Tag Archives: Star Trek

Dark Mirror’s USS Callister: A Star Trek Story

Jesse Plemons, right, in the “USS Callister” episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ Netflix

Having grown up on Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, I really enjoyed Black Mirror episode ‘USS Callister.’ Being a philosopher, I rather enjoyed reading various thought pieces on the work and decided to add my own tribble to the heap. If you have not seen the episode, there are obviously spoilers ahead.

Much like the brilliant Star Trek lampoon Galaxy Quest, ‘USS Callister’ begins with what appears to be a Trek clone overstuffed with overacting and delightful cheese. Captain Daly, a Kirk-like figure, leads his diverse and adoring crew in a battle against a Khan like villain (complete with a recreation of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Under the slice of cheese is a true horror: The USS Callister is within a virtual reality game controlled by Robert Daly and the other “players” are self-aware digital clones of his co-workers.

Daly has powers in the game comparable to Charlie X of Star Trek (including the ability to transform a victim’s face into a mask of unbroken flesh) and uses them to control the controls, forcing them to play the game with him. Since Daly’s coworkers treat him rather badly, it is initially tempting to feel some sympathy for him, but it is revealed that Daly cloned and spaced (putting out an airlock without a suit) the son of his boss. Daly also transforms cloned female co-workers into large alien bugs which horrifically retain their intelligence.

Daly seals his own fate when he digitally clones his newest co-worker, Nanette, and forces her to play the game. To make an excellent story short, digital Nanette leads the crew in a successful rebellion against Daly aided, unwittingly, by the original Nanette.

Jenna Scherer, of Rolling Stone, makes an excellent case that the episode is a criticism of the sort of toxic fandom that has spewed its hate at the fact that the captain’s chair has been increasingly available to people who are not straight, white males. I certainly agree that the episode does just that. However, I also contend that it is a Star Trek story, albeit crafted to avoid lawsuits from the corporate masters of Star Trek. I think this might be a point worth making since I see it as important to distinguish the episode’s criticism of toxic fandom from what seems to be a sincere commitment to the values of classic Star Trek. Making this case requires considering what it is to be a Star Trek story.

The easy and obvious (and legalistic) answer is that a Star Trek story is one that occurs within the Star Trek universe as defined by the corporation that owns the property. While legally sound, this is not satisfying from a philosophical standpoint. Setting aside the legal concerns, another easy way to define such a story is in terms of the setting—that is, a story in the Star Trek universe is thus a Star Trek story. That is also unsatisfying—merely having the Federation, Klingons and such does not seem to suffice—for there is more to a true Star Trek story than just the setting, props and inhabitants. There is the intangible “feel” of a Star Trek story as well as the values inherent to such a story. Since an entire book could be written about this, I am forced to stick with a few quick points that are especially relevant to ‘USS Callister.’

One underlying theme of Star Trek is the dual nature of humanity’s relation to technology. On the one hand, Star Trek is fundamentally optimistic about technology—warp technology allows starships to explore the galaxy and advances in technology have freed the Federation from economic oppression. On the other hand, Star Trek also explores the threat technology presents in terms of its potential for abuse. The Borg are, of course, the paradigm example of the dangerous side to technology. While ‘USS Callister’ might seem to be entirely on the dark side of technology, the ending is optimistic—the digital clones are fully people and, at the end, set out to have their own life in the vast universe of the game.

Star Trek, especially the original series, also placed an emphasis on rational problem solving and teamwork. The model was, of course, a strong captain leading a competent crew of decent people. While this is not unique to Star Trek, this model was carefully followed by the episode: as in many classic Star Trek episodes, crew members made essential contributions to the success of the plan—and, of course, the diversity of the crew is a key part of their strength.

Most importantly, Star Trek also advanced a set of moral principles, as exemplified by the rules and laws of the Federation and Star Fleet. In the episode “Captain Daly” speaks of the values of Space Fleet, but often uses them to justify inflicting worse horrors. For example, after defeating a co-worker he has cast as a villain, the “villain” begs Daly to kill him and thus free him. Daly cites the Space Fleet rules about not killing and instead has the “villain” locked in the brig—thus extending his torture. While it is tempting to see the episode as mocking the values of Star Trek by having a Kirk-like figure mouthing them while grotesquely violating their spirit, this is what contributes the most to making it a Star Trek story. Daly is not Kirk exposed. Daly is, rather, another example of a classic Star Trek villain type: a Star Fleet captain gone bad. In ‘The Omega Glory’ Captain Tracey, commander of the Exeter, violates the Federation’s Prime Directive and ends up committing mass murder and fighting Kirk in order to secure what he hopes is the secret to immortality. While Daly is obviously modeled on Kirk, he is most like Captain Tracey: someone who has professed his love for his ideals, but who abandons them for his own selfish desires when pushed into a crisis. Daly thus shows the irony of the toxic fan—they are acting in violation of the very principles they profess to embrace.

Digital Nanette and her fellows, in contrast, act in accord with the classic values of Star Trek—they act with courage and are willing to make great sacrifices for each other. Appropriately enough, at the end of the episode Nanette is the captain of the USS Callister—a position she has earned. While Daly and the toxic fans might fancy themselves captains, they are the villains. Which is, of course, also a feature of classic Trek: the moral lesson.

Upon their escape from Daly’s private game, the crew’s uniforms and the ship are upgraded to a modern style (like that of the new Star Trek movies). While it might be tempting to see this as a condemnation of classic Star Trek, it can be a metaphor of how the moral goodness of classic Trek is still relevant today, though it was clearly best to leave behind the miniskirts. So, it is reasonable to see ‘USS Callister’ as praising the good of Star Trek while, at the same time, criticizing toxic fandom.

 

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Playing with Solipsism

Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.

 

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Peanuts & Aesthetic Identity

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanut...

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanuts television special. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent essay cartoonist Scott R. Kurtz objected to the creation of new Peanuts content. This essay led me to consider the matter of aesthetic identity and the creation of this essay.

In the specific case of Peanuts, Charles Schulz was rather clear that he was the only one who could draw Peanuts. While there has been, as of this writing, no attempt to create new Peanuts strips, Boom Studios released a Peanuts comic book with new content that was not created by Schulz. There is also a rumor that the folks behind the movie Ice Age will be making a Peanuts movie written by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson.

Obviously, the continuation of characters and settings beyond the death of the original creator is nothing new.  Nor is the transfer of creative control of characters and settings anything new. Characters such as Superman and Batman live on after their creators have died. Star Trek continued after the death of Gene Rodenberry with the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and a new Star Trek movie. Frank Herbert’s Dune universe has spawned numerous books written after his death, including prequels. The same is true of Asimov’s Foundation series.

In general, the legal matters regarding the continuation of characters and settings when they are no longer in control of the original creator can be easily settled. After all, it seems rather well established that such intellectual properties are just that, properties. As such they can be inherited, bought and sold like any other property. So, if a company owns the legal rights to Peanuts, then they can do with Peanuts as they wish within the specifics of their rights. Naturally, there can be nasty legal battles and disputes when it comes to specific properties, but this is not anything special to such intellectual properties.

Since I am not a lawyer but a philosopher, I will not focus on the legal questions. I will, instead, focus on the philosophical matters.

One point of concern is the matter of ethics. To be specific, there is the moral question of whether or not the creations should be continued after the death of the creator. This can, of course, be tied to the legal concerns in many ways. If, for example, the creator agreed to this continuation in a contract or other agreement, then it would seem that the continuation would be morally acceptable. If the creator made it clear that s/he did not want the work continued, then even if someone (say a relative who inherited the property) had the legal right to continue the work, then doing so would seem morally dubious. This would also apply to cases in which characters and settings had entered the public domain. While people would have the legal right to use the characters and settings, there is still the moral question of whether or not they should do so—especially when their efforts degrade the characters and settings. For example, the John Carter movie is based on Burroughs’ works which are now public domain. However, the treatment of these excellent works was so awful that it seems that Disney acted in an immoral way by degrading the characters and settings with an inferior work. While the moral concerns are both interesting and important, I am also concerned with the matter of aesthetic identity.

Philosophers have disputed the matter of identity for quite some time and have focused on specific types of identity, such as personal identity. Fortunately, aesthetic identity can bypass many of the usual metaphysical problems regarding identity since the fictional characters and settings do not have the ontological status of actual people and settings (unless, of course, one believes that fictional worlds are also actual worlds). However, there are still concerns about identity in the context of aesthetics.

In the case of characters, the concern is similar to that of personal identity: when a character is continued by someone other than the original creator, is the character still the same character? To use a specific example, if someone else draws and writes Charlie Brown, is that character still Charlie Brown in terms of his aesthetic identity? Or is it just a character that looks similar and says similar things—a mere imitator? In some cases, it would seem that the continuity of aesthetic identity is possible. After all, it seems reasonable to claim that many comic book characters retain sufficient identity to still be the same characters even though they are drawn and scripted by different people (and played by different actors in movies).  Interestingly, it can be argued that in some cases even the creator of a character fails to preserve the aesthetic identity of a character. What is needed, of course, is a full account of aesthetic identity of characters—a project that goes beyond this short essay.

In the case of settings, the aesthetic identity would also be a matter of concern. For example there is the question of whether or not the Dune universe in the newer prequels is similar enough to Herbert’s Dune universe in terms of its aesthetic qualities. While the identity of a setting would include the obvious factors such as getting the locations, inhabitants, history and such right, there is also the matter of capturing the “look and feel” of the setting. So, while a book might get all the facts about the Foundation universe right, it might fail to capture the aesthetic qualities that make the Foundation universe the Foundation universe. As with the aesthetic identity of characters, the specific conditions of the aesthetic identity of settings would also need to be developed.

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