Tag Archives: television

I Really, Really Want Supergirl to be Awesome

supergirl

Love it or hate it, we are living in the age of superheroes.  They have burst from the pages and the fringes to cement themselves at the forefront of mainstream entertainment, and they show no sign of folding up their capes and flying out of town anytime soon.  Having been alive to witness the emergence of the genre with the original Superman films of the late 70’s and their embarrassing sequels in the 80’s, the brutal slog of the zero-budget Cannon oeuvre (anybody remember the original Captain America?), and the long drought in the 90’s when all we had were Blade and a series of progressively awful Batman sequels, one can recall when superheroes were a fool’s investment; now studios and producers can’t snap up the properties fast enough.  Gone too are the days when you could write off the entire genre as mindless frivolity for the kiddies.  Serious talent goes into the production of these things now, and there are enough of them of sufficiently varied quality and targeted appeal that it becomes increasingly difficult to paint them all with the same ink brush.

At least, that’s what you’d hope.  Regrettably, the Powers That Be are still gun shy at the notion of a leading female superhero.  As Marvel takes heat from fans over the nonexistent Black Widow solo movie, a leaked memo from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter shows him citing the box office failures of Elektra, Catwoman and the original 1984 Supergirl as justification for a lack of development on female-led titles.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, in a most staggering example of sexism, no one postulated that the failure of the terrible Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie in 2011 meant the death knell of male-driven superhero movies, and Reynolds is getting another shot at a lead superhero role in Deadpool.  By contrast, no one eager to keep their plum Hollywood executive job would dare bankroll Jennifer Garner in, say, Zatanna.  (Marvel has announced the female Captain Marvel for release in 2018 – after DC, slower out of the gate with their own franchises, releases the Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman in 2017).  And while it is not as though we haven’t seen any female superheroes in the modern era, they still bear the scars of creative types being not entirely sure what to do with them.  Elektra and Catwoman didn’t fail because they starred women, they failed because they were bad films with leads written as caricatures designed to appeal to teenage boys rather than as fully developed and actualized women.  Gods as characters are hard to write with the best of intentions, and it would seem that crafting compelling stories for goddesses is even more of a Sisyphean task.  The challenge is to create wants for them that are believable and relatable, and obstacles that require more than a numbing million-dollar-a-minute visual effects budget to overcome.

The X-Men films had Storm and Jean Grey, and while the former was woefully underused and somewhat de-powered for the sake of plot, the latter was reduced to a mishmash of ethereal love interest-turned-psychotic murder goddess who had to be killed to save the rest of humanity.  Black Widow has no special abilities other than her basic combat skills and is shoehorned into the sidekick/partner role in whatever Marvel film seems convenient (and we won’t go in to the controversy about her revelation about her backstory in her most recent appearance).  While it was nice to see a truly superpowered woman emerge in Avengers: Age of Ultron in the person of the Scarlet Witch, the movie was so cramped with characters all requiring their own beats that we never got a chance to find out much about what made her tick, and again, she suffered the same problem as Storm in that her presence was limited to prevent the audience from dwelling on the extent of her powers lest they wonder why she doesn’t just do X and Y in order to stop the bad guys and save the world.

The original Supergirl movie tried to duplicate the formula that made Superman such a smash in 1978:  a cast of Hollywood stars surrounding a compelling unknown, and enough money thrown at the screen to try to give the audience a memorable effects-heavy spectacle.  Unfortunately, the weak story and the excessive focus on the campy villainess (and the refusal of the journeyman director to rein in Faye Dunaway’s gluttonous gobbling of the scenery) undermined a game performance by lead Helen Slater and conspired to sink the entire effort and by extension confine the notion of a female superhero movie into the vault for 20 years.  Superman himself went into hibernation around then as well, and has only recently emerged, though in two wildly uneven outings, the first of which (2006’s Superman Returns) turned him into a creepy super-stalker absentee father, while the second (2013’s Man of Steel) was a grim, violent, tonally wrong orgiastic CGI smash-em-up.  It has fallen to television, and producer Greg Berlanti, on the heels of his other superhero ratings successes Arrow and The Flash, to try and get Supergirl right – as cinema screens prepare to unleash the spectacle no one asked for of Batman and Superman beating the crap out of each other with Wonder Woman looking on and presumably shaking her tiara’d head in next year’s Batman V Superman:  Dawn of Justice.

The extended Supergirl trailer that debuted a few weeks ago was more than a breath of fresh air, it was a positively endearing gale-force blast.  As essayed by the immediately appealing Melissa Benoist, this sunny, optimistic Supergirl is utterly free of angst, and actually excited about exploring her abilities instead of viewing them and the corresponding duty to fight crime as a relentless curse – thus separating her from almost every single other caped crusader out there.  I’m not sure where the rule came from that superheroes have to brood constantly about their lot in life instead of finding joy in being exceptional; it smacks to me of writers worrying that this is the only way the average audience member will be able to relate to gods – by delivering the subconscious message that “yeah, Wolverine’s claws and healing factor are cool and all, but trust us, you wouldn’t really want to be like him.”

In the 1984 Supergirl there was a deleted scene early in the movie nicknamed the “aerial ballet” of her gliding through the air about a forest and beaming with delight as she discovered what she could do – snipped after a test screening for the sake of pacing, or perhaps the fear that an expected mostly-male audience simply wouldn’t want to watch a woman reveling in her awakening.  Ask yourself these many years later what the most popular scene in Frozen was, and the answer is Elsa’s “Let It Go” transformation, so, a haughty pshaw to that notion.  In the TV Supergirl trailer we see her take to the skies with a huge smile on her face, and a determination in her heart to be something more than she is – to be the hero she knows it is within her to become.  She does not want to run from who she is, she wants to shout it from the tops of the tall buildings that she’s leaping over in a single bound.

This, to me, is what modern superhero filmed fiction is sorely lacking, especially when it comes to female superheroes:  a sense of hope, which, if you think about it, is why young boys and girls read comic books in the first place.  The sense of powerlessness that youth can instill when one is not the popular kid, or has a rotten home life, or just feels that nothing ever goes his or her way, is what we turn to those stories to heal.  As kids and even adults we gravitate to the notion that we too might be able to put on a cape and soar, and find that triumph that is lacking in our own mundane lives.  That’s not what we’re getting from the movies that are all the rage right now.  The Marvel collection, despite their quippy, colorful tone, still operate from a sense of profound cynicism about the world and its people.  (For all the deserved feminist accolades for Marvel guru Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show’s core premise was that high school and by extension the world was a hell to be fought constantly, and Whedon’s chronic tendency to pad his drama by refusing to allow his characters any semblance of long-term happiness often resulted in a frustrating and pessimism-inducing viewing experience.  This approach to storytelling has carried over to his films and filtered through the non-Whedon Marvel movies as well.)  The DC movies are simply morose, packaged by bean-counting committees obsessed with finding a way to differentiate themselves from the comparatively lighter Marvel.  The obsession with shoehorning “dark and edgy” content into absolutely everything is stripping these stories of their reason for being.  We need to reconnect with the inspiration at the heart of these tales.  We need some hope back.  Girls and women will welcome a genuine, powerful superhero in whom they can see their hopes and dreams reflected, whose aspirations they can share, and whose triumphs they can celebrate, without feeling as though they are being pandered to with a male-gaze camera leering on shots of her shapely costumed figure.

This is why I am crossing my fingers very tightly for Supergirl.  Given how it has introduced itself to the world, and fair or not, more is riding on its success than its creators probably realize.  Done right, the show can tap into the same hunger for goodwill and optimism and compelling, complex female characters that made Frozen such a worldwide phenomenon and still lingers out there waiting to be embraced again.  It can deliver the message that not only can women lead a superhero franchise, but that they don’t have to do so by adopting the same gritty, troubled persona as the menfolk.  And it would be wonderful indeed to see some of that optimism permeate the other superhero stories that are flooding our screens instead of condemning us to a parade of furrowed brows and punching for the next ten years.  Let’s have something that leaves us happy and renewed instead of forcing us to ruminate on the bleak existentialist wasteland that is life.

If the show doesn’t work, if it falls back into the cheeseball antics of the bad old days of the 80’s and 90’s, then, attitudes being as they are, not only will the likes of Ike Perlmutter be vindicated in their beliefs about the box office non-viability of female superheroes, but it will also be taken as a reinforcement of the (in my opinion, erroneous) idea that comic book movies have to be dark and cynical in order to find an audience.  No one is suggesting that the stories shouldn’t have conflict, but the victories that come of those conflicts shouldn’t always feel so Pyrrhic so that one walks out of the theater or turns off the television worn out and depressed when we were meant to have been inspired.  There’s that old chestnut about a movie or a show that makes you stand up and cheer; we haven’t had that for a very long time, and we really need it – boys and girls alike.  So Godspeed, Supergirl, may you fly far, and may you turn out to be everything we’re hoping for and far more.

No pressure or anything.

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A House of Cards Divided

houseofcards

“Want to know about politics in Washington?  Four words:  Watch your back, Jack.” – Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Clear and Present Danger

Having just released its second complete season, House of Cards remains a meal that refuses to go down smoothly, no matter how sumptuous it might appear.  You can admire the artistry in the execution, but afterwards, you always feel like you need a shower – rather like looking at a painting hung in a porta-potty.  For years the optimism and hope of The West Wing was my lifeblood and so experiencing a show like HofC that responds to that philosophy by essentially defecating on it (again with the toilet metaphors, dude) will always be a fundamentally unsettling experience.  You just don’t want to believe that people are capable of that sort of thing, even though grasping the promise of the light mandates the acknowledgement of the existence of darkness.

WARNING:  Massive Season 2 Spoilers follow.  Abandon all hope (of being surprised), ye who enter here.

The sociopathic Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are the focal point of that darkness, emerging from it literally as the first episode of Season 2 begins.  Frank has been appointed Vice-President of the United States following his elaborate scheme in the previous season that saw his predecessor maneuvered into stepping down to run for his old office of Governor of Pennsylvania.  There remain several loose ends, in the form of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her associates, and call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), both instrumental in Frank’s secret wheelings and dealings.  Rachel is whisked into exile by Frank’s majordomo Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), while Zoe, growing increasingly convinced that Underwood murdered troubled Congressman Peter Russo last season, is dealt with in one of the most brutally shocking twists in episodic TV in years.  (How many other shows have the audacity to kill off the opening credits third-billed lead – played by a rising young actress – in a season premiere?)  Culminating in a closing shot of Frank’s monogrammed cufflinks (that read, unsubtly, “F.U.”), the implication to the audience is that this year, all bets are off.

And yet, oddly, they’re not.

Frank is back to business as usual, getting Jackie Sharp (Canadian actress Molly Parker), his preferred choice for replacement as Majority Whip in place, and driving wedges between the frustratingly naive President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) and his mentor and friend of many years, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) by nearly starting a war with China.  Claire works on the First Couple from her end as well, cultivating a friendship with Mrs. Walker (Joanna Going) and motivating her to convince her husband to attend couples therapy – the revelation of which will ultimately prove politically toxic.  As with the previous season, the endgame for the Underwoods is never fully articulated until the closing moments of the final episode, yet there is a sense of inevitability about where the story is going that renders the proceedings a bit pat, and moot.  Compounding this notion is the fact that Frank always wins, and never at any point do we get the sense that he is in any danger of losing.  The only real consequence Frank suffers throughout the season is when his beloved rib joint has to close its doors – and nary more than a moment is spent ruing that.

Half the problem, and this affected the first season as well, is a budgetary one.  Spacey and Wright are major stars and don’t work cheap, and with their salaries devouring the lion’s share of the casting budget, the remainder must be spread around sparingly, resulting in a roster of supporting players who are well-meaning and capable but simply don’t have the raw wattage of the two leads, and can’t hope to outshine (or even strike within a country mile of equaling) them.  Gill in particular doesn’t have the gravitas we’ve come to expect in the portrayal of a President (no Martin Sheen he), and it’s difficult to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a man whom Underwood championed for the Oval Office, and supported without hesitation until being passed over for the job of Secretary of State – let alone one who managed to win a national election.  (Unless he was running against an anthropomorphic sheet of drywall.)

The other half of the equation lies in the writing of Frank’s adversaries, who for reasons of plot necessity allow themselves to be duped, make stupid decisions and side with the Underwoods rather than with the truth.  The animosity generated by Frank between President Walker and Raymond Tusk could have been swept aside by the long-term friends sharing one private phone call, but naturally, this doesn’t happen, and in the end Walker abandons Tusk to a perp walk after one dark-heart-felt personal letter from Frank.  It also strains credulity that a ruling party would be so quick to bring its own President up on impeachment charges, as is threatened in the finale.  Granted, in the show it’s the Democrats doing it (their real-life contemporaries ever ready to cut allies loose in the interest of political expediency instead of walking lock-step into the flames like the Republicans do), but you’d think at least one loyal Walker soldier might be able to assemble the pieces and realize that all the trouble originates from the moment a certain Mr. Underwood stepped onto the stage.  No matter – in the end, all enemies are swept or willingly step aside, Walker resigns, and a duplicitous double-murderer takes the Oath of Office, pounding the Resolute Desk in the season’s final shot in a gesture of either triumph or foreboding, depending on your interpretation.

House of Cards has been renewed for a third season, with rumors that it will be its last.  I find it difficult to imagine it could venture any further.  Once you’ve ascended the mountain, the only way to go is down.  I’m mindful though of the comments made by David Chase of The Sopranos, who scoffed at the idea that audiences should crave a comeuppance for Tony Soprano after they cheered on his spree of theft, betrayal and murder for season after season.  What will happen to Frank Underwood?  Like Dexter Morgan, there is no sufficient legal reciprocity for the magnitude of his crimes.  A mea culpa is beyond his capacity.  And it simply isn’t dramatically interesting to watch him keep winning battle after battle – the machinations of an untouchable god, become, after a time, unengaging television.

If you’re looking for clues to his demise, you can see seeds sown in the closing moments of this season’s final chapter, with Doug being killed and left to rot in the woods by Rachel, the end of a somewhat pitiable obsession with her that had developed over several episodes.  (That storyline reveals another intriguing notion about the portrayal of men and women, given that Rachel remains under Doug’s thumb until the split second she realizes that he wants her sexually – then his downfall begins.  A post for another time.)  If season 3 is to be The Fall of Frank Underwood, then the reason for keeping Rachel front and center in the storyline becomes clear.  Those who manage to undo powerful men will never be powerful themselves – they will arise from the unexpected corner, seemingly insignificant and non-threatening.  Not to be forgotten either is the besieged hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) who begins to reassert his independence from the feds and has unfettered access to where everyone’s digital bodies are buried.  The advantage also of focusing on either of these characters is that they remain virtually the only two people in this corrupted universe you can find yourself rooting for – even though they have both committed crimes themselves.

Or, Frank’s undoing will come in the shape of his one indispensable ally:  Claire.  As the Second Lady, Wright seemed a little sidelined this season, particularly in its latter half, as her character’s journey took a backseat to the increasingly complex web spun by her husband.  But apart from one fleeting moment of remorse that when past hardened her heart even further, Claire remains as vicious as Frank and as dedicated to the idea of absolute power.  Two such identical forces cannot remain together forever, as anyone who’s tried to clap magnets against one another is well aware.  They have already shown, in the episode that climaxed (sorry, bad pun) in a threesome with their Secret Service agent Meecham, that either one of them is not enough for the other.  Perhaps the ultimate house of cards to be toppled is the Underwoods’ commitment to each other.

It’s telling about our nature that even in stories about bad guys, we crave the triumph of the good.  And good never wins on House of Cards.  Frank’s manipulations succeed at every turn because he has a gift for recognizing weak points and flickers of evil in others, and like the classic tempter, convincing them to make the wrong choice of their own free will.  The conventions of drama, however, lead us to wonder how this plays out.  Psychological need asks whether good will indeed crawl out from under the bed after taking a pummeling for two straight seasons.  The Sopranos, which chose an open ending with the scales of morality tilted permanently out of balance left an unpalatable taste in many mouths.  As much as TV audiences might relish watching Frank Underwood slice and dice his way to his diabolical goals, Americans as a whole likely aren’t comforted by the idea that such an archetypally evil person could manipulate his way into the Presidency in real life (regardless of your partisan opinions of occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania past and present).  They’ll want to see him go down, brutally, in a spectacular orgy of cathartic release, as charming as that come-and-go South Carolina drawl may be.  It might finally lend that terribly bitter pill a teensy touch of candy coating.

In any case, a question to be left to series creator Beau Willimon and his writing staff.  Besides, if I need my idealism fix, I’ll always have my complete West Wing DVD set.

Talking about My Next Generation

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Lately, I’ve been watching Star Trek again.  Or more to the point, I’ve been watching The Next Generation on Netflix, that is, when I’m not working, writing, taking media courses or running copious errands.  Ever since I became a father, television has dropped several ranks on the priority list.  My wife and I were joking the other night about how we used to lie on opposite couches on a Sunday afternoon and mumble to each other, “What do you want to do?”  “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”  That boredom was so frustrating at the time; now it’s looked back upon with reverence and longing.  We’d murder for a boring day like that.

When our son came to us his taste in TV was a bit, shall we say, delayed.  Cartoons well below his age level were the go-to.  Trying to encourage him to take a step ahead we suggested he give TNG a go, figuring he’d grok the whiz-bang of the space battles while subliminally processing the messages.  And of course we’d be happy to watch it with him.  So what began as an exercise in maturity for our lad has turned into a nostalgic trip for myself.

Some of these episodes I haven’t seen in a decade or more, and it’s sometimes sad to realize that what enthralled you as a teenager can come off to a more seasoned palate as cheap, juvenile or otherwise lacking.  That first season in particular was really rough going, in terms of the writing, the acting (with the sole exception of the masterful Patrick Stewart, probably the only reason anything worked in the first year) and the show’s overall ambition, or lack thereof.  Airing in first-run syndication rather than on a network saved it from becoming a swiftly forgotten, ill-advised follow-up to a 60’s classic, along with the devotion of fans so grateful for new Trek on TV that they stayed with it throughout its growing pains.  (One wonders if the struggling Agents of SHIELD will likewise endure.)  But I remember sitting on my mom’s bed glued to her television (the main one in our basement didn’t work most of the time) being thrilled by the sight of the Enterprise-D blasting through the warp barrier to travel beyond the boundaries of the universe to a place where thought and reality intertwined in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and wondering how they could possibly make it back unharmed.  I recall thinking how awesome it was to see the Klingons back causing trouble in “Heart of Glory.”  I remember the nightmares I got when a guy’s head exploded under Picard and Riker’s phasers in “Conspiracy.”  I remember the massive crush I had on Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher and how stunning she looked made up as a 40’s moll in “The Big Goodbye.”  And I remember obsessively checking Starweek to see when the next new episode was going to air – in fact, I believe I may have insisted that my mom purchase the Saturday paper strictly for that reason – and being crestfallen at the long wait between seasons one and two (thanks a lot, Writers Guild strike of ’88).

As wobbly as some of the earlier episodes of the show were, what endeared it to me and I suspect the majority of the fans, was the ever-present nobility of the characters, effortlessly upstanding in their morals and always trying to do right by the universe even when challenged at their very cores.  Was it a realistic portrayal of human beings?  Probably not.  But we could aspire to be like them.  The Next Generation provided that model for me as I grew through my teenage years and evolved from being embarrassed to admit I liked it lest the girls think I was weird, to going merrily to conventions and “talking Trek” with comrades at every opportunity – often to the chagrin of my best friend who’s indifferent to it to this day.  As the show went on and I got older, I found my response to it evolving as well.  My tastes were growing more sophisticated the more I learned about literature and history, and I found myself less than enamored with the show’s switch in its golden years to out-there-for-the-sake-of-being-out-there sci-fi premises and plots resolved through mindless technobabble.  Maybe another time I’ll get into a detailed analysis of where I think things started to go wrong (it all began when they changed the style of the music late in Season Four), but by the end I was ready to vomit if I saw one more episode about reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit tetryon or verteron particles.  And yet this too was a formative moment for me.  Because it was when I began to think, “you know what?  I could do better.”  I understood there was no drama in pulling an imaginary subatomic particle out of the proverbial arse to deus ex the machina.  That wasn’t how you told stories.  Not well, anyhow.  Not how I wanted to tell them, or how I wanted to see them being told.

As the number of episodes remaining in Season Seven dwindled, I was still watching, but with a sense of sadness at lost opportunities – “all the stories in the galaxy to tell and they did another broken holodeck episode?  And why is the music so bad?”  There were gems here and there but the entire enterprise (sorry) felt a bit like it was slumping to the finish line, with the creative energy diverted to getting Deep Space Nine up and running, but oh yeah, we’ve got this other one that I guess we have to pay some meager level of attention to.  Stewart and the gang were giving it their all, but it was obviously time to go, just as the teenager inevitably turns twenty and braces for a new set of challenges.  The finale, “All Good Things…,” was a great sendoff; not perfect, as it too relied on technobabble to solve the central dilemma, but it did top the gift with a beautiful bow in Captain Picard sitting down for the senior staff poker game for the first time and announcing that “the sky’s the limit.”  It was a touching parting sentiment for myself as well, reminding me that I didn’t have to be satisfied with stories that didn’t give me what I wanted from them.  Instead, I could create my own.  The end of their journey was the beginning of my own.

And now I’m seeing it again, with my boy, and wondering how he’ll look back on it in future years – if it will ever mean as much to him as it does to me.  If watching The Next Generation does nothing else for him, I hope it will at least inspire him, when he’s out on a clear night, to look up – and imagine what might lie out there in the stars.

Gather ye rosebuds – How I *almost* wrote for Star Trek

Close, but not quite…

A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself.  I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence.  This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.

We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame.  I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting.  The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could.  Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them.  For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia.  Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?).  Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.

Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop.  If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened.  Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents.  Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig.  When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy.  Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it.  Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way.  It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them.  You had the same chance as everybody else.

Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work.  I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing.  My premise?  It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second.  Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian.  What if this person came to the station?  And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship?  What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station?  Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally.  I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax.  Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life.  (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.)  Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller.  Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless.  I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue.  And wait.

Fast forward to February 1994.  I’m home from my first year of university on reading week.  My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures.  It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting.  For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.

They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well.  They wanted to hear more.  A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant.  She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching.  I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles.  After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone.  It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas.  Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I.  Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension.  Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting.  Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one.  Gulp.

A month fades away.  I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door.  The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites.  Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.

Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises.  The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath.  In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it.  The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice.  The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world.  What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists?  And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11?  Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians.  He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen.  A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor.  Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.

Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective.  Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like.  What else ya got?

I move on to my next story.  I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again.  I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down.  You are supposed to think nothing of it.  But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death.  His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.

Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either.  He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested.  The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation.  Next.

I re-pitch the valedictorian story.  I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element.  But it’s still a no-go.  Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him.  (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)

With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it.  It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part.  Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life.  I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.

Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches.  He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19.  He also invites me back to pitch again.  Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here.  I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.”  We exchange goodbyes and I hang up.  Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable.  It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny.  And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more.  I had my “in.”

You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.”  As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again.  Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge.  Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind.  I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly.  Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it.  Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out.  I made excuses.  I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew.  Perhaps.  For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try.  So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips.  DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history.  And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.

As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer.  Carpe occasio.  That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone.  Don’t chicken out of life.  The perfect time never comes.  And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.  So send that book in.  Get your blog going.  Publish that article.  Submit your screenplay.  And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off.  You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.

What are you waiting for?

Game of Thrones and the many faces of the goddess

Carice van Houten as Melisandre, warning of darkness and horror and the return of the smoke monster from Lost.

Maiden, mother, crone; child, witch, whore; the meek and the bold, the submissive and the dominant, the loving and the cruel.  The infinite and mesmerizing complexity of the feminine was embodied by the incredible women of Game of Thrones in this week’s episode, “Garden of Bones.”  While the show can come off as a man’s world in which kings, knights, lords, gentlemen and brutes alike vie for power, “Garden of Bones” reminded the audience that even as they strut in their armor and proclaim their mastery of all they survey, the men are but pieces in this grand game, and that the women are holding the board up – with a flick of their elegant wrists this precarious world will collapse.  That they have not yet done so speaks to the quiet bemusement with which they allow the boys to go about their manly and yet hollow pursuits.

That the men of Westeros are ultimately servants to the other half of the sky is evident in several scenes in the episode where men attempt to assert their dominance only to see their egos undercut by feminine power.  The arrogant Littlefinger, his very moniker a comment on his masculine limitations, waltzes into Renly Baratheon’s camp, first confronting Margaery Tyrell about Renly’s love that dare not speak its name, then presenting his unrequited crush Catelyn with Ned’s remains and dangling a chance to reunite her with her captive daughters.  In both instances the women will have none of it.

Margaery knows well that her marriage is a sham designed to secure a political alliance and is content to act her role, and Catelyn is not so naïve that a shameless appeal to her maternal instincts will excuse Littlefinger’s betrayal of her late husband.  Robb Stark is struck speechless by the simple healer Talisa when his proud military victory is utterly diminished by her simple comments to him in the battle’s aftermath, as she accuses him of massacring a bunch of innocents and having no greater plan for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Where Littlefinger and Robb respond to their encounters with powerful women with silence, a more sinister path is taken by another profoundly insecure man attempting to assert his dominance over the female – in the skin-crawling scene where petulant King Joffrey commands one prostitute to beat another bloody.  He cannot master them with his questionable masculinity, so he uses the coward’s fallback of fear and brutal violence instead.  Joffrey’s understanding that he can never equal Robb Stark as a military commander, the more traditional masculine role, leads him to mistreat Sansa instead.  Interestingly, while the delicate, virginal Sansa appears to be displaying battered woman syndrome in her continual proclamations of love for Joffrey despite his abuse, she is doing so not out of misplaced devotion but self-preservation – biding her time until she is freed of this monster.  Her sister, Arya, utterly defeminised by circumstance (even commenting to Lord Tywin that being a boy made it easier) is likewise still a reserve of indomitable strength, going to sleep each night muttering, like a mantra, the name of each man she means to see dead.

Indeed, the only male character who seems not intimidated by the power of women (at least in this episode) is the one whose masculinity has always been dismissed by his fellow men:  Tyrion Lannister.  In fact, it is his knowledge of his cousin’s weakness for Queen Cersei’s feminine wiles and his ability to manipulate that awareness that allows him to gain a spy against his scheming sister.

The two sides of motherhood, giving nurturer and ferocious protector, are also on display with the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys when she is petitioning for entrance to the desert city of Qarth, first pleading that a refusal to admit her people would condemn them to death, then threatening to use her dragons to burn the city to the ground when she is rebuffed.  She is the mother of her clan of ragtag Dothraki as much as Catelyn finds herself mother and counselor not only to the Starks but to the men who would be King (treating the battling brothers Baratheon as if they were her own misbehaving children).  Where her gilded sibling Viserys was an entitled prat cut from the same unearned royal cloth as Joffrey, Dany’s leadership qualities are being forged through fire.

And speaking of fire, there is Melisandre, the enchantress, trying to tempt grizzled old Davos Seaworth with the secrets beneath her robe.  When he finally beholds her stunning (and very pregnant) naked self, the Onion Knight comes face to face with a depiction of the primal fear of all men, what they cannot understand and have never been able to control since the Garden of Eden:  the magical temple of life and sexuality that is the woman’s reproductive system, from which emerges in a Freudian ecstasy of smoke and shadow the darkness and horror that Melisandre had cautioned Renly about earlier.  To see this sheer force step forth and take shape as the sorceress smiles, at once incomprehensible and weirdly compelling, is the final affirmation in an episode already packed with revelations that the women have written the rules of the Game of Thrones, and they are its referees.  For all the talk of the old gods, even Melisandre’s repeated comments about the “Lord of Light,” it is the Goddess, in all her magnificence, elegance, vulnerability, bravery, mystery and cruelty, all her many forms, young and old, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, who is running the show.

Snookered

Okay, so I am a huge fan of The West Wing.  I am burning a hole in my DVD copies of all seven seasons.  The kind of obscurities that Trekkies love to dredge up about their own holy grail, I can dish on TWW.  Episode titles.  Great lines.  Guest stars.  Writing credits.  One-shot characters.  Inconsistencies of established backstory.  The fact that H. Richard Greene appears in Season 3 as an obscure congressman worried about his re-election prospects and then turns up again in Season 5 as the same character, now Senate Majority Leader, has my mind twisting in knots in its more idle moments wondering how such a transformation could ever occur in real life.  Yes, I am a dork.  Or more precisely, a Wing-nut.  I’m sure I’ll delve further into why I dig it so much in future posts.  The reason I mention it is that today my West Wing enthusiasm led me to do something lame.  Basically, to get snookered by a Twitter impostor posing as Martin Sheen.

I’ve been following this “Not-even-an-Estevez” for a few days.  His tweets seemed pretty genuine.  But in my squealing-teenager-ness, I forgot the cardinal rule – look for the damn blue checkmark.  So in blissful ignorance, I decided to send this person who I thought was Martin Sheen a compliment.  Here’s how it looked:

Me:  “Two Cathedrals” [the acclaimed second season finale of TWW] was a masterpiece of writing, directing and especially acting.  Thank you for it.

Fake Martin Sheen responded within a few minutes.

Fakey-McFake-Fake:  @thegrahammilne Two Cathedrals was great.  I love the cameo by @Lawrence O’Donnell, who if you didn’t know also wrote for the show.

Here’s where I then go off the rails into nuttery, thinking I’m impressing “the man”:

Me:  He was great!  I believe he also wrote that wonderful scene for you and Alan Alda over ice cream in “In God We Trust.”

Sheesh.  You can practically hear the girlish giggles.  It’s not great, but it would have been not quite so egregious had whoever this person is actually been the real Martin Sheen.  Turns out not only is he not, but the real Emilio Estevez (@EMILIOTHEWAY, which does have the damn blue checkmark) has been waging a Twitter war with this impostor trying to get him to stop pretending to be dear old dad.  Something I would have realized had I been a little more studious in reading the Big Faker’s entire twitterstream.

But it got me thinking as to why someone would choose to do this.  Why they’d put themselves out there pretending to be someone else and continue to maintain the lie even when challenged by someone with an emotional connection to the real person.  Yes, I know all about internet trolling.  I just don’t quite see what the appeal is, other than the “lulz.”  This lulz of yours confuses and enrages me, to quote LrrrMaybe making other people feel like idiots is really what gets some individuals’ rocks off.  I just can’t help thinking it’s a terribly transitory and lonely sense of gratification.  Big laugh followed by an equally large hollowness.

Right now, I have about 40 Twitter followers on any given day.  It tends to bounce up and down around that mark as new people follow me, decide I have nothing interesting to say and then disappear.  Were the grand scheme of Twitterati likened to the scale of the solar system, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber would be the sun and I’d probably be a few notches past the termination shock (look it up).  But I’d rather have these 40 than the 3,300-odd that Fakerooney has conned into thinking he’s Ramon Estevez Sr.  Because I know they’re here for me – what I am saying as myself and not false sentiments I’m forcing from someone else’s mouth.  I’m not leeching off anybody else’s fame – my successes and failures are entirely my own from here on out, wherever this ends up leading.

And I (me, the real Graham Milne) think that’s pretty cool.  Or, put another way, pathetically hipster.  But I’ll stick with the former.

What’s next?