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Highlights of the 2016 Stargate Chicago Convention

Last weekend, the final Stargate convention took place at its home at the Westin O’Hare in Chicago. It was a bittersweet occasion: we were all there to celebrate Stargate, and as usual, there was fun, friends, and memories, but this is also the last official Stargate convention for the foreseeable future. This is the last time, it seems, that we’ll have a chance to gather in Chicago to make memories. But memories we did make. Here are some highlights from the convention – some funny, some insightful, and some outright bizarre.

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The Westin O’Hare, my Stargate home in my favorite city in the world, Chicago.

  1. Paul McGillion was going to be Scotty the Engineer

The 200th episode of SG-1 included a Star Trek sequence with an engineer who sounded a hell of a lot like Scotty. They were originally going to have Paul McGillion do it, saying something like similar to “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!” During his panel, Paul auctioned off this version of the script, reading his lines allowed in a comic Scotty accent. I asked Paul to write the quote he read from the script when I was getting his autograph, but he couldn’t remember it, so he tried writing Scotty’s quote instead and got that wrong, so what I ended up with is the rather dirty “For Chrissakes, I’m giving her all I’ve got!”:

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  1. Beckett, like Scotty, drinks Scotch

(despite the fact that it was invented by a little old lady in Leningrad). In fact, in a twist so ironic only reality could produce it, I was able to witness the Scottish Paul McGillion autograph my photo with a Scotty quote while drinking Scotch. (the Scotch may also have been responsible for him getting it wrong and turning it dirty)

  1. Someone tried to buy Joe Flanigan his favorite whiskey

During his panel, Joe mentioned that his favorite drink is Lagavulin Whiskey (but it has to

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Joe’s favorite whiskey, as far as I can tell

be sixteen years old!), going on to say that when he lived with Jason Momoa during the filming of Stargate, they went through bottles of it at the pace of frat boys and piled up the bottles against the wall as “decoration.” Consequently, as I was enjoying a “Kawoosh” at the hotel bar, a breathless fan ran up, asking if the bar had a bottle. I suggested she try the liquor store next door, which is the source of much of our felicity at Stargate cons, but they didn’t have it. The hotel bar did, but refused to sell her an entire bottle. I don’t know whether Joe did eventually get his whiskey, but I was touched (and entertained) by the gesture.

 

 

  1. The special drink menu

Speaking of alcohol….the Westin O’Hare, which is like a home away from home for me, put together a special drink menu for the convention. As overpriced as the drinks were, I must admit the “Kawoosh” was delicious, though the bright-green Teal’c’s Margarita did leave something to be desired.

  1. Chris Judge likes big boobs and he cannot lie

I’m not sure I know where to even begin explaining this one (or if, as an aspiring academic, I should be putting it on the internet) It all started when Chris Judge (whose biceps are, like Jason Momoa’s, the size of my face) was asked about his workout routine. He mentioned that he has to lose some weight for an upcoming role, in which he plays a trans superhero, and then segued into talking about his costume for the role. He’s had costume fittings, and was asked things like “what size boobs would you like?” As far as I recall, he jokingly said that he wants big boobs, and it all went from there. To compound this hilarity, there was a wedding at this Stargate con, with a bachelorette party the previous night, which of course meant that there were lots of NC-17 items floating around, like a headband with boobs on it, which Chris Judge was wearing while signing autographs (though with my lack of observation skills, I didn’t notice them during my autographs).

But that, my friends, is not the end of the story. After the hilarity of his panel, I asked Chris Judge to write something about boobs when I was getting his autograph. He looked at me and went, “you want me to sign your boobs?” and to this day, I don’t know whether he’s joking or not. I mentioned that while I’d be happy to allow him to, I don’t think Creation Entertainment would take a similar view, which is how I ended up with the following autographed photo (in which Teal’c enigmatic smile perfectly matches the words, methinks):

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  1. He also likes ridiculously snazzy pants:

I just don’t have words. Only Chris Judge could pull off those pants and still be able to look slightly terrifying.

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  1. I got my Atlantis control crystal signed

It forms a nice collection with the isolinear chip that LeVar Burton signed. Now I just need Colm Meaney to complete the collection…

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  1. Someone “borrowed” my David Hewlett photo op idea from a couple years ago

A couple years ago, I did a photo op with David Hewlett in which I brought a lemon (which, when I was purchasing it at 7-11, is the reason I was recognized by a bunch of other Stargaters from the con) and had him react to it. A couple new friends did something similar this year, involving a lemon and an epi pen:

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  1. Everybody crashed everyone’s panels

This is a pretty common occurrence at Stargate cons; the atmosphere is extremely laid back, and there’s always a lot of stars autographing in the vendors’ room, which is right next to the theatre. This means that, from time to time, one of them will come in to randomly join a panel that’s happening and then just not leave. In particular, David Nykl crashed David Hewlett’s panel, and we got some Rodney and Zelenka banter onstage and firsthand:

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They look so much like their characters in real life, it’s a little freaky.

David DeLuise also crashed Chris Judge’s panel to admire his biceps:

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I feel ya, David, I feel ya…

  1. “Can You imagine Putin as a Klingon?”

A literal quote said by Joe Flanigan. The context was talking about villain characters that the heroes are forced to work with, like the Klingons, who were the Russians on Star Trek during the Cold War. Yes, Joe, I can indeed imagine Putin as a Klingon.

  1. A Stargate wedding!

Last year at the Stargate convention, Danni proposed to Bri; they’re both Stargate fans, and met at the Stargate con, so it seemed like the perfect place to propose. This year, they had their wedding at the con, complete in costumes and with a little bit of roleplay.

Daniel dressed as Daniel Jackson, while Brianne dressed as her fan-fiction character, Dr. Adrienne Rowan, and everyone else wore thematic outfits as well. The wedding was also a skit re-enacting those characters’ wedding in her stories, and made to look like a traditional Jaffa wedding. What made it even more realistic was Eric Avari (who played Sha’are’s father, Kasuf) giving an impromptu blessing in Egyptian that he had learned for the show. All in all, it was ridiculously beautiful – especially the vows.  They also managed to mount a pretty life-sized Stargate on the stage, which formed an excellent backdrop for the rest of the convention, though I heard that lots of duct tape was involved in making it actually stand up. I suggested they ask David Hewlett for help, who reputedly is basically a geek of Rodney McKay proportions.

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The beautiful couple

12. Michael Shanks can make about 20 bazillion facial expressions in one minute

I could upload them all to this blog, but then I’d crash WordPress. I have about 300 photos of Michael Shanks, and I swear, every single one of them has a different facial expression. I don’t know how he does it. Here’s a taste….

13. David Nykl and Joe Flanigan talked about the nature of television.

One of the great pleasures of conventions for me as an academic is when industry insiders talk about television, media, and fandom, because they always provide a unique insider’s perspective. This con did not disappoint in this department. David Nykl talked about how movies today are a dime a dozen, and usually full of explosions. Television, on the other hand, is special, he said: it has a fanbase, and is in people’s living rooms and kitchens every week, building rapport. In fact, today TV might even be better and more important than movies. Joe Flanigan pointed out that sci-fi has a loyal fanbase that not even regular popular shows have. It’s a fanbase that Hollywood is out of touch with: they produce lots of sci-fi, but don’t understand the fandom. This is something that’s impressed me at every Stargate con I’ve attended: the actors really seem to understand, appreciate, and approve of fandom and all its creativity (fan fiction included). They get fandom and sci-fi, and many of them (like David Hewlett) are also huge nerds.

14. “Leadership….”

This was the phrase with which David Hewlett began his panel and a running gag throughout it. He also mentioned that the hotel the con was in was hosting a leadership conference that he considered crashing just for the hell of it

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“Leadership…..”

  1. “What Would McKay Do?”

When asked what advice Rodney McKay would give if he ever did have a chance, David Hewlett thought about it for a while, then said, “whenever you find yourself at a juncture and don’t know what to do, ask yourself, What Would McKay Do?” Of course, he followed it up with “run away and hide, probably.”

  1. I gave Joe Flanigan a hard time about his character “Kirking around.”

Joe was asked about whether a Weir and Shepard romance was intended and whether there was any sexual tension there. After confirming that this was indeed the case, Joe complained that his character didn’t get nearly enough romance, and (unless I’m recalling this incorrectly) made mention of Captain Kirk’s romancing of the women of the galaxy. After which I pointed out to him when I was getting his autograph that Kirk didn’t actually Kirk around. Then again, Joe confessed that he never really got into or watched the original Star Trek, but it’s okay, I forgive him.

  1. David Hewlett and David Nykl discovered official, authorized Stargate fanfic

At one point during his panel, David Hewlett was asked what he thinks of fan fiction (which he approves of, by the way, but more on that later). He mentioned something about how Stargate should get some fans to write authorized fanfic, only to be told that, hey, it exists, and the authors who write it are just outside. One of them got to come up onstage, and David was presented with a set of Stargate books. Naturally, he and the other David opened them to look for their characters. Zelenka was easily found on the first page David Nykl flipped to, but poor David Hewlett couldn’t find any mentions of Rodney.

…And seventeen seems like a good number to end on, as that’s the number of seasons the Stargate franchise had. I’ll be writing a bit more about this convention (and in particular, on the actors’ thoughts on fan fiction), but for now, I just wanted to celebrate this last hurrah of Stargate in Chicago by preserving some of the best memories.

(All photos by me)

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William Shatner and LeVar Burton Talk Science, Mythology, and Sci-Fi

With the exact date of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary coming up shortly on September 8th, celebrations of what started as a strange little show with low ratings are in full swing. Star Trek: Mission New York promises to take over Labor Day weekend with a slew of panels, screenings, autographs, and other festivities, and this past weekend, Cherry Hill hosted a Star Trek 50 year mission tour convention.

Though much of the aforementioned convention was based around entertainment (with celebrity Q and A’s, a Rat Pack performance on Friday night, and karaoke), there was also intellectual stimulation to be had for the sci-fi nerd, including panels on Women in Star Trek, Star Trek and Shakespeare, and a discussion of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Two actor appearances – William Shatner and LeVar Burton – also stood out; both spoke passionately about science fiction and science, speaking of its potential and of its influence.

William Shatner began his panel by talking about what projects he’s been working on lately, but this quickly segued into a short talk about the nature of science itself. His most recent project – titled The Truth is in Our Stars, and slated for release in December – is a series of interviews with scientists influenced by Star Trek, including Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking (whom he interviewed just last week). Shatner spoke with great passion about the questions science asks – what are we all doing here? What are we? What the hell does it all mean? These are the same questions that mythology attempts to answer: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And science fiction, as he has so often previously stated, is deeply mythological, in taking these metaphysical questions and giving them realistic answers.  He made some short quips about the answers to all these questions – “we’re all vibrating!” he summarized, after snarkily suggesting that scientists talk for fifteen minutes but have no better answer to the above questions than anyone else.

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William Shatner speaks passionately about science and science fiction

But this snark was quickly replaced by deep seriousness. He looked almost enraptured as he spoke about his experience with Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, telling the story of how, once, when he was speaking about the mathematical beauty of music with Michio, he asked him, “Kaku, what instrument do you play?” Michio pointed to his head, his brain – which, almost ecstatically, Shatner suggested was an instrument like any other, capable of touching the beauty of the universe in some way. He spoke also of Stephen Hawking, who lives in a body that doesn’t work – but his mind does. He had similarly asked Hawking once, “what instrument do you use?” to receive a similar answer – his mind.

Shatner also spoke about the very real impact of – and crosspollination between – Star Trek and real science, and, in particular, space exploration. He went back to the late 60s, when, he claimed, the achievements of the space program brought in ratings to Star Trek. These ratings, in turn, inspired scientists and the continuation of the space program. He even suggested (citing an unmentioned source) that it was the influence of Star Trek that caused Congress to vote for funding for the space program, calling Star Trek “instrumental” in getting money allocated for the space program. (as a side note, William Shatner is what one might consider a primary source on the topic, given that he was at the center of things during the Space Age of the 1960s; at the same time, I have no written sources at this time to back up his claims).

In short, my admiration of William Shatner (which was already great) has grown even more with this conversation. He seems to have a deep respect for both Star Trek (whose ideas and philosophy he said he admired, even producing a moral/political reading of Star Trek’s funniest episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and science (whose potential he spoke about with visible admiration, ending his appearance with words of admiration for the brilliant young scientists currently working at NASA that he’s interviewing for his project).

In short, when he claimed “I’m Captain Kirk!” halfway through the panel, he wasn’t joking – he seems to have James T. Kirk’s openmindedness and sense of wonder about both the world around us and the fiction that describes it.

This influence, which Star Trek had on so many lives, also touched LeVar Burton, who played Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While Shatner had mentioned more abstractly the various influences Trek had had on scientists, inspiring them to pursue science, LeVar spoke of the way that the Original Series (of which he was a huge fan) showed him that he had opportunities as a young black kid- something he loved incarnating in Geordi, a character with a disability who is still able to pursue his passion.

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LeVar talks about the inspiration of Star Trek and the power of science fiction

He also wholeheartedly admitted that he’s a science fiction nerd, because science fiction invites us to contemplate “what if” – which, he said, are two of the most powerful words in language. He also called imagination a superpower- a thought process that essentially enables us to travel through time and space in a way that no other species can. And storytelling is what connects us to the imagination, that brings it to life. In short, though he didn’t say it in those words exactly, he spoke of science fiction as similarly mythological: just like Shatner suggested that sci-fi lets us answer the question of “what’s out there?”, LeVar suggested that it lets us ask “What if?” (LeVar also mentioned as I was getting his autograph, on the very same isolinear chip that he refused to fix for me, that his favorite science fiction author is Octavia Butler).

They both spoke about a topic that’s been of deep interest to me in my research: the relationship between storytelling and science, as well as the way that our penchant for narrative extends beyond the obvious – literature. Over the summer, I had the chance to read The Storytelling Animal, which suggests that storytelling – that is, the ability to ask “what if” and work out the consequences of potential scenarios – is not only programmed into our brains, it’s how we have survived as a species. That is, not only is the imagination a superpower, it is a fundamental survival skill of our species. And science fiction, in its incorporation of science, is particularly apt at working out those consequences and projecting hypothetical scenarios, giving it the power to answer not only “what if?” but also the more mythological question of “What for?”

In short, LeVar and Shatner both spoke with amazing understanding about a topic that I’ve been focusing on as an academic for some time now; at the same time, they gave these talks at a venue that more than proved them right: a 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek. Star Trek really does showcase the mythological, magical power of storytelling in general and science fiction in particular.

The Past, Present, and Future of Sci-Fi in Philly: Geekadelphia Panel at the Free Library

A couple of days ago, I attended a panel at the Free Library of Philadelphia sponsored by Geekadelphia – Philadelphia’s geek blog. Gathering together local sci-fi authors, historians, and fans, the subject of the panel was the past, present, and future of science-fiction in Philadelphia, though the panel quickly evolved into a more broad discussion about the past, present, and future of the genre. Here’s a number of the interesting points raised at the panel, many of which bear further thinking about – and many of which, I think, have bearing on the various topics discussed on this blog.

You can read more about the various people on the panel at the event page here. Before I begin, I must also note that the panel took place at one of my favorite places in Philadelphia – and one of the most science fiction-y: the central branch of the Free Library. Located on the Parkway, this beautiful building has rows upon rows of science fiction books, often boasts guests like Kate Mulgrew (Katherine Janeway) and Chris Hadfield (an astronaut), and has an amazing roof deck with a gorgeous view of the city and its skyscrapers (and for me, the twinkling lights of a large city always evoke a sense of possibility that science fiction also gives me). Here’s a photo, taken on my phone:

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On that note, the panel fittingly began with a question about the way that Philadelphia’s past is linked to science fiction. The first, and most intriguing answer, came from historian Siobhan Carroll, who suggested that we’re living in the decayed version of William Penn’s utopia. He designed Philadelphia to be this perfect city, laid out on a grid, and of course we’re living in the dystopian version of it:

Penn’s plan for Philadelphia.

We talked about dystopias quite a bit, with someone bringing up an interesting point: if someone is writing about their real, contemporary experiences and they’re dystopian, does that count as science fiction, or does that fit somewhere else on the spectrum of genres? If the experience is “real,” can it still be sci-fi – or do we put it in the biography and memoir section? (a question that is increasingly relevant given the state of affairs in the U.S. today- a question I will return to in another post). This led to a joke about a new (and utterly terrifying) genre: dystopian non-fiction (a genre that likely already exists, in the satires of Stephen Colbert and the like, but which really could bear more academic exploration).

This, naturally, brought up the topic of the relationship between the present and the future in science fiction, since most dystopias are set in the future (despite the dystopian potential of contemporary life). A question and concern that the panelists especially tackled was how far in the future an author must go to write science fiction. Especially with the pace with which technology is advancing today, where yesterday’s sci-fi rapidly becomes today’s technology, how far ahead should you think when you write sci-fi and how far in the future should you set your story? If you set it in the near future, do you run the risk of reality outpacing you?

This led to a comment made by one of the panelists that technology is advancing so fast today that it’s hard to keep up with it as a sci-fi author- things are becoming reality faster. This, though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, is in line with a lot of thinking about technological advances: Ray Kurzweil and a number of transhumanist thinkers point out that technology advances at an exponential rate. That’s why they think we might eventually reach the Singularity – because of this exponential rise in technology, we’ll use technology to create better technology until we reach the Singularity. That, of course, places the sci fi author in a bit of a conundrum, because now there’s a shorter ‘timeline’ on the sci-fi things they write about and invent before they become “real.” Of course, as Michael Swanwick pointed out, even if you do thinking about inventions that then come to pass, your thinking wasn’t wasted, because science fiction is always about the implications and meaning of technology as much as the actual technology – and even if Google invents something before you write about it, those considerations will be valuable to your formation as a thinker and writer of science fiction.

This led to a funny story about William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame, of course), who attended a Worldcon sometime in the 70s or 80s and was given a card as the key to his room instead of an actual key. That was the moment, he insisted, at which he realized the stuff he was writing about was real.

Another thing we talked about is diversity – and, naturally, the ‘fiasco’ involving the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and this year’s Hugo awards. (For a quick summary, go here). The consensus seemed to be that what’s changing is not who writes sci-fi and fantasy (people of color and women and queer people have always written in the genre), but who gets noticed – and what kinds of stories they write. People who aren’t white men are increasingly getting noticed as writers in the genre and getting recognition and awards (like the Hugos). That’s what the Puppies are fighting against: that recognition, but the very fact that it’s noticeable and something for them to fight against means that change is happening, and progress has been made already. A very important aspect of this is the fact that diversity is not a “trend,” as many like to call it today – it’s more the realization of the importance of that diversity and its recognition when it does exist.

And to finish up, here’s some more fun tidbits about other connections to Philadelphia:

  • Philcon was apparently the first sci-fi convention and, naturally, took place in Philadelphia
  • Asimov and Heinlein and Delaney all lived in Philadelphia
  • They were all also part of sci-fi-esque government-related think tanks.

Chicago Stargate Convention 2015: Part 2

Saturday got off to an earlier start than I usually prefer (which is about noon), but if it’s Stargate, it’s worth getting up at the ungodly, coffee-less hour of, like, 10am. Thus, my second day of the convention started off with two back-to-back panels by two wonderful ladies: Andee Frizzell and Suanne Braun, both of whom were part of the cabaret last night, but who also took to the stage this morning to regale us with fun tales.

Andee usually makes a tradition of having each person who comes up to ask her a question tell her a fun story about a convention experience before they ask the question (or just tell her a story about a con experience). Unfortunately, most of my con stories that are memorable enough to tell are not PG (it’s not my fault Jason Momoa got very drunk last year and did unmentionable things!) so instead I sat back and enjoyed listening to other people’s con stories. I don’t remember many of them now, though a few were quite hilarious; all I remember is the “tutu for charity” – a tutu that a couple of fans brought to cons and asked celebrities to don. For every celebrity that put it on, they donated money to charity, and, of course, Andee heartily agreed (there’s few things she won’t do while at a Stargate con). The next day, Peter (Apophis) heartily donned the same tutu at the same moment I was walking by with my camera actually charged and on, so I snapped this serendipitous photo:

Apophis dons a tutu

Apophis dons a tutu

Next, Suanne Braun utterly charmed as all once again. She regaled us, in particular, of a story about how she was mistaken for Gillian Anderson, of X-Files fame. To be fair, Gillian was a redhead at the time, and the X-Files was filming in the same hotel she was staying in….and to make matters worse, she’d just gotten back from filming the “bath scene” in the Hathor episode, in which all the little plastic snakes they put in the tub with her melted from the hot water, making her reek. Meaning that there’s now a couple of very avid X-Files fans who think that Gillian Anderson smells very, very bad.

That’s, unfortunately, all I remember from these two ladies’ panels, but afterwards came the photo ops, and I got one with both of them. Andee and I faced off as Wraith queens – a pose inspired by the last time Andee had attended this convention, when she’d autographed a photo for me. I had told her my name is Anastasia, and she immediately made the connection with the Russian princess/grand duchess, addressing the photo to “the little princess” and signing it as “your queen salutes you!” In keeping with this idea of Andee as wraith queen and me as a rival ruler, Andee and I did a stare-down (she was unsure of quite the pose I wanted at first, but quickly caught on, and the result turned out quite well):

Two monarchs facing off

me, seduced by HathorThe absolute best photo op, though, was the one I took with Suanne. I thought it was rather short-sighted that in the episode, Hathor only seduced men, so I asked her if she would do me the honor of seducing me. (Clearly, I have a thing for the sexy ladies of SG-1, because a couple of years ago I asked Amanda Tapping to seduce me and “make my boyfriend jealous.” You can see the spectacular result below.) The result turned out pretty fantastically, with me looking really happy to be seduced by a gorgeous woman. When I got an autograph from Suanne the next day, I showed her how the photo turned out and we fell into discussing the gender dynamics of the episode a bit; essentially, she agreed with me that the fact that Hathor seduced only men was shortsighted, but was an inescapable product of the fact that the episode was filmed in 1997. Maybe if the same episode were done today, things would be different (with the right showrunners and network, of course).

Me, being seduced by Sam Carter

I also got another photo op with Peter Williams, because I couldn’t resist; he, and everyone else, kept making jokes about how he really is a god and how you should bow and kneel before him (my friend Allison mentioned in her write-up of the con that she’d totally be his consort), so naturally I went “hmmm, a guy who acts like he’s a deity. Why don’t I make him kneel?” Which is a)typical Ana b)exactly what I did. Granted, he didn’t quite kneel – his knees didn’t actually touch the floor (I can see all through your antics, Apophis!) but with the angle of the photo, you almost can’t tell. So, behold, Apophis kneeling before the true deity:

Apophis Kneels

After a break, during which I ran back and forth between the vendors’ room, my room, and autograph tables, as well as hunting for cash (because some people, lovely actors that they are, still haven’t figured out that in the 21st century no one carries cash), came Rainbow Sun Francks’ panel. This is the first con I’ve been to that he’s been at, so I was really excited to see his panel. Plus, I’d seen Rainbow hanging around the hotel for the past couple of days, chatting with other con-goers; he seemed really friendly, open, and down-to-earth (fun fact: he asked me what was going on during the karaoke and I explained that it was the karaoke without recognizing him, because, yes, I have a terrible memory for faces and it’s actually really embarrassing. I’ve probably walked past dozens of famous people I didn’t recognize. Think of all the autographs I probably could’ve gotten!)

Rainbow strikes a pose

Rainbow strikes a pose

His panel didn’t disappoint either, although at this point, I don’t remember much about it except that it was both fun and funny. I can also add, however, that Rainbow crashed pretty much everybody else’s panel at the entire convention, which absolutely nobody minded, The one thing I do remember from his panel is that he showed us a lot of exclusive pictures: he’d gone through his hard drive a few days previous and found a lot of photos from the shooting of Atlantis that he’d never shared with anybody, so we got to be the exclusive audience. He asked us not to take pictures of the pictures, and I respected his wishes, so although some of the photos were outright hilarious (mostly of David Hewlett and Paul McGillion looking as unattractive as these two beautiful people could manage). I later joked at Paul’s autograph that Rainbow should’ve printed out his utterly unflattering photos of Paul for him to sign. Rainbow, who turned out to be right there, (which it took me a while to notice, because I’m oblivious), asked me when he could’ve possibly had time to go to Kinko’s. I kindly offered to go to Kinko’s for him (“if you’re so busy, I’ll do it!”), but to which he pointed out that although I’m a lovely person, he doesn’t know me and isn’t about to hand me his entire hard drive. I suppose he had a point, but damn him, I wanted to be trusted by a guy named Rainbow!

Right after Rainbow’s panel was that of David Blue. He plays the title character of Stargate: Universe, and at that point I’d seen exactly one episode of Stargate: Universe, but I decided to stay for the panel anyway, and I’m glad I did, because David also turned out to be really fun. It turns out that he’s a geek like us, and he talked happily about games and TV shows he liked and pretty much outright admitted that he’s a geek. He even brought up slash fiction (yes, he went there!). Rainbow, who was in the room at the time (crashing everyone’s panels, as always) had no idea what that meant…I think David declined to explain, but the ensuing situation was hilarious! David also said that he was told by one of the SGU producers exactly where season three would have gone…but refused to tell us the slightest detail about it, in case there was still that 1% chance that a third season would get made in some way, somehow, somewhere. Seduction didn’t work in coaxing this secret out of him, unfortunately, so I had to leave it be. Granted, I haven’t gotten to the season two cliffhanger yet, so he could’ve told me absolutely anything and I wouldn’t have been able to argue with him, but still….

Next came the highlight of Saturday: Joe Flanigan’s panel. Joe’s pretty much a staple at Stargate conventions – I have yet to attend one that he hasn’t been at, which also pretty much means that I’m rolling in Joe Flanigan autographs at this point (perhaps I’ll do a sweepstakes one of these days). Joe’s always a joy to have onstage, because he’s really well-spoken and educated and says really interesting things about television and the media. He’s also a bit shy (as far as I can tell), so this is the first time he’s actually done a solo panel. It didn’t disappoint: he said a lot of really interesting things, many of which I livetweeted so I wouldn’t forget. For me, the most intriguing tidbit he mentioned was about television today: he said that we’re in the “Golden Era” of television for viewers – something that David Hewlett and Torri Higginson also mentioned to me at their meet and greet a couple of years ago. It seems to be the consensus that when it comes to storytelling and quality, television is slowly replacing movies. Joe did add that that doesn’t mean it’s a golden era for actors – he mentioned in particular that there’s a huge disparity in how actors get paid, in that some make millions while others probably make what’s barely above a graduate student salary (for me, this was a really intriguing insight into how the media I consume is made). Which, I guess, puts us viewers on the glamorous side of the screen (for a change!) I mentioned to Joe at autographs that I thought what he said about TV today was really interesting; I only had a few seconds to say it, because as usual, autographs were very rushed, so he didn’t have much of a chance to respond – but I’m still glad I got to thank him for the wonderful insights that he, as usual, provided behind the scenes. Joe also talked about how TV characters have changed: traditionally, he said, TV show characters would be “people you’d want in your living room,” whatever that means, while these days that may not necessarily be the case. (As someone tweeted, I’ll take Joe in my living room any day).

Joe and Paul looking adorable at Joe's panel

Joe and Paul looking adorable at Joe’s panel

Another interesting insight Joe gave is into his character. Someone asked him if he could change anything about the way Sheppard was written, and the only answer Joe came up with (as far as I recall, anyway), is that he didn’t like it that they wrote Sheppard to be a genius and a MENSA candidate – he didn’t think that was the right way for the character to go. I personally loved that Sheppard’s a genius who took a completely different life path from McKay (or, rather, I love it on most days), but I didn’t always. An ensuing question was why Sheppard refused to be in MENSA after he tested into it, and Joe suggested it’s because MENSA has too many rules, and Sheppard doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who likes rules. (No, really?)

Other than that, a large part of Joe’s panel entailed him waxing poetic about Iceland, where he recently vacationed (and tweeted about) and where he apparently ate whale…thus making eating whale a recurring joke throughout the panel. Not quite sure what’s so funny about that myself, but then again, I’m a Trekkie. Save the whales! And that, alas, is all I remember from Joe’s panel. Which is really just a clue that I should write up these con write-ups right after the con, and not two weeks afterwards (being a procrastinating perfectionist is the worst, and not just because of the tacky alliteration).

The evening ended with a couple of events: a costume competition, where there were some fantastic costumes on display, and autographs with Joe and Paul, and the gold dessert party – which wasn’t particularly exciting (it never is). I enjoyed walking around and taking photos of all the centerpieces, some of which were utterly gorgeous, and a couple of the celebrities (Andee and Suanne) did come by our table, but for the most part the celebrity presence was rather lacking at our table. We did have a lot of fun dancing to silly pop music with Andee and Sharon, however, so there’s that.

An amazing centerpiece from the Gold Dessert Party

And after that, shenanigans probably ensued, but I, like a responsible adult who wanted to be awake for the next morning’s panels, actually headed up to bed at a reasonable time. Because I’m a killjoy like that.

Motor City Comic Con: The Belated Thoughts of an Aca-Fan

A few months ago  (and by a few I mean almost a year, because it’s only now that I have time to finish up this piece), I had the good fortune of attending my local comic con: Motor City Comic Con. Even though it’s been some time, I felt the need to write up my thoughts and experiences, especially because this convention (and most comic cons in general, I’d guess) has been a completely different convention experience from any other I’ve had, and I wanted to explore what those differences might be – in terms of fan interactions, in terms of what it is that we look for at conventions, and in terms of what brings groups of people together at conventions like this. That is, this is a bit of a sociological post, with observations and thoughts on conventions as a form of social interaction.

The past conventions I’ve gone two have fallen into two types: they’ve either been centered around a particular franchise (Supernatural, Stargate, Star Trek), or more academic conventions (such as the World Science Fiction and Fantasy convention) full of panels and discussions rather than autographs and entertainers.

Conventions centered around a specific franchise (usually run by Creation Entertainment), are a very special experience: you crowd hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people all obsessed with the same thing into one hotel for three days, and every single star is from that franchise and has worked on it some way. Sure, many of them have been on other franchises and of course there’s overlap, but mostly everybody’s there for one particular fictional universe (as an example, I’ll use Stargate, since most of my experiences have been with that franchise).

The thing with conventions like this is that, crowded into a hall with hundreds of people who love the same stories and characters as you do, there’s an indescribable sense of connection and kinship. There’s jokes and quotes and trivia constantly exchanged. There’s a trivia contest for that particular show/set of shows. There’s arguments over which scientist is the most attractive one (Rodney McKay). There’s a costume contest focused on that series. And when you’re all crowded into a hall together, the venue starts playing the theme song from that show, an actor/actress comes out, and you all cheer together – it’s an amazing experience. There’s this sense of wild enthusiasm of being a part of something big, of just loving this show so damn much and being with a bunch of people who share that enthusiastic, almost spiritual love for this amazing show that damn well deserves this adoration. Honestly, my first convention was a bit of a spiritual experience. I had, in internet-speak, “feels” about loving Stargate so much and about so many people loving Stargate.

The other type of convention, the conference sort of convention, I go to a lot less; I’ve been to a small handful,, and presented at one. This really is like academic conference: there were literally hundreds of panels on different semi-academic topics, from the portrayal of aliens in sci-fi to violence and fantasy and the portrayal of gender. A lot of authors were on these panels, but so were academics, bloggers, and fans. Sure, there were autograph sessions with a few particularly well-known authors (such as George R.R. Martin), but the majority of the convention (at least in my experience), happened in these panels. Here, there wasn’t quite the same sense of “we all love the same thing so much.” Sure, a lot of us shared love for things like Star Wars and Firefly and could reference it, but rather than a sort of spiritual enthusiasm, it was a much more academic enthusiasm that was in these panels. It seemed to me to be a lot more about getting to the bottom of some very important questions, albeit in a fun way, than about love and adoration and enthusiasm.

And then there’s Comic Con type conventions, which, as I discovered, work totally differently from the other kinds of conventions I’ve been to.

This is what a comic con type convention looks like, in general:

It’s a great big hall, mostly full of vendors selling everything from comic books to action figures to autographed portraits. Inside this great big hall, there’s also booths for all of the celebrity, comic, and wrestling guests, who spend most of their time (when they’re not doing panels and photo ops) signing autographs at these booths. There’s also one photo op booth, with different stars doing photo ops at different times, and, outside the main hall, several smaller rooms where the biggest stars (in this case, William Shatner, John Barrowman, etc…) held hour-long panels (for these you have to line up way ahead of time and let me tell you, that is stressful). There’s also a handful of other attractions in this big hall, including costume displays, replicas (such as R2D2), cars (the Ghostbusters car, for example), and a number of organizations such as the 501st Legion who have tables/displays/demonstrations. It’s like a big huge geek museum with lots of stuff for sale and lots of celebrities.

Star Wars display in the con's huge hall

As cool as this is, though, what it means is that this isn’t a convention focused on a particular franchise. There are stars from everything, from television to film, and writers and artists. Are you a fan of Wonder Woman and the Swamp Thing? There’ll be something for you there. Star Wars? Check. Any TV show from soap operas to Star Trek? Check. As someone who’s previously mostly attended conventions dedicated to a specific franchise – conventions where everyone there was united by their love for one specific thing – I found this plethora of different stars and interests incredibly disorienting. We were all here because we’re all geeks who lead a certain lifestyle, collect autographs, want to meet the people behind our favorite franchises, and make room in our life for our geekiness – but every single person there wasn’t connected by their huge and immense love for just one thing. There was no wave of love washing over the entire hall for just one thing. There was definitely something for everyone, but you had to dig through a little for it: going through many of the vendors, you had to search for the posters and figurines you wanted. When I was standing in line, interacting with, and talking to people, there was always that initial period of trying to figure out what they were fans of, looking for that connection. I usually found it – after all, if you’re in the same photo op line, chances are you have something in common, some fandom, some place to start talking and connecting. But there was no automatic connection or point of reference to the things you loved the most. Going from star to star to get autographs and photo ops, you constantly had to switch from franchise to franchise – one minute you’re flirting with John Barrowman and having Torchwood feelings, and the next you’re telling William Shatner how damn much you love Captain Kirk. The second you work up enthusiasm for one particular actor or character, you’re already getting ready to stand in line for something else, for a completely different franchise, which evokes in you a completely different set of feelings. Perhaps that’s a personal quirk of mine, but I found it utterly strange to switch from passion to passion like this.

And then, of course, the question remains: how do you connect? Conventions are, after all, a form of interaction, a way to meet fellow geeks, a way to be at home with people who understand you, but when it’s a hall crowded with thousands of people who might all love different things, how do you make connections? What’s the appeal of a convention like this when everybody’s so different, sometimes united by nothing more than their identity of being a geek? And certainly “geek” is an identity in itself – one I proudly wear, despite whatever the Big Bang Theory has to say; certainly the people at this convention were “my people,” the ones who got what it’s like to be obsessed with something, but it’s not quite the same as being at a Stargate convention.

One of the answers to that question, I suppose, is cosplay. I never really got cosplay before.  I knew what it was, of course, and I’d half-heartedly donned a uniform of some sort in the past, but most of the Stargate and Star Trek conventions I’d gone to didn’t have too many cosplayers, and it’s not too hard to cosplay Supernatural unless you don’t own any plaid. But here, there were incredibly elaborate (and I mean really elaborate), detailed, and sometimes very huge and heavy costumes. I saw dozens of stormtroopers and Jedi, a Darth Vader, several incarnations of the Doctor, a handful of Daenerys Targaryens, a few Castiels (Supernatural), a handful of Starfleet officers, and dozens of other superheroes, robots, and steampunk costumes that I did not recognize. These people wander around, crowding the hall, checking out the vendors, getting autographs and photo ops, and it’s pretty amazing to be crowded by fictional characters like that.

But most amazing is the way that cosplay serves as a form of connection. My first day, I donned a Starfleet uniform (a science officer from the original series, carrying the rank of commander, which I suppose would make me a first officer as well). I had the costume made on Etsy, and invested a good portion of money in it. Coupled with some knee-high boots, if I do say so myself, I looked pretty believable – and I had several people come up to me and request to take photos with me, and a handful more compliment me on my outfit (including William Shatner!) My second day, I threw on some denim and plaid to cosplay Dean Winchester, and ran into a Gabriel and a few Castiels from Supernatural, whom I took photos with as well. This all seems unremarkable except when you realize that in a hall crowded with thousands of people obsessed with hundreds of different fictional worlds, cosplay becomes that sort of connection. It becomes a way of proclaiming “this is what I’m a fan of!” and finding like-minded people in a huge hall. Most of all, however, cosplay becomes a sort of identity, that lets you identify people who have similar identities and connect through that.

My cosplay and photo op with William Shatner

Speaking of identity – there’s a lot of academic though about how identity is all just performance (Goffman and Judith Butler both write about this quite a bit), and a number of academics in the field of fandom studies have started applying this kind of theorizing about identity to cosplay as well. It seems to make sense: after all, when you don a costume, you, to some extent, don a personality; you make some sort of claim about who you are and what character means enough to you to dress up as them. You express your identity through fiction by making that fiction into reality. Whether you want to call it mimesis or performance, you take a piece of something that’s inspired your imagination and you create a physical product that allows others to see who you are and to relate to that identity. And again, in a hall crowded with thousands of people, this ability to wear your identity on your sleeve – and to use that identity to connect with others by using a common, fictional reference point, is pretty handy and pretty fascinating.

Plus, have I mentioned how cool it is to wander a convention hall and run into fictional characters? A number of the costumes were so elaborate that it felt like Darth Vader was actually strolling through the hall or that a Stormtrooper was following you. Especially if their faces were hidden, it really felt like fiction came to life, in, say, the form of a group of Jedi on secret Jedi business. It was like a number of fictional worlds had all come to life at the same time, and all the fictional characters were dumped into one place to walk around. I can’t explain just how amazing and breathtaking it is to see all these fictional characters become real and just sort of…wander around, just like you do, buying stuff and talking to people. Part of the charm, I think, is not just cosplaying yourself, but in creating that atmosphere where the fictional worlds come to life for the people around you, who feel like the things they’re invested in exist, that they’re somehow real because look, there’s Jedi and stormtroopers walking around, so it clearly must be Tatooine.

Which leads me to my next point about what brings people to conventions. Why do people come if they don’t come for that kind of uniting love of one franchise? Of course, they come to take photos with stars and get autographs and buy stuff and ask questions. But I think all of this – as well as all the cosplay and all the fictional worlds coming to life – all hint at a deeper need. One that I think William Shatner hit upon pretty brilliantly in his panel: it’s a sort of ritual.

Shatner spoke of science fiction in itself as a sort of mythology. Normally, mythology attempts to explain how the world works – which is why there were gods of the sea and weather and fire and rain and whatnot, and Prometheus myths, and giants. Nowadays, we’ve explained the sun and the moon, but there are still mysteries in the universe – so much we don’t know. What’s out there? How much don’t we know about what we don’t know? Science fiction, to some extent, fulfills that mythological need – it attempts to explain what might be out there, gives us ideas and possibilities, and makes us think about them. It doesn’t always provide answers, but it does provide perspectives. Star Trek was particularly great at this, taking us to other planets and other cultures and helping us to understand what might be out there and how the universe might work. And conventions are – well, responses to that sort of mythology. They’re a way for us to find answers and enchantment in a more modern world, where science and reason play a role in that mythmaking but where there’s still wonder.

And indeed, there seems to be a form of ritual about these conventions, where people are brought together by this sort of modern mythology in ways that are, in some ways, ritualized.

In a book on audiences and performance, two authors (Abercrombie and Longhurst) point out the ritual, almost sacred nature that is involved in being a “simple” audience – that is, in attending the theatre, or a concert, where there are certain unspoken rules of etiquette, certain actions that are always followed, certain scripts according to which the audience behaves, which gives the entire endeavor a sort of ritualized, and therefore sacred, experience. They also point out the way that theatre was often tied to the sacred in the past – from the theatre of ancient Greece to the medieval church plays – and indeed, I agree with them that there is something ritualized and sacred about going to the theatre, about going to see a performance – or about going to see a panel and interacting with an actor or artist as one would in a theatre.

I think this form of the sacred, and of ritual, extends much further, though. Without going too academic on all of this, I think there’s an element of seeking out the sacred in collecting autographs or comics our figurines (artifacts, really), a certain element of ritual in the way that encounters with stars happen (photo op and autograph etiquette is usually the same at every convention, and there are certain very strict rules in how you can approach and interact with someone, who’s placed on a pedestal by virtue of being a celebrity). These celebrities, rather than being representatives of a religion, are to some extent representatives of a mythology – the mythology of science fiction, of comics, of geekdom, that William Shatner talked about – and our interactions with these people are highly controlled, highly ritualized because of it (you can do this, you can’t do that), which gives it all a character of the almost sacred (“William Shatner signed my Enterprise! John Barrowman touched my butt!” kind of sounds like “this saint laid his hands on me!”)

My sacred relic/autographed Enterprise

So I think, inadvertently, Mr. William Shatner hit upon something that it might behoove academics of fandom and of popular culture to study – the way that science fiction, popular culture, and geekdom, are a form of mythology and a form of the sacred in our modern day culture, and the way that conventions are not only a manifestation of “worship” (in a loose sense of the word) of the sacred, but also the way that people connect through their investment in this mythology (for, like it or not, religion has to a certain extent often been a way for people to connect, even as it’s been the source of religious wars and sects).

And that finishes up my post as an aca-fan, as a geek who’s also an academic, who enjoys reveling in the wonder of meeting Captain Kirk but who also likes to think about the processes involved in this interaction.

Defamiliarization and Science fiction, or, It All Makes Sense Now

Anyone who’s known me over the past few years can testify to my growing love of science fiction. Though I’d dabbled in the genre previously, it’s only over the last few years that I truly began to realize its potential – and this interest, I think, came to a culmination with my love of Star Trek. It’s what truly revealed to me that science fiction was the literature of ideas, more so, I think, than any other genre.

But, for the longest time, I struggled to understand why this was; to come up with a general, unifying principle for what quality of science fiction gave it the depth and perspicacity to explore ideas and possibilities so well. I began to get a small inkling with Star Trek: The Original Series, and the way it constantly used myth, metaphor, and allegory, such that the story transcended the events of the narrative to reach a greater height of symbolism and allegory that made it meaningful on several levels at once. That’s particularly evident in episodes such as “The Enemy Within,” where a transporter accident divides Kirk into two halves, good and evil. In a Jekyll and Hyde sort of story, the plot itself centers around putting Kirk back together, because he needs both his good and evil sides in order to function; but on another level, it serves as a sort of metaphorical examination of the good and evil in every human being, as a product of our human complexity.

But this, too, I didn’t feel truly capture the possibilities of science fiction, or what made it so good at probing the depths of really complex ideas. Seeing plot as metaphor and allegory is all very well, but it didn’t feel like the full extent of what I was looking for.

Yesterday, I had a bit of a eureka moment. I figured out how science fiction works.

I’m aware that what I’m doing here is reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There’s been a lot of theorizing done on science fiction already, and some preliminary research has led me to find the words – and the theoretical framework – for what I came up with myself. So, this post is not in any way a claim to innovation; it is rather my own attempt to work through these ideas for myself. I’m aware that I have a lot of reading ahead of me on these topics, and I would hazard a guess that much of what I’ll say here will coincide with that reading. Still, I’d like to offer these thoughts for what they are – a simplified version, perhaps, of an already existing theoretical framework. I’d also like to, in keeping with the theme of this blog, apply that theoretical framework to a few of the shows I’m devoting this blog to, as a way to comment on certain episodes as well as to illustrate what I mean.

So…drumroll….the way I conceive of science fiction as working, the fundamental, driving force behind it, is, in my view, the concept of defamiliarization. It likely applies equally well to fantasy, which, along with science fiction, forms a genre I like to call speculative fiction; in fact, I see much of fantasy doing with magic what science fiction does with science and technology, but this is both a point of contention for some people and a bit peripheral to my argument.

Defamiliarization – or, in the original Russian, ostranenie – was a concept first theorized about by a Russian formalist critic named Shklotsky. It is exactly what it sounds like – the process of making the familiar unfamiliar in order to reveal something about it. Of course, Shlotsky himself wasn’t talking about science fiction, and he limited his theory to things like poetry and drama. He was interested in the political possibilities for social critique that this offered, and he focused mostly on things like language and style as ways to make something unfamiliar. But, despite the limited application he seemed to see for these ideas, I think it’s one of the most brilliant concepts in literary theory. Only by taking something that we’re intimately familiar with – so familiar that we can’t really see it and comprehend it for what it is – and making it strange and unfamiliar, portraying it from a different perspective, can we really learn something new. An incredibly simplistic analogy would be the idea that one must step back from a work of art to really see it; however, here it’s not really a process of stepping back so much as fundamentally re-orienting the direction from which one sees the work of art in order to see it in a new way.

Science fiction, I think, expands this possibility of making the familiar unfamiliar so much further than Shklotsky originally envisioned, precisely because the possibilities and tools offered by science fiction to make something unfamiliar range so far beyond things like style and language. Science fiction opens up, literally, a universe (or more) of possibilities. Anything can be made unfamiliar not simply from being described in a different way, but from being portrayed in a completely different setting. Things we’re familiar with on earth can be displaced onto other planets, human characteristics can be projected onto alien races, things like gender, sexuality, and race can become aspects of alien civilizations in order to appear strange or alien, anachronism can about as the civilizations of other planets develop different from ours, and the scope of possibilities – all of time and space – is simply astounding.

That is not to say that “literary fiction” doesn’t have its values (I guess literary fiction is the term for things that aren’t genre fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, but don’t even get me started on categorizing fiction). There’s certainly validity in realistically, believably describing characters, events, and historical (or contemporary settings). An intimate psychological portrait of a character or an incredibly perceptive description of a historical or physical setting can be incredibly revealing, and certainly science fiction, too, strives to be psychologically believable and realistic in its worldbuilding. But, no matter how detailed, and perceptive, and accurate and well-written the stories of literary fiction are, we are going to inevitably be insiders to them. We’re going to come with pre-conceived notions about a historical setting or figure, a culture or nationality, class or race, gender or sexuality or profession, or any number of things. They’re going to come to us attached to current political debates or ideological and political histories that we simply cannot escape.

Science fiction gets rid of that. It offers us a completely new perspective, removing many of our political, social, and cultural preconceptions, because while we can project those prejudices and preconceptions onto the familiar, it’s a lot harder to project them onto the unfamiliar.

For example, a novel such as War and Peace is historically detailed and psychologically intense, and in so doing, reveals things like the nature of war and the structure of society and social relationships. It’s revealing because it’s intensely descriptive and psychologically perceptive, but any reader reading it will still come to the novel with preconceptions – about the Napoleonic Wars (which we’ve all studied in history class), about nineteenth century social institutions, about Russian culture (if one is an American reader), about realism in the Russian novel. We’ll have a certain familiarity with the content and certain categories to think through it – we’ll understand it through the lens of the European history we’ve learned, through our understanding of social institutions, through our conception of how gender was understood in the nineteenth century.

But what science fiction does is remove a lot of those categories and that framework, so that we can think about some of the same issues (for example, the nature of war, or social institutions, or psychology and gender) without the cultural and historical and political baggage that is inevitably going to be attached from setting something in a “real,” familiar world.

The most poignant example I can think of this is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “First Contact” – the episode from which this blog derives both its name and its theme. The episode shows the Enterprise trying to do exactly what the name implies – make first contact with an alien civilization, the Malcorians. They monitor the Malcorians’ media, go undercover to try to understand their culture, and finally, they make contact. The Malcorians are just on the verge of discovering warp travel (which seems to be Star Trek’s criterion for making first contact), and while some parts of their society are excited by the possibility of going out into space and meeting new cultures, there are other factions that are frightened and confused, both by the technology involved and by venturing out into space. We learn that Malcorian culture is founded on the belief that they are superior beings in the galaxy, and naturally there are factions who believe in a better use of resources than venturing into space. Some characters are portrayed fairly steadfastly anti-technology in the first place.

Of course, from the viewer’s perspective, it’s incredibly easy to judge the Malcorians. After all, we’re invested in watching a show that’s about “going where no one has gone before.” We’re emotionally attached to the concept of exploration and the wonder of discovery and of other civilizations, which Star Trek is based around. Of course we’re going to sympathize with the Enterprise crew rather than the more judgmental opinions of the Malcorians.

But that’s precisely what makes this episode so brilliant – because the Malcorians are a reflection of us. The point takes a while to hit home, but eventually it becomes evident. After all, humanity itself is a pretty self-centered species. It took us until the Renaissance to figure out that the Earth went around the sun – and, consequently, that our little planet was not the center of the universe. It caused a lot of controversy at the time. Even today (and, presumably more so in Roddenberry’s day), there are still people (even in countries with access to very good education) that insist that the Earth does not go around the sun. In my experience living in the United States, that’s more true, perhaps, than in other countries; despite out much-lauded first amendment, our culture is still pervaded with religion and anti-scientific rhetoric. We’re constantly arguing about how much money we should give to NASA. There’s a very American belief that we’re the best country in the world (despite statistics to the contrary), and if we did go to space we’d presumably carry that belief with us. The first thing we did when landing on the moon, after all, is stick an American flag there. We’re used to conceiving of ourselves as the only beings in the galaxy, of our planet as the be-all and end-all. Which really kind of makes me shudder about what would happen if we ever did meet an alien civilization – humanity doesn’t exactly have a good track record with meeting the new cultures they discover.

 

Which is precisely what makes this episode so effective – this process of defamiliarization. Malcorian culture is fundamentally similar to ours – from the fear and unwillingness to venture out into a universe of which we might not be the center, in some factions, to a love of discovery in other groups of people. And yet, at the same time, the Malcorians are just different enough, just unfamiliar enough, that we feel, to a certain extent, removed. We’ve never heard of the Malcorians. Their appearance is different from ours. Their physiology is different, a point brought home in the beginning, when Malcorian doctors attempt to treat Riker and find his heart “in his digestive tract.” Their technology is different  – they’re on the verge of warp capability, which alienates them from us humans in the real world (presumably NASA hasn’t built that warp drive yet) as well as from the humans we’ve come to love in Starfleet. They live on a planet we’ve never seen. In essence, the Malcorians are fundamentally different – and yet not. And that’s what causes this defamiliarization, this double-take when the viewer realizes they’re at the same time familiar and unfamiliar, like us and yet not us.

And, given this unfamiliarity, we can take these issues for what they are, removed from our preconceptions. We can see the issues that plague our humanity while removing all the cultural, religious, and political baggage that such an issue would inevitably raise in our society. The issue of our place in the universe, of humanity venturing out into space, of how we would view alien civilizations – is removed from the problems of how big a budget we can afford to give NASA, or the limitations of Earth’s resources and economy, or the religious rhetoric that’s inevitably going to trickle in when we discuss the nature of the universe. The whole issue that is so important to humanity is addressed, and yet taken completely out of its context, made unfamiliar, so that we can reconceive of the way we see ourselves and address these problems. As a viewer, we’re set up to judge the Malcorians, to some extent, to disagree with the anti-scientific rhetoric of some members of its society and feel pride at their discovery of the warp drive – and then, upon seeing ourselves in the Malcorians, reflect upon ourselves. The episode sets us up to almost judge ourselves, us humans, in the same way we’ve judged this alien civilization, to see our own pride, egotism, fear, and hesitation, and reconceive these flaws and our priorities as a race of beings.

And, hopefully, we become inspired to do better, to venture out into the stars after getting rid of the conception that we’re better than everyone else that might exist in the galaxy. The episode ends with the Malcorians deciding to put off going out into space, to dedicate more money to education, to make the youth of their civilization understand the marvels of science and technology and the possibilities in the universe that lies beyond. And perhaps that’s what this episode is telling the viewer, too, in a more subtle way – that perhaps we should embrace science and technology more, become more open minded, learn about the universe out there from down here on the planet – before we dare venture out. We need to grow up as human beings before we can explore what’s out there, and the episode tells us that precisely by taking everything out of context.

Many of Star Trek’s episodes use precisely this process of defamiliarization to address a variety of issues; this approach pervades the series. This episode is only one of hundreds of examples, perhaps one of the best ones because it’s so relevant to the core themes of Star Trek and how the show affects us as humans. But this approach is evident everywhere – not just in the plots, but also in the characters. For example, each Star Trek series has a non-human character as part of the main cast, a character who reflects our humanity to us precisely by not being human (Spock on TOS, Data on TNG, Seven of Nine on Voyager…). In these characters, our humanity is so often defamiliarized by being projected onto another. Spock, though a logical Vulcan, is constantly attempting to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides, reflecting back to us our own conflicts between reason and emotions. Data, though not human and incapable of feeling, constantly seeks to be human and do what humans do – he dates, creates a child, forms friendships, has sex, and tries to make jokes, all in the name of understanding these aspects of being human. But he comes to them from an outsider’s perspective – in dating, he has to write protocols for his conduct within the relationship; he’s not capable of feeling amusement, and so tries to make jokes though he cannot actually experience the concept of humor; he creates a child by making a copy of his positronic brain because he cannot truly reproduce, but seeks to recreate himself. These things lead us to question why we value all these activities, why they make us human, what it is that we value about them. And, taken out of their context, approached in different ways (such as reproducing through, quite literally, copying one’s brain), it asks us, for example, why we want to reproduce. What is it about our humanity that we want to perpetuate every time we have a child? Why do we laugh? Why do we need humor?

These questions are endless – as endless as the universe itself (which, according to Bill Nye, “fucktuples in size” every second or so), and so is science fiction’s ability to address them.

And now that I’ve briefed you all, do excuse me. I have a distant planet to visit.