Friday, July 14, 2017

Trek: Prestige vs Commodity


Over the last few months I've watched a lot of episodic, 24 eps/season-type shows. Shows like The Murdoch Mysteries, Haven, Flash, and Elementary. Lately it's been Elementary that's my video wallpaper while I do color work on my comics and eat lunch and try to defend my living room from the constant influx of red-gray dust we get in the high desert. A few days ago I told my husband, "I think I actually prefer Elementary to Sherlock. I realize it's not as artsy and fancy but its characters' stories play out over a long period of time, which means they actually have more time to develop, which means I care more about them. It also has a sense of humor and it feels like it exists in a real world that's really well thought out and..." I kept going on this Pros/Cons monologue for a while and then today I found an article from said husband in my inbox. It was published in Wired and it's about the importance of "commodity SciFi" vs "prestige SciFi." It's a fantastic read and, since I've been thinking about the topic anyway and because it also made me think a lot about Star Trek: Discovery and the direction it's taking... here I am.



Since you're reading this blog I'm assuming you're a SciFi/Fantasy fan and/or some type of geek who isn't totally unaware of the fact that traditionally geek-ish tropes like dragons, zombies, robots, and super heroes are all being wheeled out for the consumption of people who like to think of themselves as high-brow. These shows win Emmys and public approval for their artistic take on traditionally pulpy themes/set pieces. And I've always had a bit of a thorn in my paw about them. It annoyed me that people who would turn their nose up at hobbits and wizards were more than willing to eat a full helping of dragons as long as it came with plenty of HBO-style drama. And folks who would never sit down to enjoy Supergirl or Batman: The Animated Series or Buffy will always pony up for superheroes as long as the heroes in question come with all the cable grit and grime we have come to expect from them.

Of course, this isn't always the case. I have plenty of friends who watch and love both LOTR and GOT, both Data and... whoever's a robot in Westworld. I myself loved Black Sails on Showtime and Strike Back on Cinemax. And, of course, I think all kinds of TV should exist for all kinds of people. If gritty serialization is your thing I hope you're dancing a jig at all the options currently available to you...just please do your best not to look down your nose at the all the people who rush to their TVs once a week, 20-25 nights a year, for a slice of their pie (which is bigger, btw, even if not made from top shelf, hard to acquire ingredients.)


And this brings me (nearer) to my point (I promise.) Star Trek has always been commodity TV. It's always been low-budget, cut-the-corners, rush-to-production, re-use the sets, re-hire day-players you can trust because you're screwed otherwise, how are we possibly going to make 24 of these again kind of TV. And... that's kind of awesome.

Here's why:
Aside from Star Trek being genuinely charming in spite (or because of) its traditionally low-budget and low-prestige rating, it's always had to push against its constraints and it's always had to push for a lot of episodes. But that's how innovation happens.

The Wired article mentions, and I've mentioned several times on this blog over the years, that Star Trek, like any genre show, reuses stories and tropes over and over. There's the memory wipe episode, the alternate-timeline episode, the fight club episode, the dream inside a dream episode, the conspiracy episode, the mistaken identity episode... etc etc etc. But that's alright. Because within those familiar tropes and stories is the ability to reveal character in surprising ways. And, because we've spent thirty or fifty or seventy episodes with those characters, those revelations mean a lot to us, the fans. I smile when the tribbles tumble out of the storage compartment, I cry when Picard plays his flute, I rejoice when Nog is accepted into Starfleet, I laugh when The Doctor sings about ponfar, I grin when Hoshi declares herself Empress. And I do these things because me, the writers, the crew, and the actors have all been through 43/176/173/168/94 episodes together.

And here's the other thing; notice how high the numbers are in the previous sentence? With commodity TV, episodes are produced on a weekly basis for about half the year, thus the approximately 20-26 episodes. After a while, this builds up, by the time you get to season three or four or five you've already done... everything. Well, at least it seems like everything. I've seen in various places that I don't care to google at the moment that writers/comics/artists come up with their best stuff after the first several tries. And the best writers/artists/comics are the people who don't settle with the first ideas that come out. Of course, if you're pushing out 24 episodes you kind of have to take the first great idea that comes along but once you're 40 episodes in you've run dry. Or, at least you think you have. Having to reach into the back of your brain is how you get episodes like The Inner Light and Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy. It's how you get (what is probably the best hour of television ever) Once More With Feeling, the legendary Buffy musical episode that TV shows have been (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to reproduce ever since.

But the ideas alone aren't what make the episode magic. It's the combination of the idea (and the pen of the, by now, practiced writer) with the well known and loved (or hated) characters that produce the tears and the laughter and the grimaces and the way I still tear up if I even start talking about All Good Things.

Again, my point, (hey give me a break, I haven't been blogging regularly so I get a really long post to make up for it, right?) is that Star Trek: Discovery is consistently talked about as serialized with thirteen episodes. It's being billed like a prestige cable show when everything in Trek's history says it's a commodity show. Will they still have a groundhog day episode, a fight club episode, an alternate history episode? I don't know. Will they have an episode equivalent in feeling and magnitude to The Inner Light? I don't know, but that sort of depends on if they're around long enough to create the environment in which those episodes grow organically. No matter what, I'll be watching.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Vacation from Vacation

Okay, so maybe the time to come back from my Blog Vacation was not a few days before I went on an actual vacation to North Carolina to visit my family...

My trip was awesome but also a complete whirlwind. I went climbing, hiking, zooming around a track in go-karts and pulled a brown trout out of the river that cuts through the mountain I grew up on. I ate my mom's BBQ chicken and wolfed down a Cheerwine float. I attended a 10th Anniversary Party for my sister and her cat. I watched fireflies and sunsets and my brother and sister who've grown up without my noticing. I had long, tearful hugs with my mom and stood at the headstone of my grandma's grave.



Needless to say, when I got back I was tired. So, so tired. I grabbed Scott at the airport and hung on for dear life and we got cheeseburgers and came home and took the longest nap. I probably slept at least half of the next seventy two hours. And then suddenly it was the 4th of July and I went climbing/bouldering at our local climbing gym and decided that, in spite of my ravaged grip strength (thanks to a year of undiagnosed nerve issues in my neck) and poor proprioception (the body's ability to tell where it is in space), I should definitely take up climbing. So... I bought a class (as yet unattended) and some climbing shoes.

In the middle of all that I actually did manage to watch a few episodes of Star Trek Enterprise. It's sort of a blur now. But I did watch them. I'm hoping to get back to Generic Ensign soon, or at least regular blogging, but I'm not making any promises because, you know, life. Also, I'm getting ready to start a pretty intensive animation class so... there goes my time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Two Months Off

It's been exactly two months since my last post. That's the longest I've ever taken away from this project and I guess I sort of needed it.


What happened? Well, nothing, really. I just lived some life. Scott was on hiatus which is basically his summer break (though it happens in April and May) and I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. But I also just wanted to focus on other projects and not worry so much about making Generic Ensign Vlogs or writing posts or watching Enterprise. I've been learning animation and that's taken up a ton of my brain space as I throw myself into it more and more every day. (The other day I spent good four hours on the same bouncing ball only to scrap it this morning and start from scratch.)

And, I still have to deal with my hands. They're... 90% better. A few months ago I realized that the cause of my hand issues was actually something in my neck. Apparently cervical instability and poor posture can work with the weird spasms you get with EDS to create a perfect storm of pinched nerves. So, along with the incredible, sickening, apparently inexplicable pain I felt for several months, I also had neuropathy. I lost strength in my hands, my fingers started to curl up into my palms, and I almost always had a pins and needles feeling in my fingers. It was awful and, really, it wasn't until I had some distance from it that I realized just how much it effected me. Now, as long as I take time (I have reminders set to buzz every thirty minutes) to stretch during the day and I maintain good posture (I also have reminders for this) and I do my physical therapy stuff every night, I don't have much pain at all. Sometimes I have bad days but they're farther and farther apart and I'm grateful for that.

I finished Season One of Enterprise and started into Season Two and I'm ready to chug along but I really want to get a Generic Ensign Vlog up before I go too much further. I confess I feel sort of ambivalent about the Vlogs and general blog posts sometimes. I wonder if the internet really needs another summation of an episode of Star Trek from fifteen years ago. I get bogged down with readership/viewership numbers and I start to wonder if it's worth my time. But, in the end, I always come back to the same conclusion: I do these because I enjoy it and because I think it makes my work better overall to think critically about something I care about and to then try to make something reflective of that thought process.

I just needed a little time away. And that's ok.

The point is: I'm back from my blog vacation. You can expect more posts.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Golana Melon


Last week while I was at the grocery store I happened upon a pile of prickly little orange fruits and thought to myself, "Hmm. That looks like some kind of Star Trek fruit." So I (not being one to turn down whatever crazy fruit my grocer puts in front of me) grabbed one (carefully) and put it in the cart.

Later on, I looked up the fruit and found that it was a kiwano or African horned melon or Cucumus metuliferus and that the one I had sitting on my counter was indeed ripe and should be ready to eat. Since it was a melon I put it in the fridge and decided to eat it when I was hot and it was cold. The next morning, I went for a run. Let me just take an aside here and tell you that I suck at running. This really gets my goat because both of my parents were runners. My mom ran hurdles in high school, my dad was a champion cross country runner in college. I have always run like a baby giraffe whose probably just eaten something horrid. But, whatever, every now and then I decide to try and be a runner. And now is one of those times, baby giraffe or not.

So anyway, I went for my terrible run and when I got back I was plenty hot (and also panting and gasping and clutching at the counter so's not to faint) and the melon was plenty cold and I'd read up on how to hack into one of them online and thus:

We both tried it and Scott was not a fan but I was. Actually, I ended up eating my half and his. The kiwano melon tastes sort of like a cucumber mixed with a lime and the consistency is basically white watermelon seeds in a multitude of gelatinous sacks. The result is a fruit that is assuredly SciFi. 

As I was chowing down I sent a couple picture texts to my mom and said, "Look at this Star Trek fruit!" And then I remembered that in all my googling I'd neglected to see whether the fruit was actually featured on Star Trek so then I finally tracked it down and... yes: 

Remember when Molly fell through a hole in time and when she came back out she was a feral teenager and Miles was like, "Hey remember this delicious fruit you used to eat?!" Well, that's what this is--an African Horned Melon AKA the Golana Melon. Though, it looks like some poor prop guy had to cut all the spines off so (and this is wild conjecture) the actor types wouldn't hurt their widdle fingers. It's much more metal with the spines still on, obviously. But I don't want to be the guy who gets a call from Mr. Meaney's agent wondering why his client had to handle spiny, gelatinous fruit all day. 

Anyway, this weird fruit was totally worth the price of admission (about three dollars) for this Star Trek fan and if you're into sweet/tart gooey food that fights back harder than a targ with a head cold then I'd urge you to head on down to your deep space station's cantina to pick up a couple for yourself. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Enterprise SS1 Episodes 12-17

I've been busy. It's sort of hard to explain. But the long and short of it is that I'm throwing myself into animation and I've been working on that--learning both the software and the foundations of animation--around ten hours a day. It's been pretty all-consuming. The days just keep flying by and I just keep not getting a chance to blog or to record a Generic Ensign. But here I am, attempting to make up for lost time with a quick and dirty round up post.

Silent Enemy:
Archer and crew run into some jerk aliens whilst trying to get the phase cannons online. In the b-plot, Hoshi attempts to learn Reed's favorite food. This "calling Malcom's parents and almost accidentally scheduling a date with him" plot is the one I always remember. Maybe, in part, because of its total weirdness. Does Archer track down everyone's favorite food for their b-day? That seems really time consuming. So why only Reed? A few years ago, I worked at a place that always made a big deal out of EVERYONE's birthday. There was cake and there were chips and there was veggie pizza (which was essentially raw broccoli and ranch dressing on bread) and a card passed around and we all assembled in the staff room and sang the song. It was often my job to help with this business but whenever it rolled around to January (and my birthday) the manager decided we should have combined month birthdays. Watching this episode, I basically just put myself in Hoshi's shoes and thought, "I'm a comm officer and highly trained linguist at the top of my field, serving on the flag ship and first Warp 5 vessel of Starfleet and I've just spent the last three days calling a dude's ex-girlfriends and asking about what he likes to eat."
"I could've published seven linguistics papers in the time it
 took to get this cake for you so I super hope you appreciate it."
Dear Doctor:
Wherein Phlox and Archer have a conversation that basically goes,
Archer: These people asked for our help.
Phlox: But we shouldn't interfere with their 'natural development'.
Me: That's pretty condescending.
Archer: Someday, Starfleet will have some sort of... directive... some sort of prime directive that'll tell us how we should blindly act whenever we get into these situations.
Me: Yeah, you should probably ignore that too.
Basically this episode is why I didn't pursue cultural anthropology at the graduate level.

Sleeping Dogs:
Hoshi, Reed, and T'Pol are trapped on a Klingon ship as it sinks into a gas giant. I actually quite like this one but I did imagine, while watching, a scene wherein Hoshi blows up at Reed about how much crap she had do to for his birthday.
"Once again I'm saving the day. What even is your job here?"
Shadows of P'Jem:
Archer and T'Pol are captured by some hostiles. The Vulcans and Andorians get involved and before long everyone's pointing fingers and name calling and making threats. Naturally, I love this one. Anytime the Andorians show up, I'm on board. Archer and T'Pol have natural chemistry and Shran has a wonderful sort of anti-chemistry with everyone.

Shuttlepod One:
Remember how the early astronauts were, nearly to a man, test pilots? The astronauts in these early missions were trained to continue the mission and to try to save themselves until they either succeeded or died. Welp, when Tucker and Reed find themselves stranded in a shuttlepod and they believe Enterprise to have been destroyed, while Tucker goes about trying to figure out a solution Reed gets down to business moping and mooning into several personal letters to friends and family about his soon-to-be untimely death. Even less productively, he manages to have a dream wherein he's making out with T'Pol. Had I been Tucker, I likely would've jettisoned the bastard and kept the remaining oxygen for myself but I'm chaotic neutral and Tucker is, like those early astronauts, lawful good and that's not how things work out.
"I bet you don't even really like pineapple!" 

Truly, I don't mean to pick on Reed. All the Star Trek first seasons have problems and they all have characters who hang around like wet dishrags because they're a good character in theory but no one really knows what to do with them. Archer and Tucker are pretty nailed down in this first season and I think that's because, like I mentioned, these guys are pretty much modeled on the early space program. What kind of guy is Archer? He's Jim Lovell. What kind guy is Tucker? He's Pete Conrad. All the rest of these people are still really malleable. Even T'Pol who it seems was meant to be Enterprise's Spock (and therefore also its Data, Odo, Doctor/Seven) feels a little adrift. What do we do with T'Pol in this episode? Hmm. Let's put her in her underwear. Or maybe she could make out with a guy in his dream. Or maybe a Ferengi should grope her ears. Or maybe she could be attacked in her quarters after she told a guy to stop. My point is that the first season of Enterprise, like the first season of any Trek (and any show, really) is shaky. Even though you're using similar ingredients the recipe isn't coming out like you thought it would. And that's ok. You just have to keep tweaking it until you find the right blend. Just look at how much Next Gen's second season improved!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ten Times Trek Tackled Tough Topics


Growing up on Star Trek, I've always felt an unflinching optimism about the humanist direction of our world culture. I was a child of the 90s. A poor kid, a transient kid, a kid with divorced parents, a kid who went to fifteen schools and experienced therein a variety of micro-cultures. I was a kid from the Mountain South, a kid with strict, Southern Baptist grandparents but liberal-minded, artist parents who had all sorts of friends. I was a kid who stood in line for food stamps, a kid who lived, for a time, in a shelter and, for another time, in a fancy suburb. I was a kid who watched as factories and jobs and coal mines and mountain tops and any sense of pride went out of small town after small town in Appalachia. I was a kid who watched an Oxy epidemic and a low employment rate contribute to the already low life expectancy of those around her. I was a kid who once went hiking in the hills of North Carolina and watched as her mother burned to ash a racist symbol she'd found littering the overlook. I was a kid who grew up with family and friends of various colors, creeds, and sexual orientations. I remember being that kid, looking around at my own world and at the world on Star Trek, and thinking, "We've got a long way to go but at least we're on the right track."

I remember thinking that something like the future portrayed in Trek was where we were headed. And I still believe that.

When November rolled by and things shook out the way they did, I was disappointed by many things but, because of my varied background, unsurprised. I hoped it wouldn't be as bad as I worried it might be but, as January unfolded, I watched as the highest office in the land was filled by a man who seemed incapable of taking us anywhere but backward. I watched as cabinet positions were taken by confirmed bigots and misogynists and billionaires who'd bought and paid for a seat at a table where they might only wreak havoc on the poorest and most desperate families of this country and others. I watched as people on both sides on an invisible line shouted into their echo chambers and posted articles they hoped would garner favor from their like-minded friends. I watched and I retreated into my own world because confrontation and public discource is not something that comes naturally to me. And in my retreat, I continued to do as I have always done. I watched Star Trek. And, one afternoon, at the sound of a single line, about human compassion, I began to cry.

Star Trek has had a long, long history of turning its eye on the current cultural climate, of tackling the issues which tug at the ugliest, fuzziest, darkest parts of our world and brings them into sharp, technicolor focus. These episodes are a cornerstone of Trek and of Science Fiction in general. They allow us to see our own problems through the eyes of others (sometimes subtly, other times less so) and, hopefully, in looking through those other eyes, we can find some empathy or, at least, some empathy can find us. Star Trek says the things I have difficulty saying. It says these things with grace, compassion, and a hope that I will continue to turn to. I figured I might as well make a list for reference so, here it is:

1- A Taste of Armageddon, The Original Series
Two societies are content to let a computer deal out death so their physical culture is preserved. Kirk is having none of it. This is one of my favorites from TOS.


2- Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, The Original Series
Two races from one planet hate each other for superficial reasons the Enterprise crew can't even percieve. This one is easy (or maybe not) to scoff at these days but, in its time, it was a necessary and poignant episode.

3- The Drumhead, Next Generation
A confessed spy, a terrorist plot and a devious witchhunt are the set pieces of this quiet, courtroom episode and Picard is its beating heart.

4- Darmok, Next Generation
(Full Disclosure: This is my favorite episode of Star Trek. I will put it on every list I ever make. However, it absolutely deserves a spot here.) The Enterprise encounters a race of aliens whose language they cannot even begin to understand. Captain Picard is spirited away to a dangerous planet where he and the alien captain must overcome their differences and learn to work together.


5- The Outcast, Next Generation
Riker befriends a member of an androgynous race who considers an individual that identifies strongly as either male or female to be criminally deviant and perverted. Featured here is one of the best speeches in Trek.

6- Duet, DS9
Set against the still tense Bajoran/Cardassian conflict, Kira discovers an infamous, Cardassian war criminal aboard DS9. Things are not what they seem.

7- Far Beyond The Stars, DS9
This one features the crew in old timey duds and no alien makeup or prosthesis. It also features a stark look at the life of minorities in 1950s America as Sisko finds himself in the story of a black Science Fiction author trying to sell his vision of an egalitarian future to a world that's almost but not quite ready.

8- Distant Origin, Voyager
The Voyager gang becomes embroiled in one species' debate over evolutionary science.  This is an often forgotten but very strong outing. I'd also add that I think it's the best Chakota-sode but that would sound like I'm damning it with faint praise.


9- Remember, Voyager
The full title of this one should be, "Remember: Hard to Watch" and that's really the whole point. Basically, Voyager comes upon a somewhat serene society only to find an ugly and evil truth in their recent past. It's a truth most everyone would like to forget. Except they shouldn't.

10- Terra Prime, Enterprise
Alternate title: "Make Earth for Earthers Again!' This one pits Archer and crew against a xenophobic, isolationist leader (in the fabulous Peter Weller) who'd like to build a wall around the world make sure Earth is safe from any further seeking out of new life and new civilizations and/or boldly going.


Of course there are plenty more. When I mentioned to my husband that I was going to make a list of socio-political Star Trek allegories he said, "How long is that list going to be?" And I decided to limit it to ten. But there are plenty more.

Here are a few, in brief:
-TOS: Devil in the Dark (A lesson in tolerance and the dangers of hasty assumptions)
-TOS: Plato's Step-Children (First inter-racial kiss on US TV)
-TOS: A Private Little War (Overtones of the Vietnam War)
-TNG: Measure of a Man (What does it take to be considered human?)
-TNG: Journey's End (Native American rights in the 24th Century)
-TNG: Chain of Command (The horror and futility of torture)
-DS9: Homefront/Paradise Lost (Starfleet goes Patriot Act in fear of shapeshifter terrorists)
-DS9: Second Skin (Problems of identity, point of view, indoctrination)
-DS9: In The Pale Moonlight (Personal Values >/= Ultimate Goals?)
-VOY: Author, Author (Another exploration of humanity and human rights)
-VOY: Prototype (B'Elanna finds herself repairing instrument of endless war)
-VOY: Faces (B'Elanna confronts both parts of her bi-racial identity)
-ENT: Cogenitor (Rights of individual)
-ENT: Dear Doctor (Doctor and Captain grapple with the question of non-interference)
-ENT: Home (Issues of xenophobia in the wake of terrorism)

Welp. I'd meant for this to be a super short, list-form post. It became something... else. But if you're sitting around in your house thinking to yourself, "Gee. I wonder if there's any Star Trek out there that might resonate with whatever complicated feeelings I'm currently feeling regarding the current socio-political climate." The short answer is, "Yes." The long answer is, "Yes."

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