Boris Johnson’s destroying the only good thing we’re remembered for: John Major and Tony Blair write exclusively for Opinionoid

When we were prime minister, we played a game of tag with what was and remains the only bona fide, rock solid, unarguable, tangible, life saving, joint domestic and foreign policy achievement of our tenures – peace in Northern Ireland. You can point to divisions over Europe, Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from the ERM, sleaze – or in my case Iraq, the threat to civil liberties, Gordon, etc, but we can both look back on the Good Friday Agreement with pride. We were both gripped, indeed tugged off by the hand of history.  

Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill, an attempt by the government to contravene the EU Withdrawal Treaty, threatens, under the guise of clearing up “ambiguities”, to tear up the understanding that neither the UK or the Republic of Ireland can act unilaterally to change the legal arrangements governing the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

If the bill becomes law, the government will have the power to determine the status of goods transported to the six counties, and from there across an open border, which in turn means a political entity other than the EU will decide whether said goods are compliant with single market standards. Without a customs border between the UK and EU, fortified by sandbags and machine guns, it would be impossible to protect the integrity of the single market, and subsequently the Act could force the EU to reimpose checkpoints and lawless human rights abuses. Such a border would be a red rag to rabid paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide; a thumping great symbol of partition. This will unpick the peace process and endanger lives. But more importantly, it will destroy our legacy.

It took a lot of guts to open a back channel to the IRA – you have no idea. They were mortaring me from fucking Whitehall. It broke my back windows for God’s sake. I didn’t want to talk to these psychopaths, but they were turning bins into bombs and blowing up kids before it became fashionable with home grown Islamic fascists. But I took a chance because I understood that we’d reached an impasse. No one else would have taken that step, I can assure you.

Well, hang on – if Labour had won the 1992 election we would have pursued a similar policy of détente; it was always our case that Britain had to reassess its relationship with the Irish Republic. We’d been saying that for years.

Reassess? Don’t you mean, capitulate to terrorism? Your policy was to say Britain was an evil force of occupation, not a country defending the self-determination of its own subjects. Your lot were inviting Gerry Adams and other members of the Army Council to dine in the Commons, when months earlier they’d tried to murder the British Government. So we didn’t need your approach to fixing the problem, thanks very much – we started from the position that Northern Ireland’s integrity had to be protected. You’d have gifted it to them with an apology and a promise to fix the place up before handover!

Look, that’s bollocks – we just recognised that Irish Republicans might have a legitimate grievance; we understood the history and its attendant sensitivities, instead of pretending that Ireland had always been sovereign British territory and we had an inalienable and God given right to be there. That was the pragmatic, grown-up New Labour approach, not this idea that the great grandsons of Edwardian imperialists had condescended to give the ruffians an audience to clear up a little local misunderstanding.

Fine, but the point is – I started the process, and without me there wouldn’t have been a foundation on which to form an agreement. All your government did was to tidy up a few bits and pieces, cross the I’s and dot the T’s. Do you imagine that something as intricate and delicate as the Good Friday Agreement could be negotiated in full, in a year? We built the club house, we furnished it, bought the stationary, invited the membership. You opened the door, sat people down, brought a bit of food and claimed you’d organised the whole thing.

I think we can agree that it was a joint effort and that all parties recognised that you’d made an important, if initial contribution. I don’t deny that without you, it wouldn’t been possible for me to do all the hard draft to get us over the line. But you painted the line and I accept that.

Oh, really? You accept that? How typical. You take the credit for the peace in Northern Ireland, just as you claimed the plaudits for the growing economy you inherited, not to mention all those PFI deals we signed that enabled so many new schools and hospitals to be built at our grandkids’ expense. You’re quite the magpie, aren’t you? We had you down to a T during that election campaign – a hustler, a fraud. We shouldn’t have stopped at demon eyes, we just should have stuck a demon – exposed phallus, forked tail and all, on our posters, holding a copy of your manifesto, retitled “a clutch of stolen policies”.

Sorry, were those jokes? They were, to coin an old phrase, weak – weak – weak. Look, let’s return to Johnson shall we, because tedious and ineffectual as you are, lacking any dynamism, and a sort of perverse gravitas cultivated in retirement that’s frankly unearned and unevidenced in the years since you left office, that buffoon is going to double down on destroying our relationship with Europe – something I had to salvage after 18 years of Tory vacillation and non-commitment, and take us back to a time before either of us were in power, effectively tearing our pages from the history books.

I agree that is so. That’s why MPs must stop this madness. For goodness sake, think of the country’s reputation – its standing in the world. But more importantly, think about us. We don’t care a great deal about Northern Ireland, or what goes on in that bog strewn backwater, but with every other modest measure we made reversed or undermined, it’s our only hope of being remembered.

Well, yours John.

Yours too, Bush and Baghdad boy.

John Major and Tony Blair are former Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom.

Published in: on September 13, 2020 at 15:08  Leave a Comment  
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Relax, Johnson’s Reign of Error Should Guarantee the Death of Tory England

If, like me, you look at Boris Johnson’s government with your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth and pins and needles in your genitals, you may be wondering what the future holds. You may even be wondering if the period to come will have anything in it, beyond penury, crisis, and a spirit breaking series of Doctor Who.

Well, I’m here to reassure you. The Tories may be hellbent on destroying first Britain’s reputation for political stability, then Britain, but it’s not all bad news. The capture of the Conservatives by its most irresponsible, cynical, and imbecilic members, mutating the (self-styled) party of law, order, and economic responsibility into a suicidal death cult that’s prepared to figuratively douse the electorate in petrol as the EU’s lawyers and former allies ready an assault, has one inevitable and positive outcome: the destruction of Tory England.

I know this has been predicted before, and doe-eyed optimists like me have lost their shirts, even their underwear, but friends, the wave of destruction on British culture and society by this generation of blue bastards goes faster and further than their predecessors dared or dreamed of. The country may, for example, have felt exhausted in 1997 – its delicate fabric torn and soiled, but the integrity of the union and Britain’s place in the world was not under threat (Labour’s devolution pledge notwithstanding). The house had been trashed but we still had a house.

The Johnson/Cummings administration, to use a descriptive term that can only be applied loosely, in the absence of a better substitute, has embarked on an altogether more destructive course. It’s one thing to ignore economic and legal imperatives in pursuit of an ideological Brexit, but it’s quite another to produce a piece of legislation – the Internal Market Bill, that could scupper the Good Friday Agreement.

More saliently for the average Joe and Jacinda, the bill has the potential to sabotage negotiations for a trade deal with the EU – the country’s primary trading partner, and the US – the economic powerhouse (underwritten by Chinese money) that the servile Atlanticists in the Tory Party hoped and expected would, in part, compensate for the loss of single market membership. They also hoped a deal ratified by the US congress would open Britain up to the kind of predatory, free market economics regarded with envy and admiration by Tories, but let’s not get into that.

When the Tories won the 2019 election with a thumping 80-seat majority, some rocked in denial, unable to eat or blink, and hoped aloud that Johnson et al were just playing dumb to win the votes of people whose political understanding could be reduced to three word slogans. Just 9 months later, we know the truth. Johnson’s drank the blood of Tony Blair – reader, it’s worse than we thought, he actually believes this stuff.

To remake the country in his own image – i.e. shambolic, immoral, and infantile, Johnson – Cummings’ hand firmly inserted like a political James Herriot, is prepared to let Rome burn. As a Greek scholar this is perhaps unsurprising. Still, take a look at your young kids and their innocent, happy faces. They’re going to grow up in the wasteland Boris is creating, and they’ll imagine you helped bring it about with your vote. Your emphatic denials will only deepen their suspicions and resentment.

With the parliamentary arithmetic on his side, there’s little the opposition parties who gifted Boris his election and his majority can do except watch as he blows up peace in Northern Ireland, while simultaneously bringing about a no deal Brexit, and with it an economic shock that will make the 2008 crash look like Black Wednesday. Britain’s all set to become the only country on Earth with no trade deals; a country conceivably sanctioned financially by the political and economic bloc it belong to as recently as January.

As Johnson’s grip on the UK pulls it down and toward something Dante might have recognised, Scottish and Welsh independence, though economically problematic, whatever the SNP fantasise, will become urgent projects, perhaps akin to the UK’s own compulsion to join the EEC to alleviate its “sick man” status in the early ‘70s. Irish reunification will surely follow, as even the most staunch unionist, cowering in the six counties as violence and deprivation return to the province, will look to the prosperous and politically stable Republic and wonder if it isn’t time to rethink their colonial complex.

Yes, it may be possible for us to reach the 2024 election with no country to speak of but England, and for said land to be ravaged by unemployment, pronounced social division, bloody expensive food, high taxes – because even the Tories will have to try and balance the post-Covid books eventually, and a chill felt in the bones from the world’s cold shoulder.

Never mind the Reganite mantra, “are you better off than you were four years ago?”, English voters will be invited to contrast this precipitous and unprecedented decline with the UK of 2010. If they don’t conclude subsequently that four terms of Conservative government were a mistake, and that what they’re experiencing is something like ten thousand winters of discontent combined, then we’ll be living in a country that’s not just post-truth but post-sanity.

So the next decade is not going to great, friends. Life will get worse. Your prospects will dry up. Indeed, everything you deem of value – both culturally and socially, will end. But, if it’s any consolation, it should signal the end of Conservatism and induce the eternal shame of even the most ardent Tory apologist.

Our self-anointed overlords have survived the centuries by bribing the electorate to vote against wider societal interests with its own money, their conscience and common sense stowed by the promise of personal prosperity and historical continuity. But when those voters have witnessed both the end of history and a reversal of fortune, casting your ballot for the Tories should feel as anachronistic as buying a black and white TV, or attending a public hanging. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss both, but I accept times have changed.

But hang on Ed, you say, won’t Labour have to put forward a vision with a top team that look like a cabinet-in-waiting to convince the country they’re ready to take over? Perhaps. But have a little bet on the incumbents – the wreckers, looking so exhausted, vacillating and guilty, that a group of inexperienced political lightweights spouting boilerplate socially progressive rhetoric may be the tonic the beaten English crave. After all, it worked for David Cameron and that turned out okay, didn’t it?

Published in: on September 10, 2020 at 14:12  Comments Off on Relax, Johnson’s Reign of Error Should Guarantee the Death of Tory England  
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A Deep Dive into Deep Space Nine

The custodians of today’s Star Trek have an off the shelf defence for any critique that laments their franchise illiteracy and/or lack of deference to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. “That’s what the fans said when TNG came along” or “that’s what they said about Deep Space Nine”. So if you hate Discovery’s ugliness, think Picard is a legacy-ruining exercise in sheer fucking hubris, and look ahead to Lower Decks, Strange New Worlds, and – God help us – the Section 31 spin off with dread, then you have to deal with this argument that Trek was no better or worse in the old days – that nostalgia’s conditioned fans’ timidity and suspicion of change.

The Original Series and The Next Generation have been canonised as pop cultural touchstones. They don’t help us decide if Trek really was better in its heyday. TOS is like your Mum and Dad – it’s always been there, you’ve had a problematic relationship with it over the years (“Spock’s Brain”, Star Trek V) but your affection is unconditional. TNG is your first love – a TOS you could fuck. You grew up together, you loved it, despite its flaws, and you’ll probably never feel the same way about a television series again. No, before the terminal onset of franchise fatigue – the copycat, high-concept aimlessness of Voyager (like dating TNG’s less attractive sister) and the rote and uninspired Enterprise (until it came alive just in time to be cancelled) – before any of that, there was the last significant Trek, Deep Space Nine.

You remember it as the problematic one; the one that kicked dirt over Roddenberry’s well-trodden path, without breaking the cobbles. If TNG was your first love, DS9 was the difficult friend you made in adolescence who intrigued and irritated you, before you lost touch. You’ve thought many times about revisiting the friendship, but it was an intense affair – dare you say, complicated. Better, perhaps, to remember it as an experiment you’re glad to have partaken in, but wouldn’t undertake in middle age.

Why hasn’t DS9 endured in the popular imagination like TOS and TNG? Did it get lost, being squeezed between the end of Picard’s TV voyages (you know, the good ones – season seven notwithstanding) and the beginning of Voyager? Did its late, cautious move toward serialisation convince some that re-watching it was too big a commitment? Were the morally ambiguous characters harder to love? I hadn’t seen the show in 20 years, so I thought it was time to watch the whole thing again and see if, in isolation, shorn of meta-commentary and old franchise fatigue, the station saga deserved its niche appeal. I recalled it being the best written Star Trek – the only one with a proper beginning and end, that gave its characters substantial arcs and tested the franchise’s values without betraying them. I remember appreciating it rather than loving it. Would it be the same, second time around?

The Son You Left Behind

To begin talking about DS9 you really have to start at the end. If, like me, you’d forgotten that Sisko was half-prophet, effectively a demi-God, you might also have blocked out the intricacies surrounding his ascension to the Celestial Temple (the Bajoran wormhole) in the finale, “What You Leave Behind” and how this controversially rendered the character as both an absentee father and mythic hero cliché. It mattered because the show was founded on the relationship between Sisko and his young son, Jake. It mattered that both characters were black. It mattered because the patronising spiritual dimension tethered to Avery Brooks’ lead from “Emissary” onwards (arguably a racial trope), ultimately made DS9 a problematic refutation of Gene Roddenberry’s attitude toward Gods and organised religion.

The way Brooks tells it, part of the reason he took on the role of Benjamin Sisko was the chance to subvert a racist stereotype – the notion of the black man who abandons or is alienated from his kids. For seven seasons the show carefully built a tight and loving relationship between Father and Son. “The Visitor”, an emotionally charged forth season instalment, mined its pathos from Jake losing his Dad and living to old age without him, ultimately sacrificing himself to restore Sisko to the past. But in the finale, Sisko, who’s been told that the cost of soliciting the prophets’ help in acting as a deux et machina to destroy the Dominion’s invasion fleet in “Sacrifice of Angels”, will be (implicitly eternal) sorrow, should he have the audacity to commit to a corporal life of responsibility involving his new wife Kassidy, their unborn child, and Jake, is scooped up by the wormhole aliens, following a schlocky and all too brief showdown with series villain turned devil worshipper, Dukat, and held in non-corporeal limbo.

“Maybe in a year, maybe yesterday” is his answer to Kassidy (not his son whom he doesn’t deign to bring to the template for a goodbye), when asked when he’ll be back. Though if he were returning soon, or ever, it wouldn’t follow he’d know nothing but sorrow. This “anomaly” is attributable to the non-sensical qualifier being added at Brooks’ insistence at the last minute – an attempt to water down a white writers’ room’s attempt at sticking him, at the death, with the crusty old brown trope of negligent husband and father. But no amount of sub-Matrix bullshit could disguise the fact that Sisko had needlessly left the stage (needlessly because the non-linear prophets could teach him anything over an indefinite period, then return him to any time he chose, say – the day the war ended, just as they’d returned false emissary Akorem to the past in “Accession”).

Showrunner Ira Steven Behr justified the decision by remarking that he wanted to literalise the fans tendency to turn Star Trek captains into Gods. But he misunderstood that reverence. It’s based on the idea that the series’ lead is the best of humanity – a leadership icon to aspire to. We love(d) Picard because he gives super-human pretenders a lesson in humility and human imperfection. Gene Roddenberry didn’t trust all-powerful beings, and he didn’t care for those who mediated their understanding of the world and its attendant moral questions through the fog of such abstractions.

If nothing else, Behr chose the wrong Captain to deify. Sisko, arguably the least virtuous Trek frontman on account of embracing deification, and other small matters like tricking the Romulans into the Dominion War, was also one of the least charismatic people to sit in the big chair. Brooks, miscast if the truth be told, was either drowsy or high for the first three seasons – the first passive character in a Star Trek series who wasn’t a bit player. It’s notable that following the pilot, Sisko doesn’t get his own character-centred episode, and this in a show created by Michael Piller, who invented the rotating character model in Trek, until “Second Sight” – 27 episodes later. The implication is that if he wasn’t tied to the Bajoran arc, the writers didn’t know what to do with Brooks’ oddball turn. From “Way of the Warrior” Sisko was streamlined into an intense (and wholly more credible) attitudinoid – a recalibration that helped the Shatnarian Brooks flit between his three modes: whimsical, melancholy, and balls out. Making Sisko a God (if only symbolically) overestimated viewer affection for the character, while taking a stick to Roddenberry’s rationalist perspective.

Sisko, whose arc begins with him being reluctantly fingered as a circumstantial fit for some hokey Bajoran prophesy, ends with the jaw dropping realisation that he is just an alien vessel, and does not, apparently, have any free will of his own (which makes you wonder why the wormhole aliens spend so much of the series warning Sisko to make the right choices when they know exactly what he’ll do and what the outcome will be). Consequently, he personifies DS9’s religion problem.

When the show begins the Bajoran religion, its prophesies and interpretation of the wormhole as a heavenly realm, is a taunt; a provocation. In Star Trek we’d been reared to believe that God was dead; religion is bunk. Part of Starfleet’s mission, was to challenge such irrationality wherever it found it, and attempt to find humanist and grounded solutions to difficult social and political problems. The Prime Directive compelled its officers to be respectful, to not impose, but also not to become the story. Interference – indeed, direct participation in an alien culture’s progression, was verboten. Starfleet’s presence on a Bajoran station, with its newly visiting commander singled out as a religious icon, appeared to set up a juicy clash of ideologies – the ultimate challenge in benignly, carefully, disabusing a superstitious people, with something akin to a medieval understanding of how wisdom and spirituality were intertwined, of their ignorance. This would set them against the fanatics, God or devil worshipper, prophet of pah-wraith, who’d push back against centuries of cultivated human understanding. You know, the stuff that allowed to us to evolve and unite as a species.

For the first couple of seasons, this appears to be the game plan. Sisko’s pitted against the likes of Vedek (later Kai) Winn – an ambitious, archetypal hypocrite who sees her religion as a path to power and influence. Like the best of them, she doesn’t truly believe in her Gods – not deep down, and sees Sisko as a pretender to the throne. Episodes like “In the Hands of the Prophets” and the three-parter than opens Season Two, suggests the true battle is against organised religion’s perfidy – its fascistic tendency. The crew of the station indulge Major Kira, don’t push back on the idea of the Prophets being Gods too hard, but make it clear to each other that they’re verifiably, irrefutably, energy based lifeforms existing in their own constructed ecosystem. Everything else, is a matter of pre-modern interpretation.

But later, Sisko, in the first sign the writers have been tempted by their own pah-wraiths, starts to drink the Kool-aid, despite acknowledging that prophesies that come true can be attributed to the aliens’ ability to scan the timeline and populate it at will. As he embraces the idea he’s literally the emissary of the prophets, the show does too.

By Season Five he’s locked into the deterministic, pre-ordained journey both the aliens and the writers have mapped out for him. By Season Six he’s used his divine allies to extinguish an in-transit invasion fleet (though it’s never clear why, with the war over in the Alpha Quadrant, a mass build-up of Gamma Quadrant Dominion Troops and Ships, led by the remaining founders, doesn’t simply pour through the re-opened wormhole and conquer what remains of the allies). By Season Seven, we know he’s part of an immaculate conception and has been the unwitting vessel of the prophets from birth.

Sisko’s life, then, is part of an ontological paradox – the dispiriting and terrible idea that life is an unbreakable circle. The prophets, knowing Sisko would be their representative on Bajor, had him conceived so he’d be just that. The chilling implications, for those who hate this kind of plot device, is that everything that happened subsequently – events the prophets could not have had any reasonable control over – Sisko’s decision to join Starfleet, his assignment to the Saratoga that culminated in his presence at the battle with the Borg at Wolf 359, his posting at DS9 following the end of the Cardassian occupation (brought about by guerrilla resistance against a backdrop of genocide) – was part of their plan, and that their influence, like true Gods, extends far beyond their Bajoran jurisdiction. In other words, Sisko never had any real control over his life – as he had a pre-ordained path; one laid with the tombstones of billions, who had no control over theirs either.

One’s tempted to say that a sequel episode should be made in which Starfleet, horrified by the realisation that these all-powerful interlopers have no prime directive of their own, and may have changed countless personal histories to realise their own celestial plans, launch an immediate investigation into the limits of the prophets’ reach and influence, and how they can be contained. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable being told that my fate, and that of billions of others, was tied to an energy based lifeform living in a wormhole many light years away. What’s that, Admiral Pedant, they saved us from invasion? Well, who created the wormhole that allowed this evil empire to get a foothold in our territory in the first place?

One can understand why, having developed this mythic journey, DS9’s scribes were tempted to develop it into a grand narrative that would bookend the series. But by embracing it on its own terms, instead of taking the more difficult, but surely Roddenberry-friendly path, of making the case for science, rationalism, and freedom of choice, they made the series woolly, instead of high-minded. It became a show that was reassuring for those who had faith (science doesn’t have all the answers, kids!) without addressing the contradictions that underpin such thinking.

Many characters in DS9 wonder aloud why the Bajorans were allowed to suffer the Cardassian occupation while their Gods, who can influence events on the ground at any period in time, chose to remain hidden close by – content to wait for Sisko’s inevitable arrival before literally opening up and showing themselves. Kira and the like can only offer the same platitudinous bullshit we’re offered here on Earth, “the path set out by the prophets is not always clear”, “the prophets have a plan for us”, and, when challenged on why they simply don’t say what they mean instead of offering up abstract instructions (dispiriting to know they operate like our own invented deities), “you know it doesn’t work like that”. Yeah, we know.

The difference between a DS9 run by Gene Roddenberry and that created by his successors, is that the Great Bird’s main character would never have accepted their role as emissary, would have strove to debunk the aliens’ claim to divine authority and influence, would have fought those who claimed to speak for them, and would have seen their principle mission as planting a secular and rational seed in Bajoran soil that would ultimately grow into Federation membership. DS9 is that show if you’re talking about its challenge to the Founders claim of divine authority, but the episode that sees the toppling of those other non-humanoid false Gods is the same one that elevates Sisko to Bajoran heaven. If the two halves of “What You Leave Behind” jar somewhat – the end of the war followed by the conclusion of Sisko’s ascension arc, perhaps that’s why.

The Rules of Reassessment

As you re-watch DS9, you realise, because of the many traps it laid for itself, this was the Trek that got away with it. Not many series could survive the miscasting of its lead, or such a long and protracted run-in to what would prove to be its defining story (the war with the Dominion). Given the tighter focus and necessity to build character in a consequential environment (a task the other Treks could skip, given their more self-contained, episodic structure), the show did well to give the principle characters a trajectory that could pass for planned.

Even Terry Farrell’s short-sighted and obnoxious decision to quit the show at the end of the sixth season (the details are murky but it’s perhaps telling that no other cast member had similar difficulties when re-negotiating their contract) – trading on-screen immortality for the world of disposable sitcoms, couldn’t arrest the show’s momentum. DS9 was a show written with conviction. Consequently, risks were taken, and characters grew. You felt sad when the Enterprise sailed into a nebula in “All Good Things…” but you knew you’d seen those characters again. When Vic Fontaine sings ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in the DS9 finale, you blub, because you know you won’t. It was just an instinct the first time around. History has made it a sad fact.

We live in an age of serialised storytelling and shows with fewer episodes. When you re-watch DS9 some of the baggage that comes with its syndicated origins leaves you frustrated. Though you enjoy the individual stories, there’s irritation that so many of them, particularly in the first four seasons, feel superfluous. You wouldn’t unmake any of them. Well, maybe Dax’s-infatuated-with-a-non-entity third season yawn fest, “Meridian”, and some of those Ferengi episodes (there are broad laughs but schtick is schtick), and most of the trips to the Mirror Universe (fun but it wasn’t an idea designed to revisited so often, as Discovery would prove again). But the show’s like a long novel saddled with too many sub-plots, some of which go nowhere (“bridge to Thomas Riker. Hello?”).

Other things you notice in a concentrated watch are the details that passed you by when you viewed the show over a seven year period – stuff you’re glad you missed. The amount of conspicuous catch-up dialogue, for those coming in late after commercials (or for those whose memories couldn’t survive them) is enough to ask, surely there was more subtle way to mark the viewer’s place in the action? The “planet hell” cave set, repurposed for tens of episodes as a multitude of subterranean alien environments, from excavated ruins to rebel encampments, looks artificial and has the same geography, no matter how often it’s redressed. You almost dread seeing it. And then there’s the familiar musical cues, mandated to be bland by Rick Berman (who fired Ron Jones, the John Williams of episodic television from TNG for vesting his compositions with too much personality), that never quite do justice to the grandiloquent emotions and space-bound action that escalates as the show progresses. In fact, if you could, you’d reach behind the screen and break the pan pipe that marks anything remotely spiritual. Fans are demanding DS9 is justly upgraded to HD, but a bit of re-scoring from Jones wouldn’t go amiss either.

Finally, for nit-pickers everywhere, there’s the shit you’d never ask those DS9 panels, because it would feel like pissing on your host’s rug. If Odo took his appearance from Mora Pol, the Bajoran scientist that experimented on him, why does the female changeling – indeed, all the founders, have Odo’s indistinct face (a product of him learning to shape shift in isolation) and haircut? And humanoid tits? Yes, I know it’s visual shorthand – species essentialism, but it makes no sense in-universe. Why was Jadzia Dax always less interesting than Curzon? Was it a good idea to create this force of nature – this womanising, hard drinking, no-nonsense rebel – the Peter O’Toole/Oliver Reed of space, and not have them as a regular? Why did we get his beautiful but boring successor instead? And when she died, why was the next host a lovable but equally gentle imp?

Neither Jadzia or Ezri come close to being dynamic characters, though the former improves when partnered with Worf from Season Five. Little wonder the producers took the opportunity to kill her off when her real life host, Farrell, failed to recognise their efforts to build her up by signing a contract extension.

Was it wise to wait three seasons to turn Bashir from a preening, walking hardon, to the more grounded, thoughtful character he became? Yes, he matured, but isn’t it presumptuous to assume an audience will hang around long enough to witness that shift? Do we really believe Dukat only took an interest in Bajoran mythology after the occupation? He was prefect for decades AND had access to eight of the nine orbs. And yes, how the fuck can there be a mirror, flesh and blood Vic Fontaine?

Oh, and there’s also the minor matter of “Far Beyond the Stars” – an episode lauded for its takedown of racism, and Avery Brooks’ sensitive (for which read oscillating and over the top) performance as sci-fi writer and series creator proxy, Benny Russell. We must be grateful DS9 didn’t ultimately turn out to be Benny’s dream; an idea showrunner Behr seriously considered, as the episode in question makes no sense on its own terms. Why would the prophets, whose cultural touchstones relate to Bajor, conjure a reality that’s divorced from Sisko’s twenty forth century experience and cultural understanding? (There’s nothing in the first five and a half seasons to indicate Sisko has any preoccupation with mid-twentieth century civil rights issues, though “Past Tense” establishes he knows his social history). It’s sobering to think that Behr et al came so close to jumping the shark, though their decision to make Sisko a God instead shows they didn’t pull free of insanity’s orbit completely.

War, Vic, and the Great Serial

Though DS9 was never a series in need of a reboot, it was softly revamped twice. The first time, with the opening two-parter of Season 3, “The Search”, saw the introduction of the Defiant and a focus on the cold war with the Dominion. Season 4’s blockbuster opener, “The Way of the Warrior”, added Worf (a good fit, thank the prophets) and a renewed threat from the Klingons. The ridge-headed grunts were never as interesting as the writers (particularly Ronald D. Moore) thought, and this studio mandated change only served as a season-long detour from the main story, but it renewed interest in the show at a critical juncture. Still, what’s interesting when you re-watch the series is how many of the elements we now associate with it come from its final three seasons.

When I think of DS9 I think of serialisation prefaced by ongoing plots, the war with the Dominion, trips to Vic Fontaine’s Vegas lounge, Worf and Dax, Section 31, the genetically engineered Bashir – indeed much that was only introduced after a full four seasons of the show had been burnt up.

That’s not to say said seasons didn’t matter – they had strong individual stories, great character moments, and political intrigue. But it’s only when DS9 finally cut loose – when it had the courage of its convictions, that it moved up a gear and was all it could be. If that didn’t mean getting everything right, as we’ve discussed, it meant a willingness to break with convention and push ideas as far as they could go, within the constraints of syndicated television.

Sure, you say, the war’s advances and reversals were a little opaque (but that’s probably just as well), so too sub-plots like Section 31’s morphogenic virus (the precise pathology of which is enough to give you a headache) and Dukat’s embrace of the pah-wraiths, but that final stretch was never less than captivating.

DS9 was a show that bent Roddenberry’s rules and went to places he’d have avoided, and as such it is a series that’s more about modern morality than its predecessors. Whether you consider its take down of Trek’s utopia as a form of maturity or, for the Roddenberry purist, regressive vandalism, depends on whether you see Star Trek’s first two incarnations as forward thinking or naïve.

In the station saga’s thirst to create characters cut from a more contemporary mould, and to use its alien proxies as vehicles to test an enlightened human philosophy, we can say that DS9 created the space – pun intended – for the likes of Discovery and Picard, Treks that have abandoned the pretence of utopianism altogether, gambling, with a lack of caution that would delight Quark, that a twenty-first century mindset is the path to relevance. But as any true Trekkie knows – what made DS9 an acceptable advance on TNG, a show that can legitimately exist alongside its two forebears, is that its creative team never lost sight of how important it was for their Starfleet characters to retain their optimism and (sometimes frayed) values.

You can have war and murder and even aliens masquerading as Gods, provided the audience knows our heroes will ultimately remain true to their Roddenberry-esque ideals. Bashir, despite being co-opted by Section 31, continued to believe in what the Federation stood for. Kira learned to embrace new friends and work with old enemies. Odo was the outsider made of gloop who taught a whole species about human compassion and the concept of peaceful coexistence. Leeta, a simple Dabo girl, saw what no one else could – that a Ferengi bartender, Rom, could be the inadvertent saviour of the quadrant and the man to create a progressive society. Quark, a petty criminal and mercenary thinker, grew a conscience when saddled with human customers. Garak, perhaps the show’s most enigmatic and morally flexible character, began an exiled spy and killer, and ended up resolved to help rebuild a better (for which read: democratic and egalitarian) Cardassia.

Such transformations, built on optimism and the best of human nature, are what Star Trek is all about. Alex Kurtzman’s shows have lost sight of that essential precondition for representing the brand. DS9 went to dark places but ultimately found beauty in those neglected nooks. Today’s Trek is content to wallow in ugliness and thought terminating idiocy. And that, my friends, is why, despite Sisko abandoning his wife, son and unborn child, though he really didn’t need to as he went to live with a race of space and time travellers, Trek really was better in the past.

More Trekkin’: 

Picard on Manoeuvres

Picard Portents

Discovery’s Calamitous Couple of Seasons

Things to Come

These are my Preconceptions about the Trans Debate. Please Educate Me.

Let’s begin with something everyone can agree on. The problem with modern life is that too many people are too certain about things they know little or nothing about. I know enough to know when I need educating – and that’s why we’re here.

For a while now I’ve been interested in the debate on trans rights. Yes, I’m conscious “debate” is a loaded word in this absolutist age, and that by using it I’m already risking the label “TERF” or “bigot”, but like those other lambs to the slaughter, in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, I want to know more. A genuine, verifiable, dye-in-the-wool bigot, I suggest, would not. Nor would he assert, as I must up front, that there is no debate in my mind that trans people are entitled to equality before the law, dignity and respect.

I’ve watched former darlings of the young and left wing – J.K Rowling and Graham Linehan, be defenestrated because they believe, and dare to assert, that gender self-identification threatens the hard-won rights of women by diluting the definition of the same, making the inclusion of trans women mandatory.

Thus, to the lay eye and ignorant soul, it looks like we live in an age where cultural appropriation is frowned upon, but gender appropriation is liberation. In my kneejerk universe, that could be mistaken for a contradiction.

So here I am, begging for your indulgence and your time as I explore my own half-bakery and invite you to educate me. I’m not being as lazy as that reads, because I’ve read around. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much common ground on the subject. The so-called TERFs are essentialists and use biology and a binary understanding of sex like a battering ram (forgive the phallic imagery). The opposition are understandably more philosophical and utopian in their outlook. It seems to me the former camp talks up the potential for sexual deviants to exploit the new freedom, whereas the latter dare not differentiate, or introduce a new gender category, for fear of giving succour to transphobes. Consequently, they insist on a broad but simplistic form of inclusivity that alienates those trying to understand the issue in all its problematic complexity.

I know the so-called TERF argument – it’s simple to understand because it’s the historic status quo. In this blog, I’m going to use Laurie Penny’s recent Medium piece, TERF Wars: Why Transphobia Has no Place in Feminism as a touchstone for the alternative, to ask questions. You can hate me for asking them if you’re so inclined, but I believe in a world where the ability to question any kind of orthodoxy is healthy and essential. The questions will showcase my cheap understanding, and it’s my sincere hope that those who have concrete and well-researched answers, will respond and, as the blog title sincerely invites them to do, educate me.

So let’s get into it.

Laurie begins her piece by framing J.K Rowling, whose novels I’ve never read and don’t care about, as a self-deluded transphobe, whose rhetoric is in line with “right-wing despots”. Rowling, in her rebuttal to those who called her a TERF for asserting only women could menstruate, claimed the mantle of the educated – three years of research into the biology and medical practices around transition therapy and practice, and personal experience of talking to people in the trans community.

Everyone in this debate, on both sides, has decided they’re affiliated to facts and anecdotal evidence. Laurie’s intro, it seemed to me, made any exploration of this impossible because it badged her piece as righteous and informed from the get-go. One can’t give any ground after that, lest you appear to indulge the hateful and ignorant. As Laurie would go on to say, the topic shouldn’t be up for debate – any debate presumably. Am I alone in thinking this is the thought terminating cliché that makes a more enlightened understanding tough, like Finnegan’s Wake on audiobook?

Laurie then tells us the problem is Britain – implicitly, that American-style (for which read – California born) intersectional feminism has failed to take root here, and become the dominant thinking. Ergo, the UK is a fearful backwater, with its gender politics stuck in a ‘90’s timewarp – a time when Graham Linehan was the talk of the town. She notes that “the ecosystem of liberal media and left wing activism is smaller and more quarrelsome in Britain than it is in America”, which is another way of saying that it’s still pluralist in its views.

Rebutting the idea that trans activists are engaged in an aggressive campaign to destroy women as a sex class, she writes “ironically, some of these transphobes are happy to use the tactics of patriarchy against trans women”, by which she means vilification based on appearance.

What’s interesting from the lay point of view, is how both sides agree aspects of the patriarchy are the problem. For the so-called TERFs, the problem is that trans women, or men as they understand them to be, are doing what men have always done, namely presume to tell women how they should be defined.

We bepenised folk used to do it by telling the ladies how to dress and think and live. We decided how educated they could be and what their societal function was. Now, the argument goes, we’ve literally decided what a woman is. We’ve taken everything from women and as a sort of cruel capper, stolen their identity, because thanks to changes in society, catalysed ironically by progress in the acceptance and integration of gay and lesbian people into society’s mainstream, gender identity is, thankfully, a more fluid and inclusive concept than ever. Some men, who hate their assigned (and societally constructed) gender, feel an affinity with and a sense of belonging to, the better gradated, feminised opposite. From this comes the sense that you’re born in the wrong body – gender dysphoria say the essentialists, and the desire to transition, so the chassis matches the engine.

I’ve always understood this to be the understandable desire to take a short cut to acceptance. The average human being only lives 80 years. No one can afford to wait three centuries for the gender identity we overlay on to our biological sex to become fully fluid, so the only way to be accepted as the opposite sex is to literally become the opposite sex, using surgery and hormone therapy.

For me, the only thing that makes this problematic is not the process itself, or the idea that trans people deserve to be treated with respect, empathy and understanding (these are the self-evident tenets of a civilised society) but the certainty this expunges any difference between individuals who’d been through this process – have gone from living as one sex to the other, and those who’ve lived only as a man or a woman, with all the attendant political and social constraints (or privileges) that entails.

Is it ignorant to believe that the language and our understanding of gender identity, needs to evolve in order to accommodate those who transition? The idea that “trans women are women”, for example, is honourable, perhaps beautiful, but is it fair to those who’ve grown up in female bodies and had their consciousness and life chances shaped as a result? Is it also fair to say that said consciousness is not accessible to men (indeed, vice versa), which in turn makes the idea of being born in the wrong body impossible to prove? That’s not to invalidate the struggle of someone disassociated from their gender identity. That’s manifestly a psychological phenomenon – real, verifiable, and a nightmare for those so burdened. There’s no buts here – just a further question: have psychology and philosophy been fused by ideology here, and if so does that help or frustrate our understanding of what people are going through?

Penny’s piece (not to be confused with a penny piece, which is 1 pence), then moved to what many lay people like myself would say is the clincher: the issue of kink. The most pernicious transphobic argument, I’d agree, is the idea that trans people are playing a game with their identity in order to gain access to the opposite sex’s space spaces. In this formulation, trans identity is sexual deviance dressed up, no pun intended, as a minority struggle.

From what I’ve read, it appears there are a few isolated but well-publicised incidents of people hijacking transgenderism to do just this. Sadly, we live in a world where those inclined to exploit and be predatory, will always look for fresh avenues to impose themselves on the vulnerable. But I personally find the idea that this is the primary driver behind transition, or gender self-identification, absurd. It seems to be a convenient hook on which to hang a broad repudiation of trans rights. By the same token, there may be homophobic parents in Bible Belt America who see transition as “a gay cure”, so subject their gender dysphoric children to puberty blockers and unnecessary physical and psychological trauma, but I imagine, from my safe seat in the heteronormative parliament, that these are tragic exceptions. The idea that those abusing the transition process are representative of that community looks a lot like a pair of surgically removed bollocks.

Fair or no?

Laurie then goes on to tell us that TERF, like racist, is a slur, and that the likes of Rowling are no better than the homophobes who want to keep gay people away from their kids. Superficially, I understand this argument. Trans panic is a real thing – one only needs to read the fear around the medicalisation of gender identity to see that. The part about either consciously or unconsciously being discriminatory and/or exclusionary is a strong and just moral argument. The only part I’m unclear about is whether the conflation of gay prejudice and the argument around gender self-identification is valid, or to use a better word, instructive?

Of course it’s true that the arguments levelled against trans people – that they’re mentally ill, going through a phase, etc – are ones all gay people will historically recognise. I suppose the question is, is transitioning a simple thing – a matter of correcting something that’s innately wrong (this aspect alone makes it very different from being gay, it seems to me), or an attempt to reconcile a now recognised dissatisfaction with gender norms (and their simple classification) with traditional attitudes? If the latter, again, don’t we need a new vocabulary and understanding of nuance to make sense of it? Consequently, doesn’t the comparison and conflation with the gay struggle, obfuscate the issues rather than, as Laurie imagines, offer a simple historical precedent?

Turning to the internet, Laurie attributes the explosion in trans self-identification with social media. In turn this lead to a backlash from second-wave feminists, like Germaine Greer, who launched a campaign of fear and misinformation along the lines we’ve already discussed. In doing so, the “sisterhood” – a catch-all for Laurie that should and must include anyone who identifies as female, was infiltrated and divided.

The assumption here is that had there been no dissent, there would have been consensus. These truths are said to be self-evident, etc. But the problem, I suggest, is that there’s been no willingness, from either camp, to properly debate the other. Without that, it’s impossible to bring people with you. Fearmongering and misinformation must be called out, if that’s what it is, and discussion is the only way. If you refuse to debate your opponents on the grounds that to do so legitimises their position, then progress is impossible. Progress need not mean compromise. What matters, surely, is that each camp has informed and well-thought answers to the urgent questions posed by the other?

In the final furlong, Laurie acknowledges the condition of being female is multi-faceted and diverse – different if you’re black, rich, and so on. For me, this is why the notion of gender self-identification is so complicated. It’s a form of adoption, or appropriation, that assumes an understanding of that which it wishes to become.

Do we know enough to be sure these are safe assumptions, and crucially, does it matter if they’re not? It is sinister to tell anyone they must operate within a series of pre-ordained tramlines, or relative to those tramlines – or does an enlightened society simply say, “I think therefore I am”? “When people talk about womanhood as a universal experience, they are usually imagining not just a cis woman, but a white, straight, middle-class cis woman”, Laurie tells us. The word that jumps out at me, in that sentence, for good or ill, is “imagining”.

Laurie argues that if you’re in the business of fighting against so-called trans ideology, you’re complicit in intersectional forms of oppression – homophobia, misogyny; you’re part of a cabal that ultimately contributes to the systemic oppression of the poor and marginalised. That’s a charge serious enough to make anyone stop in their tracks and reconsider their views. I certainly want no part of that indictment, I’d just like to see the thoughts around the subject completed and aired in open court.

I hope I’m not a net contributor to what Laurie calls the “vicious nightmare white supremacist patriarchal death cult” to which she argues we all belong. If, from reading the above, you believe I’ve strayed onto that turf (pun intended), tell me. I was just looking for a place to eat.

Laurie’s conclusion can be summarised in her assertion that “gender and sex are straitjackets for the human soul, and we are all wrestled into them when we’re too young to give consent.” I found that a powerful and strangely moving sentiment – one that’s hard to disagree with. I suppose then, my final set of questions are, inevitably, philosophical.

Assuming the soul’s a thing – not just a sense of self conditioned by biological and cultural imperatives, is every constraint we’re exposed to as human beings intrinsically bad? If one’s humanity is like poetry, isn’t there an argument to say that free verse can be aimless, undisciplined, and have less intensity of feeling, of meaning, that a stricter verse form? Is the male and female body just a prison, from which we should escape if we have the means, or the mould that makes us who we are? If we can make ourselves up, are we, in any sense, real?

I have no fucking idea. World, it’s over to you.

Published in: on June 28, 2020 at 17:13  Comments Off on These are my Preconceptions about the Trans Debate. Please Educate Me.  
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How EastEnders Should Resume

Covid has killed EastEnders. With no new episodes to screen, thanks to the creatively preferable but pandemic unfriendly decision not to produce 48 episodes a week like their ITV rivals – so no summer stockpile, the mockney marathon must go on enforced hiatus from June 16th.

But wait you say, isn’t this a chance to end it? Put the old warhorse to bed, having made a call to the glue factory? Unfortunately, there’s been no innovation in the BBC prime time schedule since the mid-80s, so the unifying power of soap has become a necessary bulwark against flight to streaming services and niche digital channels. That the show’s raison d’être is tied to a TV landscape that didn’t exist when it was created is, I suppose, an irony. Irony isn’t closely associated with EastEnders, so it’s best to enjoy any you can tie to it.

The show’s resumption, sometime in the autumn, means lifers will be denied the closure and catharsis of the long dreamed final episode in which Phil invites the square to the Vic to come out. “I’m an ‘omosexual,” he was going to say, and Mick, who we supposed would still be the landlord at this time, would hug Linda, tears welling in her eyes – indeed, everyone’s eyes, and champagne corks would be popped. Billy would hit the jukebox and YMCA would play proudly from the pub’s speakers. Phil, liberated to be the thing he’d suppressed all his life, would be all uncontrolled laughter and blubbing. He’d rally his friends and former enemies to do the YMCA dance. And that’s where we’d have left them – joyful, liberal, pissed – with a virtual pullback that effortlessly passed through the Vic’s windows, back out into the square, and finally, up and up, settling a few thousand feet above London, matching the iconic ordinance map opening image that we’ve known for so long.

But no, the show must go on, apparently. So, you ask, how should it go on? Does Kate Oatmeal – the current showrunner, have any idea? EastEnders’ format is predicated on the conceit that the episodes you watch are set on the day you watch them (with some occasional time shifts permitted). A “continuing drama” is not designed to be discontinued. As you read this, the writers’ room for this behemoth, are asking themselves all sorts of difficult questions. Given current episodes intended for April are now screening in June, would it matter if the action just picked up where it left off in September? But then, wouldn’t that mean that by Christmas the story would be set months earlier? Should the new scripts acknowledge Covid, and how then would you explain its absence from the world of the show during lockdown? Given the audience are imagined to be stupid, does it matter? Maybe, the story can carry on, albeit in consolidated form, and no one will notice?

Well, don’t worry Kate – I’m here to tell you what to do. It’s simple, actually, and the answer – for those familiar with EastEnders’ classic period, is already part of the show’s history; it’s in the archive you hope to exploit over summer. So focus your mince pies (eyes) and engage your Aladdin Sane (brain) and I’ll airlift you out of the shit like a fan-backed RNLI helicopter for struggling TV professionals.

Remember Diane Butcher?

Hey, do you remember Diane Butcher? Frank’s daughter. No, of course you don’t. But back in 1990 she ran away, so the show could “do” homelessness, and she was gone for quite a while – several weeks actually. Eventually, bloody and broken, she went to a phonebooth in a railway station and rang the inspiration for Viz’s Cockney Wanker.

The show then hit the pause button on the present day and flashed back for a fortnight of consolidated storytelling – the elliptically presented misadventures of Diane on the street. A lot of story time was covered in these episodes, and when they were over, and we returned to the present day, EastEnders’ cracking pair of weekly episodes – yes, just the two, a nice manageable number – allowed for the careful managing of storytime. Nothing much had happened during the missing weeks – the show just picked up its plots with subtlety, allowing for the passage of a small but not wholly significant period. You can do that when your stories aren’t overplotted for instant gratification.

This, Kate, if you have any sense, is how you’ve going to revive EastEnders. The show should resume in media res, with a series of situational cliffhangers – Chantelle and Whitney standing over Gray’s dead body, Callum and Ben pointing guns at one another, Linda and Phil in bed – maybe the reintroduction of characters who’ve come home in the interim – say, Tanya, who, as we Jo-join her (ha ha), is holding a jar containing Max’s member, preserved in brine.

Then, having marked where we are with all the active characters, the next few episodes flashback and show the events of the last three months in compressed form, leading up to these scenes. As we caught up with the present day, we’d learn that we’d joined the action a few weeks in the future – the intervening time being the time it took to catch up, and the story could now resume at a manageable pace – two episodes a week, until normal filming conditions allowed for more.

There you go, not so difficult, right? If you want, you could work Covid into the flashbacks, though personally I wouldn’t bother – the audience knows the show’s not set in the real world. I know it will require the extensive retooling of scripts, and careful production, but get it right and you could end up exactly where you planned, in story terms, by Christmas. Better yet, you’ll have accounted for the gap in a way that doesn’t patronise the audience, or lead to head scratching on screen incongruities.

One last request. When you resume, please try and avoid the series clichés I outlined in my anniversary blog. No one wants to see any of these return. And with fewer episodes to produce, and more time to spend on them, why should they? Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy a summer free of melodrama (though with the same amount of death).

Published in: on June 4, 2020 at 13:01  Comments Off on How EastEnders Should Resume  
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I’m sorry you had to find out like this, but you’re the reason Dominic Cummings has such contempt for the public

Since we learned that Dominic Cummings flouted the lockdown guidance he helped devise, the man who looks like his own caricature has become a hate figure. To be clear, that’s even more of a hate figure than he already was.

Until very recently, the only people who despised Cummings were politically educated voters, the left wing commentariat, and an impotent Cabinet. But the scandal that’s engulfed the government’s unelected and unaccountable Chief Advisor, which in turn has laid bare Boris Johnson’s child-like dependency – the Tory-like outsourcing of vision and strategy to a third party contractor, has cut through to Conservative voters and their cynical media cheerleaders. Yes, everyone’s aghast at Cummings’ selfishness and self-importance. It’s a fuck you to the millions who’ve abstained from social intercourse, sometimes missing deathbed farewells and funerals, and are now ready to explode.

It’s humbling then, to consider the fault is yours.

That’s right, it’s the signals you’ve sent Dom that convinced him the Great British Public (GBP) are a pliable, gullible mass of unintuitive dunces; a population with no interest in details, who with a modicum of preparation, will believe anything they’re told. Yup – absolutely fucking anything.

When the scandal broke, and the usual suspects called for his resignation, Cummings thought a carefully worded statement, written using his patented Plausible Deniability Engine (PDE) software, would be enough to close down the issue with the only voters that mattered – Brexiteers. No journalist, treated to talk of going on a long drive with your family to test your eye sight, conversations that could conveniently not be recalled due to illness, and a lack of childcare options in London, would accept these lies. But the people Dom was talking to when he hauntingly looked though the camera – the Leave constituency of 2016, Tory voters in the last election – they’d lap it up.

Again, don’t be too harsh on Dom – you’re the ones who convinced him the bar for political lying had been set so low that almost any condescending falsehood could be thrown at you and you’d internalise it with thanks. After all, weren’t you the ones who accepted the slogan “Take Back Control” in place of evidence supporting the case to remain in the European Union? Didn’t you reject all the carefully researched facts pertaining to immigration, the economy, trade, security, political influence, and climate change, in favour of a simplistic, junior school level narrative about elites (who, I’m sorry to remind you have always held sway over your lives – that’s the nature of acquiring and exercising political power) and the darkies destroying your way of life? And hang on, wasn’t it you who identified with a self-parodic form of English nationalism that yearned for a flavour of imperialism that no Englishman, who actually lived during the period of Empire, would have recognised?

Dom barely broke a sweat convincing you to buy into this island story – a tale written on the back of a World War II ration card. But if Cummings was shocked that fifty two per cent of the population could be so easily manipulated, he was astonished – despite being emboldened and therefore more confident, that “Get Brexit Done” – the 2019 Tory Election slogan, netted his man a Commons majority of 80.

Given the torturous passage of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament from 2016-2019, a small part of him must have wondered if any strategy could convince voters that this Conservative pipe dream was worth pursuing. After all, hadn’t the reality of implementing the referendum result shown that at this time, in these circumstances, it was a self-destructive and wholly unbeneficial punt, with crippling economic and constitutional ramifications?

But no – by adopting the same tactic as 2016 – targeting the politically uneducated and stoking their grievances by presenting realpolitik as a repudiation of their uncultivated folk wisdom, and by tacking the argument to an equally disingenuous, reductive slogan, Dom once again marshalled the forces of ignorance and inverse snobbery to produce another stonking victory for the dunces and the demagogues who’d keep them angry.

When you indicate you’re that easy, you can’t blame Dom for thinking you’d accept any old bullshit when he tried to explain away his decision to brazenly ignore his own Government’s lockdown advice. His mistake, and one can surely forgive him, was to assume that the public’s lack of nous was so all consuming, that it extended to the vagaries associated with everyday life.

Hey, don’t get me wrong – I know you understand things like driving to remote family members, childcare issues, and eye sight problems, but Dom – conditioned to believe the GBP will believe anything – duly thought he could obfuscate the truth about his own indiscretions, using the language associated with these common problems and activities to create his own personal version of “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”.

He forgot, and I’ve forgiven him already, that you know something about these things – that, unlike the EU and Britain’s trade and diplomatic relationship with the rest of the world, you can test his lockdown statement against your own family experiences – indeed your experience of being a semi-cognisant human who’s alive in the world.

That, I suggest, is why you don’t believe Dominic Cummings is telling the truth. His story is an affront to whatever passes for your common sense. It’s deeply insulting to the man, woman and dog in the street. Perhaps now you know he thinks you’re a simple thing driven by base instinct and junior school level messaging, you’ll reconsider the aforementioned campaigns. After all, no one likes to be taken for a mug, do they?

The Road to Barnard Castle

Published in: on May 27, 2020 at 13:24  Comments Off on I’m sorry you had to find out like this, but you’re the reason Dominic Cummings has such contempt for the public  
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Take a sedative, it’s time to visit Alex Kurtzman’s Strange New Worlds

“If at first you don’t succeed…,” words that can be found on the wall of Alex Kurtzman’s office. Alex has never succeeded of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s not inclined to try and try again, and if necessary fail harder. Sorry, better.

A few years ago Trekkies gave a cautious welcome to the announcement of Star Trek: Discovery. Sure, they were nervous about its pedigree – to know Kurtzman’s contribution to Trek was to fear it, but they were really nervous about this franchise fraud – this part-time fanboy, making a direct prequel to the beloved and iconic Original Series.

Kurtzman’s strange new thinking was that aesthetic continuity with those first voyages was a no-go; to embrace that kind of nostalgia would be to love the thing being recreated. Why make Discovery a prequel at all then, you ask? The only way to make sense of it was to assume this was the only period of Trek Kurtzman was familiar with. Thus it, tragically, would be the victim of his instinct to remake rather than innovate.

In the event, Discovery was a coy series that played a game of cat and mouse with its audience. It was, claimed its producers, part of original series canon. Viewers were asked to disregard any on screen incongruities and accept that, whatever the visual signifiers, this was part of the universe they knew and loved. Any divergence in tone, style, and art direction could be attributed to the demands of modern television production. This was an updated representation of the TOS period, not, as seen in previous Treks, a literal recreation.

Sure, that overwrote a wealth of material set in that era of Trek; a history of the future generations of fans had invested in; a covenant made with the audience in 1979’s slow Motion Picture, continued thereafter; but purists could get a life.

Still, for those of us reviewing the show, the tension this remake imperative caused lingered in every episode, like the mystery of Sybok’s cancellation. Discovery worked harder than a Reman miner to ensure that anything definitive, that would settle the continuity question once and for all, was kept off screen. No, you weren’t going to see the constitution class USS Defiant in the Mirror Universe, and for a while it looked like you weren’t going to see the bridge of the Pike-era Enterprise either. But at the end of Discovery’s second season, at the very point the issue could have been sidestepped permanently, with the canon clusterfucker flung into the future, Kurtzman et al couldn’t resist the money shot of Pike and Spock standing on a redesigned Enterprise bridge, warping off to a new adventure.

But if that final Enterprise moment, with a likable crew exiting the picture, canonised discontinuity, it hardly mattered – it was one scene, we’d never see this version of the characters or the ship again. In time we’d forget.

Today, all that changed. Kurtzman and CBS, buoyed by positive fan reaction to Anson Mount’s Pike and Ethan Peck’s nearly Spock (admittedly the best characters in Discovery’s hijacked, shark-jumping sophomore season), announced that they’d be getting their own series – the five year mission before the five year mission. It would be called Strange New Worlds, a title Kurtzman chose personally, rejecting “To Boldly Go” and “Of the Starship”.

One can understand the impetus to do this. Kurtzman doesn’t have any new ideas, so why not recycle a recycling of an old one, and score a quick win with fans in the process? It’s as easy as asset stripping an old franchise, but acute-minded Trekkies will already be experiencing mixed feelings.

For a start, and perhaps most importantly, did we dodge the further canon-complicating, continuity ruining adventures of the USS Discovery, now safely 950 years further into the future, just to see Pike’s Enterprise carry on in its stead?

Not unreasonably, close watchers of Discovery surmised Kurtzman was as keen as anyone to get away from the scrutiny and audience vitriol that came with the ill-advised tampering of events leading into Kirk’s era. Now, that can of space worms will be re-opened, and all eyes will be on how Strange New Worlds’ writers, for want of a better word, treat the politics, alien races and characters of the 2250s – the weekend to the Original Series’ Monday morning.

The big question, and one that’s so problematic it’s astonishing Kurtzman and company would want to touch it, is how do you deal with The Menagerie? Discovery season two foretold Pike’s transition from noble Captain to bleep chair quadriplegic. That’s due to happen 7 years after we last saw Pike on screen. It is wise to embark on a voyage that will end with your main character permanently mute and disabled? What a finale that’s going to be! And no, kids, it can’t be changed – it’s canon, remember?

With Akiva Goldsman at the helm, and the other misfits responsible for Discovery and Picard not far behind, fans could be forgiven for wondering if a premise requiring the utmost reverence to TOS, and love for Trek’s fundamental storytelling principles, should be left to the people responsible for making Jean-Luc Picard an android, while denying Data his dream to experience life in human form at the moment it became possible.

One plea we must make is that Strange New Worlds is episodic. Across three seasons – two of Discovery and one of Picard, the current custodians of Trek have shown that they’re hopeless when it comes to crafting a serialised story that’s focused, consistent and dramatically and emotionally rewarding. An episodic show featuring self-contained stories can course correct more easily (in the unlikely event this is necessary), and develop characters by making each the focus of a new adventure.

When Michael Piller took over TNG he instituted a character-focused approach. That’s a good idea to steal if you have writers whose history of handling plot is, to put it mildly, clumsy. An episodic format also allows for changes in writers and back stage personnel (here’s hoping) that won’t derail the series. It’s a format that works for producers and audiences alike.

Strange New Worlds has potential. Fans will want it to succeed. If it’s written with intelligence, optimism and kindness, Trekkies will excuse the fact it exists for no reason other than to extend Kurtzman’s tenure as first lord of the franchise. If it fails, it will do further damage to Star Trek, in a period where disillusion is on the verge of transmogrifying into indifference. Fucking high stakes then. Alex, we invite you to start on a positive note and fire yourself as an act of goodwill.

More Trekkin’: 

Picard on Manoeuvres

Picard Portents

Discovery’s Calamitous Couple of Seasons

Published in: on May 15, 2020 at 21:53  Comments Off on Take a sedative, it’s time to visit Alex Kurtzman’s Strange New Worlds  
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My Ten-Year Undercover Assignment at one of Britain’s “Top” Universities

Secret Agent

I’ll never forget the day I was invited, at my convenience, to meet my work sponsor and discuss an undercover assignment. It was my third year at Soliton – by common consent the world’s best employer, and I’d never felt so useful or emboldened in my working life.

Jonty didn’t have an office to visit, because the notion of a “boss” – a person to whom one showed deference, was antithetical to the company’s self-effacing, egalitarian ethos. Consequently, he would not claim any space that supported a hierarchical structure.

Soliton had built its reputation on a series of philosophical experiments that had sought to upend centuries of conventional wisdom. That day I’d worked hard for the four hours I’d identified as my optimal period of productivity. I’d started the day with pool and porn, in keeping with the research that showed a rested brain fired harder when primed. I’d set my fair pay salary level for the month ahead – linked to ambition and personal living costs. I’d added to the online work repository – the innovation that eliminated 95% of meetings. Indeed, virtual working was the norm not the exception, allowing Soliton employees to live anywhere in the world, maximising our purchasing power. My afternoon had ended with a submission to the brain trust database. If my ideas were adopted, and they frequently were (a real confidence booster), my live C.V was automatically updated and I received an employee premium – the bonus for furthering the intellectual life of the organisation. I was fulfilled but tired, and I had no idea what Jonty was about to propose.

‘Ed, we’re commissioning a major piece of research on Higher Education. I’m sure you’ve read the whistleblower pieces in the broadsheets. These institutions are allegedly ridden with elitism, bullying, sexism, corruption, virtue signalling initiatives, and cronyism.’ I said I was aware of it, and was thankful I’d never have to work in such a place. I valued my mental health. ‘Well, that’s what I wanted to talk you to about,’ he said.

His proposal, which was extraordinary, was that in return for a generous stipend from the company and perks – including free travel to, and accommodation at Las Vegas casinos, I’d work for one of London’s “top” universities for ten years. My skill level would be downgraded, in line with the values that informed the pay scales and opportunities in less enlightened organisations, and I’d be passed around low ranking roles in this so-called intellectual powerhouse’s departments and divisions. ‘It will be a culture shock,’ he said, ‘but your experiences will allow us to remain vigilant in our practices and ensure we remain the world’s most loved employer. We’ve commissioned parallel studies in public sector organisations that profess to be serving the greater good. Melissa’s starting police training this week, and Sanjiv’s joining Camden Council.’

The company’s ethos had inculcated a strong sense of public duty, so I was prepared to suffer for this landmark study of a degenerate work environment. ‘I warn you,’ said Jonty, stuffing a £250 John Lewis voucher into my top pocket, ‘our intelligence suggests you’ll have a tough time there. We’ve had reports of lazy and self-serving management, people promoted way beyond their abilities, the conspicuous and shameless protection of privilege in working practices and seniority at the expense of the low paid and unconnected, rank hypocrisy, incompetence, systemic corruption, illegality, sexual impropriety, social stratification – that is, an apartheid between academics and the people that work for them, an incomprehensible set of internal strategies and initiatives designed to vouchsafe non-jobs and create promotion opportunities for the management class – that’s materially motivated people with personality disorders, the Kafkaesque treatment of kind and rational people who challenge said class, shameless racism – you’ll find all the cleaning staff are black but none of the academics are, and last, but by no means least, the systemic repression and annihilation of an individual’s personality in the name of sterile, deadening conformity; euphemistically labelled as professionalism. In short, if rumour’s to be believed, this is bleaktown – screenplay by Jimmy McGovern, okay?’

‘Shit,’ I said, for free expression was very much encouraged at Soliton, ‘that sounds arse fuckingly awful. Are you sure I’m the right man for the job?’ Jonty laughed. ‘Listen, you’d be incredibly unlucky to experience everything I’ve just mentioned. You’re resilient, to use a word they’ll corrupt to indicate how much ill-treatment you can take without complaining, and very secure in your identity – so I can’t see you losing it, though you’ll be under incredible pressure to subsume yourself into a non-descript, homogenous pool of identikit functionaries. And remember, unlike the caste you’ll be sampling in this anthropological nightmare, you’ll have the safety net of being affiliated to us. It’ll be like volunteering to help irrigate a poor African village. If you become ill, or it gets too much, you can “fly home” – though we’ll keep topping up your money if you don’t.’

I’d heeded the warnings but couldn’t believe, perhaps because I’d benefited from such a benign and stimulating work environment, divested of archaic ideas around market value linked to human potential, that any place could be that bad. A university was a place of learning, of the enlightenment. Surely it couldn’t be a magnet for the dysfunctional and damned? How could such an engine of misery sustain itself? Besides, according to their website, the institution’s founding values were “equality, openness, and fairness”. These weren’t words to toss off – they meant something; they were a promise to those that contributed to the life of the organisation. The night before I joined I went to bed early, confident the next decade would be a breeze.

The First Three Years

I was used to being paid a fair wage, so it was a shock to begin with less than two thirds of what my predecessor had been paid for the same job. I wasn’t obliged to be paid the right amount – the law hadn’t yet changed to compel them to give me a rate commensurate with a contacted employee (though it soon would). Yet in my naivety, I was still surprised not to get the full amount. I was also surprised that the job I’d gone for – a web editor, was not the job I’d been given. In the years to come, I’d learn my new employer had a resource-centric approach to low-level functionaries. You’d be recruited under one guise, with the knob-shaped carrot of a skilled or semi-skilled job, but once installed you’d learn your real purpose was to perform that role plus all the work considered menial by those higher up the rankings. The stick was behind the door, and once closed, you’d be beaten with it until you brains oozed from your ears.

In a strict hierarchal system, the incentive was not to do meaningful or satisfying work. It was to seek patronage and create management products that headlined your efforts, without giving any insight into how they’d been achieved or at whose expense (or by whom). The singular focus of many, was to get promoted out of the stuff reserved for the lowest paid, so you could make more money doing less. The higher up you went, the less you were scrutinised.

Soliton would not allow me apply for management positions, as my mission was to experience life on the shop floor, so I remained in my cul de sac, watching as identikit chieftain after chieftain – all self-serving, all impostors, all clueless, and all ruthlessly ambitious, inveigled their way in via an easy to circumvent interview process. By contrast, at Soliton employees were selected via a month long bootcamp in which you worked with the real staff at full pay. Once hired, the university’s managers made needless and senseless changes designed to signal activity and authority, then left – unloved, their lifelong thirst for respect unquenched.

Some came and went with the minimum of damage – perhaps restricting themselves to a demoralising re-organisation, whereas others were sociopathic to the point of mental illness. They’d bang their own staff, creating a cabal of middle managers to insulate themselves from bottom-up criticism, work less than their contracted hours, and shamelessly manipulate internal bureaucracy to neuter and get rid of any drones who saw through their paper-thin veneer; shrewd underlings who’d noted their incompetence and hypocrisy.

In my report to Jonty, I noted they got away with it, because of the pomposity and self-importance of the academic fraternity. Once upon a time, autistic brains had managed their own departmental affairs, but now they considered such managerialism an affront to their higher purpose – a shackle on their creativity.

Consequently, the university was divided into pigs and sheep. Some of the sheep thought themselves important because they had the patronage of the porkers, but these Napoleons saw their office managers as supine dead-heads, keeping the other sheep in line with talk of values, goals, and the threat of redundancy. This was an environment devoid of values, with the only goal being to keep the brains from the broom handles. The result was a place where the head sheep could get away with just about anything, as the aloof and disinterested academic class had no more idea what their day-to-day work entailed and what it meant to be them, any more than a spider understands the inner-life of a pack horse.

Jonty, sympathetic, but keen to remind me, in a bid to lift my spirits, that I had a Vegas trip lined up – and Monica and Crystal mentioned me often, did his best to be upbeat as I told him how I’d been singled out by one particular manager. I’d questioned what I read as abuses of her authority and power and she reacted the way any threatened animal does – by lashing out.

I was consciously deskilled – the parts of the job I liked syphoned off to more pliant supplicants. When I didn’t quit, as she hoped, I was singled out for being ineffectual, despite being given nothing to do. I decided, on Jonty’s advice, to experiment by writing a report that highlighted just how little work I’d be given, even suggesting things I could do to bolster my job – something I was certain no underemployed member of the university had ever done.

When the response came – that I should be doing these things anyway, though no one had tasked or enabled me to do any of it, I gave up. If I was invisible to these people and they had no idea how to ultilise me, I’d take their money and do real work on their dime.

With my fifteen month period of temporary working, plus a nine month probationary period for the permanent role, which they refused to waive, my quest for a permanent role (at Jonty’s behest) was now entering its third year. I’d been on probation longer than some category A prisoners, but my head sheep, sensing this was an issue for me, contrived to bump this up by a further two months.

My error had been to question her competence when took the side of an employee who’d already logged a complaint against her, after I was subjected to an unprovoked tirade. For alleging she had a dog in the fight – in other words, didn’t dare discipline the offending staffer, lest she be fingered for vengeful victimisation, I was forced to endure more probation on the basis I needed to be more professional, i.e. more pliant and less critical. How would this new objective be measured? As it was abstract, no one had any idea. Still, an objective that can’t be met also can’t be failed, and I was subsequently given full-employee rights (to Jonty’s delight), a mere twenty six months after I’d started. Later, after this fraud had departed, I learned she’d also known her behaviour modifying measure had been a nonsense. The additional probation hadn’t been logged. It was unenforceable bullshit – theatre for my benefit. I now had a job paying £34,000 a year, but nothing whatsoever to do. No one cared. Least of all me.

The office environment, I noted, was toxic. Soliton assessed my mental health and found I was at risk of depression. They kindly fed me real work and suggested I move to a place of isolation where I could complete it encumbered. My chance came when my old departmental office was marked for destruction to make way for research space – a symbolic displacement. Taking advantage of the disconnect between academic and manager, I lobbied the former for a small office of my own, and so began my next period in which I was sectioned off and largely forgotten.

The Next Three Years

My tiny room, behind two layers of security, was a dream, if that dream was to be paid for doing nothing. I could effectively arrive when I wanted and leave when I wanted. It occurred to me that my experience mirrored that of the managers, who also enjoyed a level of seclusion and unaccountability, that allowed them to play fast and loose with inflexible working arrangements.

I reported to Jonty the pluses and minuses. On the plus side, as home working was not permitted, I could avoid the morning cattle drive – no delays in sardined trains and virulent hothouses for me. In the minus column – social isolation, a structural inability to take part in the life and culture of the wider-institution, a deadening sense of drift and emptiness.

My old nemesis tried to get at me by downgrading my skills yet further – foisting on me tasks like sorting mail and minuting the dullest of committee meetings. A row about the former took up an incredible amount of time, over a year. I reported, with wry amusement to Soliton HQ, that this naked attempt at catalysing my resignation, was based on vices projected onto me like pride and snobbery. I tried to play the institution at its own game – suggesting that roles had boundaries and that such boundaries must remain integral, else the structure was meaningless, yet the targeted deskilling continued. ‘Don’t despair,’ said Jonty, ‘while you’re doing that shit, you can think about the play you’ll contribute to the Soliton Summer Festival.’ Ah, the festival – how I loved the annual tugging off of war.

The university had a work shadow and appraisal system, arcane and limited those these concepts were, and long after my idiotic forewoman had left, I tried to use it to improve my lot. No one, it turned out, was interested in work shadowing, and the staffing office – stocked with generic HR types, i.e. jaded people whose humanity had largely ebbed away, weren’t interesting in administering it.

The new office manager, having decided she had too many people to manage, though that was her job, put the staffing honcho in charge of me. We had nothing to do with one another, but it underscored the thinking that all low-level functionaries were simply appropriable resources that could be allocated as required. You don’t ask a printer if it minds being moved to another room, so no one asked me if I had a problem with being managed by a humourless, hard-faced technocrat who didn’t eat and consequently had a temperament antithetical to managing others.

Her overseers were blind and deaf to these failings – they even put her in charge of staff wellbeing, having not bothered to find out whether or not she believed in it. As she’d defensively asserted that anyone who brought a complaint against a manager, or accused them of harassment, was a mendacious liar trying to cover their own incompetence, my guess was no. But nobody asked me. When I suggested, during an appraisal, that I’d been deskilled and no one in charge had the will or imagination to make my working day worthwhile, she responded with six words that neatly encapsulated the attitude and philosophy of the institution’s feckless management class – “if you don’t like it, leave.”

I didn’t of course – I couldn’t, and she left as it turned out, so it hardly mattered. But worse was to come. When her head sheep was slaughtered, the university appointed a librarian and alleged socialist to take over. He had no direct experience of a comparable organisation, for to recruiting academics all management jobs are the same. His values would turn out to be junk – lifestyle dressing for a deeply unpleasant man.

He took an instant dislike to me, perhaps because he sensed I thought he was another clueless stooge appointed by one of the pigs, and found a willing ally in an ambitious sheep who’d greedily accepted the non-role of supervisor in exchange for no promotion and no credit. Such a moron, one felt, should not be trusted, and this turned out to be the right instinct. Pleasant at first, vying only, she said, for transferable status, the apparatchik turned nasty, sensing an opportunity to impress, when she realised her new boss had singled me out as dead wood – proof that in addition to being intellectually wanting, he couldn’t spell.

A six-month old argument with a retired, pompous blowhard – an honorary academic with fascist proclivities, was resurrected to assassinate my character and question my professionalism. Ironically, the row was about asserting policy on bullying, and was now used to bully me out of a job. The bellicose boss and his fawning brownnoser rounded on me without shame or conscience. This was intolerable, I told Jonty – I was having to answer for telling a bigot, in the wake of xenophobic comments on campus following the EU referendum, that we didn’t tolerate bigotry.

Should I quit? I could, I was told, but I’d have to come back as a temporary worker. Ten years of data was required. So, following a Kafkaesque ordeal, in which I was singled out for having broken some rule or other, though no one could say which, and worse (and the real reason) – endangering a philanthropic donation from a man who referred to non-academic staff – people like my accusers, people that included an alleged egalitarian, as “the lower orders”, I resigned. No one asked me why. I wasn’t even asked to pass on what I’d learned – a tacit acknowledgement that thanks to the regime in question, I hadn’t accrued a single bit of working knowledge worth passing on.

Temporarily Embarrassed

I begged Jonty to be released from the study at this point but he urged me to continue. There was a new opportunity, he said, to get further data on how the university treated temporary staff. The portents weren’t good – they typically paid them at the bottom end of a lower grade than I’d been on, for a start, but I wasn’t to worry – I’d still get an M&S hamper from Soliton every week

So began a trawl through the world of disposable labour and naked exploitation. The agency, which had initially offered me my old job, saying I’d be “perfect”, finally parachuted me into a thankless role in the Graduate School. There, I’d run around after the Head – a man who wanted a lackey to dab the end of his cock after each urinary event, and supply him with a never-ending stream of documents that he could have printed himself, except to push the button would be a symbolic diminution of status; the equivalent of having a driver and turning the ignition key yourself.

This was tedious stuff, yet, despite it being embarrassing for all concerned, I was invited to apply for the permanent role. I couldn’t understand why, but I did it – on Jonty’s advice, on the strict understanding I didn’t get it. The point was to find out just what kind of person did get taken on under such circumstances. Following my gut, I made noises about wanting to rethink the master and servant dynamic, getting more involved in the running of internal affairs. I was therefore unsurprised when the job was given to someone meek, whose non-threatening character and embrace of his servile status, made him ripe for plucking.

Next was a stint with the team that managed the thorny issue of research ethics. I was initially encouraged. Surely, only those invested with a strong sense of morality would be involved in such a process? But I’d forgotten that there was no correlation between character and role in an institution that didn’t screen for the former.

The Head of Integrity – a ludicrous title, was an immature sociopath who’d read that if you smile a lot and joke a lot, and remember people’s birthdays, some will believe you care about those you work with. Jonty fed me a few ethical dilemmas to test the water. I’d have housing problems, money worries. Would this lead to a firm offer of employment? A pay rise, based on recognition of good work? No. It lead to an assertion that I could leave if I needed to be better paid, and a palsied expression at the audacious suggestion of an extra couple of quid an hour.

Others members of the team – each an ethical stronghold in their own right, included an intellectually insecure woman with a doctorate who mystifyingly thought her patron was a woman of principle and professionalism, despite the lack of supporting evidence, and a cynical put-upon administrator, who consulted the institution’s bible, and used me as a dumping ground for all the work she didn’t want to do herself. To underline the point, she renamed herself as “Ethics Officer” to create a scale that didn’t officially exist, with me at the bottom. Underpaid and overworked, I rang Jonty and begged to be released. Permission was granted.

All bad things must come to an end, so I finished my mission ensconced within an office, close to the centre of power. It sent the university’s staff abroad to extend its brand and undermine its status as an autonomous institution guided solely by higher principles. This branch of the university didn’t care where we pitched up. They’d have gone to Iran, Russia – fucking anywhere, if there was a commercial incentive. The people who worked there, befitting the remit, were more corporate types than I’d seen elsewhere. They were vacuous but organised, hardworking but robotic. Yet, whatever the self-important mission statement, or imagined value of strategies and initiatives that would soon be forgotten, amounting as they did to nothing but monuments to non-entities, these were members of the institution I’d come to know. Consequently, they couldn’t help but internalise some time-honoured practices.

Once again I was in a place where I was asked to be enthused and inspired by nothing – rote tasks, management jargon, office wank. I told Jonty that I’d been living this double life so long I was starting to forget what job satisfaction felt like – that I needed to be free to once again feel the wind on my back and the sun on my face.

Reader, this was the worst of times. Taken in by the promise of challenging project work, without anyone actually checking whether such a person was needed given a contractor was already on the payroll, hoarding the challenging stuff, I ended up with nothing to fill my days. When the new Director noticed – an insecure former military man who thought the problem with society was that government was too generous, he requisitioned me to help him – imparting the usual platitudes about me being the best person for the job, apparently oblivious to the idea that even the suggestion was insulting.

‘Jonty,’ I protested, ‘this is beyond a chore now – I’m being moved around and used like the office laptop, and no one has any interest in me at all. I’m now doing work I didn’t sign up to do, and I no longer have the energy or impetus to pretend I like doing it.’ Yes, it was only a matter of time before they noticed, and when they did, I was told it wasn’t working and I’d be released to do bigger and better things. What were they? I’d have plenty of time to reflect during the worst public health crisis in a century and an unprecedented freeze on employment.

My last days at the university were humiliating and empty, befitting all that had come before. The dunce that had got my name wrong when she introduced me, did the same as she waved me goodbye. In a year, the correct name hadn’t registered on her consciousness. My final day was brought forward, without anyone remembering to tell me. I was grateful not to be so jaded that I could still be surprised by such things.

In a period where I’d advanced several grades at Soliton and had enjoyed the warmth and flexibility afforded by human and encouraging colleagues, I’d ended my undercover university experiment paid less than when I’d started ten years previously, and with nothing whatsoever to show for the time, bar the extra cash that had been spent on burlesque evenings and bratwurst buffets. And no, that isn’t an euphemism.

Post-mortem, I reflected how lucky I’d been to have the safety net of Soliton’s wages and care. I contemplated what life would have been like if my true employer had been a utopian fantasy, and this university, with its chancers, bigots, frauds, and entitled cheerleaders, had been a real force in my life – underpaying, underemploying, understanding nothing about the people it conflated with resources like printers and phones. What a waking nightmare that would have been, and how lucky I was to have been so cushioned.

Published in: on April 2, 2020 at 16:01  Comments Off on My Ten-Year Undercover Assignment at one of Britain’s “Top” Universities  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Picard 1.10 (End of Season Special)

Star Trek: Picard is the story of Patrick Stewart. Not Patrick Stewart’s character, as billed, for Jean-Luc Picard as we knew him is no longer a living, breathing entity, but the actor who once played him.

To understand what’s gone wrong, one needs to know the man. In the beginning there was a boy – working class, aspirational. Disciplinarian father with a military background – a bully. He doesn’t want to be like his Dad, he’s interested in the arts, in drama. But he can’t help but internalise some of Daddy’s traits – an authoritative air, a stern countenance, self-seriousness.

It turns out these are useful. Casting directors in local theatre productions latch onto them as hallmarks of heft; what they imagine a stage presence to be. Soon our man has won a place at theatre school and from there, allied by a personality married with conventional thinking on the performance of Shakespeare, the RSC.

Directors like John Barton instinctively know that Stewart isn’t in the top tier of the company; he’s too affected, has a propensity toward ham, trying too hard because he has imposter syndrome, deep-seeded insecurity. When Barton makes a series about “Playing Shakespeare”, these shortcomings are suggested when Stewart pits his acting wits against more natural performers like David Suchet. They’re outright exposed when he’s asked to perform an impromptu solo. The latter shows the limits of Stewart as a performer. When asked to be passionate, he’s a big old pork joint, smothered in bread sauce. But when asked to showcase a character with intellect, the delivery’s natural, convincing.

The casting director for Star Trek: The Next Generation must have seen the intellectual performance when he recommended Stewart for the role of Jean-Luc Picard. What he didn’t know, what nobody knew, is that Stewart aspired to the emotional, the unfettered. He didn’t want to be buttoned up and straight-laced like his hard-faced Father. He wanted to be an actor who could switch registers and personas with the same ease as superior contemporaries like Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington. They were the kind of actors who got regular movie roles. Stewart was being offered TV, and American Sci-fi at that. This wasn’t really fit for a man of his stature, he thought, but he’d do it, if only to raise his profile – make a name in Hollywood.

Jean-Luc Picard was written as stoic, restrained, an intellectual – this register was a perfect match for Stewart’s personality, it flattered his talent. The show was a smash hit, not least because of the culturally coded gravitas Stewart was thought to add. His confidence skyrocketed amongst actors he thought his inferiors, American TV actors prone to mucking around on set, as if they knew they were being paid to pretend to be someone else in a fantastical setting. Stewart relaxed off camera to fit in, but deep down began to feel frustration that this role, a gift from TV heaven for many, was boxing him in – denying him the chance to show his range, forcing him to be immortalised as his Father on-screen.

The rest of the cast would have been happy to carry on forever, but Stewart insisted it was all over after 7 seasons. He’d thought about leaving after 3, but didn’t want to return to relative obscurity. By the time the show ended the whole world knew who he was, but they all saw him as the reserved and thoughtful Captain Picard. The characterisation bored Stewart. For him it bordered on self-parody.

Emboldened by the power he now enjoyed within the Star Trek fraternity, he used the opportunity of the TNG movies to break out of this straightjacket. The writers boldly tried to develop stories around the character as written, but Stewart thwarted them, demanding changes that made Picard more emotional, less restrained – closer to Stewart as he imagined himself to be. The result was broad, brainless schlock. The final movie flopped badly. But Stewart secretly blamed militant fans for the failure. It would be a line adopted and expressed openly by Star Trek’s clumsy custodians in the years to come.

He continued to attend conventions, smiling at panels, telling the same anecdotes, pretending not to mind when Brent Spiner impersonated him. He was addicted to the adulation of the crowd – the laughter, the cheering. If only they knew how much he despised them, how divorced the series was from his idealised conception of self.

Star Trek had denied him the prestige he sought amongst his peers. Jean-Luc Picard was too much like his Dad to be someone he wanted to revisit. But Trek’s new guard wanted him back. The fans, in denial over the TNG movies, wanted him back. So he’d come back, but only if he could move further away than ever from the characterisation he despised.

Patrick Stewart hates Star Trek – that’s the truth he dare not speak of. Picard the series, as mandated by its star, shares little of TNG’s creative DNA because it’s not aimed at fans, but an idiot’s conception of posterity.

Stewart wants the world to see him play sensitive and vulnerable, while simultaneously ensuring the action his character passively passes through is morbid, bleak, and dystopian. It’s a fuck you to Gene Roddenberry, who didn’t want Stewart cast, and the reprise of a man, now acting as a producer, who sees his original body of work as twee, romantic nonsense.

In Alex Kurtzman, he has the perfect partner – a man whose teenage, nihilistic sensibility is a match for Stewart’s untapped adolescent angst. There could be no TNG sequel with these people at the helm, no right of return for the old show’s creative team. Instead, a writers’ room, spearheaded by Michael Chabon was chosen, as their lack of ownership would make the destruction of TNG less of a psychological wrench.

Chabon, progressively disillusioned and defensive, as criticism of his franchise illiteracy mounted, has, at the death, vigorously defended each non-sensical decision in an interview with Variety, implicitly citing Stewart as the architect of the show’s imbecilic design, the man who tied the hands of all concerned. He’ll only be returning as a consultant next year, content for someone else to do the impossible and fit the square peg of Stewart’s thinking into the round hole of fandom’s love and understanding of the source material.

‘But Ed,’ you say, ‘didn’t “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” avoid the pitfall of a climatic battle, with Picard, no doubt at Stewart’s insistence, settling the conflict with a call to Soji’s innate humanity and good sense? Doesn’t that prove he’s in tune with his character and the franchise?’ Okay, optimists – let’s take a moment to reflect on what he did sign off on.

Jean-Luc Picard is dead. That’s right, ended. Though “All Good Things…” speculated he’d have a degenerative brain disease that would first make him go senile, then kill him, the unnamed illness in Picard curiously presented at the most inconvenient moment for the character possible, when he was on the cusp of salvaging a situation he’d effectively created. It was he that united Jurati and Soji with the androids and presented them with the memory footage that inspired Sutra to begin the countdown to Armageddon, after all. The illness then killed him the moment he’d unfucked the scenario, with the precision of a Swiss watch.

As we speculated last week, Picard was, inevitably, transferred into a robot body, albeit one curiously identical to his own, presumably to eliminate psychological trauma (and save on the makeup budget). This was odd on many levels. Picard’s first thought was the horror, rather than the opportunity, of potential immortality, but not to worry, Soong told him, they’d given him a short lifespan so he’d die when he supposed to – except he’d already died when he was supposed to, that’s the nature of a genetic illness.

This show had been about the acceptance of synths in wider-society, and Picard coming to terms with his dotage and redundancy. Now, he had the opportunity not only to be an ambassador for androids everywhere; the synth you can trust; but for a second chance at youth, at vitality – the chance to once again sit in the command chair and make a difference. But instead, android Picard, an elderly looking golem, took this extraordinary opportunity and used it to, er… go exploring with the crew of the La Sirena? A crew that now had no mission and no reason to stay together.

Rios, Raffi, Agnes, Seven, and Elnor becoming a team might have felt like the pre-requisite for a second season, but in-story it made no sense at all. Then, there was Data…

I was wrong. We were wrong. Stewart didn’t sanction the return of Data after all, though writer Michael Chabon contrived to have him back anyway for a goodbye inside a quantum simulation of his consciousness. Data, it seems, likes fireside locations and antique furniture as much as the next artificial man.

In the real world, Brent Spiner probably doesn’t want to play Data anymore, and the character’s resurrection would only steal some of the limelight from Stewart and set up wearisome expectations of a full TNG reunion next season or beyond. Consequently, the character conveniently and sentimentally opted to definitively “die” – for Picard to pull the plug on his limbotic consciousness.

Now, you can argue that death is a vital part of life, and the only way Data could complete his human journey would be to grow old and perish like the rest of us (or have that experience simulated), but in-universe, this seemed like an extraordinary, illogical waste.

Why, when Data could simply be uploaded to a new body, indeed one with a human appearance – flesh and blood, thereby allowing his reconstituted consciousness to fulfil its ultimate ambition and become, to all intents and purposes, human, would he opt to be euthanised instead? Data, they can fix you up in a few days, ask Jean-Luc, he’s seen the tech!

Instead, one of the galaxy’s most unique life forms, with a wealth of wisdom and unique experience, who would also make a pretty good ambassador for the synths – indeed, would finally have the chance to enjoy a race and culture of his own, his daughters included – the ones he’d always wanted, was unplugged in the very lab where his dreams could have been made flesh. It was a better death than Nemesis, emotional, maybe even a little poignant, but just as wasteful.

So Picard, like the TNG movies, focused on Picard and Data, just with new characters bringing up the rear, and it ruined them – just like those movies. Jean-Luc spent the series looking lost and solemn, creating a set of events that could have destroyed all organic life, only to risk the fate of the galaxy on a speech, and Data – who began the show as a character in a dream, ended as a simulation of himself who opted to die.

You couldn’t have made it up because you had different ideas about how to respectfully sequelise The Next Generation, but Stewart and his cabal of clueless hacks, did. If Gene Roddenberry could be resurrected in an android body he’d have his synthetic hands at Patrick Stewart’s throat right now. I, for one, wouldn’t intervene.

Anomalous Readings

  • One interesting element of this final episode, was how redundant the Borg sub-plot turned out to be. The Borg had no function in the story by episode ten, no part to play in saving the universe, or pacifying the synth threat from another dimension. In fact, it’s possible to imagine the whole “Ex-B” thread being excised, and reaching an identical conclusion. Sure, you’d have no Borg cube to sit on, no Hugh. But given what they did with those elements, would that have been so bad?
  • No return for Picard’s Romulan servants in the finale. Given they were former Tal Shiar agents, they could have been really useful, but the writers just forgot about them.
  • Seven committed another revenge-driven murder, by tossing Narissa into the bowels of the cube. A character ruined twice over. Still, Narissa asked questions like, “have you fucked any of them?” when interrogating her brother about his time in the android colony, so perhaps her death was just as well.
  • All the ships in the federation fleet were identical, which was very dull and a waste of a fan service opportunity. Surely, one galaxy glass ship could have been requisitioned?
  • Riker was in command of the flag ship, despite being a reserve officer. If there ever a time to show the Enterprise and her current crew, perhaps with Worf at the helm, then surely this was it? That would have been a lovely moment wouldn’t it – Geordi, Beverley, Wesley – all beaming from the refitted bridge? But under Stewart’s “no sequel” directive, that was out, though the series as written effectively (and actually) sequelised Star Trek: Nemesis (story input from Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart).
  • Riker’s desire to kick Oh’s “Tal Shiar ass” was awful but no worse than “we’re through running from these bastards” or his control joystick in Insurrection. Still, given how easy it would have been to re-write that line, it’s odd – even aggressively weird, that it remained.
  • Other contemporary speech farts included, “you’ve got my back” and “dirtbag” – making Raffi sound like a character from Police Academy.
  • No Q then – but both he and Guinan will no doubt show up next year and ruin their respective legacies. That, you may think, is the only reason to tune in – to see how far Stewart’s prepared to go in his quest to obliterate his best and most cherished body of work.

Thanks for reading, space folks. If we’re spared by the Coronavirus we’ll have a stab at understanding the creative choices behind Discovery season 3 – that other threat to the civilised world. Until then, stay safe (and at home… and try not to masturbate yourselves to death).

The Old Man’s Back Again

Picard Portents

Discovery’s right couple of seasons

Published in: on March 27, 2020 at 13:28  Comments Off on Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Picard 1.10 (End of Season Special)  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Picard 1.9

So, here it is. In the middle of a global pandemic, with civilisation breaking down, and people being forcibly separated from their loved ones in what is surely the most testing, most difficult period in their lives, we enter the final furlong in Star Trek: Picard. This is a show that could and should have provided optimism and solace, thereby becoming the go-to comfort food for a beleaguered human race. Yet instead, it offers the prospect of death, destruction, and the extermination of a species, just as our species contemplates its extermination.

“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” set up the battle that inevitably forms the climax of any Alex Kurtzman produced Star Trek series. A Romulan armada of 218 warbirds (to be precise) will, thanks to the machinations of Sutra, sister of deceased android Jana, sister of deceased android Dahj, sister of Soji, face off against a hailed race of advanced synths; their arrival foretold in the Romulan admonition, their presence instigating the mass extinction of organics.

Sutra (who unlike her sisters looked like an android, signalling an essentialist, racist bent) was persuaded this was the right thing to do, because she’d, er, mind melded with Jurati and reinterpreted the apocalyptic vision as a happy prophesy foretelling the birth of synth hegemony. I could accept the logic. Here was a threatened commune of beautiful bots created by the dreamteam of horny Bruce Maddox and hornier Altan Inigo Soong, son of Noonian, played by (who else?) Brent Spiner, the latter professing to see them as children not sex toys. If you were an android, you might think trusting humans with your future, particularly in a Federation where you were banned, was a risk.

But what about this mind meld? You might have thought melds were the exclusive province of Vulcans, or those races, like the Romulans, with whom they shared a genetic lineage. I know I always believed it was a technique that worked in tandem with the Vulcans’ cultivated telekinetic abilities. But apparently it can be learned, like a form of meditation, so Sutra, who has a computer for a brain, successfully interfaced with our Agnes, and half-explained it by suggesting the download was always meant for positronic minds, hence the images prompting hysteria and madness in those of inferior organics (though not so inferior that they couldn’t create you, beautiful).

If you bought into this, and you had to, else the set up for the final episode blow out was a bust, you had a potential explanation for how Data may be reconstituted next week. Yes, I still believe we’re in long-winded ‘Search for Data’ territory. We’ll know soon enough.

After all, there was talk of mind transfers, and the manufacture of bodies. In fact, the pseudo-science available on the android homeworld threw up another horrifying possibility.

Picard’s brain disease once again featured, in an episode where he was, again, vying for attention, and he struck a grave but dignified tone – the contention that talk of his death would “piss him off” aside, as he talked about his slow demise.

We’ve always assumed this season would end with Data restored. Who better to conduct the re-joining of brain and body than Soong and Jurati – the two greatest living cyberneticists; the equivalent of the Vulcan priestess in Star Trek III; who fortunately are united to facilitate just such a feat and have multiple copies of Data’s memories to upload. Fuck, we don’t even need B-4’s body anymore, as Soong could make a fresh one, thereby sidestepping any moral issues. Wait a minute, why haven’t they already done this?

But what if, and I hope you’re sitting down, the gang, once victorious against the insurgent Romulans, and having somehow neutralised the android threat to the Federation, have the idea of putting an ailing Picard into a new sleeve? Could Star Trek: Picard actually end with Patrick Stewart saying goodbye to the character, his consciousness transferred to a robot body played a man forty years his junior? Or worse, might Picard and Data end up, maybe by accident, maybe by design, in a joint chassis – a fused being? Have we come all this way for a remake of schlocky Voyager episode, “Tuvix”?

Friends, I’ll have to check my logs, but it’s possible I threw this out as a joke possibility back in episode one. A lot’s happened since then, and I should know better by now. After all, if you can think it, and it’s ridiculous, chances are Kurtzman’s cabal have already put it up on the whiteboard to the sound of high fives and back patting.

There’s lots to concern us, then, as we head into the final episode. We know the show’s been recommissioned – there will be a season two. But, given Picard’s spent this season as a wistful but near silence presence, a moralising observer, unable to participate in the kinetic, superficial, cut and thrust that characterises Kurtzman’s Star Trek, you could be forgiven for worrying that the temptation to do away with two expensive and aging TNG cast members, and reinvent their characters for subsequent years, may be a temptation too sweet for the imbecilic vandals at the helm of this sinking ship.

Anomalous Readings

  • Spiner as Soong was an obvious bit of casting but it does introduce serious questions about this dynasty. Counting Soong’s ancestor, Arik, also played by Spiner, in that Enterprise story, “The Augments”, we have several generations of this family who are identical. If you were thinking about the possibility of incest, you weren’t alone.
  • Noonian Soong having a biological son, who looks exactly like him, does raise the question of why Data, Lore, and B-4 were created in his own image. Psychologically, it felt like the act of a childless man. Soong Junior doubled down on this tick by referring to his androids as children. But he took inspiration from, er, Data’s painting, amongst other sources. The painting that didn’t look like Lal. Man, retconning’s a nightmare, isn’t it?
  • The reference to silicon-based viruses in “Nepenthe” was, we now infer, dropped in to cement the concept that there can be interaction between artificial and humanoid brains, foreshadowing the mind meld in this episode.
  • The man in Rios’s sketch of murdered android Jana, looked exactly like comic actor Charlie Day. Horrifying.
  • Picard swore at last – a gateway swear that could lead to the final “fuck” and destruction of his character in the last episode.
  • Add the phrase “asshole Romulan ex” to the list of those that should have been struck through with a red pencil at the script editing stage.
  • The “I love you” scene between Raffi and Picard – the one that didn’t take place between him, Riker and Troi, was the worst thing I’ve seen this year, and this is the year a killer virus swept the world.
  • When the gang arrived at the android planet they were attacked by, er, giant space orchids. Apparently, it’s not just a metaphor for gene splicing, or a horticultural benchmark for the imagination, but a weapons system developed by Soong et al. It’s good too, it can fell a Borg cube. Said cube impacted on the surface of the planet, but despite its size a) didn’t break up or b) cause a global ecological catastrophe. In fact, dull Elnor and a weirdly upbeat Seven, in no way affected by having to reconnect to the collective, albeit briefly, weren’t so much as scratched, though they’d fallen from space. I suppose Kurtzman saw that Star Destroyer in the sand in The Force Awakens and thought that was a cool shot. Imagine what inspiration he’d get from watching old episodes of Star Trek!

The Old Man’s Back Again

Picard Portents

Discovery’s right couple of seasons

Published in: on March 20, 2020 at 12:08  Comments Off on Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Picard 1.9  
Tags: , , , ,