THE SOCIAL DILEMMA should be everyone’s dilemma

You will almost certainly find many viewers decry Netflix’s eye-opening documentary The Social Dilemma as hysterical polemic; an over the top rebuke of our Information Age. Like everything else around us right now, the content will polarise.

It is an extension of arguments that thinkers and writers such as Shoshana Zuboff (who appears here as a marvellously coiffured talking head) have been making for some time about the perils of surveillance capitalism. That our dominant, all-pervasive big tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit etc…—deal in, as Zuboff describes it, “human futures”. Rather than we as a society using social media as a tool to communicate, learn and principally buy, we rather are the tool of almost artificially intelligent algorithms that understand more about our psychology and habits than anyone in our lives, and even we as individuals could possibly understand. We are the commodity. And the result is that our entire fabric of society is being controlled and fundamentally broken by this machine-led, money-driven system.

The Social Dilemma packages up ideas that you may well have heard before into an effective, streamlined docu-drama, one that plays as much like a horror movie at times in how it pushes our buttons to be afraid, very afraid, of Big Tech and their manipulation of human existence. Some, therefore, will find it hyperbolic and perhaps even simplistic. It is a film with a clear agenda, one designed to influence us in the manner the networks it decries itself does. Netflix is, technically, no better. After watching the movie, I automatically pressed the thumbs up button and rated it. I therefore sent data off to Netflix’s servers which will influence what their algorithm shows me on the “you might also like…” screen. There is an irony about that that the makers of The Social Dilemma might not have appreciated.

Yet it speaks to how I, as much as you reading most likely, remain a willing cog in the manipulation machine. How do I use social media? And could I detach from it completely? These are the questions I’ve been asking since I finished The Social Dilemma.

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STAR TREK is at a cinematic crossroads – which path should it take?

Though we may have entered a second possible ‘golden age’ for Star Trek on television, the same cannot be said for the iconic franchise at the movies.

Forbes writer and movie critic Scott Mendelson, in a recent article, decried that Paramount’s experiment to transform Star Trek into a franchise worth of rivalling Star Wars, the MCU, even Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, is dead in the water after the box office failure in 2016 of Star Trek Beyond. He points out that while Star Trek 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness both made a profit and are in the higher percentile of Star Trek films in financial terms, neither of them came anywhere close to making the profits witnessed in franchise films such as The Dark Knight or Skyfall over the last fifteen years. In all of these summations, he is arguably quite correct.

This topic has reared its head once again following two recent news stories. First, that the reputed movie script being worked on by Fargo and Legion scribe Noah Hawley has for now been shelved, on account of the story revolving around a topical killer virus. Secondly, that Quentin Tarantino’s much speculated film idea would be set heavily in the 1920’s gangster era. Paramount are reputed to be weighing a decision on which path to take for Star Trek at the movies – either of these options, or the fourth intended ‘Kelvinverse’ film for the reboot crew. If not three scripts ready to film, then three very different ideas. All of which place Star Trek at a fascinating crossroads.

The question is simple… which road should the franchise take?

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STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS – Second Contact and First Impressions

Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.

Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.

This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.

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Tony Talks #24: A. J. Black – Published Author!

So it has finally happened guys… I am a published author!

Myth-Building in Modern Media: The Role of the Mytharc in Imagined Worlds is finally now available to purchase via Amazon and all good bookshops. It won’t necessarily be on all shelves but you can order online. I’ll provide links at the bottom should you wish to be very kind and purchase. The paperback isn’t cheap but the price point is a bit more agreeable via Kindle, and I recommend asking your library to stock it so then you can read it for free. If you do spend your hard earned money on this, my eternal thanks. Please do let me know what you think too, ideally via an Amazon/Goodreads rating/review, or by messaging me via this blog or my social media pages. I’d love to hear what you make of it.

Here’s the blurb once again if you remain on the fence:

Continue reading “Tony Talks #24: A. J. Black – Published Author!”

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06 – Series Retrospective #6)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the sixth and final episode of the first series, The Return of the Speckled Band, which first aired on February 8th, 1990…

As befits the traditional sitcom format, particularly the British sitcom format, the final Series 1 episode of One Foot in the Grave comes with no great moment of cathartic realisation for Victor Meldrew. Life goes on.

Whether the series would go on at this point was an open question. Critics remained divided, as they had been all series, about whether One Foot would become a classic or be consigned to the far more cluttered wrecking yard of failed British sitcoms. This being the era before online discourse, it was down to the print newspaper and their in-house critics to gauge the pulse of comedy, and while papers such as the Daily Mirror, the now-defunct Today or the Daily Express were favourable come the end of Series 1, others such as the Independent or the Daily Telegraph were quite the opposite. Christopher Tookey in the latter remarked that he felt the series offered “in general, a distorted and depressingly old-fashioned view of old age”.

The irony is that The Return of the Speckled Band might actually be the funniest half hour of the series so far. While by no means vintage One Foot, it certainly feels like David Renwick manages to latch here onto several strong comedic threads and take them to some satisfying conclusions, in a manner the previous five scripts never quite managed to do. Two that stand out in particular are the recurring problem of the hat palmed off on Victor that he tries to rid himself of but keeps coming back to him, and Mrs Warboys with her chronic sickness which intertwines with what otherwise would have been an enormously random narrative of an escaped python quite brilliantly. We haven’t quite seen Renwick weave his plots this skilfully yet in One Foot, and it displays what the series is capable of.

The Return of the Speckled Band also, in a relatively quiet fashion, dovetails with the opening episode of the series in suggesting Victor is trapped in an existential spiral he can never quite escape.

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Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part X – ‘Blue Skies’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

For such a relentlessly dark film, Star Trek: Nemesis ends on a bittersweet note of hope, but one that feels false. It serves as a good allegory for the film in general: a point of departure that never feels *right*.

Cast your mind back to 1991. The Undiscovered Country brought the curtain down after 25 years on the adventure of The Original Series crew with a stylised flourish. The so-called ‘end of history’ predicted by political scientist Francis Fukuyama allowed Nicholas Meyer’s film to frame the first Star Trek generation’s final adventure around the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and use it as a neat parallel for the embrace of a new world: peace between the Federation and their most intractable enemies, the Klingons, one we would see reflected in Worf being part of the Enterprise crew in the middle of the 24th century. It felt symbolic. It felt earned. It felt worthy of such iconic characters.

When you consider Nemesis, do you feel the same way for the crew of The Next Generation? Is this either a fitting end to a 15 year run which took in seven seasons of a hugely popular TV series (far more popular in its time than The Original Series was while broadcast) and multiple movies? What really does Nemesis *say* about this crew or who they are at this point? I’m not convinced it says much of anything or leaves any of them, even Jean-Luc Picard, at a reasonable point of closure. It just feels like a film made to satisfy the box office needs of a franchise that, by this point, was running out of steam. Hence: darker, bigger, more explosive, higher stakes, a megalomaniacal villain and a story that taps into the most celebrated Star Trek movie of all.

Nemesis ends with shellshock for the characters which mirrors the unfinished trauma of a film which serves as no real ending at all. We would have to wait almost two decades before we saw the seeds of a true conclusion to the Next Generation era.

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Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part IX – ‘Goodbye…’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

The so-called Battle of the Bassen Rift is designed, pretty unashamedly, to recall the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with Nemesis even determined to sacrifice a major character at the end of it in a shock way to save the ship and crew.

When you think about the climactic battle in The Wrath of Khan, do you remember it riven with tension? A pitched, submarine or maritime fleet tet-a-tet in space between the Enterprise and the Reliant which was more about the aspect of quiet suspense and tactical superiority between Admiral Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh? We don’t come anywhere close to that in Nemesis. The Bassen Rift is a fairly routine, thunderous ship to ship battle, with a few Romulan ships thrown in for good measure, with the only unique selling point being Jean-Luc Picard’s decision to crash the saucer section of the Enterprise-E into the Scimitar, having exhausted shields, weapons and the self-destruct system. Even this, however, felt better done in Star Trek: Generations, when the separated Enterprise-D saucer slams into Veridian III.

Nemesis almost feels designed to be the culmination of every space battle Star Trek has delivered thus far in the 90’s era of the show, given they steadily built from a few skirmishes in The Next Generation to an entire war in Deep Space Nine or a horde of Borg Cubes battling bio-synthetic, inter-dimensional beings in Voyager. Everything about that ugly sword in space, the Scimitar, is a representation of how Nemesis simply relies on the dark, explosive set-piece when this crew, and these actors, are capable of so much more. Just look at that hilariously embarrassing Will Riker/Viceroy action set-piece, seemingly designed to give Jonathan Frakes one last run at Action Riker (or even something to do in a film where he’s done naff all). Apparently Riker was supposed to quip: “Don’t worry, hell is dark” before kicking the Viceroy to his death, though it was vetoed because they felt Riker would be enjoying the murder a bit too much. It’s a shame he didn’t. Some unintentional levity at this point would have been welcome.

By now though, the stakes are supposedly high. Shinzon has a WMD. He’s headed for Earth. The fleet are nowhere. The Romulans aren’t enough help. How, in the end, do you solve a problem like Shinzon?

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Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VIII – ‘Waiting for the Dawn’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

It is at this point in Star Trek: Nemesis, as the final act and the final intended showdown with Shinzon begins, that any logical sense of narrative structure begins to collapse in on itself at a thalaron radiation level rate. We learn what has been hinted earlier in the film: Shinzon is dying.

Though John Logan’s script works hard to try and compare him to Khan Noonien Singh, as we’ve previously discussed, he owes perhaps more of a debt to Renard, the James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough played by Robert Carlyle. Struggling to remember him? That’s unsurprising. Ultimately, the bullet in his head that was slowly killing him is probably the most memorable aspect of the character, even with an actor as strong as Carlyle in the role. His entire rationale is fuelled by the reality he won’t be around to see the fruits of his terrorist actions. Shinzon is the same. Yet the difference is that Shinzon has the cure directly within his grasp.

When Jean-Luc Picard asks if his warped clone can be saved, Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher informs him: “Nothing except a complete transfusion from the only donor with compatible DNA… you”. Picard then asserts that Shinzon will come for him, except… didn’t he just escape from Shinzon’s custody, having been very easily beamed off his own ship? Shinzon has always known he was dying, this isn’t news. Beverly concludes, after all: “Shinzon was created with temporal RNA sequencing. He was designed so that at a certain point, his aging process could be accelerated to reach your age more quickly. He was going to need to skip thirty years of his life, but when the temporal sequencing wasn’t activated his cellular structure started breaking down”. This is a neat science-fiction concept—a cloned spy who will rapidly age when triggered—which is utterly wasted as the explanation for Shinzon’s slow death. But if he knew, why not just drain Picard of his entire blood the moment he beamed him onto the Scimitar?

It makes little sense, purely designed to establish the conditions for what will make up the final act. Nemesis might have done well to not have Shinzon be dying at all because all it does is show up how cripplingly incompetent he is. Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VIII – ‘Waiting for the Dawn’”

Book Trek #10 – Star Trek Gateways: What Lay Beyond – ‘Horn and Ivory’

In an attempt to try and tackle the onerous job of looking into the Star Trek book universe, thanks to the help of Memory Beta’s chronology section, I am intending to look at the saga in book form from stories which take place earliest in the franchise’s timeline onwards. This hopefully should provide an illuminating and unusual way of examining the extended Star Trek universe.

This story takes place 27,000 years ago…

It’s worth me making a confession before you read any further: I haven’t yet read any of Star Trek: Gateways, the 2001 book series which connected all of the Star Trek properties of that time together in a shared uber-narrative concerning the ancient Iconians and their titular gateways through time and space. Luckily, that doesn’t make Horn and Ivory too impenetrable as a story.

One of six novellas within What Lay Beyond, the Gateways conclusion, it is based on the idea that six characters from each of the collected series stepped through one of the gateways at the end of their journey in the preceding book, and these novellas chart what happened to all of them. Horn and Ivory, as a result, follows on from the Deep Space Nine Gateways book, Demons of Air and Darkness, also written by Keith R. A. DeCandido, and focuses squarely on the character of Kira Nerys, who finds herself in Bajoran antiquity at the heart of territorial wars between numerous nation states in the ancient history of her home planet.

It’s a credit to DeCandido’s writing that Horn and Ivory doesn’t in any way seem a baffling experience if you haven’t read any of the previous Gateways novels, his prose explaining quite clearly the basics needed to understand how Kira has ended up in the ancient past before getting on with a short story which neatly resonates with the character we know from the show and subsequent relaunch book series.

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Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt V – ‘A Better Way’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

While Star Trek as a franchise, across all of its television series, has been defined by the philosophical and scientific approach its storytelling has taken to humanity’s future, Star Trek in cinematic terms often feels defined by the antagonist of each film.

When people think of The Wrath of Khan, do they immediately imagine Kirk’s grapple with middle age or his emotional and physical rebirth? Maybe, but they’re probably more likely to conjure up Ricardo Montalban with his buffed tanned chest and wild hair spitting Shakespearean poison. Who can think of The Undiscovered Country, equally, without imagining Christopher Plummer’s General Chang twirling happily in his chair barking lines from Hamlet? Alice Krige’s sultry, mechanical and haunting turn as the Borg Queen is just as synonymous with First Contact, to the point she holds a pride of place position on the film’s poster. In so many Star Trek films, the villain is crucial. The last three pictures have all boasted star name bad guys perhaps even more famous than the main cast – Bana, Cumberbatch, Elba, all A-list Hollywood surnames who people instantly recognise. Think about some of the names who’ve inhabited these roles previously – Christopher Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell, F. Murray Abraham. Legendary character actors to a man. There is almost as much cache in playing a Star Trek villain as there is a James Bond antagonist.

Retrospectively, Tom Hardy sits on that tier of household name bad guy, even if when Nemesis came out he was a youthful, unknown quantity no doubt cast because of a passing visual similarity to Patrick Stewart, but in hindsight Hardy ended up being a ‘get’, even if Shinzon never sits in the tier of the greatest Star Trek cinematic bad guys, some of which have been mentioned above. The truth is, while Star Trek has always engaged with excellent, well-known actors to play these parts, the villains themselves often end up overshadowed by the Starfleet crew themselves. Sybok, Tolian Soran, R’uafu – does anyone really know who these characters are outside of Star Trek fandom? Arguably the only villain to truly break out into mainstream popular culture is Khan Noonien Singh, especially given his lease of life recast in Star Trek Into Darkness more recently. Khan set the bar as a character (and in The Wrath of Khan) that the franchise has been striving to equal ever since. Shinzon, however, is the most unashamed attempt to cash in on Khan’s charismatic mania.

As we start to peel back the layers of Shinzon, learning his backstory and of his bizarre connection to Jean-Luc Picard, Nemesis’ blatant mission statement to replicate what made Khan work becomes ever clearer. Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt V – ‘A Better Way’”