I happened to see a bit of the first Harry Potter movie on TV the other day.  It was about as I had remembered: too faithful to the book, to the point where it got dull.  (An explanation of the rules of Quidditch is funny and entertaining on the page.  On the screen, it is boring.)

For whatever reason, I decided to also watch the last Harry Potter film as well afterwards–mostly just to see how the cast aged.  But what I noticed, due to the discussion of color in my last post, was how different everything looked from the first film to the last.  I’m not talking the actors here–I’m talking about everything.

Apparently, Voldemort’s rise resulted in a change in how light is reflected.  The colors in the first movie–while still relying heavily on orange and  blue–were nonetheless fairly vibrant and distinct from one another.  By the last movie, everything looked completely washed-out and greyish brown.  It appeared that someone had applied a desaturation filter to everything except the magic spells.

I’m guessing they think they were doing a good job matching the darker tone of the story in the last movie by doing this.

They were wrong.

The movie was so visually uninteresting that it physically hurt to watch.  That’s not good film-making, and it’s not a good way of matching the tone of the story with the scenery.  It can be, sure; but it is not automatic.

The first Harry Potter film was by no means a triumph of cinema, but it was fairly decent visually. The last one was borderline unwatchable because of how uninteresting it looked. I might not have thought too much more about this though, except that I then happened to watch a couple scenes from the movie Apocalypse Now a few days later.  Now, I don’t think it’s an especially good movie, because the story doesn’t make any sense, but it does have awesome cinematography. If you couldn’t tell from the title, it is a rather thematically “dark” film as well, and yet the ending scenes where Martin Sheen goes to assassinate Marlon Brando have plenty of vibrant color.

Here is a still from the climax of Apocalypse Now:

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Here is a still from the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

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How is it that a picture of a camouflaged man standing in a muddy lake at night is more visually compelling than a wizards’ duel?

Great article by Rosie Cima about why Hollywood movies tend to have an orange and blue color palette: http://priceonomics.com/why-every-movie-looks-sort-of-orange-and-blue/

I first noticed this with video games, when Shamus Young pointed out how Mass Effect 3 overused this palette.  Once you notice it, you realize it’s everywhere and it makes it hard to watch modern movies. 

For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis.  The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.

It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes.  Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.

It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it.  That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them.  Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill.  It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.

One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”.  This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless.  And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”.  I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out.  The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs.  Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.

I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people.  I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.

Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.

10 years after its release, Obsidian Entertainment’s first game still fuels discussion. (Image via Wikipedia-Fair Use)

This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush.  Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood.  Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.

10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released.  And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations.  Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.

This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned.  The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent.  Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.

And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.

Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas.  Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.

So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?

In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family.  The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books.  (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)

The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches.  Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”

Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games.  A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.

Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good.  In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked.  But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.

In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.

But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour.  While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched.  There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content.  While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.

But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.

It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues.  Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual.  And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.

In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers.  In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”.  But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.

Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places.  As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”.  Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.

And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.

He explains his earlier comments:

The point about ‘Game of Thrones’… is that conscience and fear of judgement are entirely absent from the lives of all, and that this is most evident in the deeds of the most successful characters. Compare Hamlet’s self-torture over whether he can kill Claudius , when Claudius is at his prayers. Or the genuine horror of the English people at the alleged murder of the Princes in the Tower by Richard III.

Two things:

  • One, Hamlet was a fictional character written in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages.  Thus, his behavior is at best an indication of what Shakespeare thought a Prince would behave like, not what they actually did.
  • Two: okay, so the English were properly horrified. But I want to point out that Hitchens is undercutting his own point by bringing up the idea that Richard III would do that. Game of Thrones is about the medieval elite and their ruthless power grabs–just exactly like the real-life power grabs of people like Richard III, Henry II, Henry VIII and so on! He complains “conscience and fear of judgement are entirely absent… in the deeds of the most successful characters”, and yet, by his own showing, the most successful people in the actual Middle Ages were the same way! Nice guys, by most accounts, finished last in the Middle Ages.

Remember, I have no wish to defend Game of Thrones.  I’ve never seen it, and for all I know it may be the worst and most loathsome thing ever to darken a television screen.  I just have issues with Hitchens claiming that “the society it describes is far worse than the Middle Ages”.

[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]

About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.  Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book.  And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.

As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film.  And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best.  That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.

To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much.  It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it.  So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo.  But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying.  And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.

It was never clear to me what the point was.  I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers.  Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad.  And so he does.

A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin.  In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives.  And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.

(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)

Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.

I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base.  While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically.  Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base.  It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.

(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”.  For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)

(Last aside: this post has too many asides.  One of them should be removed.)

I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch.  The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.

To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz.  Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal.  Then, in  Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did.  And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.

Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad.  And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!

Just kidding, that’s not the difference.

(more…)

A few months ago, for the first time, I got cable television.  Seeing the college football bowl games was nice, but apart from that, I have not found a lot worth watching. The only things I watch much that aren’t over the air are C-SPAN and the History Channel.

It was on the latter that I saw a program called “Ancient Aliens”.  (On the former, one may only see modern imbeciles.)  It is about the “ancient astronauts” hypothesis, which supposes that aliens visited humanity some time in the past.  The episode I saw was about the idea that the Norse Gods were in fact alien beings who visited the vikings.

It’s both an amusing and an annoying show. Annoying because it couches everything in the following way (Not a quote, just a paraphrase):

Could it possibly be that Thor was actually real, and the stories of his fantastical hammer are true?

I kept waiting for someone to say, “well, you can’t actually disprove it, but it’s extremely unlikely.”  But no one ever did.  All they did was keep saying non sequiturs, like “well, we modern humans certainly can build things as powerful as the legends say Thor’s  Hammer was.”  They seem to be implying that this suggests Thor’s Hammer was a thing, when Occam’s Razor suggests it means that modern humans can make stuff the vikings could only imagine.

(Interestingly, I saw another program on the History channel about the Nazis and their interest in the occult and mythology. It claimed that SS leader Heinrich Himmler believed in similar ideas of the reality of such artifacts from Norse mythology. That program  treated this as evidence of just how completely insane Himmler was.)

As I said, the show was kind of amusing, and it’s a cool idea for science fiction writers to play with, even if it’s a bit of a cliche at this point.  But it was presented as a very plausible idea, not as a wild theory based on largely on “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

It reminded me of the radio show Coast-to-Coast AM, and lo and behold, I see from Wikipedia that George Noory, host of that program, was in a few episodes. Both programs are rather entertaining in their way, and yet there is always the lingering fear that some people, somewhere may take them as established fact.

In a strange coincidence with Thingy’s post, there was some kind of Jimmy Stewart marathon on TV yesterday. I saw the end of Anatomy of a Murder and then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I won’t comment much on Anatomy, since I didn’t see the whole thing, but what I did see was superbly acted.

The same was true of Mr. Smith. I knew the basic plot going in: A naive everyman goes to Washington and ends up fighting corruption in the Senate. The details are that the naive everyman is a Boy Scout Ranger leader who wants to establish a “Ranger”  camp on a piece of land in his state.  but the land is reserved for a graft scheme being run by Senator Joe Paine, Smith’s mentor, and the powerful political interests in his state.

As the political interest groups try to destroy Sen. Smith, Sen. Paine and the rest of the political machine fabricate evidence to have him expelled from the Senate.  It culminates in the famous filibuster scene, where Smith talks for nearly 24 hours to hold up the bill. (Aside: How different would the current political scene be if Senators had to abide by the strict filibuster rules that Mr. Smith did?)

Finally, Senator Paine is so overwhelmed by Mr. Smith’s last impassioned plea before collapsing on the Senate floor, that he admits to the whole corrupt scheme and Smith is vindicated.

As I said, the acting is excellent. Jimmy Stewart is naively earnest without ever being annoying, and his exhausted speech at the end and witty comments throughout his filibuster are quite good.  Jean Arthur is excellent as the cynical but  good-natured Senate secretary who helps Smith learn the inner-workings of Washington.

Harry Carey is very likeable in the minor role of the bemused President of the Senate.  Edward Arnold is excellent as the jolly-but-heartless corrupt political boss. (Interestingly, Wikipedia says Arnold was actually considered as a possible Republican Senate candidate in the 1940s.)

But the best performance I think is that of Claude Rains.  I’ve written before about what a great actor he was,  and he is excellent as Senator Paine. He does a great job being both a corrupt career man who tries to rationalize compromising his principle, while still showing some genuine fatherly affection for Mr. Smith, that sets up his admission a the end.

The Senate was apparently not terribly thrilled with the movie when it came out.  They felt it would cause people to lose faith in the institution.  I’m guessing the most stinging part for wasn’t the over-the-top villainy of Boss Taylor, but rather Paine’s melancholy speech to Smith about how, in order to serve and do good for their state, he had to “compromise” certain things.  It’s a good speech, because he clearly means it as honest advice, but at the same time, it’s almost like he’s trying to persuade himself.

Ever since the movie came out, various politicians tried to paint themselves as “the real-life Mr. Smith.”  The “earnest outsider” card has been played too many times to count.  But the thing is, the whole fantasy of the movie is that someone like Smith could ever get to Washington.  (It requires a coin flip landing on “edge”.)

But the truth is, there are no Mr. Smiths in Washington–just endless, competing Senator Paines.

scary story

At this time  of year, I like to read scary books, watch scary movies, and play scary games. With that in mind, what follows is a list of some of my favorites of each type. I think I’ve blogged about all of these individually before, but I decided to compile them into a list for a convenient reference.

  • The Haunter of the Dark, by H.P. Lovecraft.  My favorite Lovecraft story.  I don’t know what it is exactly, but something about the setting, and the mysterious pull of the distant church that draws the protagonist’s eye really works for me.  I feel its one of his best for not over-explaining things.
  • The Omen, directed by Richard Donner. (1976) The scariest movie I have ever seen, and the only one that’s ever kept me awake at night. The opening music is, as I’ve said before, absolutely chilling.
  • Green Tea, by Sheridan Le Fanu. There are other good stories–notably Carmilla–in the collection “In a Glass Darkly”, but this is the one that stuck with me.  I like the idea of overdosing on a commonplace drink causing someone to be haunted.
  • The “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” level of Half-Life 2. I’ve been critical of this game in the past, and even this level has its flaws.  Nevertheless, I have to give Valve credit for putting a survival-horror level in the middle of what is otherwise a sci-fi action game. That’s a great way to do horror: drop it in where the audience isn’t expecting it.
  • The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. The best example of a “weird tale” I have ever read.  It’s so good that I recommend it even though only the first four of ten stories are actually in the horror genre. They are that good.  “The Repairer of Reputations” is particularly memorable.
  • The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. (1963) This is cheating a bit, since it’s based on a book.  But the movie is very good.  I didn’t like it when I first saw it, but it’s an acquired taste, and after repeated viewings I came to appreciate how subtle and ambiguous it is.
  • Quake. In terms of game play, this is just a Doom knock off, which means it’s basically all fighting and no suspense.  How does it get on this list, then? Two things: the artwork, though primitive by today’s standards, is very atmospheric and ominous.  And the intriguing level names, like “The Haunted Halls” and “The Tower of Despair” evoke a more subtle fear and deserve better than the mediocre gameplay within.
  • Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. Did you think I could get through ten whole things without mentioning Gilbert and Sullivan?  You must be new here. Anyway, yes; this is technically a comic opera.  That doesn’t make the scene of the paintings coming to life or the Wagnerian “Ghosts’ High Noon” any less creepy. Gilbert complained that Sullivan’s “ghost music” was too scary for a comedy.  He was right–and that’s why it works.
  • The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce. Horror is what you don’t see and don’t understand.  This story probably packed a bigger punch when it was first written; the concept is old hat at this point.  Nevertheless, it’s still effective.
  • Spec Ops: The Line. I thought long and hard about whether to put this game on here.  Unlike everything else on this list, it contains no supernatural elements… or at least, no overt ones.  And also unlike everything else here, it is in no way “Gothic”.  But it is very dark, very disturbing and above all, a prime example of psychological horror.  It does share certain storytelling elements with The Haunting and “the Repairer of Reputations” and is just bizarre enough that I decided to include it.

A guy I know once told me that he thought Star Trek: The Original Series was a “fascist” TV show.  I asked him to elaborate, and he listed me some reasons:

  • All the heroes are military personnel.
  • All of them belong to a socialist federation
  • They all wear uniforms that signify their rank within the rigid hierarchy.
  • The main hero, Capt. Kirk, is a Carlyle-esque “Great Man” figure. A masculine paragon of excellence, who often triumphs through a Nietzschean casting aside of Spock’s “logic” in favor of genuine emotion.

I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, but it’s a fascinating argument.  Of course, I made some counterpoints:

  • The Federation is clearly supposed to be a neo-liberal society, built on tolerance and understanding between different groups.  It is more like an idealized version of the United Nations.
  • The Enterprise’s goal is ostensibly exploration and understanding, not conquest.
  • The real “fascist” version of Star Trek was shown in the famous “Mirror, Mirror” episode, in which the war-like crew of the parallel universe Enterprise fit the Fascist bill much better.
  • Besides this, there at least two other episodes where they bump into copies of the original fascists and the most famous of the “modern day” fascists.
  • The show’s values were generally liberal and progressive, as evidenced by the diverse cast and certain moments like Kirk and Uhura’s kiss, which was very controversial at the time.

Naturally, I think my argument stands up better.  However, my friend’s idea is still kind of interesting.  After all, despite that “peace and understanding” stuff, the Federation did find itself at war with those swarthy foreigners, the Klingons, awfully frequently.  (I think it’s significant that they changed this for The Next  Generation.)

What was the deal with the Federation?  Were they just a bunch of nice guys, or was something more sinister at work?  Does upholding the virtues of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity except for the primitive and brutal “Others” still get you into the Tolerant Liberal Club, or does it put you in the Conquering Empire with Good P.R. Club?

Somewhere—I can’t find the exact quote, sorry—the radical libertarian Albert Jay Nock wrote that the people who opposed fascism and also supported a “league of nations” seemed to be saying that a drop of something was deadly poison, but a gallon of it was a miracle elixir.  What, Nock’s thinking went, was one-world government, a “league of nations”, if not authoritarian nationalism writ large?

Of course, Nock was wrong, at least in the case of the Earth.  For if there were a “one-world government” modeled on the United States, with each country being functionally equivalent to a State,  it would have no “Other” to make into its enemy.  It would not, as far as I can see, have the ultimate hallmark of a fascist nation: the racial or at a heritage-based class system.  This does not at all mean a one world government is a good thing, but it is not fascist.

But in Star Trek the Federation did not encompass all known sentient life in the universe, although it did seem that its doors were open to all who would join.   There were other systems of government and life-forms.  The Federation was just trying to… triumph over them.  Fascism!

There is an old quote I’ve seen attributed, probably incorrectly, to Huey Long: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be called anti-Fascism!”  I suppose you could say that is what the Federation has done, since they are committed to freedom and tolerance… and will destroy anyone who isn’t.

The new Star Trek movie Into Darkness especially seemed to accentuate the fascistic element of the series.  The grey uniforms the cadets at Starfleet wear (especially the hats), and the warmongering admiral make it seem like it’s on its way to being the Evil Empire.