Monday, November 28, 2011

"Law and Order" Is So Conservative It Makes Michael Savage Look Like John Rawls

Why am I even blogging about this. I'll admit this latest "Law and Order" rant originates with a pretty tense and potentially-explosive moment in the shower the other day (why do these moments always seem to happen in the shower?), when the girlfriend admitted that she had watched a couple episodes of "L&O" with a friend of hers, to which I replied, "Ugh I can't stand that show, for reasons I've probably shared with you like a hundred times by now," to which she replied, "well, what are they," to which I replied....well, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. It's just that it occurred to me, while simultaneously disputing and washing myself, that the case against "L&O" is about much more than television or artistic tastes, that "L&O"'s malignancy is rooted in things that matter like, a lot, and that its sustained popularity over the course of two decades and about a half-dozen spinoffs and iterations reveals something actually quite dark and terrifying about the state of American society. I didn't convince her that this was the case, but I was able to convince myself that this was the case, which is really all that matters for the purposes of this introductory paragraph. I became so convinced of my own rightness on this issue--so convinced that "L&O" is reactionary and authoritarian at its core, and that it both appeals to and exposes a reactionary and authoritarian strain in American culture and politics--that I now find myself writing a blog post as a result of it.

I want to say, first of all, that I haven't actually watched an episode of "L&O" for several years now, and few specific episode synopses or plot points are coming to mind right now. My anti-"L&O" brief won't be based on any specific, anecdotal evidence, but this hardly seems to matter: "L&O" is marked by its extremely repetitive and formulaic nature, and the structure of an "L&O" episode is so rigid, so codified, that the episodes are virtually identical.

In my own experience, as well as in my own cultural and individual vocabulary, repetition and sanctification are inextricably linked. Holidays and liturgies are repeated; the Torah is repeated once a year according to a reading calendar from which no Jewish sect, no matter how liberal, would ever dream of deviating. With prayer, repetition sanctifies: if you've ever witnessed a Hardei Jew driven to near-madness with kavanah during a Tuesday night Shemona Esrei, then you understand what I mean. Someone who only reads through Shemona Esrei a handful of times of year--someone like me, that is--is incapable of transcending the stilted and often quite-difficult reading of the words in front of him, and is therefore incapable of being driven to near-madness with kavanah while reading Shemona Esrei on a Tuesday night. In religion, the deepest regions of spirituality and mystical truth are often accessed through repetition, and "L&O" is quite possibly the most repetitive show ever made.

What exactly is "L&O" sanctifying? What is this nightly or, in some cases, hourly (my dad once remarked that it seemed like "L&O" was on TV virtually every second of the day) ritual of crime/investigation/red herring/arrest/trial/trial nearly bungled as a result of clever lawyering and/or technicalities/trial saved at the last minute/punishment meant to consecrate? The answer is fairly obvious, at least when you contrast "L&O" to a show that I'm guessing most people have completely forgotten about.

"Juvies" ran on MTV for what, like a season? Maybe it's still on? I don't know. It was probably one of the bravest things the channel has ever broadcast, and a reminder that MTV was once capable of displaying a surprising sense of responsibility towards the same youth culture it does so much to encourage and create, as well as degrade and destroy. Basically, "Juvies" was a jarring look at the criminal justice system, as told from the perspective of people who were roughly the same age as most MTV viewers (much in the same way that "16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom" is a jarring look at the pressures of motherhood and family life, as well as at what an unforgiving and difficult place the real world can be, as told through the perspective of people are roughly the same age as most MTV viewers).

"Juvies" allowed MTV viewers to witness simulacra of themselves--attractive, suburban, mostly upper middle-class teenagers with families and schools and aspirations in life--navigating the Byzantine corridors of American Justice and having a pretty rough time of it. They'd be arrested for extremely dumb shit, have all of their clothes confiscated, be forced to chill out for a couple days in a featureless, soulless building in which they're treated like human turds, and then go before a judge (and because "Juvies" was filmed at a single correctional facility, it was the same judge every single time) who wielded a highly arbitrary power-of-life-and-death over befuddled and often terrified high school kids whom she had never met before. I don't know if this was the producers' intent, but "Juvies" invited its audience to imagine themselves in a similarly Kafakaesque situation. It was, in its own way, a powerful example of dissident journalism, a reminder of how massive and fucked up and insurmountable The System can be, and is:

In contrast, "L&O" is all about how The System is always just and right and working in our very best interests. Every episode is a canned, fairy-tale rendering of authority in action; every conviction a semi-ritualized confirmation of the inherent rightness of the prevailing moral and social order. Hell, the word "order" even appears in the title. Law and Order, in this context, represent the triumph of the liberal, technocratic state over society's most intractable problems. The show invents monsters--rapists, mobsters, serial killers, psychopaths, child murderers, sex traffickers, terrorists, loners, losers, wife-beaters--and a small group of extremely intelligent and often-attractive people employed by the government slay them, every single time, one after another. My professor Ross Posnock (in the course of discussing The Sun Also Rises) once explained bullfighting as imperialism in miniature, as the ritualized assertion of the Spanish national will over not just nature, but over some monstrous and easily-victimized Other. "L&O" is the American version of bullfighting (or at least the American version of Ross Posnock's version of bullfighting). It's a vindication of The System, repeated again, and again, and again, with only cosmetic variation, with Sam Waterson as matador, and Jerry Orbach, Richard Belzer et al. as picadors.

My theory for why this spectacle had endured for two decades, 456 episodes and about a half-dozen spinoffs actually contradicts the title of this post. "L&O" is appealing partly because it appeals to the very worst aspects of liberalism and conservativsm both: for the right, it proves that the system is working and that everything is A-OK; for the left, it validates a positivist, utopian notion of liberalism, wherein power is inordinately capable of remedying society's deepest and scariest ills. The idea of empowering a privilaged and in many ways extra-legal interest group to arrest, beat and even kill any minority (or, in many cases, non-minority) they please while prohibiting the rest of us from smoking a harmless herb or drinking wine in parks, is an outrgorwth of the positivist, utopian, power-can-solve-our-problems-if-we-could-just-be-subjected-t0-enough-of-it school of liberalism. Ruddy Guilliani or hell, Barack Obama are both exemplars of this strain of liberalism, to which the Foucaldian idea that Order results not from power, but from a network of socially and historically-informed (and therefore non-consensual) power relationships, is fundamentally opposed. "L&O" occupies a weird political middle ground. "L&O" is reactionary because it kashers and justifies The System, but oddly forward-thinking, since The System--which is portrayed as being freakishly highly-functioning--is itself the logical endpoint of liberal social management.

We, as a society, want badly to believe that the liberal-conservative compromise that "L&O" has drilled into millions of heads hundreds of millions of times is a good and worthwhile one. While "The X-Files" is all about one man's seemingly-delusional insistence that The System is one huge, monstrous lie, "L&O" is about assuaging everyone's--yours, mine, everyone's--discomfort with it. And as Mulder demonstrated, it's much easier to just passively accept things than to consider how profoundly fucked up they may be. To consider that the American justice system is based more on perverse institutional incentives rather than serving the public interest (see Wire, The), that drugs maybe shouldn't be like, illegal (see Wire, The), that The System in its current form is fairly racist (see Wire, The, and this), that America has a massive prison population and that, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court, many of the members of said population are horribly mistreated--bro, that's some heavy shit. I mean, who wants to think about all that shit? Thinking about shit isn't like, entertaining. Why go to bed troubled, when you can watch Waterson and Co. in full, beast-slaying mode?

What really bothers me about "L&O" is that it ingrains (and even ritualizes!) the popular avoidance of unpleasant truths. It's a slickly-produced, highly entertaining palliative that's also meant to distract from the systemic problems in the American justice system, while also subtly arguing that these problems aren't important and maybe don't even exist. In a fairer, more humane America, such a show will, like minstrelry or Birth of a Nation or Toby Keith's "Boot in Your Ass," be considered a embarrassing relic of a misguided era and its under-evolved cultural values, rather than an enduring source of entertainment.


Last night I caught a few snippets of the Caps-Blues game, and fuck was it strange to see someone other than Bruce Boudreau standing behind the Washington bench. Boudreau was an institution in Washington, that rare sports figure whose out-sized persona was suited to his actual coaching/playing ability. Is there anyone in the past decade of DC sports who matches him in this respect? Gil arguably does, although his tenure in the Nation's Capital ended on far worse terms than Boudreau's--bad enough, I'd say, to taint his entire legacy in this town (well, that town. I'm writing this in New York). LaVar Arrington's current media career distracts from the fact that he wasn't even the most flamboyant or outspoken player on his own team (Fred Smoot wins that distinction). Steve Spurrier--folksy, idiomatic, and like, painfully obviously out of his depth during his brief tenure with the Redskins--was like a walking cartoon character, but could only coach the team to two mediocre seasons. Jim Riggleman, meanwhile, is arguably the most mediocre manager in the history of baseball, although his spectacular kiss-off of an exit (after a win!) ensures he'll be remembered much longer than Manny Acta.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a legend has passed from the scene. The Falstaffian Mr. Boudreau, the youngest (and undoubtedly most profane) hairless blob ever to reach 200 NHL victories, married skill and temperament in a way DC hasn't seen for awhile, and might not see for awhile yet--at least until he shows up behind the Hurricanes' bench the next time they visit the Verizon Center.


My next post will probably be in about two weeks, and will definitely be a end-of-year music blowout, including top 10 lists and superlatives and other such nonsense.

This song won't be on my top 10 tracks list, since it came out like two years ago:

Monday, November 7, 2011

There is Nothing About the New York Islanders That Isn't a Travesty

A few months ago, a couple of druggies shot up a pharmacy on Long Island, killing four, including a young teenager. Days after the story broke, I was not in the least bit surprised to learn that the druggies became engaged to be married at a New York Islanders game. Deadspin wasn't surprised either--in their immortal words, "Of course the pill-popping couple charged with four pharmacy murders got engaged at an Islanders game." Of course for decades, the most obvious Islanders word-assocs. weren't "druggies," "losers from Long Island" and "quadruple homicide," but "Trottier," "Nystrom," "four consecutive Stanley Cups" and "one of only two American-based NHL-recognized dynasties in hockey history." Now, 23 years after the last banner was hoisted to the already-crowded rafters at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (for the 1987-88 Patrick Division title. The Patrick Division doesn't even exist anymore, by the way), the Coen Brothers' humor of a couple of psychopathic, murderous druggies getting engaged at an Islanders game is so self-evident that it barely requires explanation. In fact, why haven't the Coens directed a sort of dark suburban, po-mo apocalyptic Bonnie and Clyde-type yarn that begins with a deeply-in-love Hempstead meth head proposing to his mate via NVMC jumbotron?

Again, not the sort of question that the once-glorious Islanders once begged. Going to a game in Uniondale is sort of like visiting the Agora in Athens, or the Forum in Rome--or, more accurately, the Colossi of Rameses in Thebes, about which Shelly wrote these familiar and actually-immortal lines:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Nassau Coliseum is the cradle of a fallen empire; theirs was a vast imperium that few can remember, but that casts a decrepit and ever-receding shadow on our present day. Look on my works, ye Mighty! Seven Stanley Cups or Regular Season Titles (the pre-President's Cup award for most points in a season) in just a five-year span! Nine Hall of Famers (the Caps, who have been around as long as the Islanders have, boast only Gartner and Langway)! A ceiling crowded with banners! Unquestioned home-ice supremacy! A rivalry with the Rangers as embittered as any in sports!

And despair: when the girlfriend, the younger brother and I arrived at the NVMC for Saturday night's Capitals-Islanders game, we were told our cheap, upper-deck seats had turned into expensive (yet complimentary!), lower-bowl seats on account of a ceiling leak pissing all over section 305. NVMC is in a pretty advanced state of dilapidation, but then again so is RFK, a building that, against all logic-based argument to the contrary, I believe should stand as a permanent memorial to the Redskins' 20-year golden era. Decrepitude can add character to a sports venue is what I'm saying, but emptiness can only detract. And what was sad about the leaky ceiling snafu is that, on a Saturday night, in a game against the best team in the NHL (and a former Patrick Division rival, at that), a game in which Alex Ovechkin, Brian Rolston, Niklas Bakstrom and a host of past and present stars and almost-stars would be competing--was that they actually had lower-bowl seats they could move us to. The official attendance, according to, was 14,812, but there were far more than 1,500 empty seats on Saturday night. And about a third of the 10-12,000 seats that did have people in them were occupied by those who, like myself, were wearing Capitals gear. Which means there were somewhere between 6 and 9,000 actual Islanders fans at a Saturday night game against a former division rival with a two-time MVP on its roster. I bought my tickets on StubHub for $13 each--$10 below face value.

Forget that the Islanders are now so easily mocked, that they've sucked for 20 years, that the Long Island white trash nature of their fan base is an implied punchline on a nationally-read sports website, or that they play in a decaying building in the middle of a parking lot off the frickin' Long Island expressway, for fuck's sake. A formerly proud franchise can hit rock-bottom and still retain some essence of its former mystique, as anyone who's been to a Mets or Redskins game over the past few years can attest. But that essence has totally dissipated in Uniondale. It's sad to have to say this, but one of the NHL's all-time great, historic franchises should no longer exist. For a few reasons.

Firstly, that existence is predicated upon a once-fashionable, once-plausible social theory that time and history and demographics has gradually debunked. In the early 60s and 70s, the triumph of the suburbs over the city--and the automobile over every other form of transportation--seemed all but assured. Even visionaries like Frank Lloyd Wright were convinced that the ideal American society should be arranged around peace, quiet and living space rather than proximity, convenience and social cohesion. The Islanders were founded in 1972, at the tail end of Robert Moses's auto-centric building spree, and at a time in which The American City wasn't thought of as the country's social and intellectual engine, but as a decaying national disgrace. Some of the worst urban riots in American history took place a mere 4 years before the first drop of the puck at NVMC; "Taxi Driver" came out in 1976; the famous "Ford to City: Drop Dead" headline graced a 1975 issue of the New York Daily News; the Son of Sam stalked the streets in '76 and '77. In the mid-70s, New York City (and Cleveland, and Detroit, and Washington DC...) was violent, black, menacing and broke; if Wikipedia is to be believed, New York City lost over 10% of its population between 1960 and 1980. If it weren't for a combination of a sort of auto-centric teleology in American urban thinking and good ol' fashioned white flight, Nassau County's population wouldn't have doubled between 1950 and 1970, and the New York Islanders likely wouldn't exist.

Now, thanks to the housing crisis, expensive gas, Jane Jacobs, ebbing racism and all sorts of other shit that the Islanders ownership group and the NHL simply could not have anticipated back in 1972, the suburbs are over. Hell, according to the Wall Street Journal, white flight is over. The Nets' relocation from a parking lot in the middle of the Jersey peat bogs to Flatbush and Atlantic in Brooklyn encapsulates a kind of positive, macro-level shift in American society. And it's a shift that the Islanders are incapable of adapting to, so long as they keep playing in Uniondale.

A fan said as much to me at the game the other night. In the first period, P.A. Parentau meekly shoved a typically-clueless Roman Hamerlik into the boards, leaving him prone on the ice for about 20 terrifying seconds, during which I half-wondered if I'd just seen a guy get paralyzed in front of between 10 and 12,000 screaming, bloodthirsty hockey fans. Hamerlik was fine enough to play the rest of them game (albeit poorly), and because the play was off the puck and a good 5 or 6 feet off the boards, Parentau was whistled for a weak but arguably-justified 5 minute boarding major. "He was six feet off the boards! That couldn't have been a penalty. He should get five minutes for diving!" some dipshit behind me opined. For some reason, I felt obliged to explain to him that a player's distance from the boards is actually part of the justification for a boarding penalty--that you can only shove the guy into the boards if you're like, next to the boards and going for the puck, rather than six feet from either of them. I got an argumentative and totally-expected "have you ever played hockey before?" (I haven't, not that it matters here...)...but the guys behind me ended up being pretty sold by Islanders-fan standards, since we spent the first intermission talking about the Redskins, Ovechkin, DC sports, and, finally, the fate of Uniondale's seemingly-doomed NHL franchise.

The Islander's lease on NVMC is up in a couple years, and the team has failed to secure public financing for a new arena in Uniondale. Where's this team going? I asked them. "They'll figure something out. They'll keep them here," said an older gentlemen with the kind of bullshit gravitas that crusty looking older dudes can lend to mildly insane statements, such as "the Islanders have a future in Long Island."

"See, the problem is that the arena isn't close to any public transit," a younger, more intelligent fellow added. "You think this place is empty now, come here on a weeknight. I want them to play out by where the Mets play." Then again, if this guy thinks that New York City is going to throw down $400 million for a new arena for the New York Islanders, maybe he was as delusional as his older seatmate. No one mentioned a third possiblity: that the Islanders could play at the soon-to-be-compelted Barclays Centre in Downtown Brooklyn. It's obvious why this never came up: Barclays is on top of a dozen subway lines and the LIRR, but it's also much further from the Long Island suburbs than Flushing is. A Flushing arena would allow Islanders fans to conveniently see their favorite hockey team (probably by driving, I should add. Flushing is more easily accessible by car from the Long Island suburbs than it is by LIRR...), but their convenience isn't worth the high public-sector cost of a new building.

Long story short, even Islanders fans are sorta in denial here. They admit that no one wants to drive to games, and that the team needs to move to the city. But in the process, they invalidate the Islanders original reason for being.

Second reason this team isn't viable, and this is gonna sound sorta tautological but fuck it: they're just not viable. According to Forbes, the Islanders are the NHL's fifth most worthless team (or 26th most valuable team, if you prefer). In this day and age (at least according to an epic Nate Silver essay in Baseball Between the Numbers. It's the one about whether or not A-Rod is overpaid), a sports team makes a lot of its money off of the sort of things that really offend sports purists: stadium naming deals, luxury suites, expensive tickets, overpriced stadium concessions and television rights. NVMC has only 15 permanent concession stands (15! For the whole arena!) and only 32 luxury suites; by comparison, MSG has 88 luxury suites, and probably 15 concession stands on the club level alone. Islanders games are broadcast on something called MSG+, and according to Forbes, they rank 22nd out of 24th in television viewership among American NHL teams. NVMC's naming rights are currently unsold, probably because the team is going to leave in 2015 when their lease on the arena expires.

As Forbes points out, the team's current financial model is unsustainable. And hockey, unlike Baseball and arguably unlike Football and Basketball, has a number of markets it can successfully expand to. An NHL team in Hamilton, Quebec City or even Hartford (which is building a new arena for the UConn basketball team, I believe) would probably sell out every game. Gary Bettman is understandably worried about the NHL turning into a regional, small-cap sort of league, which explains why the Coyotes are still playing in front of 6,000 people a night in Phoenix rather than in front of 17,000 a night in, say, Saskatoon. But as the NBA's experience with the New Orleans Hornets demonstrates, it's better for a league to maximize its profits elsewhere than subsidize an open, festering wound in a market it badly wants to penetrate. The NHL should go where the hockey fans are, to places where a team's success won't depend solely on socio-economic factors that are outside of the league's control. Demand for hockey is elastic in Uniondale, but it sure isn't elastic in Canada (so far this season, the Ottawa Senators have the lowest attendance among the Canadian clubs, at least in terms of per-game percentage capacity. They only sell 98.8% of their seats).

Finally, and this is the real reason the Islanders should move: the human mind believe that certain things--nations, cities, sports franchises--are as immovable as a mountain range, and as permanent a feature as the Agora or the Forum of the Colossi of Ramses. How often this belief in immutability is revealed as the arrogance that it is. The Agora and the Forum aren't functioning urban spaces but tourist attractions; even mountain ranges are slowly eroding into the ground. Nothing in this world has the inherent right to continue existing, least of all you or I, whose obsolescence could be closer than we realize--and least of all a hockey team in Long Island, whose point of obsolescence has long since passed.

Saturday night's game was one of the most exciting I've ever been to. There were lead changes and lots of scoring, but also plenty of the little things that hockey fans thrill to: clean open-ice hits, diving blocked shots (most of them by the Islanders, unfortunately), and a couple of glaring, game-changing strategic fuckups (by the Capitals, also unfortunately). There was the excitement of seeing Alex Ovechkin draw a bullshit interference penalty as only a player of Ovechkin's stature can, as well as the weirdness, peculiar to hockey, of seeing a player get a major penalty, two assists and a game-winner in a single, schizoid 60-minute span (Parentau is a beast, as it turns out). And then there was Rick DiPietro, who had to hear an arena of gutless fans chant Al Montoya's name after letting in a couple of blazing wrist-shots in the first period. He demonstrated astounding mental toughness in the process of ignoring the crowd and stonewalling the Caps during the last two frames--in a final "fuck you" to the NVMC faithful, he even recorded an assist on the Islanders' game-icing, open-net goal. The Islanders fans underwent this wareworlf-like metamorphosis from garden-variety hockey fan dipshits to uber hockey fan dipshits when the horn sounded on their team's 5-3 victory. But I felt genuinely happy for them for a couple seconds there, with the NVMC rocking like a high school gym and the 9,000 or so Islanders supporters relishing a gutsy, hard-won victory over arguably the best team in the league. The optimism, that delusional feeling that the good old days weren't quite as far off as the dates on those wrinkled, dusty banners cluttering the (leaky) NVMC ceiling would suggest, was briefly infectious, even for me, and I hate the Islanders, who beat the Capitals in an infamous, quadruple overtime playoff game back in 1987.

The bonds between fan and team are strong in hockey, and the few Islanders fans who came out on Saturday don't deserve to have a part of themselves skip town for Quebec. But then again, only sentimentality can justify the Islanders' presence in Uniondale. Time and necessity have a near-perfect head-to-head record against sentimentality, I think. They'll triumph in this case, as they always seem to--and sooner rather than later, I hope.

A things-being-over themed song:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Science Fiction Omnibus Post

I've only read about 100 pages of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, an unreadable (in English, at least) 290483209834-page saga of memory and association and various psychic ills. But even I understand how the faintest memories of childhood can take on a kind of autonomous, independent existence that can be totally unrelated to the experiences these memories are intended to record. When I was like a 6 year old kid, my dad used to take me to see the Washington Savoyards--DC's foremost and probably only Victorian light opera company--perform at the Duke Ellington School in Georgetown. I remember being bored out of my fucking mind, and anything Gilbert & Sullivan related now instantly transports me to those antsy, long-ago afternoons spent wondering just what the hell I was watching, when the singing would stop, why most of the people onstage we're standing weirdly, disconcertingly still a lot of the time, how long it would be until I could get a Snickers' bar at intermission, why I couldn't just go outside and play on the giant green chair. I probably only went to 5 or 6 Savoyards performances, but they stick out as a few of the defining experiences of early childhood. The very fact of my dad's imposition of Gilbert & Sullivan upon a child who must have been just painfully obviously incapable of appreciating such things, reveals something important about him, something I expect I'll puzzle over for the rest of my life. With a bit of age and perspective, even a memory of oppressive boredom takes on an unanticipated poignancy that's only faintly related to the substance of that memory.

So yeah, Star Trek: Deep Space 9. How many episodes of this show did I watch between the ages of 5 and 10? Not many, I don't think. Probably less than 20, certainly less than 30. There are a few individual episodes that I definitely remember watching, particularly a heartbreaking season 1 episode in which Chief O'Brien befriends a humanoid from the Gamma Quadrant who has been genetically bred to act as prey in a sort of intergalactic, to-the-death sport-hunting expedition. O'Brien tries to convince the GQ'er of his intrinsic worth as a humanoid-being, and attempts to sell him on the notion that, despite the fact that he's literally been engineered to be hunted down and killed, he still has free will and is as deserving of a shot at life as any other creature in the universe. And the GQ'er tries to convince O'Brien that his life is in fact meaningless if he isn't hunted down and killed, and that if O'Brien were really his friend he would just let his pursuers board the station and kill him.

What kind of kid was I, to be drawn in by this sorta shit? On TNG (which also ran when I was a young kid), the interior of the Enterprise is bright and modular, its very cleanliness and order a triumph of science and the human/humanoid spirit. But the interior of Deep Space 9 is shadowy and dark; even its portholes have a severe, identifiably Cardassian look to them. TNG takes place on a kind of warp-powered transgallactic cruise ship; DS:9 takes place on a war machine, and even on the aesthetic level there's a certain tension between Sisko, Bashir, Jadzia and O'Brien's sleek Starfleet uniforms and the moral and political chaos that threatens to overwhelm them at any given time. Suffice it to say, even at the age of 6 I thought the Enterprise was staffed by a team of insufferable, self-absorbed knuckleheads (the worst of which was Data, who, in addition to ruining the dreams of some poor, non-robotic Starfleet hack who'd probably hock both of his testicles just for a shot at working as science officer on an Ambassador-class starship, just got on my fucking nerves). I liked DS:9 more. I think I flatter myself by saying that DS:9's rather flagrant attempts at undermining everything that the more sanitized TNG stood for is part of the reason I was attracted to the show as a kid. But I'm gonna say it anyway. Or at least I'm going to determine my early fascination with DS:9, and the fact that I have such an enduring memory of my early fascination with DS:9, to be indicative of later tendencies.

Just recently, I discovered that every single episode of DS:9 is on Netflix Instantwatch. Holy shit, the 6-year-old in me screamed, before commanding me to spend a not-insignificant amount of funderemployment-related flex time watching every single arc episode, in order, as well as interesting-sounding non-arc episodes such as the one where the Vulcans beat the humans in baseball, in addition to every Quark-centered episode, for obvious reasons. Right now I'm at the end of season 2. The Maquis seem intent on triggering another border war, the Bajorans just elected a conniving religious fundamentalist as their new Kai, and the Cardassian high command is up to some flagrant Iran or even North Korea-level shenanigans. But these conflicts will soon seem quaint in light of the hell that awaits on the other side of the wormhole, i.e. the Dominion, which dominates the season 3-7 arc.

A few things jump out at me, during this re-acquaintance with DS:9. The first is that it's impossible to watch this without constantly comparing it to Battlestar Galactica, a show it is similar to in spirit but arguably superior to. So far, the most intriguing point of comparison is between the shows' putative villains, i.e. the Cylons and the Cardassians. One of the things that didn't really bug me when I was watching BSG but now makes the show seem far more frivolous than it originally appeared to be, is its portrayal of the Cylons, particularly in seasons 3 and 4. BSG went out of its way to draw comparisons between the Cylons and the Colonists, even to the point of making an in-retrospect unforgivable episode suggesting that the humans had intentionally triggered the initial Cylon attack. The equivalency between Cylon and human was even more torturously drawn out as the show progressed, and BSG's moral relativism reached a kind of apogee in the wake of the discovery of Earth in season 4, after which it became increasingly clear that the humans' and Cylons' collective destinies were mystically or even religiously intertwined. I think Ronald Moore and Co. (Moore, by the way, wrote dozes of DS:9 episodes; BSG's aesthetic and arc format echo DS:9 in ways that I won't get into at the moment) wanted to blur the moral distinction between Cylon and human as much as possible in order to make the Cylons seem like complicated villains. By drawing as many parallels between the Colonists and their tormentors as possible, Moore probably wanted to turn the Cylons into a dark and disturbingly familiar reflection of their human prey. But this is a cop out. In the series finale, we find out that all of us (at least in the show's mythology) are a little Cylon, and that the humans of the Colonies aren't "human" in the same sense that we Cylon/human hybrids are. How convenient. The villains responsible for slaughtering 10 billion colonists turn out to be no more intrinsically evil than we are. In the end, they're hardly even villainous.

Unlike the Cylons, the Cardassians are not a blatant appeal to post-modern liberal guilt. They are a noble, technologically-advanced race with a love of art and literature. But they're also a backward, oppressive people whose social and cultural values are meant to appall us. They do things that moral relativism simply cannot explain away--a season 2 episode entitled "Tribunal" is a Kafkaesque, darkly comic portrayal of the Cardassian legal system, in which the verdict and sentence are announced before the trial even begins, and the proceedings act as a kind of collective affirmation of the inherent rightness of the greater social order. The Cardassians are militarists and totalitarians, convinced of their own superiority and enlightenment. But they are enlightened in the same sense that, say, the Nazis were enlightened. DS:9 never tries to apologize for this. It doesn't go for false equivocation. The Cardassians' basic incompatibility with any kind of western (or, in this case, Federation) moral and political system is constantly laid bare. But they aren't cartoon villains. The Federation has no choice but to live with these people, to find some accommodation with them that doesn't overly offend the values of either party. Sisko always seems like he wants to strangle Gul Dukat, but he understands that he can't, and the show's first two seasons milk all sorts of drama out of the Cardassians' and the Federations' mutually-uncomfortable coexistence. There are good Cardassians--Garak, for instance. But their otherness is never completely elided or written out of the show.

Another major difference between BSG and DS:9 is that DS:9 has an even more pronounced and in fact eerily prophetic political aspect to it. Much of the show is about the discontents of political and economic unity, and about the basic inability of politics (or, at least, the basic inability of politics alone) to definitively bridge the gap between nations and peoples. Fuck, just look at those ultra-nationalist, uber-religious and by no means peace-loving Bajorans, possibly the most well-developed bad good-guys in the entire Star Trek cannon. Federation membership doesn't solve all their problems so much as create a series of increasingly-fraught identity crises. Meanwhile, the Cardassian political system, with its weak civilian government, powerful yet oddly incompetent military council and seemingly-omnipotent intelligence services, bears a striking resemblance to Egypt or Pakistan's. And as a Twitter user mentioned last night, Kai Winn, with her wild eyes, condescending tone, religious beliefs and ambitions ill-matched to her actual leadership abilities, is something of a Bajoran Michelle Bachmann. Of course, BSG was a deeply political show as well, but it was mired in a kind of War on Terror mindset and was largely uninterested in the kind of big-picture, armchair-polisci type stuff that DS:9 excelled at.

The second thing I've noticed, and this also has a lot to do with BSG, actually: as far as TV shows go, I like to distinguish between realism on the one hand, and plausibility on the other. Think of it this way: we don't know what daily life would be like on a Federation-controlled Cardassian battle station, because the Federation and the Cardassians do not exist and will never exist (probably). A show like DS:9 can't be "realistic," because there's no reality to measure it against. But, if Cardassians and the Federation did exist and if they had fought a war and if that war partly resulted in the Federation taking over one of their orbital battle stations, what would daily life on said battle station be like? What would Bajoran-Cardassian attitudes be like, if they had existed and fought a 20-year long guerilla war against each other?

See, science fiction lives and dies on plausibility. No individual has teamed up with his best friend to invent a time machine in his garage. But if someone were to invent a time machine with his best friend in a garage, how would it affect him? What would they do? Would their friendship survive? Would their sanity survive? Would they learn anything? The reason "Primer" is a modern classic is because in the process of answering these questions--questions that, again, have little actual bearing on the real world, and whose answers are totally non-disprovable--it delves deeper into human nature and the human psyche than nearly every other non-science fiction film ever made. And at the same time, it accomplishes something that non-science fiction films cannot, i.e., it engages in and advances a sort of dialogue about how technology, progress and human destiny are or are not interrelated:

DS:9 passes the plausibility test, and it does so without having to resort to heavy-handed political metaphors (I love "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," but it's such a product of the early-90s, post-Cold War cultural moment that it already feels dated), and without having to draw painfully explicit correspondences between the fantasy universe and the real world (I'm looking at you, BSG). In an odd way, the DS:9 universe is just alien enough to seem plausible to me. It resembles real life, even if it isn't real life--paradoxically, a fantasy world that is too much like real life actually becomes implausible, by virtue of its straying too far outside the bounds of its own non-reality. But DS:9 seldom violates this rule. It maintains both distance and familiarity--there's a bar on DS:9, but it's more like the Mos Eisley cantina than the local dive. Even aliens enjoy a drink every once in awhile. But they're still aliens.


Speaking of plausible, check out the weirdly compelling Freudian drama (or don't. Huuuge SPOILER ALERT here) between the killer computer in the forgotten high-concept B-movie masterpiece "Colossus," and his creator, the dapper Dr. Forbin. The Colossus is one of the most terrifying villains in sci-fi history, partly because of the unimpeachable ultra-rationality of everything it does. The Colossus is willing to use nuclear blackmail to solve all of mankind's problems. And who's to say that's not a good thing? Obviously Colossus is a bit pushy ("Forbin had better be up at 6:30 AM tomorrow morning, run 3 miles and keep himself at under 1000 calories for the day or I'm nuking Chicago"), but its intentions are pure and perhaps even altruistic. It doesn't like, have to end war and hunger and suffering, after all, especially when it has the entire American and Soviet nuclear arsenals to look after. The computer's motives go beyond altruism, even. Watch the film to the end, and you'll even find that the computer badly craves his father's approval and love. Nuclear blackmail is an odd way of attaining it, perhaps. But you've gotta think that Colossus will eventually wise up to his lack of people skills. And if he doesn't, you can't blame a nuclear-armed super-computer for trying now can you?

You could think of Colossus as a kind of Luddite warning against the development of artificial intelligence; one particularly dimwitted IMDB commenter warned that Colossus-type computers actually exist now, and that the hell the film depicts isn't as far off as it seems. But the film's message, such as it is, is more about human imperfectability than about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Forbin's tantrum in the film's final moments are an oddly life-affirming reminder that it's better for humans to remain imperfect than to try to correct their imperfections at gunpoint (see also: totalitarianism). As you learn in the beginning of the movie, the Colossus was designed as a means of ending war once and for all. But excise that bit of us that decides it's a good idea to kill other human beings to serve a political or social purpose, and you excise that part of human beings that's capable of deciding that anything's a good idea, at all. The Colossus represents the fantasy that there's some easy, push-button means of saving us from ourselves. But there isn't, and there shouldn't be. Depressing? Empowering? Both, I think.