REVIEW: Star Trek: Discovery

I had already posted my impression of the first preview of Star Trek: Discovery, and having finally gotten to see the pilot episode tonight (Sept. 24) I think that based only on the first show, Discovery is pretty good for what it is.  My problem is with what it is.

The good part is that the lead character, Michael Burnham, is very good and very well-played by Sonequa Martin-Green.  At the series start she is actually the first officer aboard the USS Shenzhou but is supposed to be transferring to the ship in the show’s title.  First however, the Shenzhou has to survive a confrontation with a particularly fanatical sect of Klingons.  And apparently Burnham was raised by Spock’s father Sarek after her parents were killed by Klingons, so this may be a bit personal for her.  In the course of the episode, Burnham’s relationships with other bridge crew including Science Officer Saru (Doug Jones) and her captain, Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) are established, and another strong point of this show is the chemistry between the crew that is obvious even at this point.  Said chemistry helps to heighten the tension when Burnham attempts a pre-emptive strike on the Klingons and everyone else (especially the captain) is warning her against it.

As I said in my other post, I like the relationship between the Burnham and Georgiou characters.  But I have problems.  If I could boil them down to one point, it would be that the producers are trying to make their own material with a tangential connection to Star Trek, without even resembling it as much as the retro-Trek of JJ Abrams’ movies.  This is especially important given that this show, like Enterprise, is supposed to be set in the main timeline (specifically, ten years before the Original Series).  And yet, the overall look, from the blue suit uniforms, to the darkened bridge, to the heavy use of lens flare, makes the show resemble AbramsTrek (specifically the scene on the USS Kelvin) more than the deliberately old-school Enterprise.

To quote the relevant part of my last piece, “Continuity is always an issue when you’re using established intellectual property, because while it defeats the purpose of creating something new if you don’t go off in a new direction, it defeats the purpose of saying that X is X when the new thing departs from the setting of X to begin with. It would be less irritating if Star Trek: Discovery had simply taken the parallel-universe of the J.J. Abrams series, or set the show within the past of that timeline. But the implication is that this is the universe of the original series, which already has quite enough problems with “retcon.” It’s not quite so bad with comic book properties, where a superhero series gets rebooted from scratch every decade or so and nobody questions this.. But even then, continuity matters. You can say that your Superman has no continuity with the Christopher Reeve Superman, but if you want to say that he IS Superman, don’t act surprised when people wonder why he needs to kill somebody.”

So again, given that this is supposed to be the same setting as Enterprise and TOS, you have stuff like Abrams lens-flare scenes, and you have the Klingons who have been retconned to look more alien YET again.  Continuity in Doctor Who is easier to keep track of.  And then it turns out that the scenes with Sarek were not with a younger Spock but with a child Burnham (the relationship between the two not being clear in the previews).  The use of Sarek seems gratuitous; it’s not as though another Vulcan elder couldn’t have been substituted without giving this character the baggage of being associated with Mark Lenard’s character.  Because he isn’t.  He’s played by James Frain.  And when you’re playing a Vulcan, there’s a difference between “unemotional” and “creepy.”  When I think of James Frain, I think “creepy.”

As a side note, I am thinking there might be a practical reason that future episodes of this show are only going to be accessible on the CBS All Access streaming site.  A practical reason other than greed, that is.  Streaming services like Netflix allow the production of original programming with “adult” language and concepts that wouldn’t be possible on a broadcast TV show.   The pilot of Discovery doesn’t have anything that I would see as “mature” or objectionable.  However the publicity for this show has had a lot of articles in liberal outlets like Vox making much of the fact that this is the first show in the Trek franchise to have a regular character (played by Broadway star Anthony Rapp) who is openly gay and in a committed relationship with another crewman.  However, these characters were not in this pilot, presumably because they’re on the Discovery and not the Shenzhou.  It could be that some people at CBS, especially its Standards and Practices department, thought that such a concept might damage people’s fragile eggshell minds.  This is my speculation.  But again, I don’t see much reason why this program needs to be on a premium source outside broadcast TV.  Besides greed, that is.

Of course given that CBS All Access is a streaming service, Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t really have to worry about ratings.  But as much as this show intrigues me, I’m not sure if I’d shell out $5.99 a month just to see how it develops.  Which is another point of ironic contrast between this show and The Orville, a broadcast series on Fox, which is notoriously fickle about SF shows.  The Orville is basically old-school Trek with the serial numbers filed off, but despite having to be different for copyright purposes, it “feels” like the same spirit.  Star Trek: Discovery is official Trek product- and again, pretty good for what it is- but what it is goes out of its way to NOT feel like Trek.

REVIEW: Chrisley Knows Best

At work, the TV nearest to my desk is usually set to USA Network, but today, instead of doing their usual NCIS marathon, USA is doing a marathon of one of their original programs, a “reality” TV show called Chrisley Knows Best, about Todd Chrisley, a Nashville-by-way-of-Atlanta real estate developer and his family.   So I had this thing on the screen most of the day and got to look at it off and on.

This show has completely altered my perception of reality.  I mean, I saw the last week of Twin Peaks: The Return, but this shit is fucked up.

First, this has to be the whitest show I have ever seen.  And I remember The Brady Bunch.  I mean, I could walk up to the TV set and actually smell the mayonnaise and imperialism.

Secondly, this family has to be the gayest bunch of straight people I’ve seen since Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin.  Maybe that’s not the right term.  I can believe that Todd and his elder son are sincerely heterosexual, if only because they’re both raised to believe that running a family within a Christian marriage is a high priority.  But when you wear hot pink T-shirts to bed, call women “sister” and chaperone your 77-year old mom when she goes on dates, there’s a word for this attitude.  And that word is:



You might think I exaggerate, but I was really convinced with the episode where Todd’s mom, wife and daughter go to a small club to play “Drag Queen Bingo” while Todd and his friend go bowling, but then Todd and his friend crash the club IN drag, and Todd is a better drag queen than anybody else in the room.

Then there was the episode where Todd’s daughter Savannah, a full-time beauty pageant contestant, had already won Miss Teen Tennessee and was thus eligible to compete in Miss Teen USA, so the family accompanied her to the national pageant in Las Vegas, which meant that the natural tackiness of the city threatened to reach critical mass.

And I know that these shows all have some recurring moment to wrap things up, but even considering that this guy is enough of a control freak to put security cameras in the loft he bought for said daughter, are we supposed to believe that he would let a camera crew in his bedroom every night so that the kids can talk to him before he and the wife go to bed?

Further proof, as if it were needed, that the phrase “reality TV” is a bigger oxymoron than “pregnant virgin.”

But as it turns out, this marathon is a promo for tonight.  Not only does Chrisley Knows Best start its new season on USA tonight, it is being shown back to back with a new program, According to Chrisley, which is basically Todd Chrisley doing an evening talk show.

I am not sure I am able to deal with that concept yet.


REVIEW: The Orville

This is a follow up on my preview of The Orville coming out of its panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, now that the series has premiered on Fox tonight (September 10).  The details aren’t too far removed from what has been shown so far in the previews; the pilot opens with Seth McFarlane’s character Ed Mercer, an officer in the “Planetary Union” forces, walking in on his wife (Adrienne Palicki) having sex with an alien.  A year later, an admiral approaches him with an offer to captain a mid-level ship, making it clear that he is performing below his potential, especially given his “personal issues” over the prior 12 months, and he is getting the post only because the fleet is short of commanders.  Mercer sets out on his maiden voyage but then finds out that Kelly Grayson, the ex-wife, is the only first officer available.  Hilarity ensues.  Sorta.

What surprises me is that given that McFarlane invented a space alien modeled on Paul Lynde, an R-rated teddy bear, and the entire Griffin family, The Orville is probably the closest thing to a family-friendly production he’s ever done.  (Though not entirely, given the sight gag in the opening scene.)  This confirms my impression from Comic-Con that McFarlane and his production team (including former Star Trek The Next Generation producer Brannon Braga) are trying to make something that would actually appeal to Star Trek fans and not insult their intelligence, which several McFarlane productions could be accused of doing.  Then again, so could the final episode of Enterprise.

The results are fairly mixed, because while there is good humor, the execution is a bit low-key and feels muted.  Moreover, while it’s always good to see Palicki in something, and the pilot makes it clear just how much her character is the ultimate brains behind Mercer, the idea of the two leads being bickering exes is so done that it’s going to take some more skill than I saw in this script to keep it going, unless future episodes just put this hook on the backburner as a background element.

Even so, I was dismayed that a lot of the reviews I’ve seen for this show have treated it so negatively.  It could be better, but it is a lot better than they’re saying, and I’m willing to give it a chance if only because it is clearly written by Star Trek fans for fans.  For instance, Mercer manages to get out of a confrontation by taking advantage of the fact that starship shuttles in this genre never have seat belts, which you’d have to be a real fan to appreciate.


Libertarianism as Gateway Drug? Continued

This is a follow up to the previous piece, “Libertarianism as Gateway Drug?” On Sunday September 3, published a rebuttal to Matt Lewis’ piece in The Daily Beast asserting “It seems observably true that libertarianism is disproportionately a gateway drug to the alt-right.” This was after Reason’s Nick Gillespie had already done a critique of the same article, although in Sunday’s piece, the author, Sheldon Richman, has some interesting observations that should be followed.

Richman’s point is that libertarianism is a formalized version of the classical liberalism that preceded social democracy and its American expression in the policies of the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and “Progressives” like Republican Teddy Roosevelt. It resembles conservatism and other right-wing philosophies in holding that facts exist, independent of social construction, and that observation of facts has led us to certain conclusions that are useful (such as the necessity of property rights within a system of wider recognized rights) and should not be thrown out for political purposes. But in promoting concepts such as equality under law and individual rights, libertarianism is closer to liberalism than to a conservatism which is (in theory) concerned with the protection of tradition and (in practice) the promotion of authority. But as I’ve said, conservatism in NOT a political philosophy in itself. It is a governing approach towards a political philosophy, and in the case of America, the guiding philosophy is based on classical liberalism.

This has led American politics to several points of contradiction as the social-democrat philosophy co-opted liberalism and the preservation of classical liberalism (including respect for capitalism and property rights) became a “conservative” position by default. As Richman points out in his article,

“To say the libertarian movement is a “gateway drug” is to say more than that some prominent members of the alt-right once called themselves libertarians. It’s also to say that alt-rightism provides a purer form of what those members had found in libertarianism (aka original liberalism, or simply liberalism). A good measure of ignorance of liberalism is required to entertain this thought.”

The body of Richman’s piece focuses on how the alt-right focuses on the “exclusionary side of property (rights)” in asserting, for instance, a right to deny access to services, and that this attitude directly contradicts the more inclusionary premise of liberalism, in that free trade promotes greater exchange of ideas between individuals and cultures. “As an institution, property was of a piece with cosmopolitanism and exchange of all kinds. That’s why a “pure” race or culture is as chimerical as a “pure” language. ”

In my post last week I had asserted that the phenomenon Matt Lewis described, while very real, was not a case of libertarianism leading to alt-right philosophy. Rather, it was a case of alt-right philosophy taking over Republican Party conservatism, not libertarianism. One reason for this is the simple pragmatic point that the Republican Party has much greater numbers than the Libertarian Party or the libertarian movement in general, and is thus a better vehicle for politics. But to the extent that the alt-right has a philosophy, it is not a terribly pragmatic one.

What we’re seeing is the result of the misnomers that American politics have been based on since at least the start of the 20th Century. As “liberalism” in both social-democrat and classical-liberal senses becomes more and more identified with the Democratic Party, as I have also said, that means that the modern conception of government is now impossible outside of allegiance to the Democratic Party. This in turn means that both original and modern aspects of liberalism are identified with what people don’t like about the federal government, which in our election system means that the only alternative to that party is the Republican Party.

One of Richman’s other points is: “Another explanation is that some people are attracted to a “fringe” movement not because of anything particular to it but because like the idea of being a big fish in a small pond. If for some reason one pond doesn’t suit, they may jump to another “fringier” pond.” But again, the Republican Party is not more on the fringe of politics or respectability than the Libertarian Party. Or at least, it wasn’t. Which I think confirms my point that libertarianism per se is not the issue here. The common denominator of the “alt-right” movement is a reactionary hatred of anything liberal, even those aspects of liberalism (like tolerance of immigration) that libertarians coincidentally agree with. The Republican Party was already more disposed to that reactionary direction than the libertarian one. But to the extent that libertarianism differs from (what we now call) liberalism in its disagreement with the place of government in our personal lives, it does hold some attraction to that reactionary view. In that regard, Richman is correct, but not for the reason he thinks. Those who seek to rebel against modern liberalism are drawn to libertarianism insofar as it rejects the social-democrat position, but what neither conservatives nor liberals want to acknowledge is how much it retains in common with liberalism. Once certain people realize this, they start looking for something much more deliberately anti-liberal. Richman says that “those who migrate from the libertarian movement to the alt-right have rejected the essence of the freedom movement and its philosophy. They are certainly not looking for a purer version of it.” But this conclusion assumes that alt-right people were looking for freedom at all.

So again, this is the second time that Reason magazine has responded to Matt Lewis’ thesis. It’s another case where Reason has become the unofficial authority on “what is a libertarian?” and in that regard, they’re probably doing a better job than the Libertarian Party. But what all this means is that there is more pressure on the libertarian movement to be more proactive in defining its terms, and to promote them more clearly and to a wider audience. The aftereffects of the 2016 election simply confirm its terms: conservatism has completely lost any constructive role in government, or even public life, while liberals continue to assume they can coast on their reputation as champions of the same government that people are disaffected with. For libertarians to have a constructive role – if that’s what they want – they need to analyze the terms of their own movement, and what “liberty” means and how it is to be achieved.

For example: One of my left-wing friends on social media observed that the liberal plan on race issues (for example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act) could be described as Hamiltonian means towards Jeffersonian ends- that is, the use of a strong federal government to promote and protect individual rights. Recent Supreme Court decisions on gay rights could be described in similar terms. But by contrast, what we are seeing on the Right, especially the reactionary element, would be Jeffersonian means toward Hamiltonian ends -the presentation of a government rollback on the pretext of preserving federalism, state priorities and smaller government, but for the purpose of enforcing government power on the individual, by withdrawing federal oversight of abusive state government.

And then there’s the issue of business. The guy who harassed Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz’ wife over their ties to Goldman Sachs hired numerous Goldman Sachs alumni for the Trump Administration (technically including Steve Bannon) while the Administration maintained a general pattern of appointing department secretaries whose main qualification was being champions of the industry their department is regulating. While libertarians have wanted to get rid of many federal bureaucracies outright, the current setup is more dangerous than having no regulatory agency at all, given that government is now actively on the side of the interests being regulated. What is the need for regulatory capture when you can just BE the government?

This is why I think the question of libertarian influence on the current Right is overblown. Sadly. If that was the main influence on the Republican Party it would be going in the direction of Paul Ryan (at worst) rather than Donald Trump. And if Gary Johnson or other libertarians were in charge of things, I’m sure liberals and “progressives” would hate the results, but the country as a whole would hate them a lot less than they hate Trump right now.