Picard is no more

April 9, 2020

Eternal alien artificial lifeforms exist far beyond known space. They know that any organic species will, in time and when sufficiently evolved, create artificial lifeforms. They also know that conflict between the organic and artificial species will inevitably lead to extinction of one or the other. Thus, these eternal alien artificial lifeforms wait for a signal from our galaxy that once again, artificial life has been created. When they receive this signal, they will come, and exterminate all intelligent organic life, so that the cycle of evolution can begin once again. In our galaxy in the near future, the dangers that artificial lifeforms form for organic beings have been recognized, and intelligent artificial lifeforms have been outlawed. The few remaining artificial lifeforms which escaped the ban exist away from organic lifeforms, and want to activate the signal to bring the eternal aliens back.

Any video game player will recognize in the previous paragraph the outline of the plot of the Mass Effect series. Those who are more inclined to watch TV series will recognize the plot of Star Trek: Picard. Yup, Star Trek: Picard rips off the plot of Mass Effect in great detail.

This is not the biggest sin of Star Trek: Picard. The plot of Mass Effect is quite good, and you can base a good TV series around it. Unfortunately, Star Trek: Picard is not good. Not good at all. To list a few (just a few!) of the boneheaded, cliché-ridden, cringe-inducing plot elements from the very last episode of this series alone:

  • The Romulans go after a tiny settlement of twenty androids with a fleet of no less than 218 battleships. Because then we can send in the Federation with several hundreds of battleships of their own to get a big flashy battle in space.
  • Picard claims to have a great and deeply emotional friendship with Data, even though until Data’s death we have never ever seen him being friends with Data.
  • A female protagonist who betrayed the rest of the crew by violently killing the person who Picard spent five episodes on to find, even after confessing her crime merrily joins up with the rest of the crew, everybody conveniently forgetting about what she did.
  • The main male villain who seduced the main female hero, suddenly turns against his own side because “he has fallen in love with her.”
  • …It was all because of an ancient prophecy…
  • Characters swear like sailors and call each other “dude.”
  • The crew is gifted a small gadget which you can let do anything by just wishing it (seriously!), even projecting hundreds of starships into space, which look real to even the sensors of hundreds of enemy battleships. It’s a magic wand, people!
  • Picard dies and everybody cries over his dead body for half an hour, but then he gets resurrected by being placed into an android body which looks exactly like his and is exactly as frail and will even die like his “because that is what he is used to.”
  • While dead, Picard converses with Data in the afterlife — but actually it is a remnant of the real Data, even though it is never brought up how a dead Picard can converse with a real Data. “Their memories are stored in the same computer.” Yeah, no shit, that explains nothing. The only reason that it happened is that it was so emotional when Harry Potter did it.
  • A retired Riker decides to stop baking pizzas and leave his retirement home for a few moments to command a fleet of several hundreds of starships. Evidently nobody was better suited to do that.
  • An android which can detect whether people lie is lied to without detecting it, with no other explanation given than “wow, I am really good at lying.”
  • An android kills another android to let one of the captured villains escape, because… well, I cannot think of any reason why she would do that because it is in no way related to her plans, except that it is in the story because it gives the other androids a reason to turn against her.
  • A main villain is thrown into a pit and dies far away from and completely unrelated to the rest of the story, because the writers realized that they had not finished her plotline yet. And they had to give Seven-of-nine something to do.
  • In the final moments of the episode Seven-of-nine is suddenly in a lesbian relationship with another protagonist without them having ever interacted before or even having anything in common with each other. I can think of no other reason that this was thrown in there than the writers thinking “Wait a moment, we can’t show how woke we are if we don’t have any gay romances in our series.”
  • The whole plot point of artificial lifeforms being outlawed is solved in the last minute by someone remarking that it is a good thing that artificial lifeforms are now no longer outlawed. So, the Federation quickly and without a second thought lifts the ban on artificial lifeforms, while knowing that each of the artificial lifeforms has the ability to wipe out all organic life in the galaxy? Are they completely out of their minds?

And the rest of the series is almost as bad. But the worst sin of Star Trek: Picard is this: it ruins Picard even more than The Next Generation movies did. In the TV series Picard was a private, thoughtful, rational, erudite man with a sharp mind and an uncanny ability to inspire and command. The movies ruined him by portraying him as an action hero who is out for blood, who lets his emotions determine his course of action, and who uses violence instead of reason. In the Star Trek: Picard series, the final nail is driven into the coffin by portraying him as a frail old man, humiliated and bossed over by everyone around him, driven by his emotional ties to people rather than his intellectual ties to ideals and ideas. He is less than a shadow of the man he once was.

You can argue that captain Picard in his older days has mellowed and changed his outlook on life. That is an acceptable premise, but since we see almost nothing of the twenty years which are between the end of The Next Generation TV series and the time of the new series, we have no idea how it is possible that he changed so much that nothing of the younger Picard remains in the present-day Picard. And a series which carries the name of a famous character should not change the eponymous character into something completely different than what he is famous for.

Star Trek: Picard looks great, has fine music, and is well-acted, but sadly has stupid plotlines and has forgotten about its intellectual roots and the characterization of its main characters. Star Trek: Picard is neither Star Trek nor is it Picard.

Diversity interlude 2

August 24, 2017

Fired up by the publishing of Forbes’ list of actor salaries, the yearly wailing about top male movie actors earning more than top female movie actors is up again. It must be the patriarchy at work.

The complainers are focusing on the wrong issue, however. What they should be wondering is why top movie actors (male and female) earn yearly salaries which are tens to hundreds of times higher than the salaries of us working Joes. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, and Natalie Portman, who every year get tens of millions of dollars in their accounts, come over as childish whiners when they complain that “it is not enough.”

The answer to why top actors earn a lot of money is, of course, that movies make a lot of money because they are in them. Actors are not paid because their profession is “movie actor,” but according to what they are worth. This means that if a movie tends to bring in much more money if Mark Wahlberg is on the credits than if Emma Stone is on the credits (which they do), then Wahlberg is worth a lot more than Stone, and thus Wahlberg’s agent can sell him for more money than Stone’s agent can sell her.

The simple truth is that actors who are worth more for their movies are earning more than actors who are worth less. That the actors who are worth more tend to be male is incidental. Have you ever wondered why top male football players earn more than top female football players? That is because male football matches bring in much more advertising money than female football matches. And it is not always in favor of males, by the way. Female porn actors earn six-figure salaries which are five to ten times higher than the salaries of top male porn actors. That’s not because they are female, but because that is in accordance to what their presence brings in.

An actor who feels that they earn less than they are worth, should get an agent who is able to sell them for more. And if they cannot find such an agent, then they are probably mistaken in what they are worth.

TARDIS exhaust pipes

May 19, 2013

This is just me needing to vent a little bit.

I like Doctor Who. As a kid, I liked the original series. As an adult, I am really charmed by the new incarnations. The series has some original ideas, enjoyable characters, is sometimes a bit scary, and can even be profound at times. It is literally (and I mean “literally”) the only television program that I care to watch.

Which is why the seventh season of New Who, which just finished last night, was such a deplorable disappointment to me.

WARNING: Spoilers follow.

Apart from one single episode, the seventh season consists of episodes which are at best “mediocre”. And the reason, I am afraid, is the guiding hand of Lead Writer Stephen Moffat.

Here’s the problem. A great film director (I forget who it was, it might have been Stanley Kubrick) once said that if there is a scene in your movie that you think is really great and you do not want to cut at any cost, then that scene is the first one that should go. Why? Because scenes are there to serve the movie. If there is a scene that you are unwilling to cut, then you are creating a movie that serves the scene. Which means you will probably get a great scene in an otherwise crappy movie.

The seventh season of Doctor Who seems to be created by a man who designs one great scene, and then creates a 45-minute television show around it. And to get to that great scene, he needs to fill that episode with confused and frantic scenery, a muddled story, and blathering explanations which are completely meaningless on deeper inspection.

A good example is the Weeping Angels episode of this season. I imagine Moffat in a meeting with his writers, standing on a chair, gesturing wildly and enthusiastically shouting: “You know what would be really cool? If the Statue of Liberty was an Angel! Now write me a show about that!” And you can fill in such statements for many of the other episodes too. (“You know what would be really cool? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship! All the Daleks ever created in one room! The Doctor in a Sergio Leone duel!”)

The last episode of the season is the biggest mess ever. It is filled with confusing and meaningless babbling, written to introduce beautiful but senseless visuals, all created to lead up to the incredibly cool final scene, which is only cool because of meta-knowledge of the viewer.

The element that makes it cool is the actor that is introduced to play The Doctor’s nemesis for the coming special episode. And I must say, I am indeed keen to see what he does with the role. But the fact that that particular actor is introduced has absolutely nothing to do with the Doctor Who universe.

I hope that the BBC takes a wise lesson from this season, takes the reigns from Moffat’s hand, and makes him a supporting writer again. Because there is no doubt that Moffat can integrate good ideas into Doctor Who stories. But he needs co-writers to calm him down and give direction and purpose to his ideas. Otherwise I am afraid that he will bring the brilliant resurgence of the Doctor after one more season to a sad end.

Addendum (June 2, 2013): Until recently I thought that Moffat had taken over the reigns of the show from Davies for the seventh season of Doctor Who. I just learned it was the fifth. And arguably, the fifth and sixth season of Doctor Who are of much higher quality than the seventh. So maybe the deterioration of the show’s quality is not primarily caused by Moffat, but by some other factor. Which means the solution must be found somewhere else. A replacement of Matt Smith as the Doctor? That’s going to happen soon, so who knows…

Stereotypical games

February 9, 2012

In recent years several times game developers and game players have clashed with the moral majority about the content of some new games. This has lead to the rejection of already-developed games by publishers, to legal action being undertaken against game companies, and to proposals of new legislation in multiple countries. The outcry of gamers against such opposition to their chosen form of entertainment is usually clamoring for absolute freedom for game developers in creating games. And while I personally think that such freedom is a good thing, I wonder whether most game developers realize the amount of responsibility that freedom brings.

The main argument for complete freedom for game developers to create content (after “Freedom of Speech”, of course), is that whatever happens in a game is limited to the game environment. A common counterargument is that unethical situations in a game might lead to people having fewer reservations to behave unethically in the real word. In the past often the behavior of extremely violent people was linked to them playing violent video games in their spare time. However, in my view the assumption that they became violent because of these games is overly simplistic and probably outright erroneous. The fact that violent games are played by millions of otherwise mild people shows that it is far more likely that these criminals were violent before they ever laid a hand on a game.

Regardless, we know that a person’s behavior is influenced by any and all of his or her experiences, which means that games do have an influence — and a pretty strong one too, as they are highly engaging and a lot of time is invested into playing them. I am not saying that in-game killing leads to real-world killing. In-game killing is such an explicitly vile action that it does not translate into real-life actions. No player will think for one moment that killing someone in real life is even remotely similar to shooting down a bunch of pixels in a game. So there is a negligible influence on the player of the ability to perform such clear and explicit unethical actions in a game. However, there is much danger of hidden influences in the undercurrents of a game: the political structure of the game world, the selection of deeds that are glorified, the choices that a player is allowed to make.

For example, the common image that scientists are people to be mistrusted because they place their experiments above public safety has been fed to the world by Hollywood movies, and is now such a stereotype that it has permeated games too — the Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Fallout games are all recent examples of highly popular (and otherwise good) games which are populated with “crazy scientists.” Even the mages of the Elder Scrolls games reinforce the dangerous stereotype of bookworms that toy with forces of nature that should be left alone. I challenge the reader to think of a game in which the most prominently featured NPC scientist is NOT a crazy megalomaniac. This stands in high contrast with the glorified stereotype of the wise and revered sage, who provides the player with insight and important assistance, using spiritual guidance received from religion or nature. We now live in a world where multitudes spend their life savings on faith healers and charlatans instead of getting effective medical treatments for their ailments. I would not be surprised if this misguided behavior is somehow linked to the reinforcement of the stereotype of evil scientists in modern media.

From the perspective of game developers, stereotypes are an easy way to tell a story. They do not need any exposition: a scientist in his laboratory filled with big glass cylinders that contain glowing green goo is at worst a main enemy and at best a muddling, dangerous fool. Whatever he is, he should not be trusted. And if you hit or shoot him — well, he had that coming. On the other hand, hitting an old man who is sitting in front of a straw hut is clearly not the right thing to do. So, hitting a scientist is more acceptable than hitting an old man? If games are to be believed, certainly.

I think game developers should, in general, be more concerned with the message their games bring than they are today. They should be fully aware that the glasses through which game players see the real world get colored by their game experiences. There are a few games that try to depict an environment that is not black and white, and not filled with a plethora of cliches. But most of them still end up as cheap SF and Fantasy rip-offs in which politicians and scientists are constructing evil plans to destroy the world with a doomsday device, old men are spiritual guides with a deep insights in the future of nature and the world, opponent forces make Nazis seem like the Salvation Army, stealing from the rich is extolled, all women are between the ages of 18 and 30 and are oblivious to the fact that their skimpy outfits are designed to show off their copious and gravity-defying natural assets, and rebels righteously refuse to lower themselves to the methods used by their oppressors. Because most of the people on the development team want to remake Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and either don’t know any better or have unshakable beliefs about what will sell.

And don’t tell me that many games do not have a message. Most of them do, even if it is not intentional. For games to grow as an art form, it is necessary that game developers realize this.

Not half bad

July 18, 2009

Tonight I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. My daughter was with me. She’s only nine, so I thought it was OK as the latest rating I had seen of this movie is 9+. Apparently, it was re-rated recently, and now it is 12+.  However, I think the film is fine for a child of her age to watch, as long as there is a parent present.

In the following, I have avoided spoilers as much as possible.

What did I think of the movie? I liked it. For me, it is probably the best movie of the bunch. It is no Lord of the Rings or anything, but it is definitely a fine movie.

Personally, I do not like the Potter books very much. They are OK for some light reading, but that’s where it ends for me. I loathe Rowling’s writing style: people constantly finishing each others’ sentences, leaving sentences dangling, excessive use of onomatopeas, brutal disregard of the “show don’t tell” principle, and the ever-present need to add a chapter at the end in which someone explains everything that happened in the book. Of course, her financial success shows that she must be doing something right…

I have read each of the books three times: once for myself, twice to my daughter. So I know them pretty well. When I had read the sixth book, I pitied the director who had to turn it into a movie. Apart from the last 50 pages or so, the book is boring as hell. It consists of flashback after flashback after flashback, intertwined with some awkward romance stories. This book was written as a setup for book seven, and it is little more than that.

But the director of the movie managed to do quite a good job. And the reason that he did a good job, is that he decided to diverge heavily from the book. The main storyline is still there, but the flashbacks are mostly gone. Focus is on the three main characters of this particular storyline, namely Harry, Dumbledore, and Draco. Ron and Hermione share the spotlight a little, as do Slughorn, Snape, Ginny, and Bellatrix. All the other characters are just background noise.

The script-writer added one big new event to the storyline, probably to get some action going in the middle of a long, on-droning storyline. That is a good choice for a movie. This will probably go into history as Harry Potter’s “Aragorn falling off a cliff” moment, but it makes much more sense here than its counterpart in The Two Towers.

The movie is quite long, but almost always interesting. There are nice effects, Hogwarts looks great, there is some excitement and suspense, and the director made the most of the really interesting scenes in the back of the book.

Unfortunately, some of the romance storylines are still present. These should have been exchanged for a bit more insight in Voldemort’s background. Yes, I am voting for more flashbacks here, but only in place of the boring romance stuff. Maybe this was kept in to give Ron and Hermione something to do: scrap the romance and they could have been written out of the movie entirely.

If I am certain of something, it is that the avid fans of the books will cry out in anguish, and will condemn this movie as the worst of the whole series. It blatantly disregards many important characters, events, and lore.

Important in the books, that is. Movies are a different world, and the Harry Potter story is a different one on the silver screen. Chris Columbus did not understand that when he turned the first book into a movie, but David Yates got the message loud and clear.

If you are wondering how they are going to solve the omission of all those things when they are filming the seventh movie (or movies, because I understand it will be a two-parter), then I can give the answer now: by simply continuing to disregard them. All the characters who are left out now, can easily be left out later. That was a good choice for this movie, and it will be a good choice for later ones.

I have to say that I am a bit surprised about the financial success of this movie. In my view, the whole story it tells hinges on one event, that should come as a harsh surprise. Everybody in the movie theater knows about that event. The “shock ending” of this movie is no shock ending, because everybody in the audience expects it. So why are people flocking into theaters to watch it?

I am especially wondering why hardcore Potter-fans are standing in line for this movie. They should know that they will be disappointed. As such, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince delivers.