Wednesday, July 30, 2014

trekking our progress!

Star Trek.
A beacon of progressive values? A shining example of a bright future, when humanity "gets its shit together"?
Well...yeah.
But does that proposition stand up to intense scrutiny? Beneath the humanist/pacifist veneer, are there any lurking hotbeds of cultural barbarism? Are the prejudices of our violent, exploitative, dysfunctional world really sidestepped? For that matter, is anyone born into this world capable of even answering such a question?
Five series, ten films. Let's take a look.
RACISM/TRIBALISM
The groundwork was laid in the classic, with a bridge crew that had white, black, yellow, american, and russian all working together...in 1967! Subsequent series added indian (or latindio), hispanic, and arabian (though not every viewer necessarily picked up on those last two...but that in itself speaks volumes about how well the TREK vision was clicking). Of course, there was a "token" element to the mostly white male classic...and every cast had a plurality of whites (even if only barely). But on a more overt level, every series has had episodes dealing with the evils of tribalism/racism - it's at the core of the the vision. And only once in the canon does a future human reveal self-consciousness about skin color (sisko's refusal to enter vic's holoprogram...not the only time DS9 got it wrong). For a while TREK flirted with associating blacks with "savage" klingons...but there were exceptions to blunt that, and before long even the klingons were "humanized". And the fact that racial (or even specieal) considerations were almost never a factor in the show's expressions of sexual desire, had enormous subconscious resonance. Yellow, green, black, spotted...sex us up, scotty!
SEXISM
Okay, don't fixate on the miniskirts. The big numbers for TREK's women? Captains - one of five. First officers - two of five. Senior staff members - fourteen of forty (35%). As a vision of the future? Not so great. As an entertainment product of a barbarically male-dominated society? Not so bad. And it was a credit to how well the show's vision was working, that by the time janeway arrived, many didn't even think of her in terms of gender. That said, her character could have been a disaster in the wrong hands. Mulgrew was steel, without being unfeeling or a caricature. If she'd come off as a bad captain in any way, the entire TREK venture would have been diminished. In that light, after spock, picard, and kirk, she was the most vital casting choice in franchise history. You might also add majel barrett's number one from the original pilot to the big numbers, but let's debunk the notion that a sexist network forbade a female first officer. Aside from gene, there's no documentation or testimony to support that, so let's assume he was lying to his lover to avoid telling her she wasn't a very good actor. And it's fascinating to think of how that changed the course of the show. If he hadn't had to maintain his lie publicly, mightn't he have replaced majel with another actress? Think of the ramifications. It might have been a beautiful moment for feminism...but without spock as first officer, would we be talking about any of this today? With spock in a sulu-sized role, would the show have lasted even three seasons? Anyway...social impact is about more than numbers. In the show's general attitude toward women, the reality is much more affirmative. Yes, you could argue that TREK perpetuated the notion that a woman's worth is in her looks and that women are disposable commodities, especially in TOS (call it the kirk factor...which wasn't all bad, however - see SEX & INTIMACY). With james t.'s revolving/sliding door (no one ugly or over thirty, please), 70s feminism was probably a bit chilly to TREK. Which is quite sad. Perhaps if a few feminists had opened up to gene, he might have become better at knocking down double standards. But the charge of "trexism" isn't so clear-cut, as all five casts were largely comprised of young and pretty actors, male and female alike. Beautyism, then? A bit. But almost all the female characters were intelligent and capable - indeed, in dax, seven, and t'pol, three of the series' most intelligent character was...a woman. TREK clearly paints a future where women are anything but kitchen/bedroom slaves. Even in TOS, they're motivated and dynamic, their self-worth not defined by some man. The handful of times that's painfully not the case are the exceptions that prove the rule. Overall, women either appear or are referred to as Starfleet captains at least fourteen times - often quite capably (garrett, hernandez). While none of those were in TOS, even there the notion wasn't alien, except literally with the formidable romulan commander of "The Enterprise Incident". There were also several female admirals eventually. Of course, i'm pretty sure that every single time a woman piloted the ship in TNG, it crashed. When all is said and done, if you want to banish all TREK for sexist crimes, i won't argue the point. Then again, if you pay attention to TNG season 1, you'll spot several males wearing those damned miniskirts too. And that ain't nothin'.
VIOLENCE
By the time a television-viewing child turns eighteen, he or she will have seen 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence. If that doesn't chill you to the bone, something in you died a long time ago. If children watched only STAR TREK and THE GOLDEN GIRLS however, those numbers would be significantly altered (And every Halloween, there'd be bea arthurs and ardras everywhere! Rue mcclanahans and ru'afos!). Surprisingly, given the level of fandom, no one seems to have tallied the total murders and violent acts in the 724 TREK episodes...but how many have neither? Thirty percent? How many have no murders? Sixty percent? Let's think about how amazing that is, especially in a genre soaked in violent death (care to crunch the bloody numbers on the other biggest sci fi franchise of the past fifty years?). A big part of the reason is that the show isn't based on the struggle between "good and evil", but between knowledge and ignorance. And if you take DS9 out of the mix, TREK's violence/murder rate might drop by as much as 50% - making another case for DS9 as the idiot stepchild of the franchise. Much of that hangs on the decision to make their final few seasons be about intergalactic war...which makes me a bit embarrassed, as i prefer the last few seasons (i'd like to hope that's the worf factor). Yet too, the most violent TREK movie, WRATH OF KHAN, is arguably also the best. And for all the Federation's peaceful intent, their starships were undeniably big weapons, of incalculable destructive force. So perhaps if the franchise isn't to fade away into the land of re-boots that are TREK in name only, it's time for a series that propels the vision further. It's time for STAR TREK: DOVE (http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2009/09/star-trek-dove.html).
AGEISM
The ultimate expression of ageism is to make older people invisible - a trick that television can pull off a thousand times more neatly than real life. If someone is invisible, you don't even have to ASK whether they have any worth. Did TREK make older people invisible? Of the forty-three regulars, just thirteen were beyond their thirties when their time on the show began (though there were more thirty-nine year-olds than you might guess). But let's eliminate auberjonois, shimerman, dorn, philips, and billingsley, as they could have been any age under that makeup. Which leaves eight of forty-three, or 19%. Curiously, forty-six is a big TREK age, especially for captains - patrick stewart, avery brooks, scott bakula, de kelley, and james doohan were all that age when they stepped into the final frontier. Of the rest, roberts picardo and beltran were closer to forty. Diana muldaur, she of one season, joins rene as the only TREK regulars past fifty. But in looking at these forty-somethings, one effect of cultural ageism rears its ugly head. How many of you are surprised to learn that some of these actors were over forty? In an ageist society, we subconsciously tend to imbue everything with youth (especially when we're young). I myself was surprised at just about every one of these actors' ages, except for diana, scott, and the bald guy. And of course we shouldn't be too hard on TREK, as the life of a frontier explorer will naturally attract young'ns. But the ageism that TREK would have been guilty of is sidestepped by one happy accident - the show's success. Many of our most enduring images will always be of characters past (or even well past) their prime. By the time UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY came around, it was decades after the show's original run. NEMESIS hit the screen fifteen years after TNG's debut. Picard was joking about his age, while the rest of the cast were obviously not kids, either. Yet there they all were, both casts prospering...and living long.
SHARING
Earth of the 23rd century has no money, greed, or poverty. Some of TREK's details thereof are spot-on, almost startlingly - who was the brilliant writer who thought to name the most fundamental book of vulcan philosophy, "Let Me Help"? In the first half of the first season no less, identifying selfishness as the primary sickness at the heart of humanity. TREK also properly identified the causal relationship between selfishness and capitalism. Making that point absolutely clear was so important to gene, that the only substantive difference between TOS and the first season of TNG was a new arch-villain - the ferengi (greedy, amoral trolls - that obvious enough for you?). This is all the more amazing when you consider that TREK's writers couldn't have known what we currently know about humanity's natural state, pre-agriculture - a paradigm of radical sharing, wherein the notion of "mine" didn't even exist as we know it. The only quibble one can make is to question whether the show accurately portrays humans who have grown up in a world of sharing. The answer? Probably not even close. In a million ways, TREK's humans have so many of the quirks and failings of people who have grown up in THIS world. Maybe the writers didn't have the foggiest notion of how to accurately portray sharing-centered people, or maybe they knew such accuracy would compromise the ability of the audience to relate to the show. Probably, they just did the best they could.
SUPERSTITION
When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer...and the most sweepingly affirmative TREK denial of barbaric superstition is the removal of religion from humanity's future. Once again, the exceptions to this in TOS tend to prove the rule...not as airtightly as with sexism, but still strongly, a reality cemented with the even more complete non-religiosity of all the subsequent series (except for DS9, cementing their status as the franchise short shuttle). Beyond that, every series has numerous episodes showcasing the disasters inherent in blind faith of any kind.
CLASSISM
Classism - the notion that humans ought be divided into a hierarchy of worth. There are usually middle layers (merchants, mechanics, teachers, artists...) before one comes to the bottom - the people who do the hardest work for the least reward. On the surface, TREK is an anti-classist titan - every series has numerous episodes about its evils. There was, however, classism lurking in the classic. It was probably unintended, but look beneath the humor of the joke about kirk, spock, and that guy in red - he rarely had lines or a personality, often died, and was never in on the decision-making. Subsequent series distanced themselves from that as much as they could, even making red the color of command (what, you thought they switched to red because it brought out jean-luc's eyes?). Security were ever after portrayed as singular people who were looked to for their input. On another level though, the social structure of every TREK incarnation embodied the hierarchy of military rank. A meritocracy, in which all have equal chance to rise or fall. Will future generations laugh at the barbarism of a system of compulsion and punishment/reward? Might not humanity soon figure out how to organize ourselves in a more democratic, egalitarian way?
IDIC
Infinite diversity in infinite combinations - "the glory of creation in its infinite diversity". A tenet central to vulcan philosophy, it speaks not merely to tolerance, but the embrace of differing understandings. I think it's reasonable to extend that to an expression of deference and humility before all life. How does TREK hold up on that score? They do well with morality plays about not judging based on appearance (such as when a dangerous, "subhuman" life form turns out to be a mother protecting her eggs), but the substance of those episodes is the search for life "like us". What about life which seems unlike us, in prejudicial ways the show just accepts at face value? Current human biases are disappointingly revealed in this aspect of TREK. We're told to be indignant over the races the son'a enslaved in INSURRECTION, yet what of the equestrian race humans are shown having enslaved in GENERATIONS? What of the canine race humans are shown having enslaved in STE? Nothing but a happy face for those. The notion that these beings don't have self-awareness is barbaric (and that's not just me talking...the first domino has fallen, as France declared dogs legally sentient as of this calendar year). Would you be surprised to find that science still doesn't know whether we're the smartest creature on this planet, and that there is biological evidence which points to the opposite conclusion, in certain species of dolphin most notably? Then there's the matter of food. TOS writers had enough foresight to make vulcans vegetarian, and the prop makers made ship food that looks nothing like "meat"...but as late as STV, there were occasional intimations that humans are still eating other animals. Never mind the health concerns or growing tide of ethical objection - simply on the basis of ecological sustainability, the proposition that humans will still be omnivores in the 23rd century is silly. Does your unquestioning acceptance of the fact that "universal translators" don't translate data's cat reveal your knowledge...or your depths of prejudice?
SEX & INTIMACY
Arguably the greatest blind spot in the TREK universe. Not merely overtly - one has to assume that many (if not most) of the writers were genuinely blind to how out of synch TREK is with healthy sexuality. The sciences of biology and psychology have barely stepped into that ocean of knowledge, which future generations will use to restore our species to balance. The only reason the show isn't a COMPLETE failure on this level is, well, accidental (again!). Remember the kirk factor? It started as nothing more than the semi-sexist fantasizing of the male creators - let's give kirk a babe of the week! And hire a costume designer who will ever strive to outdo himself in revealing the ass(ets) of said babe! Lost in that is the fact that there is nothing unhealthy about kirk's libidinal fondness for variety...quite the opposite (and in fact, kirk's "womanizing" has been grossly distorted by cultural revisionism - see http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/columns/freshly-rememberd-kirk-drift/). But let's back up - it's not just about sex. In fact, it's not even primarily about sex. It's about intimacy. Future humans will understand why everyone who lived in our times was so broken and fearful and violent, because for millenia humans have been cut off from the physical intimacy which is our birthright. Future humans will look at TREK and say, "They all look sad...and i would too. WHY IS NO ONE TOUCHING EACH OTHER?" Ninety percent of the intimate physical contact on TREK is either sexual or violent - an accurate mirror of the society that created it. For the most part, our only sanctioned arena for intimate touch is sex, so sex becomes horribly burdened and warped (sorry). Abundant touch is essential to health, in ways we're only beginning to understand. I'm not saying that a healthy TREK would have picard and riker hugging as they order shields up (though i wouldn't mind watching that episode), but in the show's less-stressful moments, future humans will be baffled by the lack of touch. Think about all the touch a baby receives, then how that touch is gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) yanked away. Babyhood is a fair starting point for understanding how much touch a healthy adult needs. Picture senior staff meetings ending in hugs. Picture o'brien and bashir relaxing in a meadow, with julian's head casually reclining against miles' leg. Okay, now - the sex. No, not in the meadow! In TREK. Plenty of it going on, bless em'. And it's here where the kirk factor has a healthy side. Every relevant scientist will tell you that humanity's natural state is non-monogamous. Humans are constructed to have multiple concurrent partners - the evidence is beyond dispute. Now, guess where TREK phasered themselves in the foot? Giving janeway a "lover at home" to pine for, cunt-blocked her. This was sexist, conservative, patriarchal bullshit, kowtowing to the notion that audiences wouldn't accept a woman having serial affairs. Throughout the TREK canon, with a few semi-exceptions (DS9, notably...hurrah, they did something right!), this is the pattern. Most TREK women haven't even reached mary tyler moore's level of liberation! Which brings us to...the marriages. Or, as i call them, TREK's most embarrassing moments. Jadzia/worf, miles/keiko, deanna/will, paris/torres...not recommended for weak stomachs. Is it possible that some version of marriage will survive into the 23rd century? Perhaps...but only in a form so altered that it will be barely recognizable. Informal group marriages for the purpose of child-rearing? Sure. A little life partnering here and there? Possibly, but only in a non-exclusive sense. This is one area where we might have hoped for a better example from the vulcans, but sexually, they're even more repressed than we. Which is not to say there weren't occasional moments of nose-thumbing at monogamy. There were (see http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2011/10/star-treks-flaws.html). The most sexually healthy race? The polygamous denobulans. Phlox's three wives each had three husbands (and an eagerness for further dalliances). The only truly regretful thing about STE's cancellation was that we never got to see any episodes on Denobula. And the funniest part of TREK's attitudes on sex, to future eyes? The scrupulous way TREK characters avoid being naked, will be as funny to them as anatomically incorrect ken dolls are to us.
STAR TREK. A progressive beacon? Absolutely. And one which left room for the reallllllllly progressive show to come, which will be an even bigger cultural phenomenon. But future generations will still have a place in their heart for TREK. Within a century or two, humans will see TREK as the cutely barbaric creation it is...which is no small compliment, as every other show you've ever watched will be considered horrifyingly barbaric.
Including, alas, GOLDEN GIRLS.
Live long and progress.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Buddha: In His Own Words"

THEATER 79
-fall & winter 2007
I met evan brenner through a Craigslist ad. He was looking for a theater person to run lines with for a one-person show he’d written about the life of the buddha. He’d already had a few performances in Boston. We met in the space where he’d be doing his first NY performance, and did some read-throughs. I gave him feedback, and stayed for the show. I thought it was lovely, and evan delightful. I’d always had a much greater connection with eastern philosophy than western (taoism was my favorite, with buddhism a close second). We met one or two more times, then he asked me to run lights and sound when he moved to his own performance space, a black box theater he and some friends were creating in an ex-lumber store on 25th St., by 8th Ave. Soon i was pitching in, and come opening night i was on the boards (light and sound boards, that is). They could barely be called boards, but visually (and in every other way), the show was very moving. Evan had culled the script from the Pali canon, the most authentic available. The first draft had been over six hours long. His wonderful parents, marcia and buzz, were providing much of the funding. Our cast and crew numbered three, with a delightful fellow named andhi jeannot running the lobby. He left, to be replaced by heather massie, an eager actress who also brought nice energy (later, due to budget cuts, i filled both crew roles). I liked heather, and there was even an attraction between us (though her use of makeup offset that). The play had had a director for its earlier incarnations, but i began to fill that role by sharing performance notes with evan, at his urging. He and i continued shaping the show, and at some point he officially named me director. He also introduced me to the only corporate weakness of my life - the Whole Foods buffet bar. To this day, my salivary glands perk up at the mere thought. The original lighting designer took exception to some of our changes, but ev smoothed that over. The most resonant song we used was jeff buckley’s “Hallelujah”…in the darkness, evan used jeff’s barely-audible pre-song breath intake as a stage cue. We did several shows a week, and ran for some months. Audiences ranged from teen-sized to around a hundred. They were some of the most lovely crowds i’d ever been around. A high sense of peace and curiosity permeated the affairs, as many of the attendees were buddhist practitioners. Evan did a lovely Q&A most nights. In all those months, i can’t recall a single overt personality conflict between the four of us, and i’m hard-pressed to recall even a sublimated one. The closest i can recollect is the night i felt a strong energy connection with an audience member who sat near me (my work station wasn’t hidden). There was a sexual element - before we’d even spoken a word, her nearness left me a bit intoxicated. She wasn’t as svelte as my usual tastes, but i knew with certainty that this was going to be the first romance of my life in which that didn’t matter one bit. During the Q&A, she did yoga stretches on the floor nearby. Finally, i was preparing to acknowledge these feelings, and i’m positive she was waiting for me to do so. Just then, heather started talking to me about that very person, and how her yoga activity was “weird”. By the time i extracted myself, she was gone. Years later, this still stands as one of the most profound romantic disappointments of my life. Anyway, the show continued on its beautiful way, and eventually evan invited me to produce one of my own shows in the space. I held auditions for ROHTI SEX and was in rehearsal when the news came – the Lumber Theater was closing. There was a fire code renovation needed which was prohibitively expensive, and evan knew there would be invite performances for the buddha show elsewhere. I joined him for one or two of these – particularly memorable is a performance at a Connecticut college. Evan and i stayed friends. I even lived with him for a week once, when i was between homes. I was able to give him one of the more beautiful gifts of my life – a thirty-pound wooden buddha created by an asian artist, brought to north america by a friend of mine.

Friday, July 4, 2014

"Six Feet Under"

2001-2005
-created by alan ball
Superbly acted. Very well written. One of the more realistic shows you'll ever watch - which is perhaps its flaw. It's so unrelentingly realistic, it can be depressing. So chock full of the day-in, day-out depressing things which happen to us all, that even happy things carry the anticipation of the inevitable depressing thing to come. You might not mind that with other shows, but the hyper-realism here makes it more oppressive. It's admirable...but at a certain point one is tempted to say, "I have real life, i don't need this!" Entertainment needs to take us out of our lives - which is not to say that the show needed mermaids or three sexy warlock brothers (or maybe it does mean that just a little, as creator ball added naked vampires and faeries to his subsequent [and superior] show).
But SIX FEET UNDER is an achievement worth noting, for perhaps more than any show ever, it showed us how stupid smart people are. I don't mean the bunglings of brainiacs, a la BIG BANG, but average, everyday "intelligent" people. "Dumb" is not a word anyone would think to apply to any of these characters were you to meet them in real life, yet watched objectively, you can see how pathetically stupid we are. In family life and above all romance, everyone makes selfish, possessive, hurtful choices OVER AND OVER AND OVER. Indeed, that's the only time the show ever feels contrived, in very occasional moments when you might be tempted to say, "Come on - NOBODY is that pig-headed!" But i think we really are. There's not even that one character who embodies the "voice of reason", so to speak...the hippie sister tries to be that, the gay couple try to be more evolved...but really, no. SIX FEET UNDER is a compelling portrait of how truly dysfunctional humans are at this point in history - trapped by barbaric notions of monogamy and selfishness, forever seeking to use others to fill these horrible, gaping holes inside us. It ain't pretty.
I offer no "best-of" list, as there is an almost inevitable uniformity to the episodes. Never great, never just okay, the show plowed happily along (although in the spirit of full disclosure, i must mention that i watched it on a library set, and scratches kept me from viewing maybe 25% of the episodes).
For all you TV history buffs, series regular Peter Krause is starting to make a career out of starring on the show BEFORE the creator got it right. For both alan ball and aaron sorkin, he was in a product that gained some acclaim or a cult following, but was never nearly as good as the subsequent series (TRUE BLOOD and sorkin's THE WEST WING).