All Good Things… Part 3: Once Upon a Time

The series was mediocre, but they had a terrific finale.

Once Upon a Time had its series finale a few weeks ago. Several of you just asked, “Didn’t that show end last year?” and the answer is, of course, no. Despite the fact that a good portion of the leading section of the ensemble called it quits at the end of the previous season the show rebooted itself a bit for one final run. The final season focused on an adult Henry and Regina under the effects of a new curse with new villains and new friends.

The season, by and large, was fine. It wasn’t noticeably better or worse than any of the previous seasons and maintained the same messages of hope, love in all forms, acceptance, and redemption that were common to the rest of the series. Once Upon a Time will never win any awards but in a day and age when many stories are darker and grimmer than ever and reality seems just as dark and grim it was nice to have a show where you knew the heroes would eventually prevail and even half of the villains could be converted to the side of hope. It’s frequently one of the stories I hold up when I tell people, “You can love a movie or TV show even if technically it isn’t very good.”

One of the issues that plagued Once Upon a Time through its entire existence was the fact that the stories were largely forgettable and tended to blend into each other. You might recall that Ariel spends a period of time on the show but chances are you have no idea which season she was in or exactly how her story played out. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Once Upon a Time was ever a great show or even really a good show. But it was a nice show and I’m going to miss it.

The finale, despite being one cohesive story, was split across two weeks – at least on Hulu, where I watched it. And, in the end, the story of the finale is largely as forgettable as the rest of the series but the strengths of the show were also in full evidence.

The themes of the show were rendered everywhere with gleeful abandon. Every kind of love you can imagine is on display – friendship, familial, and romantic – multiple characters who have sought redemption find it in their own ways. Hope was mentioned and paid off more than once.

The other strength of the show was always the large number of reimagined fairytale characters. The villains almost always had depth. The heroes had hopes and fears and flaws to go with their hope and strength. And the final episodes remembered the vast majority of the characters. Almost everyone of any importance who has ever appeared on the show reprised the role one last time for at least a few moments. Notable exceptions were Neal/Baelfire and Pinnochio who played large parts in the first seasons but hadn’t been around for some time and were either forgotten or whose actors couldn’t be enticed to return. Others were probably also missing but, honestly, the show has featured so many cast members during its existence that it was nearly impossible to bring them all back. Several of the characters who did make a return had no lines and only a few brief moments on screen.

So, yeah, Once Upon a Time wasn’t a great show. But it didn’t have to be. And when it came time to say goodbye they did a terrific job. Everyone gets some version of a happy ending and the realm was saved and restored. The whats and hows of this show have always been less important than the whos and whys and OUAT‘s team knew it. The creative team even remembered to say goodbye to the iconic locations as the final moments of the show featured the camera sweeping past Granny’s Diner, Gold’s Pawn Shop, and even Emma Swan’s little yellow beetle. The final shot of the show was the epochal “Leaving Storybrooke” sign. That’s an image that will stick with me for a long time. The same as the messages of hope, love, and acceptance Once Upon a Time stood for.

Agents of SHIELD has a stakes problem

The characters are fun but they can’t get no relief!

he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.

So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.

But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.

I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.

The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

  • Time travel to the future
    • Mindless alien predators
    • Intelligent super-powered aliens
    • Greedy humans
    • Scared humans
    • Super-powered humans
    • Betrayal by alleged allies
  • A need to return to the past
  • Imminent alien invasion
  • Other aliens with hidden motives
  • Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
  • Time loop.
  • The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
  • The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
  • The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
  • Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
  • The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
  • A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
  • Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
  • Fitz has a split personality.
  • Talbot’s impending betrayal

All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.

The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.

The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).

Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.

The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.

SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.

And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.

The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.

On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.

One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.

Jessica Jones season 2 wanted to be more

The pieces really just didn’t quite come together.

I don’t think it’s any secret at this point that the first season of Jessica Jones is by far my favorite season of Netflix/Marvel television. They took a truly terrifying villain and made the entire season about Jessica battling both him and her inner demons. The threat was clear, terrifying, and terrifyingly real – Killgrave is basically an amped up rapist who is so charming when he isn’t raping people that people who haven’t survived his abuse find it hard to believe that he could commit such atrocities. The story never wavered or lost its way. It featured a cast of a wide variety of strong women characters that had their own flaws and views. The acting was phenomenal. It really did a terrific job putting a spin on drug abuse, parental abuse, and rape in ways that were a bit unique and hopefully reached a wider portion of the audience with how terrible those things can be and helped them become more sympathetic.

Season 2 doesn’t do any of those things. But it shouldn’t necessarily be knocked for that, because it wasn’t trying to be season 1 again. It wanted to be something different. I know this is bordering on becoming a broken record at this point, but remember last week when I said that one of the cool things about anime was that they had the freedom to try different kinds of story-telling techniques? It really feels like Netflix used its unique position as the kind of platform and industry leader it is to try to do something a bit unique as well. Most serialized shows, books, and movies are written with a story and characters in mind and developed in a way such that the two fit together. Sometimes you’ll see them written in a way where the story takes such a priority that the characters are forced to change and act out in order to continue it. Jessica Jones season 2 appears to have been written with the idea, “Here are the characters. Here are their circumstances. What happens next?”

However, unlike The Melancholy of Haruhi I’m not entirely sure this was done well. The writing was both particularly good and appallingly lacking and left me feeling a bit bemused when I completed the season, Sunday afternoon. Nothing the characters do seems weird or abnormal for them; in fact, everything they do seems to be 100% in character based on everything we know about them from both seasons of television. But there is no cohesion, no driving force. The plot just ambles around until its time for the season to end. SPOILERS will follow for Season 2 of Jessica Jones.

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Unlike every other Marvel TV show so far, there is no set “villain” who is totally evil and wants to commit evil that must be stopped. The closest we get is Alisa, Jessica’s mom, who is sympathetic in that she has what amounts to a mental illness she cannot control. The next best choice would be Dr. Karl Malus who saved both of their lives with illegal experiments. But so far as I can tell, he really, earnestly wanted to help and honestly didn’t know that Alisa was going out to murder people to protect him.

Jeri’s story is only tangentially related to the rest of the characters but takes up huge chunks of the runtime. Trish’s story might end up being the most interesting – she starts out just really wanting to help people, including Jessica, but does some very bad stuff as she convinces herself more and more that the ends will justify the means. However, we only follow her enough to keep track of her impact on Jessica’s story. Jessica’s story is well written in the micro – as I said before everything that happens and that she does makes perfect sense – but doesn’t seem to have a point. The show starts out showing her a bit out of control with her anger which might have made sense to tie into Alisa’s own issues with rage and show Jessica who she might become if she doesn’t get a handle on it but Jessica’s own anger problem is dropped pretty early on; the last I can even recall seeing it was also the first time which occurred in the second or third episode. There’s a smaller plotline involving Malcolm’s ultimate goals

The writing isn’t perfect and there are a handful of weird plot holes and poor writing decisions: Jeri’s partners want to kick her out even though she’s the best thing their firm has going for them. Pryce Cheng somehow figures out that Alisa and not Jessica killed his friend midway through the season. Early in the season, Jessica informs Malcolm, factually, that she can’t judge him for having indiscriminate sex because it’s also part of her method of dealing with things. Then, later in the season, she chews him out over it. Yes, people can be inconsistent and hypocritical, but it doesn’t usually go unaddressed in shows. Plus Jessica is supposed to be a straight-talking protagonist, so it’s a bit odd she just does an about-face like that without it being acknowledged at all. And, of course, Jessica and Alisa use their super strength to stop a bus and reunite Jessica’s season 2 beau with his kid. Even though adding the mass of two people to the back-end of a bus with no leverage is not going to stop it no matter how strong they are.

Technically the plot is resolved when Alisa and Karl both end up dead which means they won’t be able to conduct further experiments. But they were not really a direct danger to people outside people directly investigating them. We learn more about Jessica’s history but it doesn’t change how we perceive her. Speaking of changes, the season does very little to change the characters at all. Jeri is the same person she was at the beginning; she just helped someone else commit murder. Jessica is the same person she was at the beginning except maybe she understands how lonely she was? But she acts like that was an epiphany the entire journey taught her even though she clearly wanted to be spending time with Oscar and Vido before, she just didn’t have the time. Malcolm changes a bit from a guy who will do anything for Jessica and wants to do good and help out to a guy who decides he wants a bit more respect and a better paycheck. Trish changes the most and that’s where a second rewatching, focused primarily on her, might pay off. When I had but one episode to go I saw someone else watching the first episode and being informed with Trish’s ambitions allowed a much deeper interpretation of her early actions and casts a more sinister light on her attempts to get Jessica to investigate her past.

In the end, the moment-to-moment writing is just too good for this season to be a complete train wreck. The roles are also entirely too well-acted. But the lack of a coherent end goal for the plot and the shallow character growth of most of the ensemble means this season was a disappointment compared to the first. The best way I can describe it is that the plot was structured like a slice-of-life anime – a genre defined by its complete lack of stakes – but isn’t charming enough and doesn’t do enough with the characters to make it work. In the pantheon of Netflix/Marvel shows, I’d still put it above the rookie efforts of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders but it’s no better than season 2 of Daredevil and doesn’t even really approach the quality of the first seasons of DaredevilJessica Jones, or even The Punisher.

The Ever-Expanding Universe of Haruhi Suzumiya

This is the anime that never ends.

Last week I mentioned that anime was one of my favorite mediums because the story is never over just because the show ends. One of the most popular anime in existence, according to My Anime List is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

For starters, the anime is based on not a manga, but a light novel (think young adult novel) this time. The light novel series did also get a manga adaptation, as well, however. This is what I was talking about when I said the story never ends. You liked the anime? Great, go read the light novels. Enjoyed that, too? Here are the manga. Oh, and a couple movie adaptations!

But Melancholy also serves as an example of the kinds of things Japanese media is willing to try that you probably wouldn’t see in American media. The original 28-episode anime was not aired in chronological order, for example. The anime features an ensemble cast and one of them has god-like powers but doesn’t realize it. She is constantly, obliviously changing the universe to suit her whims while the rest of the cast struggles to both live their lives and to keep her happy so she doesn’t accidentally destroy the universe in a bout of depression. The ordering of the episodes is meant to help increase the audience’s perception of her abilities. At the end of every episode in the original Japanese version two characters would talk about which episode was coming next, Haruhi would name the next episode according to the chronological order while the male lead, Kyon, would name them according to original air order.

If you need any proof that things would not be done this way in the US, look no further than the dubbed versions of the series. The episodes don’t include anything describing what the next episode will be like and they’re always shown in chronological order with no mention that there ever was another order the show could be watched in. This is just the beginning of the wacky shenanigans that the anime has gotten up to, however.

The series also includes EIGHT episodes that are almost identical as the entire group gets trapped in a time loop. That’s 29% of the series. And they’re all shown in a row, regardless of which order you choose to watch the show in. Can you imagine an American show doing something like that? Under normal airing circumstances that would be 2 months of showing basically the same episode with only a small hint of when the torture might end. The series also received a sequel movie which was nearly 3 hours long, the second longest anime movie created at that point. That wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary for American media; cartoon shows in the states have gotten movie sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations many times even if they are often half that long. However, the movie features an alternate universe and the anime spun that off into an additional 16-episode series where one of the primary cast members acted completely differently, became the female lead instead of Haruhi, saw two of the primary cast members – including Haruhi herself – reduced to far diminished roles, and two other minor characters from the original anime were promoted to ensemble members. The entire genre was changed from a supernatural slice-of-life to just a simple slice-of-life anime. While we’re on the topic slice-of-life is a genre which, in and of itself, would be unlikely to be duplicated in American media, to begin with. They usually don’t have too much drama and they aren’t even always funny.

But probably the weirdest thing to come out of the intellectual property, however, is an anime movie called The Melancholy of Haruhi-Chan. The -chan suffix can mean a couple different things, but here it indicates an idea of being more diminutive or cuter. The animation style is changed to something chibi-like which is Japanese for “little” and is used to describe animation where the characters are far smaller in proportion than normal, usually with adorable giant heads. According to synopses I’ve read, all the characters have their quirks blown even further out of proportion to what you’re likely to see in reality. A complete overhaul in character and art-style? How often do you think you might see something like that in American media? And this isn’t a reboot, it’s just a continuation of the series.

Now, this isn’t to say that Japanese media is automatically better than American media. Trust me when I say there are plenty of things American media is far more willing to work with than Japanese – LGBT representation, for one. They are just different. And, of course, it doesn’t matter if you’re creating something unique if that unique thing isn’t also good. And The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is definitely good. The characters are all quirky but only rarely overdo it. The biggest flaws in the series are probably Mikuru Asahina’s English voice actress – I get so tired of breathy, helpless voice acting – and the fact that Haruhi doesn’t pull back from her insanity quite often enough for it to make sense why the other characters would want to be friends with her outside of their need to fulfill their study and protection missions.

The quality of the story is so high that even the eight repeated episodes were a joy to watch. Just enough subtle details were changed every time to highlight the sameness of everything else and give the audience a reason to keep watching. The final resolution to that story arc was clever enough to pay it off, as well. The 3-hour movie and subsequent spin-off series are equally enjoyable, even though they’re quite different from the original series.

So if you’re looking for something a little bit different from mainstream American media that takes different kinds of story-telling risks in order to tell more unique stories, you should try some anime. And if you’re going to try some anime, you can do a lot worse than The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. But if it’s your first time watching it, I definitely recommend watching it in the Kyon Order (called Anime Release Order in that spreadsheet) first. Might as well get the full experience and milk that story for all it’s worth.

 

Space Pirate: Harlock, Game of Thrones, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

For starters, we probably shouldn’t commonly leave the “willing” part out of the definition.

As an actor, a writer, and a nitpicker of stories in every imaginable medium it probably does not surprise you to learn that I have plentiful and strong thoughts on the willing suspension of disbelief. Before we continue, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page as to what that even is. Wikipedia puts it pretty succinctly:

The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

There’s a lot to unpack in even that simple sentence. For starters, as you can see,  the term has two forms. One of them includes the word “willing” while the other omits it. I and many others learned it that first way but I would argue now that the “willing” part is crucial to the definition. When Game of Thrones ran into some criticism for the way it handled its penultimate episode, last season, the director responded with his own criticism of the fans. This was a mistake on his part for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that insulting your fanbase rarely seems like a wise course of action. But beyond that, he was also wrong. It isn’t the audience’s job to suspend their disbelief for whatever you put on the screen. It is your job as the creative staff to make them want to suspend their disbelief. In other words, to make them willing.

This willingness usually exists on a spectrum depending upon content and vehicle.

There is actually an interesting spectrum upon which you have more or fewer restrictions on how far you must go to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief. Consider, for a moment, whether you would willingly suspend your disbelief if a movie you were watching used obvious drop curtains and plyboard sets with frequent pauses where crew members could be seen shifting things around in order to set up the next scene.  Probably not, right? But you do that for the majority of stage plays you see and don’t even think twice about it. Why is that?

The willing suspension of disbelief also takes into account venue and subject matter. This means that a stage play is held to entirely different set of standards than a TV show or a movie. Other examples are cartoons vs. live-action, kids movies vs. more adult-themed fare, and comedies vs. dramas. I was recently watching Space Pirate: Harlock and was particularly struck by a particular moment in that film – one of the twists in that movie, actually. *** SPOILERS FOR SPACE PIRATE: HARLOCK*** In the last part of the film it is finally revealed that the earth has been destroyed by liberal application of dark matter. In real life no one actually has a clue what dark matter is or whether it even exists, but because science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy the writers of this movie chose to re-define it as a destructive substance. We find out that sometime before the movie started the titular space pirate piloted his vessel into some dark matter, as well, when he felt regret over the part he had played in destroying the earth. However, he came out the other side with a ship that was now indestructible and had had its entire front-end replaced with a giant skull and crossbones rather than being destroyed. Imagine for a moment that that had happened in Star Trek. That franchise takes itself pretty seriously and it would be unreasonable to expect its audience to just go along for that ride as it seems patently obvious that whatever dark matter is it isn’t something that would simultaneously destroy a planet but render a spaceship indestructible and re-design the front half. *** END SPOILERS *** However, because Space Pirate: Harlock doesn’t really bill itself as a super realistic take on the genre even I, the super nitpicker extraordinaire, didn’t bat an eye when this reveal was made.

I have determined that if you disregard the complexities of sub-genre, vehicle of story, and setting there are two hard and fast rules when it comes to establishing a willing suspension of disbelief in your audience:

  1. Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.
  2. Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.

The Game of Thrones director from earlier also seemed to think that because the audience was willing to believe in dragons that they should be willing to ignore any plot holes or time inconsistencies that appear in their fantasy stories. As I argued at the time both here and on Twitter, story universes, even fantasies, must remain internally and logically consistent. Plot holes are still plot holes. Writers, depending on the universe they set themselves in, get to work with a certain set of pre-established rules, environments, and creatures. For example, if you set a story in medieval England and market it to a western audience you usually won’t have to completely re-establish castles, moats, forests, horses, rain, etc. Your audience will grasp these things using cultural consciousness. Cultural consciousness can be a bit of a complicated topic but for now, you just need to understand that, for example, almost everyone in America and England knows what a castle is even if they’ve never seen one in person and most of them can’t remember when or how they first gained that knowledge. That’s an aspect of cultural consciousness. Something we know about because of our culture.

Now one of the joys of being a writer, especially in the fantasy genres and sub-genres, is that you can add new definitions and re-define existing ideas that break away from the logical consistency defined by the cultural consciousness. For example, if your story is set in a fantasy variant of medieval England perhaps your moats are always populated by sarcastic mermaids. And if you establish it in your story before it becomes important to a climax in the plot, your audience will probably not bat an eye at this change. (This is also known as foreshadowing when a writer establishes something that is actually plausible both in the collective consciousness and in the story but might otherwise seem abrupt in an important reveal, later.) There are two important keys in that sentence that I don’t want you to miss, though. You must establish it. And you must establish it before it becomes important to a climax. Otherwise, you’re still dealing with a plot hole, even if it’s a fantasy story.

Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

So in Game of Thrones up until that fateful episode the creators were willing to let the cultural consciousness define their ravens for them. What that means is that everyone perceived the ravens in the show as being identical to the everyday birds we are all familiar with. If they had really meant to include supersonic ravens they needed to be established. But even if they had chosen to establish such creatures at that moment, it still would have been a writing faux pas. When you fail to establish something like that until it becomes critical to the plot, especially as it pertains to resolving climaxes or saving protagonists, you are performing what is known as a Deus Ex Machina which is Greek for “God from Machine”. It turns out the ancient Greeks weren’t, as a whole, necessarily any better writers than the ones we have now. Some were great but others had failings. Sometimes writers write themselves into a hole and have no idea what to do to resolve the plot. It was at this moment that some ancient Greek writers would write a scene in which a god or gods would be dropped into or above the set using a machine and they would simply assign the outcomes the playwright desired regardless of how much trouble the story or characters were in. For a modern example of what this might look like we need look no further than the Mass Effect 3 ending.

*** SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3 *** 

In that game, the crew of the Normandy is tasked with gathering allies and resources to build some sort of mystery machine with undefined capabilities in order to fend off the enemy Reaper fleet. By the end of the game the machine is built and still no one has a clue what it might actually do to help preserve the galaxy – this should be reminding you of the first rule of the willing suspension of disbelief in regards to fantasy elements. Shepard turns the mystery device on at the last moment and… a simulacrum of a child appears which offers Shepard three impossibly simple choices with which to conclude the story. This seems almost a direct ripoff of the original Deus Ex Machina where a god-like being appears for no discernible reason established within the story to neatly ties up all the loose ends. It is simply adapted to the medium of video games and Mass Effect’s primary conceit of player choice. At least the Greeks had preestablished tropes of such gods doing those kinds of things in the beginnings and middles of even better-written stories when they implemented such poorly-written endings.

*** END SPOILERS ***

 

No matter the story a creator must rely on some willing suspension of disbelief from their audience. Even in something as simple as a story about a love triangle between three high school students you must convince your audience that they want to believe these fictional characters actually exist. As long as people are creating stories that need the willing suspension of disbelief they must remember to establish or foreshadow and to do it before it becomes vital to the plot. Or else I’ll come for them with mouse and keyboard and crit them with my Wall of Text.

 

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Review

There is still lots to do, but overall it was pretty dang good.

Star Trek, as a franchise, typically starts veeeeery slowly. The first seasons of the series are generally a slog to get through, even when they contain a few terrific episodes. This even holds true with the movies as well where The Motion Picture and Generations are easily the two dullest movies in their respective timelines. 2009’s reboot was by no means slow but more discussion about the reboot movies will have to come another time. Suffice to say I view them differently from the rest of the franchise.

Yes, before you all start picking at me I said dullest not worst. I maintain, however, that The Final Frontier gave us one of the best lines of all time:

Anyway.

If Star TrekDiscovery‘s first season is it’s worst or slowest then we’re either going to end up with the best Star Trek, yet or everything just might fly entirely out of control. Discovery already easily holds the record for the quickest a Star Trek series has ever made me fall in love. That being said I want to dig into some specifics as to what made this season good and what they’ll need to work on, next year. We’ll start with the bad because I want to end on a positive note. Of course, there will be spoilers for the entire season.

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The Bad

LGBT Representation

I already went on, at length, in the season finale recap earlier this week about how they really screwed up when they decided to reinforce decades-old stereotypes about people who like sex being evil especially bisexuals who also just always want to have sex with as many people as possible. I also noted that they had already abused the “Bury Your Gays” trope earlier this season. I had promised I was going to expand on that and I promise I was going to. But the fact of the matter is nothing I write could compare to what was already written by Andi over at Women at Warp (Warning, possible future spoilers from creator interviews). So just read what they had to say on the subject and know that I agree with them 100%.

Representation of Women and Minorities

The show proudly features a black woman, Sonequa Martin-Green, as it’s first-among-ensemble. And yet the show hasn’t exactly treated women or minorities with a lot of kindness so far. The show started off well by putting an Asian woman in command of a ship and making a black woman her first officer but by the end of the fourth episode the commander was a convicted felon, the captain had died, and the female security chief of the Discovery who was only introduced in the third episode had been killed. The only black male in the ensemble was also killed before the season ended. Compare this to only one white dude getting stabbed.

The finale wants to be a redemption of women where it has Michael Burnham (played by Martin-Green), Tilly (Mary Wiseman), L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) all being the primary drivers of the action and the final resolution. Which is great except for the part where Georgiou gets undercut by the aforementioned Depraved Bisexual trope and Cornwell looks indecisive as she goes along with whichever plan is handed to her last with very little debate or apparent thought on her part. We do at least see Tilly get her well-deserved place on the command track and Burnham gets her commission back but it isn’t the total victory it should have been.

When I wrote before the show came back from its winter hiatus I also talked about the history of Star Trek as a predictor of social equality and a platform for social justice advocacy throughout the decades. The people behind Discovery have made it very clear that they aren’t just here to steal the franchise name for their own profit; they actually want to continue that proud heritage. I believe them and it isn’t like Star Trek has always been absolutely perfect in this score, either. But the show must continue to try to improve on these scores as it continues into next season.

The Awkward

In the context of the entire season, the entire mirror universe tangent now feels incredibly pointless. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how it’s supposed to play into Michael’s growing understanding about the need for principles in Starfleet and the Federation but it’s kind of overkill to spend 4 episodes in an alternate dimension for only that. And that’s pretty much all that’s accomplished, there.

Yes, the Lorca reveal was really cool when it first happened. But in retrospect, it fails to continue to impact the show. His coup attempt was short lived and everyone on the Discovery was wary of him to begin with, so the betrayal doesn’t really have any continuing effect on the crew once he was dealt with. Taken in the context of the whole season it also feels incredibly out-of-place to so completely forget about the Klingon War for a little bit more than a quarter of the season when that is the only thing anyone can talk about or act upon for the entire rest of the time.

The Good

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

If the four episodes of the Mirror Universe end up being unsatisfactory filler, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is a terrific example of how filler can be done even in a high-tension, serialized show like this. Unlike the Mirror Universe episodes, it doesn’t completely ignore the primary matter of the season. It tells us more about more characters than the Mirror Universe does in a fraction of the time. Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Burnham, and Lieutenant  Tyler (Shazad Latif) all show the audience more of who they are. I anticipate Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd, who we learned much more about as well, will be a recurring character in the future. Finally, it includes probably the best call-back to the Original Series in a season of television where such references were liberally sprinkled throughout.

The characters and acting

There is not a bad actor in the entire cast of this show. The writers gave them quality material, for the most part, and they all absolutely made the most of it. Sonequa Martin-Green nailed down the idea of Michael Burnham as a human who wished at times to be Vulcan as perfectly as Leonard Nimoy portrayed the first Vulcan and threw in some terrific sass and internal conflict at other points. Jason Isaacs gave us an anti-hero-turned-villain Captain Lorca that had us all fooled as to how good or evil he was until the very last moment without ever lying to us. Jayne Brook’s Admiral Cornwell was the rare fictional female character who was tough as nails without ever being masculine or cruel. Michelle Yeoh delivered two very different, very distinct interpretations of Phillipa Georgiou with terrific gravitas. In very limited screen time Wilson Cruz’s Dr. Hugh Culber made many fans fall in love with the caring, capable doctor. Mary Chieffo did a terrific job delivering a L’Rell who was a true believer but not a mindless zealot.

I want to pay special attention to four others of the cast, though. Shazad Latif was simply amazing as Ash Tyler and Voq but particularly when Tyler was at his most emotionally vulnerable. It takes near perfect balance to find the place where you’ve gone far enough but not so far that it slips into farce and Latif walked that line beautifully. Anthony Rapp’s interpretation of Paul Stamets had so much depth. There was a living energy to his performances that can be lacking from lesser actors. He also stayed away from being a one-note character. It could have been really easy for Stamets to be a gentle, forgetful scientist for the entire series. But at the beginning when he’s the most frustrated with his work and with the circumstances he is in he is very cantankerous. When Tyler apologizes to him for the death of Culber he could have played it much more gently if he wanted. Instead, there was a cold rage behind his eyes that cause me to lean back a bit, even viewing it on my computer screen.

Mary Wiseman showed a tremendous knack for comedic timing without ever letting Tilly devolve into simply being the comedic relief. She grew the character from an annoying chatterbox at the beginning into an insightful, decisive crew member by the end of the season without sacrificing her youthful exuberance. And finally, Doug Jones did a terrific job with Saru. I have many complaints about the way the writers choose to use his “threat ganglia” but there can be no questioning the care Mr. Jones takes in his craft. Saru starts the series in a bit over his head and it only gets worse for a bit. He starts as an exceptionally competent bureaucrat who wants to be a leader; he backs down from every confrontation and when he’s forced into command he allows his fears to pressure him into making poor choices. But gradually as the series continues without ever foisting an “Aha!” moment on him Saru learns to face his fears and to truly lead his crew. By the end of the season, he is a true leader. That lack of the “Aha!” moment is so key for how great this ends up being. Those things rarely happen in real life; eventually, you just look back and realize you are different than you were. Sometimes you can see some of the steps that happened along the way but it’s rarely about just a single moment. Because no such moment was written into the script it was up to Jones to gradually portray the character as becoming more and more comfortable with his leadership responsibilities and he does it masterfully.

To paraphrase one of my favorite YouTube channels, “No show is without sin” and that definitely holds true for Star Trek: Discovery but they’ve done some really good work, too. If the Star Trek franchise is a forest then Discovery is a new, healthy sapling that has just been planted. It has healthy, fertile soil in the form of solid writers and a terrific cast that want to work together to make a terrific show that follows in footsteps of those that came before. It is being fertilized with plenty of money to fulfill the things the cast and writers come up with. The hard stop to the first season’s plot line also means it won’t be forced to grow into any particular direction that might make it weaker. Star Trek: Discovery has room to grow into the best version of itself and I, for one, can’t way to see what comes next.

 

 

Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Finale was a Dud

I see where they were going…but they seem to have missed the mark

If you need a spoiler-free review of the season finale I believe that the title and the excerpt say it all. To describe any more why it was a dud requires delving into spoilers. So let’s just dive in.

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The episode suffers from just 4 major problems and one problem that might be better described as an annoying quibble. However, if you just took the major problems out the episode would barely exist. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s go ahead and break it down, shall we?

Phillipa Georgiou never needed to be the captain

The episode starts off with a thud when a decision from the end of last week comes back to bite everyone in the butt in a completely predictable way. Emperor Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) has given Starfleet a plan to end the Klingon war by destroying their homeworld, Qo’nos. In exchange for this plan, Starfleet agrees to grant her, a known violent racist and mass-murderer, complete freedom to roam their galaxy. They also put her in charge of the mission and, confusingly, the ship.

At the end of the previous episode I, and many others, were left wondering why it was decided she needed to be in command of the ship. As we see in this episode there really was absolutely no reason for it. Precious airtime is wasted as she pointlessly snipes at each crew member in turn until Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) pointlessly tries to expose her for no possible gain that I could determine. After she fails, Georgiou leaves the bridge and never returns to it having contributed exactly nothing to the mission as captain that couldn’t have been achieved by absolutely any other warm body in a Starfleet uniform.

Qo’nos isn’t very Klingon

The writers raised the hackles of many long-time Trekkies when they – yet again – revamped the makeup design for the Klingons at the start of this series. However, the silliness of that choice pales in comparison to the world-design they did for Qo’nos. The Klingons have always been a little bit xenophobic. Even in Voyager, the most future-forward show of the franchise, the Klingons shunned a half-human, half-Klingon girl who was not Klingon enough for them. It only gets worse the further back in time you go. But for some reason when the away party arrives on the surface of Qo’nos the area they venture to is populated almost entirely by Orions rather than Klingons.

There is no real justification given for this choice and fans were supposed to simply be distracted by the reference to a TOS race that is often ignored in the later series. However, it makes no sense in this universe or in the canon it supposedly resides in. Furthermore, the choice results in a disappointing, fairly generic, seedy, urban underbelly that we’ve seen in countless other science fiction series right down to mixing the brothels and arms dealers with good-natured gamblers and outlier religious adherents.

Star Trek writers fall into another LGBTQIA++ Trope Pitfall

Not content to rest on their laurels of falling prey to the Bury Your Gays trope – and I promise we’ll get more into that this weekend – Discovery’s writers proved they weren’t done with adding plot points to the series seemingly designed primarily to upset their socially liberal audience members. The away team needs to locate some Klingon temples in order to find a path to the inactive volcanoes so they can use a probe to do…something… that will supposedly help them end the war. Georgiou’s method includes succumbing to the “Evil is Sexy” trope.

For a long time villains, especially female villains, have been stereotyped as being more sexually promiscuous than their more honorable counterparts. They’re constantly trying to seduce the heroes or wearing skimpy clothing. In this particular case, they leaned into it as hard as they could until it evolved into the “Depraved Bisexual” trope. Georgiou doesn’t just attempt to seduce the information out of just anyone. She identifies two prostitutes, one apparently male and one apparently female; loudly exclaims about how this universe appeals to her more, now; has sex with both of them simultaneously; does it so well that they talk about how they should be paying her for the experience; and finally she threatens their lives in order to get the information she wants. If there were an “Only evil people would consider having any kind of sexual encounter other than heterosexual intercourse between two people in a committed relationship” bingo card she’d have hit every single box. Ordinarily, this might be cause for some eye-rolling and maybe a minor footnote about how media still hasn’t caught up with the times. Star Trek has always held itself to a higher standard, however. This is no less true of the new series than it was the original. When you declare yourself to be a show that wants to do better than you are going to get called out when you miss that mark. And they missed it badly, here.

The first plan is stupid, the second plan isn’t much better

Skipping back ahead, it turns out – OF COURSE – that Georgiou’s plan is not to do any probing. She’s going to blow up the entire planet. And – OF COURSE – Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Michael discover this. Honestly, did Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brooke), Sarek (James Fraine), and Georgiou really think they were going to be able to pull this mission off without any of the Discovery crew figuring out that they were actually carrying a bomb? They risked the failure of their mission by not informing them sooner. It’s entirely possible that Tilly and Michael might have caused the mission to fail in a way from which there would be no recovery if they had found out at a different time or reacted differently than they did.

And this is when things got really dicey, writing-wise, at least. Things actually get really easy in-universe. Michael goes back to the ship, tells (Acting) Captain Saru (Doug Jones) what’s going on and together they confront Cornwell about how this is the wrong thing to do. This is the moment the writers have been working for. In the pilot episode, Michael commits mutiny because she is convinced that the only way to defeat the Klingons and save the Federation is to sacrifice their principles. Now she is ready to commit mutiny again but this time she wants to save their principles. It’s a nifty little narrative circle. Unfortunately, it’s undercut by just how easily it’s accomplished. The admiral is quickly convinced and an alternate plan is immediately conceived and enacted. Georgiou is still allowed to go free – which will absolutely, in no way bite anyone in the butt later. And instead of setting off the bomb in Qo’nos active volcano system they give the detonator to their captive Klingon, L’Rell.

Let me number the ways this is a stupid idea:

  1. L’Rell is no friend to the Federation. Even if the Klingons aren’t behaving the way she wanted there was no guarantee she’d call off the war as part of her campaign to set the Klingons on the straight and narrow.
  2. You decided you didn’t want to commit genocide, but you absolutely just gave someone else that power if they want to use it.
  3. A single bomb with a single detonator does not seem like an effective way to effect civilization-wide social change.
    1. The bomb is sitting in active magma, it might become disabled.
    2. The detonator might break or lose signal.
    3. All it would take is a handful of Klingons working together in order to ensure they could resume working against each other to steal the detonator or kill or kidnap L’Rell. We’ve seen Klingons do this sort of thing before.
    4. Is she really going to blow up her homeworld if they disobey her?
      1. No, seriously. If one Klingon steps out of line she surely can’t blow up her homeworld. But at what point should she actually draw the line? The nature of sentient beings being forced to do something they don’t want to do is to constantly push at that boundary. She’s either going to need enough allies and manpower to deal with individual miscreants or the entire thing is going to fall apart. And she walks into this situation with exactly zero allies and manpower to her name.
  4. This entire part of the story comes across weird because everyone is just so damn easy to convince. Apparently, if they had talked to Michael sooner they could have avoided this entire part of the conflict, not that it took much energy or time to resolve once it was outed. It kind of makes Cornwell seem like she can be convinced to go along with whatever plan is presented to her last which is…not a good look.

But – OF COURSE – L’Rell is as easily convinced as Georgiou and Cornwell to go along with this plan. And it WORKS. She threatens the Klingon leaders and they immediately capitulate. And that’s…it. This plan goes off entirely without a hitch. I don’t remember the last time I saw a plan go that smoothly on TV or in real life or anywhere else. But, of course, it had to go smoothly so the writers could wrap up this storyline so they can do something entirely different, next season. Honestly, this episode could have benefited from having one final conflict in this part of the story to make the final victory feel a bit more earned. This season finale of an internet-only show was still only 47 minutes or so, it’s not like it would have made it unbearably long.

That cameo everyone loved was kinda dumb

Yes, I’m going after the Enterprise cameo. I don’t hate so much that it happened, but the how of it was completely ridiculous. The USS Discovery is headed toward Vulcan to pick up her new captain when they receive a priority distress call. Saru orders the ship to drop out of warp drive so they can attempt to get a better read on the signal. That’s all fine. But when the Enterprise dives into view out from a random space cloud, everyone seems to forget that it was in distress. They just kind of stare at the screen with awed smiles. Of course, who can blame them for forgetting it was in distress. It doesn’t look like it’s in distress and then the episode finishes with a flourish, using the original theme song.

But along with completely glossing over the distress part of the call, why exactly are these crew members in awe of the ship? The answer is: because the writers were hoping the audience would be in awe of it. Seriously, nothing that has ever been mentioned in any of the series, but especially this one, gives any indication that the Enterprise has been part of any kind of the crazy exploits it will be known for under Kirk, yet. It wasn’t even considered the flagship of the fleet and was one of many ships of the same class. There is literally no reason for anyone on that bridge to be in awe of it except to inspire or reflect the awe of the audience for the moment.

There were some good moments in this episode. The decision to restore Burnham’s commission and rank should serve as a balm to those who were disappointed in the series’ choice to make a woman of color into its star only to immediately reveal that it would be as a convicted felon. Every interaction Burnham had with Ash Tyler was pitch perfect for both of them as an example of how two mature adults can handle the end of a relationship. The complete ending of the Klingon War plotline also opens up some great opportunities to move toward other kinds of stories in the future and I can only be grateful for that. The finale may have been the worst episode of the series to date but it was still a lot better than a lot of other television out there and leaves plenty of promise for the future of the series.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is almost entirely filler

And that’s not a bad thing

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is a simple, short show with an extremely straight-forward plot and charming characters. The show is only a single season of only 10 episodes. It’s cute, calm, and incredibly pleasant to watch in this day of high-tension serialized shows. It’s almost refreshing to watch a show where everything pretty much goes the way you expect, especially when there’s no life or death drama to contend with. The simple plot, however, means the majority of the airtime is filler.

There has been this sentiment around the internet, recently – or at least in my circles of the internet – that “Filler Episodes” of television are among the worst evils to plague humanity. People complain about it in the Arrowverse shows on the CW, they complain about it in The Walking Dead, I’ve even seen some people complain about filler moments in Game of Thrones. First, let’s answer the question, “What even is filler?”

The simple definition is a segment of a story that doesn’t contribute to the overall story aka advance the plot. The most common place you’ll see this is in a TV series where somewhere between one and a handful of episodes will not particularly advance the overall plot of the story. It is rarer but it can show up in video games or movies, too. One example of it happening in a movie is the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where the Gryffindor boys sit on their beds eating sweets that cause them to make animal noises. The best example in a video game off the top of my head comes from Persona 5. After the heroes complete the first dungeon there is a 30-minute series of cutscenes during that shows the kids celebrating their victory by eating themselves sick at a fancy hotel buffet but otherwise does very little to advance the plot. So that’s what filler is and you know a lot of people are complaining about it but is it inevitably bad? Absolutely not.

Think of it like donuts, for example. Some donuts have no filling, and those are fine. You can probably eat several simple glazed or powdered cake donuts in a sitting. Some donuts have a jelly filling and you bite into those and wonder, “Why would you ruin this perfectly fine donut with overly sweet fruit preserves?” But still other donuts have the Bavarian cream filling. And those donuts can be the best donuts you’ve ever eaten but they’re very rich. So if you got a dozen donuts you’d probably want to avoid the jelly-filled donuts, to take only a few of the ones with the Bavarian cream, and then you’d stock up primarily on the regular ones.

There is such a thing as good filler and bad filler. But since you’re not doing anything to the story you pretty much have to do something to the characters. Good filler is a great opportunity to make the characters in your story seem more real and maybe even expand the universe of your story by giving them simple moments free of life-or-death tension for a bit to just be. But in the being the audience should learn something new about them. That’s why the example of filler from Harry Potter is an example of bad filler. It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters – we learn nothing new about the boys from this scene, and candy that causes the person eating it to make an animal noise doesn’t even contribute much to our understanding of the universe. The Persona 5 example, on the other hand, is good filler. In a calm moment, you can see the characters introduced to that point interact with and tease each other. You learn more about their motivations, their relationships, and how they think. It would have been easier for the writers, developers, and designers to just show the kids pigging out for a few seconds and then move on but doing it that way actually benefited the story by helping the audience understand the characters who would be making important plot decisions later.

Let’s talk about a TV series. How about Star Trek? Which episode is the most iconic of all the episodes in the original series? If you said “The Trouble with Tribbles” you win a cookie. From a website. Congrats. That episode is pure filler. The stakes are low, it’s silly to a nearly unreasonable degree, and it absolutely makes every single top 10 ranking out there – usually in the top 5. It’s a great episode. But the other thing about filler is knowing when and how to use it. If every episode were like that, Star Trek would have been a very different show. So the two keys to good filler, as you may have guessed from the donut analogy, is quantity and type.

The modern television experience, however, is built around two ideas. Binge watching for internet-focused series and viewer-retainment for the more traditional offerings. In both cases, the serialized format (which I explained in more detail in my post about The Orvillemakes the most sense. Bingers will prefer a serialized style that naturally leads them from episode to episode. Weekly shows benefit from curious viewers who will be far more likely to come back next week for a continuing plot of a mediocre or even poorly written show if the story still has loose ends. There is also the fact that many series are shortening their seasons from the once traditional 23-26 episodes into something more like 10-15. This all means that adding filler into a season will almost certainly force writers to trim the main story.

Also, without the narrative room for filler that existed previously the filler that does get produced is now poorly squeezed in and often unjustified. For example, an episode like “The Trouble with Tribbles” would make no sense in Star Trek: Discovery right now because the writers have used the serialized format to ratchet the tension up to a permanent 11. There’s no time to take a break and be silly because people are dying for every moment the USS Discovery isn’t out shooting down bad guys. Something similar has happened in The Walking Dead. Couple this with the fact that viewers are also now trained to be upset when their narrative curiosity goes unrewarded in the next episode and the complaints out there can seem justified. Especially if that filler is more like the Harry Potter example than Star Trek or Persona 5.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie, however, uses its filler to expand and reveal its terrific cast of characters in a way that makes watching the show enjoyable even without overly impressive visuals or a particularly dramatic story.  It allows the audience to relax and enjoy learning more about the characters’ motivations and watch their relationships grow in a show-don’t-tell way that can usually only be seen in filler episodes. The dedication to focusing on characters instead of plot tension makes the show an almost meditative experience. It’s very easy to just veg out and feel like you’re hanging out with some friends. You probably won’t want to watch this kind of show constantly any more than every episode of Star Trek should have been “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But in a world filled with regular donuts interspersed with a few of the gross jelly-filled variety, it can be good to have some rich bavarian cream donuts to break things up, from time to time.

Interpreting Westworld’s Universe

It’s almost as complex as the story.

I finally binged the first season of Westworld a couple weeks ago. There’s so much going on in the show that it was difficult to pick a topic of discussion. Obviously, there’s the whole thing with what is and isn’t intelligence coupled with plenty of pondering about morality as applied to allegedly non-sentient beings. There’s the fact that the entire series itself is a form of Unreliable Narration that keeps the audience guessing until the final moments of the first season and beyond. But the question that really begs to be answered is what kind of future is this show depicting for its audience?

At first glance it doesn’t really seem like a utopian story, does it? Everything is grim and dark. There’s lots of blood, violence, and abuse. But that’s what makes this question so interesting. Gene Roddenberry foresaw a future in which humanity had put aside their differences to rise above and ethically use advanced technology to the benefit of all. Westworld shows us a future where humanity has used technology to rise above – even the small glimpses we get from outside of the park show amazing advances in computer, hologram, and train technology. The androids themselves, even if they were never sentient, would represent amazingly advanced technology. There’s also the fact that one of the characters reveals early on that all the problems of humanity have been solved. People come to this amusement park in order to feel danger once again, even though it is both manufactured and imagined.

Like Star Trek, this show features advanced technology and humans with apparently little to no need to work in order to support themselves. Unlike Star Trek, however, there is clearly still a currency system and a class gap. Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) admits that he had to allow business-type people to come in and market his work for profit because he was running out of money to accomplish his dreams. It’s also mentioned that only the very wealthy can afford to attend the park. Perhaps the most jarring is the way the androids are treated. We don’t even really have to ask ourselves how the park “Hosts” would be treated if they were in Star Trek. Watch practically any episode of The Next Generation or later and you’ll see how they treat non-sentient programs on the holodeck. Sometimes they engage in combat with the simulations, but it’s always very clear that those are simulations and the organic beings are never even close to as wantonly cruel or destructive as their Westworld counterparts. Also, the moment one of them looks like it might somehow be gaining sentience a Star Trek crew will attempt to help nourish this new life. The moment a character appears to even slightly deviate from their programming in Westworld they are ruthlessly erased and destroyed or put in deep storage.

General character SPOILERS for the first season coming next.

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Logan (Ben Barnes) spends the majority of the first half of the season trying to convince his friend Billy (Jimmi Simpson) that coming to Westworld helps you discover who you really are. Logan wantonly kills androids to get his way and taunts Billy about Billy’s unwillingness to have sex with any of the androids until Billy finally does at which point Logan tries to make him feel guilty for it. Not a nice dude, in other words. The Man in the Black Hat (Ed Harris) also shamelessly abuses, kills, tortures, and disparages all of the Hosts he comes across and talks about how Westworld shows you who you really are. These gents both seem to think that “Who people really are” means discovering that we’re all actually cold-blooded murders who get off on hurting defenseless people. This is pretty much the exact opposite of everything Star Trek would like you to believe about humanity and its future.

So the question then becomes, what actually is a utopian future? The strict dictionary definition is that a utopia is a society in which everything is perfect. This, clearly, is not possible in reality. It’s not even how things work in Star Trek. So a “real” utopia would have to allow for some problems. What kind of problems are still allowed for a utopia? Does Westworld meet that definition? If everyone is fed, everyone has shelter, but is just bored unless they’re wealthy enough to afford this virtual reality park is that a bright enough future to be classified as a Utopia?

The idea of technology and freedom from the daily grind to survive are certainly utopian concepts but the continued evilness or at least aggressive disinterest on the common good of humanity is far less so. Many would probably argue that it is more “realistic” than Roddenberry’s vision, and they might have a point. Read a few articles about scientific advancement and you’ll see that we’re not nearly so far off from androids as you might have imagined. At the same time, the Southern Poverty Law Center says there are no fewer than 917 organizations classified as “Hate Groups” in the United States, alone. Still.

Some articles about scientific advancement definitely have the ring of the famous Ian Malcolm quote from Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In just the realm of video games, we have companies filing patents for tech to trick gamers into spending their money on microtransactions while other groups like Scientific Revenue are popping up. Microtransactions themselves have quickly moved to a gambling model despite the fact that many would consider that a predatory tactic. The technology advances ever on, but if you ask a scientist or engineer about the possibility someone might misuse their knowledge or invention they often use the Qwi Xux defense, “That’s not what it was intended for and it’s not my fault if someone uses it that way.”

Westworld may serve a more realistic look into a possible utopian-esque future. If so, then it directly tells us that providing for the body alone is not enough, there must be food for the mind – something that actually holds true even today and needs to be accounted for in our own society. It also would seem to indicate that even a utopia may not be a self-maintaining, self-perpetuating force. Humanity will have to learn to outgrow petty feuds, classism, and egotism if it could ever hope to cultivate such a society over the long term.

The Orville is a good show, you guys

Seth Macfarlane’s humor is a turn off to many but the show is legitimately, surprisingly good.

Rumor has it that Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane went to Paramount Studios, the owners of the rights to Star Trek and pitched them on him writing, directing, and starring in a new Star Trek series. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his previous creative efforts and how little they had to do with the iconic franchise, they told him no.

So, Seth MacFarlane being Seth MacFarlane, he went and did it anyway on a rival network.

MacFarlane actually has a fairly extensive history with Star Trek to the point that he has an entire entry on the Memory Alpha WikiThe Orville started advertising roughly the same time as Star Trek: Discovery began putting out trailers but it was advertised as more of a Star Trek spoof or parody than anything else. It was hard to see how it would be particularly good. This was especially true considering it was a science fiction show on Fox and given that it would be competing with a REAL Star Trek, even if that one could only be found on CBS’ streaming service.

But when the show first aired I decided to give it a go, based on the advice of TV and video game writer Erik Kain. The show, as it turned out, was not a parody or spoof. It was a dramedy that very much remembered what Star Trek used to be like in the 60’s and 80’s, in particular. Everything from the musical cues to the color scheme of the ship’s interior and exterior to the lighting used throughout the show is extremely reminiscent of particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show features a lot of the representation and tackles the social issues I mentioned ast week that have always been keys to Star Trek. The primary difference between this show and what has come before is that it does feature some of MacFarlane’s trademark humor.

I know a rather large number of people who have completely refused to watch the show because they don’t like MacFarlane’s humor, and I have to admit I’m not his biggest fan, either. But the show so lovingly represents what Star Trek: The Next Generation would look like if it were created today that I have no problem  looking past the moments where the “humor” shows up – and it isn’t as often as you might imagine.

The crew features a near direct rip-off of TNG‘s Data in the form of Isaac, a humanoid android who wishes to learn more about humanity. MacFarlane twists the character a bit by making it clear that Isaac does not want to be human; he’s far superior to them and is simply studying them. He reminds them on a regular basis just how superior he is. Captain Ed Mercer has a unique relationship with his first officer, Commander Kelly Grayson. They were once married but got divorced when she cheated on him. This relationship could easily have become grating, but it’s actually strangely charming and sweet, most of the time. The two characters obviously care about each other and share a history but it doesn’t delve into cheap romance ploys though they butt heads, frequently, as people with long histories are wont to do.

Perhaps the most interesting characters are the Female Selay Security Chief, Lieutenant Alara Kitan, and the ship’s massive, Moclan second officer, Lieutenant Command Bortus. Kitan’s species is native to a planet with a very strong gravity well and so she is incredibly strong. Despite having such masculine trait she can be very stereotypically feminine at times without worrying about hiding it and represents an excellent example, along with Grayson, of positive femininity that doesn’t require women to give up their sexuality or act like men in order to be strong. Bortus, meanwhile, has the build of a Klingon but the reserved personality of a Vulcan. Neither of these traits prevent him from being in a homosexual relationship – shattering stereotypes of gay men who must be flighty or flashy.

The episode that absolutely convinced me that MacFarlane was serious about doing this Star Trek thing right was the third episode of the season and series, “About a Girl”.  This episode explored the gender spectrum in a thoughtful way that was reminiscent of the way Star Trek: Next Generation explored sexuality and gender in its fifth season episode, “The Outcast”. There were no childish jokes made at the expense of women or transgender people, but questions were asked and considered in a way that should cause anyone watching it to evaluate or perhaps re-evaluate their positions.

MacFarlane has also used his pull with Star Trek alums to include their talents in the show. Longtime Trek producer Brannon Braga has a similar role in The Orville, former Star Trek stars and directors Robert Duncan McNeill and Jonathan Frakes have directed. Voyager star Robert Picardo had a guest role which could easily appear again while Deep Space Nine supporting cast member Penny Johnson Jerald has a starring role as the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr. Claire Finn.

As previously mentioned the show isn’t perfect, MacFarlane’s humor does creep in from time to time; this primarily comes in the form of the ship’s helmsman and navigator frequently availing themselves of childish hijinks but the rest of the crew actually avoids it for the most part. Which isn’t to say the rest of the crew isn’t funny, they’re just…well, actually funny when the occasion calls for it. In “About a Girl” Bortus becomes depressed over the future of his child and despite being a large, reserved male he finds himself sitting on a couch eating ice cream and watching sappy movies. The best joke might have been from the series pilot, however. As Mercer is introducing himself to the senior staff upon taking command of the USS Orville and comes to Dr. Finn:

Ed Mercer: Dr. Claire Finn. You’re my chief medical officer, yes?

Dr. Claire Finn: Yes, sir, I am. Welcome aboard.

Ed Mercer: Your credentials are exceptional. Molecular surgery, DNA engineering, psychiatry. You could be posted on a heavy cruiser. What are you doing on the Orville?

Dr. Claire Finn: I always request my transfers based on where I think I’m needed. I feel more stimulated that way.

Ed Mercer: So what made your request this ship?

Dr. Claire Finn: Well, this is your first command, and I think you could use my help.

Ed Mercer: So you think I might screw up.

Dr. Claire Finn: No, sir, I didn’t say that, sir.

Of course, MacFarlane attempts to ruin this great back-and-forth – which I read as a reference to her resume as an actor from the REAL Star Trek compared to his fake show – with a childish reference to male genitalia:

Ed Mercer: Well, no, but you implied that you don’t think I have the balls to do this job.

Dr. Claire Finn: Well, I am your doctor, sir, and if your balls are under par, I’ll know.

But the good doctor delivers this line so well that is somehow ends up working.

For those who wonder how this show and Star Trek: Discovery can coexist I offer you the following images:

Notice how, despite the lens flare in the image from Star Trek: Discovery, the one from The Orville is much brighter? This holds true of pretty much everything. Good TV Shows and movies tend to use lighting to accent the mood and and tone of the show, Discovery has grown into an excellent Star Trek show but it continues to be dark and to focus on some depressing – though very important! – topics. The Orville, on the other hand, has a lighter touch – even when it isn’t being funny. These shows couldn’t work together better if it had been planned; they offer up Star Trek experiences with different themes and stories in ways that complement each other rather than competing. They even have different story-telling structures; Discovery has a serialized structure where each episode contains a chapter of the story while Orville features an episodic style.

The first season of The Orville was truncated to twelve episodes and has already been completed. However, a second season has been ordered. Any fan of science fiction shows on Fox can attest that this is already a massive victory for this show. Here’s hoping that it can continue to grow and mature into something more and more fans of Star Trek and optimistic science fiction can enjoy.