Star Trek, 9/11, and the Age of Perpetual War

A panel I gave at Connecticon 2015, talking about differences between 90s Trek and modern versions, and how those reflect changes in American attitudes to war, terror, and security.
The panel ran out of time, so the last half hour has never been seen anywhere before!
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The Interloper Obsession and Star Trek Online

Sorry this is a bit late. 11:30 AM is probably not a good time to decide I hate the post I have scheduled for noon and start writing a replacement…
It has been observed before that Americans have a particular obsession with the concept of the interloper, the seemingly innocuous neighbor who is actually a terrifying Other in disguise. Certainly this fear is not unique to American culture, but the U.S. does seem particularly prone to panics over it, from witchcraft scares in the Colonial period, to the fear of “seditionists” in the early 19th century, anti-immigrant panics in the later 19th century, the Red Scare, the Yellow Menace, communists in the State department, Satanic Panic, pedophiles in your neighborhood, the gay agenda, President is a secret Muslim, terrorists are plotting to blow up your hick-town suburban mall… There is an undercurrent of paranoia that appears a permanent fixture of American culture, just waiting to burst out at its current target.
And of course it’s in our fiction too. The science fiction classic The Puppet Masters posits people who look completely normal (while clothed, anyway), but are actually under the control of evil alien parasites; given its publication in the 1950s, it’s usually interpreted as a sort of allegory for communist infiltration and the fear thereof, but really it can be adapted to any of the U.S.’s paranoid panics, which is why its basic concept (and the closely related “pod people” from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) keep getting repeated.
Star Trek is no exception. Mind-control parasites were introduced in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a hasty replacement for a rejected plotline involving an attempted military coup on Earth. Because of course We (or future-space-We in this case) would never do such a thing, except as a result of infiltration by Them. You know–Them, the canny, evil ones who are always trying to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy Us. They hate our freedoms, you know.
The plan was for the parasites (called “bluegills”) to be forerunners of the new series villain, the Borg, but a writer’s strike, major staff turnover, and budget issues got in the way. When the Borg finally did show up, any relation to the bluegills was gone, and with them the metaphor–the Borg have presented many faces over the years (massive corporate behemoth, dark mirror of the Federation, and the most enduring and least interesting, zombies), but devious, sneaky interlopers has never been one of them.
But we definitely got more of those! Deep Space Nine introduced the Changelings, shapeshifters who could replace people with dopplegangers to act as agents in their war of aggression against the Federation. But cleverly, it turned the classic infiltration narrative inside-out in the two-parter “Home Front”/”Paradise Lost”–instead of secretly replacing key figures and subverting the Federation government, the Changelings deliberately allowed the presence of a Changeling (who later claims there are four, but there is only evidence for one) on Earth to be discovered, and then relied on the paranoia and suspicions of the legitimate military leadership do their work for them.
Oddly, the Changelings barely show up in Star Trek Online, and there is no case I’m aware of where they engage in this kind of doppleganger trick. I say oddly because STO is borderline obsessed with the infiltration narrative. The opening premise of the game, war between the Federation and Klingons, is the result of a different species of shapeshifters, the Undine (renamed from Species 8472, which is what Voyager called them) replacing key figures of various governments. This in turn is revealed to be the result of someone else invading Undine space with fake Klingon and Starfleet ships. Over the course of one story arc based on Deep Space Nine, the player has to deal with a ship taken over by Undine infiltrators, then Deep Space Nine itself taken over by Undine infiltrators, and then a few missions later Deep Space Nine gets taken over again by dopplegangers, this time its crew’s evil Mirror Universe counterparts.
Later in the game, the bluegills make a comeback, controlling the leadership of another species that has suddenly become very aggressive and destabilized the region (they are, of course, working for the same people that sent the fake ships after the Undine). Meanwhile, the Romulans have mind-controlled spies (and are being manipulated by–guess who–the people that sent the fake ships), the Undine pull the same infiltration trick on Deep Space Nine, but this time on Earth Spacedock and nearly destroy the place…
And this is a real problem. Part of the aesthetic of Star Trek is that the unknown is an opportunity–a source of excitement at the possibility of discovery. The insular, paranoid fear of the Other that underlies the infiltrator narrative works directly against that.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Good Parts Version

A friend of mine recently requested that I, as the big Trekkie of our circle of friends, compile a list for him of the episodes of TNG actually worth watching. It has since occurred to me that the show ended before some of my readers were born, and is available on Netflix (at least in the US) and as such the list I provided for him may be appreciated by others. 

So, I present STTNG: The Good Parts Version. 

Season 1: There is absolutely nothing worth watching in Season 1 unless you are already a huge fan of the show. 

Season 2:
“The Measure of a Man” (Note: Since you’re skipping the first season, it’s important you know going in that the original Chief of Security before Worf was a woman named Tasha Yar, she and Data had a thing, and she died really pointlessly. Also, while this is a good episode, this is probably not a good FIRST episode. If you’ve never seen the show, watch “Who Watches the Watchers” and “Tin Man” first, then come back here and proceed in order.)
“Q Who”
Season 3:
“Who Watches the Watchers?”
“Deja Q”
“Yesterday’s Enterprise”
“The Offspring”
“Tin Man”
“Hollow Pursuits”
“Sarek” (If you’re not familiar with the original series, you should know that Sarek is Spock’s father.)
“The Best of Both Worlds, Pt 1”
Season 4:
“The Best of Both Worlds, Pt 2”
“Brothers” (Backstory from an episode you skipped: Lore is Data’s older brother/prototype. He has full human emotions, but went murderous and evil, which is why Data doesn’t have emotions.)
“Remember Me”
“The Wounded”
“The Nth Degree”
“The Drumhead”
Season 5:
“Ensign Ro”
“Unification, Pt 1”
“Unification, Pt 2”
“A Matter of Time” (Interesting mostly for the historical detail that it was intended to be a Doctor Who crossover, but that idea was nixed before they got as far as talking to BBC.)
“The First Duty”
“I Borg”
“The Inner Light”
Season 6:
“Realm of Fear”
“Relics” (I am honestly curious whether this is a good episode on its own, or only if you’ve seen TOS. Enjoy being my guinea pigs! (I suspect the former.))
“A Fistful of Datas”
“The Quality of Life”
“Chain of Command, Pt 1”
“Chain of Command, Pt 2”
“Ship in a Bottle”
“The Chase” (If only for the astoundingly, laughably bad science. I mean even more so than is typical for Trek.) 
“Frame of Mind”
“Second Chances”
“Descent, Pt 1”
Season 7:
“Descent, Pt 2”
“The Pegasus”
“Lower Decks”
“Thine Own Self”
“All Good Things”

Cue fanboy squealing…

If you follow me on Twitter, or are one of the two people who both read this blog and know me on Facebook, you’ve already heard this, but: Mysticon, a convention in Roanoke, VA, called me yesterday. They just lost their former Guest of Honor, Marina Sertis, so they decided to replace her with another Star Trek: The Next Generation actor, John deLancey, who you probably already know played Q on that show and Discord on Friendship Is Magic.

Since he’s the guest of honor, they want him to have the first panel of the con, and since there’s already going to be a LOT of Star Trek over the weekend, they decided to make it a brony panel instead.

And who’s established himself as their main person for brony-related stuff over the last two years?

So that’s how I ended up as moderator of a John deLancie brony panel. February 21-23, Roanoke, VA.

*incoherent squees*

The Genesis Device

So, here’s a nerdery of mine that’s been surprisingly rarely referenced on this site: Star Trek.

So, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best Star Trek movie by a wide margin, and probably the most accessible to non-Trekkies, despite being the one with the most references to past events) established the creation of the Genesis Device, which can turn a lifeless planet into a complete, habitable ecosystem within a matter of days–but if used on a planet where life already exists, that life is erased in moments and replaced. Thus, depending on the target, it’s either a device of mass creation or a weapon of mass destruction. Alas, Star Trek III reveals that the planet created at the end of Star Trek II is unstable, and it collapses; the Genesis Device is only useful as a weapon of mass destruction, precisely the opposite of its creators hopes.

But here’s my question: 60 or 80 years later, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the Genesis Device ought to be fairly common knowledge, something any of the more advanced/powerful cultures can build easily and the less powerful ones build if they’re determined enough, much like nukes on modern Earth. And, much like nukes, they are a doomsday weapon–any war fought with Genesis Devices would quickly annihilate both sides. So it’s odd to me that there’s little to no mention of the device in the later Star Trek series, as it could have served as a handy metaphor for nuclear tensions–all the major powers have Genesis Devices mounted on warp-capable missiles, but only as a deterrent to keep the other powers from using their Genesis Devices…

Also, did no one think to try using them as a weapon against the Borg? Could have been interesting…

The Art of the Opening

It’s still Wednesday, barely, so let’s talk about openings, shall we? Specifically, opening credit sequences to TV shows. What makes a good opening?

The answer is that it could be a lot of things, depending on the show. The ideal for an opening is to prime the audience to enjoy the show, but what exactly that means is highly variable.

The most basic approach, but frequently the most effective, is to introduce the audience to the characters and premise of the series. The Simpsons opening, for example, does a marvelous job of introducing the viewer (assuming they are one of the three people left on Earth who don’t know the characters) to the essential natures of the characters and that this is a cartoonish family comedy.

Here’s another classic example of this “introduce the premise” approach, which more explicitly lays out the premise while leaving out the characters (unless, as I do, you think the main character of Star Trek has always been the Enterprise).

Probably because of Star Trek, this style of opening has become de rigeur for American science fiction series, and reaches its apotheosis at the same point as the Star Trek-style imperialist-liberal space opera, Babylon 5. (Note, all openings after the first in this video contain spoilers–the third in particular contains the only case I know of where the first line of the opening sequence completely recontextualizes the series to that point.)

Note that, for the first two seasons, the opening relies heavily on detailed description in the form of a very dry monologue, but in the second season shifts to show more of the characters, emphasizing them as much or more than the titular Big Artificial Thing in Space. The third season starts to move away from that approach, using a combination of music, images, and a much shorter monologue to provide the revised series premise, and places the characters over the Big Artificial Thing in Space, implying (correctly) that it is important as the place where these characters interact, not as a consequence of its Bigness, Artificiality, or location In Space. The fourth opening abandons any straightforward explanation of the premise, and relies instead on a sort of thematic expression, with different characters pronouncing different views on the events of the series, and finally the fifth opening expresses the premise by showing it rather than telling it, presenting the series as the future history it is.

That thematic, rather than literal, expression of the series that Babylon 5 Season 4 attempted is often done extremely well by anime. I like to point to the fifth opening of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as an example of this being done extremely well.

Here we have a song that is melancholic without being sad, juxtaposed with images of heroes and villains coming together in flames that dissolve them together (suggesting both the concept of the crucible and the alchemical stage of citrinitas), followed by a steady rain (the title of the song, incidentally) through which people nonetheless continue to strive, struggle and fight, though not without loss. In the end, the clouds part, and we see images of hope and love. Anyone who’s seen the final arc of the show to which this opening corresponds can see how relevant this is to the episodes in question, even though in terms of actual “spoiler” imagery it has a fairly light touch for an anime opener. (Which is to say, unacceptably heavy for a Western show.)

Another good anime example is the first-season opening to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it’s creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn’t think was possible! Image-wise, it’s pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image–a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage–goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.

Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

An opening doesn’t have to be particularly deep to be great. Some shows, you just need something to get you in the mood–say, some energetic 90s J-pop along with images of action-adventure shounen fantasy.

Returning to the West, there’s been a notable trend in American shows toward ever-shorter opening credits, so the question must be asked: Can a theme under 30 seconds accomplish anything more than announcing the name of the show and maybe one or two big names attached to it?

Yes, yes it can, as witness the theme that inspired this article.

Start with the visuals: a smoky green haze, the chemical formula for methamphetamine,* the periodic table, and then the title of the show, Breaking Bad. The periodic table is doubled over on itself, the right and left sides superimposed so that they can more easily dissolve into the title, evoking the overlapping dual nature of the protagonist, which must ultimately give way to reveal that, like everyone else, he’s a complex but singular entity. All of this imagery suggests a tale of science run amuck,which to an extent is true, but it is ultimately wiped away in smoke, leaving only the name of the show’s creator: this is also a complex and extended morality play, and the divine authorial hand will punish and wipe away the iniquity of those who “break bad.” Even the music adds extra layers, since it belongs quite firmly in the traditional scoring of Westerns, both recalling the New Mexico setting of the show and helping make the case that it belongs in the Western genre with which it shares so many thematic similarities and character archetypes (in particular, the series is highly reminiscent of the John Wayne vehicle The Searchers).

Finally, no discussion of openings could be complete without reference to my uncritical, irrational adoration of this final clip, the best version of the best opening theme in all of television. What can I say? I’m a child of the 80s, I have a nigh-Pavlovian response to cheesy synthesizers swelling hopefully.

*Which does NOT include lithium, whatever fans desperate to find alternate meanings for the title of the series finale might tell you: FeLiNa could be iron, lithium, salt, but that’s neither a stable compound nor some kind of code for “blood, meth, and tears”–there’s no lithium in meth.

Note: Because this article went up so late and is fairly lengthy, Thursday’s thought of the day will go up in the evening instead of noon.