The People’s Vote Dilemma

Hey, yeah you with the sad face, come up to my place and live it up. No, sorry, I mean would you like the chance to vote again on leaving Europe? Polling data suggests a little over half of us do, but of course the interpretation of said polling curiously differs depending on how big a zealot for leave or remain you are. You’ll have heard any attempt to overturn the 2016 result is undemocratic, almost exclusively from those who’d like to quickly bank that snapshot of public opinion because they fear, rightly, that an additional two and a half years of debate, scrutiny and emerging detail on what leaving will mean might have informed enough open minds to flip the result.

Are we not all better educated now on our interdependent relationship with the EU – the legacy of integrationist treaties never ratified by a people’s vote? Have we not felt the Victorian building shake as the post-war reinforcements have been dismantled? Has realpolitik and a glance into the abyss not finally cured us of our imperial hangover?

Well, in this prelude to an afterthought we’ll explore why the People’s Vote (the franchise will not extend to animals and inanimate objects) isn’t the panacea for our EU crisis and the corrective to a monumental folly, as billed. We’ll also discover why fans of true, North Korean-style independence will be whistling through a partner’s torn rectum in any event – an argument you won’t hear in any forthcoming referendum campaign. In short, and for those who can’t be bothered to read any further, both sides remain disingenuous hypocrites and neither outcome is particularly satisfactory for fans of truth and transparency. Sorry.

What price victory for men of the people like Lord Adonis, Alistair Campbell and Chuka Umunna, campaigning for a second crack at the voters? Putting aside the social sepsis that would result from a reversal of the leave vote – an ugly and deep sense of betrayal that would condition future elections with unknowable consequences – remaining in the EU, assuming said option appears on the ballot paper, wouldn’t solve any of our problems with the block. It might, if you’re one of the remain and reform brigade, make them worse.

Our experience of first trying then comprehensively failing to extricate ourselves from the EU, would suggest that no exit were possible or desirable. What power would we have to reform an institution that has empirically tested the theory that we’re dependent upon it for our labour force and goods? And what means would we have to effectively plan for an exit when the rules designed to frustrate successful secession planning, namely a fixed period of two years from a standing start, have proven to be so effective in sabotaging the legitimate efforts of a member state to prepare for a smooth and prosperous transition to life outside the block?

We could of course begin covert preparations for leaving, building on the eight weeks of work already done, should circumstances prove propitious and public opinion definitively move in that direction, but the EU is a project built on ever closer union, the slow march to federalism. Could we, after this near death experience, credibly continue to maintain an arm’s length relationship with our partners? Would this moment of clarity not be seized upon to suggest that our current opt-outs represent nothing more than a misguided attempt to prevent the inevitable, and it’s time to go all in, thereby locking out the Faragists for all time?

If we left and re-joined we’d have to accept the single currency and the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights like any new applicant. If we remained, with the principle enshrined in EU dogma that the block’s core ambitions cannot be diluted or re-negotiated, its de facto constitution inviolable, it would be hard to resist new treaties (a future government, fearful of repeating this crisis, would surely abolish the referendum lock on constitutional change). How long will these opt outs hold? We could threaten Brexit of course, assuming parliament’s amenable to the idea at that time, but we’d look like Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, taking ourselves hostage, threatening to blow our own brains out.

At home, a remain vote binds us to Europe while entrenching all the legitimate criticisms Eurosceptic voters had of it in the first place. It will become a truism that the EU is antithetical to dissent, that it is undemocratic. The European Commission, by refusing to accommodate the Conservatives’ half-baked demands, or kowtowing to their pompous sense of entitlement, informed by outdated British exceptionalism, will be seen to have effectively stamped on the confused nationalism of 17.4m pub bores.

The betrayal narrative will become a potent part of the national story – a reverse Dunkirk. Half the people will remain unconvinced of the value of the project, and with no immediate prospect of reform, no serious attempt will have been made to sell it to them. Europe, we’ll be told in the discombobulating days following a vote to remain, with half the country seething, is the only game in town. A humiliated UK government could no longer credibly pursue a policy of constructive disengagement with Brussels. If we’re in we’re all in, we’ll be told, our failed attempt at asserting our illusionary independence used as an illustration of the chaos that results from swimming against the tide.

But what price leaving, if champions of the average Joe, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson get their way? Well, for them a no deal Brexit complete with year zero chaos constitutes the first foot on the sunlit uplands. Why? Because the point of secession for the hardliners is not the oft-repeated drive toward sovereignty, for no such autonomy is possible in a globalised economy, rather a switch to alliances in line with their innate Atlanticism.

The prize, for the cabal of Tories now pushing for a clean break from European regulation and judicial oversight, is a sort of reverse colonialism – closer alignment with our hyperactive cousins, the United States. Buoyed by free market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs, that venerate US-style capitalism the way the Westboro Baptist Church misreads the Bible, and rooted in a form of identification born of close cultural ties and envy at America’s (credit based) prosperity and power – an echo of our own once mighty Empire, Rees-Mogg’s acolytes look to a future where the UK’s free to be a vassal state of the American union. The new alliance comes complete with deregulated food, media conglomeration, free-market health care, higher defence spending, and many other ideas pinched from across the pond that, through discredited and antithetical to the social-democratic outlook of most Britons, appeal to the Atlanticists’ sense of political kindship.

Theirs is a very different formulation from, say, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who in stark contrast with the Tory Hoorays, crave liberation from Europe’s social democratic model because it’s a perceived barrier to the socialist and protectionist regime that Corbyn dreams of birthing. In other words, as long as we’re tied to the capitalist cabal in Brussels the Labour left is shackled. The poor bastards who joined the Labour Party to support Corbyn, hoping he’d put a stop to the Tories’ divisive upending of British political life, have either misunderstood their leader’s intent or never knew it. Corbyn’s hope is to complete Brexit negotiations following a General Election, rather than throwing the question of remaining back to the Great British Public (something he’s determined to avoid at all costs). This is based on his sincere desire to bank the 2016 result like the aforementioned right-wingers, albeit for polar opposite reasons.

This runs to the heart of what the People’s Vote question is really about. It’s not an issue of whether we become an independent country or not, whether we double down on 2016 or backpedal, rather which set of vested interests will prevail, each side courting a different set of sovereignty-pooling alliances. The SNP, for example, are desperate to remain political Europeans because the issue for them is not independence at all, rather the lancing of the colonial complex that informs nationalist thinking; a hatred of English dominance. They yearn to replace this with a new alliance that, in the long term, annihilates English cultural influence and political power, replacing it with a more egalitarian continental union of equals. Sure, the EU represents no such thing, but the fantasy, for ethic nationalists cloaking their bigotry with progressive rhetoric, is potent, just as the fantasy of fifty-first statism makes members of the European Research Group tumescent.

Independence is a false god; a cover for breaking existing alliances that, however beneficial, are ideologically unpalatable to those advocating their opposite. This, ultimately, is why the People’s Vote will solve nothing. If Britain re-votes to leave, we’ll become either an economic colony of the US under copycat Conservatives, or a socialist backwater under a relieved and unchecked Corbyn government. If we vote to remain, hardline opposition to Europe will become entrenched, and whoever governs will have the mother of all nightmares – trying to keep the wolf of ever closer union from the door, while trying to build significant majority support for an institution that has disenfranchised half the country.

One wonders if David Cameron regrets his Michael Corleone, “who says you can’t kill a cop?” moment.

Published in: on September 25, 2018 at 10:00  Leave a Comment  
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The Return of Picard: A Warning from Star Trek History

You can’t really be a Star Trek fan if you didn’t feel a fleeting moment of elation, something like orgasm, at the news delivered by Patrick Stewart in Las Vegas on Saturday August 4th, that he would be returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard after an 18-year absence. However, your fan credentials are also contingent on feeling a profound and deep sense of trepidation. For many people this isn’t just an actor returning to a role, it’s the return of a lost father figure. As I was grown in a lab, my daily routine consisting of accelerated growth shakes and TNG episodes in the TV room, I had no strong male role models to respect and learn from. That’s where Captain Picard came in. Strength, he taught me, wasn’t about imbecilic acts of masculine aggression (more on which later) and posturing, rather liberal enlightenment values, intellectual curiosity, rationalism. I didn’t practice any of this you understand, but I innately understood it to be the most desirable constitution one could possess.

Picard embodied these values. He was more than just the personification of Star Trek’s optimistic future, but also a cultural touchstone for the prevailing consensus of the age; the sum-total of Western values up to that point. He was the arc of history stretching just a little further into the future. Today, Picard seems like a character from the distant past rather than the twenty forth century. We can no longer count on any kind of consensus about the principles he represents, nor the type of diplomacy he offers, nor his ethical treatment of others. As reactionary forces sweep the world, the politics of self-interest and alienation (re)asserting themselves, the return of Picard promises to be a tonic, not to mention an outlier in a TV landscape populated by dark, morally ambiguous characters – byproducts of the troubled zeitgeist.

Trekkies are optimists, they know people can be inspired to do better, be better – so Stewart bounding onto a Vegas stage, his arms outstretched like a hope preacher (though the religious comparison is inappropriate, for Gene Roddenberry envisioned us growing out of such things) was a promise to broken people; folk who’ve been starved of reassuring content for decades and still are, thanks to Star Trek: Discovery.

What you make of Stewart’s announcement in Las Vegas will depend on whether you believe the man’s had time to reflect on the character’s legacy and the body of work he headlined between 1987 and 1994, reaching the right conclusions. Trekkies with long memories will know that not even Stewart himself could be counted on to understand the central appeal of his character back when. One could argue that Stewart was unlucky, not having the same amount of time that his predecessor William Shatner did, to reflect on his character’s contribution to popular culture, and in so doing build a degree of reverence for what said character was thought to represent. Stewart went straight from filming his TV series to making his movies, and what’s clear with hindsight is that nobody, including Stewart, thought The Next Generation’s cerebral approach to storytelling would play on the big screen.

On TV, Stewart was content to play Picard as Roddenberry conceived him, statesmanlike and diplomatic. This held for Star Trek: Generations, despite the depressing spectre of a third act fist fight (and the unforgivable destruction of Picard’s family for the sake of that laziest of plot points – the hero and villain having something in common/being flip sides of the same space coin). But it’s clear that in the movies that followed between 1996 and 2002, Stewart, now enjoying a degree of creative autonomy and power as an executive producer with story input, sought to change a character that bored him, into something that better suited his big screen ambitions. Thoughtful, peace-loving Picard was out; impulsive, combative, insubordinate action man Picard was in. Stewart, it should be noted, will be a producer on the new series.

This imposter smashed model ship cabinets, phasered crewmen, disobeyed orders, sent his ship on a Kamikaze suicide run into the enemy’s prow, and spouted action movie clichés. In short, to appeal to a general audience, who cared not a jot about the character and didn’t buy tickets, and to meet the demands of Stewart’s ego, one of the greatest characters in TV fiction was comprehensively, but perhaps not irreversibly, ruined.

Trekkies are romantics; they like to remember the television series and not those terrible, schlocky movies. They’ve long forgiven Patrick Stewart for this act of cultural vandalism, the desecration of Gene Roddenberry’s greatest creation. Stewart wasn’t alone of course, Brent Spiner, the actor who played the android Data on the show, was also guilty of adding testosterone to his characterization and lowering its IQ in a bid to break free of the twin shackles of intellect and curiosity that cut through to so many millions. This myopia extended to another members of the cast. Marina Sirtis, who played Troi, cites her character getting drunk in Star Trek: First Contact as her favourite all-time Deanna moment. Actors not taking their characters or indeed their responsibility to the audience seriously, matters. It inevitably manifests itself in the material.

When Trekkies think of Picard and Data they don’t think of those big screen aberrations, with their nonsensical plotting and casual disdain for what came before, rather what came before. This is why the return of Picard is a huge risk both for Patrick Stewart and fans alike. If Stewart gets Picard wrong this time, it will be on the far less forgiving stage of television. Stewart’s giving himself an opportunity to atone for those terrible movies, restoring a little prestige and dignity to the character he once embodied. It’s a second chance. There won’t be a third.

So the big question is, can we trust Stewart to deliver Captain Picard as we remember, that is, in essence, not necessarily in rank or deed? Stewart was careful to say in Las Vegas that this might not be the Picard of old. Hopefully, here he was alluding to the fact that any series set twenty years after The Next Generation will inevitably have a different setting, dynamic, a new set of supporting characters, and therefore will take the character in a fresh and hopefully interesting direction. Trekkies must pray that what Stewart doesn’t mean is that he intends to play the character differently, that is to say, with some of the idiocy we witnessed on the big screen. After all, fans who’ve done their homework will know that it was Stewart that wanted Picard to have a greater action hero role in those movies. Anyone who’s read Michael Piller’s account of the making of Star Trek: Insurrection, will have noted Stewart’s insistence that the character move beyond the diplomacy that characterised his time aboard the Enterprise D, as if that fundamental character trait was old hat.

In other words, back then Stewart was bored of being the thoughtful and intelligent Captain Picard, and favoured something closer to a caricature – a man who liked off road driving and machine gunning the enemy. Stewart tells us he’s watched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation in order to prepare for his reprise. We must hope that he has rediscovered the character’s central appeal, his purpose, and is minded to play him accordingly. The Captain Picard we know and love, respected authority, revered the federation constitution, and believed in Starfleet values and their ability to bring moderation and justice to the galaxy. Playing Captain Picard any other way, in an era when that kind of thoughtful and temperate attitude to social and political affairs is under threat as never before, would not only be irresponsible, but an absolute betrayal of Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.

If a new series is to succeed, and to be an honourable sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation, it must be written by people who respect it, and have the ability to write with the kind of natural intelligence it brought to audiences. A portent of doom is the show being produced by Star Trek: Discovery’s Alex Kurtzman, the man also responsible for the idiotic Kirk reboot movies. Kurtzman may be a fan of Star Trek, but he has shown none of the thoughtfulness of those that worked on the franchise in the 80s and 90s. Therefore, the hope must be that the search is now on for scribes whose creative load up is to this monumental task.

Time enough has passed for The Next Generation’s place in popular culture to become cemented and the appeal of its very best episodes to be understood. Consequently, anyone signing up to write this TV sequel can have no excuses. After the debacle that was Star Trek: Nemesis, Captain Picard’s story deserves to be ended in a way that dignifies both the character and the television series he led. Whether the creative team working on the project are capable of delivering on that almighty expectation only time will tell. What’s certain, is that if those responsible get it wrong, the damage to the franchise overall will be considerable, and perhaps this time, irreversible.

Buyer’s Remorse: The Truth about Shared Ownership

All I’ve ever wanted is peace and security. I’m the grave side of forty, I live in London, I’m single and I struggle to overcome the appalling financial penalty that incurs. Home ownership remains an aspiration for lone members of my beaten generation. We live in the long shadow of the right-to-buy and nimbyism. The supply of homes and demand for the same are strangers and never the twain shall meet. My generation endures the Orwellian redefining of the word “affordable” – the construction industry’s thigh slapper at our expense.

Social inequality profiteers, now enjoying mortgage-free living, are bankrolled by the poor. We’re their income streams, their lifestyle guarantors. Renting out part of your home or buying-to-let is the easiest buck an idle asset-rich homeowner ever made. Social injustice hasn’t been this brazen, obnoxious and naturalised since the 19th century. And the children of those who’ve done well from this crime against the general population have the gall to cry foul when the Tory Party forgets itself and threatens their unearned inheritance, as it did, hilariously, during the 2017 Election campaign.

What follows is a story of a con vested on a would-be home owner; a man denied a stable home for the best part of twenty years. You’re warned that it contains distressing descriptions of reckless stupidity that some readers may find distressing.

I was desperate to own a stake in my home city. The alternative, moving away, deracinating myself, felt monstrously unjust. So in desperation, I opted for a very modern compromise; a scam talked up by those desperate you drop any demands for cheap homes and accept the housing market as it is – a position that protects those aforementioned asset-rich home owners. The wheeze in question, Shared Ownership, is a half-way, or rather, half-owned house. In my desperation, I got drunk on the promise, telling myself it would liberate me from the tyranny of absurd market rents and, with bitter retrospective irony, unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords.

And so it was I made a Faustian pact with a Housing Association ostensibly constituted to help me. Before it was merged out of existence in May 2017 (many of them club together and rebrand, it’s a neat way of washing away a stained reputation), the old HA boasted core values: “caring, honesty, innovation and customer service”. Surely they, as the custodians of one of London’s new communities, would be a reputable pimp, committed to the wellbeing of their tenants? Yes, I’d still be one of those, despite the life savings I’d be sinking into new bricks and mortar.

I’d be an odd tenant for sure, saddled with all the responsibilities of home ownership and none of the perks, but a tenant nonetheless. This is what they skip over in the marketing materials. You may think you’re buying into home ownership and will get the attendant privileges, but to the HA you’re just a pretentious dependent, and you get housed accordingly – not set apart from the least socially conscientious families, but imprisoned within the same boundaries. This, you discover later, is how an association fulfils its social housing credentials and maintains its charitable status. You also learn that the thinking that populates these developments is socially illiterate and ruinous.

My flat was in one of London’s new village schemes. “Village” connotes community, urban space, tranquillity and harmony. It invokes a decluttered past, the bucolic, a rural idyll. But a car doesn’t become a horse if you hang a licence plate around its cock, and this village was nothing of the kind. In reality: a reboot of the council estate it replaced. It would import the estate’s tenants, families that came pre-loaded with an entitled attitude to their subsidised housing and environs, and unchecked aggression toward the new middle classes moving in opposite.

They’d had a lifetime’s practice in the delicate art of testing boundaries and ignoring authority. The readymade nucleus of this community didn’t give two fucks about complaints and threats of punitive action. They’d seen and heard it all before, and besides, this was their home. Why adapt for the newbies? Because they’d invested every penny they had in the hope of a peaceful home of their own you say? Careful, that sounds like coded snobbery and an apology for imposing community values on those who have none.

The promise of a building exclusively for shared owners, i.e. those with similar lifestyles and expectations, was an outright, sinister lie – a gag told by the off-plan marketing team, who knew very well buyers would be locked in with social housing families – loud, inconsiderate, hostile and destructive, facing them the way Jimmy Stewart watched Raymond Burr. This revelation, on the day I was handed my keys, became the defining fact of my residency.

The marketing literature had, of course, omitted this crucial detail. Come, it said, enjoy a beautiful communal garden, “perfect for summer evenings and weekends outside” in a building designed exclusively for shared owners, i.e. a group with a diverse tenancy profile. The building may have been designed for us but the HA that acquired it had no intention of populating it that way. Backing onto that garden were the social housing families and their intemperate offspring. I’d been groomed to expect them elsewhere, “in the social housing portions of the development”, to quote the disingenuous language used at point of sale. Now we were locked together, with a single communal space between us, and there would be no escape from their noise, littering, vandalism, home invading kids (no really, they’d run into the ground floor flats of single young women, then mock them when asked to leave), and the grinding indifference of the parent-tenants who’d sit indoors, enjoying their subsidised housing, while their children tore up the space outside.

Said space, for the avoidance of doubt, was theoretically the responsibility of all tenants but only one kind, the humble leaseholder, paid for its upkeep and repair – that’s the service charge you hear so much about. To know the same while you watched the kids of social housing tenants vandalise the space, was one thing. To discover later that CCTV only covered the entrances to the garden, and this was the HA’s excuse to spread the cost for repairing the additional damage, knowing leaseholders would pay most (if not all of) the bill, was quite another. An oily middle manager would later explain that the liability of social housing tenants couldn’t be proven, nor the fact, known to the dogs in the street, that they were now the exclusive, unsupervised occupiers of the disputed territory. When I suggested the CCTV turned on the entrances, recording who went in and out, would prove exactly that, I was met with silence.

A divide had been created. It was between those who had a stake in the building, so were incentivised to maintain it and promote community cohesion, and those who had none, so were not. This was an unholy fusion, a cut and shut of lifestyles, but it wasn’t an admin error on the Housing Association’s part, it was policy. So why do it? Why populate a building in a way that guarantees social conflict? Why make the non-statutory parts of each tenancy – leasehold and social housing, different when it came to the crucial definition of what constituted nuisance noise in the same communal area? Thoughtlessness? Mercenary calculation? A mechanism to guarantee a certain amount of churn on the Shared Ownership side and the healthy movement of appreciating capital? Take your pick, but the result was Hell on Earth.

Getting the HA to accept any responsibility for this, or honour their role as landlord to provide the peace and quiet sold, proved mission impossible. Whatever they thought privately, and one imagines the social illiteracy and stupidity of the set up was apparent almost immediately, the HA’s line, from the get-go, was one of denial, obfuscation, the invocation of thought terminating cliché – “kids are kids”, and interminably long periods of silence; a position designed to run down the residency clock and minimise, if not expunge, any legal liability for the disaster vested on leaseholders.

A six-month complaints process, a brick wall, was the first attempt at crushing dissent. When that got us nowhere, with political answers to specific questions deemed “sufficient”, a long review of the management arrangements governing the building concluded nothing was to be done. The HA’s legal advisors decreed, using clips of audio recordings, divorced from their proper context – 40 plus hours of said noise a week, every week, for six consecutive months of each year, that the kids didn’t exceed statutory nuisance noise levels. A judge, we were told, would be unlikely to order enforcement action under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act; a claim, they gambled, we’d be unlikely to test due to the huge legal costs involved. When Winston Smith questioned Big Brother he was told he didn’t exist. It turns out our social problems didn’t exist either.

The HA chose to concentrate, in an act of wilful ignorance, on their alleged inability to enforce leasehold tenants’ notional right to peace and protection from anti-social activity, due to the difficultly in taking action against the people they’d housed opposite me. That they’d engineered a situation that made enforcement problematic both practically and politically (imagine the headlines – “HA Evicts Poor Families from New Homes!”, “HA tells Slum Clearance Families, ‘You’re Scum’ and Sends Them Packing”) didn’t seem to occur to those administering the mess. That it occurred to someone before the fact was obvious. Organisations that aren’t anticipating problems don’t lie to prospective buyers.

The regulatory regime was a safety net made of rice noodles. The government created bodies, carefully constituted to give HA’s the latitude they needed to mismanage the sector in the interests of construction and the market – the Homes and Communities Agency quango that regulates Housing Associations, and Housing Ombudsman – proved toothless and useless, applying neither close scrutiny or intelligence to their judgements. They concentrated on evidence of tick-boxing rather than outcomes and impact – a charter that allows an association to mark their own homework. Not only did they find my HA was “under no obligation” to reveal how a building was populated, a licence to lie, not to mention music to the ears of snake oil salesmen everywhere, they also concluded these fraudsters had acted properly simply by following their own ineffective and socially divisive internal processes. What were they? Relying on neighbour on neighbour reports to identify wrongdoing, and sanctioning individuals rather than taking steps to change the behaviour of a specific tenant group, which like all groups, conditions the actions of the greatest number of people.

The HA held the belated report (that had taken 15 months to produce due to understaffing) up as evidence that they’d done nothing wrong (literally, when they finally deigned to meet me after 2 years), but doing the minimum necessary to look busy and taking effective and transformative action is not the same thing. The HA had no greater friend than the regulatory regime that was supposed to hold it to account.

With no prospect of the situation improving and official collusion making mincemeat of my complaint, I duly played my part and sold up, which thanks to the HA’s go slow bureaucracy and indifferent solicitors, took nine resource sapping months. I was forced to abandon the principle that had informed my purchase, namely that I’d be buying in to a home not an investment. My tormentors, my negligent and cynical landlords, made a tidy profit and took an estate agent sized commission, despite doing no work. Their outlook, antithetical to the ethos of community building, their alleged reason to exist, won out. A certain amount of churn is healthy in the Shared Owned sector – it keeps the HAs flush while destroying any incentive they have to improve the lifestyle prospects of those controlling moving capital.

What of my fellow leaseholders, you ask? My New Village experience opened a timely window on post-Thatcherite society. I may believe in community, in solidarity, but the majority of my atomised shared owners had either forgotten this principle or never knew it. None, it seemed, had the appetite for a long fight, or any fight. The problem that blighted my life for 28 months only became salient for them when the Housing Association doubled down on their cynicism and attempted to bill leaseholders for repairs to vandalism caused by the kids of social housing tenants. By then I was on my way out and they were on their own.

These scabs, happy to let their neighbours suffer, if there was no impact on their daily existence, saw their flats as ISAs. They kept quiet, knowing they’d be moving on in a few short years with an inflated bank balance as reward for the HA successfully flogging this duff product to the next poor sod pursuing their property owning dream.

To be sure that deal was understood, the Housing Association had dealt with dissent ruthlessly. I spoke to a young neighbour, a primary school teacher, who told a story about inadvertently adding steam to our pressure cooker, having plucked up the courage to have a social gathering on her balcony, four months into her residency. The family opposite, affronted by half-hearted calls for them and their immediate neighbours to practice respect and silence, knuckles dragging, saw a chance for revenge and came out threatening violence. My fellow leaseholder complained, only to find her feral opponent had pre-empted her, getting in first.

In the awful mediation that followed, another inversion of a process that’s supposed to protect residents, spearheaded by the HA’s hapless and cold Anti-Social Behaviour team, she was reprimanded for having the audacity to act like she part-owned the place, taking outrageous liberties like inviting friends around, and was brought to tears by a landlord that (erroneously) threatened her with eviction if she ever showed up on their radar again. Curiously, she opted to further suffer in silence.

The parents of the children who tormented us, having been given a tacit greenlight to dismiss their neighbours’ misery, intuited their cherubs could be weaponised to kill complaints. One resident, who photographed a night-time congregation of kids, following the HA’s claim said gatherings didn’t happen, was branded a paedophile by the insta-mob that formed moments later. More threats. More intimidation.

When it was put to the HA that their attitude and management of this clusterfuck had both conditioned and exacerbated the situation, they adopted lines that would endure, no matter how discredited by experience and accrued evidence. They bore no responsibility for the scenario, they said, and their piecemeal responses were immaterial to it running on and on. It was, they argued disingenuously, a simple dispute between neighbours, one we had to own, as they certainly didn’t want it – not a consequence of their cynicism and stupidity.

Thanks to my former landlord, my old new village became, in no time at all, a place of suspicion and fear, conditioned by the tabloid imagination, and cynically rigged to disadvantage those who shout least while paying most. The organisation that branded a new sink estate a village, has now itself rebranded. But whatever it calls itself, or indeed the divisive community it mismanages, it’s created a place that’s post-fact, post-law, post-common sense, and available to move into now for those quick enough to snag a re-sale.

As for me, I remain in search of peace and security, the simple pleasures of home. I do not expect to find them while I’m young enough to enjoy them. I may never enjoy them. That’s the certain fate today’s Housing market and its profiteers have inflicted on me and so many others.

The Strange Death of Star Wars: A Solo Story

The Memorial Day weekend box office offered an uncharacteristic shock. In the age of corporate synergy, brand saturation, multiplex occupation (or racketeering), with each tentpole modelled on the imaginary desires of the pliable, bovine masses, and fed to them excluding all else, it is thought that a movie’s gross can be predicted to within a few million dollars. The analysts know what you’re going to see and how often before you do. Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story was, in industry parlance, tracking for a huge opening – success was a cast iron certainty, like the content.

But the men and women who think they can read the big print pamphlet that is the public were wrong by half. Solo played to more empty houses than a Lost Prophets reunion tour. The Golden Goose passed a stool. Hacks flippantly reached for series clichés – “there’s been an awakening”, “I have a bad feeling about this”, “this deal’s getting worse all the time”, but Disney won’t be laughing. These Star Wars movies were supposed to fill queues at multi-billion dollar theme park attractions, giant movie sets built to perpetuate the lie (firmly debunked by George Lucas) that the public have a stake in the films’ universe. Bob Iger, Uncle Walt’s heir, woke on Monday to discover he was John Hammond.

What happened to the infantilized idiots who soiled themselves, paroxysms of delight abound, at the sight of the Millennium Falcon in that Force Awakens trailer three years ago? Wasn’t the appeal of Han Solo central to that movie’s meteoric success? Lucasfilm were so confident they had the suss that Ron Howard, a directing droid, was ordered to generate the requisite material when the human directors rebelled. There’s no evidence they knew what the audience wanted either of course. Maybe they knew even less, but the sacking pointed to a kind of presumption about what the mob craved – full fat nostalgia. This is a failure to conceptualise. It’s relationship with originality is akin to O.J’s with women.

Online groupthink throws up an easy explanation for the marked and tangible indifference to Solo. Star Wars is over exposed, the releases too close together; fans voted with their feet after The Last Jedi aggressively deconstructed their fan fic approach to structuring expectations. But to say that’s why Alden Ehrenreich remains best known within his own household is to focus on a bleeding exit wound while ignoring the bullet.

With Solo, Disney have released four movies in a row that cannibalise the mythos rather than expanding it. We now know the tipping point to this approach. Excitement got sucked into the maw.

Star Wars was once an independently made and financed spectacle – the flawed machinations of a second rate auteur with a first rate idea. The prequels were sterile, lifeless movies; technocentic experiments that proved, charmingly, that the creator of this juggernaut, several removes from his original idea, and fat on the consolidating hard work of others, had no clue what made the old films work. Lucas, aggrieved at audience hostility to his hubris and vandalism, sold his company to Disney. Fan skepticism was surely tempered by the persuasive idea that the corporation, with no ego to bruise, and a business driven tail wags dog philosophy, would show more creative savvy.

With the light dimming after Solo’s quiet debut, the first Star Wars movie to have the distinction of being a pop cultural event by virtue of it being unseen, it appears George’s fundamental cluelessness has been inherited by the Lucasfilm/Disney bivariate. Their initial corporate analysis of what constituted sustainable trips to the well comprised of giving the gigantic (and if the prequel grosses were anything to by, critically illiterate) fan base both nostalgia and novelty, prequels and sequels. But in this first phase of Disney’s stewardship it hasn’t occurred to anyone to imbue either with anything new.

The Force Awakens and its sequel, The Last Jedi, were, respectively, a remake and inversion of the original trilogy. Anger levelled at Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII was misdirected at the treatment of legacy characters, as if, in stark contrast to real human beings, they’d advance to pensionable age frozen in aspic, married to the same ideas, aspirations and assumptions that characterised their twenties. That, said the practiced storytellers flooding cinemas, was a breach of trust; so too any plot twist which robbed their favourite galaxy of its clockwork character – a stifling universe in which everyone and everything was related and predetermined. A place that if occupied for real, would render all lives fixed and therefore tyrannised.

The film was baggy and awkward, it wasn’t much fun – but at least it had half a mind to bite down on the straightjacket straps and have a tug. Its failure to break free was due to the strength of those ties – conceptual, iconographic; same old same old. Solo was supposed to be a palate cleanser, a deep breath, a chance to let our hair down and have some childhood fun before the heavyweight Episode IX came along, but offering fans a literal hit of nostalgia on the back of disguised (but well imbibed) doses, was always a gamble. It’s a bit like serving up a plate of kebab meat and chips after three servings of high end 14 day hung, grass fed slow grown lamb braised in spices & liquor, served with truffle fries. One can be in denial about what you’re eating when chowing down on the gourmet version, but there’s no hiding from the fat oozing, oil saturated high street staple; feed that makes you feel bloated and tired.

Disney and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy are now alert to the devastating realisation that Star Wars fandom is an impossible object. The fans want surprises and high stakes, but only those surprises and high stakes they’ve already imagined; ideas sourced from the movies they know. But give them a rote rendering of what they know, in sop to their imagined reverence for original trilogy ephemera, and they’re not interested.

The 1977-83 trilogy was supposed to be a stock of characters and situations that one could riff off for the next twenty years, but this supposes the fans have been inert in the intervening decades, that they haven’t already canonised the backstories, talked out the miscellany, imagined the interlinking events. What they require from the galaxy’s owners are better stories than the shit they’ve made up themselves; new characters with fresh backdrops, bound by the rules and technology of this universe, a shared identity, who face new challenges, fresh complications.

Eating what little on screen Star Wars already exists is a formula for formula. Cynicism may yet produce well received inserts – there’s sufficient interest in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life between the first two trilogies to tempt Lucasfilm, for example, but in the long term that kind of anthology flick strips all the ambiguity and mystery from its parent pictures. Marvel’s success is based on moving forward not sideways. The movies may be inconsequential but they add texture. If Star Wars is going to pull off the same trick, its brain trust will need to imagine a Star Trek: The Next Generation – something of the same genus that has its own distinct character, characters and philosophy.

Published in: on May 28, 2018 at 11:15  Leave a Comment  
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Brexit reminds me of the worst breakup I ever had

As Brexit continues to confound the intellect and rouse the lowest of emotions, I’ve realised it’s a perfect metaphor for the worst breakup I ever had. I probably shouldn’t single out Donald Tusk’s fairly equivocal rejection of Theresa May’s bespoke divorce fantasy. Eleven years on, almost every hopeless compromise reminds me of those dark days: arriving late at Jimmy’s World of Food and having to make do with the dregs from lukewarm tureens; failing to get my favourite seat in the cinema, so ploughing on in an isle exposed, end-of-row position, vulnerable to latecomers and anti-piracy sweeps from gormless ushers; not being able to afford a house with character in a desirable location, so having to settle for a part-owned, clinical white shell made of plasterboard and brick veneer, facing onto a communal garden occupied by borstal rejects on Tartrazine benders. Still, of all life’s grim realities, our exit from the EU works best.

In this pseudo-comic conceit I, of course, am the EU and my former partner, we’ll call her Boudicca, is the United Kingdom of England and Wales. I wanted to stay together, imagining our mutual interest and long-term prosperity was best served by ever-closer union. But for Boudicca, our relationship, originally founded on a student basis, the psychosexual equivalent of the Common Market, had mutated to involve too many compromises, too much syphoning off of independence, and consequently it had become a shackle. We were just too different, she said, and besides, she wanted to do a free trade deal with the United States.

In dumping me, even the good parts; a referendum involving a single voter – her – in which she campaigned ferociously, lest she talk herself out of it; she’d unilaterally signalled her intent to diverge. There’d been eight years of emotional and temperamental alignment but that, whatever the platitudinous bullshit offered, could not continue. This meant, as the body forced to deal with the consequences, I’d have to try and salvage my happiness and dignity, the equivalent of keeping the EU together, while sending a very clear signal to myself that I could not be vulnerable to a capricious woman’s sociopathy in future, i.e. protecting what remained of me from further ruinous breakups.

Initial negotiations were difficult. Boudicca wanted to retain some of the benefits of our relationship – a casual and friendly association with some family members – “tell them I’m thinking of them”, a social media connection to an old friend living in the US, and permission to ring me on occasion when drunk, bored and sentimental. However, I was adamant; one couldn’t simply cherry pick the benefits of union.

Consigning me to life’s fly tip meant giving up the friendship we, (well, I), had enjoyed. Anyone I’d designated friend or relative, though definitions in both cases were stretched, was part of the same awful package and could not be courted separately. And when it came to plugging rare moments of loneliness, not nearly tinged enough with regret for my liking, some other poor bastard would have to chunter on the phone in my place. As Boudicca saw me as an interchangeable archetypal phalloid, who could and would be replaced in the fullness of time, rather than an irreplaceable person in my own right, this seemed reasonable.

Edxit meant Edxit.

Theresa May didn’t want Brexit, because the EU was a comfortable and understood entity, that though imperfect, made life (relatively) simple. But lumbered with the referendum and fearful of the ultra-Brexiteers who swarm beneath her bed like clothes moths in a warm, airless room, she’s had to openly confront everything she dislikes about the Union while patronising, sorry, flattering the grievously offended block to salvage the rest. From the EU’s point of view she’s Boudicca, and like me following Boudicca’s departure, the only way the EU can survive and rebuild its strength is by drawing a line underneath the whole tragic spectacle and moving on.

Like me, all those years ago, they don’t want to do it. Tusk, Verhofstadt and Barnier think we’re crazy but have little choice but to live with the decision to leave and rally the troops to protect their interests. Like me, during those terrible weeks, months and years, they hope their former partner will wise up and employ the nostalgia they clung to in all other areas in service to intimacy once shared. But deep down, as I was ultimately forced to admit, both to myself and others, divergence means profound differences emerging over time. That fork in the road doesn’t lead back to the old path, just a dark and foreboding lane, traipsed by pub bores and provincial xenophobes.

Tusk knows, though he hates it, that the dream is over and it must be polite conversation and the occasional e-mail from now on. For Theresa May, the reality of what Brexit really means is only now beginning to crown. She’s going to have to go out there and befriend less committed, more predatory partners, perhaps finally settling for some comfortable but unfulfilling coalition with the state equivalent of a feckless porcine fantasist, addled by misogyny and alcoholism, brandishing a shrivelled chode.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.15 (End of Season Special)

Critic’s log, supplemental.

I know I mock Star Trek: Discovery but I feel privileged to have been watching TV at the moment a new idiom entered the language. Happy Days gave us “jump the shark”, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, “nuke the fridge”, Last Jedi “poppined the Leia”, and now, thanks to the Disco season finale, we have “showed the Enterprise”.

Oh no, they’ve showed the Enterprise. This series really has hit rock bottom.

Disco hacks, you never show the Enterprise. Not in a Star Trek prequel. Because THEN YOU’VE GOT TO FUCKING DO SOMETHING WITH IT.

But we’ll come back to that scene.

First, the ghastly wrapping up of this fifteen-episode fan fic serial, so crassly plotted it could have been written by you. “Will You Take My Hand?” had a lot to tie off and did its ugly business with machine-like efficiency, even pausing from time to time for a quiet character moment. Mick got to recount the murder (and implied rape) of her parents by the beast-like Klingons, Tyler regaled us with his childhood sailing obsession (yawn) and Voq’s penchant for gambling (which included taking a punt on being smashed to bits and re-sculpted as human), and Tilly got high with original series guest star Clint Howard, now playing an Orion gadabout, lounging in a Qo’noS ghetto stained with alien urine from species with multiple members. And all the while the existential threat to the Federation played out in low-key fashion, pivoting on Mirror Georgiou’s attempt to plant a hydro bomb in an active Klingon volcano. No, really.

This immediate threat to the Klingons, and the abstract one to Earth, were never felt because we knew, this being a prequel, that neither would come to anything. No, this was strictly an exercise in crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. The only intrigue came from whether the hacks behind this wrongheaded voyage had the nous to employ a little calligraphic finesse. In the end, dogged by their own miserable plot, and as anxious to wrap it up as we were to see it wrapped up, they could not.

Starfleet’s plan was to have Mirror Georgiou detonate the bomb, causing an ecological disaster (would this head of the snake strategy really work when the Empire, as constituted, was a hydra?). Mick essentially won the peace by convincing the Admiralty to install L’Rell as the Klingon’s unifying leader. The Discovery’s captive, so the easiest person in the universe to be stuck with the label of Federation stooge, would convince the twenty-four houses to back her by using the primed explosive as blackmail.

Yes, that’s right – L’Rell, rather than arguing the Empire has acted dishonourably and the Federation were not the true enemy, rather the divisions within their own society, convinced a race that only lives for war and conquest to abandon the fight, with Earth in sight of its warships, because she alone could give them a sense of shared identity, and if they thought differently, she’d explode the device nested under the planet’s surface and consign them all to suffocation.

Veteran Klingon watchers might have wondered if this principle free, culturally tin-eared solution was a good formula for long lasting peace. Wouldn’t the act of threatening genocide make L’Rell a seditious anarchist in the mind of most Klingons? Would she be sleeping with the clearly identifiable Starfleet-issue detonator and one eye open for the rest of her life, or did she hope that once her people got used to having their domestic extinction held over them, their despotic leader’s finger on the button, they’d knuckle down and show due deference? What would stop any one of millions of bloodthirsty vengeful warriors, denied the sweetest of victories by a Federation puppet, simply conspiring to kill her while she slept? If we meet her again in Season 2, will she be travelling around in a disruptor proof case, like the Klingon pope, the detonator manacled to her wrist, her eyes bloodshot from the stimulants required to keep her awake and alert 24 hours and 8 minutes a day?

Nothing became Discovery like the half-baked solution to its dull, inconsequential war. Like every story beat before it, the end of the conflict was a prisoner of the plot contortions planned out in those frenzied first months of production. If L’Rell was going to win over the Klingons the show’s focus would have to be on the Empire’s internal politics and manoeuvring her into position gradually. But no one, including the hacks in the writers’ room, wanted to watch that show, and having failed to give her the most obvious leverage, namely the Klingons starting to lose the war, because of their ideological in-fighting, as that would deny the Discovery crew their high stakes finish, they had to find a shortcut that would allow her to win over the warmongering tribes and restore the status quo in a single scene. It worked within the context of the lone episode but had no dramatic integrity overall. In this, it joined the Voq and Lorca reveals and Starfleet’s mystifying use of Mirror Georgiou. Discovery, more often than not, has looked like a show written in a game of Consequences.

What, we’re entitled to ask, was the point of this fucking war? The only Starfleet officer who thought it should be fought dirty was a Mirror Universe doppelgänger who didn’t give a shit about the outcome. Everyone else, even Admiral Cornwell, who only lost her nerve toward the end because she was desperate thanks to the machinations of said doppelgänger (who’d taken the victory solution out of play for 9 months) flouted their Starfleet credentials throughout, though in the most literal way possible. Discovery’s a show that wore its insecurities about its Star Trek credentials on its uniform sleeve, with pious speechifying making a return to the franchise for the first time since TNG season one. Ultimately, a war was fought and won to mature the sensibilities of one Michael Burnham – the fucking idiot who started the conflict in the first place.

Mick, who’d spent a lifetime brooding over the death of her parents, only had to start an interstellar conflict and broker a flippant and unstable peace, to realise that Federation values of tolerance and understanding worked best. Yeah, it was a pity about the broken bodies of all those men, women and children littering the galaxy, the collateral damage of her monumental hubris, but she’d pulled such a blinder for the Federation – acquiring a Mirror Universe tyrant to enable an attack on Qo’noS, coaching the Empire to accept an armistice based on the threat of genocide, that it was only right and proper that she be restored to full rank and returned to active duty on her dream assignment.

Given the body count, might retirement not have been a better face saving option for all parties? They always need people to help out on the Earth’s subaquatic bases, don’t they? If I’d lost a son, daughter or wife to the conflict, I’m not sure I’d feel good knowing that Mick was back as a ranking officer, wearing the Federation’s highest medal of honour. And she got it by saving the enemy from mass extinction and military collapse, so I can thank her for the next 70 years of cold war too.

So, moral victory secured, the crew of the Discovery warped to collect their new, as-yet-uncast Captain, who will be quantum scanned before being given their command codes. But, as we discussed last week, there was no way on Earth, or any other planet, that this fan service machine was going to end without a cliffhanger. If we were unsure what form it would take, we needed only imagine the stupidest thing the writers could come up with – the biggest stunt they could pull, remembering they’d have months to work out how to turn it into a viable piece of storytelling. The biggest of course would have been a peak into the Original Series’ universe; confirmation that Discovery had been set elsewhere all along. But in the event, this bunch of literal minded miscreants went for the next best thing – an actual look at Christopher Pike’s Enterprise, breaking warp, in distress, and naturally redesigned as a final fuck you to the audience.

This series has avoided, like the plague, confirming its Prime Universe credentials. It created an opt-out in the form of multiverse travel, teased us with the prospect of the Defiant, late of “The Tholian Web”, then declined to show it. We reasoned the writers had decided on the safe route of creative ambiguity, because they couldn’t decide themselves, keeping cast-iron identifiers off screen so we could argue it out indefinitely, or at least until we got bored asking. Now we know that baring an astonishing reversal, Season 2 will settle it (once the creative team work out what the fuck to do).

A ship that’s supposed to contain Spock (unless, God help us, next year’s story is centred on finding the missing Vulcan) now faces the one carrying his Father and adopted sister. When we return to this series, logic demands we get a look at the Enterprise Bridge and her crew. I’d like to believe the hacks that run this shithouse know exactly what we’ll see when screens are activated, but I suspect, and I think you do too, they have no idea. So why do it? Why show the Enterprise? Because this somewhat desperate end to the series was the only thing a show this reliant on fan service could do to sustain interest in the months ahead.

For me showing the Enterprise, teasing Pike and his Cage-era crew, was an admission of failure on Discovery’s part. It had failed to captivate on its own merits, failed to tell a story that resonated or chimed with the times, failed to introduce likable characters with great potential, and failed to make the case for itself as a prequel to the Original Series.

A serialised season, hamstrung by decisions taken early, when the writers had little sense of the show’s identity or purpose, made the kind of course corrections and character development possible in an episodic format, impossible. The Next Generation had a tumultuous first year, but good self-contained stories steadied the ship and settled stomachs turned by some of the worst. But when your entire series is an ill-conceived story, a story that uglifies your characters, it’s hard to change direction.

Well, now the Enterprise is here, and we’re left hanging with the same anxiety we nursed going in – is this our Star Trek or an idiot’s reimagining? Now the showrunners have repeated the question they must answer it and the stakes, unlike those offered in the first season, are real. Get the answer wrong and with little else to recommend it, there may be no reason for real Trekkies to watch this show. And if some rage-quit the thing, incensed that their doubts about it have been obnoxiously reworked into a cliffhanger by writers desperate for their attention – well, I wouldn’t blame them. Would you?

Anomalous Readings

  • Having failed to just extract what they needed from her mind using a mind meld, Mirror Georgiou was given her freedom by the Federation. Given what Lorca did when loose in Discovery’s universe, that seemed like an unwarranted gamble.
  • Pet hate of the week: the way Mick holds her communicator. She handles it like Apprentice contestants hold their iPhones. Properly or not at all, fuck face.
  • Tellingly, the medal ceremony in Paris only really focused on Stamets, Tilly and Saru – the only three characters the season had any room for who weren’t dead. Even Culber got more screen time than the rest of the bridge crew, and he was represented by a medal in the palm of Stamet’s hand.
  • The Enterprise issued a distress call. Distressed because Pike had just met their Original Series universe selves? Well, why the fuck not? That’s the only way this fucking show can have it both ways.
  • Tilly looked sexy on Qo’noS. And who knew the planet was multicultural? One in the eye for Star Trek’s essentialism, though only if this is the Prime Universe, obviously.
  • So Tyler, though now essentially human, decided to remain with L’Rell? Good luck, man – you’re going to be fighting off a lot of assassins from now on.
  • Perhaps the most damning thing one can say about Discovery is that the most entertaining thing it’s produced in Year One are tweets from Jason Issacs.
  • The Discovery needs a captain. Does anyone have Denise Crosby’s number?
  • Maurice Hurley, the thorn in Gene Roddenberry’s crotch during the first season of TNG, was so pissed off with the production’s problems that he actually suggested scrapping the entire cast and starting afresh for Season 2. Seemed crazy then.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.14

Critic’s log, supplemental.

Discovery isn’t just a mechanical twist factory; a show where you can hear the cogs turning and smell the machine oil; it’s also, we learned in “The War Without, The War Within”, a liar. The Klingons have not been victorious as billed – it turns out Saru was catastrophizing. In fact, the bastards have occupied 20% of Federation territory using their cloaking advantage (thanks Lorca!) and are apparently engaged in a scrappy inter-house competition to see who can enslave more humans. So much for our immoral hope, the ISS Discovery, for which we were prepared to turn a blind eye as sexy Captain Tilly laid waste to entire Klingon colonies. It was destroyed on entry to the Prime Universe (or something like it). Who destroyed it with the Klingon sarcophagus ship just atomised? The writers would rather you didn’t ask and just enjoyed yourselves.

This adjustment was welcome because it meant the Discovery would not, as feared in the aftermath of last week, have to travel back in time to undo a hopeless situation. There will, apparently, be no cheating. If the Federation wants to win this boring war, they’re going to have to do real donkey work – nothing less than a full-blooded assault on Qo’noS, the enemy’s homeworld. All of which was fine, but this being Discovery, the beats to facilitate this finale were wrongheaded and devoid of internal logic.

One can imagine the writer’s room salivating at the prospect of ending the penultimate episode with the money shot of Mirror Georgiou bestriding the bridge, pretending to be her counterpart, leading the mission. Starfleet had no choice you see, because evil Philippa, genocidal conqueror in her own domain, had already subjugated the Klingons and decimated Qo’noS back home. She knew that charred planet like the back of her blooded hands. If they wanted to use her intel, and have the crew respond to a mass murderer’s commands, Admiral Cornwell and Mick had little choice but to put a Starfleet uniform on the Emperor and spin some bullshit about Prime Georgiou being alive and undercover all this time. So having just got rid of a Mirror Commander, everyone’s favourite organic starship now had another. And all this for that scene. Except, unfortunately, it was complete nonsense.

Mirror Georgiou might have been the big tits where she came from, but she was still just a human being – a woman with a nice, pliable brain if you happen to be Sarek and can perform a mind meld on a whim. Sarek was onboard for some time in this installment and even performed a meld on Saru – the crew member noted for his pacifism and caution. But when he was introduced to the Emperor of the Terran Empire, and told by this bloodthirsty tyrant that she conquered Klingons for breakfast, and for her this was all old news, Sarek – a towering intellect, and one of the Federation’s finest strategic minds, forgot to stick his hand on her face and extract the topographical and tactical information that could guarantee victory, thereafter consigning this monster to the brig where she belonged.

Why didn’t he do this? Spock didn’t hesitate in The Undiscovered Country when Valeris was outed as a conspirator. Did he forget? Instead, Discovery’s hacks decided that the crew, for no discernable reason, would indulge their guest despot, going as far as to ensure she was kept comfortable in quarters. If you found this weird you weren’t alone. Mick, doubling down on the moral confusion, even went as far as suggesting that Philippa should be granted political asylum, despite the likelihood that the Federation constitution doesn’t recognize parallel universes as legitimate jurisdictions. This was in stark contrast to her attitude toward Tyler – the Klingon who’d been brutalized and brainwashed, and was therefore demonstrably not responsible for his actions.

Mick couldn’t wait to spend time with Georgiou, the woman who looked like her mentor but was, in reality, a deranged fascist with zero respect for the sanctity of life. Tyler, a broken man who was just emerging from an identity crisis, having learned his entire personality was a neurological graft and his body the result of forced species reassignment, in which, amongst other indignities, his bones had been smashed and his heart incised, had to make do with lunch in the canteen and Tilly’s pity. Mick, it seems, can forgive tyranny but not an ex-boyfriend who tried to kill her when his alternate persona was activated. When she finally deigned to see him, he was essentially told he’d have to work through his issues alone, and that her sympathy for the mutilated man only went so far. Georgiou, at least, had murdered Klingons – Mick’s bête noir, whereas he’d been one, and her innate racism didn’t want to touch that. Not again.

So once again Discovery’s hacks put on their oven gloves and mishandled the fallout from their own predetermined plot twists. This, you felt, is what happens when you lay out the cliffhangers first, rather than deciding where you want to end up and what’s the best character-centered route to your destination. It’s almost as if they feared the audience would get bored if they didn’t tug the rug every week, and you can understand that when US viewers have already paid a subscription to view the entire series, so would be inclined to watch it to the end regardless.

Next week, we finally arrive at season one’s disappointing climax. Knowing the writers as we do, we’re anticipating a big twist to take us into the hiatus. What might the contrived stunt complication be? Well, after the war’s been tied up and L’Rell, newly acquainted with the Federation’s pluralism and inclusivity, unifies the Klingons and decides that cold war is preferable to the real thing – keeping an eye on Starfleet while demanding they stay within their restored borders (with perhaps a buffer to make things easier, you know, like a neutral zone), we’ll need something to rouse us going into those end credits. It’s a given Mick will get her commission restored, possibly installed as Discovery’s first officer (or, gulp, Captain), but what’s our cliffhanger? Introduce Prime Lorca? Have the spore that landed on Tilly give her a window into an all new universe – one with Cage-era uniforms and ‘60s tech? C’mon you fucks, you know you want to. We’ve stuck with you. Don’t we deserve a bit of happiness?

Anomalous Readings

  • Saru learned that Mick dined on his species. Despite this, there was no major fallout. I suppose there just wasn’t time to explore this idea.
  • Stamets bumped into Tyler and the two briefly discussed the latter murdering the former’s boyfriend while under the influence. Despite this, there was no major fallout. I suppose there just wasn’t time to explore this idea.
  • Next season, the writers really must learn the art of the concise teaser. I think this week’s was a fifth of the episode.
  • The Mirror Universe is classified. Mark that down for continuity.
  • I was disturbed that the comic scene I imagined last week, in which an Admiral visited the brig and was introduced to Mirror Georgiou, the captured despot, and given some half-baked explanation as to why she was there, actually happened in the very next episode.
  • The Saratoga was listed as one of the Federation ships destroyed by the Klingons. You’ll recall this was, in name, the same ship that gets probed in the opening of The Voyage Home. That ship’s insignia suggested it was the first of the modern line of starships with that moniker. Is this a hint we’re in a different universe? Yes, I know – clutching at space straws. With an episode to go, I’m desperate.
  • “Conquer us or we will never relent,” L’Rell told Cornwell. Okay, but if Discovery can’t win the war without adopting the values of the enemy, what has this series been about? Next week’s make or break, kids.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.13

Critic’s log, supplemental.

As we warp toward the unsatisfying conclusion to Discovery‘s inaugural season, we’ve made an unpleasant, er, discovery. Don’t shake your head, we fucking have! Your son’s Star Trek is a sausage factory, its singular focus: the production of plot twists. And when Mummy and Daddy only care about rugpulls the children suffer. Our characters must contort on command. The plot tells them what to do instead of the writers being guided by them. It’s the reverse of the approach taken on Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul, for example; a series that’s noted for taking its sweet time, privileging character development over conspicuous plot mechanics. That’s a serialised show to savour not to look back on and say, “Huh?”

Exhibit A, Gabriel Lorca – once the brooding, psychologically damaged Captain of the Discovery who, we were lead to believe, had been bludgeoned by the existential threat of war into adopting a morally relativistic approach to command. Later, when the hint dropped that he was not playing with a straight space bat, we were intrigued by his motives and what would happen when, inevitably, his agenda was revealed. But this form of bait and switch requires the careful setting up of character and a suitably emotional payoff. The writers on this voyage took a risk with Lorca’s story but they did not do the groundwork.

To be invested in Gabriel’s fate we had to know him as someone more than the detached commanding officer who made dubious decisions. He needed to be close to some members of his crew, preferably (again) people we gave a fuck about, perhaps someone vulnerable like Tilly – ditz in our universe, a monster in Lorca’s, so surely a point of fascination for him, and these relationships needed to showcase an insatiable, even intrusive curiosity on the Captain’s part, driven by the parallel biographies he held in his head.

Okay, the reveal of Mirror Lorca goes a long way to closing down our concerns about celestial coincidence, as he selected the Discovery‘s crew based on familiarity with their counterparts (Saru was obviously a private joke), and it explains his indifference to their deaths and/or bad treatment, but it does not explain why the writers chose not to set up a better showdown with his former shipmates once his deception was known.

The hope here was that Lorca and Mick would provide the emotional core of the confrontation, but this was hardly a Kirk/Spock bond, or even the mentor/aspiring commander dynamic of Picard/Riker. Like most of the relationships on this show, it was awkward and utilitarian. Ultimately, the writer’s room had no greater ambition for Lorca than a botched coup to take over the Terran Empire, played out in a single episode, while the outed Captain made an unlikely attempt at getting Mick to join his inner circle, culminating in his inconsequential death, all less than 43 mins after his true nature was discovered.

How much more interesting might this have been if, armed with those close bonds forged in battle, Lorca had wrestled with his brutalised values – exposure to Federation ideals having opened his mind to different possibilities. And armed with this vacillating conscience, we’d learned of his mirror universe status earlier, creating on board tension as the conflicted Captain tried to execute his plan while dancing around his inquisitive and savvy shipmates. Occasionally they’d get close to learning the truth and we’d have enjoyed watching them unravel the mystery, while aware of the enemy in their midst.

And when Lorca’s plan was known, and he’d been boxed in, perhaps we could have had a show down on Discovery, with the former Captain hunted by his crew, culminating in a desperate threat to destroy the ship – his phaser aimed at the warp core, his lover, the once naïve now heartbroken Tilly, trying to talk him down. “Gabriel,” she’d say, wanton, teary, dressed in a Starfleet issue negligée, “it’s not where you begin, it’s the destination that matters”. She could have reflected that the man she’d grown to love was always this mirror version, as she’d known no other, and whatever he’d done the good she’d seen in him was his own. And then, the poignant moment when she’s forced to kill him, to protect the ship and save the crew.

But instead Lorca, liberated by last week’s plot twist, became a two dimensional villain, dispatched by another evil character we don’t care about but who weirdly has been captured and retained. Mick was there of course, Lorca’s unlikely Mirror lover. Her great pitch to the Captain’s conscience? “We’d have helped you find a way home if you’d asked.” It was a solid Starfleet line and Gabriel’s dropped face suggested it had never occurred to him, but like everything on Discovery it was a dramatic shortcut. That dialogue and those quiet exchanges between Lorca and Mick tried to do the same job as our imaginary scenario without any of the psychological intrigue and emotional investment. Lorca, in the end, was killed like a guest character, not a man built over ten episodes.

So now he’s dead does his story make any sense? Well, we learned he’d pre-empted Kirk, arriving by transporter accident during an ion storm, and that he’d handpicked the crew most likely to help him, explaining the likes of Landry (a fascist in both realities), once he’d got over the incredible good fortune of being handed a ship with an experimental form of propulsion that could theoretically cross the borders between universes, but I still feel like I need Stamets, Tilly and a conference room for 250 hours to completely unpick the character’s journey. So he chose our Stamets, for example, not knowing that Mirror Stamets, in his absence, had been recruited to the ISS Discovery to work on mycelial technology? Or did he already know this so ensured the expertise was, er, mirrored in our universe? Does anyone have a wallchart I could borrow?

Creaky plot mechanics were also in evidence as the Discovery returned home on the back of a laden technobabble-rich solution that amounted to firing torpedoes and going to warp. Such was the pressure on plot, an aside, introduced to give the episode some stakes, namely that the infected mycelial network could destroy all life in all universes – that’s every living thing everywhere – was introduced and resolved in the space of twenty minutes. As a device to up tension, this catastrophic consequence of failing to save the network might have been introduced earlier; it may have added additional urgency to ending Lorca’s bid for imperial domination, but this is a writer’s room in a hurry, furiously bashing out each twist and action sequence to keep the story moving forward, whether it serves the characters or not.

And this was where we ended, with another stunt complication, namely the Discovery returned to her native universe, but nine months late and, would you believe it, to a time where the Klingons had won the war (remember the war?). That’s right, the mycelial network can traverse time as well as space. Did we know this before? I’m willing to concede we might have done; it’s hard to remember on this show; but this is contrivance from the bottom drawer.

If the Discovery can now travel through time, are we heading toward a climax where the events of the first season are reset and the war never happens? That, surely, would be the only logical move for Saru and Mick. If you could save all those lives (and Mick’s career), while perhaps convincing L’Rell not to launch a holy war, because you’ve shown her a bit of Federation compassion and shown some slides on inalienable humanoid rights, then wouldn’t you do that? What’s the case for returning to the point you left? And don’t give me any shit about the temporal prime directive. How else is Mick going to become Discovery’s Captain (or a reluctant second in command) if she can’t unravel the Battle at the Binary Stars? If you knew your entire mission to date had been guided by an evil doppelgänger, would you not be tempted to scrub those logs? “What’s Past Is Prologue”, indeed.

Anomalous Readings

  • When Discovery finally reaches Starbase, there’s going to be a hell of a tale to tell to the Admiral that visits the brig. “Sir, meet the former Emperor of the Terran Empire, responsible for the enslaving of billions and the murder of millions more. I brought her over as she’s the double of my dead colleague and old surrogate mother. Any chance we could keep her on, maybe as a consultant?”
  • So after weeks of teasing, the writers daring themselves to do it, cowardice prevailed and we won’t get to see the U.S.S Defiant after all. Can we blame Discovery’s hacks for taking the easy way out and not showing the ship? I suppose not. Had they had the guts to follow through, they’d have been forced to make a definitive declaration as to the ship’s universal origins – namely, was it late of TOS continuity, ‘60s interiors abound, or a reimagined vision of the future? Discovery seems to have settled on creative ambiguity when it comes to the “reboot” question – a show that entertains the fantasy it could be set in the Prime timeline, without offering definitive proof. Will we ever learn if there’s another realm out there with multi-coloured uniforms, ‘60’s tech and anatomically correct Klingons? I don’t know and I suspect the writers don’t either. Regardless, my dream end to the season is dead (probably). Two episodes remain.

Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.12

Critic’s log, supplemental.

When you call your episode “Vaulting Ambition” you better be prepared to deliver on that promise. Alright, no one’s obliged to do anything really; the title serves the motivation and machinations of the character invoked, Gabriel Lorca, well enough. Perhaps it was a silly point to make. I could have opened this review better. I could have been more ambitious. But so too could Discovery’s writers, so let’s not rush to judgement.

Before we get into that telegraphed twist – the one signposted millions of miles ago (see 1.6), a point about characterisation that takes us back to the good ol’ bright and optimistic days of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In its first two seasons, many wondered why a good series wasn’t great. I mean, the characters were likable in principle and sometimes in practice, the design and production of the show made it highly watchable, but something was missing. What was it? For Michael Piller, the man who took over at the start of Season 3 and realised the show’s potential, it was stories in service to character rather than plot. Episodes in the first and sophomore season were plot driven, the characters were bent in service to whatever concept or scenario drove the action. But in Season 3, writers were asked, first and foremost, to formulate plots that facilitated character development rather the converse. The result was the template used thereafter, with each show focusing on a member of the ensemble, giving them all a chance to shine and develop.

We know all this, it’s ancient future history, so why mention it now? Because, as “Vaulting Ambition” so nakedly exposed, conspicuous plot that’s secondary to character, particularly when the hard work of establishing a thick and recognised baseline for said characters has not yet been done, leaves an audience feeling exposed and manipulated as opposed to nourished and surprised. Gabriel Lorca was, as hinted, his mirror universe counterpart all along. But we’ve never known anyone but this version and now we’re left wondering, okay, but how the fuck…?

Yes, how the fuck did Lorca enter the Discoveryverse (I’m not ready to call it Prime just yet, I’m still hoping for a miracle)? When? Did the doppelgänger kill Old Lorca’s crew on arrival? Was it luck that he was assigned to the Discovery, test ship for the new spore drive? Once in this incredibly fortuitous position, with the ability to potentially return to his universe using the mycelial network, was it always his plan to procure Mick, the spit of his lover, and return home with her in a bid to infiltrate the Emperor’s ship and cut the head off the snake? How could he be sure of getting Burnham, given she’s a war criminal? Did he have a plan b? And did he have advanced knowledge of spore technology (as Mirror Stamets has) or, stroking his tribble one evening, laugh out loud at the sheer, astonishing, cosmic good fortune that gave him access to a technology with universe hopping potential?

Thinking about Lorca’s backstory, armed with this new snippet of his biography, is enough to make your brain bleed, and it means Discovery’s inaugural season has pivoted on the covert identities and motivations of two characters – Lorca and Tyler, the originals of whom we’ve never known and may never see. So what you say? Well, I’m going to place my space cock on the chopping board and argue that their betrayals and duplicity would have far more emotional and psychological weight if they’d been men we’d been groomed to like as honourable, virtuous and signed up to the Federation constitution. But these are characters built in service to the plot, so they have no life independent of it. In that they are one with the show.

It’s not that Discovery’s soap opera-like contortions aren’t involving – there was some dramatic red meat in this episode, mainly Stamets exploring the mycelial netherworld, encountering Culber therein, and Mick’s problematic and headfucking encounter with Mirror Georgiou, who we learned had adopted her, à la Sarek, literalising the mother figure glimpsed in “Battle at the Binary Stars”, but where is this rug pull machine heading?

With three episodes to go, the story of Discovery’s first season has been the editors’ decision to cut using Occam’s razor. We hope for imaginative twists and turns that run counter to the hints laid down in early episodes, because, not unreasonably, if we can map it out as lay viewers, we’re inclined to believe a dedicated writing staff has something far more interesting and bold up their space sleeves. Yet, time after time, the simplest explanation has, in the best traditions of the Steven Moffat school, proven to the right one.

In the triple bill to come we’ll tussle with Lorca and Mick’s situation and how it relates to the (nearly forgotten) war, but truthfully there’s only one big question to be settled now, and it isn’t whether the Discovery crew can beat the Klingons by de-radicalising and liberalising the likes of L’Rell and Voq, it’s which universe did that U.S.S Defiant come from? Only then we will know if this Trek’s written by real franchise aficionados or their evil doubles.

Anomalous readings

  • If you’re Mick, the oddest aspect of your mirror universe experience must be contact with Kelpians. First you’re bathed by one, then saved by one, then you’re picking one out to be slaughtered and prepared for your evening meal. If there was tension between Mick and Saru before…
  • Lorca’s no war torn, morally ambiguous challenge to the Roddenberry rule on humanity then, just a bastard from an evil dimension. It’s all very disappointing.
  • Did anyone else get lost when listening to L’Rell’s explanation of Tyler/Voq’s transformation? So there was an original Tyler but they grafted his brain onto Voq’s then transformed Voq’s body? Why not just reprogram Tyler? Because a scan would reveal it, you say. But what’s likely to more conspicuous, effective mind control or full-body surgical construction? The Klingons can do that but they can’t brainwash a human and make him think his actions are his own idea, thereby fooling a medical examiner? Perhaps they are stupid after all.
  • So a sensitivity to light is a generic characteristic of all Mirror humans? Perhaps the same genes make them predisposed to fascism. Still, at least they’re not sexist.
Published in: on January 23, 2018 at 17:02  Comments (1)  
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Critic’s Log – Star Trek: Discovery 1.11

Critic’s log, supplemental.

It’s a small world on Star Trek: Discovery. Small worlds, actually. Here’s a series that teases the mind bending possibilities of exploring strange new universes and yet, when we’re trapped in one of them, we learn everyone you meet is either part of your social circle or an antagonist from the conflict you left behind; a situation hitherto imagined to be unique and conditioned by a distinct set of political forces, causing paths to cross at random.

But when your writer’s room manifesto is to explore the conflict within characters literally, rather than doing so using time honoured techniques like the morality play, then you’ve little choice but to shrink your mirror universe and get the band back together. Thus Tyler is brought out of himself by himself – conveniently encountering, as his identity crisis reaches its apex, mirror Voq, who would you believe it, is the leader of the resistance; a leader that’s been forced to embrace, in contrast to the surgically altered essentialist and zealot, a confederation of species committed to tolerance and liberty. You can hear the cogs turning in the scribe’s brains in such moments and you’re struck by the realisation that the universe you’ve entered is actually the clockwork one.

Was there a more organic way to out Voq/Tyler? Surely. And did the resistance prophet improbably have to be Sarek (with beard, naturally)? And what manner of circumstance led Georgiou to become Emperor of the Terran Empire, projecting her space image onto the bridge of the ISS Shenzhou? What’s next, Lorca’s tribble as the Emperor’s deputy? The Tardigrade as her fixer?

What’s highlighted by all this is the danger that rears its ugly space head when you hang a serialised plot on a throwaway gag like the Mirror Universe. In previous visits we accepted the contrivance and convenience because these infrequent trips were a digression from whatever was going on in those respective series. These were holidays from the prime universe so it didn’t really matter if Kira had slaves or Archer was a genocidal racist. But the more time you spend in the Mirror Universe, in a series where the crew’s presence there is integral to the main story and the fate of those characters, the more conspicuous the silliness becomes, and suddenly, almost without warning, a show has been derailed by the malevolent spectre of fan service (powered by nostalgia TM).

As “The Wolf Inside” went through its predictable paces, I reflected the writers had the right idea in principle – namely holding a mirror up to the crew and having them learn from different iterations of their reality; information they could take home to make a difference – while making the execution cock shrivellingly obvious. And once again, so help me, I was left hoping that these baby twists were but appetisers for a truly momentous rug pull – perhaps the only one that matters, involving the soon to be found USS Defiant.

There were many horrific images in this episode – traitors beamed into space, the rebel encampment destroyed by orbital bombardment, Saru washing Mick’s feet – but what kept me up afterwards was the thought that Defiant’s bridge and data banks will confirm Disco’s native universe IS the prime universe, visual and species continuity be fucked, and the show’s building to nothing more than the resolution of a war we don’t care about, fought for reasons that are not easily or naturally reconciled with the political situation that informs the original series.

Do Disco’s hacks know that for many fans their version of reality is a parallel universe – fun to visit, interesting to explore, but in no way licensed to replace the timeline we know and love? If your fears are growing that they don’t, you’re not alone.

Anomalous Readings

  • No radical redesign for the Andorians and Tellerites then. Just the alien race with the most history and greatest on screen presence in the franchise.
  • Mirror Saru’s job is to wash a naked Mick. You can’t blame her for keeping that quiet when her version came asking.
  • Tilly suggested Stamets’ brain could be rebooted, which was good news. But who was that other Stamets waiting for him in the mycelial mind forest? And if he can interact with versions of other characters, might this be how he gets a final scene with Culber? Might he reconstitute him somehow?
  • The “Characters I like” count after 11 episodes: 3. Lorca, Stamets and of course Tilly. I recall being sold on most if not all the cast of previous Treks by this point but don’t, Discovery writers, read too much into that. No, actually do. 25 years on I’m still making my mind up about Sisko. But, you know, Avery Brooks doesn’t make it easy.