Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reviewing is Hard

One of the best and worst things about online Nerd/Geek Culture is the overwhelming desire to prove the things we enjoy are not simply enjoyable but intellectually challenging and socially responsible. There are masses of people out there who have built their very identities around being intellectual outcasts with a shared interest in popular genre fiction and proving oneself to be the smartest person in the room is a primal urge no matter what gender the fan. Part of proving yourself the smartest person in the room is proving that your intellectual diet is truly refined, that you are careful to consume only that cultural fare which nourishes the mind and spirit as befits the elite intellectual.

This is why we have things like the Fake Nerd Girl and tests for being a Real Fan. Because not only must our stuff be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed on a greater level. The identities of nerd and geek are based upon not only consumption, but on having superior brainpower over the jocks, the dudebros, the poseurs, the mainstream plebs who watch mindless mainstream fare and consume even our scifi without TRULY appreciating it. This is not mere junk food on your plate, as it is for them, it is a gourmet feast which can only be properly appreciated by YOU! The Geek.

Now don't take this opening to mean I'm turning my back on analyzing the minutia of the commercial franchises which I personally enjoy. Don't take this to mean that I think people in Geek Culture are thinking too much.

No, my problem today is that we're thinking too little.

Consider the Bechdel Test. We all know this one, though I doubt all of us have actually read the initial strip. It's based on a one page cartoon joke that is not really a conversation starter so much as something that hits you immediately with how true and bleak it is. It's a punchline, that's all. The conversation only comes after the initial shock over just how barren the wasteland of our culture truly is subsides and we start applying t to every movie we ever liked so that we can say "Ha! The original Clash of the Titans passes the test in the second act where Cassiopeia and Thetis's fallen head discuss Andromeda! That PROVES it was better than the remake!" (Disclaimer: I have not seen Clash of the Titans in over a decade, I only really remember that Andromeda didn't look Ethiopian and that Mechanical Owl was the coolest thing ever and I want one.)

And it grows from there freeing us of the need to analyze and consider the fiction we consume, it frees of the need to take this variable or that variable into account when discussing the work in cultural context with this simple, blessed formula:

[Conversation + (Named Female Character * 2)] - Man = Feminist

What a relief! To be freed of the responsibility of critical analysis without losing our intellectual identity! And Iron Man 3 passed, so it's okay to like it. And now I can go enjoy Pacific Rim without having to worry about accidentally thinking of an uncomfortable truth in our society.

Oh no! Pacific Rim failed the Bechdel Test. It must be limited. THAT'S the problem, it's limited. That's okay, I'll make a new test that we can now apply to everything. It'll go something like this:

(Goal – Woman)2 + (Determination – Woman)2 = Plot2

There, Pacific Rim is exponentially feminist.

Phew! That thinking was hard. But that's okay, I can apply this one to everything and then be free to make gifs.

Now, earlier when I pointed out that the Bechdel Test in particular was actually stopping us from thinking at this point rather than causing us to, I got a bazillion responses explaining to me that that wasn't the original point. (That's right, the original point was to get a laugh out of the Dykes to Watch Out For audience.) I get told its still a useful tool, that it's great for pointing out longterm trends, that it's limited but that's okay, that it shows that the screenwriters STILL aren't thinking et cetera et cetera.

No. It WAS a useful tool when it was new. But that didn't last long. That's not how its mostly used and you know it. It's used to argue that your opinion about a work of art is objective reality, as a simple rule that gives us a chance to argue our favorite movie is feminist. And in the area of the Internet where much of the discussion is about the role of women in fiction, being the Best Feminist is the same as being the Smartest Person in the Room.

We know what nerds can be like. Hell, we know what we can be like. There is this great desire to appear More Intellectual Than Thou. We all want to win the argument. We all want to be the smartest person in the room. We all want to have Reality on our side in any given dispute.

And if we can do that with as little actual thought as possible, all the better.

Just taking these rules and applying them to every fucking movie or TV show we see is not analysis. It's simple pattern recognition. We originally came up with up these rules because they are an easy way to introduce complex concepts like "Women are portrayed as revolving around men in fiction" to people who haven't discussed them before, but after having taken the intellectual shortcut once we take it again in another discussion and again and again until we're not really discussing anything of substance anymore, we're just trying to prove something is objectively good with math. And easy math at that. Just plug in the numbers in the formula. Simple calculations and counting that take a lot less work than actually thinking through all of the variables involved in a story.

We're trying to prove that we're the Smartest Person in the Room without having to actually think.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to break Star Trek

I've been on a Star Trek binge.  I rewatched most of TOS and TNG and found myself hungry for more stories specifically involving the TNG chars before I moved onto DS9 or Voyager so I started devouring the novels.

That's where I hit a bump.  (Spoilers ahead, I guess.)

It wasn't so much a matter of quality.  I like the earlier novels, set during the series and during the movies.  They are of varying quality.  But when I got into the current books I stalled, and it is not a reflection on the skills of the writer.  Instead, I find myself with the same problem I have with comics, a number of plot decisions seem at odds with what to me is the core appeal of Star Trek.

I do not have this problem, by the way, with the Abrams reboot.  Nor do I have this problem with Star Trek Online, which I started playing after I read Needs of the Many and realized the sort of stories I hoped for might be in the game.  It turned out to be true, and I'm greatly enjoying the Star Trek Online missions even though that setting is overall darker than the novels or DS9 ever was. So it's not tone or traditionalism.

I've only read a couple of the modern novels, honestly (and I have serious thoughts on Needs of the Many vs the Cold Equations trilogy, not the least of which is STO did it better in two chapters), but I just don't have the interest to read the rest.  Why?

Because the Andorians have left the Federation.

I've never been particularly crazy about the Andorians, though they are the most interesting looking of the TOS aliens and they've been no small source of humor in the franchise.  Until I played STO, I never had a favorite Andorian character or really took an interest in them.  The problem isn't the option of losing them, or never seeing an Andorian used again.  The problem is this is a founding planet of the United Federation of Planets.

Which is probably why they did it.  It was a species that wasn't developed until Enterprise, and most people reading TNG books would probably have no problem letting go of things attached to Enterprise.  It's a species that developed--through one appearance and a bunch of side comments over the years--into the volatile faction of the Federation, the Johnny Storm role of the Federation founders Fantastic Four.  From everything I've read, getting them to the table and in the treaty that formed the Federation was a major triumph of the series.  They were probably much more likely than the Tellarites (also never developed until Enterprise) to take their toys and go home for whatever reason the series came up with and when I first read this development I went "Okay, this'll be temporary" and reserved the intention to at least read the Titan book I saw it in and maybe seek out where it happened.

But I didn't.

Instead, I got to thinking about this idea and I realized that even without an attachment to the Andorians, this was a franchise breaker.  It's a founder planet.  This isn't like the Abrams reboot where a founder planet gets destroyed.  This is a founder planet storming off for some ridiculous political plot.  And it hurts the Federation to have that happen.  Not just hurts it in a plot way, but in a theme way.

Here's the thing about Star Trek.  The thing I love about Star Trek that I saw alive and well through all five series and through the Abrams reboot.  It is a series about teamwork.  The central characters are the crew of the ship or the station, and they are from not just different walks of life but different PLANETS and cultures.  They share a common goal, and bring their strengths to the table to overcome whatever the problem is whether it's shallow action like some of the movies or diplomacy and negotiation like the TV shows.

The crew of the starship or station, of course, is a microcosm of the larger organization, the United Federation of Planets, which is different cultures bringing their strengths together to overcome the problems of living in a hostile universe.

And it strikes me especially right now, in this pop culture landscape, that this remains the main theme of Star Trek. The Federation is a wholly idealized version of a government.  It was not built on the blood and tears of the oppressed with backtracking after it got powerful. (Or was it?  I haven't watched much of Enterprise but I don't think they strayed that far from the theme.)  It was built on acts of communication and cooperation.  It was built when the Vulcans landed and befriended the humans, and the two made peace with their other closest neighbors and eventually they formed a team.

And that team grew in strength and number through extending the olive branch rather than the phaser rifle to the new species they encountered, until it became one of the largest factions in the Galaxy.  We meet six major political powers in the Milky Way over the years in Star Trek. (And don't you dare "You Forgot.." me by bringing up one-episode wonders or enemies from the books, I'm talking series-long, season-long and multiple movie villains here.) Six major organizations that run massive parts of the galaxy:  The Borg, the Dominion, the Cardassians, the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Star Empire, and the United Federation of Planets.  Each of them, aside from the Federation, are conqueror powers.  They go in, they overcome with threat or force, and they take over. That's how you join those groups, you get taken over.  The Federation simply does not do that.  Hell, the Federation's NUMBER ONE RULE and plot device is not to do that.

The Federation comes in, says "Hi, wanna trade or work together on this problem?" and leaves open an invitation to join their club once they've all gotten to know each other a bit.

And those of you rolling your eyes at it being because the Federation is a bunch of good guys or its about the demonization of Russians/whatever US enemy you're telling me the bad guy represents are missing the point.  (You're also being far too superficial about the villains, because while there is no denying yellow peril and anticommunist propaganda in the series there's no doubt to me that each and every bad guy in Star Trek ultimately represents the same thing as the good guys do, humanity and its potential.  They are our vices while the Federation worlds are our virtues.)

The point is, there is one major galactic power in the Milky Way that got that way by cooperation, empathy, and teamwork.  That is the entire point of the series, that we are all stronger when we work together than when we try to get ahead at the expense of others.  That's why the Federation (cooperation) wins against brute force (Klingons), dark intrigue/espionage (Romulans), fear and terror (Cardassians), mindless conformity (Borg), and whatever the Dominion (which seems to be so bad it encompasses multiple concepts of terror and force) represents.   Because it's the triumph of the people who work together over the people who manipulate/force.  The Federation is the biggest badass in the Galaxy, they are a POWER because they are peaceful, empathetic, and cooperative.

And that doesn't mean I think the Federation needs to be perfect for Star Trek to work.  Vulcans are often dicks.  Betazoids need to learn some discretion.  Humans have to constantly fight their dark sides, witness how many TOS plots are about Kirk getting swept up in the emotions of battle and needing to be stopped from getting into it with the Klingons (He had problems with them LONG before the Search for Spock) or the trouble that comes from Dr. Crusher being stubborn and judgmental, or any of the heavy themes involving the crew.  I love the idea of Section 31 and the copious use of the Mad Admiral/Ambassador as a bad guy.

But at the end of the day, despite the dark points and the temptations and the individuals who lose their way, the team itself, the Federation, endures and stands as a moral beacon: that working together is the way to go.  That everyone is safe from the threats of the universe if everyone is allowed to develop their strengths and bring them to the table.

It is a disgustingly pollyannaish message for many of us, I'm sure.  But it is the dream, it is what makes Earth a utopia in Star Trek.  It is the point of the series, and why we had characters representing not just North America and Europe but Asia and Africa in the original series.  It's why they brought a Russian in as a main character during the Cold War.  It's the damned point of the series, the underlying theme.

And it is severely undermined when the powerful world that pulls out of the Federation is one of the founding members.

Honestly, it may hurt it more because Andoria from all indications I've seen sounds like the Big Get of the original Federation charter, the species that was the least willing to throw in with a bunch of aliens but who were brought to the table by repeated acts of peace and faith.

I know, like with Wonder Woman dating Superman, the writers probably thought that the galaxy-shattering aspect of a FOUNDING PLANET leaving the Federation and maybe even allying with an enemy would be a huge plot device that would shake everything up and I'm sure it does.  I'm sure it's fascinating to read.  But I think, like with Superman and Wonder Woman, it does too much harm on a thematic level to make the experiment worth it.

So that's why I find myself uninterested in the current line of novels, even as I am obsessed with the new movies, the old novels, the video game (which has Andorians all over the place) and the TV episodes.