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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (11/21/16) 1:45am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   Prime Directive
Movies:  <none>
TV:  BoJack Horseman [season 1]

Prime Directive by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
This is a Star Trek novel where Kirk and his crew go on a catastrophic mission to a planet on the brink of nuclear war.

This book was recommended to me as "the best Star Trek novel ever written".  I've only read this book and Federation, but I totally believe that claim.

Star Trek was, by all reports, a damn hard show to write, especially while Gene Roddenberry was alive.  Think about it: you've got an all-powerful organization, the Federation, with enough magical technology to handle anything that comes their way, and you've got a cast of expertly-skilled characters who all always get along.[1]  So then the question is, where do your stories come from?  Any normal threat you encounter, the Federation can wipe out.  So is this just the story of a bunch of people who sing "Kumbaya" as they take care of occasional minor annoyances?

It can be kind of fun to watch Star Trek with an eye towards seeing how the writers wriggle out of that straitjacket, episode after episode, movie after movie.  Oh, the away team is trapped on the planet and, oh-so-inconveniently, the transporters don't work.  Or the ship has to go communications-silent because they're so close to the Neutral Zone, so they can't just have the bigwigs at Federation Command sort out the problem.  Or they have enemies that are wildly godlike in nature -- it's no coincidence that the best Star Trek movie features Khan[2] and Next Generation kicked off with Q causing angry-deity hijinks.

Prime Directive handles this rather brilliantly.  First, the ship gets cut off from the Federation because of a system-wide communications failure that itself becomes part of the mystery of the story.  And second, they are not taking on a threat to the ship, per se.  Instead, they're trying to prevent a planet from annihilating itself -- and doing so without violating Starfleet's Prime Directive of noninterference with primitive species.  Suddenly, all the power in the universe doesn't quite matter so much.

This "creating a valid threat" aspect may seem like a strange thing to address first with this novel, but to me this is the foundation of everything good in this story: they ginned up a story idea that solves the "Superman problem" intrinsic to the show -- now, there's something at stake for the crew, and the Enterprise is clearly outmatched by the scenario, with nary a godlike figure required.

A while back I read a dismissive reference to Star Trek's "transparent social allegories", as if that were something to be ridiculed or, at best, pitied.  But using sci-fi to dive headlong into the social issues of the day is a strength of Star Trek, and one of the most valuable aspects of science fiction in general.  When you engage with something that matters to society, then you're telling a story that *means* something, even if it's all flimsy sets and clumsy forehead prostheses.  And I loved seeing this play out in this 1980 novel, where it's clearly about the Cold War and mutually assured destruction: they arrive on a planet with two global superpowers on the brink of thermonuclear war, and watch in horror as that annihilation comes to pass.[2]  And even though 1980 is a dim, distant memory for me, that imagery still connects on a visceral level. 

That last bit is not a spoiler, actually -- the book opens with a flash-forward, after Talin IV mission went awry, leaving the planet a blasted, radioactive wasteland.  And that leads me to my next point: they've done a fine job of adapting the structure of a Star Trek story to novel form.  Very little happens in a typical TOS episode: there are maybe three or four "events" in a fifty-ish minute show.  The rest of the time, the characters philosophize about what happened, speculate about explanations, and argue about the moral implications of what's going on.  "Three plot events" isn't really going to work for a mass-market novel.

So instead, the novel uses a trick that's, of all things, a modern-day TV-structure cliché: opening with a flash forward.  They show us all the main crew of the Enterprise scattered to the four winds after something terrible happened on Talin IV -- we see vague hints of a plan coming together, but we're just as much seeing these disparate people grapple with living day-to-day life without their erstwhile job and purpose.  *Then* we go back to the mission, with everyone bright-eyed and optimistic about figuring out the mysterious goings-on on Talin IV.

And that structure means the book can weave together a variety of different viewpoints and storylines, à la Game of Thrones (of all things), as all of these different scattered characters carry on with their lives.  And that in turn means that they can include a variety of tones in the story, as Spock navigates complicated diplomatic proceedings, while Sulu and Chekhov throw in with vagabond space pirates, and still other characters pursue their own plots.

And the book has these characters down, voices and attitudes and all.  It's kind of like watching a cover band that's clearly more technically proficient than the artist that they're covering.  The characters are thoroughly themselves, and they get plenty of chances to be smart.  There's nothing on the brilliant level of, say, Thrawn reasoning out the location of the Millennium Falcon in his eponymous Star Wars trilogy, but we still get to see the characters find unconventional and unexpected solutions to seemingly-unwinnable scenarios.  Sure, half the time they succeed because of fortuitous technobabble ("ah, yes, the frumpty lobnosticator always shuts down if you hit it with a phased blorp wumptyfrap"), but it's great to see the crew being clever and competent.

And the book sticks the landing fine.  The 'solution' to all the strange goings-on is not predictable from the clues provided, but it's still a satisfying explanation of all the little contradictions and questions that nag at the back of your mind through the book.  And, without giving too much away, it *feels* like Trek, with our beloved characters bending the rules and playing at the top of their game to beat the bad guys.

But I think what I liked best about the book goes beyond its skill with plot construction or character behavior: it gets what Trek is about, deep down.  It understands the franchise's proudly-dorkly optimism for humanity.  To paraphrase the old quote, it's not there to show us that there are dragons, but to show us that dragons can be beaten.  Whatever its plot is, on some level, it's addressing the most powerful threat of its time -- bombs fall, everyone dies -- and saying, defiantly, that it doesn't have to end like that, and peace can win out, and humanity can move on.

Perhaps more than ever, a message like this, and a book like this, is resonant and powerful. 

BoJack Horseman [season 1]
This is the Netflix animated comedy about a washed-up former sitcom star in an alternate Hollywood that includes anthropomorphic animals.

If you take a step back and give it some thought, a traditional sitcom character's life is unbearably tragic.  Another week comes around, and they try some new scheme, but it doesn't work.  Everything resets.  Everything's the same.  They're the same.  And that's how it's always going to be.  And all the while, to anyone watching, they're just silly and risible.  These characters are sisyphan failures, good for nothing more than giving onlookers the chance to point and laugh.

So that means, in a traditional sitcom, every character skates along on thin ice.  They happily sail through week after week, but you know all it would ever take is one single moment of self-examination, and that ice would shatter beneath them.  A sitcom character *has* to be oblivious to keep going.  What happens if Alice realizes Ralph is abusive, and will hurt her one day?  What happens if Kramer realizes none of his schemes will ever work, and his friends find him spastic and ridiculous?  What happens if Michael Scott realizes he's an incompetent manager, and none of his employees will ever like him?

If a moment like that happens, then everything stops.

Some rare sitcoms have deployed these moments to great effect.  "Thanks for the Memory" has Rimmer drunkenly bawling to Lister, "What do you think it's like being the one guy that everyone hates?"  "Virtual Systems Analysis" has the Dean, in half-man/half-woman costume, sighing, saying that he looks ridiculous, and musing that he has to go to the bank that day.  When Captain Blackadder finally realizes none of his plans to get out of the military are going to work, we get the grim finale, "Goodbyeeee".

BoJack Horseman is the first sitcom I've seen that takes that moment where the ice splits,  stretches it out, and turns it into a terrible realization that slowly creeps in over the course of a whole season.  It gets us from BoJack blithely hiring on Diane to ghostwrite his memoir in episode one, to the end of the penultimate episode, where he stands at a Q&A, blankly, nervously asking her, "Am I a good person?  I... I need you to tell me I'm good."

So deep down, the show is throwing some punches that land.  The show gets self-destructive depression on a level that's often unnerving, and understands that sobering, autumnal, middle-age realization that you've likely done everything of significance that you're going to do.  It's depicting something real, and something not often shown in television.[3]

And it feels like the rest of the show is engineered to make that basic storyline possible.  They go so dark with the lead character's arc that the rest of the show operates as a sort of counterbalance.  It's got very traditional sitcom-style plotting, where we've got an A- and a B-plot, one or both of which are get-rich/get-ahead schemes that ultimately go nowhere.  It's got its conceit of the anthropomorphized animals, which actually lets them get at some really strong characterization: Mr. Peanutbutter is literally a golden retriever -- start from there, and that character sort of writes itself.  They do fun world-building, with running gags like the perpetually doomed publishing house.  It has bland, comfortable criticisms of Hollywood.  All of this ensures a world that's readily understandable, and predictable, and funny.  And *that* ensures that the central plot doesn't become a poison pill that turns you off to the whole enterprise.  Plus, the fact that it's animated gives us distance from the grim storyline, so we can laugh at it instead of viewing it, harrowingly, from the inside.

The show is hilarious and, in its own way, powerful.  Well worth your valuable time.

For next week: I still need to write about Agent to the Stars (John Scalzi's early "practice novel").  I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've also finally started in on season one of Key & Peele.  Meanwhile, I'm reading America's Bitter Pill, about American health insurance.

[1] This was Roddenberry's hard-and-fast rule: no internal conflict among the crew.
[2] (Yes, I mean the one with Khan in the *title*, smart-alecks.)
[3] ... even though we've had a cavalcade of Serious White Male Middle-Aged Antiheroes in 'prestige television' -- with those, it's mostly about the dude in question is angrily striking *back* and taking *charge* in a world... hmm, in a world that has afforded him every privilege.  *shrug*

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Date:Monday (11/21/16) 2:00am

Star Trek book recommendation

I'd be interested in hearing your review of Spock's World, by Diane Duane. And I need to reread Prime Directive now...I haven't read that in at least a decade :p
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