Conflicted feelings about Star Trek

Spock would be cool in a 70's-style cop drama

I’m going to talk about the new Star Trek movie. I will be using spoilers throughout. So go see it if you haven’t already, then come back and read this.

I saw the new Star Trek movie last night, and I thought it was pretty good. It was great to see so many familiar people and places, and I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing new adventures in this amazing future that Roddenberry created. However, despite how much I enjoyed it, I’m still conflicted.

First, let’s look back a couple years. When I first heard that they were going to do another Star Trek movie I was happy but wary. I assumed that it probably wouldn’t be another Next Gen movie, since everyone was aging too much, and they killed my favorite character in the previous one (and it was pretty ridiculous that they kept having to toss Worf in there somehow when he should’ve been on DS9 or Qo’noS). Probably wouldn’t be about the DS9 or VOY crews either, since both of those shows had pretty definite endings that split up the crews…and making a movie of either would probably be a bad move from a business standpoint anyway.

I was hoping that the new movie would have a new ship and a new crew, and take place after all the other movies and shows, and maybe have a new villain or some other big threat to deal with, since the Federation didn’t have too many big threats to deal with anymore: the Klingons were allies, the Cardassians were crushed in the Dominion war, the Dominion was crushed in the Dominion war, the Borg were…just not a threat anymore…hell, even the Romulans were much less angry than they were before (and are destroyed just moments before this new movie starts). At that point, they needed an interesting new challenge to face, and an interesting new bunch of characters to face it.

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Merry _ _ _ _ _ mas

1196856652_fChoose your poison.

If you haven’t noticed by now, the “Holiday Season” is upon us once again. Bleh.

I don’t pay much attention to right-wing “news” sources, but apparently they’re once again blowing the “War on Christmas” horn, to rally the faithful against the rampaging atheist hordes. Never mind the fact that the atheist hordes are such a small part of the population, or that they’re most likely armed with library books and cappuccinos.

I think fellow non-believing Minnesotan PZ Myers said it best: “The war on Christmas is over. We won.” Some time in recent history, perhaps even in the past decade, Christmas went beyond its Christian origins and became something that everyone can celebrate, like Halloween. It has become less about the birth of Jesus, and more about getting together with friends and family members and share gifts, or even just enjoy their company.

For Christians, it’s naturally still about Jesus, and that’s perfectly ok. No matter what Bill O’Reilly says, nobody* wants to stop you from going to church or putting an angel on your tree or putting one of those little manger scenes on your table (in fact, I’m tempted to do it myself, because they’re pretty neat). In fact, feel free to put a big inflatable light-up Jesus on your front lawn if you want. It’s your property.

But issues arise when these things are set up in public places, and this is where the disagreements (and the only fuel for the War On Christmas fire) appear. Some government and public facilities allow local Christian groups to set up manger scenes on their property during Christmas (and 10 Commandments displays year round, but let’s not bring that up right now), and when the atheists, secularists, Church/State separationists, and non-Christian religious groups make an issue of it, they’re labeled as bad guys.

Once again, it comes down to the First Amendment and how you interpret the Establishment Clause. I personally (and other Church/State separation supporters) support the interpretation by Justice Souter: “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion“. Yes, Christians are the majority in the US, but to favor any religious group over others necessarily restricts the freedoms of people who aren’t part of that group. And that’s bad.

Generally, there are two ways of dealing with the issue of religious displays on public land: either everyone gets to put one up, or nobody does. If you allow a manger scene from the Christians, you have to allow a menorah from the Jews, various Winter Solstice displays from numerous other religions, a bust of L. Ron Hubbard from the Scientologists, a bust of the Flying Spaghetti Monster from the Pastafarians, a disrespectful deliberately inciteful sign from the atheists** (see below), and who knows how many others. Eventually, you may run out of room for displays, you have to deal with vandalism and theft, people will no doubt complain about the placement of the displays…sounds like way more work than it’s worth. I recommend just not allowing religious displays on public ground at all.

Dexter: Moral ambiguity and cognitive dissonance in television (and why I love it)

Ok, let’s take a break from all the politics and talk about TV.

One of my favorite shows right now is a Showtime series called Dexter. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s familiar with it, which is a shame, because it’s one of the most interesting and gutsy shows on TV right now.

On its surface, Dexter seems like yet another crime show. It takes place is perpetually-sunny Miami, it has a cast of interesting characters, and it focuses on Dexter (shockingly enough) who is an easy-to-like blood-spatter analyst working for the Miami police department. But the thing that sets this show apart is that Dexter is also a serial killer.

The story is told primarily from Dexter’s perspective, and you hear his inner monologue. On the outside, he’s the quirky guy who brings a box of doughnuts to work every day to share with his co-workers. But he’s driven to murder people, and does so quite frequently. He makes sure that his victims are criminals, but he’s not doing it to get bad guys off the streets. He does it because he enjoys killing; because he has a need for it. He even collects a drop of blood from each victim on a microscope slide, which helps him (and the audience) keep track of exactly how long he’s been doing it, and how often. Beyond that, he’s pretty much a normal person who deals with normal problems, who has a normal life, and a pretty normal job.

The thing I find most fascinating about the show is that it’s not trying to tell you what to think about what Dexter does. It’s a constant festival of cognitive dissonance, with your mind and morality constantly flipping between what you perceive as good and evil, and usually coming up with something in between. It raises far more questions than it answers. Is it ok for Dexter to kill a serial rapist? How are you supposed to feel when that same rapist begs for his life before Dexter plunges a knife into his chest? Is Dexter any better than the people he’s killing? Does Dexter’s difficult past make what he’s doing understandable?

Dexter isn’t the one-dimensional serial killer character you typically see opposite the “good guys” on the standard procedural cop show. He’s a very likeable character. You want to see him succeed in life. You don’t want to see him caught and sent to jail, even though it seems like he deserves it.

Dexter isn’t a show for people who view the world in black & white. This isn’t about the good guys catching the bad guys. It’s about a good guy who’s also a bad guy, and it’s not telling you how to think. It’s showing you that the real world is shades of gray, and that you have to weigh each situation as it comes.

Greatest cancelled TV shows ever (Part 1)

I was just watching some old video files I downloaded a while ago, and I came to the realization that some (or dare I say, most) of the best TV shows get cancelled before their time. So I thought I’d mention some of my favorites, in the hope that I’d get people interested in some of these lost gems. As far as I know, they’re all available on DVD.

Carnivàle (2003-2005)

Jeez, it’s hard to explain this show. It takes place during the Great Depression, and on the surface, it’s about a struggling traveling carnival, and a seemingly-unrelated preacher. In the first episode, the carnival picks up a young man (Ben, the main character) who, unbeknownst to them, has the power to heal others. Ben and the preacher also share some sort of bond, and are gradually drawn to each other. Eventually, you realize that it’s not really about a carnival at all, but a battle between good and evil. There’s all sorts of mysticism and prophesy and a very deep mythology. Or there would have been.

Unfortunately, it only lasted for 2 seasons. The first season was very, well, deliberately paced, which could be mistaken for “slow”. The ratings weren’t very good, but HBO was kind enough to give it a second season to tie everything together.

The second season was nowhere near as deliberate as the first, and they abandoned the gradual buildup of the first season to get about 4 seasons of material into one. Things really start happening, and many mysteries are explained, including what the show is really about.

Personally, I can’t decide which season works better. At the end of the first, I felt like “wow, this is a really cool show, but I still have no clue what it’s about”. The second explained too much, and of course there are plenty of plotlines still open, since they were hoping that ratings would improve enough for more seasons, or a movie of some sort.

To be a Carnivàle fan is to know true frustration, but I still recommend checking it out.

Farscape (1999-2003)

Farscape is about modern-day human astronaut John Crichton, who gets lost in space and winds up aboard a ship with several escaping alien prisoners. He accidentally pisses off a military officer, and must stay with the ship and prisoners to keep from being captured. Gradually, he makes friends with the prisoners and acquires lots of enemies. Crichton’s quest for a way home is detoured when it turns out that he posesses something that the great military forces of the galaxy desire.

The show was produced by the Jim Henson Company, which means that the show is filled with weird alien creatures of every variety. Some characters are covered in extensive makeup, some obscured under very clever prosthetics, and some are actually elaborate animatronic puppets. Makes the pointy ears and goofy foreheads on Star Trek look quaint.

The show is full of sci-fi goodness like spaceship battles, laser gunfights, elaborate story arcs, oppressive military forces and all that, but it also has some truly amazing characters. Though there is a core group of characters, there are also often additions and subtractions as Crichton and his shipmates meet up with new people, all with their own agendas. Nobody is who they seem to be on the surface. Trusted allies can wind up betraying their friends, enemies can become friends, and just about everybody is crazy.

Farscape was the show that really helped the Sci-Fi Channel get off the ground, and helped it to become more than a glorified rerun network. The show ran for 4 seasons and was apparently approved for a fifth, but then Sci-Fi axed it. It was their most popular show, and they cancelled it. Of course, it was also their most expensive show.

Fortunately, Sci-Fi let them finish the show with a 3-hour miniseries a couple years after cancellation, but it’s really hard to tie up 4 years of an elaborate story in 3 hours.

I think they still air the show in reruns, but it’s one of those shows that you need to watch from start to finish, so I recommend DVDs.

Star Trek (1966-1969)

I just wanted to briefly mention the grandaddy of them all, because without the original Star Trek, where would Science Fiction be today? Like any good sci-fi, it was far deeper than it seemed. The show tackled numerous social issues, from race to war to religion, you name it. It only lasted 3 seasons before it was cancelled due to poor ratings, but it changed the world. And it looks better than ever on the recently released remastered DVDs.

Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005)

Enterprise never got the respect it deserved. True, it started out a little slow, but so did every other Star Trek show, and most other TV shows too, for that matter. The first season is pretty decent. The second season is good. The third season is great, and the fourth is also great, but for different reasons.

The show takes place many years before the Original Series, and the Enterprise is the first and only human ship capable of long-range space exploration. There’s no Federation yet. Humanity has only had contact with a few alien races (the first being Vulcans, of course) so they’re eager to get out there and see what’s what. In fact, in the first episode, they see their first Klingon (dun dun duuuun!) and have to return him to his homeworld.

For the first 2 seasons, it’s all classic Star Trek fare – seeking out new life and/or civilizations, going boldly and all that. The one hickup is the inclusion of the “Temporal Cold War” storyline. In the first episode, we’re introduced to a new evil alien race called the Suliban, who are these crazy souped-up genetic experiments from the future, or something. Fortunately, there aren’t that many episodes involving the TCW, and they’re mostly absent from Seasons 3 and 4.

In Season 3 and 4, the episodes are way better. Season 3 is basically one long storyline where the Enterprise has to stop a race of aliens bent on destroying Earth. Season 4 takes major strides toward the formation of the Federation, and plays with a lot of established Trek lore. In one 3-parter, you get to see them deal with some of Khan’s leftover genetics experiments, meet Data’s great-grandfather, and find out why the original Kirk-era Klingons looked so much different than they do on the other shows.

The characters are kinda standard, though they get much more interesting as time goes on. Captain Archer is more like Kirk than other captains, though he’s also somewhat less sure of what he’s doing, since what he’s doing has never been done by other humans before. The science officer is an uppity female Vulcan who seems to only be there to tell the puny humans how stupid they are for the first season. The rest of the cast are all humans for obvious reasons. There’s a likable southern engineer who winds up in a lot of embarassing situations (and provides most of the swearing on the show), a quiet British armory officer, a worrisome Asian communications officer, and the token black guy who flies the ship, or something. Oh, and then there’s Phlox, who’s an alien doctor (best character on the show).

After 4 seasons, the show was ended due to low ratings. The final episode (which is generally considered equal to Paramount kicking each of the show’s fans in the balls) is a Holodeck simulation on the Next Generation Enterprise, featuring Riker and Troy looking pretty old and overweight playing the characters they played 15 years ago. Sigh.

I’ve got more shows to cover, but I’m getting tired of writing, so I think I’ll make this a two-parter and continue tomorrow or something. And yes, I’m going to mention Firefly.