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.

I saw Star Trek Into Darkness yesterday.  There is a plot twist of sorts in the movie, which a friend of mine spoiled for me, although I don’t think it detracted from my enjoyment.  But be warned, I will spoil it in this review.

Let me begin by stating that I–alone of everyone who saw it, as near as I can tell–didn’t much care for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I thought the first Star Trek movie was better, even though it was 50% exterior shots of the Enterprise doing nothing. Wrath of Khan was lame because the titular character was a completely over-the-top cartoon villain, constantly quoting literature for no reason.

I mention Wrath of Khan because this movie is practically a remake of it.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays a criminal who turns out to be none other than the alternate-universe Khan.  In the beginning, his Khan isn’t that different from his Sherlock Holmes–he’s a brooding man in black who hangs around London.  But he does a good job as the film goes on–in my opinion, better than Ricardo Montalban did in the role.

Anyhow, in the first part of the film, Kirk is relieved of his command of the Enterprise for violating the Prime Directive like he always does.  This lasts for about ten minutes until the criminal-not-yet-known-as-Khan kills the new Enterprise commander and Kirk is reinstated and sent on a mission to bring him to justice, by firing a mysterious new kind of photon torpedoes at him.

Alas, it develops that Khan has gone to a Klingon planet, and a Federation ship cannot go there without risking war.  Even so, one Admiral  Marcus tells him to do it anyway; war with the Klingons is inevitable.  So, Kirk and the Enterprise and a mysterious new crew member named Carol head off. Except for Scotty, who resigns because he doesn’t like the look of the new torpedoes.

They arrive at the Klingon planet, send a message to the fugitive that they will blast him with torpedoes if he does not surrender, and are then attacked immediately by (what else?) Klingons, who are in turn attacked by a mysterious hooded figure who is obviously Khan.

This is my favorite scene in the movie: Khan is not shone close-up or center frame, but appears silhouetted against a large glowing orange background firing his weapons at the Klingons and taking them down with ease. When they are all disposed of, he turns his attention to Kirk and asks “how many of those torpedoes are there?”  When the reply comes: “72”, Khan immediately says “I surrender.”

It’s a great scene, and very unnerving.  Here you have this obviously highly-capable villain who could easily take on the three people sent to capture him, and yet he is surrendering to them.  Normally in these action-adventure flicks, it’s the heroes who get captured by the villains at this stage of the game.

Unfortunately, the film goes downhill after that.  There are revelations that Admiral Marcus has been lying, trying to start a war with the Klingons, that Khan’s people are in cryogenic pods sealed in the torpedoes, that Marcus revived them for his war… bottom line, Marcus is a jerk, but Khan is ruthless and willing to harm innocents in his mad quest for vengeance.  After many explosions and lots of running, falling and punching, it all gets sorted out, with the heroes none the worse for wear.

Spock gets overly-emotional at the end.  It’s out of character, as is the romance between him and Uhura.  Dr. McCoy also does something unbelievably stupid when he neglects to save a sample of Khan’s miraculously regenerating cells.  They are an incredibly useful for medical purposes, and yet he barely pays them any mind?   Too often, the script uses clever one-liners at the expense of characterization.  There is also a pointless cameo by Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as original Spock.

Star Trek used to have a lot of talking, punctuated by the occasional fight.  These new movies are mostly fighting punctuated by banter.  It may be a bit higher-quality banter than you’d get in most sci-fi action movies, but still that’s what it is.

It’s a mildly entertaining film. Kirk is a good hero, and Khan is a good villain.  It’s a shame they don’t get to interact more, because what scenes they have are very well done.   I felt like there was more verbal sparring between Shatner and Montalban in the original than there was between Pine and Cumberbatch in this one.  If they had just remade the original more faithfully, shot-for-shot even, with this cast, I think it would have been better.

As the original Khan, literature student that he was, might have been moved to remark: “it is full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.”

“The fans are all upset. They’re always going to be upset. Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this? They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it.”–George Lucas

I was thinking a bit more about the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I may do a post later on with my thoughts on it specifically, but while I was thinking about it, the idea occurred to me that it was so disappointing because it was so anticipated.  Fans had years to think about how the Mass Effect series would end; and so whatever happened would likely disappoint them.  It is an intrinsically bad ending, don’t get me wrong, but its badness was amplified by how much everyone had been thinking about it.

The same thing happened, for me anyway, with the Harry Potter series.  A big plot point, discussed by fans and even used in the advance marketing of the last book was “is Snape good or evil”?  Everybody had two years to think about this question, and we all knew what was going to happen.  Even if you bet on the wrong outcome, chances were you’d heard alternate theories that turned out to be correct. It may have made it sell better to promote the debate, but it weakened the book’s dramatic power.

It’s hard to surprise your audience with twists when you are telling a story with long intervals between each installment.  The only way out is to not leave clues to what’s coming, but then the endings or plot twists will feel unsatisfying; like they just came out of nowhere.  The best plot resolutions have to have been logically set up beforehand.

Sometimes a writer can stumble on some good twist in the middle of a series.  For instance, few people see the famous twist in The Empire Strikes Back coming, unless someone has spoiled them on it.  I’ve heard that this is because George Lucas only decided to do it after A New Hope was released, so he hadn’t left enough clues to give it away before hand, but was able to satisfactorily retrofit his twist on to the second film with the vague setup given in the first. But he was very lucky.

Lucas also didn’t have the internet to contend with.  If he had, some random fan probably would have accurately guessed the ending by pure chance while speculating on some forum.  I see this as the inevitable fate of the Half-Life video game series: if they ever do release Half-Life 3, there is no way someone won’t have already guessed what the deal is with the G-Man and posted a huge essay about their theories to be discussed on some forum.

There’s no question that internet fandom has intensified this problem; for it enables like-minded people to interact and ponder their favorite series.  I don’t think this was as much of a problem before the internet, even though there were stories that appeared in installments in magazines and the like.

This problem is lessened a bit if you are not doing a sequel that directly continues a particular story.  J.J. Abrams was very smart to come up with the alternate timeline business for his new Star Trek movies, because it pretty much allowed him to do whatever he wanted.   And although it still does not really live up to its title, I think a lot of criticism from Fallout fans of Fallout 3 was blunted because it was set far away from the other games.  In other words, it’s easier to do a series that is a loosely-related group of stories in a certain setting or around a set of themes than it is to tell one coherent story over installments. And it’s easiest of all to just tell your story in one shot.  To bring us back to Mass Effect 3, I’m convinced that had they condensed the story of the whole series into one game–with the same endings–they would have gotten way fewer complaints.  On the other hand, they also would have made less money.

I see  that Electronic Arts has gotten the exclusive rights to Star Wars video games.  I remember another thing EA got exclusive rights to, and that didn’t work out so great…  but we’ll see.

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad news–for one thing, if I understand correctly, EA can still publish games that other developers make. To my mind, it could be good or bad.

I’ve been thinking about the Mass Effect series again, and how weirdly uneven it was for a trilogy that was supposedly mapped out in advance.  The first Mass Effect had a very interesting story, but the gameplay was a little wonky, at least to people like me who aren’t really familiar with RPG mechanics.  Combat in ME1 feels very awkward.

Then Mass Effect 2 streamlined the combat, making it much more like the popular Gears of War series.  The hardcore RPG people may disagree, but I think this made for a superior game, even if they had to mess with some established background information of the setting to make it work.  ME 2 is still my favorite in the series, even though parts of the story don’t make sense.  And I think it’s interesting that EA acquired BioWare between ME1 and 2, and in the latter, the game suddenly became much more  accessible to the average gamer.

But then you have Mass Effect 3, which had many well-known problems with its infamously unsatisfying endingBioWare insists that they had total creative control, so you can’t blame EA for the ending.  (Then again, the Illusive Man insisted he had control of the Reapers, too…) But in addition to all the in-game problems, it was criticized for forcing players to buy a bunch of additional stuff in order to get the “full” ending.  Again, it’s just interesting to me that there was no comparable marketing scheme for, say, BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2003) or Jade Empire (2005) or even the first Mass Effect (2007).

So, I think we have a pretty good roadmap already for what is going to happen to a beloved science-fiction franchise whose video games department is now being run by EA.  But wait!  There’s more!

Everyone thinks that this means Star Wars game will become increasingly Call of Duty-like, and you will see a lot of polished but simplistic games.  Pretty much everyone feels that the  Battlefront series or something like it will be making a comeback. And why not?  If EA can make something Star Wars themed that can compete with the highest-grossing game series in history, why wouldn’t they?

This isn’t so bad, really.  Battlefront was a fun game.  It’s just that I think everyone feels EA is just too big, and when a company gets that big, it’s hard for them to function the right way.  They can keep making money off of AAA blockbuster games for a while yet, but they can’t really innovate, because that involves risk. Which means we probably won’t be seeing any deep, philosophical,  Star Wars RPGs like the great Knights of the Old Republic II anytime soon.

But more than that, there are indications that EA is just generally mismanaged.  As Shamus Young says in that article, they are not running their company as well as they might, just from a pure business point of view.  However, I think their model is sustainable for the near-term future.  Star Wars has been popular since the 1970s–people will continue to buy any heavily-hyped game that ties with that franchise for a few more years.  This is where we see the similarity to EA’s NFL license monopoly–the NFL has been popular since the 1960s, and for those who play sports games, it’s the only show in town.

The difference, of course, is that the NFL, while not technically a monopoly is the only widely-watched pro football league in America. Star Wars is not the only major science-fiction franchise. There are still more of those to compete with Star Wars games.

That’s why I think the monopoly on Star Wars has a greater chance of blowing up in EA’s face than their NFL  monopoly–the latter is essentially a monopoly on a near-monopoly, because the NFL controls a huge amount of market share in the market for football.  EA is building off of that. But it’s different with the market for sci-fi games–it’s more of an oligopoly, with just a few competitors: Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on.

If we assume that consumers are indifferent as to which science-fiction franchise’s video games they choose to spend money on, this means there is still an element of competition in the market.  But, of course, not all consumers are not indifferent–they have preferences for franchises.  So, I want Star Wars to have the better video games, among other reasons, to show up the Trekkies. (Not that I dislike Star Trek, but still.) Branding is always very important in oligopolies.

The point is, this arrangement coupled with EA’s past problems with understanding different markets as mentioned in the Shamus Young article linked above and… well, the title of this post says it all.

I saw the original Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders” last night.  It’s about a city in the clouds populated by artists and thinkers who devote themselves to their pursuit of beauty.  It sounds pretty awesome at first, but it comes out in the episode that the reason they are able to do this is because they have a population of people who are effectively slaves doing all the hard work for them.

The plot resolution in this episode was confusing–it was one of the weaker episodes, in my opinion–but it was certainly an interesting concept. It reminded me of the Oscar Wilde essay in which he laid out his scheme for fixing the world:

The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

Wilde wrote that in 1891, and poverty and class-inequality have still not been abolished despite massive advances in technology. Of course, the people in the Star Trek episode had even less technology than was available in Wilde’s time, let alone what they ought to have in the 23rd century.  The slave people in the episode were mining some mineral by hand. How they had created a floating city with powerful anti-gravity technology but not yet invented the shovel, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was a make-work project.

But it’s still an interesting idea, inconsistencies aside.  Wilde knew it took work to build civilization, and that somebody had to do the unpleasant bits.  He was hoping to put that job off on machines, since it’s not cruel to make them do it.

This leads to another point.  Last week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the NYT entitled “A World Without Work”,  where he claims that it’s no longer as vital for people to work because of the nation’s great wealth.  As he writes “the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.”

Douthat is worried that this, though, because he fears that the very absence of having to work, being freed from the daily toil, will be harmful to people’s well-being.  It’s possible. Perhaps the very material security which is supposed to be the catalyst for civilization could instead bring about its stagnation, making people into idle dilettantes, who do nothing but write about science-fiction shows and generally have their heads in the clouds.

(Hat tip to Freddie DeBoer for the Douthat article.)