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Category: Culture

Trying to Stay on Trek
This is a difficult essay for me to write. As a veteran fanboy, I never like to say anything harsh about about the Star Trek franchise.

So I want to be fair. The special effects are great. As to everything else…perhaps the makers of Star Trek: Discovery were just too ambitious in their vision for the show. Not only did they take on a story arc that spanned 14 one-hour episodes (with each episode capable of standing on its own, complete with cliff-hanger), but they also tried to make it work as science fiction and (I must report) overwrought soap opera.

After Season One, I was filled with hope about this new branching of the franchise. In this space I even dared to call it “the best Star Trek ever.” I knew at the time that this was hyperbole. I wanted (too much so, it seems) for the show to succeed, and thereby guarantee a continuing flow of sci-fi for me and my fellow trekkies. I am less hopeful now.

What I saw last year as an edgy new form of “space noir” has degenerated into over-the-top intergalactic melodrama. As with most science fiction, the stakes are the absolute highest they can be: the threatened obliteration of all sentient life in the universe. Somehow, however, that awful possibility plays second fiddle to the leaden family drama between heroine Michael Burnham and the House of Spock. Now, I’m as reverent of sentient life as the next person, but does it really have to involve this level of over-acting and self-absorption?

This high schmaltziness seems to trump everything else in Discovery. The writers (whom I blame for just about everything wrong with Season Two) repeatedly insert characters’ agonized soliloquies about their personal feelings in the middle of universe-in-the-balance action scenes. Each time it happens, I want to reach for my phaser — and it wouldn’t be set to “stun,” either.

Worse, the goofy/cool science concepts are gone. They are replaced by haphazard tech fixes and look-what-I-just-made gizmos that conveniently advance the plot but do nothing to satisfy my need for nifty scientific notions that actually make sense as part of the story. This failing thus undermines my prime rationale for watching science fiction in the first place. Plus, most of the new aliens have been lame this season. That torpedoes my second big rationale — high quality space monsters.

Another complaint: the starship Discovery is not a credible interstellar vehicle. Such ships could arguably afford some extra roominess in the form of the holodecks and extracurricular lounges we’ve seen on some versions of the USS Enterprise. You’d think something like that would be vital in maintaining the crew’s mental health. The Discovery, though, has vast expanses of open space inside it that don’t appear to serve any function other than showing us how big the ship is.

Furthermore, the command structure is a joke. Direct orders from Captain Pike are routinely disobeyed — often multiple times in the same episode. Crew members walk in and out of areas where they do not belong (including admirals’ quarters) just to drop little melodramatic bombs about their personal struggles. Is this any way to run a starship? No — especially if the fate of all sentient life hangs in the balance.

It may be that Discovery’s creators were trying to broaden the appeal of their show. In doing so, however, they have left me stranded on a different timeline with two episodes to go…and hope for a rescue is fading fast. I have been disappointed before by Star Trek reboots. This time, I had hoped that the ambition of the show and the promise of its first season might portend something of the caliber of Game of Thrones. That show took on a lot of the same challenges as Discovery, with dragons and pure fantasy taking the place of nifty science. Thrones succeeded, perhaps, by having one central writer at the helm and a bunch of pre-existing books that had worked out the tricky plotting and character development.

Maybe Episodes 13 and 14 will save me. I have not abandoned all hope. I’m guessing that sentient life will end up surviving, but my chief concern now is that an away team of writers will find my lost timeline and rescue me at last.

Short of that, I will have to wait for next year for help to arrive — maybe in the form of some new storytellers.
Pump Not
May I have everyone’s attention, please? Thank you. I have a small request to make of worldwide human culture.

It’s about the fist pump. I’d like to see it go away completely.

Okay, I know that this gesture has been widely used as a method of celebrating all kinds of victories, large and small. Furthermore, it has come to be seen as an amusing display of good, clean competitive spirit. For that reason, I certainly don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. Sometimes, however, as a service to the public good, I allow myself to become a light drizzle — on your victory march if necessary.

I know these things can take time, so let’s make sure all 8 billion of you know exactly what my request covers. First, it’s not the fist bump. I have no problem with the bumping of fists with another as a means of expressing mutual satisfaction. And I’m not talking about a fist that is simply raised in the air as a sign of victory or other transcendence. Same with a fist held up and waggled in an amusing fashion or a fist thrown as an exaggerated air-punch (a la tiger Woods upon sinking a 40-foot putt). Nor do I have a quarrel with a fist brandished in anger or as a threat. All these usages would be permitted under my ban.

The fist pump I am concerned with involves a very particular pumping action. According to Webster (and me), it is “a celebratory gesture (as by a sports player) in which the fist is raised in front of the body and then quickly and vigorously drawn back.” Webster goes on to report that its first usage in print was in 1981. Other than that, its origins seem to be unknown, but its introduction to broad public awareness might be attributed to Kirk Gibson after his miraculous walk-off homer off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. As Gibson limped around the bases, he swung his bent right arm again and again with this exaggerated pumping action.

I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t. Apparently, given the widespread usage of the fist pump, the world disagrees. So allow me to make my case for its absolute forbiddance. At the core of my argument — the root, you might say — is the unseemliness of the gesture, especially when used in a repeated fashion. It mimics, to my eye, sexual intercourse. And please, don’t tell me that has never occurred to you. The imagery is obvious: copulation of the most exuberant variety.

Now, I am not a prude. (If you doubt that, I have a large sheaf of documentation here, including photographs, testimonials, and police reports, that you are welcome to look through.) The messaging of fist pumping, however, is unmistakeable. The pumper is saying one of two things: A. what just happened is as good or better than sex, or B. a big “fuck you” to his opponent.

In either case, the gesture is just plain wrong. If you are getting the same feeling out of winning at sports that you get from good sex, then the sex you’ve been having isn’t nearly as good as you think, my friend. And if your gesture is meant as a more demonstrative version of flipping the bird, then you are the most unsportsmanlike of sportsmen.

I hope that I have made myself clear. Fist pumping should never have been accepted as a legitimate form of celebration. It defiles sport and gives sex a bad name. And now that it has metastasized into a global phenomenon, it needs to be removed from our culture like a giant, malignant growth.

I can see by the expressions on your faces that we have unanimous agreement. Thanks for listening and for your prompt attention to this matter.
We Have a Winner
I am not a Game of Thrones devotee, but that does not prevent me from having very strong feelings about the characters, the story arc, and the opinions of those who do watch the show. (In the interests of transparency: I did watch for a couple of seasons, but all the torture and graphic cruelty proved to be too much for me.)

So, where to begin? How about with Jon Snow? Everybody liked him, then he died. But the next season, he comes back to life. I’m sorry, but that’s when GoT lost me for good. If characters can come back to life, then all the killing is just a meaningless orgy of violence with no real consequences attached. Since no one is ever really dead, the crime of murder in Westeros is just another event and neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Once I realized that, even the dragons weren’t enough to keep me going.

The driving question behind the endless plot of GoT, of course, is Who will win the Game of Thrones? Now, since I stopped watching back when the dragons were still youngsters, all I have to go on are the headlines I see each Monday after the most recent episode has aired. I don’t bother to read the accompanying articles, but I see enough to know that Arya Stark, for instance, has come back from total blindness(!), and is now a serious player in the race for the top spot. That puts her right there with Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and practically everyone else who’s a continuing character — including the “dead” ones.

I’ll give you my prediction, but first let’s rule out the losers. Blondie the dragon whisperer is too obvious; never pick the most obvious choice. None of the Starks, either; they have been a hard luck, doomed clan from the start. The Lannisters family is also out (despite the adorable Tyrion); they’re just too ordinary as fantasy fiction rulers go.

For awhile I thought the winner might be the Night King — especially if you were to buy my theory that the character should really be called the Night Queen because he’s a she. Check out his/her perfect nails and somewhat diminutive build. Anyway, a victorious female would be a satisfying conclusion, and the switcheroo at the end would make all this suspense worthwhile.

I have backed away from this idea, however, and I think you know why. So that leaves us with the only credible choice remaining. Who’s as smart and wily as any of these other characters? Who would you obey as king without question? Who’s been in almost every episode, and who commands your undivided attention in every scene he’s in?

Drogon, of course. Drogon the dragon. No? You just watch (even though I won’t be).
No Sale
When Matthew McConaughey makes himself comfortable behind the wheel of his big new Lincoln MKZ, we see an odd expression come over his face. It’s a smile, but a smile that speaks volumes (we are expected to believe) about what this car makes him feel. It’s a knowing smile, with a hint of superiority, as if he has something on all the other poor chumps out there on the road. It seems that we drive cars incapable of inspiring such emotions.

Lincolns are not alone in this respect. Other cars (judging from their advertising) seem to grant their drivers the same feelings of superiority. In the Cadillac XT4 commercial, we see an attractive young woman with the same sly, sardonic smirk on her face as she drives through a series of fantastical maneuvers on city streets somehow devoid of traffic. We find out later that she’s a wholesome mother of three who’s out picking up her kids.

What is going on here? I have never had any car that evoked anything like these feelings. I’ll cop to feelings of superiority over other drivers, but that’d more about their driving, not my car. The niftiest car I’ve ever owned was a freshly-minted ’69 (that’s 1969) Triumph Spitfire. It made me feel kind of cool, but not because it was better than other cars. In fact, I am proud to report that none of the cars and trucks I’ve owned has ever asked to be compared to other rides as a test of its own worthiness. They all stood (or rolled) on their own, cool or not.

Perhaps I am misjudging the expressions on these actors’ faces, including Mr. McConaughey’s. It could be that their dark smiles denote a pleasure so delicious that it sets their entire persona ablaze. But how? And why? It’s just a car, after all, and nothing that fancy, really. No De Tomaso Mangustas here, no Rolls Royce Phantoms — just big, overbuilt American boats. And even in the case of the Lexus UX (a “luxury crossover”) or the BMW X7 (a “sport activity vehicle”), the snazziness of the vehicle still doesn’t warrant that self-satisfied expression on the drivers’ faces.

I certainly don’t want to cast aspersions on the abilities of these commercial actors, especially Mr. McConaughey. As we have seen in such productions as True Detective and The Dallas Buyer’s Club, Matthew knows how to play crazy…so much so that you might think he’s a little crazy himself. That would explain his weird relationship with that high-end tank he drives. But these other actors…why do they look like they know something that we don’t? What is their dirty little secret?

These commercially-generated characters are young, affluent, and nice (with the possible exception of Mr. McConaughey). They love kids. They obey the law, even traffic laws. So what is their trip? What’s with the dark, mocking expression? I can’t help feeling that it is directed at me in particular, but if it is meant for all of humanity, that is even more alarming. Behind their pleasant, normal appearances, are these drivers cold-blooded sociopaths?

I suppose it’s possible that I might be taking all this too personally. In any case, it is not the actors I have a quarrel with here. It is the automobile manufacturers themselves. They seem to think that this brand of psychopathy is a selling point. My experience, however, tells me the opposite. People don’t like it when you act superior. I know I do. And I don’t think that people long to be that kind of jerk themselves. At least I hope not.

Let me say to those manufacturers, right here and right now, that I am not interested in buying their products. Furthermore, to illustrate my conviction in this matter, I am establishing a one-man boycott against all of these vehicles.

I know this is a hollow threat (and just another entry on the long list of hollow threats I have made against products I would never buy anyway), but I want my voice to be heard on this important matter. I am foursquare against highways full of sociopaths driving at top speed in giant hunks of metal. Apologies to Matthew, but foregoing ownership of that Lincoln MKZ is a small price to pay for such a world.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon