Blogging has not been much on the agenda as you may surmise from the roughly three and a half years since my last post.
The good news is that this blog's loss has been my gain, in that much of my free time has been taken up with an ongoing D&D 5e campaign, developing some fan materials for 13th Age Glorantha, and starting to play Fading Suns on a livestream archived on YouTube (first episode here: https://youtu.be/0dYgGWKrvok).
Of course, the world is going through a pandemic at the moment, so a blog about games, books and geekery is either the most trivial or the most important thing to come back to at the moment.
One thing that I have gotten back to is catching up on the latest in Star Trek.
When last I left Star Trek, it was a sadly descending in quality movie franchise in the parallel JJ Abrams' Universe. I enjoyed the first reboot and thought it had promise, and the series progressively spent all the goodwill from that movie on lesser and lesser movies until there appears that there is no more Abramsverse series left (but who knows? Hollywood does strange things).
I still never finished Voyager and never really started Enterprise, so what kind of Trekkie can I claim to be?
But like any good fan, I have opinions. I think I am probably strongly in the orbit of the folks at Ex Astris Scientia (http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/) which is a beautiful labor of love and love letter to all things Trek. Like any good fan, I have my own quirks and personal biases, but if we divided into camps, I would likely be in the neighborhood of Ex Astris 95 times out of 100.
So, much like is much better and more thoroughly explored at Ex Astris, I have many criticisms and concerns about Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek Picard.
NOTE SPOILERS BEAMING IN BELOW
They don't destroy my childhood or ruin Star Trek for me. I checked and favorite episodes like "The Doomsday Machine" (TOS), "Yesteryear" (TAS), and "Blood Oath" & "Way of the Warrior" (DS9) are still there. But they raise many issues for me, and even to the point of spending time awake at night sorting out my feelings and their source.
I was introduced to Star Trek, the original series, by my father. He took me to a Star Trek convention when I was nine, and we saw Gene Roddenberry give a talk. I watched the Animated Series as a kid, I watched all the Star Trek movies up through First Contact in the theater. I played the old FASA Star Trek Role Playing game with my friends. I was out of the country the first year that TNG was out, but my mother had a friend who had taped (yes, VHS) all the episodes, and when I returned from my college Junior Year Abroad I binged all of them (before binge watching was really a "thing").
Life got complicated and I lost the thread for following Star Trek closely in about season 4 of Voyager (a show I generally enjoyed, but not as much as I had liked DS9) and I completely missed Enterprise.
So, when the new movies came, I thought they might likely be terrible, but I hoped they would be good.
I am a person who still found things to like about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier after all, though I'm not sure I could sit through it again (there are also a lot of terrible things about it and it is in the nature of "bad" Star Trek, like "Spock's Brain").
The new parallel universe movies were a mixed bag, but they did scratch some of my Star Trek itch.
I waited on the sidelines as Discovery came out, and I did not follow it too closely, though I heard the rumblings of some discontent, particularly with the first season.
The intersection of the first season of Star Trek Picard being out and 30 days of free CBS finally drew me in.
I watched Picard first, and then went back and made it through all of season 1 Discovery, and I will probably pay my 10 bucks so I can make it through season 2 over the next 30 days (I have to episodes under my belt).
So, what is my beef?
There are a hundred details and concerns, but I will try to distill them into a few substantial critiques. Up front I will say that, overall, the casting is quite good and the acting is good. My criticism is heavily focused on writing, production and vision.
Discovery: The production of this show is ambitious, but its reach FAR exceeds is (sometimes feeble) grasp. I can tell that it got better in Season 2 (and hey, it is Star Trek and I am going to watch it), but getting better is a low bar from Season 1.
Examples: Design and continuity. Knowing that they had decided to place a new series squarely in a defined period of Star Trek, between the setting of the original pilot, "The Cage" (2254) and The Original Series (2265), with Discovery beginning in 2256. This is deliberate placement to take advantage of know characters as an era that has a lot laid out, and yet more too that could be filled in. So far, I have seen them bring in Sarek, Amanda, Harry Mudd and Christopher Pike, and it seems clear too that they will have Spock and perhaps other greater or lesser characters who appeared in the original source material.
Making the conscious decision to be in an era that has a defined arc, look and beloved characters well known to people who know Star Trek intimately, as well as things that casual viewers have picked up, they decide to chuck continuity, themes and visuals all out the window.
I have seen defense of this as "updating" for a "modern" audience and other such shallow and intellectually bankrupt dodges, but basically, they did not want to be shackled to working within what was established.
So, why in the world lock themselves into a "room" with such constraints? It certainly wasn't for the challenge of it, because they just burn that room down and do whatever they heck they want. New uniforms, new ships, new ship sizes for old ships, new important character histories and character actions that MAKE NO SENSE.
I realize, it would be really cool to have a character who was Spock's foster sister. Totally cool concept. But it does not really work the way they have done it. So far, they just make Spock look like a jerk (admittedly, I am not far into Season 2). Also, while the central character, Michael, always seems to know the answers, she does not present a very Vulcan. This is again the writers and producers creating a constraint, and then finding it inconvenient and rather than letting ANY constraint force them to creativity, they just ignore it.
Sarek endorses a plan which is certainly a war crime, and described as genocide, though I don't actually think the writers understand the concept. I am sorry, but in no universe does that make any sense (and don't get me started about Mirror Sarek; how is he a rebel, yet his son serves the empire, which is supposed to be so racist (a relatively new concept introduced into the mirror Terran Empire, but, after all, nowadays, no one is a villain worth his or her salt unless racism is a component) but nonetheless, Spock serves on the IKS Enterprise and eventually has enough influence to overthrow the empire (though only then to be conquered by a coalition of Klingons and Cardassians, but the Klingon homeworld was destroyed by the empire and gee that was a lot of back story to be aware of and we did not really care, we just wanted to plot things the way we wanted to and nobody cares, blah blah, modern audience).
So, beloved characters strangely portrayed through the fun house mirror. I mean, Harry Mudd? I say that Rainn Wilson absolutely chews the scenery with what he is given to work with, but when was Harry Mudd such a murderous psychopath? Yes, a confidence man or little to no morals, but suddenly we needed him to be edgy and distinctly murder-y in order to be "believable" for modern audiences or whatever lie the writer's room was telling itself.
They also have a really interesting seeming bridge crew, where they have created a seemingly more diverse and possibly interesting set of important officers, except that they are essentially forgettable furniture, with few lines, no spotlight, and almost no personality. It seems they try to repair this in S2, but I fear the ones they can't figure out how to write they will simply kill off, because they were a momentary check box, and when they become inconvenient (like visual, character, or thematic continuity) they will simply throw them away.
They just create uniforms that make no sense.
They create ships that look and feel nonsensical within the era THEY CHOSE to work in.
They seem absurdly pleased with getting their characters to say curse words. Forget Star Trek IV, where Captain Kirk had to work hard to speak in Colorful Metaphores ("Double dumb ass on you!") because society and protocol was such that they just used language better in the future. No "modern audience" can accept that. Besides, this is cable. We get to have the characters say "fuck."
Also, since this is cable, lets make sure to show, over and over and over, naked Klingon. Hey, Star Trek has really graduated. Screw you, however, many decades it's been of suggestion and no pay off. We have some really great Klingon nude prosthetic that we will show off over and over in "previously on": Klingon tits!
And worst of all, Federation society and Star Fleet just suck. Sure, the lone abandoned crew of the Discovery stands tall for the ideals of the Federation, but the message is, when push comes to shove, screw your near-Utopia Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana and the rest. We just don't really believe in it.
Yeah, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) is the slogan, but no organization of intergalactic peace, exploration and tolerance is really believable. It was all fine for the 1960s, but this is 2020 and we have a more realistic view of things, and we will put them in the mouth of a Starfleet Admiral (and back it up with Sarek having been on board) "We do not have the luxury of principles!" This is command in Starfleet? Maybe if it had been developed through more episodes to show the desperation and all that could be lost and truly that there were no alternatives, maybe. But the future that Star Trek showed us for decades was a society that, for all its problems, where it was not quite at Utopia, it was crawling closer, and the founding principles of the Federation were bedrock. A common and shared set of ideals across cultures that were the baseline. Surely, there were those who could depart, but just as universal healthcare, education, childcare, etc. is a given in Scandinavian countries, the Federation in its common principles does not depart from its ideals. That was the vision of hope given to us.
And Discovery (and, see below, Picard too) does its best to tarnish that. The BEST of the Federation (SAREK OF VULCAN) when pushed, trades away principle for survival. The Federation and Starfleet are just hollow, with just a few, like the Discovery Crew, really having internalized those principles. There rest, well we are given to understand, they are no better than us, in the 21st Century. They just had better propaganda.
All of this adds up to the worst arrogance and provocative self-dealing that really galls me. It is more convenient and more conceivable for the writers and producers to try to overwrite the original operating system of Star Trek with their cynical views, their flashy costumes, their vision of what Federation and Klingon ships and cultural items look like (OMG, don't get me started on the Klingons. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??!!!). To the people behind the scenes, making Discovery, working hard and doing something that they love, they just don't love Star Trek. They have appropriated elements and done something else. It is shallow and hollowed out and makes me alternately sad and mad.
It gets a bit better in Season 2 so far, but again, its a low bar, and their progress is inconsistent at best.
I will leave with this before a brief discourse on Picard.
In the first episode of S2 of Discovery, "Brother" they introduce a character, Evan Connelly. From the moment he appears as the Science Officer coming with Captain Christopher Pike, and he is not Spock, it is painfully evident that he will die. He is a white, cis, het, male, dude bro, and he is killed while mansplaining to our main character.
So, why care. Dozens of "Red Shirts" have given their lives to advance plot points in Star Trek. Who Mourns for Evan Connelly?
Well, despite his fantastic (otherwise) introduction, Captain Christopher Pike doesn't. Lt. Evan Connelly is the SCIENCE OFFICER on the USS ENTERPRISE. He has stepped up to fill the shoes of the legendary LT SPOCK, the first Vulcan in Star Fleet. Pike must have hand picked him for the role. Yet he first is portrayed as sarcastic and unjustifiably arrogant. It is all a setup to maneuver him to his untimely encounter with the asteroid while he is mansplaining (perhaps that is a point the writers want to make or maybe they thought it was hilarious; don't know, don't care). But the point is, rather than him having to scrub out of the mission, instead of learning a lesson of humility, or whatever. They just kill him AND NOBODY CARES. Christopher Pike, his commanding officer, a person who SHOULD feel his death as if he was that young man's father, is given not one moment to reflect on his death, to show his care for the crew under his command. Nobody is shown to care, which is the SAME as nobody caring, because if it does not happen on screen, it does not happen.
The writers thought it was more important to introduce Lt. Connelly, paint him as a jerk, and kill him, and then forget him, than to write something . . . good. Something that showed us important issues about the characters, Starfleet, the Enterprise, Discovery. Anything.
But no. Discovery is not yet that kind of show, if it ever will be.
Patrick Stewart is as close to a do no wrong actor as you get, particularly for Star Trek. When he is at his best, Star Trek is usually at its best.
But the show is uneven. Again, it goes to the lack of respect for a vision for the future, because the writers are not creative enough to put together a dramatic conflict without rewriting the DNA of the Federation.
What I think may be one issue is that the Federation and Star Fleet are also characters in Star Trek. You have to respect them as characters in order to write good Star Trek, and generally, neither for Discovery nor Picard, do the writers particularly respect those characters (or respect established characters in general, other than to serve their plot ends, rather than character ends).
The Federation again is not a near Utopia and Star Fleet isn't Star Fleet, and Picard frankly is not Picard. The show opens with Picard at the end of a 14 year funk after failing to marshal resources to rescue survivors from the destruction of the Romulan homeworld. Once he failed there, he just gave up.
Picard who came back from being Locutus of Borg. Picard who saw his own future and fought it. Picard who suffered torture under the Cardassians which lasted until he broke, but fate was kind enough to bring him out before that breaking make him give in. Picard who was the youngest cadet to win the Academy marathon. That Picard forgets all his friends, packs up his things and goes to die on his family Vinyard?
Well, that is the setup they need. The Federation and Star Fleet suck. Society in general sucks (see "Children of Mars" the most horrible, long music video of middle school still sucking in the 24th Century possible, and in 300 years, no better methods of running school exists).
And even elements from some of the best episodes suck. I mean, Riker and Troi allow their son to die. There is a simple treatment, but then the ban on androids means that the treatment is unavailable and The Federation sucks so much it lets children die of easily treated diseases because it can't have any little exceptions and Troi and Riker suck so much that they cannot, with their vast experience and connections, find any place in the known Galaxy to get a cure for their child and so he dies.
Because the plot really needs that dead kid.
There is more. The Romulans have thoroughly compromised Federation Security and Intelligence. The plot requires it.
The Romulan fanatics who live only to stop artificial life have worked lives, generations, to end the Soong androids, but when opposed by the Federation, they just leave. The plot requires it.
When Dr. Soong Jr. (not actually Junior) discovers that one of the androids lied in order to motivate the contacting of the artificial life coalition, and possibly unleash death on all biological life in the galaxy and there is a projectable recording of it, he just does nothing with it and fails to stop what is going on. The plot requires it.
There is more of this, and there are many writing sins, as well as writing and performance (and directing) accomplishments.
I am not trying to trash these series in toto.
But they are deeply flawed, in ways that make me sad and concerned for the immediate future of Star Trek (and don't get me started on the weird IP split, with CBS owning series rights and Paramount movie rights and that being a mess that has real creative impact, like not being able to portray Spock and the Vulcan response to the Romulan crisis). Will Star Trek continue? Yes, absolutely. Will it be any good? Sure, there will be good bits here and there.
But I feel like the current crop of creatives have lost faith, and having fallen from that, they have lost a vital spark for Star Trek.
They have things that they want to say with Star Trek, but they are just not very Star Trek things. I fear that they are not going to inspire the next generation of astronauts, space scientists or researchers the way the Trek of the past did. Star Trek used to be a unifier, and among other things, it feels divisive and broken now.
It makes me sad. But, it is Star Trek, so I shall ever watch it with hope.
A hope kindled in the breast of a nine year old.