Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Brannon Braga

Star Trek into dorkiness

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You know we’re past the midpoint of summer when Comic-Con is back in the news, with the usual coverage of big announcements, horrendous lines, and occasional bad behavior at the San Diego Convention Center. Comic-Con, of course, is a major business event these days, with the few remaining aficionados of comics themselves shuttled aside into remote floors and tiny conference rooms. Instead of a refuge for a subculture, it’s the headquarters of the monoculture, an overpowering declaration that we’re all nerds now, at least from the point of view of the major movie studios. As it happens, I ended up watching the 1997 documentary Trekkies for the first time over the weekend. And although the film is full of moments—as when we meet dentist Denis Bourguinon, whose office, Star Base Dental, looks like one of William Shatner’s fever dreams—when we seem to have strayed into Christopher Guest territory, it feels now like a bittersweet paean to something lost forever. (I ended up watching it, incidentally, because it was one of the only movies available at the beach house my wife’s family was renting in Michigan City. In summer cottages, we’re thrown back on an earlier world of entertainment, rooting through the same faded paperbacks and board games that generations did before us.)

And I’m glad it took me seventeen years to watch Trekkies. When it was first released, there were heated arguments about its true attitude toward its subjects: whether it was affectionate or condescending, a love letter or a freak show. Seen from the distance of close to two decades, though, it comes across as a surprisingly gentle portrait, especially now that the airwaves are filled with documentaries looking for other subcultures to mock, and it gains an added resonance that wasn’t there at the time. On its initial run, it would have felt like a report from the front lines of nerd culture; now, it’s a time capsule, capturing a moment in fandom that would never come again. It takes place during the most epochal event in the history of fan culture, the advent of the Internet, which allowed obsessive, often introverted personalities from all parts of the world to seek one another out in safe spaces online. We never hear the roar of a dialup modem in Trekkies, but as the camera pans across a fan’s lovingly curated Brent Spiner site on Geocities, it’s hard not to imagine it in the background. And this is still a transitional moment, with Kirk/Spock fanfic and bondage fantasies featuring Captain Janeway distributed in photocopied newsletters.

The Star Trek episode "Mirror Mirror"

Today, we don’t need to go in active search of fandoms; the fandoms all but come to us. Internet culture and the Trekkie world overlapped so beautifully in those early years because they attracted people of the same stripe: to get online at all in the mid- to late nineties, you had to be pulled in by the prospect of what you’d find there, and willing to tolerate long nights in a dark room waiting for downloads at 14.4 kbps. Trekkies formed a natural community of early adopters, both because of their interest in technology—you can see rough versions of iPads in The Next Generation and the equivalent of a verbal Google search in the episode “Darmok”—and their capacity for solitary, meticulous work. It’s no surprise that when they logged on, they found people a lot like them. Now, with our options for going online all but beating through our screens, online comment sections have come to look more or less like the rest of the world. You don’t need to meet any particular threshold of patience or motivation to share an opinion: in some ways, it’s harder not to share. And while, on balance, it’s a positive development, it also leads to a form of engagement with pop culture that has little in common with the world that Trekkies depicts.

Call it whatever you like, but it boils down to the difference between hanging out with a few committed friends at the Magic: The Gathering table at lunch period and being thrown headlong into the full cafeteria. Drop into a discussion of Star Trek these days, and you’re less likely to encounter an analysis of the Klingon language than dismissive comments about the J.J. Abrams franchise and invectives against Kurtzman and Orci.  (It’s an especially stark contrast with the treatment of creative figureheads in Trekkies, in which showrunners like Brannon Braga are treated like gods.) If online fandom seems generally less impassioned and more ambivalent these days, it’s only because it reflects the world as a whole, rather than the views of a handful of devotees who wouldn’t be online at all if they didn’t have strong feelings to share. In the world of Trekkies, there was room for everything but “meh.” Negativity has always been part of the fan experience; what it’s striking about it now is how so much of it seems to come from indifference. There’s a sequel to Trekkies, more than a decade old, that I haven’t seen, but I already feel that it’s time for a third installment, even if it’s less about uncovering an unseen stratum of pop culture than analyzing what is taking place all around us.

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

The limits of the Cosmos

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I hate to admit it, but I’m getting a little fed up with Cosmos. For the past two months, I’ve tuned in faithfully every Sunday night, and there are elements of the show that I still adore: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s warmth and gravitas, the willingness to honestly present such issues as natural selection and climate change to a wide audience, and the overall ambition of the entire production. Watching the premiere, I was convinced that it would the alter the lives of countless smart young kids, and I still hope it will. In its small, tactical details, however, it’s also shown itself to be weirdly cautious. About half of every episode is devoted to an animated reenactment of the life of a great scientist—Halley, Newton, Annie Jump Cannon—and while I applaud the effort to ground its ideas in the haphazard, messy way in which discoveries are made, in practice, the segments fall back on the laziest of narrative formulas about genius at work. And given the intelligence of the creative team involved, which includes Tyson, Brannon Braga, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane, the result can’t help but feel slightly condescending, as if they didn’t trust their viewers to be engaged by revelatory scientific ideas without a healthy spoonful of the sugar of human interest.

Of course, movies and television have always had trouble depicting the act of creativity, whether in art, science, or other fields. For every work that yields genuine insights into what it means to think and create for a living (The Red Shoes, Amadeus, Crumb) there are a dozen more that give us the same scenes of the misunderstood artist or scientist, the eureka moment that somehow arises directly from the drama of his or her personal life, and the final moment of vindication, preferably accompanied by a slow clap. Cosmos, which has proven itself to be highly imaginative in other respects, jumps into these clichés with both feet. Occasionally, the approach yields rich dividends—as in the episode recounting the extraordinary career of Clair Patterson, which I’m sure is already being worked up into a biopic by some enterprising screenwriter—but more often, we’re treated to endless scenes of stiff figures in cravats chatting about the day in the lab. Sunday’s episode, for instance, devoted endless minutes to Michael Faraday’s childhood speech impediment and the workplace politics at the Royal Institution, while giving the substance of his insights only the most passing of glances.


The result is something that could easily have been dramatized by actors on a soundstage, or even in a radio play, which only underlines how many opportunities have been wasted. If Cosmos had given us Patrick Stewart playing William Herschel in a wig, we would have laughed—so why is it any more compelling, or less stilted, in animated form? This is all the more true because animation, in theory, is a medium of limitless potential when it comes to conveying difficult abstract ideas. Occasionally, we get the sense that Cosmos has blown most of its budget on spectacular computer effects from earlier in the season, so it falls back on the economical expedient of showing us a cartoon, with periodic cuts to Tyson strolling through London. But it costs the same amount of money to show the inside of an atom, the heat death of universe, or the train of thought inside Faraday’s head as it does to give yet another scene of two men chatting in a nineteenth-century office. The only difference lies in the amount of imagination or ingenuity the show is willing to expend. And for a show that bracingly celebrates the lives of those who thought in revolutionary ways, it’s dispiriting to see how little consideration seems to have gone into the way it tells its stories.

Obviously, it’s a miracle that a series like this is airing on a major network at all, let alone on Fox, and there’s no way of knowing what outside forces have shaped or limited the show’s approach to its material. I’m sure there was plenty of pressure to make it more accessible, more familiar, more like what we’ve seen before. Yet I don’t think there was ever a chance that its stodgy segments would turn the series into a ratings juggernaut or water cooler show—”Did you see what they did to Giordano Bruno last night?”—while a less conventional approach might have had a far greater impact. As it stands, I can’t believe that many of the show’s sober little reenactments would have made it out of the writer’s room if it weren’t for the cloying sense that they were somehow good for us, like the educational filmstrips so savagely parodied on The Simpsons. Science teachers will be pressing the play button on Cosmos in classrooms for decades to come, but I wish the show had aimed for more. At its best, as when it shows us the lives and deaths of stars, it hits notes that no other series on television can reach. Far too often, though, it leaves us with nothing but its integrity and good intentions, which isn’t enough to make it fit to survive.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2014 at 10:05 am

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