Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Daemonicus"

The X-Files - Season Nine
December 2, 2001
Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Created by Chris Carter
Written by Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Frank Spotnitz

This episode is packed with terrific elements that, by all rights, should work together to make a really great episode. According to the rating system at IMDb, the episode seems to be very highly regarded, so maybe it's just me. But there's something seriously wrong here. This episode just fundamentally doesn't work. The idea is supposed to be this tension between two competing explanations for the bizarre series of murders at the center of the story. Either they are the result of supernatural forces of the satanic variety, or it's all an elaborate deception organized by a serial killer trying to arrange his own escape from a mental hospital. Naturally, Reyes and Doggett adopt opposing stances, and away we go.

There plot is put together from several memorable set-pieces. Right off the bat we have a great teaser involving a couple playing Scrabble together before being killed in a pretty horrible way. The last thing that poor Darren Mountjoy knew before he died was that he had been tricked into killing his wife. That's pretty horrible. As the episode proceeds, we get one memorable image after another, linked by unusually elaborate cross-fades. The subsequent murders in the episode are all suitably gruesome and distinctive. But what does it all add up to?

Uncertainty. The episode has Scully literally write its theme on a chalk board in a room full of bored students. Scully explains to her students that unanswered questions are part of every investigation. No doubt that's true in real life, but it sounds a touch defensive to me, as if the writer is aware of the many unanswered questions in this story and would just as soon not worry about them. Then Doggett and Reyes walk in, and use the same chalk board to explain to Scully (and to us) that this serial killer (and this script) was far clever than we realized. He does this by making a neat little link between the episode title and the names of the murder victims.

But that's actually pretty superficial. It only looks clever (and it helps that the characters treat it as clever). In reality, we're still left with all that uncertainty. And not just the realistic uncertainty of a few unanswered questions here and there, but the fact that lots of the story is simply unexplained. And if that's not unsatisfying enough, we had to watch our intrepid heroes sniping at one another while failing to achieve anything at all. Even with these problems, all of this could have redeemed with any interesting new take on the characters or their relationships, but this episode takes us back over old territory.

A few memorable set pieces and some interesting cross fades is a really good start, but it just isn't enough to hang an episode on. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Atheism and MMT

Ok, what the hell do these two hobby horses of mine have to do with one another? What bearing does the non-existence of God have on economics generally and monetary theory in particular? When you put it like that, basically none. And yet, I think the are reasons to expect that the online atheist community could be more receptive than others to MMT's central message, and might even be well-positioned to help spread the message around. The case for MMT can easily be tailored to appeal to atheists (especially progressive atheists already dismayed and embarrassed by the prevalence of lazy libertarian cant within the community). Atheists can be co-opted into the MMT cause by pointing out how MMT can be an enormous help in achieving important goals of the atheist community, especially in terms of expanding public funding for scientific research projects. 

We hear all the time about how the U.S. doesn't do enough to invest on science and technology. In 1993, Comgress canceled the Superconducting Super Collider over funding concerns. Atheists love to rail against Congress's blinkered priorities, usually by comparing NASA's annual budget to just a few days of spending on the Afghanistan war. Although clearly NASA represents a far greater potential return in investment, nothing ever seems to change. Science funding is a low priority item, it lacks an effective political lobby, and there's only so much pie to go around. Public science investment, we're told, is doomed to be just a tiny sliver of that pie.

And that's where MMT comes in. Atheists love learning that their common sense assumptions are false, so they may be more open the most to learning that spending a federal dollar on one thing need not take that dollar away from anything else. Because government spending (by a sovereign currency issuer like the US) is never revenue-constrained, the government can afford to spend whatever amount on science Congress thinks would be useful, without taking that money out of other programs or raising anyone's taxes. 

The common sense assumption, on the other hand, says that there's only so much money to go around, and science is just going to have to take a back seat to more important things. From the point-of-view of a small government libertarian  it's actually quite ingenious. By convincing people that all government spending comes at the expense of other government spending, the end result is hundreds (or thousands) of "special interests" competing with one another for every discretionary dollar. 

MMT throws this kind of thinking out the window. Since a sovereign currency issuer is not revenue constrained, there is no static pie to be fought over in a zero-sum battle of political influence that science will never win. The pie can be as big as we want it to be. If science research needs a bigger slice of pie, we can grow the pie directly, rather than sticking anyone else with a smaller slice. This changes the criteria for justifying public spending. It eliminates the issue of affordability, and focuses attention instead on the real consequences of the spending on the public interest. And that's a much easier battle for science to fight. 

Unfirtunately, the atheist community doesn't seem to have much interest in economic theory. This is a mistake, and a surprising one. Over recent years, the online community has been getting more and more politically engaged as more and more politically engaged people have gotten involved. Under the moniker of Atheism+, some atheists are making politics and social justice a fundamental part of a broader atheist worldview, but the it's mostly standard liberal identity politics type stuff. I don't mean to be dismissive of efforts to make the atheist community more diverse in terms of gender, race, and class (such efforts are extremely important, and the work is not yet nearly done), but that's just the beginning of real political engagement. I admire and am inspired by the Atheist+ commitment to giving all people a seat at the table, but then what? 

There are many answers to this question. There are many areas where I would like to see atheists applying the principles of skepticism to political questions. MMT represents just one opportunity to do so. I want to see atheists using their skeptical toolkits to attack the persistent myths of economic policy that stand in the way of progress on each and every political issue we face. 

I'm just a humble blogger with not much of an audience and no influence whatever, but I plan to be on the lookout for opportunities to do just that.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

"Blood Heat"

The New Adventures
By Jim Mortimore
October 1993
Virgin Publishing

'Not men, Ace. Silurians. The original rulers of the Earth.'

The TARDIS is attacked by an alien force. Bernice is flung into the Vortex; and the Doctor and Ace crash-land on Earth.

An attack by dinosaurs convinces the Doctor that he and Ace have arrived in the Jurassic Era. But when they find a woman being hunted by intelligent reptiles, he begins to suspect that something is very wrong. 

Then they meet the embittered Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, leading the remnants of UNIT in a hopeless fight against the Silurians who rule his world. And they find out that it all began when the Doctor died.

This book has a radically different approach to nostalgia than "The Paradise of Death" had, but it's still steeped in nostalgia. And while the two stories have practically nothing in common and could hardly be more different, they are both nostalgic for roughly the same era of the program: the Pertwee/UNIT era. Unlike "The Paradise of Death", this story had an obligation to be new as well as nostalgic, and the result is a story that re-imagines the seventh season classic "The Silurians" in for more modern terms. It does this by presenting a post-apocalyptic reality by way of a "What if..." story. Specifically, what if the Doctor had been killed by the Silurians before discovering the cure to the plague released by the Silurians?

Before you go running off to your DVDs, consider that the story wasn't released on home video in the UK until July 1993, a mere three months before this book was published. This is not so much an alternate-universe sequel to "The Silurians", but rather an alternate-universe sequel to Malcolm Hulke's novelization, "Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters".

This book is the first of a new story-arc which I like to call the Altered History cycle. Unlike the Timewyrm and Cat's Cradle series, there's nothing on the cover of this book to tell you that it's part of a story-arc, but so it is. But the arc-related elements are not featured very prominently in the text, and this book can easily be enjoyed entirely on its own terms. Basically, an unknown villain somehow created this alternate universe by interfering with the Doctor's history, and then somehow trapped the Doctor's TARDIS within it. That idea will be built upon over the next several novels until it reaches a climax with Paul Cornell's "No Future", but for the purposes of just this book, it justifies the setting, and that's all it needs to do.

Jim Mortimore previously co-wrote "Lucifer Rising" with Andy Lane. This novel also mixes strong character conflict, discussions of morality, and long action sequences involving horrible things happening to people, but the balance is very, very different in this case. Let me use as an example one prominent sub-plot. The Doctor sends Ace to London to recover the third Doctor's TARDIS, and on to Wenley Moor to find the Doctor's corpse and his TARDIS key. With England having been remade into a Jurassic jungle, it would have been implausible (and quite dull) if Ace's journey had been uneventful. It wasn't. But the various difficulties she faced, which managed to kill off everyone she set out with, didn't really arise out of the story, and overcoming those difficulties didn't really advance the story. Lots of the characters in this book (I'm tempted to say "most of them") seem to exist only to provide corpses.

Ultimately, my issue with this book is that it is thoroughly contrived. This can be explained in large part by the story-arc. I mean, once you consider that this mystery villain created this reality on purpose in order to force the Doctor to face a nasty moral dilemma, you see that it could hardly not have been contrived. And yet, somehow that isn't good enough. We're expected to believe that Jo Grant, who never joined UNIT, ran around England for 20 years clutching this special book with special military codes in it and then just happens to run into the Doctor, a man she never met, shortly after he arrives? That's really weird. But worst of all is the ending. When the Doctor gave Ace her mission, he couldn't have anticipated how long it would take her or what would be happening in the rest of the world when she succeeded. Nevertheless, he had the presence of mind to instruct her in advance to materialize the TARDIS around the entire planet, which conveniently allows the Doctor to save the day.

Even worse is the question of what it's all for. We're told that the existence of this pocket universe threatens the real universe because of science, so ultimately the Doctor has to destroy alt-Earth anyway. He does it gradually, so that all of the people we've met over the course of the novel (well, the few survivors, anyway) will be able to spend the rest of their lives trying to forge a lasting peace. But the very idea of a lasting peace is rendered absurd when we're talking about a pocket universe with a seriously limited lifespan. Also rendered meaningless is the constant mantra "For the children...," which motivated violent atrocities committed by both sides throughout the book. There aren't going to be any more children anyway.

So that's "Blood Heat", a 300-page novel in which the Doctor implausibly saves a world only to turn around and destroy it again, and where every character endures horrific pain and suffering for no reason. It's not a bad book. It's imaginative and quite solidly written. But the oppressive nihilism and pointlessness of the whole affair make reading it an unrelentingly joyless experience for me. On the other hand, look at that cover illustration. A Silurian riding a dinosaur through jungle-London? That is pretty awesome.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"The Paradise of Death"

BBC Radio Collection
August 27 - September 24, 1993
Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen
Written by Barry Letts
Directed by Phil Clarke

When a horrific and inexplicable death occurs at Space World, a new theme park on Hampstead Heath, UNIT is called in to investigate. The Doctor is highly suspicious. Just who controls the Parakon Corporation, the shadowy organization behind the running of the park? What is “Experienced Reality” and what are the limits of its awesome powers?

In 1993, the New Adventures were fairly well-established as the official continuation of the "Doctor Who" television series. Technically, they were about moving the series forward in a new format, but in practice, there developed an inevitable strain of nostalgia. Original novels based on a defunct television show can hardly avoid that, no matter how hard they try to chart new territory. So it's useful to have something like this BBC Radio drama for comparison purposes. This is what nostalgia is all about.

What we have here is an original "Doctow Who" radio play not designed to carry the program further into the 1990s, but instead to somehow recapture the magic of the mid-70s. Unlike the NAs, this release wasn't aimed directly at the obsessive die-hard fans who stuck with the series to the bitter end. This is also targeted at those indifferent or even antagonistic to the McCoy era, yearning for the good old days some 20 years previously. I don't remember being aware of this story at the time, but even if I had been, I doubt I would have been very interested. I was 100% on board with the New Adventures, and I would have considered something like this as mere merchandising. Jon Pertwee had never been a favorite Doctor of mine in the first place, and I had simply no appreciation for audio drama back then.

In fact, I've only just listened to it for the first time, making this the first entry in the "Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years" that I wasn't previously familiar with. I've owned the novelization based on this play for years. I honestly don't remember buying it, and I certainly never read it. But I do have it (and I will read it and review it on its own terms when the time comes). The reason I never read it (or sought out the original audio recording) is because I have read the novelization of this play's follow-up, "The Ghosts of N-Space", and that was pretty awful. I expected this to be pretty awful as well.

I was somewhat pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong, this is not some lost masterpiece, but it's a solid evocation of a long-vanished period of the show's history, and fans who have a particular fondness for that particular period (and there are many) would probably find lots to enjoy here. While Pertwee's voice betrays the passage of time, his performance does not in any way. The script makes good use of Sarah Jane, being sure to involve her in the story in her capacity as a professional journalist, rather than as simply the Doctor's tag-along assistant. The Brigadier is the perfect mix of competent soldier and buffoonish foil, which is a difficult combination to pull off.

The story is helped immensely by the guest cast, including several notable "Doctor Who" alums, including Harold "Gilbert M" Innocent, Maurice "Azmael" Denham, and of course the incomparable Peter Miles, who makes the strongest impression as the sadistic henchman Tragan. Without taking anything away from Miles's chilling performance, Tragan is one of two aspects of this play that really ruins the nostalgia for me (the other is the use of the Peter Howell arrangement of the theme music, which is completely anachronistic for a 3rd Doctor story). Presumably because you can get away with more on radio in 1993 than you could on tea-time telly in 1974, Tragan's sadism is especially emphasized, and to disturbing effect. Is this a flaw? Not necessarily. Perhaps it's an asset. But it didn't work for me. I felt it unbalanced the story and worked against the simple, tea-time adventure serial tone the rest of the production achieved.

I think I'm congtractually obligated to talk about what a useless and awful character is Jeremy Fitzoliver. I suppose Sarah Jane needed a companion of her own to perform the expository functions of a companion when Sarah Jane herself was being more pro-active. Ok, I can see that. But he really is a useless and awful character. He's played for comedy, I think, but that doesn't work too well either.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Iceberg"

The New Adventures
By David Banks
September 1993
Virgin Publishing

'Depends on how you define alien,' the Doctor said simply. 'They were human once.'

In 2006 the world is about to be overwhelmed by a disaster that might destroy human civilization: the inversion of the Earth's magnetic field. Deep in an Antarctic base, the FLIPback team is frantically devising a system to reverse the change in polarity. 

Above them, the SS Elysium carries its jet-set passengers on the ultimate cruise. On board is Ruby Duvall, a journalist sent to record the FLIPback moment. Instead she finds a man called the Doctor, who is locked out of the strange green box he says is merely a part of his time machine. And she finds old enemies of the Doctor: silver giants at work beneath the ice. 

David Banks is a man who has made several interesting and quite varied contributions to "Doctor Who". He is best known as the actor who played various CyberLeaders throughout the 1980s, beginning with "Earthshock", and continuing with each subsequent appearance of the Cybermen. In 1988, he published a coffee-table book called "The Cybermen", which was a fascinating in-depth history (from both a production perspective and an in-story point-of-view) of the Cybermen. He also appeared in "Doctor Who - The Ultimate Adventure", a 1989 stage-play in which he also served as Jon Pertwee's understudy (even getting the chance to play the Doctor for two performances while Pertwee was ill, before Colin Baker took over the part for the remainder of the show's run).

Given his close association with the Cybermen, I'm sure it surprised few fans to discover that David Banks's one and only original "Doctor Who" novel would feature them. After all, there was precedent. Ian Marter, who played Harry Sullivan alongside Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, wrote "Harry Sullivan's War". It was a bit surprising to me that the Cybermen featured in this novel were not the 1980s version that Banks was involved with. Instead, Banks took the opportunity with this novel to expand on some of the complicated history of the Cybermen he had developed for his 1988 book to try to make sense of the constantly changing appearance of the creatures. This novel attempts to fill in some of the gaps left by the TV series.

This book is extremely continuity-heavy. It serves as a kind of sequel to both "The Tenth Planet"and "The Invasion", taking the opportunity to knit those two stories into some kind of coherent whole. The central problem is that each of those stories was intended to take place in a future which has now, through the inexorable passage of time, drifted into the past. Banks in effect re-imagines those stories for a new audience. Incidentally, it's worth remembering that when Banks wrote this novel, he was writing for an audience that for the most part had never seen and would presumably never see any of the episode comprising those two stories.

Of course, there's much more to this novel than a lecture on the history of the Cybermen. For one thing, the Doctor's in it. Ok, not much, but he is in it. The main character of the novel is Ruby Duvall. Most of the novel is told from her perspective, and the story of the novel is really her story. She's what connects the various subplots together. The most powerful moments of the novel involve Ruby's complicated backstory. The phrase I want to use here is "set against the backdrop of a Doctor Who adventure". That's how this book feels to me. Some people would say that this "isn't real Doctor Who", but I detest that sentiment more than I can describe.

But it's not surprising that this book isn't especially well-regarded by fans of the New Adventures. And if you think about, it's rather remarkable that a book like this even exists. The target audience for this book would be people who are interested in reading straight dramatic novels set in the "Doctor Who" universe. That is only a small subset of the audience for original "Doctor Who" novels, which is itself only a small subset of the audience for "Doctor Who" (which, in 1993, was insufficient to keep the program in production). This book is in a niche within a niche. I happen to adore straight dramatic fiction set in the "Doctor Who" universe. I think "Doctor Who" should always be striving to transcend genre.

There is a downside to all this, though, and that's the actual story. I mean, the "Doctor Who" part of the story, the story that's described in that blurb up there. The one about the Earth's polarity shifting, and the Cybermen trying to take advantage of that. That story gets short shrift in this book, and it isn't nearly as effective as it could have been. I think there's just so much else going on in the book that the story doesn't come through as well as it might have. Because so much time and attention was spent on character and backstory, the scene where Mike Brack uses a giant laser cannon to blow up invading Cybermen is all about his guilt and redemption, when maybe it needed to be about a giant laser cannon blowing up Cybermen.

For me, it's a price worth paying, especially since this book is by no means typical of the New Adventures. I'm happy to accept a thin and rather forgettable battle against the Cybermen in exchange for the depth and richness of this novel's characters and setting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Free Lunch

How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill)
By David Cay Johnston
Portfolio Hardcover 2007

It's important to notice right off the bat that this book was published before the financial system collapsed in 2008. This book represents a snapshot of a corrupt and unstable economy on the verge of catastrophe. This book wasn't intended as a warning about the coming disaster (though there are plenty of warnings), and the scandals and abuses Johnston documents here are not precisely what caused the collapse, but there are connections we can make with the benefit of hindsight. 

In a sane world, Johnston's book would be obsolete by now. In a sane world, the rescue of the financial industry would have been accompanied by sweeping reforms designed to prevent future disasters, and those reforms would have touched on a number of the issues Johnston examines. In reality, reforms were seemingly designed to do as little reform as possible while still plausibly being called reform. This is actually the worst possible response, as it is designed to make people think that the system has been made safe, but what it actually does is to make that next collapse an inevitability. Six years later, the problems identified in this book have only gotten worse. 

While the book is carefully researched and reported, the feeling of populist rage is never far from the surface. It just so happens that no hyperbole is required when detailing the outrageous ways in which the wealthy few benefit from government largesse at the expense of the rest of us. Johnston explains clearly and simply how money is given enormous influence in Washington, partly because of natural human venality, and partly because of policy decisions made in the furtherance of that same venality. Politicians are free to be almost as egregiously corrupt as they wish, so long as donor support remains more important than voter support in US elections. Every once in a while someone like Ken Lay or Jack Abramoff goes too far and gets prosecuted, but those cases are notable exceptions to the general culture of permissiveness. 

There's a lot that wrong with this system, and Johnston jumps around among several related but distinct critiques. The economic critique is that government subsidies should be designed to maximize the public benefit at the lowest possible cost, but in fact subsidies are determined not by economic considerations, but by influence and access. The fairness critique is that the rich are doing well enough on their own without government assistance, which should be focused on working people instead. But there's one prominent part of Johnston's argument that I can't accept: the "it's your money" myth. 

This idea is alluded to in the book's subtitle, and re-iterated again and again throughout the book. In fact, this is probably the strongest argument Johnston has, especially when speaking to a non-technical, working class populist kind of audience, but it can't stand up to scrutiny. 

It's an assumption left over from the bad-old-days when the country was still on the Gold Stabdard. Back then, there was only as much money as there was gold, and the US had a finite supply of gold. That means that the total quantity of money was limited by the US's ability to acquire more gold, or else it was left with whatever it managed to collect through taxation and borrowing. Under this system, the idea that the government spends "our" (the taxpayers') money is simplistic, but true for all intents and purposes. Every dollar spent by the government on one thing was a dollar not spent somewhere else, and every dollar ultimately had to accounted for in the form of taxation and borrowing. Johnston's argument fails to recognize how abandoning the Gold Standard under Nixon radically changes this analysis. 

The United States issues its own currency, and holds debts in its own currency, and collects taxes in its own currency. There is no limit on how much money the government can create. This means there is no reason why the government must acquire dollars from another source (taxation or borrowing) before that money can be spent. The government can (and does) spend money into existence. Likewise, there is no need to collect and store the dollars collected by the IRS. That money is simply destroyed. What this reveals is that, at least in the literal sense, the government never ever spends "our" money. It only ever spends its own money (which is ultimately where all of our money came from to begin with). 

This means that Johnston's central moral argument, that the many are being harmed for the sake of the few, is not entirely right. Johnston identifies to ways in which subsidies for the rich harm the rest of us. First, they divert resources away from other kinds of spending which would benefit the many rather than the few; and second, they add to the deficit, which diverts even more resources to cover interest payments on the debt. Neither is strictly correct. The government can spend as much or as little as it chooses on whatever it chooses. Therefore giving a subsidy to a wealthy campaign donor doesn't actually leave a smaller pot for the rest of us. That includes interest payments. 

Of course, there is a sense in which Johnston is right anyway. Since most people (including most economists and practically all politicians) don't realize government spending is unconstrained in this way, the "political reality" may be quite different. More importantly, this insight doesn't actually take away anything indispensable from Johnston's argument. It takes away the intuitive, bipartisan appeal of the "it's our money" argument, and that's a big loss, but the subsidies Johnston rails against are still bad on other grounds. They are still bad deals in terms of pure cost/benefit to the public, they are still corrupt, and they still add enormously the very serious problem of income inequality. They are still bad in terms of public policy, and public policy is the lens through which we should judge all expenditures of public funds. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

The DINO Drew

To political junkies, the acronym "DINO" means "Democrat in Name Only", and it refers to someone who is nominally a Democrat, but who consistently votes like a Republican. Former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was a DINO for many years before finally leaving the party  altogether. But that's not what the acronym means here. I mean "Daily in Name Only". 

You see, I'm late with another post on "The X-Files". Next up is "Daemonicus", which is a pretty cool episode that I'm looking forward to thinking through a bit more. I hope to have a post ready later today, but I may not. Sorry.

So here's the thing: I give up. I can't reasonably make my blogging schedule much easier on myself than I already have, but I'm still not meeting my goals. Clearly, if you're setting goals for yourself and failing to meet them, that's a problem that needs to be addressed. The first thing I did was to look at whether or not the goals I set for myself were reasonable, which caused me to scale them back considerably. But as I'm not even meeting those considerably scaled back goals, I'm left with no other choice. 

Fuck goals. 

First thing's first, I need to acknowledge that the title of this blog is now very simply a lie. Honestly, it has been a lie for quite a while, but now it's no longer even true in an aspirational sense. However, I'm not actually changing the name (or else it wouldn't be Daily-in-Name-Only. This means that every time someone loads this web address into their browser, that's another individual instance of me lying to someone. That means I lie dozens of times every day (yeah, dozens... tremble at my awesome traffic), which means that I'm cumulatively a terrible fucking person. I can live with that. 

So what does this actually mean for the blog? It means I'm going to update whenever I get around to it. The only schedule I intend to keep is for my Doctor Who (The Wilderness Years) series, at least until that starts to get too difficult. If you haven't already done so, you should really "Like" The Daily-in-Name-Only Drew on Facebook, which will notify you when new posts have gone up. 

I do want to reassure readers that I'm not going to just go dark. I'm going to continue to blog the rest of "The X-Files", "Homicide: Life on the Street", classic and new "Doctor Who", "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", and I may even get back to "Twin Peaks" one of these days. Plus, I'm still gonna do movies from time to time, and I'll continue to use this blog as a dumping ground for whatever crazy shit is occupying my thoughts at any given time. This blog is still very much an active and on-going project. 

Thank you all, as always, for your continued interest and support. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sexism and Atheism

There's a really ugly mess that's unfolding at the heart of the atheism/skepticism community, and that's probably the only thing that you could get the entire community to agree on right now. There is a lot of disagreement, for instance, over what the precise nature of the ugly mess is. Some think that the ugly mess is the series of accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and even rape leveled against prominent figures in the movement. On the other hand, some think that it is the underlying incidents which have given rise to those accusations that is the real problem. I am in the latter camp.

I spend a lot of time talking about atheism and atheism-related issues on the Internet, including on this blog, but this is hardly an atheist blog, and I mostly talk to people outside the movement anyway (here, on Facebook, and on Outpost Gallifrey). Although I am a regular reader and avid fan of many atheist blogs, my participation in the atheist movement, even online, is almost entirely passive. So I am not involved in this battle, not even indirectly. But I care about the community, I care about the movement, and most importantly I care deeply about standing up against sexual harassment as well as all forms of gendered or sexual violence. I feel compelled to take some kind of stand. But I don't really know where to start.

The issue of sexism in the atheist community has been a hot-button issue at least since Rebecca Watson's infamous "Elevatorgate" video. Actually, that's not fair. The video was totally innocuous. In the middle of a longer vlog about a recent convention, Watson told a brief story about being propositioned in an elevator at 2am, concluding with "Guys, don't do that." It was the reaction that it garnered which was infamous, as Watson was subjected to a deluge of hateful attacks and vicious threats that have continued to this day. This event was clearly not the beginning of the sexism-in-atheism problem, but it was how I became aware of it. 

Of course, problems of this sort are in no way unique to the atheist community. Watson's ordeal opened my eyes to the abuse that women are often subjected to online, particularly women who are or are perceived to be feminists. Similar controversies have erupted in the gamer community (Anita Sarkeesian) and the tech community (Adria Richards). Basically, in any male-dominated community, any women who publicly challenge the status quo will be subject to horrendous, vicious attacks. 

I don't typically consider myself to be an optimistic person, but I do see a silver lining in all of this. In the short term, the community will continue to tear itself apart. There are already lots of people I like and admire on both sides of the fight. It's already gotten ugly, and it's only going to get worse. Good people are being driven out of the movement as both sides are talking about "purges" and such. It's the witch-hunters vs. the rape apologists, and each side feels that the other is simply irredeemable. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. 

But I think it's going to get better eventually. I don't know how long it's going to take, but I believe that the ultimate result of this turmoil will be a stronger atheist movement which genuinely welcomes the contributions of women, which no longer tolerates sexism and sexual harassment, and which serves as an example to other communities of how (or perhaps how not) to address these kinds of issues. 

There's a lot more to be said about this, no doubt, and I may return to it on this blog, or I may not. I'm not directly involved, and I don't have any kind of influence whatsoever, so I don't know what I can usefully contribute to the situation. But it's something that's been much on my mind over the last few days, and I just needed to say something about it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Nothing Important Happened Today II"

The X-Files - Season Nine
November 18, 2001
Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Created by Chris Carter
Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners

Here's what we've got so far: Doggett's investigation of Kersh, the mysterious Super Soldier program, the suspicious drownings, and baby William's telekinetic ability. These mysteries are all connected, but the connections between them are not at all clear. The drowning victims were involved in a program to add a chemical to the water supply which will somehow promote the creation of a new generation of Super Soldiers, and baby William is somehow connected to this also. 

Most of what we learn about the Super Soldier program comes from Shannon McMahon. Like Rohrer, she's a Super Soldier, but she says she wants to expose the program, and needs Doggett to investigate the people she murdered to reveal the conspiracy. This doesn't make a lot of sense, but it turns out she's lying anyway. The people she killed were going to expose the program, which McMahon actually wants to protect. As usual, this revelation makes a mess of her motivations, and also throws into question everything she told Doggett, Scully, and Reyes. In other words, everything we know about this story was told to us by a character who was lying about at least some of it. 

In a reversal of the same basic twist, we also learn that it was Kersh who was secretly helping Doggett all along. Why he was doing this, and why he was cooperating with Rohrer last season, and why has be been pretending to be the bad guy? I have no idea. It looks to me like this is all being made up as it goes. For last season's finale, it was convenient to cast Kersh as a villain. This season, the writers seem disinclined to pay that off, so they've taken it back instead. It was convenient for baby William to be a red herring last season, but now we need him to be important again. 

On the bright side, this episode is basically working its way through the tangled mess of mysteries and suspicions left over from last season and rearranging them into something that might work going forward. Watching these first two episodes go through this tortured process is maddeningly tedious, but the hope is that the result will be worthwhile. Unfortunately, the most promising thing about this ninth season, Lucy Lawless, won't be seen again. Shannon McMahon was intended to be a recurring character, but issues relating to Lawless's pregnancy made this impossible. That's just bad luck. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Nothing Important Happened Today"

The X-Files - Season Nine
November 11, 2001
Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Created by Chris Carter
Written by Chris Carter & Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners

Thanks to my extended sabbatical, it's been a very, very long time since we last checked in with our good friends Scully and Doggett of the FBI, so let's take a brief moment to remember how we left things at the end of Season Eight. Scully's baby has been born and is apparently quite normal. Scullyand Mulder have both left the FBI, and the X-files have been assigned to Doggett and Reyes, who are investigating the association between Deputy Director Kersh and Knowle Rohrer. This episode opens with a seemingly unrelated teaser, which introduces us to Carl Wormus, Deputy EPA Administrator, who picks up an extremely alluring woman (played by Lucy Lawless) in a Baltimore bar. The mysterious woman causes Wormus to drive his car over the side of a bridge, and holds him underwater to ensure that he drowns. Following a hideous new title sequence, then we get a recap of last season, and then we're off to the races.

Actually, I don't think "off to the races" is a very good phrase at all, come to think of it, because this episode is really quite remarkably slow and ponderous. Mulder disappears, again, but it happens off-camera, and it's seen through the eyes of Doggett and Reyes, which means it's presented as a setback in their investigating of Kersh and Rohrer. But are we really expected to care about that story? Let me be clear what I'm talking about. All of this mysterious conspiracy stuff presumably fits into this Super Soldier story that was introduced last season, and that's fine. I have no idea where that story is going to go, but it has potential, and I'm looking forward to seeing it develop. But investigation of Kersh doesn't interest me at all. This is "The X-Files". You don't break open massive government conspiracies with thorough criminal investigations. It's just not the way this show works, and the script can't manage to sustain the illusion that any of this stuff is important.

It certainly doesn't help that Kersh simply isn't much of a villain. He has neither the menace nor the charisma of the cigarette-smoking man, he lacks the intrigue of shadowy figures like Deep Throat and Mr. X, and there was no moment of stinging betrayal as with Krycek. No better is Brad Follmer, a new recurring character played by Cary Elwes, who plays the part like a slimy and unethical civil servant. That's precisely what he is, you may be thinking, and you'd be right. But again, this is "The X-Files", and that's just not good enough. After eight seasons of ever more operatic plots, you can't expect to get drama or dread from a venal bureaucrat.

All of this makes for an extremely dull season opener, and that's not a terribly encouraging way of kicking off this final season. There's an honest-to-goodness story lurking in the background of this episode. It's the one that involves Lucy Lawless as a mysterious woman who can evidently breath underwater and is using this ability to drown people for some as yet unknown reason. That's a perfectly serviceable story, but it isn't a two-part story, which is why most of this episode has to be spent on the boring inanities of internal FBI office politics.

And here's the worst part of all. After teasing us all last season that there was something special about Scully's baby, the eighth season finale delivered the apparent twist that Scully's baby was normal after all. Until this episode, which apparently shows that baby William can spin his mobile by telekinesis. What is this supposed to indicate, exactly? After eight seasons of this, I feel like an idiot even asking this question. It's supposed to make the audience go "Ooh" and imagine possibilities more interesting than whatever the writers have in store.

You know, I'm really trying to give this final season a fair hearing, but I have to admit that I just don't care about this show anymore.