Category Archives: Television

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

Personhood and Relationship (and Odo from Star Trek)

I’ve blogged on this topic once before, in relation to the character of Hu in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hu, you will recall, was a Borg who became dislocated from the rest of the Borg Collective, and during his time on the USS Enterprise, became friends with Geordie Laforge. This friendship was the evidence necessary not simply of Hu’s emergence as an individual separate from the drone-state of the Borg, but of being a real person.

You see, we manifest our personhood not simply in our individuality (rocks are individual, my mobile phone is individual, the Wedgewood vase on my windowsill is individual) but in our relationships with others. True personhood, whether human, alien, or divine, is manifested most fully in relationship with others.

And in relationships of love — such as friendship — that personhood is actualised in a particular way that can bring out the best in us.

It turns out that this theme is not restricted to Hu. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 3, Episode 14, ‘Heart of Stone’, Odo and Major Kira are trapped in some caverns in a seismically unstable moon. In true Trek fashion, Kira is trapped in a crystal, and looks about to die, so she asks Odo to tell a story to keep her occupied.

Odo tells the story of how he got his name.

Odo, in case you don’t know it, is a changeling, a shapeshifter. He was discovered by a Bajoran scientist and raised in a lab. At first, they did not know what Odo was. All the specimens in the lab were labelled, and this one was given the label, ‘Odoital’, which was meant to represent that the specimen was unknown, but is actually the Cardassian word for ‘Nothing.’

Once it became clear that Odo was actually sentient, they still called him Odo, but broke it in two like a Bajoran name — Odo Ital. Whenever anyone called him by this name, Odo, he heard this nothing behind it. That that was all he was — nothing.

But not anymore. Not since meeting Kira. And the rest of the crew of the space station Deep Space 9. Now, when people call him ‘Odo’, it simply means himself.

Through friendship, through companionship, this lost, lonely alien, who until recently knew no other of his kind, became comfortable with his own person. Odo became a name to him; it meant himself.

This is what our relationships do to us. We are not discrete, atomised individuals, but persons interacting all the time, moving through one another in relationship. These relationships are what make us persons. We should probably cultivate good ones, I think.

Ghostly logic

In The X-Files, Scully routinely states not simply her objections to paranormal or extraterrestrial explanations of otherwise unexplained phenomena in terms of ‘science’, ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, but also the fact that some of the things she has encountered cause her to doubt science, or something to that effect. She believes in reason, logic, science.

I was recently reminded of Scully’s attitude whilst staying in a reputedly haunted research institution. One night over a conversation where the local ghosts were raised, one of my friends expressed disbelief not simply in those particular ghosts, but all ghosts in general. When asked why, the response was quite Scullyan: Because I believe in logic and science.

This led me to attempt some sort of annoying Socratic questioning of the premisses that lie behind such statements. What, precisely, is illogical about ghosts? As such conversations do, my (perhaps) aggressive line of enquiry went nowhere, and a plea of, ‘It’s late,’ led to mercy on my part.

I think, however, that ghosts are a good test case for questioning the Scully approach to unexpected, extraordinary phenomena and what we think we mean when we claim belief in ‘logic and science’. Why? Because few people are especially emotionally invested in the question of ghosts, unlike the questions of God or specific miracles. I, myself, find most ghost stories suspect.

First of all, what are ‘ghosts’? Ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the physically dead. In the context of The X-Files and haunted research institutions, ghosts are specifically the disembodied spirits of the physically dead who are in some way present in physical locations and who can make their presence known through certain auditory and tactile phenomena.

Why might one reject ‘ghosts’ altogether? Reasons to reject the notion of such ghosts altogether are an unthoughtful rejection of all extraordinary phenomena unexperience by oneself. Thoughtful people will similarly reject ghosts on the premiss simply that the supernatural or numinous does not exist — or a belief that the human person has no spirit. Others will reject ghosts on the premiss that we live in a two-storey universe; even if the physically dead persist in a spiritual existence, they cannot interact with us, nor we with them, like the gods of Epicureanism. A fourth group will reject ghostly encounters as representing contact with the physically dead on the grounds that divine judgement does not leave a place for such spirits to roam free amongst the physically living.

All of these belief systems, as it turns out, require a set of assumptions well before one approaches the stories of ghostly phenomena and extraordinary encounters.

What is necessary for a belief in ‘ghosts’?

First, one must recognise some sort of supernatural/numinous/spiritual element to the composition of the universe. The true atheist or the committed agnostic, the materialist, will not believe in ghosts. However, there is room within theism, even deism, and animism, for the presence of the ghostly dead amongst us.

Belief in the numinous, contrary to what the New Atheists tell us, is not itself irrational or contra-rational; contrary to the Christian apologists, it is also not the most perfectly logical way of believing. No such perfectly logic worldview exists, for humans and reason and our ability to experience phenomena, are flawed. To date, the best argument for the supernatural I have met is C. S. Lewis, Miracles, although there is a chapter in N. T. Wright’s methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God that also presents a different approach that can be helpful to some.

Second, after believing in the supernatural, one must be willing to believe that the physically dead have a spiritual, or ‘ghostly’, existence beyond the death of the body.

Third, one must believe that said spirits can, and sometimes do, co-exist with the physically alive on this plain of being.

Fourth, one must believe that a being normally invisible and intangible can, under some circumstances, be able to make itself known to those of an ordinary physical existence through visual, auditory, and occasionally tactile phenomena.

All four of these are not scientifically verifiable. This is the problem with metaphysics and ghostly logic. Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has as its purview the ordinary workings of the physical universe as verifiable through controlled and precise observation, measurement, and experimentation. Science, as a field of human knowledge, can tell us nothing about the possibility of ghosts.

These premisses do, however, have logical arguments both for and against them. Since science cannot help, all such arguments will remain inconclusive. That’s part of the fun of being human.

Some people, however, have tried to prove ghosts scientifically. I’ve watched some of their ghost-hunter documentaries, and none of them is convincing. Perhaps I remain unconvinced because I do not share their premiss — the presence of spiritually active psychological entity will leave behind some sort of physically verifiable trace such as energy or hot and cold or suchlike other scientifically verifiable phenomena.

Returning to the haunted research institute, one of my other friends responded that he also had not formerly believed in ghosts. However, his encounter in the library at 4:00 AM with a non-visible person who had the auditory phenomenon of coughing directly behind him has changed his mind.

If one accepts enough paranormal/supernatural premisses to believe that spirits of the physically dead may sometimes roam the earth with the physically alive, the question remains of how to deal with the ghost stories. Logic and rational enquiry can help us here. For example, alleged photographs of ‘ghosts’ have often turned out to be distortions in the cameras field of vision that have a non-supernatural explanation within the physical world as verifiable by science. I believe they are sound-waves.

What of the many anecdotes? First, ask whether the person is reliable. Some people fib. Other people exaggerate, whether purposefully or accidentally. Second, if the storyteller is a known, reliable person who seems, by and large, rational in their approach to the world, ask whether or not there is another, and preferably better, explanation for the phenomenon described. A house creaking at night as it settles. A physical person in the shadows but unseen to the storyteller. A small earth tremor that caused something to move.

Of course, even if a story meets such criteria, the encounter may not be supernatural; it may simply be currently inexplicable by science’s measure, or it may have been a misdiagnosis of the facts by the one reporting it. Furthermore, a paranormal or supernatural encounter need not include a ‘ghost’ as narrowly restricted to the spirit of a physically dead human person. Traditional Christianity believes at least in angels and demons. Many Irish believe in a variety of paranormal beings conveniently labelled ‘fairies’ in English. Most ancients and animists also believed in a variety of non-visible, supernatural beings, including the invisible dead.

I, myself, have yet to hear a story about ghosts that leaves me entirely convinced that the spirit of a physically dead human being manifested itself to someone. But I also remain unconvinced by the premiss that the spirits of the physically dead roam the earth. This has nothing to do with ‘science’, however, but to do with a variety of other premisses and pieces of logic from elsewhere in my worldview.

Nonetheless, I am open to being convinced.

Asimov and Channel 4’s ‘Humans’

My wife and I have been happily enjoying the Channel 4 program Humans. I have no idea whether or not it will air in Canada and the US, but I hope so. This is a show about an alternate present where human society is fully integrated with androids (‘synths’), telling the story of one family in particular that purchases a synth named Anita who shows some oddities.

The show has some very direct Asimov referencing, specifically citing ‘Asimov Protocols’, with which all synths are programmed. I’ve mentioned them here before, but these are the Three Laws of Robotics from Asimov’s famous robot stories:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being, except where this contravenes the First Law.
  3. A robot must preserve its own existence except where this comes into conflict with the First or Second Law.

After watching the second episode of humans, I decided to read I, Robot, Asimov’s 1950 collection of several of his 1940s robot stories. These stories tend to focus on the Three Laws and how things could go wrong (or right) depending on orders given to robots in relation to the laws — as well as how roboticists might reprogram robots with stronger or weaker applications of the Three Laws to make them more useful in different situations; how might these situations play out?

The first story in I, Robot is called ‘Robbie’. In this tale, a mother who doesn’t like her daughter’s robot nanny, the titular ‘Robbie’, has the robot sent back. The daughter pines away for her robot for a long time until the family decides to go on vacation to New York. There, the young girl thinks she will be able to find Robbie. Part of the trip — organised by the father who didn’t think they ought to have sent Robbie away in the first place — was a visit to a robot factory. There, the daughter saw Robbie in a construction area and ran to meet him. A heavy piece of machinery almost ran her over, but Robbie saw the danger and intervened in time, saving her life. Robbie got to go home.

In Humans, the mother of the main family we follow is concerned about their synth, Anita. Anita acts strangely, doing things like looking at the moon at night, or acting afraid sometimes. There is suspicion that she took the youngest child, Sophie, for a late-night walk one of her first nights there. The mother never wanted a synth in the first place, so in Episode 3 she decides that she’s had enough of Anita’s ongoing bizarre, too-human behaviour and goes to return her. Toby, the son, becomes frantic at this (he has a crush on Anita), and tries to stop her. As he cycles along, he is almost hit by a car, but Anita sees him approaching, leaps from her own vehicle and saves Toby’s life. Anita stays.

I’m sure you can see the parallels.

I wonder if I would see more parallels, besides the Asimov Protocols and ‘Robbie’, if I had a stronger acquaintance with the robot stories. I am quite pleased with this use of literary science fiction on a television series that is asking a lot of the philosophical, psychological, and anthropological questions that the existence of androids and true A.I. would raise.

“It’s not a person, damn it, it’s a Borg!” (Hypostasising Hugh)

Hugh

The quotation in the title of this post is a line from Capt Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) to Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 23, ‘I, Borg.’ The Enterprise has on board a Borg drone rescued from a crash site on a planet. Dr Crusher is determined to treat the Borg well and not use him for (allegedly) ‘genocidal’ purposes.* Geordie La Forge is helping install some new hardware in the Borg, and possibly some new software as well — a virus to potentially disable the entire Borg Collective.

In one scene, Picard and Guinan are fencing and have a fraught conversation about why the Borg is even on the ship in the first place. Both Picard and Guinan have very personal, very bad histories with the Borg Collective. Guinan’s home planet and civilisation were assimilated/destroyed by the Borg. Her people now roam the galaxy as people without a home. The Borg showed no mercy. Why, Guinan asks, should Picard?

Picard, on the other hand, was assimilated in the Season 3 finale and then led the Borg in an assault against the Federation with Earth as the target in the Season 4 premiere (‘The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2’). He was designated Locutus of Borg and was used by the Borg as a liaison between the Collective and the United Federation of Planets. Because of Picard’s knowledge of Starfleet, when the Borg engaged the fleet at the Battle of Wolf 359. 39 out of 40 Federation starships were destroyed by the Borg with 11,000 casualties.

Locutus of Borg

And Picard could do nothing. His individuality was swallowed up in the Borg Collective. The hive mind ruled his actions. He guided the Borg Cube against Starfleet and had no way of stopping the carnage that ensued. The person Jean-Luc Picard was gone. Or at least took a back seat. In the second episode of Season 4, ‘Family’, he weeps over this fact after a really awkward mud-wrestling scene with his brother Robert at the family vineyard in France.**

‘I, Borg’ is Picard’s first encounter with the Borg after his assimilation, after his unwilful destruction of 39 Federation starships at Wolf 359, after the loss of his personhood and absorption into the monolithic entity of the Borg.

Naturally, he is testy. Here we see Picard raw (not quite as raw as when he opens fire on assimilated Starfleet officers in First Contact — but raw). When Geordie expresses misgivings concerning their course of action to use the Borg drone as a destructive force in the Borg Collective, Picard compares Hugh to a lab animal and tells Geordie to cut any emotional tie he may have developed with the Borg. Continually he refers to this drone as ‘it’.

But Geordie has witnessed something that Picard, who avoids this Borg — designated 3rd of 9 — has not. Geordie has seen the drone move from ‘it’ to ‘him’. He begins as standoffish to the drone as anyone could expect. But through conversation with 3rd of 9, an individual personality begins to creep through — indeed, the Borg drone takes on a name. No longer 3rd of 9, he is Hugh.

Guinan forces herself to meet Hugh after a confrontation with Geordie, and she realises that Hugh is no longer simply a Borg drone. He is an actual person. He has come to see Geordie as a friend. And he is capable of learning — of learning that resistance, despite the Borg mantra, is not futile. Guinan is living proof.

Hugh proves himself a hypostatic (or personal; hypostasis is Greek for person) entity distinct from the Collective when Picard tricks him into thinking that Locutus is under cover, and commands Hugh to help assimilate the human race.

Hugh: I will not help. … Geordie must not be assimilated.

Picard: But you are Borg.

Hugh: No. I am Hugh.

In this scene, Hugh uses the first-person singular pronoun I for the first time, hitherto having referred even to himself alone and lonely as we. Hugh is a person. He ultimately chooses to return to the Borg Collective because his continued presence would mean danger to the Enterprise, including Geordie in particular. And Hugh, like Spock, believes that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

The Enterprise crew like to use the term individual for Hugh’s hypostatic flowering. And it is certainly the most common one in our current culture. Geordie describes his life in purely individual terms, in terms of his own individual freedom and such. The willingness and ability to be alone. This is certainly the most potent aspect of personhood that differentiates humanoids from Borg.

But the Borg are not persons, and persons are not merely individuals. The Borg cannot choose for themselves because, while they are wired into the Collective, they have no selves. The Borg is just a gigantic cybernetic-organic collective hive mind operating in monotone and monochrome. Hugh demonstrates that the isolated individual alone is not what truly makes a person. If individualism were truly the supreme mark of personhood, then Hugh’s hypostasisation (that is, becoming a person) would have ended with him seeking asylum on board the USS Enterprise with his friend Geordie.

But persons, for all our hypostatic uniqueness, are also inescapably linked to one another. We are in many ways independent. But in many others, we are interdependent. And we demonstrate ourselves as persons most fully when we sacrifice ourselves for each other, surrendering our own selves and selfish desires for the good of other persons. We thrive on each other, and we therefore choose others above ourselves.

This is the lesson of true personhood that Hugh teaches us. Not individualism, but sacrifice and its power for good. This is the high cost of becoming a true person.

*Do the Borg count as a race or a species or a genos? They are the assimilation of the biological and technological advances of various civilisations. I would wager that they are not, but are instead a blight on the ‘biodiversity’ of the galaxy, instead.

**Robert, although his name is pronounced in the French manner, also speaks with an English accent.

Good Villains

In order to watch all nine episodes of Vikings, I am currently enjoying my free 30-day trial of Lovefilm. So for the past three days I have watched Batman: The Animated Series over breakfast, and over lunch on Tuesday as well. Because that’s how I roll.

Batman was one of my favourite cartoons back in the 90s when I was still legally a child (verdict’s out on whether I’m really an adult yet), along with Eek the Cat, The Tick, and X-Men. And it stands the test of time.

Amongst the many reasons one could list, I would like to give you Catwoman. And possibly Mr. Freeze.

The first and eighth episodes of Batman are a two-parter about Catwoman, ‘The Cat and the Claw’. In it, Bruce Wayne falls for Selena Kyle who, as Catwoman, is too busy falling for Batman. Ah, star-crossed lovers. But that’s not what I’m here to discuss. I’m here to discuss Catwoman as a villain.

Catwoman is a cat burglar, although sometimes it’s more her cat Isis who does the actual burgling. Nonetheless, the first part of ‘The Cat and the Claw’ involves Catwoman and Isis stealing a bejewelled necklace.

And what does Ms Kyle do with her wealth?

She buys land to turn it into a wildlife preserve to protect mountain lions. Of course. Who wouldn’t?

I like this kind of villain. She’s not out to take over the world. She’s not after power. She’s not in it simply for the money. She doesn’t want revenge. She’s not insane. For her, the crime is a means to the end. She wants to use her wealth for the greater good, even if her means of acquiring it are not.

I appreciate having this kind of villain around. It helps humanise the face of ‘evil’. All too often, we do our best to truly villainise criminals and ne’er-do-wells. And certainly, most of us would rather not be criminals. And certainly, we’d like to see justice served.

But when the face of evil is human. When it’s someone whose higher ideals are the same as our own, someone whose ill-gotten wealth is used for good … well … that’s harder to manage. That makes us rethink those ne’er-do-wells and criminals.

And hopefully, it makes us rethink ourselves.

In the wrong circumstances, would I turn to crime to try and make a better world? Would I turn to crime simply to survive? How much more evil am I than Catwoman or the bereaved Mr. Freeze?

It’s easy to look at the Joker and say, ‘He’s insane. I’m not like him.’ Or Lex Luthor and say, ‘He’s power-hungry. I’m not like him.’ Or Red Claw (the other villain from this two-parter) and say, ‘She’s a terrorist and murderer. I’m not like her.’

But then you look at Catwoman and say, ‘She’s a conservationist. Am I like her?’

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ and ‘The Wolverine’: Can’t we just have fun anymore?

I just watched the first episode of a horrifyingly ‘real’ and dark miniseries on the BBC called The Escape Artist. This, it seems, is the sort of thing people who like TV like. This and Breaking Bad. Or other shows where it sounds to me like the descent into Hell (katabasis) has no ascent even as far as Purgatory, let alone Paradise. Or, if that’s not the case, in order to satisfy people these days, we seem to need some sort of overarching, convoluted, unfollowable plot, as in LostV‘s inability to make said plot comprehensible is probably why it died, same with Alphas.

I understand that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., all five episodes of which I have watched on Channel 4 on Demand on Saturday mornings, is not doing especially well either ratings-wise or in the reviews. Now, I’ll admit that they’ve done it backwards, with each episode getting better than the last, with the exception of the second which was the worst. But, hey, it’s a fun action show about ordinary people who go around investigating extraordinary things and people. I enjoy it. It’s not especially complicated, it’s not especially dark.

You know what it is?

Entertaining.

Also entertaining? The Wolverine.

Now, I’m likely to oversell this film because I was warned going into The Wolverine that it was only ‘okay’. I thought it was better than ‘okay’. I thought it was exactly the sort of story Wolverine belongs in — a straightforward action flick where he hunts and fights bad guys and saves the girl, including exciting moments like bullet-train Kung Fu and Wolvie shot full of arrows. It’s by no means dark like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Nor is it especially complicated. Neither does it plumb the depths of human psychology and philosophy.

That’s because it’s a Wolverine film, about a guy whose idea of small talk is asking where the beer is, whose idea of a good night out is one where you don’t cut up too many baddies. We already know the complicated part of his story (they told it to us twice, for Pete’s sake!). What we want is some good, fast, uncomplicated fun.

The Wolverine?

Entertaining.

So if you’ve refrained from watching The Wolverine for reasons other than a moral ban on all things Marvel, I recommend it to you. And if you dropped out of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after the first or second episode, I recommend you join back in. It’s not very deep, it’s not edgy, it’s not going to scar you for life. But hopefully it will entertain you. That’s all I’m looking for in TV action dramas.