Friday, April 29, 2016

Still a Deep Space Niner

It surprises many people to hear there were actually five Star Trek series. Not to mention numerous movies. And of those series, perhaps the one most likely to be forgotten is my favorite, Star Trek Deep Space Nine (most likely forgotten because of it's real differences from all the other Star Treks):

Why it's the greatest I can explain. But it's worth noting that I watched Deep Space Nine on television as the episodes were released in the 90s. I waited with eager anticipation between season finales and the startup of each new season. While I watched most other science fiction stories without having to wait. That certainly explains some of my past enthusiasm for the show.

Now I see the series differently, with more cynicism. Deep Space Nine had some serious problems. For one, it started slow--many people stopped watching it in the first year, which had the worst plots of the entire series. It also made a number of story-telling missteps. As episodes explored various wars and dangers, the Ferengi characters (aliens with big ears) became increasingly used as comic-relief, so more and more episodes became "all-Ferengi all the time." And with a few fabulous exceptions such as "Little Green Men" and "The Magnificent Ferengi," most of those episodes were dreadful. And it bears noting that some of the episodes, especially the Ferengi-focused ones, were a bit sleazy, with scantily-clad women parading around.

Also among its faults was that the end of the series introduced a station counselor, Ezri Dax, who was mostly annoying, although she had a few good moments. And again, towards the end of the series a holosuite program recreated Las Vegas in the 1960s in a series of episodes that were mostly not all that interesting for a science fiction fan like me focused on the future.

Another potential criticism of DS9 was that its characters were melodramatic. I think that's a bit unfair, because the story deliberately selected people facing the types of circumstances that bring out powerful emotional reactions. It's more correct to say DS9 was operatic in scope, really more than any other science fiction series I've ever watched. Yes, I do think sometimes the show when too far with melodramatic aspects--I think specifically the character of Gul Dukat got bent into some highly improbable emotional conditions, probably too much. Even though Gul Dukat remains a favorite character of mine.

In fact, Dukat points to one aspect of greatness of the show, the Cardassians as an alien race and their relationship to the Bajorans. The series explored the meaning of racism in a way other series haven't done, over a long period of time. (Dukat was at his creepy best when his racism justified working male Bajorans to death, while he simultaneously tried to seduce Bajorian women.)

The series also wrote episodes with long-term connections to one another, events that built up over a time, instead of being mostly independent episodes disconnected from one another, as most of Star Trek (and science fiction in general) happens to have. As such it took a deep look at the nature of warfare, including its negative effects, along with genocide, corruption, the drive for power, the sense of identity in a group and much more. It contained powerful love stories and powerful hatreds. It had amazingly interesting characters. It also featured some stand-alone episodes that were brilliant, including the unique "Trials and Tribble-ations," which meshed with an episode of Star Trek's original series.

DS9 also looked at the nature of religion and for the most part showed how religion can be an influence for good in a person's life, something no other Star Trek series has done to that degree. Though it also showed how the power of religion can be used to deceive and abuse vulnerable people.

The greatest thing about Deep Space Nine is that even though it's fiction, it told a number of truths. I did not deny that evil exists in the universe. It showed flawed and conflicted people trying to do the right thing under trying circumstances, sometimes wandering into moral ambiguity. It did not wallow in the silly idea that Gene Roddenberry loved that human goodness will ultimately prevail and we will no longer suffer from greed, or suffering, or corruption. Though of course DS9 didn't show what ultimately needs be done to cure corruption and evil--it did not unambiguously point a finger to God or Christ. But I am at least glad it showed some of the truth about how bad evil can be, while at the same time regarding it as EVIL ("some" because not even DS9 showed the full depth of wickedness).

It's been almost forgotten now (or so it seems to me), passed by via a reborn Star Trek franchise that has an altered timeline which probably will never include a Deep Space Nine in it at all. The new Star Trek films are action-packed and fun. But not deep.

So that's why in spite of all valid criticisms that can be leveled against it, in spite of its relative obscurity, I remain a big fan of Star Trek DS9. I'm still a Deep Space Niner.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Peter Jackson's Ring of Power

As Gandalf famously stated in the Fellowship of the Ring, the Ring of Power appealed to the good-hearted and heroic wizard, giving him a desire to use it for good. But in fact, as every LOTR fan knows, it cannot be done. The Ring of Power will eventually corrupt every person who attempts to use it into an evil being.

Watching the Fellowship of the Ring movie last night reminded me of this principle. The fact that evil cannot be used for good is one of the things I love most about The Lord of the Rings. It’s a powerful statement about the attempt human beings make over and over again to gain power supposedly for good—which simply cannot be done by evil means. Not without becoming evil.

By the way, back when it was first released, I strenuously objected to the plot changes Peter Jackson put into the Fellowship of the Ring. No, for me, the original story was quite good enough and didn’t need to be streamlined or “Hollywoodized” or anything of the sort. When Frodo sneaked away without telling anyone in the book, that’s exactly how the movie should have been as far as I was concerned. When Aragorn was described by Frodo as someone who would, “Look fairer and seem fouler” if he’d been evil—indicating the character was not particularly good-looking—I thought it was a mistake to cast the ever-so handsome Viggo Mortensen in that role.

While I still may mourn the lost message from Tolkien about the value of inner character over looks in Aragorn’s face, I actually now see the rationale behind putting Mortensen in the part. As a scruffy-dressed guy who happens to be very good-looking, he looks like he was always intended to be king, though his stubble argues he doesn’t have the refinement a king should have. The movie makes him an evident “diamond in the rough” and perhaps the visual nature of movies makes that a good thing. Perhaps the audience needs to SEE in his face that Aragorn is good.

And as for Frodo sneaking away, his goodbye speech to Aragon is a great moment of the film, as are Merry and Pippin voluntarily becoming decoys for him, which was in fact totally missing from the book. In fact, Samwise observing him leave and joining him as he crossed the river (as opposed to simply crossing the river later because a boat was on the other side and finding Frodo after a while) made for a powerful movie moment which clearly improved on the story as originally written.

But here’s what I’m suggesting here, my point of writing this post. Plot changes became like the Ring of Power for Peter Jackson. Oh, it’s evident he intended them to be for good--but in the end, his power as a director to make arbitrary changes in an original and beautiful story led him down a path of metaphorical darkness.

Post-LOTR, the Hobbit movies have entertainment value, sure, but they are a travesty of the original. There are certain things Tolkien believed in, such as battlefield heroism having real value. Of a real world existence of such a thing as “noble blood,” that is, people who are good and decent beyond the norm because of their ancestry—that such a nobility can be passed down in family lines (even though he never rejected the idea that individuals are individuals).

In the last of the Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies, not only is the audience pushed through amusement-park-ride-like action scenes that are silly and unrealistic, completely lacking the sense of terror and heroism that mark war as both tragic and paradoxically beautiful, we are made to suffer the loss of the original story in other ways as well. Not only did Jackson foist upon us a CGI-fest that will seem even more vulgar once the novelty of such technology wears off, we were “treated” to the personage of Stephen Fry, cast in role designed to pontificate about the corrupt nature of kings in a way Tolkien wouldn’t have agreed with. Not only did the battle itself lack almost all the pathos and fear and courage in face of death that mark a real war, the movie wandered off in other directions with other purposes, and became wholly unlike the charmingly original, almost fairy-tale-like substance of the book as Tolkien wrote it, with a shocking brace of realism at the end. No, the movie has plenty of grit, losing much of the charm of a fairy tale—but also is wildly unrealistic in its portrayal of battle, an error Tolkien himself never committed.

And the movie version changed the original characters in many ways, too. To give only a few examples, Beorn, a secondary but important person in the original tale, virtually disappears from the movies. Tauriel appears out of nowhere, as does her love interest in Kili, though she and he were far from the worst of Jackson’s missteps. The king of Laketown, barely mentioned in the book, swells to bloated importance in Stephen Fry’s portrayal. Eww.

A director cannot fairly make his money of the writings of a man long dead while simultaneously warping the substance of that work into something the dead man would never have agreed to. That directly parallels the attempt to make an evil ring do good work. It is a fundamental contradiction—it cannot be done. Not justly.

Which is why the power to make plot changes in Tolkien’s works proved to be Peter Jackson’s Ring of Power. Why it lead him down a path of film-making “darkness.”


Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Interrupted Fall into Evil: Carol and Morgan in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead's zombie apocalypse has inspired me to comment on the topic of the monster on more than one occasion--how could zombies really exist? But the story fascinates me much more because of what it does to the human characters involved.

I'm especially intrigued by the way human evil is portrayed in the show--when survival is on the line, the veneer of civilization comes off most people and they begin doing things, evil things, that their normal selves would barely have recognized. Some characters resist this general fall, but they do so from the beginning of their story arc. However, the characters Carol and Morgan have recently run counter to that general tendency of change always being for the worse. Why?

For the uninitiated, Morgan was a character in the story who the leader of the survivor group, Rick, ran into early in the plot. At first, he was just a decent person trying to survive. Later, he appeared again, unhinged, essentially insane. Dangerous--a killer.

Later still, Morgan appears again in the story and has become a permanent character, one now learned in martial arts, proficient in the staff, and utterly convinced that "all life is precious." The story dedicates an episode to how he came to have that change--a kind-hearted man with humanist principles (a former professional therapist) essentially kidnapped Morgan and educated him in the perspective that life matters even in the zombie apocalypse, a perspective he came to accept. (He also taught him how to use the staff.)

It's no secret to those who have read this blog before that I see the world from a Christian perspective. What Morgan went though fits within that paradigm readily enough. It could be tagged with a term the Bible calls "repentance." Repentance translates the Greek word
 metanoia / metanoia which refers to a transformation of the mind or the understanding. Usually, of course, the Bible refers to repentance being about feeling convicted for sin and turning to God because of it--the transformation of the mind comes into the process because a person does not see himself or herself the same way anymore. Clearly Morgan went through an experience that caused him to see himself differently--i.e. he repented.

Some Christian friends might object that repentance without accepting Christ doesn't really have the power to change a person. A person needs divine help in the form of the Holy Spirit to truly change, such a friend might say. I don't completely agree--whereas I do believe there is something special about the repentance that comes with conversion (it uniquely brings eternal salvation, for example), people undergo transformations of their thinking in a way that changes their behavior all the time. Like a man who kills a family while driving drunk finally understanding he really needs to quit--and never touches another drop of alcohol again, which of course can and does happen without accepting Christ.

Repentance has power outside of its Christian context, it really does. Morgan exemplifies that--through a form of repentance, he returned from being a viscous killer, transformed into someone who cherishes life.

The case for Carol is quite different. Starting the show as a housewife intimidated by an abusive husband, the death of that man coupled with the continual need to kill zombies to survive strengthened Carol to the point where she not only found it easy to kill undead monsters, the character is shown killing human beings who threaten her group without hesitation. Coolly and calculatingly. 

Some readers might object to the title of this post at this point. Am I saying Carol became evil in her easy acceptance of killing others? After all, some might say, Carol always killed in self-defense and for the benefit of the group. That's not evil, is it?

Debating the nature of evil isn't my point for this post. I think we can agree at least that the world around Carol became more evil and her easy adaptation to it points to a type of fall into wickedness. Even if her actions themselves weren't strictly evil, Carol did change over time, not in a sudden transformation of understanding, but in a gradual acceptance of more and more brutal behavior in herself--yes, in response to an increasingly brutal world around her. But still.

What's interesting about the character of Carol is the current script now shows her struggling with killing, not certain if she can continue. It's as if the accumulated weight of all the killing she did in the past has finally affected her and she's finding it hard to go on.

Now is that a realistic portrayal of human behavior? Do humans who become accustomed to killing, spontaneously start having a hard time with it?

Well, soldiers acting under orders to kill have been known to do something like that. Sometimes. after an initial revulsion to the death of others they come to accept it. Sometimes, often enough in fact, they go through traumatic stress reactions that effectively shut down their effectiveness in combat and make it impossible for them to continue killing.

The character of Carol is acting rather like that--but here's the thing, nobody ordered her to make the cool and effective decisions to kill that the character was demonstrated to make. She came up with that on her own.

So does it happen that someone who has dropped the trappings of civilized behavior in the midst of a brutal environment, without being ordered or pressured to so, someone who did it herself--has someone like that ever suddenly reverted to more gentle behavior? I actually can't think of a single historical example of such a thing. Oh yes, quite a number of vicious Nazis, after the war was over, found niches in ordinary civilized life after the fact. But I can't think of one of them that quit right in the middle of brutality, saying, "I just can't do this anymore."

Maybe there are historical cases of what I'm talking about and I just don't know about them. If so, please mention them in the comments to this post. But I read a lot of history, much of it touching on the topic of humans plunged into the worst of possible scenarios. The fact I've never seen such a thing certainly suggests it isn't very common. No, humans who find themselves able to engage in brutal acts on their own generally (if not always) can keep doing so without end. And in truth, when things are terrible, while some people will refuse to be brutal, many, many people will actually engage in the worst behavior possible rather quickly. And they will stay there.

In fact, that's part of why I find The Walking Dead so compelling. While zombies as a monster don't really make sense (I've tried to make sense of them in the past, but it doesn't quite work), the human monsters in the story are all too real.

Perhaps the writers of the story world behind The Walking Dead simply could not go on that way. Perhaps they really believe, as many modern people do, that human beings are essentially good after all. So they wrote into the script a character's innate "goodness" swelling up and interfering with an already-demonstrated capacity to kill in a cold and calculating manner.

I'm not saying the character of Carol isn't well-written--they've shown foreshadowing of her behavior to establish it wasn't instantaneous. But I think her recent change is based on false premises. While there are cases of good people of all kinds steadfastly resisting evil in the real world, while there are cases of repentance of both religious and non-religious types causing people to change how they act, people don't just spontaneously on their own start acting good when reacting to an evil environment.  They don't. Though sometimes people do plunge all the way down to the most evil actions imaginable, very rapidly.

That's a truth that the writers of The Walking Dead seemed to ready to embrace once. But now are walking away from. Or so it seems to me.

Do you disagree? If so, please let me know in the comments. Thanks :)


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Big Idea--a blog relaunch

I created the "Travis's Big Idea" blog back when I was barely READING blogs, especially not author blogs. A lot of the ones I did know about I found boring to be honest--seriously, writing about the process of writing is super DULL for me.

But I did know I liked story ideas--so I decided to blog about some of mine. Doing that was fun for a while, but I got bored with that, too. I'd like to talk about other people's ideas more often, not just my own. That's part of why it's been a long time since I've posted anything.

So I've given this blog a tiny bit of a makeover and a title change on the main page. It's THE BIG IDEA instead of Travis's Big Idea. I want to talk about much more than the strange ideas that run through my own head. I want to talk about your strange ideas (and other people's, too).

Anyway, I've got things to say. But that can wait a bit. First--I'M BACK WORLD. :)