Monday, 27 May 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Idea

This is the fifth part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

In previous installments, I covered character, setting, and plot—based on librarian Nancy Pearl’s description of appeal characteristics—and craft, an expansion of the characteristic she calls language.[1] This week, I cover the first of two extra characteristics I use to understand the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show: Idea.

Pearl identified her four characteristics for mainstream literary fiction. However, the appeal of some narratives lies outside these, when the main enjoyment to be found in the work is the presentation of some interesting idea or concept. Neal Stephenson put it like this in an interview when asked to define science fiction:
‘Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.”’ [2]
Science fiction, and, more broadly other speculative fiction, often asks ‘what if...’ when establishing a setting outside of our real-world experiences. And often, the answer is what readers or viewers find compelling. For example, the seminal dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World are not renowned for their memorable, three-dimensional characters or intricate and clever plots. Their settings are developed only to the point where they allow Orwell and Huxley to present their ideas, and it is for these ideas that these novels are famous.

When I started thinking about idea as an appeal characteristic of fiction, I had thought exclusively in terms of speculative genres. However, a friend (thanks B!) pointed out to me that the appeal of particular narratives in all kinds of genres might also lie at least partially in its presentation and exploration of ideas. For example:
  • A romance might revolve around an extremely unlikely couple. 
    • The idea explored might be ‘how can true love blossom between two such different people?’ 
  • Historical fiction set in the Wild West or in the Age of Chivalry might present an honourable character with conflicting loyalties. 
    • The idea explored might be ‘how is it be possible to satisfy both?’
  • A contemporary literary novel or art film might follow the ripple effect of a dispute through a community.
    • The idea explored might be ‘how could such a small thing end up dividing so many people so completely?’
In each of these cases, the reader’s reaction of ‘that’s interesting. I never thought of that before’ identifies an idea-driven story every bit as much as in a science-fiction story driven by ideas. However, removed from the necessity of fitting into the real world as we know it, speculative genres do allow authors to ask more abstract, hypothetical questions, like:
  • What if wars were fought entirely by computer and casualties of simulated attacks just stepped into disintegration chambers when ordered? What would that be like?
To generalise: the more far-fetched and hypothetical the idea, the more interested I’ll probably be. Also, everything else being equal, I’m probably also more interested in questions with bigger repercussions than smaller ones: issues that affect a whole society or civilization instead of just a town or even only a few individuals. For example:
  • What if people suddenly stopped dying?
is prima facie more interesting to me than:
  • How might the death of one person affect a whole town?
  • How could we talk to aliens who only communicate by tasting subtle but rapid chemical changes in each other’s skin?
interests me more than:
  • How could an avowed pacifist and an officer in the military overcome their differences and find true love?
 And I’m much more likely to read or watch a narrative that asks:
  • What criteria will we use to judge whether we have created computers with consciousness?
than one that asks:
  • Should it matter whether the prize-winning cake at the town fair was created from raw ingredients or from a packet? (although the depiction of the fallout from this dispute might be perversely entertaining)
I highly value idea-driven narratives. Interesting ideas are the fuel for my life-long devotion to Star Trek, for example. I like to think that idea is what matters to me most of all; that provided with a suitably interesting idea, I don’t require much in the way of believable characters, well-realised setting, compelling plot, or even good writing or production. However, recent encounters with a couple of science-fiction novels that failed to deliver me anything but a few interesting questions reminded me that sometimes a cool idea might not be really enough to sustain my interest in a narrative!

Next week, I’ll conclude this series by considering affect as an appeal characteristic.

Star Trek Into Darkness — a response

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen this film and want to preserve its secrets, come back later.

TL;DR version: mediocre as an action film, no discernable science-fiction elements beyond its dress, and only barely, vaguely recognisable as part of the Star Trek franchise. I give it 1/5 stars.

So on Friday night, I bit the bullet and watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I even tweeted about it as I did so. I had really hated J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film, and honestly I wasn’t expecting to like this much more. However, I was encouraged by a couple of reviews that suggested that this time Abrams had used the film to provide some social commentary on terrorism and drone strikes.

I think it makes sense to evaluate the Star Trek films on at least three levels (an idea on which I’ll expand in another post one day):
  • as action/adventure films
  • as science-fiction films
  • as Star Trek films
I found Star Trek Into Darkness unsatisfying on all three counts. I enjoyed it less than just about any film that I’ve ever watched all the way through. Had I not been wanting to review and critique it from as informed a position as possible, there's just no way that I would have sat it out to the end. My interest had all but evaporated after the first 30 minutes, and was gone completely after the first 50.

As an action/adventure film

Historically, the Star Trek films skew very strongly towards the ‘adventure’ end of the action spectrum. Action sequences in the first ten films tended to be relatively sparse, separated by long stretches of investigation and analysis. Two of the ten[1] featured practically no violence at all, and three others[2] had violent confrontations at their climaxes, but very little action at any other point in the films.

For the 2009 film, Abrams chose to make something much more like standard action-movie fare: a series of violent setpieces culminating in a final hand-to-hand clash between protagonist and antagonist.

To me, Into Darkness seems to occupy an uncomfortable place between the two. When violence is depicted, it is frenzied and on a huge scale. But the violence never really builds to a crescendo as it did in the 2009 film.  Setpieces are separated by long sequences of no action at all, much like the earlier films. However, where those films used the time for narrative or thematic purposes, Into Darkness uses them mostly for some truly heavy-handed attempts at character building—Star Trek: Grey’s Anatomy. Three egregious examples stand out in my memory: Uhura and Kirk’s turbolift scene, Uhura, Kirk, and Spock’s scene in the shuttlecraft, and—worst of all—Kirk’s death scene. The latter is such a shameless rip-off of Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that it actually lifts lines verbatim. However, while Spock’s death takes place after the climax of the film, safely out of the way of any action sequences, Kirk’s death in Into Darkness is the event that triggers the climactic showdown between Spock and Khan, necessarily therefore before the climax. And. it. stops. the. film. dead.


Another thing that struck me as odd about the action in Into Darkness is that the largest and showiest setpiece is not at the film’s climax, but a little under halfway through, in the fight with the Klingons. This is a long and sprawling sequence. It starts with an aerial chase through a derelict industrial landscape that borrows heavily from the flying sequences of the classic Star Wars trilogy, in particular, the Millennium Falcon’s race through the Death Star infrastructure in Return of the Jedi. This segues into ground combat that is as gleeful as it is chaotic. I found it difficult to follow what was going on or what the specific goals of various participants were; the fight really seemed like a free-for-all on a huge scale. Nonsensical as it seemed, lots of stuff was always happening on the screen and it went on for a long time. To me, this made the end of the film seem very anticlimactic when it had nothing even remotely comparable to offer.

I confess that I’m not a fan of the action-film genre, so my assessment of this particular aspect of Into Darkness might not be well-informed. However, the few, widely spaced, and strangely ordered sequences make me think that Into Darkness is a mediocre action movie at best: I’ll say 3/5 stars. However, this is still the most that the movie has going for it.

As a science fiction movie

I believe that it takes more than a futuristic or space setting for the label ‘science fiction’ to mean anything useful. For example, does this movie question something about society’s relationship with science and technology? Is the central crisis of the film created (or solved) by the application of scientific knowledge or principles? Stripped of its futurist dress and placed in the present day is all that’s left a thriller?

As with its 2009 predecessor, I didn’t detect anything particularly science fictional about Into Darkness. There is only one piece of technology essential to the plot that would prevent its easy transposition to the present day: Khan’s regenerative blood. However, even this is nothing more than a magic substance, the nature of which is never explored, questioned, or evaluated.

The central crisis of the film is: a military contractor feels that he has been stiffed on a contract with the Pentagon. The crisis is resolved by a naval officer (single-handedly) chasing said contractor on foot through the streets of San Francisco and engaging in fisticuffs with him on the back of a moving truck until another naval officer tasers the disgruntled contractor and knocks him out for capture. The regenerative blood is only a MacGuffin to force Spock to capture Khan alive—a MacGuffin that shouldn’t even be required, given Spock’s dedication to bringing Khan to justice, expressed much earlier in the film. 1/5 stars for being science-fiction only skin-deep.

As a Star Trek movie

The question here is does the movie concern itself with any of Star Trek’s recurring and characteristic themes? Does it ask about what it means to be human? Does it explore and challenge some social issue of the day? Does it posit a brighter future for humanity, as post-scarcity peaceful explorers of deep space? Is there a promise of transcendence in humanity’s future? More simply, stripped of its specifically Star Trek names, costumes, designs, and references, would this film be recognisably Star Trek?

Well, for a start, there would be an awful lot to strip. The references and name-drops are laid on very thick indeed. One of the most frustrating things for me about the film was that this was all so un-necessary for anything outside of brand recognition.

There is absolutely nothing about Khan’s character or motivations that links him to the character from ‘Space Seed’ and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He really could have stayed John Harrison with absolutely zero impact on the plot whatsoever. Ditto for the Klingons. The Star Trek TV series and films of the 1980s and 90s invested heavily in fleshing out Klingon culture into something quite rich. There’s absolutely nothing linking the generic goons of Into Darkness to that culture however. So when branding is the only conceivable reason to bother doing this, it all seems so very cynical and contrived.

With all this peeled away, however, I think there’s maybe only one thing that would leave Into Darkness recognisable as Star Trek: Spock’s conversation with Kirk in the shuttle about the illegality of the ‘drone strike’ mission on which Marcus is sending them. I find it hard to imagine too many other fictional worlds in which that conversation and the subsequent change in Kirk’s convictions would take place. However, in the end, nothing more is made of this decision, and it’s not as if the film is driven by weighing its costs and benefits. It truly is a throwaway moment. Arguably, Kirk’s decision not to carry out the mission as planned cost the lives of everybody on the U.S.S. Vengeance, as well as all the people killed when the starship ploughed into San Francisco. But nothing is made of this.

If Into Darkness is recognisably Star Trek, it’s pretty light-on. Even woeful entries from the original run of films such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis were more essentially Star Trek than this. Anyway, 2/5 stars for at least trying, which is more than Abrams did in 2009.


There is an interesting and timely story to tell about extra-judicial, long-range killings, and it could be told in a film where superior technical and scientific ability is what allows the protagonist to succeed. It could probably even be told with enough action setpieces to keep casual cinemagoers happy. That would be a Star Trek film to get excited about. Into Darkness is not that film.

[1] Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV

[2] Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: Insurrection

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness — live tweets

On the evening of Friday 24 May, I live tweeted from my viewing of Star Trek Into Darkness. I expected this movie to be pretty bad, and it delivered. Here were my impressions as I watched it; more coherent thoughts coming soon.

All images are property of Paramount Pictures. I assert use of these images here is fair use for the purpose of review and criticism.

Woo! LIVE TWEET of Star Trek Into Darkness starting soon! Watch the #idlive hashtag

seconds in and we've just shot something! Yay! #idlive

"As you know... the Prime Directive..." #idlive

So, why is the Enterprise underwater? #idlive

Lolz, Scotty got frightened by a fish! #idlive

Meanwhile... at bad art project... #idlive


Is this more Gattaca or more Starship Troopers or more Hugo Boss Nazi? #idlive

Cold fusion... I do not think it means what you think it means #idlive

Meanwhile, in Bladerunner #idlive

Injecting children with the blood of strangers; seems legit #idlive

Didn't they do this same bar scene last time? #idlive

This is pretty slow for an action film... #idlive

And now it's Dr Strangelove! :D #idlive

We're going to run this bastard down! Really? Star Trek? #idlive

So you can beam straight to Qonos now... #idlive
So why have starships? #idlive

I did like the little model spaceships #idlive

I despise the look of the new Enterprise #idlive

The scene with Kirk and Spock in the shuttle was actually good though #idlive

I don't really understand the torpedo thing #idlive

Also, this is slow for an action movie. #idlive

And now this is Star Trek: Greys Anatomy :(( #idlive

Enterprise leaves spacedock without a single shred of the majesty that this scene used to have :( #idlive

Let's get this son of a bitch :( #idlive

Why did something just blow up? #idlive

Kronos? Really? #idlive

And we're back in Grey's Anatomy territory again #idlive

Do you think the makers of this film ever saw Return of the Jedi? #idlive

Also Uhura is so disappointingly wet :( I'll have to look up that line later :( #idlive

[I looked it up later. The line was: ‘They’re going to torture us, question us, and they’re going to kill us. Which I think worked better in Firefly as: ‘They’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And, if we're very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.’]

The Klingon's head looks like smoked salmon now. :( #idlive

Klingons are now just generic goons :( #idlive

Nothing in that fight made sense #idlive

Artichoke man is the Jar Jar of this franchise #idlive

Really? Gratuitous underwear shot? what is that even? #idlive

Bones is made out of torpedos? #idlive

Khan is a lot whiter now. #idlive

and he is eeenunseeaaating veery cair ful leeeee #idlive

WTF???? Stuffing your people inside weapons doesn't seem like genius :( #idlive

punch it? They *have* seen Return of the Jedi*!!! #idlive

The women in this are so awful :(( #idlive

Khan sits like a meerkat #idlive

[No, I’m reliably informed he resembles an otter]

"The tribble's dead" is maybe memeworthy #idlive

This is very slow for an action movie #idlive

Tron helmets #idlive

He's turned off his targeting computer #idlive

That ship is under some serious air pressure! #idlive

Old Spock says: I won't tell you anything. Except what I'm about to tell you. #idlive

Enterprise bridge = Apple Store; Dreadnaught bridge = Death Star control room #idlive

The aft nacelle? Where is that? #idlive

Now we see why that pointless atrium was there - for people to fall into! Checkov's gun I guess #idlive

It's like that barrel of monkeys game #idlive

Reactor repair 101 -- kick it a lot #idlive

Seriously? They're lifting lines word-for-word in this? #idlive

This is very slow for an action movie #idlive

Khaaaan.... FFS #idlive

Star Trek is all about foot chases. #idlive

That tribble looks a lot like a potato. #idlive

Why has nobody called Starfleet? Or even the police? #idlive

They could beam Uhura down, why couldn't they beam Khan up again??? #idlive

Why not use Khan's blood to bring everyone else back too? #idlive

Well, that's strangely suddenly over... #idlive

Well, that's about what I expected. Fucking awful. #idlive

Thanks for playing everybody! I'll sum all this up in a blog entry later! :D #idlive

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this response to the 2009 film.