Et in Arcadia Ego: What went wrong?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, in particular the two-part episode Et in Arcadia Ego.

With Star Trek: Picard Season 2 approaching, I wanted to take a moment to step back to the Season 1 finale. Et in Arcadia Ego was the two-part ending to the show’s first season, and after the preceding eight episodes had masterfully and slowly built up an engaging story, it unfortunately ended in a way that was, at best, underwhelming. On this occasion I want to look back at Et in Arcadia Ego and ask “what went wrong?”

I think we can summarise the finale’s issues in a single word: rushed. The two parts of Et in Arcadia Ego were overstuffed with plot, partly as a result of the deliberately slow pace of the rest of the season, but also in part because of the decision to introduce new characters, a new faction, and whole new storylines at the last minute. As a result, Et in Arcadia Ego had to rush through far too much narrative in far too little time, leaving significant chunks of it on the table by the time the credits rolled on Part 2.

The final scene of Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2.

In my view, most of the damage was done in Part 1 and the first half of Part 2. By the time we got into Picard’s speech over Coppelius and his stint with Data in the digital afterlife, Et in Arcadia Ego picked up, and the issues with pacing and the editing of certain scenes abated. Those latter emotional sequences went a long way to salvaging the finale, and Picard’s time with Data – giving the character the proper send-off that he hadn’t got in Nemesis – meant that the story found a second purpose, one which I think many Trekkies appreciated.

There was also some fantastic acting in the second part of Part 2, with Evan Evagora, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, and Jeri Ryan all putting in exceptional, deeply emotional performances as their characters dealt with the apparent death of Admiral Picard in different ways. The way Elnor broke down crying at the loss of his surrogate father figure is one of the most emotional moments in the entire season, and both Evagora and Hurd excelled in that moment.

A heartbreaking moment.

But as the credits rolled on Part 2, after Picard had laid Data to rest and been reborn in a new synthetic body of his own, I was left feeling that, despite the emotional high points as the finale drew to a close, the nicest thing I’d be able to say about Et in Arcadia Ego is that it was a mixed bag; an underwhelming end to what had been an otherwise excellent first season. At worst, I might even call the entire finale disappointing because of its underdeveloped characters and storylines that seemed to go nowhere.

The basic premise of Et in Arcadia Ego was interesting on the surface. After discovering that there are more synths than just Soji, we as the audience had been led to assume that they’re a peaceful civilisation who are being unfairly targetted by fanatical Romulan zealots. But instead we learn that the Zhat Vash were, in a sense, right. The beacon they discovered on Aia did warn of a powerful civilisation of super-synths who would murder organics, and not only that, but Soji’s evil twin Sutra planned to contact them. The synths turned from damsels in distress needing to be saved into a civilisation acting out of self-preservation, but nevertheless needing to be stopped from inflicting mass murder – or possibly even mass genocide – on the galaxy.

Soji’s “evil twin,” Sutra.

It fell to Picard to try to dissuade the synths, to show them that not every organic is hostile to them, and that if they would trust him – and trust the Federation to do the right thing – they would be safe. After a season in which the Federation was not painted in the best possible light this was a cathartic moment, and I understand what Et in Arcadia Ego was trying to do here.

Particularly in Part 2, Et in Arcadia Ego successfully hit some of those story beats, and the emotional high points surrounding Picard’s death, Data’s second death, and the desperate last stand over Coppelius felt great. In fact, I’d argue that the second half of Part 2 came close to rivalling the rest of the season in terms of the emotional side of its storytelling, and if we were looking at that part of the finale in isolation – or if the rest of the two-part story had been up to that level – we wouldn’t be having this conversation today!

Data in the digital afterlife.

On the technical side of things, before we get into story complaints, Et in Arcadia Ego was a very rushed, poorly paced episode. As a result of trying to cram several episodes’ worth of story into not enough runtime, there were some utterly ridiculous editing choices. At one point, Commodore Oh was stood on the bridge of her Romulan vessel, and appeared to speak a line to absolutely no one.

This line was very generic, too, and the entire scene – if we can be so generous as to call a clip that lasted a few seconds a “scene” – just came across as laughable, not intimidating or concerning. There were also a couple of places where two scenes were very poorly spliced together – at the beginning of Part 2, for example, a speech Picard made to Soji was heard only in voiceover, with Dr Jurati on screen silently watching the synths building their beacon.

Commodore Oh’s generic “evil villain” moment.

The gold makeup used for the Coppelius synths – Sutra in particular, as she was featured most prominently – was just awful. It looked like something out of The Original Series, and I don’t mean that in any way as a compliment. If I’d seen characters on The Original Series so poorly made-up I’d have written it off as a limitation of the medium at the time, and tried to get on with the story. Characters like Bele and Lokai from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield look similarly ridiculous by today’s standards, but with all of the improvements made over the last fifty years… I can’t excuse how poor practically all of the synths looked.

The problem of a lack of diversity in outdoor filming locations plagued Picard Season 1, but it came to a head in Et in Arcadia Ego because it was the finale. In short, the ten-episode season attempted to depict locations on Earth, including France and Japan, as well as the planets of Vashti, Nepenthe, Aia, and Coppelius using outdoor filming locations within a few miles of Los Angeles. And this was painfully obvious as the season wore on, leading Picard Season 1 to feel smaller and less visually interesting as a result. If Coppelius needed an expansive outdoor filming shoot, then other worlds could – and should – have been created on indoor sound stages if long-distance location shoots were out of the question.

Look, it’s California… oops, I mean Coppelius!

Both parts of Et in Arcadia Ego ruined the surprise appearance of a returning actor from The Next Generation. Brent Spiner’s role in Part 1 was telegraphed in the opening credits before his character had appeared on screen, but most egregiously the mistake was repeated in Part 2, where the return of Jonathan Frakes’ Acting Captain Riker was spoiled in the opening credits. The scene where Riker arrived at the head of a massive Starfleet armada to defend Coppelius was treated on screen like a huge surprise, but the fact that he was coming had been telegraphed in advance by the opening credits.

How difficult would it have been to credit special guest stars at the end instead of at the beginning? This also happened with Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine in the episode Absolute Candor earlier in the season – a character who appeared right at the end of the episode, in that case, and whose arrival was also treated as a surprise. For fans who don’t follow all of the ins and outs of Star Trek, the fact that any of these characters were coming back was supposed to be a total surprise, and both halves of Et in Arcadia Ego treated their returning guest stars in this way. But their unnecessary inclusions in the opening titles detracted from it. Riker’s arrival in particular felt far less impactful than it should’ve been; by the time the story reached the point of Picard standing alone against the Romulan armada, it was obvious that Riker was coming to save the day.

This shouldn’t have happened in the opening titles.

Speaking of the two fleets, the fact that both the Romulan and Starfleet armadas were comprised of a single starship design each seriously detracted from the way they looked. The copy-and-paste fleets were big, which was visually impressive at first glance, but the longer they remained on screen the more obvious it was that the CGI animators had literally copied and pasted each ship dozens of times.

Fleets seen in past iterations of Star Trek were almost always comprised of a variety of different starship types, and there was the potential to use this moment as fun fan-service, perhaps bringing back Romulan warbirds and scout ships from The Next Generation era, as well as Federation starship types like the Defiant-class, Sovereign-class, and Galaxy-class. Heck, Picard Season 1 had already made a brand-new CGI Galaxy-class model for the premiere, so it couldn’t have been too much extra work to include it here.

The Romulan and Federation fleets were copy-and-paste jobs and looked the worse for it.

As a final point on the technical side of things, I’m sorry to say that, despite a great performance as Soji across the rest of the season (and as Dahj in the premiere), Isa Briones was not convincing as Sutra, the central synth villain. Her performance was incredibly hammy, and while the character was written sufficiently well that her basic motivation – to protect the Coppelius synths from an outside attack – should have been understandable and even potentially sympathetic, the “I’m evil for no reason and I love it” performance was so bad that it detracted from the character.

Although Sutra being so easily shut down in Part 2 meant that the character as a whole felt like a waste, and was not the angle I would’ve wanted the show to take, in a way I was glad that we were spared too much more of what has to be the entire season’s single worst acting performance.

Sutra with Admiral Picard.

In terms of story, let’s talk about the big picture first of all before we get into smaller narrative complaints. The super-synths that Sutra and Soji planned to contact were so barebones as a faction that they don’t even have a proper name. Their “admonition” – i.e. the vision that the Zhat Vash encountered from their beacon – was superficially intimidating, and the mechanical tentacles that we saw approaching the beacon at the climax of the story likewise looked frightening… but without knowing more about this faction, it was difficult to remain invested in this story.

We didn’t know what the super-synths would’ve done had they arrived. Would they have sought to exterminate all organic life everywhere, or just in the vicinity of Coppelius? Having exterminated, would they have taken the super-synths to live with them in “dark space?” Was their offer to help even genuine or was it an elaborate trap to conquer the Coppelius synths and steal their technology? We have so many open questions, and because it seems that Star Trek won’t be returning to the super-synths any time soon, they’ll be left open and this aspect of the story will remain less than it could have been.

Some mechanical noodles were all we got to see of the super-synths.

In monster movies – which Et in Arcadia Ego’s super-synths were, to an extent, trying to emulate – we don’t always know everything about the monster. We might not know where Godzilla came from or why the Xenomorph in Alien is going on the rampage, but we at least have some perspective or frame of reference to understand why they should frighten or unnerve us – we’ve seen for ourselves how destructive and deadly the monster can be. The super-synths were barely glimpsed, and while their beacon was interpreted by the Zhat Vash as being dangerous, what we as the audience saw of it on screen was ambiguous at best. Because of that, the super-synths are more mysterious than frightening, and with no frame of reference to go on to showcase their level of technology, weapons, or danger, they’re less interesting and less frightening than they should’ve been.

During my first watch of Et in Arcadia Ego, I referred to the super-synths as the “Mass Effect Reapers” because of their similarities to a faction from the Mass Effect video game series. On re-watching the episodes, those similarities are really hammered home, even to the point where the vision contained in the Zhat Vash’s beacon and the beacon encountered by Commander Shepard in the first Mass Effect game contain striking visual similarities. I can’t believe that this is entirely a coincidence, and while I don’t want to accuse anyone of “ripping off” anyone else… it’s at the very least noteworthy that this aspect of the storyline of Et in Arcadia Ego – and thus of Picard Season 1 as a whole – is not original.

We could play a game called “Mass Effect or Star Trek: Picard?” with some of these sequences.

In the episode The Impossible Box, Narek walked Soji through a complicated series of steps to help her understand a dream she’d been having. His motive was to find out the location of her homeworld – Ghoulion IV or Coppelius. At the end of Soji’s dream, she looked up to the sky and saw two red moons and a lightning storm, leading Narek and Rizzo to conclude that they had enough information to locate Soji’s homeworld.

We subsequently learned that the Romulans had a fairly narrow search area and only needed to look within a few different star systems, so it seems reasonable that only a couple of pieces of information might be enough to go on if there aren’t that many possibilities. But when we finally reached Coppelius a couple of episodes later, the red moons were present – but where were the thunderstorms? This had been an absolutely essential part of the plot of The Impossible Box, yet the weather on Coppelius was sunlit and beautiful – some might say almost California-like. There were literally only two bits of information conveyed in The Impossible Box that Narek and Rizzo used to pinpoint Soji’s home planet… and one of them was completely disregarded in Et in Arcadia Ego.

This moment told us two things about Soji’s homeworld. Et in Arcadia Ego ignored one of them.

Speaking of being completely disregarded… what happened to poor Narek? I know Narek wasn’t everybody’s favourite character in Season 1, but I felt he was interesting as a character who didn’t fall into the obvious trap of being a clichéd “spy with a heart of gold” who falls in love with his target. Narek remained loyal to the Zhat Vash cause, even though his relationship with Rizzo was complicated and despite his feelings for Soji.

For Narek to simply be abandoned by the story of Et in Arcadia Ego is disrespectful – not only to actor Harry Treadaway, who had put in a great performance – but to us as the audience. We’d been following Narek’s story since the second episode of the season, and as he approached what should’ve been his moment of triumph, and then his moment of defeat, he just vanished from the story altogether.

This was the last we saw of Narek.

At the very least it would’ve been worth following Narek’s story to some kind of conclusion. I’d have liked to see how he reacted to Soji shutting down the beacon – would seeing that have finally broken his Zhat Vash brainwashing? Would he have tried to apologise to her and the rest of the synths? Or would he have stayed true to his mission even while being taken into custody by Starfleet or the synths?

We don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and while there is supposedly a scripted but unfilmed scene in which Narek was handed over to the Federation, that hardly seems like rock-solid “canon,” does it? Picard Season 1 didn’t actually feature that many characters in a big way, so for one of the principals to simply be dropped with no explanation midway through the finale is indicative of the fact that this two-parter had far too much narrative to cram into its runtime. It was poor, and whatever viewers might’ve thought of Narek and the earlier scenes and sequences in which he starred, getting some closure on one of the season’s most important characters was necessary.

Narek had been a major character throughout the season.

In an overstuffed story with some very serious themes, there were some very odd choices. Dr Jurati and Picard making jokes while launching La Sirena into orbit felt out-of-place, but thankfully that didn’t last very long. What did last a long time, though, in the context of the story, was the very odd campfire scene with Narek, Raffi, and Rios.

This scene was a complete waste of time. As the audience, we already knew what the Zhat Vash prophecy and philosophy was by this point, so re-telling it in a “ghost stories by the campfire” cliché was unnecessary fluff in an episode that simply didn’t have so much as a second to spare. Secondly, this scene messes with the timing of the entire episode. Narek seemed to be in a mad rush to attack the synths’ compound and stop their beacon, and if we’re to believe that Raffi and Rios had been persuaded too – which appears to have happened in a very short scene aboard La Sirena that really needed to be extended – then the characters themselves shouldn’t be wasting time camping out. It’s also the only scene in the entire episode to take place after dark, which was obviously done to make the campfire more visually dramatic… but the rest of the story seems to have taken place over the course of less than one day, so when did this night occur and why didn’t anyone else on Coppelius experience it? In short, it wasn’t just an unnecessary scene, but one that breaks the continuity of the whole story.

The campfire.

After the campfire scene we came to the poorly-scripted bomb plot. Using grenades donated by Narek and a football that Rios had aboard La Sirena, the trio planned to smuggle a bomb into the synths’ compound and blow up the beacon. I didn’t understand why the synths’ compound was suddenly being guarded as the group approached – except, of course, to ramp up the drama. From the synths’ point of view Raffi and Rios were no threat; they’d been on friendly terms when they parted, so why hassle them?

Dr Soong joined in after they arrived at Coppelius Station, but even he couldn’t salvage what was an illogical and stupid “plan.” Dr Soong had two aces up his sleeve: the video evidence that proved Sutra, not Narek, was responsible for murdering Saga, and his “magic wand” weapon that could apparently disable synths at the push of a button. He used the latter once, on Sutra, and then disappeared entirely from the plot until after Picard’s “rebirth.”

Dr Soong was able to “shut down” Sutra… but then made no further contributions to the plan to attack the beacon.

After the remaining trio made a stupid full-frontal attack against the much larger group of synths, it fell to Rios to try to throw the bomb-ball into position… but, naturally, Soji was able to clear it with seconds to spare.

This entire operation was so stupid, and was clearly written to ensure that the heroes’ plan would fail, meaning it would be up to Soji and Picard to save the day. And I won’t dismiss Picard’s speech and the emotional impact of Soji’s decision to stand down – both of those aspects felt great. But they were, unfortunately, sabotaged by this awfully-scripted bomb plot which made no sense, and the immediate disappearance of everyone involved in its aftermath.

Soji was able to easily stop the bomb plot.

Here are just a few of the questions this sequence raised: why didn’t Dr Soong show the footage of Sutra to the other synths? Why didn’t Dr Soong use his “magic wand” on Soji? Why didn’t Rios and Raffi try to talk to Soji and explain the dangers of the super-synths? There was so much wrong in this one sequence, and it was contrived in such a way as to skip over any and all of these points to get to the standoff between Soji and Picard, and Picard’s convincing speech. Unfortunately the route to that otherwise powerful moment felt so unnatural that it detracted from it.

After the bomb plot and the speech, things took a turn for the better, and much of the remainder of Et in Arcadia Ego hit those emotional high points, and as the rushed, almost panicked pacing and editing gave way to a slower-paced story of laying Data to rest and restoring Picard to life, things did improve.

Picard’s “death” marked a turning point in the story.

Unfortunately, though, Et in Arcadia Ego ended with many questions left on the table. Having arrived just in time to save the day, is the Federation now committed to leaving an entire fleet in the Ghoulion system to defend Coppelius? If not, it seems like there’s nothing to prevent the Romulans from returning next week and obliterating the synths from orbit. Or perhaps the synths will need to be evacuated and taken to a new, safer location. If so, we saw no indication that Starfleet plans to help with that.

There was also no attempt made to explain Bruce Maddox’s visit to Freecloud, which had been a huge story point in the first half of the season. Maddox’s lab on Coppelius clearly hadn’t been “raided by the Tal Shiar,” and if we’re to understand he set up a second lab somewhere else for some unknown reason, why didn’t he return to Coppelius if it was destroyed; why go to Freecloud instead? This opens up a pretty big plot hole in the entire season, as Maddox now has no reason to go to Bjayzl – a dangerous woman to whom he owed money – other than “because plot.” Maddox was there simply to allow the rest of the story to unfold, and that just isn’t satisfying at all.

Why did Dr Maddox go to Freecloud?

And this is just one way in which Et in Arcadia Ego damages the entire first season of the show. With so much rushing around in the final two episodes, with brand-new characters, new civilisations, new factions, new antagonists, and whole new storylines being dumped into the show with two episodes remaining, it makes going back and reflecting on the rest of the season somewhat difficult. Was the deliberately slow pace of episodes like Maps and Legends too much? Should the side-stories on Vashti and Nepenthe have been cut down… or skipped altogether?

Nepenthe was, for me, one of the most enjoyable episodes of Star Trek that I’ve seen in a very long time, and spending time with Picard, Riker, and Troi after so long felt absolutely magical. We caught a glimpse of their retirement, the family life that they deserved to have after their rollercoaster relationship and the tragedy of the loss of their first child. And it was wonderful. But in retrospect, all of that time with Kestra and Soji bonding and Picard catching up with his old friends, cooking pizza in an outdoor oven and hanging out in a cabin in the woods just feels wasted. There was too much plot left for Picard Season 1 to get through, so either stories like Nepenthe needed to be cut down or, realistically, the season needed to be extended. One of the advantages of streaming over traditional broadcast television is that things like schedules don’t mean much – it’s far easier to add an extra episode or a few minutes here and there if necessary. Discovery did exactly that in its first season… why couldn’t Picard?

Picard and Riker’s reunion in Nepenthe.

That’s the real tragedy of Et in Arcadia Ego: the way it makes eight genuinely wonderful episodes feel worse in retrospect. We aren’t quite at the level of something like Game of Thrones, where a truly awful ending has made going back to re-watch earlier seasons feel downright unpleasant, but we’re in the same ballpark.

The sad thing is that the synths’ storyline wasn’t bad. Dr Soong wasn’t a bad character, and if he’d had more time on screen I think we could have got more of a nuanced portrayal that showed us a man doing his best to work around the synth ban and keep his people safe. We could’ve learned why he wanted to build a golem for himself – was he dying? Was he trying to become immortal? What drove him to pick up his father’s work? All questions that Et in Arcadia Ego left on the table.

Coppelius Station – home of the synths.

Likewise with Sutra. Despite the crappy makeup and the poor, hammy performance, there was the kernel of an interesting character at Sutra’s core. Her presence turned the synths from a group in need of rescue into a potential danger, and that concept – had it been executed better over a longer span of episodes – could have been interesting.

The super-synths, despite their similarities to the Reapers from Mass Effect and their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances on screen, had been the driving force for the entire season’s plot, and learning more about who they were and what drove them, whether their offer to help was genuine, and whether they had any connection to other Star Trek factions were all points that could’ve been explored. The super-synths, while hardly an original faction in a broader sci-fi environment, were something new to Star Trek, and as Trekkies I think we have a great curiosity about the Star Trek galaxy and the races present within it. Finding out more about the super-synths would have been fun.

I’d like to know more about the super-synths.

There was also the standoff over Coppelius itself. We’ve already covered how the copy-and-paste ships didn’t look great, but as a story beat this entire sequence was rushed. After Picard and Dr Jurati made their “last stand,” Acting Captain Riker showed up at the last second, positioning his fleet in between the Romulans and Coppelius. And then he opened hailing frequencies to talk to Commodore Oh.

Within moments, the zealous Zhat Vash commander had been convinced to withdraw rather than fight it out… and I think that fails as a convincing narrative beat. The Zhat Vash had been portrayed for the entire season as having an almost-religious zeal; a crusade against synthetic life born out of fear of total annihilation. And in mere seconds, Commodore Oh appeared to abandon that crusade. When faced with opposition, she chose not to fight but to withdraw.

Riker’s appearance – and the entire standoff – was too short.

The two fleets looked surprisingly well-matched, and I would have thought that Commodore Oh would have had a chance, at least, of going toe-to-toe with Acting Captain Riker. It wasn’t like the Federation armada had the Romulans horribly outnumbered. And all it would have taken, from her point of view, was for one ship to break through the blockade and fire on Coppelius Station – a single quantum torpedo would probably have done the job.

Commodore Oh and the Zhat Vash simply don’t seem like the types who would come this close to achieving their life’s ambitions – and remember that Oh had been embedded in Starfleet for literally decades – only to be scared away by a few Starfleet ships or convinced to change their lifelong aims by one speech and the beacon being shut down. At the very least, this was yet another sequence which needed much more time to unfold. Heck, I could have happily spent an entire episode on the standoff, with negotiations taking place between Federation and Zhat Vash representatives. The Zhat Vash needed to be talked into withdrawing; I don’t believe that seeing Picard’s speech and Riker’s fleet was anywhere near enough motivation for Oh to take her entire fleet and withdraw, and if it was, we needed to spend a lot longer getting to that point, seeing her agonise over the decision, perhaps facing down mutinous members of her own organisation, and so on.

Commodore Oh’s decision to withdraw was horribly rushed.

So we come back to the crux of why Et in Arcadia Ego didn’t succeed as a finale: it contained plenty of interesting characters and storylines, but didn’t have enough time to pay off most of them in anywhere close to a meaningful way. And as a result, it doesn’t feel like most of Picard Season 1’s storylines came to an end at all. Some, like Narek’s, were just completely abandoned; unceremoniously dumped with no explanation given. Others, like Dr Soong’s, were completely undeveloped, leaving him along with Sutra and several other characters feeling like one-dimensional plot devices instead of real people.

The disappointing thing, at the end of the day, isn’t that the ideas and storylines here were bad, it’s that none of them were allowed to play out in sufficient depth. With the possible exception of laying Data to rest, every single storyline that Et in Arcadia Ego brought into play or introduced for the first time were underdeveloped, cut short, and/or not sufficiently detailed. Some individual scenes and elements were less successful in their own right – like the performance of Sutra or the campfire sequence – but taken as a whole, what I wanted from Et in Arcadia Ego was more – more time for these characters, ideas, and narrative elements to play out. It feels like practically nothing in Et in Arcadia Ego saw justice done, and when I had been invested in the story, the characters, and this return to the 24th Century after such a long wait, that was disappointing.

Dr Soong.

As we approach Season 2 of Picard, which kicks off in just one week from today, I hope that the show’s writers and producers have taken on board the feedback that they surely received about Et in Arcadia Ego. The show’s second season can’t afford to repeat the mistakes made by the ending of its first, and if Picard is to end with Season 3, as some news outlets have been reporting, then it’s going to be even more important for the creative team to consider the problems of Et in Arcadia Ego and make sure that the series as a whole won’t end in such disappointing fashion.

There were successes along the way – great moments of characterisation with Admiral Picard, the “heroic last stand” story that always gets me no matter how it’s told, and of course saying a proper goodbye to Data after eighteen years. The emotional moments present in the latter half of Part 2 went some way to making up for earlier disappointments.

I can’t call Et in Arcadia Ego a failure. It brought together storylines that, even two years later, I find fascinating. The disappointment stems from the fact that those stories weren’t able to play out properly due to unnecessary time constraints, a rushed pace, and, in retrospect, eight preceding episodes that spent too long reaching this point. With Season 2 now upon us, I’m hoping for much better things from Star Trek: Picard!

Star Trek: Picard Season 1 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Picard and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Keeping the Star Trek fan community a welcoming place

I didn’t realise it until a few weeks ago, but I’ve officially been a Trekkie for more than thirty years. The earliest episode of The Next Generation that I can solidly remember watching was Season 2’s The Royale, which aired here in the UK in June 1991. Although I’m fairly sure that The Royale isn’t the first ever Star Trek episode that I saw, it’s the earliest one that I can remember and thus I can officially date my entry into the fandom to more than three decades ago.

I quickly became enamoured with The Next Generation, tuning in to watch every new episode as they aired, and even renting copies of some of the episodes on video as and when I could find them. In the rural part of the UK where I grew up, there weren’t many other fans of science fiction and fantasy, so being a Trekkie could be lonely. This was years before I got access to the internet, too, so finding fellow Trekkies wasn’t easy.

The Royale is the first episode of Star Trek that I can definitely remember watching.

That being said, there was a sci-fi magazine that I subscribed to for a time, and I think it must’ve been in one of the issues that I found out about a Star Trek fan group that was organising a meet-up. This would’ve been in late 1994 or early 1995, around the time Generations was in cinemas. Because my mother thought I was too young to travel more than two hours by train on my own, she accompanied me – much to my horror – but promised me she’d find other things to do in the city where the meet-up was taking place.

I was nervous as I got ready to attend the meet-up. I’d seen as much of The Next Generation as had been broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK, and a few other episodes on video, but I’d only seen a handful of episodes of The Original Series and just one of the films (The Search for Spock, weirdly, was my first Star Trek film) so I wasn’t really sure how older fans would react. I felt like a bit of an imposter at first; a newbie barging into an established group.

It took two hours to travel by rail from where I lived to where the meet-up was being held.

But all of the Trekkies I met were incredibly welcoming. At the meet-up I was the youngest person there by a considerable margin, but everyone was very nice to me and made me feel part of the group. Nobody tried to tell me that I wasn’t a “true fan” of Star Trek because of my limited knowledge of The Original Series, and I had a great time talking to other fans for the first time, seeing different collections of merchandise – some imported from America – and hearing a few people share their experiences of meeting William Shatner or other members of the cast. I left the event having had a great time and feeling excited to continue and expand my fandom. Someone had recommended that I watch The Wrath of Khan, so shortly after I was able to rent the film and see it for myself.

I went back to several meet-ups with this group in the mid/late-1990s, but as I got ready to go to university and started getting online, I sort of drifted away. It was never an official fan club or anything as far as I recall, just a group of Trekkies who’d get together to trade merch and chat once in a while.

Kirk in The Wrath of Khan.

Those early fan meet-ups meant a lot to me as I began my journey as a Star Trek fan. The people I talked to were all very welcoming, and they seemed pleased that a younger person was interested enough in Star Trek to associate with their group. I think they recognised, even back then, that a franchise like Star Trek needs new fans – because new fans are the lifeblood of any fan community. Making sure that community is a welcoming place, however people come by it, is incredibly important.

I was quite sensitive as a kid, and if I’d been met with a wall of negativity at that first meet-up, I don’t think I’d have ever gone back. It would almost certainly have put me off Star Trek entirely, as I’d have associated the franchise with unkind, unwelcoming people. I might have never gone back to watch The Original Series, and perhaps I’d have switched off and skipped Deep Space Nine and Voyager when they came along, too. The words people use matter, and how we treat new fans or people on the cusp of joining the fan community is incredibly important.

It’s so important to be kind to everyone in the fan community – especially newbies.

Meet-ups like the ones I remember still happen within the fan community, but nowadays most people’s first contact with other Trekkies is via the internet and social media. In a way, I’m jealous of that! As a kid I would have loved nothing more than to have found a ready-made Trekkie community that I could share my love of the franchise with any time I wanted to, but I first became a Trekkie years before I got online! I grew up in a rural area, and there just weren’t any other Trekkies in my immediate circle of friends or neighbours – at least none that I knew of at the time.

But social media and the internet have brought with them trolls and unkind people who seem to delight in crapping all over anything that someone else likes. That’s unfortunately true within the Star Trek fan community as well, and there are enough people who are unkind and unpleasant to others online that I fear for anyone just getting started with Star Trek. The community that they encounter on social media is, unfortunately, plagued by a vocal minority of people like that.

The online Trekkie community can be an unkind, even hateful place.

I’m not the most active person on social media. But even I’ve seen the way that some people behave, and how the relative anonymity of the internet and social media seems to amplify some people’s absolute worst qualities and tendencies. Even conversations that start off politely, or questions asked in good faith and with no bad intentions at all, can become toxic incredibly quickly.

I believe that it’s up to all of us to be considerate and thoughtful in our interactions within the fan community. New shows like Discovery and Prodigy are hopefully going to continue to bring on board hordes of brand-new Trekkies, and all of us have a responsibility to ensure that the fan community these folks discover is a kind, welcoming place. Trying to act like gatekeepers by telling new Trekkies that their opinions are invalid because they haven’t seen a particular film or episode, or that the show they like isn’t “real Star Trek,” is going to upset people and make the Star Trek fan community look like an unkind, selfish, closed-off place.

Prodigy is hopefully going to bring lots of new fans into the Star Trek fan community for the first time.

New fans are, as I said earlier, the lifeblood of any fandom. If Star Trek were to remain the sole preserve of fans from the ’60s or the ’90s it wouldn’t last very long at all – and it wouldn’t deserve to. The fan community needs new Trekkies joining in and sharing their excitement for the franchise in order to grow and remain relevant. If we try to shut those people out or tell them they’re only “allowed” to join in once they’ve met a particular threshold then the fan community will stagnate, online fan groups will become unpleasant places, and the resultant decline in online chatter will harm Star Trek and could easily lead to a decline in viewership in general.

There are many fans for whom Star Trek has always been a complete product. There were a lot of arguments in the ’80s and ’90s about how The Next Generation was taking over from The Original Series, whether Deep Space Nine was too dark in tone, and whether the Star Trek franchise needed a prequel – to name just three examples. Star Trek has always been developing and evolving, episode by episode and season by season. But for fans who missed those conversations and didn’t see the slow progress that the franchise made over the span of decades, Star Trek has always existed as a complete product: a DVD box set or a full series on a streaming platform. It seems to me that it’s those folks who are more likely to act as gatekeepers and try to keep new fans who don’t share their opinions out of the fan community.

Star Trek hasn’t always been a complete DVD box set. It took decades to get to that point.

Star Trek has always meant different things to different people. And consequently, fans have always had preferences within the Star Trek franchise about which episodes, films, series, and even characters that they prefer. If someone doesn’t like one part of Star Trek, that’s okay. It doesn’t make them “less” of a Trekkie. And if someone’s new to the franchise and isn’t up to speed on every film or episode, that doesn’t make them “less” of a fan either.

The people who are trying to play gatekeeper need to stop. It doesn’t do anyone any good to try to exclude people – especially new fans – from the Star Trek fan community. Although I’m a fan of Star Trek in its older and newer incarnations, I understand that there are people who don’t like some or all of what Star Trek is currently doing. I was even in a similar position myself once upon a time, as I wasn’t particularly keen on Enterprise when it was announced and only tuned in sporadically during its original broadcast run. But in the early 2000s I would have never dreamed of telling anyone that they weren’t a “real fan” of Star Trek because they liked Enterprise, or because Enterprise was the first Star Trek show they’d ever seen.

I freely admit that Enterprise didn’t seem like my thing when it first premiered. But I was wrong about that.

The message I have is a simple one, at the end of the day: we all have a responsibility to keep the Star Trek fan community a kind, friendly, and welcoming place.

Fans can be passionate, and the desire to talk about the things we like – and dislike – is a powerful one. Making sure that the Star Trek fan community feels welcoming to newcomers doesn’t mean whitewashing Star Trek and never sharing a critical opinion, but it does mean that criticism needs to be carefully considered and offered in as constructive a manner as possible. ViacomCBS has definitely made mistakes with the Star Trek franchise in recent years, for example, but my criticisms of the corporation or my negative reviews of individual episodes here on the website have never strayed into attacking fellow fans. If you like an episode that I don’t, that’s okay! And I think that’s the attitude that we all need to try to adopt going forward.

A series like Prodigy has the potential to open up the Star Trek fan community, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an influx of new, younger fans in the months and years ahead. Those of us who’ve been Trekkies for a long time should try, for their sake, to keep conversations and debates civil in tone and to ensure that the fan community is a kind, friendly, and welcoming place. Shutting down or tuning out as much of the toxicity as possible is a big part of that.

Let’s try to make sure fans of Prodigy feel welcome as they get started in the Star Trek fan community.

I’ve lost count of the number of negative, toxic, and even bigoted and hateful messages and posts that I’ve seen in recent years. Practically all of them appeared not because they were sent directly to me, nor because I sought out those groups or follow individuals who hold those views, but because they were amplified on social media by other folks – often with good intentions – who chose to interact or engage. There’s an expression from the early days of the internet that I think is relevant in a lot of cases: “don’t feed the trolls.”

A lot of the anti-Trek content spewed onto social media by people like that is done for attention, and by engaging with it in a big way it gets amplified, giving the attention-seeking trolls exactly what they want. There are some instances where calling someone out or shutting down someone espousing hurtful, bigoted views is going to be important – but in many cases there’s no need to engage with people who are throwing out hate and toxicity just for the sake of it. Because of the way social media works, with algorithms promoting content that gets the most engagements, doing so often ends up drawing more and more attention to something that really should just be ignored. Most social media platforms offer users the ability to block individuals, groups, or even whole words and phrases – so we should use those tools when necessary.

Don’t feed the trolls…

So I think that’s about all I have to say. I was prompted to write this piece after seeing a lot of chatter on social media about the state of the Star Trek fan community, and with Prodigy now airing and potentially bringing younger fans on board in large numbers, I wanted to give my two cents on why it’s important to make sure the fan community is as welcoming and friendly as possible.

Ever since I attended that first meet-up in 1994 or 1995, I’ve remembered the kindness that I was shown and how I was made to feel welcome as a new fan. I try to keep that spirit going in all of my engagements with the Star Trek fan community, and though there are episodes I dislike and things on the corporate side that I will continue to criticise, in my very limited way I try to make sure that I’m contributing positively to the overall discourse surrounding Star Trek. There’s room for constructive criticism and there’s room for differences of opinion – but there’s no room for toxicity, hate, and bigotry. It’s the responsibility of all of us to do what we can to keep the Star Trek fan community a welcoming place.

The Star Trek franchise – including all series and films mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The classic Star Trek dilemma: Kirk or Picard?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series and its films, The Next Generation and its films, and Picard Season 1.

“The only question I ever thought was hard / Was do I like Kirk, or do I like Picard?” So sang “Weird Al” Yankovic on his 2006 parody hit White & Nerdy. In those two lines, the comedy singer encapsulated a debate that has rumbled on in the Trekkie community since The Next Generation premiered in 1987! This is a question I’ve thought about many times, and today I’m finally going to put (metaphorical) pen to paper and lay out my thoughts on this classic Trekkie debate.

Though there have been at least a further six captains or protagonists who’ve joined the Star Trek franchise over the years – or more, depending on how you count things – the classic debate has always surrounded Picard versus Kirk, and I think that’s probably because the contrasts between the two characters and their approaches to leadership are so extreme. Most Star Trek captains who have followed embody elements of both Kirk and Picard’s styles of management and leadership while remaining distinct characters, but when it comes to the franchise’s first two captains, there seems to be a major clash of personalities.

Just like “Weird Al” did, we’re going to consider this difficult question!

My first contact with the Star Trek franchise was The Next Generation in the early 1990s. It was only later that I went back to watch The Original Series and its films, encountering Captain Kirk and his crew for the first time. The Next Generation made me a Star Trek fan, and while I can appreciate what The Original Series did and how entertaining it was, I just don’t have the same connection to it – or to any other Star Trek show, frankly – as I do to The Next Generation. So that’s my own bias stated up front as we go into this discussion!

I’ve always found this debate to be fascinating, but I try not to take it too seriously. Some fans can turn genuine and heartfelt passion into toxic or even aggressive negativity sometimes, attacking others who don’t share their precise views on the nature of Star Trek (or other franchises). Fandoms shouldn’t be a place for division, negativity, or toxicity; they should be a place where we can all come together to share something we love. It’s in that spirit that I enter this discussion – and I encourage everyone to keep in mind that all of this is subjective, and it’s supposed to be light-hearted fun!

So let’s get started, shall we? For reasons both alphabetical and chronological, Captain Kirk gets to go first!

The Case For Kirk

Captain Kirk in his first appearance.

Captain Kirk will forever be Star Trek’s first captain, and thus he should be the yardstick that Trekkies use to judge the successes of any subsequent captain – Picard included. Without Kirk, there would never have even been Picard – because there would quite literally have been no Star Trek. Just look at the failure of The Cage, the first pilot shot for The Original Series, as a case in point: Star Trek only became successful when Captain Kirk was in command.

But Kirk isn’t the best just because he was first. James T. Kirk is a man of action: a tough-talking, villain-punching, decisive commander who stops at nothing to get the job done and protect his ship and crew. He’s not above a bit of rule-breaking, either; when you’re alone on a mission of exploration far beyond Federation space, what’s the point in Starfleet orders or the Prime Directive?

Captain Kirk wasn’t above getting into a proper fight.

On board his ship, Captain Kirk made friends. He didn’t see his crew as mere underlings, but as people he actually liked spending time with. He even developed Star Trek’s first ever cross-species friendship, bridging the gap between emotional humans and stoic, logical Vulcans in the best way possible. His friendship and partnership with Spock became legendary – and frankly, Picard has no friends… or at least, he has no friendships that come anywhere close to matching the closeness between Kirk and Spock. This pair literally created the genre of slash fiction!

It wasn’t until the finale of The Next Generation that Picard was prepared to sit down with Riker and play a round of poker, but Kirk had those friendships from the start. His closeness with Spock has rightly become legendary, but he was also firm friends with Dr McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and even the young Chekov. Kirk’s crew would even risk their Starfleet careers to steal the USS Enterprise and follow him on a dangerous mission to the Genesis Planet in The Search For Spock.

Captain Kirk was loved by his crew… not grudgingly respected.

As Star Trek’s first captain, Kirk made first contact with many different races and factions – including practically all of the franchise’s best-known and most famous aliens. He also introduced us as the audience to races like the Vulcans and the Klingons – two of Star Trek’s most iconic alien races. It’s through Kirk’s eyes that we first came to perceive many of the franchise’s classic factions; he gave us his perspective and allowed us as the audience to meet these aliens through his interactions with them.

Captain Kirk developed rivalries with some of Star Trek’s biggest and most notorious villains. The Romulan commander from Balance of Terror, Garth of Izar, who went on to inspire an entire fan-series, Dr Tolian Soran in Generations, and even “God” himself in The Final Frontier. Most significantly, of course, Kirk found his arch-enemy in one of the greatest villains ever put to screen in the whole of cinema: Khan. Picard’s enemies simply aren’t in the same league.

“Khaaaaaan!”

Captain Kirk recognised the dangers of space travel, and he blazed a trail that Picard and others merely followed. He knew that it wasn’t going to be possible to find a negotiated settlement to every problem, and wasn’t shy about pulling out his phaser – and his fists – to settle disputes. Do you think Captain Kirk would have been bossed around by the Sheliak, or by the Edo and their Mediators? Or would he have punched those alien menaces in the face and told them where to shove it?

In conclusion, Captain Kirk is a bona fide action hero, a man’s man, and the embodiment of the very best of Starfleet in the 23rd Century. He would consider peaceful options where they were available, but wasn’t above punching aliens in the face when he needed to. He would go above and beyond for the sake of his crew, even being reduced in rank by Starfleet for having the audacity to save Spock. He saved Earth on many occasions – and even saved the life of his rival, Captain Picard, and the entire crew of the Enterprise-D in his final act before dying a hero.

The Case For Picard

Captain Picard in Encounter at Farpoint.

Let’s calm down, leave the toxic masculinity in the ’60s where it belongs, and let a grown-up take charge. Captain Picard is the Joe Biden to Captain Kirk’s Donald Trump – he’s level-headed, diplomatic, and professional. Captain Kirk may have been the archetypal action hero of the ’60s, but by the late ’80s, things had moved on. What fans wanted to see from someone in a position of authority was not someone who was quick to pull out their phaser or punch an alien in the face, but someone who could be diplomatic, courteous, and who could resolve situations without needing to resort to such barbarity. Embodying all of those traits was Captain Picard.

A new era of Star Trek not only needed a new face, but a whole new style of leadership, and Captain Picard delivered. If the 23rd Century had been the “wild west,” where anything was allowed and rules were made to be broken, the 24th Century saw Starfleet evolve and move beyond that. Civility could finally replace cowboys like Captain Kirk.

Captain Picard is a more civilised leader perfect for a new era.

Did Captain Kirk ever pilot his own ship? In the episode Booby Trap, we saw for ourselves just how skilled Captain Picard was, and how intimately he knew his ship. Where someone like Kirk would have ordered maximum warp until the power was drained, Picard and his crew came up with a complex solution, then executed it perfectly. Picard made the Enterprise-D dance like a ballerina; Kirk could never have done anything like that.

Where is Star Trek: Kirk? Oh, that’s right: they never made that series. But they did make Star Trek: Picard, such was the overwhelming response from fans to this wonderful character. 176 episodes of The Next Generation and four films weren’t enough – fans were eager for more Captain Picard, and thus he became the first character in Star Trek’s history to get a new show named after him. More than thirty years after we first met Captain Picard, new adventures with the character are still being created, with at least two more seasons of the show in production.

Captain Picard got his own spin-off show because fans love the character so much.

While Kirk may have had fun with some villains like Khan, he never had to stare down the biggest, most devastating threat that the Federation ever faced. Captain Picard beat the Borg… and he did it twice. He even survived being assimilated and was able to push through his Borg programming to give his crew a piece of vital information that ultimately saved Earth. In First Contact, Picard brought the Enterprise-E to the Borg’s second invasion attempt, saving the day in the 24th Century and then again in the past. Forget the Klingons, the Gorn, the Romulans, and the people on that weird planet who all pretended it was Chicago in the ’20s: Captain Picard fought and defeated the most dangerous threat that the Federation has ever encountered.

Captain Picard realised that he can be on good terms with those under his command, but that as the captain he has to put the needs of the ship first. In the episode Lessons, he learned first-hand that having close relationships with subordinates is difficult for any commanding officer, and maintaining a friendly but respectful distance from his crew – even those whose advice he relied upon – was necessary to keep everyone safe and to allow him to be able to make the tough calls.

Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D.

Captain Kirk got to make many first contacts – but he did so by default because he was first. Captain Picard actually made more first contacts than Kirk did – including with some very different forms of life. Whether it’s the Microbrains, the Exocomps, or the Q Continuum, Captain Picard was prepared to treat everyone he met with courtesy and respect, staying true to Starfleet’s mission of seeking out new life. But it doesn’t end there. Captain Picard introduced us as the audience to alien races like the Bajorans, Cardassians, and of course the Borg – and these would go on to be just as important to the Star Trek franchise overall as any of the aliens we met in The Original Series.

In conclusion, Captain Picard is a calm diplomat, the level-headed manager of a large crew, and the personification of the very best of 24th Century Starfleet. He guided his crew through some incredibly difficult and dangerous missions while maintaining his composure. He learned lessons about loss and grief that Kirk never had to learn. And he saved the lives of at least two of Kirk’s crew: Spock and Scotty. He also saved Earth from the Federation’s greatest threat, and even learned to perceive time in a non-linear fashion thanks to Q.

So Who Wins?

Kirk or Picard?

You’re going to hate me for this – but they both win. Everything I said above is true (in a roundabout, tongue-in-cheek way), but that doesn’t mean that one captain is better than the other! Like all of us, Kirk and Picard have strengths and weaknesses; things they do well and areas where they need to rely on others. There isn’t a definitive answer to a question like this, because the answer will always be “it depends on the circumstances.”

There are times when Captain Kirk’s approach to leadership is needed, and times when the way Picard approached a situation would lead to the best chance of success. As we saw in Generations, there was even a time when the only way to save the day was for both men to team up. The fact that each captain has his own set of skills and his own style of leadership isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength, one which benefits Star Trek as a whole.

Kirk and Picard meeting for the first time.

I mentioned in my introduction that subsequent captains have incorporated elements from both Kirk and Picard, and that’s because both men have so many positive, upstanding qualities that Star Trek’s writers were keen to give to new characters as the franchise has continued to grow. Kirk was always ready for action, but that never came at the expense of being thoughtful and considering non-violent solutions. And Picard’s diplomatic, polite style could give way to ordering his crew to “fire at will” when the situation called for it. Both captains are adaptable, able to rise to meet the needs of all manner of incredibly difficult situations – even if that meant setting aside their usual ways of doing things.

No one can doubt Kirk or Picard were absolutely dedicated to their ships and crews, either. They may have shown that dedication in slightly different ways, and they may have expressed their appreciation and love for their friends and crewmates in different forms as well, but both of them were quite literally willing to lay down their lives and go down with the ship if necessary. Both men ultimately lost their ships – the original USS Enterprise and the Enterprise-D were both destroyed. But they both bounced back to take over new commands and go on to even greater things.

There are times when I’m in the mood for watching Captain Kirk get into a fist-fight with a Gorn or for seeing his epic stand-off against Khan. And there are moments where I want to see Picard use diplomacy to win an argument with the Sheliak or watch him wrangle with one of Q’s puzzles. But there are also times where I want to see Picard grab his phaser rifle and kick some Borg butt, and times where I can think of nothing better than seeing Kirk solve a scientific mystery like that of V’Ger. Both captains have given all of us so much enjoyment and entertainment over the years that I simply can’t crown one of them a winner and leave the other a loser. To me, they’ll always both be winners.

The Star Trek franchise – including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and every episode and film mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Matrix Resurrections – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all four films in The Matrix series.

It had been a while since I watched The Matrix and its sequels. The 1999 original has become somewhat of a sci-fi classic, with several themes and rhetorical devices entering popular culture and our shared lexicon – albeit not always in the ways the filmmakers intended! Phrases like “a glitch in the Matrix” to refer to déjà vu (or anything else that looks or feels odd), and of course the famous blue and red pills as metaphors for comfortable ignorance versus unpleasant truths have taken on lives of their own far beyond The Matrix and its sequels.

Coming almost two decades after The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, there were questions facing The Matrix Resurrections. Could it live up to its predecessors? Could it recapture the magic of “bullet time” and the blend of metaphor and philosophical themes with sci-fi action? With the story seemingly concluded and several main characters dead, what else was there to explore in this fictional universe? From my point of view as someone who’s been exploring my own gender identity and identifying with The Matrix’s core concept of living a false life, I was very interested to see what the film would have to say about trans and non-binary issues as well.

Are you ready to re-enter the Matrix?

From the points of view of visual effects and cinematography, The Matrix Resurrections delivered pretty much everything I could have wanted or expected – but it didn’t really go beyond that. The original film was groundbreaking in 1999 with its incredibly dense yet beautifully-choreographed action sequences and, of course, the pioneering use of the aforementioned “bullet time.” Resurrections brought those same elements back to the table, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all over again. It didn’t feel pioneering or new any more, and perhaps in that sense some of the magic of the original film was missing. But asking every film to do something completely brand-new – especially the fourth film in a series – is probably too much.

Many films – probably most – don’t pioneer brand-new ways of filmmaking or never-before-seen visual styles, and we still enjoy them! So I don’t want to be too harsh on The Matrix Resurrections: it does its action sequences, its “bullet time,” and the rest of its visuals and special effects exceptionally well, far better than many titles released over the past two decades. Lana Wachowski has lost none of her edge as a filmmaker and director, and the way she frames some of the densely-packed action set-pieces, combined with the series’ use of its signature “bullet time” works just as well in Resurrections as it ever did.

Visual effects were great in The Matrix Resurrections.

I don’t know what the reasons are behind the re-casting of characters Agent Smith and Morpheus, so I don’t want to speak out of turn or criticise individual actors, the director, or anyone else involved in the casting. Looking at the way these characters are used in Resurrections itself, though, I can’t shake the feeling that bringing back the original actors would have had far more of an impact. One big part of what makes Resurrections work so well is the on-screen chemistry between Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie-Ann Moss’ Trinity. Morpheus and Agent Smith were big parts of that story too, and the recasting is, at the very least, noticeable. At worst, it feels out-of-place and even detracts, at points, from our big return to this fictional universe.

This isn’t a criticism of either Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who has taken over the role of Morpheus, nor of Jonathan Groff, who took over as Agent Smith. Both characters are different iterations of the characters we met in the original films, and both actors do a wonderful job. It just feels that, in a story that’s partly about the past, breaking away from the past, and how past events in one’s life can cast a shadow, recasting these two key characters took away something valuable.

The re-casting of key characters was noticeable.

Setting aside the story for a moment, let’s talk about The Matrix Resurrections in terms of theme, metaphor, and the film’s philosophy. It was only on re-watching the original films having heard other people talking about its transgender allegory that I really came to understand how well it works. The conclusion of The Matrix Revolutions saw Neo (as The One) bring the Matrix itself to a screeching halt, shattering the false world and liberating himself and those around him. To continue the transgender metaphor, this can be argued to represent a closeted trans person breaking out of either their self-imposed or societally-imposed shell, liberating their true self and being able to live openly as the person they are – and always needed to be.

Resurrections, if it were to continue that allegory, had to find a way around what is a fairly typical issue that many sequels face. I’ve called this the “Disney problem” on more than one occasion, as many Disney films struggle to find a way to make a successful sequel, and it’s summarised thus: what comes after “happily ever after,” and how do you tell that story without tearing down the successes and emotional high points of the original work? The Matrix Revolutions didn’t really leave an opening for a sequel, at least not one featuring Neo and Trinity, so Resurrections had to find a way around this. Both narratively and thematically, the film absolutely nailed it.

Figuring out why Neo was back in the Matrix, and how he’d survived, were hurdles that Resurrections easily overcame.

Yes, there’s sci-fi fun going on. The Machines quite literally resurrected Neo and Trinity, putting them back in their shells and using them to power an new and improved version of the Matrix, one which was better and more efficient at keeping people trapped. But beyond that, there’s also the continuation of this important and inspirational trans journey.

And some people, judging by some incredibly offensive and provocative comments online, have reacted very poorly to that. The usual arguments about “wokeness” have emerged – seemingly directed at the fact that the film has a trans director, even though the film itself contains practically no overt mentions or depictions of any LGBT+ characters. What’s present is there at a thematic level, partly because companies like Warner Bros. want to make stripped-down films that they can sell in markets where homophobia and transphobia are rife. In fact, that was one of the things that I was surprised and perhaps a tad disappointed about with The Matrix Resurrections: although it’s a film with a transgender director and two gay main cast members, there was practically no open mention of LGBT+ issues nor any significant depictions of LGBT+ characters. Despite that, some so-called “critics” seem to only have this to say about The Matrix Resurrections when attacking it online:

(Yes, that’s an actual line from Family Guy…)

The Matrix Resurrections is, if you look at it on the surface, somewhat regressive. It takes Neo back to his closeted status, undoing three films’ worth of progress and a “coming out” analogy that many trans people found to be powerful. But as a standalone piece, the depiction of Neo’s life inside the Matrix at the beginning of Resurrections is so much more powerful and meaningful than it was in any of the original films – or indeed in all three combined.

I can barely find words to express how much the depiction of Neo at the beginning of the film resonated with me. Both from the point of view of mental health and as someone who has only recently began to make cracks in my own “shell” as a non-binary person, the way Neo was written and the way he comes across is so much more impactful in Resurrections. His struggles, his dependence on medication, his therapy sessions and questioning who he is and where he fits in this world are all incredibly powerful moments. At several points I had to pause Resurrections to catch my breath or wipe away tears. Seeing Neo in this way felt real – it felt like seeing a reflection of myself through Keanu Reeves’ incredible performance and Lana Wachowski’s beautiful writing and directing.

The blue pills are a returning rhetorical device.

The Matrix in 1999 either didn’t intend to depict this aspect of living a lie in such detail, or else brushed it under the carpet to get to the action. But Resurrections builds up to the action slowly, deliberately spending more time with a trapped Neo, someone who realises something is wrong but who seems desperate to push those feelings down – taking inordinate amounts of blue pills as medication to help with that. One of the early sequences with Neo and his therapist – played in a wonderfully nuanced performance by Neil Patrick Harris – truly embodied the struggle that many gender-nonconforming people go through. Seeing such a powerful depiction of something that I can relate to – because I’ve felt that way too – has been an incredible experience.

I didn’t come to The Matrix Resurrections for mindless action. In one of its more meta, self-aware sequences, the film itself pointed out that mind-numbing action isn’t “on brand” for the series. I’d argue that any adult who’s shown up for Resurrections expecting nothing but sci-fi and action has kind of missed the point: The Matrix as a series has always had a strong philosophical bent to it, one that can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are viewers. For transgender and non-binary people, these aspects of the story come to the fore. For other viewers, though, the film’s messages can be read through a lens of mental health, of escaping an unsatisfying or boring life, of finding a second life through online interaction, anti-capitalism, and many more besides.

I found the film’s depiction of Neo to be very relatable.

An unexpected inclusion in Resurrections was the coming together of liberated humans and machines – now known as synthients. The idea that the conflict between humans and machines wasn’t totally black-and-white, and that some machines could become friends and allies to humans was an interesting one – but one that Resurrections perhaps didn’t take as far as it could’ve. There’s a great kernel of an idea, but in a film that had a lot of other narratives to cram into its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, this rebel machine angle didn’t go as deep as some of the others. The reasons why some machines rebelled, and why those rebels sought out humans as allies, were never fully addressed. Perhaps that’s something a future sequel could pick up, as I feel there’s potential in a storyline about overcoming conflict and learning to let go of hate.

Speaking of sequels and The Matrix as a franchise, the film had some incredibly meta moments of self-reflection. Some of these were played almost for laughs, but others had a distinctly unsettling feel, as if the film was getting inside my head and blurring the lines between reality and fiction – itself a theme present in the film’s opening act. I wasn’t expecting this meta commentary on the nature of sequels, franchises, and the state of the entertainment landscape in 2021 – nor was I expecting a self-referential comment about Warner Bros., the company behind the film. Maybe this is a comparison that no one else will get, but I felt it was the second time this year that I’ve seen this kind of self-referential meta commentary from a Warner Bros. picture; the company did something similar in, of all titles, Space Jam: A New Legacy.

There was a lot of meta commentary about filmmaking and sequels.

One really interesting visual metaphor that the film made use of was the mirror. Mirrors cropped up many times, serving as portals within the Matrix. Again, speaking as someone who is non-binary, I haven’t always liked the reflection in the mirror. The clever use of visual effects to show Neo in particular looking in the mirror and not recognising himself, or seeing flashes of someone else that he didn’t recognise, is something that spoke to me in a way I was not expecting.

When I’ve looked in the mirror, the person looking back hasn’t been the person I want to be; it isn’t a reflection of my true self, the version of me that I want to be. Many people can relate to that in various ways, I have no doubt about that; we all have features or imperfections we’d like to change if we could. Just like with many other themes present in Resurrections and the entire Matrix series, this can be read differently by different viewers. Trans and non-binary viewers, I would suggest from my own experience, will relate very strongly to the way mirrors are used, though. A mirror is supposed to be a totally accurate reflection of oneself – but speaking from experience, a mirror can also be something to be avoided; a harsh reflection of someone we don’t identify with or wish was fundamentally different.

Mirrors became an important visual metaphor throughout the film’s opening act.

Let’s conclude by talking about the film’s actual narrative and story. The reason for Neo and Trinity being back in the Matrix – and the Matrix itself being bigger and more powerful – was kind of technobabbley, but I didn’t hate it. It was a gateway to something significant, and without it the film itself wouldn’t have been possible. I think as a narrative point it does work, but the film was definitely better for not spending too much time trying to over-explain how Neo and Trinity came to be trapped again and what the Analyst’s plans were.

The new character of Bugs was fun; a clever riff on a character concept from previous entries in the series who felt distinct, yet familiar. There was a bit of forced drama in the conflict between Bugs and Niobe – the latter now in command of the new human-synthient settlement of Io. That particular story beat didn’t really go anywhere; Niobe was concerned about the safety of the settlement, yet it never really felt as though it were under threat nor in any danger, despite the plan Bugs, Neo, and Morpheus came up with to rescue Trinity.

I didn’t feel this conflict was the film’s strongest narrative choice.

I liked seeing Agent Smith as a character outside of his usual role. He was definitely still an antagonist, but the addition of the Analyst as the program in control of the Matrix had untethered Smith. His desire to remain free from outside control was understandable at first – but was subsequently traded away for a redux of the Neo-versus-Smith battles from earlier films. It was still neat to see an unexpected team-up, however brief, between Neo and Smith – though I come back to what I said earlier: this would’ve worked a lot better if the original actor had been able to reprise the role.

The Analyst was a wonderfully nuanced character, and Neil Patrick Harris put in a great performance. The Analyst had taken over the Matrix, rebuilding it around Neo and Trinity and using their emotional connection to manipulate people and thus make the Matrix even more efficient. This gave the story the necessary explanation to function, and served as a decent motivation for the Analyst’s character.

The Analyst made for a great antagonist.

The synthient Sati – played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas – gave us a lot more information about the synthients, and was the best and most interesting machine portrayal in the film. She also had a connection to the original films, having briefly met Neo years earlier. Her motivation to rebel and to seek to see the Matrix shut down was easily understood: having seen her parents killed, she essentially wanted revenge.

None of these characters – or the other secondary characters – felt flat or uninteresting; I was genuinely curious to learn more about them and the places they occupied in this dystopian world. Each felt distinct, each had a purpose, and they were all written sympathetically. The story was complicated in places, and I think casual viewers or those not up to speed on the events of the original films will struggle in places to follow some of the denser moments which rely on lore and backstory to make sense. But The Matrix Resurrections is a sequel – part four in a series. Even though it’s coming almost two decades later, you can’t expect it to spend all of its runtime re-explaining events from the past!

The film relies on earlier entries in the series to make sense of its storylines.

Resurrections included a fair amount of footage from the original Matrix films, some of which were very brief clips that were only on screen for a second or two. This abrupt editing was a risky choice – it could have felt cheap or even lazy; a direct appeal to fans of the original films. However, I don’t believe this is how it comes across. It continues that feeling of being unsettled, of feeling that there’s another life that one could or should be living. In Neo and Trinity’s cases, these came in the form of memory and flashback – which is where the very literal use of clips from the original films come in. In the case of trans and non-binary people, to continue that theme, these clips could represent the true self that exists outside of the shell, bubble, or closet in which one is trapped.

I found The Matrix Resurrections to be a deeply emotional experience – and a film I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to see. As I continue my own gender identity journey as a non-binary person, films like Resurrections are important and helpful. Seeing moments that I could relate to depicted as visual metaphors in a film laced with analogy and allegory was powerful, but also absolutely fascinating.

Fans of the original films will find something to like – if they’re prepared to give Resurrections a fair shake on its own merits and not get bogged down in arguments about “wokeness” and the like. Though there were things I felt missed the mark, overall I have to say that Resurrections is one of the most complex, raw, and brutally honest films I’ve seen all year. It retains all of the signature elements from the original films, and for people who aren’t interested in a metaphorical or philosophical reading it’s possible to enjoy Resurrections as a work of action-sci-fi. For me, though, the powerful themes resonated with me, and made The Matrix Resurrections a film that was both an entertaining watch and, at times, a deeply emotional and cathartic experience.

The Matrix Resurrections is out now in cinemas and is available to stream on HBO Max. The Matrix Resurrections is the copyright of Village Roadshow Pictures and/or Warner Bros. Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Crowdfunding and pre-ordering are completely different

One method of raising money that some game developers started using in the late 2000s and early 2010s is crowdfunding. Check out popular crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and you can find plenty of video game projects on offer, all of which are asking for your money.

In exchange for supporting a project or helping it get started, many crowdfunded games offer players their own copy – which can be a digital download or a physical boxed version depending on the title and the amount of money invested – to be delivered when the game is finally ready. This transactional approach to crowdfunding, combined with prices that are often comparable to the “standard” price of a brand-new game, has led many players to consider crowdfunding as an extended form of pre-ordering.

Logos for Kickstarter and Indiegogo – two of the web’s biggest crowdfunding platforms.

Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, and this fundamental misunderstanding has caused an awful lot of disappointment in recent years. It isn’t the fault of individual players, many of whom simply saw an exciting-sounding game and wanted to place their order as early as possible. Instead the fault really lies with the way these crowdfunding platforms and individual developers market their products.

When placing a pre-order for a video game, players are almost always committing their money to a project that is already fully-funded. Perhaps an indie developer has taken out a loan, or maybe we’re talking about a game produced by a larger publisher with the financial resources of their corporation. Regardless, by the time pre-orders go live for practically every title, the game’s development costs are covered and a release is assured. Some games receive delays even after accepting pre-orders, but even then a delay is usually a matter of weeks, months, or a year at the most – and the title is still being worked on.

A visualisation of buying things online…

Pre-orders are purchases – they’re a transaction between the player and the platform, shop, or publisher. As such they’re subject to a range of consumer protection laws, the most significant of which is the right to be refunded. If a pre-ordered game is cancelled, or even if a player changes their mind before release, they can simply contact the retailer or publisher and request a refund without too much hassle.

Crowdfunding, as many players have found to their cost, doesn’t work this way at all. At a fundamental level, crowdfunding is akin to a donation or an investment. As anyone who’s ever played the stock market or cryptocurrency can tell you, the value of investments can change over time, and as the developer or company you’ve donated to takes your money to use in the process of developing their game, there are no guarantees. Caveat emptor indeed.

Buyer beware!

Creating anything is an incredibly difficult and complicated process, and all manner of different unforeseeable situations can adversely impact a project. The current pandemic is an example – many films, television shows, and video games saw their production disrupted by events completely beyond their control. In short, a project may not always go as intended, and even if production goes as smoothly as possible, the end result may be radically different from its creator’s original vision.

For players who’ve donated to a crowdfunding project, this can be incredibly hard to take. They feel they were promised a particular kind of game within a given timeframe, but for any one of a thousand different reasons the game they got doesn’t align with those initial expectations or developer promises. Unfortunately there really isn’t much that can be done about this.

Many people end up angry or upset when a crowdfunded game fails to deliver.

Two examples come to mind of crowdfunding projects that didn’t go to plan. On a personal note I’ve got 2019’s Shenmue III. This title, which dedicated fans of a long-dead pair of games managed to raise an astonishing $7 million to help create, had one job as far as I was concerned: finish the story. Shenmue II had ended on a cliffhanger, and fans wanted to see protagonist Ryo Hazuki bring his quest for revenge to a conclusion. But for reasons I find utterly inexplicable, that didn’t happen. Shenmue III didn’t finish Ryo’s story.

The second example is one of the most egregious crowdfunding disasters of all time: Star Citizen. In development now for over eleven years, the game is nowhere near ready for release. While a small part of the game is available in an early alpha state, developers Cloud Imperium Games have mismanaged the project in truly epic style. With well over $300 million raised – almost all of which has been spent – Star Citizen is a complete disaster, with many of its original backers and fans now calling it a “scam” for the way it took their money.

Logo for the unreleased game Star Citizen.

Shenmue III had specific problems with its story as a result of its creator being unwilling to make cuts to the game’s bloated narrative. Star Citizen is an example of a developer getting completely out of their depth. With the amount of money Cloud Imperium Games raised growing, they felt the need to promise more features for the game. But more features meant more development time, which meant more money was needed to keep the lights on, and in order to raise more money they promised more features… leading to a catastrophic spiral from which the game will never escape. It’s a case of feature creep on an unprecedented scale.

There are plenty of other examples of disappointing crowdfunded games, including titles that ended up baring little resemblance to what had been originally promised and, of course, many games that simply never made it that far, being cancelled or simply vanishing without ever releasing so much as a teaser trailer.

Shenmue III is one of the biggest crowdfunding disappointments to me personally.

These things will always happen. In the games industry there are many examples of titles that entered development but never made it to release, including some whose details have subsequently leaked out – like Star Wars 1313, Rockstar’s Agent, and Prey 2. The key difference with those titles is that they were never being “sold” – players didn’t have to part with their money, meaning the only negative consequence of these cancellations is disappointment. On the rare occasion where a game has been cancelled after pre-orders were available that money is able to be refunded.

Because of the way crowdfunding works, players can be left out of pocket – some to the tune of thousands of pounds or dollars – if a project doesn’t go to plan. And because of the way many crowdfunded titles are marketed, players who believe that they essentially pre-ordered a game or engaged in a transaction are understandably upset. This is why we all need to educate ourselves and understand the fundamental difference between pre-ordering a game and participating in a crowdfunding campaign.

Some people invest vast sums of money in crowdfunding campaigns.

The best way I can explain it is like this:

Pre-ordering means you’re buying a game and engaging in a transaction with a company. They have already committed the financial resources to making the game, and while it can still turn out to be disappointing for all manner of reasons, your money is safe and in almost every case you’ll be able to get a refund.

Pre-ordering is a purchase; the proceeds go to the developer, publisher, and/or shop as proceeds for work already completed.

Crowdfunding is donating to a project. You aren’t purchasing anything – not even if a copy of the game is listed as a “reward” for investing your money. Your money is going to be taken by the developer to be used as part of the game’s creation, not to make a profit on a game they have already committed to making. Because a lot can go wrong or simply change during the creation of a video game, there’s a higher chance that when the game eventually releases it won’t be exactly what you expected – if it even releases at all. In any case your money is almost certainly gone, and unless you can afford to lawyer up or prove that a project was a deliberate scam or con, perpetrated by someone with no intention of creating a video game, you won’t be able to get it back.

Crowdfunding is a donation; the money is a gift which goes directly to the developer so they can fund the game’s creation.

Most projects are not scams – but that doesn’t mean things won’t go awry.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never donated to a crowdfunding campaign. Even when it came to titles like the aforementioned Shenmue III I simply concluded that I don’t have the money to lose. As someone on a low income my budget for video games – and any other entertainment product – is already low, so the idea of investing in the creation of something, no matter how “cool” it might sound, is something I’m unwilling to commit to.

Sadly, some of these failures and disappointments will lead to fewer players being willing to donate their money to crowdfunding campaigns in future. That will have an effect on some smaller independent developers for whom crowdfunding may be the only viable method of fundraising to bring their dream to life. In some cases we can lay the blame at the feet of large companies or wealthy individuals who essentially “abused” the crowdfunding model to create projects they could almost certainly have afforded to fund out of their own pockets. But some of the blame also lies at the feet of developers like Cloud Imperium Games, who have failed to deliver what they promised after more than a decade – while trying to convince players to buy in-game items that can cost upwards of $1,000. The whole thing gives crowdfunding a bad name.

Cloud Imperium Games is the company behind Star Citizen.

Your money is your own, and how you choose to spend it, donate it, or invest it is up to you. I would never tell anyone not to participate in a crowdfunding campaign, because at the end of the day it’s a personal decision. The gambler’s advice is always worth bearing in mind, though: “never invest more than you can afford to lose.” That’s true of poker games and it’s true of crowdfunding too.

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while; it was one of the articles I had in mind when I first created this website almost two years ago. Having spoken with several acquaintances who felt “scammed” by a crowdfunding project gone wrong, and seeing many comments and criticisms online of titles like Star Citizen from irate backers who feel – wrongly, I’m afraid – that they had something akin to a purchase guarantee or pre-order, I wanted to add my two cents to the conversation.

It’s my firm view that crowdfunding and pre-ordering are very different things, no matter how a project may be marketed. Some companies and individuals definitely cross a line, or come close to it, with how they talk about their projects and try to convince people to part with their money. But at the end of the day it’s up to us as individuals to make sure we understand what we’re getting into before we make any kind of financial commitment.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, publisher, etc. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek: Lower Decks is boldly going for asexual representation

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Seasons 1-2, particularly the episode Where Pleasant Fountains Lie.

This article deals with the subjects of sex and sexuality and may be uncomfortable for some readers.

Growing up asexual is difficult. We live in a world that seems to revolve around sex and sexuality much of the time, with an awful lot of music, art, and entertainment dedicated to relationships and to sex. Graphic depictions of sex on screen may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but even in the 1980s and 1990s sex was a frequent subject on television, in cinema, in music, and in practically every other form of media.

Even the arrival on the scene of more lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans characters in media didn’t bring all that much respite. Who people were having sex with changed, but the fact that they were having sex – and spent much of their time pursuing it in one form or another – had not. The growth in LGBT+ representation in media has been fantastic (though it is still far from perfect) but speaking for myself as an asexual person, it didn’t always succeed at resonating with me. I still felt alone, that my perspective wasn’t being represented.

The asexuality flag or asexual pride flag. You might’ve seen it before – it’s permanently flown in the upper-right corner here on the website.

In the couple of “sex education” lessons that I was given at school, there was no mention of the LGBT+ community, let alone asexuality. Sex was something that “everyone” had and wanted to have, and between the depictions and talk of sex in all forms of art and media through to peer pressure from my adolescent peer group, it was inescapable. The only people who might be celibate were monks, nuns, Catholic priests, and losers who couldn’t find a date. That was the way sex and sexuality appeared at the time I was discovering my own.

In the time and place where I was growing up, away from the more liberal and cosmopolitan cities, even being homosexual was considered something abhorrent, let alone being trans, non-binary, or asexual. People didn’t understand what any of those terms meant because they’d never been exposed to it, and even being suspected of being a “poof” or a “bum boy” was enough to send the bullies into a frenzy.

The new “progress” LGBT+ pride flag.

The process of “normalising” – and gosh do I hate that term – asexuality can only begin when asexuality is visible. There may be a handful of asexual activists both within and outside of the broader LGBT+ movement, but generally speaking the level of visibility remains low. Without that visibility, understanding and acceptance can’t follow. The same is true of any minority group – including transgender and non-binary.

It’s for this reason that I get so irritated when I hear people talking about “too many” gay characters on television, or how “in-your-face” LGBT+ representation feels. It’s like that specifically because these groups have been so underrepresented for such a long time, and by making LGBT+ depictions more overt and obvious, it raises awareness and draws attention to the LGBT+ movement and the quest for acceptance within society as a whole.

Greater representation of LGBT+ people is still needed.

Since I went public with my asexuality, I’ve started displaying the asexual pride flag right here on the website. You can see it in the upper-right corner both on PC and mobile devices. I do that deliberately with the express intention of raising awareness and pointing out that asexual people exist in all areas of life. My chosen subjects here on the website are entertainment – Star Trek, video games, sci-fi and fantasy, among others. But there are asexual people in all walks of life and with as broad a range of interests as everyone else.

Being open about my asexuality was a choice that I made in part because of the lack of representation and lack of awareness many folks have of asexuals and asexuality. Even by offering my singular perspective on the subject in a small way in my little corner of the internet, I feel like I’m doing something to advocate for greater awareness and greater visibility, because without those things I fear that asexuality will never be understood. And without understanding it’s very hard to see a pathway to broader acceptance of asexuality in society.

If you’re interested to read a more detailed account of how I came to terms with my asexuality, you can find it by clicking or tapping here.

Title card for Where Pleasant Fountains Lie.

So we turn to Star Trek. As an adolescent dealing with some of these issues surrounding my sexuality, the Star Trek franchise – and other sci-fi and fantasy worlds – could offer an escape. Science fiction and fantasy tend not to be as heavily reliant on themes of sex as, say, drama or even comedies can be, and I think that may have been a factor in my enjoyment of Star Trek: The Next Generation during its original run.

Despite that, the Star Trek franchise is hardly nonsexual. Characters like Captain Kirk and Commander Riker are well-known for their many relationships, and episodes like The Naked Time and Amok Time, while never showing as much overt sexuality as some more modern shows, do reference the subject. Even characters who have proven popular in the asexual community – like Spock and Data – had sexual relationships. While the Star Trek franchise has been at the forefront of many battles for representation – famously showing the first interracial kiss and with episodes like Rejoined promoting LGBT+ issues – asexuality itself had never been overtly referenced in Star Trek.

Characters like Data have been talked about in an asexual context before.

Though the depiction of Lower Decks’ chief engineer Andy Billups wasn’t explicitly about asexuality, his story in Where Pleasant Fountains Lie presented the first significant analogy for asexuality in the Star Trek franchise – and one of the first ever on television, certainly the first that I’ve ever seen. In typical Star Trek fashion, the episode looked at the subject through a science fiction lens, with Billups’ unwillingness to have sex being tied to the medieval-spacefaring culture from which he came.

Star Trek has often done this. Rather than explicitly referencing a contemporary issue, writers will devise an in-universe comparison. The Doomsday Machine featured a planet-killing superweapon in an analogy about nuclear proliferation. In The Hands Of The Prophets told a story about Bajoran religion clashing with secular teaching in a story that was clearly about the creationism/evolution debate but that made no explicit references. Likewise we can say that Where Pleasant Fountains Lie is a story about asexuality – but one seen through a Star Trek filter.

The episode told a story about asexuality through a typical Star Trek lens.

As an asexual person watching the episode, I was floored. For the first time, a character in Star Trek shared my sexuality and feelings about sex. More than that, as the Hysperians’ plot to trick Andy Billups into having sex reached its endgame, the poor man looked so incredibly uncomfortable and ill at ease with what he was about to do. I’ve been there. I’ve been Andy Billups in that moment, and to see that portrayal was incredibly cathartic.

When I was fifteen I lost my virginity, succumbing to the pressure from my peer group and having talked myself into it. I thought that by doing so I could convince others – and myself – that I was “normal,” just like everyone else. Never having heard the term “asexual,” nor understanding that the way I felt about sex and genitalia was valid, I convinced myself that I must be the one who was wrong, that I was broken and that my sexuality simply did not exist as I now understand it. In that moment I felt a great deal of trepidation. This wasn’t simply the anxiety of one’s “first time,” but I was forcing myself to do something that I fundamentally did not want to do; something that disgusted and repulsed me.

I related to Billups so much during this sequence.

If you’re heterosexual, I guess a reasonable comparison would be having sex with a same-sex partner. Even if you could talk yourself into it, it wouldn’t feel right. And vice versa if you’re homosexual; having sex with an opposite-sex partner would feel fundamentally wrong. That’s the expression that I saw stamped on Andy Billups’ face in Where Pleasant Fountains Lie, and if I had looked in the mirror on that day in my mid-teens – or on any of the other occasions on which I talked myself into having sex with partners both male and female – I would have seen the exact same thing.

I believe that this is the power of representation. To truly see myself reflected in a fictional character has been an entirely new experience for me, and no doubt for other asexual folks as well. Lower Decks may be a comedy series, but this storyline has become one of the most powerful that I’ve seen in all of Star Trek. It was the first time I ever saw my sexuality represented on screen, and for as long as I live I will be able to go back to that moment and point it out to other people. There is finally an understandable, sympathetic metaphor for asexuality on screen.

Chief engineer Andy Billups: asexual icon!

As I stated in my review of Where Pleasant Fountains Lie, the depiction of Billups wasn’t perfect. There was a jokiness and a light-heartedness to elements of the story that clashed with the heavier themes that were present. But in spite of that, Billups’ story resonated with me. It’s an incredibly powerful moment to see any kind of asexual representation, and although there were jokes at Billups’ expense in the episode, he came across incredibly sympathetically. He even had his entire team cheering for him and chanting his name at the end – celebrating how he remained true to himself and didn’t have sex.

No asexual person should ever feel that they’re obligated to have sex. Sex education classes need to include asexuality alongside the rest of the LGBT+ spectrum so that asexual kids and teenagers can understand that the way they are is normal and valid. But education is only one thing that needs to change. Representation in all forms of media is exceptionally important too, and even a single depiction of a secondary character in one episode is already the best and most powerful asexual story that there has been in a long time – possibly ever. As more people become aware of asexuality and understand its place alongside heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, and other sexual orientations, the stigma or prejudice against asexuals and asexuality that exists in society will – in time – decrease.

Whether intentional or not, Lower Decks has joined the conversation and brought asexuality to mainstream attention in a way that I’d never seen before. It’s now possible for me to point to Where Pleasant Fountains Lie to show anyone who’s interested to learn more about asexuality and to see it represented on screen. That opportunity didn’t exist before, and I’m incredibly grateful to Lower Decks for this episode, this character, and this powerful story.

Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Lower Decks and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ah, September!

I adore the beginning of September. As a kid I hated it, of course – the first week of September means back to school for kids in England – but with those years far behind me (too far, quite frankly) I’ve really come to appreciate what September brings. Even as a kid, September marked the beginning of the slow march to Christmas, and brought with it the end of the summer heatwaves and warm weather. As the leaves begin to turn shades of gold, orange, and red, autumn sets in and the weather cools. The nights start getting noticeably longer, and then before you know it it’s harvest time!

Autumn is, on balance, probably my favourite season. As much as I like seeing the beautiful frosts and snowfalls of winter, autumn has a sense of slowly-building anticipation that winter lacks; the hype before the main event. Just like the days leading up to Christmas are more enjoyable than Christmas Day itself, so too is autumn preferable to winter.

Don’t tell anyone, but Christmas is coming!

Though we don’t have Thanksgiving here in the UK like our American and Canadian friends, harvest time brings with it an abundance of many of my favourite dishes, like apple crumble – the perfect autumn dessert, if you ask me! As a kid we’d go bramble-picking, collecting the fruit you might also know as blackberries to make into desserts or jam. I tend to associate the autumn season with these kinds of fruity, sweet flavours – but you could just as easily add into the mix hearty stews or dishes like steak pie.

Apples – the quintessential autumn fruit.

As an aside, it was only when I moved away from the UK and met folks from other countries that I realised how British cuisine has acquired a truly awful reputation! It never occurred to me that it might be so looked down on by people from other parts of the world, especially because I grew up in a rural community where farm-fresh produce was often available. I can remember attending events celebrating cookery, where local chefs would show off the best (often very expensive) home-grown ingredients. There was even an apple festival that I went to once – around this time of year – which was great fun. And I still have a soft spot for cookery shows on television (or online) – many of which star British chefs cooking British food. But I digress!

Heat never used to be a big deal for me. I lived for a time in South Africa, on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, and summer was warm and humid there. Even when I lived in mainland Europe, temperatures were a lot warmer than they are here. Unfortunately though, as my health has gotten worse over the years I’ve found that my tolerance for heat has declined, and my idea of what makes for a comfortable temperature is now what a lot of folks would call “cold!” This means that I enjoy summer even less than I ever used to, so the beginning of September brings with it a sense of relief. Of course it’s still possible to get a heatwave or hot spell into September, but by and large we’re through what I consider the least-enjoyable part of the year.

Autumn is when the weather cools and the leaves turn beautiful shades of gold and orange.

From an entertainment point of view, September marks the beginning of the traditional television season – though of course such things are increasingly meaningless in an era of ten-episode seasons and on-demand streaming! But it was in September when many shows would premiere or kick off their new seasons – Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation both debuted in September, for example. Even today, with streaming becoming an ever-larger part of the home entertainment landscape, summer still sees fewer new shows and fewer video game releases than the autumn. Got to get those games out in time for Christmas, right?

When I worked in the city in an office – or rather, a succession of offices – September was usually a great time to take a break. Co-workers with kids would often want time off over the summer holidays, and would be grateful to us childless folks for not taking up too many vacation days during the weeks when schools were closed. So by the end of the summer most of them would come back to work, meaning it was my turn for some time off! Though I wouldn’t say this was a tradition I stuck to every year, it was certainly something I took advantage of for several Septembers.

A real harvest bounty!

For a variety of reasons I have positive associations with this time of year, some going all the way back to my early childhood memories of picking brambles in the hedgerows around the small village where I grew up. Or playing conkers! Do you remember that game? If you never got to play, as kids we’d pick conkers – the large woody seed of horse chestnut trees – and tie them to pieces of string. The game then involved two players swinging or flicking their conker at the other player’s – the surviving conker was declared the winner!

So as September begins, we mark the unofficial end of summer. My favourite time of year gets started, and we begin the slow march toward Christmas and New Year – which will be upon us sooner than we realise! I never like to wish away time; none of us really know how many months or seasons we’ve got left, so wishing for a particular time of year to rush by seems rather ghoulish. But every year I’m pleased to welcome September, which brings with it the beginning of my favourite season and favourite time of year. And today, I just wanted to take a moment away from the usual things I talk about here on the website to acknowledge that.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their respective owner, studio, broadcaster, etc. Some stock images courtesy of pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 – what was the Burn?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3.

As I was wrapping up my Discovery Season 3 series of articles in January, I said that we’d return to the Burn at a later date once I’d had time to get my thoughts in order. The Burn was the main storyline running through all of the show’s third season, and in addition it’s a story which has significant ramifications for Star Trek going forward, so I wanted to be able to do justice to this big subject. As you may recall from my commentary as the season was ongoing, I have mixed feelings. There’s a lot to talk about.

First up, let’s recap what the Burn was purely from an in-universe perspective, then we can get into my analysis of how well it worked as a narrative.

Though the timeline of some of these events was vague, we know that beginning in the 28th or 29th Centuries, the galaxy began to experience a dilithium shortage. The reason for this was never given nor explained in detail, but it was serious enough that the Federation began seeking out alternative sources of dilithium. At the same time, the Federation started to research alternative methods of faster-than-light travel, the most successful of these being the Ni’Var (Romulan-Vulcan) project called SB-19.

SB-19 was a pre-Burn Federation experiment – and one of the clues Discovery Season 3 dropped as to the event’s origin.

All of this came against the backdrop of a conflict referred to as the Temporal Wars. It’s assumed that this is related to Enterprise’s Temporal Cold War storyline, which saw a temporal agent named Daniels spend time aboard Captain Archer’s NX-01 Enterprise. The end of the war in the late 30th or early 31st Century saw the implementation of a ban on time travel, which is an aspect of the storyline that never really went anywhere.

By the mid-3060s, the Federation’s quest for dilithium was ongoing, and a Kelpien ship – the KSF Khi’eth, with Dr Issa on board – travelled to the Verubin Nebula. After finding a route inside, the ship crashed on a dilithium planet inside the nebula, and wasn’t able to be rescued. A child named Su’Kal was born to Dr Issa while inside the nebula, and as a result of exposure to the Verubin Nebula’s radiation and the dilithium of the planet where he was born, Su’Kal developed a telepathic connection of some kind with dilithium, a link which was seemingly amplified by being on the dilithium planet. At moments of extreme emotion, Su’Kal could trigger a psychic shockwave which destabilised dilithium. The death of his mother in the late 3060s caused this to happen, and the psychic shockwave travelled across the entire galaxy near-simultaneously. Almost all active dilithium went inert, and any ship with an active warp core exploded. This event was later referred to by survivors as “the Burn.” No one, including the Federation, knew how or why this happened, and for more than a century the cause of the Burn went unknown.

The Burn. Figuring out what caused it was a big part of Season 3.

The Burn caused widespread societal changes across the known galaxy, including the withdrawal of many Federation members and the rise of a faction called the Emerald Chain – which was implied to be a successor to the Orion Syndicate. Worlds like Trill, Earth, Ni’Var, and others left the Federation, and the severe dilithium shortage meant that other Federation members and colonies were no longer within travel distance. It’s not clear whether the Burn wrecked the Federation’s subspace communications network directly, or whether decades of decline and decay were responsible. Either way, by the time of Michael Burnham’s arrival in the year 3188, the rump Federation was not able to even communicate with some former and current members.

So that, in a nutshell, is the Burn.

Over the course of Season 3, Discovery dropped hints about the Burn and what it could be connected to. We had the mysterious piece of music that everyone seemed to know, Michael Burnham’s year-long research quest into starship black boxes, the aforementioned SB-19 project, the missing Red Angel suits and Michael’s mother, the name “Burn” possibly implying a connection to Michael Burnham, a mention of the Gorn having “destroyed” a region of subspace, a couple of possible ties to the Short Treks episode Calypso – by way of the word “V’draysh” to refer to the rump Federation and the timelines seeming to line up – and a couple of other smaller things.

Discovery implied a connection to the Short Treks episode Calypso – among others!

This setup forms a fairly typical “mystery box;” a style of storytelling pioneered by people like the writer/director of 2009’s Star Trek (and The Rise of Skywalker) J.J. Abrams. Alex Kurtzman, who was Discovery’s executive producer for all of Season 3 and who’s in overall creative control of the Star Trek franchise for ViacomCBS, is a colleague of and frequent collaborator with J.J. Abrams, and has adopted at least some of his storytelling methods. So it makes sense to see a “mystery box” in Discovery considering who’s in charge – and how television storytelling in general works as we’ve moved into an era of serialised shows.

The basic problem with the Burn as a “mystery box” is that the clues we as the audience were fed throughout the season did not add up to the story’s resolution. None of the clues or hints that the show dropped ultimately mattered; there was no way for anyone to put the pieces together to figure out the cause of the Burn based on what we saw on screen, not until the final episode when the Burn’s true origin was revealed. Some, like the piece of music, were dropped from the story altogether, despite seeming to be important when they first appeared. This made for a narrative that was, for many viewers and fans, unsatisfying at a fundamental level.

Star Trek: Discovery executive producer Alex Kurtzman.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not suggesting that the storyline should have been telegraphed or written in a very obvious way, but once the decision had been made to establish the 32nd Century’s semi-post-apocalyptic setting as being of mysterious origin, that mystery needed to be resolved in a satisfying way. The fact that nothing that we learned across the entire season mattered or had any impact whatsoever on the Burn made the reveal that Su’Kal was the cause feel like a bolt from the blue; a deus ex machina.

Had the Su’Kal reveal come in episode 3 or 4, and then the story had moved on to deal with things like the diplomacy with Ni’Var and the conflict with the Emerald Chain, perhaps it would’ve worked better. But it came at the end of a season that had been running for several months, and in which several episodes were side-missions that didn’t further the Burn story in any way. Season 3 feels like it spent a lot of time getting to an anticlimax; all of those expectations which had been built up quite cleverly over the preceding episodes basically fizzled out. It wasn’t a catastrophic disaster of an ending, but it was one which just didn’t seem to fit with the story that had been teased all season long.

Su’Kal, a Kelpien who had no connection to anything else in the story, was ultimately revealed as the cause of the Burn.

For Trekkies – and for more casual viewers too, I would argue – the Burn was the most interesting, tantalising, and engaging part of the story of Season 3. How had Star Trek’s optimistic future been brought to its knees? How had the Federation allowed this event to happen in the first place, and how had the organisation so badly bungled its aftermath that even Earth had quit the organisation? These questions were all teed up by the Burn storyline, and providing a satisfying answer was perhaps the single most important task that befell the writers and producers of Season 3.

Su’Kal being the answer could have worked if the mystery had been set up differently. Bringing in the Kelpiens at an earlier stage would’ve helped, as would clues or hints about missions to seek out dilithium or experiments about radiation and telepathy. But I don’t think there can be any denying that Su’Kal as the cause of the Burn in the version of the story that made it to screen came from nowhere; it simply does not fit with what was set up in the rest of the season. That’s the fundamental reason why, for many folks, the Burn feels like a storyline that didn’t deliver at what should’ve been its climax.

Having set up a season-long mystery, the storyline jumped to a completely different conclusion that ignored what had been previously hinted at or established.

There’s more to say, though. The idea of running out of an essential fuel and looking for alternative options is an interesting analogy considering that the real world remains dependent on fossil fuels. The Burn can be read, perhaps, as an extreme metaphor for climate change – the Federation’s dependence on dilithium ultimately caused a catastrophe that almost led to the collapse of civilisation itself.

But if this kind of analogy was part of the writers’ intentions, it has to get a failing grade. The concept itself works. It does what Star Trek has always done: uses its sci-fi setting to look at real-world issues. But once Su’Kal was shuffled out of the way, what did the Federation find? A massive cache of dilithium. A planet-sized mass of this vital fuel could power the galaxy for decades or more, regardless of the fact that it was almost responsible for the end of advanced civilisation. To continue the climate change analogy, this is the equivalent of running out of coal and oil, trying to use renewables, then the story ending with a huge new coal mine and oil fields being discovered.

Finding a dilithium planet rendered what could’ve been an interesting and timely story about fuel and energy resources somewhat meaningless.

Though some Trekkies may be glad to see that dilithium crystals aren’t in danger of disappearing from the franchise, this adds another element to the Burn’s unspectacular ending. After all of the talk of a shortage of fuel, alternative methods of propulsion (including several mentioned in the season premiere that were never spoken of again), and how dangerous dilithium could be, the story ends not with some new technology being invented to circumvent the crisis, nor with Federation starships being fitted with Spore Drives like Discovery has, but with a cop-out – finding a huge new dilithium planet that can be strip-mined for fuel.

The Burn and the dilithium shortage storylines were effectively reset by the end of Season 3. With Season 4 seemingly picking up a new story, what could’ve been one of the most powerful turning points in the entirety of Star Trek may find itself relegated to being little more than an unsatisfying season-long story arc that future stories will simply ignore. The Burn could’ve led to significant changes for Star Trek, assuming future shows might use a 32nd or 33rd Century setting. New kinds of starship could have been created using different methods of propulsion and new technobabble to explain it. Instead, basically what happened is that after a season-long dalliance with a setting teetering on the edge of the post-apocalyptic, Star Trek will shift back to using the same things as before.

Discovery can warp away to a new adventure next time and shelve the Burn.

A story that comes full-circle can work. After a season of seeing the galaxy struggling in the aftermath of the Burn, it will feel great to see Captain Burnham and the crew bringing hope back to the shattered Federation, and hopefully seeing the organisation returning to full strength. But how we get to those ending points is significant, and in the case of the Burn, the storyline took an odd route that has left many viewers feeling it wasn’t all it could’ve been.

Finally, we come to what I consider to be the worst and most egregious failing of the Burn and its storyline: the portrayal of Su’Kal and his role in it.

Bill Irwin put in an outstanding performance as Su’Kal, and I don’t want to criticise him for a moment. The way Su’Kal came across on screen was sympathetic, and his scenes with Saru in particular were deeply emotional. This is no criticism of the performances of Irwin or any of the other actors involved in the Su’Kal sequences.

Bill Irwin was wonderful to watch as Su’Kal.

Neurodivergent people, people with learning difficulties, and people with mental health issues have long been portrayed on screen in a variety of negative ways. That can be by becoming the butt of jokes, at other times being portrayed as villains, having no say in or agency over their own lives and stories, or simply by being ignored; it hasn’t been an easy road. Simply seeing a positive portrayal of someone in that situation could be a big deal, yet Discovery completely screwed this up.

By saying that Su’Kal accidentally caused the worst disaster in the entire history of the Star Trek galaxy, the show plays to old stereotypes of the neurodivergent as dangerous. Su’Kal is, for all intents and purposes, no different from Lennie in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. Lennie would accidentally kill another character in the book because he didn’t realise or understand his own strength, and that description of a man who was “too stupid” to recognise or understand his own power fits Su’Kal almost perfectly.

Su’Kal is basically a futuristic Lennie from Of Mice and Men. (1992 film adaptation pictured.)

Discovery treats Su’Kal with a cloying, sickening pity at times, looking down at him while trying to present him in as pathetic a manner as possible. The show sees Su’Kal as a hapless moron who blew up every starship in the galaxy with his uncontrolled emotional outburst, painting him – and, by extension, other people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities – as a serious danger to others. People with learning difficulties are often portrayed as unable to control their emotions, which is a further stereotype that Discovery leans into. These aspects of the portrayal are really just awful, and putting Su’Kal in this position has real-world comparisons that are deeply unpleasant.

How many times can you remember hearing, in the aftermath of a massacre or killing spree, that the suspect had “mental health problems” or a learning disability? It seems like it happens every time we hear of such an event, and there’s a huge stigma even today around the topic of mental health. As someone with diagnosed mental health conditions myself, this is a topic that hits close to home, and I feel that the way Discovery portrayed Su’Kal as this kind of “dangerous idiot” stereotype shows how far we still have to go as a society when it comes to talking about and depicting neurodiversity on screen.

Su’Kal being the cause of this disaster has some really disturbing implications beyond the story.

Though I enjoyed much of what Discovery’s third season brought to the table, the way Su’Kal was portrayed in his two appearances at the end of the season were really disappointing, even more so considering that the Star Trek franchise has so often tried to be a pioneer for portrayals of underrepresented peoples. Season 3 introduced transgender and non-binary characters for the first time, for example, and the show has a married gay couple, is led by a black woman, and has characters from many different backgrounds. But when it came to depicting someone with mental health issues and learning difficulties, Discovery fell back on overused stereotypes and outdated tropes, effectively bringing a modern-day Lennie to the screen.

There are aspects of Su’Kal’s story that did work. I like the fact, for example, that the telepathic technobabble aspect of the storyline was very “Star Trek” – you wouldn’t get this kind of story in any other franchise, and that’s something that gives Star Trek a sense of identity; a slightly esoteric, weirder kind of sci-fi than you get in other stories. But that side of it is drowned out by how badly Su’Kal as a character and a trope landed.

Su’Kal’s emotional outbursts are deadly.

Neurodiversity isn’t always going to be easy to put to screen, and I get that. If there were only two half-episodes to show off Su’Kal and get to know him, perhaps the chance for a nuanced portrayal that was sympathetic without being pitiful never existed to begin with. But if that’s what happened, Su’Kal should never have been created in the first place. Either a different character should’ve filled that role, or an alternative explanation for the Burn should’ve been found. Given all of the other faults, missteps, and failings present in the Burn narrative as a whole, which I outlined above, I would prefer the latter.

Su’Kal as a character exists in a weird space for me. On the one hand, the emotional side of the portrayal, and the performance by guest star Bill Irwin, were outstanding. But there are so many flaws in the premise of the character and his role in this galactic catastrophe that I can’t look past them. Su’Kal being responsible for the Burn is an age-old trope, one which perpetuates the stigmatisation of the neurodiverse, and in particular those with learning difficulties. Star Trek should know better than to use a character like Su’Kal in a role like this; Star Trek should be better than this, and that’s why it’s so disappointing to see this storyline in Discovery.

I’m very disappointed that a Star Trek show would choose to rely on these outdated stereotypes.

To conclude, I’ll say that the Burn was an interesting, if slightly alarming, premise for the season. It allowed Discovery to tell some truly different and unexpected stories, it provided the backdrop for some great characterisation and character moments, and it has set the stage for future stories in this era. It wasn’t a total failure and I wouldn’t want to see it somehow erased or overwritten.

At the same time, however, the storyline itself followed a very odd path. The ending didn’t flow from what had been slowly built up across the rest of the season leading to the Burn as a whole feeling unsatisfying. Season 3 is saved by the fact that it has those other great episodes, character moments, and standalone stories; had it been all about the Burn we could well be talking about Season 3 as Discovery’s worst.

For me, though, the most egregious failure and deepest disappointment with the Burn storyline is the role Su’Kal played in it, and the implications that has for how neurodiverse people are viewed and portrayed on screen. Though the stigma around mental health and learning disabilities still exists in a big way out here in the real world, Star Trek has always been at the forefront of changing minds and challenging stereotypes. To fall back on such an old-fashioned trope, even though I have no doubt it was accidental, is bitterly disappointing and even upsetting.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the UK and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Dr Pulaski – a character study

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Minor spoilers may also be present for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

For reasons that still aren’t crystal clear over thirty years later, Gates McFadden was dropped after Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dr Crusher had been a mainstay of the show’s first season, going a long way to humanising the otherwise stoic Captain Picard, as well as bringing a family dynamic to the series. Her absence in Season 2 was an obstacle for the show to overcome, and to replace her, Gene Roddenberry and the creative team introduced a new character: Dr Katherine Pulaski.

I have to hold up my hands and admit to being a fan of Dr Pulaski. There are certainly elements to her characterisation that worked less well, and we’ll look at those in a moment, but on the whole I felt her inclusion in the series took The Next Generation to different places, places it wouldn’t have been able to reach without her. That’s my own bias coming into play as we delve into her character today.

The intention behind Dr Pulaski’s introduction was to shake up The Next Generation. Across the show’s first season there hadn’t been much interpersonal drama between the main characters – something that was a marked change from The Original Series. In Star Trek’s first incarnation, the “frenemy” relationship between Dr McCoy and Spock in particular was a source of both drama and humour, and it seems clear to me that The Next Generation lacked that in Season 1, and that Dr Pulaski was created to try to bring that element back to Star Trek.

When I think about Dr Crusher, with the possible exception of her role in the two-part episode Descent, I wouldn’t use the terms “strong” or “forceful” to describe her personality. She’s a reasonably quiet, slightly soft-spoken character, clearly very compassionate but also quite agreeable, especially when pressed by Captain Picard. To call her “bland” might be unkind, but she was never meant to be the standout character among the cast of The Next Generation.

Dr Pulaski is the polar opposite. She’s opinionated, outspoken, and occasionally brash. Though she does form firm friendships with other members of the senior staff, she’s much more of a standalone, individualist character. These are all traits that she inherited from The Original Series’ Dr McCoy, and we can see a very definite McCoy influence for practically her entire run on the series.

The role of a doctor in Star Trek is naturally a limited one, and that was especially true when the franchise was primarily interested in episodic storytelling. Dr Pulaski’s scenes are largely limited to Sickbay or dealing with medical-themed stories and events, and this naturally puts constraints on what she – and other doctors in the franchise too – can do. In episodes with a strong medical storyline, I’d argue that Dr Pulaski shines, and aspects of her personality that might otherwise come across as abrasive can instead feel determined and driven. In stories without much going on in Sickbay she’s naturally of less use to the writers, and it shows.

One of the main areas of criticism when Dr Pulaski came aboard was her relationship with Data. Designed to mimic the Spock-McCoy dynamic from The Original Series, some of Dr Pulaski’s early scenes and episodes with Data did not work as intended. She came across as patronising and looking down at Data – and that’s putting the most positive spin possible on it! At worst, Dr Pulaski was actively degrading and dehumanising in the way she spoke to and about Data, and that’s something that many fans found hard to take.

Though we’re more aware in 2021 of the need to be inclusive and attentive to the needs of neurodivergent people, non-binary folks, and other marginalised groups, even in 1988 many fans were uncomfortable at seeing Data dehumanised and talked about in the abstract. Fans had had a whole year to get to know Data, and just like we balked at Dr Bruce Maddox’s treatment of him in the episode The Measure of a Man, so too fans felt Dr Pulaski was treating Data unfairly. This is legitimate criticism, and soured many fans on Dr Pulaski almost from her first moment on the series.

Though I was perhaps a little unkind in my characterisation of Dr Crusher earlier, there were many fans of The Next Generation who liked the character and wanted her back. A letter-writing campaign began almost from the moment Season 2 premiered – supposedly with some involvement from Patrick Stewart – to convince the producers to bring back Gates McFadden and dump Dr Pulaski. Though I daresay this would’ve happened regardless of how well Dr Pulaski’s character had been received, the fact that those early episodes featured a conflict with Data that certainly went too far and crossed a line didn’t help her cause.

Despite all of that, by the time Season 2 was finding its feet, Dr Pulaski had become established as a regular member of the crew of the Enterprise-D, and had settled into her role in Sickbay about as well as she could. The fact that she was a strong and decisive personality may have been divisive among fans, but in my opinion she elevated the role of the ship’s medical officer, taking what had been a secondary position with Dr Crusher in Season 1 and transforming it into a more important role, especially in medical storylines. Even when Dr Crusher returned in Season 3, this aspect of the show continued to an extent; Dr Pulaski’s legacy on the show, despite the character being dropped with little fanfare, may be that Dr Crusher found more prominent storylines.

The comparisons with Dr Crusher are inescapable, and one other aspect that viewers felt was missing after Dr Crusher departed the series was a relationship with Picard. Dr Crusher and Picard had history as well as more than a little romantic tension, whereas Dr Pulaski didn’t have that connection with Picard – or with anyone else. Though there was a storyline in the episode The Icarus Factor involving a past relationship with Commander Riker’s father, this didn’t become a major aspect of her character, and she remained romantically un-attached for the rest of her tenure.

Though the episode Unnatural Selection is perhaps the story where she was given the most to do, where I felt we saw Dr Pulaski at her best was in episodes like Time Squared, where she tended to a second Captain Picard from several hours in the future, Up The Long Ladder, in which she takes part in a traditional Klingon ceremony with Worf, and though there are two sides to her relationship with Data on display in Peak Performance, the way she consoled him after his defeat at Strategema was sweet. In these moments we see different aspects of her character – her medical expertise, her embrace of different cultures, and through her evolving relationship with Data, her ability to overcome her own prejudice.

Perhaps the fact that Dr Pulaski had anti-android prejudice to begin with made her too unpopular with fans to be redeemable. Her occasionally blunt persona didn’t help her in that regard either. But had we met Dr Pulaski in Season 1 not Season 2, I think it’s possible for her evolving relationship with Data to have provided a deeply satisfying character arc.

The problem Dr Pulaski faced was that she joined a series that already had a full season – 25 episodes – under its belt. The characters had grown together and been through some major events in Season 1, particularly the death of their friend and colleague Tasha Yar. Yar’s own deep relationship with Data, which was jump-started by the events of The Naked Now, had gone a long way to humanising him across Season 1, and there was something charming in the “android who longs to be human” story. In Encounter At Farpoint, Riker called Data “Pinocchio,” and across Season 1 that’s how viewers came to know Data. Dropping in Dr Pulaski at the beginning of Season 2 and giving her a very prejudiced way of looking at this character we’d come to know and love was a bridge too far for many viewers, and although the relationship improved dramatically over the course of the season, her early interactions with Data remained a sore spot.

Dr Pulaski was present for all but two episodes of Season 2. However, most episodes didn’t have a major medical focus, and thus she was really a secondary character much of the time. Even so, I’d argue that she brought a lot to the show, and despite the introduction of her character not really succeeding in the way the creative team intended, Dr Pulaski certainly achieved her objective of shaking up the crew. Though she was never a villain, the introduction of Dr Pulaski showed that there can still be disagreements and interpersonal drama among Starfleet officers in the 24th Century, and that not everyone has to agree all the time. The Next Generation could, at times, fall into the trap of being too idealistic in its portrayal of characters in particular, and while there were adversaries and antagonists in Season 1 – including some from the Federation – Dr Pulaski was the first main character on the show to pull in a different direction. In that sense she arguably laid the groundwork for storylines we’d see from Season 4 onwards with characters like Ro Laren, and in particular the non-Starfleet crews we’d meet in Deep Space Nine and Voyager.

The fact that Dr Pulaski was never shy and didn’t pull her punches is something I found charming and appealing about her, particularly when compared to Dr Crusher’s Season 1 persona. She could be opinionated and even pushy at times, but she always did her best to help those in her care and didn’t bat an eyelid at the wacky situations the Enterprise-D would find itself in. Not only that, but she grew as a character across her single season on the show, particularly in terms of her relationship with Data and her understanding of different kinds of life. The Next Generation set out to seek out new life, and while Dr Pulaski’s old fashioned idea of what “life” is may have held her back at first, over time she came to recognise that Data was a valuable colleague and even a friend, even if she didn’t understand everything about him.

Had she been kept around and spent more time on the show, perhaps we would have seen those themes continue to play out. There was scope for her relationship with Worf to develop, not romantically necessarily but certainly putting them in more stories that would have allowed their friendship to grow and for both characters to learn more about the other’s culture. Her relationship with Kyle Riker could have been revisited, allowing for a more complex and nuanced relationship with William Riker on the Enterprise-D. And though she could never replace Dr Crusher in terms of having a close relationship with Captain Picard, the dynamic between the two – particularly the power play between a man who’s used to being the sole commanding officer of his ship and the doctor who’s the unquestioned master of Sickbay – would have been interesting to explore. There was scope for her to occasionally push back against Picard and other main characters, asserting herself more strongly than Dr Crusher usually would.

All of that and more would have been interesting to see, and while Dr Crusher had some great stories from Season 3 onwards, I’ve always felt at least a little sad that we didn’t get more from Dr Pulaski. At the very least it would have been nice to know how she came to depart the Enterprise-D and what her next role was going to be. Did she transfer to a different starship, return to Earth, retire? We don’t know, and I think it’s highly unlikely we will ever get any kind of solid confirmation of Dr Pulaski’s post-Season 2 life.

I found Dr Pulaski an interesting character and a welcome addition to The Next Generation, even though not every aspect of her characterisation succeeded or achieved its intended objectives. She remains an interesting character in Star Trek, particularly within the 24th Century, and I’ve always been fascinated by this single-season character. Season 2 of The Next Generation marked a change and uptick in the show’s quality – whence comes the expression “growing the beard,” a reference to Commander Riker’s facial hair! Though she wasn’t front-and-centre at every moment, Dr Pulaski played a significant role in the evolving series, helping it grow and become better than it had been in its first season. We can’t argue that the introduction of her character is somehow responsible for The Next Generation’s increasing success in that era, but we can’t dismiss it as mere coincidence either.

And perhaps that’s Dr Pulaski’s real legacy. She was a part of The Next Generation at a key moment – its powerful second season. Season 2 provided much more of a blueprint for the show’s future success – and for the successful development of Deep Space Nine and other parts of the franchise – than The Original Series-inspired first season had. Dr Pulaski, though originally intended to be a throwback to Star Trek’s first series, played a role in the franchise’s evolution as a character who wasn’t afraid to shake things up, stand up to her commander, and hold her ground. We can see elements of her personality in a number of Star Trek characters who came later, even continuing to the modern day.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including all characters and properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Has space exploration become… boring?

I’m a huge fan of Star Trek – which you probably know if you’re a regular around here! What would become the Star Trek franchise was born out of the space race of the 1960s; the incredible excitement of launching rockets, sending human beings into space, and the Apollo programme that would eventually send Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon in July 1969.

It’s hard to remember now, almost fifty years since mankind last set foot on the moon, but the pace of technological progress required to get there in the first place was incredible. The Wright brothers made the first ever powered flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle in 1903. Sixty-six years later, Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind.” In less than the span of a single human lifetime, we went from the horse and cart to the Saturn V rocket.

It’s been more than fifty years since Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface of the moon.

This was the world my parents’ generation grew up in. My father would’ve been in his late twenties when the first moon landing happened, and like practically everyone his age he can remember that event vividly. My grandfather, on the other hand, could distinctly remember the excitement he and his schoolfriends felt at seeing an automobile – a rarity when he was a child.

For all of the monumental accomplishments made in the field of space exploration in my lifetime, nothing compares to landing on the moon, launching the first satellite, or sending the first people to space. And that’s for a pretty simple – yet devastating – reason: we don’t do those kind of big missions any more. The space race ended, and with it the investment of governments shrank significantly. The scope of future missions was curtailed, and NASA in particular looked to money-saving measures.

The launch of a Saturn V rocket.

We’ve heard in every decade since the eighties the promise that we’d land humans on Mars within ten years – then the decade draws to a close and the promise is repeated. If you’d spoken to someone of my parents’ generation in the late ’60s, the idea that humanity would still have never gone to Mars – or even left Earth’s orbit – over fifty years later would have seemed utterly absurd! Surely, they felt, the pace of technological change and improvement would simply continue, and with it, more exciting space missions would come.

But the fundamental technologies involved in space travel haven’t really changed. The rockets that launch all of our satellites, probes, and astronauts are based on the same technology that Wernher von Braun created for the V-2 rocket during the Second World War. The engines and reactors powering our probes have hardly changed since the days of the Pioneer and Voyager programmes. When the money dried up, and the impetus pushing humans to explore space also dried up, technology stagnated.

Dr Wernher von Braun (circled) initially developed rockets for Nazi Germany before working for NASA.
Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.023-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

The development of the reusable space shuttle was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed for more frequent missions, sending more humans to space and putting up more satellites and probes than ever before. On the other, it limited humanity’s manned missions to Earth orbit only, and restricted the size and weight of those same satellites and probes. The shuttle remained in service for thirty years, and in all of that time, the development of other spacecraft slowed to a crawl.

There are financial and political reasons why this is the case, especially in the United States. For the US government, space exploration is expensive, and thus NASA’s budget is first on the chopping block when savings need to be made! But there are also political reasons – many politicians have promised a return to the moon and further manned missions, yet were unable to deliver due to changes in political control of the White House and Congress.

All of this has contributed to a sense that I have, as a non-scientist and layman, that space exploration has lost much of its excitement.

The Space Shuttle Enterprise during a test-flight.

The recent landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars kind of encapsulated this, and is what prompted me to write this piece. Because as amazing an accomplishment as Perseverance’s successful landing was, it’s an almost-identical vehicle to Curiosity – a rover which has been on Mars, sending back data and photos since 2012.

From a scientist’s point of view, the two rovers may have different equipment. Perseverance may be able to conduct experiments that Curiosity couldn’t, and that’s fine. As scientific instruments I’m not doubting their merits. But as a layman looking in, we’ve been seeing photos of the barren Martian landscape for decades, and in high-definition for almost ten years. It’s pretty much a given that Mars once held liquid water and some forms of bacteria, even if the “smoking gun” evidence has yet to be found, so even if Perseverance were to conclusively prove that Mars once harboured microscopic life… even that wouldn’t feel all that interesting.

The Perseverance Rover recently landed on Mars.

The same applies to manned missions. No human has left Earth’s orbit in my lifetime. Manned missions to “space” today take humans to the barest edge of what we could reasonably call “space” – a few hundred miles above our planet’s surface, locked in orbit. The International Space Station, like the space shuttle before it, may be a wonderful engineering accomplishment, and its experiments may achieve interesting results for scientists, but after more than twenty years of continuous occupation of the ISS, it’s not exactly exciting is it?

The last time I felt truly awed by a space mission was New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto in 2015. Seeing images of a planet – or dwarf planet, to give Pluto its official designation – that had never been visited before was genuinely interesting. New Horizons completed the set – all nine planets that I learned about in school had now been visited and photographed by human space probes. That was an interesting moment.

Pluto in true colour, as seen by the New Horizons probe.

I’m increasingly sceptical, though, that any manned mission in the years to come will recapture that feeling. We’ve heard every few years that a manned mission to Mars is in the planning stages, but so far it’s never happened. There are certainly still technical and medical issues to overcome with such an endeavour, such as the long-term effects of low gravity on human bodies and the not-so-easy feat of constructing a large enough and powerful enough spacecraft to make such a journey. I doubt we’ll see it before the most-recent promised date of 2030.

Nor does a return to the moon seem to be on the agenda – again, despite promises to the contrary. The United States had talked about a manned mission sometime this decade, but nothing seems to have been done to further that objective in a long time; NASA’s “back to the moon” web page hasn’t been updated in several years, and I haven’t heard any talk of the proposed mission in a long time.

NASA’s “back to the moon” web page.

So we’re left with more missions to Earth orbit and probes to places we’ve already been. Nothing about that inspires me right now, and the missions that humanity sends into space have become mundane and routine. Perhaps that’s a comment on how we’ve become a spacefaring species: that rocket launches which would have drawn huge attention in years past are now considered dull. But I think it’s also a comment on how space exploration has lost some of its focus and impetus, with missions opting to stay in – relatively speaking, of course – “safe” territory.

As we come to learn more about space and our place in it, the expectation from decades past that we’d be up there exploring it has failed to come to pass. We’ve discovered thousands of planets orbiting stars in our galaxy, yet we have no way to ever practically visit them. We’ve sent countless rockets up into space to undertake a variety of missions, yet never tried to develop an alternate method of propulsion or getting into space. Because the fundamental technologies underlying our space missions haven’t been replaced, space exploration itself has kind of stagnated.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket uses the same basic technology as the V-2 did in the ’40s.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker.

As a kid I can remember wanting to be an astronaut and having a fascination with all things space. In the late ’80s and ’90s it seemed that there was still the potential to keep exploring and do bigger and better things – even if that potential had gone unrealised for twenty years or more. But it never came to pass, and I find it quite sad in a way that no human has walked on the moon, or even left Earth orbit, in my entire lifetime.

Perseverance landed on Mars a few weeks ago, and I have no doubt that it will send back data and images that will be of interest to scientists. It may even make the long-awaited breakthrough regarding ancient microbial life on the red planet. But as I look in as a layman, I can’t help but feel that I want to see something else. Why not go to Venus, to Mercury, to the moons of Jupiter? Why not send a probe to visit Neptune or Uranus, neither of which have been visited since the Voyager probes flew past them in the ’80s?

Perseverance at NASA prior to travelling to Mars.

Above all, our goal should be to send humans out into space, pushing the boundaries of science and technology to go where no man has gone before. And there’s the rub. We’re sending probes where probes have already gone before. Rovers to planets where rovers have already gone before… and are still actively exploring. Humans are going to a space station where more than 200 people have gone before. More than 550 humans have spent time in Earth orbit. It’s beginning to stretch the truth to call the most recent ones “pioneers.”

There are some interesting-sounding missions on the horizon, including planned missions to Saturn’s moon Titan, flybys of asteroids, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be an improvement over the decades-old Hubble Space Telescope and may potentially help scientists learn more about the formation of galaxies and stars. But there aren’t any manned missions I can feel excited about yet – and as I said I’ll be sceptical of any mission claiming to send humans anywhere other than the ISS until the rocket is on the launchpad and the astronauts are suited up. We’ve been down this road too many times for me to have any confidence, I’m afraid.

NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission will visit Saturn’s moon Titan. (Artist’s impression)

I know how this article comes across, and it’s for that reason I didn’t want to publish it immediately after Perseverance landed on Mars. That is undeniably an accomplishment, one which the team can and should take pride in. And as I keep saying, I’m not a scientist. These missions achieve a lot from a scientific standpoint, bringing in a lot of data about different aspects of the cosmos. The data we gain from missions like Perseverance, for example, will hopefully further inform a future manned mission to Mars.

The fact that we have so much technology in space, and that we see so many rocket launches that they don’t even make the news any more are accomplishments. Humanity’s space infrastructure may not have developed in the way I would have wanted, or in the way people of my parents’ generation may have expected in the aftermath of the moon landings, but we have achieved a lot. None of that should be in dispute, and that isn’t what I’m trying to say in this article.

The International Space Station over Florida.

Space exploration isn’t just about raw data and scientific interest. It needs to be inspirational, calling out to future generations of scientists and astronauts to say “hey, look at this absolutely amazing thing we’ve done.” And for me, that inspiring aspect hasn’t been present for a while. The decisions made going back fifty years or more to focus on Earth orbit and unmanned probes to Mars at the expense of other destinations has led space exploration to feel boring by 2021. I think that’s a shame, but I also worry that if that inspirational aspect remains lost, we may never get it back. If nobody cares about going into space because the things we do in space have already been done before, the resultant loss of interest will mean future generations won’t even try to develop new technologies or push forward to new destinations.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And with space exploration having become a luxury rather than a necessity, there has been no real drive toward creating new and better ways of doing it. Why spend time, money, and resources inventing some kind of anti-gravity thruster when chemical rockets from the 1940s still work? But without that need, that drive, I really do believe we’ve seen space technology stagnate and fail to improve.

The Nazi V-2 rocket (modern replica pictured) was the first truly successful long-range rocket.
Photo Credit: Lars Aronsson, CC SA 1.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

None of these things are easy, and it’s outstanding in many ways that we’re in as good a position as we are in terms of space exploration and space technology. But I can’t be the only one who feels this way. There hasn’t been a truly pioneering manned mission since we last went to the moon in the early ’70s, and when we’re sending probes and rovers to planets that have seen probes and rovers visit on a number of previous occasions… let’s just say that the first time is always interesting, but each subsequent one draws less and less attention and excitement.

The sad reality, I suppose, is that there isn’t any compelling reason to go to space beyond the thrill of exploring it. And thrills don’t pay the bills! We have all of the resources we need here on Earth – at least in the short-to-medium term – and the expense of doing something commercial in space, like mining or collecting resources, versus the potential profit seems to rule it out. Space is hard to commercialise right now, and thus we seem not to be as interested as we were in decades past.

The planet Uranus – last visited by a human probe in 1986.

SpaceX, the most successful commercial space company, makes its money by launching satellites and other missions in Earth’s orbit – as well as from the upcoming Starlink satellite internet service. That aspect of space can and has been commercialised. But the rest of it – the moon, the asteroids, the planets, and beyond – are currently beyond our reach, at least in terms of a cost-to-profit ratio. It falls solely to government-sponsored agencies, then, to engage in exploration.

I always keep my fingers crossed for interesting and exciting news from space. And it isn’t all doom and gloom; there have been some interesting events, such as the recent transit of ʻOumuamua – which may have been the first interstellar object ever detected. But even then, I’m left with a sense of a missed opportunity. We didn’t send a probe to investigate ʻOumuamua because we couldn’t. We lacked the technology to catch up to the fast-moving object, and thus we’ll never know for certain exactly what it was or what it looked like.

Will we put humans back on the moon – or even on Mars – in the next few years, or even in my lifetime? I can’t answer that question with any certainty any more, and having been let down so many times, I don’t think I’ll believe it until I see the astronauts strapped into their seats on the launchpad. I want space to be interesting, for humans to push the boundaries and strike out into the great unknown. And I want probes to do the same, visiting distant parts of the solar system in the name of exploration. Revisiting Mars and the ISS may provide interesting scientific opportunities, but speaking for myself as a layman, these things no longer hold my interest. Space exploration has become boring.

Some images and artwork courtesy of NASA and/or Wikimedia Commons. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The odd criticism of Six Days In Fallujah

This article discusses the Iraq War and the Second Battle of Fallujah and may be uncomfortable for some readers.

One of the bloodiest and most controversial battles of the Iraq War was the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in November 2004. The battle saw coalition forces – most of whom were American, but there were a number of Iraqi and British troops who took part as well – capture the city from al-Qaeda and other insurgent forces. The Iraq War is controversial and its history complicated, and I’m simplifying the events of the battle and the war to avoid making this article about a video game too long. Suffice to say that even now, eighteen years since the United States led a coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein, and more than sixteen years since the Battle of Fallujah, the events are controversial, disputed, and the consequences of military action are still being felt in Iraq, the wider Middle East, and indeed the whole world.

Six Days In Fallujah is a video game depicting the battle from the American side, and when it was initially in development in the late 2000s it became incredibly controversial in the United States, with politicians and Iraq War veterans’ groups expressing opposition and disgust. The idea of recreating for fun any aspect of one of the most divisive conflicts of the last few decades was considered obscene, and the idea of encouraging gamers to play through a battle that took place, at that time, a mere five years earlier was too much for many people to countenance.

After the controversy boiled over and saw media personalities and politicians get involved in 2009, Six Days In Fallujah disappeared, and by 2010 or 2011 the project was effectively shelved. The critics moved on, the developers moved on, and that appeared to be the end of the matter.

Last month, however, there came the announcement from a studio called Highwire Games – which is said to consist of developers who worked on games in the Halo and Destiny franchises at Bungie – that Six Days In Fallujah was back. The game is now scheduled for a late 2021 release date, and plans to retain the original focus that was the cause of such controversy a decade ago. Cue outrage from the expected sources.

What took me by surprise was not the strength of feeling expressed by some veterans of the battle, nor the criticism by largely self-serving politicians. That was to be expected, and the announcement of Six Days In Fallujah went out of its way to highlight how Highwire Games has worked with veterans in particular – clearly anticipating this kind of reaction and trying to pre-empt some of the criticism. Instead what genuinely surprised me was the reaction from some games industry insiders and commentators, who appear to be taking an equally aggressive stance in opposition to Six Days In Fallujah.

Politicians, particularly those to the right-of-centre, have long campaigned against video gaming as a hobby. Initially games were derided as being wastes of time or childish, but some time in the 1990s the tactic switched to accusing games of inspiring or encouraging violence; equating in-game actions with real-world events. Numerous studies have looked into this issue, by the way, and found it to be without merit. But we’re off-topic.

Advocates of video gaming as a hobby – in which category I must include myself, both as someone who used to work in the industry and as an independent media critic who frequently discusses gaming – have long tried to push back against this narrative and these attacks. “Video games can be art” is a frequently heard refrain from those of us who support the idea of interactive media having merit that extends beyond simple entertainment, and there are many games to which I would direct an opponent to see for themselves that games can be just as valid as works of cinema and literature.

To see folks I would consider allies in the fight for gaming in general to be taken more seriously calling out Six Days In Fallujah because of its controversial subject matter was disappointing. Art, particularly art that deals with controversial current and historical events, can be difficult and challenging for its audience – and it’s meant to be. A painting, photograph, novel, or film depicting something like war is sometimes going to challenge our preconceptions and ask us to consider different points of view. That’s what makes art of this kind worthwhile. It’s what makes everything from war photography to protest songs to the entire genre of war in cinema incredibly important.

Documentaries and news reports only cover events in one way. The way we as a society come to understand events is partly factual but also is, in part, informed by the art those events inspire. The First World War is covered very well in history textbooks and newsreels produced at the time, but another side of the conflict – a more intimate, personal side – is seen in the poetry of people like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The poems that they wrote about their wartime experiences were not pure depictions of fact, they were written to both inform and entertain – and perhaps to inform through entertainment.

If we relegate the Iraq War to contemporary news broadcasts and documentaries by the likes of Michael Moore we will miss something important, and so will future generations who want to look back and understand what happened. There are many works of fiction and non-fiction which attempt to show the big picture of what happened in Iraq, from the lies about “weapons of mass destruction” through to the use of banned weapons. Those works absolutely need to exist. But in a way, so does Six Days In Fallujah. It aims to depict, in as realistic a manner as game engines in 2021 will allow, one of America’s most controversial battles of recent decades – an event which will be seen in future, perhaps, as one of the American military’s darkest hours of the entire 21st Century due to their alleged use of illegal white phosphorus.

Getting as many perspectives as possible across as broad an array of media as possible about such an important event seems worthwhile, at least to me. Six Days In Fallujah may ultimately turn out to depict the event poorly, or be a game plagued by technical issues. It might be flat-out crap. But it really does surprise me to hear serious commentators and critics suggest that it shouldn’t be made at all, perhaps because of their own biases and preconceptions about the war and the game’s possible depiction of it.

There is value in art, and if video games are to ever be taken seriously as artistic expression, we need to make sure we allow difficult and challenging works of art to exist in the medium. That doesn’t mean we support them or the messages they want to convey, but rather that we should wait and judge them on merit when they’ve been made. As I said, Six Days In Fallujah may be a dud; an easily-forgotten piece of fluff not worth the energy of all this controversy. But maybe it will be a significant work that aids our understanding of the history of this battle, and the entire Iraq War.

It feels odd, as someone who lived through the Iraq War and all its controversy, to be considering it as an historical event, especially considering its continued relevance. I actually attended a huge anti-war march in London that took place a few weeks before British forces joined the US-led coalition and attacked Iraq. But the beginning of the Iraq War is now almost two decades in the past, and even as the world struggles with the aftermath of those events, we need to create works like Six Days In Fallujah if we’re ever to come to terms with what happened and begin to understand it. We also need to consider future generations – are we leaving them enough information and enough art to understand the mistakes our leaders made in 2003? If we don’t leave that legacy, we risk a future George W. Bush or Tony Blair making the same kind of mistake. I don’t know if Six Days In Fallujah will even be relevant to the conversation, but it’s incredibly important that we find out.

Six Days In Fallujah is the copyright of Highwire Games and Victura. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

If Star Trek had behaved like Star Wars…

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise – including recent projects such as The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian. There are also minor spoilers for the Star Trek franchise too.

Let’s step through the looking-glass, across the divide between universes, into a strange new world. This world is very much like our own, but with one major difference: Star Trek behaved like Star Wars. The Original Series ran from 1966 to 1969, just as it did in our reality, but then… things started to change.

Join me on a weird and wonderful journey through what Star Trek might have been… if it had acted like Star Wars. Don’t worry, I promise we’ll make it home safe and sound.

Are you ready to go through the looking-glass?

We begin our journey in the 1970s. Star Trek is being rebroadcast in syndication, and its fanbase is growing. Some of these fans begin to organise and ask for more Star Trek on their screens, and the company that owns Star Trek in this alternate reality – let’s call them CiacomVBS – thinks long and hard about what to do. They have a popular series on their hands… what should they do with it?

Eventually the people in charge of Star Trek hit upon a brilliant idea: a Star Trek prequel, looking at Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and other familiar characters in their Starfleet Academy days and before their five-year mission. The main roles were re-cast, and the first new Star Trek project in almost twenty years was finally greenlit in 1988. Called the “Kelvin films” for the involvement of a starship called the USS Kelvin, this prequel trilogy was popular with some Trekkies, but wildly disliked by others. When the third film finished its theatrical run, CiacomVBS decided to shelve Star Trek and proclaimed that the franchise was complete.

Fans were split on Star Trek by this point. Some proclaimed that The Original Series was the only good part, whereas other (primarily younger) fans were thrilled with the Kelvin films. As time passed, Star Trek appeared to be complete. Its stars moved on to other projects, or faded into obscurity. But the fanbase remained, and with the passage of time those younger fans grew up, leading to a minor resurgence in the popularity of the Kelvin films.

In the 1990s, a massive media empire called the Dalt Wisney Company approached CiacomVBS about a buyout. When the multi-billion dollar deal went through, Wisney announced a plan to bring Star Trek back – this time for a sequel. Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered a few years later, and starred a younger cast of characters – alongside the return of The Original Series’ crew. Their first adventure was to find Captain Kirk, who had gone missing.

Kirk eventually agreed to train the new crew of Starfleet officers, along with help from Spock, Dr McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. The returning characters took up a lot of the new show’s screen time, leaving many Trekkies to say that the new crew were undeveloped and underused. To make matters worse, a lack of overall direction by the Dalt Wisney Company meant that each of the three seasons of The Next Generation was helmed by a totally different team of writers. The consequence of this was a jarring change in tone between each of the three seasons.

The Next Generation’s third and final season was its worst by far, with a confused mess of a story that seemed to be trying to overwrite much of what happened in Season 2 – including the backstory of Captain Picard, the major character introduced in Season 1. By far its most egregious fault, though, was bringing back Khan as a villain – Khan had been killed off decades earlier, and his return was called “the worst kind of deus ex machina” by critics.

There were also two “standalone” projects produced during this time. The first saw a team of renegade Starfleet officers go on a secret mission to steal the plans to the Klingon D7 battle cruiser, and ended with them transmitting the plans to Kirk aboard the Enterprise. The second was titled Chekov: A Star Trek Story, and it told the tale of the young Pavel Chekov before he joined Starfleet.

Despite the lacklustre response to The Next Generation and Chekov, Wisney had invested a lot of money into Star Trek, and putting their expensive acquisition on hiatus was not possible. They announced another spin-off: Deep Space Nine. This promised to finally take a look at the Star Trek galaxy away from Captain Kirk and Starfleet for the first time, being set on a space station in a new region that had never been seen before.

Fans seemed to respond well to Deep Space Nine at first, but its short runtime, bland main character, and overreliance on the aesthetic of The Original Series were all points of criticism of the show. By Season 2 it seemed to be doing better and was beginning to stand on its own two feet – but for some inexplicable reason Season 2 of Deep Space Nine brought back the character of Sulu – who had been killed off in The Next Generation. Fans were confused as to how he had survived being eaten by an alien monster, but this was never addressed.

The Season 2 finale was perhaps the most egregious example of Wisney forcing fan-service into Deep Space Nine, though. As Sisko and his crew were cornered, staring down a seemingly-unstoppable villain, the shuttlecraft Galileo was spotted approaching DS9. The shuttle door opened, and there, in all his glory, stood Captain Kirk. Kirk dispatched the villain’s henchmen with ease, and gave Sisko – and the show’s stunned audience – a nod and a wink.

In the aftermath of Deep Space Nine Season 2, the Dalt Wisney Company put together a presentation where they announced what’s coming next for Star Trek – and to no one’s surprise, it was more of the same. Nostalgia, throwbacks, and not much else.

The actor who played Scotty in the Kelvin series was given his own spin-off. Next was Star Trek: Nurse Chapel, which promised a look at the franchise’s second-most famous medical officer. Then there was The Harry Mudd Show, looking at lovable rogue Harry Mudd, and Star Trek: Balok, which promised a deep dive into the backstory of the character fans first met in The Corbomite Maneuver. There was a miniseries looking at Kor, the Klingon captain, and finally there was Star Trek: That Guy Who Flew The Shuttle In That One Episode – which was immediately given a three-season order. Some fans were thrilled with these offerings… but a lone voice spoke out.

On a website called Dennising with Trek, an independent critic wrote that it was time for Star Trek to move on. The Original Series had become a weight around the neck of the franchise, holding it back and stopping it from properly moving on to new adventures. The Star Trek galaxy offered such an interesting and exciting setting, they wrote, that it was positively criminal to only look at such a tiny sliver of it over and over and over again. Star Trek can be better than this.

Apparently this website is incredibly popular in the alternate reality.

So that, my friends, is where we end our journey through this strange mirror universe. We step back across the divide, and find ourselves firmly back in our own reality. I promised I’d get you home safe and sound!

What was the point of our little interdimensional sojurn? As I’ve said many times already, Star Wars is stuck. It has never been able to move beyond its original trilogy, and it’s gotten to a point where those films are now holding it back from making any meaningful progress.

You might look at some of the Star Trek projects that exist in the alternate reality we visited and say that they sound like fun – but they represent an incredibly narrow vision of what Star Trek could be. If Star Trek had behaved like Star Wars, with a total and unshakable reliance on The Original Series and its characters, we’d never have got to see some absolutely incredible characters and stories. We’d have missed out on Picard’s transformation into Locutus of Borg in The Best of Both Worlds, or on Sisko’s painful decision in In The Pale Moonlight. We’d never have met Captain Janeway and her crew at all, nor Captain Archer and his.

Avery Brooks put in one of his best performances as Sisko in the Season 6 episode In The Pale Moonlight.

There is a place for prequels, for looking back, and for nostalgia. The very reason franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars were revived is because the companies behind them see nostalgia as a way to attract audiences. But in my opinion – my subjective opinion – Star Wars goes too far and overplays the nostalgia card. The Star Wars galaxy is a sandbox of almost infinite proportions, with not only trillions of inhabitants, countless alien races, and millions of planets to explore, but also tens of thousands of years of history. We could look at events and characters that are entirely disconnected from Luke, Han, and Leia – but Star Wars has never even tried to do that.

The Mandalorian brought back Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker in what was pure fan-service. Fans lapped it up, and I’m happy for the people who enjoyed the way that story went. But for my money I think Star Wars can do better. I think it can be broader and deeper, and can step away from relying on those old characters. Star Wars is a fantastic franchise, and its setting is so vast and interesting that it doesn’t need the crutch of those old characters… but for some reason Disney can’t see it.

Luke Skywalker returned in The Mandalorian.

Star Trek moved away from its original incarnation decades ago, and in the years since we’ve had a heck of a lot of exciting, memorable shows and films that have become iconic parts of the franchise in their own right. And that innovation and willingness to try new things continues today, with Star Trek recently branching out into animated comedy and with a kids’ show on the horizon. Star Wars could do that too.

Star Trek realised a long time ago that the galaxy Gene Roddenberry and others had created was crying out to be explored. New characters and new ships came along and have had some incredible adventures. Star Wars hasn’t been brave enough to try anything genuinely different yet. I hope one day that will change.

Some names, titles, and properties above have been used in a satirical manner for the sake of parody and criticism. The Star Wars franchise and all related properties are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company and LucasFilm. The Star Trek franchise and all related properties are the copyright of ViacomCBS. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

In defence of Luke Skywalker

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, and other iterations of the Star Wars franchise.

This article deals with the sensitive topics of depression and mental health and may be uncomfortable for some readers.

The Last Jedi was an incredibly controversial film within the Star Wars fan community. Many people I’ve spoken with greatly disliked it, ranking the film as the worst in the franchise, with some even becoming “anti-Star Wars” as a result. Though recent projects like The Mandalorian have brought a lot of those folks back into the fold, there is still a significant contingent of ex-fans; people who have come to hate modern Star Wars.

There were many points of criticism from The Last Jedi’s detractors – the confrontation between Admiral Holdo and Poe, the hyperspace ramming manoeuvre, the death of Snoke, the Canto Bight storyline, and the character of Rose Tico being just a few off the top of my head. In this essay I’m not going to look at any of these in detail, though I would make the case that, by and large, while I understand the criticisms I don’t feel that any of them overwhelmed the film or made it unenjoyable. Instead I want to focus on what I feel is the most misunderstood point of criticism: the characterisation of Luke Skywalker.

We aren’t going to dive into every aspect of The Last Jedi on this occasion.

Of those fans who hated The Last Jedi most vehemently, many had been invested in the old “Expanded Universe” of novels, comic books, games, and the like. The Expanded Universe told a wholly different story to that of the sequel trilogy – a generally poor quality, incredibly convoluted and overcomplicated story, in my opinion – but one which put Luke Skywalker at the centre as an invincible hero, taking on all manner of enemies and challenges in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi. To fans who fell in love with that version of Luke – the all-conquering unstoppable hero of fan-fiction – the new version presented by Disney and Lucasfilm in the sequel trilogy is understandably jarring.

Even to fans who weren’t invested in the Expanded Universe, many had built up in their heads over more than thirty years a vision of where the Star Wars galaxy may have gone after Return of the Jedi. At the forefront was Luke and his plan to rebuild the Jedi Order – he was the embodiment, after all, of the “return of the Jedi.” There was an expectation, perhaps not unrealistically so, that Luke would succeed in this task, and that any sequel films which focused on him would depict that. He could be a wise old Master, having trained potentially hundreds of new Jedi in a rebuilt order that would, like the Jedi of the Old Republic, serve as peacekeepers and a check on the power of evil.

The Jedi Council in The Phantom Menace.

The Force Awakens set up a far bleaker view of both the galaxy as a whole and Luke himself in the years after Return of the Jedi. A new wannabe-Empire was on the rise, led by a dark side user named Snoke. And Luke’s attempt to rebuild the Jedi Order ended in failure when Ben Solo betrayed him, killing most of the students and swaying others to the dark side. Luke himself had vanished.

All of this was a “mystery box;” a style of storytelling common to many projects helmed by The Force Awakens’ director JJ Abrams. Initially contracted to tell the first part of a three-part story – a story that would, unfortunately, be split up and have practically no overarching direction – Abrams did what he does best and created a mystery. Where had Luke gone and why? Was he secretly training more Jedi? That’s what fans hoped, and as Luke stood in his Jedi robe in the final moments of The Force Awakens, that was at least a reasonable assumption.

JJ Abrams directed and co-wrote The Force Awakens, and was responsible for the “Luke is missing” storyline.

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a two-year break in between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. For two years, fans speculated wildly about what the new film would bring, crafting intricate theories about all manner of things, including Luke. Many of these were appalling and would have made for awful stories, but fans latched on to some of the popular ones, convincing themselves that their pet theory was true and that The Last Jedi would surely prove it. When I write fan theories of my own – as I often do in the Star Trek franchise, for example – you’ll see me say that these are just theories, and that no fan theory is worth getting upset about. The reaction to The Last Jedi is a big part of why I feel the need to add in that little disclaimer.

Though it can be hard to look back even a few short years and remember the way people felt and the overall mood, especially in the aftermath of the film and its controversial reception, in 2017 the hype around The Last Jedi was growing, ultimately building to fever-pitch in the weeks before its release. This would be Luke Skywalker’s big return to Star Wars having been almost entirely absent in The Force Awakens. What happened after he met Rey on the clifftop on Ahch-To?

Fans speculated for two long years what would come next.

This moment had been built up for two years – and for more than thirty years since Luke’s appearance in Return of the Jedi. There were lofty expectations for what Luke would be and how he might act, informed in part by the Expanded Universe, fan theories, and the like. Those expectations were not met for many fans, because far from being the invincible hero they hoped to see, Luke was jaded, depressed, and uninterested in galactic affairs. When his attempt to rebuild the Jedi Order failed, he didn’t try again. He cut himself off from his friends and from the Force itself, and retreated to Ahch-To to die.

Luke Skywalker suffering from depression is not what fans wanted or hoped to see, but not only is it an incredibly powerful story, it’s one that many fans needed to see, whether they realised it at the time or not. There is an incredibly important message burning at the core of Luke’s story in The Last Jedi – and continued, to a degree, in The Rise of Skywalker. That message is simply this: anybody can fall victim to depression and mental health issues. I absolutely see Luke’s characterisation as a mental health story, and not only that, but one of the better cinematic attempts to depict mental health in recent years. It’s also a story which strongly resonated with me.

I found Luke Skywalker very relatable in The Last Jedi.

My health is complicated. In addition to physical health conditions which have resulted in disability, I also suffer from mental health issues, including depression. When I saw the way Luke Skywalker was presented: apathetic, lonely, withdrawn, and bitter, I saw myself reflected in Mark Hamill’s wonderful portrayal. Depression isn’t just “feeling sad,” as it’s often simplistically presented in fiction. Depression can be social withdrawal, apathy, a lack of sympathy, unintentional rudeness, and many other things. Luke doesn’t sit around on Ahch-To crying, he sits there overthinking, letting the intrusive thoughts dominate his life. He refuses to let anyone – even his sister or his closest friends – know where he is or help him, taking on the burden of his mental state alone. I’ve been there. I’ve been Luke.

One of the worst arguments put forward by The Last Jedi’s critics was some variant of this: “Luke Skywalker is a hero! He would never have run away. He would never act like this!” People making that argument are, in my opinion, incredibly lucky. It would seem from that ignorant statement that they’ve never had to deal with mental health or depression, either in their own life or with somebody they love and care about. If they ever had, they would recognise something in Luke that would elicit empathy, and a recognition that life isn’t as simple as it seems when you’re a child or teenager – which is when many critics first encountered Luke.

Luke’s story says that anyone can fall victim to depression.

I was born after Star Wars’ 1977 premiere. So anyone of my age or younger quite literally grew up considering Luke to be an epic hero, particularly if they encountered the original films in childhood. I first watched the original trilogy in the early 1990s, and I have to confess that much of the nuance was lost on me in my youth. It’s only going back, decades later, and re-watching the films with a more critical eye that I can spot elements within Luke’s character that clearly set up what The Last Jedi would do.

Luke made a mistake. He may have made a series of smaller ones leading up to it, but the big mistake we see on screen is his wordless confrontation with a sleeping Ben Solo. Luke, fearing the power of the dark side growing within his nephew, very briefly considers killing him. It was a flicker of a thought that lasted mere seconds, but when Ben noticed Luke’s presence and sensed what he was feeling, that was enough to tip him over the edge. What came next was Ben’s transformation into Kylo Ren and the destruction of Luke’s new Jedi Order.

Luke made a mistake – or a series of mistakes – and sunk deeply into regret and depression as a result.

Who among us hasn’t made a mistake? Who among us hasn’t considered or fantasised about – for the briefest of seconds – using violence in a certain situation? Who among us hasn’t had an intrusive thought that makes us feel uncomfortable or ashamed? If you can honestly raise your hand to all three of those points, then you’re very lucky indeed, and perhaps having never had such an experience, it’s easier to criticise others for it. The fans who attacked this characterisation of Luke are either conveniently forgetting their own mistakes, or they haven’t lived. Many are young, and perhaps that’s part of it too. As we get older we experience more, we grow, and we come to realise that no one is invincible, and no one is perfect. Luke Skywalker isn’t perfect, and he never was.

Upon seeing Ben Kenobi killed by Darth Vader, Luke’s reaction was to seek revenge, desperately firing his blaster in the vague direction of Vader. He then sat, depressed and dejected, aboard the Millennium Falcon. Princess Leia – who had very recently seen her family, friends, and practically everyone she knew murdered in the destruction of Alderaan – tried to comfort him, but did Luke ask if she was alright? No. He sat there sulking, selfishly absorbed in Ben’s death not thinking of others.

Luke sitting depressed and dejected aboard the Millennium Falcon following Ben Kenobi’s death.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke rashly cuts short his Jedi training, casting the Jedi Order aside to do what he believed was right. He ignored the advice of Yoda and Obi-Wan, believing he could take on Vader alone. That hubris ended up costing him his hand, and while he did return to his training afterwards, acting on a whim and doing things while unprepared are innate parts of Luke’s character.

And finally, Luke was tempted by the dark side of the Force in Return of the Jedi. In his final duel with Darth Vader he drew upon the dark side to give him the power to defeat his father, even considering killing the disarmed and defenceless Sith after beating him. That moment alone should be enough to prove to even the hardest of hardcore Luke Skywalker fans that there is, at the very least, a flicker of darkness within him. That he can suffer from those intrusive thoughts that we talked about. That he can act “out of character” when under pressure or in dire circumstances.

Luke was tempted by the dark side in Return of the Jedi.

So those points all show that Luke has at least a sliver of darkness, and that he’s capable of making mistakes. He was never the perfect, invincible hero of amateurish fan-fiction in the Expanded Universe. If he had been such a one-dimensional, boring character, the original trilogy would have been an exceptionally dull watch; what made it interesting was the nuance and conflict within Luke.

We also have to keep in mind that it’s been decades since we last met Luke, both within the story and outside it. The Expanded Universe was expunged, and though some fans may still cling to it, it has no bearing on The Last Jedi. Those events, canonically speaking, did not happen. The last meeting we had with Luke prior to The Last Jedi was 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and in the intervening decades he’s been through a lot. No one is exactly the same at age 60 as they were at 30; people change. Sometimes those changes can be positive, sometimes neutral, and sometimes they can be for the worse.

Luke’s new Jedi Order was destroyed by Kylo Ren.

Expecting Luke Skywalker to be the same man we left at the end of Return of the Jedi was naïve in the extreme, and fans should have known that. The experiences of half a lifetime have shaped his character, changing him in many respects into the man we meet at the beginning of The Last Jedi. Because some of those experiences have been incredibly powerful and transformative, there was no way to know how he’d be feeling, but one thing should have been clear: he was not going to be how we remembered him.

We can absolutely argue that seeing Luke’s transformation for ourselves would be a story worth showing within Star Wars, and indeed it could have been an entire trilogy of films all by itself. That’s a valid argument, and perhaps would have quelled some of the detractors’ criticisms had his descent into depression been allowed to unfold on screen. Of all the criticisms of The Last Jedi, this might be the one I consider to have the greatest merit, as it is an undeniable change in the way Luke’s character is outwardly presented, even if many of the elements and much of the groundwork already existed.

Perhaps seeing more of Luke between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi would have made his transformation easier to understand.

Regret can be a very powerful emotion. Anyone who’s actually lived a life will have regrets, some bigger than others. When the feeling of regret becomes overwhelming, depression may not be far behind. That’s what I see in Luke: regret, heartbreak, shame, and depression. His depression was caused by circumstances he believes himself responsible for, so he withdrew. Feeling himself a failure, considering himself incapable of guiding a new generation of Jedi, and ashamed of his actions, he became bitter and jaded, and travelled to Ahch-To to hide away and await the end of his life.

When you try your utmost at something and truly give it your all – as Luke did when training his young Jedi – failure can be devastating; even more so if that failure feels like it’s your own fault. Telling someone in such a situation to “just try again” is missing the point and demonstrates a clear lack of empathy. Luke wasn’t ready to train anyone else. He felt that the rise of Kylo Ren and the deaths of his students was his own fault; training anyone else could lead to a similar disaster, and he just can’t handle the thought of that. It takes time for someone feeling this way to even be willing to try, and it isn’t something that can be forced.

It took time – and the arrival of Rey – for Luke to confront and overcome his depression.

The lack of empathy for Luke shown by some critics of The Last Jedi was truly sad to see. Even with very limited knowledge of mental health, seeing someone suffering as Luke was should prompt a degree of empathy – at least, in anyone with a heart. When I saw the misunderstandings and the lack of empathy from people attacking the film, saying things like “Luke Skywalker is a hero, he would never be depressed!” I honestly felt upset. These kinds of statements, born of ignorance, not only went after what I saw as the film’s core emotional message, but they also showed that, on a fundamental level, as a society we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding mental health.

And this is why someone like Luke Skywalker becoming depressed is so important. It shows clearly that anyone, no matter how “strong and brave” they seem on the surface, can fall victim to this insidious illness. In Luke’s case we can find the cause – the loss of Kylo Ren to the dark side, and the deaths of his students, all of which he blames himself for. But in many cases, depression can hit someone from nowhere, coming out of the blue and bringing someone’s world crashing down. Seeing a character like Luke Skywalker go through this is incredibly powerful because it tells people suffering from depression that they aren’t some kind of freak; depression is normal and can happen to anyone.

The story of Luke becoming depressed is incredibly powerful and shows how anyone can suffer from mental health issues.

Young men in particular need to hear that message. The availability and quality of mental healthcare is improving compared to even a few years ago. But there is still a huge stigma around mental health, particularly for men. There’s a sense among men that in order to be “macho” or “masculine” you mustn’t show any weakness or vulnerability, and admitting to something like depression carries with it a stigma as a result. To take one of the most important characters in a massive entertainment franchise which probably still has a majority-male audience shows to young men that depression is real, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and maybe, just maybe, the way Luke was presented in The Last Jedi actually helped someone out here in the real world. I know that it helped me.

It’s okay to be disappointed in a work of fiction, especially if it’s something highly-anticipated. I don’t pretend to tell anyone how to feel about The Last Jedi or the way Luke is portrayed in it; works of fiction are, despite what some of the film’s detractors like to say, subjective. But where I absolutely feel that people need to be willing to consider things from “a certain point of view” (as Ben Kenobi said in Return of the Jedi) is the way the film deals with mental health. You can disagree with me about Luke till you’re blue in the face if you believe he acted “wrong” or you didn’t like the performance or the storyline or for any one of a number of reasons, but don’t make the ignorant, asinine argument that “Luke would never be depressed.” Depression does not work that way; you don’t get to choose if it afflicts you, and being a strong, heroic character is no guarantee of avoiding it.

We can disagree about Luke’s characterisation in The Last Jedi. But mental health is an important subject that shouldn’t be ignored in fiction.

I sat down to watch The Last Jedi several months after it premiered in cinemas. My health precludes me from going in person these days, so I’d heard much of the criticism already. I had relatively low expectations for the film as a result, but I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did it tell a different story within the Star Wars universe, one which didn’t attempt to be a beat-for-beat retelling of a previous title, but specifically because of how Luke was presented. Here was the hero of Star Wars shown to be human. Vulnerable. Relatable. And as much as I disliked The Rise of Skywalker when I saw it earlier this year, it continued a theme we saw in the final act of The Last Jedi: hope.

Yes there was hope for the resistance, for Rey, and for ultimate victory in the galactic war. But that wasn’t all. Luke himself had found hope; he found a reason to believe in something again. Depression isn’t usually something one can just “snap out” of, and in that sense perhaps it’s the least-realistic part of the narrative. But it’s hard to tell a story about depression in two hours that doesn’t have at least an element of that if a character is to find a way out of depression by the end, so I give it a pass on that front.

Luke eventually found something to believe in again.

Not only did Luke himself find hope, but The Last Jedi conveys to sufferers of depression a sense of hope. After everything Luke experienced, he was able to move on. He found inspiration and was able to begin the process of getting back to his old self, a process we see continued in his ghostly appearances in The Rise of Skywalker. The way Luke came across in The Rise of Skywalker can feel like fan-service and certainly was a conscious effort to overwrite his portrayal in The Last Jedi, but if you remember that they’re two parts of one story, it’s possible to see the way Luke behaves as indicative of his overcoming depression.

I find that to be a powerful message to end a powerful storyline. Luke became depressed, just like anyone can. But he found a way out. For my two cents, different groups of fans needed to hear those messages, but in different ways. Folks going through their own difficulties needed to see someone like Luke falling victim to this condition to normalise it, to make them consider the way they feel, and perhaps even as a prompt to seek help. They could also see that, despite the way Luke was feeling at the beginning of The Last Jedi, by the end he found a way out; there is light at the end of the tunnel. And fans who have been lucky enough never to have to deal with mental health either in their own lives or with someone they care about needed to see that it’s real. That it can happen to anyone.

The Rise of Skywalker tried to overwrite large parts of Luke’s characterisation. But taken as two parts of a larger story they show his recovery from depression.

The way Luke was presented in The Last Jedi may not have been what fans expected or hoped to see. But it was a powerful story, one which resonated with me and, I have no doubt, with a lot of other people too. It built on what we already knew about Luke from the original trilogy in different, unexpected ways, but ways which were true to his character. His flicker of darkness, his occasional rashness, and his struggles were all present in those films and made Luke the kind of flawed protagonist worth supporting. Those elements remained in his characterisation in The Last Jedi, but so did his innate decency and ability to reach for the best in others and in himself. It just took him some time to rediscover that about himself; a journey that will be familiar to anyone who’s been in that position.

I don’t want to tell anyone disappointed by The Last Jedi that they have to like it. Nor do I want to say that the way Luke was portrayed is something they have to like either. Instead I wanted to present the other side of the argument, to defend Luke’s characterisation, and to explain why it resonated with me. We can disagree vehemently on this topic – and myriad others across fiction – and remain civil.

I’d like to close by saying that, however we may feel about Luke in The Last Jedi, in my mind there’s no way he wasn’t Luke. Some fans latched onto a comment by Mark Hamill saying the character felt like “Jake Skywalker” and not Luke, but I have to disagree. He was always Luke.

The Star Wars franchise – including The Last Jedi and all other titles listed above – is the copyright of Disney and Lucasfilm. This can be a controversial topic, so please keep in mind that this is all subjective. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Nintendo 3DS has been discontinued – let’s look back at this unique system

With all the hype surrounding the upcoming next-generation consoles, one gaming story that flew under the radar over the last couple of weeks has been the discontinuing of the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS is arguably the last successful true handheld gaming platform – the Nintendo Switch is a hybrid, and the PlayStation Vita didn’t come close to matching the 3DS in terms of sales. As the console’s life comes to an end, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look back on some of its accomplishments.

I’ve never been massively interested in handheld gaming. I didn’t own an original Game Boy, and on past handheld systems, like the Game Boy Advance and the first Nintendo DS, I basically played Mario Kart and not much else. When home consoles and PC offered better graphics and generally more well-rounded experiences, that was how I preferred to play. Even when I was much more interested in gaming as a hobby, I was still content to wait to get home from work; I never felt that I needed a system I could play on the go. So that was the mindset I had as the Nintendo 3DS launched in 2011.

An original Nintendo 3DS.

When I first encountered a 3DS, I confess to being unimpressed. Though the system did offer some improvements over the older DS, which had been released in 2005, it didn’t seem to be massively better, and the almost-identical dual screen design left me underwhelmed. Its autostereoscopic 3D felt like a total gimmick too; I was convinced that someone came up with the name “3DS” and then made a product to fit! There were a lot of reports at the time of the 3D screens causing headaches and migraines, and I believe Nintendo issued official advice not to use the device in 3D mode for more than an hour at a time.

So for a number of reasons I found the 3DS an underwhelming prospect at first. I had a Wii and an Xbox 360 by this point, so I wasn’t short of ways to play games, and having never really felt the need to play games while travelling or commuting I was content to give the console a pass. However, I ended up changing my mind for a couple of reasons. The first was that I really was quite keen to be able to play Mario Kart 7, and secondly my girlfriend at the time wanted to be able to play some 3DS titles together. What really sealed the deal, though, and convinced me that I needed to get a 3DS for myself was Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Dedicating a new bridge in Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

I’d been dimly aware of the Animal Crossing series, but as someone who hadn’t owned a GameCube the first title wasn’t one I got to play for myself. New Leaf sounded fantastic, though, with lots of customisation options – and I do love a game with plenty of customisation! It was this game that finally pushed me into spending my money and buying a Nintendo 3DS.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a game I’ve sunk innumerable hours into in the seven years since it released. It was so much fun to play with a friend, with almost limitless single-player gameplay and a ton of fun mini-games to play in multiplayer. It’s also the kind of game that’s very easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time. I would find myself regularly picking up my 3DS during moments of downtime to perform a single small task in my town.

Mario Kart 7 was no disappointment either, and I had lots of fun with that title. Regular readers may remember that I used to work in the games industry, and for a time I worked in a large office where several colleagues also had 3DS consoles and enjoyed Mario Kart 7. We’d often get together during breaks or downtime and use the 3DS’ Download Play feature to race against one another wirelessly. It was great fun!

Promo screenshot for Mario Kart 7.

I loved the customisation options that Mario Kart 7 introduced. There were different kart pieces that could all be selected prior to the race, and that was an innovation for the series. Mario Kart Wii had introduced a broad range of karts, but Mario Kart 7 was the first entry to allow players to choose different tyres, different kart frames, etc. It also introduced a first-person viewpoint (which was seldom used), and the ability for karts to glide.

So those are undoubtedly my top two games from the system. Animal Crossing: New Leaf in particular was a game I was still playing even earlier this year; it has incredible longevity. Let’s look at a few other titles that did well on the system.

Obviously there were the obligatory Pokémon titles: Pokémon X & Y and Pokémon Sun & Moon released on the 3DS and though Pokémon has never really been my thing, I can acknowledge that the games are among the console’s best-sellers. Both titles (or all four, I guess) were considered iterative rather than transformative in the way the Switch title Pokémon Sword & Shield has been, but at the time they were well-received by fans.

Promo screenshot for Pokémon X & Y.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was ported from the Wii, and obviously had to undergo a minor graphical downgrade to work on the less-powerful handheld system, but nevertheless was great fun. This was one of Nintendo’s big experiments with porting more modern titles to their handheld platform; older titles like Super Mario 64 had succeeded on the original DS, but there was a question-mark over how well a Wii title would work. Because Donkey Kong Country Returns is a 2D platformer, the 3DS held up remarkably well. Games like this also set the stage in some respects for the porting of “bigger” titles to the Nintendo Switch a few years later, and now it’s not uncommon to hear people say they can’t wait to play a Switch port of their favourite title so they can play it on the go.

The two main Mario games on the 3DS – New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario 3D Land did well too, and both were enjoyable. I loved Mario’s return to the 2D platforming genre on the Wii, and the 3DS title was more of the same. Super Mario 3D Land was okay, but didn’t really bring a lot to the table. It was criticised by some self-proclaimed “hardcore gamers” for offering players a way to skip tricky levels when they’ve been unable to get through after ten or more attempts. We could talk all day about difficulty options and accessibility – and perhaps we should one day – but suffice to say the argument was particularly stupid, as the inclusion of such options doesn’t change the main part of the game in any way.

Several Nintendo 2DS and 3DS variants in official marketing material.

Aside from games, the Nintendo 3DS leaned heavily into being a connected device that could do things like play YouTube videos and communicate with friends. It could connect to the internet via wi-fi, which was something home consoles at the time either couldn’t do or could only do with additional accessories. It also came out of the box with a basic augmented reality minigame, and thus was my first real experience with AR. Augmented reality never really took off in the way it could have, and in that respect feels gimmicky even today, but it was nevertheless interesting, and it’s something that the console was set up for – if any developers had been interested!

The 3DS had a camera that could not only take digital photos, but was also capable of taking autostereoscopic 3D photos. The 3D functionality in general was not something most folks were interested in, but again this is something that had potential in 2010/11 to take off, and if it had done so we would perhaps be hailing the 3DS as a pioneer! Remember it was around this time that 3D televisions were being pushed as “the next big thing” along with 3D blu-rays. Had the public been more receptive to 3D as a whole, some of these features would have surely been refined and reused.

The Nintendo 3DS came with a basic set of AR minigames.

Nintendo could see the writing on the wall for 3D, though, and released the Nintendo 2DS only a couple of years after the 3DS launched. The 2DS was marketed at kids, and was a less-expensive variant of the console that didn’t have the autostereoscopic 3D functionality. Partly released to overcome the worries of parents who’d heard about the problems that 3D could cause, the 2DS did well in that market. I couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t fold up, though!

At a time when the Wii U’s failure threatened Nintendo as a company, the 3DS helped them tick over. It remained a profitable system, and even at the height of the Wii U’s problems in 2012-13, the 3DS continued to churn out titles and move units. The importance of its success in that period to Nintendo can’t really be overstated – without the money it was bringing in, Nintendo would have been in a much more shaky position.

The Wii U failed hard, but the Nintendo 3DS kept the company’s head above water.

Before Nintendo tried (and failed) to recapture the “hardcore gamer” market with the Wii U, the 3DS continued the trend of appealing to casual and occasional players in a much broader market. Titles like the Brain Age series, Sudoku Party, Nintendogs + Cats, and even Tomodachi Life appealed to many people who wouldn’t have considered themselves “gamers.” I know of disabled and elderly folks who enjoyed the 3DS for its casual puzzle and brain training titles, and the system was a gateway into the gaming hobby for kids who wanted to play some of the cuter titles. In that sense, the 3DS was an important platform, even if it wasn’t as transformative as smartphones and tablets.

The 3DS gave me one of my favourite games of the last decade in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and one of the best multiplayer experiences in Mario Kart 7. For those two games alone I can say it was a fun system, and I greatly enjoyed my time with it. As smartphones have become a major gaming platform, it’s hard to see how another dedicated handheld gaming system could replicate the 3DS’ success. Even Nintendo themselves have recognised this, releasing mobile games that feature some of their biggest characters and franchises. With the system being discontinued in 2020, it may be the last ever dedicated handheld gaming system that isn’t either a phone or tablet.

The Nintendo 3DS – and many of the games mentioned above – is the copyright of Nintendo. Promo screenshots courtesy of press kits on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek: Lower Decks and the ethics of piracy

No, not piracy on the high seas. We’re going to take a look at copyright infringement, and this is a contentious topic so let’s be clear up front: in practically every jurisdiction around the world, piracy is illegal. I am categorically not encouraging it nor am I condoning it. This column aims to be an honest discussion on the moral and ethical implications only, not the legal ramifications.

The journey to writing this column began in July, when Star Trek: Lower Decks was announced. The announcement came with a US/Canada premiere date and weekly release schedule, but nothing for the rest of the world. Trekkies like myself who aren’t from North America held our breath and waited. More information about the show came out, but no international release date. Then a trailer was published, but again no international release date. Star Trek’s Comic-Con panel approached, and I considered this the last reasonable chance for news of an international broadcast. But again, fans were let down.

Lower Decks premiered on the 6th of August, but only for North American viewers. ViacomCBS not only chose not to broadcast the series internationally, they haven’t made any public statement on the issue. And don’t get this twisted around saying it isn’t the company’s fault because of coronavirus or some other issue; they are in full control over when to broadcast the series in the United States, and if they couldn’t secure the international broadcast rights for whatever reason before the 6th of August, it was entirely within their power to delay the series until they had come to an agreement with an international distributor or broadcaster. It was thus ViacomCBS’ decision – and their decision alone – for Lower Decks to be split up and shown to some fans but not others. And it is undeniably their decision not to address the problem in public.

In such an environment, is it any surprise that Trekkies outside the US and Canada turned to piracy to access the series? If it’s literally unavailable any other way, and there is radio silence on when it may become available, what choice to fans have? The answer is that there is no choice, and ViacomCBS made it that way. They practically invited piracy of Lower Decks not once but twice: first through the utterly moronic decision to segregate the show by geography, and secondly by not even giving lip service to the problem. Look at any social media post from official Star Trek pages in July and early August – each one received many comments asking about Lower Decks’ international broadcast, and every single one was ignored.

We can set aside my usual arguments about how this harms ViacomCBS’ own negotiating position – assuming they still plan to sell the show internationally – because that’s something I’ve covered repeatedly and it isn’t what this column is about. Purely from a moral and ethical standpoint, is it wrong to pirate Lower Decks?

When a television series, film, or video game is made available to the general public, I think most people would say that piracy is not acceptable. Most of us agree that the actors and behind-the-scenes staff deserve to be paid for their work, and the investors in the company who bankrolled the project deserve to see a return on their investment. We can talk at length about how some large media corporations make excessive profits for a select few shareholders and managers, but as a general rule, most people agree with the principle of paying entertainers for the entertainment they provide.

This is the reality of how entertainment works. Companies producing a television series, video game, or film need to raise money to create their project and see it to fruition, and somehow they need to recoup that money as well as make a profit to fund their next title. Nowadays there are myriad ways to do this, including streaming platforms online. If everybody engaged in piracy, it would be very hard for any company to make any new work of entertainment, because they would have no way of making their money back.

So when a work of entertainment is made available, most people stick to doing one of two things – pay to enjoy it, or don’t participate.

But that argument is only valid in cases where content is available via lawful methods. Lower Decks, as we’ve already established, is only in that category if you’re lucky enough to live in the United States or Canada; the two countries combined are home to less than 5% of the world’s population. So if 95% of the population are denied access to something, what options do they have? Wait an indeterminate and possibly unlimited amount of time? It’s been over a month since Lower Decks debuted and in that time ViacomCBS has said precisely nothing. How long are we supposed to sit on our hands?

In the case of another recent series that made this mistake, waiting became incredibly problematic. We could argue from the point of view of “hardcore” Trekkies that nothing in Lower Decks has been a massive spoiler. There isn’t one character or one moment to point to – at least, in the first six episodes – which if it had been spoiled ahead of time would have majorly ruined our enjoyment. But in some shows that isn’t the case. Disney+ launched in the United States months ahead of the rest of the world, and one of its big draws was the first ever live-action Star Wars series: The Mandalorian. The end of the first episode contained perhaps the biggest twist in the entire first season: the Mandalorian’s target is a child, nicknamed “baby Yoda” by the internet.

Baby Yoda was everywhere in November and December last year. Screenshots and clips were all over the internet, and baby Yoda was in so many memes! Friends and family members of mine who don’t know the first thing about Star Wars had seen baby Yoda – so imagine being a Star Wars fan, unable to watch The Mandalorian simply because of where you live, having that massive reveal and the emotional core of the series spoiled months before you could see it.

Before the dawn of the internet it wouldn’t have mattered. In the 1990s, when I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and the other shows of that era, the fact that we in the UK were getting them a couple of years after their American premiere wasn’t something I ever noticed. Even within Star Trek fan clubs and at Star Trek fan events in the ’90s, there were no spoilers. And yes, I went to numerous such meet-ups and events at the time.

But in 2020, companies can’t get away with that any more. Not because of the tiny minority of people who take a kind of twisted pleasure in deliberately spoiling something for others, but because social media and the internet in general becomes awash with spoilers. If you follow Star Trek’s official social media, as I do, you’ll have picked up numerous spoilers for Lower Decks, as their social media channels throw out plot points, lists of Easter eggs, and all manner of other things almost daily. And that’s not to mention fan-run pages and groups. In short, if you’re a fan of anything in 2020, chances are that, in some way, you go online to engage in that fandom, and that’s a breeding ground for spoilers.

In the case of The Mandalorian, baby Yoda hit the mainstream such that even the most careful fan wouldn’t have been able to avoid seeing or hearing about it. And when you’ve been burned by spoilers once or twice, it’s very easy to get upset and annoyed – and to turn to piracy.

When it comes to shows like The Mandalorian and Star Trek: Lower Decks, I think what I’d say is that piracy may still be legally wrong, but it’s much harder to claim that it’s morally wrong. We live in an interconnected, globalised world, where the internet means people from everywhere can be connected to each other and to the franchises they love at all times. Companies like ViacomCBS have actively encouraged this kind of globalism because it means a bigger market and more profit. But creating a global brand comes with a responsibility that extends beyond national borders. In the global, interconnected world that these massive corporations have encouraged, the least they could do is make their content available. ViacomCBS has been keen to promote Star Trek as a brand outside the United States, even setting up events in Europe like Destination Star Trek where actors and producers routinely draw huge crowds.

The franchise, at ViacomCBS’ behest, has become a global brand. There are Star Trek fans from the Falkland Islands to Timbuktu, all because the company has chosen to sell Star Trek and its merchandise to every country it can. But it seems that ViacomCBS only cares about its international audience for as much money as it can wring out of us, because as soon as there’s a tiny bump in the road they’re quite happy to cut us off and not share their most recent creation.

Star Trek doesn’t belong to Americans. It depicts a future where humanity is working together to learn and grow together to build a better world, something which seems the complete antithesis of a major American corporation cutting off its overseas fans with no information thrown our way.

With ViacomCBS being so disrespectful to its international audience, is it any wonder that Lower Decks has become one of the most-pirated shows of the last few weeks? I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone, because when there is no other way to access the series, piracy – by definition – becomes the only option. Anyone with a computer and even the tiniest inclination can find out how to download or stream Lower Decks, and when you consider that for 95% of the people around the world – including many Trekkies and casual fans of the franchise – it can’t be lawfully accessed, from a moral and philosophical point of view I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t.

Piracy is definitely against the law – but in this case, that doesn’t make it wrong.

Downloading and uploading of copyrighted material (“piracy” for the purposes of this discussion) is against the law in practically every jurisdiction around the world. This column should not be interpreted as encouraging piracy or copyright infringement for any television series, film, video game, or entertainment franchise. The Star Trek brand – including Star Trek: Lower Decks – remains the copyright of ViacomCBS. This column contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Wars needs to move on

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including casting information for The Mandalorian Season 2,The Rise of Skywalker, and other recent projects.

One of my favourite parts of the Star Wars franchise isn’t a film, it’s the two Knights of the Old Republic games from 2003-04. While I generally found the Expanded Universe – now re-branded as Star Wars Legends and no longer in production – to be unenjoyable, Knights of the Old Republic was an exception. It took a setting and a story that was thousands of years distant from the Original Trilogy, and while it’s certainly true that some elements were derivative, especially in the first game, as a whole it was something different that took Star Wars fans to different places and a different era. It expanded on the overall lore of Star Wars without overwriting anything, and it was a great look at the Star Wars galaxy away from Luke, Anakin, and Palpatine.

When it was announced in 2012 that Disney would be acquiring Lucasfilm I was excited. Ever since 1999, when Star Wars expanded to be more than just a trilogy of films, the vague prospect of a sequel to Return of the Jedi had been appealing to me. Learning what came next for Luke, Han, Leia, and others was something I was interested in, as I also was interested to learn what came next for the galaxy as a whole following the Emperor’s death. It’s easy to forget, but Return of the Jedi didn’t end with a full-scale victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Death Star was gone and the Emperor was dead, but practically the whole galaxy was still under Imperial control. I was fascinated to see how the Rebels turned victory in a battle into victory in the overall war.

The destruction of the Second Death Star. The sequel trilogy was supposed to tell us what became of the galaxy after this moment.

The Expanded Universe attempted to tell this story, but it was a convoluted, poor-quality tale hampered by having different writers with different ideas – seemingly Lucasfilm’s policy when it came to the Expanded Universe was that anyone could write anything. Many of these stories came across as fan-fiction, pitting a seemingly invincible Luke, Han, and Leia against all manner of obstacles. Over the years, the Expanded Universe grew to such an extent that it was convoluted and incredibly offputting for newcomers – several hundred books, several hundred more comics and graphic novels, over a hundred video and board games, two kids’ television shows, and myriad others, all of which required roadmaps, suggested reading lists, and of course a number of encyclopaedias and reference works to keep up with it all. All of this meant that the Expanded Universe was impossible to get to grips with without making it a full-time commitment. I was pleased when it was announced that Disney would be overwriting it.

By wiping the slate clean, not only would Disney not be constrained by some of the Expanded Universe’s poor storytelling, but the canon of Star Wars post-Return of the Jedi could be restarted, hopefully in a more concise way that would be easier to follow. That seemed to succeed at first, but now – a mere six years on from the cancellation of the old Expanded Universe – Star Wars is once again pretty convoluted with books, games, comics, and even a theme park attraction all officially canon. While I don’t want to spend too much time making a comparison with Star Trek, in that case the issue of canon has always been incredibly simple: television episodes and films are canon, everything else is not.

With so many books, comics, games, and other media, the old Expanded Universe was convoluted and offputting.

But we’re drifting off-topic. The Expanded Universe being dumped was a good thing, because I hoped what would replace it would be superior. And for the most part that’s been the case, though The Rise of Skywalker certainly dragged the overall story of the sequels down a long way.

Star Wars has a truly interesting setting: there’s a whole galaxy with countless worlds, trillions of inhabitants, and thousands of different species. But for the most part, the franchise has spent decades focusing on an absolutely minuscule fraction of this vast, potentially interesting setting it’s created.

The Expanded Universe spent a lot of time with Luke, Han, and Leia, as well as later with characters like Anakin, and by far the majority of its stories are set between The Phantom Menace and the couple of decades after Return of the Jedi. Where Knights of the Old Republic succeeded was in taking its audience away from that overtrodden ground and showing us a glimpse of the Star Wars galaxy without those familiar characters.

Knights of the Old Republic II was a great game that told a story far removed from Star Wars’ original trilogy.

The prequels dedicated three films to overexplaining the background of Darth Vader – a story I’d absolutely argue was unnecessary and didn’t really do anything to improve or inform the Original Trilogy in any substantial way. That was part of why I found those films so disappointing. While the third entry, Revenge of the Sith, was better than the first two, all three films didn’t really bring anything new or interesting to the table. As I sat down to watch The Force Awakens a decade later, I hoped that we’d start to see something different.

The five films made since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 have been a disappointment in that regard. We’ve had The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, which essentially remade A New Hope and Return of the Jedi only worse, Solo: A Star Wars Story which made the same mistake of unnecessarily overexplaining Han Solo that the prequels did with Darth Vader, and Rogue One, which was a great standalone story but was a prequel feeding straight into the plot of A New Hope. The Last Jedi tried to take things in a different direction, but was still a story primarily about Luke – and is now effectively non-canon after being overwritten by its sequel.

The Last Jedi was the most recent Star Wars film to even try to do something differently – but was still constrained by being a sequel using familiar characters.

I know I said I wouldn’t make too many comparisons with Star Trek, but there’s one that’s too important not to mention. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. And aside from a cameo appearance, that show basically did its own thing and didn’t worry about The Original Series. The Star Trek franchise thus established that it could be so much more than its original incarnation. Star Wars has never done that – in its cinematic canon it hasn’t even tried, despite existing for over forty years. Where Star Trek consists of three time periods, an alternate reality, and nine distinct sets of main characters, Star Wars has been unable to move beyond the story of its original trilogy. The prequels lent backstory to the originals. The sequels and spin-offs expanded that same story. Even The Mandalorian brought in themes, concepts, and characters that weren’t as far-removed from the original films as they should’ve been – a decision compounded by the silly decision to bring in Boba Fett in Season 2.

Star Was could be so much more than it is. But at every opportunity, decisions have been taken to narrow its focus and dive deeper into unimportant parts of its only actual story; after more than forty years, the Star Wars franchise has still only told one real story. The decision to shoehorn Palpatine into The Rise of Skywalker makes this infinitely worse, as apparently he’s been manipulating everything and everyone from behind the scenes for the entire saga of films. As I wrote once, this transforms the Skywalker Saga into what is really the “Palpatine Saga”, as he’s the only character who seems to act of his own volition. But this isn’t supposed to be (another) critique of that incredibly poor narrative decision!

The deus ex machina of Palpatine ruined The Rise of Skywalker… and really the entire sequel trilogy.

The decision to bring Palpatine back is indicative of a franchise that has no new ideas. It was categorically not “always the plan” to bring him back in the sequels, or this would have been established in The Force Awakens. Instead, Palpatine became a deus ex machina because Star Wars as a whole has been unable to move out of the shadow of its first three films. Those films could have laid the groundwork for an expanded franchise – as The Original Series did for Star Trek – but instead they’ve almost become a ball and chain; a weight around the neck of the franchise, keeping it locked in place and unable to move on.

It shouldn’t be because of a lack of ideas. The Star Wars galaxy is a massive sandbox for any writer or director to play in, with almost unlimited potential to tell genuinely new and interesting stories. Instead it’s a lack of vision and a lack of boldness on the part of a large corporation; Disney wants to play the nostalgia card over and over again, and because Star Wars had never previously tried to escape its Original Trilogy, doing so now seems – from a corporate point of view – too big of a risk. How else does one explain the decision to allow The Rise of Skywalker to overwrite The Last Jedi? Corporate-mandated cowardice, retreating to nostalgia and safe, comfortable ground. Trying something even slightly different requires a boldness that simply isn’t present in most boardrooms.

Star Wars is being run by a corporate boardroom unwilling to take risks or do things differently.

Two-thirds of the sequel trilogy re-told the original trilogy. The prequels were glorified backstory, and the two spin-off films were also prequels to the originals. Star Wars has only ever made three original films – everything else either overexplained that story or tried to re-tell it. The Star Wars “saga” is thus nothing more than one story. One main character – Palpatine – controls and manipulates it, and only a handful of characters get any significant screen time and development.

I wrote recently that the overall story of Star Wars has been dragged full-circle, with the questions fans had about the state of the galaxy and the Jedi Order after Return of the Jedi simply not being answered in any meaningful way. The galaxy is once again in a position where Palpatine is dead, there’s one remaining young Jedi, an autocratic state controls much of the galaxy but has suffered a major defeat, and the survivors will have to finish the war and try to rebuild. That’s where both Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker left things. Far from answering the questions posed by the original films, the sequels just asked the same questions again with a different coat of paint.

By re-telling the same story – albeit in a worse way – the sequel trilogy as a whole has entirely failed to accomplish anything.

The end of the sequel trilogy left the Star Wars galaxy in exactly the same state it was in almost forty years ago.

The announcement of The Mandalorian came with what I thought was an exciting premise: the adventures of a gunslinger far beyond the reach of the New Republic. Wow! Finally, something genuinely different in Star Wars. It didn’t last, of course, as the second episode of the show brought the Force back into things. While in some respects The Mandalorian tried to be different, in too many ways it was samey. The aesthetic, the reuse of elements from the original trilogy like Boba Fett’s armour, the Jawas and their Sandcrawler, and of course the return of the Force made what was already a boring show with episodes that were too short even less interesting. I found the whole experience a disappointment.

The two upcoming Disney+ shows – based around Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rogue One’s Cassian Andor – look set to repeat the same mistakes. Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Kenobi was definitely one of the prequels’ better elements, but do we need yet another prequel? In-universe, Kenobi went into exile on Tatooine after the rise of the Empire. Anything he does in the show would either be constrained by taking place within a few miles of his desert hut or else feel awfully tacked-on. And the Cassian Andor show is a prequel to a prequel. Rogue One was a great film, but does it need its own prequel show?

Cassian Andor was a great character in his sole appearance. Not sure he needs a prequel series of his own, though.

Can’t the investment being made in these properties be reallocated to something genuinely different? There’s so much potential in the Star Wars galaxy, yet Disney and Lucasfilm seem intent on showing us the same tiny sliver over and over and over again. When people talk of franchise fatigue and the feeling that Disney is milking Star Wars dry it’s because of this! When every Star Wars project feels samey and repetitive, it’s much easier to get burnt out on the franchise.

There are some exceptions – I recently played through Jedi: Fallen Order, and despite that game using a familiar time period, it was a mostly-original story with only one returning character from the films playing a role. It was different enough to feel like a half-step away from what had come before.

Jedi: Fallen Order told a decent standalone Star Wars story.

For the franchise to survive long-term and remain viable, it needs to step away from the original trilogy for the first time. New films and shows, whenever they may come, should look at wholly new characters in a setting and even time period that’s distinct from what came before. There also needs to be a plan – the rudderless sequel trilogy can’t be repeated. Any new project needs to have someone at the helm to guide its story. Questions need to be asked at the beginning about where the characters are going and what the endgame of the story is, so that the franchise doesn’t just keep making the same mistakes.

Not every recent Star Trek project has been to everyone’s taste. But since the 2005 cancellation of Enterprise – and in some respects even before then – Star Trek hasn’t been afraid to try completely new things. Action films, a serialised drama show, and now an animated comedy have all joined the lineup. Some of these have brought in new fans, and at the very least, no one in 2020 can accuse Star Trek of being stale. Star Wars, in contrast, has absolutely become stale. The one story it’s been telling for forty years has finally ended, so now is the moment for Star Wars to properly move on.

The Star Wars franchise – including all films and other media mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash, Knights of the Old Republic II screenshot courtesy of the press kit on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trekkin’ – a number one hit!

Here in the UK, we have a long tradition of supporting what are politely termed “novelty” songs. That is, songs which are just plain silly. We’ve seen number one successes for such titles as John Kettley (Is A Weatherman), Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), and the dreaded Crazy Frog… which still gets stuck in my head sometimes! There was also a successful campaign a few years ago to get hard rock band Rage Against The Machine a Christmas number one hit to protest the success of televised talent shows like X Factor and Pop Idol. And more recently there was a charity song called I Love Sausage Rolls, which was a parody of the song I Love Rock n’ Roll.

So you’ll believe me, then, when I tell you that there was a novelty song about Star Trek that was a number one hit in 1987. You do believe me, right?

This was a real song. About a real weather presenter.

Star Trekkin’, by a band called The Firm, actually has an interesting story behind it – at least according to the people who created the song. In the early 1980s, The Firm had been a one-hit wonder with another novelty song, but hadn’t made any new music for several years. One of the musicians was involved in an English Civil War re-enactment, and while sitting around the campfire dressed up as a Roundhead or Cavalier, overheard another member of the re-enactment society strumming an old song but reworking it to include a couple of lines from Star Trek – “there’s Klingons on the starboard bow” and “it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”.

Inspired by what he’d heard, he asked his fellow re-enactor if he’d be willing to record his version of the tune, and he did. It took some time, but eventually the band found out who “wrote” the lines that had been included in the song, and after making a number of changes, recorded their own version. The members of the band came back together for the song, and each of them recorded a line in the style of one of five Star Trek characters – Spock, Uhura, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty. It was actually the wife of one of the bandmates who voiced Uhura.

The song was – perhaps understandably – rejected by several record labels. According to the story they took one look at it and turned it down hard. But the members of The Firm were convinced they had a winner, and at their own expense funded an initial release of 500 copies – the source I have says they were on vinyl, but it seems more likely to me they would have used cassettes in 1987 to make recordings cheaply. That’s a bit of a mystery. But we’re off-topic.

The cover.

After sending a number of the copies to radio stations in the UK, the song blew up. The first week it was released it peaked at a lowly 74 in the music charts, but soon rocketed up all the way to the coveted number one spot. It’s hard to think back nowadays, but until a few years ago the music singles chart was a much bigger deal than it is today, especially here in the UK. Having a number one hit was an astounding achievement for a group of amateurs!

But the saga wasn’t over. A number one hit meant that the band would need to appear on Top of the Pops – a weekly television show where the chart-toppers of the week were performed live (or lip-synced). The Firm felt that appearing in person would “ruin” Star Trekkin’ – seeing the people behind the silly, repetitive hit would rob it of its humour. So they decided to produce a music video… in less than a week!

After attempts to create a video with puppets were shot down by the high cost and length of time required, the band hired an independent animation studio – which was really just a handful of students – to make a claymotion video to accompany the song. The resulting video was completed with just hours to spare, and was shown on that week’s Top of the Pops as planned.

The bridge of the Enterprise in the music video.

The video adds to the song’s weirdness. The characters are made from potatoes with claymotion mouths, there are aliens made from papier-mâché, and at one point the Enterprise appears to be made of sausages and pizza. The whole thing is completely bizarre, and has to be seen to be believed. Yet despite the amateurish way it was thrown together, Star Trekkin’ was a number one hit, and among some British Trekkies, retains a cult status even today, some 33 years later.

The song consists of a few lines from Star Trek – or misattributed to it by the writers.

Here they are:
“There’s Klingons on the starboard bow.” – Uhura
“It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” – Spock
“It’s worse than that, he’s dead Jim!” – Dr McCoy
“We come in peace… shoot to kill, men!” – Kirk
“I cannae change the laws of physics!” – Scotty

The line sung by “Spock” in the song is one frequently believed to have been spoken in the series, but that isn’t actually the case. In fact, it’s possible that the song itself is the reason why the line in that form is so often attributed to Spock (though that seems like a circular argument!) The voices are actually done very well – all of them (except maybe Uhura) sound like reasonable approximations of the characters, and it’s clear they put effort in to get their voices to sound that way! Other than those five lines, there’s the refrain “Star Trekkin’ across the universe!” And that’s it really. The song repeats those same lines, getting faster and faster until it ends. It’s wacky, unique, and kind of catchy.

Spock, as you probably never saw him before.

I remember owning Star Trekkin’ on cassette, and when I was on the bus going to school I’d keep the volume on my walkman low so that no one nearby would overhear and make fun of me! It isn’t the kind of song that I want to listen to all the time, of course – it can get annoying to say the least – but when I’m in the mood for some light-hearted Star Trek-themed weirdness, I’ll find the video on YouTube (or the mp3 on my PC, because you know I bought it for a second time in the digital era) and give it a listen.

Star Trek has been parodied and paid homage to on many occasions since the 1960s, including in song. But Star Trekkin’ has to be one of the strangest examples out there. It’s well worth a listen for any Trekkie who hasn’t heard it, and while I don’t promise you’ll enjoy it as a piece of music, you might just crack a smile. You can find the music video below. Enjoy!

The song Star Trekkin’ is the copyright of The Firm, and rights may be held by Bark Records, Bush Ranger Music, and/or Orchard Enterprises. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Can we PLEASE stop calling things we don’t like “objectively” bad?

Quite possibly one of my biggest pet peeves when reading or listening to reviews and critical opinion is when a critic asserts that a film, video game, or television series that they personally dislike is “objectively bad”. This is something I’ve seen both amateurs and professionals do, and it absolutely needs to stop. It’s the single fastest way a commentator can invalidate their own argument and credentials, and it’s got to a point where it’s been proclaimed so often that any time I see or hear the phrase “objectively bad”, I stop reading or listening. Any critic making such a statement has lost my respect and lost the argument.

To briefly define the terms, “objective” refers to something definite and factual, whereas “subjective” refers to an opinion or personal taste. Specifically, the word “objective” – and its adverb “objectively” – should be used to describe only those things which are not influenced by one’s own opinion or personal taste.

The creative arts – including cinema, television, and gaming – are by their very nature subjective. Storytelling and narrative decision-making in particular are incredibly subjective, perhaps being second only to individual musical taste. Every single aspect of a film, television series, or game – from its narrative to its aesthetic to its editing – is 100% subjective, and anyone who tries to claim otherwise doesn’t understand the meaning of these terms. There are certainly established ways of doing things, but refusing to follow these routes is not only not “objectively bad”, it’s the only way there can ever be innovation. Even in a title which is universally panned, there is still a huge amount of subjectivity – this is why some poorly-received films go on to be cult classics, and why there’s a market for re-releases of B-movies like Return of the Killer Tomatoes.

George Clooney starred in this film early in his career. I’m not making that up.

Even on the more technical side of filmmaking, an aspect one person may find annoying – like incredibly fast-paced editing – is someone else’s idea of a stroke of brilliance. Setting aside those few video games that are released with so many glitches that they’re unplayable, the same is true there too. I remember reading a novel a few years ago called Cold Mountain – since made into a film – which had a really annoying writing style. There were no speech marks used to indicate dialogue, and the author appeared to be aware of precisely zero synonyms for the word “said”, using it over and over again for almost every line where a character spoke. I found these things to be incredibly dumb and gimmicky, yet when I spoke to a friend who’d recommended me the book, she thought it was masterful; a postmodern way to write.

While I’m sure people have been misusing “objectively” for years, where it came to prominence for me was in the discourse surrounding the 2017 film Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Many Star Wars fans disliked the film for a number of reasons, and while I personally enjoyed it, by and large I can understand the criticisms many folks had. Some decisions taken by Rian Johnson and others at Lucasfilm seem to have been almost designed to be controversial – and anything like that will always result in split opinions. But nothing in The Last Jedi was “objectively bad”, as many critics claimed. Whether someone liked or hated things like Luke Skywalker’s characterisation, the Admiral Holdo and Poe confrontation, the side-mission to Canto Bight, Snoke’s fate, or the hyperspace ramming manoeuvre, none of them can be said to be “objectively bad” storytelling decisions. Even if a significant part of the film’s audience felt some or all of those points failed, that’s still a subjective opinion on the part of those individuals. Picking on a single narrative element in a story – such as the way Luke’s character was handled – and deeming it “objectively bad” not only is incorrect, but it undermines one’s own argument and makes having a rational conversation on the topic impossible.

Even the most controversial parts of The Last Jedi were not “objectively bad”.

I don’t want to turn this essay into a critique or defence of The Last Jedi, because it’s hardly the only title in recent years that has seen “objective” bandied about and used incorrectly by critics. While I liked The Last Jedi overall, that isn’t the reason for my saying it can’t be called “objectively bad”. There are titles I personally didn’t like, even projects I felt completely failed, that I would make the same case for. Game of Thrones’ eighth season was not “objectively bad”. Nor was The Last of Us Part II, despite my saying recently that 3/10 seemed like a fair score for that game. Not even The Rise of Skywalker, which had myriad problems with its story as well as its pacing, could be described as being “objectively bad”. I greatly dislike or had serious issue with all three of these titles, but I could never say that about them because there simply is no such thing as an “objectively bad” narrative. They all have major issues and failings in my opinion – an opinion shared by many other people in some cases, but a subjective opinion nevertheless.

What a critic is trying to do by clumsily using the word “objective” is to shut down dissenting opinions. By asserting that their belief is “objective” and thus purely factual, they’re saying that no other opinions on the topic can exist, and that anyone who tries to make a counter-argument is automatically wrong with any points they make being invalid. This isn’t how criticism and discourse are meant to work. Setting aside the fact that the word is being used incorrectly, the implication is that the person making such an assertion is closed-minded. It’s a consequence in part of social media bubbles and YouTube channels feeding the same opinions to people repeatedly.

YouTube critics aren’t the only ones who make this mistake, but it’s something I hear frequently on that platform.

In the aftermath of The Last Jedi, this was taken to extremes by some of the film’s detractors. While some of these people would begin a discussion by saying something generic like “I respect your opinion”, often what would come next is plenty of evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t good enough for them that most folks they spoke to didn’t like the film, they wanted everyone to hate it just as passionately as they did, and any contrary opinion was taken as a personal attack. The reality is that there will always be a range of opinions on practically any film, game, or television series, and trying to convince oneself that everyone needs to share the same opinion will not lead anywhere positive.

The conversation around The Last Jedi became so aggressive, unpleasant, and toxic that I stopped engaging with the film’s critics. It was clear to me that most of them weren’t interested in a conversation nor in hearing any other opinion besides a differently-worded version of their own. Some of these folks seemed to be tying their whole identity to being anti-Disney or anti-Star Wars, and any difference of opinion was perceived as a challenge to their newfound sense of self. That appears to be at least part of the reason why we started to see the phrase “objectively bad” crop up more and more often in relation to that film.

Luke Skywalker’s characterisation in The Last Jedi may have been controversial and disappointing to some fans, but nothing about it was “objectively bad” – or “objectively” anything at all.

Calling something “objectively bad” – or indeed “objectively” anything else – has a finality to it. It seeks to shut down the debate and block off any chance of someone offering a different opinion. But it simply isn’t correct, and by taking even small steps to broaden one’s understanding of a work of fiction, it’s easily possible to see that there are a range of opinions. Some critical works may even cause a rethink, reframing the discussion or bringing up a point others have failed to mention. Even if these don’t cause anyone to change their mind, they are at the very least evidence that a title is not “objectively bad”.

In most of the titles mentioned above, there were choices made by the creators and storytellers that I wouldn’t have made. These choices made the stories less enjoyable – or completely unenjoyable – for many people. Whether we’re talking about cinema, television, or video games, stories can be poorly-written, and indeed the whole point of media criticism is to point that out. But even the most well-read academic or the most prolific storyteller is simply expressing their own opinion when they make such a point. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or subjected your fan-fiction to internet critique, you’ll know that. Criticism is an expression of one’s own thoughts and opinions on a subject. By the very nature of the medium, criticism is subjective, not objective.

I did not enjoy The Last of Us Part II, and criticised some of its storytelling choices. But I would never be so arrogant as to say my opinion is a fact and that the game is “objectively bad”.

Some people may be misusing a term that they don’t understand, in which case further education is needed. But unfortunately, many critics who are fully aware of the difference between subjective and objective use the wrong word on purpose. Occasionally it may be little more than hyperbole, but even then this kind of exaggeration does nothing to elevate the discussion around entertainment and media. Often it’s a cynical attempt to shut down debate; to attempt to discredit dissenting opinions by stating one’s own as cold, hard fact. I find this incredibly offputting, and the inclusion of the phrase “objectively bad” – unless clearly sarcastic or meant as a joke – is enough for me to click off and read or listen to something else.

There are some aspects of life which can be black-and-white, and where it makes sense to describe something in such clear-cut terms. But entertainment isn’t one of them, and never can be. Its very nature means that there will invariably be a range of opinions, and if we haven’t found any differing points of view, that in itself is a great argument to get out of whatever social media bubble we find ourselves in and seek them out. At the very least, let’s endeavour to stop calling films, games, and television shows we don’t like “objectively bad”. They aren’t – we just didn’t like them.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, publisher, distributor, broadcaster, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

On the subject of gaming addiction

This column deals with the sensitive topic of addiction, and may be uncomfortable for some readers.

In 2018 the World Health Organisation surprised and upset a number of fans of video games when it formally designated “gaming disorder” as a distinct clinical condition. The reaction was, sadly, predictable, and boiled down to some variant of the following argument: “I’m not addicted to video games! Therefore video games can’t possibly be addictive!” Many commentators and outlets that focus on video gaming piled on with complaints and criticism, and the result is that the subject is still controversial even today, almost two years on from the WHO’s initial decision.

I’m not a doctor or psychologist, but I wanted to take a moment to defend the decision to categorise gaming disorder/video game addiction as a separate condition, because I feel that too many people who don’t really understand the topic had a knee-jerk reaction to attack it. To them it felt like an attack on their hobby, and perhaps what we can gleam from that is that the messaging surrounding the decision could have been better and clearer.

Firstly, the commentators who criticised the decision, even those who work for major publications, are universally not medical professionals. Their knowledge of the subject is limited at best, nonexistent at worst, and quite frankly having a bunch of uninformed people criticising doctors for a medical decision is comparable to conspiracy theories like the anti-vaccine movement or the Earth being flat. The people who made the decision to categorise video game addiction in this way are qualified to do so, and they will have made their decision on the basis of investigations and evidence, all of which has been peer-reviewed. The people who took offence to the decision simply aren’t on that level.

The biggest problem some people seemed to have is that the decision felt like an attack on gaming as a hobby. Many people have long derided games, dismissing them as children’s toys and even blaming gaming for criminal and violent acts, so I can understand why, to some people, this felt like just another attack in a long line. But it isn’t, because the designation of gaming disorder in no way says that all video games are a problem or that all gamers are addicts. The classification of alcoholism as a disease doesn’t mean that the vast majority of drinkers are alcoholics; no sensible person would even dream of making that argument. Alcoholism affects a small minority of drinkers, just as gaming disorder affects a small minority of gamers. And no one is trying to say otherwise.

Something that can become a problem for one person isn’t going to be a problem for everyone. Many gamers – by far the majority – play games in a sensible and responsible way, enjoying their hobby without allowing it to dominate their life. But some people will take it too far, and will allow it to take over, perhaps as an expression of other mental health issues but perhaps simply because they allowed it to get out of hand.

Choosing to classify gaming disorder as a separate and distinct condition means that more studies can be performed in the field, more information disseminated to psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals, and the result of these things is that for those people who do suffer, better help, and help more tailored to their specific problem, will be available. This can only be a good thing, as it will mean more people will have access to specialist help.

In order to meet the criteria for an individual to even be suspected of having gaming disorder, there’s actually quite a high bar. The most important factor is that their gaming is having a detrimental effect on their life. This could manifest in many ways, which will vary from person to person.

When I was a student at university many years ago, I witnessed gaming disorder firsthand. I was living in a rented apartment which I shared with just one other person, and this person (who will of course remain nameless) became addicted to video games. The individual in question was, like me, an exchange student, which is how we met and how we came to share an apartment. He had friends back home who he liked to play games with, and this was around the time that online gaming was just taking off. He would spend endless hours playing an online game, often late into the night, and over the span of a few weeks it began to have a huge impact on his life. He stopped attending classes, which saw him end up in a mess of trouble with the university as he failed every class that semester. His parents found out, which caused personal problems for him with his family, and his failure to pay rent – despite promising me he’d paid his share – almost wound up getting the pair of us evicted. This was in addition to the weight he lost from not eating properly, the destroyed social relationships with other exchange students at the university, and the missed opportunities to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of living in another country. Ever since then I’ve used his story as a warning, because his addiction to gaming had serious and lasting consequences.

There is a happy ending to this individual’s story, however, and that is that he did eventually get his life back on track and scale down his gaming. When we parted ways we didn’t keep in touch, so I can’t be certain he’s still living his best life, but as of the last time we were together it definitely seemed that he was moving in the right direction. It took an intervention from his family – who flew halfway around the world to see him after he failed all of his classes – and a twice-weekly therapy appointment to get him to that point, though.

Any time someone tells me that they know loads of people who play games who aren’t addicted, I tell them the story of my ex-roommate, and make the same point: “just because it hasn’t happened to you or someone you care about doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to anyone.”

I hope that nobody tries to use the designation of gaming disorder to attack what is for most people a fun and innocent hobby. That would be counterproductive, and would lead to people who genuinely have issues with gaming addiction finding it harder to get help. But so far, that doesn’t seem to have happened. The designation is just that: a clinical classification designed to help that small minority of people who have a problem.

It’s worth noting that some games, especially in recent years, have gone out of their way to introduce potentially addictive elements to their gameplay. In particular we can look at lootboxes and randomised rewards, which in many games are little more than gambling – often using real-world money. There are frequent news stories, some of which end up in the mainstream media, of individuals who end up spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on these in-game “micro” transactions. In one case last year here in the UK, a child inadvertently spent his parents’ entire monthly wages in a game.

Putting a warning label of some kind on games that have in-game “micro” transactions is definitely a good idea, but in an era where physical sales of games in boxes (where such a label would be affixed) are in terminal decline, that probably won’t be good enough. And as I noted from my former roommate’s experience, which came long before such in-game transactions were commonplace, gaming addiction doesn’t always manifest with titles that have such systems in place.

We also have to be careful how we use the terminology of addiction – and of mental health in general, but that’s a separate point. When reading reviews of new titles, I often see the word “addictive” thrown around as if it were a positive thing: “this new game is incredibly addictive!” That kind of normalisation and misuse of the term can be problematic, as affected people may simply brush off their addiction by thinking that’s how everyone plays the game. I feel that writers have a certain responsibility to try to avoid this kind of language. Presenting addictiveness as a positive aspect could indirectly contribute to real harm. I’m sure I’ve made this mistake myself on occasion, but it’s something I hope to avoid in future.

Gaming addiction, like other addictions, is a complex problem that is not easily solved. It’s no easier for someone suffering from some form of gaming disorder to “just turn off the console” than it is for an alcoholic to “just stop drinking vodka”. The temptation is always present and it can be overwhelming. Anyone suggesting that it’s a simple case of “just stopping”, as if it were that easy, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Again, it comes back to the point I made earlier: just because it might that easy for you doesn’t mean it is that easy for everybody. One person’s subjective experience is not a complete worldview; many people find it impossible to break the cycle of addiction without help. This classification has the potential to make more specialised help available, which is the primary reason I support it.

So that’s my take on the subject. Gaming can be addictive, and for a small number of people, that addiction can cause real harm and create lasting problems for themselves and their families. Recognising this reality is a good first step if it means more research can be conducted into the subject as that will hopefully lead to better and more effective treatments for people whose gaming addiction requires outside intervention. I’ve seen firsthand how this can happen, and I have absolutely no time for the argument that goes: “well I don’t have a problem with gaming addiction, so it must be fine for everyone!” That is a blinkered and selfish way to look at the subject.

For anyone reading this who thinks they may be affected by gaming disorder or video game addiction, I’ve prepared a quick checklist of questions you can ask yourself. If you find yourself answering “yes” to any of the points below, I would suggest you reach out to someone who can help – talking to a friend, family member, or someone you trust could be a great first step, and of course professional medical help is always available.

Question #1: Do you find yourself thinking about video games all the time, and planning ways to get back to your game as quickly as possible if interrupted?

Question #2: Have you missed important events – such as work, school, meetings, or other appointments – because you couldn’t tear yourself away from gaming?

Question #3: Do you find yourself unhappy, depressed, angry, or irritated while not gaming? And/or would you say that your happiness is inextricably tied to gaming?

Question #4: Have you ever lied about how much time you spend gaming to cover it up? And/or do you break rules or limits set by others on how much time you may spend gaming?

Question #5: Have you tried to spend less time gaming but failed?

Question #6: Do your friends, family members, or people close to you ever tell you that you spend too much time gaming? And/or do you feel that you have neglected your relationship(s) as a result of gaming?

Question #7: Do you forget to eat or skip meals because of gaming? Do you skip showering or fail to take care of basic hygiene and grooming because of gaming?

While not everyone who answers “yes” to the above questions will be an addict, these points do indicate that something may be amiss with your relationship with gaming.

At the end of the day, if you’re happy with your life and gaming is a hobby, that’s okay. If it isn’t causing any harm to yourself or other people, there is no problem. But for some people gaming can get to a point where it stops being a harmless bit of fun and becomes something more sinister: an addiction. Missing important events, skipping school, neglecting friends, skipping meals, skipping showers, etc. are all points which can indicate an individual’s relationship with gaming is becoming unhealthy, and if you recognise these signs in yourself, I encourage you to reach out and get help.

Yes, gaming disorder or gaming addiction is a real phenomenon. The World Health Organisation did not invent it, all they have done is classify it and formally recognise what many people have known for a long time – that it is real. Far from being an attack on gaming as a hobby, this should be seen as a positive thing, as it has the potential to help affected individuals get better and more appropriate help.

This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Further thoughts on Game of Thrones

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, including Season 8 and the series finale.

This article is somewhat unusual for me in that it’s a direct follow-up to a piece I wrote a few days ago. In that article I looked at some of the reasons why Game of Thrones has basically wiped itself off our collective cultural map and why no one seems at all interested in rewatching it in 2020, despite it having once been considered as one of the best television series of all time. All of this pertains to the show’s eighth season, and that’s the topic I’ll be picking up again today, as I felt that some points in my original article didn’t go deep enough into some of the other issues fans have with the season. Ironically, I left some of those points underexplained!

I really do recommend reading the other article before this one, and you can do so by following this link: Where did Game of Thrones go?

Last time, I talked at length about where the season failed hardest for me personally, and that’s the Night King being so utterly wasted as a villain. Before we look at some of the other points, I want to go into a little more detail about this storyline. The Night King ended up being probably the most egregious anticlimax I’ve ever seen on screen. I can’t remember another film or television series that has built up a story for so long only to toss it aside so casually. The war against the Night King had been building up over seven seasons, with information trickling back to the main characters about goings-on north of the Wall for literally years. I mentioned last time that Game of Thrones’ opening scene in its premiere episode way back in 2011 set up this story – a clear statement of intent that this was what the show was about.

There’s actually a great message in a story like the Night King’s. It says that the politicking, palace intrigue, and even the wars between competing kings and queens is fundamentally irrelevant when a threat far greater than any of them is coming. The Night King is, in many ways, a force of nature. His strong association with the season of winter is tied to this, and the coming unstoppable force is an analogy for some of the problems facing our world – most notably climate change. What the story of the Night King should have said is that working together to face a powerful threat is something we will have to learn how to accomplish, because if we don’t we’ll all perish together.

The Night King’s death scene wasn’t even well-lit or well-framed.

Characters would have to make sacrifices in such a situation. Not only laying down their lives, as we saw only a couple of characters really do against the Night King, but losing their dreams and ambitions too. Doing the right thing and suffering terrible consequences has been a theme of Game of Thrones since its first season, yet for many of the characters who stood against the Night King, they don’t seem to suffer any consequences at all. If they do, it isn’t acknowledged on screen.

Many people far wittier than I have drawn comical analogies for how Game of Thrones handled the war against the Night King. “It’s as if Voldemort was defeated in Book 5 and Harry Potter spent his final two years at school getting picked on or having a nasty teacher!” proclaimed someone. “It’s like the One Ring getting thrown into Mount Doom midway through The Two Towers only for Frodo and the Fellowship to return to the Shire and argue with his aunt.” suggested another. “It’s as if Darth Vader and the Emperor both died in The Empire Strikes Back and Luke Skywalker spent the final film fighting Boba Fett or Jabba the Hutt!” was another offering. What do all of these examples have in common? They would have been massive anticlimaxes, with the primary source of conflict resolved too soon.

The war against Cersei – which ended up being little more than a rout – was just fluff. And it felt that way for a reason: there were no stakes. The Night King – underdeveloped though he was, and with his motivation not made clear – was an existential threat not only to our heroes, but the very world they inhabited. His victory would have plunged Westeros and Essos into a “Long Night” – an era of darkness and cold where any survivors who hadn’t been turned into wights would surely die of starvation. Now that’s an enemy we can all agree is worth defeating.

Contrast that to the consequences of Cersei being victorious. Some main characters would probably be executed if they survived the battle. Others – like Bran or Sam, perhaps – may have been allowed to live under certain conditions, such as being sent to the Wall. The smallfolk (i.e. the peasants of Westeros) would live their lives as they always had. The ruler would be a jerk, but she wouldn’t exterminate all life on the planet. And when she died – Cersei is no spring chicken after all – someone else would take over and would probably be a better ruler. In short, the stakes are not just lower, they’re practically nonexistent in comparison.

There’s a theme present in the works of George R. R. Martin, and of many other writers and creators in the 21st Century: subverting expectations. This is one part of postmodernism in literature: taking older, established ways of writing and storytelling and trying to shake them up or do something different. Different authors and creators do this in different ways: the novel Cold Mountain, for instance, didn’t use speech marks to indicate dialogue, which was a truly annoying gimmick.

George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Martin seems to consider himself somewhat of an anti-Tolkein, despite his works being heavily influenced by Tolkein’s. And that is partly true, as A Song of Ice and Fire takes a different approach to its fantasy setting. Both Martin’s and Tolkein’s works are epic fantasy, but Martin takes a far more edgy approach to his subject matter. We could talk at length about how some of Martin’s creative decisions verge on the obscene, which is why key characters had to be “aged up” when the story was adapted for television.

In the case of the Night King and the Army of the Dead, the expectation of the show’s fans was that somehow, this would be the most important story of the final season. This conflict would be the season’s lynchpin. Cersei would be part of it somehow, and everything would tie together. That expectation had been deliberately constructed by the show’s producers and marketing team, and when it turned out not to be true, far from being a clever subversion it ended up as an awful anticlimax.

Some have tried to argue that the characters – principally Cersei – are “just being realistic”, and that the show is depicting events that have genuine historical analogy, like the breaking of promises and the betrayal of allies.

What Martin and other storytellers who try to use this postmodern approach to messing with audience expectations often miss is that there’s a reason why stories have been written and structured a particular way: they’re entertaining. Nobody is watching Game of Thrones because of how realistic it is – it’s fantasy and escapism. The realistic or quasi-realistic depiction of certain events is part of that, and entertainment in general has seen a recent trend toward realistic visuals, among other things. But if the intention was to make Game of Thrones feel like “real history”, that was a stupid idea from the start. If I wanted to learn about the Wars of the Roses or the history of the kings and queens of France – both sources of inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire – I’d go to the non-fiction section of the library or watch a documentary.

If there’s a choice between being “realistic” and being entertaining, for the love of god if you’re making a dramatic television show choose to be entertaining! Don’t mess with the way stories have been told for practically all of human history because you think it’ll be “cool” or “subversive”. There’s a reason why people want to see battles of Good versus Evil, and why people want to see the biggest, most intimidating villain be defeated at the story’s climax, not halfway through: those things are more entertaining. The purpose of Game of Thrones was to be entertaining, not to be a let-down.

There is plenty of room in the world of entertainment for stories that aren’t about fundamental battles between Good and Evil. But if Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire wanted to be that kind of story, with a sole focus on human villains, palace intrigue, war, and politics, then why have magic at all? Why go to all the trouble of introducing the Night King and building him up as an existential threat? If the show wanted Cersei and Daenerys to be the villains, to show how power corrupts or that a belief in one’s own righteousness can lead to heinous crimes, just set up that story and skip the evil all-destroying Dark Lord. If George R. R. Martin didn’t want to write a story where the good guys face off against an evil villain, then why’d he write his books that way and let the show go down that route?

If the show wanted to be all about the wars, politicking, and human villains, why bother creating the Night King at all?

Perhaps part of the problem is that the show and books have become, over the preceding seasons, distinct from one another. The Night King is not actually a book character – at least not as of the end of the most recent novel, A Dance With Dragons. He’s a show creation, intended to give the leaderless Others (the novels’ name for the White Walkers) a figurehead. There are many other points of divergence, but perhaps this is the biggest one, and one which could explain why the Night King storyline fell so flat: it wasn’t Martin’s creation.

Martin, Benioff, and Weiss may look at the works of authors like Tolkein with derision, considering the premise of good-versus-evil a played-out cliche. And it’s true that sometimes, that basic premise can feel overdone. But there’s a reason why audiences respond to the kinds of stories that we don’t see in real life – they’re entertaining and engrossing. Seeing a bunch of flawed humans scrabbling around to decide who’s the temporary king of a broken kingdom isn’t as epic and it isn’t as fun. Fantasy in particular is meant to be escapism; there’s a place for realism in entertainment provided it stays on the right side of the line. But Game of Thrones got it fundamentally wrong if the producers and writers believed that fans were more interested in seeing Mad Queen versus Mad Queen instead of the Great War between the living and the dead play out in more detail.

In Season 5 and Season 7 especially, we start to see the Night King as a foil for Jon Snow – which explains why a lot of people were so upset that the Night King and Jon never faced off against one another at the Battle of Winterfell. Again, the question is why? Why set up that rivalry only to drop it at the moment it should have reached its zenith? If the intention always was for Arya to land the killing blow – as showrunners Benioff and Weiss have indicated – why set up a Jon Snow-versus-Night King expectation? This comes back to what I said about good storytelling and how stories have been structured and written historically: there’s a reason why a hero-versus-villain fight feels right and feels so epic and spectacular. Messing with these formulae too much can lead to the whole story just disintegrating, and that’s what we see with Game of Thrones.

Personally speaking, I was okay with Arya landing the killing blow. I felt it was a good use of her assassin training, and it meant that we got to see her use her skills (which otherwise would have felt like a wasted arc in previous seasons) but without her killing Cersei. However, it would definitely have been nice to see Jon and the Night King duelling at the Battle of Winterfell before she struck. For the reasons outlined above, I understand why many people didn’t like it and felt that it was another bolt from the blue in a season that was frankly overrun by these twists.

I wrote last time that Game of Thrones was a series that definitely became aware of its own reputation as the seasons went on. The showrunners and writers evidently felt a peculiar pressure to keep up the unexpectedness, but without the books to rely on to provide twists, they had to make up their own. That’s how we ended up with Littlefinger’s storyline at Winterfell in Season 7, it’s partially why Tommen committed suicide at the end of Season 6, and it’s why Jon had to lead a mission north of the Wall in Season 7. With no source material to work from, and a barebones outline of where the characters needed to end up, Benioff and Weiss did their best to get them there, but they wanted to keep up the show’s reputation for being unreliable and throwing shocks and twists at the audience. With all due respect, though, what they managed to come up with was a poor imitation of Martin’s work. Benioff and Weiss were amazing at adapting already-complete stories for the small screen. But they were poor when it came to making their own decisions about where the story should go and how it should unfold. That may be why they were dropped by Lucasfilm having been offered the opportunity to work on Star Wars, and it’s certainly why Netflix, which has hired the duo, should be very careful about how much free rein it gives them to create a new story.

David Benioff and D. B. Weiss adapted Game of Thrones for television and served as showrunners for the duration of the series.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Of all the plot threads that Game of Thrones dropped without a real conclusion, the Night King’s is the worst. Secondary storylines, like those involving Dorne or Essos, might be annoying to fans and noticeable, but the Night King was the show’s overarching villain and the driving force for much of the story of the series. His death in his first real battle and his first appearance of the season, and then the surviving characters taking almost no time to deal with what happened as they rushed on to the next story point, was where the season – and arguably the main storyline of the whole show – came undone. We needed to get two things from the Night King, as I wrote last time: a genuine motivation, complete with tangible implications in the event of him winning, and to see him actually win a fight. We got neither, and the show simply couldn’t recover from that truly awful anticlimax.

I didn’t intend to spend so long on the Night King again, but apparently there was a lot more to say from my last article on this topic.

Having spoken to friends who are Game of Thrones fans, and having participated in the online conversation surrounding the show last year, one thing that’s clear to me is that there’s no agreement on what Season 8 did worst. Some are upset by the Night King, as I am, others are upset by Daenerys’ rush to madness. Some feel Jaime’s character regression was the worst mistake, others still feel that the decision to crown Bran was where the season truly went off the rails. But there is agreement – almost universally so – that Season 8 was a failure. Practically everyone I’ve spoken to made the point that six episodes were simply not enough to tell the final part of this story, and the truncated season ruined one or more major storylines as a result. It’s hard to disagree with that consensus.

There are several points in Season 8 which received a lot of criticism that I personally felt were okay. I mentioned Arya landing the killing strike on the Night King as one of those points. The Night King needed way more screen time and explanation, as we’ve already covered, but fundamentally the idea that she could use the skills she learned in Essos to take him down wasn’t particularly an issue for me – at least not when compared to the overall failure of that storyline.

Another character whose arc was criticised was Jaime Lannister. After several seasons of growth and change, many fans felt that his decision to ditch Brienne and return to King’s Landing to be with Cersei was out of character, a regression, and destroyed his arc. Game of Thrones has never shied away from presenting its characters as flawed, and in my opinion, what Jaime’s decision was trying to say is that despite everything he’d been through, the love he feels for Cersei, even as he recognises how twisted and evil she can be, is stronger than anything else. It wanted to say that people will do inexplicable and nasty things for love, and that sometimes there’s no way to overcome that. It also wanted to say that some people can appear to change but fundamentally haven’t or can’t. Is that depressing? Sure it is – but anyone who’s been betrayed, lied to, or cheated on by a partner can recognise something in Jaime’s Season 8 arc. If you’ve ever felt that sense of regret that comes from having been warned about someone or missing the “red flags” in a relationship, I think you should be able to relate to how Brienne feels in the moment Jaime leaves.

The character turn was rushed, of course, as was practically everything in Season 8. And I don’t disagree that his decision seemed to come from nowhere. It’s also hard to argue with the idea, given that he did nothing of consequence after leaving Winterfell, that he could have been killed in the battle against the Night King – his death would have gone some way to making that fight feel less pathetic. This ties into what I was saying earlier about the postmodern approach to storytelling, and how Game of Thrones has wanted to throw away established conventions. Seeing Jaime undo several seasons’ worth of changes to his character is fundamentally unsatisfying to a large part of the audience, regardless of any message that kind of story may contain. What was also deeply unsatisfying to many fans was seeing Cersei reunited with her lover and soulmate before her death.

When a villain like Cersei is presented in such a mean, nasty way, we as the audience want to see her get her comeuppance. For some villains it isn’t enough that they’re defeated or even killed, there’s a part of us that wants to see them suffer. Cersei being reunited with Jaime gives her great comfort in the moments before her death. She doesn’t die alone, she dies in the arms of the man she’s always loved. And as with the point above, I can certainly appreciate why fans feel that was less of a satisfying end for a character we’ve all been encouraged to loathe for eight seasons.

Game of Thrones ended up with Cersei as the show’s final villain in what was a major anticlimax.

The sequence that I termed the “Electoral College” last time, in the series finale, is another point that comes in for criticism. I said last time that the decision to anoint Bran as king was a problem for some people, as the way he might govern and the people he appoints to his ruling council basically represent a continuation of the previous system of government. The Electoral College may work for Bran and Bran’s successor (as he is unable to have children and his apathetic personality means he’s unlikely to have a preference for who succeeds him on the throne), but it may not work very well in the long run. It’s essentially rule by an aristocratic few, with all of the corruption, unfairness, and lack of freedom such a system propagates.

But looking at the sequence itself, which is something I rather glossed over last time, there are clearly some issues. And yes, some of these are closer to nitpicks than major errors, but taken as a whole there’s a reason why the sequence didn’t work for a lot of fans.

Firstly, the reason the Electoral College was assembled in the first place is that there was no clear candidate to rule. While it should certainly be seen as an encouraging step that the surviving lords and ladies got together instead of raising their armies and claiming the throne for themselves, several candidates present at the meeting had claims to the throne, as did at least one person not present – Jon Snow. The reveal of Jon’s heritage as a Targaryen and not a bastard gave him the strongest claim to power, stronger even than Daenerys’. Several of the great houses of Westeros had been very keen in earlier seasons on a Targaryen restoration, and while it’s true that the principal figures involved in that are mostly dead by this point, they have heirs and representatives at the meeting who arguably should be in favour of restoring the Targaryen line. With Daenerys dead, the only Targaryen who remains is Jon. Even if he wasn’t to end up on the throne, the fact that he wasn’t even considered by anyone raised many eyebrows. I don’t think it makes the revelation of his true lineage somehow a waste, because Game of Thrones has always been a series where characters’ supposed destinies don’t pan out. But some fans feel that way, perhaps because they’d been on “Team Jon”, or perhaps because he seemed like the best candidate to them.

But there were other candidates besides Jon. The line of the Baratheon family – which was related to the Targaryens in the past, allowing Robert Baratheon to claim the throne in the first place – leads to Gendry, who has been recently legitimised and given dominion over one of Westeros’ realms. If Jon is not an option, Gendry has a strong claim as Robert Baratheon’s heir and as an admittedly distant relative of the Targaryen family through Robert. Edmure Tully nominates himself before being shot down by Sansa in what some fans derided as a “girl power” moment. But why not Edmure? No one else seems to want the job, and as a nobleman he’s as valid a candidate as anyone present.

The North seems overrepresented at the Electoral College. All three surviving Stark children – Sansa, Bran, and Arya – are present, as is Brienne, who is sworn to Sansa’s service, and Sam, who seems to be the sole representative of the Night’s Watch. Of thirteen people present, four or five represent one of the seven kingdoms – which intends to fully and formally secede. Several of the other lords either don’t speak or barely speak, leaving their realms without a voice in proceedings.

The Stark family survivors at the “Electoral College”.

As I mentioned last time, both Dorne and the Iron Islands had been on the verge of secession in earlier seasons. Dorne in particular was livid when the Targaryens were deposed, and had been working constantly to bring about a Targaryen restoration. And the Iron Islands, now seemingly under Yara’s control, had been promised independence by Daenerys. As above, even if the ultimate outcome was to be the Iron Islands’ continued presence in the realm, for their claim to not even be mentioned once feels like an oversight at best. We had never met the new Prince of Dorne before this sequence, so perhaps having this new character press for his home’s independence might have felt somewhat tacked-on, but Yara is an established character, someone who has fought hard ever since we met her for the Iron Islands, so for her not to speak up at all is understandably something fans noticed.

When Tyrion arrives at the Electoral College he’s a prisoner of the Unsullied. Grey Worm hates him for his betrayal of Daenerys, and at the beginning he’s told he isn’t allowed to speak. Yet within moments, Tyrion is dominating the proceedings. He gives a speech and it’s his nomination of Bran than sways everyone to anoint him as the new king. Many fans feel that Tyrion’s status as a prisoner meant that he shouldn’t have been allowed to play such an important role in the Electoral College, and it’s worth acknowledging that.

In the aftermath of the finale, a reviewer wrote that the Electoral College alone could have been a whole episode or a whole season, instead of simply a twelve-minute sequence toward the end of the finale. In a show that has always done politicking well, I can agree with that sentiment. There was a lot to discuss, and while the ending could have remained the same, we could have certainly spent more than twelve minutes getting there.

Continuing our theme of looking at nitpicks, two of Season 8’s battles received a lot of criticism for the perceived lack of logic in their tactics and the way those battles unfolded. Firstly we have the Battle of Winterfell, where points of criticism included the Dothraki cavalry charge, the placement of infantry compared to artillery, and most prominently the decision to place many soldiers outside the walls of the castle. Castles are, of course, designed to be defensible positions which armies and civilians can retreat to. Winterfell in particular is a large complex, and we saw some of the battle preparations include bringing food and supplies inside the walls – something that would be done to withstand a prolonged siege. When facing an overwhelmingly powerful army, like the Army of the Dead, many fans and armchair generals felt that leaving forces outside the walls to face the attackers head-on was a dumb decision. And I can see that point of view. Certainly having the Dothraki charge right into the first wave of the wights was silly; having them somewhere to the south in reserve, where they might be able to join the battle later in a flanking manoeuvre or even hit the Army of the Dead from the rear would have been a better use of cavalry in this situation. This was a mistake the Golden Company repeated at King’s Landing, where a portion of their forces inexplicably stand outside the city walls too.

The second criticism of the eighth season’s battles comes in the Battle of King’s Landing. After a handful of ships of the Iron Fleet were able to kill Rhaegal using scorpions, the same fleet and the entire city of King’s Landing is unable to kill Drogon with far more scorpions at their disposal. Now I like the idea of Cersei investing her hopes for winning in this one piece of technology that ultimately fails. But I absolutely agree that having seen Rhaegal so brutally killed in the previous episode, it’s very strange that Drogon survived. I really dislike when a story becomes inconsistent with what’s already been established, so either the scorpions needed to fail or they needed to work. We needed to see Rhaegal survive or Drogon be injured in order for the use of scorpions to remain consistent. As it is, it feels like Rhaegal was killed off just because he was in the way, and having two dragons survive Daenerys’ death wasn’t in the story. While it may be a stretch to call Rhaegal a “character” in the same way, when a character is killed off in what seems to be a cheap way like this, it never feels great.

I don’t like the argument that some people always trot out to defend dumb tactics and decisions: “it’s just a TV show/film/story!” Of course it is, it’s fiction. And as I said above, no one comes to Game of Thrones for a lesson in medieval battle tactics. But there’s a line between realism and fun, and a world like Game of Thrones’ does rely on at least a perception that character decisions are realistic. Trying to excuse a mistake by saying “it’s just a story” is silly. If characters have been established over several years as being smart, good commanders, and clever tacticians, it’s at best a change and at worst completely jarring when they seem to lose all of that overnight.

A Lannister soldier with a suddenly ineffective scorpion during the Battle of King’s Landing.

Tyrion is the character who’s been at the centre of these criticisms since at least Season 7; it was his insistence to bring Cersei into the war against the Night King, for example, despite knowing she was the kind of person who would let them down. And the mission north of the Wall was something he supported, despite being incredibly dangerous and stupid. We’ve talked a lot about characters seemingly going against what had been established, and Tyrion doesn’t escape that. Nor does Varys, whose overt scheming on Jon’s behalf winds up getting him killed.

Something I’ve noted in past articles looking at other films and series is that when a production has some problems, other more minor issues become noticeable. These points on their own would not “ruin” a better show, but when the spell is broken and one looks at a show like Game of Thrones with a more critical eye, minor issues seem to pile up and add to the sense that it was a failure. I’m thinking in particular about some of the production goofs – the modern-day cup and water bottle glimpsed briefly in a couple of scenes (that I myself didn’t spot), or the modern shoes worn by a character in one scene that I also didn’t spot on first viewing. In a less-troubled production, or a season whose overall story was better-received, these incredibly minor points would have gone unnoticed or been little more than a shared joke between fans and producers. But in a season which has been roundly criticised, minor points just pile on, and for many fans, things like the coffee cup just added to the sense that less care had been taken with Season 8.

Putting together my two articles on this subject, I think I’ve finally looked at all of the points I wanted to. It took a long time and I know this was a detailed breakdown, including dragging up academic theories, so if you read through both articles and made it to the end I hope it all made sense to you.

The initial question I asked when I began my first piece on this subject was: why isn’t anyone watching Game of Thrones in mid-2020? And did the disappointing final season essentially wipe the series off our collective cultural map? The answer is complicated, because one thing I’ve learned from reading reviews, criticism, and fan-made re-writes over the last few weeks is that practically everyone has a different take on which point was the worst. What fans do agree on is that the story of Season 8 was weak, that the season itself was far too short, and that a series like Game of Thrones should have been able to manage a better and more impressive ending. While there had been criticism of a decline in quality since at least Season 5, most people seem to have been willing to brush over any points from Seasons 5-7 that they felt didn’t work in anticipation of something truly epic at the end to bring the series back. The disappointment expressed by some fans is magnified because it’s the culmination of several years’ worth of seeing the series go downhill.

Speaking for myself, I’m in no hurry to rewatch Game of Thrones. It was a cultural phenomenon when it was ongoing, but the eighth season has definitely broken that spell. While I felt some points that have attracted criticism actually worked alright, I certainly believe they could have worked even better with more time and care taken to let them pan out. I may come back to Game of Thrones in a few years time, but I don’t feel like it at the moment. Last year’s disappointment is still too vivid and binge-watching the whole story just to get to that point doesn’t actually hold a great deal of appeal.

As a landmark in the history of television, Game of Thrones might be better-remembered because of its legacy and the impact it has had on television shows across the board, but especially within sci-fi and fantasy. It’s hard to see shows like The Expanse or even the more recent Star Trek series existing in a world without Game of Thrones. Its ultimate legacy may be that better shows will be made in its aftermath – shows which will hopefully avoid repeating its mistakes.

Game of Thrones is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray, and is the copyright of HBO. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Where did Game of Thrones go?

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, including all of Season 8 and the series finale.

At time of writing, people all over the world are still enduring varying degrees of lockdown and quarantine. Tens of millions of people aren’t working at all, and of those who are, many are working reduced hours and/or from home. Despite the fact that the production of films and television series has ground to a halt, as well as major disruption to release and broadcast schedules, many people are digging into their box sets and streaming subscriptions looking for something to watch to kill time.

There are many wonderful shows being re-watched and talked about, but one that has had practically no attention is Game of Thrones, despite once being regarded as one of the best television shows of all time.

Game of Thrones redefined what a television series could be. It made the geeky, niche genre of fantasy positively mainstream. It firmly established that multi-season serialised storytelling is not only possible, but something audiences respond well to. It demonstrated to production companies and networks that investing cinema-level money into television can be worthwhile. And it’s not a stretch to say that practically every television show produced after its 2011 premiere borrowed something from its production and storytelling methods. It is a landmark in the history of television.

So why isn’t anyone talking about Game of Thrones in mid-2020?

Promo poster for Season 1 of Game of Thrones.

It was only last year, little more than a year ago to the day in fact, that the finale of Game of Thrones was broadcast. The episode is the show’s worst-rated ever according to both critics and, by every reliable measure, its biggest fans. The question I’m asking today is simple, but the answer may be complicated: was Game of Thrones’ final season so badly-received that it essentially extinguished any support the show had? Did that ending undo five, six, or seven seasons’ worth of the best television ever made? Has Game of Thrones been wiped off our collective cultural map?

Firstly, let’s acknowledge that there had been criticism of perceived declining quality in Game of Thrones since at least the end of its fifth season – hence my remark above. Some fans and viewers felt that the show’s writing and pacing had begun to dip around that time – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the time the show’s storyline went beyond the end of the most recent novel in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, 2011’s A Dance With Dragons. Seen in that context, perhaps a continued decline in the way the show was received is just something natural – culminating in a disappointing finale.

But it feels like there’s much more to it than that. We’ve undeniably seen many shows go on too long and lose their edge over time – but Game of Thrones is, as we’ve already established, not a normal television production. The rules don’t apply in the same way, largely because the story has been building up over every season. Every character killed, every army moved around like chess pieces on a board, every line of dialogue and character relationship had all been carefully crafted and built upon to get the story to this point. It has been one continuous story, and getting bored of it before the end is akin to putting down a novel unfinished. Television shows of the past (and present) which have suffered from running too long had almost always wrapped up their initial story and were telling new and different ones by the end. Look, for example, at Supernatural, now in its fifteenth season, if you can believe that. The initial story in Seasons 1 and 2 was about brothers Sam and Dean Winchester trying to defeat the Yellow-Eyed Demon. That antagonist was gone by the second season finale. Every story in Supernatural that came after was at best a sequel and at worst tacked-on. This isn’t the case for Game of Thrones.

Perhaps, in time, it will come to be seen as a mistake to commission a television project of this scale based on an incomplete series of novels. When production began, four novels of a planned six had already been published. A fifth would follow shortly after the premiere of Season 1, and the planned six novels was revised to include a seventh at some point in there too. I understand the argument that it wasn’t possible to know in 2011 that the sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, would take so long to write. But it wasn’t inconceivable, and a plan needed to be made. Unfortunately the way George R. R. Martin claims to write is without a detailed plan – preferring to let events unfold as he writes them, rather than planning in meticulous detail where every character is heading. The result of these factors is that, when the show caught up to the end of A Dance With Dragons at the end of Season 5, there wasn’t much for the showrunners and writers to go on beyond a barebones outline of the final stages of the story.

The cover of 2011’s A Dance With Dragons – the most recent novel in A Song of Ice and Fire.

The show is also not a fully faithful adaptation of the novel series, as fans of A Song of Ice and Fire can attest. A number of characters have been significantly changed or cut entirely, as were some significant storylines. The show has also been willing to cut some of the story points that it did adapt if it was determined that, for whatever reason, they were not popular with audiences. As the two projects – the novel series and the television series – diverged over the first five seasons of the show, it’s possible that some aspects of the story that would prove to be important – either in and of themselves or because of how they affected other aspects of the story – were missing or fundamentally altered, leading to the differences between them becoming even more pronounced.

Just like how The Walking Dead takes characters, settings, and storylines from the comic book series but makes major changes when adapting them for television, so too has Game of Thrones. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing in and of itself, but a writer like George R. R. Martin is rather unique, and it seems clear now that the showrunners and writers of Game of Thrones – principally David Benioff and D. B. Weiss – just aren’t on the same level, especially when it comes to a world Martin knows intimately because it’s a world he created. Benioff and Weiss were outstanding at adapting someone else’s work when the story had been fully established; they were far less competent at making their own creative narrative choices.

The seventh season is where this began to become apparent, at least from my point of view. The mission Jon leads north of the Wall to capture a wight is, at best, questionable. And the way it unfolds is a prime example of how the final couple of seasons’ pacing felt off compared to earlier seasons. In what was essentially a single sequence we had characters travelling hundreds of miles, when it had been established many times across the show’s run that some of these journeys can take weeks or longer. As I think I’ve mentioned before, a story being inconsistent within its own world is one of my biggest pet peeves in all of fiction. Despite that, however, Season 7 was decent overall. I enjoyed it, and I felt it set up what could be an engrossing final season.

By the beginning of Season 8, the surviving characters are essentially in two camps. There’s the group at Winterfell, led by Sansa, Jon, and Daenerys, and the group at King’s Landing led by Cersei. The Winterfell group will face the show’s overarching antagonist, the Night King.

The Night King in The Dragon and the Wolf – the finale of Season 7.

The story of the White Walkers, the Night King, and the Army of the Dead had been set up literally in the first scene of the first episode of the first season, and ever since, we as the audience knew that this threat was coming. As interesting as the wars and politicking was, at the end of the day we knew that it wouldn’t matter who was King or Queen if they ignored this bigger threat, and that really, the only hope the characters would have of survival is to overcome their animosities and differences and work together. This is why, as George R. R. Martin has said himself, the White Walkers are an excellent analogy for climate change!

Many characters across the first seven seasons had warned, informed, and prophesied about the Night King and his Army of the Dead. They had been set up as the main antagonist in the series, the biggest threat that all of our characters – heroes and villains – needed to be frightened of. The Night King was said to bring a winter that would last forever, plunging the whole world into bitter cold and darkness. Some of the characters who had sounded the alarm and who seemed to know the most about this threat had been killed off in earlier seasons, but that knowledge had been passed along. The reason most characters gather at Winterfell at the beginning of the season is in anticipation of this very fight.

The final sequence of Season 7 sees the Night King atop his undead dragon destroying part of the Wall and leading his army south. This was incredibly powerful, showing off the Army of the Dead at full strength – tens of thousands of zombies, if not more. This felt like the moment that the whole series had been building toward – and it’s the crux of why the eighth season fell flat.

When it was announced that Season 8 would only consist of six episodes, I was concerned. Season 7 felt, at several points, that it would have benefited from a few extra scenes here and there, and while making that season ten episodes instead of seven longer episodes might not have increased the actual runtime by more than a few minutes, the week-long break between episodes might have gone some way to mitigating the impression that some characters seemed to rush from place to place as if they had Formula 1 cars instead of ravens and horses. Season 8 being shorter still was a worry; it felt like they might not have enough time to effectively explain and wrap up everything left over.

As mentioned, there were two primary camps of characters at the beginning of Season 8. But within those groups there were many individuals whose stories were not even close to concluded; too many to list. Six episodes needed not only to resolve two major wars, including the war against the biggest, baddest antagonist in the whole show, but also give each character a satisfying end – dead or alive, their stories needed to feel conclusive, because a Game of Thrones sequel featuring the same characters simply isn’t on the cards. My initial concern was, sadly, proven right. Not only wasn’t there enough time to allow everything to unfold naturally and at the right time, but in retrospect, some of the limited time they did have was wasted.

Episode 2, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, is a slow, character-centric piece, following many of the characters at Winterfell on the eve of battle. On first viewing I loved it, but in retrospect much of it was wasted time. Not only did practically all of the major characters survive the battle – an issue in and of itself which we can look at in a moment – but given the failure of the Night King’s storyline, this dead time should have been allocated to explaining and advancing what was going on with him.

All of these characters, who took up so much time talking about basically nothing in Episode 2, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, survived the Battle of Winterfell.

The Night King promised to be an existential threat to our characters. He wanted to essentially turn them all into wights and bring about an eternal winter. He was threatening, and he led a massive army. Previous engagements quickly turned into routs as he and his forces used a combination of their ice magic and sheer numbers to destroy the assembled wildlings north of the wall and even bring down a dragon – with one single hit! Yet the Night King doesn’t last a single episode south of the wall, and is killed in his first major engagement against a significant force. It was as if Game of Thrones was in such a rush to get to the Cersei-Daenerys fight that the Night King was just dropped.

I’m fine with Arya being the one to land the killing strike on him. It can be argued through the Melisandre prophecy that it had been hinted at, and it makes a good use of her assassin arc from earlier seasons, as well as being a twist on the expected use of those assassin skills to kill Cersei. That point doesn’t bother me. But we needed to see two major things from the Night King and his army in Season 8, and we got neither. We needed to see them win. They needed to win a major pitched battle somewhere against someone, and they didn’t. In his entire campaign going back to the first season, the Night King had never faced a significant opposing force. The wildlings were disorganised and lacking in significant weapons and equipment, as well as defensible positions. The rout at Hardhome was little more than a massacre of civillians. And the Wall was just that: a wall. An inanimate object. Destroying it was no mean feat, but it didn’t exactly put up a fight. The forces amassed at Winterfell are thus the first real opponent the Night King faces. His “Long Night” lasted precisely one night, as he was dead before dawn the next day.

The second thing we needed to get from the Night King was why he was there. What was his endgame? And why was he coming? The explanation feels like it was so tantalisingly close; between the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children of the Forest, and Sam digging into restricted books, we should have got a better answer. As it is we got an ambiguous throwaway line from one character, and then everyone moves on to the practicalities of battle planning.

For me personally, this is the failure of Season 8. Seven seasons’ worth of story, lore, and background was thrown away in a single episode. The biggest threat turned out to not be a threat at all, and not only did he lose and die with no real explanation as to who he was, what he wanted, or what he would have done if he’d won, the entire battle only killed a couple of major characters – both of whom (Theon and Jorah) had seen their arcs conclude. The story then brushes off what happened and rushes to the next objective with barely an acknowledgement of what had been accomplished, and with no examination at all of the implications.

As a storyline, the Night King was billed for seven seasons as the main event. There was still the war to be fought against Cersei, but I felt that was going to be little more than an epilogue, something to wrap up the remaining loose ends after the main event. What we got feels like a bait-and-switch, saying at the last moment that actually the Night King and his seemingly invincible magical Army of the Dead was just another villain, and that the big bad of the whole season is… Cersei. Maybe there’s a message there about how the real baddies were us humans all along, but it got lost in what was a truly epic anticlimax that dragged down the entire story of the series.

I can actually think of a better structure for Season 8. One which gets most of the characters to the same point by the end, and which still only consists of six episodes. This would, in my opinion of course, fix the major issues with the Night King storyline. Let’s go over my Season 8 plan very quickly:

At the end of Episode 1, the Night King engages in his first major battle. A small force, perhaps consisting of Night’s Watch and some wildlings, is overrun and obliterated in moments, with a named character like Edd being killed. Episode 2 skips most of the eve-of-battle drama that, in the real Season 8, ended up being little more than fluff, and is where the Night King’s forces arrive at Winterfell. The battle plays out more or less as it did in the show (though I would take this opportunity to kill off at least one additional major character) and ends on a huge cliffhanger: Winterfell falls! Episode 3 sees the survivors engage in a fighting retreat, heading south. By this point, Sam and Bran have put their heads together and used a combination of Bran’s newfound powers and Sam’s book knowledge to piece together the Night King’s origin, and firmly establish why he’s coming and what the actual, specific implications will be. They also learn, at this moment, that stabbing him in exactly the same place as the original dragonglass dagger will shatter the dagger and un-make him, ending the war. Arya would overhear this. In the next battle, perhaps at a location like the Twins, all will seem lost. The Night King’s forces will seem unstoppable and he’ll make his way to Bran. Arya will step in and do her thing – but this time the camera work will be better so we can see exactly where she stabbed him. In the actual episode it looked like she stabbed him in the gut; I didn’t even get that they were going for the same spot as the dagger until I read that later. From there, at the beginning of Episode 4, the season can unfold more or less the same as it did, as I feel that would “fix” the Night King.

Now let’s look at the character who seems to draw the most flak from fans for the way her character turned around in a short span of time: Daenerys.

Daenerys’ character arc in Season 8 was rushed to say the least.

For seven seasons, Daenerys had been the “breaker of chains”, looking to build a better world for her subjects. There had been hints that she had the potential within her to succumb to the madness that afflicted her father and others in her family, but still many felt that the rapid turnaround from where she was in Season 7 to where she ended up at the end of Season 8 came from nowhere. Fundamentally, I think the issue some folks have is that they were firmly on “Team Dany”. They supported her as one might support a football club or political party, and they wanted to see her win and end up as Queen. I can sympathise in a way; I had been on “Team Stannis” at the beginning of the show – he was the lawful king, after all! But I disagree that the shift in her character came from nowhere, and if it had been set up better and had more time to play out, it could have worked.

In my silly little fan-fic above, I said that I could make the Night King’s storyline work in a six-episode season. Having him play a role in the first three episodes, and with some more backstory and explanation given to both his motivation and how to defeat him, I stand by that. I think it could have been made to work. Daenerys’ turn to madness couldn’t.

While we had indeed seen a small number of hints at the possibility in past seasons, there are two points to consider. Firstly, it was just that: a small number. And secondly, they were hints. If this was the ultimate destination for Daenerys – and I’m sure she will take a similar path in the books if and when they’re written – we needed to see it built up slowly and steadily, not ham-fistedly dumped in with two episodes remaining. The fundamental principle is this: Daenerys suffered the loss of two of her dragons in quick succession, she suffered the loss of her lover Jon, whose true parentage gives him a stronger claim to the throne than she has, she lost Jorah, who had been by her side the whole way and was arguably the only Westerosi she trusted, she lost Missandei, and finally, the deaths of so many of her soldiers meant that the war against Cersei – who had betrayed her trust – was now in jeopardy. In short, she went through a heck of a lot, and combined with her family history, her going mad isn’t inconceivable. But it happened too quickly.

Within basically three episodes, Daenerys goes from the noble queen who tried to make peace with her enemies and offered her own forces to save the North to the mad queen, nuking a whole city and massacring civilians and surrendering troops. Such a dramatic turnaround needed way more time to play out – a whole season, at least. And to cap it all off, within a few hours of going postal on King’s Landing and declaring her intent to conquer the world, she’s dead. Over seven seasons we saw her grow, slowly and steadily, in confidence, strength, and leadership. And in three episodes right at the end she goes nuts and gets stabbed. I can understand why people are upset about that, even if I personally felt that it wasn’t Season 8’s worst error.

This may have always been Daenerys’ final destination, but how she got there simply didn’t work for many fans.

If Season 8 was going to be so short, we needed to see way more movement toward Daenerys’ character transformation beginning in at least Season 6 in order for it to feel like a genuine arc and not a bolt from the blue. Some fans of the show who were firmly on “Team Dany” may have still been upset about the ultimate destination for her character, and in a show that encouraged its viewers to support one faction or another in previous seasons, perhaps that is inevitable. But most people would have recognised that this was the way she’d been going for some time and her ultimate turn – epitomised by the scene in Episode 5 where she sits on her dragon listening to the bells ring out in King’s Landing – would have felt more natural.

However, the problem here is that the main events precipitating her fall into becoming the new Mad Queen all happened in a short span of time. The losses she suffered which led her down that path basically all happen from Episodes 2-4 of Season 8, and that just rushed her transformation. If there is an argument for Game of Thrones needing at least one extra season, it’s that. Daenerys’ character turn may be understandable and natural, but it happened too quickly and the events that led to it happened over such a short span of time that none of them were able to be seen to have their full impact. We missed seeing how each moment affected her and how each loss contributed another step down a dark path. In Episode 4 alone, Daenerys has to say her final goodbye to Jorah at his funeral, sees the Northern lords hailing Jon as a hero – Tormund even uses the word “King” – and then suffer Jon’s rejection again, learns that Cersei has reinforcements at King’s Landing, sees Rhaegal killed brutally by Euron’s fleet, loses many of her ships and surviving soldiers in the ensuing sea battle, and sees Missandei killed. While Game of Thrones has never balked at throwing a lot of depressing circumstances at a character, this is too much to take in all at once for us as the audience, and the meaning and impact of each individual loss and defeat is not given time to sink in.

In the very next episode, Daenerys has her dramatic turn and burns King’s Landing. Even taking one episode in between the events of Episode 4 and the sack of King’s Landing, focusing on Daenerys as she comes to terms with what happened, would have gone some way to mitigating this rushed feeling. It wouldn’t have been enough, but it would have been something.

I definitely feel that these two points – the Night King and Daenerys’ madness – are where the season fell down. The Night King was the most egregious for me personally, but I understand the strength of feeling surrounding Daenerys too, and in both cases, it’s painfully apparent that more time was needed to allow these stories to properly conclude. HBO, who produced Game of Thrones, offered the showrunners as much time as they needed: including extra episodes in Seasons 7 and 8 as well as the possibility of at least one more season. George R. R. Martin has said he would have liked to see the show go on to at least a tenth season and that there was enough story to extend it that far. It was a production decision to curtail the show at Season 8, and to cut down Season 8 to six episodes. In hindsight, both of these decisions were mistakes.

The Night King’s death scene wasn’t even sufficiently lit or well-framed, and the fact he lasted one episode is a pathetic waste of the show’s most intimidating threat.

There were myriad other problems, though. The plot armour that protected many fan-favourite characters at the Battle of Winterfell is one example. Too many main characters survived and were able to continue their stories, when Game of Thrones in earlier seasons had never been afraid to cut down a character in their prime. Many fans were upset at Jaime’s perceived character regression, and while I will defend that point as a story beat as I felt it worked for his character and has a lot to say about love and loyalty, it was undeniably rushed. Like the point with Daenerys detailed above, Jaime’s turnaround comes from nowhere in one short sequence. Perhaps it was intended to recapture the magic of earlier seasons’ surprises, but as a character many fans were invested in the surprise fell flat.

The show also dropped a number of plotlines, either because they couldn’t be made to fit or because there wasn’t enough time. Sansa leads the North to its independence, but what of Dorne and the Iron Islands? Yara had been promised the Iron Islands’ independence in Season 6, and every Dorne plotline was abruptly dropped from Season 8, including Ellaria Sand, who was last seen in the dungeon at King’s Landing. Her absence suggests she died, but this was never seen or confirmed. No mention is made of what will happen to the people of Essos in the aftermath of Daenerys’ death. She had left one of her lieutenants in command of her eastern empire, but the show just ignores all of that after she arrives in Westeros. The Lord of Light and the Brotherhood Without Banners are both ignored after the Battle of Winterfell, despite the Lord of Light’s prophecies being important in earlier seasons. The surviving Dothraki and Unsullied are shuffled off away from Westeros with no clear leadership or any indication of what will happen to them. Cersei’s alleged pregnancy, which the show hinted may be fake, was never paid off in any meaningful way. Jon’s true parentage became an issue for Daenerys briefly, but was promptly dropped. The Iron Bank, which loaned a huge sum of money to the crown of Westeros, is not mentioned, despite the fact that they would want to collect on that debt. No one at the Electoral College (or whatever we’re calling that council at the end of Episode 6 that anointed Bran as the new King) even suggested Jon, despite him being one of two potentially “legitimate” claimants along with Gendry – who was also ignored at that meeting. There are others, some of which had been set up in earlier seasons and ignored for several years prior to Season 8.

What happened to winter? Game of Thrones’ world has seasons which last for years at a time, and the show is set during a “long summer” – one which has lasted many years and should, according to many people at many different points across the series – result in an equally long winter. At the beginning of Season 7, winter finally arrives. The Night King brings colder weather and darkness with him, but after he dies winter itself seems to go away. This ties in with what I said earlier about the Night King’s lack of a satisfying explanation, but if it’s supposed to be the case that he somehow controls winter itself, that needed to be communicated to us as the audience. It would have raised the stakes and would have explained why the show’s world resets to being spring after a winter that lasted a few days at most. In any case, it’s something that needed further explanation. I understand that from an aesthetic point of view, ending the show with the characters in the depths of winter might not have felt as victorious as an ending that was bright and sunlit. And it would have raised questions about whether they all have enough supplies to make it to spring. But again, Game of Thrones has never shied away from half-victories and outcomes with consequences.

The “Electoral College” of Westeros.

This ties in with another point: Game of Thrones basically got a happy ending. Jon survives and goes to live with his friends beyond the (remains of) the Wall. Sansa reigns as Queen in the North. Arya sets off on a voyage of exploration. Tyrion, Bronn, Sam, Brienne, and Davos rule Westeros as Bran’s council of advisers. Aside from Daenerys and Jaime, the main “hero” characters from the beginning of Season 8 survive – and not only that, they win. Someone had to win the titular game of thrones somehow. But after a lot of talk about changing the system and “breaking the wheel”, the main characters basically reestablish the existing form of government. Bran, as he cannot have children, may be succeeded by another monarch chosen by an Electoral College, but is that system sustainable when a new monarch takes over who wants to pass the throne to his or her child? There were only a handful of people at the Electoral College, most of whom were aristocrats, so it wouldn’t be difficult for a future monarch to manipulate the council into giving the succession to his or her child or chosen successor.

Speaking of Bran becoming king, this is the final point where many people felt the story went completely off the rails. I’m in two minds on this point. On the one hand, I agree that it came from nowhere and that it contradicts what Bran said earlier in the season about not wanting to rule or govern. On the other hand, when compared to the Night King’s story being such a colossal anticlimax, I don’t think it’s all that bad.

If what we’ve been told about the show working toward the same endgame as the books is true, then Bran will end up as king there too. But I’m sure if he does, it will be better-explained. What we got was a single speech by Tyrion nominating him for the role, which seems to take everyone by surprise, including several characters at the Electoral College who have their own claims to the throne. Everyone then just… goes along with it. It’s over and done with in the space of five minutes, and then a few minutes later the credits roll and that’s the end of the series. Game of Thrones is a show that definitely became aware of its reputation for throwing up genuine surprises, and I wonder if that could explain the decision to make Bran king, or at least the manner in which it unfolded.

In-universe, there’s no guarantee Bran would be a good king. We’ve seen so little of his abilities as the Three-Eyed Raven that we don’t know what, if anything, he could do beyond warging into various animals and remembering a bunch of stuff from the distant past. As someone so concerned with the history and memory of the world, is he too detached from current events to be an effective leader? If he delegates basically everything to his council, are those people well-suited to govern? Let’s look at them: Tyrion and Bronn are both known to be people who enjoy drinking and visiting brothels, yet they’re Hand of the King and Master of Coin respectively. Davos and Brienne may be competent, though Brienne has never been in a genuine position of leadership before. Sam as Grand Maester simply feels like fan-service, because how is he possibly qualified or sufficiently skilled and experienced to be in that role? He spent a short time as an apprentice at the Night’s Watch, a very short time as an initiate at the Maesters’ Citadel, after which he ran away and stole some of their books, and suddenly from nowhere he’s appointed Grand Maester. That just seems odd. In short, in addition to all of the problems the new system of electing a monarch could easily create, the current leadership of the Six Kingdoms is, at best, questionable.

The rulers of Westeros at the end of the show: the characters who won the titular game of thrones.

To wrap things up, where I personally feel Game of Thrones failed in its eighth season was in the handling of the Night King. That was the worst and most egregious fault, and it stems from a decision to rush through the remaining story beats. Partly the fault lies with showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who chose to end the show prematurely rather than hand over the reins to someone else. But it isn’t fair to lay all of the blame at their feet. HBO allowed them to go down this route. And George R. R. Martin hasn’t finished his novel series, meaning that when the show caught up to the books, they ran out of material to adapt. As I’ve already said, I think in time, giving the show the green light before the novels were finished may come to be seen as a mistake.

The reason no one is really talking about the series any more is because of how badly its final season landed. The story of Game of Thrones is no longer that it’s “the best television show ever made”. That title, if anyone still assigns it to the series at all, comes with a major caveat, and an asterisk saying “except for the ending”. Game of Thrones’ fanbase almost universally dislikes the final season, and while the individual failing(s) that people are most upset about varies, there is agreement overall, even from the show’s biggest supporters, that Season 8 did not achieve what it should have, and that it was too short. Almost as quickly as it emerged in 2011, Game of Thrones has vanished from the cultural map. Its legacy exists in the way today’s television shows are produced, and the existence of series like The Expanse, Star Trek: Picard, The Mandalorian, Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel, and many, many others owes a lot to the trail that Game of Thrones blazed. But the show itself is tainted with disappointment, and because it’s one long story, a bad ending means many people are put off rewatching the earlier seasons. The current lockdown/quarantine moment would be ideal for binge-watching a show like this, but its universally-panned ending means that practically no one is. That’s sad, because the show deserves better.

Game of Thrones will be remembered by its fans, and we already know that at least one spin-off series is in the works. And its broader impact on television storytelling will last for years, if not decades. No show produced in its wake has avoided the influence of Game of Thrones. But its final season has meant that it’s no longer a show that millions of people will sit down to rewatch for a second, third, or fourth time. In that sense, Game of Thrones has disappeared.

I wrote a follow-up to this article a few days later, covering other points and going into further detail on others. You can find the follow-up article by clicking or tapping this link: Further thoughts on Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The series is the copyright of HBO. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Television licensing is outdated and needs to stop

Readers outside the United Kingdom may not be aware of the concept of a television license. To briefly summarise: in order to be lawfully allowed to watch live television broadcasts on any channel, every British household must purchase a license. Money collected from the television licensing system funds the British Broadcasting Corporation – aka the BBC. The BBC runs several television channels and radio stations.

This funding method has existed in some form since the founding of the BBC in the 1920s, when a radio license was required to receive BBC radio transmissions. Prior to that, a separate license had existed for radio sets since 1906.

During the Second World War, the BBC suspended television broadcasts, and when these resumed in 1946, the first official license specifically for televisions was introduced. Television ownership increased dramatically in the early 1950s – especially in 1953 as people scrambled to watch the Queen’s coronation. And the BBC has kept this funding method ever since.

In those days, it made sense. The BBC was the only television broadcaster in the UK, and it had to get its money from somewhere. By introducing a separate tax – because the TV license is a tax, no matter what anyone may claim – that didn’t go into government coffers, the BBC could be operationally independent from the government, and thus be free to criticise it without accusations of bias.

TV licensing funds the BBC (1980s-90s logo pictured).

The TV license is a tax on television owners. But unlike almost every other tax in the UK, it’s a regressive tax – that is, it disproportionately affects poor people. Most taxes are progressive – i.e. the more money you earn or have, the more you’re supposed to pay in tax as a percentage. Someone earning £14,000 a year pays less tax as a percentage of their income than someone earning £140,000 a year. But the television license costs the same regardless of income and regardless of wealth – meaning for someone on a low income, it’s a much larger cost proportionally. Therefore the television license hits working class and low-income households hardest.

This problem has existed since the TV license was first introduced. In its earliest days, however, it cost a lot less even allowing for inflation. It was only when colour television was introduced in 1968 that costs shot up close to the levels people are paying today. And in 1968, when colour television was a luxury that comparatively few people had, there’s a certain logic in pricing it accordingly. But unfortunately, even as colour television has become universal, the license’s high cost has remained.

A television license, which is valid for twelve months, is currently priced at £157.50 – that’s approximately $195. And in order to stay on the right side of the law, households must pay the license fee every single year without fail. Refusal to do so – even on legitimate grounds – results in harassment from the BBC’s “enforcement division”. They start by writing threatening letters, with BOLD BLOCK CAPITALS warning of an investigation into your lack of a license. They threaten you with in-home visits akin to having a bailiff show up, and often these people will be pushy, rude, and downright aggressive if they do pay you a visit. Even if you tell the TV licensing people that you don’t need to purchase a license as you don’t watch television, the letters still show up every so often.

My fundamental reason for opposing the license fee boils down to this: it’s out of date. In a world with cable and satellite television offering literally 500+ channels, and with the number of basic “freeview” channels approaching 100, forcing every household in the country to pay a tax that funds a tiny number of channels – which many people may not ever watch – is unfair. That’s not to mention the existence of streaming platforms and the internet. In short, the television license may have been well-suited to 1920 – or even 1970 – but there is no justification for it in 2020.

The BBC is a bloated organisation, too, and many of its financial decisions are questionable at best. Public service broadcasting in 2020 needs to fill a niche – it needs to offer something that commercial services aren’t due to those things being non-viable. Strictly Come Dancing, The Great British Bake-Off, Match of the Day, and many, many other shows simply do not fall into this category. Other television networks can – and do – make comparable shows, and the BBC doesn’t even do these shows better than the competition. Even a show like Doctor Who would be snapped up by another network if it were for sale. The cost of some of these programmes runs into the tens of millions of pounds – and that’s taxpayers’ money. Tax money, collected from people who can ill afford to pay the inflated rates, is being used to fund mediocre entertainment shows in 2020. I can’t be the only one who finds that utterly obscene.

Strictly Come Dancing is one of many shows that can and should be produced by other networks.

In fact I’m not – and there’s a growing number of people who, like me, opt not to pay the television license. In my case the decision was a simple one: I don’t watch live television any more. I haven’t for a number of years, and I have no plans to start again. When Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, YouTube, and other services exist, there’s almost no point. The kinds of shows I like to watch are readily available to me via streaming platforms, and if I want to catch up on the news I can read the headlines any time I like online. Several newspapers offer paid subscriptions to their content, and honestly I’d rather pay that than pay the television license. The last BBC show that I was close to being a regular viewer of was Doctor Who, and as I’ve explained in the past, I gave up on that show as the quality declined.

BBC shows are often sold to other networks outside the UK. The money raised from selling the rights to some of the organisation’s most popular series, like Top Gear or Doctor Who, gives the BBC an additional source of funding – demonstrating clearly that some of its content is commercially viable, and providing another great argument for scrapping this unfair tax.

The issue of abolishing the television license seems to face three hurdles: the first is nostalgia for the “good old days” when the BBC was the only game in town, the second is fear of what will happen to its content, and the third is that currently the BBC doesn’t run any commercials, which is something people appreciate. While nostalgia and brand loyalty can be difficult to overcome, the second two points are easily solved. Firstly, the BBC’s content will still be made. As happened with The Great British Bake-Off, other channels and networks will buy up the best properties. They may even keep the same name, logo, format, and even presenters. Some minor shows may fall by the wayside, but the best ones will be snapped up. Secondly, one of the options for the BBC’s future will be a paid-subscription model, and in such a case it may not need to have ad breaks. Even if they choose not to go down that route, Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and other online streaming services don’t run ads, so there are great options for ad-free viewing. I think as more people try out one or more of these services and see how easy they are to use and how much content is available, that last hurdle in particular will melt away.

Some people have claimed that the BBC’s news output – and the BBC World Service in particular – is somehow vital and alone is worth the cost of the television license. The World Service is a separate entity, broadcasting on shortwave and often being received in parts of the world where international news is difficult to obtain. But again, as the internet and smartphones become readily available in the World Service’s main markets, like central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, this is getting harder to justify. Secondly, there’s no reason why the World Service couldn’t continue in some form, funded directly by the government through general taxation. As for the BBC’s main domestic news broadcasts, well let’s just say there’s a reason why television journalists are about as popular as stepping in dog shit. There are a number of other news broadcasters in the UK, as well as international broadcasters whose output can be received via cable or satellite. Nothing the BBC does, not even its news, is essential any more. And to burst the last bubble, the BBC’s news output is no less biased than Sky, ITV, or other major broadcasters. They haven’t been impartial for a long time.

The logo of the TV Licensing organisation.

The question of the BBC’s future crops up if we talk about abolishing the television license. I wouldn’t expect the organisation to simply be shut down, at least not immediately. It would likely try to continue in some form, either by using the aforementioned subscription model, or by implementing commercial breaks. It would be a change, but if the BBC could trim the fat and downsize, producing less content but becoming more specialised, there’s no reason it couldn’t stand on its own and be financially viable.

The BBC charter – which includes the television license – is renewed every ten years. The last renewal was in 2017 and will thus expire in 2027. There is ample time for the BBC to make extensive arrangements to find an alternate method of funding. There are seven full years for the necessary arrangements to be made, allowing the license fee to cease to exist in 2027 in a way that is fair to the organisation. It would be a minor upset to some people, sure, but the way entertainment has shifted online in the last two decades shows no signs of slowing down, so by 2027 I think it’s not unfair to assume that more and more content will be consumed that way. Thus the BBC will be even more outdated than it already is. It will require some bold action from the government to swing the axe, so to speak, but it will be worth it in the long run. Abolishing the license fee is actually a popular policy position – whenever the public have been polled on the issue in recent years, abolishing the television license altogether has been by far the most-preferred option.

This regressive tax, which hits the lowest-income households hardest, needs to go. It’s simply not fit for purpose any more, and in 2020 there’s no longer any reasonable justification for it. Our media landscape is so diverse now that there isn’t any need for the BBC in its current form. It’s high time to scrap the television license.

Watching live television in the UK without a license is illegal, and I do not condone failing to abide by the law. There can be legal consequences for non-payment if payment is determined to be required. This article is designed to be informative about the practice of television licensing, and to argue that the tax should be abolished altogether through lawful means; it is not advocating non-payment of the license fee where payment is necessary, nor should anything said above be interpreted in that manner. This article contains the the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

How does Commodore Oh affect other Star Trek stories?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first season of Star Trek: Picard, as well as for Star Trek: Discovery and other iterations of the franchise.

The revelation in Star Trek: Picard that the Romulans had managed to plant an operative in Starfleet was an interesting one, especially because that operative – Commodore Oh – had managed to attain such a high rank. She’d been working in Starfleet since at least the time of The Next Generation and probably even before then, with the Zhat Vash deciding to make a move against the Federation from the moment they learned of the existence of Data.

There had been androids, artificial intelligences, and other forms of synthetic life present in the galaxy prior to Data, and it’s conceivable that the Zhat Vash may have taken action against those as and when they could. But Data represented a step forward in the development of synthetic life, and definitely would have been considered a threat.

There are two possibilities for how the presence of Commodore Oh could be interpreted. She may have chosen to remain deep undercover and stick rigidly to her mission, even if that came at a cost to the Romulan Empire. Alternatively, however, she may have used her position as a spy within the Federation’s ranks to relay information to the Romulans at certain points. This could have been dangerous to her mission, increasing her chances of being caught. The way Commodore Oh and the Zhat Vash were presented for the most part in Star Trek: Picard were as zealots, meaning they seem like the kind of organisation who would be willing to sacrifice the lives of their own people if it advanced their ultimate objective. Indeed, we saw this with their actions on Mars.

Commodore Oh was a major antagonist in Star Trek: Picard Season 1.

Let’s look at the timeline first of all. As early as the 22nd Century, Starfleet had encountered what could arguably be considered examples of artificial intelligence. In the Enterprise episode Dead Stop, for example, the ship encounters a fully-automated space station which seems to act of its own volition. There was also a certain Dr Soong in Enterprise’s fourth season, and while he initially worked with genetically enhanced humans, he indicated he would begin research into synthetics.

By the 23rd Century, Starfleet had developed its own AI. Control, as seen in Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, would ultimately go rogue and kill a number of Section 31 operatives as well as commandeer a fleet of ships. There was also Richard Daystrom, who build an AI capable of controlling a starship in The Original Series episode The Ultimate Computer, as well as several different androids, automatons, and AIs seen in that series.

By this point in time, the Romulans were aware of the existence of the Federation and thus might’ve known about some of these developments. The key ones, in my opinion, which may be relevant to the Zhat Vash would be Control and the M-5 computer, both of which went rogue and may have fed into their fears about synthetic life.

Dr Richard Daystrom, namesake of the Daystrom Institute, invented one of Starfleet’s first sentient machines.

We should also note that there are different types of synthetic life. For some reason, the Zhat Vash seem exclusively focused on preventing the rise of androids as opposed to other forms of AI. That’s despite the fact that many of the dangers present when considering out-of-control AI – including the ability to receive the message on Aia – are common to other kinds of artificial life too. Or at least would be in theory. To use Control as an example, if it became aware of Aia and the message there, given how aggressively it pursued Burnham and the USS Discovery it seems certain that it would have taken the same action as Sutra and tried to contact the “Mass Effect Reapers” (the race of super-synths introduced in the finale of Star Trek: Picard). So why the Zhat Vash are okay with some types of AI and not others, and why holograms seem to be exempt, for example, hasn’t really been covered in detail in the series so far.

However, assuming that the Zhat Vash learned of some of these events they would surely have been concerned – at the very least about the possibility of further development and the creation of android bodies for these AI systems to inhabit.

After the mid-23rd Century, we have no real information on synthetic life until Lore was known to be active on Omicron Theta in the late 2320s or 2330s. Within Star Trek: Picard itself – notably the episode Broken Pieces – the crew of La Sirena assume that Commodore Oh first infiltrated Starfleet after Lore’s brother Data was discovered and activated in 2338 – and by implication, that was the time the Zhat Vash became convinced that Starfleet and the Federation were a threat due to their involvement with synthetic life. However, I think we can reasonably assume that the Romulans, and by extension the Zhat Vash, would have at least become aware of the Federation’s other ties to and encounters with artificial life – even if they didn’t learn about these events until afterwards.

Picard and the crew of La Sirena pieced together a basic timeline for Commodore Oh’s infiltration of Starfleet.

The decision to send an operative in undercover is not one that can be done on a whim – it needs careful planning. If Commodore Oh did infiltrate Starfleet beginning in the 2330s, the Zhat Vash would have needed months or years before she joined up to make preparations. Obviously killing Data wasn’t the objective, or she would have been able to do so any almost any point. Nor was her goal to stop someone like Bruce Maddox working on synthetic life, as he seems to have been free to do so for decades right up until the ban.

I would suspect that Commodore Oh may have worked behind the scenes to slow research into synthetics, perhaps trying to delay or sabotage work being done. While we don’t have a lot of evidence to go on for this, the fact that Bruce Maddox was considered by Data to be incapable of preserving his memories in the episode The Measure of a Man could, in retrospect, be seen less as proof of Maddox jumping the gun and trying to work on Data before he was ready, and perhaps as evidence that his work was being hampered without his knowledge by the Zhat Vash’s spy.

This is what I mean by the question “how does Commodore Oh affect other Star Trek stories?” There are several which we can look back on in the aftermath of Star Trek: Picard and wonder how the presence of Commodore Oh affected things.

Let’s start with the Federation’s two biggest forays into the artificial intelligence realm in the 23rd Century – the Control AI and the M-5 computer. Obviously these events took place long before Commodore Oh was embedded within Starfleet, but they may have laid the groundwork for her mission.

The Control AI went rogue in the 2250s.

Both Control and the M-5 computer went rogue. Their creators – Section 31 and Dr Richard Daystrom – lost control of them, and they began to act on their own, taking aggressive action against organic life. While the Federation will have wanted to cover up what happened – as indeed we see them do at the end of Discovery’s second season – the Romulans are known to be aggressive in their espionage operations, knowing far more about the Federation than vice versa. It would not be an unfair assumption that the Romulans would have come to know what happened in one or both of these cases, and thus it may have been around the mid-23rd Century that the Zhat Vash began preparing to infiltrate the Federation.

Thinking about these two stories from the point of view of the Zhat Vash – who, according to everything we know from Star Trek: Picard will have existed at the time – the events are very concerning. The Federation is barely a century old, with humanity only becoming warp-capable less than a hundred years before that. In a comparatively short span of time, humanity has developed intelligent machines that they went on to lose control over. Humanity must appear, to the Zhat Vash, to be incredibly dangerous, pushing further into unexplored space than any other faction had done, and building an inter-species alliance that even brought an end to the Vulcan-Andorian conflict. For Romulans, who like stability and predictability, the Federation had disrupted a state of affairs that had existed for centuries in the local region of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Would it only be a matter of time before they spotted the octonary star system where Aia is located? That had to be a source of concern.

The next major event would be the activation of Lore and Data, and it’s suggested in Star Trek: Picard that it was Data’s discovery by Starfleet in the late 2330s that prompted the Zhat Vash to send Commodore Oh in undercover. Again if we try to look at this event from their perspective, the Federation’s AI research had now gone beyond shipboard computers and had culminated in the creation of a humanoid android – and it’s this type of synthetic life in particular which seems to concern the Zhat Vash. If Control and the M-5 computer were worrying and had caused them to begin planning, the knowledge that Data existed and had been accepted to Starfleet Academy would have been panic-inducing to the paranoid Zhat Vash.

Lore was active in the mid-late 2330s.

We should consider the Crystalline Entity’s attack on Omicron Theta and examine it through this new lens. Lore, Data’s brother, was responsible for leading the Entity to Omicron Theta, where it wiped out all life on the planet. But was Lore solely responsible? Star Trek: Picard showed us that the Zhat Vash had the ability to hack into synthetics, and that when they did, the synths could be reprogrammed to turn on their creators. The synths on Mars may have been somewhat basic compared to Data and Lore, but the underlying technology is the same, and it’s at least possible that the Zhat Vash hacked into Lore. This could explain not only the attack by the Crystalline Entity, but Lore’s selfish and evil persona.

Sticking with the Crystalline Entity, it may have simply been a convenient way to destroy the colony while having no fingerprints of Romulan involvement. Omicron Theta was a human colony, so if the Romulans were to simply destroy it from orbit with starships, that could lead to war with the Federation. Yet it makes perfect sense that they would see Dr Soong as his work as a threat and want to take every possible step to stop him.

Next we have Dr Maddox and his work with synthetics. We know that, despite Maddox’s objections, Data was allowed to enrol in Starfleet Academy. Around this time, which was roughly the same time of Commodore Oh’s infiltration, Maddox began working on synthetic life. There are two possibilities for why it took Maddox such a long time (fifteen years, give or take, from Data’s admittance to Starfleet Academy to the events of the episode The Measure of a Man) to make much progress with his work. One is that Maddox is simply not as skilled as Dr Soong was, which is what the episode implies. The other possibility has to be that part of Commodore Oh’s mission was to hamper any synthetic research going on within the Federation, and that she, somehow, undermined his work and slowed it down.

Maddox’s research, which we now know grew to include a whole department consisting of a number of scientists and researchers, may also be the reason why the Zhat Vash chose not to simply kill Data. At the time her mission began, Data was the only known extant android, so killing him would have made sense for the Zhat Vash. It would have been difficult to get at him within Starfleet, but they did have an operative. However, the realisation that the Federation would, sooner or later, be able to recreate the work, coupled with Data being confined within Starfleet and thus unable to strike out on his own and potentially discover Aia, may have focused the mission on stopping synthetic research, slowing it down, and gathering as much information on it as possible. As a Starfleet Officer, Commodore Oh would be well-placed to do those things.

Dr Bruce Maddox was the Federation’s leading synthetics researcher for decades.

The fact that it took Maddox a further twenty years to develop F8 and the other androids present on Mars could be taken as evidence of the Zhat Vash trying to undermine his work. How they could have done this is unclear, and they may have simply got lucky with Maddox not being better at his job. One question that has bugged me in the context of Star Trek’s sensors and replicators was this: how hard could it really have been to recreate Data using what they already knew about him? This was never really addressed on screen, but perhaps we can take the fact that the Federation was unable to do so as further evidence of their work on synthetics being slowed and undermined from within.

One faction I think we can safely assume would have fed into the Zhat Vash’s paranoia about AI would be the Borg. In the 2350s, many scientists in the Federation were working on the assumption that the Borg were a myth, or at least were so distant as to not be a threat. This was during the Romulans’ 50+ years of isolation, so we don’t know whether or not they had any more evidence about the Borg than the Federation. But there are two points of note: Star Trek: Picard established that, as far as anyone knew, the Borg had only ever assimilated one Romulan vessel. But in contrast to that, the region of space controlled by the Borg was vast, and they had vessels in the Beta Quadrant (where the Romulan Empire is largely based) during the 2370s.

Starfleet’s official first encounter with the Borg, as depicted in Q Who from The Next Generation’s second season, may have gone unnoticed by the Romulans, but the Borg invasion a year later, as seen in The Best of Both Worlds certainly will not. 39 Federation starships were destroyed, and an enemy ship made it to within a stone’s throw of Earth itself. If the Romulans had remained in blissful ignorance of the Borg up to this point, they will have known by the late 2360s that they existed – if for no other reason than Commodere Oh herself relaying that information.

When the Federation encountered the Borg the Romulans would have soon come to know about it.

The reason for the Romulans’ interest in the Borg in Star Trek: Picard must surely be twofold. On the one hand, selling the disassembled components is incredibly lucrative, and with the region’s sole supply the Romulans were in firm control of this market. Secondly, however, their fear of synthetic life must have been a major reason for studying the Borg so intently. For all we know, the “Mass Effect Reapers” were meant to be the Borg. But even if that isn’t true – and the Romulans don’t seem to know either way – the Borg, with their half-synthetic bodies and single-minded focus on assimilation, must have been a major cause for concern among the Zhat Vash. This can have only been exacerbated when two ex-Borg returned from the Delta Quadrant aboard the USS Voyager – Seven of Nine and Icheb.

Icheb would later be killed – butchered for his Borg components by an unnamed doctor at a facility run by Bjayzl. But who arranged for this? And why is there such a huge demand for Borg technology in the first place? I had theorised during the first season of Star Trek: Picard that the Romulans may be keeping a majority of components for themselves, but even if that isn’t true they have been studying Borg technology extensively. Icheb’s death seems to take place around the time that the Artifact came under Romulan control, so it’s at least possible that Bjayzl’s buyer was the Zhat Vash – that they were interested in learning about the galaxy’s preeminent synthetic race.

Icheb was murdered so his Borg components could be harvested.

Finally, we have B4. We know from Star Trek: Nemesis that the Romulans acquired B4 and placed his disassembled body in such a location that the Enterprise-E would be the closest ship available to respond to Shinzon. How did they know so much about Federation ship movements? Is it at least possible that Commodore Oh was relaying information to the Romulans at key moments like this? The possibility cannot be discounted – and this could even explain why, in Star Trek: First Contact, the Enterprise-E is assigned to the Neutral Zone. Perhaps someone in Starfleet had an inkling that a Romulan spy was in their midst.

Sticking with this theme of Commodore Oh being more of a general spy than simply a Zhat Vash agent, there are a number of Federation-Romulan encounters that she may have been involved in. Or, conversely, we can take the failure of certain Romulan plots as evidence that she was deliberately not involving herself!

For example, Sela’s attempt to interfere in the Klingon Civil War in Redemption ended in total failure – thanks in no small part to Data. A large Federation fleet deployed a sensor net to detect cloaked Romulan ships, thus preventing Romulan aid to the Duras faction. This was a major move on the part of the Romulans, and would have shifted the balance of power in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants had it succeeded. The Federation-Klingon alliance would have evaporated, and the Federation would be facing a Klingon-Romulan alliance alone. Sela’s second plan, to conquer Vulcan in the episode Unification, similarly failed, though this was due to the actions of Data, Picard, and Spock on Romulus and may not have been something Commodore Oh could have done much about – except perhaps warn the Romulans that they were coming.

We can further see this lack of involvement in Face of the Enemy, where Counsellor Troi impersonates a Tal Shiar operative and aids in the successful defection of a senior Romulan government official. A Federation defector to the Romulans is also successful in his efforts to return to the Federation in the same episode.

There is also In The Pale Moonlight from Deep Space Nine. In this story, Sisko essentially lies, cheats, and covers up murders to drag the Romulans into the Dominion War – a war that they had no need to participate in. At the end of the episode Sisko deletes the log in which he’d detailed his actions, and with his disappearance into the realm of the Prophets, only Garak remained as someone who knew everything that happened. But the trail of evidence existed, and could have been pieced together by a Romulan operative within the Federation. Sisko may have deleted his log, but as we’ve seen in other Star Trek stories, deleting data isn’t a straightforward process, and as we saw in The Undiscovered Country, it’s possible for logs to be downloaded and transmitted via subspace, even to foreign powers. Kirk’s own captain’s log was used against him in his trial in that film.

A Romulan senator was assassinated as part of a scheme to drag them into the Dominion War.

However, we could take the Romulans’ successes in episodes like Message in a Bottle – where they are able to commandeer a brand-new prototype Starfleet vessel – as evidence that someone within the Federation was feeding information to them.

So where does all of this leave us when it comes to Commodore Oh?

I feel positively certain that the Zhat Vash would have come to know about what happened with the Control AI, not least because it decimated Section 31. Whether they would have come to know about the M-5 computer is unclear, but even if they didn’t, the Federation’s research into AI would have been troubling to the Zhat Vash at least by the mid-23rd Century.

A major candidate for their interference is Lore and the attack on the Omicron Theta colony. This fits with how the Romulans and Zhat Vash operate, it fits with them knowing how to hack positronic brains, and if there was only one successful android builder (Dr Soong) and two extant androids (Data and Lore), the best course of action from the Zhat Vash perspective may have been to exterminate the colony and prevent that knowledge spreading.

When that failed, and when Dr Maddox had begun his own work on synthetic life, building up a team of scientists, eradicating the problem was clearly far less practical. Killing Data would have only set back the Federation’s research in a small way, and it may have been decided that the best course of action was to work from within to slow them down.

Commodore Oh aboard her ship – finally exposed as a spy.

Commodore Oh doesn’t seem to have actively interfered on behalf of the Romulans at key points where having an embedded operative could have been massively useful to the Romulan Empire. To me, the Federation’s successes against the Romulans in these stories implies that Commodore Oh was laser-focused on her own mission, and felt that stepping outside of her mission parameters, even to save Romulan lives in the short-term, was too great a risk.

Finally, when Dr Maddox was ultimately successful in creating synthetic life on a larger scale, and the rollout of F8 and the other androids went ahead, Commodore Oh felt that the time had come to act. Destroying a fleet intended to help the Romulans was simply unavoidable, because that’s where the synths were. Mars may not have been her first choice of target, but it was the only available target, and with synthetic life research and development accelerating, the time had come to act.

That’s how I see the timeline, and when taking a step back and looking at Star Trek as a whole, I don’t feel that the creation and retroactive inclusion of the Zhat Vash and Commodore Oh causes any major plot holes. Sometimes inserting characters and factions can have this effect, but in this case, I think we can find a way for episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager to play out in such a way that is consistent. The Zhat Vash and Commodore Oh were depicted as zealots, and it would make sense that someone with that kind of single-mindedness would be 100% okay with allowing her own government’s plans to fail and to see Romulans die in order to remain on mission. The Zhat Vash were playing an incredibly long game – Commodore Oh was embedded in Starfleet for over half a century, and even by the standards of long-lived Romulans, that’s a very long time.

While Commodore Oh’s plan succeeded, in the long run the development of synthetic life couldn’t be prevented, and it will be up to future Star Trek stories to show what implications, if any, that may have for the Romulans, the Federation, and the synths themselves.

So this was a different type of article, a deeper dive into a single story point and how it can be seen to effect – or not effect – other stories in the franchise.

I liked the Zhat Vash overall, though the inconsistent way they were referred to throughout Star Trek: Picard’s first season wasn’t great, and I question their almost-immediate decision to withdraw in the finale. They brought a whole new dimension to the Romulans, and one aspect of that is that we can look back at other stories in the franchise and think about how the Zhat Vash may have been involved. As someone who loves Star Trek, this kind of theory-crafting is a lot of fun. I consider the ideas outlined above to be at least plausible, but remember to take all of these fan theories with a grain of salt!

Star Trek: Picard Season 1 is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Picard and all other episodes, films, and series mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

There’s no such thing as a “sponsored review”

#notspon

The growth of the internet has meant that anyone can be a critic or reviewer nowadays. This website is, in a way, testament to that. I never trained as a journalist or critic, and while I took classes both at school and university on subjects like literature and creative writing, and have been a writer in my career, I’m by no means a professional critic. Nor are most bloggers, YouTubers, and others in the digital world of media criticism. While some online criticism can be of a lower standard as a result, the broader picture is that there’s much more diversity in the way we approach and think about media, with reviewers now coming from many different backgrounds instead of all being journalism majors from a select few universities. This is a good thing.

But some online critics, especially when they start to get a following, can be tempted down a deeply unethical path by companies willing to pay for positive reviews and attention. This is especially prevalent on YouTube, but the reality is it can happen anywhere, and we must all be careful what we read or watch online.

YouTube is a great place to find independent media reviewers, but some videos are adverts disguised as criticism.

This article was prompted by a video I spotted on YouTube, and while I will spare the YouTuber’s blushes by not mentioning them by name, I feel that it encapsulates a wider issue that seems to plague discussion surrounding gaming and technology in particular. The video was titled: “Final Fantasy VII Review #ad” (or words to that effect) and was a paid promotion for the newly-released remake of Final Fantasy VII posing as a review. While, to his credit, the young man did put the “ad” hashtag, calling this piece of work a “review” is unacceptable. This is, sadly, something that I see regularly and there are many examples on YouTube and many other websites, apps, and social media platforms.

Let’s be clear: a piece of work can be a review or it can be an advertisement. It cannot be both.

I’ve written adverts and reviews in my career as a writer. I started out writing marketing content for a large games company, working primarily on their website. Later, while working as a freelancer, I wrote for many different companies, often with the intention of selling their products. I know how marketing works, the kind of language used, and how scripts and articles can be written specifically to sell products. I also know, thanks to this website, what it’s like to write from the other side and express a legitimate opinion as an independent critic.

No one pays me anything for writing here on Trekking with Dennis. I paid for this website, its hosting, and its domain name. This isn’t my job, it’s a side-project for fun and to give me a small creative outlet. Not only that, but if I were ever approached by someone and asked to promote a product or service, I’d tell them that if they wanted to hire me to write for their website I’d happily take it under consideration, but that no paid-for article will ever be published here. This website exists purely to express my thoughts and opinions on the subjects I’m interested in.

Trekking with Dennis will always be independent.

There is a solid line between a review and an advertisement, and crossing that line destroys any integrity a self-proclaimed critic may have. It also damages the brand that is paying for such a promotion, as it demonstrates that they have no faith in their product to receive positive reviews on its own merits. It’s a tacit admission that their product is sub-par and that a financial incentive is necessary for anyone to look upon it favourably.

Companies count on most people ignoring the small print and simply watching the video or reading the article and seeing the product receive unadulterated praise. And the truth is that it works – many people don’t recognise or understand the difference between something paid-for and a genuine review in which the critic is able to express his or her own thoughts. Companies get away with this because they nominally comply with the rules which state a critic must be up-front about paid-for “reviews”, but they can do it in very subtle ways that mean most people don’t even notice. On YouTube, this means using the “ad” hashtag. That alone is good enough for parent company Google – the video itself need not state anywhere that it’s a paid promotion. On a blog or website, it might be included somewhere in the small print underneath the main body of text, making it easy to overlook. This is duplicitous, sneaky advertising, and on a website like YouTube, whose audience is disproportionately comprised of young people, it’s deliberately designed to be as subtle as possible so that many of them will not even be aware that a video purporting to be a “review” is in fact an advertisement.

You may have recently heard of a mobile phone game called Raid: Shadow Legends. Many YouTube channels carry ads and sponsorships for this game, and while it has come in for criticism for the way the company behind the game handles its paid promotions, they are at least clear that the game is being advertised. They make no attempts to disguise the fact that video segments dedicated to discussing the game are sponsored, and while there may be legitimate criticisms of the stilted script or the dishonesty in some of these paid promotions, they are at least clearly paid promotions and not attempting to pass themselves off as genuine criticism.

This isn’t a dig at one specific YouTuber – though I am no longer subscribed to his channel – nor even at the platform in general. People want to make money, and I understand that – especially in the current economic climate. But we need to make sure that the line between advertisement and criticism remains solid and does not become blurred, lest people lose faith in any and all forms of online criticism. For a critic to pen an article or produce a video claiming to be a genuine review while receiving payment is unacceptable, no matter what hashtag or small print they use. No one is saying they cannot produce an advertisement for that company or that product, but it must be labelled as such and not lie and try to pass itself off as something that is is not and never can be. Integrity matters.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios and/or publishers. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

It’s time for Deep Space Nine and Voyager to get the HD treatment

Star Trek is divided right now. No, I don’t mean the divisions in the fanbase – though you can read my thoughts on that by clicking or tapping here – instead I’m referring to the fact that The Original Series, The Next Generation, Enterprise, all of the films, and all of the new series are in HD, while Deep Space Nine and Voyager aren’t.

Streaming has quickly become the biggest thing in home entertainment, replacing our DVD collections. Even ViacomCBS realised this, and set up their own streaming service. It’s thanks to the existence of CBS All Access, and the need to provide that new platform with original content, that Star Trek has been renewed at all. But before Star Trek found a new digital home, The Original Series and The Next Generation were remastered in high definition and got Blu-ray releases. Blu-ray, in case you didn’t know, is the optical disc format which was supposed to replace DVD a few years ago. Blu-ray discs can store much more digital data – 25GB as opposed to a mere 4.7GB for DVDs – meaning that full HD video content was possible.

The opening sequence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The resulting change from DVD-quality video, which had a resolution for digital video of 720×480 pixels, to Blu-ray, which offers a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, meant that older episodes of Star Trek, filmed for television in the 1960s and 1980s-90s, had to be remastered. The remastering process exposed lower-quality special effects, which had to be entirely redone in order to look presentable at the higher resolution offered by Blu-ray. This was especially notable with some of The Next Generation’s early-90s CGI, which had been designed to be broadcast on the smaller screens of that era. Therefore the remastering process was far less straightforward than simply copying all of the broadcast episodes, upscaled, onto Blu-ray discs. Each episode had to be worked on, and new special effects and digital effects created from scratch, adding to the cost of the work.

By the time The Next Generation’s final season released on Blu-ray in 2014, a combination of factors came together to leave sales underwhelming from CBS’ perspective. Firstly there was the move by many consumers to online video streaming. Blu-ray had seemed exciting in the mid-late 2000s when it was new, but as platforms like Netflix gained traction in the 2010s, Blu-ray just never took off in the same way as DVD had a decade prior. Secondly, many people already owned The Next Generation in full either on VHS, DVD, or both. And despite the promise of remastered episodes with all-new digital effects, we were being asked to essentially buy the same product again for a second or third time. This combination of many fans already owning the full series plus Blu-ray and optical media as a whole feeling decidedly “last-gen” in a world of digital streaming meant many folks, myself included, didn’t pick up The Next Generation on Blu-ray.

I certainly felt, in the mid-2010s, that sooner or later Star Trek would join one of these new streaming platforms and that I could simply watch the HD versions at that time. As someone who had been collecting Star Trek on DVD since the early 2000s (when The Original Series came in chunky plastic boxes), I already had the full collection by the time Blu-ray was out – I even had Enterprise, despite that being my least-favourite Star Trek show! The idea of having to re-start my Star Trek collection on a new format just wasn’t something I was keen on, so I waited it out. And, to be fair, the remastered episodes of both The Original Series and The Next Generation are now available for streaming – on CBS All Access in the US, or on Netflix in the rest of the world (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon Prime Video snaps up the international rights now that they also have Star Trek: Picard).

Star Trek: Voyager ran from 1995 to 2001.

Unfortunately, though, the lack of interest in The Next Generation on Blu-ray has meant that Deep Space Nine and Voyager never made it to the remastering suite. They remain in their original format, in what we’d call “standard definition” or DVD quality. And there’s nothing wrong with that – they are, still, perfectly watchable on DVD or on streaming. But as television screens get larger and better, the difference in quality between a remastered episode of The Next Generation and an episode of Deep Space Nine, unchanged since its early-90s television debut, is incredibly obvious and offputting.

An increasing number of viewers expect HD content nowadays. With some shows – like Netflix’s The Witcher or Amazon Prime Video’s The Grand Tour – being broadcast in 4K resolution, which is one step higher even than Blu-ray, standard/DVD-quality content just doesn’t look good enough for a lot of people, and they don’t enjoy watching it. On a modern 4K television that could easily have a screen size of fifty inches or more, such content looks mediocre at best, and pretty crappy when compared to anything in HD.

ViacomCBS have their own streaming service now – CBS All Access – which is billed as the new home of Star Trek. However, two of those flagship shows, which people remember with fondness from the 1990s, are not up to current standards when it comes to visual quality, and that’s something ViacomCBS should address.

The remastering of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, combined with their permanent home online, would pull in subscribers to CBS All Access. Even fans who haven’t been moved by Discovery or Picard could be convinced to sign up to the platform if it would be the only place to watch their favourite series in HD. And I’m sure many of them would also give Discovery or Picard a try while they were there – it wouldn’t cost anything extra, after all. There would be no need for an expensive Blu-ray release, with the cost of printing thousands of discs and shipping them all over the world no longer necessary. And I’m sure Netflix and/or Amazon Prime would happily snap up the rights to a newly-remastered “classic” of the 1990s. Nostalgia is a big deal in today’s media landscape, after all.

A lot of folks seem to have given up on the idea of ever seeing those series in HD given the move toward online streaming and The Next Generation’s lacklustre performance on Blu-ray, but CBS All Access should be Deep Space Nine and Voyager’s ticket to a full-HD remaster. The Star Trek brand would then be all together, all remastered, all fully in HD ready for new and old fans to join the party. I’m absolutely certain that, in the long run, ViacomCBS would find it worthwhile. What We Left Behind, the recent documentary about Deep Space Nine, included some remastered scenes, and its successful crowdfunding campaign should demonstrate that there is a viable market for such content.

The CBS All Access logo.

From a branding point of view, it isn’t a great look for CBS All Access to be offering some of its content for its flagship franchise in DVD quality. Netflix doesn’t do that, Amazon Prime Video doesn’t do that, and Disney+ certainly doesn’t do that. CBS All Access is the only paid-for streaming platform in the world right now offering two full seven-season series in low quality, and that’s bad for the brand. It makes it seem like ViacomCBS can’t be bothered to put in the effort; it makes CBS All Access look cheap. And for fans who don’t follow all the ins and outs of Star Trek, it could be an unexpected disappointment: they sign up, log in for the first time, and choose their favourite episode – only to find that it looks poor on their big-screen TV.

So come on ViacomCBS! Remaster Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Bring the final two Star Trek shows into the 2020s and give your own platform a nice little boost in the process.

The Star Trek franchise – including all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

“Old” versus “New” Star Trek

Spoiler Warning: While this essay doesn’t go into many plot details, there may be minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise, including for Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery.

I’ve seen a number articles and videos over the last couple of years, really since Star Trek: Discovery premiered, looking at how the Star Trek fanbase has become divided into fans of “old” Star Trek and “new” Star Trek. However one may feel about the various films and series, it’s undeniable that there are many Trekkies who have jumped ship over the years and do not consider themselves fans of the franchise’s newer iterations – as well as plenty of casual viewers who have seen one series but not others. Given that the franchise is well past its fiftieth anniversary, perhaps that’s fair enough. But I did want to take a look at the phenomenon for myself and give my thoughts on how the franchise is split, some of the possible causes, and what that split could mean for the franchise going forward into the 2020s and beyond.

True hipster Star Trek fans only watched Star Trek when Jeffrey Hunter was in it. William Shatner? Pfft. Newbie.

Firstly, the question often asked in these articles is “how can everyone come back together?” Writers will often set up that question, pretending that they’re going to answer it fairly, only to basically end up saying “everyone will come back together if Star Trek does everything my way and gives me everything I want.” That just isn’t realistic, I’m afraid. And as with many cases of division, the reality is that there may not be a way to bridge the gulf and reunite everyone around one new Star Trek series or film. That may sound depressing, and it is in a way. But we have to be realistic – there are some people now who are literally making money from running anti-Star Trek groups online, and if anyone expects someone in that position to suddenly turn around and say “hey guys, I just saw the latest episode and it was amazing!” well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. The truth is that some people aren’t interested in fair criticism. They have decided they want to hate, and just like fans of a football team could never support a rival club, no matter what, their hatred for the current and upcoming lineup of Star Trek shows and films will continue. It’s part of the tribal mindset that we as human beings all end up subscribing to in one way or another: “I support X, which is opposed to Y. Therefore, I can never ever like Y, because it would go against how I define myself as a person”. That’s true in sport, it’s true in politics, and it’s true in entertainment as well.

But before we can look at divisions in the fanbase, we need to examine the basic concept: what is “old” Star Trek, and what is “new” Star Trek? It’s a far more complicated question than it seems, and the answer will vary depending on how old a person is, and when they first encountered the franchise.

The bridge of the original USS Enterprise in the episode The Corbomite Maneuver. For many fans, The Original Series and its crew were irreplaceable.

There are several “turning points” in the history of Star Trek where fans jumped ship, and the easiest way to look at them is in chronological order. The first one was in 1987, when The Next Generation premiered. Until this point, Star Trek had been The Original Series with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the 1960s crew, and while there was excitement for Star Trek’s return to television – just as there was in 2017 – that was countered by a vocal number of fans who believed ardently that the original characters were the beating heart of Star Trek – and were irreplaceable. These people may have watched The Original Series and the first four Star Trek films (The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered County were released after The Next Generation premiered) but simply had no interest in a new crew, a new ship, and a new century. Indeed, Sir Patrick Stewart himself has said many times that he believed The Next Generation would not be a success – and would run for perhaps two seasons at most.

The NX-01 Enterprise leaves its dock in Broken Bow – the series premiere of Enterprise.

The second turning point is the one I’m most familiar with – because it’s the point I came very close to jumping ship myself: 2000-2001, when Enterprise was announced and entered production. In the aftermath of the disaster that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999, a prequel was just something that many fans, myself included, had little interest in. Star Trek – as I have often written here on the blog – had always been about pushing forward into the future, and yet here was a show that wanted to look back at its own past. This kind of navel-gazing just didn’t feel like a good idea, and the aesthetic of the show, with its boiler-suit uniforms, clunky starship design, modern (for the time) computer screens, and overreliance on not-quite-good-enough early-2000s CGI was not inspiring. There had been some real stinkers in the Star Trek canon when it came to individual episodes and stories – Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Grey, Threshold, and Move Along Home to name but a few – but this was the first time that the premise of a series itself seemed unexciting, at least for me. The introduction of Scott Bakula as the captain did go some way toward lifting the show for some fans who had been on the fence, but I confess that during Enterprise’s original run here in the UK I only tuned in sporadically, and it was only when I got the series on DVD a few years after it went off the air that I watched it in its entirety. Nowadays I often cite Enterprise as an example whenever I hear the argument: “nobody asked for this”. Nobody in 2000 was asking for Enterprise, yet it actually told some interesting stories and had a great cast of characters. I’m glad to have seen it, I’m glad it existed, and ultimately I feel its strengths far outweighed its weaknesses. Giving it a second chance was a good decision – even if the only reason I bought the DVDs was to complete my Star Trek collection!

The 2009 redesign of the USS Enterprise – and re-casting of the original crew – was too much for some fans.

Next comes our third turning point: when Enterprise went off the air, a spell was broken. Star Trek had, in some form, been in continuous production for almost two decades, beginning with pre-release work on The Next Generation in 1986 running all the way through to 2005 when the final episodes of Enterprise were produced and released. The cancellation of Enterprise was symbolic – the end of an era. And in that moment it seemed as though Star Trek was dead and not coming back. But it didn’t stay that way for very long at all, and within a year or so of Enterprise’s cancellation, word started going around about a new film – one which would be a reboot, recasting iconic characters like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. For many long-term fans – including some friends of mine – that was a bridge too far, and they were never interested in what would become 2009’s Star Trek and the “JJverse” or Kelvin timeline that it spawned. For others, Star Trek was too much of a departure from the rest of the franchise, with its visual overhaul and action-heavy story, and some fans who did give it a go were underwhelmed and didn’t come back for more.

The USS Discovery, as seen in the first official teaser trailer in 2016.

So we’ve reached the final turning point. 2017, and the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery is the moment that many of these articles and videos use when dividing “old” Star Trek from “new” Star Trek. Discovery had a somewhat troubled production, with Bryan Fuller departing before the show aired, and controversy surrounding CBS All Access as a platform for the show in the United States. There was also the “prequel problem” that plagued Enterprise, and as more details came out about the series, the visual style being more in line with the JJverse than The Original Series also became a bone of contention. As with each of the three previous turning points, a number of fans decided that Discovery just wasn’t for them and simply opted out.

The point of recounting this history of the Star Trek fanbase and the points at which some fans chose not to continue with new iterations is simple – this is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before in Star Trek, and, if we’re lucky enough for the franchise to continue into the future, it will undoubtedly happen again sooner or later. None of these moments destroyed the franchise or ruined the fanbase, nor drove Star Trek’s creators and promoters out of business for the simple reason that the fans who jumped ship were in the minority. A vocal minority, perhaps, but a minority nevertheless. And it’s the same with those who haven’t watched Discovery and Picard – and of course, those who make a big fuss about not supporting “new” Star Trek in online groups and on YouTube channels: they’re a minority.

“Real” Star Trek fans love The Final Frontier.

Trekkies have always been a minority of Star Trek’s audience. It’s a commercial product; a series designed to have appeal beyond a small niche of convention attendees. If it didn’t appeal to casual viewers it would never have survived or been reborn in the first place, at any of the points mentioned above. So to say that because a small number of Trekkies who liked the TNG-era shows don’t like Discovery there’s somehow a massive problem and that Star Trek today is fundamentally broken is nonsense. A minority of a minority, no matter how vocal they may be with their criticism and hate, don’t matter to ViacomCBS’ bottom line in any material way.

But do they have a point?

It’s a tough one for me to answer, and if you’ve been here before you’ll know why: I’m a big fan of “new” Star Trek, just as I’m a fan of “old” Star Trek too. I can see the point of view that says the newer shows and films are bad, but generally I don’t agree, so from my perspective they don’t have a point. Especially to those people who pre-judged Discovery and Picard based on what they read in anti-Star Trek groups online and never even watched the shows in the first place I’d really say they don’t have a leg to stand on in this argument. How can they possibly sit there and say something is bad when they haven’t given it a try for themselves? The biased “reporting” of some anti-Star Trek YouTuber is not the same as experiencing the film or series for themselves, and I’d really encourage everyone who falls into that category to at least stick with Discovery beyond its opening two episodes, which I fully concede were especially weak.

This actually ties into another point – most Star Trek series, with the exceptions of Deep Space Nine and Picard – opened quite underwhelmingly. And it took more than a few episodes for all of the Star Trek shows to really find their feet. The Next Generation’s first season isn’t anywhere near as good as its third, fourth, or fifth, for example, and Voyager similarly took at least a full season to get up and running. Even the beloved Original Series got off to a rocky start – so giving up on Discovery or Picard after one or two episodes isn’t really giving those shows a fair shake.

Lorca and Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.

Part of this is to do with binge-watching culture. For many Star Trek fans – and I include myself in this category to an extent, especially when it comes to Enterprise – they missed out on seeing most or all of “old” Star Trek when it originally aired. They could pick and choose which episodes to watch from DVDs or on streaming platforms, and watch them anytime they wanted to. Star Trek, to many Trekkies, was a complete product. Seven seasons of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, as well as three of The Original Series and four of Enterprise is a lot to wade through, and an individual bad episode is just a blip when you don’t have to wait a week for the next one and can skip ahead to another episode on the disc.

But there are changes in the way Star Trek has told stories over time, and we do have to acknowledge that. There has been a move away from episodic storytelling (aka the “monster-of-the-week” format) in favour of season-long story arcs and a serialised format. I confess I have a preference, in some cases at least, for episodic television. It’s nice to be able to jump into a random episode of a series without needing to know or remember everything that happened leading up to that point. It makes Discovery and Picard season-long commitments, instead of something fans can jump in and out of. And because, as mentioned, a lot of folks are used to Star Trek shows being complete products and in addition are used to binge-watching, having to wait a week between episodes of a partially-complete story can be annoying I suppose.

There has also been a shift away from the more ethereal, philosophical, and thought-provoking storylines that Star Trek used to do. Ironically, many of those stories and episodes are less popular among fans – The Motion Picture is always considered a poor relation to films like First Contact and The Wrath of Khan, which are both much more in the action-sci fi genre, just to give an example. I discussed this in a little more detail in my 40th anniversary look at The Motion Picture if you’re interested to read more. But there’s no doubt that Discovery and especially the JJverse films have gone in a much more action-centric direction, and for people who wanted to see more of the slower paced, thought-provoking stories, action-sci fi maybe doesn’t “feel like Star Trek” in quite the same way.

Kirk and Scotty in The Motion Picture – a less popular film than its sequel with many Trekkies.

Now we come to what is the single biggest point: nostalgia. People like what they grew up with. Heck, the whole reason Star Trek is being made again now, more than fifty years since it was first created, is because nostalgia is incredibly powerful and there’s money to be made from it. But nostalgia is a double-edged sword. Some people don’t want to see an “updated” version of the franchise they loved from childhood or young adulthood. If they want more of it in the first place, they want to see it exactly the same as before. No changes, no iterations, no modernising – a carbon copy of what came before. And that isn’t realistic.

Television storytelling has moved on since the 1960s and the 1990s – which are the two “golden ages” of Star Trek, depending on which fans you ask. Expecting to see The Next Generation Season 8 in 2020 was an unrealistic expectation. The way stories are told, and what television audiences expect from their shows, are just different nowadays. For fans of episodic television that might seem disappointing, but as with Trekkies in general we’re in a minority there. Shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and of course Game of Thrones had such a huge impact on television that they fundamentally changed the way audiences approach their favourite franchises – and in order to stay competitive, Star Trek has to recognise that and keep up.

There are undeniably a lot of positive feelings attached to a franchise from childhood. The return of Star Trek (and other franchises too, like Star Wars) was designed to play on those positive feelings to sell a product – that’s basically the point of resurrecting franchises in the first place. For a minority of fans who only liked things when done the old way, that hasn’t worked and the updates and changes mean they don’t get the same feelings that they do when re-watching an old episode or film. But for a lot of people, these shows have been a hit. They hit the mark where it mattered and got many fans clamouring for more. And in a few years or a few decades from now, Discovery-era fans will be just as excited for the return of Burnham and Saru as I have been to see Picard and Seven of Nine.

Seven of Nine returned in Star Trek: Picard.

In fact, one of the things I was genuinely concerned about with Star Trek: Picard is that they were going to fall into the Star Wars trap of overplaying the nostalgia card. I didn’t want The Next Generation Season 8, because that show has ended. It’s over. What Picard represented is something practically no other series or franchise will ever get – a new iteration. Picard is the same man, and he’s the core of the show as he was in The Next Generation. But surrounding him are new characters, and I wanted to make sure that they would have the chance to become fan favourites for the next generation (pun absolutely intended) of Star Trek fans.

My introduction to the franchise was The Next Generation. And it wasn’t until a few years later – probably in the mid-1990s – that I got around to watching any of The Original Series. For some people, Picard and Discovery will be their first port of call as Star Trek fans, just as The Next Generation was for me. Those of us who’ve been around Star Trek for twenty-five years or more still have a place in the fandom, but things are changing. With new shows in production, new fans are coming on board who may not be aware of Picard’s top-secret mission to Celtris III, or that Kirk and his crew once visited a parallel universe where magic is real. If we try to be gatekeepers and say “you aren’t a real Star Trek fan because Discovery isn’t as good as the show that I like” then the fandom isn’t just going to be divided, it’s going to become toxic. Instead of being a “big tent”, recognising that the franchise means different things to different people, some folks seem to want to claim the fandom for themselves and exclude anyone who doesn’t share their belief about what Star Trek means.

And frankly, that’s just sad.

Star Trek has always tried to use its science fiction setting to tell stories that reflect contemporary issues. There are countless examples, and this could be an essay in itself, but suffice to say many of those stories resonated with fans in the past. The Original Series challenged the Cold War concepts of superweapons and mutually assured destruction in the episode The Doomsday Machine to great effect, and fans will laud that. But when Discovery uses Ash Tyler’s trauma as an analogy for underreported male sexual abuse, those same folks scream about “too much politics”. As I’ve said before, to anyone who says there’s “too much politics” in modern Star Trek I’d ask one simple question – “have you seen Star Trek before?”

Spock and Kirk at the end of The Doomsday Machine from Season 2 of The Original Series. They talked about nuclear weapons – a massive issue in the 1960s.

The problem here is that, when it comes to The Original Series and the shows of The Next Generation’s era, we’re watching them decades on from their original release. Many of the people complaining about politics in modern Star Trek weren’t even born when The Next Generation and its sister shows were first on the air. And very few people now can remember watching The Original Series when it was new. The political themes in many of those episodes are less prickly and less relevant today, and though they would be instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences, watching them today fifty years later or thirty years later, they’re harder to spot. And if someone is watching an episode for the tenth or twentieth time, an episode they first watched at age five or six, it’s even harder to be objective and pull the themes and messaging out of the drama and presentation. Taking a step back and looking at a favourite show or episode objectively is very difficult. I made an attempt to do so when I re-watched The Measure of a Man from The Next Generation’s second season, but it wasn’t easy.

Star Trek has always been a political show, even if as kids we didn’t realise it. And it has always taken a “progressive” political position on contemporary issues. If an individual can’t stand that, and is only content to watch entertainment that is either wholly politically neutral or agrees entirely with their own political biases, then that’s okay. No one is forcing anyone to watch a television show that they don’t like. And if they don’t like something, it’s easier than ever to change the channel. They can pick a new show on Netflix or Amazon Prime or CBS All Access and watch that instead, or go back to a previous Star Trek series that they do enjoy. Modern Star Trek is not mandatory viewing, and from my own point of view I can tell you I’m pretty brutal when it comes to switching off a show that I find boring or that I’m not enjoying for whatever reason.

In 2020 we live in a world where there is an insane amount of entertainment available to watch – and much of it can be found online for free with a basic knowledge of computing. So I don’t really understand why people would want to spend a lot of time watching a show that they don’t enjoy, then jump online to share their dislike with others – not when there are so many other things to watch. A few people who run websites, groups, or YouTube channels, make money by doing this. And I guess that’s fair enough – if people will pay for it, and you can make money at it, that’s okay. But for everyone else, I don’t really see what they gain from it – aside from the feeling of inclusion being part of a “tribe”, or perhaps a feeling of superiority to think they know better than the show’s creators?

Some people have been unhappy with Star Trek: Picard.

To get back on topic, and draw this essay to a conclusion, there are differences between Star Trek today and Star Trek in the era of The Original Series and The Next Generation. For some fans, the difference is too stark and they don’t want to watch whatever they consider to be “bad”. I’m okay with that – we can all have our own opinions about the franchise. I just don’t like the toxicity and gatekeeping that has plagued some – thankfully small – groups within the fandom.

Speaking for myself, I’ve enjoyed Star Trek’s return to television. Star Trek: Picard has been the better of the two offerings so far, but I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of a Capt. Pike series and at Lower Decks’ different take on the franchise. It’s a great time to be a fan right now, simply because there’s so much Star Trek – and sci fi/fantasy content in general – in production. We won’t always be so lucky to have this, and even though I wasn’t a big Enterprise fan during its original run, I was still sad when it went off the air and there was just a big void of nothing. That isn’t a scenario I’m keen to see repeated, and while I admit there have been hits and misses in modern Star Trek, I’d rather see it continue to be made than simply scrapped. By diversifying the kind of stories it tells – Picard and Discovery are very different in tone, for example, and Lower Decks will be something different again – hopefully Star Trek can build on what has been accomplished already and bring in more people. If some people decide not to stick with it because of the changes, that’s okay. But I firmly believe that the core or the heart of Star Trek is the same as it was in the 1960s – and that it has remained that way for its entire run.

Star Trek is a complicated franchise that means different things to different people. But there is room in the fandom for everyone – at least, everyone who wants to participate. If someone dislikes Picard or Discovery but loves The Next Generation, as fans and as people who know how to behave civilly, we can still have a great conversation about Star Trek without treading on each others’ toes. And it’s my hope that there’s more that unites us as fans of this great franchise than divides us – after all, Discovery and The Next Generation have much more in common than The Next Generation does with, say, the latest iteration of some celebrity reality show. At the end of the day, I’m happy to share a franchise and a fandom with some very passionate people – even if we can’t agree on a lot of things.

The Star Trek franchise – including all series and films mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Borg – space zombies

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 and the first three episodes of Star Trek: Picard.

As part of a series of articles I wrote leading up to the release of Star Trek: Picard, I covered the Borg from an in-universe perspective, as well as looking at some possible options for their role in the new series. You can read that article by clicking or tapping here. While Star Trek: Picard remains a mysterious show even now that we’re three episodes in, the Borg’s role has been somewhat on the sidelines so far, as we’ve really only seen a few former Borg and the disabled Borg cube used as a setting.

For a while I’ve been wanting to look at the Borg from a storytelling perspective, because I think they’re one of Star Trek’s most interesting villains. Not only that, but they have an analogue outside of the franchise which we can compare them to – zombies. Both the Borg and zombies fill a similar role in the stories they appear in, and both can fall victim to the same storytelling pitfalls.

Let’s start with the most obvious comparison – and why both the Borg and zombies are a frightening adversary for any heroes to be pitted against. With the exception of the Borg’s first appearance in The Next Generation’s second season episode Q Who, the Borg’s sole purpose has been assimilation. By forcibly injecting their nano-technology into both machines and living organisms, practically anything they touch can become part of the Borg Collective in a matter of moments. Zombies are a low-tech, biological version – in almost every zombie story, the zombie infection spreads through biting. Thus both Borg and zombies don’t just kill, they turn everyone the heroes lose into another enemy to fight. And the infection or invasion can never be truly over until every last individual is defeated, because if even one Borg drone or one zombie remains, there’s the possibility for them to attack others and start all over again.

The Borg take on a similar role in some respects to zombies – such as those in The Walking Dead.

This one factor – that every friend lost doesn’t just reduce the numbers on the heroes’ side, but increases the number of enemies to fight – is huge. It means that a story featuring a Borg or zombie attack is completely different in tone and scope from any other war or invasion or battle that we might see in science fiction. And it’s a frightening prospect, seeing allies quite literally turned into enemies before the very eyes of the heroes. In fact, it’s arguable that the Borg’s appearances are as close as Star Trek as come to crossing over into the horror genre. The underlying premise, certainly, would be at home there. And if ViacomCBS ever chose to go down that route, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a Borg-themed horror film or series.

One of the great things about entertainment and storytelling is that it’s subjective. The audience can interpret themes and points in a story in different ways, and anyone who’s ever taken a literature class can attest that! When I was in school and in the few literature classes I took at university, my teachers were always talking about analogies and themes and metaphors. And when it comes to the Borg, there are different interpretations as to a real-world analogue.

One of the most obvious is communism. Despite what’s often been said, Star Trek doesn’t really depict a “communist utopia”. The economy of the 23rd and 24th Centuries has always been deliberately ambiguous, and really I think it’s fairer to describe it as a post-scarcity economy, thanks in large part to technologies like food replicators and interstellar travel. Humans in Star Trek can still, for example, own and inherit property – like we see Joseph Sisko and the Picard family do – something which indicates that we’re not looking at communism. But that’s rather beside the point. The Borg, to get back on topic, with their lack of individuality and aggressively expansionist mindset, are arguably a metaphor for Western fears of communist states during the latter part of the Cold War. The history of Star Trek is littered with Cold War metaphors, and at the time the Borg were created and debuted on screen in 1989, the Berlin Wall hadn’t yet fallen and the Soviet Union was still the world’s “other” superpower.

Since the concept of the “walking dead” came to mainstream attention in the 1960s, critics have said the same thing about zombies, too – that they’re a metaphor for America’s communist adversaries. The comparison plays on a crude stereotype – that all people in a communist state are brainwashed and forced to do the state’s bidding. However, my intention isn’t to critique the concept, merely to acknowledge its existence. In a very real sense, part of what makes zombies and the Borg so frightening is the idea of losing oneself, and suffering “a fate worse than death”. For many in the Cold War era, ideas like communist infiltrators and brainwashed citizens returning from overseas – including former prisoners of war – were genuine concerns, if somewhat overstated and exaggerated.

Picard’s transformation into Locutus of Borg was shocking.

It’s those underlying real-world fears that give power to the Borg when they appear. They wouldn’t be so scary if it weren’t for a shared fear we have of losing our identity – stoked by fears from the Cold War era, perhaps, but just as relevant today in the age of radicalisation via social media. How many young men – and it is almost always young men – have been involved in mass shootings or terrorist attacks after being radicalised online? The concept of brainwashing – and our collective fear of it – is still very much alive in society today. The emphasis has shifted from the state to individuals, perhaps, but the basic fear remains the same. And it continues to make villains like the Borg intimidating.

When it comes to turning that into an exciting, heart-stopping story, though, it’s all too easy to fall flat. What we’ve seen in Star Trek, especially in Star Trek: Voyager, is the overuse of the Borg. The same thing has happened to the zombies in The Walking Dead, and can happen to other villains in other series too – the Daleks from Doctor Who come to mind as another example of overuse. The fundamental problem with having the heroes outsmart and defeat the same villain too many times is that they simply lose their fear factor – no matter how powerful it may once have been and what underlying social factors are propping it up.

Every victory over the same opponent adds to a feeling that victory for the heroes is inevitable. And in many cases, we know that. Even in a series like Game of Thrones, which could be utterly unpredictable, nobody was genuinely expecting that the Night King would be victorious – we all knew that somehow, some of the heroes would survive and find a way to win. That didn’t make the story any less exciting, and nor is Star Trek: First Contact any less exciting for first-time viewers who expect Picard and his crew to find a way to defeat the Borg. The tension and drama comes on a moment-to-moment basis, and also, as in many stories, part of the enjoyment comes from the journey even if the overall destination – victory, in this case – is known.

But when the same scenario plays out over and over again – a scrappy Starfleet crew faces off against impossible odds and beats the Borg, for example – it gets less and less tense and less and less dramatic with each new revision. When we see the Borg lose to Janeway for the fourth or fifth time having already seen them bested twice by Picard, they become stale, and the stories in which they appear become uninteresting.

The addition of the Borg Queen is symptomatic of this. After several prior Borg stories, and with their first big-screen appearance looming, there must have been some discussion about how to make the Borg intimidating again. It wasn’t enough to have this faceless mass any more, the Borg needed something new in order to fit the bill as big-screen villains. Part of that stems from the need to keep the story cinematic; to have those moments where Picard is traumatised by his memories of the Borg Queen, to have Data tempted and taunted by her in a way a nameless drone couldn’t, and to be able to have dialogue between heroes and villains which is often a tense yet satisfying part of storytelling in and of itself. But a significant part of the Borg Queen’s role in First Contact and subsequently has been to rejuvenate the Borg as a faction from a storytelling perspective.

The Borg Queen in First Contact.

Telling unique and different Borg stories has become as much of a problem for Star Trek as making the zombies scary again is for The Walking Dead. Unlike that series – which I’d absolutely argue had a natural lifespan (forgive the pun) of about four seasons and should have ended at that point – Star Trek has a much richer galaxy to explore and plenty of other villains to play with. The Borg are not essential to Star Trek in the way that zombies are to zombie stories – and that’s definitely been a saving grace.

With the exception of the Star Trek: Enterprise episode Regeneration in 2003, there hadn’t been any Borg stories in Star Trek since Voyager’s finale in 2001 – and none which were set further forward in the Star Trek timeline. After an absence of close to two decades, then, there’s an argument to be made that enough time has passed for a renewed look at the Borg. For new fans and younger fans who didn’t see every single appearance in order, and for more casual viewers who may not have seen any Star Trek episode or film since the turn of the millennium, that’s probably a fair point. But even then, because the Borg are essentially “space zombies”, in an era where zombie stories have become a television and cinematic genre in their own right with dozens of examples, perhaps we’re still burnt out.

Here’s where the Borg’s trump card comes into play – they aren’t just a metaphor for our fears of communism or brainwashing. Because of their technological nature, they can absolutely be an analogy for our overreliance on technology and for our fears of the evolution of technology in the future. This is what Star Trek: Discovery’s second season did, very successfully in my opinion, with the Control AI. Now I’m absolutely convinced that Control was meant to tie in somehow to the Borg and their origins when the story was originally written. Why that angle was scrapped (if indeed it has been wholly scrapped) is unclear, but it could be related to the Borg being an integral part of the story of Star Trek: Picard. That’s my current theory on that, at any rate.

The whole point of the Control storyline in Discovery was that artificial intelligence might not be a good thing to pursue. When an AI surpasses humanity in its abilities, it becomes inherently unpredictable. It can overwrite its own programming and could turn on us. This isn’t just a science fiction story trope – scientists like Stephen Hawking have expressed genuine concern that an AI could ultimately be harmful. Technological progress has advanced so rapidly from even when The Next Generation was first on the air and computers were basically glorified calculators and typewriters to the modern day where everyone has an internet-enabled super-smart camera-and-microphone connected-to-everything always-on computer-phone about their person 24/7. Those changes have, thus far at least, been a net positive for humanity. In Africa, for example, the rise of mobile phones has meant many of the world’s poorest citizens have access to the internet and information, as well as the ability to send and receive money securely without relying on banking. But with change comes fear, or at least a sense of uncertainty. Discovery played on those fears and concerns about the pace of technological change quite expertly.

The nanobots Control used to “assimilate” Capt. Leland are reminiscent of Borg technology, and play on the same fears of out-of-control AI.

The decision to have Control be an invention of Section 31 was another masterstroke. Since Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (and many others, of course) have demonstrated to the world that major governmental organisations run hidden technological surveillance on, well, everyone, mistrust of technology and technological communication has only grown. The idea that we’re all being watched all the time by “big brother” in the various three-letter agencies, and their international equivalents, has caused a lot of people to be incredibly uneasy about technology in general. Once again, Discovery tapped into this to great effect.

To get back to the Borg, regardless of whether or not Control was meant to be related to them in some way, the same principle is at work. The relentless march of technology could see us literally plugging ourselves into some giant network of machines, or augmenting our bodies with technological upgrades. In a sense, we already do. Our phones and computers are arguably an extension of ourselves, we’re almost constantly networked to billions of others via the internet, with all of their experiences and information only a few keystrokes away, and as medical science advances we’re able to replace defective body parts – like hips, for example – with synthetic replacements. The Borg are simply a few steps further along from we currently are in their embrace of technology.

For many people, the unstoppable march of technology is something they find intimidating. It means that the future is always changing – and people in general have an inbuilt mistrust or fear of change. Thus the Borg stand out in stories that feature them as a kind of nightmarish vision of a future gone wrong.

By playing on these two deep-rooted, almost instinctive fears, the Borg are truly a frightening opponent for the heroes in Star Trek stories to face.

Keeping that fear alive is a task for the new creators of Star Trek. In Discovery, Control hit the reset button by showing us at least a potential precursor to the Borg we’ve seen before. Enterprise threw 24th Century Borg against a 22nd Century crew – not that it was always apparent, but that was part of the goal of that episode. And finally, in Picard we have the Borg absent from their own setting – a derelict cube being slowly picked apart and studied. There’s an inherent creepiness to the aesthetic of the cube – a kind of cold, inhuman feel, amplified by the lack of windows and endless maze of identical rooms and corridors. If the showrunners wanted to play up that aspect they absolutely could, and it will be interesting to see where Picard takes this angle.

What has to be avoided, however, is the trap that ensnared Voyager’s Borg episodes. Repetition leads to a loss of that fear factor, and without it the Borg become stale and boring – it would be better to see the faction utterly defeated in a climactic battle than to have them crop up again and again in random episodes over several seasons. The serialised nature of current Star Trek storytelling, which has replaced the episodic, “monster-of-the-week” format, means that we’re less likely to see individual Borg-centric episodes any more. And that’s probably a good thing overall – despite my personal preference for episodic storytelling in Star Trek.

The episode Q Who introduced the Borg for the first time.

At the end of the day, the question for the Star Trek franchise and its new creative team is what to do with the Borg in future. We saw what I’m certain was an abortive attempt to show some kind of origin story in Discovery’s second season, and now in Picard we have the creepy abandoned cube as a setting, as well as the return of Seven of Nine and Hugh as liberated ex-Borg. Both of these approaches are different, and that’s good. As great as The Best of Both Worlds and First Contact were, those stories were lightning in a bottle – not something that can be recaptured or repeated, at least not to the same effect. And the way stories approach and treat the Borg will have to change if they’re to be as intimidating as we want them to be. That doesn’t mean the Borg have to change in their core outlook or philosophy; doing so would mean they’re no longer the villain we remember, after all. But it does mean they have to be written in a different way and that their inclusion in future Star Trek stories has to be very carefully considered.

In a sense, the Borg’s greatest and most frightening aspect – their relentlessness and faceless nature – is also part of their undoing when considering their inclusion from a storytelling point of view. Because of their philosophy and the way they approach their assimilation targets, the Borg are very much a one-trick pony. They show up, either en masse or on a single vessel, overwhelm their opponents, forcibly assimilate them, and move on. They have one unwavering goal, and essentially only one method of achieving it. There are no Borg spies, no Borg generals to be outwitted, no Borg personalities to provide personal drama and conflict in a story. With the exception of the Borg Queen – who isn’t even really an exception as she is simply the face of the Borg, not a leader – the Borg operate as one entity with one goal and one approach.

The Voyager two-part episode Scorpion, which introduced Seven of Nine, took one of the most interesting looks at how the Borg’s single-mindedness can be their undoing. By presenting them with an opponent in Species 8472 who could not be assimilated, the Borg were on the back foot as the only method they had of information-gathering and conquest – they use assimilation for both purposes – did not work. This was a unique take on the Borg in Star Trek, but it had the unintended consequence of making them less intimidating as a result. As previously mentioned, any time we see a supposedly imposing villain failing in their objective, beaten and in retreat, it lessens the fear factor. As the audience, we know that they can be beaten – changing how we perceive stories. It stops being a question of “will the heroes prevail?” and instead becomes “when and/or how will they prevail?”

We need only look to Doctor Who for a case in point. Since its 2005 reboot, Doctor Who has seen its main villains, the Daleks, so thoroughly overused that they long ago became completely dull and unexciting. And two other villains, the Cybermen and Weeping Angels, have suffered from overuse too. As a result, since the latter half of Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor, the show has limped along feeling played out. New villains and storylines have fallen flat – a consequence of mediocre writing – and the show is absolutely ready to go back on hiatus as there are no good ideas. It’s a lesson for Star Trek to learn, especially as production ramps up and there are multiple shows (and at least one film) all in various stages of development. Sometimes less is more. And also, when a storyline has run its course, and when a villain has done all they can reasonably do, unless there’s a new way to approach that story it’s time to put an end to it and move on.

The Borg haven’t yet reached that point. There is still space in Star Trek for new and exciting Borg stories, but they will have to be properly planned, not simply thrown in at the last minute. Like Doctor Who’s Daleks, the Borg are an iconic villain, emblematic of the franchise that spawned them. But they aren’t an infallible storytelling device that guarantees a successful film, season, or episode. And mishandled or overused, all the threat, tension, and drama they can bring will melt away leaving a bland, uninspiring film or episode behind.

The Artifact represents a new direction for Borg-related stories in Star Trek.

Between the zombies in The Walking Dead and the Daleks in Doctor Who, we have two great examples of how to mishandle and overuse villains like the Borg. Star Trek is fortunate to have such a rich history of alien races to draw on, and can hopefully avoid those pitfalls as we move into what will hopefully be the franchise’s second “golden age”.

The Borg are a frightening and compelling faction in the Star Trek universe, and there is still scope to learn more about them and see them return – in both big and small ways – in future episodes and films. And I’m looking forward to that, as well as to seeing what Picard has in store for this absolutely iconic faction. As I’ve said many times already, it’s a fantastic time to be a Star Trek fan right now. There’s just so much going on, and so much more to come. Discovery has had hits and misses, but in my opinion at least, Picard has been outstanding so far, and I’m interested to see what will come next. Surely, after the success the franchise has experienced over the last few weeks, this won’t be our last look at the 24th and early 25th Centuries – and unless something major happens to the Borg by the end of Picard’s first season, I’m sure that sooner or later we can expect to see them back once again.

The Star Trek franchise, including all films, episodes, and series mentioned above, is the copyright of ViacomCBS and Paramount Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking back at Star Trek: The Motion Picture on its 40th anniversary

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

On the 7th of December 1979, ten years after going off the air (and five years since The Animated Series went off the air), Star Trek was back. Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered, and while it has been overshadowed in many ways by its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film was a success – albeit not an overwhelming one according to distributors and producers – and reinvigorated the franchise. Make no mistake, if it weren’t for The Motion Picture, Star Trek as we know it wouldn’t exist today – there would’ve been no Wrath of Khan, and from that there’d have been no Next Generation or any future series or film. In a very real sense, The Motion Picture paved the way for the franchise’s future, and the success Star Trek enjoys today owes a lot to this film.

The Motion Picture was a risk for Paramount Pictures. Star Trek had shown that it had a number of very vocal fans – the letter-writing campaign in 1968 to get the series renewed demonstrated this – but its wider popularity was an unknown quantity, especially on the big screen. Reruns of The Original Series had garnered a larger audience than its 1966-69 original run, but there were still question marks over whether to make a new television series or to go down the box office route.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture turns 40 in December 2019.

Indeed, the project that would eventually become The Motion Picture started out life as Star Trek: Phase II, a television series that was to reunite the original cast – without Spock – for another five-year mission onboard the Enterprise. After a project called Planet of the Titans failed to get off the ground in the mid-1970s, by 1977 Phase II was officially in production. It has been said many times that the success of another 1977 project – Star Wars – is what led Gene Roddenberry and Paramount to reconsider the television series and make a film instead. While there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth to that, there were other factors at play too. The script which would eventually become The Motion Picture was originally set to be the pilot episode for Phase II but after a series of revisions and discussions between the creative team and the studio, the decision was made to enter production as a film instead, and two versions of the script were submitted – one by Gene Rodenberry and one by Harold Livingston, who’d been a producer on Phase II. Livingston’s script was chosen (by Michael Eisner – future CEO of Disney) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture was officially greenlit.

As an interesting aside, Phase II remained officially “in production” even after the decision was taken to switch focus to a film, and for much of 1977 the official line from the studio was that a series, originally set at 13 episodes, was being produced. It wasn’t until 1978 that the film would be officially announced.

So that’s a brief potted history of how it came to be. But despite making around $139 million on a budget of $46 million, Paramount considered the film a disappointment. The big risk had paid off, but not as much as they’d hoped. The expensive special effects and continued revisions to the script even during production were cited as reasons why, as was the less action-heavy, more ethereal storyline.

For me personally, it’s the lack of action and the deliberate slow pacing that gives this film something that others lack – a sense of “Star Trek-ness”. Star Trek was always into the weirder, more esoteric side of science fiction, especially prior to The Motion Picture, and this film stands alongside episodes of The Original Series as a pure science fiction work, not an action-sci fi film like The Wrath of Khan or First Contact. While some people might find its slower pace to be a grind, to me it makes it akin to watching a feature-length episode of the series, rather than just another action flick.

Because of the overwhelming popularity of The Wrath of Khan within the fanbase, The Motion Picture often gets a bad rap. People have said that “all of the odd-numbered Star Trek films are bad”, including The Motion Picture in with Search for Spock and The Final Frontier. Both of those titles have good and bad moments – the latter suffering perhaps from too much involvement from William Shatner – but to me, The Motion Picture is in a different league.

Some criticism of the film is that it feels like a two-and-a-half hour episode of The Original Series. But why should that be a criticism? The Motion Picture masterfully builds up its drama – the V’ger cloud’s attack on the Klingons, its destruction of the Epsilon IX station, and finally the death of new character Ilia all add to the stakes. While none of these are particularly dramatic, nor gory, that doesn’t detract from the threat, it heightens it. V’ger is shown to be a being of such incredible power that it can make whole fleets of starships vanish in a heartbeat. We don’t need huge explosions or a punch-out to learn this. V’ger’s power is also confirmed by the reaction of characters. So as the film progresses, we know what’s at stake.

To change lanes completely, I happen to really like the aesthetic of The Motion Picture. It’s very 1970s in some ways – the orange and brown tones, and some of the uniform choices in particular, but that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Kirk’s uniform as an admiral happens to be one of my all-time favourite Star Trek uniforms. The high collar, the belted tunic, and the simple curved lines in grey and white combine with a metallic gold Starfleet insignia to make an understated yet interesting uniform. I’m not a cosplayer by any means, but if I ever were to make myself a uniform, that would be the one I’d go for. And while we’re talking about things that look great, the sweeping shot over the Enterprise when Kirk is being taken aboard by shuttlepod is absolutely perfect. Combined with an amazing score – for which composer Jerry Goldsmith was nominated for an Academy Award – the full sequence is one of the most inspiring and moving in all of Star Trek, speaking for myself as a fan. When the music ramps up right as we see the Enterprise from the front for the first time, it can be quite emotional. I could happily watch that sequence over and over again.

Many of the sets built in 1978-79 were in continuous use (albeit in modified form) right through to Enterprise‘s cancellation in 2005. Some of the reuses are quite apparent in The Next Generation, so in that sense, the design choices made in The Motion Picture carried through the next two decades of Star Trek as a franchise. The panelling and angles on corridors in particular can be seen on the Enterprise-D and the USS Voyager, and the idea of a warp core as a large upright glowing tube is also something that has carried on right through Star Trek – even cropping up in CGI form in the most recent of the Short Treks episodes. Much of what we consider to be “Star Trek” in terms of aesthetic has its roots not in 1966 but in 1979 – future productions built on what designers and artists had created here. The Next Generation and Voyager in particular owe significant parts of their design to The Motion Picture.

The storyline of The Motion Picture is certainly different from many science fiction outings. It isn’t a film about defeating and destroying an enemy, it’s a film about bridging the gulf and communicating with a new form of life. V’ger, set up to be the film’s antagonist, wanted to evolve – to merge physically with its creator. The crew of the Enterprise could’ve used that moment of weakness to attack it, and maybe even destroy it – and in a different film perhaps that would’ve been the finale. But The Motion Picture builds up to this moment, and it isn’t the death and vanquishing of a foe that we see, but communication, and ultimately the creation of new life. Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and the like may be fun to see on screen, but Star Trek is all about “seeking new life” – and what could be newer and more different than a hyperevolved, massively intelligent machine?

This side of Star Trek, though, has always been more of a niche product. When fans are asked about their favourite films, The Wrath of Khan and First Contact are usually somewhere up near the top, as well as episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, or DS9’s The Way of the Warrior. These are all action-heavy stories, and while Star Trek has enough room for both these and the slower-paced, thought-provoking ones, The Motion Picture falls firmly into the second category. With that comes being underrated and overlooked by fans who prefer more action-oriented stories.

When Spock describes V’ger as being little more than “a child”, he sets the stage for understanding, and from that, communication. The ultimate revelation that V’ger was, in fact, a probe of human origin was truly unexpected. The Motion Picture had an incredibly ambitious story which sought to blend these elements together. The cyclical nature of a returning spacecraft, the massive differences that almost certainly will exist between humankind and anything we might encounter in outer space, and at the heart of it all, the returning characters – not all of whom had enough to do, arguably. But the core dynamic between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was still there. Perhaps The Motion Picture needed more fine-tuning, and perhaps its scope was too vast for a single film to properly encompass, but as a story it makes you stop and think. The galaxy isn’t just going to be humanoids, there are going to be things out there completely beyond our understanding. And the choices we make today – like probing outer space – may have consequences well into the future that we could never foresee.

As an inspirational message, I think that can’t be understated. Seeking out new life and new civilisations – the raison d’être of Starfleet – isn’t always going to be smooth sailing. But if we’re willing to look at things from a different point of view, to listen, to understand, and to communicate, we can find a way to coexist even with someone who seems to be big and threatening. I know the real world doesn’t always work that way, but Gene Roddenberry was always about showing us how humanity can be better than we are in the present day. Speaking personally, I find that aspect of The Motion Picture to be inspiring. As a work of science fiction, that’s the kind of message I admire and what I’d like to see more of on our screens.

Above all, The Motion Picture relaunched the Star Trek brand for a new decade, one which would culminate in The Next Generation and a return to television. If it weren’t for this film, Star Trek would look very different today – if it even existed at all. We can argue about which Star Trek film we like best, and at the end of the day it’s always going to be a subjective choice, but I’d definitely rank The Motion Picture highly on any list. Not just for what it did for the franchise, though that is incredibly important, but as a work of science fiction that wasn’t afraid to tell a thought-provoking story.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The film is also available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray. Star Trek, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and all other Star Trek properties mentioned above are the copyright of ViacomCBS and Paramount Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.