Category: Media

I’m a media studies graduate and with that comes a raftload of tools that I’m repeatedly told aren’t actually useful for anything, to which I counter that I like using them and enjoy the experience of applying those tools to all the media around me I partake in and therefore my life is enriched and overflowing with wonderful experiences of interconnectivity. By this point the other person has usually wandered off. Anyway, this is the category for anything that I think of as being connected to ‘media’, whether it’s a type (like TV, music, movies or so on), a brand (like Disney! Hi Disney!). This category also covers my weekly critical engagement column-type-thing currently called Story Pile.

Star Trek Discovery

Courtesy of my weird childhood, I never really was a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person. My sister and mother watched Star Trek on VHS rental when I was older, but there never really was any sense to me that these shows were a thing to watch. They were just a show on the television sometimes. Heck, I didn’t realise there was an actual arc to these shows – they weren’t like my continuity-driven, beloved and intellectual Robotech.

(Give me a break)

Point is, I’ve never been a Star Trek person. It’s not my thing, it’s never been my thing, and aside from being aware of the term ‘trekkie’ I never really got how or why the series actually played into this subculture. It was a show, it happened to other people, they loved it, and they maybe got a bit weird about it, but I got a bit weird about Transformers, so I wasn’t one to judge.

With all that in mind, when I saw people talking about Star Trek: Discovery, and complaining about it on all sorts of levels (it’s being distributed weirdly), and finding out that here, in Australia I can just watch it on Netflix, I popped open Netflix and had a shot.

And,

well.

Hey, wow, Star Trek is pretty cool!!

This series starts with – and some mild spoilers here, just structural ones – with a really interesting premise to me. Our protagonist isn’t a leader or a powerhouse or a figure of authority who makes final calls, but is instead someone in the midsection of hierarchy; she has to make decisions as best she can based on what’s going on around her, but doesn’t have the latitude to make a lot of free-wheeling, cowboy-captain style solutions, or back up her position authoritively in a negotiation of rules. There’s also her history, and the way her upbringing created a really interesting tension that highlights something cool to me about the universe she’s part of.

I don’t rightly know if Discovery is a good or a bad series, but I know I’m enjoying it three episodes in, and it even did something I found weirdly comforting. Episode 3 introduced a ‘science’ thing that I think is going to show up and be important to the rest of the story. It’s also total nonsense, which actually works for me, because it indicates that this isn’t going to be a series about establishing hard science fiction rules, and instead wants to talk about concepts and ideology that are more about where we are now, and use a framing device of a future that we want to get to.

The main character, Michael, is a mess of elements in conflict, and I like the ways I see the storytelling signalling it. First of all, there’s just the very basic conflict of her name. Normally when we go to the future in stories, we tend to treat elements of culture as reasonably static – look at how the original Star Trek didn’t really feature a lot of trans or queer characters; it looked forward to the question of race but that was a conversation that was already happening.

Michael’s name could be seen as queer-signaling but I don’t think it is. I think it’s taking the much simpler route of making us look at her and feel dissonance. We go ‘that’s a boy’s name’ in our culture (which, yes, is silly, but it’s definitely how the name is coded and don’t pretend that that reaction is unusual). That’s one point of contention – a now, versus a then. There’s her backstory of pure logic contrasting with an impetus of emotional perspective. There’s the tension of being a central character in a wide-open space while being beholden to the orders and mandates of the control structure around her. This leads to actions that are,

I find this really interesting!

I’m actually a bit sad hearing now,now the series is underway and going on, to see people around me talking about how it’s not that good or offering a sort of conciliatory well if the third episode is where it started tone or trying to fix a series that’s, what, three episodes long at the time of writing?

It’s a bit sad, to me. It’s weird, too – because to me, this isn’t a series trying to live up to a huge reputation. I don’t have a feel of what Star Trek should be, or how it’s meant to work? I just have, well, no real opinion. This is a pretty interesting science-fiction series, which frames itself as having a long history that we can discover, a huge infrastructure so the stories aren’t about how to get into space, and a canvas that features an enormous potential war on the horizon and a central character whose main story seems to be about an interesting contest between a logical and emotional contest.

That all seems, to me, to be pretty cool.

Decemberween: Oh, Cae!

I have this friend – Caelyn – who is an absolute sweetheart. She’s thoughtful and smart, and willing to share her experiences and her storytelling whenever. Her stories, the things she wants to tell are often about change, in some way, but the content of the stories aside, she has this wonderful sense of technological possibility. Cae spends her time, when she’s working on things, testing the limits of what she can do with a form. Sometimes that’s just a document, sometimes it’s Twine, sometimes it’s moving things from format to another. Sometimes she’ll write fanfic of games, and sometimes she writes games that are fanfic – and she does it all, with this endless, wonderful sense of exploration

Cae is a good friend, but even that aside, she is creative. She makes things I like to try out and look at and even those things she makes that don’t click with me hard – because hey, let’s face it, I am still always going to be a Cis Boy Who’s Never Had An Attack Of The Genders – are always worth experiencing because they are interesting. Cae is a person who tries things, and when they don’t work perfectly, looks at what she got out of what she tries.

Cae is great and you should check out her stuff:

Decemberween: Generation IV

I love some dorky superhero roleplay. Ever since City of Heroes I got in the habit of just enjoying the stories I could tell, the ways I could play in story universes that care about superheroic elements and the tropes of superheroes. I like sidekicks. I like superfamilies. I like doom robots and death rays and I like capes and costumes and I like all of these things.

I love Generation IV, which is a roleplaying setting ran and maintained by a handful of friends. Gen 4 hasn’t been super busy lately – in part because some of the major players have had major life shifts and vacations – but it’s something that I’ve really loved to be able to go to throughout this year. It is a thing that my friends made and for which I am grateful.

Decemberween: Hannibal

If I want to tell you about my roleplaying character, that’s dorky. If I want to tell you about my friend’s roleplaying character, that’s inspiring.

This time last year I was involved in the beleagured RP community for the Secret World, which is urban gothic horror. In TSW, you had these global conspiracies based on particular varieties of fictive representations of ancient conspiracies – awkwardly in the representation of Asia, but pretty great as it pertained to Roman era stuff. Particularly, there was an enemy faction that showed up at the end of the game, to represent a threat for all parties, the Phoenicians.

There was a lot of work done by fans to build roleplay stuff, and in this space, one of my friends, Leastwise, came up and one day started playing a character going by the name Hannibal, who spoke about the sea and empires and overcoming great odds. He was urbane, he was stylish, and he crystallised the Phoenician characterisation into a space that let a lot of us other players latch on to it. Hannibal was a humanising element to the faction and with it came such a wonderful personality. The twist? It wasn’t just Hannibal The Name, he was Hannibal Barca, the actual warlord of Ancient Carthage. And under that jovial, fatherly frame, Hannibal boiled with rage at the Empire, at the people who had taken his home from him, and he had spent centuries nursing that grudge. The player wove this wonderful mythology in the empty space of the game, and created a really interesting, engaging faction building on real histories.

At one point Hannibal, the player, by a series of successful negotiations and people operating on incomplete information, successfully took control of the city of Las Vegas, during a RP event with over thirty players involved – resulting in a coup for the Phoenicians that the player just pulled off by just listening and talking.

I don’t play TSW any more, and I miss, so badly, being able to play alongside Hannibal.

Vandread

Vandread was an anime that came out in the year 2000 and it’s a bit tricky to introduce because everything it is it’s also not quite. It’s a harem anime, but not quite. It’s a space giant robot anime, but not quite. It’s a science fiction anthology anime, but not quite. It’s about genders, but not quite, about relationships, but not quite, and about identity, but not quite. In a lot of ways, Vandread is a really confused piece, a gem of its time.

The premise of Vandread is – okay, hold on – there are these two planets of entirely gender-segregated populations reproducing through artificial means that been at war with one another for centuries because the men planet thinks the women planet eat liver and it’s all cast as a propoganda war, where our main character such as he is Hibiki is working in an awful factory job that dehumanises him. He stows away on the warship that holds a mecha he helped to build, to try and steal it, because he’s an idiot, and then Lesbian Pirates attack as the warship is about to go show off how great it is. A Space Accident ensues and the warship is swallowed in part by the pirate ship, which then becomes an Extremely Sweet Ship with three male prisoners on board – Hibiki, and two other guys from his own home culture, a doctor and a navigator. The ship is then flung out into the middle of nowhere and our cast have to work out what happened, why their cultures are the way they are, who they are and why some of the mecha and space-ships they have can now combine into a powerful Vandread Unit.

Oh yeah, the shapeshifting robot thing comes up, and there’s also these unidentified attackers who keep trying to kill them.

This is the first episode.

Vandread then follows an almost Star-Trekky kind of plot arc where they move from place to place, and each new episode brings a new problem they handle and learn a bit about the overarcing plot. Sometimes it’s a internal drama on the space-ship, Hibiki learning he’s a doofus, or sometimes it’s going to a new planet and finding out there’s a problem there. The plot on this one kind of unfolds, but it’s also much more of a story about a world as a concept than it is about anything the story wants to say with that.

For all that Vandread is a story about segregated genders, though, there are two really weird points to it – and they get a bit spoilery, so I’ll jump on the far side of a cut for that, so you can avoid it. Continue reading

BraveStarr!

BraveStarr, with its internal capital and double-r, is the story of a lone Native-American lawman from (maybe) the planet of New Texas, with his small coalition of friends, opposing an outlaw gang headed up by Tex Hex, who’s best described as a sort of Zombie Cyborg Cowboy. The fearsome crew of idiots and screwball villains wielding big boxy space-guns spent their time ‘terrorising’ the citizens of Fort Kerium, which is a giant mechanised city (buy all our playsets and toooys) made to protect the Prarie People and their Kerium mines.

I feel that when it came to these 80s Merchandise shows, you’d often have details about the creators seep into the work. Part of what made M*A*S*K so remarkable was that there was so little there there, a story that just sort of farted out. If you looked at shows like GI Joe or Silverhawks, there was always a tiny drop of something going on there, an ideology you could point to and use to inform the work at large. It isn’t just something that a work is trying to say: creative people’s values and ideas become part of their work even subconsciously.

These subconscious biases are to me more interesting than a lot of intended messages: Especially when you’re dealing with media primarily designed for fast, forgettable consumption, the pulp of an era, people often don’t have the time to make media that has A Message. Bravestarr was a series that wanted to be a western, with a cool Native American protagonist who channelled nature spirits, espoused environmental and social consciousness, and protected the poor Prarie People of New Texas. That is to say, this story is about a Native American Cop protecting the Colonial invaders while they exploited the small, hairy subhumans who can’t talk properly.

There’s a historical context here – and like it or not, thirty years ago is actually history. Not that the atrocities against Native Americans or the racism in media isn’t longer lasting than that, but the 80s as a creative period were a time when those symptoms of oppression and marginalisation were being expressed differently to now. Now, you present a Native American character poorly and there’ll be an angry online presence making its feelings known. That’s not to say that this tension gets things fixed, but there’s a reaction. There’s an easily recognised, publically searchable, clear reaction to this kind of thing, the sort of thing that results in a Criticisms And Controversies entry on a Wikipedia page.

For these works of the 1980s, though, we didn’t have that. It took a surprising amount of effort for fans to have a direct impact on shows and that effort was mostly isolated to people with the free time to do it. Even the classic Women In Refrigerators was an early internet list, and the 90s Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team still relied on people sending actual physical letters to comic creators. What’s more those were both very entrenched fans working hard – not the pre-teen Bravestarr ‘fans’ who probably were also equally entrenched in six other franchises that gave them reasonably similar or comparable toys.

There’s your historical context: Complaints about Bravestarr were not widespread, not because they weren’t legitimate or real, but because nobody with media platform space was asking questions and nobody was writing down the answers. This is not the same thing as being uncontroversial. It means that we weren’t listening.

At the same time, the 80s were definitely into that period of Native American presence in media (that some say ended with Disney’s Pocohontas) that treated them as just important enough to be magically otherised and also probably not actually whole people.

BraveStarr is noteworthy because Marshall Bravestarr himself is a Native American, or is ‘meant to be’ a Native American. We see glimpses of his childhood, moments where he was living in a situation best called Cartoon Tribal. We hear the story of Shaman the Shaman, who quotes some very Not-Native-American lessons translated backwards (‘to truly understand someone, one must walk a mile in his moccasins’). There’s a clear desire to have some sort of connection to Native American culture, but either by being too cautious to identify anything (unlikely) or genuinely believing that most Native American culture was airy-fairy and indefinite, it very much comes across as being ‘Native American’ culture, like a big broad sticker you can put on things.

Ultimately, BraveStarr earns itself a very white You Tried sticker from another white person. Someone involved in this production wanted to do something with the idea, wanted their silly space cowboy show informed by westerns they liked and space-faring science fiction they liked and also to include an oddball cast of alien-looking villains that included at least one Australian shape-shifting dingo. It’s fascinating that this series tried to do something, that it tried something, but it tried really stupidly.

It serves as an example of how you made an effort isn’t always a good enough excuse to be satisfied with a result.

 

Thanksgiving Day 2017

For Context: A few years ago I learned that there are elderly people who write Thanksgiving day letters to unparented/unfamilied queer youth who feel alone and isolated during the holidays. This is my attempt to contribute to this genre. I apologise if it is too short or too long – this is something I do rarely.

It is very possible you might find this embarassing or cringey. You are not obligated to listen to this at all but I hope it gives you some comfort during the holidays.

Audio Download

If you like the header image, and would like a larger version, here it is.

Korra: The Darkest Shadow

How do you follow up success?

How do you follow up runaway successes?

How do you follow up literally the greatest example of its genre of all time?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, broadly speaking, the greatest piece of long-form western animated storytelling  that exists. When you take into account its competitors, they’re usually storytelling forms that have different demands, but when viewed in terms of just itself – continuity-driven human drama stories told using animation – there just isn’t anything that touches it. I say that as someone who really dislikes some elements of Avatar and its coding, who thinks there’s waste in that otherwise dense series. I like Avatar less than I recognise its overall quality and its excellence as a story.

It sort of follows sadly then that Korra, a story I like better, is much worse made.

Continue reading

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