Archive for the ‘TV/Movies’ Category

The Modern “Nale” Plot …

March 18, 2015

So, I started watching the new “Beauty and the Beast” through shomi. At the time I write this, I’ve seen two episodes. And it got me thinking of what seems to be the tendency in modern American television, at least, towards what I’ll call a “Nale” plot, plots that are needlessly complicated.

Let’s compare the new Beauty and the Beast to the original to see what I mean (spoilers ahead):


Guilty Pleasures

January 8, 2015

I think all of us have some kind of guilty pleasure when it comes to what we watch on TV (if we watch TV), from reality shows to soap operas to, well, whatever. Essentially, there are shows that we watch that we wonder why in the world we watch them, and are kinda embarrassed to admit to others that we watch them.

For me, right now, I guess my guilty pleasures are … poker and darts. I did sometimes watch poker when I had cable before, mostly when there was nothing else on, and found myself wondering why I watched it at all, or why I was having such a hard time changing the channel. But this time around, I find myself actually seeing that poker is on and deciding to watch it directly, potentially even if there might be something else on. That being said, I’m not alone, as the ratings for poker on ESPN used to be higher than that of hockey.

But what I’m finding most amazing is darts. Not the ratings, necessarily, but the reception it gets in Great Britain, where it plays/broadcasts from. It’s really big business. The matches, from what I’ve been seeing, move from venue to venue … and are packed. And they don’t look like tiny clubs either; they may not be stadiums, but they certainly hold a good number of people. And there’s a lot of trappings involved in darts, too. They have intro walks, intro music, nicknames, cheerleaders, and all sorts of other things. The World Championships had a 250,000 pound top prize. It’s amazing that a sport like darts can get that much attention.

As sports, the poker that you generally see is the game that, in my opinion, requires the least skill: Texas Hold ‘Em. But it’s all about reading players, knowing the percentages of your hand, what draws you have, and what hands your opponent could have based on that hand, and how likely they are to call a bluff or bluff themselves. So there is some strategy there that makes it interesting.

As for darts, it’s a fairly interesting high-scoring sport, because you have to be the first to get to 0 from (usually) 501 … and you have to get there exactly. Which means that you do want to get as high a score on each set of throws as you can … but also want to set up easier finishes, since you have to end on a double or a bullseye to win, so it involves sometimes taking lower scores that leave you with a more even remainder.

I’m not sure how long this will last, as my interest in poker is already flagging a bit (I only really pay attention now when interesting players are on) and I think that the same will happen soon to darts. And then it will be on to the next guilty pleasure …

Political Correctness, Diversity, and Changing with the Times …

December 25, 2014

So, I read on Pharyngula that there was some discussion about having a black James Bond, and some people reacted badly to that suggestion. One of the common complaints was about this being a “PC” — politically correct — move, and the comments are puzzling over what politically correct means, anyway. There were also a number of suggestions for other substitutions that they’d love to see, alarmingly often justified with nothing more than it would annoy the people who would be annoyed by them, which is hardly an artistic justification that I can get behind. I’ll outline and deal with them a little later, but right now let me talk a bit about how I see politically correct and why that sort of political correctness is a bad thing in my opinion.

I’m not going to bother checking the history of the phrase to see if I’m using the words right, but I see political correctness as exactly that: the sort of correctness that politicians do. Which means, to me, that it’s not about promoting real equality or real diversity, but is instead about looking the part. So regardless of the actual impact that the change has on the world or the work, the decision or change is made to look like you’re doing something and to avoid people complaining that you aren’t doing anything. In the world of TV and film, that usually means essentially “tokenizing” the work, by inserting “token” minorities but either not inserting them in any meaningful or important role — ie diversifying the supporting cast but not the main cast — and/or running the same sort of story and making the diversity meaningless when it wouldn’t be, and/or inserting that token character and driving their characterization by their stereotypes instead of as a full character. For me, in a TV or film role, there are two main conditions that make it a politically correct role:

1) The role is explicitly aimed at a specific group, be it black, Asian, female, gay, whatever in order to aim at diversity
2) But at the end of the day, the diversity is in name only: nothing about the role requires that it go to that group and they don’t rely on anything about that group in the characterization.

This wouldn’t count roles that are gender and race neutral that pick the best actor/actress for that role, and wouldn’t count roles where exploring the at least potentially different perspective is a key point of the character.

So now let me list the various suggestions:

1) A black James Bond.
2) The already done in the recent remake black Annie.
3) A female James Bond.
4) A female Doctor.
5) A female Doctor Strange in the upcoming movie.
6) Making Johnny Storm black in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie.

Now, the first thing to note about all of these suggestions is that they aren’t talking about roles. This isn’t about creating, say, a new Time Lord that is a woman and basing a series on that. Or making a female spy in the vein of James Bond in a new movie series, or even a spin off. No, this is all about taking an existing character in an existing popular series and making them black or female in order to add diversity (and, from the comments, piss off “bigots”). But two things strike me about this:

1) Changing anything in an existing franchise will always tick off the fans of that franchise, especially if you do it in an adaptation of a long-running franchise and not as a continuation of it (like the Marvel examples).

2) My cynicism sense is tingling, because this then really looks like an attempt to explore issues that people want explored or to add diversity that they want to have added in a case where they have a guaranteed audience, by attaching themselves to a popular franchise. So you get to make the points you want to make when people will watch, rather than building a franchise up yourself. It seems like trying to take the easy way to get what you want and not caring about ticking off the people who already liked the franchise and are the audience that you are exploiting to make your point.

Now, to make this work in an existing franchise, you have to make sure that you aren’t changing what made the franchise interesting in the first place, or to put it better you have to make sure that you don’t take away the things that make the audience want to watch it in the first place. If you’re going to change it that radically, then you might as well use a completely new franchise, or a spin off, instead of changing the main franchise. This goes double if you are doing an adaptation. And if you aren’t changing anything at all, then you definitely hit the bad kind of PC; introducing diversity for the sake of having it, not for the sake of doing anything with it. This works if you aren’t trying to add diversity, but if you’re doing it just to do it then at best you’re missing out on an opportunity and at worst you’re tokenizing.

So let’s look at the various suggestions in detail:

1) James Bond. I think that a black James Bond would work, if they simply decided to throw it open and look for the best person for the job, no matter what race it is. It wouldn’t change anything about the series, but that would be perfectly fine. But I would reasonably object to people saying something like “It’s time for a black James Bond”. No, it’s not. If the actor that they think works best in the traditional James Bond role happens to be black, that’s great. If not, that’s fine, too. There is nothing in James Bond that requires that he be black or any issues that we’d really want explored that require that he ever be black. So, if Idris Elba is the current actor that is best suited for Bond, then I say go for it, but if he isn’t and some white actor is better, then go for that.

That being said, I think that having a female James Bond is a very, very bad idea. The main premise of James Bond has been about this masculine ideal living the masculine ideal life, as we even saw in the “Our Man Bashir” parody of it. James Bond is supposed to be the guy that women want and men want to be. Making that a woman radically changes what I think is a fundamental part of the franchise and its popularity. Doing that is likely to reasonably alienate your audience. I have no problem with strong female leads — and tend to prefer them — but when I put on a James Bond movie that’s not what I’m after, just like when I put on a WWII documentary I’m not after action scenes with great special effects and when I watch the Transformers cartoons I’m not after a well-crafted and detailed story.

This is not to say that there aren’t interesting things that can be best explored in the action-spy game genre with a female protagonist. There are. But they can be best explored through new series that aim at that. Heck, you can even easily spin one off from the James Bond franchise, with a “The Spy Who Loved Me” kind of competition and then a new movie series that spins off from that to follow the female spy as she does her thing. And I’d love to see some of the suggested actresses do that. But I think it a bad idea to make James Bond that, as that takes away why people like James Bond in the first place.

While writing this, I thought of something interesting: I’m much less open to a female James Bond than I’d be to a female Maxwell Smart. The reason, though, is that Maxwell Smart being male isn’t as critical to the character, and changing Smart to be female adds a lot of new humour and parody opportunities that wouldn’t have to rely on the ones that Don Adams did so well. For example, you could start with the claim about James Bond that it’s the number and name that get reused, and give her the name “Maxwell Smart”, with the Chief apologetically saying that it’s what they do now and she’s the person best qualified for the job, which opens up a brand new running gag about people reacting to that fairly obviously male name. And there are a lot of different ways to translate the typical Smart traits to her, which would lead to a new and interestingly funny take on the issue. So I think doing that would lead to a traditional yet fresh take on Get Smart that could be very good, and I’d say better than the Carrell movie was, all because of the opportunities it affords.

The thing to note is that I suspect that a lot of the people crowing about how great a female James Bond would be would dislike the idea of making Maxwell Smart female (although, I haven’t looked at the reaction to the “Get Smart” movie, so I might be wrong). The reason I suspect this is because to make Smart Smart, you have to follow the traditional Smart traits, of essentially him being incompetent and yet competent just enough to make you believe that he’s a master spy in spite of his incompetence. This would mean putting a woman in a role where she’s incompetent, which a lot of the people who push for diversity don’t like. But if you make her competent and only play up that people think she’s incompetent, then you don’t have Get Smart anymore. And if you make her incompetent only because she’s inexperienced, you lose the semi-justified arrogance that Smart displayed. Making her Smart doesn’t mean making her a bimbo — because Adams’ smart wasn’t a “bimbo” — but it does mean making her less than competent. It’d be interesting to see if those calling for a female James Bond are willing to have a female incompetent Maxwell Smart as well.

2) Doctor Who. I also don’t see any problem with a black Doctor, treating that exactly the same way as I’d treat a black James Bond: if the best interested actor happens to be black, go with it. The issues around a female Doctor are a bit more complicated. My first thought was that we had seen female Time Lords in the past, and had had no real reason to think that the Doctor’s regenerations could change gender, and so then we didn’t want to turn this into another “Dax” thing with male and female memories in the same body and all of the issues around then when we’ve gone for decades without having to worry about it. But then in some random surfing I found that it is possible that one of the Master’s incarnations was female, which means that that’s already there. I’m still not convinced it’s something worth exploring in Doctor Who, though, especially considering the shortness of those series.

3) Annie. I’m not a big Annie fan, and so don’t have much to say. The purportedly clever move of making her black to reflect the least desirable adoption trait is clever if intended, but I think a lot was lost then in making Daddy Warbucks black to match, as that would add to the undesirability and allow an exploration of that sort of interracial type of situation. That being said, I can also see people being reasonably upset if they felt that red hair specifically was an important trait of Annie. I don’t think it is for Annie, but if they had done that in a remake, say, of “Anne of Green Gables” then I could understand people saying that the trait itself was important, and not just for what it reflected in the story. But I don’t know enough to say here.

4) Johnny Storm. Making Johnny Storm black raises the immediate question of him and Sue being siblings and how you handle that. In the comments, most people react dismissively to that by citing adoption or interracial marriage, but these are very, very risky. In the adoption case, since they are supposed to have such a close bond it developing through adoption puts that, at least, at risk. Remember, Sue is supposed to have raised him after their mother died (if I’m recalling correctly) and this way it says more about her than about their relationship. And them not being close in terms of race is something that cries out for an explanation, even if some assert that it happens. All that making Johnny black and not making Sue black does is raise issues and problems that likely need to be addressed for even a non-bigoted audience, and what is most damning about it is that all of these problems go away with one solution that almost no one suggests: making them both black. Why can’t they make Sue black as well and maintain all of those relationships and solve all those problems? It’s a sign of rank, PC cowardice to diversify Johnny and not take the obvious next step of doing the same thing to Sue. This is the sort of tokenizing that no one should want.

If they aren’t willing to make both Sue and Johnny black, why not make one of the other characters black? I suspect that many happy about Johnny being black would not be happy with making Ben Grimm black, since he’d end up going to orange and so not “really” being black. But this would be looking at the outside appearance and not the heart of the character. Surely there are interesting things you can do with a character whose outward appearance might have caused problems as well as benefits in the past now in a radically different appearance that has similar issues, and tie that even better in to the psychological issues that kept the Thing the Thing in canon. It’s only if you are shallow and advocate for tokens and not real characters that you can think that a black person in the Thing’s make-up has to end up as not really being black at all. But if you want to play it safe, why not make Reed black? It avoids almost all of the issues, makes him visible, and only has an interracial marriage angle to even be a bit of a problem, which probably isn’t. So, then, why Johnny, even as a token?

The key differentiator in FF is that they are a family. That family relationship starts from Sue and Johnny. There is no reason to risk convoluting that here, especially since there are other options. This is a bad idea and is tokenizing at best.

6) Doctor Strange. Why? Why a female Doctor Strange? You’d have to change a lot to make it work — like, potentially, Clea — and what does it add? Remember, this is an adaptation here, so why change this for the sake of changing it? What do you gain? If you want to explore a female Sorcerer Supreme type, why not introduce Clea and spin her off into her own movie to do that? All this will do is annoy people who wanted to see a Doctor Strange movie and do nothing else.

The last thing we should want is PC diversity, where it is done for show and not for substance. Either you go neutral or you go with what you have. Opposing PC diversity is not bigotry, but is something that we all should do, whether we are interested in Social Justice or just in a good movie.

You are not worthy …

November 6, 2014

So, a friend of mine sent me a link to this preview of Age of Ultron. It starts with a scene where all of the Avengers are sitting around, and then they all try to lift Thor’s hammer, which can only be lifted by someone who’s worthy. Everyone who tries fails … including Captain America. Now, initially this bugged me a little bit because, in comics canon, Cap is one of the heroes who can indeed wield it (see this description). But this was a bit of a throwaway scene before introducing the serious issue (at least by the video) and the movies don’t have to stick to comics canon, so that’s not that big a deal. But the more I thought about it, the more it bugged me, and I eventually realized that that was because the scene would have completely destroyed the characterization of both Cap and Thor as established in the movies.

Let’s start with Captain America … in fact, the movie Captain America. Why was it that Erskine pushed for the 98 pound weakling Steve Rogers over all of the other candidates? Why did Erskine think that Rogers could actually use the serum without going nuts like so many of the others did? What was it that Erskine say in Rogers that he didn’t see in any of the other candidates? His internal character. Steve Rogers was, without the serum, a generally good and virtuous person. And Erskine said that the serum enhanced what you already had, so bad qualities were magnified … but so were good qualities. So taking the serum should have made Cap a better person, and in fact almost a paragon of virtue. So would such a paragon not be worthy of wielding the hammer? Especially since Thor isn’t, in fact, that sort of paragon?

That’s the real issue here: based on their movie characterizations, there is no way that Cap is less worthy — on the basis of character — than Thor is. Cap may have changed through his movies, but Thor is still deeply flawed, as evidenced by his reaction to the others not being able to lift the hammer. Cap has already learned the lessons that Thor needed to learn in order to be worthy of the hammer. So in order to have Cap not being worthy while Thor still is make sense, there are really only two ways to go: either Stark is right that the hammer really is tied to Thor as a person — which makes the statement misleading and hurts the implication that Thor needs to prove himself or someone else might — or it’s judging on different criteria than overall character, which would need to be explained and is difficult to pull off.

So, as one part of a joke scene, it has rather startling implications. It probably would have been better to have Cap refuse to try instead of Black Widow … unless you use Cap trying to demonstrate something. And to do that, I suggest that Cap didn’t fail to lift the hammer because he wasn’t worthy, but because once he clearly knew that he could lift it — with that first attempt — he, himself, refused to wield it and pretended that he couldn’t. Why would he do this? Because he didn’t know what would happen to Thor if he actually took it up. Would Thor lose his powers? Would they be able to share it? Doing so could greatly impact Thor’s life, and all Cap would get out of it is avoiding looking “unworthy” to Thor and the others, and access to some power. Since Cap wasn’t even interested in power when he joined the Super Soldier program, it’s perfectly consistent with his character that getting the power of Thor wouldn’t really interest him, and that he’d be able to ignore what the others thought of his worthiness, and didn’t want to impact Thor that way. This is why his saying “No, thanks” works better than Widow’s, since these sorts of things are in his character.

But doing it this way could lead to — and I hope things do work out that way — a really cool later scene. We’re at the climax of the movie (or movies, I guess). Ultron is about to win. Thor is out. Cap needs a weapon. His shield isn’t handy, but Mjolnir is. He hesitates for a second, grabs it, and uses it. He wins the day (or at least the moment). Thor recovers and sees him holding it. The following conversation happens:

Thor (a little regretfully, perhaps): So you’re worthy now.
Cap: I was worthy then.
Thor: But then why …?
Cap: You being the only one able to wield it meant the world to you. I didn’t want to take that away.
Thor: And now?
Cap: It meant the world to everyone else.

I’m not sure if this is where they’re going. I hope something like this is where they’re going, because if not this manages to wipe out their own characterizations in a really bad way … over a silly, fun, little scene. Well, you’d have to give them credit for efficiency [grin].

The Artistic Problem with Copyright …

September 1, 2014

So, when I was looking for as many episodes of “Just the Ten of Us” as I could find and enjoying all of them, and also reading comments people made about the show, and noting the critical reception that it received — which was generally good — and that it was a show cut short way before its time for business reasons that didn’t include “its ratings are too low”, a real problem with copyright became evident to me. See, from what I read Warner Brothers, who controls the rights to the show, were fairly aggressive in getting videos that were posted of the show removed from youtube through copyright appeals. Which is their right. But the problem is this: without that … no one can watch the show. There are no DVD releases of the show, and no indication that there were ever be DVD releases of the show. The cable channels that show old shows that are syndicated seem to have no interest in showing it (or, well, anything beyond a few really, really popular shows, which is another problem). Warner Brothers doesn’t seem to have any way for people who would like to watch the show and who might well be willing to pay for that privilege to actually do that.

The problem is that, in general, works like this are always in at least some sense artistic works. Acting and writing, even cheap and cheesy sitcoms, is art. Sure, the primary purpose of the work is to make money — which would make it not really “art” by my definition — but there’s no doubt that it has artistic elements, at least, in the sense that the writing is trying to tell a story and elicit certain emotions and the acting is trying to do the same thing. And when a work is simply no longer available anymore, all of that is lost. Whether worthy of praise or worthy of derision, you simply don’t get it anymore. You can’t use it to compare generations and how people thought, you can’t use it to trace progressions of, say, sitcoms from that time to now, you can’t use it to point out things that it might have done that more shows could use today … it’s gone. It’d be like refusing to allow even libraries to loan out books that are out of print, no matter how classic they might have been if they aren’t deemed “popular” enough.

Now, I completely understand the desire of companies to preserve their ability to make money on the products they own, and support them in doing so. But this always fails in cases where the product simply isn’t available for sale. If the company isn’t willing to sell me the product if I was willing to pay for it, on what grounds can they complain if I try to get it in any way possible, even if that means that I get it for free? Especially in relation to youtube videos, as almost everyone will still prefer it as a download or a DVD than as a youtube video. The focus on preserving their ability to make money even when they aren’t making money on the product and are unwilling to try to make money on the product only makes it so that some really good shows, games, and so on are lost. That seems to be somewhat tragic, and certainly frustrating.

As an aside, it seems cosmically unjust that “Pink Lady and Jeff” got a DVD release, and “Just the Ten of Us” likely never will.

A Perfect Ten

August 31, 2014

So, as as I recently noted, I’ve just gotten cable again. So I was home early and started watching some of the sitcoms that I used to watch as a kid, like “Full House”, “Who’s the Boss?” and “Growing Pains”. However, the episodes of “Growing Pains” that I watched happened to reference a sitcom that I definitely remember fondly “Just the Ten of Us”. Since that show isn’t running anywhere, I decided to search on the Internet to see if I could see any episodes of it. Most of them aren’t, but I did manage to find some of them and decided that, yes, I still really like that show.

The show was about an explicitly Catholic family — which was referenced a number of times during the show — that had eight children, and was headed by a high school football coach father and a stay-at-home mother. As stated, religion was referenced, but it was both mocked at times but also treated reasonably seriously; the mother and eldest daughter were both very religious, and this wasn’t generally presented as an odd or a bad thing (although the eldest daughter, in true sitcom fashion, took it to extremes). The cast was predominantly female, and that gave the show, in my opinion, its greatest strengths. Sure, it had a number of attractive female characters, as the four oldest children were female teenagers — whose actresses were all older than their ages in the show, in true sitcom fashion; the youngest of the four was actually played by one of the oldest actresses — which is what the show is probably best remembered for, especially once the show formed the band “The Lubbock Babes” where they sang old songs in attractive outfits. But that’s actually not the strength I mean. The strength it had is that by not having an overly mixed cast they could focus — in typical sitcom fashion — on building a range of “stereotypical” female characters, and then putting them together and letting that drive the storylines and interactions. So, a bit like the mix in “Sailor Moon” except the differences between the girls drove the comedy and the storylines, which didn’t happen as often in “Sailor Moon”.

The other thing is that despite them being stereotypical, they all were, in fact, teenage girls, and thus often a mass of contradictions as they tried to figure just how all of this stuff was supposed to work anyway. So, for example, Marie was the excessively religious, pious, and “good” sister … who still at times was interested in the more salacious details of what her less “repressed” sisters were up up, while at times being excessively judgemental about it. This being a sitcom, depending in the episode she was either more “trampy” or more judgemental and offended by that sort of thing, but her character is at its best when her interest is more against her better judgement than something that she accepts.

Ultimately, it was a very clever show, and it’s a shame that it effectively only got two full seasons.

Epic …

March 4, 2014

So, soon I’ll finally get my hands on the so-called “Epic” series of Battlestar Galactica … the original series (not 1980). When I first started shifting over to watching DVDs almost all of the time, I was disappointed that all of the versions of the original series were out of stock, and remained that way for a long period of time. However, I read that an important anniversary was coming up, and figured that they’d re-release it at that time … and, sure enough, they did. So I ordered it.

Interestingly, at about the same time — it actually started last year — DVDs are being released covering off the old Yu-gi-oh! anime/cartoon series (the dub), and I’ve been picking those up when I come across them. I still actually quite like it, mostly because the duels — even if not accurate to the card game itself — build well and dramatically. I finished off the latest one — Battle City — this weekend so that I could free up my schedule to watch Battlestar Galactica when I get it.

The Lost Mary Jane: Spider-man Casting and Looks in Movies

December 30, 2013

So, P.Z. Myers has finally noticed a controversy over a potential casting of Mary Jane in the next Spider-man movie, which from what I’m reading there has been dropped because they aren’t going to put Mary Jane in that movie. Anyway, Myers is going gung-ho over comic book fans being “sexist scum” (his words from the title) because many of them are saying that the actress tapped to play Mary Jane — Shailene Woodley — isn’t sexy enough for the role. (BTW, isn’t it a bit problematic that he refers to her as the “actor” in his post).

Anyway, hearing about this for the first time (I don’t tend to keep up with movies and didn’t like the first movie of that incarnation all that much), and looking at the images of the actress, I have to say that … I agree with those fans. As summarized in screechymonkey’s comment, Mary Jane Watson, as a character, has always been portrayed as sexy and fiery in terms of looks, at least in the mainline comic series (Ultimate has done that differently). I was worried that Kristen Dunst wouldn’t be “hot” enough to play Mary Jane in the Sam Raimi trilogy, and was pleasantly surprised when, in my opinion, she was. Woodley is definitely attractive, but she’s very pretty and very “cute”. She isn’t “hot” in the sense of being sexy, so her looks naturally bias her towards cute characters, girl-next-door characters, and more particularly “every person” characters. She’s best suited for roles, then, in my opinion, where you really have to believe that you could meet her on the street, that women could think that overall she could be them and men think that they might see her on the street.

Now, I have little doubt that Woodley can pull off sexy if she tried really hard. But even looking at the red carpet photos, her natural look is pretty rather than sexy, and that likely would always bleed through. But Mary Jane, in the main universe, was someone who’s natural look was sexy, where even dressed down the sexiness was still there. Mary Jane, dressed down, was still sexy. Woodley, dressed up, would still be cute. So Woodley’s looks, naturally, work against that sort of character.

Which, then, reveals the fear of fans, because with that contrast the fear is that either they’ll try to force Woodley into that type of role/image and fail at it, hurting our suspension of disbelief — ie everyone will wonder at her being treated as being so incredibly sexy when what we see on the screen isn’t — or that they’ll change the character into a girl next door rather than what she was. And comic book fans don’t like it when you fundamentally change the characters they love, which isn’t necessarily unreasonable. I know it annoys me when a reboot or reimagining of a series changes the things I liked about the series or characters in the name of “modernizing” it, and it can seem like a betrayal to fans if you finally make a movie about one of their beloved characters … and turn the character into something that is that character in name only.

The same sort of considerations occurred in casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the upcoming Man of Steel 2. There was a lot of criticism over how slight she was, and that she didn’t look the part. And I can see the complaints. Wonder Woman is not the sort of character who fights by avoiding getting hit, but by standing in the front line as a “tank” and getting hit, taking hits for other heroes, and essentially winning fights by hitting them harder than they hit her. Thus, she really has to have a presence that says that she can take a hit and a lot of them without really flinching, and has to do that even when you compare her physically to Superman and Batman. If Batman looks more able to take a hit than Wonder Woman is, you’ve done bad casting. So either you introduce a contradiction between what the character looks like and what they do and how they act and are treated on screen, or else you change how the character acts to make how they look match the character. Neither are good.

So, then, in general discussion over how an actor or actress looks are indeed important in considering the casting of a character, and so unlike as is asserted in the comments it shouldn’t just be about acting ability. There’s a lovely discussion about the Wonder Woman controversy and casting based on physicality here, which makes this excellent point:

We should campaign for realistically written, believable and compelling female characters played by actresses who can suitably represent them in every aspect of who the character is, not just one or the other. With so many actresses out there, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice acting skill for physical credibility, or vice versa.

So acting ability doesn’t trump the argument unless you argue that you can’t find a more muscular, taller, and more physically imposing actress who is also an equally skilled actress. If you indeed can, then it’s quite right to criticize the casting of someone who doesn’t look the part into the part. I’m quite sure that we could find an actress who fits a sexy Mary Jane better than Woodley does, if that’s what they’re going for.

Another problem with the casting, BTW, is that Mary Jane is the love of Peter’s life, and she’d be going up against Emma Stone directly, where you could see both of them in the same movie. Emma Stone is just far more attractive than Woodley is, in pretty much all ways. Not only is Stone sexier than Woodley is, she’s also prettier/cuter than Woodley is. The risk with this Gwen Stacey/Mary Jane Watson competition which canonically ends with Gwen Stacey’s death is that we want this to end with Mary Jane being considered the love of Peter’s life, and not just the woman he settled for because Gwen died. If we compare these two actresses in term of looks, Mary Jane loses. And considering that the first movie gave Gwen a very ideal personality for Peter, it’ll be hard to make Mary Jane the better woman for Peter without derailing at least one of the three characters. In the comics, this worked better because there was a lot of time between Gwen’s death and Mary Jane’s introduction, and they could string the relationship out more, and Peter had the chance to date other women as well, which pushes Gwen into the background. The movie series is not going to have that time. Making it feel like the main canonical woman of Peter’s dreams is his second choice is not a good thing, as I’ve briefly mentioned before.

Now, recall at the beginning of the post I said that I find Woodley attractive. But a lot of the comments about her are saying that she’s ugly. Why are people saying that, which I consider to be uncalled for? I have two theories:

1) It’s standard Internet overstatement rhetoric: instead of saying that a movie was mediocre you say it sucked, instead of saying that an actress is average you say she’s ugly, and so on and so forth.

2) Tying back to something I’ve talked about before, they are conflating their personal standard of attractiveness with an overall or objective view of attractiveness. I can certainly see why some people wouldn’t find Woodley’s looks appealing to them. If they prefer that sexier look and attitude, then she’s going to leave them cold. I happen to like prettier looks, and so at the very least won’t find her unappealing. Objectively, she’s not ugly and is attractive, but objectively she’s also not the top of the list either. So the people who will find her incredibly attractive are those that happen to like the sort of look that she naturally has, and if you don’t like that look you may not find her attractive at all. And so the comments about ugly, under this, seem to express more that they don’t find her attractive, and think she should be.

Now, in discussing how well she’d fit the role I think calling her ugly is going way too far, and that the comments should focus more on how she doesn’t have the right sort of attractiveness for the role. But I consider those comment more a sign of the mean-spiritedness of the Internet rather than a sign of sexism. Judging her by her looks when her looks wouldn’t be relevant would be a sign of sexism … but her looks are relevant to the roll, and so that part isn’t sexist. So the meanness is, to me, just general meanness and not sexist in and of itself, and the part that would actually be sexist isn’t because looks can indeed and should be relevant to casting decisions.

Prime Directive Analysis: Dear Doctor and Observer Effect

December 25, 2013

Long time readers of this blog shouldn’t be surprised by my revealing that I really like the stuff that Chuck Sonnenberg is doing over at sfdebris. While some of the shows he does don’t appeal to me, I particularly like the Star Trek reviews … even though, sometimes, I don’t agree with all of his interpretations.

He’s talked a lot about the Prime Directive, and even did a full video analyzing it. And while I don’t think that everything he says about it is wrong, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in his analysis that means that he’s treating it unfairly … or, rather, that he ends up treating the characters who support it unfairly based on that misunderstanding. In thinking about this in my spare time — my brain doesn’t like to shut off, sometimes even when I’m trying to sleep, which as you might imagine would be really, really annoying — I ended up coming up with ideas for a four post series starting from Chuck’s analysis and videos to describe how I think the Prime Directive should be viewed.

This, then, is that series. The first post, this one, will look at “Dear Doctor” and “Observer Effect”, which Chuck tends to compare, and will argue that they aren’t that comparable and that neither really do reflect a proper Prime Directive example. The second will up the geek quotient by looking at “Pen Pals” and using AD&D morality to better reflect the arguments that are going on there. The third will look at “First Contact” (the episode) and discuss why warp capability is such an important and not at all arbitrary dividing line. Finally, all of this will come together to examine “Time and Again” and ask if being saved from death really is better than any other possible unknown alternative.

And now, the disclaimers. First, as Chuck says, this is just my opinion. It’s an evidenced and argued opinion, and since I do philosophy I do think that there’s a right answer and that this is the right one. But this isn’t something given from on high or proven by strictly deductive logic. There’s a lot of interpretation going on, and other people will have different interpretations. While I don’t want to fall back on “You can have whatever opinion you want” because I do think there are better and worse and more right and less right interpretations, what I want to highlight is that all of this is debatable, which means that if you think I’m getting something wrong that’s something we can debate, respectfully. We may never be able to convince the other, but we should at least debate it like reasonable people. Second, Voyageur and Enterprise are the two series that I don’t own and have never watched, and so all of my understanding of the plot and details of episodes from those series come from Chuck’s videos themselves. Thus, I might be getting things wrong, or leaving things out that are important. Finally, any discussion of Chuck’s views are my assimilated impressions across all the videos and the analysis itself, but I might be misinterpreting him, filtering his views through other views I’ve come across, or just plain forgetting things he’s said that would change the interpretation. I implore you, then, to watch any relevant videos yourselves, not just because they are very entertaining, but also to ensure that your take on them is the same as mine.

And with all of that out of the way, my analysis of “Dear Doctor” and “Observer Effect”.

The basic plot of “Dear Doctor” is this: a race called the Valkanians arrive at Enterprise in a pre-warp ship, and plead for its help. It turns out that there’s some kind of disease on their planet that’s killing them, and they believe that in a short amount of time it will wipe all of them out. The Enterprise heads to the planet, only to discover that there is another race on that planet called the Menk who are mentally behind the Valkanians and who are immune to the disease. The Valkanians and the Menk live together in harmony, even though the Valkanians tend to treat them in a way that leaves them dependent on the Valkanians. Ultimately, Phlox finds a cure, but notes that the problem seems to be genetic and that the Valkanians are a genetic dead end and that, more importantly, their continued existence is getting in the way of the evolution of the Menk. He insists that the right thing to do is to not help the Valkanians. Archer resists at first, but at the end of the episode declares that they didn’t come out here to play God and so that he won’t give them the cure, although he won’t stop them from finding someone else to give them the cure either.

Chuck interprets this as Archer taking on the big Prime Directive principle: we shouldn’t save this society from death because we don’t know what impact it will have. This is despite it being made clear in the beginning — at least from the Memory Alpha summary — that the risk of cultural contamination is pretty low. Chuck points out that what they have — as even Phlox admits — is a remarkably harmonious society where the two groups get along quite well, even when the dominant group is sick and the subordinate group isn’t, which might normally spawn violence and suspicion against the subordinate group. So he sees no reason to not help the Valkanians, and that justifying it on the basis that you don’t know what the consequences will be just ends up justifying not helping anyone ever. No one holds that, and so it’s not an excuse here either.

I want to analyze this from Archer’s perspective, which lets me ignore any potential problems with the interpretation of evolution. From Archer’s perspective, the person who really should know what the case is here is telling him that he has a choice: let the Valkanians die out or doom the Menk to this sort of mental development forever. He can question it — and does in the episode — but at the end of the day any real denial of the facts as Phlox presents them to him would be him putting is own personal emotional feeling over the cold, hard, scientific facts as presenting by a scientific expert in the field. Thus, Archer couldn’t reasonably use any doubts he has over the facts to make his decision, even if Phlox ultimately is wrong about it. So whether Phlox is right or wrong isn’t relevant to Archer making his decision. And what I will argue is that Archer is not choosing to do nothing based on not knowing what might happen if he interferes, but is instead making his choice based on knowing full well what the consequences will be, but being unable and unwilling to decide which set should come into existence.

To Archer, the situation is this: if he gives the Valkanians the cure, the Menk will never advance beyond their current mental development, but if he doesn’t, the Valkanians will almost certainly die. If you think that it is better for the Menk to live as they do than it is for an entire species to die off, the choice will be easy for you: save the Valkanians. After all, the Menk don’t have that bad a life; they aren’t really oppressed, get whatever they need, and aren’t being abused or slaughtered by the Valkanians. But recall that the Federation has a philosophy of self-improvement and self-development, and that this is considered to be the highest goal in life for them. It is not unreasonable, then, for people from the Federation to think that self-development is as important if not more important than life itself, and that it might be better to die than to be stuck at the level of the Menk. Let’s put side whether you think this reasonable or not, and just examine it as something that someone could reasonably believe. So, if that’s the case, we can see that Archer would see both sides as at least being arguably unacceptable and arguably equally unacceptable. Given the choice, Archer would see either condition or consequence as being unacceptable, and now he’s forced into a situation where he has to choose one or the other. To him, then, either choice has a nasty moral consequence, one that he doesn’t want to live with.

So … he chooses not to choose. Essentially, his “We didn’t come here to play God” line is that he didn’t come out there to make these sorts of decisions for other cultures, to determine their fates. That’s not his job; that’s their job. But because of the state the Menk are in, they themselves couldn’t choose to say “We’ll give up self-development to let the Valkanians live”, and the Valkanians can’t make that decision for the Menk because the Valkanians have a strong interest in choosing the negative option for the Menk. So, to paraphrase Jeffrey Sinclair, Archer has to be the advocate for the Menk because no one else can. He could choose what might seem like the most moral option — give up development to save the lives of the Valkanians — but if he does that he is choosing that life for them even if they wouldn’t choose it for themselves. And he’s not comfortable doing that. But he’s also not comfortable outright choosing the Menk over the Valkanians. So he decides to not choose, and let nature or fate take its course. It’s not his place to decide what life — or lack of it — these groups will have.

Now, what he forgets is what is commonly forgotten: choosing not to choose is still a choice. He effectively chooses the Menk over the Valkanians because that’s what will happen if nature takes its course, and he knows that. So if you can criticize him for anything, it’s cowardice: he’s not willing to actually make the choice based on his principles, but is instead allowing nature to decide for him, even if that decision is not the decision he would make based on his own principles. But the counter is that his doing so is indeed playing God, is his determining what course this society will take and what life these people will have — Menk and Valkanian — and that’s not something he has the moral authority to do. Even if he effectively chooses one over the other by not choosing, he simply doesn’t have the moral authority to make the choice. Thus, he is making his non-choice in full knowledge and consideration of the consequences, and it is the consequences themselves that force his non-choice. Thus, he isn’t doing it because he doesn’t know what the consequences will be, but because he does and can’t choose between them, which means that it doesn’t tie as directly to the Prime Directive. At best, it’s the “Don’t interfere in purely internal matters” part, but even that is shaky.

Chuck compares Archer’s decision in “Dear Doctor” to the actions of the Organians in “Observer Effect”, but I don’t think them the same at all. To summarize “Observer Effect”, Hoshi and Trip managed to pick up an illness on an away mission on some kind of trash planet, and there are two Organians observing them as the disease progresses by hopping in and out of the bodies of various crewmembers. They debate whether they should interfere, and one constantly espouses the idea that they shouldn’t interfere because they don’t know what the consequences will be, which is a direct link to the normal interpretation of the Prime Directive. Eventually, Archer debates with them over it, makes what seems to be a direct reference to his having had to make similar tough decisions in “Dear Doctor” — when his decision was, really, not to choose — and derides them over being heartless and wrong at least in part because they could have stopped the disease before they were infected at all. Eventually, the Organians bring Trip and Hoshi back to life and the disease on the planet is eliminated as any kind of threat.

Chuck uses this to argue that when Archer or members of his crew are likely to die, then he sees interference as a good thing, but when others are likely to die then it isn’t. That may be a valid interpretation of Archer, but it doesn’t follow from “Dear Doctor”, because “Dear Doctor” is, again, a case where interference had known negative consequences, or at least consequences that Archer could reasonably think negative. In “Observer Effect”, that’s not the case. At best, the Organians were simply arguing that some nebulous bad thing might happen if they interfered, but they didn’t have any specific consequence in mind. Archer did. Thus, Archer’s decision not to interfere is certainly more justifiable than that of the Organians, because he was forced to make a choice between two bad outcomes, while the Organians only had a vague “We shouldn’t interfere” idea to appeal to.

But note that I think that even the Organians aren’t a good representation of the Prime Directive here. They constantly compare the reactions of the humans to those of other species, and the first few times through the videos I never got that they weren’t comparing the reactions of the humans to those of the other species in similar circumstances, but were comparing the reactions in the exact same circumstances. Meaning, other species landing on this very planet and contracting this very disease. Which always kills at least some people on the ship and might kill all of them. And the Organians couldn’t be bothered to even put up a warning or actually just eliminate the source of the disease, which would have had no impact on any culture or society or had any real consequences whatsoever. Surely no one thinks that if the Federation came across a disease on a planet that they could then cure that they wouldn’t even put up a warning buoy. In fact, they’d be far more likely to simply eliminate it from the planet if they could do so without causing known harm. So why don’t the Organians do this? Well, they come across as treating the people like lab rats, caring more about seeing how they react and worrying about losing this wonderful research opportunity than about them as sentient beings at all. In general, those in the Federation do care about those that will die, and invoke the “We don’t know the consequences” as an argument in order to reveal their feelings that the interference might make things worse. At worst, then, the Federation may take the Prime Directive too dogmatically, but they don’t use it to justify ongoing research projects. The Organians, on the other had, seem to.

We will get into whether the Prime Directive, by TNG time, has turned into a simple dogmatic principle in later posts, but to summarize this one the Prime Directive doesn’t apply to “Dear Doctor” because the consequences are known and it’s a completely different moral principle that’s at work here, while the Organians in “Observer Effect” are closer to it but still violate its intentions, seemingly willingly.

Agents of SHIELD …

October 23, 2013

So, I’ve been watching “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on Tuesdays, mostly because I’m a huge Marvel fan and did really like “The Avengers” and, surprisingly, the “Thor” movie (I’m still a bit lukewarm to the “Iron Man” movies). Unfortunately, so far I’ve seen 4 out of the 5 episodes — I caught this week’s episode, but missed last week’s — and have been disappointed. I joked that, similar to Battlestar Galactica and Farscape, if it wasn’t for Ming-Na Wen … and that’s actually because not only do I like the actress, I actually really like the character and wish she had a more prominent role, especially since the main focus characters seem to be Wade and Skye, and I don’t find either of them interesting.

I’m going to talk about the series and especially the latest episode in more detail, which will contain spoilers, and so for the first time ever I’m going to try to introduce a fold! Let’s see how that works …



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