Sunday, 13 May 2018

Fear Of The Known or Why We Must Not All Ignore "We All Ignore The Pit"

Anyone who's a fan of horror stories and isn't regularly checking out The Magnus Archives is making a big mistake. It's a weekly horror anthology series that eventually turns out to be building to something rather more than it initially appears.

At present, the show stands at 100 episodes, with a remarkably high level of quality control given they've all be written by the same person. Almost every story comes in at or above the level of "good", and occasionally Johnny Sims absolutely smashes one out of the park.

For all that I love the show, though, I've not actually written anything about it. Sims' bite-size tales of unsettling goings on are generally much easier to appreciate than they are to analyse. Episode 97, released a couple of months ago, was very much an exception. That episode, entitled "We All Ignore The Pit", was so fabulously chewy I ended up writing an entire essay about it, which I've reproduced below. Naturally, spoilers abound for the episode in question. There's nothing below that would spoil more than that episode itself, however, so if you want to read the essay to get a sense of the sort of thing the show does, then you can be confident that 99% of the currently available material will remain able to surprise you.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.11

This week we reach the episode where everyone realised Trek was about to shrink into nothingness, and had absolutely no idea what to actually do about it.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Thanos Made No Reasonable Points

A post in which I get oddly serious about a film that could easily have been subtitled
"Bruised Bollockman And The Genestealer Infestation"
It's inevitable that after a sci-fi blockbuster movie has been on release for a few days that people are going to start arguing that the bad guy had a point.

Arguments along those lines are not necessarily a bad thing. Ultron, for instance, absolutely had a point, one so strong Age of Ultron had to have him attempt genocide simply to hide the fact that his criticism of the Avengers as enforcers for a grotesque status quo could be safely forgotten.

It doesn't track from this that every villain has at least something of a case, though. This should be obvious enough from the horrifying crypto-fascist (heavy on the fascist, light on the cryto-) defences of the Empire/First Order that keep popping up following the return of Star Wars to our cinemas. And while we might want to quibble over the respective degrees to which they reveal horrifying politics on the part of those making the argument, putting forward the case that Thanos was right is, at least, equally ridiculous as saying maybe the Death Star counts as economic stimulus.

Avengers: Infinity War spoilers below.

Friday, 16 March 2018

GUEST POST: The Counsellor's Consent

Things have been pretty quiet around here lately, what with me beavering away on the second half of IDIC's first run. It's pretty handy then that official Friend of the Blog and general all-round good egg Dr Lynda Boothroyd has found time during our strike to put together some tasty thoughts on Trek's approach to the representation of women, and the nature of consent. It's guest post time!


What is a Psychology lecturer to do when on strike, ill and snow bound? In my case, the answer is: rewatch old SciFi on Netflix and analyse it in a way one never could as a child. Specifically, I have found myself struck by both the good and the bad elements in the way different Star Trek plot lines presented female sexual consent. I have seen angles on these shows which eluded me in the 1990s, and which I now cannot help but filter through my intervening experiences as a woman in world with still-evolving attitudes to sexual agency.

(Spoilers for all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and associated films, and Star Trek: Voyager below.)

We’ll start with the bad: Deanna Troi and the never-ending violation of her sexuality – an issue on which others have written before but which cannot be over emphasised, not least because of how embedded it is in the franchise. Indeed, it’s only the second episode of the whole series when we see her agency first compromised. The Enterprise crew has become infected by a virus which drives them to utter hedonistic abandon. Their poor empathic ship’s counsellor (or, psychotherapist, anthropologist and head of personnel as her role actually seems to be) is then subjected to these emotional overflows and falls into a state of severe ‘drunkenness’ herself, in the end trying to seduce her ex before falling unconscious. Good on the ex for not taking advantage of her (this time? well we’ll come back to that), but as a viewer it is profoundly uncomfortable to watch.

Flash forward several years, and a visiting diplomat manipulates her into a ritual in which she becomes empathically linked to him. He pours his negative emotions into her, and yet again she becomes sexually demanding, sleeps with a junior officer who should probably be off-limits on professional grounds, tries to seduce her ex again (who again, resists her advances), and eventually falls into a near-fatal coma.

We’ll completely skip over the forced alien pregnancy in Season 2, and move onto the most disturbing incident: Season 5’s "Violations". A visiting telepath is mentally attacking members of the crew. In Deanna’s case, this seems to take the form of awakening memories of an encounter with her ex, Cmdr Riker. It starts out a something we’d expect from these characters – a stroke of the hair, some kisses, “Do you still think about us?”, and her assertion that they can’t be together, “not while we’re serving on the same ship.” But then it changes. His hands are grasping her, she’s getting hurt, she’s becoming distressed. And finally … it’s no longer Riker in her memory, but the alien guest. Deanna falls at last into a coma (spotting a pattern here?)

‘Violations’ deviates from the other episodes in explicitly referring to what happened as rape. But it leaves unanswered the most important question of all – is this ship’s First Officer also a rapist? How much of the encounter was real? How much was distorted by the telepath? And either way, how is Troi supposed to keep working alongside him as if nothing had ever happened? [1]

Perhaps, for me, the worst part of this storyline is how closely it is repeated a decade later in the film Star Trek: Nemesis. By this point Troi and Riker have reunited (same ship, schmame ship) and married. On their honeymoon, a clone of her old friend and Captain telepathically invades her mind in her nuptial bed. The similarity to "Violations" in the visuals, as she hallucinates someone else above her, is both striking and disturbing. And this time, not only is she expected to get on with life with both her husband and her captain as before, but she’s asked by said captain to re-expose herself to the mind of the clone in order to help defeat him. There is virtually no exploration of the emotional impact of this event, let alone the cumulative impact of having her sexual agency violated over and over across the 15 years of the characters’ time together.

I have to confess here that Troi and Riker were my original nerd-verse ‘one true pairing’; I spent my early adolescence desperately hoping they would get together again and I would have been in ecstasies had that happened on the small screen with time to spare, rather than as a throw-away plot line in the last two films. I was so keen to see this that I was willing to overlook much of the above just to get some confirmation that they were Meant To Be. And sure, I can come up with all kinds of scenarios for how these things played out off-screen, how she and Riker got past what we’ll have to just hope were fake memories of him assaulting her. But why should I have to do that? Why could the programme makers not have given some thought to the fact that Troi deserved to be respected as a character, that her mental state was something worth exploring properly, rather than simply for titillation?

But that’s a hypothetical question. One only has to be reminded of what Marina Sirtis looked like in a V-necked onesie to get the answer …

But then there’s the good: Voyager’s B’Elanna Torres, Tom Paris, and the Vulcan pon farr attack (S3: "Blood Fever"). By the late '90s, Paris and Torres had become my second-favourite will-they-won’t-they on TV (behind Aly McBeal and Billy – yes, I judge younger-me too). And unlike Troi, Torres had been a well developed character with strong agency right from the start. At this point in the show’s run, it was clear Paris was attracted to Torres. It was less clear whether she reciprocated. Until, that is, she had a close encounter with a Vulcan Ensign undergoing pon farr – essentially their individualised ‘mating season’ where logic goes out the window and physical motivations are paramount. My one quibble with this episode is that it failed to really tackle the fact that the attempt by the Vulcan to mind-meld with Torres and in so doing ‘infecting her’ with his own symptoms, was itself a form of assault rather like those Troi so often suffered.

Where Voyager excelled, however, was in the thorough exploration it gave us of a man being the object of his crush’s sexual attention and his persistent resistance to those attentions because she wasn’t in her right mind. This episode is, in fact, my ideal guide on how to deal with a very drunk woman throwing herself at you. Paris is clearly tempted, he is clearly highly susceptible to Torres as she tries to persuade him to sleep with her, but it is also clear that he wants her to genuinely want him. And he knows he can’t treat her entreaties as reliable. The episodes skirts close to some real ickiness when Tuvok insists that Paris has to help her resolve her emotional state to prevent her from dying (round of applause for a schoolboy excuse even worse than the ‘only one bed’ trope) but thankfully the errant young Vulcan reappears and it turns out that an aggressive fist fight is all he and Torres need to feel better.

So what did the makers of Voyager learn during the '90s that had evaded the makers of TNG? That female agency was important; that men could turn down sex with a woman without it being dismissive or humiliating for her; that a sober ‘no’ followed by an intoxicated ‘yes’ is still a ‘no’ … and that men can say ‘no’ too when it doesn’t feel right. Which is not to say that TNG violated all these principles – there was even an explicit storyline about the importance of consent on an away mission. But somehow those writers struggled to treat their main female characters with the same respect. [2]

Torres and Paris became a pretty dull married couple in the end, with weak on-screen chemistry, and revisiting their episodes recently hasn’t filled me with the same strength of nostalgia as re-watching Troi and Riker’s long drawn-out years of sexual tension. But the moment when Torres was finally able to admit her real feelings in a later episode - sober, frightened, believing she was about to die and full of regrets over the time they’d wasted – was all the more meaningful because Tom
had waited to hear her say it and know she meant it. And for that they still remain a much-loved Trek couple.

[1] I don’t want to suggest that women cannot maintain relationships with loved ones who have harmed them. Indeed, very many women do and it’s a complex issue which gets too little attention both in fiction and in law. But the lack of even a head-nod to this episode impacting their relationship seems to me to be just as much an over-simplification.

[2] Unfortunately, Voyager still insisted on sexualising Seven-of-Nine with her skin-tight onesie and obviously-enhanced cup size. So it wasn’t all wins. For a 90s SFF show which managed to present non-sexualised female main characters who nevertheless formed relationships on-screen, see Babylon 5.