My Ghostbusters Birthday Party

On a recent visit I took it upon myself to digitize some of my family’s home movies. In doing so I uncovered this gem: my 5th birthday party, lovingly arranged and recorded by my parents, with enough ghostbusting action to wave an unlicensed positron collider at. My favorite part is when “Egon” checks his watch at the end. Wherever he is, I would absolutely love to find this guy and show him this.

Happy birthday, past-Josh.

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On Trump, Godwin’s Law, and Babylon 5.

It will surprise exactly no one to learn that one of my formative influences was J. Michael Straczynski’s science fiction novel for television, BABYLON 5. In retrospect, it’s a big part of what made me want to be a writer, and specifically a screenwriter. It also shaped many of my views on morality, ethics, and, yes, politics.

One of the storylines that played out over the first four seasons was how a duly-elected president of the Earth Alliance slowly turned into a democracy into a totalitarian dictatorship, and how its citizens cheered him on with each new measure that slowly eroded their rights. Some of his tactics:

  • Campaigning on a platform to put “Earth first.”
  • Declaring that he would return to the principles that made Earth great.
  • Stirring up anti-alien sentiment.
  • Stoking fear about an enemy who was out to destroy their way of life.
  • Ousted government officials and replaced them with people loyal only to him.
  • Encouraging the electorate to turn on each other.
  • Threatening journalists who challenged him with jail.
  • Questioning the sanity of dissenters.
  • Questioning the patriotism of those who disagreed with his extreme measures.
The election of 2258. I'm with her.

The election of 2258. I’m with her.

Even as a 13 year old watching in 1997, this stuff didn’t go over my head. The parallels to history were clear, even to me, and none more so than the allusions to Hitler’s rise to power. At the time I actually recall thinking the show would sometimes veer into the heavy-handed with that story. I mean, we all learned about this in school. We’re not idiots, we’ve learned from history. Did we really need such an obvious parable?

A few years later, 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden I was seeing and hearing talk everywhere that reverberated in my mind. Where had I heard this kind rhetoric before? Oh, right. Babylon 5.

So it turns out that yes, yes we absolutely do need parables like Babylon 5. We need to be reminded over and over of lessons from history because otherwise we get complacent, and we forget, and we let it all happen again. And again. And again.

Which brings me to Donald Trump.

Actually, hang on. Let me take it back a step.

In internet parlance there’s something called “Godwin’s law.” Wikipedia defines it thusly:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1.

To invoke it is to make the point that you’ve run out of anything substantive to talk about. Usually it’s a justifiable way to shut down an argument.

But with that said, here’s my question: at what point is it okay to call a spade a spade?

There’s a TED Ed video titled “How did Hitler rise to power?”

Here are some excerpts:

  • The Germans felt they had been betrayed in World War I by politicians and protesters. Hitler’s bigotry and paranoid delusions led him to pin the blame on Jews. His words found resonance among many anti-semitic people.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Jews had integrated into German society, but many Germans continued to perceive them as outsiders. After WWI, Jewish success led to ungrounded accusations of subversion and war profiteering. It can not be stressed enough that these conspiracy theories were born out of fear, anger, and bigotry. Not fact.
  • Combining anti-semitism with populist resentment, [Hitler’s] manipulative public speaking drew increasingly larger crowds.
  • After the German economy collapsed in 1929, Hitler took advantage of the people’s anger, offering them convenient scapegoats and promising to restore Germany’s former greatness.
  • Left-wing opposition was too fragmented by internal squabbles to handle the crisis, and so the frustrated public fled to the Nazis.
  • In 1932, Hitler ran for president, losing the election to decorated war hero General Von Hindenburg. But with 36% of the vote, Hitler had demonstrated the extent of his support.
  • Advisors and business leaders convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, hoping to channel his popularity for their own goals.
  • Hitler steadily expanded the power of his position while his supporters formed paramilitary groups and fought protesters in the streets.
  • Hitler raised fears of a communist uprising, and argued that only he could restore law and order.
  • In 1933 a young worker was convicted of setting fire to the parliament building. Hitler used the event to convince the government to grant him emergency powers.
  • Within a matter of months, freedom of the press was abolished, other parties were disbanded. and anti-Jewish laws were passed.
  • Disturbingly, many of Hitler’s early measures didn’t require mass repression. His speeches exploited people’s fear and ire to drive their support behind him and the Nazi party.
  • Meanwhile, businessmen and intellectuals, wanting to be on the right side of public opinion, endorsed Hitler. They assured themselves, and each other, that his more extreme rhetoric was only for show.
  • Decades later, Hitler’s rise remains a warning about how fragile democratic institutions can be in the face of angry crowds and a leader willing to feed their anger and exploit their fears.

Sounds a lot like President Clarke.

Oh. And Donald fucking Trump.

Donald Trump has called for creating a database to register Muslims. He wants to throw his political opponent in jail. He wants to “open up libel laws” to threaten journalists who say things he doesn’t like. He’s encouraged violence against protesters. His first move as president will be to replace civil service members will people loyal to him.

Look. I don’t believe that Donald Trump plans to systematically exterminate Muslims. Though, to be fair, I’m sure most Germans in 1932 didn’t believe he was planning to exterminate the Jews either.

But the question lingers: how could the German people have known what was about to happen? How can we know?

History. History is how we can know. If Babylon 5 can make it obvious to a 13-year old, it shouldn’t be much a challenge for an adult of voting age who’s ever read a fucking book.

So a hypothetical Trump supporter is either unaware of these parallels or they see them and they’re simply not bothered. It’s one or the other. And while there are genuine neo-Nazis and white supremacists living among us (the sometimes painful price of pluralism, folks–but still worth it), I have a question for the Trump supporter who falls into the latter category. A genuine, honest-to-God question: is there anything Donald Trump could say or do that would concern you? I’m not trying to troll or antagonize. I’m trying to understand.

I think these are things fundamentally absent in the American character. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are above falling prey to those same tactics. That doesn’t mean we can’t falter. That doesn’t meant that people aren’t scared and ready to run into the arms of a strongman authoritarian ruler.

Do I think Donald Trump is evil? No. But I think he’ll do anything to win, anything to be loved, anything to get the biggest numbers. And he’s found success with this particular rhetoric and this particular group of embittered people.

But if they turn out enough support, I’m sure he’ll have no compunction about doing whatever will make them love him more.

In times like these I find myself asking: What Would John Sheridan Do?

Addendum: I also wanted to note the passing of Jerry Doyle last week at 60, the actor who played Security Chief Michael Garibaldi on B5. He’s the latest in a long line of B5 regulars who died much, much too soon: Andreas Katsulas, Richard Biggs, Jeff Conaway, and Michael O’Hare. jms wrote an honest and heartfelt tribute to Jerry Doyle that deserves a read. All I can add is that Garibaldi, as created both by jms and Mr. Doyle, was a character who taught me that it was possible to fight your demons and win. But also that the fight is never truly over.

Rest in peace.

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It Can Happen Here.

 

In before comments: I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind and I’m not trying to break any new ground in terms of sci-fi tropes. I’ll get around to those things some other time 😉

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Beyond STAR TREK

First, some mood music.


STAR TREK is my oldest fandom. It was my gateway drug to science fiction. And for that, it will always hold a special place in my heart, warts and all.

So here’s a review of Star Trek Beyond from an unreconstructed Trekkie: I thought it was great.

Even the title, especially if we’re gonna continue to do the colon-less thing started by Star Trek Into Darkness, lays the difference between the two movies bare.

My thoughts below in no particular order. Spoilers off the port bow, Captain!

Comrades in arms...and awesome jackets.

Comrades in arms…and awesome jackets.

I appreciated the character moments and the camaraderie on display among the crew, something I felt was sorely lacking in the first two “Kelvin verse” flicks. I really, for the first time, felt like these actors really were the characters I loved. In particular Pegg, Pine, and yes, Quinto as Spock. I loved Karl Urban as Bones in the other flicks but I now kind of see his portrayal is the closest to caricature and was surpassed by the rest of the cast. Loved Anton Yelchin (RIP) and Cho (“Are you kidding me sir?”) for the first time. Really the most underserved was Zoe Saldana as Uhura…but Uhura being underserved in nothing new, unfortunately. She had some good moments but I thought she wasn’t really given much to work with. (Which, I mean, fine, it’s a big cast, but it always seems like the black woman is the one who falls by the wayside, doesn’t it? Unless of course she’s being defined by her relationship to Spock.)

Of all the pairings–Kirk/Chekov, Scotty/Jaylah, Spock/Bones (obvi)–I thought Uhura/Sulu was the weakest. I think the Krall reveal should have happened during this mid-point when they discovered that Krall had been watching Yorktown all along…that would have given time to explore and develop the idea more and helped a bit of a saggy middle.

Idris? Is that you?

Idris? Is that you?

Krall. There’s a kernel of an interesting idea there, but, as with most villains in Trek movies, they pay only lip service to his motivations and he’s a shallow character screaming for depth. I was initially baffled as to why they would hire an actor like Idris Elba only to bury him under one of the thickest latex appliances possible, but now I guess it makes sense cause they had to “hide” his face for the reveal to work. Though there was a certain degree of “Bane syndrome” with his voice.

I thought the design of the aliens were uninspired (including Jaylah, as good a character as she was) but I’ve never watched Star Trek for the exotic aliens and creatures…we have Star Wars for that. So I give it a pass.

My one quibble is the villain hell-bent on poorly-articulated revenge, trope. (See my post from last year on that subject.) I’m done with super villains and super weapons in my Star Trek. Absolutely done. I appreciate the difficulty of telling a compelling story when you’re firmly in big-budget, summer tentpole mode, but the fact that the last six Trek movies have had some variation on this same trope exposes its limits. At least this time the target wasn’t Earth, which is a step in the right direction…I guess.

Which brings me to Yorktown. I absolutely loved Yorktown. A wonderfully innovative design, beautifully realized. It was the first time in a long time that something in Star Trek really made me feel the excitement and optimism about humanity’s future in space that’s always talked about in EPKs but I never actually got. That, combined with some wonderful music during the docking sequence, actually gave me goosebumps. So kudos to Beyond for being able to approach that level of wonder and optimism, at least for me.

A shining beacon in space...all alone in the night.

A shining beacon in space…all alone in the night.

That said, the name Yorktown, while I realize is an homage to Roddenberry’s original name for the Enterprise, is a little North American-centric for a multicultural (multispecies!) outpost. I would have given it a pass just for the homage, but then the derelict starship they find is called the USS FRANKLIN? Come on, guys. What about the USS Tiananmen? Or the USS Gagarin? Especially seeing that the movie was a co-production with Alibaba and they’re clearly going after the Chinese market something fierce with this. (Actually, scrub Tiananmen then. But anything less overtly Western would be welcome…it just seems like such a missed opportunity to demonstrate that humanity is beyond our nativist squabbles. Instead, it reinforces the idea that American hegemony will win the day. Though, if you really want to get into the nitty gritty, Star Trek‘s Federation has always basically been a vision of American manifest destiny projected 300 years.

(It’s since been pointed out to me that the name USS Franklin was an homage to director Justin Lin’s father, Frank Lin. Which makes it much more palatable for me, but the point still stands.)

I actually enjoyed the destruction of the Enterprise sequence, and I was surprised that it actually tugged at my heartstrings a little bit (even though I’ve never been a big fan of the Ryan Church “hot rod” design…the proportions are all wrong and obscures the elegance of the original). I was disappointed that the 1701-A at the end didn’t depart a little more from the Church design, though I think the lines are a little different…it was hard to get a good look at her.

All in all, I had a lot of fun watching it. It’s a well-made film that entertained the hell out of me and pushed a lot of my Star Trek buttons that the previous outings hadn’t. We know that this was a rushed script, and I think it might have benefitted from a little more time in the oven (the saggy middle might have been saved by moving up the Krall reveal and the thematic threads better tied together with all the imprisoned races banding together).

Something interesting that Annalee Newitz (formerly of io9) pointed out:

 

That’s an excellent point, but overall I’d say that this depiction of Kirk was closer to TOS Kirk than the XTREME Kirk we saw in last two movies.

All that said, I’m amazed the script was as good as it was given the time constraints. For me, it was an overall win. Kudos to director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. (Jung actually had a little cameo as Sulu’s husband, by the way.)

You kiddin' me sir?

You kiddin’ me sir?

Oh, and the fact that this is an afterthought just speaks to how well it worked: I loved the moment where Sulu embraced his daughter and husband on Yorktown. Completely natural and understated and absolutely an awesome thing to do. I was a bit taken aback by George Takei’s objections, but I thought that Simon Pegg’s response was absolutely spot-on. As someone who is not a gay man, I had to pause and really consider where Takei was coming from. But in the final analysis, no, I think he was just wrong on this one.

(I know this is a semantic point, but it really rubs me the wrong way when people talk about how they “made” Sulu gay. Nobody made him anything. We never even really got a hint at Sulu’s sexuality in TOS, so to say that they made him gay is to assume that he was never gay until now. Which implies that in the absence of evidence he must be straight by default, cause straight simply is the default unless you’re, ya know, deviant.)

…we have cleared the spoilers.

That's not how Kirk pronounces sabotage.

That’s not how Kirk pronounces sabotage.

I’ve read a lot of knee-jerk reaction decrying Beyond as Fast and the Furious in space, which I think is unfair, and something I doubt they’d be saying if they didn’t know the two franchises now shared a director in Justin Lin. As I said before, if you’re going to try to do Star Trek as a big budget summer tentpole, this is pretty much how it should be done.

Which raises a question, doesn’t it? How should Star Trek be done in 2016/2017? I tried to tackle this a year and a half ago when Simon Pegg was announced as a co-writer of the new movie. But now that we’ve seen Beyond, and we know more details about Bryan Fuller & Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek: Discovery series for CBS All Access, I have some further thoughts.

(You’d be forgiven for not wanting to read another thousand or so words on Star Trek written by some guy on the internet, but here it is anyway, ’cause my website.)

Frankly, I’m not really sure what Star Trek should be in 2016. Beyond is one mode: an action/adventure romp with Star Trek accoutrements. It’s the “theme park” version of Trek, which is fine, but I don’t know how much beyond that it can go. (Nice pun, I’ll keep it!)

You can’t really do Star Trek without the iconography of Star Trek, which means things like beam me up and aliens with pointed ears and funny foreheads. Things that I think science fiction has moved past since the 60s, but without them it’s not really Trek.

Star Trek is a fundamentally 1960s vision of the future, very much a piece with the Kennedy era of optimism and space as the new frontier, and that progress will be furthered by advances in technology. (This allowed it to present a classless vision of the future that ultimately sprang from a capitalist system, which has some interesting implications that Trek has never touched.)

It’s also interesting that the individual human being is still front and center in Trek’s future. There’s no AIs that have taken over the world, no transhumanist vision of man blurred with machine…no, people are still front and center, calling the shots. And while this is definitely a function of its 1960s origins (computers the size of buildings!), I think it’s an optimistic perspective that we can carry forward. It suggests that, at some point, we make a choice to value people and determined what our relationship to machines would be. We could have an AI running the ship, but we choose not to. We could have a neural network that links up all our brains, but we choose handheld communication devices instead. That’s not necessarily an anachronistic vision of the future, it can be read as a humanist one, which I think is pretty cool.

Here, Captain Kirk literally reads the Declaration of Independence to a space heathen. Thanks, Hodgkins.

Here, Captain Kirk literally reads the Declaration of Independence to a space heathen. Thanks, Hodgkins.

Star Trek, the original vintage, is really an anthology series that poses ethical and moral questions through sci-fi action/adventure. (And often crosses over into fantasy. Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development, anyone? Omnipotent God-like beings floating around every other nebula? Fucking time travel, even? Things like this aren’t really palatable to a contemporary audience expecting science fiction, but they’re a part of what makes Star Trek STAR TREK. So you have to figure out how those elements factors in to a contemporary take.)

Gene Roddenberry never set out to create an overtly utopian vision of the future with the original series, but the progressive ideals that he (and many others) couldn’t help but inject into the show were embraced by fans who projected that vision on to it.

Roddenberry learned from them and built upon it, which leads us to TNG. Replacing the brash Captain Kirk is a bald, thoughtful European dude who values diplomacy over force. By any measure, TNG is definitely more overtly utopian than TOS, and doesn’t let you forget it. To the point where even having interpersonal conflict among the Starfleet crew was verboten. This does not necessarily make for good television, but as that show developed over the years, they took it as a challenge and figured out how to balance it out.

DS9 was a reaction to this. A more serialized show by its very nature, DS9 was in a lot of ways a deconstruction of the perfect human of the 24th century. (And mostly successful at doing so, in my opinion.) It’s also the beginning of 90s grimdark in Trek that worked so successfully in First Contact and reached its apex in the 2000s.

Voyager, in my estimation, was TNG-lite, only worse. I found it generally bland and consistently uninteresting. But it did have the first woman captain in the franchise, and I know many women who came of age in the 90s for whom Janeway was an inspiration. So it wasn’t entirely worthless, I just can’t stand it.

(As an aside, my favorite illustration of this is in the episode “Flashback,” which brings back George Takei as Sulu and revisits events from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Captain Janeway notes:

Space must have seemed a whole lot bigger back then. It’s not surprising they had to bend the rules a little. They were a little slower to invoke the Prime Directive, and a little quicker to pull their phasers. Of course, the whole bunch of them would be booted out of Starfleet today. But I have to admit: I would have loved to ride shotgun at least once with a group of officers like that.

Well, shit, I want to watch that show!)

Continuity porn. But hey, at least porn can be fun sometimes.

Continuity porn. But hey, at least porn can be fun sometimes.

And then you get Enterprise in 2001. They tried something that could have been pretty daring in making a prequel to TOS, giving you Trek that still allows for recognizable and “relatable” 20th century humans, interpersonal conflict and all. Debuting two weeks after 9/11, Enterprise was defined by the grimdark, TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB IS kind of stuff that was being reflected in popular culture at that time. Eventually in its final season, it course corrected and became what some might call fanwank, essentially becoming a show overtly about Star Trek. (Which, as a fan, was fine by me, but I can acknowledge its shortcomings for a general audience.)

Then Star Trek goes away for a few years, only to be reborn as a big-budget summer movie franchise. Which is fine and good if you do it properly (bare-knuckle fistfights and pew pew space battles have been part and parcel of Trek since the beginning), but in retrospect, as decent a flick as JJ Abrams Star Trek was, it doesn’t amount much more than his demo reel for Star Wars.

So I come back to the question: what should a Star Trek series be in 2016? What we do know for sure about Star Trek: Discovery is that it’s going to be set in the so-called Prime Universe of the past series, and it’s going to be serialized as is de rigueur for television right now. So we don’t really know that much.

Hypothetically, if someone handed me the reins to Star Trek and told me to do whatever I wanted with, I’d probably do some version of the following: set it maybe a century after the TNG era to have a good buffer between it and established continuity. Have the ship look familiar enough to be of the same lineage as the Enterprise, have familiar looking alien races and such, but basically be far-removed from the continuity of the TNG era. (Kind of the same relationship that the first couple years of the revived Doctor Who had to its classic incarnation.)

Then I’d look to the best writers doing literary science fiction today, like Alistair Reynolds, James Corey, China Mieville, Liu Cixin, Charlie Jane Anders, and basically anybody writing for Tor Books, and set them loose. Like a Black Mirror but Star Trek, with some overarching continuity that comes together at the end of every season.

But no one asked me, of course. Time will tell what the future of Star Trek holds in the capable hands of Bryan Fuller.

I, for one, am not worried.

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On Diversity.

Since the talks of a rebooted version of PIONEER ONE started up, Bracey and I have had many discussions about the original show and what we’d want to see in a revival.

One of the things we discussed regarded diversity on the show. More specifically…the lack thereof.

When we put out our initial casting call for PIONEER ONE back in March of 2010, we held two days of open auditions at a friend’s space in New York City. At once one of the most diverse cities in the world as well as one with one of the highest concentrations of actors anywhere. We did not specify race in the character descriptions (nor gender in some cases), but the actors who responded were still overwhelmingly caucasian.

Now, some caveats: we were lo/no budget production on a tight schedule, so our search wasn’t as exhaustive as it could have been. Bracey and I cast the best actors for the parts and ended up with a cast heavy on white males and light on people of color and women.

We love and admire our cast and crew and no one should think for a second that we are saying anything to denigrate their work or talent. But the fact remains that they were mostly white, and there are many factors that contributed to that. I’m going to leave the discussion of what exactly those factors are to someone more qualified than I am, but there is one thing that I feel confident taking away from our experience: that color-blind casting doesn’t seem to yield diversity.

And in full candor I will say that our cast’s lack of diversity didn’t bother me at the time as much as it did Bracey. “We did our best,” I thought. “It is what it is.”

I’ve since come to understand why diversity and representation is so important (beyond the obvious reason that it’s a more realistic reflection of the world we live in). Simply put: diversity in casting has a real impact on how people in the audience come to regard people in real life. This is true for both white people and people of color. A white person will grow up seeing that a black person isn’t always always the gang member or the convict but the doctor or the president. And a young person of color will grow up knowing that they in fact can be a doctor or a president…or an actor.

Same goes for gender and sexual orientation. I’ll be the first to admit that when I look back at the PIONEER ONE scripts I wrote when I was at the tender age of 25, I now see it very starkly as coming from a straight-male perspective. And that’s all well and fine, because I was learning and writing from my own experience. But now I think I have tools that better equip me to write outside of my own personal experience and incorporate other points of view.

Despite what certain people who last year successfully rigged the Hugo Awards will have you believe, science fiction has always been a genre on the forefront of diversity and exploring diverse points of view. The works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and James Triptree Jr. have always loomed large over the sci-fi/fantasy canon.

(And if you want to get all what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, their contemporary counterparts include the likes of China Miéville, N.K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders…basically anyone being talked about by Phil Sandifer and the folks over at Eruditorum Press is a good bet ;).)

Film and television has always been a few decades behind the curve on literary science fiction, but we’re starting to see those attitudes going mainstream. DOCTOR WHO succesfully gender-swapped one of the series’ longtime characters, and it would be hard to imagine the next actor chosen to play the Doctor not being either a woman or a person of color.

Another very recent example is the controversy surrounding THE 100, whose creators were taken to task by a vocal fandom for unknowingly playing into tropes familiar to LGBTQ viewers. (Here’s a Variety article detailing what went down and why, but be warned of spoilers for season 3.)

That incident alone demonstrates that these are very complicated issues that can be hard to navigate. Underestimating that is the path to patronizing tokenism. But the conversation is evolving and ongoing. The possibility that a reboot of PIONEER ONE could be a part of that dialog excites me. I hope, if given the chance, we can make our mark on science fiction television and put our ideals where our mouths are.

Some more honesty: I almost didn’t write this post. There’s been a lot of frustration and anger in the discussions about race going on recently, and it can be overwhelming. At times, it feels as if the views of opposing sides are based on two wholly-separate realities.

That strikes a chord. PIONEER ONE was conceived in 2009 during the debate over healthcare in the United States. The rhetoric at times made it seem like we couldn’t even agree on the same *facts*, much less policy. It occurred to me as I was listening to the news in the car one day: if a person came to Earth from space, one of the biggest hurdles would simply be convincing people that their story was really true. That’s the context in which PIONEER ONE was born and which we tried to explore in the first season.

With that in mind, I’d like to link to this op-ed from The New York Times called Race, Truth and Our Two Realities. I encourage anyone, no matter what views you hold, to give it a read. And keep it in mind the next time you have a discussion with someone who’s coming from a different point of view.

Normally I would sign off with “Keep Watching the Skies.” But not this week. This week, keep your sight on Earth. Look at your neighbor in the eyes. You might find yourself reflected in them.

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The Future of PIONEER ONE

TL;DR–PIONEER ONE is 6 today. And a big budget reboot is a real possibility. Help us celebrate by spreading the word with hashtag #morepioneerone


Six years ago, my friend Bracey Smith and I did something crazy. Armed with nothing but an idea, some naivete, and an unhealthy amount of coffee, we decided to make a TV show. With no backing and very little idea of what we were getting ourselves into, we used a new crowdfunding platform called Kickstarter to raise $6000 to produce the pilot episode of our sci-fi drama. (And back then, every plea for donations was immediately followed by an explanation of what this newfangled Kickstarter thing was. Those were the days, huh?)

On June 16, 2010, we released the pilot episode of PIONEER ONE through VODO’s BitTorrent network. Frankly, the response was beyond our wildest expectations (and we can dream pretty big). Within two weeks the pilot was downloaded over 2,000,000 times. During the same period, people we had never met from all over the world clicked on our PayPal donation button and gave us $20,000 to make more episodes.

Over the next year and a half, myself, Bracey, and friends old and new went on the wild adventure that was making PIONEER ONE’s first season of 6 full-length episodes. There were times when the going was rough. Whether it was a quadruple hard drive failure the night before release, a head-on collision with a deer during a rainstorm after a late night shoot, or simply running out of money…the thing that kept us going was the knowledge that we had fans who were watching. And waiting. …and waiting.

Since 2011 when we released our last episode, we’ve been looking for ways to continue the show. But we knew we wouldn’t be able to do it as we had before. For over a year, PIONEER ONE became mine and Bracey’s full time job. (More like 17 jobs, actually.) And it was only due to the generous time and commitment of our cast and crew, who did professional work without pay, and calling in every favor we had from friends and family, that allowed us to pull it off. Basically, we’d cashed in all our chips.

Some promising opportunities cropped up over the next few years. Someone would discover the show, contact us with ideas of how to finance and make more, but those plans would inevitably fall through. (After one particular meeting with a studio executive who will remain nameless, we got off the phone on a Friday with the promise of an offer to come on Monday. Monday passed with no word. On Tuesday, I read that the executive and his entire department had been let go from the studio. Such is Hollywood.)

But life doesn’t stand still. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an editor and a writer, and Bracey produced a celebrated animated short and has since moved on to work in the virtual reality space.

And we came to the conclusion that season 2, in the form we had done the first season, just wasn’t feasible. With growing careers and growing families, and no way to compensate our cast and crew for their work, we just didn’t see a way to do it. And, frankly, from the beginning we had envisioned a show that would broaden in scope that was always beyond our means.

From time to time Bracey and I would still talk about PIONEER ONE, brainstorming new story ideas and how we might revive it in some form. But, as tends to happen, life would pull us away and reality would set in. More than once we reluctantly admitted to ourselves that the show might truly be over and done with.

But this show is stubborn. And so are our fans. Every single time we’d written it off, some weird opportunity would would pop up out of nowhere and rekindle the flame. And in these last few months, maybe because of renewed interest in Mars or the success of movies like THE MARTIAN and shows like THE AMERICANS, there have been some new developments that represent the best chance we’ve ever had to do more PIONEER ONE.

Really. Best ever. Hand on heart.

In the last few weeks we’ve made exciting additions to our team, some of whom whose work you may have heard of. A tireless producer in Los Angeles who has been our champion for some time has joined forces with a visionary TV director whose work includes some of the most celebrated episodes of shows like THE 100. They believe strongly that there’s a way to bring PIONEER ONE back in some form, most likely as a big budget reboot. (Though at this stage anything is possible, as discussions are still preliminary.)

Our efforts will only be bolstered by spreading the word and demonstrating that there is an audience for PIONEER ONE. I can tell you that people are watching and they are listening.

So if anyone reading this is so inclined, using the hashtag #morepioneerone please share the YouTube link to the pilot episode (https://youtu.be/68RD46kl8ng?t=30s), the series trailer (https://youtu.be/icLQqVDk86Y), or this little promo clip that we’ve made to commemorate the 6th anniversary of the show.

We tried to tell a story about hope, about human ingenuity and courage, to remind us that the impossible is sometimes possible. Given recent reminders of how ugly the world can be, the idea that we are capable of incredible things when we allow ourselves to imagine a better way is as important as ever.

I think our best days might just be ahead. Keep watching the skies.

Josh Bernhard
June 16, 2016
Los Angeles, California

#morepioneerone

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Jinx, Serial, and the Truer Than True Crime Drama

Mild spoilers for both Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and the Serial podcast.

Earlier this week I sat down to watch the first episode of HBO’s Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Instead, I ended up binging through all six episodes. It was riveting television. As a Facebook friend described it, “Jinx is Serial with results.”

Serial, the This American Life-produced “true crime” series that investigated the case of Adnan Syed, jailed since 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Serial was immediately embraced by pop culture, spawning columns and subreddits that traded theories and anticipated each new installment like it was a new episode of True Detective. I enjoyed it but it fell far short of revelatory. I found it a bit difficult to keep all the threads straight despite producer/host Sarah Koenig’s best efforts to contextualize each new bit of information.

And there was, of course, the resolution. Which was really anything but. There was no big revelation that cracked the cold case wide open, and by episode ten, the climax we got was Koenig revealing her own personal conclusions regarding Syed’s guilt. While interesting to be sure, it was an ending I was just as happy to read about in Salon’s episode recap than sit through myself.

Whereas Serial’s ending was ambiguous, Jinx’s showed us the discovery of a new piece of startling evidence and a damn-near confession from the subject himself. It had all the parts of a satisfying fiction narrative, including a grand finale that made Serial’s look like a damp squib in comparison. (Granted, this is due in no small part to incredible luck, and both productions did result in the re-opening of their respective cases.)

Where things get dicey, I think, is when the film and the filmmakers become a part of the story. By episode five of Jinx, the director, editor, and producer take an active role in the narrative. Episode six is almost entirely built upon the tense lead-up to their final interview with Durst. Though the filmmakers are careful to walk us through their thought processes and maintain their impartiality as much as humanly possible, it becomes their story as much as the subject’s.

And man, the ending is so perfect, the revelations so seismic, it’s amazing that it wasn’t staged.

What we end up with is a series that entertains just as well as any Sunday night drama and inspires the same passion and devotion as its fictional counterparts. The opening credit sequence for Jinx is as oddly hypnotic and as beautifully realized as that of HBO’s megahit True Detective, making it difficult not to draw some comparisons. Except in Jinx’s case, the tales of murder are actually true.

I imagine a lot of true crime projects are going to be fast tracked after the phenomenal success of Jinx and Serial. But not all of them are going to be as perfect as Jinx. Kudos to the filmmakers for drawing out new evidence. But the new evidence existed to be found in the first place.

At the end of the day, I guess I’m wondering whether this is entertainment or journalism or some weird hybrid of both, and what that means. Are these real life events elevated or trivialized when packaged as Sunday night drama? Or does it matter at all?

I could be overthinking it. All I know is there are two things from last weekend’s television offerings that have stuck with me a week later: “motherdick” as an amazing example of network censor contortionism, and anyone who spells Beverley with an extra ‘E’ is probably a murderer.

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It’s Okay to Not Like Things

Recently I wrote that I confuse my tendency to focus on positive aspects of a piece rather than the negative for a difficulty forming strong opinions. Because critics tend to be the loudest and most certain, they must be smarter than me to be have such certainty.

But obviously that’s bullshit. I have very strong opinions about many things. I just usually concentrate on what works rather than what doesn’t because I want to like things and I want them to work. It’s a mistake to confuse that with not having a critical eye.

Now that I’ve given myself permission to like things that other people don’t without feeling like I’m not as smart as they are, I’ve realized that the flipside is also true. It’s okay to not like things that other people like. This too can be a difficult proposition: when popular consensus swings one way, it’s natural to wonder how you can miss something that everyone else seems to get.

I’m not a fan of the Lord of the Rings. I’ve read the books, seen the movies, and it just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve horrified people with that opinion. I’ve sat patiently while they explain to me all the reasons why it’s so good, and I understand. I’d feel obligated to articulate why I didn’t like it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter one iota. I just don’t like it. Enough said.

There’s a tendency to confuse having a contrarian opinion with having extra-super discerning taste (especially on the part of the contrarian). That is, of course, absurd. People who like Lord of the Rings are not stupid.

It’s possible to acknowledge a valid point while still maintaining your overall opinion. And it’s important that you allow yourself to be swayed by what others say, or else we’re just talking to hear ourselves talk and missing out on having a meaningful conversation.

So now you’ve considered and deliberated and have solidified your opinion. Great. The only other thing you need to know? Don’t be a dick about it.

 

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The “Real” Ghostbusters

I grew up with the Ghostbusters films. I love them to pieces. (Yes, even the second one.) I had a proton pack. “Egon Spengler” entertained at my fifth birthday party in lieu of a clown. When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became all the rage I clung to my Ghostbusters action figures in an early example of fan loyalty.

Basically, my Ghostbusters bonafides are pretty spectacular for someone who wasn’t of theater-going age when the original movie came out.

That said, I’ve never liked the idea of a Ghostbusters 3. Coming so long after the 80s films, it just seemed too likely to veer into nuke-the-fridge territory. Doubly so after the death of Harold Ramis. When most of the appeal of the movie is already predicated upon seeing the original cast together again, continuing without a major member of that cast would only make the loss more acute.

Nor did I like the idea of a reboot film. That is, I didn’t until the announcement of a reboot with an all-female cast. That, at least on the surface, seemed like a different enough take on the material that it might be something unique and special in its own right. And the notion of gender-bending a “boy’s movie” has the added bonus of being a somewhat progressive, even subversive proposition, which is always a good thing in my book. I’d even go as far to say that it’s worth doing on that basis alone.

…but now there’s come the news that there is another Ghostbusters film in the works, this one with a male cast. Coming so close on the heels of the announcement of the all-female reboot, and immediately staking out its territory as a “guy-centric” Ghostbusters film, it’s hard not to see this as anything other than a lack of confidence in the “girl movie.” And there’s an uncomfortable implication that the female-led film is somehow not worthy of carrying the Ghostbusters mantle on its own. That it’s not a “real” Ghostbusters movie.

Suffice to say, this is problematic at best. I know that Akroyd and director Ivan Reitman are protective of their franchise, and it seems to me that they either weren’t included or weren’t interested in the direction the studio wanted to go with it. I wasn’t in the room and I have no idea who objected to what and why. I just know that the end result is a situation that, well, looks pretty damn sexist. I’m not saying there was any conscious sexism on the part of anyone involved, but that’s the thing about sexism. It’s sneaky. And it doesn’t have to be conscious to exist.

I’m also sick of hearing people arguing against the movie on the basis that it’s “ruining their childhood.” Grow up. We’re living in a post-Star Wars prequels age. We know how to get over disappointment. Reboots and sequels get made and they don’t always live up to our expectations, but our childhoods are still there as we left them. (Assuming you have left, that is.)

This particular remake actually has something going for it, because there should be an all-female Ghostbusters in 2015. It’s sad that women have to fight to prove that they’re just as funny or capable as men, and this reboot is a statement that unfortunately still needs to be made as loudly and as clearly as possible.

But the best reason to make this reboot is that it’s going to be fucking funny. The boys are going to have their work cut out for them. I just wish we didn’t have to highlight and strengthen divisions between the sexes by feeling the need to make a “guy’s movie” in response.

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