Alternate reality is the new black, at least if you work at Bad Robot. And if I had to pick one place I'd want to develop shows, well... Bad Robot would be it. JJ Abrams has assembled an enviable, talented team of executives, headed by producing partner Bryan Burk, film head Sherryl Clark, and TV head Kathy Lingg. In the entertainment business, we spend an awful lot of time talking about bad executives. It's nice to be able to praise good ones. The whole Bad Robot team is entertaining the crap out of me.
The Fringe season (and thankfully not series!) finale ramped up and solidified the fact that there is at least one, but probably infinite, alternate realities. When the show started, it seemed like X-Files, but with freaky science. What I love about the show's revelations is that the show hasn't shifted position. Nina Sharpe tells Olivia that it's due to our freaky science. We have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and we will atone. Looks like we're atoning by becoming embroiled in a war with an alternate reality.
The idea that we ARE meddling with the primal forces of nature when we do scientific experimentation goes all the way back to Mary Shelley. But this hasn't been the focal point of a TeeVee show in a long time. This season, there were five of these suckers -- Eureka, Dollhouse, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Lost and Fringe. And there will be another in the fall -- Flashforward.
I've talked about Dollhouse and Sarah Connor extensively here. Both of those shows, and Eureka, use the science as a way in. But the Bad Robot shows do things a little differently. They establish our world, make us comfortable, and then totally subvert everything we think is real. And we're seeing this through the eyes of characters with whom we identify. This is always the trick, and JJ Abrams and the people who are hands-on with the shows are masters of it. It's one thing to have an enthusiasm for the subject matter, but it's something entirely different to be able to get it on the air. I would guess they have daily struggles with the network and studio over this, but if you're not fighting for your vision, what's the point?
Anyway. Back to Fringe. The idea of "soft spots" that will allow us to get from one reality to another hearkens back to the concept of ley-lines, and of the veil between worlds growing thinner at certain places or times. And our atom splitting and super colliding having caused more to appear is that meddling idea. We don't truly understand this stuff. It's still theoretical, and there's so much we can't prove. Who's to say that the work we're doing isn't going to cause an island to travel through time, or alternate reality windows to open up?
There's this moment I usually have when watching Bad Robot shows reveal something, and I had the same moment when watching the Fringe finale -- Please don't make this too close to the thing I'm working on! It happened with Alias and Lost. And it got frighteningly close with Fringe. I got very nervous when Walter talked about taking LSD With William Bell and seeing an alternate reality, for example. I've always wanted to do something with Terence McKenna and his DMT experiences (the seriously old X-Files spec doesn't count). But nonetheless, I'm delighted that this stuff is getting onto the television box. It's actually cool to be on their wavelength, because it means I'm getting to watch shows that I love.
And characters, too. Olivia, Peter and Walter have worked for me all season. I really don't get the enmity towards Anna Torv. She's cold? Really? I don't see it. What I do see is her dedication, and also her open-mindedness, which is refreshing on a show like this. It's clear that JJ Abrams loves the idea of kids being experimented upon, which we also saw with Sydney Bristow in Alias. Well, it IS cool, and it has a really specific reason on Fringe, giving new meaning to "the children will lead us." A lot of the baggage has been jettisoned here, with Broyles and even Charlie Francis believing. X-Files already went to the believer/skeptic well. Just because there's a speculative fiction show with an FBI agent, doesn't mean we need to go there again.
And then there's Walter and Peter, cracked genius and reluctant genius. Walter's craziness and memory loss can certainly be explained, at least in part, by the revelation that either he or Peter is from an alternate reality. But see, there's the coolness of the concept there, and then there's the remarkably moving scene of Walter in the beach house, trying to remember and going off the rails while a helpless Peter watches. Or the story Peter tells of Walter making pancakes. Was that this Walter, or another? The notion of a fractured father/son relationship takes on new meaning when they may not be from the same dimension. Their estrangement is illustrated by this cool concept. And that's what science fiction is supposed to be able to do.
If Peter is from the alternate reality, does that mean he may have abilities in this one that he doesn't know about? If there is a big war coming, which side will he be on? And what about the Walter Peter remembers? Does he exist in the other reality? When, exactly, did that reality branch off from ours? According to the sharp eyes of fans, it seems like either JFK or RFK lived. Was it then? Was it earlier? Etc.
These are questions that can yield story, and I'm sure that's what we'll get in season two of Fringe. Anyway, I can't wait to find out.
JJ Abrams is building an empire of speculative fiction. Everybody at Bad Robot seems committed to a high standard of storytelling, a particular vision, and what's most exciting about it is that it doesn't just exist on TeeVee.
I have now seen the Star Trek movie twice. Most of the negativity towards the film seems to come because the science doesn't compute, the time travel doesn't work, the nitpicky logic is all off, and the characters don't act like the characters from the show. I just don't agree with any of that. As Neils Bohr said to Albert Einstein, "You are not thinking. You are merely being logical."
See, storytelling demands a balance in order to be effective. It's a fluid, living thing, and if all you're going to do is focus on one element, your story isn't going to work. There's something about science fiction that says it has to be logical and scientifically feasible first. I understand this in part because in science fiction, you're essentially world-building. We already live in a world that works on a logical level. But when you're world-building, you have to build that logic in. So a movie like Star Trek should have rules, and it should follow them and be logical.
However, I think that what's happened with Star Trek is, the balance went all out of whack. The world-building aspect of the franchise has become the most important element. And when the focus shifts that way, the characters become objects by which those worlds are built. That, I think, has happened to Star Trek. Fans have had forty years to play in the universe Roddenberry created. Their imaginations took them to an idealistic future where the problems of the present had been solved. There was no money. No swine flu, or cancer. No psychopathic villains. Only pure exploration, with the kind of altruistic characters that would be employed in such a mission.
As conceived, Star Trek gave us a hopeful future where smart, driven, honest people succeeded. Who wouldn't fucking love that?!?!? But to focus too much on the hopeful future aspect is to ignore human nature. And human nature is what science fiction is about. What the franchise got away from, IMO, are the basics. And to me, the characters are those basics.
Trek's history -- five TeeVee shows and all those movies and tie-in books and original novels -- has given the world a rich universe in which to play, but when it comes time to try and tell a new story, that history acts like a fucking boa constrictor.
The masterstroke of the movie is that Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have found a way to free themselves of the strangling yoke of forty years of Trek, to go back to those characters and to identify with them in a way that's fresh, without crapping all over canon. They clearly wanted to do the "let's gather the crew" story, but they were hamstrung by the history of the franchise. So they took a page from their work on TeeVee. They created an alternate reality, where they would be free to carve their own path for the series.
These characters are no longer the distant archetypes that history made them. The restrictive reverence has been stripped away. That allows for the return of the duality of Spock, taking the character back to the struggle between his Vulcan and human sides. Because that, and not his scientific acumen, is what made Spock identifiable. He was an outcast, a situation almost everybody has faced at one point or another. This is another example of what science fiction can illuminate. And Roddenberry was smart to create a character who strove to be logical, but just couldn't because of this human infection he had within him. The new movie infuses Spock with this duality and gives him an emotional attachment to it, and thank GOD for it.
The fans have made a lot of Kirk, whom they see as the rebel frat boy and nothing more. I don't see it that way. This Kirk has a duality in him, too -- he has a death wish, but also a terrible fear of dying. The Kirk of this reality was born into death and spent his whole life being reminded of that. His life is a gift, one that he didn't ask for and now resents. His father sacrificed his life for a son who couldn't thank him, or blame him him. The guilt that goes along with that is unimaginable, and Kirk simply doesn't deal with it. He acts out against it. He wants to get in trouble, because he thinks he deserves it. He doesn't think much of himself. If he doesn't try, then he can't fail. But Pike doesn't treat him like everybody else does. Pike sees through that shit, and challenges him. And Kirk takes up the challenge.
The Kirk/Spock friendship is a core of the best Trek movie, "The Wrath of Khan," and it's made the core of this film as well. I utterly love that. I also love the destiny angle, and the idea that the entrop of the universe -- even if it has become a different reality -- is still tilted towards getting this crew together. The collection of the crew -- THE crew, people! -- is such a wonderful dramatic device, one that we love because we rarely see it in real life. It's the idea of the group that is greater than the sum of its parts. And the Enterprise crew being that group is what makes us come back time and time again. And that is what made the assembling of the crew, and Spock's meddling with fake time paradoxes, so much fun and so satisfying.
What I love most is that these characters' actions are justified. They are individuals. And let's face it, nobody casts actors better than JJ Abrams. He is just a master at it. And this movie is cast perfectly. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (who we were lucky enough to cast in our Haunted episode) give star-making performances. All the actors work so well together. There's so much energy and excitement given and received among these characters. It's kinetic, and fun, and audiences are loving it.
One thing that struck me when I watched the movie is that I'm not sure Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci could have made it without their TeeVee experience. In TeeVee, one of the most important skills is to be able to play in someone else's sandbox. You learn how to do this by, well, doing it. And what I see with this reboot is the surety of a TeeVee background. They seemed to come at this like one would come at a TeeVee pilot. How do I introduce my characters and my world? How do I set up a continuing series? Star Trek benefits, in part, because it WAS a series. But I also think this has proven to be detrimental. Some of the movies have been big-budget episodes, and what works on TeeVee doesn't necessarily work in film. But JJ Abrams is aware of this. He's able to use his TeeVee knowledge and expertise and infuse that with an inanely high level of filmmaking. This is a MOVIE, gentle readers. It's not a blown-up TeeVee episode.
I could go on and on and fucking ON about how much I loved this movie. This is how I felt about Iron Man last year. Wildly entertaining, with great characters and tight storytelling. This movie really zips along, even with a second viewing. It's not easy to entertain, yet this movie certainly does.
So thanks, Bad Robot. And keep up the good work.
np -- The Enemy, "A New England." Yes, the Billy Bragg song. It's quite great.