Category: Screen

Why Watch Star Trek?

Star Trek fans have higher IQs than most. This false fact seemed believable to my younger and stupider teenage self, because the show boasts fascinating discussions and thought experiments. I am a fan, too, which gives me embarrassing bias.  Yet if you asked me to name which series episode X is in, or how I would rank alien-plot-arc Y, I would be too ignorant for a proper answer. I am no fan in the excessive contemporary sense; I do not regard it a substitute religion, and its fandom my people. Any ‘universe canon’ has been arbitrarily decided by those with property rights. Like the Catholic Church omitting gnostic gospels from The Bible, what counts as truly Star Trek is whatever people want to make of Star Trek. Timeline contradictions and fanfiction confusions are part of the fun. Imagine a Star Trek line graph. It fluctuates from high (very good) to low (very bad). And that makes arguing its merits dubious for it is marred by more faults than an ordinary show, and by a weirder reputation than Star Wars. Moreover, by the standard of today’s clean factory line entertainment machine—‘big budgets for small minds’—Star Trek looks dated and lame.

 

Exactly because Star Trek has traditionally been progressive, its multiracial and multigendered casts and exploratory plotlines seldom make headlines. In a way, the banality of Whoopi Goldberg’s playing the wisest character in The Next Generation or Kate Mulgrew leading Voyager demonstrates how far we have come, and how far Star Trek’s moral messages have become literalised practice. (So-what? Women should be half the officers, not merely lead the whole ship!) And broadening the circle of empathy to construed unknown and weird creatures just does not cut the mustard as a radical humanist message any more. The predictive and altruistic success of Star Trek has manifested in Star Trek: Discovery, its most recent series. It is rated 45% negatively–55% voted 3.5 or higher–on Rotten Tomatoes. A scientific enlightened utopia where everyone is free from needless pain, and education is available through devices, and equality is most esteemed has become the implicit wish of everyone, not the mere optimism of nineteen sixties luminaries.

 

Nevertheless, Star Trek ought to be loved for its faults as much as its merits. Not only for embodying a historical record or as a franchise whole but each episode as an individual. As already said, when Star Trek is good it is exceptional, when it is bad it is awful. Is the better half the more genuine? I think so. The acting is campy and stilted and heavy-handed; you have an urge that the captain could just look in the camera, break the fourth wall, and announce the moral lesson whenever the clincher crisis emerges. But it doesn’t work like that. It makes you work to imagine what’s going on and stay loyal to the plotline.

 

Star Trek is remarkable in making the viewer work, and in packaging lessons within entertainment. Since the 1920s (so called ‘the modernist turn’) the idea that entertainment should teach has been tributary-stream. It is not fashionable that entertainment be wholesome and edifying; no best-of film ranking, for instance, features the most pleasant and the most instructive very high on the list. When it does, Forrest Gump, say, it is a funny disjuncture between the (how) form of Gump’s sweet narration and the serious (what) content he tells. Whereas Star Trek always plays it safe; it never makes it into aggregated best-of lists. A metaphor often used to describe it is ‘clinical’ or ‘sanitary’. That metaphor is meant to be off-putting and bad, but appeals to me. You may hear someone say shows are watched for escapism—yet why would they want to escape into the gritty world of The Wire, Breaking Bad or the brutality of Game of Thrones? Instead Star Trek is genuinely escapist. On the continuum of real to fictional, it is far on the fictional end. If a character dies, for instance, there is always another reality where they are alive. If the whole crew is wiped out there is another reality where the Enterprise lives on. If problems arise they are resolved by cooperation. The universe is made ever better and ever more humane. It is, then, a comfy show to watch when ill or suffering, as it always safely lifts rather than brings down. It offers moral messages with hope; fictional shows now fashionably offer spectacle and cynicism.   

 

True, there are examples like the new Doctor Who series which is lively, happy, and child friendly. Yet that series’ turn must surprise and refresh for a reason. Perhaps the cynicism ought to be called the Black Mirror turn? Black Mirror was named after the black mirror of the turned-off screen, which offers our darkened faces and darkened selves back to us. The scope of Star Trek, though, has been decades older and wider and more ambitious than the leftist agenda of new Doctor Who, delightful as it is—and Black Mirror merely cautions against technology through technology. Moreover as its creator, Charlie Brooker, admits it does not take much thought for a what-if scenario. ‘Imagine if a loved one died, but you had all the data to simulate them – would you?’ ‘Imagine if virtual reality went out of control and became torture – that would suck!’ ‘Imagine if The X Factor was converted into a means to escape capitalist slavery where one can be promoted from earning mere ‘merits’ pushing pedals to applause by a rich celebrity Simon Cowell stand-in.’ (Hmh, familiar. . .) Imagine if there was a literalised ranking system of attractiveness and social-status dictated by a mysterious algorithm. Or imagine the actual potential of living forever in a virtual world.

 

These what-ifs are not imaginative leaps; they are old themes filtered through imaginary and literary devices. And any time Black Mirror gets happier, as with the couple who can live together forever, there is a sardonic undertone waiting to be discovered. If one could live forever and for happiness, how would life have meaning, or stay happy, when every experience inevitably becomes a repetition? Even virtual—not neurochemical—happiness is impossible to imagine as eternal.

 

That sort of theme is already covered by Star Trek: Voyager. An immortal partially omniscient and partially omnipotent being wants to die because it has had enough; everything bores it, it has existed as long as the multiverse. Whereas mortals have long aspired to become gods or angels, this angel—a rebellious Q of the Q continuum which spans the different Star Trek universes—wants to go the other way, and become human. This Q becomes mortal exactly because being immortal is interminable. Although that may strike a note as cynical and sad, (it shocks Captain Janeway) it is cheery. Rather than lament loss, the Q society comes to celebrate his passing, and humans re-appreciate their bodily expiration date.

 

Star Trek is cringe-worthy at times, but that is its chief charm. Its wholesome story-lines are sweet, delicate, light yet profound. In the Star Trek universe, humans may go where no human has ever gone, but they always manage to find a humbling and generous humanist theme where they arrive. Even the euthanasia of omnipotent beings. Other themes include accepting the contingency of ourselves and our own small world; we are the aliens to everyone else. Belief in peace, human and alien co-operation, and the value of education in preventing suffering are Star Trek values. Star Trek is a socialist programme. Each humanoid is deemed equal, and is given equal property by virtue of super 3d printers, named replicators, which are able to re-combine atoms into whatever material is desired by design, from replacement phasers to “Earl Grey tea, hot”. This means absolute satisfaction of economic demand, and therefore material abundance in planet earth and its allied federation planets; universal basic services becomes inevitable. It becomes necessary for the government—The Federation—to provide for the crew and its citizens rather than have them compete over replicators. People have jobs, of course, but these are to serve human flourishing, rather than The Market, and are roles instead of functions. Indeed hologram doctors and superintelligent androids would jeopardise jobs. . .    

 

Granted, the corrupt alien species still follow a market; yet they are an exhibit of what not to be. The alien species work like a living museum of human civillisation and history. Of course, these species are analogues for human history. Klingons are Vikings; Romulans are Romans; Vulcans are Athenian Greeks; Cardassians are ancient Chinese, and the Ferengi resemble slave and women traders. The similarity is contested, yet undeniable. Klingons fight for honour, Romulans and Cardassians imperial stability at any cost, Ferrengi pursue profit, Vulcans practice tranquillity, and humans arrogantly maintain peace and stability in the galaxy.

 

Like most science fiction Star Trek is a means to look at now and the past, from a hypothetically cushy (or a hypothetically dismal) future. The speeches the captains give always figure around human endurance and compassion and, how bad aliens were “just like us once”, and how humans could in the same causal chain of experience be also.  Often, the scientific explorations of the enterprise resemble clumsy anthropological expeditions. And just like an anthropologist studies others from their self, so humans study aliens from a biased human-centric view. Overcoming such a human-centric view is vital to understanding the galaxy, and how aliens work. (It is not so lazy, by the way, that aliens are humanoid—Richard Dawkins remarks that with our understanding of evolution, it makes sense that communicable aliens would resemble us.) Yet the gaze upon aliens again folds-back on how humans could well have evolved, and how our societies could well function if part of chaos had happened differently.

 

Consider the anthropology (or humanoiodology) episode of the Next Generation, Darmok. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is stranded on an alien planet (surprise, surprise) and cannot properly communicate with his alien companion, Dathon. The convenient universal translator A.I has never calibrated to the Tamarians’ language, and cannot translate their strange means of communicating without a loss of sense to Picard’s ears. The audience and Picard make out English but in a series of riddles. Dathon, the captain of the Tamarian vessel rendezvoused with The Enterprise, seems to have captured Picard but is so sweet to Picard that he comes to realise it must be for good intention. After struggling a day Picard comes to understand that “Temba”, a repeated word, is a mythological or historical character. “Temba with his arms wide” means open, generous and giving. An open fist means to seek peace, whereas a closed fist means to attack. When Picard declares, “that’s how you communicate isn’t it? Through metaphor, you cite example!”, he receives “Sokath with his eyes wide open” in reply. To see clearly, to not be blind, to understand, all figure metaphorically with light and the sense of sight.

 

Just as The Enterprise transporter dematerialises Picard to rematerialise in atom rearrangement back to ship, Picard and Dathon are attacked by a monster, . The arduous process of learning to communicate in the Tamarian language and worldview gains Picard a friend; the tragedy is that it is too late for his friend Dathon. Picard discusses his experience with Dr Beverly Crusher and counsellor Le Troi – a psychic betazoid – who agrees Tamarians communicate as though humans would when citing a cultural trope poetically.  Dr Crusher says “Juliet on the balcony” represents irrational adoration. Contrary to kidnapping Picard, the Tamarians consider waylaying him on the island Tanagra with Dathon as the first step to diplomacy. By having a common struggle against alien monsters they have a common ground. The opening message of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is akin to saying ‘Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta’. (A World War Two peace conference.) By putting Dathon and Picard—the two captains—together they hope to bring diplomacy in the model their people know and recognise; in helping each other battle space monsters (or to continue the analogy, combat Stalin).

 

The episode does reveal a different way of thinking, a foreign or alien way, yet at the same time does play in universals. Evidence hints time again that the earliest humans were animists. Animists personify the environment without regard for scientific causation. They believe each object has supernatural agency with a rock ‘intending’ to fall, that we are ‘designed’, and that we have minds separate from brain-matter. These beliefs persist now in contemporary humans, who go through what counselors call ‘magical thinking’, believing things were “meant to be” rather than caused chaotically. If magical thinking were not true to our thinking, we could not understand nonliteral speech. Consider how metaphor pervades everywhere. Metaphor is an idea but in that prior sentence is treated, metaphorically, as a substance. The sun can be called a candle, the earth can be called a mother, a nation a mother or father land, and the sun is said to ‘rise’ and ‘set’—none of which are true. Yet they can be understood; what is got at in the phrases is intuited. They are: a lightsource, the origin-point of life, what you are born into. The sun, too, does come-up and go-down to parochial eyes’ position. The fashion for plain, direct, clear, speech and writing is remarkable then since metaphor is always figuring. One thing ‘standing’ for another. This episode of Star Trek conveys how contingent, fragile, and peculiar communication can be when rethought about as alien.

 

How fascinating a Star Trek thought experiment! My favourite episodes are the holodeck adventures, which provide a holographic simulation (quite like virtual reality, but walk in world without headsets) which make for interesting combinations between historical figures, like Einstein, Newton and Stephen Hawking playing poker with 24th-century android Data. In other episodes the crew encounter a part organic and part machine ‘species’ bent on assimilating everyone into a hive-mind for the sake of harmony at the price of freedom; in another they encounter a Victorian-like society but with matriarchy instead of patriarchy in which women mistreat and own men. In another they encounter a species of humanoid that has no gender or sex but reproduces asexually and deliberately. The acting, special effects, and pacing can all be bad in Star Trek, but when given a long-enough chance the ideas are liminal and the storylines offer much to a sympathetic eye and a generous ear.

Why You Should Read Comics

Comics have less prestige than writing, film, or the fine arts; even the word ‘art’ conjoined to ‘comics’ is often perceived as misnomer. Whereas animation and illustration are prestigious, because they offer familiar job titles, and graphic artist because it invokes a dedication to visual beauty, the comic artist is condescended. This is due to a semantic prejudice: ‘comic(s)’ brings to mind frivolous humour, immaturity, and the periodical release of inexhaustibly newsy – rather than enduring, memorable or emotional – reads. It is those prejudices that make graphic novels a selective category in bookstores, much like literary fiction is ordinarily shelved separately from fiction in general (less so, in France or Japan). Comics and graphic novel of course overlap – they are in comic form, but a ‘graphic novel’ is marketed as more substantial, just as literary fiction is quietly marketed as more substantial. None of the marketing terms though, are a good representation of comics art defined as Graphical Art in Narrative Sequence.

                                                      The earliest pictorial art

Rather than a new invention Graphical Art in Narrative Sequence has been around far longer than words, for 20,000 years even–from the hunting depictions in the Caves of Lascaux. The innate desire to express in pictures is there, as is the self-sufficiency of a narrative without words; as proven by paintings, triptychs, silent film, most especially in engravings like that of WIlliam Hogarth–where iconography of religious symbols, the inference of events from painting to painting, body language, and causation is inferred from clues whether emotion, colouration, facial expression, the effect of certain lines or framing. Comics can be wordless: wordless inference has a pleasure all its own, being confused can make for a better, more novel, game. But as with people watching for fun, eavesdropping can be even better (what else is it but illusory eavesdropping?). The inscriptive insight into minds with words and images was separately invented by Shang Dynasty China and Ancient Egypt with their logoograms and hieroglyphs.

                                                     

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan Manuscripts and the origins of Chinese and Japanese characters combined the pictorial with the verbal. The scenes engraved by Ancient Egyptians, in current Walbiri Aboriginal sand drawings and The Bayeux Tapestry, shows the enduring reciprocity of words and images. However, comic strips came about surprisingly late: in comical drawings by Swiss artist Rudolphe Töpffer in 1827, who underestimated the value of his comics despite high praise from genius polymath Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (of Faustian bargain, optics and government fame)

                                                    The earliest comic-strips

The obvious merit of comics is in animated film today, and the natural progress of children acquiring language by scribbling and writing. Rather than be in competition with each others mediums (though they are in competition for attention), or a childhood ‘phase’, written stories and images go together exceedingly well: studies of children in Japan suggest manga readers are better able to read in general, other cognitive studies demonstrate that we tend to remember and understand pictures better, hence their use for instructions. The script and strip format is exactly how the most prestigious medium – film – works, and how most comics work; the Star Wars screenplays combined with artwork are essentially comics.

The magic of language – how we make marks from letters into sounds, sounds into concepts is especially obvious in comics, when you stop to think about it. Synecdoche of the white house standing for America or metonym of the white house standing for the President’s administration can be conveyed in pictures as much as words. The synecdoche of idioms like ‘helping hand’ occur in an upturned hand drawn on page. Symbols can convey a lot through a little like squiggled lines convey stench, jagged lines frustration, or Batman by the Bat symbol, Superman by his weird S. The reader creates the work: a threatening look in first panel and a scream in the second allows a reader to fill in gaps and conclude by intuition, a murder, say, with no showing or even confirmatory telling at all!
Because memory, as with any language, allows reading. Spatial metaphors can reclaim their realness ‘the core of the matter’ presented at center of page, form be a jug brimming with content, 4 lines human-centrically become a face, evoke clarity by clear-cut, frustration through crowded rendering, a summer haze in overlapping watercolour; visual and verbal language is diverse, fascinating, and suited to our brains. Comics and graphic novels are archaeological: they are specimen of their times, and shifted standards: cold war Captain America, machismo Superman, bourgeois Batman, androgynous characters, queer love and perfect for learning other languages.

Written books, comics books, screen-play and artwork, script and camera, play and stage, are the artistic ways we fill in our experience of the world and give it meaning, inscribing language, visual and verbal, on the raw material of the world

The most immediate art of the visual and auditory, film, is celebrated; written books that can describe the abstract efficently and adaptably are rousing memory; plays that immerse in a collective experience are; and comics that splice word and image into parts ought to be as well. Comics are pleasurable and their form is a most intriguing field of research for how linguistics works; how we piece together the messy world, and how words and images interlate; can affect thoughts, and even whole cultures. The strengths of different genealogies are fascinating: the tendency in the United States to motion oriented panels, the polite romance of Japanese art in wistful stares and static world-building; characters in Europe are often cartoon among a naturalistic environment–these are trends that globalisation are changing, but are therefore even more intriguing. Is that action trend part of U.S. restless work ethic shown in art, that overpage world-building trend part of the Japanese Zen respect for transience, that cartoon character among a mimetic scene anl reaction to the overserious art precedent in Europe? The answer is perhaps, the symbolic telepathy of artist and writer is a wholly different way of thinking together, in an underestimated medium.

If someone challenges why you bother with comics link them this. If you are interested in the theory of comics I recommend Understanding Comics, and Making Comics by comics artist Scott McCloud. And if you’re feeling academic, The Visual Language of Comics by cognitive scientist and comics artist, Neil Cohn.

Descender is my current read, a generic story with incredible art. For manga Deathnote and for European comics Blacksad, are good beginnings. But a comic book universe is our there.

The Debated Future of Books

Reputable broadsheet newspapers, like The Guardian, headline articles time again on why books are dying, how ebooks are taking over, and how books are not dying, how ebooks are not taking over – but fewer on how not enough reading is actually done. In reality, there is quite a lot of reading going on, reading of blogs and messages, and webcomics, and news-stories, and fluctuating sales; but the difference is in the complexity and nature of that reading. With fewer articulate, long, and complicated writings being consumed it becomes less probable that lucid, long and complicated thoughts can be shared. We are all literate (you are reading this) but being literate is gradated in a similar way to any other skill; if I can swim in a pool or ready pasta that apparently makes me a swimmer and a cook–but it does not make me as qualified as practiced swimmers and cooks. Similarly, reading words does not equate to a completed literacy, but a share in an inexhaustible source of knowledge (learning another language makes this obvious, even native language fluency is unfinishable).

Public intellectuals like Susan Jacoby, authors like Jonathan Franzen, and cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker agree that longer reads and more complex ideas have more cognitive load than short-reads or simple reads. Complexity as a word can be construed as snobbish but is real: if simplicity and simple reads (Stephanie Meyer) exist so do their opposite of complexity and complicated reads (Virginia Woolf). Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is more substantial than Nicole Polizzi’s terrible Shore Thing. But in any case, whether fiction or nonfiction, that extended reading is more beneficial than fragmented pieces and algorithm delivered information.

Now, of course, fragmented information and reduction have their place: chunking is how we remember, summaries provide a shortcut, time and mind is dreadfully limited–the debates around books decline however does not hover around their reading or in population literacy, but on the medium. A mistake: in lauding the end of books, in favour of e-books is to overlook how any book is an ally. Data gathered at University College London suggests only 55% of UK adults regularly read ficion, only 6.5% read poetry; The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks English teenagers (16-19) as the least literate of OCED nations.

More useful is an evaluation of the e-book and paper-books that show why both are valuable in their own way; without the need for excitatory exaggerations that confuse a ‘decline’ – merely a trough in statistical graph of rise and decline – with ‘the end’ of either. That merely garners attention through the human tribalistic weakness for X versus Y. Nevertheless, I am happily biased toward paper books, even audiobooks, because, quite simply, their benefits outweigh the benefits of ebooks.

The evidence is inconclusive but for the time it seems paper is more memorable than screens: a text and its style and messages are better remembered in studies of paper. This is because of the visuospatial aspect of reading, and novelty – the uniqueness of object and material senses of smell and touch as well as durative turn-page progress of a book allow better recall of the information it contains. This makes sense: reading on an e-reader has the books all in the same place and in the same way which means text has few distinctive difference-markers that make for more distinct memories; it becomes an amorphous whole.
Similarly, altering and underlining is a process conducive to encoding the information it contains, impossible on an e-reader which has highlighting and click-to-reveal notations.
Paper books are more readable than other reading mediums – reading is pretty mechanical, and the apparent typography, progress, and explicit left-right page domains are more readable in paper books. Indeed, most screens give screen fatigue and those that do not fatigue, work as a less varied imitation of ordinary paper – as in e-ink readers like the paperwhite kindle, that, somehow, still provide few fonts.
Paper books can display all different forms from poetry, comic books, children’s literature, picture books that become grayscale condensed failures in e-ink, none screen fatigue, e-readers. E-readers also, suffer by association with other devices that trigger the brain to distraction rather than reading and contemplation. Context and association matters.

As uniquely tangible objects, paper books serve as aesthetic choices and useable decoration and pleasurable visual and tactile forms – owning them is akin to vinyl in that it is not necessary, but the most beloved are wanted in a ‘realer’ form. Moreover, as objects they serve as social tools – exchanged, borrowed, gifted, that an actual comprehensive dominance of ebooks would make obsolete. In a similar way that streaming has killed the romance of a mix-tape; I thankfully doubt this will happen in the domain of books.

Ebooks are useful because they are easily cataloged, it is, therefore, easier to search and use for research – even at short notice, and often at a lower price. And they do not require physical space, which makes them easy to transport and store.

Several studies suggest that readers of both paper and e-books read more books overall (though the depth of wide reading may be dubious, and is not evaluated by such studies).

Audiobooks are valuable because they incorporate the human voice to any text – that can make the sometimes dry interesting with the auditory sense, and in doing satiate the human desire for a voice to the words. It is only in the burgeoning of modern entertainments that reading became separate from reading aloud- reading aloud was second nature and social for centuries; audiobooks seem to use technology to fill that void. Most obviously, however, it makes narratives accessible to the illiterate or disabled, and is better for audio-memorisers.

Paper, e, and audiobooks all have their uses And the value of reading of all kinds, by any means, ought to be encouraged. There is no winning: all are here to stay, and all can complement one another.

What creates concern around reading is the dispute based on preconceptions around paper books – as the most obvious signifier of ordinary, serious, reading. A cynical view of reading extends to a negative view of paper books. Because a pervasive consumerist culture is spread by entertainment industries that compete for ‘users’ attention. Hence, books are often viewed as consumables – rather than thinking experiences. Youtube summaries of books, and speed-reading efficiency, and STEM prestige are pandemic. It is as though books are consumed like a drug and then moved on from, or used as an escapism from the real business of moneymaking or The Airport Read. In these trends the overarching influences of our culture become apparent. A Calvinist work ethic reigns: we are conditioned to feel guilty for not getting on with making use of our time for quick material ends; while we are conditioned to accept the dominance of entertainment industries and frivolous leisure time; we take the lack of relationships with books, that was common and widely embedded into the literate social life of the past, as a misnomer; and are conditioned into a reductive desire to pick out The Points of a book from what is, by itself, a point.

Books are not dying, they are evolving, and the paper form remains strong. Rather than a news debate around statistics of medium use by year (18% paper book rise, 8% ebook decline in articles from 2016), the onus ought to be on reading itself (deeply, widely) at all; the question of medium whether paper, screen, or graphic (even audio) form, is a secondary matter. At best a detraction from the more pressing concern of literacy and critical thinking evermore necessary in a ‘post-truth’ era.

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