Tag Archives: Star Trek

Mixed Results

I really liked the movie Balto as a kid. And for a kid, it makes sense. It’s about a talking dog, and there’s a goose and a couple polar bears in it too. Plus it’s a story about the outsider getting a chance to prove they belong by doing an Epic Heroic Thing and earning their place.’

Also, it’s a story about being mixed.

Like me.

I’m mixed, biracial, half-Asian; whatever the term du jour is. Which is something I mention every now and then on this blog, because it’s part of who I am and thus how I interpret the world around me and, with it, the narratives that the world creates. In other worlds: I tell you this because it directly impact the way I see stories.

And this is important, because Balto is half-dog, half-wolf, which is a major part of his identity in the story. He doesn’t fit in with the dogs because of his wolfness, but he can’t exactly run out and join a pack of wolves. He doesn’t belong to either group. Over the course of the movie he (spoiler) proves himself to his peers and, more importantly, realizes that his being half-wolf is a good thing, not a drawback. The plot progresses and he gets to save the day.

We don’t see a lot of mixed-race narratives, period. TV Tropes has precious few examples, and many of them are either informed traits or their entire story.. Sure, we’ll see interracial relationships play out (Hello, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), but anytime the product of one of those shows up, if the question of identity is addressed, chances are it becomes their whole thing. Growing up, Balto was the only story I knew that had a character who was explicitly mixed and dealt with that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t the only thing he had going on; he still got to do the hero thing.

It’s quite unfortunate, then, that I didn’t see much of Star Trek until I was eighteen, but even then just the Abrams film. But that’s a movie about Spock’s journey as a character, one that’s inherently related to his own status as being half-Vulcan, half-Human. Again, the importance here is that though the story deals with Spock’s identity, it is not the extent of his arc. He still has a story of learning humility and teamwork and saving the day and all that, one aspect of which is, of course, struggling with his identity.

I wanna stress just how rare this is. When stories come up with biracial characters that touch on their identity, that’s usually the be all and end all of their story. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has Sarah Jane, a half-white, half-black girl who passes white and so uses that to her advantage. Her story is one of someone rejecting one identity in favor of another and thus all but abandoning her mother in pursuit of hedonism. Yes, it’s a story about someone who’s mixed, but it’s about being mixed. Most of the time, when someone who’s mixed shows up in fiction and has a role, that’s their story. It’s about coming to terms with their identity, or realizing that they should embrace both halves and what have you. There’s no conjunction; they don’t come to terms with their identity and save the world, they don’t get to embrace both halves and make the big jump to fund their step-dad’s conveniently priced surgery.

This is why Balto mattered to me so damn much as a kid. I got to see someone in a movie dealing with some of the crap I dealt with. I got to see someone do all that and still save the day. It’s about being different, but still getting the normal treatment. Differently normal, if you will. I do think stories about mixed people being mixed are important, but equally important are stories where  they – we – get to deal with the stuff and still be the hero. I want stories about mixed people that aren’t just about being mixed; I’m more than just someone who’s half-white, half-Asian.

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Visible Diversity

So I recently started Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Finally, I should say; you’d think with a Marc Webb directed pilot I’d have watched it sooner. Anyway, once you get past the somewhat off-putting title (which, as the theme song says, is a sexist term and the situation is a lot more nuanced than that), Crazy Ex is a lotta fun. It’s a musical equal parts cynical and idealistic set in a relatively mundane setting where no matter how outlandish it gets, the character relations stay heartfelt. It’s great.

But that’s not what this post’s about.

Look in the backgrounds of a scene in Crazy Ex or the backup singers and dancers in a musical number. It looks unlike a lot of what you usually see on tv, and not just because of the singing and dancing. Crazy Ex has made an effort to fill its background with people of all colors. Not just one person-of-color in the background, but a variety of folks who you don’t usually get to see on tv (or in media in general). I mean, c’mon! When was the last time you got to see an Asian guy as part of a musical number! Where he wasn’t the token background person of color? Since there’s, y’know, a few other non-white people populating the scene?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been remarkable at filling out its cast – both main and bit players! — with people who aren’t white. The person protagonist Rachel obsesses over is an Asian guy named Josh (*cough*). The Major Client she has to land for her law firm is black, some of the peopler competing in the guac competition at the Taco Festival are Latino. And the people at that Taco Festival also run the racial spectrum.

Am I making a big deal about a small thing? Yes. Because it’s a small thing worth making a big deal about.

It’s easy, all so easy to fill out a scene with a bunch of white people peppered with the occasional sprig of diversity. But what Crazy Ex does that’s so cool is take that diversity and ratchet it up several notches, and then make those sprigs of diversity visible. You don’t have to squint to find your background minority.

Star Trek Beyond did something similar. Not only is the background crew of the Enterprise noticeably more diverse, but, once again, the featured people in the background aren’t all white. The crew members we see disappear into a cabin while making out are an Asian guy and a white woman (*cough*); the woman we follow as the bridge is evacuated is an Indian woman. Heck, the leader of the super high tech space station, Commodore Paris, is played by Shohrer Aghdashloo who was in The Expanse. She’s the person who tells Kirk, what to do, by the way; and that’s great.

And this is the part where I have to mention Rogue One. Because, again, diversity! Heroes! Chinese actors! A Middle Eastern actor is the pilot! Diego Luna! Forest Whitaker! But! But but but! It’s also the small stuff in the background. The Rebel troops we see in the trailer are racially diverse (and the LEGO AT-ST set coming out features a black guy as the generic rebel trooper). Again, these are small details that give the world a fuller feel.

And it’s friggin’ important. Because this is fiction, and fiction reflects reality, and reality is remarkably diverse. White-as-default isn’t gonna fly anymore. Yes, I have a personal investment in this because, growing up, I didn’t see a lot of heroes who looked like me. Over the years I’ve gotten used to turning on the tv or sitting down in a theatre and not expecting to see myself represented (or represented as anyone other than The Other). Yeah, I try and fix that in my own stuff, even if it’s just a student film.

But.

It’s changing.

Star Trek Beyond firmly proved that Sulu wasn’t the only Asian on the Enterprise and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is inclusive as crap in who gets to be in its musical numbers and who gets to be  multi-faceted people on tv. And Rogue One, well, I’ve already ranted about that.

If this is the sign of fiction-to-come, I can’t wait.

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When Science Dreams

The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.

But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.

It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.

Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.

Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.

Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.

Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.

So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.

Or at least get to Mars already.

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(Re)Constructing Narratives

Yes, this is sort of a follow up to to last week’s post, but in my defense I’ve been reading an anthropological book on inclusion/exclusion stuff. So bear with me.

We need more narratives, that’s a given. Meaning we need there to be more versions of what can happen to people, and what people can be. Because when there’s only one accepted narrative, the outsiders become othered. Having more narratives encompassing more people, more takes on people, let us see them as people and not just as stereotypes or what not. Frequently, changing the narratives means having to build new ones.

Narratives exist about people, whether we acknowledge them or not. In the years since 9/11, the prominent American narrative about Muslims has been that they’re violent extremists stuck in an old fashioned mindset. Which, y’know, isn’t true; but since it’s the only one most folks in the States hear it’s the one that’s accepted. Which is why these different narratives are so crucial. When a character like Kamala Khan — the new Ms. Marvel in the comics — comes along, who presents a different view of Muslim life; suddenly, bam, they become human, ordinary.

Kamala Khan is, for the most part, a normal teenager (minus, y’know, superpowers). She goes to school, she struggles with crushes, she fights with her family. Kamala is instantly relatable; we’ve all been there, right? Then we see how what her faith expects of her; how she and her brother deal differently with their identities as immigrant children. Through Ms. Marvel, writer G. Willow Wilson is able to reconstruct the narrative of a muslim family into one that’s relatable, even if it’s not the one we’re most familiar with. Kamala and her family stop being the unknowable other and become friends, neighbors. G. Willow Wilson — herself a Muslim — thus takes the established Muslim narrative and gives us a new one. This is particularly important because the central narrative surrounding Muslims is so toxic. Ms. Marvel provides an alternative to the vitriol so prevalent, something vital not just for people at large, but for a young woman like Kamala trying to find her own place in the world.

Fiction has the great ability to affect the way we see people. It lets us into others’ heads, yeah, but it also shapes how we see them. When Star Trek came out in the Sixties, the crew had Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov; a Japanese man, Black woman, and Russian man. The US had been in a fierce war with the first, was embroiled in a Civil Rights debate regarding the second, and had just taken the third as the primary enemy of the time. Not only was Sulu different from the anti-Japanese propaganda that permeated the US barely two decades earlier, but he also ran counter to the general consensus that Asian men were effeminate and hapless; Sulu was capable, masculine, and heroic. Uhura was intelligent and an officer, at the same time African Americans were still fighting for the right to be treated as equal citizens. What made Star Trek so revolutionary was how it changed the narratives of ‘enemy’ and ‘other,’ however it’s still an issue that we’re grappling with today. Here was a story about ‘those people’ where they weren’t mysterious and scary, but rather fellow shipmates.

So are narratives stereotypes? Sort of. Stereotypes are informed by narratives, especially when there’s too much of just one. Changing them up is also a way of undoing stereotypes. Look at Terry in Brooklyn Nine-Nine; by all accounts he should be another big, stern, scary, black police sergeant. Instead, he’s the epitome of a family man who loves his wife and daughters even more than his muscle mass.

These sorts of issues can’t be solved by any one comic or tv show; it will take a bunch of time to build the new narratives and show a large shift in public opinion . But hey, it’s all one step to seeing people as people, no matter who they are.

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Where No One Has Gone Before

Let’s talk about space, because of Interstellar. Now, it’s hard to discuss the film because so much of what makes it Interstellar is because its based so fundamentally on the curves and turns of the plot. So for the sake of avoiding spoilers and ruining everything, we’re not talking about Interstellar’s story.

Instead let’s talk about the set up; about the initial question asked by the film, the question of space travel. Many of the early parts of Interstellar can be read as a vindication of space programs. There’s a strong lament for the abandonment of space exploration.

Interstellar espouses the idea that we’re supposed to go beyond earth, what with the whole “humanity was never meant to die here” tagline and all. It’s a theme of science fiction that’s been preciously scarce as of late. Gone is 2001: A Space Odyssey and movies about going to Mars. Instead we’ve got films like District 9 and Godzilla which while great, are very terrestrial science fiction. Or Guardians of the Galaxy, which while fantastic, is a straight up space opera (and all the better for it). Think about Avatar, a fairly recent movie that had elements of exploration: The message was that humanity should stop screwing up ecosystems. Europa Report, Prometheus, and even Gravity were more horror inclined than about a desire for exploration.

The closest we’ve had in recent years is Into Darkness. Granted, it’s very space operatic (as was the old Star Trek TV show), but it (again, like the old TV show) has hints of the want of exploration. Of wanting to go where no one has gone before. If anything, Into Darkness, like Interstellar after it, is a defense of why space exploration is still relevant.

Into Darkness pits two ideas against each other. There’s the one argument that militarization is the route forward, that humanity’s presence in space is fundamentally a militaristic one. On the other hand there’s the argument that exploration is a reason and goal in and of itself. It’s not the tidiest of presentations of the themes, but the revived franchise has to prove that over half a century later the idea of exploring the final frontier is relevant and engaging. It shouldn’t have to.

I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Right up until I found out it would take over a dozen years of training which, to an eight-year-old, is a very long time. But fifteen years later there’s still that want to go to space, thanks to a steady diet of Star Wars, Firefly, and just about anything else involving spaceships. Even now a video of astronauts playing with water in zero-g is one of the coolest things. Because it’s space, it’s terrifying, it’s cool, and I want to go there.

Watching Interstellar conjures up images of today’s space program and how it’s almost become an afterthought. We’ve got a rover on Mars, probes exploring the far reaches of the solar system and beyond; but the classic image of a moon colony lies all but dormant. Where’s the luster gone? Where’s the want to go before.

Though there’s a massive amount of words to be said about Interstellar, one thing I liked was its commentary on it. Space travel is important and is arguably the next big step forward.

If only because I want a spaceship.

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Breaking Point

Let’s talk about Into Darkness. It’s a sequel to a reboot and also has some shades of a remake. Those are all things that seldom bode well for a movie, but, Into Darkness pulls it off magnificently. It simply does everything right. The main thing I want to address is Into Darkness’ existence as a sequel. There’s no getting around that. Amusingly, the main criticism I see in reviews is just that: Into Darkness doesn’t feel as fresh or new as 2009’s Star Trek. I’d like to counter that by saying: hello, it’s a sequel.

Now, a year ago, I wrote a post about what makes a good sequel. In that post I quoted Joss Whedon’s thoughts on how to make a sequel that would top The Avengers: “By not trying to. By being smaller. More personal, more painful… By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time.” This is exactly what Into Darkness does.

What was 2009’s Trek about? A vengeful threat from the future seeks to destroy Earth and it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to band together to stop him. The stakes are massive (destruction of Earth) and it allows our characters to come into their own and form the crew their supposed to be. It firmly establishes the new universe, re-introduces the characters, and sets it up for their next adventure. Why don’t we make a chain of stars explode and rip apart several planets now?

Into Darkness’ stakes are less direct. The whole of Earth isn’t quite currently at risk, but we do know the sweeping consequences if they fail their mission. Rather, the villain John Harrison and his actions cause tension and conflict among the Enterprise’s crew (particularly Kirk and Spock) and forces them into a corner, forces them to face the thing they fear most. Kirk is faced with the most difficult no-win challenge of his life. Spock is forced to face a scenario absent of a logical solution. These characters are forced to their breaking point, situations which, as Kirk says, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do”. What’s so important about this scenario? Well, as Kirk goes on to say: “I only know what I can do.” This desperation marks much of the film. Where once we had our protagonists scrambling around trying to save the world, Into Darkness sees them trying to save each other and, at their core, themselves. It’s personal, it’s painful, and it’s precisely where the story needed to go.

2009’s Star Trek saw the assembly of the crew, Into Darkness forces them into a stronger, more unified whole. We need to see the Enterprise’s trial by fire for them to become the crew from The Original Series. This is their moment to become who they are.

Another thing that Into Darkness succeeds at is its reconciliation of the ‘first’ film and any future films with the classics. This movie, more than the prior, looks at Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic view of the future and translates its core tensions to work in a modern setting. It’s worth noting that in modern science fiction interplanetary organizations tend to be militaristic: Halo’s UNSC for example, far from the exploratory nature of Starfleet. The idea of pure exploration isn’t as cool anymore, is it? Into Darkness, more so than its predecessor, takes apart our own expectations and Starfleet itself, rebuilding it and proving that, yes, Roddenberry was right. Into Darkness is Roddenberry’s vision rebuilt.

Into Darkness is a phenomenal film. It follows up 2009’s movie by not trying to go bigger, but instead to go deeper. It draws on ideas from prior movies and episodes to create a new adventure that really gets into the heart of the characters. It dares to push them to their breaking point and forces them to find a way out. This is what sequels should do. The end result is a fantastic film that effortlessly blends old ideas in a new world.

Go see this movie.

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Why Abrams Is The Man For Star Wars

A little more than a week ago it was officially announced that JJ Abrams would be directing the new Star Wars. Some people met this news with a measure of caution.

Myself? I think Abrams is the person to direct it.

Look at Mission: Impossible III. Abrams made his directorial debut with the sequel to this established series. He kept strongly to the themes and style of the original TV show (so I’m told). Not only was it considered the best Mission: Impossible film until Ghost Protocol came along, but it elevated the series from being simple action movies to intelligent, developed thrillers. JJ Abrams entered into a franchise, captured the themes, and made it better.

But let’s move on to his next film, shall we? 2009’s Star Trek made Star Trek cool. Really cool, lens flare cool. Sure, it felt different thematically from the TV series, but it kept the characters’ personalities and dynamics. It’s not just the old names applied to new people: they’re the same! More than that, he crafted a well made adventure that, like Mission: Impossible III, took an established franchise, made it his own, and made it good. We didn’t get a half-baked sorta-Trek, we got a movie that took the idea of a cool and wonderful future and made it work. It was a sheer wide-eyed adventure of a farmboy saving the world, like the original Star Wars.

His most recent film is Super 8. If you wanted an 80’s adventure film in the spirit of E.T. or The Goonies, you loved this movie. You might be sensing a bit of a trend here: Abrams captured the spirit of movies from that decade but also infused it with a feeling of something new. He wasn’t just rehashing old stories, he told a new one. Furthermore, in Super 8 he balanced adventure and fun with some very quiet, very poignant scenes. As the world around them swirls in a mess and the film reaches its end, characters share these quiet beautiful moments. In the midst of action and visuals, Abrams still captures the emotion. Like in, y’know, Empire Strikes Back.

And through it all, Abrams has this feeling of mythology. He helped lay the groundwork for Lost, he gave us the enigmatic Rabbit’s Foot in Mission: Impossible III and the alien in Super 8. Unlike George Lucas and the prequels, Abrams doesn’t feel the need to explain away every detail. He gives his work a feeling of mystery and myth. Again, this is something the Holy Trilogy was built on (the Force is a mystical energy field, not some, well, whatever midichlorians do).

But the script must count too, yes? Doesn’t matter how good your director is if your script sucks. The writer for Episode VII is Michael Arndt. He’s the guy that did Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that balanced comedy with a lot of heart. A lot. He also did this little film called Toy Story 3 which you’ll probably recall as a sequel that effortlessly slipped into the established continuity and trumped all prior. What do we know from these two films? This man can give a screenplay heart without it feeling shoehorned in and capture the voices of characters who aren’t his own. Furthermore, the script is being supervised by Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Empire Strikes Back).

As it stands now, Star Wars Episode VII is shaping up to be the Star Wars movie we’ve wanted for a very long time. Did we need a new Star Wars? Not really, but now that we are getting one, and now that we know who’s behind it… We have the perfect storm for a new Star Wars. Yeah, I know, it’s at least two years away… but c’mon man, I’m excited.

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