Black Trekkie: Tuning Out to Tune In

Avery Brooks, who fronts Star Trek: Deep Space Nine attended Oberlin College and performed a monologue of Paul Robeson my senior year, at our alma mater’s Black Alumni Reunion. This man is bossy. But DS9 requires a wholly different spectatorship than its fellow franchisees.

As a college student, I suffered from missing the latter few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I had watched as a kid each Saturday evening at 7 PM, without fail. I was the only Trekkie in any household I knew, and was just lucky that folks tolerated this monopoly of the television each Saturday in the prime of prime time. It was not until I reached college that I would find a field and flock of comrades, yet had no time to actually see prime time TV.

Since Star Trek is another apocalyptic fantasy where humanity nearly destroyed itself, in our recovery, humanity has banished money and poverty by extension. This seems to explain the apparent lack of class diversity. Yet, I watch the episodes then and now, and each series reflects a very clear picture of how America projected its dominant caste fantasies concerning gender, race and class at the time.

All other forms of inequality are assumed to have been eradicated alongside most diseases. In the Star Trek universe, however, equality was really a project of assimilation just meant that everyone had some strange fusion, futuristic sense of morality that only differed by planet. It has taken President Obama to call the question of assimilation into question and value difference beyond PC jargon.

“You stay here and be re-assimilated,” says Three of Nine to Seven of Nine Auxiliary Processor of Unimatrix number one in Voyager.

Like all other cultures in Star Trek, Earth’s cultures are collapsed into one, despite the persistence of a variety of Earth’s languages. Yet, the behavior, accent, interests, spiritual beliefs, mannerisms, and other codes of conduct of the shows characters and dialogues are reflective of the dominate caste in America, as if we didn’t live in a multi-cultural society that respected difference. Only one captain would break this mold. Guess who?

The PC police, many of whom are inevitably fellow Trekkies, are so wed to the false idea of meritocracy that perhaps Negros don’t have the constitution to survive the apocalypse, and certainly no Star Fleet Academy; just that one Black kid in class really, really is a token when the job interviews counts and promotions are under way.

Attacking the PC police, in ‘Racism in Star Wars and Star Trek’ on the website, self-defined bi-racial writer offers an entertaining alternative to tuning out in order to tune in:

“Race and culture are treated as synonymous and interchangeable concepts in Star Trek. The above examples are merely a smattering, and you could compile many pages of examples by watching enough Star Trek episodes. In fact, you could take each and every occurrence of the word "culture" in Trek dialogue, replace it with "race," and it would still be completely appropriate in context (it's an interesting experiment- try it!).”

To cut right to the chase, even Changelings are white. White male actors overwhelmingly portray characters across all the civilizations throughout every galaxy. This means that Star Trek presents all species throughout the cosmos as all-American in the face of our reality. ‘All-American’ is unrealistic, but the stuff of fantasy. In short, Star Trek reflected the socio-political contexts of its time, which is still a static narrative in our popular culture. To tell the truth, Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Voyager series strikes all the chords of fear that Hilary laid out in her presidential campaign. She’s more man than any man to command a starship.

In reality, however, Star Trek was just like the multi culturalism of the time: We’re all the same: We all have the potential to be white, middle class.

Ethnic Stereotypes in Star Trek

Throughout the Star Trek franchise, Klingons are violent and carnal, and Vulcans are emotionless, super smart, excellent at martial arts, complete with slant(ed) eyes and Zen gardens and meditation practices. These were the first ‘foreigners’ that humanity encountered, which is again reflective of the life and times of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

The natives are truly restless and rebellious in Star Trek: Voyager. As rebels, the Maquis are frankly indigenous Americans shown through tired, but effective stereotypes of the hot-blooded Latina and earthy Native-American crewmembers. The PC Trekkies prefer the superficial analysis of the Maquis as proxies for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but the clear stereotypes betray a more deep seeded sense of guilt and therefore projector of terror over the terms of the settlement of this land.

Q are the arrogant upper-class. Betazoids reflect the eccentric Greek/Romans, a stereotype carefully reinforced by the archetypal Greek-looking actress and personae of the part. The Borg are Nazis bent on perfection through logic. Ferengi are greedy, money-mongering stereotypes of Indians, complete with weird death rituals. As a species they totally prepared to subordinate themselves to money and status at every turn, though Ferengi as the Hindi word for ‘foreigner’ is a dead giveaway.

Back to Earth. or, ‘”Old Europe.”

Humans in Star Trek are white and the ways that this is reinforced are manifold and too overreaching and nauseating to cover in any one sitting. Viewing each crew, humans are American, and Americans are white, plus a few charismatic ‘Others’. That’s the basic Hollywood narrative of black best friends and intelligent Asians. Moreover, when totally out-gunned or dominated by sophisticated technology, our Starfleet heroes are always vaqueros due to some aspect of our humanity, for example, we won’t leave of injured behind.

In the Star Trek universe, humans are a young species, relatively new to space travel as compared to the most other species. We’re prone to rash behavior and acting on instinct rather than forethought and consideration. Hence, our new world values always trump those of the older worlds. Sound familiar? Star Trek is just a first world dialogue with no real Third World realities or sensibilities. Perhaps we all have been actually assimilated.

The same goes for gender. Men are men and women, women. Consider Uhura answering the phones in the original series. It was a subservient role reprised in the character Hoshi the Star Trek: Enterprise series, as well as the new Uhura in the 2009 Star Trek movie, both as sophisticated linguists cum communications specialists. There is also Dr. Crusher caring for the needy, and the empathetic counselor Troy holding everyone’s hands in the TNG series. Not to mention the franchise’s creator’s wife providing the voice of the ever-helpful computer, readily awaiting every command.

Women in Star Trek stay in their respective places. Most captains are men, and most of the women in leadership are not in combat an inevitably the show posits combat as inevitable and unavoidable, requiring brute, male force. Further, Star Trek’s first captain is as American as apple pie, racism and cola. He is aptly named Jim, and embodied the maverick cowboy role. He could be George Bush.

Mixed “species” folks in the Star Trek universe are perpetually tragic mulattos. Notably, these folks almost inevitably prioritize their ‘humanity’, which is often demonstrated through adherence to white, middle-class American values, though admittedly every “species” in Star Trek only has one culture; others are rebels.

These mulattos span beyond Spock in the original series, to Deanna Troi and Worf, and his son in TNG. Interestingly, race, including their tragic mulatto child is ignored in the only actual, regularly appearing interracial couple in all of Star Trek, despite the couple carrying over between two separate series within the franchise. Yet, mixed race/species is itself a deficit, an axis upon which the characters provide ample fodder to discourage cross breeding.

The Compassionate Captain

I'll admit it. I'm a Trekkie -- always have been, always will be. I watched reruns of the original series early each Sunday morning, and was in ecstasy when the Next Generation debuted in 1987. Having that introduction, I adored Voyager, Enterprise the animated series and the films. Deep Space Nine is other-worldly and a great departure from all the other all-American captains. DS9 was an unexpected series. I was never able to connect with the show from its initial debut a year before TNG ended till 2009. It’s a mature show and requires a different spectatorship than the blunt force and violence littering the other series. DS9 is dialogue heavy.

Avery Brooks plays Star Trek’s only on-going non-white captain. As the only series in the franchise to take place on a stationary space outpost rather than a ship, Brooks’ character essentially brokered rebuilding after an ending a brutal occupation. Not only is he command the station, Benjamin Sisko’s place in the universe is justifying by the religious veneration he earned off the bat in the pilot episode, on the local world by stumbling upon another species whom they his host-planet reveres as Gods.

DS9 left all other Star Trek series behind. Few words could begin to sum the relevant social issues faced in each and every episode. And these weren’t just theories of dealing with difference. For example, the episode "Far Beyond the Stars" from DS9 season four literally shows conversations that Americans simply do not have in mixed company, producing results unimagined thus far on any screen. Ben Sisko may have been our popular culture’s only ongoing example of a Black man in a leadership position with authority (i.e. not just hustling and jiving with street credibility, nor the just as ethereal Dennis Haysbert on 24 as the president, so little authority did his character generate).

Not that the Star Trek universe never broke any ground. Certainly, the series is credited with America’s first on-screen interracial kiss, which is for majority Trekkies a supreme source of pride, heralded as a landmark anti-racist act. Yet, a kiss from a patriarchal womanizer who conquered blue, green and/or horned females throughout the galaxy virtually negates the potential radical statement: Jim will screw anything, a narrative deeply reflected in the new Trek flick.

Yet, Deep Space Nine proved to be the most progressive series within the entire franchise of five separate series, an animated series (with one episode dedicated to the “Slaver Weapon” with the Black secretary character taking a lead role for once!), and over twice as many big screen films. In one episode, for example, a former slave driver and a slave’s girlfriend spend the bulk of the episode alone in one spacecraft, tracking down an escaped slave ship, crossing many paths of the underground railway along the way. How did we live with ourselves, whips in hand or shackled?

The dialogue they generate provides a map for the sorts of conversations societies must inevitably have to eradicate social inequality, and not the eradication of difference itself. Dare we share our secrets?


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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