Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To Boldly Go: Part V, Socialism In Star Trek

I still have posts to finish on Voyager, Enterprise, and all the Trek feature films, but this was another big one that I figured was worth every Trek fan's time. A few weeks ago in the days leading up to the new film's release, Trek fan and law prof Ilya Somin asked on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, When and Why did the Federation Turn Socialist? The nature of the political system of the Star Trek universe and the political economy in particular has always been an intriguing subject for discussion amongst Trek fans, probably because we were never given much, other than veiled hints of democracy and similar platitudes. We did see the Federation President and the Federation Council on occasion, but we never saw elections, never heard a word on the legislative process, and never once saw a glimpse of the non-Starfleet legal system. In addition to the blog post above, Somin has previously written a piece on the topic in National Review in 2007 entitled Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Federation Tax Collectors.

Both are well worth the read for Trek fans with any interest in politics, but to a certain extent, I take issue with the earnest tone of the pieces and many of the commenters. It's meaningful that a program with over 700 hour long episodes amongst five series never actually deals with the economic and political system that holds the Federation together and rather than debate the few scraps of information thrown our way, the starting point should be Star Trek's overarching philosophy. Star Trek is about a future where man has abolished material want and need, but the Federation isn't so much socialist as it is a post-scarcity utopia.

The Star Trek captains love their lines about how earth has eliminated war, poverty, and hunger and it's those last two that are key. Whatever the writers may want to say about humanity finally deciding to care about one another (as in DS9's Past Tense), the most important element in eliminating hunger and poverty in the Trek universe seems to have been technology. The Next Generation introduced the matter replicator, where food, clothing, and other essential (and non-essential items) can be instantaneously assembled from their basic atomic building blocks. In a time of plenty, materialism is essentially just a thing of the past. The few "things" we see our characters prize have emotional value- gifts, antiques, and hand-crafted items.

The key to Star Trek is we don't see the nitty gritty of how the non-Star Fleet world operates. Sisko's father has a restaurant and Picard's brother has a vineyard, but we never see how these businesses are conducted. No money must mean no taxes, so I suppose that means these folks would conduct their business any way they want to. Perhaps most of what they need to conduct their business is presumably provided by the government or acquired through barter, but the fact is, we just don't know. Star Trek was never designed for us to know that sort of thing, because even with the technological innovations, they can't exactly say, "here's the perfect government and political economy as part of our fictional show in the future." If they were to give us specifics, those specifics would doubtlessly be mind-blowingly stupid.

Star Trek's positive view of the future works precisely because we don't get a real sense of political economy. There are certainly socialist elements to the Federation government of Star Trek, but more important than the government is the idea that huamnkind itself has evolved beyond the petty disputes of today's world. However left-leaning the Star Trek writers have been, they've always been smart enough to avoid lauding particular political systems. In fact, while one could argue the socialism implicit in the background of Trek, one could also argue a more ever present recognition of individuality and the rights of the individual. For all Captain Picard's posturing about their being no money in the 24th century, his real point is that the end of materialism has enabled mankind to better itself and permit individuals to fulfill their own dreams without regard to the sorts of material worries we have today. Again, how this works out in practice isn't clear, but that isn't really the point.

Ultimately what Star Trek has to say about human nature and what humankind's potential actually is says far more about the shows politics than any of the more specific mentions on screen. As any middling political thinker can tell you, political philosophy tends to start and end with our views of human nature. If you can accept what Trek says about the evolving nature of man, than the ultimate structure of government, whatever it may be, is supposed to be the logical extension of that political philosophy. It's a deeper point, one larger then I'd have time for in this little blog, but it's a step removed from the question of Star Trek's socialism.

To Boldly Go : Part IV, Deep Space Nine

Quietly, the forgotten step-child of Star Trek, the only show not to take place on a starship, proved to be the universe's most engrossing adventure. And to put it simply, this was because on Deep Space Nine, things happened. Galactic alliances stood and fell, wars were fought, characters died, and characters fell in love and got married. On Deep Space Nine, many of the minor characters had more growth and development in single seasons than some of their more well known counterparts had during seven years of episodes. Deep Space Nine was about it's characters, but it also managed more plot than other Treks, probably because it's plots always revolved around people and not around silly sci-fi premises that ceased to be interesting partway through the Next Generation's run. Because Deep Space Nine was willing to take chances, willing to go a step further from the Next Generation in moving beyond action/adventure storytelling, and willing to experiment with multi-episode and multi-season plot arcs, the show suffered in the viewership department during it's initial run. And I was one of those viewer casualties in the mid-90's, dropping the show just as it was becoming interesting. But after rediscovering the show on DVD, I'm convinced it was the best Trek has to offer.

The show struggled throughout it's first few season's to find a real direction, before finally introducing the Dominion as an adversary to the Federation that would guide the show's backdrop until all our war dominated the show's final seasons. The first season is notable for some big misses, most notably those that recycled Next Generation characters and plots. Star Trek had always been about putting the Enterprise in danger, week in and week out, but with a space station, the idea of placing our characters in harms way on a weekly basis just didn't make any sense. (As a practical matter, why would anyone stop, visit, or set up shop at a station that was constantly in imminent danger?) Perhaps more than anything else, this simple fact on the ground allowed the show to be about more and grow out of the limitations inherent in the Star Trek premise.

What Was Awesome:

# Captain Sisko, for my money the best captain of the bunch. Yes, better than Kirk, better than Picard. While Kirk and Picard were able to warp away at the end of every adventure, the stationary nature of Deep Space Nine necessitated that Sisko be a builder. Along the way he became a bad ass military leader, embraced his status as a religious leader, and was the strongest character in a large and ever growing cast of strong characters.

# The continued story arcs of Deep Space Nine occupation and the end of the Dominion War, the only time until the last few seasons of Enterprise where Star Trek experimented with multi-episode arcs.

# The space battles. Starting with season four's "The Way of the Warrior," DS9 blew the other Treks out of the water in terms of special fx sequences that stand up well to this day.

# The character growth, which dwarfs all the other Treks combined. Not just that, but every other Trek focussed solely on Starfleet officers and our characters goals and motivations were nearly always similar. Voyager, for instance, was about a group of characters desperate to get home. But Deep Space Nine had numerous non-Starfleet characters and even amongst the Starfleet characters there were very different sorts of motivations at play, as family and culture were actually given equal time to notions of duty.

# "The Ship," an episode in which Sisko and a small bunch the 'Niners fight a small cadre of Jem'Hadar over a crashed Dominion ship. It's a tight, claustrophobic episode, with a not too subtle speech at the end from Sisko that powerfully hits home how small misunderstandings can have horrific endings.

# The exploration of alien cultures. Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians, and even the Ferengi were all examined in detail. Some might argue with my inclusion of the Ferengi in the awesome section, but whether you liked them on DS9 or not, you have to admit that the show painted a particularly rich tapestry of different cultures.

# The Sisko as Emissary arc, which began and the pilot and was followed through to it's logical conclusion in the show's finale. Sisko starts to become a believer in Season 3's "Destiny," embraces his role in season 4's "Accession," and defies the will of Starfleet and his superiors to deliver a frightening spiritual warning in Season 5's "Rapture." For a show that generally rejected religion, it was a bold move not just to feature religion, but to have the show's main character as such a force of faith.

# The show's annual tradition of torturing Chief O'Brien. Starting with season 2's "Tribunal," when the Chief faces the Kafkaesque Cardassian legal system and continuing with such sci-fi classics as "Hard Time," where memories of a lifetime prison sentence are implanted in O'Brien's head, there was always fun to be had.

# The charismatic aliens, Weyoun, Gul Dukat, and Garak in particular. It's a tribute to DS9's great writing and great acting that these rubber-headed protagonists were typically the most magnetic characters on screen.

# "The Visitor," "Hard Times," and any of the other more traditional sci-fi premises that DS9 took and ran with. While Voyager and even the Next Generation at times always seemed to get bogged down in technobabble, DS9 was able to take a page from the original series and use big sci-fi premises to tell big character pieces.

# "The Siege of AR-558," where war is showcased in all it's tragedy and glory. The understated scenes where Nog loses his leg make the episode all the more powerful and the images of soldiers fighting and dying while the music of Vic Fontaine plays in the background is just haunting.

# Season 5's finale "A Call To Arms," simply the most bad ass Star Trek season finale ever. That the station would ever be abandoned to enemies was unimaginable when the series began.

# The show's focus on very adult relationships- The O'Briens, Sisko and Cassidy Yates, Worf and Dax, Odo and Kira and even the friendship between O'Brien and Bashir. Particularly in comparison to Voyager, where the main characters seemed to play the role of teenagers to Janeway and Chakotay's mother and father like positions, the difference is palpable.

What Was Not Awesome:

# Some of the early season one episodes that borrowed Next Generation guests and Next Generation plots. Deep Space Nine had some real gems in it's early going, but it also had it's share of stinkers.

# "Melora," a pc season two episode that reeked of a bad Next Generation plot. A new crew member is in a space wheelchair, but perseveres despite her handicap. The episode's exciting climax occurs when the crew member in the wheelchair saves the day, conveniently because of her handicap.

# "Past Tense," the two-part time travel episode in which Sisko and company travel back to 2024. It's a politically correct call out to the plight of the homeless that posits that at some future date, humanity will finally start caring and solve these problems. I complain very little about the politics of Star Trek, but this liberal nonsense that social problems only persist because we don't care enough is preposterous.

# Re-introducing Worf's son, Alexander, at an age that really made no sense in terms of what we knew about the time frame DS9 and the Next Generation. It was such a bad idea that he was written off after only two appearances.

# "Let He Who Is Without Sin," an absolute abortion of an episode. It's almost as if the writers thought, "hey, let's send Worf and Dax on vacation," and didn't realize they had to come up with a real story to tell until after they were finished shooting.

# Perhaps a minor complaint, but I would hope anyone with a legal background would have been appalled by the first season episode "Dax," in which resident Trill Jadzia Dax is put on trial for the crimes of her past host. The episode approaches the issue as if it is brand new, but surely a joined species must have some legal precedent of their own. Surely a joined Trill has been dragged into court before due to acts committed by a previous host. Maybe it's a minor oversight, but it's an important part of creating a vivid new world and an example of the show failing in it's early going.

I'll stop with not so awesome parts here as I can't really come up with too many. This is not to say that DS9 doesn't have it's weak moments, but most of my complaints are either minor or are from the show's early going. Down the stretch in season's six and seven there are a number of plot points that make you go "ehhhh," but nothing terribly offensive. Even the replacement of Jadzia with Ezri Dax had it's moments and while I wouldn't call that experiment a complete success, I wouldn't call it any sort of a failure either.

For my money, Deep Space Nine still remains a model of what television is capable of, grand and sweeping in scope, yet showcases for unique characters. There was initially much debate about whether DS9 stays true to Trek's ideals and I would argue that the series puts those values to the ultimate test and eventually see them pass with flying colors.

Matt Welch On The California Budget Crisis

Reason's Matt Welch has some real good stuff on the California budget crisis, taking the New York Times's Paul Krugman to town here and providing some counterpoints to mainstream media spin on the Reason blog last week.

As Welch points out in his response to Krugman, it's just plain insane to refer to the California crisis as a tax and not as a spending crisis.

Here is where the traditional liberal argument loses me. The California budget "emergency" isn't a tax problem, it's a spending problem. State spending in the past two decades, as this Reason Foundation report [PDF] spells out, has increased 5.37 percent a year (and nearly 7 percent for the past decade), compared to a population-plus-inflation growth rate of 4.38 percent. If the budget growth rate had been limited to the population-inflation growth rate, the state would be sitting on a $15 billion surplus right now. Surely enough to dip into during a real emergency. What's more, despite this alleged tax straightjacket, Californians manage to still pay 21.9 percent in state and local taxes, compared to 14.5 percent for Texas.

Not just for California Republicans anymore!So to demonstrate that insufficent taxability is the root of California's problems, a persuasive anti-Prop. 13 commentator would need to at least address the fact that state residents still manage to pay a high rate of taxes, and that the government keeps on growing voraciously in both good times and bad. If you're going to tax residents still more (as Krugman desires), don't they deserve to know why the cost of government services keeps going up up up up UP!?

Both the posts are quick neat little reads, well worth your time. And as Connecticut faces a similar yet proportionally smaller budget crisis, I feel it's once again worth pointing out why these states are in such drastic straights. The states in trouble are generally the states most reliant on the personal income tax. In the wake of the financial crisis, the incomes of the rich have taken a hit and income tax revenues have fallen in turn. Now California's crisis, as Welch discusses, goes beyond this, but I feel it's important to note how dependent state government can be on rich folks making a lot of money.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I've been slow in the blogging department of late and I'm trying to finally post some of these "big topic" posts I've had kicking around for awhile. This one's on torture, a topic that just doesn't seem to go away and yet another issue where both sides seem to be talking passed each other. The "liberal" argument against torture is that it's illegal, it's morally wrong, and that a nation that tortures falls short of meeting the high moral standards we should should ourselves to. The "conservative" argument for torture usually involves ticking time bombs, Jack Bauer, and the basic idea that waterboarding a terrorist should be acceptable in rare circumstances if it is the only way to save innocent lives.

I've yo-yo'd so much on the torture question and only recently realized it's because both sides are essentially right. If we just use a little common sense, yes torture is a morally honorific act, but at the same time, it was be stupid to avoid using torture to save innocent lives in a situation you know it would be effective. Similarly, yes it's wrong to kill, but wouldn't it be worth it to kill the guilty to save innocent lives?

The talk of moral absolutes makes even less sense in the real world. Like any instance in which moral boundaries are crossed, the specifics are very important. Conservatives who turn a blind eye and seek to excuse any and all torture committed by our government are also missing the boat. Making the moral case for torture in very limited circumstances is not the same as saying that the use of such tactics should not be subject to oversight. Whatever your moral stand on torture I think it's clear from the numerous reports that have emerged and have continued to emerge that torture- waterboarding in particular- was used far too often during the Bush years. Even without the entire story, there are too many innocents and too many instances of these practices in totality to meet the limited moral standard supporters of torture have maintained.

As I was saying, circumstances matter and specifics matter. That some instances of torture may be defensible does not mean that all instances of torture are defensible. The real political issues- or what they should be- are not the grand moral statements we see time and time again on cable news. The real political issues are about transparency and accountability, which we had little of during the Bush years and still seem to have little of now that Obama's in office.

Why Markets Work

The toughest part about being a libertarian is the inevitable task of being asked to defend the free market. Liberals will agree with you (usually) on any number of issues regarding personal freedom, but markets are usually cast in a different light. To liberals, questions about markets are never about the freedom of people to exchange goods and services, but about the relative positions of the parties involved. Just as some radical feminists have sought to define all heterosexual sex as rape due to the relative positions of power of males and females in our society, the liberal view of the market has sought to define all individuals as victims or potential victims of corporate power.

What liberals never seem to understand are that markets- free markets- are essentially the natural order of things. It's in our nature to trades good and services, to wheel and deal, and to use these exchanges to make our lives somehow better. Now governments help to make these exchanges flow more smoothly, through laws protecting against fraud, through the enforcement of contracts, and yes, even through the maintenance of infrastructure. Commerce-trade-markets- whatever you want to call it, would still occur in the absence of government, only much, much less efficiently. But the real key is our ingrained human nature, our ingenuity that helps one group or person meet the needs of another group or person.

This was very much evident on Saturday night, when, along with some friends of ours, my wife and I headed down to a vineyard in Wallingford, Connecticut for dinner. Gouveia Vineayard doesn't serve food, but they do allow you to bring your own food into their facility, a newly remodeled rustic looking building at the top of the vineyard, with great views and loads of comfortable seating. On weekend nights they even provide live musical entertainment. And why provide all of this? Because it makes them a hell of a lot of money. They may allow you to bring food, but they do not allow you to bring your own beverages. What's available is their wine, available by the glass or bottle, along with a small selection of non-alcoholic beverages. And what it makes for is one hip place for a crowd that's a bit sophisticated for the typical bar scene. People come for the evening with their large picnic baskets, hang out, listen to the music, and probably buy as much wine as the winery would otherwise sell in a typical weekend, if not entire week. And it's easy money. No food means no food service license and so long as they only serve their own wine, it means not having to worry about a liquor license. It's a great way for the winery to sell their products without having to spend a lot of money doing it.

Markets have also been ever present in my mind as my wife and I have finally made our way through the first few seasons of the Wire. It's an incredible show which I hope to get to in more detail at some point down the road, but as I was saying, the Wire is heavily steeped in this idea of people's needs being met through human ingenuity. Now with the Wire, we are talking about the drug trade, but whether we're talking about narcotics or something without those negative connotations, the same principles still apply. People have wants, needs, and desires, and there are other people out there who will attempt to meet those needs. The Wire showcases this element of human ingenuity in the form of Stringer Bell, second in command of the Barksdale drug ring. Bell attempts to run the criminal enterprise as much like a real business as possible, recognizing that much of the violence of the drug trade only takes away from profits.

The reason libertarians have so much faith- so to speak- in markets is that markets work. It's not just that they are the most efficient means of allocating money, skills, and resources between individuals, but that they represent a sort of natural order. The liberal argument for regulation of markets usually revolves around making circumstances more fair and more safe for the parties involved. The libertarian response to most regulation is that it doesn't work. People will find their way around laws or regulations that are wholly inconvenient. And when it comes to the less intrusive sort of regulations, the fact of the matter is that it is generally more cost effective for the largest of large corporations to comply with such regulations. Ask any small business owner and they'll tell who feels the largest brunt of economic and other related regulations. Markets work because of human ingenuity to meet our own needs. Regulations, for good or bad, are designed to restrict the free choices of individuals in an otherwise functioning market.

It Would Work If We Had More People

I wanted to link to this last week, but never got around to it: From Megan McArdle, Medicare is going to bankrupt us, which is why we need universal health care.

Perhaps predictibly, someone showed up in the comments to my post on Medicare and Social Security to argue that liberal analysts have very serious plans to cut Medicare's costs, which is why we need universal coverage, so that we can implement those very serious plans.

I hear this argument quite often, and it's gibberish in a prom dress. Any cost savings you want to wring out of Medicare can be wrung out of Medicare right now: the program is large and powerful enough, and costly enough, that they are worth doing without adding a single new person to the mix. Conversely, if there is some political or institutional barrier which is preventing you from controlling Medicare cost inflation, than that barrier probably is not going away merely because the program covers more people. Indeed, to the extent that seniors themselves are the people blocking change (as they often are), adding more users makes it harder, not easier, to get things done.

I suppose there's some possible argument that only with universal health care can we prevent providers and consumers from realizing there's an alternative they prefer to the status quo . . . but that implies a Canadian style system that outlaws private care, which is not what anyone's proposing, not what anyone's going to get out of the American political system if they do propose it, and not just a little bit disturbingly totalitarian.

Otherwise, people who want to reform Medicare to make it more cost effective should go ahead and propose the changes to Medicare they can get passed. I am not going to buy a pig in a poke on the slim chance that the pig might be able to get me 20% off an echocardiogram.

This is part and parcel of the same general problem I've mentioned here time and time again when it comes to discussions on health care. Supporters of universal care can point to any one issue, big or small, and use that issue as an example of why we need one massive system of health care coverage for every single person in the country. And these arguments are only made in regards to health care. No one advocates for government provided universal food coverage or universal housing in response to hunger or homelessness (usually recognizing the complexities involved), yet when it comes to health care, this notion of one giant fix-all plan pervades the national consciousness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Destiny Versus Free Will : Thoughts On Season 5 of Lost

As the fifth season of Lost comes thundering to what promises to be another thrilling finale, we're left to ponder what this past season has really been about. When the time shifts first start occurring back in the beginning of the season, resident time travel expert Daniel Faraday tells us that you can't change the past and that what happened, happened. To Daniel, this is pure science, unconnected with all he had heard from his mother while growing up about fate and destiny. So, after numerous jumps and a stint at Dharma headquarters in the mid 70's, Daniel storms back to the island, telling his fellow time travelers that it is indeed possible to change the future, that human individuals are the variables because we have free will.

But do we? As Daniel's mother Mrs. Hawking tells Desmond back in season three, you cannot change your destiny. And if what happened, happened, then doesn't that mean that what happened is what always happened? Not just the literal events that took place, but that our people were always there? If our Losties were always back in the 70's than that means the events that led to them going back to the 70's always happened as well.

It's not just that what happened, happened, it's that what will happen is always going to happen as well. And what does this mean for free will? Well, Daniel sees the meaning of free will first hand when he tells young Charlotte not to come back to the island despite his promises not to say a thing to her. Beyond that, most of the choices we see our characters making are certainly of their own volition. Some of these choices, like Sayid's attempt at killing Ben, are direct attempts to change known events. But most of the choices our characters make are made in a vacuum. Echoing the themes of previous seasons, our characters hide information from one another, neglect to mention important details, and make important decisions with out ever appreciating the full ramifications of their choices. And as we've seen with Ben and Dr. Chang among others, the choices our characters make directly impact their lives and the events we saw unfold during the first four seasons.

There's a certain paradox there, where the choices our characters make in the 70's lead to their lives as we see it decades later, but that this sort of circular logic exists in the Lost universe is plainly obvious from the Richard-Locke interactions across thew time line. Chronologically, Locke first meets Richard on the island as a time traveler in the 1950's, giving Richard a compass. Several years later, Richard goes to witness Locke's birth, all because future Locke told him to be there. Years after that, Richard visits a young Locke and asks him to chose among a number of items. Young Locke fails to chose the compass which older, time-traveling Locke had given Richard back in the 50's. In 2007, resurrected Locke instructs Richard to give the compass to time-traveling Locke, completing the circle and raising the mind-numbing question of where the compass came from in the first place. But compass origins aside, there is a simple beauty in the logic of the universe that Lost has given us. The only way to truly understand it is to take a step back and look at the story as a whole and see how the various disjointed pieces actually fit together.

Now, none of this answers the question of fate versus free will, which is ultimately too much of a big question for a good television show to ever give a real answer to. Yes, what happened, happened, but did what happen, happen because our characters only made the choices they were destined to make, or did what happen, happen because our characters do have free will, did make choices and destiny is just what we're calling the choices that they made. It's a chicken or egg question, made all the more confusing by time travel mumbo jumbo.

What we have seen is that our time traveling characters can't change the past, even when they try to and more importantly than that our characters create the circumstances of their own lives. Between Sayid, Kate, and Sawyer, we've seen the origins of the Benjamin Linus we'll know to grow and love/hate. We've seen Miles come to grips that it was he and his friends who helped create the fatherless and angry young man he was going to become. And my big prediction for the finale is that our Losties- and Jack in particular- are going to create the circumstances that lead to the crash of Oceanic 815 all while actively working to prevent it. It's a nice tie in to this theme of destiny and a great tie in back to season 2, where our gang spends so much time at the Swan station that they will help to make so important.

There's another important them running throughout this season, throughout the whole of Lost really, and that is whether one can change what they are. It's here where I think Jack, in his over zealousness to be the hero, is yet again missing the big picture. He's worried about changing events, but you have to wonder whether he has changed himself. In fact, the conclusion of this season has brought up this same question for all of our characters. Despite being teased and tantalized in the season's early goings, have our characters really grown? Have our characters really changed their stripes or are they the same people they always were and dare I say, are always destined to be?

There's Jack, as I mentioned, who has this intense emotional need to be the hero. When Jack here's about Jughead and Faraday's plan, this is a way for him to save every last person on flight 815, but once again, as we've seen throughout his life, this is Jack, the doctor, thinking about saving physical lives and not about hearts and souls. There's Sawyer, who, in leaving on the sub, seems to be embodying the sort of cowardice that Cassidy said defined him. Yes, he's looking out for more than just himself in the form of Juliet, but isn't he leaving all his friends behind? He may have expanded his circle to include Juliet, but isn't this the same old selfish Sawyer we've always known? And then of course, there's Juliet, who as we saw back in season three and season four, was seemingly always destined to be "The Other Women." As if on cue, who drops into the sub to join her and Sawyer on their getaway? Of course, it's Kate. Those three are perhaps the best examples, but Sayid, and possibly Kate could fit the mold as well. Hurley is a bit more difficult, given that we don't yet know his motivations and John Locke, well, he remains a mystery in and of himself.

So what's to come on Lost? Well, I'm fairly certain that we're leading up to the incident, that our people will be involved and that the season will end with all or most of our people back in 2007. Beyond that, I'm very hazy. As I mentioned, Locke remains a big mystery, both in terms of who he is and what he is doing.

I'll close out with some random thoughts and guesses about what's left to come on Lost, in this season's finale and beyond. My theory for at least a month now is that Eloise is going to be involved in the incident at the Swan and that she herself is going to be given powers of foresight similar to those experienced by Desmond after his turning of the Swan's failsafe key at the end of season two. Daniel's diary is potentially a game changer as it could explain much of older Mrs. Hawking's knowledge of the future, however, it still seems to me as though Mrs. Hawking was well aware of events beyond the scope of Daniel's diary. Most notably, she was in the jewelery store back in season three as Desmond flashed back through time, explaining to Desmond that he doesn't buy the ring for Penny and that he can't change his destiny. So my theory's still in play, but I'm wondering if there's something else I'm missing. Mrs. Hawking's statement to Penny a few weeks ago (in 2007) that she couldn't see what was going to happen for the first time in a long time was intriguing and it's important to note that Daniel left in 2004, so any information in the diary couldn't have come from any later than 2004.

The other big thought I have brewing is that the coming war on the island will be a religious sort of struggle for the island, with the Others facing off against this new shadow of the statue group. There's a popular theory out there that the shadow of the statue people are part of a reconstituted Dharma initiative, but that theory males little sense plot wise and even less sense as far as the general tone of the narrative. The use of the statue invokes a deep connection to the ancient history of the island, not the sort of connection to be found with Dharma. The really interesting questions are about our characters. Where does Widmore fit in, where does Eloise fit in? How and why is Desmond getting back to the island (which has to happen), a question which probably won't be answered until next season and what's the deal with Locke and with Jacob, a question that may well be answered this season.

This has been an unusual season for Lost, really, an unusual season for any television show ever. In terms of overarching themes and the season long plot, I feel the show has been just as strong as ever, but some of the episode-by-episode execution of the story has been clunky at times. To be fair to the writers, this is probably because of the vast number of story lines, character moments, and plot reveals that had to be juggled all season, a far more difficult task than anything that's come before. Even without some of the clunky moments, I don't feel this season would be as strong as season four, mostly because last year was heavier on character while this year was heavier on plot. But I'm thrilled for tonight's finale and am just antsy with anticipation. The worst part is, there's only a year of this left.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Freedom and Democracy and Other Big Words

I'm struck by the number of supposedly serious commentators taking the time to weigh in on Ms. California, supposedly shunned because of her belief in opposite marriage. It's not a story, not unless you're someone who finds beauty pageants to be of preeminent social importance. Yet the conservative media has latched on to the story and the liberal media has mercilessly mocked them for it. I'm distressed because it's an unfortunate sign of the times when whatever a pageant contestant says is somehow supposed to be relevant political news.

Back in the real world, the debate over small government languishes, in no small part because the right seems insistent on making the debate a partisan rather than an ideological one. And as I noticed when I watched HBO's resident douchebag Bill Maher the other night, the foolishness of the right has allowed the left to become more ideologically lazy than ever, so much so that only a scattered number of honest liberals have tracked President Obama's poor record on civil liberties and government secrecy.

But while the partisans talk past each other, it's become more and more clear that in this current political and economic climate, truly important questions about freedom and democracy have become more and more pressing. Those words (along with other platitudes describing our system of government) have been so overused that standing alone, they tend to lack meaning. Again, this is why the tea parties held so little meaning for me. They weren't spontaneous outbursts of grassroots intellectual opposition, but emotional partisan outpourings. As the days in the Obama administration tick by, I'm left feeling more and more that left and right, people's concerns about government are about specific issues and not really about principle.

To Boldly Go, Part III : The Next Generation

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Next Generation was my first Star Trek love as a kid and I enjoyed most of the show's good seasons (three through seven) as they were originally broadcast. The Next Generation was a lot of what the original series wasn't. It was (at times) a more serious drama, with more serious actors, and with writers who may have taken things a bit more seriously. Additionally, the basic structure of the show was adjusted to meet common sense realities. Away missions for instance, didn't involve the three most important people on the ship, but the First Officer (Commander Riker) and more carefully selected teams. And unlike the original series, some attention was paid to continuity of plot and character development as the show progressed.

Over time, it's become apparent that the Next Generation has simultaneously aged well in some regards and terribly in others. Perhaps because the show strove to take itself so much more seriously than the Original Trek, the bad episodes of the Next Generation are really bad. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy going to the Nazi planet is so over the top it's possible to just sit back and enjoy it, but Wesley Crusher's faced with execution for trampling the flowers (Justice)? Or the bad Vegas casino on the alien world where people go in, but never come out (The Royale)? Just terrible. And that's to say nothing of the aging disease (Unnatural Selection) or the inhibition shedding disease (The Naked Now) or any number of other plots rehashed from the original series.

What the Next Generation had going for it from day one was Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard and Stewart's range shined through even the worst of times.

What Was Awesome:

# The Borg. Star Trek's ultimate villain was ruthless in their quest for simultaneous biological and mechanical perfection. The Borg were frightening in their introduction in season 2's "Q Who" and they brought the Star Trek universe as we know it to it's knees in the "Best of Both Worlds" cliffhanger.

# "Darmok," where Captain Picard had to learn to communicate with an an alien captain who's race spoke only in metaphors.

# The Klingons. The cartoon villains from the original series were remade into the popular warrior culture Star Trek fans know today. Ron Moore's Klingon saga- "Sins of the Father," "Reunion," and "Redemption"- was a template for the political and personal drama that would later make up Deep Space Nine.

# "The Inner Light," one of those fine examples of what the format of Star Trek is capable of. Captain Picard lives a lifetime in the shoes of an alien on a dying world, getting married, having children, and having grandchildren, all as part of the dying race's plan to share their culture with the rest of the galaxy.

# "Frame of Mind," "Parallels," or any of the other Brannon Braga mindfucks that made us question the true nature of reality.

# "Tapestry," the Next Generation's version of "It's A Wonderful Life," with Q taking Picard on a tour of the key moments of his life in the midst of a near death crisis. And yes, there's a reason why a lot of these best moments involve Patrick Stewart.

# The holodeck and the ridiculous fun of the early holodeck episodes ("The Big Goodbye," "Elementary Dear, Data," and "Hollow Pursuits").

# The poker games with Commander Riker and the rest of the officers. These were pure character moments, only rarely connected to the plot and they provided the characters a depth that most of the other Treks tended to struggle with.

# "Yesterday's Enterprise," not for the reappearance of Tasha Yar or her heroic decision to sacrifice herself to restore the time line, but for the truly dark and different image of the Enterprise as a warship in a galaxy at war.

# Captain Picard's relationship with Dr. Crusher, which was constantly teased but only given significant screen time in season seven.

# Later episodes like "The Wounded" and "Half a Life" which dealt with real, raw human frailties. "The Wounded" was unique in that it showcased the little utilized Chief O'Brien and his former commanding officer, while "Half a Life" showcases Lwaxana Troi and her new found love who is not long for this world.

# Data, who was created to be the Spock of The Next Generation and wound up exceeding Spock in terms of his exploration of the human condition.

What Was Not Awesome:

# What they did to the Borg. First, they humanized them and made them all warm and cuddly in "I, Borg." Then, they gave the Borg emotions and put them under the control of Data's evil twin brother. If only it wasn't worse than it sounds.

# Wesley Crusher, boy genius, saving the ship again.

# Deanna Troi. There may not have been a more pointless character on Star Trek. I was listening to a podcast the other day that described Troi something like this: Any time a shifty, sceevy looking alien would get on the view screen, the empath would tell Captain Picard, "he's lying," as if none of the rest of us could tell that the shifty alien wasn't telling the truth.

# The second season, in which Dr. Crusher was replaced with the obnoxious Dr. Pulaski and the season finale consisted of a terrible clip show. To be fair, there were perhaps more high points than in season one ("Elementary, Dear Data, "Q Who," "A Matter Of Honor," and "The Measure Of A Man"), but there's a lot there that's tough to get through.

# Any of the all too familiar subplots where the ship is put in danger by spatial distortions or spatial creatures or some other unnecessary threat. There were far too many episodes where good character work was interrupted by these useless subplots, as if Star Trek couldn't exist without putting someone in danger every week.

# Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), commenting that the 24th century way of life may be worth giving up cigars for. I think Ron Moore was so incensed by this little pc nugget that he decided to make the doctor on Battlestar Galactica a cigarette smoking fiend.

# Geordi's incompetence with women. 30 year-old men can be shy or stupid. Not both.

# Tasha Yar's death. Yes, it was supposed to be meaningless, but that's not what we watch tv for. You can't kill off a main character like a red shirt.

# Underground tunnels and caves. This would be a complaint of mine throughout all the modern incarnations of Star Trek. I've been in one real set of caverns in my life and it took an elevator to get down to them. Yet virtually every planet in the Star Trek universe has massive caverns, all of which look quite similar. Given the number of more modern science fiction shows that relied heavily on location shooting (Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and even X-Files), the heavy use of sound stages for these sorts of scenes stands out even more over time. It gives a cheap look to a show that looks good otherwise.

# "Force of Nature," the ridiculous environmental episode where it's discovered that warp drive is destroying the galaxy. A warp speed limit is set to minimize damage, a ridiculous idea if warp drive really was destroying the fabric of space. That speed limit is subsequently ignored in all later incarnations of Star Trek.

# Any of the episodes dealing possession by alien life forms. It was done in the original Star Trek and none of the Next Generation episodes on the subject had anything new to offer.

# Worf's relationship with Counselor Troi. Ugh.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Blog Update

For anyone who's been checking in regularly over the past few weeks and not finding much, I've just got to ask you to bear with me for the next few weeks. In addition to my two other jobs my wife and I are in the process of opening our legal practice and when it comes to my free time, I've been picking fantasy baseball over blogging.

I've had a number of Star Trek posts in the works, in honor of the new film, that I will get to and I hope to get back to the news within the next couple of weeks. So keep checking in and don't lose faith- there is more lonely libertarian to come.

A Bold New Vision (or "Take that, nerd!")

Warning: The following contains spoilers of the new JJ Abrams Star Trek film. You have been warned.

I'll admit it, I was worried going in, or at least until all the reviews started coming in. The previews looked exciting and flashy, but I was truly concerned that this was going to be all flash and no substance. I was less worried about the supposed changes being made to Star Trek canon, but nonetheless expected such changes to be incredibly broad. And now, after having seen JJ Abrams reimagining of perhaps the biggest name in science fiction, I have to say, I'm impressed. Yes, there was all the JJ Abrams flash and the JJ Abrams monsters. There were also some intense special fx sequences and some small tweaks to make the characters and the setting feel a bit more modern and recognizable to a non-Trek audience. But even though this was an action/adventure film, there was a taut plot, some great character moments and character introductions, and a hell of a lot of fun.

And the fun was probably the most important part, which JJ Abrams captures with abandon. The new Kirk is like the old Kirk, only more so. He's a drinking, womanizing bad-ass with a disdain for authority and a knack for doing what's right. The rest of the cast is great, but really it's all about Kirk. If Chris Pine hadn't done such a wonderful job of reinventing the sci fi superhero, we wouldn't be talking about the rest of the film. And for any of the "must be true to canon" trekkies out there, the film's plot has a built in explanation for any discrepancies: time travel. This film takes place in an alternate reality where Kirk's life is drastically changed as a result of a time traveling Romulan.

Ultimately though, it's a wonderful new Star Trek, easily accessible to non-fans. For the fans, other than the sort of background changes needed to tell the story, the only big change we see is Spock's romance with a young Uhura. But perhaps most importantly of all, the ship is still recognizable as the Enterprise and the bridge still feels like the bridge. It's a bit hard to describe, but despite all the flash, it still feels a lot like Star Trek.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

To Boldly Go, Part II : The Original Series

I've been working on these posts for a few weeks and just today decided to scarp what I had been doing to start over. I was trying to put together something that was somehow accessible to non-fans, but it just proved to be too much of a challenge. Not a challenge as in I couldn't do it, but a challenge as in it's a lot of work to discuss Star Trek strictly in terms of generalities. But there's little else I blog about here at such a general level, so why should Star Trek be any different. I don't explain what a touchdown or even a spread offense is when I write about the Patriots, so why should Star Trek be any different. This is for the fans or at least those familiar with the show.

My own exposure to original Star Trek began at the age of 9 or 10. I was Next Generation fan first and foremost and only saw the original when the local channel that aired The Next Generation reruns every night switched to the original series for a brief run. And I loved it. Even as a young kid, there was something vibrant about the original Star Trek that was missing in the more sterile Next Generation. The characters were more lively, the plots more colorful, and the writing more tongue-in-cheek. In a way, the original Trek succeeded for the same reason the original Star Wars films were so much better than the newer prequels: the actors dove whole-heatedly into their parts without ever taking themselves too seriously. Yes, original Trek dealt with some serious issues, but it was this sense of fun that helped maintain the shows watchability through numerous writing missteps (such as visiting the Nazi planet (Patterns of Force) and the female aliens who steal Spock's Brain (Spock's Brain), among others).

Truth be told, there were no great actors among the original Star Trek cast (apologies to William Shatner), but what the original series did have was a group that knew how to throw subtlety to the wind and hit all the right notes, so to speak. Enjoyment can still be found in the original Star Trek when it's taken for what it is- a slightly campy 60's television show. Of course the special fx are ancient, the fight scenes are poorly choreographed and there are a few too many hippies, but the lousy episodes are still fun in a kitschy sort of way and the good episodes are still really damn good. The Trouble With Tribbles is still funny after 40 years and the City on the Edge of Forever is still a classic piece of science fiction. And the themes of power, racism, tolerance, and friendship are as meaningful today as they ever were. It's sort of funny that on one hand, the original Star Trek was very much a product of it's time and subject to the limitations thereof, while on the other hand it managed to raise the taboo issues of race, gender, and war to such a level that wouldn't have been permitted of other shows at the time.

What Was Awesome:

# The previously mentioned "City on the Edge of Forever," a piece of classic science fiction. Captain Kirk is forced to watch a woman he loves die in order to prevent history from being changed.

# The alien women, in all their seductive goodness. The costumes were always- ahem- intriguing, and Captain Kirk's charms never seemed to fail.

# The drinking. The Next Generation introduced syntehol, an alcohol replacement with none of alcohol's intoxicating effects. It proved to be such a lame idea that newer Treks all took turns poking fun. But in the original Trek, our characters drank real alcohol, most memorably when Scotty shared a bottle of Scotch with an alien captor to a hilarious and debilitating effect in "By Any Other Name."

# The unexplored galaxy. 24th century Star Trek made the galaxy feel a bit claustrophobic at times, but the galaxy of the original Star Trek came across as much more of a frontier (which isn't surprising given that the show was sold as a Western in space).

# Journey to Babel. This was the episode that introduced Spock's father Sarek and mother Amanda and provided a glimpse into the inner working of 23rd century politics. The Next Generation tried to duplicate the "transporting diplomats plot" numerous times but never got it quite right the way the original series did here.

# The black and white morality. The original Star Trek introduced the concept of the "prime directive," but never took Star Fleet's most important rule to the ridiculous extremes it would be taken in the 24th century. Captain Kirk had no problem interfering in societies where evil computers had already done damage (The Apple) or in societies where stupidity was killing millions of innocents (A Taste of Armageddon). Captain Kirk didn't follow rules, he just did the right thing.

# Harry Mudd. The rogue embodied much of the charm of the original Star Trek. Captain Kirk would toy with the con man extraordinaire, but you got the feeling Captain Picard would never be bothered with a man like Harry Mudd.

# The Mirror Universe, which was just so incredibly bad ass. Bearded Spock is all-time classic tv.

# "The Doomsday Machine," which despite the outdated fx is still compelling television, if only for Commodore Decker's descent into madness and insistence on taking the Enterprise with him.

# "A Piece of the Action," if only for Captain Kirk's wonderfully lousy job at playing the role of a Al Capone era gangster. That and fizzbin.

# The classic "fight scene" music, most notably used in "The Gamesters of Triskelien," an episode which has been parodied countless times, most notably by Family Guy and the Simpsons.

# "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the two original Star Trek pilots. Either of these could sell a show today, as opposed to any of the newer pilots, which I doubt could sell a show without having the Star Trek name attached to them. It's hard to do sci fi to begin with and it's even harder to do sci fi that promises to be different and more thought provoking than anything that's come before it.

What Was Not So Awesome:

# Any of the number of earth spin-off planets: The Roman planet. The Nazi planet. The identical earth from "Miri." And I know it wasn't a real planet, the Western planet was particularly terrible.

# No first name for Lt. Uhura. I mean come on, how does a main character not get a first name in three years?

# One too many Gods. The original series was a bit over-the-top in the number of all-powerful beings encountered by the crew. If you expand the list to include all aliens more technologically advanced than our crew you've probably got at least 10 different sorts. The episodes themselves are a mixed bag, ranging from the good (Errand of Mercy) to the terrible (Spectre of the Gun), but it makes for a rather complicated galaxy. After all, how many all-powerful beings can one galaxy have? And how many technologically advanced races can there be without it being a problem for Starfleet?

# Chekov's hair, horrible Russian accent, and the horrible jokes about Russia.

# "And The Children Shall Lead." Children summon horrible, ghost-like alien creature by holding hands and chanting in a circle, all because their parents made them go to bed early. How could this have been a bad idea?

# Ditto "Spock's Brain."

# "The Enemy Within," filmed and written before the designers had come up with a shuttlecraft. So Sulu and a few others sat freezing to death on the surface of an alien planet, all because the transporter was broken.

# The prejudice against computers. It was evidenced to great extent in the classic episode, "The Ultimate Computer," but was an ever-present factor in many of the episodes where computers controlled the people and cultures of entire worlds. This fear that computers would alternatively destroy us or enslave us has been a fairly consistent theme throughout science fiction history, but always seemed to contradict the notion of humanities positive future. A more Asimovian tone was taken with the 24th century Star Treks, but the original Trek can come across as rather Luddite.

# The swaggering, swarthy Klingons, who seemed to be stock villains more than an interesting alien race.

# "Turnabout Intruder," the last episode of the original series, where Kirk's consciousness is switched with a female Starfleet officer outraged that women in Starfleet aren't allowed to be captains. This sexist policy is seemingly explained when the emotional woman in Kirk's body, Janice Lester, acts irrationally and overly emotional. A real black mark for a show that generally transcended and crushed stereotypes.