2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions

1. Star Trek is not that good. It has its virtues, certainly: a certain amount of verbal and visual pizzazz (the closing credits look like a series of John Picacio paintings); decent performances, if not really ones that I feel able to hold close to my heart (Karl Urban probably the best, for my money); headlong, yet not quite hectic velocity, even if sometimes sustained by utterly extraneous set-pieces (Kirk being chased by ice-planet monsters, say). I laughed, I enjoyed, and I haven’t felt as strongly that I was watching a culturally significant piece of science fiction since Doctor Who’s “Rose”. And yet. It is really, epically, heroically stupid, and I’m not even talking about the science (though the disregard for scientific plausibility felt distastefully wilful at points, in contrast to the disregard-for-sake-of-plot that defines the archetypal moment of Treknobabble), but about the plot, which rests on convenience and coincidence upon convenience and coincidence. Think about it for more than thirty seconds and the whole house of cards fall down.

More fundamentally, I find myself uneasy about what that nagging feeling of cultural significance might mean: something in the cross-breeding of shameless, box-ticking nostalgia and gung-ho shininess doesn’t sit well with me.. This is something of a surprise. I’ve never thought of Trek as being particularly important to me; I’ve seen a lot of it, of course, but with the exception of Deep Space Nine much of it was watched just because it was there, not because I was actively seeking it out. And yet. Much has been made of Star Trek as a return to a bright, colourful, boundless universe, a celebration of an optimistic vision of the future, in contrast to the miserabilism of (say) Battlestar Galactica. But the brightness and colour of Abrams’ Star Trek indicate a fun film, no terrible thing in itself except that it feels like a hollowed-out version of the vision that made Trek first appealing, which was – and I can feel myself turning into one of the Onion News Network’s outraged Trekkies as I type this – that it was inspirational, aspirational, a vision of a better world. This Trek doesn’t feel like it’s set in a better world, particularly; as has been widely observed, diversity is somewhat noticeable by its absence. I find myself missing that nerdy, unfashionable (and, let’s be realistic, often terrible) aspect of Trek much more than I would have expected. I cannot see this incarnation of the franchise, for instance, centering one of its instalments around diplomatic shenanigans and a peace process, as The Undiscovered Country did – indeed, I expect Star Trek 2 to be KLINGONS RARR (with a side-order of Uhura coming between Kirk and Spock). And that feels like a shame.

2. Dollhouse is not that bad. It has multiple and serious flaws, certainly; even allowing for everything positive I’m about to say, there is a hesitancy to the show’s development of its argument, a caution that often looks like damaging reticence. I would go so far as to say that the first season is, taken in the round, a failure, with only two episodes – Joss Whedon’s own “Man on the Street” and “Spy in the House of Love”, written by Andrew Chambliss – that really work, a second tier — “Needs”, “Briar Rose”, “Omega” — that have some things to recommend them, and a majority that range between half-hearted and shockingly inept. But my feeling is that it’s an interesting, worthwhile failure, not a worthless one.

Three reasons. First, the premise – what happens when identity becomes a commodity? – is simple to grasp, and strong; fertile angles of attack fairly spring out of the ground, and you can see where the writers were going with episodes like “Stage Fright” and “True Believer”, even if they singularly failed to make anything of them. Second, it is more ambitious than anything else Whedon has done in what is, I think, a key area – a structural critique is built into the bones of the show, whereas both in Buffy (with the Watcher’s Council) and Angel (with Wolfram & Hart) such elements were grafted on later, never entirely successfully. My knowledge of Marxist theory could kindly be described as rudimentary, but consider: Dollhouse concerns the exploitation of one class of people by another; the exploited class is literally alienated from their work, with no sense of the overall nature or purpose of the system within which they reside; the individuals in this class are literally treated as things, as dolls, and are made to believe they are freely choosing what is in fact being forced upon them; and through this make-believe, the dollhouse itself provides a frame story that alienates us, as viewers, and makes us aware of much of what happens in each episode as a constructed text. (The clearest example of this being Mellie’s parody of empowerment in “Man on the Street”, but I think it’s there in every episode; it’s always clear that the clients’ fantasies – the stories the show tells – arise out of a basic power imbalance. I even think there is a strand of self-critique on Whedon’s part running through Dollhouse, having to do with the value and authenticity, or lack thereof, of the fantasies of empowerment he has previously created.) So I think it functions productively as a particular critique of the society we live in, which is why I was so pleased that the finale showed an imprinted doll claiming the identity that had been imposed upon them: for the metaphor to work fully, we have to understand the subjective experiences of the imprints as valid, they have to be like us (hence, perhaps, Boyd’s comments that the dollhouse are murderers as well as pimps). Third, although there is much in Charlie Anders’ analysis of the show at io9 that I disagree with – particularly with regard to the characters, where I think what’s interesting is not that the dollhouse employees are morally ambiguous, but that they have good, even likeable qualities despite their decisions not being in the slightest ambiguous, being entirely reprehensible – I think she puts her finger on something important when she notes that the focus of Dollhouse is not going to be Echo/Caroline’s journey to regain her individuality, but an exploration of the corrupting effects of doll technology. I don’t believe it’s intended to end with liberation; I don’t think it could do so, not without dishonestly stuffing a genie back into its bottle. I think it’s about an inexorable slide towards the dystopic future we’ve had signalled a couple of times now, in which individuality is extinguished, and everyone is interchangeable; a pure science fiction horror story, about the absence of political agency.

(That said, of course, if someone at Fox happens to be reading, and is dithering between renewing this for a second season, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a third, then go with Sarah Connor, and don’t look back.)

26 Responses to “2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions”

  1. Martin Says:

    I haven’t felt as strongly that I was watching a culturally significant piece of science fiction since Doctor Who’s “Rose”.

    You really know how to stop someone from reading, don’t you?

    the plot, which rests on convenience and coincidence upon convenience and coincidence. Think about it for more than thirty seconds and the whole house of cards fall down.

    This is true of every film with as budget of – oh, I don’t know – more than $100m. I watched The Dark Knight for the second time at the weekend. It is absolute tosh and yet it is one the best regarded genre films in recent memory.

    Still, if you say Star Trek is bad, it must be good so I will have to check it out.

  2. Lil Shepherd Says:

    You know, one of the things I never felt “Trek” in any of its forms to be was “inspirational”. Cynic that I am, I never believed at all in the be-nice-to-everyone Federation, and had the sneaking suspicion that it would grow into something closely resembling that of “Blake’s Seven”. I prefered TOS to TNG because there was much more character conflict and people were nastier.

    I love the new movie.

    Surprise!

  3. Niall Says:

    You really know how to stop someone from reading, don’t you?

    Ha. Depressing thought, isn’t it? And yet I really think this film does for a part of American sf what Davies’ Who did for a part of British sf.

    This is true of every film with as budget of – oh, I don’t know – more than $100m.

    Not to the extent that it’s true of this one, I promise you.

  4. Tony Keen Says:

    I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve thought all along that one of the problems with it was always going to be that if you were creating this in 2009 from the ground up, you simply wouldn’t cast it the way it was cast in 1966 (or rather the way the network forced it to be cast, having rejected the version that had Majel Barrett as second-in-command). In particular, you’d wouldn’t cast the token African-American and the token female as the same character.

  5. Nader Says:

    Haven’t seen the new Trek yet, but suspect I’ll react much the same way. The expectation of a future less crappy than the present-and in the particular ways anticipated in the old vision-was part of what made the vision distinctive (at least among major SF media franchises), and also of the universe’s interest. (For a reflection of, and commentary on, our present, there were always the Cardassians, the Ferengi, etc..)

    It has become a tougher sell (I actually wrote about this in The Space Review a couple of years back), but if you chuck it, then the final product ends up simply another exercise in stamping a brand name onto a generic product for publicity and profit purposes.

    More or less agree on Dollhouse. The Marxist reading strikes me as credible, though I have to wonder what Whedon (who has always struck me as non-economistic) would make of it.

  6. Joseph Says:

    A terrible bit of pedantry, but isn’t Dollhouse on a mid-season hiatus, rather than at the end of a season?

  7. Niall Says:

    Nader:

    re: Trek: there is a part of me that feels this film almost admits defeat when it comes to being science fiction, and just accepts that “the popular image” of science fiction has narrowed from being “Star Trek and Star Wars” to just “Star Wars“. Again: I did enjoy it, but the spirit seemed lacking.

    re: Dollhouse: I’m not sure I’m particularly bothered by whether Whedon intended it or not. I do think the Dollhouse is intended as a metaphor for society in some of the ways I described: we are all dolls, we are all programmed in ways we don’t fully recognise. Whether there was any specifically Marxist intent behind it, who knows?

    Joseph: No, it was a short first season. There is one unaired episode (“Epitaph One”, by which I am deeply intrigued), which will be on the DVD set, but otherwise, that’s it. Unless it gets renewed.

  8. (a)spera Says:

    both in Buffy (with the Watcher’s Council) and Angel (with Wolfram & Hart) such elements were grafted on later, never entirely successfully

    Actually, Wolfram & Hart was present as Angel’s adversary in the very first episode of AtS, and fits into the noir sensibility of existing power structures (police, law firms, court system) as corrupt that strongly influenced the first two seasons of the show. I agree with you wrt Buffy and the Watcher’s Council, though.

  9. Chance Says:

    Dollhouse may not be “that bad” but it simply isn’t very interesting either. [1]

    In conclusion, you are a wronghead.

    [1]I am practicing my (adopted) British understatement, so if that has gone over everyone’s heads, I mean it is HORRIBLY BORING .

  10. Niall Says:

    (a)spera: you’re right, of course, but what I was thinking of was my sense that they reinvented Angel fairly thoroughly towards the end of season one. I don’t think they were particularly interested in investigating Wolfram & Hart as an institutional evil right at the start, I think it’s something they decided to emphasize later (and certainly the idea of Angel becoming complicit in that system came later); whereas in Dollhouse I feel it’s one of the founding principles.

    Chance: I find your understatement most satisfactory.

  11. (a)spera Says:

    I don’t think they were particularly interested in investigating Wolfram & Hart as an institutional evil right at the start, I think it’s something they decided to emphasize later

    //is surprised ….Lindsey McDonald is covering up for a /SPOILER/ evil vampire /SPOILER/ in the very first episode as part of the “full service” of the law firm. And it’s behind most of the awful things that Angel and Co are battling, as is revealed at the end of that elevator ride.

    Wikipedia (I know, I know) quotes Joss’s commentary on the pilot:

    Rather than have The Master, or some seeable villain as we had on Buffy, to have an entire corporation: just sort of an unseen, all-encompassing, “we make the bad world run” L.A. kind of corporation be the villain.

    I think the intent is fairly clear that W&H was set up as an institutional evil ‘right at the start’ in opposition to Angel doing his lone independent morally grey P.I. ‘down these mean streets a man must go’ thing.

    certainly the idea of Angel becoming complicit in that system came later

    That came much later at the beginning of S5, yes, and I think Joss famously said something about it like “Greenpeace activists going to work for Exxon.” Philip Marlowe doesn’t go to work for the LAPD, let’s say.

  12. cofax Says:

    It is really, epically, heroically stupid

    Thank you, Niall! ::clings:: I am feeling rather lonely out here, with my preference for smart and logical plotting. Why is it harder to find in the movies than on television nowadays?

    That said, of course, if someone at Fox happens to be reading, and is dithering between renewing this for a second season, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a third, then go with Sarah Connor, and don’t look back

    From your fingers to Fox’s ears!

    As for your discussion of Dollhouse through a Marxist lens, I find your analysis fascinating and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

    … oh, wait, I already have!

  13. Niall Says:

    (a)spera: I think I’m not being clear. Let me try again. I didn’t feel, in early Angel, that the writers cared about how or why Wolfram & Hart worked; it just did, it was precisely unseen and all-encompassing. And I think that shows in the plots: yes, W&H were behind many of them, but that fact is largely a grace note, and only starts to be elaborated around the time of “Five by Five”. From that point on, things start to change — there are fewer clients of the week; the series starts to focus more on why Angel fights, and a deeper investigation of what W&H stand for is a necessary part of that, culminating in “Reprise” and “Epiphany”. (Which are two of my all-time favourite episodes of television. Just so we’re clear!) But W&H still aren’t central to Angel, as a show; it’s Angel’s resistance that’s central. Dollhouse, on the other hand, presents a global metaphor for various forces that shape society right from the start, and it pays far more attention to the people involved in perpetuating those forces. Does that make where I think the difference lies clearer?

    Damn, I really want to watch some Angel now.

    Cofax:

    Why is it harder to find in the movies than on television nowadays?

    I don’t know, but I wish it wasn’t so. You may have seen it already, but in case not, and for anyone else reading who might not have seen it: Abigail details the dumbness far more thoroughly than I could find the will to do (and says many other intelligent things about the film besides).

  14. cofax Says:

    Oh, excellent, I had not seen Abigail’s review, and it’s spot-on. Although I don’t think this in any way kills the franchise: the movie’s done so well we’ll get more of them. Now if only they could get better writers! I would have loved it more if it had insulted my intelligence less.

  15. Ide Cyan Says:

    This Star Trek film’s emphasis on fun reminded me of the old Star Wars review that talked about its addictiveness and terrific plot convulsions designed to glorify the lead.

  16. Abigail Says:

    I don’t think this in any way kills the franchise: the movie’s done so well we’ll get more of them

    Oh, I don’t doubt that. I just don’t expect them to be any better or smarter than this one. I could be wrong – a reboot film is often hobbled by having to move a lot of furniture, and its sequel has more room to stretch its wings and do its own thing – but given the people involved I’m not hopeful.

  17. MattD Says:

    So: Star Trek is interesting to watch, but collapses as soon you think about it; Dollhouse is interesting to think about, but collapses as soon as you watch it.

    Also:

    More fundamentally, I find myself uneasy about what that nagging feeling of cultural significance might mean

    It’s the crux of contemporary SF, isn’t it: I can give you smart (if only rarely), or I can give you aspirational (if only more rarely), but I don’t know how to give you smart and aspirational at the same time. So (especially when it comes to film, where studios are investing hundreds of millions of dollars) how about I just use SF as a bad guy generator and give you a predictably formulaic blend of fun and dumb instead? (Which is, in a sense, aspirational on an individual level.) I don’t know if Star Trek says anything about the state of SF that we didn’t know already based on the popularity of mil-SF like Old Man’s War or Clute’s idea of First SF vs. later, and I don’t know if the new movie is any more culturally significant than, say, X-Men. I tend to read the overflow of positive reviews as a feedback loop of fans used to how bad recent Trek has been, combined with and reinforced by non-fans used to how impenetrably different Trek has always been.

  18. Niall Says:

    Ide Cyan: yes; I like the way Abigail put it, in her review, that it’s not Kirk who changes over the course of the film, it’s the world that changes to accomodate Kirk.

    Matt:

    Star Trek is interesting to watch, but collapses as soon you think about it; Dollhouse is interesting to think about, but collapses as soon as you watch it.

    Ha! Yes, that’s about the size of it.

    I don’t know if Star Trek says anything about the state of SF that we didn’t know already based on the popularity of mil-SF like Old Man’s War or Clute’s idea of First SF vs. later, and I don’t know if the new movie is any more culturally significant than, say, X-Men.

    On the former, no, I’m sure it doesn’t, except insofar that as a movie it is reaching a commensurately larger audience; on the latter … I don’t know. The success of the first X-Men film arguably opened the door for a decade of superheroes, so we’ll have to see if we get a wave of competing space adventures now, I guess. In the cold light of day it doesn’t seem that likely, but certainly as I was watching it I got the feeling that it was quite consciously and deliberately setting out to reinstate (a particular, limited) vision of Trek as a cultural marker against which other things should be measured, and that people were buying into it.

  19. Nic Says:

    So: Star Trek is interesting to watch, but collapses as soon you think about it; Dollhouse is interesting to think about, but collapses as soon as you watch it.

    Precisely. I’d be really interested to watch the TV show Niall describes here. Dollhouse, however, isn’t it.

  20. Athena Andreadis Says:

    Niall, I agree with you about the Star Trek film, in particular that it’s essentially Star Wars in a Star Trek universe. It’s actually alternative universe fanfiction. This for me was a double strike, since I believe that Star Wars is extremely reactionary.

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  22. Cliff Burns Says:

    Rubbish, absolute rubbish. JJ Abrams is the new Michael Bay with all the attendant faults and accompanying stupidity. Stick to the small screen, JJ, where your utter lack of talent, vision and originality aren’t so manifestly obvious. I reviewed the Trek film immediately after seeing it so my impressions were very fresh and my invective nearly set my monitor on fire. This is cinema for the GameBoy/XBox generation: loud, moronic, incoherent. I really despair for the future of motion pictures…

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  24. arkan2 Says:

    I haven’t felt as strongly that I was watching a culturally significant piece of science fiction since Doctor Who’s “Rose”.

    You really know how to stop someone from reading, don’t you?
    I had a similar reaction, until I took a good look and saw the way you referred to both “Star Trek 11″ and “Rose” as “culturally significant,” which has no qualitative implications.

    I agree, Star Trek 11 was fun, but it wasn’t clever and it wasn’t progressive, and those are two things which are integral to the franchise in my opinion. Enjoyable movie? Yes. Star Trek? No. (I didn’t even mind the Idiot Plot, much.)

    And as for “Dollhouse,” well, as I said in my original ferretbrain comment, I really like your analysis, but I’m convinced it doesn’t have anything to do with any inherent quality and certainly not any sort of sophisticated intentionally within the show itself.

    MattD: So: Star Trek is interesting to watch, but collapses as soon you think about it; Dollhouse is interesting to think about, but collapses as soon as you watch it.
    Two of the biggest televisual sensations of 2009 summed up in one sentence. You sir, have a way with words.

    Abigail & Athena: If you ever read this, I just wanted to let you know I greatly appreciated your thoughts on the movie as well.

    And Athena: I loved your Star Wars article. It was beautifully written, your points were on target, and the examples you brought up fit perfectly. (Your style reminds me a little of Noam Chomsky’s, actually.)

    Of course, I’ve always maintained that all that was the point. The Jedi Order has its collective head firmly up its bum when it comes to the emotional needs of its members, and while the prequels might downplay the real life severity of such polices, they’re clearly as much to blame for Anakin being screwed-up as that manipulative bastard of a Sith Lord. (Anakin wasn’t wrong to love his family or try to protect it–he was wrong to become a mass-murderer in the process.)

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