Maintaining Relevance

It’s always nice to feel prescient and relevant when writing. There’s almost nothing worse than feeling out-of-touch with my audience or society around me. A few recent articles and events have happened over the last few weeks to make me feel like I’m in some small way helping to lead a conversation rather than merely reacting.

Last week I wrote about the Darker Side of Academia. Mostly I talked about the commodification of higher education and how that affects everyone from full-tenured professors to new early career researchers and graduate students to first-year undergrads. Which makes the recent news that university lecturers around the UK have been striking for the last two days because of pay disputes take on even more relevance. While lecturers have seen their real-term pay decline almost 15% since 2009 and are asking for an actual increase of a mere 1.1%, they have gone on strike. Contrast that with rising pay for the leaders of universities — vice-chancellors and their ilk — many of whom just this past year received at least a 5% hike in their already exorbitant salary. So yes, I fully support the UCU action to support fair pay for university staff. If I had an academic job from which to strike, I would be on the picket lines with them. With all of this as background, it’s no surprise that a new higher education governmental White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, recommends putting the market forces ahead of student learning. What else would you come to expect from a place that places a premium on money, not knowledge?

In other relevant blog materials, you may recall a few weeks back I wrote about what I would like to see from the new Star Trek show. I’m not the only one who had ideas about the show, as the fantastic Den of Geek team created their own list of 9 things they’d like to see in a possible Star Trek anthology series. That was on top of io9’s own post from back in November stating what they would like a show to have — not necessarily ideas for a type of show, but themes that would be nice. While I don’t agree with everything from all the different articles, it is nice to see that the show is prompting so much debate. There’s even a petition, which I highly encourage you to sign, to have a LGBT captain on the new show. Seriously, it’s time. Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, there’s also a short teaser for the show.

There’s plenty of other Star Trek news, too. Yes, there’s a new Star Trek Beyond preview, but that’s not even the most exciting thing. Honestly, a fan film called Star Trek Axanar, looks better. It has an almost professional-level quality of production. Many members of both the cast and crew are professionals, and many of the actors have actually been on previous Trek incarnations. Unfortunately, the movie has been embroiled with lawsuits since it was crowd-funded years ago. But, according to recent rumours, it might actually get released soon. There have been stories circulating that Paramount — who own the rights to Star Trek movies — is dropping their lawsuit against the film-makers, in part due to nuTrek directors JJ Abrams and Justin Lin. From what I understand the Paramount lawsuit citing copyright infringement has been dropped, but there’s a few lawyer things to finish before it goes away completely.

 

If that weren’t enough reason to celebrate, though, there’s new Trek-inspired technology on the horizon, too. A company called Wavery Labs, currently crowd-funding through Indiegogo, is developing a real-time universal translator called Pilot. Scheduled for release in May 2017, it will be able to translate between English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese upon release.  By autumn of that year the company is also projecting it will have Arabic, German, Russian, Hebrew and a handful of East Asian and African languages available for download. The world is getting smaller every day, and more amazing. I’m feeling more relevant every day.

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Darker Side of Academia

Higher education in the West has become a commodity. There have been numerous articles, studies, posts, etc. about how universities now are now becoming sprawling institutions of administration geared toward making money (this Onion article may be satire, but it’s based in reality). There’s even a fake ‘title generator‘ that makes fake titles that sound, sadly, quite feasible in today’s modern university.

In American universities, there’s a need to publish before getting tenure. In the UK, there’s no tenure but a never-ending need to publish due to the REF (Research Excellence Framework). Unfortunately, this constant need to publish isn’t good for anyone. Due to the pressure to publish people at all levels of academia are affected.

Permanent staff have to publish each REF period or they won’t remain as permanent staff for long. To have time to research for their publishing, they need to get grants and project funding to get people to teach for them and then conduct their research and publish. The teachers of those normal classes will most likely be new early career academics, some sort of postdoc or even possibly as postgrad teacher. Whoever they are, they are most likely on a fixed-term contract, which has become the new normal. So teachers are now either part-time postgrads for full-time but temporary staff. Both groups are focused on their own research projects — either their PhDs or publishing that can lead to permanent posts. Which invariably affects teaching quality because they’re either new teachers or ones who care more about finding a permanent job than dealing with their current one. I actually met one professor who admitted he was more interested in research and writing than on teaching. He taught the same class year after year, never changing the syllabus or adapting the course because it meant less work for him. So he focused on his research and getting grants.

Sideshow Bob

Of course, someone has to process the grant applications and then teaching applications — another administrator. Academics probably need help with finding and writing those grand applications, so another administrator of some sort. Once the academic has been published, someone has to advertise that fact to prospective students — look, this university is doing ground-breaking research, come here! So another administrator. It’s an endless loop of sprawling administration and fewer academic jobs. Indeed, there has been a spike in PhD graduates, but a decline in actual jobs for them.

I’m not the first to post about this endless loop. There have been books and blogs about how the labour in academia is commoditised. So much so that soon Facebook and Google may be offering degrees in the UK. Because nothing says academic rigour like Facebook. Still, not everyone is happy about this trend in academia. There are some who don’t appreciate the corporate structure, and who are resisting it.SimsonsGradschool

If you’re thinking of going for a PhD, my advice is this: Don’t.

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Long Overdue Daredevil Review

As any regular reader (or anyone looking at the display of most-used tags will see), I’m a big fan of Marvel and the MCU world they’ve been building for the last eight years. I’ve enjoyed all the movies — by the way, did you read my review of Civil War yet? — and have watched all the TV shows as of now (though I am still a few episodes behind on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Regular readers might also remember a post from a few weeks ago saying how far behind I was in keeping up-to-date with everything and how it would be a while before I had a chance to watch season two of Daredevil. Well, the wait is over. Here is my long-overdue review of the latest edition of the MCU.

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Overall, I was disappointed. I thought there were some excellent parts, but the bad parts outweighed those.

The Good

Punisher. The whole Punisher storyline was very well done, I thought. It captured the emotional intensity of the character, his personal code and desire for vengeance, not to mention the corruption involved in his initial origin story. I’m happy to hear that the Punisher will be getting his own show after Netflix made the announcement a few weeks ago. There was a great mix of gritty realism for the character that definitely showed Daredevil is not in the same light vein as the Iron Man or Avengers films (for whilst those may deal with serious topics, they also have a lot of humour and brightness. Daredevil is filmed darker and has much less humour.) It was also nice to have Frank Castle as both a protagonist and antagonist during the show — a mixed topic I wrote about during my review of The Americans. Normally I’m not a fan of anti-heroes (I can’t stand Catcher In the Rye, suffered through four boring seasons of Breaking Bad before finally giving up, never getting interested in Mad Men, etc.) but Punisher I kind of liked. Maybe it’s because he has his own strict code of justice that he adheres to. Maybe it’s because he kills bad guys like many of us wish we could. Maybe because, for him, the world is black and white whilst for the rest of us there is nothing but shades of gray. I don’t know why I like him, but I did.

Crossovers. If you haven’t yet seen the series, there are a few spoilers in this paragraph, so continue reading later. If you have, or just don’t care, continue. It was great to see Vincent D’Onofrio reappear as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin in prison. It was an unexpected tie-in to season one. The Fisk character had been mentioned a few times throughout season two, but I was surprised when they actually showed him midway through the series. It was also nice to see Claire Temple again, given the way she and Matt Murdoch/Daredevil left off last season. The brief appearance of Carrie-Ann Moss as Jeri Hogarth from the Jessica Jones series was a fun addition, too. That, more than anything, helped bring the two shows closer together, and definitely has possibilities for the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist shows, not to mention The Defenders miniseries. Though, for more on the topic, read below.

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The Bad

The Rest of the MCU. Despite what I just wrote about the Daredevil/Jessica Jones connections, I was once again disappointed with the association to the rest of the MCU. For as much as I have loved the films, the shows are failing in their part to feel part of the wider world that makes up those films (just as the films are letting down the TV shows by failing to acknowledge them, for the most part. Read last week’s post for more). Outside of the ‘Crossovers’ portion from above, there was almost no reference to anything else related in the MCU. There was talk of the mysterious Roxxon Corporation, which had briefly been mentioned in season one of Agent Carter, but almost nothing else. Charlie Cox, who plays Daredevil, has suggested he’d be open to appearing in some of the movies, expressing disappointment that he wasn’t in Civil War (though maybe he’ll be in the Avengers: Infinity War movies?). In a world where S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping tabs on crime fighting, the Sokovia Accords were just introduced, where a massive army of AI destroyed a city and even where a man with the power to (supposedly) manipulate people’s minds was recently killed in basically the same neighbourhood, Daredevil felt isolated. Nelson, Murdoch, Page and the rest of the cast were caught up in their own little worlds, not paying any attention to anything else. When Karen starts researching/working at the newspaper, it would have been a great moment to acknowledge anything else about the MCU as the journalists there could be working on stories related to recent events. But no. An opportunity lost. It’s almost beginning to feel like the weight of the MCU is going to crush its own success. Maybe Marvel should have done what DC said they were doing in that the films and TV shows aren’t related to or will impact each other. That’s the way it has mostly felt anyway.

Elektra and the Ninjas. Where do I even start? This whole plot arc was inane and insane. Elektra is a horrible character, with bad dialogue, no motivation and silly mysticism connections. There also didn’t seem to be any real chemistry between the actors who played Matt/Daredevil and Elektra (which can’t be said for the rest of the cast including Punisher). After the realism of the Punisher side of the season, the quasi-fantastical side-story involving immortality and a fight between sides that has raged for centuries was disappointing. It was downright boring, honestly. The constant use of ninjas felt like bad writing. They were there to fill time and space for action sequences over and over and over again. They just kept dragging it out, deflating the impact they could have had with fewer appearances. All the scenes with Elektra and/or the ninjas felt like the worst part of the third season of Arrow that dealt with the League of Assassins and Ra’s al Ghul. Literally, all you had to do was swap a few costumes and a name or two and they could have been the same show, which would be bad on numerous accounts (not least of which is because Arrow is a DC product). There were far too many ninja fights for no other reason than to have a fight. It got repetitive. Especially since you know Matt won’t kill anyone, Elektra wants to and the ninjas will fail to (for some reason), despite being master assassins and having lifelong training in such things. By the end of the season I was bored.

Unfortunately, I thought there was more bad than good in season two. I would have much preferred a Luke Cage series before this disappointing second outing. I would also like to know where The Defenders miniseries is going to play into everything, and how they’re going to fit into the Infinity War movies that will reportedly have 67 main and secondary characters. Time will tell if Marvel has finally overstepped. But I wonder if this could be the beginning of the downfall. I hope not, as I’ve enjoyed the build-up too much, but the seeds have possibly been sewn.

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Captain America: Civil War or, Avengers: Dissension In the Ranks

Wow. I went in expecting to like the movie. I had very high hopes for Captain America: Civil War. Mostly, it lived up to them.

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Like other Marvel products of the MCU, it had a good mix of action, comedy, plot, characterization and suspense. You knew Tony Stark was going to have a good snarky line or three. I wasn’t quite expecting it from Hawkeye and Black Widow, though, which was nice. The scene where Ant-Man meets Captain America is pretty darn funny, too. From a humour perspective, I went away quite happy. It wasn’t over-the-top like Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man were, but it also wasn’t supposed to be that kind of movie. It had just enough comedy to be amusing, just enough quality dialogue to keep the plot moving and just enough action sequences to keep those who enjoy things blowing up happy. It managed to balance the disparate characters fairly well, too.

I went in expecting a big philosophical fight about the Sokovia Accords — the requirement that the Avengers (and other people with powers) have government oversight from the UN. Whilst that was nominally the catalyst to cause members of the Avengers to split into factions (#TeamCap or #TeamIronMan aka #TeamStark), there was another subplot that caused some of the division as well. I wasn’t expecting that bit, so that was nice.

Overall there were numerous things to like. I went in expecting something to happen (no spoilers as to what) and it didn’t. It’s nice to be surprised like that. I was also hoping that the post-credit scene at the end of Ant-Man, which  showed Captain America and Falcon finding Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier) in a warehouse and mentioning the Accords, wouldn’t be the start of Civil War. I was glad Civil War didn’t pick up from there, where Bucky has all-of-a-sudden been found.

What I liked most was that there has actually been fallout and repercussions in the MCU. What happens in one movie has consequences in subsequent films (and television shows) — though that hasn’t been true for Guardians of the Galaxy or some of the stuff from Thor, yet. In some respects, the Sokovia Accords — more governmental and international oversight for an independent group of superheroes (or terrorists, depending on your view) — are a logical response to what happened at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Tony Stark meets a grieving mother, so he feels guilty about the destruction he helped cause. His whole goal is to make himself obsolete. That is, he doesn’t necessarily want to need to be a super hero and wants protection from threats (both alien and human). That he could basically help destroy a city in a foreign country with almost no repercussions weighs on him. That he was responsible for creating the thing that destroyed the city in the first place has caused him to question his role. He wants the others to be held responsible for their actions, too. He doesn’t want to have to be one of the few to take on the threats to the world.

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In some respects I totally get Stark’s goal and motivation (even if he is a bit paranoid). These ‘Enhanced’ people, as the Accords calls them, can be dangerous weapons. Governments have traditionally tried to control the use of such weapons, or things that have potential to be used as weapons. Vehicles need registration, firearms (mostly) require permits, even wars between countries requires some kind of government action. I totally understand Stark’s reasoning for wanting everyone to sign the Accords.

On the other hand, as Steve Rogers has seen in his lifetime, any sort of governmental organisation can be corrupt and/or have its own agenda. He rightly points out that what if the UN oversight committee doesn’t want them going in somewhere that needs them, or wants them to go somewhere they don’t want to be? (As an aside, there’s also usually a lot of government bureaucracy that takes time to sort through, but the threats the Avengers face often require quick decisions. Would they be expected to wait until the UN can decide something, even at the expense of the world?) Rogers also saw S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrated by HYDRA, so has some reason to distrust those giving orders. And, though he doesn’t explicitly state it (and is perhaps more relevant to the Superhero Registration Act in the comics), requiring ‘special’ people to register with the government is the start of a slippery slope toward another Holocaust scenario. In keeping with his beliefs, Captain America believes in freedom and refuses to sign. It’s a worthy cause.

 

Both Tony and Steve have followers of their points of view. It’s hard to claim that either is actually ‘wrong’ from a moral or ethical standpoint. That’s not even the point, really. Both are totally defensible positions. I liked the tension built into the movie because of those positions.

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There were a few things I didn’t appreciate, however. As an io9 article suggested recently, Civil War wasted a great opportunity to tie in multiple aspects of the MCU. On a smaller scale (and screen) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been dealing with the same issues during the majority of season three. That Civil War doesn’t mention what effect the Accords might have on ‘Inhumans’ (as they’re called in the show, otherwise known as ‘Enhanced’) was a failing on the movie. There are also many references to New York in the movie. Yet not once does anyone mention the events of Daredevil or Jessica Jones, the MCU Netflix shows set in New York. I like that there’s cross-over and tie in amongst the movies. But if everything in the Marvel universe is supposed to take place in one universe, they should reference each other on occasion. Even if it’s only a throw away line or two that could still make everything tie in well (heck, there were only a few post-credit scenes in the first few Iron Man films and Thor that really suggested there might be an Avengers). It was a wasted and missed opportunity.

Additionally, I was put off by the disparate resources people seem to have across the MCU platforms. Theoretically, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been destroyed and scattered. Yet they still show up in Age of Ultron as important players and will plenty of money and resources to evacuate a whole city. With Nick Fury at the lead (who is supposed to be dead so far as the world is concerned), no less. Do the Avengers know that Phil Coulson is alive and running S.H.I.E.L.D.? He hasn’t exactly been quiet about his presence to various government agencies. Surely he could show up and support his friends. Outside of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though, he doesn’t seem to exist any more. Which is a shame because he was such an impetus in getting the Avengers to fight together in the first Avengers movie. Yet in that show, Coulson is short-handed (that’s punny if you watch the show) that he seems to only have a small handful of trusted agents who run around the world doing everything. So which is it, Marvel? Does S.H.I.E.L.D. exist and have access to helicarriers and resources to evacuate a city or only a small, dedicated band of agents?

A final issue I had with the movie is Sharon Carter. Not that she (kind of) joins #TeamCap or that she’s willing to pass along information or that she’s an extremely talented agent (as seen in Winter Soldier). Mostly it’s the fact that she’s Peggy Carter’s niece. The actress who plays Sharon (Emily VanCamp) is not even 30 (as of this writing). Peggy Carter, on the other hand, is supposed to be around 100. She’s also supposed to have lost her only brother in WWII. I don’t recall that brother having any children (though I could definitely be mistaken) shown in Agent Carter. How, then, is she an aunt? Especially of someone young enough to be her granddaughter? Maybe the concept worked better when the comics were published near the end of WWII, but so much time has passed now that ages become a very real thing (I do also wonder how old Tony’s father was supposed to be when Tony was born, but that’s neither here nor there). It’s a relatively minor thing, and probably wouldn’t get picked up on by casual fans, but it bugged me a bit.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America: Civil War (though it almost could have been called Avengers: Civil War since it had so many of them in it. I do know that Marvel is trying to have the Avengers films deal with large-scale issues that can affect everyone on the planet, not just a small select few like ‘Enhanced’ people, so by having it ‘focus’ on Captain America I can see why they didn’t go the Avengers way.) Anyway, having re-watched Winter Solder and Age of Ultron this weekend in preparation for the movie, I was struck by how well the lines had been defined already. They were subtle in those previous movies, but the team members were there already. I look forward to the upcoming films and shows to see how they will be affected by the events here. It was, after all, supposed to alter the MCU dynamically.

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American Spies

I considered writing a review of the first episode new season of Game of Thrones for this week’s post. Or course I watched it and am eagerly awaiting the rest of the episodes. It’s interesting finally being in the dark about events since the show has now surpassed the books. But there have been enough reviews, predictions and talk about where the show is headed, I didn’t think it warranted my attention. In fact, I’ve actively been trying to stay away from anything discussing GoT, since I don’t want other people’s theories to potentially spoil the show for me. Instead, I’m going to write about a show I have recently started watching.

There have been a lot of spy programmes throughout the years. Some have been funny, some have been plain dumb, some have been action-based and some have been dramatic. I’ve watched some of them, but by no means all. It’s an interesting niche genre in television, but by no means my favourite. I have, however, started watching The Americans.

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Set in the early 1980’s in and around Washington DC, it follows the lives of two deep-cover Soviet spies living in America (played by Keri Russell as Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. Why they cast Rhys, a Welsh actor, to play a Russian/American spy is beyond me, but that’s Hollywood for you.) It’s the height of the Cold War, where tensions between the US and Russia are the tightest they’ve been in decades. Not even Elizabeth and Philip’s two children, both born in the US, know they’re spies. To make it even more interesting, a new member has just joined the FBI counter intelligence division and, coincidentally, moved in across from these two spies. Suddenly the stakes have been raised, for all involved.

The stories are a bit unbelievable in the sense that Elizabeth and Philip always seem to be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to get the job done. Their disguises never come off, either, and they never raise suspicion from their two children about why they’re out all the time. Suspending the usual disbelief necessary for any crime type show, I’m intrigued by The Americans.

Specifically, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be rooting for Elizabeth and Philip to succeed in their mission. Now, history says America won the Cold War, but it wasn’t always so obvious back then. There were real fears about the potential for nuclear war, and talk of Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence shield must have struck terror in many Americans and Russians alike. As an historian, then, I know that the Jenning’s will fail to bring down the American government and win the Cold War. As a viewer, though, they’re slightly more sympathetic.

They are still horrible people — murderers, liars and philanderers — but they’re fighting for a cause they believe in. All while trying to protect the children they obviously love and, of course, not get discovered. Despite these flaws, they’re still somewhat interesting as think-pieces.

I can’t recall another show where the protagonists are also the antagonists. Having grown up in the West with its trappings of capitalism and democracy, I’m supposed to love America. I’m supposed to hate the evils of Communism — its total dominance of the people and production, the lack of freedom, the lack of religion, it’s big, scary army. Whilst these themes show up in the show, it’s never that clear-cut.

Elizabeth and Philip have been living in the US for over 15 years and so have become used to American society. Philip has started to enjoy it — perhaps too much, in Elizabeth’s eyes. Elizabeth, however, still loves the homeland above almost everything (except her kids, it seems) and will do anything to accomplish an assignment.

That the show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, worked for the CIA in the early 1990’s should add some sort of authenticity to the show. I’m not sure if it does, as I have never worked for the CIA or FBI, but that factoid in itself is interesting. He would have colleagues who might be able to tell his stories about the sort of activities spies in that era would have done. He could even still have access to documentary evidence and be basing everything off real events. It’s not like the CIA or FBI would every admit to having lost agents due to enemy activity decades ago. Neither agency has ever been known for its transparency to the country, after all.

It’s not a great show, but it’s an interesting watch. I don’t need to be deeply invested in every minor plot point thinking that it might become important later like I was with The Wire or Game of Thrones. I’m sure, if I looked deeper, I could find something to analyse in terms of cultural commentary. So far as I can tell, however, that’s not the point of the show. It’s entertaining, which is all I want it to be.

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The Wire: The Best Documentary Show In Drama

I’m years late to the party, but I just finished watching HBO’s The Wire. I’ve never seen a show like it, and it was fantastic.

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For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a police drama about trying to catch drug lords in Baltimore in the early 2000s (2002 to 2008). It was created by David Simon, who co-created another Baltimore-based crime show, Homicide: Life On the Streets and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective. The two also created the mini-series The Corner and HBO’s Generation Kill. The show was named after the device the police employed to capture the drug dealers — namely, a wire tap on telephones.

What could have been a generic police procedural turned into a much deeper, much richer show. Part of that I credit to HBO not needing to abide by American network TV broadcast standards. That is, characters swear, there’s violence, nudity and other instances of ‘adult content’. Another part of the richness of the show I credit to the talented cast of writers, producers and actors.

In most shows, the viewers have to suspend an element of disbelief to accept the premise. In most police procedurals that includes almost instantaneous lab analysis work, the willingness of lawyers and judges to give and execute warrants and conveniently timed plot points (like finding financial trails just before the suspect flees the country). There’s also a clear division between the good guys — the police — and the bad guys — the criminals. The Wire, however, doesn’t rely upon those tropes.

From the outset there’s an almost documentary-type feel to the show. Never once in the show did I think something like what was shown couldn’t have occurred. A drunken cop who doesn’t respect authority? Sure, totally believable. A corrupt politician working with anyone who will donate — even a criminal — perhaps fleecing them of more money in the meantime? Yep, I can see it. Leaders who are more concerned with making statistics look better than actually solving the root problems? An everyday occurrence! One of the actors told a story about the impact he was having, and the responsibility he felt at portraying a character on the show.

I was also struck by the humanity all the characters had. The police — the nominal protagonists — weren’t just do-gooders with no flaws. Some were just coasting through their last few years to retirement. Some were angry and took it out on criminals. Some were frustrated with the system and its inefficiencies. The criminals — the supposed antagonists — had real depth and character, too. Some dealt drugs in an effort to gain power and attempt to change the situation for the better (ie: the ends justified the means). Some were just power or money hungry, or sociopaths. Some resorted to dealing drugs because of the situation they were given in life — it’s all they knew and if they tried something different, they were forced to conform. There were almost never truly ‘bad’ people, just as there were almost never wholly ‘good’ people.

It was ahead of its time in many respects, as well. Two of the main characters were gay — one a gay man and a criminal, the other a lesbian woman and police detective. In the criminal world there were plenty of homophobic references, if not downright hostility, to the gay man. There’s was also plenty of acceptance of his lifestyle, too. In the police world, the character is upfront about her sexuality and its never an issue. In fact, outside of the first episode where she mentions it — basically ‘coming out’ to her new colleagues — it’s never brought up again with any real context. These characters were gay, but it didn’t define their whole existence. They were normal people, doing their job. There are few other shows that take the same approach to dealing with gay characters, even now, and especially not ten years ago.

It also showed racial and class tensions. It depicted how a middle-class white male running for mayor of a predominantly African-American city tried to appeal to those voters. It showed mostly black families living in poverty in the inner city. It dealt with the decline of a white, blue-collar industry.

Everyone had a code they lived by, too. Some of the worst criminals of the show — the murderers and thugs — wouldn’t hurt kids or those who didn’t deserve it. Some of the best police officers wouldn’t lie even when it would help the investigation. These people saw and believed in the consequences of their actions.

Back in 2015, President Obama talked to series creator David Simon about the show. In the exchange, they discuss the challenges the War On Drugs had on law enforcement and the effects on real people. They talked about how hard it is to change a broken system.

The show has sparked real change, at least in the Obama administration, regarding mandatory minimums. Those are the minimum amount of jail time certain crimes, usually drug related offences, carry. They are almost always racially biased and, in the end, provide no real deterrent. They also crowd the prison system, costing taxpayers obscene amounts of money for, relatively speaking, minor crimes. Police are out arresting someone on a possession of drugs charge; time that could instead be spent trying to catch killers or the cartels.

The show never won any major awards. Episodes could rarely be taken out of context and really needed a whole season to make sense. The show was intricate, complex and compelling. It was rarely ‘happy’, and it could be argued, actually stretched the definition of ‘entertainment’ because it seemed so real. That sort of show is not conducive to an award industry content with easy wrap-ups and happy endings. The Wire didn’t deliver that type of show. It challenged viewers. It made them think that this sort of reality was possible. It wasn’t pretty, by any means, but it was intriguing and worthwhile. In the end, isn’t that the sort of programming we want from television, anyway?

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The Decline and Fall of Space Science Fiction

The 2000’s have been dominated by superhero action films and, recently, TV shows. Ever since the first X-Men film with Hugh Jackman was released, superheroes have been more popular than ever. Yes, there have been superhero movies and TV shows based on comic books almost since the invention of television. The first Christopher Reeve Superman film is probably one of the best ever. But I would argue that more and more people are accepting superhero films and television shows now; and not just as mindless fantasy but as quality action worthy of praise, awards and deeper analysis. I doubt there are many actors who could have pulled off Deadpool as well as Ryan Reynolds, for example.

So while superheroes have been around for ages, they’re just getting more popular, with at least another 20 (and possibly 64) comic book superhero films set to release by 2020. While I’m quite excited by these — and the continued rise of geek and nerd culture into popularity and acceptance — I miss a different type of geek/nerd mainstay — science fiction television.

I would argue that the greatest period of science fiction on television was from 1991 to 2005. Throughout the 90s, the best Star Trek shows were on; season 4 of TNG started in 1991, which is when it really began getting really good. My favourite of the franchise, Deep Space Nine, debuted in 1993, then Voyager two years later (okay, I admit, Voyager didn’t necessarily have a lot going for it…)

During that same period, some of the best sci-fi shows aired, which for the minute I’m only going to limit to shows that take place partially or wholly in space, such as Stargate: SG-1 , Babylon 5, FarscapeBattlestar Galactica and, perhaps the greatest of them all, Firefly. Throw in some of the lesser space-opera shows like Andromeda, Space: Above and Beyond, Earth 2 and Space Precinct, and the 1990s were the heyday of televised space sci-fi.

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It of course gets better when you throw in shows that had sci-fi elements like aliens or unsolved mysteries or dimensional realities but didn’t take place in space. I’m thinking of shows like the ground-breaking X-Files, Millenium, Sliders and the tail end of Quantum Leap. You could even, potentially, include the fantastic Bruce Campbell shows The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, the comedy 3rd Rock From the Sun and the animated Futurama if you really wanted to stretch the definition of sci-fi.

Since the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, though, there have been fewer and fewer space-based sci-fi shows (with BSG the notable exception, as it continued into 2009). Looking at a television guide today, it seems the only show dealing at all with space ships is Doctor Who. There was a terrible SyFy miniseries called Ascension on in 2014, and season 1 of The Expanse, which recently aired, but very little else in the way of space sci-fi.

The sci-fi shows of the latter 2000’s and early 2010’s are admittedly earth-bound. I quite enjoyed the quirky Eureka and Warehouse 13, am coming to see why Supernatural is so long-running and have heard intriguing reviews of Fringe and Sanctuary, but space fare they are not. Don’t get me wrong, sci-fi that takes place only with an earthbound humanity can be fantastic, as X-Files proved and Orphan Black has shown recently. Like any good sci-fi, they can tell deeper, more cerebral (and potentially moral) stories than an average action/thriller/drama/comedy of the same length. It of course doesn’t mean they will, but they could.

I just miss the old days of space. With the recent news of an inflatable habitat being delivered to the International Space Station — possibly paving the way for human colonisation of Mars — the return of the Space X rocket to the ocean floor and new information about black holessupernovae radiation and mini-supernovae, space is big in the news. It’s time television got back to showing that.

I do love the superhero genre, but I also love other aspects of sci-fi. I want there to be more of it all around. With scientists all around the world saying they were inspired by Star Trek as kids, and with the kids growing up in the 90s now being the leaders in various industries, it’s time to again bring that sort of awe and wonder back to the small screen. I miss seeing aliens on a regular basis on my television screen.

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Last Week, A QB Threw A Touchdown On A Wire In Panama

This week, I’m going to use my academic background to tie together disparate elements of society into one idea. As a PhD student I had to combine multiple, often contradictory, sources to form one coherent thesis. I’m harnessing this training into a short talk about sports, television, politics, power and money. It sounds like an awful lot to cover, but in my mind they work together.

So I start with sport. Specifically, American football. I’m a big fan of NFL football. I’ve been watching the sport since I was a child and have been to a few games in person. It’s a sport that has elegance, creativity, wits and battles of the mind/coaching. Yes, it’s also an extremely violent, sometimes sickening sport, where grown men (some of whom have admittedly used Performance Enhancing Drugs — PEDs) crash into each other for money and fun. Some might think pro football players are over-paid, since they get hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) to run around passing, catching or blocking for an oval-shaped ball. Yet there have been numerous (1, 2, 3, 4) recent articles to increased health risks for playing the sport, ranging from concussions to Alzheimer’s and dementia or more. So I have no problem when players try to maximize their contracts, such as San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is trying to do.

Next, I want to discuss the Panama Papers and two HBO shows. If you’re not aware, the ‘Panama Papers‘ area lot of data from a Panama-based legal company which got released to an international consortium of journalists. The papers detail a global network of tax avoidance by the super-elite. The two HBO shows I refer to are The Wire and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. The most recent episode of John Oliver (3 April 2016) dealt with US Congressional fundraising and the insane requirements of it (in a link below, which may not work outside of the US); and season 4 of The Wire deals, in part, with that on a smaller, city scale.

Now, to draw the links between between TV, potential political corruption, tax avoidance and sport. In all of the things I’ve mentioned, there’s a bit of a David vs Goliath phenomenon going on. For Kaepernick, he’s the David, the individual player, against the Goliath of an NFL team or teams. In both The Wire and the John Oliver piece, the politicians are calling wealthy (potential) donors for contributions, leaving the average citizen without a voice. Another storyline during season 4 of The Wire is the lengths those in power will go to in order to maintain that power. This is very clear in the Panama Papers, where it shows that there’s a clear divide between those who have the wealth and power to set up tax havens and those who don’t.

simpsonspowerlessWhat seems clear, to me at least, is that in all of these instances, is the immense, uphill battle individuals face to better themselves in the face of institutional obstacles. If you’re poor (or even middling middle-class, honestly), let alone a minority of any sort, politicians won’t listen to you because you’re not a donor. Corporations have the power and will try to exploit you. Those in power will do everything in their power to make sure you remain powerless, moneyless and ignorant of the truth.

 

Life is a struggle. But there are good things, too. Friends, family, the potential for fun. Don’t forget about those things. For me, those fun things (in addition to television and movies) mean music and boardgames. For others it could be sport, religion, writing, raising animals or almost anything else. Those are important things. But it shouldn’t stop you (or me) from fighting for a slice of the power, too. I keep hoping, probably due to the Trekkie inside me, that some day we can overcome these petty struggles and unite as a worldwide, perhaps galactic-wide race, intent on actually betting ourselves and those around us.

 

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I Want to Want to Believe In TV

As you may remember from a previous post, I’m very much behind in my popular culture consumption. I have just this week started watching the newest season of House of Cards. I’ve also only just now finished watching the new X-Files reboot.

So of course, now I’ll be doing my review, long after most people have seen the shows.

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I’ll start with X-Files, since I’ve managed to watch the whole 6-episode event, as they called it. There are two types of episodes for X-Files. The first is a standard ‘monster of the week’ mystery, where some creature or unsolved mystery brings Mulder and Scully into the field to help explain the unexplainable. The other is the ‘mythology’ of the show, dealing with aliens, conspiracy and cover-ups.  Apparently the two types of episodes never make reference to each other, almost as if they exist in separate, parallel universes, though the same characters do appear in both types. I’m not sure if that is completely true, never having analysed all the episodes in that much detail (I haven’t actually seen all the episodes, honestly. I stopped watching soon after Mulder left after season 7, I think it was).

Seeing as how the re-boot was only six episodes, I was hoping they would do a story-arc that spanned the entire season, with a little bit doled out in each episode. You know, like most shows do now. Instead, the first and last episodes were the ‘mythology’, the other four were ‘monster of the week’ ones. That disappointed me. In the past there have been some fantastic ‘monster of the week’ episodes, and even this new season actually had a quite funny one. I was just disappointed that was the route they chose to take. Especially considering one dealt with Islamic terrorists in the US. It’s so clichéd in mainstream American television that the only depiction of Muslims are as terrorists, yet I was hoping for a different representation. But what should I really have expected? The show airs on Fox, the home of the completely ‘fair and balanced’ right-wing Fox News and vehicle for Rupert Murdoch. The only Fox shows that seem to get away with showing Muslims as anything other than the cliché are the Simpsons and Family Guy, both of which are animated and so don’t carry as much cultural weight. Anyway, the point is, only two episodes dealt with the overlying X-Files mythology.

Those two episodes, though, weren’t very good. The show has long hinted at aliens and a government conspiracy to keep knowledge of them secret. This season, though, confirmed aliens beyond a doubt, and took the conspiracy in a different direction by having the cabal manipulating human and alien DNA for their own purposes. It was an interesting twist, and sets up the show for a new season, should it be picked up, but the final episode ended on a cliff-hanger. I hate those. It was not a satisfying conclusion to the show, especially if it’s not renewed.

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I have similar mixed feelings about House of Cards. Now in its fourth season, the show has turned to President Frank Underwood running for election. The first two seasons showed him as a man who would do anything to claw his way to power. The third season was about him handling how to be President. The two seasons showing his ascent were the best so far. It showed his as a ruthless, cunning man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. He lied, he manipulated, he cheated, he even murdered. There was nothing Frank Underwood would not do. Season three tried to show him balancing to maintain that power in the face of real opposition. Not everyone responded well to his often heavy-handed tactics. Season four is more of that, but wildly improbable.

I’m still only about halfway through the season, but it has taken away much of the believability of the show. Whereas The West Wing was an idealised version of American politics, House of Cards is a realistic, cynical view of the same phenomenon. I’m sure, more often than not, things happen the way depicted in House of Cards rather than The West Wing, but at least The West Wing always seemed grounded in reality. It had actions and consequences, and showed the philosophical struggles those working in government had to deal with. House of Cards, though, doesn’t deal with the human side nearly as much. Frank and Claire have visions and doubts about their progress, but others, not so much. Frank’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper, has no qualms about lying, stealing, betraying people or even murdering, all in the name of helping his boss. He could be a sociopath, sure, who doesn’t connect with emotions, but the show has never hinted to that. In season four, Claire, especially, seems to have a goal she is working toward — at one point basically demanding to be nominated as Vice President — but doesn’t listen to advice or practicality from others. As a character who has spent twenty-odd years in political circles, she would have to know that the President’s wife, even if she wanted to one day become president herself, would never get nominated as VP during his term. It doesn’t make political or realistic sense.

So, the show has lost some of its realistic basis, and has taken a turn for the worse. It’s still well acted and has some good dialogue, but is not as good as previous seasons. If you’ve already watched all the episodes leading up to it, you might as well continue. If you haven’t started the show, stop after season two.

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Watching Without Fear

Today is the day. Daredevil season 2 has been released on Netflix. I won’t be watching.

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Not that I don’t want to watch it. I’m highly looking forward to it, actually. I thoroughly enjoyed season 1 and absolutely loved Jessica Jones. I really enjoy the MCU as a whole (don’t even get me started about how much I’m squee-ing for Civil War — I’m #TeamCap, by the way, though I do understand #TeamStark’s argument). The reality is I’m just overwhelmed.

overwhelmed

I’m overwhelmed with job hunting, life, television and movies. I’ve just submitted my PhD (woo!) so now I begin the tough slog that is job hunting — for postdocs, early career fellowships, lectureships, something in different fields, or, in reality, for anything that pays. It’s a lot of work researching the company (or university), tweaking my CV for each individual job, writing cover letters and filling out applications. Most postdoc and fellowships also require a research proposal, so I also have to modify that to fit into the application process. I have just submitted an application where I have high hopes, but we’ll see in the next few weeks. So, it’s almost a full-time job just job hunting. Now, I’ve had a lot of not-so-glamourous jobs in my lifetime, so I’m not opposed to taking another one to pay the bills. The flipside of that is that for every hour I work (or apply to work) in that type of job, I lose an hour of trying to find a permanent post in a career-type job. So it’s a juggling act, of sorts, between balancing my dreams with my reality.

 

Job hunting is, of course, not the only thing I’m doing. I do need a work-life balance of some sorts, which is where the rest of life, television and movies comes in. I have friends whom I see on a regular basis, so that’s two or three evenings a week gone. I’m also a regular contributor to a volunteer activity, to which I have just taken on more responsibility, so that’s another few hours during the week.

When I am actually home to watch TV, I often watch with my partner. She has no interest in Daredevil (alas) but she is at least watching Agents of SHIELD (though we’re a few weeks behind) so she’s not completely out of the MCU loop. We don’t get out to the movies much, unfortunately, so we have to pick and chose what and when to see things. We did see Deadpool (loved it!), though we were a few weeks late on that. When I do have an opportunity to watch something on my own I’m still trying to catch up on other shows (or movies). With all of the original content Netflix is producing — most of which I’m enjoying, once I finally get around to watching it — I’m just getting further and further behind in new programming.  I still haven’t even seen Marco Polo from a long time ago, let alone the latest House of Cards. There’s so much (potentially) quality programming — from Netflix alone, not to mention all the other outlets like HBO, where I am highly anticipating Game of Thrones season 6 next month — that I don’t have time to watch it all. In other words, I’m overwhelmed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a job application to work on before I can watch something. In the meantime, please, no spoilers. I’d like to watch without fear of knowing what’s happening.

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