Archive for the ‘Philosophical Writer's Guide’ Category

Final Thoughts on “Star Trek: Voyager”

June 18, 2019

So, I managed to finish watching all seven seasons of “Star Trek: Voyager”. And I think my original assessment of it pretty much stands: it’s no where near as bad as Chuck Sonnenberg makes it out to be, but it’s not all that great either.

I agree with Chuck that the biggest problem with the show is how it squanders its potential. The show often came up with some ideas that had a lot of potential, and especially after season 4 and into season 5 the actors really did seem to have their characters down pat, but these were all hampered by the rather idiotic and nonsensical plots that it attempted. Add in the issue that there hadn’t been sufficient character development for most of the cast up until that point and I found myself in an episode early in season 5 thinking that Torres, Paris and Seven were all nailing their characters in character development scenes and yet I just didn’t care about them. And I think that this is in part responsible for the reaction of some fans that Seven of Nine was taking over the show, as while she did get shoehorned into situations at times — there was one end scene where she and Janeway talk about the lessons learned from an episode that Seven was only tangentially involved in and where there wasn’t really anything for her to learn, which definitely seemed like pandering — it seems to me that all that happened was that she actually got some character development while the other characters got little if any, so it seemed like they were focusing on her when, in reality, she was just getting the character development time that a new character to the show at a later stage should get — see Worf in “Way of the Warrior” on Deep Space 9 — and it only seemed so extravagant because no one else had gotten that sort of development in the previous four seasons.

And then when they started hitting their stride with the characters, they ran out of ideas, making the plots even more stupid and boring and overwhelming the great character performances. I think that overall the acting in Voyager is as good as if not superior to that of any other Star Trek series. As an example, Naomi Wildman comes across as a bit of a Wesley Crusher-type character, with her excessive genius and ambition. But the actress has such charisma that I found I didn’t mind it that much and found her likable regardless, until she approved. Piccardo does an excellent job with the Doctor, and after being an overly angry Borg — Borg are more emotionless and Ryan portrayed Seven as constantly hostile and aggressive — Jeri Ryan does a good job playing the changing Seven of Nine. As I said, Dawson in the later seasons nails Torres. While Chuck — somewhat rightly — criticizes some of the performances, especially early, by the end there are less odd tics and mannerisms that we see on any other series. The actors did their jobs but the writers didn’t manage to do theirs.

What this results in is a show that’s watchable and even mildly entertaining while being bland and mediocre. We can see this by comparing Voyager to the other series. “Scorpion” can be seen as being Voyager’s version of “Best of Both Worlds” (major Borg two-parter) and “Way of the Warrior” (introducing a new character to shake up the status quo). And while “Scorpion” probably is among if not the best of Voyager, it’s not all that great. It’s okay. It’s kinda fun. But it’s not a classic like “Best of Both Worlds” nor does it really have the character oomph of “Way of the Warrior”. It does its job and that’s about the best that can be said for it. That’s fine for average episodes — even if that had been the extent of “Way of the Warrior” that would have been fine — but that’s hardly what you want to say about one of the best episodes in the entire series.

One of the issues they had, as I noted in my first post on the subject, is that Janeway was presented as being rather aggressive and tough but when Mulgrew tried to pull that off she came across as posturing most of the time. The show also stumbled in that the potential clash between Starfleet and the Maquis never really came up at all. I think that both issues have similar origins: a fear of making the first female captain look weak and a lack of creativity in the writing staff. To be fair, the Maquis subplot didn’t lend itself as easily to conflict as, say, a mixed crew of Cardassians and Starfleet would because there was no real existential hate between the two sides. They weren’t enemies, but were two groups who might have had a disagreement over how to handle a specific situation, with varying emotions on both sides. But there still was potential for some conflict there. First, the big area of conflict between them was in the fact that you had a significant part of the crew who didn’t see things the same way as the typical Starfleet view, including their views on leadership. It would certainly have been a reasonable conflict to think that some of them might think that Janeway wasn’t a good leader and that Chakotay would be a better captain. Most importantly, this was a clash that you didn’t need to split down the Starfleet/Maquis divide. It’s quite reasonable to think that even some of his crew didn’t think that Chakotay was a good leader, but only followed him because he was in charge, and that some of the Starfleet crew might have been willing to think that Chakotay would be a better leader, especially given that he taught tactics at the academy and this was more of a war situation than simple exploration. Second, the Maquis had good reason to distrust governments and their agreements, feeling that the Federation put the interests of the overall Federation — ending a costly war — over their interests in keeping their homes, giving them away just so the Federation could get peace. On the other hand, the Starfleet officers would have a justified distrust of the sorts of black market contacts that the Maquis had had to rely on — Quark, for example, on DS9 — feeling that at least legitimate governments have their own rules that they follow. So this could have been another divide that caused conflict at times.

I think that Janeway’s character should not have been the sort of leader she was presented as. She should have been more of a leader the way people claimed Riker was in TNG: not the distant leader giving orders but the sort of person who was personable and wanted to lead through being liked rather than merely being respected. Voyager had a relatively small crew and had an explicit mission of scientific exploration, and Janeway had a scientific background. Given Beverly Crusher getting command of a medical vessel presumably at least in part because she had such a strong medical background — and passed the command tests — it’s certainly reasonable to have Janeway become captain as much for her scientific abilities as for her command ones, and for her to have a personality that treats the ship more like a lab or university department rather than like a military vessel. So make her personable and someone who was skilled at reading someone and giving them what they needed. This could explain her going to Earth to see Tom Paris instead of having him brought to DS9 — she wanted him to feel like he was actually wanted as a crew member and not just someone she was dragging along like luggage — and could explain why she would put Torres in charge in engineering instead of Cary, as she reads Torres’ potential despite her hostility. This then could set up the clash in personalities between her and Chakotay that could split the crew: Janeway is more personable and democratic, while Chakotay is more authoritative and commanding. Some Maquis could feel that his taking those stances will get them all killed, while some Starfleet officers might feel that she isn’t experienced or commanding enough to handle this wild frontier, both side arguing from the premise that they can’t get any support out here, and that any mistake is likely to get them killed, not captured. You can argue that my suggesting that Janeway be the personable one and Chakotay the intimidating one is sexism — since there’s no reason that a woman can’t be intimidating — but the advantage is that if you don’t think that Janeway can pull it off — and again she really seemed like she was posturing when she tried — then if she can you can pull that out as a surprise and if she can’t then you have an explanation for why. And note that I think the same tactic should have been used for Scott Bakula in Enterprise instead of … whatever they did with him.

And these clashes could come out in some of the early episodes. For example, in “Prime Factors” all you’d need is for the official in charge to point out that it goes against their rules but that as this is a special case they’d consider it. Then you have Chakotay set it up with the shadier and underground sources. Then you have the choice: wait for the official word and hope it’s yes, or take the shady contact now. And the ending can support both cases: if they had waited for official sanction, they would have had official help to install it and it would likely have worked, but going through a bureaucracy might have taken months and the answer might have been no anyway … a conundrum that Tuvok could have pointed out without taking sides on the issue, as it would be Chakotay who did it. And these sorts of personality clashes could be a regular feature, culminating in later seasons with them being able to anticipate each others’ objections and even altering the plans in advance to take those into account. By the end of the first season, they should at least respect each others’ viewpoints and by the end of the second they should merge into a team that works well together because of their differences.

Instead, we got a Janeway that tried to bully the Caretaker while Chakotay tried to negotiate, and a posturing Janeway, a Janeway that brooked no disobedience. Chuck’s psycho take on her is a lot closer to the reality than anyone should want to admit.

Still, the characters and the work were entertaining enough. It was mediocre, but mediocre isn’t bad. I could watch this series again, and I think that Chuck is a bit too hard on it, likely because he was so disappointed by it.

Now, my normal assessment of these things is “Would I watch it again?”, which as outlined above is a “Yes”. But since I’ve been pondering buying it for a long time and was put off by Chuck’s reviews, I can also ask “Would it have been worth my buying it?”, and I think the answer is indeed still “Yes”. The show is long enough to justify a fair expense for the series, and it’s definitely a series that I was able to get through once and mildly enjoy. Even if I never watched it again, it wouldn’t have been a waste of money to get it. This leads to a follow-up question: “Would it be worth my buying it now?” And the answer, again, I think is “Yes”. This is definitely a series that I could see myself watching again, and the streaming service I have was missing a few episodes, including “The Thaw”, one of Chuck’s favourites. So I’m likely to watch it again and it’s long enough to justify the cost. So I think I’ll start looking around for it at some point and add it to my collection.

I’ve already started watching “Enterprise”. I … don’t think it will get the same treatment.

Thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451”

June 17, 2019

Unlike when I read “Watership Down”, I remembered nothing about “Fahrenheit 451”. Okay, okay, I recognized that Guy Montag was the name of the main character, but that’s about it. I didn’t remember any of the other characters or even the plot points. It was pretty much like reading a book for the first time, other than my knowing that I had read it before.

The first thing that struck me about the book was how evocative it was. It starts with a description of the main character going about his business as a fireman — which, in this book, means that he burns books as all of the houses are fireproof — with a glee and zest for the work that’s quite impressive. The way it’s written is such that we really feel that we are seeing his inner thoughts and that this is who he really is. This sort of descriptiveness carries on for the rest of the work, but what’s unfortunate is that this event doesn’t really play out for the rest of the book. We don’t see Montag gradually move away from being a dedicated fireman to questioning the idea of it to rebelling. He seems to be at least somewhat of a rebel from the start, and might well have been much more of a rebel than he seemed at the beginning (one or two books) the entire time. So the initial euphoric reaction to book burning drops out pretty quickly, making it an evocative but ultimately somewhat pointless scene.

That’s a common failing in the book, it seems to me. What’s really interesting about it is the backstory and how that produced the world we have, as well as the details of the world. What isn’t interesting are, in fact, the details of Guy Montag’s story and how he goes about joining with those who preserve books. In short, the action scenes and the main plot aren’t all that interesting, but the world that Bradbury creates is interesting. Thus, when the book gets around to moving the plot and doing the action the book gets dull, and when it stops to dump exposition on us that’s when it’s the most interesting. That’s not normally how books work.

The book strikes me as being similar in style and tone to “The Status Civilization”, except Sheckley’s action scenes are more interesting, and Bradbury’s exposition is a little better done and so seems less artificial. I prefer “The Status Civilization”, however.

Ultimately, there’s a reason the book is a classic, as the evocative writing and the excellent worldbuilding make it well worth reading even if the plot and action are a little weak. I’m not likely to rush to read it again, but it’s certainly going to be an option at some point in the future.

The Kuleshov Effect

June 4, 2019

Recently, “Extra Credits” put out a video talking about “The Kuleshov Effect”. Essentially, this is when you show a character with a facial expression and then cut away to an image of something else. In the original work by Kuleshov, he did it three times and each time the character had the same facial expression, and yet audiences ascribed different emotions in each scene and, in fact, praised the actor for being able to covey those emotions so well.

They don’t talk much about how it works — I think the presenter does movies as well and talks more about it there — but the explanation for how that works is actually pretty simple, and is related to the philosophical/psychological idea of mindreading, how we go about figuring out what other people are thinking and feeling. Because the same facial expression can be used for multiple emotions, especially with mild facial reactions, in general we are willing to interpret the same facial expression as representing the same or similar emotions. In the original example, the emotions were indeed fairly different, but the facial expression does seem to have been a mild one. So, we see a facial expression and start working to interpret it, and then the scene cuts to what we presume is a POV shot of what they are looking at, which gives us the information that we need to interpret that facial expression. If we’re using simulation, then it gives us the information we need to (mostly unconsciously) put ourselves in that person’s position, discover what we’d be feeling, and then ascribe that emotion to them. If we’re using theory, it allows us to, again, know what emotion that scene should be causing in them which then allows us to interpret what emotions they’re feeling.

Thus, what’s interesting here is not the Kuleshov effect itself, as that’s pretty much standard mindreading that we do every day. What would be interesting to study is what happens to us when the facial expression and the emotions the scene should be causing are radically different. Chances are we’re going to at least consider that the person is probably insane.

The point of the Extra Credits video is to talk about how that can be used in video games and particularly in dialogue trees, and it can be used for that. The idea is essentially that you could have a conversation going on and cut away to show something — they use the example of highlighting a potential criminal’s horse — that the player could then use to glean some information about the NPC and so have that impact their next dialogue choice. I think that some Bioware games have done similar things, having a character say something that might seen reasonable but then cut away to show the player seeing something that reveals it to be a blatant lie. The problem with it, however, is that if it’s not something that is so blatantly obvious it might interfere with player choice. The POV here is going to be of the player, not of the NPC, so we have to presume that the player is the one doing the looking here. But the player might be playing a character that would never notice such a thing. Moreover, if the player notices it that will leave them with a rather obvious interpretation, which then will leave a small set of dialogue choices in response to that without making the character look like an idiot. So the dialogue choices will have to assume that the player noticed, or else potentially leave the only choice to ignore those obvious signs seem like the player is an idiot for, say, ignoring the obvious signs that they’re lying and trusting them anyway.

But the big issue I have with the video is that it suggests a small part of the issues with the Paragon/Renegade or Light/Dark systems is because instead of doing those things in dialogue they made it part of the mechanics, so that we can see what options are which and thus the game puts an emotional context on the line instead of letting us do it ourselves. While I did dislike how sometimes that was heavy-handed — although that was usually with the “[Lie]” options rather than the specific Light/Dark or Paragon/Renegade options, especially if there wasn’t an equal non-lying option — I don’t think at least the indication of which was which really mattered much or made them seem inconsequential. To me, that was just information that you needed to know to know what the line actually translated to. I’m not going to look up the link for it, but Shamus Young commented at one point that Renegade interrupts didn’t work for him as well as they should have because he was never really sure if the option was going to be to give a snarky line, punch them, or shoot them. Without the indications, we wouldn’t know what we were saying and so would act “renegade” when we really had no intention to and, in fact, didn’t actually think that that was what the line or action implied.

For me, the problem with these systems wrt gameplay mechanics is not that they make it obvious what you’re selecting, but that some mechanics and even story choices depend on not only being on one side or the other, but in fact being strongly on one side or another. In “Knights of the Old Republic”, you got powerful mechanical bonuses for being either fully Light Side or Dark Side, and as you moved towards one side or another the Force costs of the abilities on that side became lower and lower. So the game strongly encouraged you to either go full Light or full Dark. In Mass Effect, you cannot talk Saren down unless you are strongly Paragon or strongly Renegade to be able to choose the right options. But the way these sorts of systems should work is that you act the way your character would act and the world reflects that. In “Sith Lords”, your characters convert along with you, so that your alignment has an impact on them, and I think there may be a case where you get different characters if you are Light or Dark aligned. In “The Old Republic”, there are certain items that you can’t use unless you are Light or Dark aligned enough, but you can always buy or use items that don’t have those restrictions. You also cannot romance Jaesa unless you are Dark Aligned, although you still get here as a companion. In these cases, then, if all you do is act as your character would, certain things occur, but you’re never forced down that path unless you really, really want something or a specific scene, and there are plenty of good and satisfying scenes without doing that. For KotOR and Mass Effect, you are forced to pay attention to your level because if you don’t you risk being mechanically crippled or else losing the powerful scene where Saren redeems himself at the last moment. This, then, gets you to make your choices based on whether they will give you the appropriate points, not because it’s what your character would do. Achieving the proper balance is very difficult to do, and really hurts the experience when you get it wrong, although I do think that TOR does it pretty well, as there really isn’t much reason to now just pick the choices you want without too much concern for Light and Dark points, although it could have a bit more impact on what others think of you, such as having, say, Jedi react to it since they should be able to sense it.

Anyway, the “Kuleshov Effect” can be used, but it must be used carefully to avoid falling into the same problem listed above: making it so that the player really only has one or a small number of choices even though they didn’t want to make that choice. After all, it relies on making things clear and obvious and player choice works best when things are ambiguous enough to allow for different attitudes and choices. So if it is used, it really has to be used in cases where the writer really does want to make the situation obvious … and it works wonderfully and often hilariously for that.

Donna, Clara and Capaldi’s Doctor: A Reply to SF Debris

June 3, 2019

As I’ve been a bit busy at work and need something to drown out all of the noise, I’ve been re-listening to Chuck Sonnenberg’s reviews at SF Debris. I didn’t want to get into the Voyager or Enterprise reviews until I had finished watching the respective series — I’m currently about six episodes into season 7 of Voyager — so I started with his TOS and TNG reviews, and then segued into his Doctor Who videos, as I’d never actually watched all of them –I focused on the new series since that’s what I personally had watched — and thought this was a good time to at least listen to them. And, in so doing, I was reminded of his review of “Deep Breath” … or, rather, I was reminded of what my opinion of what he said in it was. At the time, I had pondered posting my thoughts as a comment on the forums there, but was too busy and never really got around to it. Watching it again, it seemed like a good time to simply make a post about it and finally get those thoughts out of my head.

The two main components I want to talk about are his comparison of Clara and Donna, and his thoughts on the rudeness of Capaldi’s Doctor. Of course, I’ve covered Clara, Donna, and Capaldi’s Doctor myself in the recent past. I like Clara and dislike Donna and Capaldi’s Doctor. Chuck, on the other hand, seems to like Donna and Capaldi’s Doctor and isn’t clear on how he feels about Clara. His comparison of Donna and Clara in this video definitely comes down on the side of Donna, but for the most part anything negative he says about Clara is in the service of trying to explain why part of the audience dislikes Clara and doesn’t really express how he feels about her … although he seems to agree that she has the negative traits he ascribes to her. So, ambiguous. Here, then, the major focus is not for me to disagree over which character is better, but instead to point out that I think he’s wrong about why some of the audience disliked Clara and to explain why some of the audience — who are not me — liked Donna, and to show that, yes, his comparison is in fact totally unfair.

What he does is compare Donna in “Fires of Pompey” to Clara in “Dark Water”, where both are trying to get the Doctor to save people who history says had died, and done so in such a way that their deaths were effectively time locked. He uses the ending of “Fires of Pompey” where Donna convinces him that he can save one family without destroying everything and compares it to “Dark Water” where Clara threatens to destroy all the keys to the TARDIS if he doesn’t, leaving them stranded in a active volcano. He comments that Donna is trying to get the Doctor to just be the Doctor, while Clara is trying to assert control over the Doctor, and uses that as evidence of Clara’s narcissism and controlling tendencies … tendencies that I always saw as informed attributes because she was the one companion who seemed to most naturally be empathetic to and care about others and not just herself.

Anyway, the problem with the comparison is that it ignores the context of what has happened up until that point. Sure, I suppose that you can say that, at the end, Donna is just appealing to the Doctor’s own traits to get him to save that family, but that ignores that for pretty much the entire rest of the episode Donna is not only nagging him to make it so that the disaster never happened but after being told that it’s a terrible idea to do so and annoying the Doctor with her complaints actively tries to save people herself by warning them. She’s not merely trying to get the Doctor to follow his own personality, but is herself trying to do an end-run around him to do it anyway … which, I repeat, means that she’s trying to do the thing that the person who actually knows what the consequences are keeps telling her is an insanely bad idea. In front of him, no less. The appeal to emotion is the very last resort, and up until that time she was perfectly willing to do it anyway regardless of what he said and thus force him to accept and deal with what she thinks is the right thing to do.

This makes her worse than Rose Tyler in “Father’s Day” … the one where we see that messing with time locked events can lead to strange creatures spawning to kill everyone and eat the entire timeline. Rose, at least, was almost certainly overwhelmed by emotion when she saved her father and certainly didn’t realize what the consequences would be, and her last boneheaded move was simply not dropping herself on the floor when Jackie thrust her at her. Sure, after the Doctor warned her of the consequences she probably should have stayed far away from herself just for that sort of situation, but it’s not like she deliberately tried to do so. Donna, on the other hand, deliberately tries to do the precise thing that the Doctor says is a terrible thing to do, continually. That’s hardly not trying to control the Doctor. Or, rather, Donna Noble here fits into the Janeway example of insisting that the Doctor is not the boss of her despite being the person who brought her here in the first place and is the one who actually knows what’s going on.

Now, I consider Clara’s actions in “Dark Water” to be character derailing; my view of the character doesn’t fit with those actions. But the key is that she was emotionally overwhelmed — which Donna wasn’t for most of the episode — and, more importantly, for the scene to work at all has to know that the Doctor was not going to do it willingly. If she thought he might, she would have simply asked him and then moved onto the plan if he said “No” … at which point she would, again, know that he wouldn’t do it. So there’s a difference between badgering the Doctor into doing something that is consistent with his personality and badgering him into something that you know he won’t do. Clara had no choice but to try to force him to do it because he wouldn’t have otherwise. And, as is seen in the episode, she was bluffing: if he hadn’t tried to grab the key she wouldn’t have dropped it because she was horrified when it happened, and not just because it meant that Danny could never be saved. She never intended to actually go through with it. Moreover, the sort of “appeal to the Doctor” that Chuck says is good in Donna is something that Clara herself did in “Day of the Doctor”, which Chuck himself reviewed: Clara doesn’t tell him what to do there, but triggers the rethink with a single tear for what the Doctor has been forced to do and might be forced to do again, and then doesn’t tell him what to do but simply tells him to “be the Doctor”. So normally she is the sort of subtle influence that Chuck ascribes to Donna, not the control freak narcissist that the show sometimes claims she is but rarely actually shows.

Okay, so then why did some of the fans dislike her? I haven’t browsed around for direct opinions, but my hypothesis is that Clara is, in fact, a character who due to being young, pretty and generally competent and even driven has an attitude that everything is always going to work out all right, at least for her. Thus, she comes across as optimistic in most situations, but it’s not an optimism based on an idea that the world is good and good will win out in the end, but instead that things will work out for her because, well, they always do. Thus, she will hold that belief even if there really is no reason for her to think that, and in particular she will believe that she can do anything even if, again, she has no reason to think that she can. An example of this is in the episode “Nightmare in Silver”, where she takes command of a platoon of soldiers as if it’s just perfectly natural and reasonable for her to do so when she has absolutely no skill or training in it whatsoever. It works out, mostly because all they really needed was for someone to, in fact, express confidence and rally them. But Clara takes charge in situations where she shouldn’t and yet they almost always work out for her. That can annoy people, and is one of the traits that people appeal to when defining a Mary Sue: they always believe that things will work out for them and act that way, and they always do work out for them even when they shouldn’t. Obviously, I don’t think Clara is a Mary Sue, but I can see how that attitude can annoy some people (although her being perky and confident is one of the things I like about her) and also can be seen as controlling and narcissistic.

So, why, then, do people like Donna? Recall that the reason I dislike her is because she always wants to be seen as important and the centre of attention, and is constantly trying to arrange things so that that happens. Chuck himself points out in his review of “The Stolen Earth” that she thinks that way because pretty much everyone around her — even her mother — treats her as someone who doesn’t deserve to be important or get any attention, and so her desire is spawned by that lack. I think a lot of people can relate to that, to feeling insignificant and unimportant because others keep telling out that you are, and so seeing Donna finally be revealed to be in fact the most important person in the world works for them. And then, from that, her having to give it up and not only not being able to remember when she had it but, in fact, undoing all of her character development where she realized that she didn’t have to fake or bluster her way into being important really seems tragic to them. For me, the fact that it was indeed all about her being important and that she never learned that it was okay for her to be ordinary strikes against her character, but for some attaining that importance and then losing it and all memory of it and not even retaining a “I was important once” memory is the entire point of the arc.

Chuck also describes Capaldi’s Doctor as coming across as caring too little when, in general, he cares to much. He uses the analogy of someone seeing a fire and noting that if people grabbed fire extinguishers they could put it out without extra damage but all they’re doing is standing around watching. Why won’t they just grab them and help out? Can’t they see that? Well, the issue here is that the Doctor knows so much more than any of his companions and any other beings he tends to meet. So, no, they can’t see that, because the Doctor knows things they don’t. Other Doctors have tended to be better at understanding this, but at least in this episode Capaldi’s Doctor doesn’t seem to be. The scene with Drax pretty much highlights this, as Drax’s question of “How?” is actually a pretty good one, as establishing the method would at least rule out some possibilities — no one incapable of doing that can be a suspect, for example — and could lead directly to the culprit. And Capaldi’s Doctor tells him to shut up and insists that he has pudding for brains for not coming to the key question of if there had been any similar murders … of dinosaurs in London? No, it really is about similar murders of overall beings which is a good and clever question, but requires more thought and information than they had available to them.

And none of that explains his just being a jerk to people in general.

So, those are my thoughts on the issues raised in that video. I’m not sure how often I’ll do things like this, but now that I have my own category for doing it I pretty much might as well comment on those things that I disagree with to get them out of my head and to fill up blog content.

Of Course This Makes Me More Likely to Watch “Captain Marvel”

May 28, 2019

So there’s a bit of an uproar over a released or referenced or whatever extended scene from the “Captain Marvel” movie. In the original movie, some guy with a motorcycle makes a sexistish remark to Carol, and then she steals his motorcycle to get to where she was going. In the extended scene, after being told to smile, she invites him to give her a handshake, uses her strength to hurt his hand, and then demands his motorcycle from him, stealing clothes from a store mannequin to ride it (although, does she really need riding leathers given that she has a super suit anyway? While he calls it a scuba suit and so it might stand out, it’s not really that much different from just being an odd motorcycle suit).

You can see the video at Dave Futrelle’s post on the topic, and if you know anything about him you’ll know that he’s only mentioning it because people on the at least anti-SJW side are complaining about how this makes Danvers a villain or, at least, not heroic. The one post he mentions on the topic is by Ashe Schow, which Futrelle mocks. More on that later.

For the most part, the Twitter comments and post he cites criticize Danvers here for, well, not being very heroic. What the extended scene certainly implies is that Danvers’ actions are taken as retribution for what he did, and not as a necessary evil because she has to get somewhere. As the original tweet from “USA Today” says:

Get an EXCLUSIVE first look at @BrieLarson taking on toxic masculinity (in the form of @RobertKazinsky) in this extended #CaptainMarvel scene:

However, if she’s supposed to be a hero, it doesn’t look like what he did deserved that sort of retribution, especially since in order to do the “test of strength” thing she ends up inviting him to have a handshake, which is the only reason she can then use that to bully him into giving her his motorcycle. In the actual movie, she just takes it, which is better. And, of course, it doesn’t justify her stealing the clothes from the store either (which is one of Schow’s points).

Futrelle takes the common tack of Social Justice reasoning and says that we’d have no problem with this sort of behaviour if it came from a man:

The scene is a clear homage to a similar if much more violent scene in Terminator 2, in which a nude Arnold Schwarzenegger appropriates a motorcycle from a biker after squeezing his hand real hard (and then throwing him onto a hot stove, throwing another guy through a window, and thoroughly beating up a good portion of an ornery looking biker gang).

In the original John Wick movie, for example, the titular hero seeks revenge after some thugs kill his dog — and in the process he manages to kill 77 people. (His body count across all three John Wick films? An even more staggering 299.) Yet we still root for the guy.

The problem is that neither of these characters are actually heroes. At best, they’re anti-heroes, although the Terminator had been the main villain in the first movie and so might well still be considered to be one at this point in the movie. So using them as examples isn’t all that great. Futrelle does try to relate it to how in movies the heroes will often commandeer vehicles and the like:

The trope of a movie hero or heroine stealing a car — or a truck, or a horse, or a motorcyle, or a spaceship — to get to where they need to go is nearly as old as the movies themselves.

However, this would entirely invalidate the line about “toxic masculinity” that the original tweet references, and that a number of people think is key to the scene. Even Futrelle himself thinks that:

Dudes, this is a movie, not a WikiHow video. No one is recommending that women literally steal a motorcycle every time a creep asks them to smile. It’s a fantasy in a film that’s all about fantasy. The scene is funny because it allows women (and men) to indulge a harmless fantasy of taking violent revenge against some of the most irritating men on the planet.

So she doesn’t do this because she needs a vehicle in the extended scene. She doesn’t do this because she needs a vehicle and she might as well take it from the mildly or even really annoying person who has one. It is critical to this scene that we see this as appropriate retribution for what the guy did when it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near that bad. And this was the heart of Ashe’s post:

Let’s recap. After a jerk suggested he would help her in a creepy way and asked for a smile, Danvers crushed his hand, carjacked him, took his clothes, and stole items from a nearby clothing store and broke traffic laws. And this is supposed to be a celebration of feminism and rebuke of toxic masculinity?

Apparently, the answer to fairly mild toxic masculinity is extremely violent, chaotic, and criminally toxic femininity. As journalist Tim Pool wrote on Twitter, Danvers’ actions make her the “villain.”

Futrelle completely ignores that context in making his point. In the Terminator case, the scene is not there to show the Terminator beating up bikers as an elaborate revenge fantasy for the viewer. It’s supposed to play on the reputation they had for being both extremely tough and extremely mean to demonstrate to the audience — or, at least, remind them — just how tough the Terminator is, that it can take on a group of the toughest and meanest people out there and win without an issue. While I haven’t seen the “Captain Marvel” movie yet, it seems clear to me that at this point in the movie we are already aware of how tough she is and so clearly believe that this guy is absolutely no threat to her. Thus, the only point of the scene is to pay him back for his “crimes”, which seems disproportionate, especially since the handshake, again, only starts because she pretends to be friendly and offers one. The scene would have been better if he had, say, groped her or put a hand familiarly on her shoulder and in removing it she gripped it hard enough to cause pain and, out of utter frustration and annoyance, then decided to take his motorcycle, because at least she would have been just reacting to what he did spontaneously, as opposed to planning it.

Oh, and to make matters worse for Futrelle’s argument, Captain Marvel was hinted at taking over Captain America’s spot on the Avengers, and we already have an example of him commandeering a vehicle, from “Winter Solider”. You might say that this would only help make Futrelle’s case, as it would be an example where the hero steals a vehicle and no one cared, except when Natasha teases him about it he is insistent that they are “borrowing” it and, to forestall arguments that that’s rationalization, he immediately tells her to get her feet off the dash, clearly trying to make sure that they take care of the vehicle to at least attempt to return it in as good condition as possible (it might, unfortunately, have ended up blown up by the missile at the military base).

Now, one other possible motivation is to show Danvers growing in her role as a hero, showing that she was unconcerned about people and willing to do whatever it takes and not even look for other options but discovering that she can’t just be that sort of soldier and so has to be a hero. Given her start as a brainwashed soldier for the Kree, that makes sense here. Futrelle himself references that:

The critics of Captain Marvel’s motorcycle theft are not only forgetting that this is a MOVIE and not real life; they’re also completely ignoring the plot of the film — and the character arc of the air-force-pilot-turned alien-human-hybrid who became Captain Marvel.

When she arrives back on earth at the start of the film – and steals the motorcycle she needs to complete her mission — she’s basically a brainwashed, emotionless killing machine working for a race of aliens called the kree. Over the course of the film she regains some of her humanity. That’s called character development.

The problem is that, again, this trumps what the USA Today tweet highlighted in the scene. For this to work, we have to show that her actions were unjustified and disproportionate, and in the end she’d pretty much have to explicitly come to understand that what she did there was wrong. But to stand as an example of standing up to toxic masculinity, that can’t be the case. She’d have to not only be wrong, but be more wrong than the guy there. So we’d have to feel sympathy for how the guy was treated. Yes, for this to work we’d have to sympathize with the guy who is being used as an avatar for toxic masculinity. I … really don’t think that was the intent.

Look, the problem here is not that she commandeered a vehicle or put an annoying person in their place. The problem is that her actions are disproportionate to the “crimes” we see on screen and so she is presented as a bully and, yes, a villain. As pointed out, as a way to get her to grow out of that and become more of a hero, that could work. But the extended scene, as presented, relies on us seeing her actions as justified and not as disproportionate. It’s no surprise, then, that Futrelle starts by claiming it justified and then moves on to seeing it as showing a character flaw that she develops out of (if she does, as the end of the movie doesn’t necessarily show her in a new, less bullying light). So while the critics might have ulterior motives, the critics have a point. And the fact that it didn’t make it into the movie shows that the filmmakers themselves better understood those flaws than those making contorted arguments — like claiming that the DC characters’ actions, especially Superman destroying a trucker’s truck for annoying him, didn’t get called out when that’s one of the main complaints about the DC universe — to defend this scene do.

Thoughts on “The Stand” (Miniseries)

May 21, 2019

So, after reading and commenting on the book, I sat down and watched the 1994 miniseries that I picked up in a Stephen King collection a while ago. The miniseries is the longest of his miniseries adaptations, coming in at right around six hours, and so I had to make sure that I had free blocks of time when I was unlikely to fall asleep to watch it. It was a long weekend here in Canada, and so that worked out for me.

The miniseries itself got a pretty good reception and, spoilers, that was a bit surprising to me. What I can say about it is that it drew in a number of well-known actors who put in good performances, it was in general well-crafted, and it was well-constructed (although it had a number of special effects failures, even in more normal scenes like in the control room of the disease control centre). But it runs into the problems the book had as well as the problems that Stephen King adaptations tend to have.

The book itself ended up being anti-climactic because most of the work focused on the plague, its aftermath, and assembling the communities. However, this mostly worked because it made sure that we knew that the focus characters were important and the slice of life moments were interesting in and of themselves. Having less room than the book, the miniseries had the same issue, but also didn’t have the time to really build up the characters, so a lot was lost. It also seemed to follow the trend of taking iconic scenes from the book but without being able to delve into the backstory to make them meaningful. The worst of this is the suicide of the general, as we never really get to see his internal struggle that leads to his suicide, and so the event is a bit less shocking than it probably should be. The work also, in general, makes the military figures much more brutal and unsympathetic than they seemed to be in the book, and Stu Redman is far more antagonistic towards them than he was in the book, where he was more implacable rather than openly hostile.

Now, in some sense having just read the book causes some issues with watching the miniseries, as I both am constantly comparing the two and noting the differences and also know what’s going to happen and so don’t feel any suspense. Without that, the miniseries might be more compelling. On the other hand, I know the characters already and so will have emotional connections to them even if the miniseries itself doesn’t really develop them enough to really pull it off. So call that a wash.

Anyway, the miniseries was obviously going to have to change things up a bit to fit everything in, but in a lot of cases those changes weren’t very good. The worst one is what happens to Nadine and Larry. In the book, Larry was someone who was a bit self-interested and certainly cared more about himself than about others, which his mother explicitly called him out on when he came to New York but clearly showed that she cared about him anyway. In the miniseries, she more considers him a deadbeat like his father and his good side or potential good side is never made clear. Nadine fits into the role that another woman he met — who dies of an overdose — on leaving New York, but that removes that event and how it impacted him. Then, Nadine leaves him later, and he takes up with the feral boy Joe and Lucy Swann. They keep the scene where Joe attempts to stab Larry, but take out any other interaction between the two and how they bond over the guitar, and also Joe returning to Leo and coming out of his shell, making the character pretty pointless … especially since he can’t get a funny feeling about Harold Lauder showing that Harold isn’t all that good anymore (more on Harold later).

This feeds back into the relationship between Larry and Nadine. In the book, they had traveled together and then met up with Lucy, and I believe all came into town together. This set up the idea that Larry was in love with Nadine but since she wouldn’t have him took up with Lucy instead. Then, when Nadine comes to him in a last gasp to avoid going to “The Dark Man” and being his bride, we can see Larry acting differently, deciding to give up what he arguably most wants because of how it would impact someone else, namely Lucy. This cements that he is a changed person, while ironically dooming Nadine and potentially giving “The Dark Man” a victory. But in the miniseries none of that is clear. Lucy seems jealous for little reason — at least little reason given in the miniseries — and while we can figure out that this is Nadine trying to dodge “The Dark Man” we don’t really have any reason to think that Larry would even be tempted to leave Lucy for Nadine. This carries over to her final scene, where Nadine jumps to her death while carrying “The Dark Man’s” child because she lost everything, even Larry. There’s no real reason for her to do that at that point, and no real reason for her to be that attached to Larry, and it also doesn’t work as well as “The Dark Man” killing her in a rage, which he just prior to that had almost done to his second-in-command.

Harold also gets far less development than he did in the book. In the book, there was a tension between his good qualities and his bad ones, which then culminates in his death scene where he comments that he was misled and apologizes. Without his crush on Fran and losing her to Stu, and without his being deprived of influence that he thought he deserved, he likely wouldn’t have turned against them and betrayed them. In the book, Larry follows his directions to Colorado, and seeks him out to thank him for that and show how impressed he was by what Harold did and managed to accomplish. And then Nick cuts him out of the committee, sending him irrevocably down the path to betrayal, especially with the reward of Nadine dangled in front of him. Here, though, Harold doesn’t ever do anything all that impressive. He mostly crushes on Fran and fights with Stu. Thus, there’s nothing to establish why he would feel that he should have been on the committee in the first place, and we don’t get to see any redeeming qualities that would make his death tragic. He doesn’t even get to try to kill Nadine and almost foil “The Dark Man’s” plan, which is the start of it all falling apart for “The Dark Man”.

In the book, one of the big issues with the ending was that “The Dark Man” in the first time we really get to see him in action pretty much grabs the Idiot Ball and through his idiocy everything falls apart, which turns a potentially frightening threat into something of a farce. In the miniseries, that doesn’t happen and he fails far less, but then it’s hard to understand why his followers were so willing to turn on him. They mention rumours that the Judge got away and that Tom Cullen definitely escaped, and there was the fact that his trusted follower Trashcan Man blew things up, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to get them to start leaving and for Whitney to stand up to him at the execution. And it certainly wasn’t anything the heroes there said, as their roles are as superfluous as they were in the book. So it all collapses for no real reason and not due to anything “The Dark Man” actually did.

So, it’s time to ask the question: would I watch it again? The problem with rewatching it is that it’s really, really long. It’s not a bad miniseries, although it does drag at times, but it’s just far too long to sit down and watch. I can imagine that it would be good sometime when I’m sick and just want to have something on that I can doze off through, but other than that it’s not likely that I’ll watch it again.

Thoughts on “The Stand”

May 16, 2019

I first picked up Stephen King’s “The Stand” decades ago when I was in high school and joined the “Book of the Month Club”, as it was one of my free selections for joining. I also think I read it once again at some point after that. But I decided to re-read it now for two reasons. First, I’ve been watching a number of Stephen King adaptations as part of my watching of horror movies, and as “The Stand” was included it seemed like it might be interesting to actually read the book before watching it — I hope to watch it in the near future, as it’s six hours long but something that I want to watch before watching other Stephen King adaptations — to be able to make a direct comparison rather than to just be relying on my memory. Second, I’ve decided that my next slate of books are going to be aimed at reading more literature, and as a noted at least somewhat classic “The Stand” counted, making it a good time to re-read it as well. So, having finished it, the one thing I have to say about it is that it reminds me of “Seveneves”, which is not in its favour.

The problem I had with “Seveneves” is that while it seems that the point of the novel was the end part where they had the seven distinct “races” genetically formed from the last seven remaining women, the book spent over 500 pages talking about the disaster that caused that to be the result and only 300 or so talking about that, which meant that either there were a lot of irrelevant details in the first part or else the first part was what the book was about and thus the second part fails to build on or satisfy those things from the first part. “The Stand” is similar in that most of the book is about a flu plague that kills off most of humanity and what happens afterwards but it seems like the book’s main focus is supposed to be the confrontation between the forces of the Dark Man and the forces of good led by Mother Abigail, which only really comes to the fore at all in the last 200 pages (of a 1100 page expanded edition). So we spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t seem to be the main focus of the book.

However, “The Stand” works a lot better than “Seveneves”, for a number of reasons. The first is that the conflict is directly commented on and telegraphed throughout the entire first part. We are introduced to the Dark Man and to Mother Abigail — at least through her being in people’s dreams — relatively early in the work and so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s simmering throughout the entire first part. Which leads to the second reason, which is that it’s clear how those events relate to the confrontation, as we meet the key characters — on both sides, as it turns out — and learn about them through their struggles to reach their respective Promised Lands. This, then, allows us to make a connection with them — again, on both sides — which then allows us to follow along with them and understand them as they play their roles in the overall conflict.

The third reason is that in “The Stand” the first part is actually interesting in its own right. The premise of the plague is interesting, if not necessarily original, and King does a good job of showing how it progresses in a way that’s entertaining. It also allows him to do what he is arguably best at, which is showing how these sorts of events impact ordinary people with ordinary lives and making that be believable and interesting. Thus, he starts off with ordinary people and establishes that and weaves them into the extraordinary events that are occurring. So whereas in “Seveneves” the focus on technical details was boring and got in the way of establishing the plot or characters, in “The Stand” the focus is on the characters and events that we can clearly see are going to matter to the overall plot. King pretty much pays off almost every hint that he drops in the early stages, even having an off-hand encounter between Nick and Tom Cullen with a selfish teenage girl pay off when she joins the side of the Dark Man and ends up outing Tom as a spy.

Unfortunately, the big issue with the book is that because so much time is spent on those little details the final confrontation ends up being entirely anti-climactic. Again, it is resolved in about 200 pages, much of which is spent talking about various journeys. A lot of the threads, then, get resolved far too quickly for how important they are supposed to be. To return to the point above about the teenage girl, she outs Tom as a spy right before he leaves, and other events start happening so that nothing really comes of that revelation. There were three spies sent right before the final confrontation, and none of them actually provide any information that the heroes use: one is killed before even getting there, the other has to make a heroic sacrifice to stop Tom from being outed — right before he is outed and leaves, making it pointless — and Tom, again, doesn’t ever really tell anyone what he’s learned, nor is it actually important to any of the plot. We have a long character arc of Larry Underwood trying to overcome being a taker when it comes to other people, but in the end while he does end up being the “leader” when the first leader Stu gets injured he never really makes any decisions and the big decision he tried to make — not leaving Stu behind — is overruled by everyone else. Ralph, who comes along, doesn’t even get a lot of development and doesn’t do anything. Glen, the sociologist, is killed taunting the Dark Man but that’s neither a character arc for him nor does it really seem to have anything to do with how it all gets resolved.

And the resolution is the worst victim of the rush towards the end. The four heroes set out on an epic journey to defeat the Dark Man, this huge and existential threat. Before that, the Free Zone was bombed by a traitor who leaves with the Dark Man’s bride in what it seemingly a devastating blow to the side of good: the bride will give the Dark Man a child and two key members of the ruling body are killed. Mother Abigail had just wandered off into the wilderness to get a vision and returns, only to simply tell them to go and then die. So, presumably, these heroes are going to do something meaningful, right? As already mentioned, Stu gets injured along the way. At the same time, the supposedly hyper-competent and knowledge massive threat Dark Man essentially starts shooting himself in the foot. He arranges an accident for the traitor … who almost shoots his bride before he can do the deed. Then, he meets up with her and rapes her, putting her into a catatonic state, at which point he discovers that the spy Tom has managed to get away because he didn’t tell his second-in-command that someone who was associated with Nick was going to be a threat, resulting in the second-in-command not immediately moving on stopping him. But that’s okay, because Tom didn’t do anything anyway, except that scrambling the helicopters to look for him triggers bombs that their resident pyromaniac set after feeling slighted by the others, killing their only trained pilots, which the Dark Man didn’t do anything about despite that person being someone the Dark Man considered important and privileged. Then, as the heroes arrive and are captured, his catatonic “bride” suddenly starts taunting him to a degree that causes him to toss her out of the building in a rage, killing her. Then, in interrogating Glen, he forces his second-in-command to kill Glen despite his not wanting to. Then he sets up a public execution of the remaining two, which seems to have no other effect than to cause a distraction and get one of his followers to reveal that he and they were going to leave, which then causes the Dark Man to create some kind of lightning to kill him, which then ends up setting off a nuclear bomb brought back by the pyromaniac as an offering, destroying everyone in the city.

So, the heroes don’t do anything except maybe be a distraction, and the entire thing was falling apart even before they got there due to the Dark Man’s paranoia and errors. He himself had destroyed his bride and unborn child, meaning that that goal was lost no matter what happened, and the people who stood up to him were going to leave anyway. There was no reason for the heroes to actually make that trek and die there. Stu, I think, later muses that God demands a sacrifice and this could be seen as drawing a parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus … except that Jesus’ death not only had a specific purpose but Jesus knew what that purpose was and so went to his death willingly. The heroes here don’t actually accomplish anything and, even if they somehow did, had no idea what that end they were trying to accomplish was. All this does is make God seem like, well, a bit of a dick, demanding that people die for no good reason to fulfill His Will, which means that any attempt parallel falls flat here.

It would have worked so much better to either have their taunting have a greater impact — actually causing the second-in-command to turn, for example — or else go all the way and have the pyromaniac be driven by revenge rather than reverence, by having him find the incendiary devices and the nuke, desperately want to “play” with the incendiary devices and have him be told no — because the resources were too important to waste that way –, have him overhear insults from important people, and then decide that he really wants to set off that nuke that he found and figures that wiping them out as well would be a great way to go out. The book had already established, at least in the extended version, that he had already ruined his life by his inability to control his pyromania and so it would have tied neatly back into that story. It still wouldn’t have made the sacrifice of the heroes meaningful, but it at least would have seemed a less contrived ending.

So, having read this book at least twice before this, after reading it for a third time the question remains: would I read it again? I think I would. As I said, the overall plot and characterization is interesting, and the only real flaw is that the ending is anti-climactic for something that they set up so strongly throughout most of the book. But that really happens for about 100 pages out of over 1100, as even Stu’s final return home has the character moments that made the rest of it interesting. The length is the biggest deterrent to re-reading it, but still I was able to read it faster than a lot of the historical works that I had been trying to read, so it isn’t that bad. Worth a read as long as you aren’t going to get too attached to the supernatural conflict and instead focus on the story of humanity recovering after a plague extinction event.

Thoughts on Voyager: Answering Questions

May 15, 2019

So, I’m still watching “Star Trek: Voyager”, and I’ve noted something that probably isn’t all that common but has stood out to me: Voyager, and Janeway specifically, often doesn’t bother to explain things to the rest of the crew when they raise good questions that, nevertheless, Janeway and the others actually have good answers for.

While I haven’t been able to watch “Learning Curve” — it’s one of a number of episodes missing from my streaming service — I did watch Chuck Sonnenberg’s discussion of the episode, and it has always struck me that it was trivially easy to show the Maquis crew member why you don’t just go ahead and fix things that you see are broken. My thought was always that since the result of his changing the gel pack was to interrupt Janeway’s holodeck program, all you needed to do was take him to the Sick Bay area and pull a gel pack, which would deactivate the Doctor, and then ask him what would happen if the Doctor was performing a surgery at that precise moment. But, in general, it’s pretty easy to explain why you don’t do things that might have an impact on people around you whenever you feel like it. Any company that has any kind of IT department has already figured out why that is: because you might end up causing people to lose something they’ve worked on for ours or might impede something customer critical, and you don’t know who is doing what at what time to know that it will be safe to do so now. That’s why even emergency server or power outages tend to get at least a little warning so that people can stop what they’re doing or plan for the outage to make sure that their time isn’t wasted. Someone, say, coming in to work on a weekend to get something critical done is going to be very upset if they suddenly discover that they can’t actually do anything due to an unscheduled outage or, even worse, if it happens in the middle of what they’re doing meaning that, at a minimum, they’re going to have to wait for it to be over before they can continue to do their work, wasting their time.

It’s actually pretty odd as well that when the big issue was about the Maquis crew members not understanding or wanting to follow Starfleet protocols that Tuvok’s way of teaching that to them is … to essentially put them through harsh physical basic training instead of, say, sitting down with them in a lecture setting to explain what the protocols are and why they should follow them. Running 10km with heavy packs in increased gravity really isn’t going to do much to either teach the protocols or get them to understand why they’re important, and seems more like “You will follow them or else we will punish you”.

But while I can’t remember the episode name, there’s another episode that I’ve recently watched that drives this home for me. Seven disagrees with what Janeway wants to do, and Janeway insists that Seven has to ignore her solution and follow Janeway’s. Seven snaps back that Janeway claims to want Seven to become an individual, and yet whenever Seven disagrees with what Janeway wants Janeway insists that Seven follow Janeway and not act on her own individual conscience. Janeway ends up ordering her to follow along, but here was a glorious opportunity to point out that contradiction and show why it exists. What could have been pointed out is that while humans are indeed all individuals with their own individual ideas, it simply cannot be the case that they always just go off and do things completely on their own. They need each other’s help to get things done, and everyone going off on their own might even end up with them all interfering with each other. So things need to be ordered so that we don’t get that kind of unproductive behaviour. This is one advantage of the Borg Collective: everyone always pulls in the same direction because they don’t have any ideas other than the one that the Collective has decided. However, that limits their creativity, as it is difficult for them to generate really new ideas unless those ideas follow from the mindset that the Borg have. For example, while it can be said that the Borg can adapt to almost anything — which might suggest creativity — their attempts to adapt have seemed rather mechanical. Instead of adapting their personal shielding to phasers in general, they adapt them to specific frequencies, allowing the tactic of shifting frequencies. The same trick works wrt shields. And it can be argued that the reliance of their enemies on energy weapons is precisely why their shields don’t work against physical attacks like bullets. Their adaptation is mechanical: they get hit with something and then adapt to that specifically, but don’t even come up with a general counter-measure against things like that.

For the Borg, information and ideas flow down the chain of hierarchy: the Collective Mind comes up with them and then propagates that to all the drones. Humans, on the other hand, have ideas flow in both directions. The whole point of the Magic Meeting Room is to generate as many ideas as they can so that the one in charge — the Captain — has all the ideas there and can make the best decision, and then that decision flows back down the chain of command for everyone to follow through with. Janeway could have even pointed out that Seven’s unique perspective as a former Borg brings great ideas to the table that are useful, even if Janeway ultimately decides against doing it. Especially since the combination of unique ideas can generate new and better ideas that take the benefits of those ideas while minimizing their disadvantages. Thus, a point could have been made about human superiority — which Seven really needed to hear — while acknowledging that the Borg approach has its advantages, too, and noting that the Starfleet command structure is built around trying to marry those two perspectives into, ahem, the best of both worlds.

Of course, Janeway has never been one to allow dissent — see her over-the-top reaction to Chakotay’s strong disagreement over allying with the Borg in “Scorpion” — so it might be too much to ask of her that she do so.

Anyway, I think they missed great opportunities to explain things and explore the concepts around those questions, and instead simply shut them down without discussion. That’s not something that more cerebral sci-fi works should do.

Extra Credits on Mental Health in Games

May 8, 2019

So, in a recent video, Extra Credits returns to their chiding ways by talking about how video games should represent mental illnesses better. The video itself is a bit of a mess, as it wanders back and forth between talking about how to represent mental illnesses when a game is trying to represent or make a point about mental illnesses and what games should just do in general when it comes to mental illnesses. I’m not going to talk too much about the clear cases where they’re talking about games focusing on that because not trying too hard to instill the actual feelings in those playing and talking to mental health professionals seems pretty reasonable. Thus, I’ll focus on those cases where they might at least be talking about games in general that aren’t trying to make a point.

One of the more minor points they make is that you can represent people with a mental illness in a completely mundane way, with them taking pills or referencing therapy and the like in ways that are mostly asides. This obviously is something that you’d want to include in a game that’s making a point wrt mental illness, but you’re obviously going to do far more than that. But in a regular game, doing these things runs into the problem of “The Law of Conservation of Detail”: if you do something to imply that they have a mental illness, then that fact is going to have to matter at some point later in the narrative. If it doesn’t, then at best it seems extraneous and at worst it seems like, well, an attempt to shoehorn in a reference to mental illness so that you can check that off on your representation box. The same thing can happen with references to a character being gay: unless you do something with it, like have them be a specific love interest based on that or have a lover later or face discrimination or something like that, then at best it looks like an irrelevant aside and at worst only there to scream “See, we have GAYS!” to the audience. So most games that are not trying to use a character’s mental illness for something are going to want to completely ignore it, especially since for the most part those sorts of subtle incidents wouldn’t be seen in real life anyway.

Another comment they make is about the representation of mental hospitals as places where violence has occurred and as being often horrifyingly unpleasant places, which they say can cause people to avoid seeking out help or checking themselves into one. One of the problems with this, though, is that in the past — and possibly even today — there were a number of them that were that bad. In modern times, stricter regulations won’t let them get away with that as much, and so they are better, but even then they aren’t likely to be pleasant. In top of that, this presumes that people can’t tell an exaggerated or deliberately subverted example from what would actually happen in real life, or are unable to go and check it out themselves before making that decision. After all, we don’t really seem to be all that concerned that people won’t buy old and creepy houses because of all the times they’re portrayed as being haunted, and it’s not just because that’s not that common an occurrence. We expect people to be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, and so not automatically assume that asylums that are portrayed as terrible represent all of them. Yes, there are cultural expectations around that that the games are relying on, but the issue is with that cultural expectation, not the games or other works themselves, because in general they use it correctly: those specific asylums are bad, and we know that, indeed, some of them have or will be. Games don’t present them as the norm; no one, for example, would look at Arkham Asylum and think that that’s what asylums are really like. Games tend to present these sorts of places as either oddly evil themselves or existing in crapsack worlds completely different from our own, to give the players a reason to oppose them. To avoid using this because some people might mistake them for what happens in our world seems to demand too much from our fiction.

They also talk about presenting villains as having a mental illness which drives their villainy. The problem with this is that I think that, in general, they have the causation backwards. If you are going to have a villain do evil things, you have to give them a motivation for doing those things. The more vicious and nasty a thing you need them to do, the harder it is to find a motivation for them to do so. The easiest way to do this for the more sadistic actions is to simply say that they do that because, at some level, they enjoy doing it. But someone who enjoys torturing, raping, and murdering people really does seem like someone who has some kind of mental problem. There may not be a specific mental illness to appeal to, but someone who likes hurting other people in those extreme ways seems to have something messed up in them in general. But it’s really, really difficult to come up with a motivation that could justify those sorts of extreme actions. Interestingly, the video uses Killmonger from Black Panther as a example of a villain who simply uses different methods to achieve his goals due to poor life experiences … except that as I noted in my discussion of the movie he’s actually in general irredeemably evil. He’s willing to be far more brutal than he needs to be and is uncaring about even people we think he should care about, and the reasoning behind his actions is nonsensical at best. He’s so bad that we’re supposed to agree that he’s absolutely terrible immediately after winning a fair fight. He really does sound a lot like a psychopath: he lacks empathy for others and instead is focused on his wants regardless of how it impacts others, and doesn’t really seem responsive to negative conditioning. This is not an example of a villain whose motivations don’t smack of some sort of insanity or mental instability. Someone driven to extremes by conditions might be Miko Miyazaki from “The Order of the Stick” might work, as someone who is pushed further and further to the edge who slips over it briefly at the end. But not Killmonger. So very brutal villains are going to seem insane almost no matter what we do, even if they are only seen to be driven to it over the course of the game, because someone being that violent strikes us as someone who, at least in the moment, has deranged thinking in order to be willing to do those sorts of things. Attempts to justify those actions are likely to fail miserably … as they did for Killmonger.

I don’t have any objection to trying to avoid using stereotypical ideas of mental illness in game narratives. But surprisingly the video doesn’t really tell us how to do that, but instead picks some of the more common complaints and treats them rather uncritically without looking to see how they’d impact the narratives they are being used in. While their advice is to talk to mental health professionals and people with lived experience — and they reference people like that as contributors to this video — those people also need to talk to those responsible for video game narratives and those who don’t have that lived experience to see how making those changes would impact how they experience the game. Without that, all they end up doing is advocating for changes that will fail to provide either the original purpose of the character points or the more enlightened response that they are striving for.

Thoughts on “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum”

May 2, 2019

I’ve finally added a “horror” tag — and I plan on at some point going back and adding it to all my horror commentaries — for my thoughts on “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum”, which at this point is the last horror movie that I’ve watched, and so right now there are no more in the queue. Not sure when I’ll watch more, or what it will be, as I want to watch the cheap movies that are piling up, some of the Friday the 13th/Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and some of the Stephen King conversions that I have left. And I’m pretty busy right now.

Anyway, “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” is a South Korean “found footage” movie in the vein of things like “The Blair Witch Project”. A team of “ghost hunters” that go to haunted places and produce live streaming Youtube videos of their explorations decide to go to the titular haunted asylum for their latest exploration. The team includes the set team as well as some new additions. The leader is trying to raise a specific amount of money and hopes that going to this specific famous haunted location will do that, and to help it along he and the team actually fake an event to generate interest without telling most of the team about it. Of course, after that real things start happening putting the entire team in great danger.

One thing that I think has been common about the Asian horror movies that I’ve watched is that they tend to try to generate horror by being freaky and confusing more than by having the horror follow from the premise. Here, there are numerous scenes where things are just plain weird that are clearly meant to be scary — since it’s scaring the people involved — but don’t follow from anything else directly established in the movie. This is bad because this is a found footage film and the whole point of a found footage film is to have the fear follow from the documentary parts. Take “The Blair Witch Project”. The early scenes where they go around and record the myth of the Blair Witch is there in large part to establish the horror elements so that when those things start happening we — and the protagonists — understand what’s happening and so will start to be apprehensive and scared knowing that the things that the myth says will happen that always lead to horrible deaths are, in fact, starting to happen. This movie, following on from various ghost hunter shows, does that as well but the most dramatic horror scenes don’t seem to follow from that. The biggest foreshadowing is over the ping-pong ball noise, and all that really ends up in is them getting them hit at them at one point near the end of the movie. So that development and even the main premise is horribly underused in this movie.

On top of that, this focus on confusion also means that we rarely get explanations for what’s causing things or why they are doing what they’re doing. Here, we never learn the secret of the asylum or why things happen the way they do. It seems to rely on us understanding that asylums are terrible places, but unlike, say, “The House on Haunted Hill” the horror events aren’t directly tied to what you’d see in an asylum except in a very few cases. So we don’t even get that link to what’s going on and never learn just what the ghosts wanted, if anything. Compare this to the game “Fatal Frame”, where you eventually learn exactly how the ghosts died and so understand their tendencies and what needs to be done to defeat or satisfy them. This makes them even scarier, not less scary, as understand why the blind ghost is blind, for example, makes her cries all the more freaky. Instead, this movie seems to go for standard Asian horror tropes to freak the viewer out, and while it might work for Asian audiences they could have done so much more with this concept.

The movie spends quite a bit of time in the early stages setting up the event, with them all meeting up and drinking and doing some kind of parachuting into water and all of that. While I have often complained about developing doomed characters because we don’t need to introduce personal relationships or have a personal connection to the protagonists to feel bad for them as they are horribly tortured and murdered, which is what most horror movies do to them. Here, though, it works. First, those scenes set up a contrast from the optimistic start to the horrific and tragic end and also allows them to set up personality traits that can be used later, like the more quiet and nervous woman and the woman who had done other shows like this before (but not with them, it seems). Except that while the contrast is present the movie never takes advantage of these traits. The first woman ends up being probably the bravest out of everyone in the movie, while the woman who had done shows like this before ends up completely breaking down. There was a wonderful opportunity to show how they developed that over the course of the movie, with the first woman gradually stepping up out of concern for everyone else while the second woman ends up breaking down because this time it’s actually real (she was portrayed as an American having done these things in America). But that never happens. The woman with experience ends up breaking down of them purportedly breaking a rule — touching the doll — and never recovers, and the first woman ends up going off somewhere else that is at least somewhat safer at the time and we don’t get to see much of her for the entire movie. It would have been a lot better to have actually used the character notes set up in the early parts of the movie.

Still, the movie is short, and I’ve gone to realize that while longer movies would allow for these horror movies — Western and Asian — to be better movies as it would give them more time to develop suspense and explain what’s going on so that we can be truly horrified, the short length is a boon for these horror movies because it stops most of them from turning into movies that are simply bad. For most of them, by the time they start to bore you they’re over or almost over, or at least hit the climax so that something actually starts to happen. I think that’s why I end up putting so many of these in the “I could watch it again but don’t see any reason to” category: I wasn’t completely and totally bored, but it didn’t thrill me, either. Their short length keeps them from being boring but also hampers the actual horror they can generate. I’ll have to see if that continues when I turn to more mainstream horror series. And, just to make it clear, this one falls into the “I could watch it again but don’t see any reason to” category.