two most important – those of Captain Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat – later in when we look at story and themes.

My favorite character arc was Nog – a Ferengi who decides the archetype of his native culture is a poor fit for him, as much as he would like it to be otherwise, and decides to join Starfleet. Nog goes from craven and singleminded to overzealous and cocky to mature and seasoned with comparatively little time spent on him through the course of the series. Odo was the series’ take on someone struggling to understand himself and the addition of his shapeshifting nature and connection to the series’ primary antagonists made his character arc very touching and interesting, even if it was not particularly groundbreaking. Doctor Bashir became a sort of man for all seasons, his weak characterization early on giving way to a shrewd but good natured genius character who doesn’t become too much of a plot convenience. Once he joins the cast Worf is given an expanded role in leadership and new responsibilities as a married man. These arcs were all handled well and made for fun and engaging characters.

On the flip side, my favorite characters don’t have arcs at all. Plain and simple Garak, Cardassian tailor and retired spy, is his same enigmatic self the whole way through, lying to stay in practice and dedicated to his nation and his work. There’s a delightful cunning to the man you can’t help but love and an awkward, roundabout way of helping his friends that is almost endearing – but winds up being a little sad. Chief O’Brien is the pillar of the station, an unchanging force of good natured optimism. Even when episodes focus on him they mainly boil down to a series of punishing emotional trials that the Chief endures until he can go home and see his wife and kids. And Quark… is the perfect businessman. He loves his job, his customers and his home and he defends them with a fierceness and determination that puts most of Starfleet to shame.

Then there were the characters I didn’t care for as much. Major (later Colonel) Kira is an interesting idea, an officer from the nearby planet of Bajor, put there by the Bajoran government to see that Bajor’s interests are observed by the Federation – as Bajor is not yet a member planet. In practice she spends a lot of time in the first several seasons as a shrill nag, dogging Captain Sisko to explain how the Federation’s interests and Bajor’s coincide. Eventually this tension boils down a bit as it becomes clearer and clearer that Bajor needs Federation support in the times to come but, in my personal opinion, this theme is dragged out too long and, more than anything, her constant antagonism towards Starfleet impedes her growth as a character until about season four.

Dax is treated as a sort of get out of plot trouble free for a good stretch of the show – which is to say, she’s a convenience for the writers not the crew as the long life of the Dax symbiote allows its hosts – first Jadzia and later Ezri – access to a plethora of skills and connections that will drag her into and out of weird situations.  Worse, with all those personalities jumbling around in her head it’s hard to pin down who, exactly, Jadzia is. Ezri is written better, with more of a clear identity, but she’s only there for one season so it makes her only a little less muddled. The idea of Dax may work well in a franchise where it’s front and center, like Doctor Who, but as a part of an ensemble it was more of a question mark than an exclamation point.

Sisko is a mixed bag. Much of his character progression I found lackluster, but more on that once we talk themes. His position on the station is quite interesting, as he functions as much as the mayor of a small town as a starship commander. A large portion of his crew is Bajoran and not technically under his direct authority. Plus he has to deal with a large contingent of civilians like Quark and Garak who are outside the reach of all but the most direct and dictatorial exercises of his authority. Undoubtedly his greatest asset as a character is that he’s a family man. He has a son who he has to help grow up, and a dead wife who’s loss he has to get over. He falls in love again and even gets married, all things that make him distinct from other Star Trek captains and make him feel more organic to the frontier town feel of DS9. He’s a good character and a good leader, even if I feel the writers didn’t always serve him well.

Thematically, DS9 tackles fewer ideas than its predecessors but goes at them at greater length. As with many of its creative decisions this is a mixed blessing. It works fantastically for characters like Garak, Dumar and Gul Dukat who’s conflicted and evershifting relations to their strict, nationalist culture make for fascinating character studies. By the same token the deep dive into Ferengi culture the show takes is both hilariously entertaining and fairly insightful, although a little less evenly handed than the Cardassians. But for the central themes I feel like it’s more of a miss.

At the heart of the show, Deep Space Nine attempts to tackle the morality of Star Trek at the edges of the story, where the many luxuries of the core Federation worlds are not available. Where NextGen gave us a moral mosaic of contrasting situations and outcomes, DS9 gives us moral grays. The problem with pictures of all gray is that all the shapes bleed into one another leaving a drab, blurry boring stretch of canvas. Nothing illustrates this more than Captain Sisko’s role as the Emissary of the Prophets and his character arc for most of the show.

The Bajorans are a deeply spiritual people, worshiping a group of deities called “The Prophets” who turn out to have a stable wormhole built a good ways out from the planet of Bajor. Conflict over this wormhole is much of the plot of the show and it all starts when Ben Sisko flies out into it to find the missing ship of the Cardassian officer Gul Dukat and stumbles on the wormhole and the Prophet’s sanctuary. From that moment on Sisko is considered a voice for the Prophets in the mortal realm. Periodically Sisko will be given some insight on a problem the station is – or will be – facing and he must trust the Prophets and work out the situation. At first he’s reluctant, both to trust the Prophets and act as their Emissary, but by seasons four or five he’s settled into the role and is actively using its influence.

The problem with this arc is that there’s no real meaning to the Bajoran religion. At least, not that’s shared with us. The Prophets are basically powerful beings who kinda want to do something about some evil things and Bajor is somehow involved. But what the codes the Propehts demand of their followers, what their morality is and how it might intersect with Sisko’s loyalty to Starfleet or his personal code of conduct is pretty sketchy.

The Prophets behave much like the stereotypical god put forth by atheists and agnostics – every so often they put forth an edict and expect it to be carried out even if there’s no rhyme or reason. Problem is, even pagan deities, hardly at the pinnacle of systematic theology, had a logic to them. Apollo was god of poetry and music, as well as prophecy, so his myths revolved around story and song as much as predictions of the future. Tyr was god of valor and personal combat and he valued those who faced such adversity with the Nordic spirit of honor. They had a wheelhouse that made them understandable to their followers and useful as storytelling devices – which is undoubtedly why they creep up even in modern story time and time again. The Prophets have no such domain and thus, generally just serve as plot conveniences to drive stories.

That fact really starts to show when the evil counterparts to the Prophets, the Pah Wraiths, show up and take Gul Dukat as their leader. Not only does this destroy Dukat as a character, going from a deep, meaningful and charismatic (but untrustworthy) man to a shallow half of a lazily drawn good and evil conflict who mouths platitudes about love that he clearly doesn’t understand; it underlines just how empty the Bajoran religion is of meaning or driving purpose. Neither side of this battle has a philosophy clear enough to prevent Bajor’s religious leaders from slipping back and forth from one side of the conflict to the other. Sisko himself trusts the Prophets only because they’ve never been wrong – right up until they ask him to not do something he wants to, namely get married. Of course, the Prophets end up correct about that as well – the decision does put Sisko and Cassidy through more emotional pain than they probably would have suffered if they hadn’t gotten married – but it still doesn’t change the fact that the Prophets clearly don’t stand for anything in the minds of those who trust them.

It’s very hard to wield religious figures in fiction, in part because the act of having faith actively works against the kind of emotional conflict that leads to character arcs. Faith is a stabilizing force in a person’s life and stories need instability to be interesting. Thus religious figures work best as antagonists in storytelling, hence the prevalence of the Devil in fiction but not the Christian God or Jesus, or as side characters that provide emotional stability, thus the trope of a supporting priest the protagonist can confess to (or however that works for the religious tradition in question). This is why Q worked in NextGen as the glimpse of humanity’s objectively low place on the galactic totem pole, a pinprick to the hubris of humanism’s centering of mankind in the cosmos. It’s not even that Q disliked humanity – he often seemed to be doing them favors in the manner of a drill sergeant or older brother who torments to toughen people up – it’s just that Q understood how much danger they were getting in to and how best to make them see it.

The Prophets, by contrast, don’t do much of anything for anyone, other than sealing up the wormhole for the last couple of seasons to keep the Dominion from pouring through.

Which reminds me of the other pantheon of DS9, the Founders. These shapeshifting masters of genetics lead the Dominion, the show’s primary antagonists. They’re treated as gods by a handful of races they made via genesmithing and programmed to revere them. The Founders, at least, behave as actual pagan religious figures might. Unfortunately we never see more than a couple of Founders, counting Odo, and we learn little of their philosophy beyond their general distrust of creatures who can’t shapeshift. There is one incident that explains a bit of why that might be – Founders communicate with each other in a sort of telepathic merging that causes them to distrust the vagueness of verbal communication while humanoids distrust creatures who can change shape at will – but what that kind of thought process might imply for their culture is never addressed.

Another theme of DS9 is supposedly the imperfections of human society. But again, it doesn’t show that very well. While there is an attempted coup on Earth during the run of the show and we see several people turn traitor and abandon Starfleet for the Maquis, there’s still one major problem in all this. Ben Sisko is always right. He’s never wrong.

Not once in the show’s whole run does Sisko make the wrong bet when sorting out these problems. Even Picard, the most conscientious and fair minded captain in Star Trek, missed a bet once or twice, as in “Chain of Command” or “Best of Both Worlds”. To say nothing of Ro Laren. But Sisko never gambles wrong, and in time it becomes clear that the moral standard in these “morally gray” situations still exists – it’s just embodied in a single character. We no longer have a moral mosaic where we have to measure the situation, the players and our principles all together to find out where the right of things lies, now we can just wait to see what Sisko does and know that this will be the win. It’s boring, dull and muddled – just what I’d expect when everything is painted in shades of gray.

The epitome of this muddled sense of standards is the constant visits to the mirror universe. It is fun to see the characters with inverted morality – but not everyone’s morality is flipped and the whole string of episodes, stretched over the show’s full run, never goes anywhere. It’s disappointing and a waste of resources that might have been spent better developing other ideas. Like Bajor, that planet that was right next door to the station but that we saw maybe once a season. Missed opportunities there. Or maybe more than just two highly specialized, genetically engineered Dominion races.

The final thematic element of DS9 is war. Now, the Star Trek galaxy was always on the brink of war and perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. The political situation was based on the real world for both The Original Series and Next Generation and the world was kind of on the brink of war that whole time. On the other hand, the world was not at war during the 1990s.  It’s almost as if the showrunners wanted to do World War Two in space, with Star Trek sensibilities, rather than address ethnic cleansing or the other geopolitical struggles of the time. It’s not that I don’t understand that – in fact it was probably a wise decision – but it did cost the show some of the timeliness the first two takes on the franchise were known for.

In the end, DS9 isn’t undone by its flaws of character or theme. It’s a different kind of Star Trek story but not necessarily a worse one. One outcome of the changes in format and approach that I’m not sure was fully appreciated was how high impact moments in the story would get spread out. Deep Space Nine has fewer truly standout episodes than any take on the franchise beyond its contemporary, Star Trek Voyager. That’s because many of the best moments happened in episodes that were otherwise just average for the show. In fact, if I had to characterize DS9 in comparison to the rest of the franchise I’d say it was of stronger overall consistency but lacked the highs and lows of other takes. That said, there were a number of very good episodes worth watching. Also, the final half of the last season makes for one of the stronger modern space operas although that hardly counts as “an episode”.

“Duet” comes early in the show’s run and highlights the evils of the Cardassian occupation. The station’s crew has arrested a man who used to run a work camp and Major Kira must lead the investigation, which she does with vengeful intensity. But along the way they discover the Cardassian is an imposter – in truth he was the camp’s file clerk and has taken his old CO’s identity. This episode shows the struggle for redemption and the toll that even adjacency to evil can cause. It also shows how attempts to reconcile cultures long at odds can be easily undermined from either side, even if one of those sides seems to have a clear moral high ground.

“The Magnificent Ferengi” features Quark pulling together a team of crack Ferengi commandos for an impromptu rescue mission. The naturally conflict averse disposition of the merchants supreme is overridden by reward money offered and the galaxy’s most devious minds all come together to thwart the aims of the Dominion. It’s every bit as fun as that sounds, only more so.

Supposedly the British Navy believes that any action worthy of receiving the Victoria Cross is not a sound basis for tactical doctrine. “Valiant” takes a crack at showing that true in the Star Trek lore. The Valiant was a small ship on a training cruise when the Dominion War broke out and they were swept up in hostilities. The three commissioned officers were killed in an initial attack leaving a crew of cadets to repair and run the ship. Rather than going home their commander decides to try and carry out the orders that came in for the ship’s late captain. Along the way they pick up DS9′s Jake and Nog, who were going to Ferenginar, the Ferengi homeworld. Over Jake’s protests the Valiant continues on its way, eventually biting off more than the crew of inexperienced and emotionally unstable cadets can handle. At the end, as one of the cadets defends their now deceased leader, Nog speaks the most memorable line of the entire series. “He was a good man. Maybe even a hero. But he was a bad captain.”

“Waltz” is the single strongest performance of anyone in Deep Space Nine. Both Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo act their hearts out to deliver the ultimate confrontation between Captain Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat. The two spar in a battle of wits, each with a crippling handicap. Sisko doesn’t know what the game is and Dukat lost his wits when he watched his daughter murdered. It’s tense, nailbiting and heartbreaking all at once. Good stuff.

Deep Space Nine went off the air in 1999 and it marked the beginning of the franchise’s decline. Unlike previous series the show would never make the leap to films so that aspect of the franchise would lapse in 2002. While Voyager was still on air, and would be until 2001, and Star Trek Enterprise would carry the torch onwards for another four years, Star Trek was beginning to show it’s age. In fact, by the end of Voyager the real history of Earth would have officially divulged from the history Rodenberry proposed. Many people talk as if the decline was because no one ran with the storytelling techniques DS9 introduced to the franchise, or that it was because DS9 was the peak of what the franchise could aspire to and decline after that was natural. I disagree, and I’ll speak more about why that is in a couple of weeks, but for now I’ll just say I attribute that to their love for the show. As I said, DS9 is unique in the history of the franchise and thus its chunk of the fanbase is very dedicated. And the series did do a lot to explore the cultures of the Star Trek galaxy and raised the art of character writing in the franchise to its peak. It was fresh, fierce and fun, and for that I confess I love it too.

Deep Space Nine was an experiment but the core of Rodenbery’s future lived on. In 1995 the USS Voyager departed Deep Space Nine‘s docking pylons and headed into the Badlands and out into the franchise’s next adventure far beyond the reaches of human knowledge. Because space is one journey that will likely never be over…

Star Trek – The Future for Future Generations

Around the time the movie Star Trek: The Journey Home was entering production Paramount set out to translate Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future for a new generation. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation and it has defined science fiction for an entire generation. It started weak but finished strong and, for myself in particular, the future will always be tinted by its aesthetics and dreams, for better or for worse. In 1987 Jean Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D departed for Farpoint and once again took us where no man had gone before.

The captain and his ship set out into a much more chaotic, unpredictable age than his predecessor. This incarnation of Rodenberry’s vision for the future would see the end of Lennin’s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet bloc. The nature of many of the political institutions of the time would begin changing radically as a result and the timeliness of the Star Trek universe would sometimes wobble but, by and large, still had a strong resonance. The Next Generation still had a lot to say and people were still in a mood to hear it.

If Star Trek: The Original Series was defined by the bridge then Star Trek: The Next Generation was defined by the courtroom. From the very first episode the theme of weighing our decisions in the most objective, most all-knowing way possible, and whether we should be judged by intentions or outcomes would be was a big theme of the show. The world and culture had changed in twenty years. People were no longer just interested in what decisions we should make – decades of foreign intervention to counter the Russians had made us wonder what the consequences of our decisions would be.

NextGen addressed the political issues of its time in its own way, with the Romulans serving as a stand in for the continued danger of communism, and the addition of the Bajorans and Cardassians becoming proxies for the issues of religious and ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Maquis stand in for the terrorist groups that result from political jerrymandering – but in this the showrunners failed to account for the reality of the situation as they have no religious or ideological component to their crusade. Perhaps to the showrunners terrorism is no more than politics but the fact is that doesn’t ring true to the situation on the ground in real life. At least not for most people, myself included.

Like its predecessor, NextGen has no overarching plot, although it does introduce two of the greatest antagonizing forces in the history of the franchise: The omnipotent Q and the all-consuming Borg. Both threaten the crew repeatedly throughout the show’s seven season run and stretch beyond the end of it to meddle with other crews in Starfleet.

The Borg are a pretty simple take on the issue of whether we will drive our own advancement or allow other forces to supplant our free will and control us like sheep. They could be a metaphor for any number of social phenomenon – or even social media! – or a very literal take on the dangers of letting technology too far into our lives. People can enter or leave the collective, although only with difficulty, and they served as an interesting metaphor for the line between groups and the individual. But, while menacing, the Borg were not particularly deep and suffered from over exposure before their time was ended. Like the mirror universe, they probably shouldn’t have been given as much screen time as they eventually were.

But Q. He was a different matter. The franchise’s second greatest villain (arguably its greatest) Q is the uncaring, impersonal perspective of the universe. He dares the crew to try and examine the universe from a perspective other than that of optimistic explorers, to take human goals out of the equation and try and accept the universe and human nature for what they are, typically placing the crew in danger to prove some point about human frailty. Q is a contentious figure in the fanbase. He’s arrogant and high-handed, free with the flaws of those around him, but that is to serve as a foil to the attitude of the cast who – by all accounts – are free with the flaws of the people they meet in ways that can easily come off as arrogant and high-handed. Q bookends the series and meddles in some memorable ways along the way, including introducing the Federation to the Borg.

The whole show is full moral mosaics, playing a sort of Othello with the conscience, where a situation that seems one way will flip to another with the addition of just a few pieces of the puzzle. Two episodes in the fourth season, “The Drumhead” and “The Mind’s Eye”, highlight this. In one, McCarthyesque paranoia about Romulan operatives nearly convicts an innocent man. In the other, Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge is brainwashed as a Romulan operative and caught only through carefully applied paranoia on the part of the crew. It’s only clear principles that keep the good ship Enterprise from foundering in the treacherous waters.

The cast of NextGen is… well, larger than The Original Series, although not necessarily as strong. Stand out performances come from Patric Stewart, as Captain Jean Luc Picard, Michael Dorn, as Worf Rozhenko and Brent Spiner as Data (who is an android). But the show spreads character development across a good seven or eight characters per season, leaving plenty of time spent with other members of the cast. While actors like Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, LaVar Burton and Gates McFadden did well with their characters they aren’t in quite the same league as the top three actors on the show – or the core three of The Original Series. On the other hand, the greater variety of stories in a greater variety of posts around the ship add a much needed dimension to the show.

Again, only Data gets much character development over the course of the show. Like Spock, he struggles with understanding humanity. Unlike Spock he has no emotions at all and he gets an evil twin brother and mad genius father to go along with his struggle! This is good from the crazy space adventure side of the show as well as the character development side.

With seven seasons of Next Generation you’d think there would be more stand out episodes than The Original Series and you’d be right – but oddly, not as many per season. One thing the show did get right was it’s season finale cliff hangers – many of the best episodes in the series were two part episodes with one half aired at the end of one season, forcing us to wait on tenterhooks for months for the conclusion. Great episodes include “The Naked Now”, “Elementary, Dear Data”, “Ship in a Bottle”, “The Measure of a Man”, “Q Who”, “Lower Decks”, “Qpid”, “Relics”, “Tapestry”, “Timescape”, “The Redemption” Parts One and Two, “Descent” Parts One and Two and “All Good Things…” Parts One and Two.

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” unites the crew of Picard’s Enterprise with the previous ship of that name in a time travelling incident that shifts the nature of the timeline for a brief moment and leaves the ships with a difficult choice to make. It’s an endearing throwback to “The City on the Edge of Forever” and gives early core crew member Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and sets up several interesting elements for the future.

“Chain of Command” Parts One and Two throw everything out of the window – Picard isn’t on the Enterprise! The crew has a new CO and they hate him! The Cardassians are terrible people! Okay, that last one is nothing new. The real strength of this show is the second half, as Picard confronts his Cardassian interrogator in a battle of wills to shake the heavens. The ending, where Picard brushes aside dystopia and affirms that There! Are! Four! Lights! is the stuff of legends.

“I, Borg” fleshes out the Borg when the crew rescues a drone from a crashed Borg ship and find that, with time, he evolves into an individual no longer bound by the dictates of the Collective and leaving them with an ethical dilemma… what with they do with Hugh the drone? The consequences of their decision would be felt years later in the two part episode “Descent” but more than anything the episode is a testament to the fact that you can’t know your enemy until you’ve lived with him. It also marks the beginning of the end for the Borg menace, as a narrative device if not in universe.

“The Chase” shows that many of the major humanoid races of the Alpha Quadrant are struggling to piece together a message encoded into their own DNA resulting in the revelation that they are all descendants of another progenitor race, making it one of the most important myth building episodes in the franchise and serving as an excellent metaphor for the senselessness of human racism, given the shared heritage our own DNA points to.

Of course, the two greatest episodes of Star Trek ever made are “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts One and Two. The first conflict with the Borg, the Battle of Wolf 359, rewrites the situation in the Alpha Quadrant from top to bottom and leaves the crew of the Enterprise reeling. In fact, the entire history of the franchise can be dated by its place before and after “The Best of Both Worlds”. It marks the beginning of a shift in the franchise from the strong single story, high concept scifi format to the more grandiose, space opera story telling of that would dominate the franchise in more modern incarnations. That doesn’t stop it from being the greatest moment in the franchise for here we see all the strengths of both sides of the franchise firing at full force. Truly, the best of both worlds.

Like Kirk and Co., Picard and his crew would go on to feature films. They’d blow up an Enterprise, travel through time and generally get into mischief. The very first film was a crossover with Kirk, and not a bad one at that. Sadly the next generation of Star Trek films didn’t hit the heights of the first, the only way in which the follow-up didn’t measure up to the original. The only truly great NextGen film was Star Trek: First Contact, pitting Picard against the Borg one final time, but this time with a new ship and in the past as the Borg try to change history and assimilate humanity before they achieve faster than light travel. We also get to see the first contact between humanity and the Vulcans, a major point of the mythos that we’ve never seen before.

“Encounter at Farpoint” was a pretty bleh pilot episode for a sequel series to a TV show that failed in the ratings after only three years. But The Next Generation gained steam as it went and became a scifi juggernaut on the backs of solid writing and a great cast. The show was so successful two further series were added to the franchise running almost simultaneously but it’s my humble opinion that nothing has quite matched the greatness of the franchise in this era. But the very nature of Star Trek calls us to boldly go to new places and the franchise traveled onwards to the orbit of Bajor and the edge of a wormhole into unexplored space, all under the watchful eye of of a new crew and facing new problems…

Star Trek: Gene Rodenberry’s Wagon Train to the Stars

In September of 1966 a man named Gene Rodenberry set forth a vision of the future that was unlike anything people had advanced before. It was utopian, a little silly and not particularly popular at the time. After three seasons Star Trek would go off the air, but not before giving a whole generation of science fiction fans their first glimpse of the wonder and possibilities of space. Not that Star Trek bears much semblance to reality – it was the dream that mattered to most of them. The dream that there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in our philosophies.

Since going off the air Star Trek has spawned five follow-up TV shows and more than a dozen feature films. Not bad for a TV show that – arguably – failed on initial release. Star Trek came at an interesting time in American life. Man was on his way to the moon but he hadn’t made it there yet, in fact Star Trek would go off the air a little more than a month before the Apollo 11 landing. Space was still a long way off when Captain Kirk first beamed up to the Enterprise. The Star Wars franchise was still a decade away and space wasn’t a huge part of popular culture either.

Humanity was locked in a very tense, hostile position as the Cold War rose from the ashes of Korea. There was something going on over in Vietnam, had been for a decade, but resistance to it was only really starting to form in the US. This is where Star Trek was born, lived and died.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Star Trek is how much like the show’s present the future Rodenberry presented was. The United Federation of Planets – a loose parallel to democratic organizations like NATO or the UN – stood at odds with the Klingon and Romulan empires, two loosely allied superpowers that resembled the USSR and Maoist China in political situation if not culture. Old wars had exhausted all three superpowers until they no longer wanted to fight wars but no formal peace existed and small skirmishes were fought along the borders through political maneuvering or via proxies.

But for all that Star Trek resembled the present, it was built somewhat on the past. Rodenberry frequently compared the show to another TV series called Wagon Train, an old western series about settlers headed out west. Kirk led his small band of travelers ever up and outward into the unknown, stopping with friendly settlers and fighting off – or talking his way out of – any hostilities that took place. It was a blend of the old and familiar with the new and unexpected that worked very well in illuminating what Rodenberry thought of the present and where it should go.

The core of Star Trek in the original incarnation is three fold: Kirk, Spock, McCoy. Each of these men represented a force driving human development. Spock, the cool, rational and scientific mind, was passive and tended to observe with an eye for the simplest and most beneficial outcome. McCoy was driven by relationships and emotions, seeking outcomes he could accept and spurred to action by his sense of empathy and justice. And Kirk, riding herd on them both as the spirit of moderation and purpose, made sure that their goals were never thwarted by either inclination.

Of the three characters only Spock got anything like character development – that kind of thing was done very little on television in those days. Most of Spock’s growth involved him coming to grips with his dual Vulcan and Human heritage and trying to find a balance between the Vulcan need for emotional control and the human need for emotional expression.

The basic venue for the original Star Trek is the bridge. While many stories took place away from the Enterprise much of what needed to be said or decided was said or decided on the bridge of that venerable Constitution-class ship and the bridge itself served as the perfect metaphor for the show. We are in the driver’s seat, Rodenberry tells us, look sharp and mind your stations and we can get through this.

There’s no large plot to this run of Star Trek, instead it focuses on a number of short, concise and typically exciting high concept stories that inspect the human condition in ways both timely and timeless. Many have the feel of Twilight Zone episodes with a consistent cast. Surprisingly this run of the show, while the shortest of any incarnation of the franchise, has one of the highest memorable episode counts – undoubtedly due in part to its emphasis on strong individual stories.

Notable episodes include “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “The Day of the Dove”, “Balance of Terror”, “The Enterprise Incident”, “The Doomsday Machine”, “Where No Man has Gone Before”, and “Journey to Babel”. The episode “Mirror, Mirror” introduces the “mirror universe”, a timeline where the Federation went terribly wrong and the Terran Empire has locked most of the sentient species in the Alpha Quadrant of the galaxy in a tyrannical fascist regime. Spock finds himself stuck with a party from the mirror world while the same party from the main timeline winds up on the mirror Enterprise before hijinks ensue. While seeing the crew with swapped personalities is interesting and serves as a great look into the darker side of the cast, this idea became something of an obsession among the fans and some of the writers, rarely leading anywhere good. More on this in weeks to come.

A more positive influence on the cannon comes in “Space Seed”, which introduces the franchise’s greatest (or second greatest, depending on who you ask) villain, Khan. It also gives some history on the Eugenics War and humanity’s dark history of genetic modifications. Khan is a simple villain but an effective one, sure in his breeding and power and the natural right of rulership he believes stems from those things. Khan returned in the franchise’s second feature film, resulting in one of the tensest scifi battles of wits in cinema history followed by one of the genre’s greatest death scenes.

The most memorable episode of Star Trek is “The City on the Edge of Forever”. When McCoy accidentally travels back in time he saves an American peace advocate from an accidental death and winds up delaying the U.S. entry into the Second World War to the point that the Germans cannot be defeated, instead winning through wanton use of atomic bombs and leaving Kirk and Spock with a terrible task – let a virtuous and compassionate woman die as she was meant so a brutal and selfish man can be denied his prize. It’s a brilliant twist on the “would it be okay to kill Hitler before his rise to power?” question that demands we look past the immediate consequences of our actions. In fact, if you wanted to pick an episode of Star Trek that perfectly encapsulated the themes of the show in a single hour of viewing time, “City on the Edge of Tomorrow” might be the perfect choice.

After going off the air Star Trek lapsed for about a decade, then revived in 1979 with the first of six motion pictures. The Wrath of Khan is frequently cited as the best, with The Undiscovered Country and The Journey Home vying for second place. These films broke new ground in a lot of ways, destroying one Enterprise and building another. A whole film was spent with the crew in a captured Klingon ship. There was time travel and nearly omniscient space entities and wonderful science fiction adventure. Star Wars gave Americans a taste of modern myth but Star Trek gave them an idea of what the work of the future might be, and they loved it. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley and the rest would find their names forever tied to the characters they portrayed in a way no other actor really had. And a new breed of scifi set out for the stars, to boldly go where no one had gone before.

Star Wars and the Road to Nihilism

We’re going to talk about The Simpsons in a moment. But not yet.

Also, be warned that this post does contain spoilers for both The Simpsons and The Last Jedi.

Now that you’re intrigued by the notion of a cartoon series nearly a quarter century old tying in to a sci-fi franchise approaching twice that age, let’s turn to talk about The Last Jedi and why Disney decided to stop making Star Wars movies and start making Spinning You Wheels in Space.

I’m not going to lie. I really enjoyed watching The Last Jedi, more than I actually expected to based on the last two films in the franchise. It’s got some really fun and exciting ideas packed into it and the film hits a bunch of really high notes during its two hour plus run time. But it has a lot of really bad moments, too, and those can easily ruin the experience for viewers. But my biggest problem is that the nature of the Star Wars franchise has veered off course. For all his flaws, George Lucas kept his eyes firmly one idea – he wanted to tell a story about the fall and redemption of a man. The theme of seeking redemption runs all throughout the first six episodes of the Star Wars saga. Qui-gon seeks to redeem an aging order of Jedi when he brings in Anakin as fresh blood. Jango Fett seeks redemption for a life of violence when he asks the cloners to make him a son. Leia seeks to redeem the altruism locked away in the selfish heart of Han Solo. R2-D2 seeks to redeem C-3PO from his own cowardice and myopic worldview. And, of course, Obi-Wan and Luke seek to redeem Anakin from Darth Vader.

The Last Jedi, in contrast, seeks to destroy the franchise. By its own admission.

Throughout The Last Jedi there’s a theme of destroying your attachment to the past to move forward. There is a time and place for this lesson but Rian Johnson has transformed this from a conditional step to be entered into with extreme caution into a necessary step for every aspect of life. In point of fact, the movie takes it so far that it endorses book burning as a good thing. Sure, when Yoda burns the tree the Jedi texts weren’t there – we find out later Rei had taken them. But Luke sure thought they were. And this book burning is supposed to be the good thing that triggers his final character evolution and his appearance at the climax.

Rian Johnson has fallen into the classic postmodern trap we discussed when talking about – you guessed it – The Simpsons.

A quick refresher if you don’t want to go back and read the full post. Postmodernism breaks down and subverts the metanarratives that define a cultural landscape, in this case the Star Wars franchise. The problem with it is that it doesn’t set any limits on what must be broken down and subverted, and thus when it finishes with all the other metanarratives in the cultural landscape it inevitably starts subverting itself. We see this in The Simpsons with its origin as a satire of the existing sitcom formula and its eventual self-destruction beginning in the episode “The Principle and the Pauper” when a well understood character and his all-important relationship with his mother was destroyed for the sake of a throw away gag. This slow decline has continued from that episode until today.

The Last Jedi marks the beginning of this kind of subversive decline in Star Wars. While there’s nothing wrong with subverting expectations – it’s the basis for humor, for example – it has to be done with purpose. As an end goal it serves very poorly and tends to result in bland, uninteresting stories that (ironically) all feel the same. Ask any Simpsons fan. But maybe you’re not convinced. You may be thinking, what things were so subversive in The Last Jedi?

I’m glad you asked.

The most significant sign of subversion in the story is Luke himself. We were expecting a sage and a teacher, one with the skills he honed in years of battle and the wisdom of decades of Force mastery. Luke barely teaches anything and wisdom left him long ago. The endless force for optimism, the man who recovered from losing his surrogate parents and his mentor in one week, who confronted Vader twice and learned to accept the fate of his father, who faced despair and in it found he had a sister, who could run the Death Star trench and remain humble – that Luke Skywalker is subverted into a man who screws up once in training a boy and runs away for the rest of his life, who can’t look past the flaws of the Jedi Order, who can no longer put together any kind of meaningful vision for the future and so seeks to take all he’s ever stood for to the grave. He can’t even decide if he should be the last Jedi or not. Yes, there are hints he might be turning up to tutor the Force sensitive slave kids on the planet with Casino Blando but that actually makes it worse – the subversion is already set up to be subverted again.

Luke isn’t the only thing subverted in The Last Jedi though. The story also introduces the very first incompetent commander for the heroes in the form of Vice Admiral Holdo. Now this particular subversion actually has a lot of potential. The Star Wars movies have never spotlighted a truly incompetent heroic leader before – at least, not one that didn’t bumble through by dumb luck like Jar Jar. Holdo flips the script. Her bad leadership causes growing discontent among her staff and results in their taking actions that waste time and resources not to mention triggers a mutiny. Pretty poor command performance. But she heroically sacrifices herself to ensure the rest of the group gets away and redeems her failures in a noble death.

Except not. See, nothing about the script suggests we’re supposed to see Holdo as incompetent. Instead, Poe’s actions are presented as silly and irrational, as if it makes total sense to sit on a ship in the middle of the least exciting chase in Star Wars history and wait on some kind of miracle save to materialize. We shouldn’t expect script writers to have a flawless grasp on military strategy but some research into leadership isn’t unreasonable. The full details could fill a book – and have! – but suffice it to say that leaders who share the details of their plans with followers tend to get better results than those who keep secrets and Holdo’s decision to withhold details from Poe thus makes no sense. Plus, Poe had the respect of the Alliance – you can’t lead a mutiny if you’re not respected by your peers – and would be the natural candidate to carry on the plan if something happened to Holdo. The fact that she doesn’t seem to have made any allowance for something happening to her before they reach their goal is another major moment of incompetence but, again, we’re not meant to see it as such. Instead, we get a lesson about trusting dear Leader. Leaders who expect blind trust in their dictates from followers aren’t leading military operations, they’re leading messianic death cults, which is exactly what Holdo’s gamble proves to be. The Last Jedi has unironically subverted good leadership with Jim Jones and that isn’t even the worst subversion in the film.

That honor belongs to Finn’s aborted self-sacrifice at the end of the film. The build-up to this moment is very well done and emotional and, in fact, if it hadn’t been interrupted I feel it would have been the moment in the movie people talked about whenever it came up. But instead Rose crashes into Finn’s speeder and nearly kills him trying to make sure he stays alive, then delivers a confused speech about how they need to fight for things they love rather than things they hate. This is the most blatant subversion of the film, replacing the heroic self-sacrifice we expect with a confused and meaningless rescue.

And it’s this last subversion that really proves that Johnson had nowhere to go with all his subversions, he just wanted to subvert. See, when subversion is done with a purpose the subversion makes sense, as in the hypothetical arc I gave Holdo just a moment ago. She makes bad decisions but still finds heroism at the end. A peerless war hero is replaced with a failed but still noble commander. (This idea is at the core of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Valiant”, see that for more details.) But the subversion of Finn’s sacrifice is muddled and incoherent.

Why would Rose “save” Finn only to put him in a situation where they should have been killed mere seconds later? They were still under the First Order’s guns. If self-sacrifice is so foolish after all, why was Holdo’s sacrifice portrayed as noble? And how was Finn not fighting for the things he loved in the form of his friends among the rebels? He already fought and killed the things he hated when he tangled with Phasma earlier on the flagship. Rose didn’t seem to object to it then.

These aren’t the only cases of subversion in the film but they are definitely the most prominent and most clearly indicative of how confused this script is. They deconstruct the heroes, leadership and heart of the original films and replace it with purple haired messiahs and book burning puppets bent on destroying the past so they can replace it with muddled platitudes they clearly haven’t thought through. Some of these ideas are actually pretty good. I loved it when Luke said that the notion of the Jedi equaling hope for the galaxy was arrogant. But even these good ideas have the legs cut out from under them by a failure to think them through. After all – Luke’s so worried about the Jedi causing evil in the universe by their existence, but the idea that letting the Jedi die out equaling an end to those evils is equally arrogant. Disappointment all around, it seems.

It’s not that the film wasn’t fun. For all the cracks forming in the franchise’s foundation is hasn’t collapsed yet. But while I enjoyed The Last Jedi the whole time I could hear the franchise collapsing. No, none of the old films were perfect. But they told a tale about how, no matter how bad things looked, some good could be found and built into a new day. But now Disney asks us to put all that aside and trust blindly that, once they’ve burned away everything, bad and good, they’re make something new.

Well, frankly my faith in the Mouse is not strong enough to trust that Kool Aid and I’m not that interested in stories that prefer scorched earth over redemption either. Star Wars isn’t beyond saving but the path it’s on leads to very dark places. Just as any fan of The Simpsons.

2017 wasn’t a great year for scifi fans but it did mark the 50th anniversary of one of the genre’s landmark shows – a high point in the genre that could use revisiting. So come back next week and join me as we start a look at Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future.

Super Sons: A Fortress of Attitude

Last week we talked a little about DC comic’s latest take on Superman and how they’ve changed their take on him for the worse and for the better in the last ten years or so. To be honest, that was all set-up for what I really wanted to talk about: Super Sons.

Super Sons is a new comic line from DC that focuses on Jonathan Kent and Damian Wayne, the sons of Superman and Batman, as they strike out on their own and try to establish themselves in the family business. Many consider it to be one of the best ongoing series DC is publishing and, after reading the first collected volume of many of the DC Rebirth titles, I tend to agree. There’s a lot that could go wrong in a story about an eleven year old and a thirteen year old, one a juggernaut of physical power the other with all the training of legendary assassin and the money of a millionaire, but amazingly, Super Sons avoids it all.

The core of Super Sons is less on Jon and Damian sorting out who they want to be, as most of these coming of age stories are. As a child raised in the League of Assassins, Damian has already had to confront challenges like what it means to take a life and rebelled against one path set before him in favor of another he wants more. That part of his maturation happened very early, and is already put aside. Jonathan has his father’s unshaking sense of morality and purpose, his mother’s nosiness and thirst for truth, and the untempered optimism only the adolescent can pull off. That he would take the mantle of Superboy seems almost inevitable.

The point of Super Sons is not what Jonathan and Damian want to do. DC knows their audience has come for rousing superheroics and exciting adventures, after all, and we’ve seen the reluctant hero done to death. What Super Sons offers instead is a focus on the negotiation. Who we are is not something we decide on our own, no matter how much we’d like it to be. Other people will judge and evaluate us along the way, and while that doesn’t define a person entirely, neither is a person entirely self-made. Super Sons highlights this via the simple expedient of having Jonathan and Damian dislike each other. A lot.

To be honest, the friction between the two is as much an outgrowth of how the two characters behave – established in the Superman and Batman titles before their spinning off into their own title – as it is a device of the writing and editorial staff. Damian is arrogant, short tempered, taciturn and generally unpleasant. It’s not that he doesn’t try to understand people, he understands them just fine. He just doesn’t like what he sees and isn’t afraid to let them know it. Jonathan is humble and even tempered, considerate and obedient towards his parents. From the outset their personal codes and idea of how the world should be set them up for a clash. Neither really wants to accept the other as a superhero and their getting the rest of the world to accept them for what they want to be is, in many ways, less of a challenge than the two accepting each other as heroes.

In many ways DC has chosen to pass on the semi-adversarial relationship that Superman and Batman had in the days when they’d just met down to their kids. Again, that could come off forced but it feels more like DC just recognized that they’d created two characters who fit that dynamic perfectly and decided to bring back a relationship dynamic the audience had always enjoyed. Now DC audiences can have the rocky but mostly friendly relationship Superman and Batman currently enjoy while still also getting the fractious arguments over methods, ideals and attitude that once was.

Of course, all this could go very, very badly if the characters were badly written. Fortunately they’re not. Both Jon and Damian are smarter than their peers and they’re better trained and more emotionally in control than most kids their age. But they never act like short adults. Peter Tomasi, the writer for Super Sons, either has kids of his own or works with them extensively, because he hits the exact tone, attitude and emotional investment you’d expect from the youngest of young adults. Neither boy ever preaches, or tries to be an emotional mainstay for their parents. And, while they do occasionally challenge the limits their parents set – Damian much more than Jon – they also accept discipline when it is handed down. In short, they act like kids rather than like adults trying to show kids how they’re supposed to act or worse adults seeking some kind of childhood do-over wish fulfillment. That’s a real achievement on its own, in the context of Super Sons it’s borderline miraculous.

Super Sons is the best possible evolution of a long-running fiction brand. It keeps the existing character development while expanding and developing old characters in new contexts. At the same time it finds ways to very naturally keep beloved franchise dynamics alive and flourishing without feeling forced or growing stale. Go read it. Right now.

The Limits of Superman

The core problem of Superman is that few people seem to understand what makes him interesting. It’s not a question of what he’s capable of, as Superman is defined by his ability to meet any challenge the future will bring. Nor is it the morality of what he chooses to do. Clark Kent’s reputation as a boy scout is undeserved, as no one I knew in Scouts was as well behaved as he is – living up to the highest moral standards is something he strives for every day and, even if he doesn’t succeed every time, he still serves as a high bar to confront. The core conflict of Superman is what he won’t do. What limits Superman will set is, and always will be, the thing that define him.

This is why the Superman of DC’s New 52 was so uninteresting. They took away his relationship with Lois Lane and made his love interest Wonder Woman. You can’t do that. Lois and Clark aren’t inseparable due to some deep spark of chemistry between the two. They’re inseparable because the nature of their characters complete one another. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are devoted to Truth and Justice, concepts that each pursue in their own ways with their own skills. For a long time Lois’ sense of moral and intellectual superiority blinded her to Clark and even now that they’re married he’s a constant reminder of the importance of the simple truths that undergird human nature. Superman may be able to do anything he wants but Clark can’t constantly watch over Lois’ shoulder or keep her from chasing truth in her own way without destroying everything he loves about her. The character dynamic there is deep and fascinating, in fact it’s at the root of some of the best Superman stories ever told, but the most important thing about it for our purposes is that the very fact that Lois puts a brake on what Superman will do is part of what makes Superman, the character, interesting.

Lois is not the only limit on Superman in the life of the character. Jimmy Olsen and Perry White both filled that role as well, offering a kind of friendship and mentoring respectively. Moreover, the very real responsibilities of a normal job and civic responsibilities kept Superman a character with dilemmas to confront, driven not by what he could or couldn’t do, but by what would be best for those he cared about. Too many modern superheroes are driven by abstract things. Tony Stark works for the future or progress but can’t hold a relationship together long enough for those concepts to have personal meaning. He stands aloof in his tower, making the calls he thinks are right, but when they go wrong the only skin he has in the game is the guilt trip that will come after him.

Maybe that’s all it should take. But it’s not interesting for very long. When the Man of Tomorrow made a bad call there was a nation, a city, and a small group of newspaper reporters who would feel it. At least, that’s how it was for a long time. But at some point the focus of Superman stories drifted to the Justice League, or alien invasions, or Lex Luthor. Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship so he could better represent the world, or something. He drifted from the Daily Planet more and more. Then they took away Lois Lane and everything that made Superman a man was gone. He was just a force of nature the DC editors constantly tried to slap a meaningful face on.

It was dreadful.

For the last year and a half the world’s first superhero has come into focus once again. Ever since the DC Rebirth event Clark’s marriage has been restored and he’s slowly returned to his job at the Daily Planet. The Justice League is still a part of Superman’s calling but once again his family is a part of that equation. But more than anything else, the thing that has defined Superman the most in the last two years is Jonathan Kent.

Not Clark’s adopted father, but his son.

Yes, Superman is a dad now. And he’s not a superdad. After countless years saving the world, earth’s first hero has to confront a new and disturbing notion: That he now serves as an example not for the abstract crowd of people that are humanity but rather a single boy who’s depended on him for everything from food and clothing to a moral code and the mindset to live it out. Clark can’t let Jon run wild, he has to respect the boundaries his wife wants put in place, he has to keep his son safe even as Jonathan tries to take his own place in the world. And Superman has to do it all while preventing natural disasters, fending off old rivals and keeping a day job. There’s never been more to do or more expectations to live up to while doing it.

There’s a charming moment in the Action Comics title where Superman actually dozes off while flying home one evening, summing up the character’s dynamic in a simple scene. This is Superman the workingman, pulling long hours and running himself ragged in the hope that the things he does and example he sets will make his family stronger and the world better. It’s all any of us can hope for, whether they have superstrength and laser vision or a normal job in a normal office. That shared limit we have on what we can hope for makes Superman a perfect character to lead DC’s heroes into a new age.