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.

Arrow Season Six – Changing a Franchise Done Right

Over the past few years Marvel Comics has caught a lot of flack for changing its flagship characters. The title of Iron Man is currently in the hands of RiRi Williams, a teenaged girl genius with all the tech savvy, people sense and situational awareness of boiled parsley. For about a year Captain America was replaced with an evil HYDRA counterpart due to cosmic shenanigans. And, in a move that felt much like a demotion to many fans, popular characters Falcon and X-23 were shifted into the roles of their friends and mentors, Captain America and Wolverine. The most galling thing for many fans seems to be the way these changes came out of left field, with little attempt to build them up in narrative or make them look like the actions of normal human beings.

In their ongoing attempt to prove they are better than Marvel at anything other than making movies, DC took their very popular CW show Arrow and took main character Oliver Queen out of the Arrow suit – at least for most of the first half of the season – and replaced him without any fan batting an eye. What happened? Why did it work when Marvel’s attempts at switching leading roles didn’t? Let’s take a look.

Reason number one is John Diggle. No, not the Anglican Bishop, Oliver Queen’s bodyguard, portrayed by David Ramsey. There’s been a natural friendship built up between Diggle and Oliver over the last five years, aided in no small part by the natural chemistry between Ramsey and Steven Amell, and cemented by countless saves in myriad life and death situations. They trust each other’s judgement, moral fiber and skills. That makes the passing of the torch from Queen to Diggle quite natural and believable.

Furthermore, while Diggle does have his own hero identity as Spartan it’s not as well established or deeply seated in the public’s psyche as the Green Arrow is, and I’m not just talking about the show’s audience. The Green Arrow is a symbol for Starling City in ways no one else can rival – though the Flash is just as powerful in Central City – and preserving the power of that symbol means someone must wear the hood. The Spartan can’t just step into those shoes. Diggle giving up his own superhero identity isn’t a random demotion forced on him by the script but rather a sacrifice he makes for his city and his friend.

Which brings us to point two. Oliver’s struggle with being the Arrow – green or otherwise – has been ongoing, a constant thread since the end of the first season of the show. This issue was forced to a head when Oliver’s son, introduced two seasons ago, loses his mother when she’s used as a pawn in a battle with one of the Green Arrow’s rivals. With his responsibilities as the Mayor of Star City added on top of his new responsibilities as a father and his son’s deep dislike for the Green Arrow persona which is tangentially responsible for his mother’s death, Oliver’s decision to step back from the superhero life is not only understandable, it’s admirable. The press to be in the thick of things weighs hard on Oliver but he’s not the right man for the job right now. His reasons for stepping back are well established, believable and meaningful, to the point where we’re glad he’s made this call, rather than resenting it.

But the biggest thing is this change let us see new sides of both characters. Diggle struggles with being in command. He’s led other people before but never been at the top of the command chain and it weighs on him. Worse, he’s struggling with the physical toll the life has taken on him and he’s going to extreme lengths to keep it up while keeping his allies in the dark. It’s a new kind of challenge for Diggle, but one we’re sure he’ll live up to. Oliver has new responsibilities too, to a son he doesn’t really know and a city he’s not trained to manage. And beneath it all is the constant desire to get back out in the field and make a difference on the personal level, something he has to hold in check for now if he’s going to meet all his responsibilities. These struggles and opportunities are new and interesting and, if they don’t have quite the impact of Arrow‘s early seasons they’re still well written and interesting and no doubt people will continue to tune in and see what happens.

Marvel’s character swaps rarely present anything interesting in terms of new struggles or new stories and they’ve come out of left field time and time again. In setting up their change far ahead of time and driving them by story events as much as by editorial mandate, Arrow‘s writing team has managed to pull a very impressive switch that has so far eluded their rivals. There’s lessons for all to be learned in how they’ve done it.