Thursday, October 27, 2005

Alternate Economics and... The Apprentice?

This is a quasi-rant based on something that has been bothering me since I caught the last few episodes of The Apprentice's first season.

The Apprentice is supposedly a paen to all-American capitalist entrepreneurs (you know, the kind the French don't even have a word for). But the way the show is structured betrays every ethos it supposedly upholds.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of bosses. For those who haven't seen the show, every season starts with two teams (men vs. woman, college grads vs. high schoolers, etc.). The teams are given a task, a deadline, and a budget or the materials to pull off their goal. They compete head to head, and the losers have one team member fired by Donald Trump.

Each team has a leader, the "project manager," who is selected from within. There are no real guidelines for how to select the PM, and in the past it has usually been a process of self-nomination. Typically, each team member tries to take at least one try at it, and a few times, I believe there has been a vote on who should be PM.

The PMs tend to act like bosses, whether good or bad. But they aren't bosses, obviously. They only govern by consensus. If it was a real workplace, they would have power over their fellow workers. They could fire them (can't do that here) could theoretically cut their wages or withold future raises (no one's getting paid), could demote them or put them in the smelly cubicle (but there'll be a new leader next week, no penalty can hold). In fact, the groups undertaking the tasks could more accurately be called (gasp!) cooperatives. They tend to be deficient because everyone is trying to act like a boss, however. They only really know how to behave hierarchically, and everyone is trying to demonstrate "leadership." On some teams, there is a real problem of too many Pizarros, not enough conquistadors. In general, the teams that have the least amount of power politics and personal clashes do the best.

The only power a PM has, even theoretically, is to bench a troublesome team mate for the duration of the task. However, they seldom resort to this, usually giving their more useless/irritating colleagues the scut work, like ordering lunch or sweeping up.

The teams tend to stumble forward because all the members share two collective aims. The first is to win the task of the week. The second is to find a victim to blame if everything goes pear shaped. More often than not, the PM of the losing team gets the boot for "poor leadership," which is sometimes obviously true, and sometimes less so.

Having demolished the notion that The Apprentice is organized like a real capitalist workplace, let's look at that Horatio Alger myth that is so prominently displayed in the advertising. The word leadership has taken such a beating on this show that it could stand in for Ed Norton in Fight Club. But none of the Apprentices are actually trying to become entrepreneurs through the show. They are trying to win a position below someone else - someone they'll likely never surpass in wealth and power. They're gutting each other week after week to reach the highest peaks of middle management.

I was going to refer to this as a kind of feudal system (King Trump, with his privy council of George and Carolyn) but what it really reminds me of is the system of patrons in 18th Century France and England. It was largely expected that to advance in life, one needed a wealthy and powerful patron. And once men rose to a high enough station, they returned the favour to those below them, often their children, nephews or the sons of their friends, creating a massive old-boys network. It seems that this system has returned to the land that spawned the self-made millionaire. Now, you don't make your money with sweat and innovation. You become successful by being close to success. That kind of elitism is more disturbing than any form of capitalism, which is why it's dressed up as "leadership."

One final note: I used to like The Apprentice. It's not that I'm a big fan of the economic system it (supposedly) represents, but I like watching people work together to do something in competition. In the first two seasons, most of the tasks were based on who had the most money at the end, a nice concrete basis for a win or a loss. Who sold the most ice cream? Who got the most money out of a mobile kiosk selling anything they could think of? Now, the show has devolved into product placement hell. All the challengers are public relations or ad based, and they revolve around creating some bullshit tie-in product or marketing campaign. The contestants, who may or may not be good business people, suck at these jobs, because by and large they aren't creative at all, much less for a living. Watching them make asses of themselves shilling for Dairy Queen or Best Buy is just sad.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Rule of Law on the Final Frontier

I've recently started watching Battlestar Galactica on DVD, and despite my early reservations (it is a remake of one of the cheesiest SF shows ever) it's actually pretty good. It's no Firefly, that's for sure, but the mini-series/pilot was pretty well written, very well acted in places, and it had some compelling fight scenes and space battles.

So yesterday, I rented the first disc of the actual series, and watched four episodes. The first two were quite good. The third, Bastille Day, was a bit of a dud. And it brought up an issue that shows up with alarming frequency in SF, and is usually handled badly. No exception here.

Bastille Day is about a prison riot. The fleet of about 50,000 people is running out of water, thanks to some sabotage in the previous ep. They've found an ice moon, but mining it will be labour intensive. They need workers. For some reason, the Commander Adama and President Roslyn decide that prison labour will be just the ticket. (The 40,000 or so civilians on passenger liners and cargo ships were busy, I guess.) There happens to be a transport ship of convicts that made it into the fleet. The labour will be voluntary, and the prisoners will earn "points" towards their release by participating. (Interesting aside: the prisoners were on their way to parole hearings. Some of them should, in all likelihood, already be released by this point. Nice of the powers that be to offer them "points towards release.")

When Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama and a few other crew and civilians go on board the prison ship to make the offer, they are ambushed and captured by the prisoners. The jailbirds are being led by a terrorist/freedom fighter called Tom Zarek. There is much bloviating among the cast members about which category he falls into, and it seems from their exposition he blew up a government building, with people inside. So I'd say he falls more on the Timothy McVeigh side of the ledger, whether he was standing up for his oppressed people or not.

(As a side note, Zarek is played by Richard Hatch, one of the stars of the original Battlestar Galactica. He couldn't act then, he can't act now. It's like watching a block of wood. Why, why couldn't they have stuntcast Dirk Benedict instead! Give us cheese!)

To this point, my response to this episode is "Eh." I've seen this plot, or a variation of it, several times before on SF shows and military/cop/politicial dramas. Star Trek: TNG and DS9 used the Maquis for this particular plot device, on Babylon 5 the Martian colonists sometimes filled this role. It gives the writers a chance to talk about when you cross the line from a just rebellion to terrorism.

Unfortunately, the writers almost always give in to the need to make things simpler. The lead bad guy usually turns out to be either A) a snake who only wants personal aggrandizement or B) an ideologue so warped that he is willing to destroy anyone and anything to get his way.

Bastille Day has it both ways. From Television Without Pity, here's part of the episode recap where Apollo realizes Zarek's "plan" just as commandos storm the prison ship.

In the control room, Apollo realizes, "You want them to storm the ship."

The Marines begin to cut through the hull of the Astral Queen.

Apollo continues, "You don't want elections, you don't want your freedom -- you want a bloodbath." He says that Zarek's been forgotten for twenty years, and that this is a chance to "go out in a blaze of glory."

The Marines enter the Astral Queen and move past a prisoner that they've already tied up and gagged. Before he could sound the alarm. Gee, that was lucky.

Zarek enters full-on crazy as he declares, "Once Roslyn uses Adama's soldiers to massacre the people on this ship, prisoners and hostages alike, the people in the fleet will never, never forgive them. The entire government will collapse." Yay?

Real world freedom fighters, even real world terrorists, usually have much more transparent aims than this. They're pretty up front about what they want. Even al Qaida openly acknowledges that they're trying to spark a big war between the evil, nasty, secular west and purified Islam. But in TVland, everybody's got some weird, psychological, hidden motivation.

Anyway, Apollo saves the day, interestingly, by saving Zarek from getting his brains splattered by a sniper. (Usually writers kill these terrorist characters off.) Apollo then promises free elections, and leaves the prisoners in charge of their ship, taking off the crew and guards. It's the first novel thing this episode has done. Then Apollo has to go explain himself to the higher ups, including his father, the military commander.

The Prez is stuck on the idea of holding elections within a year. Apollo notes that former President Adar's term is over in seven months, and according to the law, there should be elections then. Adama growls that Apollo sounds like a lawyer. Apollo clenches his jaw and says that he has sworn to defend the law, and that the law says there should be an election. He adds, "If you're telling me [that] we're throwing out the law, than I am not a captain, you're not a commander, and you are not the president. And I don't owe either of you a damned explanation for anything." And once again, I love their different reactions to this. The Prez looks rueful, but like she agrees, as she says, "He's your son." And Adama just looks infuriated as he rasps, "He's your advisor." He glares at Apollo for a second and says, "I guess you finally picked your side," before leaving. Which...yeah, I don't know. The side of the law? Stupid laws!

It's a better ending than I was expecting. The convicts will mine the ice, voluntarily. They're dependent on the rest of the fleet for food resupply and protection from the Cylons, so they have a powerful incentive to not attack anyone else.

But the final explanation of why Apollo did what he did left me cold. I actually think that you should do what's morally right regardless of the law. But this kind of thinking, that the rule of law should always trump everything else, shows up in a lot of modern culture, from the West Wing to Star Trek. It implies that all laws are just and wise, which history (and the present) shows is simply not true. And there is another undercurrent, as exemplified by the final scene, that also bothered me.

The Prez is reading the book she got from Adama when Apollo enters her quarters. Apollo wants to explain that he wasn't being disloyal to her, and the Prez says that she admires his principles. Then she asks him to sit down, and after a slight hesitation, she tells Apollo that she has cancer. She swears Apollo to secrecy, saying, "Whether or not I survive this, it is of great importance to me that there's a future for the people. And I fear that knowledge of my illness will erode hope." Apollo assures her that she can trust him.

An ongoing subplot, never shown, is that there are riots in the civilian ships over water rationing. The military characters mock the civilians for their lack of discipline. Then the president decides to hide her illness, because the common people couldn't handle that, either. And the higher ups are hiding the fact that the Cylons have human-appearing infiltrators. Zarek doesn't tell his own supporters about his ultimate plan.

The ultimate lesson seems to be that the mass of people are too stupid and panicky to deal with the whole truth. In television, where the viewer ultimately has the most knowledge, we are invited into this elite club of the powerful. We assume ourselves to be as wise and calm as the leader-characters we watch. When in reality, 99 per cent of us would be on the outside.

Ironically, this episode about democracy has become a powerful example of elitism and anti-democratic thinking. The most disturbing thing about this is the fact that I can think of a number of other examples of similar plots on a variety of television shows.

Compare and contrast that with the plot of Serenity, or with the X-Files. Mulder, Scully and the Lone Gunmen were always trying to fight against just this sort of top-down, authoritarian secret-hoarding. Just like we should be in real life. The masses are not that stupid. Arguing that they are is just one short step from thinking that they shouldn't be able to make any decisions for themselves - like who to vote for.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Lost without a plot

And now for something completely different.

My girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) sent me an e-mail a while ago mocking the first two episodes of Lost that have aired so far this season. I'm reposting most of it here, because it's too damn funny not to share.

Some background: we both loved the first half-dozen or so episodes of Lost. It has a great premise, fine actors, a novel setting and it set up some great mysteries in the first few episodes. One of our favourite scripts was written by David Fury, late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and other fine shows.

Well, David left. The mysteries showed no sign of being resolved. Ever. The scripts started showing signs that the writers were actively resisting revealing any information. Characters concealed things from each other for no reason, didn't bother to question strange events, and otherwise began acting like morons. Executive producers JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof relentlessly hyped every disappointing episode like it was the second coming of Robert A. Heinlein. We, the viewers, became embittered by about episode twelve or fifteen.

Here, then, is proof that out of bitterness can come comedy.

JJ Abrams: Whoohoo, thank goodness we figured out was in the hatch before the season premiere.

Damon Lindelof: A scottish guy!!! Viewers will never see that coming, and it will totally change everything.

New writing intern: umm, guys! I’m sorry to interrupt all the back patting and high fiving, but I’m working on the script for episode two and I have some questions.

JJ: Fire away young apprentice! And remember, this year’s motto “Everything happens for a reason!”

DL: That motto is so great! With a motto like that people will totally be able to see why Lost is the best television drama ever!

Intern: Right. Well, it’s great that there was a Scottish guy in the hatch, and that he has some weird connection to Jack.

DL: Jack is the most heroic and admirable character you’ll ever see on television. Viewers will not believe the amazing twists we have in store for Jack this season.

Intern: So what the writing staff needs is a bit more guidance, like for example who is this Scottish guy, why is he in the hatch, and what affect or connection will he have with the rest of the characters?

JJ and Damon stare blankly at the intern. The sound of crickets chirping can be heard faintly in the background. After several awkward moments JJ burst out laughing and points at the intern.

JJ: Good one kid! You really had me going there, expecting “answers” to all those complicated “questions” Seriously, if we gave you that much information now, you’d have enough to go write four...maybe five seasons worth of episodes.

Intern (counting to ten in his head before speaking): Well what should I do for episode two then?

Sound of crickets...then finally...

DL: Episode 1 totally rocked. Viewers must have been completely on the edge of their seat when they saw it. Couldn’t you just make another one that’s like episode one only, you know, different?

Intern: I think the viewers might notice it’s the same.

JJ: No, no...I think Damon’s on to something here. What we should do is go back to the point when we blew the hatch, and then show all that stuff...Kate falling down the hatch, Locke going after her, Jack going after Locke, the big reveal when Jack confronts the Scottish guy...yeah, we’ll show all that stuff again...only...from a different character’s perspective. Yes, and we’ll cut it in with lots of shots of “Wet Sawyer” on the raft, cause that ladies like that kinda stuff.

DL: Me too! Er, I mean, “Wet Sawyer” that really brings in the ratings.

Intern: You mean you want me to make the Hatch plot exactly the same as last week, only show it from a different character’s perspective, and you want me to end on the same note of Jack recognizing the Scottish guy?

JJ: YES! Exactly! That’s what we experts in the writing world call parallel construction. You’ll understand when you have a bit more experience, kid

At this point JJ picks up one of the five emmys his show “won”, and wiggles it in the intern's face.

DL (unable to take his eyes off the statue): Oooh, shiny.

Intern: So which character’s perspective then?

JJ: Kate, the viewers love Kate.

DL: Kate is the best female character ever seen on television. The stuff that happens to Kate this season will totally change everything you ever thought you knew about her.

Intern (sighing): Do you think maybe I could throw in a polar bear attack or something. For umm, the audience members who are less interested in the hatch plot?

JJ: A polar bear? Like a real one?

Intern: Yes, like in the pilot. That episode totally kicked ass, and is the entire reason why I applied to work here.

JJ: And lucky you, after the hasty retreat of twenty other more experienced writers, your dream has finally come true.

DL: I just don’t understand why we can’t keep staff writers. Lost is the best show on television, we won five emmys.

JJ: Now kid, getting back to this polar bear idea. I’m thinking, no. No more “real” polar bears, but how about you throw in a stuffed polar bear somehow. That’ll drive all those loons out there that think we have continuity absolutely crazy. And we need the continuity nerds to keep waging war against the bitterness brigade, otherwise our entire fan base is going to be watching Veronica Mars by November.

Intern (very quietly): I like Veronica Mars. I hear the writers over there have a Show Bible.

DL: Oh, and throw in the numbers, people love the numbers.

Intern: Throw them in how? What do they mean?

JJ: Mean? Kid, you’ve got a lot to learn. The numbers don’t have to mean anything, people just have to think they mean something to give them meaning. Understand?

Intern: No, not really.

JJ: Well, just put them on something, or have the characters say them, it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re in there somehow.

Intern: All right, so just to summarize, I write last week’s hatch plot again, only from Kate’s perspective. I throw in some “Wet Sawyer”

JJ: Makes sure he breathes heavily a lot too. You know, like sex sounds, only have him making them for another reason.

Intern: Okay...and I throw in a stuffed polar bear, and the numbers. Is that all? It sounds like a very full episode, maybe we could drop the flashbacks for this week?

JJ (swinging his emmy menacingly) Kid, if yours wasn’t the last resume left in our selection pile I’d fire you right now for saying that. We are NEVER dropping the flashbacks. They’re our staple.

Intern: So, who should we flashback this week?

JJ (shrugging): Ahh, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter really.

JJ picks up a dart from his desk and throws it at a target on his wall that has all the Lost characters' names clearly marked.

JJ: Michael it is then.

Intern: What would you like the viewers to learn about Michael through the flashbacks?

JJ: Learn...through the flashbacks?? No, no. Just cover something viewers already know about Michael. If we introduce too much new information in one episode viewers will become confused. Oh, and you want to end on a high note so have something really exciting happen in the last five minutes. Don’t make it too obvious though.

Intern: Exciting, but not obvious?

JJ: Make it happen to Jin, off screen of course, and then Jin can come running up to some other characters and start babbling in Japanese about the exciting thing. The other characters, and the viewers, won’t have a clue what’s happening, they’ll just know it’s exciting!

Intern: Jin’s Korean, not Japanese.

JJ: Really? Huh. Well, whatever.

Intern (through gritted teeth): Great. Well this has been informative. Hey listen, you’re both big time Hollywood celebrities, would either of you happen to have Rob Thomas’s phone number?

JJ (pulling a card out of his giant rolladex): Of course, I know everyone in the biz.

DL: Are you going to call him and brag about how you’re working on Lost, the best drama that’s ever been on network television? Winner of five emmys and voted Entertainment Weekly’s choice for hottest drama of the year?

Intern (backing out of the office with the card clenched in his hand like a life preserver) : Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

As the intern exists, JJ pulls out some silver polish and he and Damon get to work polishing their emmys.

DL: Are we going to work on the scripts for the sweeps episodes today?

JJ: Naw, let’s just shine our emmys.

Aw, shucks

Blinkit has some nice things to say here about my writing and my chances of winning the 3 Day Novel Contest.

Thanks for the kind words, Barry. I'm hoping the zebra puts in a strong showing, too. Maybe if I can at least make the short list, it'll be easier to sell the story.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Only $10 million!?!

For months, I've been jumping up and down like a little kid who needs a trip to the potty, waiting for the film version of Firefly to hit theatres. One of the worst things about the wait was that there were several opportunities to see Serenity early, and I missed them.

There were pre-screenings all over North America... but I didn't get to see any. My boss gave me a two-person pass to see the movie the Wednesday before it opened... but I couldn't make that, either. I gave it to my brother, and he assured me it was great.

Now, I've finally seen it, in a theatre full of Firefly and Joss Whedon fans. And it was damn good. If you haven't seen it yet, stop reading this and go directly to a movie theatre. It has almost everything a great summer movie should have, and that I didn't see in any of the actual summer blockbusters this year. It has great action - chase scenes, bar fights, acrobatics, kung fu moves, shoot outs. It has hilarious dialogue, some of the best, sharpest jokes Joss has written since... well, since Firefly was cancelled. It has a great cast, who are allowed those small, subtle moments of emotion that so few film makers bother to capture in this kind of a movie. How many action movies can you name where the camera lingers just a moment longer after the dialogue ends in a scene, to capture the sad quirk of a mouth, or for that perfect beat of comic timing that drives a punchline home? How many movies can you name where you not only liked the dialogue and the chase scene, you liked the dialogue during the chase scene?

From here on, there are spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

The film also has one of the better science fiction plots I've actually seen in a while. Most SF in film and television is mining from two veins: The Matrix and The X-Files. Even seemingly original shows like Lost can be summed up as "It's like X-Files meets Survivor!" Joss has gone back a bit and is working from the older vein of space opera, a genre that has been worked over pretty thoroughly by the Stars (Wars and Trek) and needed a good kick in the pants.

In Star Trek, the heroes are authority figures, military officials and scientists with ranks, government backing and rules to follow. In Star Wars, they are chosen ones, mystical warriors with destiny guiding them. Firefly goes completely against both grains, giving us a gang of bank robbers and smugglers, the losers and scum of human space, who nevertheless have functioning moral compasses. Well, except maybe for Jayne.

Here, it's the villain who represents authority, order and government. The Operative reminded me both of the Soviet revolutionaries and of hard-right American Cold Warriors. He has a bright future in mind, and he's given up on a conventional morality so he can make it happen. Every society generates people like this: willing to violate society's own ethical codes, justifying their evil as for a greater good. (In his use of a sword and careful diction, he's also the most Jedi-like character in the film. Not sure if that's a deliberate comment on Star Wars, or just because killing people with swords is cool.)

The central mystery and premise of the film is also one that is (for an action movie) remarkably well thought out. It also gives us the origin of the Reavers, about whom there has been much speculation among fans.

The ending, in which the Operative survives and (almost) changes sides, is also a typical Whedon touch. He loves to undermine our expectations, making us look at character and plot in a new way. It doesn't have to be the same as everything else you've seen, he seems to be saying. The fact that little is resolved, that the real power brokers remain off stage, and that the final victory is as much moral as it is actual, is also typical. You can't just fly in and blow up all the bad guys with one well-placed missile. Changing the worlds is, and always will be, a work in progress.

And there are the shocks. The death of Shepherd Book didn't surprise me much at all. The other death was quite a kick to the head. I sure didn't see it coming, and I had the classic moment of "that character's okay, right?" Even though having a six-inch thick spike through your heart usually does not denote good health.

Now, some minor quibbles. The relationship between Inara and Mal almost felt tacked on, and her appearance halfway through the film could have been confusing for some people who had never seen the televison series (although it had some damn funny dialogue). The change from a series of solar systems to one solar system in the film seemed like pointless retcon. And from a logical point of view, why didn't the Reavers trash the surface of Miranda, or kill the passive 90 per cent of the population? Why are they not all dead from fighting with each other? Why did they all go into space in the first place? But from the point of view of a two-hour movie, these are really very small problems. (War of the Worlds wishes its problems were this small.)

I think the movie will benefit from much re-watching, and I plan to start that later this week. Now you should go see it again too. After all, we can't let it stay at just $10 million profit!

Happy Birthday, Tyrant Lizard King!

Today it has been 100 years since the discovery of the first Tyranosaurus Rex fossils. I have to admit that I've never really been a fan of the T. Rex as much as many people are. I guess I'm just not as impressed with it's label as the biggest land predator that ever lived. I like the quirky, little dinos a bit better, like Troodon. And my favourite big theropod is probably the Ceratosaurus, with its three horns.

Check out the Hairy Museum of Natural History for lots more info, including the first published illustration of the beastie standing next to a human skeleton for scale. It's in the famously discredited "kangaroo" pose.

T. Rex is still pretty damn interesting, despite being passed in the biggest theropod sweepstakes by Giganotosaurus, and possibly by Charcharodontosaurus and Spinosaurus. Researchers have just found what may be preserved soft tissue inside the bones of a T. Rex fossil. Whether this is really preserved blood vessels, proteins or what have you, or merely an artifact of the way the fossils were being prepared will no doubt be fought over for years, but it puts the big guy at the forefront of research again.