In the end, all of the predictions failed.
** Spoilers — click on the link below to read more.
In the end, all of the predictions failed.
In the end, all of the predictions failed.
** Spoilers — click on the link below to read more.
How powerful a force has The Sopranos become in American culture? Our friends across the pond have even written articles today about its valedictory episode tonight. Both the left-wing Guardian and the conservative Telegraph note the passing of the series (HBO, 9 pm ET). Somewhat fittingly, both focus on the impact the final episode will have on Sopranos tourism in New Jersey.
First, the Guardian:
Marc Baron was putting a brave face on his future employment prospects last week. Baron is the lead guide for one of New York’s most successful tourist enterprises – The Sopranos Tour – in which visitors are taken round 45 locations used in filming the TV series The Sopranos
Now, after 86 episodes, 18 Emmy awards and some of the most lavish critical approval in TV history, The Sopranos – an everyday story of Mafia folk – ends today. An expected audience of 10 million will watch the final episode and find out if Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the psychologically tortured mob boss, ends up sleeping with the fishes.
The Telegraph, interviewing the same man:
Although The Sopranos is about to reach its on-screen climax, sightseeing fans are expected to continue their pilgrimages with the specialist On Location Tours company for a long time. British enthusiasts are already the largest national contingent on the bus tours and the company expects another burst of interest when the final season is screened later in Britain.
“I’m sure we’ll be doing this for another five years,” said the tour guide, Marc Baron, an actor who appeared as an extra in several episodes. “I don’t believe the final episode will cut off all their options for the future.”
Both articles are fun reads, and both engage in some speculation as to what the final episiode has in store for viewers. The Telegraph suggests that Tony sings like a soprano in order to save himself from Phil Leotardo. The Guardian reviews the odds at London bookmakers on Tony’s survival (1-3 for survival, 2-1 against getting whacked). David Chase, the series’ creator, has filmed three separate endings — which will generate plenty of controversy when this last season goes out on DVD, and would presumably include all three.
All I know is that this has been great television. I have watched it since the beginning, and it has consistently provided surprises. It has used sex and violence to show the banality of evil in a way that no series has ever done, and purposefully challenged its viewers’ sympathy for the main characters at almost every turn. Chase has always taken the difficult road in plot development, and I expect no less tonight.
Even though predictions have died quicker than Ralphie Ciferetto on kitchen tile during the run of this series, I’l make a couple of predictions anyway:
1. Tony lives. Having Tony die will make it too easy on him.
2. A member of Tony’s family gets killed. I’m going to lean towards AJ, as I don’t think Chase will want to emulate Godfather III and kill Meadow — but it’s worth noting that she’s spending a lot of time with Patsy Parisi’s son, which could put her inadvertently in harm’s way. That will put Tony in a special kind of hell, making his survival a torment to him
2a. However, it’s worth noting that Tony’s current predicament comes from his overreaction to Coco’s crude threat to Meadow …
3. If Tony gets killed, though, it will be Paulie who carries out the hit. Paulie had to know he came within an ace of not returning from the boat ride in Florida.
4. Phil Leotardo gets killed, possibly by another New York family unhappy with Phil’s declaration of war against the Sopranos.
5. Agent Harris will figure significantly into the plot, either to arrest Tony or to protect him in some way, or maybe both at the same time.
How accurate will these predictions be? Probably not at all, but half the fun of the show will be the anticipation. I’ll write more tonight after the show airs.
UPDATE: The cast shares some reminiscences in the New York Times, for another fun read.
UPDATE II: Joe Gandelman has a great roundup at The Moderate Voice.
CQ readers know that The Sopranos has been one of my must-see television series, perhaps one of the best episodic television series in history. The series is known for its violent and strong sexual connotations, but it handles these themes in a manner which most series and movies do not: it remonstrates the characters (and the audience) for the degrading nature of immorality in both areas. The show goes so far as to almost scold the viewers for their fascination with Mafia stories, as it shows how those involved in organized crime slowly get corroded by its effects.
Last night, I skipped the Democratic debate, because I knew I’d turn it off for the second-to-last episode in the series. I have TiVo, but the anticipation would have frustrated me, and I expected more resolution from the show than from the debate. On this point, I was not disappointed.
(SPOILERS — Click the link below to read the extended entry.)
Yesterday, I wrote about the Dutch television show that was to air today, where a dying woman would select the person who would receive her kidney for a transplant. The show created a firestorm of controversy, as people around the world accused the producers of exploiting the sick and dying for entertainment. Now it looks like they have exploited the contestants for an elaborate hoax (h/t: CQ reader David B):
A Dutch reality television show in which a supposedly dying woman had to pick one of three contestants to whom she would donate a kidney was revealed as an elaborate hoax on Friday.
The show, which the broadcaster had said aimed to focus attention on a shortage of donor organs in the Netherlands, was condemned by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende before broadcast Friday night and sparked controversy worldwide.
Identified only as “Lisa,” the 37-year-old woman who had been said to be suffering from a brain tumor was to base her selection on the person’s history and conversations with the candidates’ families and friends.
In the last minutes of the program, she was revealed as a healthy actress and producers stunned viewers by saying “The Big Donorshow” was a hoax.
The contestants were also part of the deception, although all three are genuine kidney patients.
I’m not sure which scenario was worse, but both are pretty repulsive and exploitative. The producers claim that they wanted to make a statement about the lack of organs for transplant patients, and at least the topic got some attention. However, they used real ESRD patients for the roles of the contestants, which seems rather cruel, considering that they had to pretend to abase themselves to seem the most pathetic — and the most worthy — of the transplant.
I share the hope of the producers that this will convince more people to donate their organs for transplant. I also hope that no one pulls this kind of stunt again.
Over the years, I have gradually lost interest in episodic television. Most of them recycle the same old plot lines; the good ones find new twists and different personalities to showcase, but the stories themselves don’t vary much from one to another. The exceptions to that rule have gradually disappeared, or more often get cancelled before anyone knows they exist.
Fortunately, we live in the era of the DVD — and that has allowed us to revisit shows that fall into that latter category. In 1993, Fox aired a show that blended science fiction, Western, action, and comedy called The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr — and promptly cancelled it after 27 episodes, including a two-hour pilot. Given that it was Fox and that they hardly had anything else to air, many wondered why they didn’t give the series a chance to find an audience. The DVD collection with all 27 shows may prove that Fox made a big mistake, not unlike the one they made in canceling Firefly.
In fact, the two shows have some similarity. Both have the same elements, and both challenge traditional notions of storytelling and of the nature of heroes. Brisco County was more comedic than Firefly, but both used sardonic comments for stylish humor. Both used recurring villains and secondary characters to an unusual extent to flesh out the strange universe created in both shows, and to entrance the audience.
Brisco County had more of a serial nature to its episodes. Brisco’s father gets killed in the pilot (played by R. Lee Ermey), and his son gets hired to track down the gang that killed him. Each of the episodes brings him closer to that goal, and by the end of the season, he actually accomplishes the task. However, a golden orb with supernatural powers complicates matters, and Brisco and others want to find out the nature and the origin of the orb, and how to control its seemingly limitless power.
The cast is top-flight. Bruce Campbell played Brisco, with the same comedic sense that he displayed in Army of Darkness and other Sam Raimi features. John Astin played the absent-minded Professor Albert Wickwire. Billy Drago played Brisco’s archnemesis, John Bly, whose gang Brisco seeks. Lesser-known actors fill out the rest of the important roles, such as Julias Carry playing fellow bounty-hunter Lord Bowler, Kelly Rutherford as temptress Dixie Cousins, and Christian Clemenson as Socrates Poole. John Pyper-Ferguson plays the often-killed Pete Hutter, a nutter with a wide vocabulary (and apparently a lot of luck).
Tonight we watched the pilot episode, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, 14 years have gone by since it aired, and memories can play tricks on you. Fortunately, it was exactly as I remembered it: funny, inventive, wise-cracking, and full of surprises. Each commercial break featured a cliff-hanger, and every resolution had a laugh. Even the First Mate liked it — and she doesn’t even remember the show at all.
I still think Fox blew an opportunity to carve out an audience with Brisco County. Lucky for us, we can revisit it and see that for ourselves all over again.
As CQ readers have surmised, I have mostly taken today off after a long weekend of birthday celebrations. My sister flew out from California for a couple of days, and we celebrated her birthday as well as my son’s and the Little Admiral’s, who turns 5 on Wednesday. After a weekend of these celebrations, the First Mate and I found ourselves tired out. I bought The Reagan Diaries for later reading, and both of us caught up on our sleep.
This evening, though, we decided to take a look at HBO’s new movie, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which tells the story of the Native Americans in the Dakotas between the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. It has a stellar cast, including a cameo for Fred Thompson as President Ulysses S Grant, in what some will hope turns into dramatic foreshadowing in real life. Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, and Anna Paquin star, but the focus remains on the Sioux tribes and their betrayal at the hands of those who thought themselves the advocates of the American Indians.
The history may not be well known by viewers before seeing the movie. If not, the film gives the audience a good tour of the fourteen years between Custer’s idiotic attack and the uprising at Wounded Knee. An attempt to renege on a treaty with the Sioux in order to get to the gold in the Black Hills created instability in what little order the US had with the Sioux after Custer, and in the end forced the natives to repudiate the entire treaty process. This led, in the end, to a massive overreaction by the US and state governments in putting down what they saw as a dangerous uprising in the end of 1890.
The film brilliantly depicts all of these issues, using the historical characters of Charles Eastman and Elaine Goodale Eastman as the “witnesses” to the depredation and oppression of the Sioux, and Henry Dawes as the perpetrator the the betrayal by Washington DC. It’s necessarily sympathetic to the Native American point of view, especially since Adam Beach as Eastman suffers betrayals from all sides. Dawes starts off by demanding of Grant a merciful and positive approach to saving the Indians from extinction, but Dawes becomes the architect of the land grab that eventually causes the tribes to reject the ever-changing demands to renegotiate the treaties with the US.
The acting is uniformly excellent. It features a cast largely drawn from the Native American community. Wes Study makes a cameo appearance as Wovoka, the Paiute visionary who taught the Sioux new dances that he promised would bring an end to white people and restore the Native American tribes to supremacy over the earth, as well as bringing back the buffalo. It’s shot in a stylish and affecting manner, and gives a fairly accurate account of history in an manner which grips the viewer.
If you have a chance to watch this, make sure you do. It’s a part of history that does not get taught well in the US, especially the post-Custer reaction that made that singular Sioux victory a Pyrrhic event.
I’ve watched The Sopranos ever since it first started, and it remains one of the two episodic shows that I refuse to miss each week (South Park is the other, when they show new episodes). While it does feature violence, sex, and very raw language, it also has had compelling characters, intelligent writing, and intriguing themes and story arcs that keep me watching to see what happens next. One person described it as a soap opera for men, and there is some truth to that, but the First Mate follows the show as closely as I do.
One sequence this season was unexpectedly disturbing, and I suspect it was for David Chase and the Sopranos team as well. The episode which aired the Sunday after the Virginia Tech massacre had a story line involving a disturbed young man of what appeared to be Korean or Chinese descent, who violently attacks Uncle Junior at the end of the hour. That created a lot of buzz on the Internet for the coinicidence — the show was taped months before it aired — and got Ron Rosenbaum of Slate to consider the connection between artistic violence and the real deal:
And in my simulated Abu Ghraib cell, I began to elaborate on another theory about what was going on: I began to wonder whether The Sopranos as a series was acknowledging that its casual treatment of violence could be a source of the casual violence that seems to be an increasing part of American culture.
True, Sopranos violence is not glamorized, a la The Godfather, or ironized and aestheticized a la Quentin Tarantino. It’s more that it’s trivialized, made quotidian and all the more accessible somehow to those like Carter Chong who see mobsters as celebrities. Not for nothing is Uncle Junior seen in the mental institution signing photos of himself for one of the orderlies to sell on eBay! Nice touch. It captures the show’s complicity in commodifying violence. …
What that outburst suggests to me is that The Sopranos’ creators are acknowledging that making violent goons whose whole lives are essentially one long killing spree—they don’t kill 32 at a time, but they’ve probably killed a comparable number in their lifetime—seem so sympathetic, even in some ways admirable (“family” values, etc.), might have real-world consequences. As Chong’s mother puts it, “You’re becoming a bully,” and it’s because of “that gangster.”
Almost as if in their final season they’re engaging in what I would call laudable introspection, though some might see it as admitting to feeling guilt.
The simulated Abu Ghraib cell is being used in an Errol Phillips documentary on the detention scandal — along with fake mortar shells and a few other stage items Rosenbaum describes. I’m not sure why a documentary requires replicas; is Phillips making a drama or a documentary? That seems like a good question for a media critic.
Rosenbaum uses Abu Ghraib to make the argument that publishing the pictures of the abuse and humiliation may have desensitized Americans to the use of torture, and that The Sopranos desensitizes us to violence and gangsterism. That’s why he thinks that Chase is using the last nine episodes as an apology. Jerry Seinfeld did something similar in his last episode; he made clear that the main characters were actually jerks, and rather unsympathetic ones at that. It was brilliant and courageous, and the backlash against it proved how many people Seinfeld made uncomfortable with that revelation.
So has Chase decided to do the same with Tony, Paulie, Silvio, and the gang? Absolutely not — because he’s been making Rosenbaum’s point for the entire series. The whole balance between Tony’s two families has to do with keeping violence of his one world from affecting the other — and failing miserably to do so. Tony has to whack his daughter’s boyfriend (and his dead friend’s son) when he gets out of control. Close friends keep disappearing “into the Witness Protection Program”, and everyone knows not to ask too many questions. Early on, AJ looks up a Mafia fanboy site on the Internet and discovers his whole family tree; in another episode, he has a set of trading cards that feature murderers.
Chase has overtly and subtly addressed the themes of glorified violence and criminals. The quotidian aspect of it on The Sopranos is how utterly unglamorous the lifestyle and violence is. It degrades everyone around it. Carmela knows exactly what Tony is, and she still can’t bring herself to admit her own complicity — nor to ask enough questions to see what happened to former insiders like Adriana. No one escapes its influence, not even the kids, which is why we see Little Vito this season go Goth and grow more disturbed.
Quentin Tarantino glorifies violence — in fact, he fetishizes it, and yet Rosenbaum seems to let him off the hook because Tarantino makes it “ironic”. Chase makes it realistic and shows it to be degrading and corrosive. Which one has more need of the guilt trip?
While many of my friends await the season premier of 24, tonight holds more of a classic tone for me. The second season of the brilliant miniseries Rome makes its debut in a matter of minutes. I just bought Season One on DVD, and for quite a while I had supposed it would be the only season. However, we will shortly see the aftermath of the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, the fall of Marc Antony, and the rise of Octavian played out in another twelve-episode miniseries. It will make a great end to a day of shopping, church, and good food that the First Mate and I enjoyed.
After my post yesterday about Star Trek, my former co-blogger Dafydd ab Hugh wrote a lengthy exposition on the question of whether Star Trek was fascist. Dafydd writes science fiction and has tremendous insight into the ST environment — plus he’s always willing to argue arcane points in depth, which is what we have in common. Here’s his response, which he has graciously allowed me to post here. And no, this is not another attempt at work avoidance. — CE
I rise to make a correction: the original series Star Trek did have money. They used the pseudo-sci-fi term “credits.”
For example, in “the Trouble With Tribbles,” Cyrano Jones negotiates with the bartender about how much each tribble will cost; Lt. Uhura and Ens. Chekov are at the bar, and Uhura falls in love with the things. So Pavel Chekov does the gallant thing and offers to buy her one. Hence, they do have a monetary system.
It wasn’t until Star Trek: the Next Generation that they eliminated money. And then in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or maybe later in Next Gen, I forget), they brought it back!
I should know: my favorite of my Trek books (and the least favorite among the fans, I think!), Balance of Power, centered around money: specifically, a friend of Wesley Crusher figures out a way to counterfeit gold-pressed latinum using a replicator — which is supposed to be impossible. Then he and Wesley get kidnapped by Ferengis and brought to an auction held for the estate of a dead inventor, at which the Federation, the Cardassians, the Romulans, and the Ferengi are all frantically bidding against each other for a particularly powerful weapon.
You can buy a used copy from Amazon for one penny, a new copy for 80 cents, or (if you’re truly nutty) a “collector’s” edition, whatever that is, for $8.00. (I don’t get a dime of royalties for any of these, so pick the cheapest one, if you have any interest at all.)
The problem with Trek isn’t that it’s utopian; it’s not — else there wouldn’t be any conflict among humans, though there is. It’s that the creators of the newer series, from Mike Pillar to Rick Berman to jumped-up office boy Brannon Braga, were groping for a depiction of a post-economic society… and they didn’t have the cinematic chops to do it right.
It all stems from replicator and holodeck technology, which is why we didn’t see it in the original series. Once you have those two, then you’re truly post-economic: if you get your hands on a replicator, it is essentially Aladdin’s magic ring: anything else you want can be replicated, from food to machinery to great works of art. In fact, by the specs, a replicator can even replicate another replicator!
Every economic (monetary) system is ultimately based upon managing scarcity; it’s a form of economic triage, shunting short resources to where they’re needed. Thus, when there is no longer any shortage of any material object, any traditional material-based economy will collapse: capitalist, socialist, or barter-based.
(The replicators, as presented in the Trek series, were actually magical: they never ran out of mass. They must have had near-perfect reclamation technology to go along with the replicators, else they would run out of mass; everything excreted would have to be run back through the replicators. Presumably, what the Enterprise crew really ate was recycled feces and urine… but magically recycled into canard à l’orange and osso buco.)
But what the writers and producers didn’t understand at all, in the beginning, and only dimly grasped even later (when they reintroduced the Ferengi as Julius Streicher-like caricatures of Jews), is that money didn’t create humans; humans created money. I don’t mean that simply glibly: humans will always find some way to recreate economic activity (witness prisoners exchanging sex for cigarettes). It’s impossible to separate commerce from people; even in the Garden of Eden, humans will find something they can sell.
Replicators remove all material objects from the realm of commerce by making them as plentiful as leaves on the ground. So, starting from the assumption that “humans will always find something to sell,” what do we get?
The most obvious thing available for selling is service: any human can sell his own services. Even if machines take the place of laborers, a person can hire himself out as a valet or butler, for those people rich enough to afford an actual human servant. It would be a lucrative profession; even now, such servants are paid far more than they were in the 19th century, when the supply of cheap human labor was more plentiful.
But creativity is also marketable: your replicator can make chicken, but it can’t make my brand new chicken recipe that I just now invented! I suspect that copyright would still exist; it arose in the first place because it was necessary; creators refused to release their works without it. So a fellow could make a darned good living, even in the Star Trek post-economic society, by licensing his recipes to the replicator company. In fact, different companies would compete with different “license packs” of various dishes created by well-known chefs.
Original art would still have value (exaggerated value in a society where everyone had ample leisure time). There would still be a market for new novels, movies (holoplays, if you prefer), music, and indeed, for anything that hadn’t been created yet. And naturally, a replicator cannot make a machine that has never existed before; so inventors would be rolling in green, or whatever color the “money” of that era was.
Daredevils would have no problem making a living, assuming some rating agency could be found to assure that they were actually human beings (or at least living creatures not immune to death or injury). In fact, all circus or carnival type acts would be popular… anything that makes us hold our breath in delicious terror that the man on the flying trapeze might fall and kill himself before our horrified eyes.
Also, let is not forget what is commonly (but erroneously) called “the world’s oldest profession.” (The actual world’s oldest profession is “food gatherer,” and every human on earth was employed at it back in the old days, 100,000 years ago.) Even if somebody invents androids which are better at the mechanics of sex, most people will still prefer actual humans.
Which means, since we would still have economic energy, we would still need the units of that energy: money. A faint cognition of that inescapable fact finally penetrated the semi-simian brains of the proprietors of the newer Trek series; they introduced “gold-pressed latinum” (GPL) as the unit of currency. To get around the replicator problem, they limply declared — without explanation — that this substance was the only matter known that “could not be replicated.” Thus, it was a commodity that had a fixed quantity — the perfect thing to use for currency. Like gold today, it was easy to test for the quantity of GPL in a trinket or a bar, and it could not be counterfeited.
(In Balance of Power, I actually go into the mechanics of GPL and why it can’t be replicated; then I had the counterfeiter figure out a way around it. But unlike the proprietors of Star Trek, I’m an actual science-fiction writer, used to thinking about the future.)
In any event, the Trek proprietors were trying to depict a post-economic society, but they failed miserably. And such a failed depiction of a post-economic society is easy to mistake for a failed depiction of a Fascist utopia.
But give them their due: they were still befuddled; but they were befuddled at a higher level, and about deeper questions!
Two points. One, I’m glad someone else recognized the assignment of just about every stereotype of Jews possible to the Ferengi, something that bothered me explicitly from the moment the characters were introduced — hunched back, greedy, exaggerated noses and ears, and so on.
Two, I wrote a novel once that attempted to do “space opera” as a sort of anti-Trek, almost a Firefly but with the Alliance being the good guys, more or less. I actually explained the food replicator as Dafydd does above, where every single bit of mass had to go back into the cycle. It’s the only way a ship could do lengthy patrols in space, even if one could travel significantly faster than the speed of light; no ship could carry rations that far. I speculated that anyone forced to use a food replicator after being told of its sources would probably lose a few pounds until they managed to overcome it.
Needless to say, that book never got published …
I wrote this earlier in the week and teed it up for the weekend.
As long-time CQ readers know, my nickname came from my love of the various incarnations of Star Trek. It started in the 1970s, when I started watching the original series on re-runs, which inexplicably drove my father (the Admiral Emeritus) up the wall, considering he spent almost 30 years of his life working on the space program (Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle). I cheered when the movies came out, grew addicted all over again with The Next Generation, and finally ran out of enthusiasm somewhere in the middle of Deep Space Nine. I never attended the conventions, for a variety of reasons, and now catch a rerun or two occasionally.
Even when the various shows were must-see for me, though, I always had some discomfort with the future that ST presented, especially on The Next Generation. It didn’t take long to discover that hardly anything existed outside of Star Fleet or academia as far as Earth was concerned, and the various alien societies always contrasted against the sterile functionocracy of humanity in the 24th century. No one seemed to do anything but research or enlist in the military, which was made to appear as the pinnacle of all human endeavor — even as the writers pressed their anti-war messages to the fore.
This week, I stumbled onto an essay by Dr. Kelley Ross of Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys that cuts to the heart of the dissonance I felt then and now about Star Trek — and the cluelessness of Utopianism in general. In the essay “The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek”, points out the inherent contradictions in the Star Trek philosophy:
Star Trek typically reflects certain political, social, and metaphysical views, and on close examination they are not worthy of the kind of tribute that is often paid to Star Trek as representing an edifying vision of things.
In a 1996 newspaper column, James P. Pinkerton, discussing the new Star Trek movie (the eighth), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), quotes Captain Picard saying how things have changed in his day, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force; we work to better humanity.” Perhaps Picard never stopped to reflect that greater wealth means greater material well being, which is to the betterment of humanity much more than any empty rhetoric. But this is typical of Star Trek. A first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “The Neutral Zone,” has Picard getting up on his high horse with a three hundred year old businessman who is revived from suspended animation: The businessman, naturally, wants to get in touch with his agents to find out what has happened to his investments. Picard loftily informs him that such things don’t exist anymore. Indeed, poverty and want have been abolished, but how this was accomplished is never explained. All we know is, that however it is that people make a living, it isn’t through capitalism as we know it. Stocks, corporations, banking, bonds, letters of credit — all these things seem to have disappeared. We never see Picard, or anyone else, reviewing his investment portfolio. And those who still have a lowly interest in buying and selling, like the Ferengi, are not only essentially thieves, but ultimately only accept payment in precious commodities. In the bold new future of cosmic civilization, galactic trade is carried on in little better than a Phoenician style of barter, despite the possibilities of pan-galactic banking and super-light speed money transfers made possible by “sub-space” communications. …
If daily life is not concerned with familiar economic activities and the whole of life is not informed with religious purposes, then what is life all about in Star Trek? Well, the story is about a military establishment, Star Fleet, and one ship in particular in the fleet, the Enterprise. One might not expect this to provide much of a picture of ordinary civilian life; and it doesn’t. One never sees much on Earth apart from the Star Fleet Academy and Picard’s family farm in France — unless of course we include Earth’s past, where the Enterprise spends much more time than on the contemporaneous Earth. Since economic life as we know it is presumed not to exist in the future, it would certainly pose a challenge to try and represent how life is conducted and how, for instance, artifacts like the Enterprise get ordered, financed, and constructed. And if it is to be represented that things like “finance” don’t exist, one wonders if any of the Trek writers or producers know little details about Earth history like when Lenin wanted to get along without money and accounting and discovered that Russia’s economy was collapsing on him. Marx’s prescription for an economy without the cash nexus was quickly abandoned and never revived. Nevertheless, Marx’s dream and Lenin’s disastrous experiment is presented as the noble and glorious future in Star Trek: First Contact, where Jean Luc Picard actually says, “Money doesn’t exist in the Twenty-Fourth Century.”
So what one is left with in Star Trek is military life. Trying to soften this by including families and recreation on the Enterprise in fact makes the impression worse, since to the extent that such a life is ordinary and permanent for its members, it is all the easier to imagine that all life in the Federation is of this sort. Not just a military, but a militarism.
Dr. Ross manages to put together all of the nagging elements of Star Trek that so irritated my father on an instinctual basis. Politically and economically, it operates outside of the realm of science fiction and into fantasy. Nothing in its universe explains how human society manages to build the massive ships that comprise Star Fleet, nor the brilliant technology that enables them. Who builds these things — and how and why? It’s all well and good to say that money no longer exists, but people have to be compensated in some manner — otherwise, the Star Trek society is based on benevolent slavery. The reference to “Imagine” is particularly appropriate; this view of human nature seems particularly flaccid, where all creative impulses have been subordinated and all enterprise has been discouraged, pun particularly intended.
After reading this, I thought about the movie Serenity, as Dr. Ross holds it out as the anti-Trek (along with its TV series basis, Firefly), and why I enjoyed it so much. The ultimate message in Serenity warns us about a human race that tries to transform itself into people who generate no conflict, no passion, and eventually no desire to live. Not only does the Alliance resemble Star Fleet, but their ambitions appear to be the evolution of their society into a Trek-like Brave New World — only it turns out much more closely to Huxley than Roddenberry. The key character in Serenity, The Operative, is exactly the kind of deluded true believer that is perfectly willing to do tremendous evil in order to save humanity from itself by removing all of the choices and motivations that come naturally to free people. It’s an impulse that has proven massively deadly in our history, and we still see it today in places where freedom and choice get stripped from people by true believers who intend to bring about their own Utopia, whether secular or not.
In Trek’s defense, though, the limiting factor of this essay is that we don’t see Earth in its 24th century form. We’re looking at the future through the eyes of a military organization, and as such, Star Fleet seems pretty relaxed — lots of fraternization, no salutes, little military decorum of any kind, a plethora of officers and a dearth of enlisted men and women, and so on. It’s hardly a fascist military environment, and in fact it lacks most of the proper military discipline to keep a far-flung Navy in operation. Disobeying orders is practically a favorite hobby for the commanders in the Trek universe. Only Kirk ever got disciplined at all for it, and then only to give him back the next version of the vessel he stole from the Federation and deliberately destroyed.
The lack of context is the fault of the writers themselves, who leave us with few clues to human society outside of Star Fleet. We know that a President runs the United Federation of Planets, presumably elected to the position, although we never see any evidence of elections. It’s possible to believe that the normal economic and political activities occur in the civilian worlds of the Federation, and that it’s so unremarkable that the writers never bothered to portray it. If so, Trek can hardly be fascist, but we simply don’t know much about it, and the message instead focuses on almost nothing but the military/exploration aspects of life in the Federation … and their pronouncements that money has no use in the future.
Calling Trek fascist overstates the problem; its biggest flaw is the unexplained and unexplored Utopianism that nevertheless informs almost everything about the various shows and movies. One might have expected that after a half-dozen TV series with countless episodes and eight full-length movies, the writers might have finally explained how we got to this Promised Land of human interaction. Instead, it’s just assumed, and that seems a rather unworthy intellectual choice.
I still enjoy the series, the characters, and the story lines of Star Trek, but now I understand much more clearly why I have always had an issue buying into its environment. Some may rightly claim that I’m taking ST too seriously, but its die-hard fans certainly do so — and many more people hold out the Trek philosophy as the ideal for our future. Read all of Dr. Ross’ excellent essays on this subject.