Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Twin Peaks, Star Trek Discovery and Being a Human Person in 2017

There are two television series I've had any interest in watching this year (which is two more than in your average year, so well done The Media).  One was Twin Peaks ("The Return") which was, and I think we can all agree on this, a masterpiece, up there with David Lynch's best work (namely, Mulholland Drive, his best film; and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, please don't hurt me, his second best).  2017's Twin Peaks pushed the boundaries of television, again, as much as did the original series in the early 1990s.  Television as we knew it back then doesn't really exist any more, hasn't for a long time now, but Twin Peaks is one of the few works in the medium that actually recognised this.  It luxuriated in non-linear, multi-level storytelling, toyed with the viewer's expectations, sense of reality, emotions and comprehension in the way that only David Lynch can.  Lynch is a true genius - the Picasso of cinema - and the incredible 18-hour epic that was "The Return" will take years to appreciate and comprehend.  It was written and filmed as a single entity, an 18-hour movie, that just happened to have been split into 18 parts by the convention of weekly serialisation, or possibly because to sit and watch the thing in a single 18-hour stretch would make your brains explode, opening uncloseable doors to worlds darker than we are yet equipped to navigate.  Even if you're well-versed in Lynch already, and bring plenty of snacks.

I, for one, prefer not to comprehend it at all: Lynch's work is best understood subconsciously, indescribably - and slowly.  The new Twin Peaks told its tale very, very slowly indeed, even without the delightful, Pynchonesque diversions into subplots of dubious relevance (whatever that means). In one typical scene, Albert Rosenfield waits patiently as Gordon Cole's unknown ladyfriend - never seen or referred to anywhere else in the story - puts on her shoes, adjusts her make up and kisses Gordon goodbye over the course of three full minutes before any meaningful dialogue is exchanged, the advancement of the actual plot, such as there is one, tacked onto the scene's final minute.  In a time of cinematic universes and joyless encyclopedic fan theories - a time when television has long ceased to be a disposable, episodic distraction and become an immersive world, even a source of individual identity - Twin Peaks was the perfect antidote to the stifling nerd logic of consistency and sense.

The other series was Star Trek Discovery, whose first episodes aired over the weekend.  When it comes to fictional universes, canons, excessive nitpicking, and "fandom", nothing surpasses Star Trek.  It's an epic in a very different, more classical sense than the postmodern Twin Peaks, one which spans 50 years here in reality, multiple television series and movies, with several time lines, alternate realities, and a narrative spanning several hundred years in its own universe.  That narrative, more from the weight of its own legacy than out of the artistic vision of a singular genius (Gene Roddenberry, visionary that he was, was no David Lynch) has been told in an increasingly non-linear fashion, ever since its last incarnation on television, Star Trek Enterprise, made a passable effort of filling in some gaps between the original 1960s series, set in the 23rd century, and our own reality of the late 20th to early 21st century, skimming over the twentieth century itself - what was the future when Star Trek was first written, but is now the past.

Star Trek Enterprise wasn't terrible, but it's not up there with The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager - the so-called "golden age" of Star Trek (from 1987 to 2001 when those three series were on the air continuously) set in the same period of the 24th century, and enjoying a continuous look and feel that is as of its time (the 90s) as the original Star Trek was of its own (the 60s).  Enterprise jumped back in time to the mid-22nd century, made some inventive additions to the backstory and sat plausibly enough within the so-called "canon" of Star Trek as a whole but in a more impatient, ratings-driven time, was cancelled after only four seasons, just when, arguably, it was starting to get good.  And it never really shook off the feel that it wasn't quite, somehow, really Star Trek.  If it was set before the, why did it look so much more advanced?  The future isn't what it used to be, is the obvious answer, and there's nothing anybody can really do about that, but it was never going to be quite satisfactory.  By contrast, consider the Lynchian penchant for setting his stories in worlds that are not quite real, but not quite fictional either, and even when ultra-specific in their cultural context, can never quite be pinned down inside a single decade.  "But who is the dreamer?"

Now comes Star Trek Discovery - set, to the relief of most fans in the "prime" timeline (as opposed to the "Kelvin" timeline of the stupid, stupid J J Abrams "reboot" movies) but once again, it's a prequel.  Well, it's sequel to Enterprise, but a prequel to everything else, taking place 10 years before the events of the original Star Trek series, i.e. sometime in the early-mid 23rd century, from which we know Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr McCoy, Scotty, Uhura and most of the other characters you've heard of even if you don't give two shits about Star Trek (in which case maybe you'd like to skip to the end of this post, where I actually get to the point).  Hope you're getting all this.  

So, several big "whys" hang over the series from the get-go.  First of all, why set a new series of Star Trek here, and not chronologically after all previous Star Trek?  It's science fiction after all, and one thing science fiction is about is the future, so why revisit the past?  A second, related "why" - why did the creators choose to creatively restrict themselves like this?  When you've such an enormous canon, and such an obsessive fanbase - the most vocal faction of which loves to discuss ad nauseum questions of consistency and continuity - why run the risk of upsetting them by making the "mistakes" you inevitably will?  Although the first episode made sense to a more casual fan such as I - with Vulcans, Klingons, transporters, Starfleet and so on behaving more or less as you would expect them to - no doubt the hardcore Trekkies will have already been able to rip the plot to pieces, and, well, good luck to them.  Everyone needs a hobby, and it's not like the creators weren't asking for it.  But they could just have easily picked up sometime after Voyager left off - with whole new regions of the galaxy to explore, unencumbered by previous plots.  Star Trek's greatness is pretty easy to pin down - take the modern, liberal society with all its pleasures and pains, stick it a few hundred years in the future on a frontier immeasurably more vast than the American frontier from which it draws its initial spirit - "Wagon Train to the stars" as Gene Roddenberry first pitched it - and use that as a context for satire, parody, and social commentary, all tied up in the comforting and conventional bundle of weekly, episodic television.  Also, be really silly of the time.  Simple, and therefore brilliant: modernist pop culture of the same calibre as Twin Peaks is as postmodernist pop culture.

Now perhaps if you're a regular reader of this blog you're wondering what any of this has to do with my usual concerns.  It's this.  Star Trek is about an optimistic vision of the future: something which, despite everything, I share.  It's a particular type of optimism: Utopian, and unashamedly post-capitalist.  (Communist, some would even argue, but let's not go there).  It's not something you see a lot of in popular culture.  In The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture, authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter elucidate the appeal of this vision:
"In Star Trek...the impact of information technology, markets and consumer almost completely ignored.  Did Jean-Luc Picard ever hope that a short, decisive battle with the Borg would restore consumer confidence within the Federation?  For all his vanity, did James T. Kirk ever show the slightest interest in fashion?  ... It is tempting to view the absence of consumer products and consumerist values from the series as just bad writing and failure of imagination on the part of the show's writers.  But that would be too quick and easy a conclusion.  Another way of looking at is is as political allegory, of an enlightened future in which the citizens of the Federation have found a way of being individuals without being rebels, of wearing uniforms without succumbing to a deadening existential uniformity...We live in a society that is the exact opposite.  We are all, to an unparalleled degree, self-conscious about what we wear, and the counterculture has played an enormous role in heightening this self-consciousness...The competitive structure of this self-presentation is never far from the surface.  Each item must be acquired at an exotic locale, or in an offbeat manner, or for an exceptionally low price.  Each item must be unique; it must have its own special story".
Star Trek at its best is about the human race having overcome its urges to dominate and conquer, a society "no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things", where "things" also pertains to money and political power as well as material possessions as such.  It's about a humanity that's learned from past mistakes; something which in 2017, when even being an actual Nazi is a hair's breadth away mainstream political position, seems fantastical to say the least.  The "final frontier" of Star Trek is not something to be conquered and civilized, as with the American frontier, but only to be peacefully explored.  Where the wisdom of liberalism can be shared for the benefit of the less "advanced", it is, but never imperialistically; and as often as not, with the negative consequences of such an imposition equally in view.  In the Next Generation episode, First Contact, Captain Picard - the archetypal cultured explorer, diplomat and gentleman, the antithesis of the more gung-ho, excessively macho (but nonetheless good-natured) Captain Kirk of the more confident, liberal 1960s (or 2260s) - shares the following exchange with the leader (called Durken) of a less technologically advanced planet who is suspicious of the Federation's motives.  Their conversation runs as follows:
DURKEN: You speak the language of diplomacy very well, Captain. It is a language I appreciate and understand, but I have learned to not always trust it.  
PICARD: Trust requires time and experience.  
DURKEN: My world's history has recorded that conquerors often arrived with the words, we are your friends.  
PICARD: We are not here as conquerors, Chancellor. 
DURKEN: What do you want? 
PICARD: A beginning. But how we proceed is entirely up to you. 
DURKEN: And if my wishes should conflict with yours? 
PICARD: There'll be no conflict.  
DURKEN: And if I should tell you to leave and never return to my world?  
PICARD: We will leave and never return. Chancellor, we are here only to help guide you into a new era. I can assure you we will not interfere in the natural development of your planet. That is, in fact, our Prime Directive. 
A thousand light years away from any honest exchange you can imagine taking place between leaders in the real world, today.  Which is of course the whole point: Star Trek is about hope.  Hope for a less violent, aggressive, arrogant, domineering, self-destructive future.  A hope some of us hang on to even while our extinction looms.

So what I was anticipating in Star Trek Discovery had little to do with whether it took place in the "prime" timeline, why the new Klingons look very different to how they "should" look, or to what extent the story it told would be consistent with canon.  I was just looking for a Star Trek that retained some of the original vision of its creators: a less violent, materialistic, humanity.  One less prone to interpersonal conflict.  In time of box-set aficionados - I've never watched Breaking Bad, or The Wire, and I'm not going to so stop telling me to - I need the escapism of a truly idealistic entertainment.  Star Trek seems to my best bet.  But the signals I received from the first episode were...mixed.

The series begins with a personal confrontation, the sort Gene Roddenberry would never have allowed, on the bridge of a star ship between the protagonist Commander Burnham and her captain, Georgiou over an apparent "mutiny" by Burnham.  Each points a weapon at the other, but no shots are fired.  Burnham is confined to the brig.  Then there are lots of special effects, and we meet the new Klingons, cast once again as aggressors and villains.  Captain Georgiou attempts to reassure the Klingons that Starfleet come in peace.  It's a fairly promising start.  Later in the episode, their conflict (sort of) resolved, Burnham and Georgiou beam onto a Klingon ship and they fight.  It's bloody and violent in a way that classic Star Trek very much is not.  Georgiou is impaled and killed.  Burnham survives, and is stripped of her rank, and sentenced to imprisonment for her mutiny.  The stage is set, if the teasers for later episodes are anything to go by, for a story arc on Burnham's redemption under a new captain on board the eponymous star ship Discovery.  Other stuff happens too.  A stand-out scene involves Burnham reasoning with the ship's computer to release her from the brig, on ethical grounds.  It's an encouraging nod to several key Star Trek themes: humanity vs. technology, the value of individual life, and classical heroism.

Still, the whole thing felt a little bit too slick.  Heavy on visual detail, but low on character, in several senses of that word.  Of course it's too early to make those kind of judgements but I'm not holding out much hope of seeing much of another of Star Trek's strengths: silliness.  Silliness is vital component of any serious art form, but there just doesn't seem to be much room for it in television series that are made to last.  It dates quickly, and seems flippant.  Science fiction (and fantasy, I think, though I'm not interested in that - no, I'm not going to watch Game of Thrones either) today has to be "dark", serious, woven seamlessly with CGI but only, it would seem, as an afterthought, fun.  Fun is the key to serious and important truths.  So is silliness.  So is your fat mum.

Twin Peaks is silly, albeit in its own twisted way.  It's "dark" and serious too - remember that its tragic core is the tale of a teenage girl abused and eventually murdered by her deranged and possibly demon-possessed father - but it's never, in the flattening sense of that term, realistic.  Fiction isn't supposed to be realistic.  The real world is a pretty awful place at the moment for most human beings; it's perverse to try replicate it for entertainment purposes.  I'll give Star Trek Discovery a fair viewing, but once it's over, that's it.  No more new television.  I'm going outside.

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