Last night, my cousin John and I had our monthly (or so) outing at Buffalo Wing Factory. As always, we talk about all things both political and nerdical. Of all the things we discussed, there was one point made that was wholly mine, rather than a consensus between our two views. It’s not that John hadn’t heard the argument before and accepted it in the context of Star Trek, but I took it to a larger level.
For all it’s bells and whistles, all of the new iterations of Star Trek will never (apparently) have what the Original Series had: character development. At first, this seems like a ridiculous argument, but I’m serious. It’s not that TNG, DS9, and the rest don’t have character development; the problem is that they spread that development too thinly across too many characters.
The Triumverate of Nerd
TOS had three characters: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Everyone else was secondary. Can any of the newer series or movies say that? No, they can’t. They’ve all moved from being about “the main characters” to being about “the ensemble,” and the result is that none of the characters mean anywhere’s near as much as the original three. As I’ve pointed out before, we know the year that O’Brien’s mother-in-law was born. That’s a bit crazy. If you’re filling in that level of detail about the most minor of characters, you’re not spending time on who matters most. Granted, TOS lasted less years than any of the other series, so inevitably we would have known more about the minor characters as future seasons were released, but it still would have been about the big three.
It’s Not Just Star Trek
I pointed out to John, a rabid Star Wars fan (seriously, check out his blog), that this isn’t just Star Trek. The original Star Wars trilogy was about Luke, Leia, and Han. Is Obi-Won Kenobi getting too important? Cut the bastard in half … or into thin air. Whatever. Same with Yoda. Bring them back as ghosts occasionally, but get them out of the action.
The Star Wars prequels became about the ensemble. While it should have been about Anakin, Obi-Won, and Padme, it wasn’t. Mace Windu, Yoda, and a freaking astromech droid were just as important. They got a ton of action independent of the main characters.
A Larger Trend
I haven’t done any serious math here, but this appears to be a larger trend, especially in light of the success of comic book movies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It allows screenwriters to tell a different set of good stories. It’s also no longer “progressive” to just stick a minority on screen, make her a secretary, tell everyone she’s good at math, and rarely let her speak words other than, “I’m frightened.” I can understand a need to continue our social evolution, but it has its drawbacks with respect to the development of characters with whom the audience can relate. If we had the Avengers but didn’t have the benefit of two Iron Man movies, a Captain America movie, a Thor movie, and two Hulk movies, you wouldn’t care as much for those characters as you did (unless you had decades of development through reading their comics, which I do not have).
And this is why Picard will never have shit on original Kirk. Get over it and get off my lawn, you rotten kids.
P.S. Opening day for Star Trek into Darkness is my birthday. Great gift, though it would be better if Cumberbatch were playing Sybok.
Despite my many hours playing Dungeons & Dragons since 2005 (after a 24-year absence from the game), I’m really not much of an RPG gamer. I love FASA Star Trek RPG, but what do you expect? I loved Enterprise! I’ve played Gamma World 4e, Legend of the Five Rings (3rd edition) three times, Dragon Age RPG (Green Ronin Publishing) a few times (mostly as Game Master), and Star Wars Saga Edition once (again, as Game Master). I enjoyed all of those games but played Call of Cthulhu d100 twice and hated it. If I’ve played any other RPGs with dice, I don’t remember it off the top of my head, so apparently they didn’t make much of an impact. (I’ve also played the diceless RPG, Fiasco, which was great.)
I’d like to broaden my horizons as far as RPGs are concerned, so when my friend, Rishi, offered me the chance to join his new Marvel RPG game, I jumped at the chance. I’ve heard good things about it, so I was intrigued even though I never read comic books. (Come to think of it, I’m not a good geek in general. I don’t play video games, and I find Dr. Who to be retardis.) I wanted to play the mechanics everyone was talking about, so I agreed to play for a couple of sessions before gracefully bowing out.
I don’t think I’ll be bowing out. Our first session was a lot of fun for me. My approach to RPGs has always been to focus on a character concept, where the character has some interesting, overriding character trait, usually but not always a flaw. I then play that trait to the extreme. With my group, that wasn’t only tolerated but welcomed with open arms. As comic book fans, the other players liked the fact that I played my character’s traits so faithfully, even to the detriment of the team, because these are the characters the players love.
Incidentally, I played a guy by the name of Hank Pym, a.k.a., Yellow Jacket. I’d never heard of him but am sure that means something to a lot of you. It also meant something to my cousin, Tom, who still collects comics. When Rishi gave me a list of characters from which to choose, I passed the ones in favor of the Super Human Registration Act to Tom, who told me to pick Yellow Jacket. It’s worked out so far. An insecure, nerdy guy who 1) supports government registration of people, and 2) gains experience points by blaming his own major failing on a loved one? Yeah, I can do this.
And that (finally) brings me to my first point. The mechanics of the game have their flaws, but overall it’s an fun system, especially for someone like me.
The Bad: The dice rolling is unnecessarily convoluted, requiring you to figure out which types of dice to roll (d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12) and in what number every single time you roll. Once I’m used to it, it’ll probably become second nature, but it creates a barrier for entry. If I were the rule rather than the exception, the group probably would have moved on and never played it again. Instead, I was the odd man out. I was the only one that didn’t have experience with the game and wasn’t a comic book reader. Keeping this game going will be easy despite the unnecessary complexity, but I don’t think that will be the case for all groups.
The Good: Rewarding me for domestic violence? Brilliant! I know that sounds bad, but stay with me. No one’s perfect, not even superheroes. We all have flaws, and a role-playing game that doesn’t hide from that fact, even among the heroes, is exactly what I need to make me happy. (Also, I don’t actually have to beat my wife in the game. It’s not necessarily that specific.) Needless to say, this doesn’t always go over well in other systems. In 4e D&D, I have a stereotypical, senile old man, Luigi, who’s great for comic relief, but when I play him in character during combat or role-play, he usually makes bad decisions. It’s never once actually hurt the group when all was said and done — he was responsible for winning a “social skill challenge” in one adventure despite his eccentricity — but while it’s occurring, it’s tough to convince the other players of that. Some people get very annoyed by his erratic behavior. With Marvel RPG, no one is complaining, and I doubt this is a characteristic of my group itself. The mechanics of the game actually encourage me and them to act the fool at times. And it works.
The Good but with a Caveat: The initiative system is fantastic, but it wouldn’t work in a game like D&D where building a character to go first has so many advantages. Other game systems would have to be tweaked dramatically to allow for the Marvel RPG initiative system. Still, it’s something every game publisher should at least consider.
It’s All About IP
My second point is, as always, that the world lives and dies based on intellectual property law, and this is the more important of the two points. IP law governs everything, and there’s a lesson to be learned here. RPG publishing is a low-profit exercise. It’s tough to do well in it, and whether most publishers will admit it or not, it’s ability to succeed as well as it has depends a great deal on the continued success of Wizards of the Coast. WotC produces Dungeons and Dragons (among others), and does so with the mighty weight of Hasbro behind it. They’re able to do things no other RPG publishers can do, and the entire industry benefits as a result. However, even WotC could hold on to the Star Wars license for only so long. With such a low profit-margin in the first place, having to give up a non-negligible chunk of that in the licensing fee reduces the profit margin even more. Also, unless you’re willing to give up and even bigger chunk of the profits, you have to settle with a non-exclusive license (if it’s even offered), meaning you won’t even be the only game of your kind available. It’s a no-win situation over the long haul.
With that in mind, be disappointed but not angry. I’ve never met or spoke with Margaret Weis, so I have no inside information here, but I’d put good money on the bet that she had a very good reason for letting the license go. This isn’t the fault of Ms. Weis, or of Marvel. It’s just the nature of the industry. The game was selling well, but the numbers just don’t add up in the long run. Everyone needs the core rulebook, but sales of add-ons will always be at least a little less, and often will be much less.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of material out there with even more to come, and many gamers will put together supplemental materials in the form of PDFs freely downloadable from their private sites. This game won’t die anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.
Despite my optimism in the two sentences immediately preceding this one, it feels like there’s been a death in the family (not that bad, though; on the level of a step-cousin). 🙂 I just wanted to offer a eulogy of sorts, if for no other reason than to make myself feel good about it. It’s a good game, we’ll all continue to play it, but like all good things, eventually it must come to an end, and no one is to blame for that. Gaming will go on.
I’ve have the Matrix movies playing in the background while I work on some trademark matters. I know that many people hated the second and third movies, Reloaded and Revolutions, and I wasn’t a big fan of them either. I find it annoying that no one in the movie can speak in a normal tone of voice, using either yelling or a whisper. No, that doesn’t make you sound cool. It makes you sound like a pretentious idiot who thinks he’s cool. However, I had to watch them again because I wanted to do so within the context of an interesting fan theory I learned by spending too much time reading Cracked.com.
The theory goes like this: What you know as the Matrix is a computer simulation. That’s simple enough; no surprises there. What you know as the movie’s real world is also a computer simulation. The Matrix is a simulation within that outer simulation. What this means is that Zion is a computer simulation, and Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and all the other pretentious serial whisperers are computer programs. The reason for the existence of the layers is that the computer programs (i.e., Neo, Morpheus, etc.) are being trained to think like humans. They’re being taught to express love, to place the needs of others over themselves, and generally to govern their behavior by more than mere statistics. (Think of Will Smith’s monologue in the also-maligned I, Robot. He points out that a human being would have known to save the girl rather than him despite Will Smith being the statistically-correct choice.) The fan theory also explains Neo’s superman powers outside the Matrix. If the “real world” is just another computer simulation, then it’s explainable that a blinded Neo can see the machines, that Neo can affect them with his powers, and that Agent Smith was capable of “possessing” a “real world” character, Bane. Finally, this also explains that the trilogy didn’t really have an ending. Neo just won, not for some logical reason, but because … he just did. All the Agent Smiths just exploded because Neo … I don’t know … infected them? Well, who cares? No explanation for how that happened is necessary. It’s just important that he did. I guess the programs learned their lesson, so it was no longer necessary for there to be a war.
The theory has one downside I see: An anticlimactic ending. If what I’ve described is what was going on the whole time, then as the credits roll, you’ve got to be thinking, “So no one was ever in any danger? This whole thing was essentially an elaborate movie … to the characters _in_ the movie? Awwwwwww, shucks! I was apparently watching some nerd writing lines of programming code for six or seven hours.” On the other hand, that’s what you’re doing in real life anyway when you go to a movie, especially one like Megamind that’s nothing but computer animation.
While I didn’t need to watch several hours of the movie to appreciate the fan theory — I probably could have not watched it as all — it made the movies completely different films at least worthy of the rewatch. Neo, et al. the programs are learning hope, love, forgiveness, and many other things that machines currently can’t learn, but above all else going beyond one’s programming and exercising free will. Perhaps it’s only through “living” these experiences that the lessons can ever sink into artificial intelligence.
Or not. I’m no expert in artificial intelligence. It’s a neat theory, though, and one that makes for decent drama. Just ask Commander Data.
Do you want to tell me what’s bothering you or would you like to break some more furniture?
Human bonding rituals often involve a great deal of talking, and dancing, and crying.
This vessel…I give… she takes. She won’t permit me my life. I’ve got to live hers.
[In a gravely, reptilian voice] Hsssssssss!
If you’re going to get nasty, I’m going to leave.
Well, either choke me or cut my throat. Make up your mind.
Sir, there’s a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.
I have never understood the female capacity to avoid a direct answer to any question.
Another dream that failed. There’s nothing sadder.
We’re not here to conduct a field experiment in human biology.
There’s nothing disgusting about it. It’s just another life form, that’s all. You get used to those things.
Women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.
Too much of anything, … even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.
I’m trying to thank you, you pointy-eared hobgoblin!
You mustn’t stop me. You’re my lover, and I have to kill you.
I am incapable of destroying or interfering with the creation of that which I love so deeply– life in every form– from fetus to developed being.
Witch! Witch! They’ll burn ya!
I’m not Herbert.
Bonus quote for when you walk in on others having sex: You’re a traitor from a race of traitors. Disloyal to the core. Rotten! Like the rest of your subhuman race. And you’ve got the gall… to make love to that girl!
Now, Star Trek and Star Wars fans have yet another reason to be competitive with one another.
I know, including Gaila from the latest Star Trek movie is cheating. It’s not an Original Series picture, and the fact that it’s from an alternate timeline involving the original crew is no excuse. I don’t care, and neither do you.
I’ve never seen a single episode of Firefly even though I’ve had a friend’s copy of the entire series on DVD for over a year now. Maybe I should watch it, or maybe, like Ferris Bueler’s Day off, if I watch it as a 44-year old-adult, it won’t be nearly as good for me as it was for you when you were young 20-something’s.
STE is a much-maligned series in the Star Trek franchise. Though I can understand why relatively new Star Trek fans didn’t like it, I never quite understood why fans of TOS didn’t. Sure there were problems with the writing; the temporal cold war was annoying and never truly resolved, and they never should have forced the Borg and Ferengi into the storylines. However, for those who’ve been with Star Trek from the beginning, we’ve seen it as a morality play first, and bells and whistles second. The futuristic setting was interesting and important. It was interesting to see where humans were going and important because it told us that somehow, despite the threat of nuclear annihilation, we were going to make it. Nevertheless, the reason we were going to make it was because of our social evolution, not our technological evolution. Greater technology, by itself, simply gives us the means to destroy ourselves. We have to rise above our instincts and insecurities to make it to the 22nd century. Story was what mattered.
So, how did we go from cross burnings to not batting an eyelash when we meet an energy-based being? We can certainly see the first part of that evolution by looking at how our real-world societies have (and haven’t) evolved since the 60s. We can also see how we’ve evolved from the Original Series to the Star Trek: The Next Generation (“TNG“) era, a time at which diversity was so extensive that we threw up our hands and surrendered to it psychologically-speaking. What’s missing is our future. By “our,” I mean those of us living in the 21st century, and those that will live in the 22nd century. What can we and our descendants expect? Star Trek: First Contact gave us a hint. First contact with the Vulcans “unit[ed] humanity in a way that no one ever thought possible, when they realize they’re not alone in the universe.” Deanna Troi, Star Trek: First Contact. That’s great, but it’s also a bit idealistic. Even if humanity no longer hated itself, could we really expect that to mean the end of bigotry instantaneously? STE answered that question, and that’s why I loved it. It told a part of the story we needed to see, both in terms of our social evolution and technical evolution. The jump from TOS to TNG wasn’t nearly as fascinating to me as the jump from right now to TOS, because that’s what will affect people I actually know, including me.
Two of the best episodes in all of Trek history were Demons and Terra Prime, a two-part series starting Peter Weller (a.k.a., Robocop) as a xenophobic human. He united black and white, male and female, gay and straight, and faithful and atheist against a common foe: Anyone who wasn’t human. It demonstrated that humans are as bigoted as their circumstances dictate. By that, I mean that whoever is most different at the time is the target of our bigotry. Sure, looking at green-blooded, pointy-earned clones of Satan, we’d probably lose focus on how we hate each other, but that focus had to go somewhere, and sure enough it did. Humans developed great resentment towards Vulcans. Of course, there wasn’t much outright hostility, but then again bigotry nowadays doesn’t often result in physical violence, but that doesn’t make the bigotry any less real. Also, humans were getting something out of their relationship with Vulcans, so that helped to mollify that resentment.
Or so my theory goes.
Still there was a story to tell there. You may agree or disagree with my point of view, and you may have preferred a different direction for Star Trek canon. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that we’re analyzing social issues, which is what made Star Trek one of the most important series in the history of television. That analysis is the mission of the Star Trek franchise. Whatever legitimate concerns you might have for the quality of the writing, with Star Trek: Enterprise, mission accomplished.
Unless, of course, phase cannons weren’t glamorous enough for you.