Unexamined Metanarratives, or The Problem with Privilege

I’ve talked about the concept of metanarratives at length before in the general context of postmodernism and specifically when applied to superheroes and Star Wars. Today I want to highlight what I believe the positive impact of deconstructing metanarratives are through a metanarrative commonly employed in modern fiction. While postmodernism deconstructs metanarratives because it believes they are a power play – an attempt to control the thinking of others by forcing their minds into preconceived patterns – I believe most metanarratives arise out of a person’s general philosophy and, while fiction can reinforce these philosophical preconceptions, it can also be used as a way to measure these preconceptions and see what about them makes sense and what doesn’t.

Metanarratives are rarely – possibly never – without some foundation in reality. The mostly happy homes of Home Improvement or The Cosby Show do exist, for example, but the constraints of their fictional setting prevent them from being explored in depth, so a number of clichés and tropes built up around these fictional families until The Simpsons came along to deconstruct them. While The Simpsons is no longer particularly relevant to sitcom formulas; for years it was ascendant and its deconstruction of the prevailing metanarrative did open up new avenues of storytelling to explore. That didn’t invalidate the old metanarratives, even if many people acted like it did.

There are a lot of metanarratives in modern fiction that could use this treatment, like the “trade in your birth family for one you build yourself” metanarrative (conveniently ignoring that if you can’t make your birth family work the odds you can build a function one are pretty small) or the “sell guns to both sides and reap huge rewards” metanarrative (a good way to get shot and, as near as I can tell, never something that’s happened historically). And perhaps this will become a recurring spot as other post ideas have, there’s certainly fodder for it. But for now, I want to look at Privilege.

The concept of “Privilege” I want to talk about is not what we normally think of as a privilege. It’s not permission to use the computers at the school you attend – unlike a member of the general public who does not have that privilege – or the privilege of using motor vehicles on government owned roads – which is basically what your driver’s license grants you. In much of modern fiction there is the notion of unearned benefits conferred to you by circumstance, particularly circumstances that favor one group over another. And that notion is encapsulated in the term “privilege”.

Let’s start our deconstruction of this notion by mentioning that the ideas behind Privilege are not new. When circumstances convey benefits no one earned there have been a host of terms for it. “Luck” is one, suggesting that sometimes the world just seems to like you more than others. “Blessing” is another, conveying the way people or, among the religious and/or superstitious, supernatural forces will give something of value to another as an expression of affection or to cement some kind of personal bond. “Bias” is a third, denoting the preference of one group over another.

And here we come to the first major construct of Privilege that must be taken apart and examined. The very use of the term marries blessing and bias. Not all blessings imply a bias. For example, my sisters and I were blessed with a homeschooling education. My parents blessed me with a social study curriculum that emphasized understanding philosophy and ideas in ways that profoundly shaped the way I think and who I am today. But they didn’t choose to bless my sisters with the same curriculum. In many ways their social studies were easier or more engaging, but they did not develop the same perspectives. And, looking back on it from a distance of some years, I can see that the curriculum I studied did not suit their personalities and interests as it suited mine. Yes, my parents exercised their good judgement in making these choices, but good judgement is not the same as bias. Nor do I feel the different educational blessings my parents shared with their children were inferior or superior to each other. They were simply chosen to best fit those receiving them. The Privilege metanarrative leaves no room for this kind of nuance.

But perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This is a bad example. The Privilege metanarrative applies to groups, rather than individuals. Of course an education as highly tailored to individuals as homeschooling would rule Privilege out.”

If you were thinking that, then you’re correct. The second construct the Privilege metanarrative brings to the table is group based evaluation. In the Privilege metanarrative my parents’ decisions must be understood through group identity. Thus, the choice to give me an education full of philosophy must have been a result of my male privilege, as the job of men is to run the world and make sure all the other people are unprivileged (the term for this is oppressed in the view of the typical postmodernist). The fact that my parents might have looked at each of their three children’s interests and temperament individually is not relevant to the metanarrative any more than Chicago style political dramas are relevant to a Home Improvement style sitcom metanarrative.

Which is to say, they can be made to blend but one aspect will bend to the other – either the corrupt politicians must be shown as fools by the sitcom crew or the sitcom cast will become unwitting tools of the corrupt politicians, either my parents must have been driven by unconscious bias towards the favored male gender or their decisions being what they are is just a result of my being in some way stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with this blending on the surface, by the way, but culturally predominate metanarratives tend to win out in the blending and right now the Privilege metanarrative saturates our culture. The tendency to let it win out will be strong, but a good writer must still carefully evaluate whether that metanarrative blend is what’s best for your story.

Metanarratives that operate without question quickly run out of control. Humans tend to push ideas as far as they can, usually running right of the edge of a cliff in the process. The history of the Privilege metanarrative is an interesting expression of this. The basic pieces of the modern take on the metanarrative were put in place during the Civil Rights era, when Privilege was rampant in culture and law. Recognizing it was a very important step in human progress and resulted in good things for the nation as a whole and many ethnic minorities in particular. This fact is a big part of why the idea of Privilege is so widespread in culture today. However, the idea of Privilege has far outgrown its starting context.

We frequently hear of “white privilege” in culture today. In summation this is the idea that generations of cultural expansion, tight knit families, careful investments, inheritance, emphasis on education and ethnic loyalty have catapulted white people to the forefront of the world and given them a stranglehold on the wealth and power of the modern world. In turn we see the Privilege metanarrative used to justify any number of actions to disrupt this supposed deathgrip. This has been true in pulp and pop entertainment for a while and has crept into daily discourse as well.

Again, this metanarrative is not new. The clearest example in history is how, for over a thousand years, the inherited wealth, excellent education, ethnic loyalty and powerful family ties of Jews was used as an excuse to persecute them.

This is the final aspect of the Privilege metanarrative that must be deconstructed. Like all flawed, human concepts, metanarratives can drive great evil as easily as great good. The current Privilege metanarrative casts Privilege as an evil and those that oppose it as a force for good, a direct extension in its origins in the Civil Rights movement. While this can be true, and again has been true in recent memory, it is not always the case – again, in recent memory. By the same token, Privilege is viewed almost as a universal, underpinning every situation, when sometimes a blessing is without bias, or luck is just luck. There’s no reason to say my education was a privilege over that of my sisters, as we all turned out equally well and, some might say, they are doing somewhat better than I am.

I’ve been very hard on postmodernism in the past and I stand by my belief that its approach to metanarratives is silly and leads only to confusion. But I hope I’ve shown today that the process of deconstructing a metanarrative and looking at its component parts and how it’s played out across history can give us a deeper understanding of a metanarrative, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it might be used in innovative ways. At the least it lets us put aside popular metanarratives for a metanarrative with less cachet at the moment but better suited to your needs.

Metanarratives are just one of many tools in the writers arsenal. Use them wisely and you get good stories. Sometimes that means breaking them down and seeing what each part has done, is doing, and could do.

Now. The throughline of this blog has been nonfiction for far too long. Come back next week and we’ll kick off a new dose of fiction with a spicy double posting followed by an exciting (hopefully) new sci-fi tale from yours truly!


Star Trek: The Long Road Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.