Thursday, July 31, 2008

At The Movies

The most important thing you need to understand about the success of The Dark Knight can be summed up very simply by my girlfriend's reaction to the film. Coming in, her total combined lifetime interest in Batman could probably not have been measured with an electron microscope. But she had heard a lot of good things about it, and was prepared to like it. But she didn't like it, she loved it, and in fact, she raved about it for hours afterwards. She was the first to admit the movie had some problems, but she loved the performances, loved the characters, and even didn't mind the plot. (It's probably the best compliment that can be imagined for these types of movies if it can be said simply that the plot doesn't spoil the action.)

The action, in this instance, was the Joker. It's his movie, and even though he's not onscreen for very long -- not in the context of a very long film -- he's a presence throughout, the presence. I don't know whether or not you could accurately parse how much of that stemmed from Heath Ledger's actual performance and how much from the ghoulish aroma of the actor's real-life fate. Ask us again in a decade. But the fact remains, as ghoulish as it may be, the spooky X-factor represented by Ledger's ghost certainly didn't hurt the Joker's effectiveness.

There's nothing quite so creepy as death threats from a dead man.

But with that said, it's still a problematic film for a number of reasons, most of which stem from a weak script. For everyone who will tell you that this is simply an amazing movie that defies all comic book conventions and blah blah blah, you have to ask, why the hell wasn't the movie about 45 minutes shorter? I'm a patient man, but I started to get squirrely at about the 90 minute mark. These movies always make the mistake of trying to shoehorn way too much plot into too small a vehicle -- the proverbial 20 lbs of shit in a 10 lb bag. The Dark Knight never met a plot twist that it couldn't turn into a Rube Goldberg device, even when a simpler, more elegant solution would have been far more satisfying.

(Some spoilers ahead, but if you haven't seen it yet I'd be willing to bet you don't care.)

And a lot of these problems boil down to one very simple distortion of Batman's character: the Batman in The Dark Knight just isn't that smart. Sure, he's clever, and he's able. But the most interesting thing about Batman -- if anything can said to be truly interesting about an almost-70 year old character who has been exhausted in almost every way possible -- is that he's smart. Isn't that the whole point of Batman? Sure, he's been the Dark Knight for twenty years, thanks to Frank Miller, but he's also the Dark Knight Detective. Of all of Batman's multitude of tricks, this one is perhaps hardest to translate to the medium of film. After all, being a real honest-to-goodness detective is quiet business, in that it requires thinking. Thinking is a hard thing to do in the context of a summer action film. So Bruce Wayne outsources his thinking, to the likes of Lucius Fox and Alfred. The one bit of actual "detective" work he does in the movie is some phony-baloney CSI shit with bullet fragments that the movie, thankfully, doesn't dwell on because it doesn't make sense even in the context of a film with an evil circus clown fighting a man in a leather bat costume.

But no, the Dark Knight in this film is a grunting, monosyllabic thug, with barely a hint of the smooth, commanding authority conveyed by the likes of Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy, Rino Romano and even Adam West. I have to confess my interest in all things Batman is so low that I still haven't bothered to see Batman Begins, so the first time I heard Christian Bale open his mouth in costume on screen I almost laughed out loud. It doesn't sound threatening, it sounds like Batman's got a three-pack-a-day habit.

In order to get past the fact that Batman wasn't that smart -- for whatever reason they chose to stress this questionable decision -- they introduced a MacGuffin in the form of some magic supercomputer radar imaging system to track down the Joker. This plot point exists solely to introduce a ham-fisted "Statement" about privacy rights in the War on Terror, and has the added benefit of giving Morgan Freeman something to do. But besides that, it's just confusing. I swear, when they introduced the whole magic super radar thing one of these magic MacGuffins? If they had just written Batman as a real detective they could have figured out a much easier way to get Batman into position for the climactic three-way battle with the Joker and the police. As it was, the constant jump-cutting between the onscreen action and the weird glowing radar vision made that same scene just about unintelligible. And the confusion even allowed the Joker to get the one-up on Batman.

Also, while I didn't necessarily mind the addition of Two-Face as the film's second villain (third if you count the brief Scarecrow appearance), I think the final confrontation was spoiled somewhat. Would it have been that bad simply to leave Two-Face for the next film? As it is, the last few scenes left Harvey Dent's status naggingly ambiguous -- is he dead, as is implied by the final funereal speeches, or just shuffled secretly to a room in Arkham? To say nothing of the fact that the cover-up Batman concocts with Gordon in the film's final moments is about as flimsy as tissue paper -- if Harvey Dent killed seven people on a psychotic rampage, including a handful of cops, are you telling me no-one in Gotham would actually investigate beyond taking Gordon's word for it? Things like cop cover-ups usually get a lot of unwanted attention when they happen in the real world. Hopefully this is setting up a plot point for the next film, because otherwise that's just a stupid way to end an otherwise decent film.

So yeah, a pretty good film, hobbled by a weak third act and the insertion of wholly gratuitous and extraneous plotting. Eliminate Lucius Fox's character and the magic radar MacGuffin and you'd have shaved 30 minutes off the film, in addition to strengthening Batman's presence and cutting a totally 100% superfluous detour into privacy rights. I know people like Morgan Freeman, but c'mon, how is it OK that the movie Batman depends on this support staff to tell him what to do? Batman should know what a fucking skyhook is if anyone on this planet does.

It's become something of a cliche in the comics, but it remains a cornerstone of the character: with just his skills and intelligence, Batman can defeat just about anybody, and solve just about any kind of problem. That's what makes him so dangerous: you get the idea that even if he broke his back and were confined to a wheelchair (as he was very briefly back in the 90s), he'd still be the most dangerous man in the room. But Christian Bale's Batman would probably need Lucius Fox to remind him to use kryptonite against Superman.

Tomorrow (or thereabouts): I saw two trailers in front of The Dark Knight that gave me indigestion. Guess which ones.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

by Lars Martinson

I quite liked Lars Martinson's Tonoharu. It's about Japan, but not necessarily the Japan we're accustomed to seeing in western comics, or as seen in Japanese comics through western eyes. There's no romance or exoticized eroticism or anything that even comes close to approaching that kind of staged cultural rapprochement -- just one American guy adrift in a land of strangers and strange customs, with nary a ninja otaku or hyperactive moe girl to be seen.

Perhaps the most appealing thing is that despite the fact that it isn't a memoir or even directly autobiographical (although probably, from what I gather, maybe a little bit of a roman a clef), it feels honest. The voice is disenchanted and maybe just a little bit xenophobic at times, and as unattractive as that seems the clear-eyed illustration of an extremely dysfunctional travel experience is more than a little fascinating, in much the same way as a car wreck. The story begins with his reflections, looking back at his own nascent hopefulness from the beginning of his trip, and contrasting that with the banal reality of having to live in a country where you can barely understand a word anyone else is saying. I read somewhere I long time ago -- long enough that I can't even begin to remember where -- that whenever you move to a foreign country, there are always stages of acclimation: first, enthusiasm over the novelty of an exotic land, then homesickness, followed closely by disillusionment at the fact that whatever alien land the traveler has found himself in hasn't gotten any less alien, and in fact, has become moreso with every halting attempt on the traveler's part to actually understand the culture. Eventually, or so the theory goes, the traveler comes to a final, lasting acclimation that accompanies a greater rapprochement.

I don't think the protagonist of Tonoharu is ever going to reach that last stage. He's pretty much a loser, as presented in the book, either unable or unwilling to really extend himself into the surrounding cultural landscape. It doesn't help that he can't learn the language, and it also doesn't help that the customary Japanese reticence makes all social interaction seem compulsively alienating. There's something to be said for cultural conciliation, but for the vast majority of the world that kind of intricate appreciation for otherness is probably not so easy. Take anyone and pluck them from their daily lives and into an unfamiliar country on the other side of the world where even the toilets work differently, and chances are unless they had the equanimity of a saint, the transplantation would fail, or at least cause a great deal of necessary friction.

The protagonist, Daniel Wells, doesn't come off particularly well in the book, but it's about more than just him. Admittedly, if the book was solely about his misanthropic adventures, it might get repetitive. But it's not: there's a bigger plot at work here. There's a disconnect between what Daniel tells the reader in the prologue and what we actually see unfold in the story: Daniel is not merely a pretty pathetic traveler, but an extremely unreliable narrator as well. There's enough dissonance there to qualify as actual suspense, if it weren't for the fact that the story unfolds in such a leisurely manner as to preclude suspense. Rather -- and I didn't mean that as a complaint -- Martinson's narrative sense keeps the book rolling at such an amiable, even clip, despite the rather abrasive subject manner, that you barely notice being sucked along page by page. Or at least I didn't, and consequently I found that I had read the book in one quick sitting. Pretty neat trick.

But that's also something of a problem. Although I really did like Tonoharu, and I don't want to seem like I'm qualifying that statement, I do have to add a qualifier by way of saying that the book's format does it few favors. A smallish hardcover, 116 pages for $20, and this is only the first part of a story that will last four volumes? I understand it's an unusual time in the comics industry, and the transition from a serialized model to a primarily graphic-novel publishing model is still causing growing pains across the boards -- but a book like this definitely suffers. If it had been serialized in comic-form beforehand, that would have probably been better. As it is, for $20 the reader gets what is essentially the first chapter of a much longer story - and it's not a particularly thick chapter, either. $2 less will get you the new Acme Novelty Library, and that'll probably keep you occupied for a lot longer than the present volume. And it's not even about comparing the book's quality, really: it's about finding the right format for the right story, and this is a very good story by a talented cartoonist that is almost certain to wither on the vine in the present. It's not ideal to be forced into a discussion of monetary value when discussing such an aesthetically appealing book, but that's the world in which we live.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Final Thoughts On Star Trek

Before I conclude, a couple interesting thoughts from the comments. Commenter Plok had this to say:

TNG has an awful lot of clunkers, in my opinion -- most of the episodes that I think shine flirt with a sort of SF-horror vibe (on one occasion, a very successful SF-horror-action vibe, wow!) that may actually be kind of unique to TNG (!), but for some reason that tone seemed quite difficult for the makers of the show to keep a reliable grip on. Which is a pity, because when those elements are treated just right, you can see the show that might have been. Ultimately I think TNG suffered from being a Star Trek show, as odd as that sounds -- if it had been less concerned with its great big ethos, and more willing to discard its fan-fic chumminess -- if it had only pandered a bit less to the faithful, and challenged them a bit more instead -- it might have expressed that unsettling horror vibe I enjoyed a bit more consistently. Up above, someone mentioned the odd time or two that Riker looks like a bit of a dangerous guy to piss off. Sometimes Picard seems cold to his subordinates or antagonists. I think these character bits do get played on by the actors quite consistently, but all too often the scripts seem unwilling to support that kind of performance.

There's a lot of good stuff there, just about all of which I agree with, and most of which relating back to what I was trying to see to begin with. Plok expanded on these thoughts here, and I'll be damned if he didn't come close to obviating everything I was trying to say from the beginning. If you care one iota about Star Trek, you should read his post now: if you want to understand why the show, despite having one of the best set-ups in the history of live action sci-fi, ultimately fell into a frustrated, self-involved wet fart, he does a good job of getting at just why that was. Best bit:

The return to an absurdly sterile status quo, regular like clockwork every episode: it’s almost physically painful, but perhaps that’s because it conceals a point. Maybe, just possibly, it’s a choice…

Although not a choice I agree with in the slightest, because I am not a show-maker but a show-watcher, and I want what I like — feel that the same points could be made very adequately in the context of hammering, rather than tapping, tapping, always bloody tapping. But maybe that’s just me.

If you think about it, the whole premise of Star Trek is really absurd: every episode, or just about, the crew of a space ship hundreds of light years from anything else find themselves face to face not merely with villains and menaces, but weird science-fiction threats so terrifying in nature as to be downright existential. I mean, seriously, how much is human nature suppose to have changed in three hundred years that we should supposedly be able to come face-to-face with something like Q -- basically God -- and just shake it off with equanimity, meet for drinks in Ten-Forward after your shift is over? How the hell is it that the entire crew of the NCC 1701-D hasn't been Section 8'ed? Let's see, one episode you're facing an omnipotent God, the next one you get transformed into a fish monster by a devolving ray, the next you see your captain turned into a robot monster bent on destroying the Earth -- and next week we're supposed to give a crap that Data wants to learn how to tap dance? That is serious Blue Velvet territory right there.

The real shame is that when the show was good, it could be really good. I think if I had to pick a really strong selection I could pick maybe a full dozen TNG episodes that came pretty close to shaking off the cobwebs of the premise's "dynamic stasis". Not surprisingly, the episodes that focused on action and thrills were really strong. The first Borg episode ("Q Who?") is one of the best, and the second Borg episode (the "Best of Both Worlds" two-parter) is quite possibly the best of the series, and not just because of that (justly) famous cliffhanger. (I mean, seriously, cliffhangers are a dime a dozen these days, but that last scene where Riker told Worf to open fire on the Borg cube and then the screen went black to "To Be Continued . . ." -- well, that was a damn long summer, is all I'm saying.) The Borg were a great enemy precisely because they stood against everything which, conceptually, TNG had been founded on: diplomacy, reasoned assurances that problems can be solved through negotiation, a gentle commitment to mutual cooperation even among rivals. The Borg were implacable, invincible and deadly, and for a brief shining moment they were the scariest thing on TV.

And then? Well, after the boffo success of "Best of Both Worlds", the Borg were subsequently ignored and trivialized. The first is understandable, sort-of, considering that the Borg were obviously the single most expensive special effect the show had. But the second -- well, that was unforgivable. Giving us sympathetic Borg? Worse, demoting the Borg to a race of candy-asses in thrall to Data's paint-huffing twin brother? I think if you look up "jumping the shark" in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Geordie's lovable Borg pal Hugh.

"Best of Both Worlds" has only one real rival for the title of "best TNG episode": "All Good Things". It's one of the best -- if not, hell, the best series finale I've ever seen. It summed up, in two hours, everything that was good about the show, as well as putting much of the preceding seven years to shame in terms of showcasing interesting, well-written, dynamic and downright awesome sci-fi writing. It deals with alternate realities -- TNG was always good when it dealt with alternate realities, probably because they could get away with the illusion of consequence in alternate realities where things could actually "happen", at least sort-of. Most importantly, watching "All Good Things", the viewer can fool themselves into thinking that there really was an alternate-universe TNG where all that cool character development and sharp writing came together every week, and not just a handful of times over the course of 178 freakin' episodes. But of course, since it was the last episode, they probably thought they could get away with actually changing things up a bit. A shame, that.

I liked "Parralels" and "The Inner Light", two more alternate-reality episodes that actually seemed to cut to the heart of the respective spotlight characters -- Worf, in a rare non-Klingon-centric starring role, and Picard himself. Again, though, in order to find something interesting to say about the characters, the writers had to go out of their way to concoct Rube Goldberg plot machines that would allow for emotional arcs without messing with the precious status quo. If you start looking, you can find a lot of episodes that go to the same well: there's always something to trigger or mitigate unusual behavior, something to excuse the characters from acting like real people as soon as they put on those damn Starfleet unitards.

And this isn't an attack on the notion of Star Trek's future being a practicing utopia: that's a great, optimistic idea that really sets Trek apart from just about everything else in the sci-fi universe. The problem is that the idea on its own is a setting, not a plot point. This goes back to the heart of why TNG just didn't work over the long haul. It was built on the bones of fan-fiction. What is fan-fiction, really? I'm sure there's fan-fiction out there that's just as good as the real thing, but when we say fan-fiction, I think we all know what we mean: stories in the framework of a preexisting fictional universe that emphasize certain isolated interests of the fan in question to the detriment of the property as a whole. Like, say, what if Kirk and Spock acted on the hetero-normative frisson in their working relationship in a homo-sexual manner? What if Spider-Man had stayed married and had kids? That kind of thing.

In this case, however, it's more like, "what if Star Trek really was just the most perfect, all-inclusive, wonderfully balanced society in all of history, with room for every misfit, including me . . . ?"

TNG failed because accepting the show's premise implied a tacit rejection of the original series' writ. The fun of Star Trek, to the creators of TNG, wasn't the fabulous adventure, action, and colorful character acting -- no, it was the future-oriented optimism implied by a color-sex-and-creed-blind utopia world. All of which was great, but never, never actually the focus of TOS, only ever incidentally. The fact that it was so offhanded was what made it work: of course there's a Russian on board, the Cold War was 300 years ago; of course Kirk is kissing Uhura, prejudice is so 20th century. But on TNG, they practically made a cottage industry out of bringing old TOS cast members out of mothballs to fawn over the crew of the NCC 1701-D, saying just how much better the new Enterprise was and how slick and smooth everything was in this perfect little future world of the Federation. Bones, Scotty, Spock, Sarek -- am I forgetting anyone? Even Kirk, in the end, had to get down on his knees to ritually fellate the insecurity of the amassed nerds who not only wanted their sci-fi as bland as possible, but needed to be told that it wasn't "just" a fun show, it was a way of life. And that if they worked hard there would be a place for them aboard the Enterprise, right alongside Picard, Riker, and Counseler Troi in her space-bunny leotard.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Comics I Have Read

Justice Society of America #17

As much as I want to dislike Geoff Johns - and Lord knows he more than deserves the lion's share of the criticism he's got over the years - reading some of his later work I can't help but feel as if he's turned some sort of corner. There's not so much of the left-field ultraviolence that worked against the supposedly mellower tone of his nostalgic work. The tendency to wallow in continuity seems less annoying now. Sure, all of his main DCU titles are pretty much "inside baseball", but I liked his recent Legion of Super-Heroes a story much more than I thought I would, and I guess my delight at seeing the "old school" Legion once again influenced my generosity towards the rest of his work. And sure enough, his JSA has actually become interesting. I'm surprised it's even readable - it's in the middle of an ongoing patch-job dedicated to finally integrating Kingdom Come with the mainline continuity. I don't think Kingdom Come holds up well at all so I am surprised they were able to find a clever angle on the material, but the idea behind the storyline is actually quite strong. The idea of a godlike being coming to earth and upending the apple-cart for genuinely benign purposes is, amazingly, not one that's been played before in a lot of superhero books. The dialogue about faith and religion is being tackled pretty honestly, all things considered, especially in light of how corny it could have been. I just have two reservations: One, the sinking feeling that Gog will turn out to be less than advertised. The idea of an outer-space god willing to change the whole of humanity for the better is a rich enough idea that it would be a shame if Johns took the easy way out and gave him an ulterior motive. Second - Mr. Terrific is one of the only openly atheistic characters in super-dooper comics - as stupid as it may seem, I guess I'm attached to him for the same reason Jews are attached to Kitty Pryde, Catholics like Nightcrawler* and Scientologists dig Triathlon (hah!). Hopefully his crisis of un-faith will not result in him having a bogus spiritual conversion. (It may not make much sense to be an atheist in a fictional universe where on every other Tuesday you are given some form of concrete proof in the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, but hey. There shouldn't be any global warming on Earth-DC after Final Night, but I bet they have that, too.)

Secret Invasion #4

Considering all the buildup, I don't think this is what people were expecting. I think people were probably expecting something a bit more substantive, like a taut thriller that hinged on escalating tension and surprise reveals, sort of a Marvel Universe version of one of those John LeCarre novels. But this - well, we're halfway through and the story has taken up all of, what, eight hours so far? Where's the intrigue? There's no intrigue, it's all smashing and shooting, and most of that is pretty nonsensical at that. (Like, who are Nick Fury's new stooges and what are they doing, exactly? If I hadn't read the tie-in where they were introduced I'd have no idea whatsoever why they were even in this comic.) The only attempt at intrigue is the "is Tony Stark a Skrull?" plot, but since everyone in the world pretty much knows they're not going to pull that trigger, it's a useless red herring. Unless, of course, they do, in which case I take back everything I said. But they won't. So, yeah: it's on time and it'll probably continue to ship on time, but what price punctuality? It isn't reading well in serial format, it'll be nonsensical in a trade unless it's a huge omnibus with all the pertinent tie-ins, and it's just not very good to begin with. Oh well.

Mighty Avengers #16

And then there's this. Before Secret Invasion, I would have bet money that one of Marvel's primary - if obviously unstated - goals was to ultimately reveal that the resurrected Elektra that's been running around the Marvel Universe for the past decade or so had in fact been a deep-cover Skrull all along. None of the post-Frank Miller Elektra titles have amounted to anything much, and I doubt the creators involved would really begrudge the move at such a late date. I mean, Miller has never made any secret of the fact that he thought the resurrected Elektra was stupid. And Joe Quesada even made a half-hearted attempt to placate Alan Moore, for God's sake, so it seemed like a pretty obvious proposition: even if it was unlikely that Miller would really want to come back to Marvel in the first place - since it would probably distract him from counting all the money he's got stuffed in Will Eisner's taxidermied corpse - undoing all the bad Elektra stories that postdate Elektra Lives Again would have been a pretty solid way to re-ingratiate themselves with a topper-than-top-shelf talent nonetheless, just on the off-chance he would ever want to do an All-Star Daredevil The Man Without Fear. But no, they didn't, and more's the pity. At least they did have the faux-Elektra get beaten to death by a Super-Skrull, but it's a missed opportunity.

Doesn't make up for those stories when she was hanging out with Wolverine, after he lost his nose. (I'm not making that last part up, if you're too young to remember.)

Batman #678

I'm not stupid, this just isn't very good. It reads incredibly choppy, the art obviously makes a bad situation worse, and is Batman on crytal meth now? Seriously, if I didn't read blogs I wouldn't understand what was going on. I don't know how anyone else figured it out, because frankly this is a mess, and it's just not worth the trouble to sit around a decipher crap in the hope there are nuggets of gold secreted inside the feces.

Jokers Asylum: The Penguin

Wait a minute, Jason Pearson is doing interiors again? Does anyone remember when he was a big deal? And wait, this story is actually pretty good? Wow. The Penguin, of all things.

* Do Catholics still care about Nightcrawler, or did the whole demon-pope thing from Chuck Austen's run pretty much salt that proverbial earth?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Star Trek - The Next Generation Failed

(So yeah, it took a few days longer. Erm.)

Like many folks of roughly similar backgrounds, I enjoyed the heck out of Star Trek - The Next Generation when it first premiered, followed the show avidly through its seven seasons, and mourned its eventual passing. Although it sounds like the kvetching of the aged to say so, the fact is that kids today don't know how good they have it: was a time when the idea of having a moderately intelligent weekly sci-fi television program that didn't have asinine budgetary restrictions was simply inconceivable. TNG came out, was incredibly successful, and essentially recreated the entire genre of television sci-fi in its own image. That's hardly an understatement, as every significant sci-fi program to appear in the ensuing years has been strongly defined, either thematically, tonally or structurally (or all the above) by its relationship to TNG. Whether it's been established in stated opposition to the Trek "house style" (Babylon 5, Battlestar: Galactica, X-Files) or in slavish imitation (the various Stargate series, SeaQuest, any number of crap shows you can catch on late-night local syndication), the fact is that TNG changed the ballgame entirely. If you don't believe me, go back and look at how crappy something like V looked just a couple years before TNG. (And if you want to defend V in the comments, go right ahead, but that doesn't make it not crap.)

So yeah, you can't really say that TNG failed on any significant level except . . . well, have you watched it recently? Sure, everyone remembers the good episodes, "The Best of Both Worlds" and "All Good Things . . .", a couple of the Q episodes (because John de Lancie was one of the best character actors on TV for the duration of the show), maybe, if you're kind, a Klingon-heavy episode or two. And then, ummm, well. I had a DVR a couple years back and I decided to start recording the episodes of TNG that were being shown on Spike at the time. I rewatched the entire run of the show from beginning to end, and was dismayed by how badly the whole thing held up. And by dismayed, I mean horrified, because there had been a time when I had dearly loved the show. That time has passed.

Back when Trek was the only game in town, it was easy to overlook the problems. Those who loved the original series saw enough in the new show to remind them of why they loved the franchise, and enough new fans came aboard that the show became an honest-to-Goodness phenomenon, at least for a short time, until Paramount killed the franchise through overexposure in the late 90s. But it's not as if the problems are only valid in hindsight, with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of better, post TNG television and film sci-fi to cull from. The show's problems were endemic from the very first episode, in fact, they were perhaps most obvious in the earlier seasons, before Gene Roddenberry died and some of the restrictions placed on the franchise began to loosen. As sad as his death was, the fact is that by 1991 his vision of the future was going nowhere fast.

Comparing Trek to Star Wars is a pastime as old as time itself, or at least as old as 1977, when the thunderbolt popularity of the first Star Wars films established the franchise as the second pole in sci-fi fandom's big tent. When Roddenberry returned Trek to TV in the 80s, he made many of the same mistakes George Lucas made when he returned Star Wars to film at the turn of the century. Primarily, he disregarded a great deal of what had made the original property so popular in exchange for accentuating background details which were, at best, incidental, and at worst superfluous to the property's appeal. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll label this phenomenon the "Han Solo Effect".

What do people like most about the original Star Wars trilogy? Lots of things, sure. But what made those first three movies really sing? Han Solo. Sure, you had a cosmic mythology and a classic story of good versus evil and all that Joseph Campbell bullshit*, but really, who do you root for? Who has the charisma? Who was a good enough actor that you forgave him the occasional churlishness of the material in exchange to see him shoot a blaster from the hip on occasion? That's right, Han Solo. Along with the really-more-frightening-than-intended Chewbacca and his dilapidated spaceship, he was the glue that held the entire movie - all three movies, really - together. Go back and watch A New Hope: the most convincing character arc is not Luke. Luke doesn't even have a character arc besides the gradual realization that he's some sort of Aryan Jedi superman. The real crux of the movie is Han Solo deciding to not be such a prick. He's the one who saves Luke at the end of the movie, after all. A lot of people forget that.

The problem was that Han Solo's success was partially due to elements completely out of Lucas' control: i.e., the fact that Harrison Ford was about to become one of the most popular movie stars of all time, and was therefore carrying around more charisma and sex-appeal in his back pocket than everyone else in all the movies put together, with the possible exception of Billy Dee Williams**. Considering that Lando Calrission was essentially the same character as Han Solo didn't really matter: everyone loves a rogue, and watching a rogue turn against his baser interests in order to find redemption is one of the most enduring stories in the history of the world. Screw the "Hero With a Thousand Faces" - everybody knows how that story ends. Give me Casablanca - or better yet, give me Casablanca with spaceships and call it The Empire Strikes Back.

I have never made any secret of my affection for the prequel trilogy - it's better than most give it credit for. The underpinning thematics aren't bog-stupid and downright reactionary in their leanings, and the political analogy set up in the second and third films actually - maybe - veers towards actual insight. But there's still something undeniably missing, some vital element keeping the later films from approaching the very simple believability that the earlier films accomplished so effortlessly. What's missing? Han Solo. Obviously, there could be no Han Solo, but there needed to be something to fill that roll, because without that kind of a charismatic lynchpin, sci-fi pageantry can easily turn into self-important drivel.

It's the same reason, really, why the Hobbits are placed at the center of The Lord of the Rings: sure, they're not rogues, but they're still the characters you're paying attention to when the camera is supposed to be focused on Gandalf or Aragorn pontificating about something or other. In order to pull off that kind of high-epic storytelling, you need something slightly off-grain to focus on, or the texture and emphasis can seem all wrong. You pay attention to Han Solo in Star Wars because he's mirroring your own reactions of slight disbelief at the crap he's hearing from those self-important Jedis. Similarly (and although the characters couldn't be more dissimilar in other ways), Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin are just agog at everything, and their reactions - both general awe and a little tiny bit of disbelief at the absurdity of the proceedings - focus the narrative. Doctor Who has made it so long because this function of the narrative is built into the very premise: the Doctor flies around time and space with a companion. There's a reason why there has only ever been one full Who adventure without a companion, because without that dynamic the series breaks down.***

So, given this, who was the lynchpin of the Prequel trlogy? Who was supposed to be the charismatic outsider who served as the narrative's focal point, or, barring that, the viewpoint character who defined the story through his interaction with unfamiliar elements? There's only one character that fits the definition: Jar Jar Binks.

Unless you' haven't been paying attention, I'll bet you can see where I'm going with this. James T. Kirk was another once-in-a-lifetime confluence of character and actor, and Roddenberry was smart not to try to attempt to remake Kirk when designing TNG. The problem was that they decided to eliminate all tension from the show's premise. Instead of a fairly rag-tag group of disciplined but very human astronauts cruising around a pretty frightening galaxy of unknown terrors, TNG presented the Federation of some fifty years later as essentially a utopia, with perfectly balanced space diplomats cruising around a fairly well understood and mostly domesticated post-Glasnost galaxy. A roguish asshole like Kirk, the kind who lied and bluffed and punched his way through adversaries many times more powerful than he was, just wouldn't fit as the captain of the NCC-1701-D. In fact, no one with any kind of personality defect more unfortunate than, say, an inordinate love of Dixieland jazz would ever be cleared for the Federation's flagship. No Han Solos or James T. Kirks to be found, but boy, was there plenty of time spent exploring the underpinnings of Federation ethics and philosophy. Hot dog! And we were even given, in lieu of any kind of charismatic rogue figure, two new POV characters who could react to the world of the 24th century not with disbelief, amusement or bemusement, but awe, wonder, genuflection and hope: Wesley Crusher and Commander Data.

The implications of this emphasis on utopian world-building were immediately felt in the show's writing. Without being able to show any kind of interpersonal strife or conflict - not even of the friendly rival variety, as with Bones & Spock - the writers were forced into a dizzying variety of compromise positions. They could introduce mind control, utilize or overutilize secondary characters who were granted temporary license to be imperfect, or use the metaphorical toolbox of hard sci-fi to externalize conflict. (This last one has always been Trek's defining engine of conflict, going back to the original series, with the Klingons, Vulcans, Farengi, Romulans, Cardassians and even the Borg all standing in for various facets of unpleasant human behavior which could never be openly explored in the context of the Federation itself, not within the strictures Roddenberry had painstakingly established.) All of these were used to excess throughout the seven-year run, and every overplayed strategy was an ultimately futile attempt to distract from the fact that by definition the show was unable to utilize the most basic of tools required for any narrative: conflict between primary characters. In the 24th century, interpersonal conflict was eliminated, but that had the unpleasant side effect of rendered everyone rather boring.

It is telling that for all the time spent on each primary character over the course of so many years, each characters' singular defining traits could only ever be touched obliquely. There was apparently supposed to be a romance between Riker and Troi, but if you never read a fan magazine you might never have picked up on it, because the two actors had all the chemistry of a 2x4. Riker himself had a lot of possibility that was never fully explored: he actually seemed to have the closest thing to a "dark side" or any of the crew, even Worf, but it could only be touched on very obliquely. There was a pretty decent episode late in the run that featured a transporter clone of Riker, who meets his alternate self after seven years' stranded on a distant asteroid or something. His first reaction when he meets himself is, what the fuck? I should have been a captain by now, not someone who routinely sabotaged his own career to play water-carrier for some bald Daddy figure. But of course, the show could never really do anything with that other than externalize the tension in such a way as to keep the main characters unharmed and unchanged.

In a similar fashion, there was a surprising amount of time devoted to Geordi's singular haplessness with ladies. Sure enough, there was a funny sequence where he fell in love with a holodeck simulation of an engineer who helped design the Enterprise - a surprisingly prescient plot development. But really, the fact that Geordi was a creepy internet stalker was never developed at all, and when he eventually met the engineer whose virtual personality he had fallen in love with, you'd be absolutely mistaken if you thought the sparks would fly. Any kind of sparks at all, besides the spark that hits the couch after you fall asleep with a cigarette in your hand because it's so fucking boring.

In fact, let's see if I can write the outline of a sample TNG episode right here:

Stardate XXXX

While on route to investigate a previously unreported subspace anomaly near the Glifhfksnene quadrant, the Enterprise received a distress call from the planet Denregdnew. We've been dispatched to help with an emerging refugee crisis, while also ferrying a group of diplomats from the Pdhrgeneiwkw gaseous cloud to help with negotiations. Meanwhile, Commander Data has decided to enlist the aid of the crew while he learns how to yodel.

More to come.

* I'm not just being dismissive, I really do think that stuff is grade-A bullshit, and the pernicious influence of Joseph Campbell's pop-mythology on pop culture, via Star Wars, simply cannot be overstated.

** Yeah, even Alec Guiness. Look, Guiness was many things in his day, but a Harrison Ford-level matinee idol was not one of them.

*** "The Deadly Assassin", in case you were wondering.