Thursday, 20 August 2015

So Say We All: On Endings and New Beginnings

So I’ve clearly reneged on this whole “regular blogging thing,” which is something I wondered would happen. I’ll permit myself a personal explanation: part of the purpose of this blog was to provide a creative, productive outlet while I spent the summer up in suburbia, looking for work and discerning next steps. Since that next step is clear, maybe the impulse to blog, to forge a productive outlet, simply weakened. Or maybe I just got tired of making the same old theological critique of modern optimism and postmodern pessimism. I also took a July break from (almost) everything Star Wars, just to detox and cleanse my palate a bit.

For those who may not know, my next step will be taken two weeks from today, when I get on a plane bound for Edmonton to join Ascension House, a 10-month intentional community run by the Anglican diocese. Along with communal prayer and meals, I’ll be doing a parish placement as part of discerning a call to some form of ordained ministry. It’ll be a bit of a return to full-time life in Churchland, but I imagine not quite to the same extent as studying theology at the TST. Or if the same extent, it’ll certainly be different, getting to the nuts and bolts of parish life even more than I have thus far.

After the 10 months, things are somewhat open-ended. There’s a good possibility that I’ll stay in Edmonton, especially if the bishop and diocese want me around (and are willing to employ me to that end). This means that my time in the GTA and southern Ontario might be ending, maybe for good.

Endings. I spent the last month or so rewatching probably my favourite series ever, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I didn’t intentionally connect watching this show with the reality of my imminent end (in Toronto), but maybe it was subconscious. BSG is primarily a story of ending: the end of a civilization intentionally identical to ours, the end of the assumptions that undergirded that civilization, and in a way the ending of a clear good-guy/bad-guy narrative conceit in entertainment fiction.

The striking thing about this show 10 years removed is that it emerges out of Trek’s space-protagonist paradigm without perfectly shedding it. Individual episodes resolve. Actions are deemed ethical or unethical, and the consequences are felt. In the end, deception is itself shed and peace and hope are “given a chance.” Maybe this is where people feel the show jumped the shark: when people started acting like good guys, and actually meant it. (Or maybe it was that whole thing about Starbuck’s song leading everyone home, which I’ll concede doesn’t make much sense. Or maybe the whole New Caprica thing? I doubt that somehow). In the end, Moore and co. didn’t “remake science fiction” by completely discarding the possibility of happy endings, but by taking the responsibility for happy endings out of the hands of those we assume would make them happen. We are given a positive payoff despite all the selfish politics, the xenophobic distrust, the violence, deception and turmoil. Humanity is saved despite itself and the technologies it creates in its own image.

Such endings are therefore only “ambiguously happy.” Maybe all good endings are, since they require us to leave things behind in order to embrace such endings: “bittersweet” is perhaps a better word. They are happy endings partly because they are also new beginnings, if not always explicitly so. Death is even a new beginning, possibly just in the memory of others, but also in the Age to Come through the unassailable Hope of Christ’s Resurrection. New beginnings on the scale experienced by the characters in BSG still required them to take their whole selves through a transition to a new form of living, requiring them to retain their experiences, desires and beliefs, even as even these underwent change. The new beginning experienced on my scale will certainly require me to continue much of what has come before: I will of course bring my theological training and seminary and liturgical experiences to bear in a new parochial and communal context.

I also have no intention of ending this blog (I will hopefully even get back to some more regularity, time permitting), and I will generally continue the deeper investment into genre fiction that I’ve made over the past year or so. I sadly won’t be able to attend Fan Expo Canada, but I’ve already found the Edmonton Science Fiction Appreciation Society and discovered that Variant Edition Comics is a very short walk from where I’ll be living.

And of course, I'm as excited as ever that it’s a Star Wars Year, beginning a new trilogy for a new generation.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Wise Detours: Thoughts on General Convention 78

Borderline-obsessive church nerd that I am, I spent a recent unplanned hiatus from genre fiction to watch the live feed of the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t as crazy as when I glued myself to the feed of Star Wars Celebration (which is still available, by the way), but the few hours I’d spend watching the House of Deputies certainly felt like a momentous occasion to fixate on.

So by way of a detour from the usual fare on this blog, I thought I’d share some impressions and thoughts. Three major things happened at this Convention: the momentous election of Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop, an increased investment in evangelism (primarily through church planting and improving TEC’s online presence), and a final decision on the canonical (legal) and liturgical aspects of the “marriage question.” Lots of other stuff was debated, decided and otherwise done, but these three stand out both in church media and secular media.

The biggest thing that struck me in my own experience of watching Convention was the alteration between familiarity and unfamiliarity I felt watching the proceedings. Much of this Convention felt familiar, or even comfortable and confident. As a Wycliffe grad, I was heartened that the American Church was investing so much more energy and finances into evangelism. I was both encouraged by and interested in the way structural reform of Convention and other bodies was geared to serve that mission. I was deeply impressed with the precision, formality and overall smoothness of the proceedings, none of which served to dull Deputies President Jennings’ sense of humour and prayerfulness. And Curry’s riveting election! The buzz around this man was enough to light up half of Utah! Through all of this, the Episcopal Church reoriented itself to more clearly and confidently know Christ and make Him known.

Things felt less familiar when I was made aware of how TEC is now a solidly liberal Church, and how much of a mixed bag the Anglican Church of Canada is compared to its neighbours to the south. I was similarly made aware of how the “Wycliffian perspective” is a minority position in TEC, particularly with regards to the Anglican Communion. The sense was that the American Church largely regards itself as its own thing, without much investment in relations with Communion Partners. Mentions of the Communion, such as in TEC's effective rejection of the Anglican Covenant, were taken more as afterthoughts and requirements to play nice rather than opportunities for global partnerships and global horizons.

A concrete example of the clearly liberal direction of TEC is how a proposal to drop the Baptism requirement to receive Communion got some decent airplay in the House of Bishops and almost passed. Most evidently, a surplus of new and ad hoc liturgies were approved, including new Propers commemorating deceased saints and witnesses—some of them never claiming to be Christian! While all of this is being talked about in Canada, they have no where near enough support to be given serious consideration. They are unfamiliar to me because I generally don’t consider them worth thinking much about, so I don’t really think about them.

The biggest indicator of TEC’s liberal bent is something I do think a lot about, namely the equality of same-sex and heterosexual marriage. Prior to Convention, the canonical and liturgical approval of same-sex marriage was not in doubt (another difference from the mixed bag that is Canada). No one was surprised when both Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori and President Jennings responded favourably to the Obergefell ruling, which was decided on the eve of the Church’s own debate on the matter. (The extent to which it is in fact the same matter is itself in dispute.) One thing this indicates is that the dust of Anglican realignment in the U.S. has basically settled (for now): traditionalists who could not live in a Church open to same-sex marriage had already given up the fight and left, and those willing to coexist amidst disagreement are committed to staying and contributing to the health of the Church. At least I hope they’re willing to coexist, and I hope progressives are also willing to coexist: otherwise the Mind of the House and Salt Lake City Statement are empty niceties that mask the continuing mire of polemic.

I hope the Episcopal Church will be better for its actions at GC78, and begin a new chapter in the way it works through the “marriage question” by becoming clearer about precisely what this question is. The fact is that this task of clarity is only now beginning, but hopefully better late than never. While the Episcopal Church has committed to the act of same-sex marriage, it has not fully committed to any particular positive meaning of marriage. Pittsburgh Bishop Dorsey McConnell expressed concern that the preambles to the newly-approved liturgies “do not make a coherent or compelling theological case for same-sex marriage," and that “the overwhelming majority of those present at Convention” framed the debate “as a matter of ‘marriage equality,’ of simple justice, making irrelevant any serious discussion of sacramental theology.”

For those of us in the “activist middle,” this situation also presents an opportunity: more serious theological dialogue regarding homosexuality and the Christian Tradition is hopefully better late than never. Now that the polemics and politics are finally dying down, the opportunity for a deeper and more wide-spread discussion of same-sex marriage as Christian marriage can emerge. What does it mean for marriage, same-sex or heterosexual, to be for "mutual joy, and prosperity and adversity, and, when it is God's will, for the gift and heritage of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of God?" More to the point, what do the terms "unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong" mean in the positive, life-affirming and communal context of the Christian Gospel? Similarly, how can ministers of Christ’s Gospel better guide and help form the couples who will make a Declaration of Intent with these words, in a culture in which such ideas are often misunderstood or dismissed?

I acknowledge that this may require activist proponents of equal marriage to explicitly describe how they take these Traditional questions seriously, even when they feel like they have nothing to prove, and even when these questions are often posed with less-than-charitable intentions and in less-than-charitable ways. (For better and for worse, I have Romans 12:21 and Matthew 5:38-48 running laps in my head, calling for the transformative power of dialogue and even solidarity with opponents.) I also acknowledge that I am not the best voice to call for this explicit affirmation of Traditional concerns, nor am I the best person to respond. An awareness of my straight male privilege is a concern I take seriously as well. However if the Episcopal Church prides itself on being a "thinking Church," of requiring that its members do not leave their brains at the church door, then I hope it is appropriate for me to draw attention to the need for deeper reflection in this case.

The most important acknowledgement to me made is that this conversation can never leave the deeply personal and sensitive realities of concrete couples: we need to continue resisting the temptation to seal ourselves off in abstractions or isolate ourselves in partisan camps now that the dust is settling. To close with McConnell’s own words to his flock, “this is a conversation that very much needs to happen, on the ground, in the pastoral context of people's lives and hopes; perhaps as our pastors and people consider the use of these rites, we can find ways to have such a discussion together.” Love wins indeed, and if we have a sense of what that means then we have a critical opportunity to share it.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Cheering for the Bad Guy: Part Three

In Part One I discussed how I enjoy watching fictional self-interested “bad guy protagonists,” and in Part Two I delved into the particular twist that the Sith spin on this “bad guy protagonist” subgenre. In Part Three I’ll reflect more broadly on why this genre is appealing.

The main reason that I find this subgenre appealing is the same reason why I find much of genre fiction appealing, namely that it invites a suspension of disbelief. While genre fiction tends to invite us to imagine a different physical universe, the bad guy protagonist subgenre invites me to imagine a different moral universe as well. I don’t actually believe that it’s possible to transcend good and evil a la Neitzsche, but the thought experiment is fascinating in itself. The popularity of House of Cards as set in our own context is telling enough, but add the imaginative universes of Westeros or a Force-saturated galaxy and you’ve got a blockbuster franchise.

Some may argue—lead characters and this commentator included—that the calculated quest for power is aphilosophical and ametaphysical. This may be true to some extent, but my point is precisely that it isn't aphilosophical but differently philosophical. Resuming my disbelief, I can claim that ambition is never purely naked, but always clothed with the drive and philosophical presupposition that pure ambition is actually a moral good. Morality in this genre is simply taken to be the utilitarian drive behind the protagonist’s actions. To be amoral is to be paralyzed, but to be immoral is to have one’s driving morality judged as deficient or backwards. The Sith tragedy makes this plain: pure ambition is upheld as a good in service of the greater Sith imperative to achieve mastery over the Force and bend it to their will. In bringing about the Chosen One, the Force itself judges the Sith as wanting and ultimately thwarts their plans.

As an invitation to the suspension of disbelief, the bad guy protagonist subgenre also invites a suspension of moral judgement. Cynicism and judgement can be tiring. A bad guy protagonist offers a particular form of respite by allowing us to temporarily give in to our cynical perspective, to temporarily give up the real-world moral struggle in which we find ourselves. Hence the appeal. A less appealing but more edifying fact of the genre is that it can also provide a self-corrective moment, exposing an arrogance that assumes we are in a position to judge in the first place, exposing the log in our own eye as well as the speck (be it wood or tear gas) in the eyes of the powerful. The Battlestar Galactica reboot did a particularly good job of exposing human arrogance even from the get-go, securing it's place as a forerunner of the genre.

This self-corrective function seems to have ostensibly been the primary purpose of the genre. At the very least, it was meant to expose us to a world of corruption, self-interest and the impossibility of good politics, in order to shatter our illusion that the current state of liberal democratic capitalism is capable of protecting the vulnerable, building up a healthy, inclusive society, of ensuring that the "right" and the "good" will consistently speak of each other in a language of universal norms. We have been led to the same sort of “conversion of disillusionment” that Palpatine led Anakin upon, but one that is at best only a semi-conversion.

I describe this purpose as “ostensible” partly because it has lately descended into being merely “ostentatious,” which brings me to one last thought. We have now become tired of cheering for the bad guy, tired of “hard-hitting drama” full of anti-heroes. Game of Thrones rose to popularity precisely when the genre was at its peak, but with this last season many feel that its exposure of a brutally misogynist quest for power has gone too far. Instead of seeking to make our own world safer for women and girls through its expositive critical realism, it verges on normalizing rape and violence as part of the “real world as it is.” To say this is irresponsible is a grave understatement. To say that it is no longer popular is to miss the point somewhat, but at the very least suggests that this approach is no longer so “edgy” or “cool.” (By way of disclosure, I should state that I still intend to give season 6 a chance, but I fear that it has now descended into pointlessness.)

Thankfully, others are starting to get the message. Most telling is the way season 3 of House of Cards season 3 shows Underwood’s own house beginning to topple. After decades of bossing people around and throwing them onto subway tracks for disobedience, his closest confidants are standing up to him and getting away with it. Instead of repeating the now-tired formula, this show just might turn out to be a fascinating meditation on the futility described in Ecclesiastes. New sci-fi shows such as Killjoys and Dark Matter may contain aspects of the old formula, but look like their characters' will be as heroic as possible given their circumstances. The big screen is proving to be a primary arena for this turn back to the positive. Tomorrowland primarily seeks to open up possible horizons for human flourishing, and a massive slate of upcoming Marvel films (all with problems of their own) will stay true to their good-guy and good-gal adventuring. 

Finally, I will say it again: the Original Star Wars Trilogy keeps reminding us of the uplifting adventure that comes with cheering for the good guys. Once Darth Sidious unmasks himself at the top (somewhat like the way Underwood unmasks himself), the arrogance of open corruption becomes his downfall. He cannot see the role that Luke Skywalker will have in bringing about the Return of the Jedi, a role he takes on by redeeming the Chosen One to fulfill his destiny by bringing balance to the Force. When Sith Lord Darth Vader is unmasked (figuratively and literally) by Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker indeed returns, ending the Bane lineage, denying the Sith quest for unlimited power, and flipping the Sith mask-identity relationship on its head.

In this Seventh Star Wars Year, I hope we are ready for the next chapter in the Saga and remember how to cheer for the good guy.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Cheering for the Bad Guy: Part Two

In Part One I briefly discussed my cynicism about contemporary politics (even in Canada!), and confessed that while I can't stand such self-interested calculating in real life, I find its representation in fiction to be as fascinating as hell. At the end I mentioned my recent favourite of the political fiction genre, James Luceno's Star Wars novel Darth Plagueis, which I'll delve into here.

While the novel is no longer part of the “official” canon, I'm inclined to go ahead and count it canon anyways. Luceno has included many elements from Plagueis in his new-canon novel Tarkin, enough to cement the 2012 novel as a fixture in the “shadow canon.” More critical to its canonicity is the way the novel is so directly entwined with the entire film saga—well, at least Episodes I-VI, especially the prequel trilogy—that it forces us to watch the saga in a new light.

Well, it forces the saga into a “new darkness,” actually. The novel portrays the titular character—mentioned by Palpatine in the very telling opera house scene in Episode III—bringing the millennium-long Sith “master plan” to its climax by freezing Darth Bane’s “Rule of Two” and establishing a new Sith Empire over the corpse of a corrupted and diseased Galactic Republic and its Jedi defenders. However the novel’s more intriguing character is Palpatine himself, who as everyone knows is Plageuis’ apprentice Darth Sidious.

We (and Plagueis) meet Palpatine as an impressionable but cynical and almost brooding youth, clearly endowed with the ruthlessness and wits to become an incredibly skilled politician. Master teaches apprentice to sharpen these qualities for the master’s end-game of immortal Sith supremacy over the galaxy. Sidious is able to easily out-manipulate everyone precisely by befriending his enemies and pretending to call for more integrity and accountability on Coruscant. As also recounted to Anakin in the opera house scene, apprentice is even able to manipulate master into fatally dropping his defences. Apprentice defeats master in a thrilling culmination of its own, leaving Darth Sidious as the principal heir to Darth Bane's legacy.

The brilliance of this novel is manifold, but a few stand out. Luceno is deftly able to weave such a complex story out of a few lines of dialogue in Episode III, some throw-away lines in the opening crawl and dialogue in Episode I, and some plot points in that first, underwatched film. What is this dispute about the “taxation of trade routes to outlying systems?” Why is the Trade Federation blockading Naboo to resolve the dispute? How is Chancellor Valorum mired in “baseless accusations of corruption?” What is that massive, many-tiered industrial structure where Darth Maul duels Qui-Gon and Obi Wan, and what is it doing on such a green-friendly planet as Naboo? After reading this novel, I needed to watch Episode I, which is an achievement all on its own.

More importantly, it directly enmeshes itself with the whole film saga to date by showing how central the Sith Great Plan—and the Sith “point of view”—is to the saga. It delves primarily into the relationship between a Sith’s true, hidden identity and the false identity or “mask” fed to the public. Muun corporate magnate Hego Damask is really a puppet of Darth Plagueis, scheming Naboo politician Palpatine is really a tool of Darth Sidious’ rise to power, and the Empire itself is simply a means to pursue the Sith Order’s mastery over the universe. This mask-identity relationship nicely parallels the device famously employed in House of Cards, in which Underwood breaks the fourth wall to tell us what he really thinks and feels before returning to his congenial mask shown to the other characters. And when Sidious and Underwood reach the summit of power, they are free to unmask themselves: Sidious with the cowl and deformed face, and Underwood with the gradual disappearance of the fourth-wall asides.

Luceno takes us for a thrilling ride through the calculated mastery of Sidious’ rise to the Imperial Throne. It invites us to see this Sith quest for unlimited power as a good, at least from the Sith “point of view,” or that the Sith point of view transcends traditional notions of good and evil. This points to reasons why we want to cheer for the bad guy generally, which I will discuss in Part Three.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Cheering for the Bad Guy: Part One

As my mom can directly attest, I’ve grown a serious dose of cynicism about politics and business over the years. Where my mom sees routine bureaucratic and administrative delays or honest mistakes, I see this government agency or that phone/cable/internet/baseball Empire trying to pull a fast one on us and score a quick buck. Behind every polished civil service advertisement or insurance commercial, I see Stephen Harper and his corporate cronies laughing at all our idiocy and above all our fear and selfish greed. And this army commercial? In Canada/anywhere but America? Really? (Does "our values and freedom" mean that freedom isn't a Canadian value?) And as unlikely as this result may be, I won’t bat an eye if Toronto City Council is manipulated into picking now-deposed Rob Ford’s plan to keep the eastern arm of the Gardiner Expressway right where it is. Far more likely, he might just find a way to bury the vote in piles of procedure by paying off his buddies at John Tory and co. (To be fair, the most likely outcome is a compromise “hybrid” option supported by Tory and others, but what is Rob Ford still doing around anyways?) I even show a little caution—and far less emotional loyalty than most—to the party and politicians I support: that I find Tom Mulcair to be rather dull doesn’t help matters. Rachel Notley’s revolution in Alberta may be exciting, but how much will she have to compromise with oil and agri-business executives in order to actually govern?

So what does all this real-life politics have to do with the genre fiction to which this blog is dedicated? Well, despite (or given?) the above, I have another confession to make:

I enjoy cheering for the bad guy.

Actually, the proper confession is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the recent spell of TV series, movies and books that fudge the lines between good and evil by seeking to transcend traditional notions of ethical, virtuous limits on power. Contemporary television is very suited to this type of story-telling, with its serial, long-arc, format that gives time to explore alternative universes of the physical and moral variety. Examples of shows presenting this broader Nietzschean vision abound, but two that spring to mind are the Battlestar Galactica reboot and the most popular and soon-to-be-most-infamous show of this decade, Game of Thrones. Battlestar Galactica actually managed to end on a positive note: the erosion of a “good-guy/bad-guy” narrative resulted in cooperation and literal procreation between humans and cylons. The final result of Game of Throne’s intra-human squabbling and religious fanaticism has yet to be seen: I don’t even think George R.R. Martin or the TV version’s creators know that yet. I can’t speak for the books, but for now the show seems to be on a mission to push as many buttons as it can by presenting a brutal, strongest-man-standing (mostly man, but occasionally woman) universe. Valar morghulis and Winter is coming, walkers, dragons, warging and all, but those have only served to reinforce rather than challenge the show’s anti-moral mythology. I’ll comment more on this in Part Three

Ex toto corde paenitet me (not really): I have most enjoyed the focus on a particular protagonist (to use the term loosely) that can artfully navigate the game of power towards his (yeah, always his) endgame. I stand back and admire a master plan coming to fruition, one that held me in suspense during its unfolding but has now, at the end, been revealed. TV is a great genre for this as well, and House of Cards serves as a fascinating example. Regardless of who he had to step on, destroy or ignore, Frank Underwood made it to the top and it was an exhilarating ride.

Taking the cake in my bad-guy-cheering recently has actually come in the relatively obscure form of an Expanded Universe Star Wars novel, James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis. As a foray into the culmination of the Sith "Great Plan" as the emergence of a "phantom menace," it delves straight into the political machinations that led to the the crisis that opens Episode I and results in the devastating Clone Wars. This fascinating novel will take up the focus of Part Two.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Trekker and Fanboy: no conflict

First up, I need to apologize to you and to me for breaking my rule about weekly regularity last week. In my defence, I took the time that I would’ve spent blogging by reading through, mulling over and preparing for a possible submission to Eleven-ThirtyEight about the new Darth Vader comics. I’ve been avidly collecting the whole 2015 Marvel Star Wars run, which currently includes a Princess Leia miniseries, a main storyline and the Vader run set just after Episode IV, and a series set during the Jedi purge at the end of Episode III. Due to a quirk in the shipping or printing schedule or something, the latest issues in all three come out today.

So thus far I’ve been blogging exclusively about Star Trek, which has been great because I love Trek enough to call myself a Trekker, and makes sense because I finished watching through DS9 a few months ago and have taken the time to regurgitate some of the themes I wanted to explore. But there’s something I need to confess, something you all know already:

I’m also a massive Star Wars Fanboy.

Star Wars was a part of my childhood as much as Trek, and as I’ve grown up into intellectual maturity it has provided just as much fodder for reflection as Trek. The fact is, I really don’t understand the problem with loving both equally. I don’t understand how the anger, the conflict, other paths to the dark side, are as necessary as they seem to be for most people (well, necessary at all). J.J. Abrams seems to agree, and part of the reason I’m so excited about The Force Awakens is because Abrams has done such a great job with the recent Trek films. He has managed to be a fan of both creating films for fans of both, yet with the relevant edge and marketing slickness to appeal to a wider audience.

Now, its true that the fan—public dynamic is different in Trek than it is in Wars. Before the reboot, Trek fans were more willing to stick with things after much of Enterprise, Voyager and Nemesis fell flat: they could still enthuse about First Contact, DS9 and TNG, and even Insurrection and the often-brilliant final stretch of Enterprise (not counting that sickening series finale). The general public was not so rapt, and basically consigned Trek to cult-following status. It was really a matter of boredom and irrelevance. Star Wars fans, of course, were the opposite of dispassionate in the irate vitriol spewed in Lucas’ direction when the prequel trilogy came out. However, despite the genuinely sub-par quality of Phantom and Clones (I will ardently mount a defence of Revenge of the Sith in a future post, here or elsewhere), Star Wars still managed to remain lodged in the public consciousness, continued to tap the nerve it originally struck in 1977.

What Abrams seems to get, and the reason I can love both Star Trek and Star Wars, is that they both struck a similar nerve. This despite the vastly different world views and methodologies they represented. In short, Star Trek and Star Wars both embodied the return of coherent, imaginative story to the public consciousness. By the late 70s/early 80s, Trek’s optimism (which I have previously critiqued) and Star Wars’ unembarrassed good-guy-romp nature captured a public imagination that had grown tired with everything from Vietnam to Watergate and all the fake cold-war posturing in-between. The recent Vanity Fair cover story on The Force Awakens (no, not that Vanity Fair cover) captures Star Wars’ sci-fi revolution succinctly:
After 10 years of haunted, pessimistic, even nihilistic hits such as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The French Connection, The Godfather, Chinatown, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Network, and Taxi Driver—films in which more often than not the heroes, such as they were, ended up compromised, defeated, or dead—there was something radical about a movie where the good guys win an unambiguous, bell-ringing victory, and receive medals in the final scene to boot.
Similarly, Star Trek VI presented the idea that the Cold War could actually come to an end and be replaced by a peaceful alliance. In 1991, such hopefulness was nothing short of prophetic. First Contact, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, in espousing diplomacy and cooperation over knee-jerk confrontation (Sisko even hoped for a peaceful solution to the Dominion) continued this prophetic strain, and remained compelling in the struggle to live up to its goals.

The bottom line is that I love story, love being gripped by a dynamic plot (even a predictable and possibly even porous or campy one), with tension, conflict and hopefully resolution. And if it is set in space, if it means that I get to see and hear worlds and technologies and spacecraft that do not exist, then all the better. If it means that I get to encounter ideas and beliefs—familiar or not—expressed through the creativity required to develop New Worlds and New Civilizations or the story of A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, then I will Boldly Go, and learn the ways of the Force.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Rejoined: the Perils of Taboo and Trill Sacred Tradition: Part Two

In Part One of this post I introduced the circumstances of the 1995 DS9 episode Rejoined, briefly discussed the way it respects both religious and secular traditions, and mentioned that the episode examines how individual choice is more ambiguous than is often thought today. This post will pick up on this last thought, examining how joined Trill display this general ambiguity by way of their particular relationship between past traditions and the present.

It is clear that Jadzia is primarily motivated by a passionate attraction to and electric chemistry with Lenara: the fact that this is largely a holdover from their previous hosts’ marriage is at a purely emotional level irrelevant. (Part One discussed ways in which it is very relevant.) However, another motivation for Jadzia is the excitement of overthrowing taboo, the brazen and head-strong rejection of the beliefs of the masses in favour of an individual choice. 

Benjamin Sisko, ever the supportive older brother, ultimately pledges to stand behind whatever choice Jadzia ends up making. Nevertheless, he seems uneasy with the possibility of Jadzia pursuing this relationship with Lenara. His unease is not directly because he agrees with the restriction on Reassociation, or because he thinks an individual rejection of taboo is necessarily wrong. He seems uneasy because Jadzia’s brazen headiness smacks of the very flaws that Sisko was able to detect in Curzon, Sisko’s dear friend and mentor, and Dax’s previous host.

This brazenness is put on display in Facets, which is set in the previous year (2371) and aired only a few months earlier than Rejoined. Sisko is able to confront this tendency directly, when a re-emerged Curzon directly threatens Jadzia’s integrity and the integrity of the Dax-Symbiont relationship. In this episode, Jadzia undergoes the zhian'tara ritual, in which the consciousness of Dax’s previous hosts temporarily take over the bodies of Jadzia’s friends. Since Curzon inhabits Odo, the latter’s shapeshifting existence gives them both the opportunity of permanently merging with each other, effectively extending Curzon’s life while granting Odo a far more outgoing and risk-taking personality.

While Odo and the re-emerged Curzon agree to this, the result is that Curzon’s personality would be detached from Jadzia, depriving her of an important source of the confidence and risk-taking courage that has become an integral part of her life. She is also essentially left without a choice in the matter, left to the whim of Curzon’s brazen disregard for Jadzia’s integrity as the current host of the Dax symbiont. So Sisko has none of it. While Jadzia momentarily lacks the courage to confront Curzon/Odo, Ben does not, and forcefully persuades Curzon to respect Jadzia’s integrity, to respect Trill Tradition on the matter, and therefore to reintegrate with the Dax symbiont.

I have used the words integrity, integral and reintegrate quite purposefully here. To have integrity requires two things:
  1. The various things that are integral to some whole thing are held together by that whole, since they together make up the identity of the whole. The opposite results in fragmentation, which entails a lack of wholeness.
  2. One or more of these integral things do not overwhelm the whole, since they merely make up the identity of the whole. Such an overwhelming would collapse or diminish the identity of the whole into one of its parts, meaning that the whole lacks integrity.

Joined Trill provide an excellent sci-fi vehicle for expressing this principle because the integrity of their whole selves in the present involves the personalities and life experiences of past hosts. In Facets, it is clear that Curzon’s memories and personality are integral to Jadzia’s ability to make responsible and courageous decisions. In Rejoined, the possibility arises that the urges of past hosts—Curzon far more than Torias (the spouse of Lenara’s previous host)—might overwhelm Jadzia’s integrity as Jadzia, and therefore her courage might overwhelm her responsibility to herself.

More broadly, these Trill-heavy episodes show how the past itself, with its histories and experiences and mindsets—its Tradition and its wisdom—is integral to the present in a complicated, rather non-linear dynamic that nevertheless seeks to affirm the integrity of the present moment. Importantly, the present moment will inevitably become a past moment, as part of a future present moment. With this in mind, we need to understand that Tradition is received from the past, then interpreted, expressed and (yes) modified or developed, and then handed down and “surrendered”—tradere (here’s some more Latin) to a future present. Whether or not you agree with Ben in Facets (you should), and whether or not you agree with Lenara’s choice ultimately to not pursue a relationship with Jadzia (you aren’t told one way or the other), these episodes take a serious look at the way choice and decision-making in the present and future are richly entwined with the past.