A brush with greatness: Preamble to my thoughts on science fiction

Or… part one of a longer than usual post. This is about my perceived decline of franchises and works of art that have inspired me, but have fallen far from their peak or were not allowed to peak to begin with. This is intended to lead into a larger discussion of science fiction as a genre, where it is going, and my part in it.

I’ll add a brief preface to this preamble and say that if you enjoy certain things, such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, or the ending of Mass Effect 3, then I’m satisfied in the knowledge that you’ve found something to like in this world, and I won’t go out of my way to bash you personally because you like those things in particular. But just as much as you have a right to enjoy those things, I have a right to not, and I feel justified in expanding on these examples to make a point about how the works of art that have inspired me the most have also let me down the hardest.

Star Trek, I feel, was already in a strong decline while Enterprise was still on the air. The franchise was repeating itself ad nauseum, copying beats started in The Next Generation and carried through Voyager then Enterprise. The creative powers that be behind Trek mired the series with so much convoluted time travel drek and endless retreads of the same stories and threats that it all became painful to watch. Enterprise’s cancellation and the dismal critical and commercial performance of Star Trek: Nemesis spelled things out clearly: Star Trek had run out of gas, and needed a break. Had everything ended right there, I concede that it would be sad to think that Nemesis would be the last bit of canon produced. However, in that event, at least I believe a certain amount of dignity would’ve been preserved, in that it would be easier to encapsulate the franchise up to that point as a semi-coherent whole; one that, while famously inconsistent on some details, could be taken as one long, overarching examination of the human condition and an idealistic future to aspire to.

However, the people who run the franchise, instead of either letting Trek stay retired or at least giving it the longer break it sorely needed, decided money was more important, and remade (not rebooted, that is computer terminology, people) The Original Series, relying once more on time travel gimmickry to set up a tale supposedly in the past, but really should be said to take place in another reality altogether (the visual appearance of the U.S.S. Kelvin, its crews’ uniforms, and the fact that “our” Spock accepts the Kelvinverse as normal is enough evidence off the bat to tell me that he wasn’t from the Prime universe to begin with, and forcing the two realities to somehow coexist in the larger canon was a huge mistake on CBS’s part). Star Trek was converted into flashy action that had a fast pace and lots of flair, but no substance or soul that wasn’t lifted from previous material that already did it better. Discovery is an extension of this creative direction, filling the screen with painful lighting, explosions, action, screwball camera work, and shameless lifting of previously tread material in the name of fan service.

Stepping up next in line at the greed trough is Disney, who didn’t hesitate to start milking Star Wars for every penny they could squeeze from the once noble franchise. I may not like many things about what George Lucas did with his prequel trilogy, but I can still watch one of those movies and feel comfortable calling it Star Wars, and I can explain to an outsider how it all fits together, albeit not perfectly, and why proper Star Wars material has to fit certain criteria or it otherwise doesn’t feel right. Star Wars wasn’t the first franchise to be less pure sci-fi and more so a hybrid of the former and fantasy; space fantasy, if you will. But it pulled off space fantasy like nothing else before it or since the Lucas films. The Force Awakens was a play it safe, money-reaching, thinly-veiled remake of A New Hope that reeled in fans disappointed by the prequels. Rogue One was for me a great escape for fans of the original trilogy, despite underwhelming writing and some undercooked characterizations, with its immersive atmosphere and epic final battle reminiscent of classic war films. Rogue One had problems and a troubled production, but I thought it showed that the Disney era films might have potential after I left The Force Awakens feeling indifferent and unsatisfied.

Then came The Last Jedi, and I decided that I was done caring about new Star Wars material. I came out of that theater viewing more depressed than I was after watching Gone Girl or The Girl On the Train (not because those were bad movies, but, yeah, dark and bleak…). “Subverting expectations” my arse, it was not even a good movie, much less a passable Star Wars film. Congratulations Rian Johnson, you did subvert my expectation on this: I went into the theater expecting to see a halfway decent film, and instead felt like I’d watched a friend die. Thanks.

Firefly was cancelled before it could fulfill its own potential. That we got Serenity and at least some closure is a miracle and a credit to the fans.

Then there is perhaps the greatest offender, for me, and that is Mass Effect. When I say the next point, I mean it with no personal offense or implied attack to character to Casey Hudson or his team at Bioware, who worked insane hours under an impossible deadline to put out the best version of their vision possible under intense restrictions. Yet, the overall vibe, narrative, and especially, the conclusion to Mass Effect 3 is a detriment to the franchise and storytelling in general. You know that you’ve borked your ending pretty badly when the sequel in your franchise has to take place in another galaxy altogether just to sidestep the colossal mess said ending created.

The point of this summary, giving four examples of science fiction that have let me down, is not to linger on the negative, but to make a point as to what I hope to avoid in my own fiction, and what I hope that the next generation of sci-fi can also not fall victim to. Part of growing up, in a way, is acknowledging the imperfections of heroes, and if one wishes to take something of a liberty with the definition of the term, heroes can sometimes be things and ideas, not merely people. Things and ideas can also be paradigms, exemplars to follow, if you prefer. One thing that time and age is showing me for sure, is that some things are best left as they were when they achieved greatness, and that others deserve a chance to flourish in the wake of their peer’s retirement. What I mean by that is that I would rather have seen Star Trek and Star Wars left alone at their peak, unfettered and not distilled by repeated iterations and constant reinterpretations of the original vision. To take the climbing metaphor further, you could say that they peaked, only to keep reclimbing the same mountain over and over, to finally stumble and slip to the bottom, now unable to see the summit they once occupied.

To flip this around, I feel that Firefly and Mass Effect never got the chances to peak that they deserved, both due to variants on corporate greed, corporate stupidity, and shortsightedness. Mass Effect should have been the same cultural and creative touchstone of science fiction for my generation as Star Wars was for my father’s, but was sabotaged before it ever realized its full potential. Mass Effect: Andromeda only exacerbated the franchise’s troubled, murky existence and future with a buggy launch, an underwhelming story, and no clear direction except trying to play fan service while avoiding Mass Effect 3’s ending with all possible gusto. Andromeda effectively tried to remake Mass Effect 1 in the same way as The Force Awakens lifted A New Hope. Had it been done as a new IP instead, it would still be an obvious attempt to recapture former glory and the original vision, but would seem less like it was trying to avoid baggage that’s inconvenient for a writer or writing staff.

Firefly was never allowed to peak, either, evident in the amount of material Joss Whedon had in mind for future seasons, and all of the tantalizing development that only just started to bloom by the end of season one. It is fair to keep in mind a quote by Nathan Fillion, which I believe I am paraphrasing a bit, in that “Firefly was never given a chance to suck,” that is to say, it avoided the possibility that a later season might have ruined the series. It’s true, it could have ended up going the way of Star Trek, reaching a huge amount of success and living up to its potential, only to later lose sight of what made it great from the outset, and later devolve into an unrecognizable mimicry that still held to the name as a token to bait fans into throwing money at it.

Art is a funny thing because of its subjectivity. You can make a reasonable argument for why Firefly’s early demise was ultimately good, or in contrast, why Star Trek overstaying its welcome despite its deviation is to its benefit. My stance, and this is something I hope many can agree on, is that while no form of creativity or art can ever be perfect—as perfection is an arbitrary, delusional abstraction that we humans invented—there is a certain “sweet spot,” if you will, where a work of art is allowed to be at its prime, and it is widely recognized that to do anything further with that art would only dilute what is making it the best it can possibly be in that place and time. I feel that a creator of works better serve themselves, the art itself, and the fans, by moving on to something else if consensus and reason can agree that the art is better left alone.

Mass Effect deserved a better shot, but I would rather see it retire than continue on in the state it has been going. The same for Star Wars and Star Trek. It may technically still be possible for Firefly to be rekindled, but I know it won’t be the same as if it had been allowed to continue as originally intended, when the magic was captured as surely as lightning in a bottle (not to mention when the great Ron Glass was still with us).

It is more productive then, to me, to focus on new endeavors, to allow the paradigms of science fiction to influence me but not be enslaved by them. I once started writing fan fiction for Mass Effect and realized that all I was doing was trying to play damage control for the third game’s ending, or desperately trying to connect further with characters that I’m quite sure by this point that Bioware and EA are not going to revisit, outside the odd comic or novel here and there. I’m not saying that one should not write fan fiction, or enjoy reading it, if that’s what really brings you some joy or escape, but to me it became a rabbit hole of depressing feelings. It only reminds me how much one of my heroes let me down, and failed, permanently, to live up the potential that only just was peering through the blinds.

So this is one of my goals in writing fiction, in telling stories, is to someday create something that will have a meaningful impact on that world, and is worth remembering. Being disappointed by my heroes has inspired me in a way, to not let that happen with something I create, if at all possible. And I hope that I can figure out how to get that sentiment out into the world, that sometimes some things are better left alone, and in their wake, other ideas and works of art may have a better chance to get their time in the limelight and flourish.

Is that all hopelessly idealistic, out of touch with reality, something that sounds good in writing but in practice is hopelessly muddy and too open to interpretation? Perhaps. Time and experience will tell for sure.

To be continued more in depth and in a broader scope, next week on the blog. Also, news about some expansion of this site and what it will offer as an increased value to those of you interested in my creative endeavors, will be arriving soon.

FIN

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