television

Star Trek is Not Progressive

Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.

Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)

But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.

Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.

Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.

And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.

Why Doctor Who is Better Than the Wire or Why Doctor Who is the Best Television Show of All Time

In honor of the just past 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and the final episode of 11th Doctor Matt Smith, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about why it's my favorite-ever television show, and specifically why I prefer to watch it than a more serious, feted drama like The Wire. (Though fundamentally, this essay could just as easily be called "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than Breaking Bad", "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than The West Wing", "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than Game of Thrones" or pick your highly regarded dramatic television show.) In fact, I'm going to make an argument that Doctor Who is the best television show that has ever been made.

Whither the MTV Generation?

Permit me a moment of self indulgent self reflection please:

It occurred to me the other day that the characters on How I Met Your Mother, Community, and The Big Bang Theory are roughly either the age I and most of my oldest friends are, or they're roughly the age of the leading edge Gen Y/Millenials who, now that they're mostly out of college, are now old enough and jaded enough to hang out with us in bars. And there's a recurring theme in all of these shows that seems to me more and more striking the more I think about it. That theme is of a group of ostensible adults who despite spending a fair amount of time in and around the trappings of adulthood, more or less are still living the crazed frenetic existences of our much younger days. This despite the fact that, as the HIMYM episode Murtaugh brilliantly pointed out, the characters in these shows are clearly "too old for this shit."

The Game of Thrones and Andy Rooney Criticism

There's a lot that can be said about the intensely stupid review of The Game of Thrones TV show that recently appeared in the New York Times. The three closing paragraphs highlight the problem pretty succinctly:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness [meaning the hot sex -- ER] has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Since the arrival of “The Sopranos” more than a decade ago, HBO has distinguished itself as a corporate auteur committed, when it is as its most intelligent and dazzling, to examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart: the Mafia, municipal government (“The Wire”), the Roman empire (“Rome”), the American West (“Deadwood”), religious fundamentalism (“Big Love”).

When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

There's a lot to unpack there; the sexism in the notion that girls don't like Tolkein and epic fantasy (I've met lots of girls who love that stuff, but I guess they're not in this author's book clubs), the weirdness in suggesting that boys don't like sex in their fiction so it must have been "tossed in" for the ladies (what?), and, of course, the epic genre snobbery in the notion that anything that isn't set in the "real" world is cheap. Because fantasy can't be, you know, good.

The important thing to note here, and the thing that a lot of people are, I think, missing, is that this is a perfect example of what I was talking about when I said mainstream reviewers had "long since abrogated their role as arbiters of taste by hewing to anachronistic and snobbish notions of literary worth that have relatively little relationship to what people actually look for and value in their fiction." The only difference is that here it's in television rather than prose. What we have here is an Andy Rooney style of criticism, a criticism that says "I don't get what these kids are into these days, I don't understand all this stuff and it obviously has no value." It's out-of-touch, snobbish and condescending, and reads like it's geared primarily to people past retirement age, clinging oh-so-desperately to their last-century, upper-middle-class bourgeois values.

And this is why it doesn't bother me one lick that the NYT put up a paywall recently. Why would I want to read that crap anyway? (For news, I'd rather go to BBC news and NPR.)

For the record

It is my completely objective and inarguable opinion that the series finale of Battlestar Galactica was a steaming pile of horse crap. That is all.