Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Politics of Continuum, Part I

In the science fiction series Continuum North America in 2077 is under the direct rule of business corporations, which operate a police state to protect their domination of society.

In discussing the show's premise many casually label the show's "North American Union" fascist. It is indisputably anti-democratic and right-wing, but fascism is a specific form of such rule. Defining fascism in such a way that it encompasses anything wider than the Fascist party of Mussolini has always been problematic, but some analysts have made useful attempts to at least identify characteristics distinguishing it from other political forms.

To take one example, Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons characterize it as a political ideology which "glorifies national, racial or cultural unity and collective rebirth while seeking to to purge imagined enemies, and attacks both revolutionary socialism and liberal pluralism in favor of militarized, totalitarian mass politics."1 Such characteristics seem pointedly absent from the world of Continuum. The political culture of the North American Union appears cosmopolitan, and neither celebrates a golden past, nor promises a golden future. Nor does it seem to display much concern with the mobilization of masses, or militarism as such. Additionally fascism tends to be at least formally critical of capitalism, and offer a vision of class reconciliation through a corporatist economics in which business, labor and a strong state ostensibly cooperate at an institutional level to achieve national economic goals. By contrast, the dominance of corporate power is naked and matter-of-fact in the show's milieu.

This makes the label "fascist" a misnomer. The NAU is, rather, a "corporatocracy," a polity directly ruled by corporations (not unlike India under the East India Company, prior to the Raj). This regime may serve similar ends to fascism (typically viewed from the left as capitalism's defensive reaction against socialism), but as shown by what is absent from the NAU's order, there are significant differences in the rhetorical and practical means they use to achieve those ends.

1. This description, which appears in their book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), seems consistent with compelling but less clinical analyses offered by other observers. Wilhelm Reich's description of fascism as the "mixture of rebellious emotions and reactionary social ideas"; and Walter Benjamin's characterization of fascism as a politics which organizes "the masses" around their self-expression rather than the self-interest it seeks to deny them, and "the introduction of aesthetics into political life"; both fit quite well with Berlet and Lyons' usage of the term.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Game of Thrones: Toward the End of the Game

Over at Chris Lough considers the possibility that HBO's Game of Thrones may come to an end before the series of novels on which it is based gets its concluding volume into print. Might, then, the TV series (projected to run about seven seasons, and thus wind things up circa 2017) offer the ending of the saga before the books do?

It certainly does seem plausible that we will not get both of the last two volumes to George R.R. Martin's series within the next four years, given how slowly volumes four and five came out (A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons taking some eleven years to appear after A Storm of Swords). Still, as Lough points out, the series' creators have many alternatives to actually presenting that conclusion, including the series giving only some of the ending; leaving the real conclusion to a film to come out later; or putting off the conclusion for a bit longer by going on hiatus for another season.

All of these strategies have been used before (though given the norms of American TV, that first option, giving only some of the ending, seems most likely). Yet the challenge for the series' writers begins well before the conclusion. A Storm of Swords offered material sufficient for two seasons--but the fourth and fifth books were rather less satisfactory for many readers, because so much of what they contain seems to be of marginal importance to the whole.

Arya and Sansa do continue their journeys--but these are much further removed from the core of the conflict in Westeros than in the first three volumes. The same goes for Tyrion's adventure after his escape from Westeros, while this seems even more the case with Daenerys' time attempting to establish a new order in Mereen in the fifth book. The attention these books devote to established characters now being used as viewpoint figures (Brienne, Samwell), and new characters in new places which had received little direct attention prior to these volumes (the events in the Iron Islands and Dorne) only deepens the impression of this part of the story as looser and lacking in significant events.

Only Cersei's misrule in King's Landing, Stannis' struggle against her and Jon Snow's tenure as Lord-Commander of the Night's Watch remain at the heart of the drama, and even these portions of the books lacked the tightness of their earlier treatments. The fact that Feast and Dance mostly depict events that happened simultaneously (with Crows dealing with only some plot threads, and Dragons picking up others where Storm left off) adds yet another complication.

Next to what came before, it can seem diffuse and anemic, and it ought not to be assumed that viewers of the show will be more forgiving than readers of the books, confronting the writers with a significant challenge if they mean to hold their interest for another three seasons, and making some alterations seem all but inevitable. One is that they will synchronize the events of Feast and Dance (so that, for instance, we will see Cersei's and Tyrion's plots unfolding in the same episodes). Another is that they will compress these events, perhaps by turning them into a single season by dropping anything not absolutely essential to the story's trajectory. (I certainly expect that we will see much less of the Iron Islands and Dorne.) I also think we are likely to see rather more revision of the material that is retained than we have seen in the series to date (throwing in as many surprises as the story can stand to spice things up).

Of course, even after all that, I doubt the results will match the vigor and pace of the first four seasons, but they might be sufficiently strong to hold on to the viewers' loyalty until the revelations of the (hopefully) more eventful The Winds of Winter.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New This Week: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Much has been made of the fact that Star Trek: Into Darkness fell well short of Paramount's $100 million-plus projection for the opening weekend. It made $70 million over the Friday-to-Sunday period and $84 million in the Thursday-to-Sunday period - which, given 3-D and IMAX surcharges, higher ticket prices all around, added up to a weaker opening than the first film had - despite the tendency of audiences to come out up front for the sequel of a well-liked film also enjoying positive buzz (and a larger budget). offers a round-up of the analysis, including a number of explanations for the disappointing numbers, including the lateness of the shift of the opening to Thursday (which ended up just stretching a three-day gross over four days), the four year gap between this film and its predecessor, and the intensity of the competition in a box office which saw the release of Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby in the two preceding weeks.

I do think these were all factors, but that they had their effect because of a larger problem: the last film was well-liked, but simply did not win over the big base of loyal new fans that enthusiasts of the reboot expected. Certainly the demographics of the audience point to this, with, as noting,
Deadline reports exit polling shows that 64% of the audience was male and only 27% was under the age 25. For the 2009 Star Trek movie, 35% were under 25. And in comparison Iron Man 3 had 45% under 25. So with all the talk of this not being your father’s Star Trek, there may be too many fathers in the audience.
This reminds me of something many a Trek fan, myself included, said about the reboot back in 2009 - that it was a fun summer blockbuster, but not much more. Putting it bluntly, it went the same route as the Jason Bourne series, dispensing with older elements while not adding enough new ones to elevate it above the level of the generic - and that seems to me to be how the audience has taken it. That being the case, is it really any wonder that those who came out were disproportionately longtime franchise fans rather than eager new converts?

Still, many observers are seeing a silver lining in the film's overseas earnings, which seem likely not just to outdo those of the first movie, but to more than offset any shortfall in the movie's North American earnings, which are themselves far from marking it as a flop. The upshot is that a Star Trek 3 a few summers from now still seems close to a sure thing.

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