Stranger Frustrations

If you’re American and you have Netflix, odds are you’ve watched Stranger Things. And I am no exception. Most people love Stranger Things and it’s not hard to see why. The pacing in Stranger Things is intense. Most episodes whirl you through a series of slowly building stakes along two or three parallel stories culminating in a blockbuster finale that puts a cherry on top of it all. And, perhaps most impressive of all, the show does this twice.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things. Long time readers know this means I’m about to switch gears and tell you everything I hate about the show. So let’s get down to it.

I enjoyed my time with Stranger Things. But I also didn’t enjoy it as much as many other people I know. I didn’t count down the days until it came out and I didn’t binge the entire series as soon as it was available. Part of this is because I have a life that makes demands of my time. Most of it was because I wasn’t highly invested in watching the series. The pacing of Stranger Things is one of its strongest points hands down. By whirling the audience from one new revelation to another the Duffer brothers keep their audience breathless with excitement and anticipation, never really thinking about things that have been but rather focused on things that are coming. That’s a huge accomplishment. On top of that there’s some amazingly strong character writing and acting. Every award Stranger Things won it deserved.

Problem is when I wasn’t watching Stranger Things I was thinking about things. So, while I want to praise Stranger Things some next week, I hope you’ll indulge a bit of griping this week as we discuss the details that keep Stranger Things off my list of great TV shows – at least for now. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to discuss

-SPOILERS- 

so please stop reading if, by some chance, you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet and that kind of thing bothers you.

Let’s start with blood.

You know, the stuff that lured the Demogorgon out when Jon and Nancy trapped it, that led it to the deer which brought Nancy into the Upside Down, that attracted it to Barb leading to her untimely demise. Stranger Things makes it seem like blood is very important to the Demogorgon somehow. Except that it’s not.

You remember Will Byers? Y’know, the kid who’s disappearance starts everything in Stranger Things season one? He isn’t bleeding when the Demogorgon attacks him. More than that, season two establishes that Demogogons in general will follow food that has no blood in it at all, like Three Musketeers candy bars or bologna. In fact, none of the Mind Flayer’s influenced entities seem to react to blood in any special way in season two.

So why the random blood imagery? The only reason I can think of is to make the viewer uncomfortable, as seeing injured people is want to do. It’s blatant emotional manipulation. Now manipulating audience emotions is the job of a writer but if you get caught doing it that’s generally bad. Worse, it makes the monster inconsistent, almost as if the Duffers are writing the monsters in whatever way they thought would be creepiest, rather than as actual menaces to the cast with their own inscrutable goals.

Season two has another case of this when Bob Newby dies. Monsters that had been vigilantly patrolling the halls, ignoring dozens of dead bodies, suddenly stop hunting active targets to devour his body after killing him. Gotta let those main characters escape, right? This makes even less sense when, a few episodes earlier, we see that the Mind Flayer can make Demodogs ignore easily available prey in favor of its own priorities when they leave the kids in the junkyard alone. Again, these inconsistencies make the emotional manipulation at work clear and make it harder to stay immersed. We watch Bob get eaten because he was a kind, caring, upstanding person and we’re supposed to be sad and angry at his death. Watching his body desecrated pushes us in that direction.

The biggest question of all is why the solution to the Mind Flayer in season two was so… simple. The original Demogorgon pulled open holes between the upside down and Hawkins on a semi regular basis. But, even with a huge presence in Hawkins and far more intelligence and power at its disposal than the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer only ever relies on one gate to maintain its hold. Why didn’t it open at least one other gate and secure its power base that way? It managed to widen the primary door easily enough.

There are other, minor, moments of frustrating decision making on the part of the writers. In season one the only reason for Nancy to crawl under a tree into the upside down after a something that ran off with the body of a deer while she knows there’s something in town abducting people is so the story can ratchet up the tension. If Will was so sensitive to heat that Joyce had to keep the front door open why wasn’t the Mind Flayer purged from him over the summer? It routinely gets into the 90s outside. If that’s not hot enough how hot does it have to be? The human body can only take so much. Or did it just survive so we could have a second season? Again, it’s just so much disappointing and transparent audience manipulation.

Look, none of these things a dealbreakers. They don’t make Stranger Things a bad TV show. But they do kind of chip away at immersion and disappoint people who like consistency in their fiction. Stranger Things is good TV, and if you get hyped for the inevitable season three then by all means watch it. But that’s not to say the Duffers couldn’t do better on some fronts and I hope they will. But even if they don’t I’ll still check it out just because they are so good at what they do. Drop back next week and we’ll unpack that a bit more too.

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Another Kingdom – Murder in the Arcane

Every writer wants to write about writers. It’s a weird obsession we have. Stephen King has made a career of it (not entirely but a large part of it). As an author of thrillers Andrew Klavan has steered away from this cliché, at least in those books of his I have read, as most writers are not the athletic, rush towards danger, survive and thrive types. But, as a clever, scheming, determined author Klavan found a work around and, honestly, it’s a pretty simple one. Many thrillers just throw normal people into a situation where they have no idea what’s going on and are in mortal danger then let things unfold from there. Klavan uses the same formula in his new story Another Kingdom, except he’s replaced the normal person with an aspiring Hollywood writer.

Another Kingdom is an interesting experience, taking the form of an audiobook in podcast form, read by actor Michael J. Knowles with some decent sound design to add atmosphere. Knowles has a decent vocal range and the good judgement not to try and force himself too far out of his comfort zone to read the voices of some characters. His emotional range is a bit of a question mark as the story hasn’t pushed him in very many directions yet. He does do dazed and confused quite well, but he’s also an actor so there’s that.

There are three big mysteries in Another Kingdom. First, why does Austin Lively keep going from L.A. to a mysterious fantasy world? Second, who murdered the woman found dead at his feet on Austin’s first trip to said fantasy world? Third, why did Austin read a book by the title “Another Kingdom” that mentioned said fantasy world a few months before his trips there began?

We don’t get any of the answers to these questions quickly, which is to the story’s credit. Austin keeps flipping from our world to the other at least once a chapter so the answers to all questions are pursued at a similar rate, which is fast enough to satisfy but not so fast as to give us answers too easily. In short, waiting to find out what’s going on with Austin is pleasantly frustrating, which is what any good thriller author should want.

There are a number of scenes that caused me to raise eyebrows scattered throughout the tale so far, in particular a video call with Austin’s younger sister which doesn’t seem like it will be directly relevant to the story beyond generally expanding our understanding of Austin himself. These kinds of scenes are common in storytelling but rare in thrillers, which try to keep a very brisk pacing to keep audiences hooked. This has the unfortunate side effect of making every scene of this type look like it could be a hidden flag for something important later on. Such scenes can be distracting for some in the audience, myself included, as we try and place them in the grander scheme of things. Still, Klavan manages to make everything else interesting enough that our interest isn’t always drawn to a single out-of-place moment. And it is a problem more for authors than general audiences.

The best part of Another Kingdom is the sense of purpose everything has infused in it. Austin’s world weighs on him in a way that drives him always to the next thing, as if some greater destiny is calling him from point to point until he discovers the truth behind it all. Not a shy truth, reluctant to be known, but a truth that is calling to him, laying out every step, every clue in the hope he’ll discover it. Lending weight to that sense of destiny is Klavan’s excellent portrayal of the strange, emotionally taxing life of the average aspiring Hollywood artist giving a creditable, tangible, real point of reference amidst all the fantastic elements of Austin’s predicament.

Another Kingdom is not a fantasy story for everyone. It doesn’t have much in the way of magic or even well explored mechanics to it (at least so far). No time passes in one world when Austin is in the other, a strange take on the world crossing conceit, especially as Austin has vague memories of what he did in the other world before his first visit. This is such a point of confusion for him that I’m sure it will be addressed later, but this kind of obfuscation will undoubtedly frustrate some scifi fantasy connoisseurs. Likewise, the murder mystery premise, quite well trod in any number of genres, will probably be a turn off to some readers as well. But if that kind of thing does pique your interest and you don’t mind some harsh language and mild violence Another Kingdom might be a story for you.

Franchise – Expectation vs. Vision

One of the biggest struggles between translating an existing media franchise into a new incarnation is balancing what the existing audience wants and what the creator hopes for. As you’ve probably guessed, I think of this tension as a spectrum of “expectation vs. vision” and sorting it out is pretty important. In fact, avoiding it is one of the reasons I frequently express my desire not to write in Hollywood or for comics companies when people ask me if it’s something I want to do. This week we’re going to dive into what this tension is and what happens when you go too far to one end or the other.

Simply put, expectations are what audiences want when they sit down to another episode with Dr. House, the CSI investigators or the officers of Star Fleet. Vision is where the creators want to go when they set out to write a story. When a franchise is new, say no more than two or three years old, all the cards are in the creator’s hands. The audience doesn’t have too many solid ideas about what’s going on in their story and tends to be forgiving of major changes to the format, direction of the story or role of characters. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a lot of shake-ups in the cast in the first couple of seasons, with Geordi and Worf moving up in the command structure, Tasha Yar departing and the ship’s doctor changing and then changing back. No one really minded those decisions. Similarly, although Monk having to transition from the title character’s assistant going from the saucy Sharona to the prim Natalie due to difficulties with Sharona’s actress, the show survived and thrived.

But once a franchise is older it can be harder to survive these changes. MASH did it a couple of times and many people even found the show better after the changes. But each time a change takes place it can be harder and harder to please fans – the incessant bickering over each change in The Doctor when Doctor Who brings in a new lead is testament to that. The fanbase has clearer and clearer expectations of what the direction and tone of the story should be, and are going to react worse and worse if they’re disappointed.

Creators naturally feel that, as the ones putting in all the money and effort to produce entertainment and as the ones with the large scale picture of what’s happening in the franchise, they should be free to go wherever they want with their media. There’s a lot of truth in that – they do have their hands on all the buttons, they’re taking all the risks, they’re free to go wherever they want. But the audience is free to go wherever they want as well and leaving what the audience wants is a dangerous proposition because if they don’t choose to go with you then as a creator you’re sunk.

I’ve already written extensively on how Star Trek managed this in its latest incarnation but it may not be the best example of what I’m talking about as Discovery had a lot of what its audience wanted replaced with other things they typically like as opposed to things they aren’t interested in. The darker, grittier scifi that Discovery sells is a kind of scifi many Trekkies will watch. They just don’t want it wearing the skin of their favorite franchise.

A better example is the way Marvel Comics transformed it’s entire line of comics over the last three or four years or so. Since about 2014 – editorially much earlier – Marvel began replacing its existing line-up of characters with all new characters bearing the same hero names as the old. At the same time the focus of Marvel stories shifted drastically from wild action-adventure stories with clearly defined heroes and villains to murky social commentaries where heroes fought heroes and villains watched on the sidelines snarking about how silly it is.

Now there’s a place for those kinds of stories and they serve a real purpose in our cultural landscape. But the catch is that the audience for the old Marvel Method and then All New Marvel have very small overlaps. Worse, the parts of the audience that don’t overlap tend to actively dislike each other. The result for Marvel has been long time fans abandoning Marvel’s offerings in droves while few new readers have materialized, that potential audience viewing Marvel comics as a poor fit for their tastes. The result has been Marvel sales plummeting and their long term rivals, DC Comics, dominating the Top Ten in sales week after week, with Marvel usually taking one or two places thanks to perennial fan favorite Spiderman.

In contrast DC, who started a new style of storytelling with their New 52 some six or seven years ago and abandoned it with their DC Rebirth event last year, has pretty much solved the storytelling problem. Superman and Batman are their old familiar selves and their flagship titles, Action and Detective Comics, are pushing up to their 1000th issue. But new takes on old characters are also strutting their stuff and winning over audiences. There will be a discussion of great stories like Super Sons and the truly staggering work that is Mr. Miracle at some point in the future but suffice it to say DC has managed to expand the kinds of stories it tells and the way it tells them while still appealing to their core audience.

There are two real problems with writing a franchise. One is believing the franchise can tell any kind of story and keep its audience. Franchises come with things about them baked into the crust. They were originally the vision of a handful of creators and that vision caught on with thousands or millions of people who loved the vision of those creators enough come back to it again and again. If you try and use that original vision as a way to draw attention to your own, different and unique, vision then you show that you don’t have confidence in your own vision and have to slip it into something with more cultural weight in order to have it succeed. This is going to be most obvious to the core fans who resonated most strongly with the original creator’s vision. Now you can build on existing visions to expand them but if you try and supplant them with whatever you find most appealing then don’t be surprised if the old audience turns on you and no one else is interested in the ideas you couldn’t make stand on their own.

The other is letting the franchise get stale. You can’t always be topping yourself. Either your franchise will go over the top and jump the shark or get stuck in a loop with any new story you tell stuck in the shadow of older, better loved stories that were much the same.

There’s no solid solution to this paradox. But it’s easy to tell when you’ve gone too far one way or the other. If your franchise hasn’t picked up a new landmark story in five years you’re not innovating enough. If huge parts of your fanbase rebel you’ve innovated too much. Learning to keep your finger on the pulse is part of learning to be a franchise writer.

The Art of the Unexpected – Humor and Writing

Humor is one of humanity’s unifying experiences. Nothing draws a group of people together like a good joke, laughing actually alters brain chemistry in ways that makes people more friendly, more enthusiastic and less stressed. Even people who are not particularly funny still tend to have one or two good jokes they can share with others to break the ice in new situations or just keep a conversation moving when it’s stalled. But original humor requires a great deal of intelligence and social awareness to pull off and, even then, it’s very subjective, so what leaves one audience in stitches will leave another bored and restless. Any stand-up comedian can attest to this.

Most writers try to have some humor in their works. Getting that humor to land can be very difficult for all the reasons above but when it does the benefits it provides in getting and keeping your audience is immeasurable. Humor isn’t a formula or a set of tricks but instead a fresh perspective combined with penetrating understanding of the world in general and human nature in particular. The two basic keys to good humor tend to be honesty and surprise. The first, honesty, is very simple. You cannot get a laugh if it’s not founded on some truth of the world that your audience recognizes. There’s a lot of nuance to that, cultures and limited perceptions playing a huge part in it, but that’s the core of it.

The harder part is being unexpected. We laugh because our expectations have been violated but not badly violated, or violated in a way that is very harmful. People in stressful situations often say that they laugh because the only other option is to cry, a testament to the fact that the biggest difference between humor and trauma is how deeply the wound cuts. Another way to look at it is the difference between being tickled and rubbed with sandpaper – one causes laughter, another tears.

Unsurprisingly, this means that a failed joke often causes some kind of emotional distress. Anger, sadness and general discomfort are the outcomes of a failed joke, which means using humor in your writing carries a great deal of risk with it. More than just breaking immersion, a bad joke can actually turn audiences against your story if it really rubs them the wrong way. It’s true that you can chalk this up to part of the audience being thin skinned or overly stodgy. But at the same time, it could be that your use of humor didn’t suit the story or audience you were trying to find. These kinds of judgement calls ultimately rest in the hand of the author but, as always, are also things you must be aware of in order to make those calls effectively.

There are three basic ways to violate expectations for humorists. The first is to cross societal bounds, the second to set up non sequiturs, the third is to construct running gags.

Crossing societal bounds is touchy stuff, the kind of humor most likely to cause offense and, naturally, the funniest when done right. The most famous example of this is probably George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV”, although the modern masters of the art are undoubtedly Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle. Beware strong language – Here’s a great example of Bill Burr explaining why there’s always a reason to hit a woman (but you shouldn’t).

So yeah. That kind of humor is potent, potentially destructive stuff. I’d say it’s for advanced users only but, honestly, it’s probably impossible to master that kind of biting social commentary any way other than going out and doing it. But, for the aspiring writer it might be wise to practice this kind of humor a great deal in less permanent venues before immortalizing it in writing. Test it on trusted friends first, then maybe writing groups and, if you have access and can speak in front of people, at comedy clubs. Get really good at judging this kind of thing and exactly where it’s funny for most people because once it’s out there in writing it’s never going away.

Of course, there are many much milder ways to play on societal expectations for humor. Consider the punchline of this gag from Girl Genius. The setup is when General Zog hears Dimo was listening at the door like a great big sneakypants and he says, “Dimo, I am shocked at this behavior!” And the payoff is when we realize he found it shocking because it was smart, not rude. Our understanding of shocking behavior is violated by the general’s. Puns are another great example of a very mild form of humor relying on social norms.

It’s important to note that this kind of humor can fail for reasons other than being offensive. Someone from a culture where listening at doors is normal and accepted, for example, might immediately conclude General Zog was shocked at Dimo’s display of social awareness in knowing when to listen at doors rather than the fact that he did it at all. Humor based on social conventions needs to be placed in a story that will appeal to an audience that will understand those social conventions or it won’t play.

The second kind of humor is the non sequitur. As the phrase implies, this is humor that violates our expectations simply because the punchline does not follow directly from the setup. All absurdist humor follows under this banner, as does a good bit of sketch comedy and improvisational comedy. Fish out of water humor is an interesting blend of non sequitur and societal norm humor as it revolves around people taking actions that make perfect sense to them but no sense to the audience (see Demolition Man’s three seashells gag), or taking actions that make sense to the audience but produce absurd results.

One of my favorite examples of a non sequitur gag is demonstrated in Dr. McNinja on this page and the next.

No explanation is ever given for what happened in that missing third of a page, if you’re wondering. Christopher Hastings is a master of non sequitur humor in addition to great plot based storytelling but cutting out a typical encounter in the middle of a typical adventure story and using that absence to remind us that the Doc is, in fact, a ninja is delightfully absurd. He violates both our expectation to see the Doc manage a cop quickly and easily and our expectation to learn something new about what’s going on at the same time and he does it so skillfully we don’t hold it against him. And we get to see Doc fight the NASAghasts that much faster.

Non sequiturs also have their weaknesses as humor devices. You have to present the audience with something surprising in order for it to really work and that gets harder to do every day. There’s a sequence in The Orville episode “About A Girl” where a Mexican standoff turns into a dance-off because one of the officers has been tinkering with the holodeck programs. It’s supposed to be funny but it flopped, first because Guardians of the Galaxy already attempted that gag and flubbed it but secondly, and more importantly, because going from Mexican standoff (an exotic and unusual situation) to dance off (not particularly exotic, and still less unusual than a Mexican standoff) is a poor non sequitur joke. The sequence of events started us someplace more in violation of our expectations than where we wound up, which is not funny.

Finally, there is the running gag.

It may seem strange to say that a thing that happens over and over again is a violation of our expectations. But the secret of a running gag is not that it is the same thing over and over again, but that we keep seeing the gag in places where it hasn’t shown up before and doesn’t make sense. The best examples tend to come from long running media or entertainment careers that have the time to really find the best use for these gags, things like the black cat in Trigun or the way Harpo Marx never speaks, in spite of take the roles of many people who would have to be excellent public speakers. Even Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, Doc?” is a running gag of sorts. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine found nearly infinite uses for self-sealing stem bolts, and the accompanying reverse-ratcheting routers. And the Nostalgia Critic’s relationship with the Bat Credit Card is the stuff of legend. But one of the greatest running gags of my childhood has to be the Noodle Incident from Calvin and Hobbes. The less said about that the better.

There tends to be a danger that running gags become overused. They can’t turn up constantly because then they stop being unexpected and funny. But if they’re forgotten completely or only mentioned once or twice then they can’t build up the force of a good running gag. Of course, repeating a gag that is naturally funny, as often happens on Who’s Line is it Anyway? helps make reusing it easier, but even these gags can wear out their welcome. The best part about running gags is that they’re easy to set up and bear little of the risk of other kinds of humor – basically, the only two risks are setting up a running gag that isn’t funny at all or running one to death so that your audience loses interest whenever it comes up instead of laughing. Of course, the opposite side of the less risky coin is that few running gags are exceptionally funny. Typically they just are. People like them but don’t love them.

Humor brings a lot to a work but it’s also important to know what kind of humor best suits what you’re writing. Running gags rarely fit commentaries, for example, while social humor is going to completely miss with younger audiences, who don’t get puns and don’t fully grasp the contexts that make other forms of social humor funny. Learning what humor goes best in what situation is just another part of sorting out how you’ll use it in your writing. Sorting it all out is half the fun – for you, if not your audience. But once it works the payoff will be more than worth it.

West of Loathing: Absurdism in the Weird West

When I was in college there was this game called Kingdom of Loathing that many of my friends and acquaintances played. It was a simple game filled with stick figures and a love for puns and absurdist humor. Kingdom of Loathing still exists but I’ve long since moved on. The game’s biggest strength was it’s writing and sense of the absurd – and the fact that you could try and beat it while under ridiculous restrictions, like teleporting at random all the time. Problem was, once you’d experienced all the humor a few times the charm rubbed off and only the silly challenge plays were left. It wasn’t my cup of tea.

When I heard that the same writing and development team was putting together a single player game full of their stock in trade humor called West of Loathing I got a little excited. And when it finally came out I ignored my usual policy of waiting for a sale and bought it at full price, just so I could see if it was everything I’d hoped for.

The game’s graphics menu has a colorblind option. The art consists entirely of black and white stickfigures. Toggling back and forth between colorblind and normal does nothing. And with that I knew we were off to a good start. The “Best Font” option sets all text in the game to the Ariel font and comes with a request that you please, please don’t use it. Yes, Loathing is here in full force.

West of Loathing does not have a story per se. The only goal is to go from the east side of the map to the west – just like people in the Old West, you’re looking to Go West. There will be goblins and aliens and practitioners of Southerwestern Bean Magic Cooking – the Nex-Mex. But for the most part, except for a single sequence at the very end of the game, you’re left to wander wherever you want to go and see what you want to see and however much or little of it you see you’ll still be able to finish the game. There’s even a “ending cutscene” that sums up your adventures and then leaves you to go wander some more if you want.

And in spite of being an RPG the game has very basic combat. Your character and one of three “pardner” NPCs square off against hostiles and flail at each other a bit, balancing equipment and stats in pretty straightforward ways. It’s straightfowardness is actually kind of dull. But it is fair and is typically pretty easy so at least you won’t get caught up in a dull combat encounter and not be able to get past it.

Where the game really shines is in the problem solving. West of Loathing is stuffed full of weird puzzles and strange characters you can choose to outwit, rather than outfight. Whether you’re wandering through a graveyard, decoding messages on tombstones, trying to work out a grim Nex-Mex formula from the snatches of dialog overheard from cultists while hiding in a wardrobe or just swindling a stupid goblin out of his own pants with your Hornswogglin’ skill, every situation West of Loathing has a creative bent to it that will let you do things more graphically impressive but less ambitious games never attempt. What other game will let you fight bandits, trick them, or release a giant spider to eat them?

The other great point of West of Loathing is the writing. While there’s no story in the game there are stories. The first thing you learn about the world is that The Cows Came Home. A few years back all those cows humanity ate opened portals from hell and wreaked a horrible revenge upon the ranches of the west. It was horrific and hilarious at the same time, I’m sure. You find hints as to what happened scattered all throughout the world as you travel and each one is a delight to poke through. You can also choose to do weird stuff like dig through every spitoon you find for treasure. It’s disgusting and the game makes sure to shame you for it every time in lengthy and increasingly creative ways until, finally, at the end, you break its will and and it gives up on you. But my favorite part of the game is Ghostwood, where you have to help the town of Breadwood secure a logging permit. It must be experienced to be believed.

West of Loathing is crafted with care. From the Shaggy Dog Cave, which is exactly what you think, to the El Vibratto, which is not, Asymmetric Software has paid careful attention to making the weirdest, funniest, most tongue in cheek Western post apocalyptic stick figure game you have ever played. If you’re looking for a light hearted laugh while you romp through a world that never existed – but maybe should have – West of Loathing is for you.

The Orville is not Star Trek But It Really Wants To Be

Star Trek: Discovery was one of the best attempts to insult an entire fanbase in a single go I’ve ever seen. Many disappointed Trekkies turned to The Orville, on Fox, to see if it was any good. Intrigued, I went as well, less to find a replacement for Star Trek and more as a curious scifi connoisseur. The results were…. mixed.

Seth Macfarlane thinks he’s funny. I don’t. Seth Macfarlane loves Star Trek. So do I. Seth Macfarlane is best known for producing “humor” for Fox, and got to make The Orville in no small part because he’s brought the network a lot of money in the past. That he would be expected to blend the two together is no surprise. Whether it works and can keep working is another question entirely.

The Orville‘s biggest strength is Seth Macfarlane’s love for the genre and his desire to tribute it. It’s biggest weakness is Macfarlane’s extremely questionable sense of humor.

Let me start by praising the show. The Orville looks far more like Roddenberry’s vision of the future than anything we’ve seen on CBS. It’s bright, it’s positive, it’s ambitious and cooperative. It tackles social questions in quirky ways that sometimes hit and sometimes miss. There are also some pretty big differences from Star Trek. The most glaring is the way The Orville relies heavily on Macfarlane’s sense of humor to fill running time.

It’s hard to come up with a good way to look at The Orville, as it’s not Star Trek but so closely mimics the Star Trek format that it’s hard to draw a meaningful distinction. The Trek formula, as noted last week, is much about the Crew confronting Problems in Space and Solving them. The crew is very much a unit, although Captain Mercer (Seth Macfarlane) and Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) play a slightly larger role than the others. The Orville itself hasn’t developed much of a personality yet, although it hasn’t been blown to shreds yet and it does have the advantage of being a very pretty vehicle with a distinctive silhouette and we get to see a lot of shots of it doing interesting things in the pilot episode and the opening credits.

Also, kudos to The Orville showrunners for seeing the importance of the opening credits for setting the tone of the show. Unlike the Discovery opening, which makes the show seem like it’s about equipment schematics, The Orville opens with the beauty and wonder of space and shows the ship taking us on a romp through it. Exactly what we want to see.

The acting is pretty good. This is my first time seeing Macfarlane live on camera and I find him to be a pretty charismatic guy. The whole cast does well with their parts but major props go to Peter Macon as Lt. Cmdr. Bortus, who has mastered the Worf effect of emoting constantly in spite of speaking very little and being locked behind serious prosthetics. The casting goes one step further with Halston Sage, who plays Lt. Alara Kitan. Kitan is an alien from a high gravity world and she is shorter and more compact than the other crew, which is the kind of build suggested by our modern understanding of gravity and human/humanoid physiology. There’s real chemistry among the crew as well, especially between Macfarlane and his costars.

However, while Macfarlane as an actor brings some of the strongest chops The Orville has, he’s the show’s greatest weakness as well. His sense of “humor” revolves around setting up incredibly awkward situations and expecting us to laugh at them, as in the sequence where Mercer and Grayson – a divorced couple – get stuck talking to Mercer’s parents on the bridge of their ship in “Command Performance”. Or the awkward elevator sequence in “If the Stars Should Appear”. Then there’s the reliance on non-sequitors for humor, which generally whiffs as in the Elvis’ Last Words bit in “Command Performance” and a general reliance on crude humor which is going to be very subjective. Humor, of course, is subjective over all but this show is going to be more subjective than most. For me, only about 15-20% of the humor lands and the rest is eyerolling at best or interrupts my immersion in the show at worst.

It’s too bad because The Orville does do one thing perfectly and that, surprisingly enough, is engaging with the cultural issues of the day in a thoughtful manner. “About a Girl” tackles a wide swath of issues from transgenderism and parenting to gender roles in ways that are not always well thought out but clearly come from a position of respect and compassion and never offers us easy answers or pat moralizing. “Command Performance” is a well thought out, show length gag at the expense of reality TV and its effects on our culture and privacy. “If the Stars Should Appear” questions where we will put the balance between systems that have kept us alive and well and the omnipresent need to change and grow. Of them all, “If the Stars Should Appear” is the most pat and tropey but still manages to make overtures to both sides of its discussion, a feature missing from most media looking at the modern culture wars.

Most of all, The Orville is optimistic. Where many shows today are postmoderm pessimism fests The Orville is bright and energetic, chasing that future it’s sure we can find if we just pull together and put our best foot forward. There’s a place for everyone there, from the self-satisfied and superior robot Isaac to the taciturn and antisocial Bortus, and everyone in between. I’m not sure how much more of The Orville I’ll watch but I praise Macfarlane for putting the show together. In spite of its flaws it’s exactly what we need more of – a show that tries to keep an open mind while looking for the brightest future it can find.

This is a Post About Star Trek Discovery

This post is not about the mean spirited, self congratulatory way the series was marketed. It is not about the absurd way the achievements of Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Avery Brooks, Tim Russ, Garrett Wang and many others who I am no doubt forgetting were ignored in the rush to congratulate the cast of Discovery. Believe me, I feel that clear disrespect was shown to all the cast and crew of previous Trek series in the way the rollout for Discovery was handled. But I’m not going to talk about it. I feel it, but it’s not what we’re here for today. If you need to get it out of your system you can go and scream into that hole I dug in the corner. And while we’re waiting for the concrete to mix so we can patch it, let’s take a look at what really matters here.

You see, there’s an unfortunate fact that sometimes, particularly when you’re restarting a semi-dead franchise, you have to build up what’s in the here and now as hard and as you can just to get attention and hope it’s enough pull in people outside your hardcore fanbase. Yes, said fanbase might not like you’re overlooking the past for the present. Yes, that goes triple or more for a fanbase as rabid as Trekkies. But if your goal is to serve the franchise as well as you can, make a great piece of entertainment and bring the greatness of a franchise like Star Trek to a new generation then sometimes these are the compromises you must make. I would have forgiven CBS in a heartbeat if Discovery had been great Star Trek. If it had been good Star Trek I would have forgiven them eventually.

Discovery is not Star Trek.

There’s a veneer of things that look and sound like Star Trek all over the series. It has the name, the logo, the door sound effect, the languages and vague look of some of the characters. There’s even a guy name Sarek on the show, though he doesn’t act anything like Spock’s father. And that’s the problem with all these vaguely familiar touchstones. They look like they should be familiar but all the things that made them familiar have been hollowed out and replaced with vomit.

For this we are supposed to be grateful that we have a new Star Trek show to watch.

I am not.

We’re going to start with how Discovery betrayed the very concept of Star Trek, then touch on all the ways the show also ignored the story of Star Trek. Then we’re going to talk a little about how Discovery fails as TV show. But before that, for exactly two paragraphs, I hope you’ll forgive me for being nice to Discovery for just a second.

CBS has set a new bar for special effects in a TV show. The design and execution of the visuals, from make up to starscapes to the look of the starships and the feel of them maneuvering through space, it’s all great. Everything, down to small details like how the starships are never aligned with each other, instead having slightly different axis and lines of travel as you’d expect of two ships in the 3d vastness of space, works like magic. It’s beautiful. I know the design of the ship Discovery itself drew a lot of flack and it’s certainly not as nice looking as the Shenzhou, the ship in the first two episodes, which leads me to wonder why they didn’t just use the Shenzhou design for the whole show.

Furthermore, the story itself could be good. It’s not something I’d want to watch with the current main character, Mike the Girl, in the lead and in fact the way it was executed in the first two episodes doesn’t fill me with confidence. But that may be all the other problems the show has clouding my judgment. Regardless, with a different writing team and it’s own brand Discovery could possibly have been something I enjoyed. But the thing is… the story isn’t Star Trek.

From the very beginning, Star Trek has been about people in space, solving problems by working with one another. Whenever Our Heroes would encounter a problem they’d pull out their trusty tricorders and switch on the sound effects, angle the shields in case of trouble and start reversing polarities until they found a solution. The point wasn’t the science, which was pretty flimsy, and it wasn’t the morals, although they were definitely there. What made Star Trek definitively Star Trek was when the crew – regardless of what ship or station they were on – went out into the great limitless Out There and confronted a Problem. There were new Problems almost every week, and some Problems were so big they’d come up again and again, never quite solved. But for the most part the wonder and vastness of the Cosmos would bring us something new and unique and possibly dangerous but definitely interesting and the crew would pull together and solve it.

There’s no want in Star Trek’s time. Replicators and antimatter reactors solved it. There’s no ethnicity in Star Trek’s time. The Eugenics Wars made it irrelevant. All the problems left are problems of people – conflicting personalities and priorities, alien cultures and philosophies, ignorance, disease and old age. And no matter how daunting they seemed, when the crew pulled together and relied on one another’s skills and insights, grit their teeth at each other’s rough spots and valued each other for their strengths, then the Problem could be solved.

In Star Trek, there is no main character. Yes, the captains/commanders did get a little more emphasis, as on a ship the captain has final say in most matters. But ultimately the crew had to function as a unit to tackle their Problems. Each member of the crew was the lead at least once a season. Faces came and went, but the crew endured. The ship itself came to be a character, from the stubborn workhorse nature of the Constitution-class Enterprise to the tricky two-in-one design of the Galaxy-class, ship and crew alike were stars of the show. Trying to separate them out would be foolish.

Discovery is different.

For starters, they wreck the first ship after two episodes. (I don’t care about spoiling this show and neither should you.) But worse, Discovery has a main character. Star Trek isn’t about one character. It’s about all of them choosing to collaborate and make something greater than themselves. That kind of idealistic storytelling was a little utopian, sure, but the purity – and occasional corniness – of it was part of the charm. Discovery promises to be a deep dive into one character. Something that far too many shows are trying to be these days. Why not stick to what Star Trek has always been and, at the same time, show how you’re different from the rest of the crowd? But Discovery chose to discard that and loose one of it’s greatest strengths.

It gets worse.

Discovery has trashed Star Trek’s longstanding lore and history. Vulcans have gone from an intensely, self-destructively pacifistic race that exercises rigid self control to generic, psudospiritual space elves that is willing to attack Klingons on sight because of a single encounter that went badly. Gone is logic ruling over emotions so that the wild passions of Vulcan would not eat its own people alive. Instead there is awkwardly expressed sentiment free of any reasoning principles at all. There’s a person named Sarek on the screen but he doesn’t sound anything like Spock’s father. And it’s not just because of the actor is different.

Klingons suffer the most in the pilot episodes. Kahless the Unforgettable, the Klingon’s Buddha-esque figure, who taught them the ways of honor and enlightenment, has morphed into some sort of weird pseudo Mohammed, driving them to acts of martyrdom.

I understand that this wasn’t the goal of the creators. They reportedly wanted Klingons to be the space-KKK. This is stupid, not because there’s no role for the space-KKK but because Klingons are the wrong choice for two reasons. First, visually and culturally, they’re meant to be Asian analogs. Yes, most Asian cultures are ethno-supremacists like the KKK but the most important part of their culture is their closely knit family systems, which the patronymics and clans of the Klingons harken to. Kahless’ system of honor is a simulacrum of bushido (and chivalry but mostly bushido) and his teachings, again, are more about enlightenment, courage and fidelity than race or purity. This transformation is a real reach.

Second, Star Trek already has the space-KKK, they’re called Romulans. They could have fit the role seamlessly with no major changes to what’s known about them or their philosophies. It’s almost as if whoever wrote this trainwreck knew nothing about Star Trek lore at all.

Let’s talk some more about Klingons for a second. Some idiot in CBS’ Makeup room decided Klingons needed to be space orcs now. No. No no no no no. You cannot bury 85% of the actors faces under two inches of rubber prosthetics and expect them to emote. Michael Dorn brought a subtlety and breadth of emotion to Worf that made him one of the most memorable characters in Star Trek canon and he did it because we could see his expressions clearly and understand that, even when he was not talking he was feeling just like a real person would. It was a masterpiece of acting that is rarely appreciated, especially when he’s placed next to some of the other wonderful actors he shared the screen with. But slap him in the travesty of makeup that these Klingons are under and there’s no way he could deliver the same performance.

And, while not quite the disservice the other aspects of the Klingon rework present, the costume and starship designs are also horrid. None of the Klingon ships look like Klingon battlecruisers or birds of prey. These were stately, graceful ships who’s designs were still eminently practical, meeting all the needs of warships. In Discovery we get generic space musclecars in Klingon green. Klingon clothes were sleek and distinctive, iconic even, and again practical as melee armor. In Discovery, they wear gaudy tin cans that restrict movement, look like they’d snag on just about anything and provide no defensive properties whatsoever. Also, the wonderful, if impractical, silhouette of the bat’leth is gone. And though there is a potential mek’leth sighting it’s been reduced to an overly elaborate, spikey thing that doesn’t really fit the traditional Klingon aesthetic.

And that’s just what we’ve seen in two episodes. How likely are other beloved parts of the franchise to be represented well?

The icing on the cake is how badly Discovery is shot. I’m not a camerawork guru, I don’t geek out over framing or other camera techniques like some people do – although I do know good camera work when I see it and like it for what it is – but the weird Dutch angles in the cinematography and the overuse of lens flares just ruin a lot of the scenes in this show. They serve no purpose and feel confusing or pretentious or both. With the exception of the rare cases, like the unaligned ships in space I mentioned before, it’s just distracting. Worse, everything is dark. They know how to make electric lights in the 23rd century, CBS. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, they all had well lit ships. Would it kill you to pay the electric bill for a few more set lights? Or were you just trying to hide the fact that your ship interior design is pretty lackluster?

The dialog is tolerable and the acting is of similar quality. But it’s not enough to make the show interesting even if you look at it as a stand alone TV show with no connection to any franchise. It’s painfully clear, from the lack of details in the ship’s interior to the lack of meaningful characterization of anyone outside of the captain and a single forced scene with a random bridge officer in the second episode, that this whole setup exists in service of Mike the Girl, the only person who matters on the whole ship. To drive that point home, they’re all dead except for Mike and the ship is gone by the end of the second episode. It’s grossly exploitative and kills pretty much any stakes the show could hope to build now by making it so obvious that Mikey is the only one that matters.

Star Trek is a great franchise with a lot of cultural cachet and a history of poking at social controversy from the cover of its scifi framework. The creators knew this, and clearly wanted to borrow some of that history to lend power to their own points. Unfortunately they blunted any points the show could have made by ignoring the format and history of Star Trek that made it so effective to start with and even failing to craft a show that might be interesting in spite of that. Yes, their hostility to the fans who love the franchise is annoying but it’s not what doomed the show. That would be the apathy towards Star Trek of CBS and the showrunners.

The cultural force of Star Trek has been languishing for a while. The J.J. Abrams movies tried to revive some of it but that turned out to be more of a Star Wars parody in Star Trek clothing, with little of the panache or insightfulness of the original’s legacy. But there is one other take on that legacy ongoing. Yes, Seth Macfarlane. Next week, we’re coming for you.