You Choose to Exist Here: Reliving Deep Space Nine

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.10.04 PMDeep Space Nine has always been my favorite of all the Star Trek incarnations. Sweeping in scope, meticulous with character, and challenging my moral intuitions, I got the feeling from the entirety from Deep Space Nine that one gets from a rich and satisfying novel: I felt like a better person for having experienced it.

Occasional viewings of particular out of context episodes aside, I’ve been through the series twice. Once when it originally aired in the 90s when I was in high school and college, probably missing a view episodes due to the ephemeral nature of fixed-schedule TV airings (which seems an absurd way to watch a series now); and in the aughts when I was in my twenties, mostly via torrented downloads on my computer and old-school video iPod.

I am now beginning a third time around, in my late 30s, this time alongside my wife who, while no stranger to Star Trek, never saw DS9. We’ve just watched the pilot episode, titled “Emissary,” and there was something different about it this time, some things I truly didn’t expect.

First of all, I think I expected it to seem more dated and hokey. Instead, it came off as rather mature, far more sure of itself than most TV pilots, and head and shoulders and freakin’ torso over other Star Trek pilots. Jessica, to my surprise, said it seemed a little more mawkish than she expected, but within acceptable parameters (my words, she never talks like that). But not for me. It really held up. I rarely felt taken out of the action by something that seemed forced or overdone.

Also, I know that DS9 has the reputation of being the “downer” of the franchise, the “grim” series, but coming back to it, from the beginning, after all these years, this really was something of a shock. The original series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise all began their runs with heaps of wonder and optimism. (Things of course go badly wrong for Voyager in order to set the stage for the series, but the hopeful “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” spirit was always there.)

The series opens with a flashback to a massacre, and our lead protagonist unable to save his dead wife, and having to abandon his ship to a relentless zombie-cyborg force. Being stationed then at Deep Space Nine, née Terok Nor, we are placed in the midst of an ugly transition out of a brutal occupation. In the pilot episode of a Star Trek series, we are immediately faced with violent, pointless deaths and several characters absolutely spilling over with anger, regret, and helplessness. It’s quite stirring, and it all works.

But there was one part that hit me the hardest, that sunk deep into me, and oddly it’s something I’d almost entirely forgotten about from past viewings.

Toward the end of the episode, Ben Sisko is conversing with the skeptical wormhole aliens, non-physical entities who don’t even experience linear time as we do. They speak to him by taking the form of people in his memories, in the very settings he originally experienced them. So, for example, he discusses how humans experience time with his “son” Jake as they sit by what appears to be a lake, or with his late wife “Jennifer” as they walk down the beach where they met. It’s not really Jake and Jennifer, but wormhole aliens who have assumed their forms, taken from Sisko’s memory.

Somehow, Sisko repeatedly finds himself talking to the aliens amid his memory of the day his wife was killed by the Borg, where he sees his wife, dead, under a pile of rubble, as he’s about to be pulled away toward an escape vessel by his Bolian crewmate. Memory after memory, conversation after conversation, Sisko returns to the place and time he lost his wife.

Throughout their conversations, which are some of the headiest and evocative pieces of dialogue one was ever likely to hear on prime time commercial television, Sisko struggles to explain to the aliens how humans and other “corporeal beings” do not exist in a timeless state, but begin an existence, live their lives through a chain of causal events, and then cease to exist. The aliens are entirely unfamiliar with such an existence, and they ask increasingly probing questions in order to grasp the concept.

One thing doesn’t make sense to them. Remember, they only have Sisko’s memories as a frame of reference. Sisko is telling them that corporeal beings travel along a timeline, and make the best of their lives from one moment to the next, aware that each choice affects and allows the moments to come. And yet, they keep returning to the scene of Jennifer’s death. One of them asks Sisko, “If what you say is true, then why do you exist here?!”

It’s not the aliens taking Sisko to this scene, it’s Sisko taking them.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.12.11 PM“I never left this ship,” Sisko says, a realization dawning on him.

“You exist here,” the alien in the form of Jennifer says, also beginning to understand.

“I exist here,” says Sisko. “I don’t know if you can understand.” He begins to sob, increasingly so as he speaks. “I see her like this, every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her… like this!”

“None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.”

“And I have never figured out how to live without her.”

“So, you choose to exist here,” says the alien, and Sisko nods. “It is not linear.”

“No,” he says, drained, exposed, defeated. “It’s not linear.”

In previous viewings, this scene was meaningful, but to the extent that it was a character I was interested in coming to terms with something painful. It did not truly resonate with me.

Now, as I approach 40, with a wife and two children that I love beyond measure, and with an ongoing struggle with my own post-traumatic stress, I understood.

For so long after I was attacked, I existed there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, with the sounds of footfalls running toward me, of the blows to my head and body, the impact of the concrete, the vertigo of the stumbling walk home. I existed there.

I existed in the throngs of middle school classmates joyfully mocking me, I existed in the oppressive air of the abuse and scrutiny (real and imagined) of my preteen and teenage years. Decades on, I stayed there.

And much to the sadness and frustration of those who loved me, but couldn’t understand, it was not linear.

I suppose I simply hadn’t yet lived enough to truly understand Sisko’s journey before. It’s amazing to me now, to think that this profound, climactic lesson of my favorite show just flitted away in previous viewings. I’m so glad I came back to it now to experience in earnest. I wonder what else Deep Space Nine will show me this time that it couldn’t before.

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Sally Field, Phil Hartman, and Everyone’s Jesus

My wife Jessica dug up this old SNL clip today, and I love it.

Let me tell you why I love it.

First, Sally Field commits. This is not some half-baked celebrity-host cue-card phone-in. She becomes this Jesus-loving woman entirely. It’s just grand.

Second, Phil Hartman is the perfect Jesus. Not because he “looks the part” or anything, it’s that he manages to pull off the perfect blank-slate-Jesus. There is no figure in fiction or fact who comes with more cultural baggage than Jesus Christ, and yet somehow Hartman manages to fulfill both the theological/cultural expectations of the character, without inserting any unnecessary commentary on Jesus or Christianity. He’s not the South Park Jesus, or some hypocrite Jesus. He’s just Jesus, writ-large.

Third, the sketch isn’t based on being mean or snarky. It takes a stock character, the Jesus-obsessed mom and lends it a funny twist, but never turns her into a fool or a jerk. There is a love for the character despite her flaws.

The Power and Pathos of Optimus Prime

As you might know, I am a great fan of the old-school Transformers, the 1986 Transformers animated film in particular. (I even hosted a whole podcast episode about it.) For all their flaws (which are plentiful), the franchise was a watershed moment for me, introducing me as a child to a kind of storytelling, a style of animation, and a degree of out-and-out violence I’d never experienced, for better and/or worse.

What stays with with me more than any other aspect of the franchise, more than the novelty of form-shifting robots or the grandeur of heavy-metal space opera, is the character of Optimus Prime. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the “leader of the good guys,” or that he was strong, or visually striking, all of which are true. But there is a kind of nobility to Prime that permeates every manifestation of Transformers, be it the old cartoon, the animated film, the comic books, or even the recent Michael Bay movies (of which I have only seen the first). Though astoundingly powerful and even deadly, Optimus Prime has always been at the same time almost naive in his idealism, his self-discipline, his personal sense of morality and honor.

My friend Kyle Calderwood directed me to an interview with some of the folks behind the 1980s show and film, and one part stood out to me. Here, voice director Wally Burr described creating the Prime character’s voice with the man who would play him, Peter Cullen:

We were auditioning lots of people for the show, and he was auditioning for Optimus. [Cullen] didn’t have it yet, but he was well known, so he was obviously going to be one of the best candidates. And I was pushing him pretty hard at that audition. And he’s a big guy, a master of everything. And he said “Wally, I’ve got about thirty promos to do for ABC tomorrow, can we back off a little bit?” And I said, “What if we back off a lot and just make Optimus a very nice gentleman who doesn’t shout at anybody, because he knows what the hell he’s doing?” And so Peter softened his voice, and became noble! Instead of a shouting boss, he was noble. And he credited me once at a convention when someone asked him how he created the character. He pointed to me at the back of the room. He agreed with me that we could soften him, yet still make him a very strong character. And he’s been doing it for over thirty years now!

It feels kind of obvious thinking back to it now, but it makes sense that this decision by Cullen and Burr to “soften” the character’s delivery, rather than voice him as some kind of ultra-macho task-master, made all the difference in making Prime a character with a palpable pathos. It spoke to Prime’s strength that he didn’t feel the need to constantly project it. It spoke to his authority that he didn’t need to reinforce it. It spoke to his determination that he didn’t waste effort making grand protestations about it.

I am reminded of Optimus Prime’s entry in Marvel Comics’ Transformers Universe series, a kind of Transformers encyclopedia in comic book form, and even though I last read them at the age of 9 or so, the closing lines stuck with me. I rediscovered them archived here at this website, where, under the entry for Prime’s weaknesses, it says:

Otherwise the only weakness he could be accused of having is being too compassionate and concerned about the safety of others. He would be a more effective military commander if he were more ruthless, but then he wouldn’t be Optimus Prime.

Why I’m Not Watching the Best TV Shows in the Universe

Can I tell you how happy I am Alan Jacobs’ Text Patterns is back? When he retired it a ways back, I paid tribute. Happily, he couldn’t hold back his bloggery any longer.

Anyway, he’s in a similar position to me when it comes to a certain aspect of upper-middle-brow culture: He’s not seen any of Breaking Bad. Now, I have seen a couple of episodes, and I liked it just fine, but never stuck. I’ll get to why in a minute.

Here’s Jacobs’ first explanation:

Who am I kidding? I don’t have the time, or, rather, I’d prefer to spend the time I have in other ways, probably by reading books.

The big, sprawling multi-season dramatic series that have received the greatest commendation in recent years — from The Sopranos to The Wire to Deadwood to Mad Men to Breaking Bad — have never seemed to me to be worth the enormous investment of time they require. The one that I followed the most closely, The Wire, is really fantastic — but I have to say, if a genie emerged from the lamp and told me that I could have all the hours spent watching The Wire back, and my memories of the show completely erased, as long as I used that time to read books, I would certainly take that deal.

Now, I disagree wholeheartedly with the whole save-existential-hard-drive-space thing when it comes to The Wire, as that really was worth every minute. But I am on board with the gist of his point: there are only so many hours in this life, and giving them over to a television show, no matter how good, feels like a waste to me. I’d like to say I’m as prolific a reader as Jacobs, but I know for certain I’m not even close. (Sometimes I think I read vicariously through him as he writes about it. That sounds weird now that I’m typing it. Onward!)

My wife will get into a show, perhaps, and it’ll be on when I’m in the room, but I’ll either tune it out, or go on headphones, and do something else.

Later, Jacobs goes into more nuance about his abstinence:

. . . I think it’s worth noting that over time we all develop what I might call a default medium — that is, when looking for entertainment, each of us tends to gravitate towards one medium or medium-plus-genre as the first choice. (So not just “reading” but “mystery novels” or “newspaper journalism”; not just “TV” but “nature documentaries” or “dramatic series” or “sitcoms.”) Defaults can be overridden, of course, but they can be strong, and I suspect they get stronger with time.

That’s a good way to explain where I am. My default medium is the Web (which includes Twitter, Instapaper, and though one might quibble with their inclusion here, even podcasts and TWiT shows. Next is books. TV is somewhere, but far down the list.

But, to be clear, this is not because I think these particular shows are bad or a genuine waste of time. However, many of them share a particular trait: They are abysmally depressing. I did indeed watch the entirety of The Sopranos a few years ago, and I always, always, ended each show feeling incredibly shitty about humanity. It almost wasn’t worth it. The Wire could have done the same, but it also had moments of great uplift, great humor, and the writing was simply brilliant.

I thought, at least for my own amusement, tick off some of the recent-ish “good shows” of late, and talk about why I’m not watching or have not watched them.

  • Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood: I tried each of these on, and each one made me either miserable (lord, did I become despondent after a few episodes of Mad Men) or sick with angst. I will probably come back to Breaking Bad when I’m in a better place.

  • Game of Thrones: I did a whole season of this, enjoyed a lot of it, but became weary of its total objectification of most female characters, and each episode’s unwillingness to move the plot along more than by a handful of lines of dialogue. I’ll probably come back to this one, if only because I like swords and dragons and stuff.

  • Dexter: My wife and I adored this show for the first couple of seasons, but it fell off quickly for me after that. Characters began making choices that were just too stupid to be plausible, Dexter’s inner struggles became more and more abstract, and once the season with Julia Stiles showed that, once again, we’d have scene after scene of people not asking each other direct questions and being mysterious in attitude only, I dropped it.

  • House: This was my favorite show for three years or so. When the show became about whether or not House was capable of loving Cuddy, though, it became a childish soap opera. The side characters (or “cottages”) became more two-dminesional, and it stopped being worth my time.

  • Weeds: I thought this show was stupid. She sells pot. Who cares?

  • Oh, and there are people ,including my wife, who think that show Bones is really good. Wow, do I not understand that. That show is awful.

I’ve been more tolerant of comedies, as they’re usually shorter, and demand less of me emotionally. My wife and I both sit and watch, delightedly, old episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun, As Time Goes By, Frasier, Cheers, and The IT Crowd. I’m trying to get her into Black Adder. (Arrested Development‘s latest offerings have failed to impress.) Or we’ll take in a standup special. We watch Louie as well, as it’s amazing, but it’s also similar to many of the dramas I have eschewed, because it can be so dark and hit home so hard with its sadder aspects.

Perhaps I’ll update as I think of more. I imagine some of my thumbs-down selections have upset you, because for some reason people get really prickly when you don’t like the same shows they do. But just remember, if I were watching more TV, I wouldn’t be writing this post now, would I? Hooray for the free hours.

  • Update: My wife would like to clarify that I have overstated her appreciation of Bones, and that she has “only seen like 6 episodes.” My apologies to her.

Unnecessary Nostalgia for the Idiot Box

Almost a year ago, the New Yorker published a piece by Adam Gropnik digesting various tomes about what the Internet was doing to us as a culture, ranging from the folks who saw it as the coming of paradise to the coming of the end times. One recurring theme with those who saw the Internet as a net negative, and indeed with historical treatises that feared the emergence of any new technology (polemics against the radio, the printing press, etc.), was how whatever technology that immediately preceded the one in question was always the benign, rightful one to which we owed our allegiance.

And what’s shocking to me about that is how some in Gropnik’s survey of the literature have bestowed this current honor on the television set. He writes, with an implied shake of the head:

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user.

I say that this is shocking because not only is this view somewhat risible (as indeed Gropnik find it), but that it ignores the enormous sway television still has. The implication of this neo-Luddite view is that these days television is the wholesome-yet-forgotten technology versus the Internet, which is the wicked-and-ever-present one. Yes, our attentions are more fragmented, but the TV has hardly been removed from its central location in family life. Indeed, if anything, TV is as fragmented as other “screens,” what with the avalanche of channel and on-demand selections and the fact that most families have several sets with very few watching the same set at the same time.

And this sway the TV retains is also, I think, far worse than whatever defects are engendered by the Internet. Think first of the poor quality of almost all televised content, think of the low common denominators to which it must aspire to reach maximum potential audience sizes. Then, remember that TV is passive. It is something one consumes, something that washes over the viewer, while the computer, the Internet, at least has the capability of being participatory. It isn’t always, and maybe it isn’t usually, but the potential is there. With television, one can only watch.

So earlier tirades about how TV was ruining what was good about radio and how radio was ruining what was good about books, etc., at least had a grain of truth to them, whether or not they were overblown. But today, citing the television as the superior and more culturally benign medium over the Internet is absurd. The sooner what we now know as TV is killed by the Web or Apple or whomever, the better.

“Once it is not everything, it can be merely something,” Gropnik writes, but so far, TV is still close enough to “everything” that it need not be mourned.