Monday, October 19, 2009

Cosy Catastrophes

MAN, it's hard coming up with topics, which is why I thank people who publicly say stupid shit. Thanks, peoples. Much appreciated. The stupid shit responsible for this post comes courtesy of award-winning science fiction author Charles Stross. I haven't read Stross yet. He's been on my list for a long time, but Robert Charles Wilson and John Scalzi keep bumping him down. Anyway, he posted this thing about why he hates Star Trek, ingeniously titled "Why I Hate Star Trek." So I thought I'd take a look.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don't hate Star Trek, but I don't consider myself a Trekkie or Trekker or whatever name is of the moment. I'm pretty familiar with the world of Trek. I haven't seen all episodes of each series but I would say I've seen most. I dug the new movie. The Star Trek universe isn't precious to me.

That said, I went into Stross's rant totally open-minded. But it soon becomes obvious that the dude does that science fiction nerd thing that drives me up the wall. He complains about the science of Star Trek. This acknowledgment came after Stross had read something TNG alum Ron Moore had to say about how they wrote the techspeak on Trek. It took me awhile to get over the shock of it. Not the shock that the writers on Trek would frequently just write "tech" in the dialogue so that the tech guys (called science advisors, which could be part of the confusion) would fill it in with futuristic-sounding words.

That's not what surprised me. It's the fact that we've fucking known about this since TNG was on the air, which was over twenty years ago. Seriously, dude, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? How is this news to anybody with even the remotest interest in the genre?

Don't get me wrong. I like a lot of crap, stuff I won't even mention on this blog. I hate a lot of crap, too, and there are certainly logic reasons -- like shitty science, for example -- that I do. But what happens is that the show or book or movie has already committed a greater crime -- it's badly written. When something's badly written, I'm much harder on the other stuff that's wrong with it. It's much easier for me to take Heroes to task because it's already not very good. So when you steal from better source material, and then you fuck it up, well... prepare for the wrath.

But man, I've sure seen some great episodes of Star Trek. City On The Edge Of Forever, obviously. Best Of Both Worlds, for sure. Yesterday's Enterprise, no question. The Visitor, well... that's one of the best episodes of television I've ever seen. Hearing actors spout techspeak did not hinder my enjoyment of those episodes because of what they did right. They told stories about people unbelievably well.

If you watch The Visitor and think it doesn't do the things that make science fiction powerful, then you're just not paying attention.

But Trek isn't the only thing Stross hates. He also hates Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. No, not the original; the good one. And he hated them without seeing them. Which is fine; there's a ton of stuff I'm not interested in. I should watch Supernatural, but I don't. Smallville doesn't interest me. Stuff on SciFi doesn't float my boat. Stross discovered WHY he hated shows he'd never seen when Ron Moore said the thing about techspeak. This is a bit confusing. I get that he hates Star Trek because he's actually seen it, and maybe it DID take him twenty years to figure out why. And maybe the techspeak IS what drives him absolutely crazy about it. But Galactica? Really? Is it just because Ron Moore developed it, so naturally it would also be tech-driven?

Because it's not, just FYI.

If there's a more character-driven genre show in recent memory, I don't know what it is.

He says this:
SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).

What he conveniently forgets is that we're talking about speculative fiction here. Trying to fit speculative fiction into a neat little box, as Stross is attempting to do, is kind of the opposite of what speculative fiction can do. Why on Earth would you want to limit that? Isn't the whole idea that you go the OTHER way? That you open up the limits of imagination? People who label with such authority drive me crazy. It's bad enough that we have corporations and executives and showrunners putting limits on genre. Shouldn't a science fiction writer like Stross know better?

He talks about how he conceives his books, which involves world-building and then conceiving characters who fit into those worlds. That seems logical, right? My issue is that it's TOO logical. Logic is a necessary tool, but I think people who work in genre who are kind of afraid of it rely too much on logic, at the expense of inspiration and surprise and imagination. This results in dull, dry stories that aren't even as logical as the writer thinks they are.

Stross doesn't care about characters, about how people interact with each other, but then sometimes he does when he says science fiction should be about an exploration of the human condition. So I'm confused. What does he want, exactly?

He understands that TeeVee shows, unlike books, can't present his own brand of science fiction, where non-bipedal creatures in totally alien landscapes use tools we've never seen before. But really, that's just lip service. Because he doesn't really understand what that means:

I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.

More limits. Science fiction is "a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change." For Stross, maybe. But not for everyone. Not for every reader, or every writer.

And how nice of him to recognize the limits of TeeVee as a medium!!! That's extremely troubling, coming from someone like Stross. He's ALLLLL about limits, isn't he? Where he sees limits, I see opportunity. Isn't it MUCH more challenging to tell a great story within these so-called limits? Jesus Christ, man, what Galactica did -- regardless of how you think it ended, and I personally think a lot of people didn't get it -- has just not been DONE on television. Not that anyone will ever get to do it again, but Ron Moore fucking DID it, and Charles Stross -- that master of science fiction -- won't even take a look.

I'll bet the Terminator show made his fucking head explode. If he'd seen an episode. Which he probably didn't. I wonder if he's one of those "I don't own a television" people. It doesn't sound like he should, since all genre TeeVee and movies make his head explode. Which is most assuredly indicative of disruptive revolutionary change.

He lays a smackdown:
The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

"You WILL do science fiction MY way, or IT IS WRONG." He also adds the "under science fictional circumstances" bit, which means, I suppose, that we have to check with him first to see what is acceptable. Which again, defeats the entire purpose of speculative fiction. And since he's asking us to choose, I'd rather get the story right than the science. Otherwise, write a paper.

He then, however, makes an even worse faux pas:

PS: Don't get me started on Doctor Who ...

Sigh. Anyone who expects a show about a two-hearted, immortal time traveler going through time in a blue police box that's bigger on the inside to be scientifically accurate is a fucking idiot. If you're desperate to attach a label, Doctor Who is science fantasy. Not science fiction. Doctor Who is NOT driven by the science, it's driven by character and ideas.

For me, Doctor Who does everything good speculative fiction should do. To wit, IT DOES WHATEVER THE FUCK IT WANTS. It moves dizzily from hard SF to fantasy to horror to a drawing-room murder mystery to a soap to comedy... it literally does everything. And it does so with heart and passion and deft writing and CHARACTER.

First of all, Doctor Who has been on TeeVee since 1963. It's survived in part because of the elegance of its premise. Time-traveling Time Lord and human companion bopping around time and space in a phone box. That can be as simple or as complex as they want it to be. They can reinvent Daleks and Cybermen and make them work because the framework of the show is so simple. Essentially, it's the best kind of anthology, where you can see a totally standalone episode one week, a Dalek episode the next, then Jack Harkness pops in the week following, and then the show unexpectedly ties together an episode from the first season in an episode from the third.

This is precisely the kind of structure that frees you up.

The ability to have intense serialized mythology but also standalone episodes without hurting the show is the goal of TeeVee, at least for me. X-Files managed this for awhile but got lost in its mythology, so the standalone episodes and mythology episodes basically diverged into two different shows. Doctor Who manages this beautifully.

I don't see a lack of imagination on Doctor Who. I see exactly the opposite. I honestly don't know how the Brits feel about Doctor Who but if Stross's reaction is any indication, well... that's unfortunate.

I will say this to Mr. Stross. Next Comic Con, come to the Starship Smackdown panel. Let's see if you can keep up, Sparky.

Yvonne -- send me your e-mail addy through comments and I won't post it. Good to hear from you!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Digitarian Riverbank

I've been delaying discussing the new season, which is why this post is so late. I was hoping to watch at least the first two episodes of everything but after ten minutes of one particular show, I just gave up. And no, I'm not going to say which new show utterly destroyed my enjoyment of TeeVee. Because I have to operate from the neutrality of "I love all television shows. You're all fucking geniuses." So well done, new television season. Everything's MAGNIFICENT!

But then shit started to happen... shit that was centered around NBC, the network that gave you the MAGNIFICENTLY hilarious Jay Leno Show, every night at ten. All you have to do is find A CSI show, and then go up two channels.

The first thing NBC did was to essentially cancel the one show I was REALLY and seriously looking forward to -- Day One. They've decided to turn it into a miniseries, or two movies or some bullshit. So a show goes from having a 13 episode order to being a movie. Fuck you, livelihood. Sorry, hundreds of people who thought you had employment. You don't!!! NBC's in the "let's save money" mode because nothing's really working for them, and they're going to take it out on their shows.

There was a recent article about the cancellation of Southland, the NBC show that did okay for them last year but will not see the light of day this year, even though NBC had promised -- fervently -- that they had NO intention of NOT airing the episodes the studio had already produced. Now as soon as NBC says something like this, I would start packing my office. They did this on Medical Investigation. Jeff Zucker went "I can't imagine a scenario where the show won't get renewed." And then he imagined one, which had to do with him not renewing it.

So already this year, NBC's promised jobs to the staff, cast and crew of Day One and then rescinded that. Then, they actually have the studio (Warner Bros, in this case) MAKE episodes of Southland, which they decide not to air because the show is "too dark." Okay, but... wasn't it too dark LAST year? Why, yes, but last year they had ten o'clock slots. One has to wonder if they asked John Wells, who produces Southland, to lighten the show up so it would fit at nine o'clock. But one also has to wonder if they didn't think it was an issue initially. After all, they're running SVU at nine. But that doesn't seem to be working out so well, so my guess is that when SVU started losing viewers, they got nervous about Southland.

Networks tinker with shows all the time and they will cancel shows before they even air. This isn't a new trend. They've been doing it forever, but taking away the guarantee for episodes produced has made it virtually cost-free for them. They no longer have to pay penalties to producers or cast members. Now, they only have to pay penalties to the studio that shelled out the money to make the show. And NBC would rather pay Warner Bros a big old penalty than pay them thirteen episodes worth of license fees for a show they can't air. You could say that this is partly because NBC doesn't own Southland (Warner Bros does), but then NBC owns Day One and look at what happened with THAT. But since they're already paying about three million an episode for Trauma, they probably didn't want to compound that with Day One, which figures to be on the expensive side. However, Day One's a science fiction show, which means it's dark. Trauma isn't. I wonder if an entire season of Emergency cost three million bucks.

It's somewhat ironic that John Wells gets elected president of the WGA and NBC cancels his show. Go WGA! Power to the people!!!

What also sucks is that there are no assurances that one can count on. No matter what your day-to-day exec says -- or, hell, even Angela Bromstad -- the higher-ups can still cancel your show. I feel for the people who sold shows to NBC. You just don't know what they're going to do. They've apparently committed to Leno for another year, which means no ten o'clock shows. So if your show is, I dunno, even remotely realistic and doesn't feature a laugh track, then you're fucked. Obviously, NBC isn't going to keep Trauma and Mercy around too long. Heroes is about five years past its expiration date, especially if you go by my calendar, which wouldn't have even put it on the air. Day One's dead. They canceled Medium because they didn't own it, and now CBS has found the perfect show to air between Ghost Whisperer and Numbers. So they'll have The Office, and SVU. Are they going to focus on giving their only two drama slots to those shows? Will they cast Wanda Sykes or Roseanne in Prime Suspect? Will the JJ Abrams spy show have to be even lighter and funnier?

Because all they want is light and funny. And it's not hard to figure out why. Lighter shows work on USA and apparently, frenetic humor works on SyFy. Since those networks are part of NBCU, the parent network decides why those shows work and then says that's what they want, too. But they don't even know what that is, specifically. It's not crime shows. It's not family dramas. It's not genre shows. What does that leave? What they don't get is that these shows just happen to be lighter. They have a creative point of view. Not a corporate one. So the network is coming at this from exactly the wrong direction, but the right direction would be that they trust the creative voices. And they won't do that.

Does anyone at NBC think about what the network used to be and cringe a little? Will all the development execs just jump out of their windows when the shows they buy and develop don't get on the air? NBC doesn't just need one great show to save them. It needs an entire network of great shows. Isn't this the time to just throw caution to the wind and believe in something?

At least something amusing happened recently. Didja hear about the whole "Glenn Beck likes Muse" thing. Have you heard about this? The crazy motherfucker has apparently decided that Muse are libertarians because their new album, The Resistance, features a song called Uprising, which calls for, yep, an uprising against the government. I know what you're thinking. Glenn Beck's a libertarian? The crazy right-wingers ALWAYS say they're libertarians. It's hilarious. If you watch Fox News, you are a crazy right-winger. NOT a libertarian.

I'm guessing Glenn didn't listen to the rest of the album, or any of Muse's other albums, for that matter. Glenn even went further, pretending that a Muse spokesmodel had asked him to cease and desist. Apparently, him looking like a frothing loon is what he wants his audience to see.

I'm skeeved out by a few things here. One, that Glenn Beck thinks he's a libertarian. Two, that he completely misconstrued every lyric on Muse's album. Three, that he heard about Muse, bought the album, and listened to it. Actually, that last bit skeeves me out the most. I can't stand the thought of Muse going into Glenn Beck's ears.

God, that Lee Majors bionic hearing aid commercial freaks me the fuck out.

Next post -- sports. Just warning you.