Tuesday, July 9, 2013

13th “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest

When David Milch was pitching his series Deadwood to HBO, the executives asked him to sum up his concept in a single sentence. This was his sentence: "Deadwood is about a man learning to fall in love with his wife."

It made no difference to Milch that Deadwood is about 10 things before it's about Seth Bullock's marriage to his brother's widow. Plus we didn't even meet his wife until the second season. HBO wanted a sentence, and he gave them an interesting one.

There is a writing competition for sci-fi and YA novels hosted by www.writersdigest.com that asks writers to do this most difficult task: to sum up an entire novel in one logline. This is hard for me. My book is over 270,000 words. There are ten main characters, many of whom have independent story lines. There are three narrators. Thematically, the book has something to say about space militarization, sustainable farming, ecology and pollution, the role of Heaven in human affairs, postmenopausal women, the two opposing forces within the American soul, the nature of language and humor, thinking robots, alien civilizations, and the generational divide between the young and the elderly. Each of these themes could get its own logline. Maybe I've written a kitchen sink novel. Maybe I need an editor. In any case, here goes:

Logline: My science-fiction novel is the first one to depict a green utopia while suggesting the steep toll such a society would extract from the human spirit.

Maybe Milch's pitch is good because it conveys theme and character. Mine doesn't mention characters. It's hard to pitch a sci-fi novel about farmers. There are a lot of farmers, but also rebel space pilots, not to mention a robot and an alien.

Let me try again.

Logline: In the 22nd century, a gang of geriatric space-industry veterans hatch and elaborate and deadly scheme to launch a rocket to an alien civilization, hoping to prove to the torpid town fathers that their green utopia has stunted the human spirit.

Here is the link to the contest if anyone is interested:


Friday, June 7, 2013

Essay 3, Part II: Political Faith

Speaking of political faith. Once More… and Siege... treat faith in heroes and governments in the same non-judgmental way as DS9 treats spiritual faith. They show how real people apply these faiths to their lives and struggles. The writers have Worf sum up this view at the beginning of Once More…:

“The only real questions is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crocket or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero’s death. If you do not, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.”

This is dramatized at the end of the episode when Kor sacrifices himself against a Gem’Hydar fleet. Was he squashed like a bug instantly, or did he die in a blaze of glory that turned the fleet around? Worf and the other Klingons will never know. What they choose to believe about Kor will depend on their faith in his legend, or lack of faith. The larger point is that if you are going to have faith in a hero, the facts don’t matter so much.

The Siege of AR-558 is the very next episode that aired. Despite being a “War is Hell” episode, it does not challenge blind faith in heroes or governments as misguided. It says something far more complex and useful. Siege says that blind faith in heroes and governments, especially in time of war, has its useful purposes for those caught up in the War.

A Starfleet unit has been holding a captured Dominion communications relay for five months. They’ve been living in caves, picked off by attacks and invisible mines. The point of their sacrifice is to keep the relay so that one day it might be used to eavesdrop on Dominion communications. The writers’ purposefully made the object of their mission ho-hum. AR-558 is not part of some ingenious plot to cripple the Founders. The place doesn’t have a glorious name. In the end, it might not even work. But no one in the episode challenges the wisdom of the orders to hold the relay. They have faith in the people who gave the orders. They believe that their sacrifice might make some small difference in the outcome of the war, that it might decrease the number of names of the oft-mentioned casualty reports (which bookend this and other episodes).

Nog is the faithful character in this episode, challenged by Quark, who doesn’t share his nephew’s faith in Starfleet or its officers. Quark says, “This isn’t the Starfleet you know.”

Nog: “Sure it is. It’s just that these people have been through a lot. They’ve been hold up here a long time. Seen two-thirds of their unit killed. But they haven’t surrendered. Do you know why? Because they are heroes.”

Quark argues with the facts of the situation. He says that Humans, “are a wonderful, friendly people as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working.” But if put into a dangerous, deprived environment without “food, sleep, sonic showers… those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”

Nog doesn’t accept the truth of this statement. The officers who have been on this asteroid for five months, who Dr. Bashir diagnosed with PTSD and a host of other mental and psychological stresses, are more than weak and fragile humans to Nog. They are heroes. He chooses to believe this for the same reason Sisko and the others choose to have faith in their orders—it is the only way to get their job done without going insane or deserting.

At the end of the episode, Worf comforts Sisko with this Klingonism: “This was a great victory, one worthy of story and song.” This echoes what he said about Crocket (who has plenty of stories and songs about him), but the difference is striking. You can choose to worship Crocket, or even Kor, as a hero. Whether you do or don’t is a personal choice with little effect on your day-to-day life. But the officers in Siege have no choice but to cherish their battle as a great victory, even thought AR-558 can’t be easily put into verse. If AR-588 is a pointless sacrifice, then the entire war is—and no one in Starfleet believes that. While this episode, and many others, rightly teach that war is hell, none of the episodes take the view that fighting this particular war is a mistake. It must be done. And since we are going to fight, suffer and die, we had better armor our minds and hearts with faith in the rightness and glory of the task.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Essay 3: Deep Space Nine’s Uber-Theme: Faith

Part I: Spiritual Faith
The first third of Season Seven concludes with four very different episodes about the same idea: faith. These are: Treachery, Faith, and the Great River; Once More Unto the Breach; The Siege of AR-558; Covenant.

These depict religious faith (Treachery… and Covenant), and political or mythic faith (Once More... and Siege…).

In Treachery, Nog teaches Obrien about the Ferengi belief that the Universe is a fluid, material continuum that will bring goods and profit to those who want it, creating equilibrium. Despite Obrien’s skepticism, this actually works just as Nog says it will, bringing them needed engineering parts. It works because the belief inspires and spurs Nog to act as if it works. From an outsider (nonbeliever) perspective, this is how faith works. Faith creates a cognitive framework that directs decisions and actions toward a desired outcome. That doesn’t mean you always get what you pray for. A believer can also understand this is how faith works cognitively, while also believing in the mystery and power of faith.

In the same episode, Weyoun Six explains to Odo his unswerving faith in the Founders, the Vortas’ gods. Odo rejects this because the Vorta have been genetically engineered to be faithful to the Founders. To Weyoun this makes no difference. And why should it? The Vorta were basically squirrels, transformed into a powerful sentient race by the Founders. From the Vortas’ perspective, if that is not the work of a god, what is? They may have some wires in their big brains that make them loyal, but that has to seem secondary to the fact that they have big brains at all. The Vorta could argue that this wiring is no different than the hypothetical “God gene” which predisposes Humans to belief in a deity.

In the end, as Weyoun Six is dying, he asks Odo to bless him, and Odo reluctantly does. By having him do so, the writers are endorsing the legitimacy of Weyoun’s faith. The episode actually challenges Odo’s skepticism more than it challenges the Vorta’s religion.

There is a parallel story of faith in Covenant. A Bajoran vedek tries to convince Kira that the Pah-wraiths are the true gods, not the Prophets. She challenges him with arguments that he has been seduced by evil entities (I wonder if she would call them devils or demons, since she considers the Prophets not aliens but gods), and the scheming Dukat. The vedek does not accept this, even after mounting evidence that Dukat is a fraud. In the end, like Weyoun Six, he kills himself. Kira is not sure if he did so because of his faith in the Pah-wraiths, or because he felt betrayed by his faith in them. What she does say for certain is that Dukat truly believes he is the emissary to the Pah-wraiths, and he is doing their bidding. She says his faith makes him more dangerous than before. But neither Kira, nor the episode, takes the black-and-white view that faith enables ignorance and violence. The episode suggests that faith is a powerful force in the soul, which can be put to enormous good, or perverted by evil people for their own ends.

Whether it is Nog’s faith, or Weyoun’s, or the vedek’s, or Kira’s, these two episodes respect the power of their belief. They take it seriously. None of these episodes blatantly criticize faith in general (the way some TOS and TNG episodes do). To do so is not possible on DS9 because too many of our heroes are faithful and present an unapologetic view of believers. The writers seem to have decided that by designing the show this way, which reflects the role of religion in our modern world, they are able to explore how faith interacts with people’s lives, government, war, terrorism and politics.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Colony Collapse Made Easy

Two studies have finally linked the Colony Collapse Disorder of certain bees to a specific group of pesticides.


and here:


Neonicotinoids! Such a tidy scientific name. It suggests that the problem has been quantified and isolated, and so the solution is near at hand. That’s was my gut reaction at least, reading the two New York Times articles. Don’t need to worry about the bees anymore.

They’ll—who? The government? Scientists?—will do what they always do when faced with this problem. Just a tweak to the formula of the pesticide. Or introduce an agent that will immunize the hives against the pesticide. Behold the easy miracles of SCIENCE. They’ll do like they do in bad Star Trek: techno-babble the solution just before catastrophe. Easy-Peesy. [Run your own experiment. Scour the web for people recommending that we can replace the at-risk bees with cloned bees or robot bees.]

But of course it is not so simple. The authors of the studies, the farmers and, thankfully, the journalists of the news articles all point out that there are many other likely reasons for bee collapse:

• fewer flowers due to land development
• pesticide-resistant mites
• fungicides that inhibit insect maturation
• pathogens or viruses

Here is the telling quote from the Times article on March 29th, by Michael Wines:

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.

“Where do you start,” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”

That is a much more complex and difficult question than how to deal with one group of pesticides. And don’t get me wrong, neonicitinoids must be addressed based on the threat they pose. But we cannot simply order a solution to that one culprit and feel good about saving the bees, while ignoring the dangers and costs to bees inherent in the entire agricultural system that will remain. We can either alter the entropic makeup of that system, root and branch, or continue to impose modifications that keep the system’s efficiencies in place—until the next, compounded problem forces the choice on us yet again.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Into Darkness or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Abramsverse

Followers of this site, and Star Trek fans everywhere, fall into two camps: those who love the Abrams Star Trek movie; and those who struggle to explain and justify their bitter disappointment in the Abrams Star Trek movie to people in the other camp. Most of you know that I fall into the second camp. I am not going to rehash all the arguments. Suffice to say, we saw it, we loved a lot of it, but were ultimately unfulfilled in the ways we know Star Trek can fill our imaginations. I’m not disavowing those arguments. But I also don’t want to hang on to them and sulk. The purpose of this post is to give fans like me motivation to enjoy the new Star Trek movie free of the funk that has built up around the ‘09 movie.

1) It’s just a movie

I hate this argument. If you have ever replied to someone on Trekweb by saying “it’s just a movie, man, it’s not a religion” then you have wandered into the wrong webpage. Please go back to the site where you can watch 5,000 harlem shake videos. That said, it is kind of true. Each movie and episode is a self-contained entity, a product of different writers, producers, directors and actors. If one doesn’t work, it doesn’t necessarily degrade the others. We have no choice but to accept a movie on its own terms. It is the movie that was made, not the one we wish was made. Fixating on what we wish was made will blind us to the good stuff in the movie that was made.

2) Nostalgia is no reason not to like what is new

Have you ever thought, man why don’t they make music as great as when [fill in the blank… Sinatra, Garland, Janis Joplin, 60s Dylan, Nirvana, Mozart] was putting out records? All of these artists are rooted in their own time and culture. The fact that both are gone forever gives us perspective: what aspects of culture have been lost, gained, and that this time right now is precious because it too will fade away. Listening to old music is like time travel. The music’s greatness becomes more than its notes because it allows us to have this experience. That’s nostalgia. Someone could write a song in 2013 that sounds like it could have been on a doo-wop radio station in the 50s. A neat experiment. But if recreating the past is all artists did then there would be nothing new.

Kurtzman said on the DVD commentary that, “Star Trek is classical music and Star Wars is rock and roll—and Star Trek needed to be a little more rock and roll.”

Would it be cool to have a new Star Trek movie written and directed by Nick Myer and scored by James Horner? Maybe. But we already have that movie, and it’s 30 years old. It was and will remain a glorious movie, but attempting to copy it doesn’t mean that the copy will be glorious.

So you long for the good old days when movies were better. Join the club. They’ve been saying “it’s the pictures that got small” since the 30s. So you wish a Star Trek director would have the balls to shoot a 12 minute sequence of the Enterprise leaving drydock…. Except that it wasn’t ballsy. TMP was coming out on the heals of 2001, which acclimated moviegoers to watching extremely slow-moving science-fiction sequences. Plus, audiences wanted a nice long look at the new and improved motion-picture sized Enterprise. Because they hadn’t seen such grand effects shots before, audiences wanted a chance to drink it in.

Today audiences want different things. Just because it is different doesn’t mean that new directors can’t show us the same wonder and excitement and beauty that the old style provided. If we save our nostalgia for our DVD collections, we just might see all of that in the new movies.

3) These are not the same characters that the old gang portrayed

A big part of my disappointment had to do with ‘09’s inability to make me believe that I was watching the earlier lives of the 60s era characters. First, I felt like I was promised an actual prequel. Second, like all serious fans, I’d been daydreaming about such a prequel for years. Third, some of the actors so embodied the originals (especially Quinto and Urban and even Pine) that I was even more bitter that they didn’t write a by-the-book “when they were young” prequel. So I nagged about how they changed Kirk’s upbringing and tossed out his career history, and how this couldn’t really be Chekov, and I wasn’t feeling Scotty or Sulu, etc.

But the movie was never intended to be that. A novel or comic book can do a canonical prequel without any problem because there is no element of an actor’s performance imbued in the character. With film, you cannot separate the actor from the character. The new cast was told by all involved, including the original surviving cast, that to make it work, they must make the characters their own. Otherwise, they are just doing impersonations. The essence of the character is still in the script and guides the performance, but the actor puts it to life in their unique way. If we fixate on “She’s no Nichelle Nichols” we miss the opportunity to be seduced by a new actor and a new interpretation on the character.

Two examples. Does the Chris Pike we see in ’09 bare any resemblance to Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike? None whatsoever. Abrams didn’t even use Hunter as a model; he used JFK. But who would rather not have Bruce Greenwood’s Pike around? Even I didn’t care about “canon” when it came to the new version of Pike.

Yelchin’s Chekov. Yelchin has said that he thinks Chekov was the “weirdest” character of the original series. That’s an interesting point of view. His Chekov is a bit different than the original. Over 3 or 4 movies Yelchin might be able to create a Chekov that is just as endearing, if not more so, than Koenig’s. They all might. The new characters should not be any less valid.
4) Broad brush strokes are still brush strokes

When I first saw ’09 I was irked by how in-your-face the story and characters were presented. Kirk is a rebellious but brilliant fighter. Why, and how did he come to be this way? We’re never shown or told? Nero is a “Romulan ball of rage.” Why? The flimsy explanation hardly matters compared to his over-the-top behavior and crimes. Kirk just happens to be born in the exact time and place that Nero appears from the future. Kirk just happens to crash land on the same continent of the same planet where Spock is marooned. This planet is close enough to Vulcan than someone on its surface could watch Vulcan’s destruction, but far enough away that it was not at all affected by this destruction (?!). Vulcan is destroyed as a plot device to make Spock emotionally unstable (just killing his family would be too small?) Kirk is promoted to captain without ever having graduated from the Academy. See what I mean about broad brush strokes. The movie was not as nuanced, not as literary, not as subtle as I thought Star Trek should be.

But re-watching it this month, I see that if you accept the way he’s telling the story, you can better enjoy the story that is being told. And it is a coherent, emotional, character-driven story. All those ham-fisted plot points land like a steady, relentless stream of punches pummeling toward the inevitable conclusion.

We are being firmly guided by a storyteller’s steady (ham-fisted) hand. Abrams and his team have a clear vision and they put that vision on screen with skill. He has figured out how to do a Trek movie in a way that suits modern audience tastes, and still is true Trek. We’re not going to have any more like Insurrection or Nemesis where there is one foot in the past and one foot in the present and the whole thing falls down. Nimoy himself has said that Abrams has figured out how to “elevate [Trek] to another level that it had not been able to reach before.” Our imaginative Trek playground has never been this big or detailed or visually realistic.

5) Benedict Cumberbatch is the greatest actor in his prime to play a Star Trek villain since… ever.

Montalban, Plummer and McDowell were all in their 2nd and 3rd acts when they were movie bad guys—not that that is a point against them. (Hardy was in his dress rehearsal with Nemesis—but even Laurence Olivier would have gone unnoticed with a script like that). Cumberbatch is just breaking as a capital “A” actor, and will be with us for a long time. The actor’s youth is a necessary pairing with the youth of Kirk and crew, and the energy of Abram’s style. Similarly, Montalban, Plummer and McDowel were all relative peers with the crew they were trying to destroy. Cumberbatch will be a joy to watch. As long as they give him good lines.

There you have it. All the reasons you need to lighten up and enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness. Here’s another one: Carpe Diem. You never know when you’ll get another chance to get excited to see a Star Trek movie in the theaters. One day, sooner than you think, another director will make a Star Trek movie. He will be told, "Do it like J.J.!" But he won’t be J.J. He won’t have Abrams’s vision or skill set, and the studio may not allow him the elbow room to use his own vision and skill sets. If you think the movies now are hollow, just wait for that one. Then you may be nostalgic for Abrams Star Trek.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Essay 2: The Baseball Episode

At the end of the 2-part season premier, there is a camera angle of the principals—minus Sisko and Dax—as they look on from the middle of the Promenade at the returned, restored Sisko and the returned, new Dax. It struck me as I re-watched the scene—for the first time since it premiered over a decade ago—that it was a kind of family portrait. The director was showing us that this group of people was back together, their bonds strengthened by the strife and trauma of the previous year of war. And that the station was the home where this family belonged.

The first regular episode of the season dealt with the new Dax host, but also served to showcase how the principals were like a family—supporting one another, and sometimes fighting with one another, over the new addition. The next one—the baseball episode—was one of the most effective depictions of camaraderie, loyalty and love ever seen on Star Trek. Killing yourself by dipping your hand into a warp core to save your ship and crew from destruction—that’s your duty. You swore an oath to do that. But playing a game you don’t know or care about with a bunch of Vulcans who will surely win and rub your nose in your defeat—that’s what family is for.

I wasn’t an Internet-based Star Trek fan at the time, but I recall people commenting that “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” was a colossal waste of time. It’s the final season. We only get 20-some episodes. There is a war going on. There are so many other stories to tell. I admit, at the time I didn’t love it. But now, it is clear that this is an indispensible episode.
First, it is a war story. The subtext of the initial conversation between Sisko and Solok is dark—wonderfully written and acted as menacing, a great trick before we learn it is the set-up to a whimsical plot. The subtext is that these two captains, despite their personal animosity, know that their crews need a diversion from the stresses of the war.

Sports are ritualized human combat. So the baseball game allows everybody to vent physical and emotional energy in a highly competitive, but low-stakes way. This brief pause from battles—like the Christmas Eve football matches on the Western Front—make the war just as real as will the Siege of AR-558 later in the season.

Second, we see the DS9 family in full bloom in a way that makes the space battles to come more important. None of the characters—except Sisko’s actually family, including Casidy—know anything about baseball. But they all hit the books, studying the byzantine rules, and then practicing together on and off the field. Even Quark practices with his Ferengi servers. They do this because Sisko is their leader, the head of the family. He motivates them with a great speech from the pitchers mound. Like him, they are motivated to beat the Vulcans, but also to play together and have fun. When Sisko kicks Rom off the team (for sucking) all the others threaten to quit. They are willing to abandon Sisko for Rom. Think about that. They would not do that in the trenches of the war, just the opposite. But because they are willing to abandon their captain over a meaningless game, only proves the strength of the bonds that have developed between this family. That Odo even ejected Sisko from the game is a sign of that bond because it shows Odo followed Sisko’s directive to learn and follow the rules of umpire with Odo-esque impartiality.

Furthermore, this is a diverse, modern (Trek) family. There are eight aliens to five humans on this baseball team, between all the Fenrengi (3), Bajorans (2), Shapeshifters (1), Klingons (1) and Trills (1). This is a subtle continuation of DS9’s major strength, which is to give voice to non-Federation perspectives, even though they all end up chewing gum with the best of the Hew-mons. The family bond transcends not just species, which is typical for Trek, but uniforms, which is not what we are used to seeing on Trek. By the end of the game, the Star Fleet Captain cedes the field to the barkeep, the Dabo girl and the former waiter. (Speaking of diversity, it has to also be said that it is touching even today to see a black family—Sisko, Jake and Casidy—portrayed so plainly.)

This is not the first time Sisko has invited his friends into a Holosuit baseball game. He says as much in this episode. It took seven years for Picard to sit down at the poker table with his crew—and what a moment it was. But on DS9, this personalization was done way back in Season three, when it was revealed that Sisko had “niners” over to his quarters and cooked for them regularly. Sisko is a different man than Picard, and this is a different crew.

“Take Me Out to the Holosuit” is one of the few episodes in all of modern Star Trek that has no B-plot. The writer—Ronald D. Moore—wanted to be very clear. This episode was just about a baseball game, but that fact allows it to be about so much more. This was no light-hearted romp. This was about family, making it one of DS9’s most important episodes.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Essay 1: Deep Space Nine Season 7 Reviews

Several years ago I started to re-watch the Trek series of my childhood—TNG and DS9—in episode order. I am now at the end of that process with the 7th season of DS9.

I feel like the question that you ask about a novel—what was that about?—can be asked of DS9, and in a way that may only be possible to ask of one other Trek series, TOS. Unlike TNG, and perhaps moreso that TOS, DS9 seems to have central and recurring messages. These themes were about the stories we saw on screen like religion and genocide and terrorism, but also about the nature of Star Trek itself and how a Trek series should be written.

So what was DS9 about? To answer that I am going to write some essays as I watch the final season. I will refer back to the previous seasons, but I feel that how the writers decided to end the series is the clearest statement about what it all means, at least based on the writers intentions.

(Note: I haven’t seen this season since it aired, and I only watched them on grainy VHS because for some reason my local TV station stopped airing it, and a friend taped them and sent me the cassettes. So I don’t remember the details and nuances of the episodes that I hope to write about here.)

Discussing the 7th season in the DS9 Companion Ira Behr says, “The show wasn’t geared to be what we kept turning it into.” This is true on many levels.

Let’s look at what DS9 was geared to do. First, DS9 began as a mandate from the studio, which realized two Star Trek shows in syndication were better than one. TNG was making X number of dollars per episode in profit for Paramount, so the executives figured two shows would double that amount. According to Erdmann’s account in Companion, it was the head of Paramount, Brandon Tartikoff, who planted the germ of the concept: a man and his son in a remote frontier outpost, a sci-fi version of the western The Rifleman.

Michael Piller and Berman took it from there. And Piller at least was clear about the crucial break from TOS and TNG that this setting would create: “We felt there was an opportunity to really look deeper, more closely at the workings of the Federation and the Star Trek universe by standing still.” He equated the standard stand-alone Star Trek episodes, where the Enterprise swoops into a solar system for an adventure, to one-night stands. DS9 would show what happened after the Enterprise left: the marriage. It was the later show runner—Ira Behr—who showed how fulfilling and challenging that marriage could be (Rapture, Call to Arms, Inquisition, In the Pale Moonlight, etc.).

What Behr meant in the above quote is that no one could have expected of this frontier outpost in Season One for the point-of-view of the natives (Bajorans, Ferengi, Cardassians) to take precedence over the Federation, for the sacrosanct values of the Federation to be challenged by gritty realism, and for the lawman to join the natives’ religion, abandon his family, and finally be transformed into one of the natives’ gods.

This radical departure from convention is refreshing, especially considering the two Trek series that were developed next (and Braga’s recent admission that Enterprise was intended to be an Earth-bound show at least for its first season, and the studio demanded it be space-based http://www.geekexchange.com/ ). Imagine it: a team of writers are handed a multi-million dollar science-fiction franchise and actually decides to do something interesting with it. How novel.

That said, the final story arcs of DS9 do not have a promising start with the two-part premier. While the episodes themselves were fine--paced well and with good charcater bits for all involved--the central themes of the show were not started out on the best foot.

When Season 7 opens, the Prophets are in a battle with the Pah-wraiths inside the wormhole. The orbs are dark. Bajorns feel cut off from their gods. Sects of Bajorans are beginning to worship the Pah-waiths instead of the Prophets. We are told this, not shown. Damar has a line of dialogue where he asks Weyounn what he thinks the battle inside the wormhole must be like. But we never go into the wormhole to find out—we aren’t even given a description of the battle to go on. So the dramatic tension over Sisko’s work to restore the wormhole never builds. All he does is stumble upon an orb in the desert of a planet we’ve never heard of before, and has no connection to Bajor, opens the box and sends a ball of light across space into the wormhole, which ejects the Pah-wraiths.

There are a few problems. The Prophets work when they are shown interacting with mortals, whether Sisko trying to teach them about humanity or Quark trying to teach them about profit-making. There is a sense of spooky, foreboding, divine mystery about them. Their collectivism and paternalism gives them an epic, Mount Olumpus-like feel. In this two-parter, we only see a single Prophet, Sarah. It is the first time a Prophet does not embody characters familiar to the mortal who is having the Prophet vision. In the scene between Sisko and Sarah we don’t learn anything that we didn’t already learn earlier in the episode: that she is his mother. There is some abstruse Prophet-like dialogue that means everything and nothing. Apparently the writers are only prepared to give us the fact about Sisko’s lineage and nothing else. Hopefully they will be able to do more with this as the season unfolds.

[The vision scenes of the episode are also undercut by the inexplicable return of Benny Russell, who was never mentioned again. See my previous essay.]

The Pah-Wraiths are another problem. In their first two episodes they possessed Kieko, and then Jake, two of the least essential characters of the series. So the audience always had the feeling that these evil spirits had the minor purpose of creating dramatic tension and danger in a couple stand-alone episodes.

They were never properly folded into the mythology of the Bajoran religion or of the series. They did not appear until Season Five. If there were devils in the Bajoran religion that could destroy the wormhole you’d think we would have heard about it before then. Even still, the writers could have shown us instead of told us. So much dialogue had to be written about Pah-Wraits and ancient texts, but if Sisko was always pulled into Prophet Heaven, why not a visit to Pah-Wraith Hell? So far in Season Seven, even after they killed Jadzia, the Pah-Wraiths aren’t real to the audience, and therefore they don’t feel like a real threat.

The two-parter ends with Sisko, a new Dax, and the rest of the family back on the station. While the set-up is flawed, the board is set for the final season: Sisko’s maternal lineage to the Prophets must be explored; the Pah-Wraiths will stage a counter-attack, aided by Dukat, who is unquestionably a real threat; the Dominion War is still raging, but the leader of the Cardassian Empire appears to have a drinking problem. We will see how things develop.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Star Trek, on the brink of declaring itself a fiction, blinks

Science Fiction has always used thought-experiment stories. These stories allow us to think about society, history, and our own lives in a different way. A common version of this type of story is to present alternate interpretations of reality, and invite us to ask if our reality is real at all? A character is forced to question if what they experience as reality may not actually be true reality. The very first Star Trek episode, The Cage, did this with Pike and the Thalosians. Sometimes it involves psychosis, like Riker in Frame of Mind; or alternate realities, like the Mirror Universe and Worf in Parallels; or time travel like in Yesterdays Enterprise or All Good Things.

The Holodeck allowed for this type of story to be told many times. Star Trek Holograms achieved an archetypal status that rivals robots in the annals of sci-fi. The hologram allows us to imagine a situation where a human’s self-awareness could be called into question. It allows us to question the veracity of our surroundings. It makes us question how free freewill truly is. From the Ricker’s date in 11001001, to the mobsters in The Big Goodbye, to Morarity, to Barcly’s creations, to the pinnacle of this archytype in the Doctor—these themes were hit again and again. The best example is Ship in a Bottle where Moriarty tricks Picard, Data and Barclay into thinking a holographic Enterprise is the real thing. The title captures the concept. Is the crew on the deck of the ship in the bottle any less human than the rest of us? What is our bottle? What is beyond it? Who put us inside of it? The metaphysical frame allows our imaginations to flirt with the fundamentals of existence, limits of understanding, creation, God, etc. Picard sums it up at the end of that episode by saying, “Who knows, we may all exist only inside of a device sitting on someone’s table.”

The truth is that Picard and crew do exist inside of a device sitting on someone’s table—our DVD boxsets and streaming Netflix boxes.

I want to explore the one time when Star Trek experimented with the notion, in an on-screen canonical way, that all of Star Trek was a fictional product created by an actual, “real” science-fiction writer. It was done in Deep Space Nine’s Far Beyond the Stars and Shadows and Symbols. In the end, the serious storytelling implication of those episodes were then quietly forgotten and ignored.

In FBS, Sisko flashes back to the 1950s. He is Benny Russell, a struggling pulp writer in the Golden Age of science fiction. The people in his life are all played by actors who portray characters in Siskos’ life, from Nog to Kira to Dukat. When Russell/Sisko (literally wearing the Starfleet uniform and Russells’ glasses) asks the Prophets who he is, they respond: “You are the dreamer and the dream.”

Later, in the DS9 universe, Sisko says to his father:

“What if it wasn’t a dream? What if this life we’re leading, you and me, everything, what if all of this is the vision?... Maybe just maybe, Benny isn’t the dream, we are. Maybe we are nothing more than figments of his imagination. For all we know, somewhere beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” Then we actually see Benny Russell reflected in the glass of Sisko’s window into space.

That last line taps into the ancient wonder that a starry night inspires in all of us. Is it like a ceiling that we might punch through one day? What would we find on the other side?

This dialogue coming at the end of the episode might have been similar to Picard’s dialogue to Barclay at the end of Ship in the Bottle, and we the viewer are supposed to enjoy the thought experiment but not take it literally and apply it to all of Deep Space Nine or all of Star Trek.

But this time was different. FBS and its implications could have been another stand-alone episode that was not meant to be interpreted as having ramifications for the series as a whole—but for two reasons. First, Sisko’s vision of Benny Russell came from the Prophets. Whenever the Prophets sent characters visions there was a purpose behind the vision. It was always to set up plot that was coming later in the season or series. It’s why they are called Prophets. They exist with an awareness of all time. They know what is coming while Sisko doesn’t, so they dribble visions like bread crumbs to affect his and others’ choices. Second, Benny Russell returned next season in Shadows and Symbols. He was writing DS9 stories on the walls of his asylum cell. When the doctor, played by the same actor as Damar, gets Russell to stop writing and consider painting over the story, Sisko actually stops doing what he is doing in the DS9 universe. Sisko only commits his next action when Benny Russell chooses to write that action on the wall. What are we to make of this?

Absolutely nothing. Because the writers—the real “real” writers Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler—because of a lack of chutzpah, or excess of prudent wisdom, or both—chose not to follow through with what they started.

Here is a thought experiment for you. Imagine if the DS9 writing room had decided to confirm that Benny Russell actually wrote all DS9 stories. You say, wait a minute, Deep Space Nine is not a self contained sci-fi show. It contains Star Trek in its title. Picard was in Emissary I and II. Bashir was in TNGs Birthright. Quark was in a TNG and VOY episode. Spock and Kirk were both mentioned in DS9 episodes, and four TOS Klingons actually reprised their characters in DS9 episodes (Kor, Kang, Koloth and Arnie Darvin). Canon links DS9 to all other Trek series. So Benny Russell must be responsible for all of Star Trek. Imagine if after Russell wrote DS9 in the 1950s—most of it inside of his asylum—he was released and went to Hollywood, where he met an ambitious, idealistic TV writer named Gene Roddenberry. By this point, Russell has given up on the idea of the public accepting a black captain, but he still wants his idealistic future vision to survive. He gives Roddenberry the concept, introduces him to Nichelle Nichols, and the rest is the history we all know.

This could have been done, but it would have been all that DS9 Season 7 could be about. The last episodes of DS9 would have been about the first episodes of TOS. Interesting, maybe, but it would have betrayed the DS9-centric characters, stories and actors that built that series, and the fans that followed it (in the same way ENTERPRISE’s finale became about TNG).

Realizing this quagmire, the writers decided to chalk Benny Russell up to “The ways of the Prophets are strange” and leave it at that. Probably wise. Even in Russell’s second and last episode, his narrative logic was breaking down. Dramatic tension was created when Sisko stopped an action because Russell stopped writing his action, but the B-plot about Kira’s standoff with the Romulans, and the C-plot about Worf attacking a Dominion shipyard both continued even though Russell wasn’t writing. Russell was never mentioned after this episode.

I’ve always felt like the writers saved face by having Sisko say to Kasidy in the finale that since “time doesn’t exist here” he might return “in a year” but that “it could be yesterday,” implying that his work might be in the past. Maybe the Prophets sent him back to Benny Russell’s reality.

For years, Star Trek has provided us with opportunities to imagine that our reality is not special, that it is but one perspective among many. They did this by placing “real” characters in false realities. For a brief moment, Star Trek writers flirted with the idea of going completely through the metaphysical looking glass and declaring that all of Star Trek “reality” in all of its canonical glory was purely fictional. These writers dared to suggest that this purely fictional imaginative playground we beam into through our television sets, which we have to trick our brains into accepting as real as we watch it, is actually a fiction created by a fictional writer that we have to trick our brains into accepting as a real one, who will remain one dimension removed from the actual Hollywood writers that created the whole thing. In this way, Benny Russell is not a meditation on God and creation, but on storytelling and storytellers. Too bad the writers couldn’t figure out how to maintain this concept while also doing justice to DS9 seven season arch.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Netherlands and High Water

After Hurricane Sandy so easily sent New York Harbor rolling up so many streets in Manhattan and Jersey City, it was a bit of a shock to see the capital city of Amsterdam vivisected every two bocks by canals. If the Dutch had built their New Amsterdam like the old one, there would be nothing left today of the Big Apple.

Of course, the Netherlands have had their super storms. In the Saint Peters Flood of 1651, 26 years after they founded New York City, 15,000 Dutch people are estimated to have been drowned. Our Dutch hotel clerk, and our breakfast chef, Yost, told us that there was a terrible flood in the 1950s that killed scores of people in Holland. After that, they decided they weren’t going to take it anymore.

He was referring to the North Sea Flood of January 1953, which killed 1,850 people and tens of thousands of animals, and destroyed 4,500 buildings. It was the result of a high Spring tide and a massive windstorm that swept across Europe into the North Sea. The sea swell was 18.4ft (compare that to the nine feet we were worried would hit Jersey City during Sandy).

The response was to build a massive flood defense system in the estuaries of all the major rivers leading into the Netherlands. (In another Dutch connection, the Hudson River at New York City is not a river but an estuary.) It’s called the Delta Works, and it was not finished until 1998.

According to Yost, problem solved. Now he said, when there is a flood in America like Katrina or Sandy, Dutch engineers go over to consult.

Here is an article on Dutch ideas for NYC post-Sandy:

Of course, Yost said, before the high-priced engineers fly over, they send this little guy:

But as others have pointed out, and as the little Dutch Boy well knows, you stop water from coming in one place, it will go someplace else, and probably not the direction its coming from.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Harnessing the Limitations of Things

Ben Sollee is a cellist/singer-songwriter from Kentucky. Today in his World CafĂ© interview he described the “superhuman pace” of his former tour schedule, multiple flights per week across the country.

“I found myself spending a lot more time in-between places than actually in them,” he said. He described the unsettling feeling a lot of frequent flyers have of waking up and not remembering where he was.

After seeing a commercial on Current TV for a cargo bike company called Xtracycle, Sollee decided to slow down his tour schedule by bicycling to his gigs.

His first trip was from Lexington, Kentucky to the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, and he hasn’t looked back since. He described the new connections he is able to make with the communities he passes through on the road. You might argue that he spends even more time “in-between places” than before because of the time it takes to get there under pedal power, but it is really the opposite. When you are pedaling through a town, stopping to get water, or eat, or just say hello, a ‘wherever you go, there you are’ mentality sets in. It’s hard to have that in an airport, squeezed into economy seating, or even on a tour bus.

Sollee is an activist, especially on mountain-top removal, but he was quick to point out that he doesn’t bike to his shows for the environment. “It’s not about being Green… or even sustainable, but rather to use the limitations of the bicycles to slow us down so we could really be in these communities.”

Sollee’s approach is to harness the limitations of the world to serve our needs (and learn how not to be frustrated by the slowness).

I think the way to foster mass appeal for sustainable, “green” living is to push the emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits of slowing down on the individuals themselves. This may be more effective that trying to get people to care about big abstract consequences of climate change.

What are the ways we can choose slow, low-impact technology alternatives in our daily lives?... Perhaps the first question we should ask ourselves is what aspect of our daily lives do we even want to slow down?

Check out the whole interview and songs here: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/02/168355523/ben-sollee-on-world-cafe