Tag Archive | television

Cuddle Your Gays, or, let’s talk about positive queer representation in sf/f

Television screen with the words, “Gay suffering in media.” Several guys watching the screen. One says, “I've had enough of this, dude.”

Same, my friend, same.

I wrote recently about the Bury Your Gays and Gayngst tropes and why they aren’t just tiresome, but also hurtful. That particular post was inspired by a conversation I almost joined elseweb on the subject. Since then at the same location the topic has veered over into a discussion of queerbaiting. When someone there gave an excellent example, other people jumped in to say the show in question shouldn’t be criticized because while it did engage in a lot of queerbaiting, it also had a couple of token recurring supporting characters at various times. Which wound me up a bit about how tokenism and bad representation are additional sins to lay at the feet of the creators—three wrongs don’t make a right—and don’t excuse actively misleading your audience (and publickly mocking them for falling for it again and again)…

But I’m tired of explaining why so many bigoted stereotypes, bad representations, tokenism, and the rest are both bad writing and immoral behavior. I’ve written about them before and I’ll surely write about them again, but I’d rather talk about a show that treated its gay character right.

So let’s talk about Julie and the Phantoms.

If you’re not familiar, Julie and the Phantoms was recently released on Netflix, and it’s about a high school girl whose mother has recently died. An aspiring musician in a music program at school, Julie has been unable to bring herself to perform. After getting dropped from the program, she decides to clean out her mother’s music studio as a step in trying to move one. Among her mother’s things, she finds a demo CD for a band she has never heard of. When she puts it in the player, three ghosts are summoned from limbo.

The ghosts are three members of what was a four-member boy band. The three boys died in 1995 after eating bad street food on the night before they were supposed to debut at the Orpheum Theatre.

At first it seems that only Julie can see and hear the boys, but they soon discover that if she is singing with them, everyone can see them and hear their music. With a cover story that the boys are holograms, Julie embarks on a journey to find her voice.

Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s a teen musical show. But it is well done and in these troubling times, a story with a big heart is exactly what some of us need.

Warning: There are some spoilers below…

One of the three boys in the band, Alex, is gay. We learn this very early on when one of his bandmates mentions how Alex’s parents weren’t exactly supportive when he came out. That one line is the only point in the show where anything approaching the usual cliched approaches to handling a queer character happens.

Early on the boys meet another ghost, a skateboarding cutie named Willie. It is clear in just a few lines of dialogue the Alex and Willie are attracted with each other and awkwardly flirting. Alex’s two straight bandmates take it in stride. “He is totally into you!” “And he’s cute!” They treat their bandmate’s queerness very matter-of-factly. The dialogue would not have sounded out of place in a more typical show if the object of Alex’s flirtation had been an opposite sex character.

Which is how it should be.

The subplot that Willie is involved in (he is under the thumb of a villainous ghost who is trying to enslave the three band members) doesn’t cross into any of the gay cliches, either. Their roles in the story are based on their personalities, not their sexual orientation. Their orientation is just another fact about them, not the defining characteristic of everything they do and say.

None of the bad things that happen to either of them have anything to do with their orientation. Not even the villain says anything even vaguely homophobic about either one. Neither is killed (I realize they are ghosts, but it is made clear that bad things can happen to ghosts in this fictional world) at the end. Neither of them realizes it would be better to be with an opposite sex person.

If you don’t happen to be queer, none of those statements may sound extraordinary—but trust me, having all of those things be true about a queer character in most works of fiction that aren’t explicitly aimed at a queer audience is an extremely rare event.

Furthermore, neither the show runners nor the network said anything in advance about how “and we have gay characters!” and then expecting to get congratulated on their open-mindedness. That is extremely rare, as well. In fact, that other show I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, not only did the network and people running the show keep crowing about their gay character–they even put such crowing into the mouth of one of the straight characters in the opening episode.

Now, all of this isn’t exactly an accident. The director of Julie and the Phantoms is Kenny Ortega (who is also one of the producers). Ortega is probably most well-known at this point as being the director the first High School Musical TV movie and several of the sequels. You might also recognize his name as the director of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. He in much less famous as being one of a couple of actors who—in 1972 when this was a very risky thing to do in any career, even theatre—came out in the pages of The Advocate, one of the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian publications.

During the press interviews after the release of Julie and the Phantoms, when asked about the characters of Alex and Willie, Ortega has said, “Alex is the character I wish was there for me when I was growing up, and who never appeared.”

Which makes sense. Speaking for myself, as a scared closeted kid growing up I was not interested in seeing stories about gay bashing or coming out and being rejected or the other usual queer story lines. I wanted—needed—to see queer characters living ordinary lives, facing the same challenges and triumphs as all the other characters in those stories.

Which is what Julie and the Phantoms gives us. And I’m so glad it does.

Star Trek: Picard wraps season one in a retro doozy

I have to start this review of the season one finale by paraphrasing Spider Robinson’s famous review of Children of Dune: It’s got plot holes so big you could fly fleets of Borg Cubes through them, but you probably don’t care because it’s such a fun ride. And yes, I think season one as a whole, and the final episode, were fun rides. To quote a friend who is not nearly as hard core of a fan as I am (who binge-watched it at the end and thus didn’t have to wait for any episodes), “Holy shit, that was amazing!”

For all earlier episodes of the series I scheduled my review to publish on the following Monday, in part just so there was some predictability, but there really isn’t a reason to put this off until then.

While there were some groan-worthy moments and several disappointments in the plot, the finale had its amazing moments. And to be perfectly frank, the first season of Star Trek: the Next Generation didn’t hang together half as well as this show has. It’s easy to look back on the old series with rose-colored glasses and only remember the episodes and arcs that we liked and forget the many (or so many) missteps.

Anyway, the rest of this is going to be all spoilers, all the time, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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“Et in Arcadia ego” finds Jean-Luc’s motley crew confronting mortality while wrestling moral dilemmas

We are at the penultimate episode of season one of Star Trek: Picard and it is a doozy! The official title is “Et in Arcadia Ego, part 1” and it ends on many more cliffhangers than any of the previous episodes.

Before we do anything else, I want to geek out a bit about the title of the episode, which I can do without any specific spoilers. The title is in Latin, and the phrase has been used as the title of a number of works of art over the years, most famously a painting by 17th Century French Baroque painter, Nicolas Poussin. The phrase is usually translated into English as, “Even in Arcadia, there am I” where the I in question is usually interpretted to be Death. The usual interpretation of the phrase is that Utopias are never perfect, or that Death is a universal fate everyone faces.

In another interpretation, the painting is used by certain conspiracy theorists (who say that the I in the title is Jesus, not Death) to be proof of their claim that a bunch of Kings of France in the Middle Ages were descendants of Christ.

There are other interpretations, of course. There is no way to know which meaning of the title really applies until we see the finale, which we all assume is entitled, “Et in Arcadia Ego, part 2.” Of course, given that Raffi within the show is a conspiracy theorist, while Commodore Oh, Narek, Narissa, and Ramda are all members of a secret conspiracy, we can’t rule anything out.

This was a fun episode. Lots of interesting things happened. We got answers to some outstanding questions. There were a couple of fun reveals, and some teasers for what might happen in the finale.

Which means we’ve reached the point were I can’t make any other comments without revealing major spoilers. So it is time for the cut-tag. Past this point there be plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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Picard tries to start mending all the “Broken Pieces”— the new series takes a Lovecraftian turn

My episode-by-episode reviews of Star Trek: Picard continue with the eighth episode, “Broken Pieces,” in which Raffi, Rios, and Jurati finally meet Soji, while Seven of Nine comes to Elnor’s rescue and is faced with a horrific situation.

This was another bloody episode, with a rather lot of deaths, some depicted less graphically than others. And the deaths were hardly the most disturbing things to happen! I think it was an excellent episode. Since we are nearly to the end of the season, most of all the diverse subplot all start to come together.

I can’t say anything more without major spoilers, which means it’s time for the cut-tag. Past this point there be plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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“Nepenthe” predicts Picard will be up to his ass in Romulans for the rest of his life

Jean-Luc reunited with Riker and Troi in “Nepenthe”

Jean-Luc reunited with Riker and Troi in “Nepenthe” — CREDIT: CBS

My episode-by-episode reviews of Star Trek: Picard continue with the seventh episode, “Nepenthe,” in which Jean-Luc and Soji, having fled the Romulan-controlled Borg cube, meet up with Riker and Troi from The Next Generation while Elnor learns the limits of one sword against multiple opponents with disruptor pistols and knives, and the rest of the motley crew deal with a host of obstacles and riddles.

I predicted at the end of my last review that things were heating up, and this episode did not disappoint. Several of the plot threads moved forward. There was action and also more than a bit of bloodshed. There was also a boatload of character development. This series continues to be entertaining while also taking the Trek universe into interesting new directions.

I’m not quite willing to say it was a good episode, simply because bad things happened to characters that I think a lot of viewers liked. That doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing or production are bad. Sometimes stories have tragic turns. The quality of the series rises, yet again, in my opinion.

And I think I have now reached the point where it is impossible for me to say anything more without major spoilers. Past this point there be plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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A Surfeit of Ex-Borgs: Jean-Luc Picard beams into the “Impossible Box”

Click to embiggen

My episode-by-episode reviews of Star Trek: Picard continue with the sixth episode, “The Impossible Box,” in which Jean-Luc returns to a Borg cube, is reunited with Hugh from The Next Generation and finally meets Soji. This was an extremely enjoyable episode. Not just enjoyable, it is very, very good. Episode six has it all: lots of wonderful character moments, both Jean-Luc’s and Soji’s plots advance significantly, the Borg concept is made to be frightening again while still showing the ex-Borgs as victims, there is intrigue and danger and consequences and action. Oh, and Elnor is becoming my new favorite as in this episode he gets to be extremely sweet and naive while still also being a relentless killing machine.

What more could you ask for?

Past this point there be plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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Being a discerning reader, part 2: it’s okay to set your own boundaries

position to have, and people don’t have to justify it beyond that. Hot Take: “I’m sure this work of fiction has artistic merit, but it does something that I’m sick to death of seeing, and I don’t want to consume it” is an entirely reasonable, valid position to have, and people don’t have to justify it beyond that. (Click to embiggen)

Because I participate in the Hugo Award nomination and voting process, I frequently find myself at this time of year scouring review sites and such looking for things that were published in the last year that I might want to read. Now, I look at review sites and follow-up on book recommendations year-round, but usually when I sit down to nominate and start going back through the things I’ve read recently, it turns out that a large portion of those books and shorter stories were published more than a year ago, and therefore aren’t eligible—hence the need to find and read more things that are eligible to see if any of them wow me enough to nominate.

During this process I occasionally come across recommendations of things that I decide I definitely will not read. Sometimes my reason for not reading it is because the review tells me that the story deals with things I don’t want to read about.

Now, when I have admitted this before, there have been people who chime in to say that it is wrong of me to condemn a story without reading it; why don’t I give it a try, just in case I like it any way? I have two responses to that. The first is, me declining to read a story is absolutely not the same thing as condemning it. Secondly, I don’t owe anyone or anything my attention. How I spend my life (energy, time, money) is my business.

My friends will tell you that when I really like a book or a show or an author, I will enthuse about them rather a lot. I’ll urge them to check it out. If they’re someone I see frequently, I may repeat the recommendation many times. I’m doing this because I really like that thing, I genuinely think that they will too, and it’s fun to share an enthusiasm with friends. Sometimes, I don’t recall that they have already told me that they aren’t interested, or that they checked it out and didn’t like it, or whatever. So I’m not meaning to be annoying. But I know it can come across that way.

I know it, because I’ve had those “Why not give it a try?” conversations mentioned above, and find myself explaining exactly why I’m not interested in a particular subject matter or whatever.

Then, sometimes my reason for not reading it is because the author of the story is someone I find problematic. For instance, back when I was in my early 20s, a series of sci fi books came out that several of my friends were reading and really enjoyed. And the world the books occurred in seemed to be right up my alley. So I read the first book and liked most of it. There were a couple of points where rape—one instance psychic, another physical—figured in the plot in a way that felt unnecessary to me, but other parts of the story were great. But as I read through the subsequent books, physical rape, psychic rape, maiming, and a disturbing number of murders while in the middle of the sex act became more and more prominent.

I decided I didn’t need to read any more in the series. Even though there were a lot more books, and people were gushing about how great they were for years after. And when the author started another series in a related genre, and it became a bestseller, people were again enthusing about it. It had been long enough that I didn’t connect the author’s name with my previous experience until I read some reviews. The guy’s plot, according to all the reviewers, still wallows in rape, grotesque murder, and similar stuff. And I just don’t need to read yet another tale like that.

There are thousands of books that don’t leave me feeling dirty and blood-soaked nor do they cause nightmares. I’ll read those. It’s perfectly fine if other people want to read the blood-soaked rapey books. Me not reading that sort of thing is not the same thing as saying it shouldn’t be published, nor that it shouldn’t have been written. Many years ago, after a series of unpleasant experiences of by verbally harassed by bigots who (correctly) guessed that I was gay, I wound up writing a story in which a gay character was cornered and gay bashed… and rescued. With the bashers dying in the process. It was not great literature. The plot was barely there. Some people read it and enjoyed it. Other people read it and didn’t enjoy it. Some people, I’m quite sure, declined to read it when they saw the content warnings.

And all of those responses are valid.

You don’t owe other people an explanation for why you don’t want to read (or watch or listen to) a particular thing.

“Stardust City Rag” Begins Quite Bloody and Ends With a Bang, or Picard Goes On a Caper

"Stardust City Rag" -- Episode #105 -- Pictured (l-r): Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine; Evan Evagora as Elnor; of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Stardust City Rag” — Episode #105 — Pictured (l-r): Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine; Evan Evagora as Elnor; of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

My episode-by-episode reviews of Star Trek: Picard continues with the fifth episode, in which Jean-Luc’s motley crew try a bit of undercover shenanigans. This was another very enjoyable episode. As if trying to counter the criticisms that the first four episodes went too slowly (which I know isn’t actually the case, because the whole series was completed before the first episode aired, but…), this episode’s weakness is that it felt rushed. There are several things I wish they’d spent a little bit more time on. And I admit I was a bit surprised at just how gory the opening scene was—definitely not for the faint of heart!

A few non-spoilery observations (and let me nerd out about David Bowie for a bit): The name of the planet where most of the action happens this time is called Freecloud, and that made me think of an old David Bowie tune, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which was the B-side of the original single release of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” “Space Oddity,” in case you don’t recall, is the song with the lyrics, “Ground control to Major Tom,” and is a song that is much beloved by real world astronauts. Alas, “Space Oddity” was not a track on Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, however, since the title of this episode is “Stardust City Rag” I can’t help but hope that the name of both the planet and the city are hat-tips to Bowie.

There are two homages to the character of Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. One happens in dialogue, and another is in the background of another scene. There are probably many other Easter eggs I missed, but if you’re setting an Star Trek episode on a lawless planet that seems to be one giant casino, how can you not make some mention of Quark?

Final non-spoilery thing: this isn’t related to tonight’s episode, but have I mentioned that the orchestral soundtrack of the series is available to purchase? I bought it from the iTunes store more than a week ago and have probably listened to it far more than I should. The theme song of the series is just so, so good!

I can’t think of anything more I can say without spoilers, therefore…

Past this point there be plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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“Absolute Candor” delivers sword fights and a space battle for Star Trek: Picard

Evan Evagora as Elnor a Romulan refugee boy who has been raised by Romulan warrior nuns, from Star Trek: Picard episode 4, “Absolute Candor” Continuing my reviews of Star Trek: Picard with episode 4, “Absolute Candor.” And this week I even managed to write the basic review before reading anyone else’s! I do link to two three I read after scheduling this post at the end, though. Anyway, back to my review: I enjoyed the episode. I’ve been enjoying all of them, thus far. But there is a bit of a caveat, this time. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about how slowly the series plot was progressing, which I didn’t agree with. The first three episodes did, in my opinion, a very entertaining job of introducing us to a lot of new characters, filling in on events that have happened during the 20 years since the last film featuring Jean-Luc Picard, and setting up a lot of possibilities for ways the story could go. I thought the pace was just about perfect for all the stuff those three episodes had to do.

The first three episodes were directed by Hanelle Culpepper, who has an impressive resume directing a lot of different genres of television, including some Star Trek: Discovery. This episode was the first directed by Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander Will Riker on the the Next Generation, and has directed at least two Trek films and a lot of television episodes, including several Trek related shows. So, given how the last episode ended with the new crew warping away from Earth, I expected this episode to pick up the pace.

That’s not what happened. Very little movement occurs on the main plot. What we see is all interesting and introduces another new character—with some action and excitement including some explosions in space—but it didn’t really advance Jean-Luc’s plot that much. Soji’s part of the story got a little more depth, so there is that.

Despite this criticism, I did enjoy the episode, but it definitely is not competing for the spot of my favorite of the season.

Past this point there be plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on.

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“Once you have their money… you never give it back,” or, Contradictory statements about acquisition and wealth in Star Trek

Picture of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise from Star Trek: the Next Generation. Quote from an episode: “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th Century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

One of the times that a character on screen claimed that the Federation doesn’t use money.

Since I’ve been obsessively reading reviews and such of the new Star Trek: Picard series, I’ve seen many people commenting on parts of the plot that clearly contradict the claim Jean-Luc himself made in one of the TV episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation:

“The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th Century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
—Captain Jean-Luc Picard

Many other times in the various series and the movies, statements have been made to the effect that they don’t use money in the Federation.

In the latest series, one source of tension between Jean-Luc and his former aide, Raffi, is that when they both left Star Fleet after the Utopia Planitia shipyards disaster, Jean-Luc was able to retire to his fabulous chateau and vineyards and live among wonderful antique furniture and the like, while Raffi ended up in what is essentially a mobile home parked in the desert.

If they really don’t use money in the 24th Century, and the accumulation of wealth is meaningless, how does such a thing happen?

That’s not all. Captain Rios, the pilot with the unlicensed ship that Raffi finds for Jean-Luc is being hired. We don’t know the terms, but Rios does comment at one point that he is expensive.

This is hardly the first time that important plot points in stories of the Star Trek universe have contradicted the assertion that money doesn’t exist in the beautiful future of the Federation.

Let’s turn back in time to the 13th of October in the year 1966, when the Original Series episode, “Mudd’s Women” was first broadcast. The Enterprise responded to a distress call and beams four survivors from a ship that is about to crash into an asteroid. One man and three unnaturally beautiful women. The man claims he was escorting the women to a distant colony to get married. It quickly transpires that the man has given a false name, and that he is Harcourt Fenton Mudd, a con-man with an extensive criminal record.

Now, if there really is no concept of money or wealth, what, exactly does a con-man do to get convicted of Grand Theft and Grand Larceny (among other things)?

Rather than the episode just ending with the discovery of Mudd’s identity, there is a complication. The ship’s dilithium crystals (the power source of the ship) are failing, so they must divert to a nearby mining colony to get replacements. But Mudd contacts the miners secretly and strikes a deal to provide the miners with the three brides instead in exchange for them demanding the ship release Mudd before they’ll provide the crystals, right?

So this is another thing. One of the explanations that is often given (on screen and not) to why money and economic disparity has ceased to exist is that replicator technology means that the Federation is no longer a scarcity economy. But then, why do we need mean living on dangerous worlds mining dilithium? The usual answer is creating dilithium crystals takes more energy that an equal amount of dilithium can supply.

But it’s not just dilithium. In another first season episode of the series, “The Devil in the Dark” the Enterprise goes to a pergium mining colony because of a mysterious creature killing engineers. Eventually Kirk and Spock determine that the lone creature is a Horta, set to guard thousands of eggs until the next generation hatches, but because the Horta are silicon-based lifeforms, the miners mistook the eggs for geological anomalies. Anyway, again, if replicators can make anything, why are the miners so delighted, after making peace with the Horta, at all the “other valuable minerals” the newly hatched creatures help them find?

Then there’s an episode from season 2 of the original series, “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which Cyrano Jones, an intersteller trader, is selling adorable purring critters called Tribbles (among other things), and the creatures’ incredible fertility issues cause various problems (and solve one). But he’s selling the Tribbles early in the episode, then at another point a bar owner is unwilling to extend him any more credit and certainly doesn’t want more Tribbles since the Tribbles he already bought have multiplied so much…

Again, selling and bar credit clearly imply some sort of money system, right?

The Next Generation introduced a new alien race, the Ferengi, who were fleshed out significantly in the series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Ferengi society is built all around the Rules of Acquisition (the first of which, “Once you have their money… you never give it back,” I quote in the title of this post). Now the Ferengi and their obsession with business and acquiring wealth were usually hand-waved with the point that the Ferengi were not part of the Federation, and yet one is able to operate on a Federation Station for 7 seasons of Deep Space Nine without any problems.

And there’s that hilarious scene from the movie, The Search for Spock where McCoy is trying to hire a criminal pilot to take him to the Mutara system. “Mutara system is forbidden. Need permits many, which means money, more.”

I could keep pulling out examples. I understand that the real explanation is that script writers are creating stories that will appeal and be understood by contemporary humans who live in societies where money and the acquisition of health are extremely important. These are story situations and character types that the audience will understand without a lot of explanation.

For an in-universe explanation, I’m going to have to get a little cynical. I think that the various statements about not using money and such are ideals that the Federation official aspires to, and tries to make reality by providing needed services, housing, and so forth, to everyone. In other words, it’s not the money doesn’t exist, it’s that in theory you don’t need it to survive. Some sort of exchange system where credits are tracked or whatever exists, and clearly the concept of private property still exists. But most everyone has bought into the myth that it’s not needed.

If it seems unreasonable to believe that people would buy into this myth, consider this: how many millions of Americans (including a lot of very serious and highly educated pundits and such) insist that racism is all in the past, because we eliminated slavery! And then passed civil rights laws! And isn’t just Americans, of course, who go along with and repeat things that aren’t quite true.

If anyone has a better explanation, I would love to hear it!

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