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.

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