Not going to make anybody forget Willie Nelson’s definitive verson.

The Plot: Captain Picard goes to Romulus to try to work out a peace proposal with the new leader there, who reveals a secret connection to Picard. Things quickly get tense and dangerous, a cat-and-mouse game develops, a character sacrifices himself, yadda yadda. It’s Wrath Of Khan, you’ve seen this before.

What Works: The movie looks good. Special effects are amazing, best of the series to date. Big improvement over Insurrection.

What Doesn’t Work: Honestly, everything wrong with the movie can be found in this scene:

For one thing, making the villain a casual rapist is a cliche, a sign that you’re not watching a very good movie. But this isn’t just some Chuck Norris film from the 1980s, this is Star Trek. I’m not saying that you can’t portray sexual violence in it, but this is just wrong for the franchise. We had similar stuff to this in the series with “Violations”, which is not exactly one of my favorite episodes, but that episode at least earned it to a level this one didn’t. The eventual abuser in that episode was given far more of a personality and reason for doing what he did, even if it was a bog-standard erotic thriller plot. This is just something to jerk the audience around, emotionally. Fuck them for this.

Why does Shinzon do this? Why does he do anything? The classic Plinkett review for this movie makes mincemeat of any plausible motivation for the character. Shinzon is I guess motivated by sadism, sexual and otherwise. He doesn’t really care about political power or much of anything else. Of course, Khan didn’t really have a plan, but at least the movie sold us on how his trauma made him lose it. His desire for revenge is at least a motivation, and can be traced back to the pain of losing his wife. Shinzon, though, enjoys mind-rape, he likes toying with Picard, and ultimately he wants to destroy Earth, not because Earth ever did anything to him, but apparently because it would make Picard sad and cause a lot of pain. Gosh, what a fun villain.

Not as though there’s much going on with our heroes either. There’s a classic bad-movie bit at the movie’s 2/3 mark where Data has a speech where he lays out the film’s alleged theme about aspiring to be more. A Star Trekian theme to be sure. But it has nothing to do with the movie. The movie’s motif of dark doubles doesn’t quite amount to a theme. John Logan has proven himself to be, if not one of the all-time greats, at least a proficient screenwriter, so it’s hard not to lump the blame for this onto credited story contributors Brent Spiner and Rick Berman. I don’t know who’s to blame, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter. I’m happy to blame them all! This movie takes care to give everybody something to do, which is not the same as having them figure prominently into the story. You could have cut Troi’s rape subplot and Riker’s fight with the Reman altogether and have lost nothing of consequence from the movie. This is a major, major problem. Then again, if you search YouTube, there are so many deleted scenes from this movie! Whole characters and subplots that went by the wayside. Seems clear enough that the entire project was unfocused from the start.

As for the obvious thing. This is yet another riff on The Wrath Of Khan, though more direct than the prior couple in the series. It is, though, a very surface-level take on The Wrath Of Khan, one that seems to not understand what actually made that movie work. Picard has no real arc, he and Shinzon have essentially the same scene, over and over again, with Picard being the Luke Skywalker to Shinzon’s Darth Vader, only Shinzon is actually Emperor Palpatine, so getting through to him is hopeless. There’s so little to say about the mechanics of the plot since they’re so similar to The Wrath Of Khan–there’s even a climactic fight in a nebula!–that privileges plot over character to an insane degree. Those Khan beats are damn well going to happen, whether or not they make any sense based on the characters! (This is probably why Shinzon is such a bad character–he’s just bent and prodded into these dramatic beats which have little to do with the character at all. He’s not really a Khan figure but they sure try to make him one.) To me, the real failure of the movie is present in the wake they hold for Data (which is, surprisingly, not available on YouTube). It’s just profoundly wrong, almost an afterthought where Khan had a funeral scene of striking emotional power. And for a true incarnation of Marx’s “second time as farce” rule, we get Picard interacting with the B4 unit–truly, one of the worst characters ever created for Star Trek–which teases the “Data’s not really dead” thing in the context of a painfully misjudged scene. This is the new version of the David scene from Khan, this!. Bad comedy and a clumsy let’s just say “homage.” The film ends with time-lapsed footage of the Enterprise‘s repairs, yet another indication that they intended to keep on making these. Not since the ending of the Super Mario Bros. movie has a sequel promise been so hilariously incorrect.

In the end, what can you say? Star Trek Insurrection broke little new ground, but at least it was made with some care by people who knew the franchise. Nemesis was made by people who had contempt for it. I’ll never get Paramount’s seeming distaste for being in the Star Trek business. Instead of finding a good director who liked (or at least understood) the material, they just got some studio hack in there to whom they contractually owed a film. Why? Why did it take four years to make this movie? (Presumably because Berman was busy miscarrying Enterprise, I suppose.) Why did they think this was a good final chapter to The Next Generation. Questions abound. But as an ending to the story of Rick Berman, it’s actually sort of perfect. Berman produced some good Star Trek, but the big mistake was to give him the movie franchise as well. Even at its height under his stewardship (First Contact), it was never quite what it should have been, and one has to assume it was because he was so busy with the two television shows he executive produced. And, honestly, movies never seemed to be his particular strong suit. The four TNG movies are too formulaic and share too many of the same stock elements, suggesting that Berman was in over his head in trying to create distinctive cinematic adventures for the crew. It’s true now that the boundaries between TV and film have become blurry, but Berman is old school in that respect and never really seemed to understand what makes a good film. Aside from First Contact, none of the films feels particularly assured, and in context that seems like a fluke. Given the nature of the film industry it’s often hard to pin the blame on one person, but in this case, it’s the only logical explanation.

Legacy: Killed the franchise. Fans and cast about equally hate it. Not the worst made but the most hated of the entire series, and with the worst box-office performance to boot. No doubt there will be an attempt to reevaluate this at some point but it doesn’t matter. It’s painfully bad.

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I’d argue that the biggest con in conservatism is the idea that victory in the culture wars is not only possible, but at hand. Always at hand. And with this easy donation to the Tea Party Progress PAC you can help us get there! To anybody with even a passing understanding of U.S. history, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence for this. The same places susceptible to religious-tinged populism a century ago are still susceptible to it. The places susceptible to empiricism and reason back then still are. To be sure, the makeup of a lot of places has changed over the years, party affiliations change, etc. But it is really remarkably consistent. Certainly you’ve had some periods where one side or another gained an advantage for a few decades, but that’s about the most you can expect. At least, going by history.

It’s not like Obama was wrong in arguing that it would be in the right’s best interest to find some sort of workable consensus. Honestly, if the right resumed an Eisenhoweresque philosophy and ideology, they’d probably dominate for decades. That’s what’s happened in Europe! But he was wrong in assuming that he could get this argument across and he had no Plan B for if it was refused. In a way, he was the exact wrong president for the times. The Obama Era through now was peak times for irrationality and derp and Obama’s reverence for reason and empiricism were at almost Sherlock Holmesian levels. Not saying that he was the wrong choice in 2008–out of the available options, he was clearly the best one–but these traits were a brilliant straitjacket, ultimately.

Not really sure how Democrats will come out of the Trump Era thinking that bipartisanship needs to happen and that there are plenty of good Republicans with good ideas just waiting to cut deals, but they will. That’s the biggest con of center-left liberalism.

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Whichever ones you happen to be celebrating…

As it’s not our job to provide a distraction from dealing with your relatives, expect light posting over the next two weeks.

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I haven’t yet enjoyed this commentary, but I can tell you that Frakes’s commentary for First Contact is a lot of fun.

The Plot: Captain Picard “goes rogue” to save a small community in a treacherous region of space. Data decides to explore being a child. Troi and Riker start hooking up again because why not. F. Murray Abraham is so bad as the villain that he should have mailed back his Oscar in embarrassment. Also there’s a holoship and a half-hearted critique of youth obsession.

What Works: Star Trek isn’t often satirical but the Son’a plastic surgery material is actually a pretty good satire of Hollywood plastic surgery and beauty culture–they go in seemingly every day to have the wrinkles and stretches pulled out and come out still looking awful. Having an enemy race propelled by such obvious vanity is an interesting way to go. It’s a shame that the treatment of the youth theme among the main characters is so frequently cringeworthy. I will say that I do like how the movie gives us a surprisingly large number of new Starfleet vessel designs, including the Captain’s Yacht, the holoship, the scout ship and newer-looking shuttles. The production design people did a lot of work on this and it’s all pretty cool.

What Doesn’t WorkInsurrection is frequently criticized as feeling like a two-part The Next Generation episode, but what it really specifically feels like is an episode from that show’s fourth or fifth season. You know, one of the ones Michael Piller worked on. Piller comes in to write this one, and offers an indispensable guide to the entire production in his unpublished book, Fade In. It’s an odd book in a lot of ways, written clearly for a broader audience beyond Star Trek fans, really for anybody interested in how a movie comes to be. Clearly the publishing industry had no interest in this, and Piller goes a little overboard in explaining away the Vulcans and Klingons in footnotes even though your average person on the street would get the gist.

Piller’s book is not an anatomy of a disaster. He’s actually pretty satisfied with how the movie came out, with only a couple minor disappointments. It is more interesting than it might sound to hear about Piller’s writing process, for example. But while he was happy with it, the critical words by the studio as well as by various other stakeholders (including some sage insight by Patrick Stewart) seem to have been lightly received. They clearly locked into problems with the concept early on. But truth be told, this is more a middling entry than a true disaster. It does, at the least, have a theme, but the script has some serious structural problems as well. Picard’s arc is accomplished a third or so of the way into the movie, and his continued presence is sort of pointless, honestly. The movie does its best not to drag in spite of this–the last half of the movie is, in effect, two big chase scenes alternating–but I have to say that the original concept of Picard killing a malfunctioning Data and then rebelling in anger over the coverup by Admiral Dougherty just seems a vastly stronger dramatic structure than what we got. That’s the problem of letting this stuff get out in the open. You make it a lot easier to second-guess the choices you actually made.

At any rate, as for the rest of it: the Data B-story feels too much like a retcon of about a decade of character development, which admittedly included some pretty bad ideas in the movies. The Geordi regaining his eyesight is just a retread from All Good Things…, and obviously the entire plot closely resembles Wesley Crusher’s swan song in “Journey’s End.” Honestly, so little of this movie feels like breaking new ground. It’s pure comfort food for the fans. Which might be why I instinctually dislike it–I’d rather have loony ambition a la Star Trek V than bland recycling like this movie. I get why not everybody would have that reaction. It’s an inoffensive movie in general. But I kind of want there to be a little more going on in a Star Trek movie than a gentle rehash of stuff that they did better in other movies. It feels in some ways like an unearned valedictory lap. I do think there’s some potential in the dynamic they worked out here but the Son’a are just a little bit too vicious as villains (mainly that’s Mr. Abraham’s fault, or maybe the script’s, or both), while the Ba’ku are too nice and too vague to be truly empathetic victims. They feel a little too much like a rich hippie encampment than a genuine culture of their own.

Honestly, so much of this feels like Piller kind of lost the touch in the years since he left The Next Generation. Star Trek is and should be about moral reasoning and doing the hard but right thing. This scenario, though, is too cut and dried, and almost invites you to engage in devil’s advocate reasoning: but what about the billions of people that could be helped by this Son’a process? Is this anything more than an elaborate defense of squatter’s rights? (Answer: it isn’t.) It’s too much a Star Trek-shaped moral conflict, but it needed much more complexity and nuance. And in all honesty, I’m not sure the youth theme really makes much sense for an aging cast. The original intention was for Picard to actually meet a figure from his past and re-examine his own life’s choices, which frankly just sounds like a riff on “Tapestry,” one of the most famous TNG episodes, but at least you’d have a bit more thesis-antithesis than you get here with…the Admiral? Yet another font of vagueness, in spite of the pleasure of hearing Anthony Zerbe’s weird diction. It’s all so half-heartedly done, with Worf’s Klingon acne and Riker shaving his beard, all surface-level things, but the implications of the metaphasic radiation are not entirely puzzled out. The theme is really superficial in its treatment. And ultimately, what is the fallout from all of this? Damned if I know. Can’t have any of that, we have to have more scenes of Picard’s chemistry-free romance.

Ugh.

Legacy: Middle-of-the-road. Piller wanted to do a fountain of youth movie because it hadn’t been done in awhile, but the pieces just don’t fit that well and he’s not able to do anything special with it. Ah well. He still wrote The Best Of Both Worlds, which means he’s an all-timer just for that. R.I.P. Personally, I really don’t like it because it’s so bland and offers absolutely nothing new.

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Anybody who looks at this and doesn’t think Kevin de Leon has a shot is nuts, particularly since the thing that’s supposed to save Feinstein is Republicans voting for her over a more liberal alternative. I’m really not so sure about that. If I had to guess what will happen, it would be that a bunch of Republicans won’t bother to cast a vote in the race and those who do mostly split. I suppose if conservative media makes a big push there could be a wider difference, but I’m not sure if the potential gains would make the effort worth it for them. Also, the fact that Feinstein is seen as much more liberal than she is will not help her in that goal. Her deviations from progressivism aren’t necessarily things that would endear her to Republicans, whom she can’t really court openly without risking her position with the rather more common Democrats. Perhaps de Leon will choke or she’ll pull it out on name recognition, but honestly, there could be a bit of a vice at work here.

The real problem with this top-two system is that it was designed by politics nerds who hate partisanship. But a general election between two people of the same party makes people of the other party just not care, who knew? I guess they thought ordinary voters were really going to be interested in hashing out different stances on minor issues, and while this may make for the stuff of good West Wing fanfic, it betrays a real lack of intellectual empathy toward ordinary voters. What happened last year was a big old “meh” reaction and my guess is that it’ll happen this year too, though I wouldn’t rule out Republicans actually breaking against Feinstein just to humiliate a long-serving female Democrat. Not saying that’s good! Just what it is.

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Feels like now is the time for American allies to raise holy hell. No, the Telegraph is not high on my list of high-quality news sources, but if it’s phony then it’s some of the most brilliantly observed fiction I’ve ever read, by someone who understands the mentalities of the men involved to an incredible degree. I had hoped that this was a Nixonian “madman” act, but frankly I’m not sure I trust the stability of the principals involved in the don’t-call-it-a-war push.

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I fully support decriminalization of all drug use. I also favor legalization of marijuana. If you twist my arm, I’d grant that full legalization of all drugs with federally regulated marketplaces would probably be a better state of affairs than the current one. But it wouldn’t solve the problem, which is essentially that people aren’t getting hooked on opioids because it’s fun. They’re not exactly party drugs. Honestly, those sorts of problems tend to sort themselves out: who would want to take a recreational drug that would kill you? It makes no sense, and if that was really the problem, we wouldn’t need any drug enforcement mechanisms at all. It’s because they live in a society that has brainwashed them into thinking that their failure to become millionaires is their own fault, a simple lack of hard work, essentially. If you’re bearing the burden of not measuring up, then killing off your senses is a reasonable choice. As no shortage of articles on Trump voters have put it, this is one of the building blocks of Trumpism. But if you live in a small town in Missouri and you don’t have a college degree and you haven’t managed to get one of the limited prison guard or janitor jobs there, it’s pretty much drugs, whether as a user or as a dealer. It is such a universal reaction to a specific set of circumstances that it amazes me that people could see it as anything else, but Americans (mostly white though not only) want to think that crime is only committed by bad people (bad having connotations of course). You only really get organized crime like the drug trade if an awful lot of institutions fail and there’s zero opportunity.

Yes, yes, we all know this. But when I read stuff like this I’m not sure what to say. It’s literally killing us. We could fix our deeply sick society if we wished to. Anytime, really.

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The New York Times can’t stop itself.

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