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  Leave a Comment  
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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  Leave a Comment  
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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  Leave a Comment  
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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  Leave a Comment  
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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 marries 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, retrained, 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 try and move away from 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

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

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Picard 1.8

“Broken Pieces” probably should have just been called “Pieces”. This was the pay off episode – the pre-finale placing of jigsaw bits. In as much as we were invested in the mystery at all, this was our chance to enjoy the unveiling of the grand plan and revel in the writers’ room’s storytelling genius. Out of leftfield we also got what would, on the old Star Trek, have been called a Rios episode; his newly defined backstory improbably tying into the Romulan conspiracy, so that every character on the La Sirena had a role in this decades-spanning tale. Incredible that fate had brought them together to finish it.

I had two thoughts watching this sweary, exposition heavy race to the climax. The first was that if I was ten years old I’d have been confused but would have accepted the story as presented, grateful for the info dump. The second is that if I was a young fan of Star Trek, who’d binged on the earlier series, I wouldn’t be allowed to watch it thanks to all the fucking and pissing – words that recurred with such regularity that it’s likely writer Michael Chabon’s into golden showers.

We were asked to believe that a mere 14 years ago, there was a gathering of the Zhat Vash on a planet of grief (no, really). There the cultists, led by Oh, watched a space video depicting the destruction of a planet (or planets) by artificial lifeforms; an event that occurred 200,000 years ago, apparently, but featured a brief cut of Data and the synths working at Utopia Planitia. On this basis, many went insane, mimicking Trekkies watching this show. They shot themselves in the head, clawed out their eyes; the stuff we started to do when Raffi arrived. Their conclusion? All synthetic life is a danger to organics – a gateway to hell, and they must act to stop it. Next stop: Mars.

Now this is the point where, as a viewer, you really have to trust the storytellers. Is Oh a Starfleet officer/double agent in this flashback sequence? If she isn’t, and it’s implied she isn’t, how did she infiltrate Starfleet and rise to the rank of Head of Security quickly enough to arrange for the Mars attack? If she was already Head of Security, but was also a Zhat Vash cultist, why did she wait until the Federation were manufacturing androids by the warehouse load (though not sentient ones, remember) before acting? Why not simply arrange for Data to be killed years earlier, when the number of sentient androids in the known universe numbered in single figures?

We inferred she was the key to the attack, for how else would the Romulans gain access to the shipyard and the synths, but we weren’t told how a race and a culture that has no scientific grounding in cybernetics, found the means and expertise to reprogram Maddox’s tinmen. Synths becoming self-aware and attacking the beings that had made them slaves is a derivative story that makes sense. Synths manipulated by the anti-synth enemies of the Federation does not.

The Zhat Vash, a cult that includes the Vulcans, as presumably it predates the separation of the two cultures, is a Romulan organisation, and as such you’d expect their primary goal would be safeguarding Romulan interests and primacy. So why, with Romulan civilisation threatened, would you not wait until the evacuation was complete, aided by Starfleet carriers, and then arrange for these mechanised workmen to revolt? Surely, some kind of assessment took place to determine how advanced these shipbuilding grunts were, and whether they had the intelligence, skills, or self-awareness, to evolve into higher forms who’d represent a threat to the galaxy? Perhaps they were just man-shaped computers. Why not wait, then kill them all with some kind of android computer virus?

Discerning viewers watching this stuff, would have been offended that such a clumsy bunching of threads had taken place. It was almost as if the smashing together of story elements – broken pieces from multiple story conferences, had resulted in Chabon et al throwing up their hands and declaring, “fuck it, that’ll do.” Did they know, during those first story breaking sessions, how the Borg story and the Data story and the Romulan story and the Picard story fitted together? On this evidence, no.

Anomalous Readings

  • One of this episode’s many C-stories was Seven joining Elnor on the Borg cube. It began as a rescue but ended in a bloodbath, when Seven, who’d spent her entire life trying to regain her humanity following her separation from the horror of the Borg collective, improvised a means of neutralising Narissa’s agents, namely plugging herself back into the Collective, reactivating the drones, and condemning the Romulans on board to assimilation. This meant acting like a stand-in Borg Queen. She even implied that once plugged in she may not want to be unplugged. Narissa, a woman so cold that the opening vision of hell hadn’t phased her, reacted to the threat by ejecting all the waking drones into space. It’s odd to be on the side of the villains but this seemed to me a perfectly sensible decision. Seven’s choices, however, made no sense at all. And what the fuck did the Borgified Seven mean by, “Anya has more to do”? Why would a re-absorbed Borg care about the agency and potential of its human host? Was the implication that Seven was acting as an independent with the Borg’s blessing? Is she about to be retconned as a double agent? On this show, it’s possible.
  • “Hell will come again,” said Picard, discussing the shape of the conspiracy with Jurati. Jean-Luc, it’s already here.
  • “I’m done murdering people,” said Jurati, having realised she’d been batting for the wrong team. Did Chabon lose his red pencil?
  • I say it every week, but I hate the swearing in this show. Clancy was back to tell Picard to “shut the fuck up”. This is jarring, illusion-breaking stuff, that has no place in Star Trek. If you want to break the spell, why not have Picard wear a Nirvana t-shirt, or have Rios fish out his antique iPhone? The upshot is that this series will date long before its predecessors. How’s that for space irony?
  • The one good scene in this jumble of half-baked ideas was Picard talking Data with Soji. We may not agree that Data loved Picard – he couldn’t, so perhaps Soji was trying to comfort the old man, but Picard’s note, that he loved Data ‘in his way’ and that he too was emotionally limited, was both spot-on from a characterisation point of view, and well put.
  • Picard is a clockwork universe show in which characters remember things at pertinent moments, are stupid when they need to be and enlightened when it’s convenient. I know you know, I’m just saying.
  • The Search for Data ending – in which our favourite android’s consciousness is extracted from Soji and uploaded into B-4’s body, leading to a reunion for him and the TNG crew, is looking increasingly unlikely. It, coupled with a moment where Picard takes some time out to think, only to be visited by Q saying something like, “are you ready for a real adventure?” is, I suggest, the only thing that could turn this show around and generate excitement for a second season. I dread to think what the real ending looks like.

The Old Man’s Back Again

Picard Portents

Discovery’s right couple of seasons

Ed’s Star Trek: Picard Test Audience Tale

Warning: Contains descriptions of harrowing scenes.

FURTHER READING:

The Old Man’s Back Again

Picard Portents

Discovery’s right couple of seasons

Published in: on March 9, 2020 at 15:41  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Picard 1.7

“Nepenthe” was, in some respects, a very cruel episode of Star Trek: Picard. I don’t refer to the slaughter of innocents on the Borg Cube, or the wasteful murder of another legacy character from TNG (did no one tell Elnor that if someone’s been impaled it’s fatal to remove the object as it causes the subject to bleed out). No, this was the sinister tease of a version of Picard in which the former Captain visited the Enterprise crew and caught up with their lives.

Can you imagine it? No contrived plotting – no conspiracy, no daughters of Data, no destruction of Romulus, no cynical and sweary imports from other franchises (Picard called them “motley” in the new dictionary definition of understatement). Just a character we once loved, warm and relaxed, mingling with his friends on screen; their loves, losses and reflections on a lifetime of Trekkin’ presented in delicate, psychologically dense terms – the writers killing themselves, in the absence of space battles and melodrama, to make every glance, aside, and moment of silence, work as hard as it could.

This trip to see the Rikers wasn’t quite that, but it allowed us to imagine what that show would look like, with the consequence that every cutaway to the A-story induced irritation and impatience as we waited to return to Will and Deanna’s rustic wood cabin (why do all former Enterprise officers opt for this lifestyle?), and their charming hospitality.

Frakes and Sirtis slipped back into character well enough, though there was no onscreen explanation for Troi’s puffed lips, augmented breasts, chain-smoker husk, and cockney twang. Regardless, in a case of squint and you could almost see and hear Deanna Troi, the former counsellor did her thing and tried to help Soji (remember her?) come to terms with her android status. She even went so far as to reprimand Picard for his jovial insensitivity, before issuing the instruction the audience had been screaming at their devices for months – go and be Jean-Luc Picard, you know, the one we remember, from the good old days on the Enterprise. For a second, surrounded by two of the old gang, Patrick Stewart’s performance gained focus, and a hint of authority. You could almost touch that TNG sequel.

Yet, as Will, former Captain of the Titan, though he didn’t mention it once, fired up some Pizza and casually discerned the plot of the show he was thankfully not a part of, there were reminders that our old friends were now refugees in the Picard universe, rather than guest stars here to boss the newbies off the screen and restore the franchise to its optimistic best.

In an unwanted echo of Star Trek: Generations, in which the writers played God with Picard’s family for the sake of a cheap parallel – in that instance the Captain and Soren, we met the Rikers’ daughter Kesta (kind and curious as you’d expect given her parentage) who’d lost her brother, er, Thaddaeus, to a rare disease. Apparently, and conveniently, given the plot of the show, this was an illness that could inexplicably be cured by cultivating cells using “a positronic matrix”; a remedy that was no longer available following the synth ban. Desperate, we infer, Riker and Troi took the family to Nepenthe to sample its regenerative soil, which sounded a lot like quack medicine to me (and I suspect to you). When the child died, a subject handled with some sensitivity by the newly comfortable Picard, the family opted to stay put – and this on a planet named in honour of forgetting things.

Though the loss was handled with tenderness, I confess I was irritated by Chabon et al inflicting this tragedy on the couple. It was clear we were being put through the ringer for one reason only – so Kestra and Soji had something in common, a lost sibling, and the writers could mine that parallel for a few scenes. The newly self-aware android struggled with her Enterprise-informed heritage, and noted that she, like Thad (imagine having a kid called Thad – were the Rikers high?) was a child in search of a homeworld. The boy had been born in space you see, so had also searched for his place in the universe.

Still, the trip to Nepenthe, despite the underlying tragedy, and two more Starfleet careers wasted (Riker’s still on the reserve list, kids!), was an enjoyable mini-reunion with the A-story tacked on to set up the next episode. Did we want to see it? I was happy to remain with the Rikers, frankly, and lament that next week I’ll be once again in the company of Rios, Raffi and a now comatose Jurati, rather than sampling Will’s experimental new pizza at the family’s candlelit dining table. Life, as the Rikers know, can be so very unkind.

Anomalous Readings

  • Kestra located Soji’s homeworld in 30 seconds, by texting a Captain friend of the family. Makes you think that with the entire Enterprise crew on hand, Picard might have wrapped this whole thing up in a single episode.
  • Kestra, gushing over said Captain’s voyages, referred to “Tyken’s Rift” as a place. Was this is a mistake on her part? Or did the writers half-remember it from TNG and recall it being a location? It is, as you’ll know, a phenomenon in space – an energy sapping trap for passing vessels.
  • The late Thad seemed to have both a bunk in Kestra’s room, and his own room, if I understood the internal geometry of the Riker house correctly. Seemed morbid to keep both the bed and the room under the circumstances, and one wondered why he had both when Will and Deanna had such a large house.
  • I confess I laughed when Picard tried to reassure Soji, stressing that although most of her life had been fake, her sister was real. Oh, but unfortunately that sister had been murdered. But at least she was real!
  • Jonathan Frakes got a guest star credit in the opening titles but Marina Sirtis had to make do with the end titles. Curious.
  • On board the La Sirena, Raffi continued to irritate by referring to Soji as a “synth chick”.
  • Rios, blinded by his libido, showed he wasn’t particularly bright by assuming Raffi was the on-board mole, when it was bleedin’ obvious it was Jurati – not least because she’d been there when Maddox suddenly died and was the only one who volunteered for the mission. In order to perpetuate this misunderstanding, the writers torturously contrived to have Raffi feed Jurati cake, and for her, crippled by guilt, to vomit said cake. So next week, Jurati’s illness, brought on by a suicide attempt – for she just couldn’t cope with all the recriminations from being a murderer, will be blamed on Raffi. File this one under naked attempt to generate conflict amongst the crew.
  • Commodore Oh implanted an apocalyptic imagine in Jurati’s mind so she’d do her bidding, but why was Agnes so quick to accept it as evidence she had to kill Maddox? It was, after all, not a glimpse of the future but an imagined catastrophe – essentially, a story Oh had told herself. As a scientist, shouldn’t Jurati have asked for proof the synths were a threat to humanity? Maybe suggested Oh look into the Mars attack more closely, like she should have done in the first place?
  • Hugh Borg is dead, just like that. The writers of this show, having slayed Icheb, and ruined Seven, really have a thing against former Borg characters.
  • Elnor’s trapped on the cube. Would it be so bad if we left him there?
  • Riker pointed out it’s been 35 years since “Encounter at Farpoint”, which made me feel positively geriatric. Fuck you, Number One!

The Old Man’s Back Again

Picard Portents

Discovery’s right couple of seasons

Published in: on March 6, 2020 at 11:21  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Dear Chris Chibnall: The Timeless Criticisms

FURTHER READING 

Everybody do the Chibnall drag:

Capaldi’s Long Goodbye:

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time: